Friday, January 31, 2014

2013 Top 10

I was gonna begin by saying that I think we can all agree that 2013 was an incredible year for movies, but I've recently seen a few people who think otherwise. However, I have reason to believe that these are people who simply don't go to new movies much, if at all, anymore. If that's true, that would be a shame, because there was a lotta good stuff to see this year. As usual, I didn't get to see everything, so this list, like all my Top 10 lists, is far from definitive. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
seen on TV @ TCM

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is as simple a story as it gets. It's basically a romantic fairy tale: beloved prince finds love while mingling with commoners in a cosmopolitan city, but ultimately must choose between love and duty. With silent movies, as I've talked about before, one must pay much closer attention than one normally would for a "talkie" or else you'll miss information, but I didn't have that problem here. 

This was direct and uncomplicated, and yet it moved and cheered me as much as if it had been made last year. These days, there are lots of movies, in various genres, that needlessly complicate their stories, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. 

I'm sure you've seen examples of it too, whether it's a rom-com, an action movie, or a horror movie, sometimes there are plot points that add little to the tension of the story (someone please explain to me the point of the "codex" thingie in Man of Steel), or you get a bunch of exposition that means nothing to the overall plot (I remember that was one complaint about last year's After Earth). Sure, this usually isn't a problem in films made by Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen Brothers or Kathryn Bigelow. But how many filmmakers make movies like those directors?

With Prince, I found myself marveling at the ability of such a simple story, that's well over eighty years old, to have such a positive impact on me. Maybe that was the result of it being silent, but I've seen more intricate silent films. I suspect it simply comes down to being one more example of what made director Ernst Lubitsch what he was. 

He didn't need to make a big deal out of this tale; it looked like he got what he wanted out of it. There are nice little character moments, there are beautiful relationships at play, and there are all sorts of contrasts at work between life as a monarch and life as a commoner. Plus there are lots of gorgeous location shots.

Is there really no more room for movies like this today? I find that impossible to believe. Some say that romance in the movies is evolving, at least out at the fringes, and that it's only a matter of time before mainstream Hollywood catches up. That's certainly possible. I hope it's true.

Monday, January 27, 2014

1939: A film odyssey

Before we get too far into the new year, I'd like to take a moment and acknowledge 2014 as the 75th anniversary of the Class of '39, believed by many to be the greatest year for movies of all. I have no doubt that throughout the year, we'll see 75th anniversary celebrations for the big two movies, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but it would be nice if some of the other big movies from that year were publicly acknowledged as well. I imagine the average person isn't aware of those other films, much less that they all came out in the same year. If you want a more comprehensive rundown, the folks over at the Classic Movie Blog Association devoted a blogathon to the 1939 films a few years ago. 

Here are the ones I've written about so far (in addition to the big two):

Dark Victory Golden Boy Of Mice and Men The Flying Deuces The Roaring Twenties Each Dawn I Die

Of course, I've seen more than these. I've seen most of the ones that most film fans already know and love - Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Women, etc. It might be more informative to mention the films I haven't seen from 1939 that I'd like to, eventually:

- The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I saw a little bit of this on TCM one day and it was enough to convince me I wanna see the rest. Charles Laughton in that make-up is freaky.

- The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not a big Holmes fan but this is supposed to be one of the all-time best.

- The Rains Came.  Myrna Loy's supposed to be great in this one.

- Destry Rides Again. If only to see how Marlene Dietrich functions in a Western.

- Midnight. Early Billy Wilder screenplay.

Further suggestions would be appreciated.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

An experiment with spoilers

...Those who advocate spoilers say that spoilers enhance our love of films and make our lives better.... Of course, there is also the illicit pleasure of a spoiler. A person browsing the Internet can feel empowered coming across a spoiler. They now possess forbidden information about a film that most other people don't have. Still, as alleged by the pro-spoilers faction, the most powerful benefit of sharing spoilers is that it helps to build a community around movies and television shows. But doesn't it impart too much importance to the latest film to build a community around it
I gotta admit, I don't understand why some fans need to know things in advance. I realize this never used to be a problem; there was a time when people never made as big a deal about learning advance information about a movie (or book, or TV show, or comic, or what have you), but with the rise of the Internet, it has become more of a thing, partially because information is so much more easily obtainable and more easily passed along now. This week, we saw Quentin Tarantino decide to not shoot his latest film because the script was leaked over the Internet - and who can blame him?

There are books I've read prior to seeing them adapted into movies, and there have been classic films I've watched after reading all about them in blogs or books, but those aren't quite the same thing. In this particular case, there's an assumed perception of an upcoming movie and a certain level of expectations that go with it that prompt a fan to seek out advance knowledge. This is commonly associated with genre movies, but also with movies from certain popular directors, such as Tarantino. The question remains, though: can one more easily enjoy a movie if you know it from start to finish?

