Friday, January 30, 2015

New release roundup for January '15

Throughout 2015, I'll confine my posts about new releases to a once-a-month roundup. These will be shorter, and will read more like reviews for the most part than usual.

- Big Eyes. Before the Japanese anime and manga craze made big-eyed art popular to a new generation, there were Walter and Margaret Keane. The latest from Tim Burton tells the bizarre true story of how Walter used Margaret's paintings of big-eyed waifs to make a name for himself and how she found the strength to break away from him and reclaim her artwork. I liked it, but Christoph Waltz as Walter seemed way too over-the-top to me, to the point where it seemed like he was in a different movie, though Vija, whom I saw this with, was willing to concede that maybe he really was like that. Hard to believe, though, if true. Amy Adams was terrific, as usual. 

I found it fascinating that the big-eyes art was thought of, even in its day, as "kitsch" by critics, yet the movie makes it clear that it meant something significant to Margaret, even if she couldn't put her finger on what - and it meant something to all the people who ate it up. Once again, like in Birdman and Top Five, we see this disconnect between art and criticism playing out in recent movies.

- Mr. Turner. I remember learning about the late 18th-early 19th century English painter J.M.W. Turner in art school, and liking his work, but I never knew anything about the man himself. Mike Leigh's film about him gives me an idea, but I'm not entirely sure how much is fact and how much is the result of Leigh's unique improvisational method of crafting a screenplay. 

I suppose it shouldn't matter in the long run, but I felt more emotionally detached from this movie than others that he's done. Beautiful cinematography, nice set design and period costumes, and a rather... unique and immersive performance from Timothy Spall, but the whole thing left me cold in the end. One big difference between this and Big Eyes is that Spall, an actual visual artist, actually looks like he's painting for real and is filmed accordingly, as opposed to Amy Adams, who you can tell is only pretending for the camera. Well, I can tell, anyway.

I was supposed to see this with Vija too, but she was sick that day. She saw it on her own and later, she told me that she saw the film as a metaphor for the British Empire during that period, which I thought was a remarkable interpretation.

- American Sniper. Yet another 11th-hour surprise from Clint Eastwood, this movie is really touching a nerve in America. How else to explain its jaw-dropping $105.3 million four-day weekend? I'm thinking this movie might win Best Picture.

You know the story by now: Chris Kyle, allegedly the most prolific sniper in US military history; four tours in Iraq; killed by an ex-soldier with PTSD that he was trying to help. I think it's finally time for me to stop underestimating Bradley Cooper, because he was quite good in the role. That said, I didn't think this movie had anything that new or different to say about the undeclared war in Iraq or the military, at least nothing that would garner all the success that it has enjoyed. It's a true story, I know, but it relies on familiar war cliches: the training sequence, the revenge killing for a fallen comrade, the long-suffering wife (who has very little to do here other than be a long-suffering wife). Plus, I found it difficult to look at this and not think of The Hurt Locker, which was a work of fiction, but was a better told story. And then there's the matter of how much the movie version of Kyle deviates from the real thing. It's not bad, but it doesn't scream Best Picture to me at all.

Check out my Tumblr page to read about my experience seeing Sniper at a local theater gambling on this movie in order to survive.

- Two Days, One Night. In this flick about corporate downsizing, Oscar nominee Marion Cotillard needs to convince her co-workers to support her in getting her job back. Guess how long she has to do it in. Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne shot this "Dogme 95" style, meaning handheld cameras, location shooting, no score (though I don't think they're officially part of the Dogme movement). Cotillard is very good, looking about as un-glamorous and ordinary as an international movie star can look and still be believable. I'm glad she got nominated, though I think I liked her a little bit better in her other 2014 film, The Immigrant. I don't think Vija was as sold on the premise as I was. She seemed lukewarm about the movie as a whole. I admit it didn't blow me away either, but I think it's worth watching.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Smiling Lieutenant

The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon is an event devoted to the actress, hosted by Silver Screenings and A Small Press Life. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.


