Monday, December 30, 2013

Her

Her
seen @ Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
12.28.13

Forgive me in advance, but it's impossible for me to talk about Her without bringing up Star Trek. Why? Because artificial intelligence and the question of whether or not it can achieve what we call humanity is and has always been a common theme in Trek history. I think even the casual Trekkie can understand - in the future, as technology gets more and more sophisticated and plays a bigger and bigger part in our daily lives, our relationship with it will inevitably change.

It's something I've talked about here before (also in relation to Trek), but AI is a whole different animal. Anyone who spends enough time surfing the Net may be aware of the breakthroughs that have been made in robotics, and voice-activated software, and things like that. I remember a couple of years ago, I was playing around with an online program that was designed to hold a "conversation" with you as if it were a true AI, but in fact, it was simply a highly sophisticated program that had a wide variety of pre-programmed responses to direct questions. (No, I don't remember where it is.) Stuff, like this, though, is kids play compared to the more advanced stuff.



In Trek, one always sees this dichotomy between human life and artificial life: the latter is generally depicted as missing a certain something that makes it truly "human," but over time, its actions force us to redefine "humanity" as something more than a matter of biology. In the Original Series, Captain Kirk repeatedly exposed computer intelligences that others regarded as being indistinguishable from biological ones, or in some cases, better. In the first Trek movie, a super-computer created by man evolved to the point where it needed the spark of humanity to exceed its programming and become a new form of life.

In the latter day Trek spinoffs, we became acquainted with characters like Data, an android who strives to fully understand humanity despite the handicap of being programmed without human emotion; the Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic intelligence forced by unusual circumstances to serve humanity beyond its original function, and becomes more human-like in the process; and others in similar situations. 



We see them do things that humans do, and at every turn the question is raised as to whether or not doing these things makes them more human. At times, they've had to stand up for their right to exist as free-thinking individuals. In the end, though, what they are matters less than what they do, which makes them equal beneficiaries of the future built by humanity, in which the content of one's character matters more than physical appearance or personal ideology. 

Her tackles a similar premise, filtered through perhaps the greatest of human traits: the capacity to love. The way we function with technology today, in some ways, is not unlike a romantic relationship in some ways. I know that I've developed a strong attachment with my laptop in the last five years. It has become my constant companion whenever I need to write, and sometimes I get anxious when I have it with me but I'm unable to use it, whether for lack of table space in a coffee shop, or lack of a Wi-Fi connection, or what have you. My cellphone has taken on a similar aspect. 



Does this mean I'm in love with my gadgets? No, of course not. I don't think of them as being sentient. I go on Twitter to talk to my flesh-and-blood friends, not to my cellphone. I know that my gadgets don't have the capacity to interact with me the way humans can. But what if they did? For all of my easy acceptance of the premises in Trek involving AIs, if it were me in the position of learning to accept one as an individual, much less a potential lover, I'm not sure how well I could pull it off. 

As I watched Her, one comparison that sprung to mind for me was that of a long-distance relationship - two people living far apart from each other. Being in one another's physical presence is impossible, therefore the two lovers must make do with only words, whether over the phone or through online communication. (Yes, I know about Skype; I didn't say it was a perfect comparison. Even that's not the same as physical presence, though.)



Long-distance relationships are doable, but man, are they difficult. It requires a great deal of trust that your lover will remain faithful in the absence of your physical presence. It requires being able to live on the few stolen moments in which you can communicate with your lover, assuming they're not busy with something else - or that you're not busy with something else. And it requires faith that your love is strong enough to withstand prolonged separation. Yes, I have tried it, and I didn't like it.

But is it better than no relationship at all, especially when you have trouble connecting with other people, as Joaquin Phoenix' character does? God knows I get lonely. I have a misanthropic streak that does keep me from reaching out to people sometimes, but I don't know whether it's the cause of me not finding love, or the result. I think, if I were desperate and lonely enough, I might be able to see myself growing attached to a self-aware gadget (though I wouldn't be nearly as open about it as Phoenix' character), but the lack of physicality would be a big problem. Scarlet Johansson's AI character attempts to find a way to compensate for this in one weird scene. I think I might go for her solution, the more I think about it.



The ending of Her wasn't what I expected. It goes slightly askew from my genre expectations built from over twenty years of watching Trek, but then, this isn't Trek and doesn't pretend to be. I think a future like the one depicted here is coming sooner than we think, and we as a species need to figure out how we're gonna deal with it. Will artificial intelligence be given the opportunity to evolve and flourish in its own way, its own time, or will it be something to be feared and hated? Sounds like science fiction... but personal computers that fit into the palm of your hand seemed the same way too, once.

