Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New release roundup for March '15

- Deli Man. My first 2015 movie of the year is this delightful little documentary about the traditional Jewish deli, its glorious past and its diminished-but-still-thriving present, including testimonials from notable Jewish celebs such as Jerry Stiller and Larry King. We see the difficulty and the stress of working such a hectic place as a deli, as well as the camaraderie and the fun, and Jewish culture and history get their fair share of attention. Not as New York-centric as you might imagine, although the Big Apple is well-represented. We also see Jewish delis in places like Houston, Toronto and San Francisco, among other places. While I don't frequent them that much, here in New York I've been to Katz's on the Lower East Side and the Carnegie in midtown. They feel rather touristy, but as a unique New York experience, they're worth going to. If you can't make it, though, at least see this movie.

- Red Army. Fascinating doc about the Soviet hockey team of the 70s and 80s - the team that utterly dominated its opponents in the name of the greater glory of the USSR and the Communist way of life. I have vague memories of "Miracle on Ice," when the US Olympic team upset the Soviets in 1980. I certainly remember the pro-US fervor that gripped the country around that time, even if I was too young to understand the reasons why the Soviets were the so-called "Evil Empire." The movie focuses on superstar player Slava Fetisov: his career, his contentious relationship with his coach, his eventual move to America and the NHL, and his post-playing career. He's a prickly sort, to say the least, but hearing him talk about living behind the Iron Curtain and what the Red Army team represented to the Soviet people, particularly the government, is riveting. Much more than just a sports doc.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bernard Herrmann

900th POST!

Everyone remembers Bernard Herrmann as Hitchcock's composer: Psycho, North By Northwest, Vertigo, etc. - all memorable, all epic, and NONE Oscar nominated, which is insane. You may know he composed the scores to Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver as well. But a large portion of his career was also spent composing scores for sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies and TV shows as well. Long before guys like Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino and Danny Elfman (who was a huge fan), Herrmann was practically the go-to guy for genre fare in Hollywood. Here are five notable examples from across the length of his career. The links in the titles will take you to the scores, posted on YouTube:

- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I saw this on AMC one morning. Nice little Gothic romance movie. I'm usually kinda lukewarm about Rex Harrison, but I liked him here. He plays the ghost of a ship captain who forms an unlikely relationship with Gene Tierney, playing a widow who lives by the English seaside. Ghost before Ghost, basically. Herrmann has said that this is his favorite score. It's very Old Hollywood; lots of soft strings and gentle woodwinds. Not as melodramatic as one might expect.

- The Day the Earth Stood Still. The theremin! Herrmann actually used two of them for his score here, one pitched higher than the other, to accompany his electric violin, electric bass, electric cello, four pianos, four harps, and over 30 brass instruments. He even tweaked the music in places in the engineering room. The theremins were played by Dr. Samuel Hoffman, a noted thereminist who also worked on the score for Spellbound, among other movies, and Paul Shure.

- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. A perennial Saturday afternoon favorite, snake women, cyclopses, and all, Herrmann's score here has a very Greek flavor while maintaining the appropriate bombast when necessary. One can almost feel the footsteps of the cyclops approaching. I'm reminded of the time I went to a Greek festival when I lived in Columbus. The music wasn't quite as epic as this, but it was as fun and lively.

- Journey to the Center of the Earth. I must have watched this on Saturday afternoons too, though I don't remember, but this score is even more grand. The organs make for a nice touch, and some of the weirder subsequent sounds are just as otherworldly as the theremin.

- The Twilight Zone. Before the more familiar "doo-de-doo-doo doo-de-doo-do" theme we all know and remember, Herrmann composed the original theme to the anthology sci-fi series, which was quite different. Where the familiar theme is anxious and unsettling, this one is moodier, more ethereal. Herrmann also provided the music for seven episodes, including the all-timer "Eye of the Beholder" (the one where a woman awaits the results of plastic surgery to make her less "ugly" and fit into a fascistic future society).

There's a CD called The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann that collects his scores from Journey, Sinbad, Day and Fahrenheit 451. If you dig film scores, I don't think you can go wrong with something like this.

Next: Joan Blondell

Films scored by Bernard Herrmann:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Wrong Man
Jason and the Argonauts

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Frank Capra

Frank Capra always struck me as one of those directors who were almost too good to be true. His films were polemics, coming from a specific point-of-view, and yeah, sometimes they were preachy - I don't think one could dispute that - but they were products of their time as well, a time of tremendous economic hardship followed by a period of world war.