I'm gonna test this hypothesis by taking two upcoming movies and approaching them from both extremes: I'll go into one movie knowing as much about it as I can possibly learn, and into the other knowing as little as possible - which, I grant, won't be easy, which is why I'll set the minimum goal of not knowing plot details beyond the barest of essentials. This will likely mean doing things like skipping out on the trailers whenever I go to the movies, for example, but I can do that. At any rate, I won't actively pursue knowledge about my "blind" movie, whereas with my "spoiler" movie, I'm gonna go whole hog and learn everything. My goal is to find out whether advance knowledge of a film helps or hurts the viewing experience.

I've chosen two movies coming out this spring, and they're both sports movies: Draft Day, a football movie with Kevin Costner, coming out in April, will be my "blind" movie, while Million Dollar Arm, a baseball movie with Jon Hamm, coming out in May, will be my "spoiler" movie. Maybe I should've chosen a more fanboy kind of movie, like the sci-fi flick Transcendence, or a movie with a popular director, like Darren Aronofsky's Noah, but the fortuitous chance of two sports movies coming out in the same season, both of which I would be interested in anyway, makes this a better fit for me. You can follow my progress on Twitter, where I'll use the hashtag [#spoilerxpmt].

Any advice on how I can fine-tune this experiment would be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

QWFF @ the Queens Museum

In my coverage of the Queens World Film Festival, I've probably mentioned that they also do smaller, year-round events around Queens to screen the cream-of-the-crop films that have played QWFF in the past. This winter, they've been screening at the renovated and revitalized Queens Museum as part of their grand re-opening celebration, and this past Sunday, I headed over there partially to see their show, but also to see the Museum in its newfangled glory.

The Museum (formerly known as the Queens Museum of Art) is located inside Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in the area that was originally home to the 1964 World's Fair, nestled right next to the Unisphere, the universally-recognized symbol of Queens itself. The Museum has artwork from local artists as well as international ones, and indeed, there's a heavy emphasis on internationalism throughout the place, a reflection of Queens' own multicultural makeup. The centerpiece, however - the exhibit that all visitors to New York must see for themselves at some point - is the Panorama of the City of New York, a huge architectural model of the five boroughs of New York, including buildings, airports, parks, landmarks, EVERYTHING - originally built for the World's Fair. It's a one-of-a-kind marvel.

QWFF had two sessions at the Museum on Sunday, one for international movies and one for movies made by local filmmakers. I stayed for only the former, so that I could check out the Museum afterwards. Some of the films I had seen before, like last year's Pollicino (which I liked a lot), and also the freaky At the Formal and the shot-on-an-iPhone The Tits On an Eighteen-Year-Old, but the rest were new to me:

The Queens Museum
- The three animated films, Old Angel, Swing and Drat, were all uniformly wonderful; thematically different, yet each one is visually distinctive and they express themselves eloquently with the barest minimum of words. You can see the first two at the provided links. I can't find Drat online anywhere, but here's a video interview with the director.

- 15 Summers Later and Of Guilt and Grief are dramatic narratives dealing with complicated relationships in which the past imposes itself upon the present. The former does it with a single scene and a stationary camera, the latter does it with multiple non-linear scenes. I liked the former better. Guilt isn't online, but here's a review of it.

- My Green Pencil is a lovely vignette in black and white with dashes of color (think Pleasantville).

- Curvas is a funny horror short about the dangers of picking up hitchhiking ghosts.

This year's QWFF will be March 4-9. Among the films showing there will be the Oscar-nominated doc The Act of Killing. Here's the complete playlist.

QWFF article in Moviemaker
Drivers Wanted

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Would you prefer the 1925 Oscars?

'The Big Parade'
So now that we've gotten over the pissing and moaning over who got snubbed and who got nominated that shouldn't have in this year's Oscars, allow me to present an alternative. Le from Critica Retro has put together a super-sweet video (made for the recent Classic Film History Project Blogathon) of a make-believe Oscar ceremony for the films of 1925, which was a pretty awesome year: Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, the original Phantom of the Opera, the original Ben-Hur, a silent Wizard of Oz, The Big Parade, The Lost World, and more. I haven't seen a lot of these movies, but now I want to. Le, of course, is the hostess for this show; in fact she's got a whole YouTube channel which you should also take a look at. Her accompanying post is here, but check out the video first! (The video is in English; she speaks it quite well; for the post you'll need to translate it. Google Translate should do it automatically.)

Oscar 2013: The nominees

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

The rest.

Hey, I've seen all nine movies! How about that.