On an unrelated tangent: there was a piece in the New York Times about Her in which the production designer talked about de-emphasizing the hard tech aspects of the futuristic setting. At one point he mentions how the future Los Angeles utilized the above-street-level pedestrian walkways of Pudong, Shanghai. As a result, one only sees cars way off in the distance in the film. I found it interesting that cars are much less of a presence in the future America of Her. The best part is, they don't appear to be missed from the look of it. A small thing, perhaps, but worth mentioning.

Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle

American Hustle
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY
12.24.13

I was still working video retail when David O. Russell started coming up in the film world. I remember watching Spanking the Monkey when it came out on video and thinking it was kinda bizarre, but funny. Then came Three Kings and I really enjoyed that one. That was in the super-awesome year of 1999, when so much good stuff came out. Still, I didn't think of Russell in the same vein as I did guys like Wes Anderson or especially Paul Thomas Anderson. I think at the time I thought of Three Kings as more of an actors' movie than a director's movie. Guys like PTA or Wes have a more easily identifiable style than Russell - at least, to the average fan.

Time has passed, and now I think that being an actor's director has definitely become Russell's trademark. Visually, I can't point to any one thing in American Hustle that strikes me as a Russell flourish - especially when it looks so much like a vintage Scorsese picture - but the acting is another story. Russell gets so much consistently good stuff out of his actors, from one movie to the next, and here it's just such a pleasure to sit back and watch them do their thing.


If Hustle is a Scorsese homage, then Christian Bale is the one in the DeNiro Method actor role (ironic, since DeNiro himself is also in this movie), which is made shockingly apparent from the first scene, when you see him with his great big gut. It's amazing how Bale can transform himself from being rail-thin to muscled like a superhero to fat and flabby. I can't imagine what such drastic weight fluctuations would do for his health, but give him credit for throwing himself so completely into his roles.


It's easy to simply fall in love with Amy Adams whenever she's on the screen because she is so beautiful, but then she does something that reminds you of how amazing an actress she is too. She genuinely surprised me in Russell's The Fighter three years ago, and here she gets to be sexier and more powerful, while still having a vulnerable side. No longer can one think of her as simply the demure good girl of her earlier movies. She's more than capable of being the queen bitch or the bad girl or the femme fatale, and it's exciting to see her in more roles like this.


Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner fit well in a film like this. The former, like he did in Silver Linings Playbook, isn't afraid to take his character to some unexpected places. The latter gets to show off some charisma in a role that's bigger than I thought it would be. Both of them have to deal with some outrageous hairdos. But I liked watching both of them also.


And then there's Jennifer Lawrence. She has a maturity and a poise for one so young that has to be seen to be believed. I know there have been other actresses who have been in her position as "most talented young actress of her generation" before: Winona Ryder, Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley, to name a few. And one wants to hesitate putting so much praise on Lawrence at such an early age, especially now that she's won the Oscar. But looking at her in Hustle, she really does make you want to believe the hype. The best may be yet to come with her.

Put it all together and you've got a highly entertaining movie with an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders. I loved this movie. I loved it a lot.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2013

This was a thrilling year for movies in general, and I had a bunch of great movie-going moments in it, so this year's list of movie-going highlights was tougher than usual. This is the first one which doesn't include new movies which, I suppose, reflects my greater interest in the old stuff. 

I recognize that I'm fortunate to live somewhere where free and cheap screenings are plentiful, and I urge you to take advantage of similar events in your neck of the woods if you have them. Maybe you'd wanna hold one of your own. Even with 35mm film being replaced by digital film and with more people choosing to watch movies on smaller and smaller screens, there's still nothing like seeing a movie with other people. That's one thing that the digital revolution won't change, and here are five examples of that.


5. Meeting my fellow film bloggers at the Loews Jersey City. Prior to this past spring, I had yet to meet any other film bloggers, whether from the LAMB or CMBA or unaffiliated, and I was reaching a point where it was starting to bother me a little, because I did feel like I was making some good friends. So getting to hang out with Aurora, Will and Joe at the Loews Jersey City to see a Ray Harryhausen twin bill meant a lot. I almost missed them: when I entered the lobby, I kept tweeting Aurora, trying to find her, and even though I had told her what I'd be wearing, we still couldn't find each other at first, even though we were both in the lobby tweeting back and forth!


4. Miracle on 34th Street at Herald Square. The unusually comfortable November weather contributed greatly to what was a rare outdoor movie in the fall, and what better place to show this great holiday movie than directly in front of Macy's itself, something that would not have been possible five years ago? Having sofas and recliner seats and rocking chairs mixed in with the chairs at Herald Square Plaza was a lovely touch; it made the place look like a living room. And it was great to see TCM host Robert Osbourne in the flesh for the first time. With TCM's 20th anniversary coming up next year, I anticipate more events like this around the country.