Capra was the perfect filmmaker for the New Deal era of President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR entered the White House during the heart of the Great Depression and he brought hope to millions of Americans in desperate need of money, jobs, food and shelter. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Capra's films fed off of this climate. Look at some of his common themes:

- The American Dream. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the obvious example, but throughout a number of his films, he was very big on extolling the ideal of making it in America, no matter where you come from. Capra himself emigrated to the US from Sicily when he was five and he never forgot the experience of traveling by boat with other immigrants. He graduated high school and went to college against the advice of his parents, who insisted he start working instead, and he enlisted in World War 1 even though he wasn't a naturalized US citizen at the time. This was a guy who really believed in America as the land of opportunity, and the success he achieved in Hollywood allowed him to help his country out again during World War 2, when he not only enlisted again (this time with the rank of major), but he put together a series of films, called Why We Fight, to explain the American soldier's role in the conflict.

- Class warfare. Pitting rich against poor, turning rich people poor (as in It Happened One Night) and poor people rich (as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), is a Capra staple, and it's easy to guess who he favored. There's a scene in Mr. Deeds where an unemployed man, a victim of the Depression, tries to assassinate Deeds because he sees him as frivolous and shallow, a man who spends his wealth on trivial things like feeding donuts to horses, not realizing, perhaps, that Deeds is still new to his wealth and is just having fun. It's an eye-opening moment for Deeds, who eventually decides to help out others like this man. It's a sobering jolt of reality in what has been to that point a fairly light comedy.

- The worth of the individual. Related to class warfare, Capra's heroes are their most heroic when the odds are steeped heavily against them and they have to stand alone - but it turns out they're not really alone in the end. As Jeff Smith engages in his epic filibuster with the Senate, Taylor undermines him by spreading lies about him in his home state, but wait! Here come the Boy Rangers to the rescue, handing out leaflets letting people know about the fight Smith is waging to defeat Senator Paine's bill. Smith's lone stand inspires others because of who he is and what he's fighting for. George Bailey doesn't think his life accounts for a great deal until he sees what things would've been like without him. Longfellow Deeds is afraid to stand up for himself when his sanity is called into question because his actions have been misconstrued, but his friends urge him to speak out because of the example he has set and what it has meant to them.

- The value of small towns. It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls resonated with so many people, in part, because of its verisimilitude. Whether or not you believe that Seneca Falls, NY served as inspiration for the fictitious town, Capra had a great amount of detail put into its creation, including planting 20 full-grown oak trees, outfitting a drugstore with real products, and having pigeons, cats and dogs roam the set. The Mandrake Falls inhabitants of Mr. Deeds are befuddling to the visitors from New York, but we're clearly meant to sympathize with them. Even the Brooklyn of Arsenic and Old Lace resembles a small town, if one ignores the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

- The possibility of a better world. Lost Horizon takes place in a secret utopian community hidden from the rest of humanity. The ersatz John Doe, created on a whim, inspires a real movement in which people all over America strive to be better neighbors. The mirror-universe Bedford Falls is everything the real Bedford Falls is not, and it makes George realize how good he has had it all along. 

Kindness and decency and fairness in an unjust world may come across in films like these as "Capra-corn," but he believed in it enough to return to it time and again. This quote attributed to Capra probably says it all, in the end: "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other."

Next: Bernard Herrmann

Films by Frank Capra:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Great Speeches: The Wizard of Oz

screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf
based on the book by L. Frank Baum

Sunday, March 22, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 5: One of those days

This was a crappy day. I had to wake up at seven in the morning on a Saturday just so I could go to Starbucks to write, because Starbucks on the weekend is always crazy packed with people and it's next to impossible to get a table. I missed breakfast (a tea and a pastry doesn't really cut it) so I went to a bagel shop right before heading back to the Secret Theater for a 12:30 show. It was one I had never been to before, and I neglected to check if their grilled chicken sandwich comes with mustard, which I don't like...

I didn't have time to eat it anyway, because the goddamn 7 train took its sweet time heading to Queensboro Plaza (construction work again, as usual), so I had to hurry to get to the Secret Theater on time only to find out that the show started late, so I didn't need to hurry in the first place. Anyway, I was fighting fatigue during the second movie. There was a cellphone user in the row behind me, but she was just barely outside of my peripheral vision, so all I had to do was lean forward in my seat to ignore her, which had the added benefit of keeping me awake, so that actually worked out alright, so there's that... but then I found out I couldn't get my schedule to match up with the person I wanted to interview.

So I walked from the Secret Theater to 35th Street and wrote up yesterday's post at the Panera Bread, thinking that the next block at the Museum of the Moving Image was at 4:30 when it actually started at 4. I got to see one movie, at least. But then! - as I left MOMI, this chick walks up to me and says she lost her ATM card and she wants to see a QWFF movie and can she borrow my press badge to get inside? I swear to god! I might've felt pity for her if she had come from out of town just to see QWFF, but no, she lived in Astoria. I told her I didn't think her half-assed plan would work.

On top of all that, I didn't go to the party that night because I was too damn tired.

Waiting for QWFF screenings... or for the Mad Men exhibit?

But hey, at least it stopped snowing! In fact, you can't even tell there was snow yesterday. I'd say 90-95 percent of it is gone now. 