A bit of explanation for the newbies: City Mouse is a cartoon character I created in 2008 when I was living in Ohio and have since brought over to WSW more or less intact. Click on the label "cartoons" over in the sidebar if you wanna see more. 

I wasn't planning on taking this approach for this post, but the truth is that I wasn't able to get a hold of The Smiling Lieutenant. Someone on Netflix had checked it out (I know, right?) and I couldn't wait for it to return, so I put this together two days ago, based on the one scene from the movie available on YouTube. 

Donna and Sophie are supporting characters in the strip who like old movies too. This is their solo debut.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jean Arthur

It's hard to decide which aspect of Jean Arthur I tend to think of first. She had a distinctive voice, for one thing: a little squeaky, a little high, yet not a stereotypical dumb-blonde exaggeration. Its elocution is too refined for that. Then there's that chin of hers. It wasn't Reese Witherspoon-sized, but it does seem kinda prominent, in a subtle way. Basically, she was beautiful, but just unique-looking enough to distinguish herself from more traditional-looking comic beauties from the 30s and 40s like Carole Lombard and Betty Grable.

I haven't seen enough of Lombard's films to compare Arthur to her, but in my mind, Arthur stands out a bit more, partly because of her unique looks, and partly because of her role in some of the great films of Frank Capra, in particular Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (I haven't seen You Can't Take It With You.)

I think what I like about her in those films is how active she is. She's not just a love interest, she does things, important things. Her perspective in Deeds is critical to the story, because she shapes the public's image of Longfellow Deeds, and once it gets out of control, she feels a responsibility to fix it. In Smith, it's she who suggests that Jimmy Stewart filibuster the Senate in order to clear his name and stop Claude Rains' bill from passing. She's spunky and full of verve and she embodies the spirit of these seminal films.

This quote attributed to her from IMDB seems to justify these kinds of roles: "It's hardly fair for women to do the same things at the same hours every day of their lives, while men have new experiences, meet new people every day. I felt that way as a little girl, with two older brothers around the house. It seemed to me that they led adventurous lives, compared with mine. I felt cheated and frustrated. I became a tomboy in self-defense. I decided that I was going to do things that were exciting, or at least interesting."

I was a little disappointed with The More The Merrier, which aired on TCM a couple of weeks ago. I had heard good things about it, and had missed it a couple of previous times that it aired. For one thing, Charles Coburn steals the movie right out from under Arthur and Joel McCrea. More importantly, though, despite a fairly passionate seduction scene late in the film,  I didn't completely buy the romance between Arthur and McCrea. I didn't care enough about it. 

The movie as a whole didn't feel screwball enough, except in the scenes with Coburn, and it kinda felt like the romance was there simply because the filmmakers felt one was needed. I was more interested in the bits about the wartime housing shortage in Washington, which was a real thing back then. Still, Arthur was game as she always was. Apparently this was her one and only Oscar nominated role. While it's always nice to see a comedic role get awards recognition, I wish she had gotten the nod for Deeds instead, like her co-star Gary Cooper.

A livelier Arthur film, for me, is A Foreign Affair. Her character in that has the stick-up-her-butt nature as in Merrier, but then she does things like this:

I think I love her for this scene alone.

Arthur never felt comfortable making movies, according to the 1997 biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. She quit movies temporarily in 1944 and tried to take on the theater, but stage fright led to her dropping the role of Billie in Born Yesterday. Apparently she left the show during previews, and that's when Judy Holliday stepped in, but considering how much that role made Holliday's career, one can't help but wonder what might have been if Arthur had remained with it. I can kinda see her in the role, too. 

A Foreign Affair and Shane were her last two movies, made years apart late in her career, and after Broadway she tried to do television. The Jean Arthur Show only lasted one season, 1966. It aired opposite The Big Valley and couldn't match that show's success. Here's a promo for it. It doesn't strike me as anything special, sorry to say.