3. The Rifftrax presentation of Night of the Living Dead. Funnier than I thought it would be, this live event, presented by the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and simulcast in theaters nationwide, served as a great prelude to Halloween and proved that even good movies can be mocked as well as bad ones.


2. Dracula with Philip Glass at Prospect Park. I've always admired the music of Philip Glass, especially when used in films, so to see the man himself perform his Dracula score with his orchestra at Prospect Park was a singular pleasure indeed. Seeing Dracula on the big screen was also a first, and I've said it so many times before, but it remains true: it really was like seeing it for the first time. I noticed things I either never noticed before or simply took for granted, and with the added benefit of a hauntingly beautiful score (to a film in desperate need of one), well, it doesn't get much better than that.



1. The Tingler at the Film Forum. It wasn't exactly true to William Castle's "Percepto" gag, but in the end, it didn't matter because the experience as a whole was definitely true to his spirit. Maybe it was expecting too much of the Forum to wire their seats with joy buzzers just for this movie, anyway, but the silly stuff that did happen, both planned and unplanned, would've passed muster with the maestro himself, I think. It certainly made for a fun afternoon out.

I'd love to hear about similar moments you might've had this year, if you got 'em. Happy holidays!

-------------------
Related:
2012 top five
2011 top five

Monday, December 23, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY
12.22.13

When I was in high school, I had this mild aspiration to be a musician. Part of it was my sister's influence. She's a singer, who performs in a band with her husband. They're good, too - they play semi-frequently around the New York area, playing R&B and pop cover songs. When I was in high school, she went with me to Sam Ash to help pick out a keyboard for me. I had taken lessons on the organ when I was younger and whaddya know, it took - for a little while, anyway. The songs I wrote were much closer to 80s cheese than anything else, and none of it was worth a great deal, but I was making music.

This was during the period where I had discovered classic rock for the first time and got deeply into not just the music, but the history and the culture behind it as well. I was dating a girl who was also into classic rock, and was learning how to play guitar. She had friends who were the same. We all thought the 60s were the coolest time to be a musician and couldn't get enough of that music.


One day I was coming from a summer art class in Greenwich Village and wandering around the neighborhood, which was still quite new to me, when I encountered a street musician. Her name was Ann Marie. I'd say she was in her mid-to-late 30s when I met her. She played outside the Christopher Street subway station, less than a block away. I wouldn't call her a folkie - her music was closer to Melissa Etheridge than Suzanne Vega - but personality-wise, she came across kinda like a former hippie. She was very friendly and more than willing to indulge this starstruck black kid who she didn't know from Adam. Looking back on it now, I feel grateful for that.

I couldn't tell you for certain what exactly it was about her that made me decide to talk to her and get to know her (in a non-romantic way; I wasn't in love with her), as opposed to simply listening to and enjoying her music. If anything, I think it may have had something to do with the... mystique, or lore, of what it meant to be a musician in general and to be a musician in the Village in particular. At the time, my head was filled with romantic notions of the 60s and the "purity" of rock music: playing your own instruments, writing meaningful songs that touched people's hearts as well as their libidos, basically music as capital-A Art... and I suppose in Ann Marie I saw some aspect of that ideal. 

Not that I could've told you that at the time. I just acted on impulse, without thinking too much about it. It never occurred to me to not try to reach out to her and get to know her, because being a musician and living some sort of Bohemian lifestyle associated with that appealed to me at the time, even though I had absolutely no idea how far off the mark about it I was.


Which brings us to Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen Brothers movie about the reality behind that Bohemian fantasy of being a 60s musician. Folk music never thrilled me as much as rock, though of course, I learned about Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary and the Mamas and the Papas at the same time as I learned about the Beatles and the Stones, and I liked them as much. My girlfriend in particular had a jones for songs like "Like a Rolling Stone" and tried playing them on her guitar all the time. (She even had a harmonica, which she cherished like a lucky charm.)

I saw Llewyn with Vija, and I knew I wanted to see it with her because she had lived through the 60s, even if only as a Midwestern teenager somewhat removed from the extremes of the culture, as embodied in places like New York and San Francisco. As a result, she liked the movie more than I did. We both agreed the music was very good, though not quite on the same level as that of O Brother Where Art Thou (which she loves), but I thought it was just mining familiar Coen Brother territory again: let's laugh at the Jewish sad-sack guy who can't catch a break in life. I did appreciate how the location shots were done up to match the era - subway stations, street signs, etc. And Oscar Isaac was very good as Llewyn.


Over dinner afterwards, Vija told me a little more about the 60s from her perspective, like the first times she went to New York and San Francisco. She said that growing up in the Midwest made it harder for her to get the full cultural experience of the times, but she still knew a lot of characters like those in Llewyn

She was never a musician, but she did catch what stood out as musical allusions in the plot which would've flown over my head. For example, there's a scene where Llewyn gets offered the chance to join the group which we know now as Peter, Paul & Mary, but he turns it down because he didn't like harmonizing in his music. The reference is an indirect one, but she recognized it right away and I didn't.