So yeah, I'm afraid I only saw three movies yesterday - but here they are:

- TNT: Tago Nang Tago.  An undocumented Phillipine immigrant, struggling with his future, makes a questionable decision to improve his lot in life. The title, loosely translated, means "constantly hiding," and indeed, the protagonist of this story feels like he's a fugitive, worried not only about the law but about members of his own family turning him in. It's an important story, it's a timely story, but it's also a story told with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

- Asintado. Set in the Phillipines, this one's about a teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd and makes a mistake that could cost him his life. This takes place during a festival that commemorates the time during WW2 when the populace were saved from the Japanese through what they believe was the intervention of St. John the Baptist. A riveting story. The acting was very good, especially the actress who played the teenage boy's mother.

- El Mal Trato. A tale of an abused husband - yes, husband - whose opportunity for payback comes through pure chance. Obviously, one rarely, if ever, sees this kind of story, especially in America, which explains why this film is from Chile. I missed the first few minutes, and at the time I had thought I was coming in at the beginning of the block when it was actually the end. Either way, I'm glad I saw this, even if I did have to sit in the nostril seats. More of a psychological thriller than a domestic drama, especially in the use of cinematography.

A good festival overall, though there weren't as many films that blew me away as in past years. It happens. Still glad I went, as always.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

Saturday, March 21, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 4: And then it snowed

It snowed. On the first day of spring, it snowed. Actually, it wasn't as terrible as it sounds; it's more the timing, I think, that has bothered everybody. And can you blame us? This winter wasn't as brutal as last winter, but it felt almost as bad, and for a brief moment, it looked as if we had finally put it behind us. It's like the killers in horror movies - never count 'em out until you're absolutely sure they're out! (Sometimes not even then.)

I came to P.S. 69, the third venue for the Queens World Film Festival, all the way from Bayside, which is far to the north and east. I thought the weather might impede traffic somehow, and indeed I had to wait awhile for a bus, but once it came, the ride was fairly quick. The weather didn't stop the great big crowd from coming - lotsa friends and family of the filmmakers who were in the house last night.

P.S. 69 in the snow
- Comic Book Heaven. The last days of a neighborhood comic book shop and its cantankerous octogenarian owner. Speaking as someone who used to work in a comic book shop a lot like the one depicted in this short documentary, I have to say that it's not surprising at all that it's out of business. It looked like little more than a hole in the wall, and I counted a grand total of one female customer and zero kids. It appeared as if the merchandise was mostly of the long underwear variety, and I couldn't tell if there were any trade paperbacks (collected editions of monthly issues).

Folks, comics were my life for a long time, so believe me when I say that that character on The Simpsons may be an exaggeration, but he is heavily based on reality, and he should not be any kind of role model when it comes to running an actual comic shop. I can only go by what I saw in the doc, and I concede that I may not have gotten the complete picture (it was only 12 minutes long), but what I saw was an owner who wasn't making any concerted effort to bring in more than just adult white men as customers, and for too many years, guys like him were not rare at all.

As a film, however, this was good. I can see why director EJ McLeavey-Fisher chose his subject. Joe Leisner makes for good sound bites, and his crankiness played very well to the crowd I saw this with. Hell, I laughed a few times, too. The film was shot and edited well, made nice use of the score. As a film, this works... but I only wish that the subject matter was someone who didn't perpetuate the worst stereotypes involved with comic book retail.

- Old Days. Aging rock band The Atomik Age Project reminisces about its glory days. They sound like a good band, in that Eddie and the Cruisers, nostalgia-rock vein, but the entirety of this short consisted of a couple of very brief talking head interviews and a music video. That's it. I learned more about them from this webpage than from this short.

Some of the filmmakers (and subjects) at P.S. 69 last night
- As You Pass By. Doc about a florist in an unusual part of town: next to a cemetery and under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The location of the business is as much an element in this short as the business itself: there are a number of shots of the oppressive-looking ceiling of the BQE covering the wide street, people on the tiny sidewalk, car traffic, etc., and this is apparently part of what will become a bigger piece about the BQE and its effect on those who live and work in its vicinity. If this film is any indication, that's something I'd like to see.

- The Walk. Boy whose father recently died befriends an old man who just wants to go for walks. I expected some kind of M. Night Shyamalan-type twist to this story, but it was exactly what it was on the surface - and I'm grateful for that.

- Gasper & Son. A father-and-son neon-making business. Neon lights have been a huge part of the visual iconography of New York for generations, but according to this doc, it's a dying art, and seeing how neon is made was pretty cool, as was the family dynamic at the heart of this story.