It's unfortunate that Arthur struggled with self-confidence and stage fright throughout her career. She always struck me as being quite self-assured and bold on screen. Still, I'm glad we got as much of her as we did, because she made some great movies.

Next: Edward G. Robinson

Jean Arthur movies:
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
A Foreign Affair

Jack Lemmon

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Open the curtains on the CinemaScope Blogathon!

UPDATE 3.11.15: Due to the number of additional bloggers within the last couple of weeks, we are adding an EXTRA DAY to the blogathon - MONDAY, MARCH 16 - so that all the bloggers will have more time to finish their posts! Check the revised schedule over at Becky's blog!

The battle between film and television goes all the way back to the early days of TV, and the movie industry, then as now, did whatever it could to win the battle against the young upstart medium. One of the most memorable enhancements to the movie-going experience is the one my pal Becky and I are gonna explore in March with the CinemaScope Blogathon!

Before IMAX, there was CinemaScope - basically, movies filmed in a much wider image than had been the norm up to that point in film history. The curved-screen image of Cinerama was the predecessor, but CinemaScope was what 20th Century Fox and other major Hollywood studios used for many of their movies throughout the 50s and 60s, and some of the greatest films of all time, in a wide variety of genres, were filmed in CinemaScope.

The choice is yours: to get in on the action, pick a movie shot in CinemaScope to write about, or maybe an actor or director or studio associated with CinemaScope movies, or the filming process itself, or foreign movies shot in CinemaScope, or maybe the connection to Cinerama. It's up to you! Becky and I will round up all your posts on the weekend of March 13-15.

Here's the master list of eligible movies, at a very good site called the American Widescreen Museum, which you should totally check out while you're there. They've got a ton of information about CinemaScope, Cinerama, plus a poster gallery, and a lot more.

Banners? We got banners. The Rebel Without a Cause banner up top is one, here are the rest...

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun
seen on TV @ TCM

So A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway last year, and after seeing the film version again, I kinda wish I had seen it live as well. Denzel Washington might be too old for the part, but I have absolutely no problem imagining him stepping into Sidney Poitier's shoes. The revival did very well: it won three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play, and even the President and First Lady went to see it.

Raisin is a play that has enjoyed a long shelf life, being adapted for film and television, being remade into a musical, even inspiring spin-offs: the Pulitzer Prize-winner Clybourne Park and Beneatha's Place, a play inspired both by Park and Raisin.

It's been around for so long that people forget that it was inspired by an actual legal case experienced first-hand by its author, Lorraine Hansberry. She was born in Chicago, where Raisin takes place, and as a child, she and her family moved to a white neighborhood where they were violently harassed by the residents. 

They refused to move, however, and went to court to defend their right to stay. In 1940, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against them, but the decision was overturned by the US Supreme Court, and Hansberry v. Lee established the precedent that made it illegal for whites to keep blacks out of neighborhoods. 

Raisin fictionalized the story, peppered with Hansberry's ideas about things like racial identity and religion and at 29, she became the first black woman to write a Broadway play. Poitier, Claudia McNeil as the mother, and Ruby Dee as Poitier's wife, all starred in the original stage version, and they all appeared in the film as well. Hansberry got to write the screenplay, but it took her three drafts before Columbia was willing to film it. (Movie Morlocks has the story of some of the details behind the making of the film version, some of which will really surprise you.)

What I love about Raisin is that while race is a crucial element of the story, it's not the whole story. Poitier's Walter Lee has big dreams, but feels constrained, not only by the larger world, but by his own family, who doesn't always understand what it is he's after in life. There's a great deal of anger, frustration and tension within the family, but there's love as well, even if it isn't always expressed as openly or as often.

I watched this with my mother, and FINALLY, I picked a movie that she's not only heard of, but she has seen. More than once, in fact! She loves Poitier, and she surprised me when she said that she had seen Raisin co-star Diana Sands on Broadway long ago, in The Owl and the Pussycat. My father took her to see it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar 2014: The nominees

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

The rest.