This was the first time I had seen a movie with Vija at the Kew Gardens. I had to provide instructions to get there from the subway, because it's not exactly a direct distance, but she found it on her own - in fact, she actually snuck up on me as I was sitting on a bench reading some Internet article on my cellphone. I totally didn't see her coming! 

It was unusually warm on Sunday, but she was worried that it would get colder by the time the movie let out, so she wanted to find a clothing shop where she could find a little something to wear. We ended up going into a tiny boutique owned by some Japanese dude where she tried on a few coats (I thought she just wanted a shawl). Vija's smallish; for the longest time, I used to have this mental image of her as being taller and skinnier than she actually is. She's not tiny, though, nor is she fat; I'd say she's between 5'4" and 5'6". 

Point is, none of the coats in the store fit her, and the guy said it was because they were originally made for Asian women! She got a good laugh out of that. (Apparently they were okay for the Orthodox Jewish women in the neighborhood as well, hence his being in Kew Gardens in the first place.) As it turned out, the weather was comfortably cool by the time the film let out and she didn't need anything heavier than what she had on, a long wooly sweater.


It was nice to see a big crowd at the Kew Gardens - I'm used to going in the late afternoons during the week - though the bigger crowd meant bigger distractions. At the beginning of the movie there were some cellphone users who had to have them on, but they subsided after the first ten minutes or so. More annoying was a woman a couple of rows in front of us who was eating something while crinkling what sounded like cellophane. Repeatedly. This lasted longer, and while I wanted to say something, I didn't want to embarrass Vija by saying or doing something I'd regret, so I put up with it. She stopped as well, eventually, so it worked out fine.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Man on Fire

Man on Fire
seen on TV @ Spike
12.18.13

Director Tony Scott died last year, as you probably know. I had nothing against him as a director; I really like Crimson Tide and True Romance, and I can watch most of his other movies if there's nothing else on (they certainly get played on cable often enough), though he was rarely someone I went out of my way for. 

He tended to be flashier than his brother Ridley, and his films were almost always heavy on the testosterone (though he did do The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon before he got his rep as an action director, so there's that).

Like I said, though, his films were entertaining, especially if all you wanna do is kick back with a few of your friends for a couple of hours and get your fill of high-powered action and suspense. Scott's films may have had tortured, convoluted plots at times, but unlike Michael Bay, I rarely felt like Scott was insulting my intelligence in terms of story or characters. A movie like Top Gun seems campy now, in retrospect, but I remember when it first came out. It was the perfect film for the Reagan 80s, and its iconography still looms large today (for better or for worse).



Scott made five movies with Denzel Washington, including four of his last five features. I didn't see Man on Fire when it came out, but I had heard it was pretty good, so when I saw that it was on TV last night, I gave it a shot. It's basically a revenge flick, but Denzel is pretty hardcore in it, to a degree we rarely see in his action movies. 

I mean, he tortures dudes, blows up cars with a missile launcher, takes all kinds of damage and delivers some damage of his own and I'm not talking about the "safe," semi-glamorous type, either. This is a brutal, hard-R movie where people die or get hurt in gruesome ways. But they all deserve it, so it's alright, kids!



I got the impression Scott was trying to experiment with his visual style in Fire. He pulls out all sorts of weird and wacky stylistic stunts - jump cuts, negative imagery, slo-mo, monochrome - all in this bizarre kind of hodgepodge that, I gotta say, didn't add much to the story. In Enemy of the State, this sort of thing made a kind of sense; that film was about modern surveillance techniques in a digitized world, and having a heavily stylized look was more appropriate, but here it just gets in the way and calls more attention to itself than it should. I liked Fire in spite of all that stuff, not because of it.

One thing I can respect about Scott's films is that they kept alive the paradigm of the 80s-model action film: stunt-heavy action, clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and A-list superstars. That last part is especially important. Superstars are less of a requirement in action films these days, it seems, and to someone like me who grew up with the Arnie-Sly-Bruce paradigm, this strikes me as a bit disappointing. I admit that these kinds of action movies hold less of an appeal to me today than they did when I was thirteen and they were all the rage, but at the same time, I'd hate to see them go away. 



Scott was one of the last action-movie guys who consistently cast A-listers, and I suspect that was a big part of his appeal. Now he's gone, and the current paradigm is computer-generated superheroes where the characters are the attraction, as opposed to the stars. Times change, I know that, and what's cool one year is passe the next - law of the jungle - but it's a little disappointing all the same.