More pics at the Tumblr page.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

Friday, March 20, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 3: Sentimental journeys

My first night at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights was a relatively short one. It was also Parent-Teacher Conference night, so the Queens World Film Festival activities didn't get under way until around 9:30, but it was worth the wait. All four movies I saw were good:

- Dollar Night. The ancient projectionist of a movie theater on its last legs tries to bring back the patrons with a promotional event. Shamelessly saccharine and manipulative, with a way-over-the-top score specifically designed to tug at your heartstrings, but you know what? I'm giving this one a pass, and I'll explain why.

Before the show, I talked to a fella named Sam, who was the projectionist for this venue. He's nowhere near as old as the one in the movie, but he said he was in the game for 40 years, and as you might expect, the industry's transition from celluloid to digital projection has meant less work for him, but, as he told me himself, he takes the time to do the job right - and the filmmakers (the ones screening at QWFF, at the very least) appreciate him for that.

Sam, the projectionist at P.S. 69.
Forgive the blurriness; I didn't take this shot.
In this digital age of online streaming and video-on-demand and watching movies on your friggin' iPad, we're forgetting what watching movies used to be like, and a generation is growing up knowing no other way of watching them. I accept that there are faster, cheaper, easier ways to make and watch movies, but that shouldn't mean setting the old ways aside if they're still viable. I believe they are, and I know others think the same - and this movie, as sentimental and fetishistic towards 35mm film as it is (long, loving shots of celluloid strips held up for examination, watching the projectionist carefully load up the film projector, the dust particles floating through the flickering light of the projector, etc.), comes from what I believe is a genuine love and appreciation for the medium by director Marco Antonio Martinez, and I can't knock him for that. Sadly, he wasn't in attendance last night; I wish he had been.

With the love of celluloid also comes a love of classic films, and that's part of Dollar Night. We see the torch being passed to a new generation, which, let's face it, is necessary if the old stuff is to survive. No matter how often I see it, I'm still amazed whenever I see bloggers or fans of Old Hollywood under 30, and not just casual ones, but hardcore cinephiles. Over the years, I've introduced you to some of them at this very blog, and I expect I'll see more in the future.

Finally, when you get right down to it, sometimes - not always, but sometimes - sentiment is okay! For all of the genuine quality of films on display here at QWFF every year, many of them are deadly serious. It's good to also see a few that are simply uplifting, feel-good crowd-pleasers... and Dollar Night is definitely that.

Diversity Plaza, at Jackson Heights
- Between Times. A tale of two clocks, one indoors, one outdoors, and the different ways they perceive time and the world of humans around them. Yes, the narrator of this stop-motion animated film from the Netherlands is a clock, and she has a personality and a perception of her surroundings that makes this story quite clever. The look of the animation is nice, especially the village street and the design of the clocks.

- The Shed. Portrait of a happy, healthy, normal marriage. It's a lie, of course, but not in the way you think. This nine-minute Irish film has not one, but two plot twists, and it ends at exactly the right moment! Great fun.

- Mousse. Dog Day Afternoon if it were a comedy, and if Al Pacino and the cops spoke different languages, and if the cops were a bunch of old men. This Swedish film could've ended in the first ten minutes by having the cops shoot the robber (they have ample opportunity to do so without hurting the hostages), but that's not what happens. It goes in a different direction for a little while before arriving at the inevitable finish, but once you embrace the absurdity of it, it's not bad.

More pics at my Tumblr page.

Day 1
Day 2

Thursday, March 19, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 2: They say it's your birthday

St. Patrick's Day always comes right before my birthday, but Tuesday night was the first time I had ever bothered to take advantage of it by getting drunk the night before. Who cares if everyone else is getting plastered for a completely different reason? I've always considered myself a kind of honorary Irish by virtue of being born the day after, anyway!

The crazy part is that it only took me one beer to get drunk! But that one beer looked like this. I think the bar where the Queens World Film Festival Opening Night after-party was held at was offering a special, but it was an odd one: either that one humongous beer or two smaller ones, and I couldn't get one now and the second later, so I bought the one big one and carried that mug around with me all night as I talked to old friends and made new ones. 

Long Island City,
where the Secret Theater is located
How did I get home? Well, I wasn't totally out of it. I was coherent enough to get on the train and then the bus, but what it came down to was that I told myself one thing, over and over: DON'T FALL DOWN.

Yesterday, I treated myself to a late lunch/early dinner before heading to Long Island City for Day 2. I had salmon. And that was the extent of my celebrating...

...because I had other plans. The Secret Theater in LIC once again hosts QWFF screenings. I wouldn't mind coming back here for something else one day, though it's easy to see what puts the "Secret" in Secret Theater: if you were walking past it, you'd think it was just another loading dock to a warehouse. Yes, despite all the development in LIC, there are still warehouses, and artists' spaces. My friend Nancy has an art studio there, not unlike what you'd see in SoHo or DUMBO.