Well, so much for my prediction that Ava DuVernay would get a Best Director nod. The talk was that Team Selma only sent screeners of the film to the Academy and no one else, and that this may have been a contributing factor as to why it didn't register with the guilds, but I thought the Academy would save it somehow. I haven't seen Sniper, but was Bradley Cooper really that much better than David Oyelowo? Did Bennett Miller really do a better job of directing Foxcatcher than DuVernay did with Selma? Especially head-scratching since Foxcatcher somehow missed out on Picture but still managed to snag Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay. (Note that there are only eight nominees this year, when we had been getting nine each year of the new system.) And Selma's only other nod was for Original Song (which, in fairness, it'll probably win)? I blame Paramount for dropping the ball with this one. Selma deserved much, much better.

Not as much love for Nightcrawler as I had hoped. It looked like it had a legitimate shot at breaking all the way through, especially Jake Gyllenhaal for Best Actor and maybe Rene Russo in Supporting Actress and maybe even Picture (only eight nominees). Again, I have to ask, was Cooper really believed to be that much better? I guess I'll have to go see this movie to find out. Still, I'll gladly take an Original Screenplay nod for Nightcrawler. It deserved that much, at least, but I really expected more.

Yay for Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson, two distinctive and innovative filmmakers who have had long and distinguished careers and are both enjoying tremendous success with two outstanding films.

Yay for Marion Cotillard making the Best Actress cut. I really gotta see that movie.

Yay for Whiplash doing well, even getting an Editing nomination, though I had hoped Damien Chazelle would make the Director cut.

Yay for Ida getting not only Best Foreign Language but a surprise Best Cinematography nomination.

That's all I have to say at the moment. There are robberies and surprises in the Oscar nominations every year, and this year is no different.


2013 nominees
2012 nominees
2011 nominees
2010 nominees

Monday, January 12, 2015

Nothing Sacred

Nothing Sacred
seen online via YouTube

Watch enough Old Hollywood movies and read enough stories about that era and sooner or later you'll come across the name Ben Hecht. He was a screenwriter, as well as a playwright and novelist, among the other hats he wore, whose career covered almost the entire studio era and a little bit of the silent era as well. He was one of the first Academy Award winners, and would gather five more nominations and another win before his career was through. And although his name wasn't always in the screen credits, he had a hand in writing some of the greatest films of all time, including the original Scarface, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, His Girl Friday, Spellbound, Notorious, and many more, often in rapid fashion.

Born in New York in 1894, he ran away to Chicago at 16 where he became a reporter, during a period when the competition in this field was intense. In 1926, he moved to Hollywood at the invitation of screenwriter and friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, lured by the promise of easy money. His first credited screenplay, the 1927 gangster picture Underworld, went on to win the first "technical" original screenplay Oscar in 1929. The exact category was Best Writing, Original Story, and Hecht was the sole recipient, though the adaptation was credited on-screen to Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee. 

From there, he went on to split his time between Hollywood and New York, writing original scripts and doctoring others, alone or in collaboration with others, such as his longtime partner Charles MacArthur, while continuing to write plays and books. Hecht saw writing movies as simply a way to pay the bills, in part because he resented working under Hollywood's production code, which limited what movies could explicitly say and do. Throughout his life, Hecht was also a civil rights supporter and a pro-Israel activist who worked tirelessly to save Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. In 1969, five years after Hecht's death, Norman Jewison made a movie inspired by Hecht's early days in Chicago called Gaily, Gaily, starring Beau Bridges.

Journalism was a common theme throughout Hecht's work, and his comedy Nothing Sacred, like his famous play The Front Page (which was made and re-made into movies several times), takes a cockeyed look at the industry and the scruples, or lack of same, which guide its progress. Carole Lombard, stunningly beautiful in Technicolor, plays a small-town New England girl mistakenly believed to be dying of radium poisoning by big city reporter Fredric March, who tries to make her a cause celebre in order to save his own career, unaware of the fact that she's actually not in danger of premature death.