So here's to you, Tony Scott. Thanks for keeping on as long as you did.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Philomena

Philomena
seen @ City Cinemas Paris Theater, New York NY
12.15.13

As biopics go - and this year has had absolutely no shortage of them - Philomena wasn't bad. I wasn't gonna see it at first, but the unabashed charm of Judi Dench in the trailer, which I saw repeatedly this fall, eventually won me over. I'm glad to say that the trailer didn't reveal as much of the story as I thought it did, however, it did spoil most of the funny lines.

I wanna talk about one aspect of the story which caught me by surprise, and which, I assume, reflects the attitude of the real Philomena Lee. The premise is that she had a baby out of wedlock as a young woman, and in heavily Catholic Ireland, that's a big no-no, so she had to give her baby up to a convent of nuns, where she had to do hard time for several years as compensation. Now, as an old woman, she wants to know what happened to her kid.

Thing is, though, Philomena, also being Catholic, recognizes that what she did was considered sinful in her faith, yet at the same time, she never apologizes for it. She talks frankly about not only how much in love she was at the time, but how much she enjoyed the sex.



This aspect of her character impressed me. Even here in America, a slightly more secular country than Ireland, there's a... not a stigma, exactly, but certainly something of a prudishness in certain circles, whenever a woman is open about her sexuality. For centuries, women have never been allowed to have the same desires as men, and whenever they tried to, they got slapped down hard.

Religion has mostly been to blame for that, especially Catholicism. Religion is most insidious when it's used as a means of control, when a privileged few wield their power over a majority like a club and decide how one should worship the deity of their choice. As a result, basic human impulses, like sexual desire, are oppressed - though if the oppressors want to bend the rules in their favor every once in awhile, well, who's gonna stop them? Philomena - and this isn't really a spoiler - is able to forgive the nuns who gave away her child, an act of true Christian charity which is way more than they deserve. 



Steve Coogan's character, however, raises a point which the movie never provides an adequate answer to (not that I expected one): to paraphrase, if sex is a sin, why does it feel good? If you believe in God, then you believe that man was created in His image. If that's the case, then shouldn't that mean that human sexuality comes from Him as well? I would think that this is something to be celebrated, not denied - at least as long as consenting parties are involved. It's no wonder that we've been as screwed up as we have been for so long.

From a filmmaking point of view, I loved how director Stephen Frears' camera lingers on Dench's marvelous face. In my post on Dark Victory last week, I talked about actresses who have aged gracefully, and Dench is one of them. It takes a certain amount of vanity, I imagine, to be a Hollywood actor, so to let oneself be seen on a big screen in old age, unglamorously, can be seen as an act of bravery, in a way. By being able to study every wrinkle and sag on her face, we're made that much more aware of Philomena as a real woman whose long years have weighed on her.



I saw Philomena at the Paris, a tiny one-screen theater in midtown Manhattan a stone's throw from Central Park. It's a very simple, cozy kind of place; not as glitzy as its name implies, though it does have a balcony (which I didn't sit in). I saw Life is Beautiful there as well as the 90s Roman Polanski movie Death and the Maiden. That might have been the first time I'd been to the Paris, in fact. As I recall, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, back in the days when I didn't follow movies as closely as I do now. 

EDIT 12.18: I almost forgot - before the movie, the Paris played, for no particular reason that I can think of, a Paul McCartney video. A YouTube search reveals that the song is called "Queenie Eye," and I assume it's from his most recent album. It's nothing special as a song; I mean, it sounds like typical late-career solo McCartney. What's notable is the all-star roster of guest stars in his video: Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, to name a few. It seemed very strange to watch a music video before a movie, especially one by McCartney (this was after a commercial featuring David Bowie!), but the more I think about it, the more I think it's not necessarily a bad idea to show a video before a movie, as long as it's demographic-appropriate. I wouldn't expect to go to a movie like Philomena and see a video by, say, Nicki Minaj, for example.

As you might imagine, the Paris draws a more upscale clientele than your average multiplex, and yesterday's crowd skewed way older, including the company I was with. This was a movie Vija proposed as part of her semi-regular movie-going club. (I almost didn't go because it was snowing like crazy on Saturday, but yesterday turned out to be nicer.) Her boyfriend Franz was there, along with this woman named Susan, a friend of Vija's who I met at one of her fabulous parties a year or two ago. Franz and I got into a heated debate afterwards at this Turkish restaurant about whether or not documentaries count as film. He actually tried to make the case that they weren't, which boggled my mind.

I talked Vija into coming out to Queens for a movie next week, so I'm happy about that. It'll be nice to not have to pay Manhattan prices again!