I stayed for the first two movie blocks of the night; this is what I saw (Reminder for all you newbies: QWFF shows mostly short films, so they're arranged in "blocks," and the audience pays by the block and sees about an hour or two worth of short movies):

- Into the Dark. In the future, two prisoners shipped on a space-worthy vessel headed for their execution find the only comfort they can - in each other. It always amazes me how modern software technology can make outer space and computer graphics and spaceships look as slick as anything JJ Abrams can come up with, and that's the case here as well, but the story by writer-director-star Lukas Hassel is equally compelling. It's a one-man show, like recent films Buried and Locke, with all other characters off-screen, a format that I think works better for short(er) films like this one. Genre fans will dig it.

Filmmakers from the first block of films at the Secret Theater
- 4AM Gas Station Muzak. Heaven and hell compete for the soul of an ordinary guy just trying to put his life back together. Maybe a little too clever for its own good (did they really think that by showing an angel and demon playing chess together that we wouldn't think of Ingmar Bergman?), but it's still a game effort. Multi-cultural cast, nice use of location shooting in the California prairie, among other places, good editing.

- Reuber. From Germany comes this Gilliam-esque modern-day fairy tale, a bedtime story about a boy whose act of negligence leads him to run away into a magic forest with some bizarre characters. Like The Wizard of Oz, characters in the real-world framing sequence play double roles in the fairy tale, which is a nice touch, and there are funny moments, as you'd expect, but I thought it rambled far off course at times and wrapped up too neatly. Worth a look, though.

- Bright in Here. A one-night stand between two lesbian women on New Year's Eve. A nice character study, but that's about it. One would like to spend more time with these characters, though, to see where their relationship leads.

- Middle Man. At a tele-texting service for hearing-impaired people, a phone operator facilitates a conversation between two gay dudes trying to patch up their relationship. Clever premise, well-executed (although it took me awhile to figure out why one half of the couple didn't speak), but this is a Scottish film, with very, very thick Scottish accents. That, plus the fast pace of the dialogue made it difficult for this Yank to follow the story. Subtitles would help tremendously.

- Intrinsic Moral Evil. From the Netherlands, a very unusual short that's more of a performance video than a narrative, in which the concepts of homosexuality and youth are expressed in interpretive dance. Excellent cinematography and editing that uses the Zack-Snyder-slow-down-then-speed-up trick well. Quite fascinating and hypnotic.

Filmmakers from the second block of films
- Fire Island. Could the end of this marriage be decided by pure chance? Shot on location at the titular strip just off of Long Island (right before Hurricane Sandy hit!), the dodgy American accents by the actors were a distraction for me, but otherwise, it was okay. Good mix of comedy and drama.

- The Blood of Love. A woman goes to any and all lengths to keep her husband from dying of an unusual blood disorder. If there's one genre that QWFF has been far too short of over the years, it's horror, and this one had a good mix of gore and genuine drama. I was worried that the audience was laughing in places that weren't meant to be funny, but director Jeff Meyers said afterward that the laughs, intentional or not, didn't bother him.

- Remains. I'm sorry, but this Israeli drama about two gay guys bored the living hell out of me. I was already a little drowsy by this point in the night, but I swear, it seemed like all the characters did was bicker and I didn't care about either one of them - and of course it was the longest one in the block. Ugh.

More pictures from QWFF at my Tumblr page.

Day 1

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

QWFF 2015 Day 1: Parental guidance

Five years may not seem like a big milestone, but for the Queens World Film Festival, it's a sign of rapid and remarkable growth. From its humble beginnings, it has drawn together the Queens film community at large and linked it up with filmmakers worldwide, giving independent films of every stripe an opportunity to shine. 

Credit, as always, must go to the dynamic duo who put it all together, Don & Katha Cato. The amount of energy and passion they put into this festival, as well as the truckloads of genuine love and respect they receive in return, cannot be understated. You only have to be around them once to understand. Last night, QWFF 2015 kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), and once again, they were at the heart of it, doing what they do best: telling the world about the movies they love.

Queens Councilman Jimmy van Bramer (center), a QWFF
presenter, with Katha and Don Cato at MOMI
This year's QWFF is also significant in that MOMI's involvement is greater. In addition to hosting Opening Night, the museum, for the first time, is one of the screening venues, along with returning sites P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights and the Secret Theater in Long Island City. Within the past year, the area of Astoria/LIC which MOMI calls home was declared by the city an arts district, a further indication that Queens is being recognized for its unique culture and artistic contributions, and QWFF has been part of that.

This year's Spirit of Queens honoree was Cuban filmmaker Leon Ichaso. Among his best-known films, both in and out of the mainstream, include the Wesley Snipes crime flick Sugar Hill, El Cantante, a biopic of singer Hector Lavoe, with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, and the political drama Bitter Sugar (screening tonight at MOMI), in addition to a variety of theatrical and TV movies and shows in a career dating back to 1979. Here's a recent New York Times article about him.