Hecht has the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, "suggested by a story by" one James H. Street, but a number of others did uncredited polishing on the script and the original treatment, including uber-producer David O. Selznick, director William Wellman, Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart and Ring Lardner Jr., among others.

Sacred spares no expense to skewer newspaper reporters and their morals. March's character is the type who never let facts get in the way of a good story, and as a result his editor (named Oliver Stone! Speaking of people who have been known to exaggerate the truth) puts him in the doghouse. He's just as eager to exploit her as everyone else in New York, however, once March breaks the Lombard story - which leads, naturally, to March having a change of heart over the whole thing because he's fallen in love with her. 

The means by which Lombard is feted are hilarious. One example: March and Lombard go to a nightclub that salutes her in a presentation in which extravagantly costumed showgirls depicted, more or less, as famous women throughout history parade on stage... on horseback.

Sacred is a lot of fun, and Hecht, who bounced back and forth throughout a variety of genres throughout his film career, has rarely been better - and though he had no love for the medium ("I concede the movies alone did not undo the American mind. A number of forces worked away at that project. But always, well up in front and never faltering at their frowzy task, were the movies."), he provided it with some of its greatest memories.

Ultra-coolness! The opening credits featured
cartoonish mannequins of Lombard and March, along with
co-stars Charles Winninger and Walter Connolly.
Click image to enlarge.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Where will you leave Jimmy Stewart?

William Goldman, screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery and many other terrific movies, used to write for The New Yorker during the 90s. His columns are collected in a volume called The Big Picture, an entertaining look at Hollywood in a transitional period in its history. One of the columns reprinted in this book, "And Where Will You Leave Jimmy Stewart?" concerns an interesting idea about movie stars and how we remember them:
...I believe this: that the great stars provide us a legacy, a blizzard of images to remember. But one of those images - and it's a different one for every fan - is most important to us. And it is in that place that we park the stars, until we need to summon them back into memory.
There's definitely something to the notion. The right movie, at the right time and place, will imprint itself on our psyches, and a certain performance - framed and lit a certain way, solo or with other actors - can certainly become that go-to image whenever we think of the actor, whether they've had a long and prosperous career or became one-hit wonders. It's worth thinking about if you're a cinephile...

...and so I have thought about it. Next year I'll do the modern version, with living actors (although Goldman said that living actors might go on to do something even more memorable, which is true), but here and now, here's what I came up with for some of the classic actors:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Jack Lemmon

I gotta start with Jack Lemmon. Why? Because to me, he represents so much of what made Old Hollywood so appealing. TCM devoted a day to him a couple of weeks ago, and I watched one of the films they showed, Days of Wine and Roses. It's a movie I had seen before and loved, though dealing with alcoholism as frankly as it does, it is mighty tough to sit through. 

As I watched it though, it occurred to me for the first time that Lemmon was damn good at playing bastards. I tend to think of him primarily as a comedic actor, which, of course, he was excellent at, but when he did drama, he could embody some truly despicable characters. 

Take Days, for example. His character is able to curb his drinking by the end of the movie, so he's not a total ratfink, but when he's off the wagon, forget about it. He's not unlike his character in The Apartment (who was also a bastard), only darker: corporate company man climbing the ladder of success, who hates himself for the compromises he has to make - hence the drinking.

The things he does while under the influence range from dickish to frightening, but perhaps the worst - and indeed, it informs the majority of the movie - was turning Lee Remick into a lush like him. By having two people struggle with alcoholism, Days raises the stakes that The Lost Weekend anteed up, and creates a co-dependent relationship that both parties have to struggle to escape from. 