Not a lot of huge surprises here. I made some crazy longshot predictions on Twitter last night; the only one that came true was Amy Adams for Lead Actress, and even that wasn't so crazy. It's still too soon to say for certain, but American Hustle's position for Best Picture is stronger than ever now. Four-for-four in the acting categories, plus Picture, Director, Editing and a screenplay nod, for the second David O. Russell film in a row is a remarkable accomplishment (got to be a first).

12 Years, which everyone thought was a lock to win back in September, has some serious competition now. I'd be quite happy to see it win, but who knows? It's a really close race. I'll say this much, though: if 12 Years wins, I suspect it may signal a sea change in the Academy's thinking, in that a high-minded, artistic movie with something to say from a little-known black director can beat a more entertaining, feel-good kind of movie, especially after three straight years of crowd-pleaser movies winning Best Picture. (Not that crowd-pleasers are inherently inferior.)

Yay for Sally Hawkins getting in, and this nod doesn't feel like a make-up for missing out for Happy-Go-Lucky, because she does deserve this one. Also yay for newcomers Barkhad Abdi and Lupita Nyong'o making the cut.... and that's all I have to say about the nominees right now. Yes, there are movies and people I wish could have gotten in, but that's true every year. Very little feels certain in this year's race, which means it'll be a race worth paying attention to.


2010 nominees
2011 nominees
2012 nominees

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Night I Danced at the Hollywood Canteen

The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon is an event in which participants examine a given year in movies from the Golden Age, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at these sites.


Matthew got drafted for the war in April of 1942. Momma told me in a letter. By that time I was well into my Hollywood "career," and he and I had fallen out of touch with each other long ago. We had believed our little high school romance could still work, separated as we were by the miles and by my shifting priorities, but then again, my aunt Shirley warned me about long-distance relationships.

Truth is, though, I knew things were turning sour when I first told him I was leaving for Hollywood after graduation. He knew I had dreams that were bigger than our hometown of Aberdeen, Washington - dreams that he didn't quite share, no matter how supportive he tried to be. Did we love each other? Maybe. I've certainly thought about it now and again, over the years... but whatever it was we had, it wasn't enough. The promises we made to each other to write, to visit, to call, were built on a foundation of sand... and in my heart, I knew it. Maybe I did love Matthew.

But I loved showbiz a little bit more.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
seen on TV @ TCM

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (at least this version), Dr. Jekyll, in explaining his scientific research, talks about the good and evil within man, but I think what he's actually talking about is what we now call the id and the superego. Of course, it wouldn't be until the twentieth century when Sigmund Freud would come along and give it those names (along with the ego, the force in between), and this story is set in the nineteenth century. 

The way this classic literary tale is presented here, Hyde is clearly the manifestation of all the things Jekyll would secretly like to do but chooses not to. He's not a Hulk-like monster, either (as he kinda is in other versions); that's something I always forget whenever I think about this story.

At first, I had forgotten whether or not I had seen this before when I watched it, but I definitely had. This version of the story is mighty hard to forget! Spencer Tracy's Hyde doesn't have a great deal of added makeup - more hair, maybe a false set of teeth, sweatier - but he barely needs any of it to scare the pants off of you, a tribute to what a remarkable actor he was.

Visually, this is a hell of a movie. The frenetic editing of the transformation sequences, the not-bad-for-1941 visual effects, the costumes and set design (along with the makeup, naturally) - they all make this movie come alive in a way that's almost modern. Director Victor Fleming did Oz and Gone With the Wind (can you imagine having both those films on your resume?), in both cases coming in to replace previous directors. A look at his IMDB page reveals that he was a cinematographer going way back to the early days of the silent era, and that must have been quite an education for him. 

You'd think he'd be better remembered than he is. True, he was a substitute director on Oz and Wind, but he does some wild stuff here. Look at the weird visions Jekyll has when he transforms into Hyde. Maybe they're taken directly from the book, I don't know, but to see them in this context - Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner as racing horses, being whipped by Tracy, Bergman popping out of a bottle, Turner falling underwater - there's a sexual potency to these images that's absolutely startling to see in a 1941 movie, and Fleming captures it with great skill. We understand these as being the inner workings of Jekyll's repressed id, but they're suggestive enough to be open to a little interpretation.

Fleming's output diminished after this movie. He never came close to the heights he scaled in the 30s - but then again, after Oz and Wind, who could? - and died in 1949, but I think he did pretty well for himself. I like this version of Jekyll a lot, but the Fredric March version is supposed to be just as good too, so one of these days I'll have to look at that one also.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street
seen @ AMC Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

So. Martin Scorsese. A quick search through WSW makes me realize I haven't talked about him a great deal here. I haven't written about any of his classic films yet, partially because there's not much more I can say about them that hasn't already been said. As you're aware by now, I'm not about deep critical film analysis. There are better places you can go to for that. But I ought to say a few words about him while I have the opportunity.