The opening night "sampler" of films had parents (and surrogate parents) as a recurring theme:

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz
- Roxanne. From England comes this character study in which a young girl on the streets is taken in by a transgender sex worker. Not exactly warm and fuzzy. Borders on cliche, but the tension inherent in a situation where a child is in an environment of sex-for-money is addressed in the brief running time. Makes good use of the location shooting.

- Godka Cirka (A Hole in the Sky). From France, but set in Somali, this one focuses on the lives of shepherdesses, narrated by a young girl. It almost seemed like a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction; the footage of the shepherdesses, young and old, have a documentary feel. We follow them around the countryside and the spare and ramshackle streets, we observe their rituals and gatherings and songs, and it looks like something you might see on the BBC, but imposed over all of it is this girl's narrative about her life, her family and her expectations. A unique approach.

- Dirty Laundry Day. An animated short about a laundromat change machine that is more than it seems. An American film, but the filmmaker is of Syrian descent, and recent events in that specific country inform the narrative in this film, although I kinda wish that it was a little bit more obvious within the story so that the film wouldn't need a post-script title card telling us so. Good otherwise. The sketchy artwork combined with computer effects made for an unusual contrast.

Spirit of Queens honoree Leon Ichaso
- Big Girl. Why is young Hannah's mother pulling her and her younger sister out of school for the day - and why does she need to be a "big girl," today of all days? The answer is as shocking as it is subtly depicted. My favorite of last night's films by a big margin. At first, you don't know what the mother's deal is - she almost seems like the bad guy at first - but the deeper the story gets, the more obvious her love for Hannah is. A movie that deals with a difficult and sensitive subject, yet it's handled so delicately, and you get just enough of the puzzle pieces to add it up yourself in the end. Outstanding film, with a moving performance from the young actress who plays Hannah.

- Carry On. From China, set during World War 2, a father has to figure out how to protect his daughter from the Japanese soldiers raiding his village. Another gem, one that shows how not even duty can get in the way of simple human compassion. Even mixes in some funny moments. Cinematography, screenplay, performances, all tops.

Plus, there was a bonus screening of Sundance award winner World of Tomorrow, an animated short about cloning that was as adorable as it was visually striking. There's quite a bit of buzz around it, from the looks of things, so I'd strongly advise you to look for it when it becomes available to watch later this month.

Look for more pictures from QWFF 2015 this week and next on the WSW Tumblr page.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Our Man Flint

The CinemaScope Blogathon, hosted by myself and Becky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food, goes on all this weekend. Check the list of participating bloggers to find out who's writing about what. Once again, a big thanks to everyone for joining us for this. The turnout has been incredible and I appreciate everyone's enthusiasm for this event!

Our Man Flint
seen online via YouTube

I'm fairly sure I had seen Our Man Flint once before, during my video store days, but that was a long time ago and I didn't remember too much about it, so it was nice to see it again. It's less of a Bond spoof than I expected, but then again, I was expecting something closer to Austin Powers, which kinda raised the bar for Bond spoofs considerably. Flint isn't anywhere near as over-the-top as that. It has its humorous moments, but there are legitimate sequences of pure action as well. The humor is handled with a light touch.

As Derek Flint, James Coburn (whom I always confuse with Lee Marvin) is the ultimate man, as well as the ultimate secret agent: a high IQ, physically skilled, always one step ahead of the bad guys, always with some kind of gadget or method for getting around a problem, whether it means speaking in Italian or improvising a disguise or seducing the femme fatale (of course). Coburn looks like he had a lot of fun in the role, and indeed, this movie should be approached in the same spirit. (Fun fact: Faster Pussycat Kill Kill star Tura Satana has an uncredited part as a stripper!)

Flint was released in 1966 by 20th Century Fox (20CF), the studio that led the way in using the film process known as CinemaScope. Basically, it was an anamorphic (from the Greek, meaning "formed again") lens that created an image nearly twice as big as the standard film format of the day. First created by French inventor Henri Chretien in 1926 as "Anamorphoscope," it didn't catch on in Hollywood until the 50s, when television began to encroach on the movie industry's success. 

The curved screen of Cinerama, as well as the early experiments in 3D, encouraged 20CF chairman Spyros Skouras to commission Bausch & Lomb to adapt Chretien's lenses, which Skouras bought from him, so that their Biblical epic The Robe could be completed using this new process. 20CF producer Darryl F. Zanuck announced that all of their subsequent films would be shot in CinemaScope, and he encouraged other studios to get in on the action. With the exception of Paramount (who had their own VistaVision), all the other major studios jumped on board, and eventually, European filmmakers followed suit.

By the time Flint came out, CinemaScope lenses were being phased out in favor of Panavision lenses, which improved upon the former, and were also cheaper. The 1967 Flint sequel, In Like Flint, was one of the last films shot in CinemaScope.