Dame Judi with the real Philomena Lee.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls
seen on TV @ TCM
12.12.13

I totally wanted to write this post about Guys and Dolls in the style of the movie dialogue, which is to say, the style of Damon Runyon, whose characters were the inspiration for the musical, but I quickly realized it wouldn't be as easy as I thought it might. Also, it's one thing to read that style, another thing to hear it spoken, especially when spoken by such great actors as Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. It would be quite a challenge, I must admit, but the fact of the matter is I wanted to get this post up as soon as possible, so there you are. Maybe another time.

But I do wanna talk about Damon Runyon, and I don't need to write like him to do that. He was a writer, obviously; a journalist, to be more precise, during the first half of the 20th century. Sports was his forte, and he wrote primarily about baseball and boxing - in fact, he was known for writing about the odd and peculiar goings-on in baseball games, which no one had done before. In his life he was friends with people like former gunslinger-turned-sportswriter Bat Masterson, Mexican general Pancho Villa, and pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, among many others.


Guys and Dolls was an adaptation of some of Runyon's short stories, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows, made after Runyon's death in 1946. Runyon's stories were also adapted for radio and television. The Damon Runyon Theater was syndicated on the radio throughout 1949 with reruns into the early 50s, while the television version ran on CBS from 1955-56. Other films based on Runyon stories include Frank Capra's Lady For a Day (remade as Pocketful of Miracles); Little Miss Marker, Shirley Temple's breakthrough role; The Lemon Drop Kid, which included the Christmas song "Silver Bells"; and A Slight Case of Murder, with Edward G. Robinson.


What was it about Runyon's writing that was so special? Well, I suppose one reason is that it's so distinctive. Imagine if Shakespeare lived in 1920s New York or Chicago and you'll get the beginnings of the idea. Runyon specialized in writing about gangsters, gamblers, hustlers and other working class, crooked, shady types, but by using the pompous, bombastic language that he did, mixed in with street slang, they gained a larger-than-life, almost mythic status, I think. They're at a slight remove from reality, because no one talks like Nathan Detroit or Sky Masterson, but you can still relate to them as characters.


A comparable example (though I wouldn't put him on the same level as Runyon) might be Kevin Smith. Go back and look at Clerks again and listen to the excessively wordy dialogue he gives to his characters and you'll see what I mean. Smith is obviously much more crass than Runyon, but that same contrast between somewhat lofty dialogue spoken by urbane, diamond-in-the-rough types, is still there. (What, you don't think Jay and Silent Bob are diamonds in the rough?)

The sports world honored Runyon long after his death from throat cancer. He is in both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. A horse race at Aqueduct Race Track is called the Damon Runyon Stakes. Yankee Stadium hosts a Damon Runyon 5K run and walk to benefit cancer research. He was even partially responsible for developing roller derby into a sport. Quite a career.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Nothing ever ends."

Simon Kinberg and his Genre Films banner have signed a new three-year first-look deal at 20th Century Fox. Kinberg is heavily involved with next summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past and the studio's upcoming Fantastic Four reboot as both writer and producer. The new deal will allow him to expand those franchises into full-blown universes, with the hope of creating for Fox something akin to the Marvel model of interlocking movies. 
"I have a lot of ideas on how to built those brands and do what everybody is thinking of these days: Be like Marvel," Kinberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I want to be able to build stories over multiple movies."
I first started reading comic books around the time that crossovers began to take off. At the time I didn't question it, and besides, comics were cheaper then (50-60 cents), so I could afford to buy a bunch of them all at once every week. In the early 80s, Marvel had a mini-series called Secret Wars, which starred the major heroes and villains and instituted "major" (at the time) changes, so if you wanted to know how such-and-such and so-and-so happened, you had to read the mini-series to find out. At DC you had Crisis on Infinite Earths and the same principle applied, though I didn't read DC back then.

But then crossovers became commonplace, first in the X-Men titles and then the Spider-Man titles and so on and so forth. After Superman "died," there was a big long arc about his funeral, and then there was an even longer arc involving the "replacement" Supermen that lost me completely after awhile. I got tired of trying to figure out which story comes after which and who was where doing what, so I dropped it. Over time, this trend expanded into other media, like television and books, and I went through the same cycle: liked it at first, grew tired of it after awhile, dropped it.


I still wanna see this though.
And now look where we are: the Marvel movie model of crossovers is catching on elsewhere (I should've seen this coming, I really should have), and once again, I find myself going through the same cycle: liked it at first, have grown tired of it, now dropping it. It used to be that arcs were the exception rather than the rule: Empire leading into Jedi was mind-blowing at the time, as was Wrath of Khan leading into Search For Spock and The Voyage Home. Most of the time a sequel meant a brand new story with the same characters, but not anymore - and I totally understand the appeal. I really do. 