The final scene is so tragic, because Lemmon still loves Remick, despite everything, and wants to take her back, but he knows that if he does, she's gonna drag him back down from the heights of sobriety again. It was one of his eight Oscar-nominated performances (he won twice), but it was in the same year as Gregory Peck's Mockingbird and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence. You try picking a winner from that group.

Lemmon, like a number of actors of his era, such as Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, effortlessly went back and forth between comedy and drama, in a manner rarely seen today, especially by the biggest male stars. This is something I've touched on before, with regard to romantic comedies. Perhaps it's a generational shift, perhaps it was a result of working within the studio system. I suspect the latter.

Lemmon, like Grant, wasn't afraid to look absolutely silly in his comedies. The man was Oscar nominated for spending a good two-thirds of a movie (at least) in drag, after all - and I think modern actors, as good as they are, might be missing out, in a way, by sticking so firmly to drama and action and so rarely exploring their comedic sides. But that's another post. (Quote from IMDB attributed to Lemmon: "I really can't be funny unless it's part of the character. It really bugs me when someone thinks of me as a comic. If I read 'comedian Jack Lemmon,' I gag. That means I'm not an actor - which I am.")

Lemmon made ten movies with Walter Matthau. (He also directed him in Kotch, an Oscar-nominated performance.) Maybe they weren't Laurel & Hardy, but for my money, they were one of the all-time great comedy duos. I know they're the Odd Couple, and always will be, but before I think of that great movie, I tend to think of the three they did with Billy Wilder: The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page and Buddy Buddy. I saw those during my video store years, when I was still learning about classic movies. I think The Fortune Cookie is the best of the three. The Front Page isn't bad, but it can't quite escape the shadow of the Grant/Russell version, and Buddy Buddy isn't that memorable.

Perhaps the greatest measure of an actor is how he's regarded by his peers - and not just his contemporaries. Kevin Spacey has said that Lemmon was a big influence on his career. They worked together on stage in a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, and later, of course, they were in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey was honored in a tribute here in New York last year. Check out what he had to say about Lemmon; it is quite a moving testimonial. Also, who can forget when Ving Rhames gave his Golden Globe to Lemmon?

Jack Lemmon was one of the greatest stars of Old Hollywood, but he continued to be relevant in the modern era as well. Very few actors you can say that about.

Next: Jean Arthur

Jack Lemmon movies:
Mister Roberts
Some Like It Hot
How to Murder Your Wife

Monday, January 5, 2015

New year's links

Welcome to The One Year Switch. I've temporarily abandoned my usual format of writing about new and old films, and will spend 2015 writing (almost) exclusively about old ones, drawing primarily from the silent era through the mid-60s, and possibly a little bit from the 70s and 80s as well. As I said when I first announced this change, I'm doing it not just to explore the old-school material, but as a writing challenge. It's my hope that this will inspire different kinds of posts, not simply critiques of classic films.

Everything else is going okay. My novel's coming along well - closing in on 30,000 words as of this writing. I haven't shown it to my writing group yet, but I think I probably will sometime within the next few weeks. I know that my draft is far from perfect - sections crossed out, notes to myself, etc. - but from what I've learned, at this stage it's okay to write badly because one can always correct it later. 

The important thing is to get the words down, and it's proving to be a bigger commitment than I realized, partly because I'm going back and forth between the book and this blog. A bit of a juggling act, but the upside is that between the two, I'm writing every day. And I hope I'm learning something.

A few links to kick off the new year:

Becky compares the recent live TV performance of Peter Pan with the 1960 version and finds the former lacking.

Danny's anthology e-book about The Thin Man is now available.

Fritzi saw a lot of classic movies for the first time in 2014.

One of Jacqueline's final posts in her year of Ann Blyth regards the actress/singer's last film, the flawed but noteworthy The Helen Morgan Story.

Jennifer went to the Florida Keys and visited the home of an author well associated with classic Hollywood - Ernest Hemingway.

Here's a funny story about attempting to turn a sibling on to classic movies.