Our Man Flint was directed by Daniel Mann, who also did BUtterfield 8, The Rose Tattoo and Come Back Little Sheba, and shot by Daniel L. Fapp, who served as director of photography for, among other films, West Side Story (for which he won the Oscar), The Great Escape and One Two Three. One advantage to shooting in CinemaScope that Fapp and Mann take full advantage of is the set design, by Raphael Bretton and Walter M. Scott. The sets of Flint's New York penthouse, ZOWIE headquarters, and the volcano lair of Galaxy are elaborate and stylish, and the camera takes them in fully. According to IMDB, the average shot length is about 5.8 seconds.

When I worked video retail in the 90s, I remember having to make a diagram pointing out the difference between the widescreen format and films that are "panned and scanned" for the TV format, because so many people weren't used to seeing those black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Nowadays, more dramatic TV shows are formatted in widescreen, plus widescreen-sized TVs are more common, so an effort to make movies superior to television ended up with television becoming more like movies. With the film industry fighting back with things like IMAX, advanced 3D, higher frame-per-second resolutions, and theatrical luxuries such as better seating and food, who knows where the battle between film and TV will lead next?

Other CinemaScope and related films:
Carmen Jones
Guys and Dolls
Mister Roberts
Forty Guns
Jailhouse Rock (Superscope)
Bells are Ringing (Panavision)
Ride the High Country (Panavision)

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
from my VHS collection

Okay, don't get me wrong, I still like The Day the Earth Stood Still as a movie. It's ambitious, it's better written and acted than most alien-invader movies of the period, it has that awesome Bernard Herrmann score, and in the grand tradition of classic science fiction, it attempts to say something important about the world we live in. 

That said, I think I have a serious problem with it, and the problem lies with Klaatu's departing speech near the end of the movie. Listen to it first, then come back here.

Throughout the movie, Klaatu drops hints here and there about what life on his world is like, but here we get a much clearer indication. He speaks of a consortium of united alien cultures, not unlike Star Trek's Federation, and how robots like Gort keep the peace so that the alien societies are "free to pursue more profitable enterprises." Most importantly, he makes it out like this is all some kind of utopian ideal, a better way of life than what we lowly humans have here on Earth, one we can be a part of if we clean up our act and stop trying to blow each other to smithereens - and he makes it unequivocally clear that if we don't change out ways, he'll be back to wipe us all out.

I totally get the ultimatum part. Klaatu's people see us as those rowdy punks from across the tracks who are starting to hang out in their part of town, knocking over mailboxes, trampling over their lawns, harassing their daughters at the malt shop, and they wanna put a stop to it so that their neighborhood can go back to the way it was. That makes sense. What I wanna address is this alternative Klaatu offers us.

The robots, for instance. Klaatu says they were created to keep the peace and he likens them to police officers, but he says that they have "absolute power" and that "this power cannot be revoked" (although this movie's most famous line would seem to imply that they can be controlled to some extent). Am I the only one who finds that terrifying? In order for that to work, the robots would need to understand the concept of morality - what is considered "right" and "wrong" in a democratic society. Do your leaders understand the concept of morality? Do your police understand it? As a New Yorker, particularly a black New Yorker, well, let's just say that over the years, I've had many occasions to wonder that myself.

But Klaatu says that his people have learned to live without stupidity! So let's say that they are capable of teaching morality to artificial lifeforms. He also says that "at the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk." Now, I think when we first heard him say that, we automatically assumed he meant things like rape or murder or kicking puppies or stuff like that, right? But what if he also meant things like swatting flies? Don't laugh! It's violence against another life form! 

Does Gort understand context? If I were with my buddies in a public place and we were horsing around, y'know, playfully punching or shoving each other or putting each other into headlocks or whatever - macho guy stuff - would Gort interpret that as violence on the same level as stabbing someone with a knife with intent to harm, and would it be worth suffering a penalty "too terrible to risk"? But maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion. This is an extreme situation, after all. It's not like anything comparable could ever happen in real life.

Are you beginning to understand what I'm getting at here? To live under the constant surveillance of a COMPLETELY AUTONOMOUS police force that acts as judge, jury and maybe (probably) executioner, punishing any and all acts of violence... would you feel comfortable living in such a society? I hesitate to apply the word "fascism" because all we know about Klaatu's people is the little he tells us in the movie, and he's not exactly neutral. We don't see his world firsthand. One has to wonder, though...

What about Klaatu and his pals, the ones who "pursue more profitable enterprises"? Now I'm really speculating here, but something about that line makes my spider-sense tingle. We all agree that war, to say the least, is bad, and no one wants it. If it came down to defending one's home and family from an external threat, though, humans have been more than willing to take up arms to do so. If the robots failed in some way, would Klaatu's people - a society that, by Klaatu's own admission, knows no violence - be able or willing to do the same, or would they be too indolent or passive to even lift a finger in their defense? War is something to be avoided, yes, but when all other options have failed, freedom is worth fighting for, and I wonder whether Klaatu's people fully understand that. Again, though, we haven't seen their society, so we can't say for sure.