But you know, not everything has to be an ongoing, serialized mega-story. There's value in doing a "one-and-done." When I took part in NaNoWriMo last month, I saw lots of writers who claimed their work-in-progress was one in a series, because, y'know, ongoing series are the way to go in books now, especially genre books. Some people claimed to have plans for as many as four or five books in their series, and I would look at them and wonder, well, that's great and all, but shouldn't you worry about getting this one book done first before you plan your Tolkien-like epic? As I have learned, and am learning, writing a single novel is hard enough on its own without planning a whole bunch of them - especially when you have no guarantee that your first book will sell well enough to justify sequels.


With genre movies, though, it's different, particularly those that are made from pre-existing source material, like comics and young adult novels. They have built-in audiences who will lap these movies up regardless of quality (though, to be fair, the quality has been decent overall - so far). As a kid, I would've freaked out at the prospect of an ongoing series of movies based on Marvel comics with continuing stories. I would've thought it was pure heaven. However, like the kid who loves ice cream and pigs out on gallons of the stuff all at once, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when these movies come out on a regular basis every year.

So the more I think about it, the more I think my genre movie burnout has as much to do with fatigue as with apathy (though that's definitely a big part too). I see now, as I write this out, that this is a cycle that I've gone through in the past, and while I did enjoy Avengers, and I may see the second movie when it comes out, as well as this new Fantastic Four movie (because they've always been my favorite super-team), I find it harder and harder to justify investing in ongoing arcs anymore, even if the rest of Fandom Assembled is loving it. It's too much for me.

Thoughts? (A cookie if you know where this post's title comes from.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dark Victory

Dark Victory
seen on TV @ TCM
12.10.13

At some point in our lives, we have to come face to face with the hard truth that someday, we're gonna die. I've certainly given it my fair share of thought. I made peace with the inevitability of my father's death before he actually went, and I'm in the process of doing the same with my mother. As for myself, well, it's certainly not a topic I dwell on often, but once you hit middle age, it is something that starts to reside in the back of your mind.

The thing is, though, dying is easy. It's living that's hard. Movies like Dark Victory, as entertaining as they are, tend to get it the wrong way around. Look at Bette Davis' life in that movie: she's young and rich, with a big beautiful house in the suburbs, servants at her beck and call, and horses that she can ride all day. Of course she's not gonna want to let go of all of that. Most of us are lucky if we've got a pot to piss in. 

Would I wanna know when I'm gonna die? Maybe. There are days when I honestly don't feel like living this life is worth all the trouble. There are things I'm grateful for, of course, but there are things I regret as well, which I can't do anything about. Plus, on a larger scale, the world in general doesn't provide a great deal in the way of things to be hopeful about. As a result, knowing the day of one's death might be liberating in the sense that I wouldn't feel bound by the everyday rules of life; the rationale being that consequences would matter much less. That's probably the reason why most of us don't carpe our diem: we worry too much about what the cost would be afterwards.


That's also probably why there's a certain glamor associated with dying young, as Davis eventually does in this movie: one doesn't have to worry about wrinkles, sagging guts, aches and pains, losing one's memory, all that crap associated with old age. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe loom larger in our consciousness, in large part, because they died young. These days, there's slightly less of a stigma associated with age. We celebrate actors who age gracefully, like Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, but again, it's important to remember that most of us don't have the resources necessary to keep us looking as fit and youthful as celebrities do.


I'm reminded of the recent Robert Duvall movie Get Low, where he plans his own funeral in advance and attempts to settle long-standing issues. In theory, that's not such a bad idea if you know when you're gonna go. Most people would rather cling to life, I imagine, but is that always such a good idea? If someone's in such great physical and/or mental distress that the quality of their life is low or nil, shouldn't they be allowed to decide that they wanna go sooner instead of later? 


Remember Terri Schiavo, that woman who was on life support but wasn't allowed to die? People were going crazy over that because the state was trying to make life-and-death decisions in what should've been a private matter involving only her family and her doctors. Maybe that's an extreme example, but I can't get behind the idea of someone else telling me I have to live if I honestly and unequivocally believe I'd rather die. But that's a state of desperation you don't see in a Hollywood movie.

Like I said, dying's easy. It's living that's hard. Trying to find a reason to live is something a lot of people grapple with all the time, and if you can find something, anything to live for in this life, well, I reckon you should consider yourself lucky.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Smokey and the Bandit

Smokey and the Bandit
seen on TV @ AMC
12.5.13

I talk a lot about the livable streets movement and how toxic America's car-centric culture is, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm anti-car. I appreciate them; they're certainly important and they've helped me get around plenty of times in my life (when someone else is driving). I can appreciate a beautiful looking car. And a movie with a good car chase is always gonna be entertaining.

That said, I admit that I had never seen Smokey and the Bandit prior to yesterday. (Don't think I've ever seen Cannonball Run either.) No excuse other than that I just never got around to it... but damn if this isn't one helluva fun movie! It's the kind of film that I wish I could've seen - or been allowed to have seen - when I was much younger.