His status as America's Greatest Living Director has been cemented by now. At this point, I think it's safe to say that he's one of the few directors that the average American can name off the top of his or her head. Immersed within film culture as people like us are, it's easy to forget sometimes that not everyone can name the world's top filmmakers, but Scorsese has become a household name at this point, partially because of the quality of his films, and partially because of his longevity.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
seen on TV @ TCM

Imagination is a great thing to have. I had talked here once about an artist I knew named Hilda, who believed in past lives. She also believed that imagination was a kind of realm from which humanity draws ideas from. Think of the notion of the sculptor who claims that his sculpture was within the clay all along, and that all he did was bring it to the surface. Hilda's concept was similar. She believed that we don't create so much as we take from what's already within nature.

It's an idea which has fascinated me ever since, to the point where I wrote a short story inspired by the notion. It was about what happens when limits are placed on imagination as a result of man's folly and ignorance. Of course, it's set in a dystopian future - partially. 

In the story, I posited that the ability to dream, to imagine, is something that's inherent within everyone. There have been occasions throughout my life where some people have looked at my art and said things like, "Oh, I wish I could draw like that," and I always tell them that you can if you really want to. Some of the best artists I've known are self-taught. I've found throughout the years that many non-artists see what artists have as an inherent, "God-given" talent, and that's partially true... but even that spark of talent needs to be fanned into a flame. 

I have a friend who's dabbling in photographic art with her cellphone camera because she's always had a deep admiration and appreciation for art in general and now, as she's deep into middle age, she wants to see what she can do on her own. She posts her pics on Facebook. They're not bad. My point is that imagination is healthy and often leads to great discoveries.

I've never known anyone who has perpetually had their head in the clouds, though. I'm sure such people exist, but the idea always kinda struck me as a well-worn storytelling trope that was shorthand for "simple-minded." People with ADHD are known to daydream, for example, but that doesn't make them simple-minded. It's often times just a different way of thinking, in which one doesn't go from A to B to C so much as go from A to Q to K before arriving at B.

And so this brings us to the original film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (I was gonna watch both the original and the new version and compare them both in one post, but the remake is getting mediocre reviews, so I'm not gonna see it.) It's my understanding that the original short story by James Thurber was something of a cultural touchstone when it came out. I guess you just had to be there to understand, because I have a volume of Thurber stories which I've read, including "Mitty," and to coin a phrase, there's not a lot of "there" there. 

Both the Danny Kaye and Ben Stiller films go as far afield from the story as they do because it's more of a character sketch than an actual plot. While it's not bad for what it is, I imagine it must have been the right story at the right time, more than anything else. (Brief aside: although I lived in Columbus, Ohio for a year, I somehow never made it to Thurber House, a museum dedicated to the writer and artist. Don't ask me why; just one of those things. I barely knew who he was at the time, and I never read "Mitty" until after I returned to New York.)

As for the Kaye movie, apparently Thurber hated it with a passion. I realize this film is deeply loved by a lot of people - and I've already gotten reamed on Twitter for expressing this opinion - but I'm completely sympathetic with him. It's almost painfully unfunny - I laughed three, maybe four times total, and they were more smirks than outright laughs - and the songs did nothing to improve the story. Kaye had a propensity for mimickry and for slipping in and out of different characters, I grant you, but I simply didn't care about Walter in the end. I don't see the appeal at all.

Anybody wanna defend it?

Battle of the Planets was da bomb, yo

Friday, January 3, 2014

New year's links

2013 wasn't too bad. Once again, there were new things I tried out here, to varying degrees of success. There were some great blogathons I took part in that inspired my imagination. And I got to attend a bunch of fine and varied outdoor screenings. I have some ideas about what I'd like to do for WSW this year, though at this point it would be premature to talk about them. I'm just glad I've lasted as long as I have with this blog. If there's anything you wanna see more or less of, please let me know and I'll do what I can.

One new element to the blog is a page called Blue Ribbon Films. These are the films on this blog that mean the most to me in terms of not only entertainment but important memories - of times, places, people and events that I associate with these films. I'll add to them over the few days.

Caftan Woman wonders how well we really remember It's a Wonderful Life.

Ivan reflects on his video store days.

ClassicBecky is back, and just in time for the height of Oscar season, she shows some love for Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann.

Erica reviews a book that mashes up Star Wars with Shakespeare.

Retrospace collects a bunch of quotes from B-movie actresses who have done nude scenes.

AFFRM is stepping up to the next level in support of black cinema with their Rebel program.

Did Olivia DeHavilland and the late Joan Fontaine really have a long-running feud or not?

This graphic compares book reviews to reviews of the movies they were based on, from the recent past to the present.

Spike Jonze talks about the Beastie Boys movie that never happened.

Criterion could use some more animated movies, don't you think?