I used to watch The Dukes of Hazard as a kid, and I can see now that it was very directly inspired by this movie. If I were to watch it now, I imagine I'd be embarrassed by it, which is odd because I didn't feel that way about Smokey. (Well, I guess it was embarrassing enough to see that the beer of choice was Coors.) I guess context may have something to do with it; looking at the film as an adult as opposed to a kid.


I know CBs were a big deal in the 70s. My family never had one, so I never knew what that was like growing up, but seeing it here, it made me think that this must have been like a primitive version of Twitter: everyone's got an alias, there's a distinct vocabulary and language common to the medium, and there's a strong sense of community. I can see why CBs were as popular as they were.


I've only been in a truck once in my life, but unfortunately, I didn't go riding around in it much. I visited my friend Becky, who lives upstate, and she had a neighbor friend who drove a truck. The front part was parked outside his house, without the cargo part, and he took me for a brief ride up and down their rural street. I remember climbing into the seat and being intimidated by the size and the sheer power of the vehicle, and this was just the front part! Nothing quite like stepping into a bus.


In my links post last week I mentioned Retrospace's new movie podcast and their first subject, the film Convoy. One of the points they bring up in discussing that film is that truckers were little different from hippies in the sense that the ones in Convoy, at least, were "stickin' it to the man," and Smokey has that same spirit, even though you'd never confuse Burt Reynolds for a hippie. I'd imagine that ties very deeply into the independent spirit that drivers and especially truckers had back then (and maybe still do; I dunno).

Also, Sally Field is totally hot.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nebraska

Nebraska
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY
12.3.13

So last night, I had a Twitter conversation with my pal Page, who, as I've mentioned before, lives in Oklahoma City, a place so far out of my range of experience it might as well be Mars. I have this perpetual image, though I know it's not true, of her living out on the prairie, amidst coyotes and tumbleweeds - you know, where the buffalo roam. Where the deer and the antelope play. Last night I half-jokingly said that I keep thinking of where she lives as being like The Last Picture Show. (She said it was more like Texasville.)

"Flyover country," people call the territory between the two coasts, and with that nickname come a lot of ideas about what this part of America is like. I spent a year living in Ohio (a generally liberal and metropolitan part), but of course, the Midwest has a lot more wide open spaces to it.


I suspect that to be truly comfortable living in those wide open spaces, one likely needs to be born to it. Even when I was deciding on where I wanted to move, I knew I wanted to live someplace smaller than New York, but big enough that I wouldn't be bored. I need to live in a town with some kind of life to it, with different kinds of people. If I were in a small town with the same people every day, especially one that's reliant on cars to get around, I guarantee I wouldn't last long...

...which is not to say that it doesn't have its charms. The shots of the plains and farmlands in the film Nebraska were hypnotic and soothing to look at, especially with the gentle score accompanying it. It made me think of all the times I've traveled through the fields of states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Maryland by bus, when I've gotten tired of reading my book and I've finally settled into a state resembling comfort and I lean into the window and simply look out my window for awhile.


Nebraska is about an old dude, Woody, who thinks he won a million dollars, but it's actually one of those magazine subscription scams. Still, he's determined to collect what he thinks is his reward no matter what. I was reminded a little bit of one of my all-time favorite plays, Death of a Salesman: an old dude whose dreams interfere with his reality, and his family suffers the consequences. There's one scene in particular in which Woody's wife Kate has to defend him to the rest of the family, and it reminded me a lot of Linda's attitude toward Willy in Salesman. In both cases, the wives know their relationships with their husbands haven't been the strongest over the years, and that they aren't all there mentally now as a result of old age, but the love, despite the odds, is still there.

I liked this movie, but it took me awhile to really get into it. Director Alexander Payne is from Nebraska, so he has a natural affinity for this kind of setting and these kinds of people, and while it wasn't off-putting, I didn't get completely comfortable with it right away. In something like Fargo, the idiosyncrasies of the locals are played for broad laughs; not so much here. For example, there are scenes of Woody's family sitting in front of the TV blank-eyed, and they don't come across as funny. It's more like, this is how these people are; maybe you'll find them humorous, maybe you won't. That said, Kate, played by June Squibb, is genuinely funny and totally steals the movie from Bruce Dern.


Nebraska opened last Friday at the Kew Gardens, but Paramount has put some kind of restriction in place in which they don't want discount deals offered for the first two weeks of its release. The Kew normally offers discounts all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Of course, the film opened nationwide earlier than last Friday, but I don't know if that same restriction was in place. Does anybody know what that's all about? I've encountered similar studio restrictions on a more regular basis at other theaters in Queens, like the Kew Gardens Hills and the Sunnyside theaters, but the Kew Gardens rarely gets it. Maybe it's a demographic thing; I dunno.