None of this occurred to me until recently. I was at the IMDB page for Day and looked at Klaatu's speech and that's when all of this jumped out at me. I may be completely off base, and please tell me if I am - this is a beloved sci-fi classic known and loved by generations of fans, after all - but I honestly think that this movie looks slightly different after living through eight years of George W. Bush and the War on Terror, especially when I hear Klaatu say things like "the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure."

Either way, I have to question at the very least, the concept of giving any one governing body absolute and irrevocable power in the name of security and holding it up as an ideal to aspire to, and this movie kinda does that. I hate to admit it, because this is still an entertaining movie, but it should be said.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal (1948)
seen online via YouTube

So I'm continuing with my Anthony Mann kick, and I've liked all of the movies of his I've seen so far, including the crime pic Raw Deal. It's as noir as films got back in the day: hardened jailbird escapes prison, and with the help of his girlfriend, sets out for San Francisco, but is forced to take his social worker along as an unwitting hostage. Meanwhile, the big boss man who betrayed him is scheming to bump him off before he reaches Frisco.

What do we know about Mann? He started off as an off-Broadway stage actor, set designer and production manager before heading out to Hollywood, doing casting and scouting for David O. Selznick. He was an assistant director at Paramount before becoming a director himself, turning out low-budget flicks like Raw Deal at smaller studios during the 40s. His collaborations with Jimmy Stewart in the 50s were what he became best known for, doing mostly Westerns, as well as a biopic of bandleader Glenn Miller. In the 60s, he switched to epic productions, making El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, both with Sophia Loren.

Raw Deal is much better than it has a right to be. Dennis O'Keefe's jailbird character is the focus of the story, but Claire Trevor, his girlfriend, is the one who narrates. Her perspective adds an extra layer to the story: we see not just her devotion to O'Keefe, but her wariness of Marsha Hunt's character and her growing uncertainty about the success of their getaway. I've always liked Trevor. Seems like she's always the bad girl who's either saddled with the wrong man or stuck in the wrong circumstances. This was a pretty good year for her; Key Largo also came out in 1948. Who can forget the way Edward G. Robinson humiliates her by making her sing for a drink? At least John Wayne had sympathy for her in Stagecoach.

I was pleased to finally see Marsha Hunt in a movie. (Not sure I understand why the poster for Raw Deal turned her into the She-Hulk, though.) You may recall that I mentioned her in the post I did last year about the Hollywood Canteen. Her character starts off being sympathetic to O'Keefe because she knew his history and believes he's just a regular guy who made bad choices in life. Naturally, she's due for a rude awakening, but then Stockholm Syndrome sets in and, well... I wasn't entirely sold on that change in her character, but it didn't ruin the movie for me, given the ending. I liked her well enough. She bore a slight resemblance to Ida Lupino, I thought. She's still very much alive as of this writing. She'll be 98 in October, and although she may not be getting as much attention as Olivia DeHavilland, a documentary about her is in the works.

Raymond Burr as the big bad? Well... at least he gets to kill somebody
in a horrifying bit of improvisation.

Mann keeps the action moving well. It helps that the screenplay is tight while providing just enough nuance to the characters to keep us interested in what happens. Mann even finds room for some clever, bordering-on-artsy shots as well. It's easy to cite this as a prime example of film noir, and it is, but one must remember that nobody in the industry back then was aware of it as a genre. Still, there's a lot to like about this movie.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Furies

The Furies
seen online via YouTube

Given her early days as a Brooklyn showgirl turned film star of contemporary dramas and comedies, Barbara Stanwyck probably didn't seem like a natural for Westerns at first. The future Big Valley TV star, however, took to them fairly well. According to this Movie Morlocks piece, she had always had an interest in them:
...A political conservative, Stanwyck did not take on these roles to make a point about her gender, and she would likely be uninterested in a feminist interpretation of them. Apparently, the Old West fascinated her, and she once referred to the era’s gunfighters, pioneers, and outlaws as “our royalty, our aristocracy” in an interview. After Stanwyck’s divorce from Robert Taylor was finalized in 1951, she kept their ranch and continued to ride the horses. She was in prime riding shape for the westerns she made during the 1950s, and she was inclined to perform her own stunts. Forty Guns includes a dangerous scene in which her foot is caught in a stirrup, and she is dragged across the prairie, a stunt she did herself when the stuntwoman refused. In The Maverick Queen, her character is chased across the wilderness and forced down a rocky incline, a treacherous maneuver for horses. The stunt required sure hands and a steady seat, but Stanwyck had no trouble pulling it off.
I picked out The Furies to watch because I wanted to watch a western, and one with Stany definitely fit the bill for me. I was also interested in it as an Anthony Mann-directed film. I knew his name as a director of crime flicks and westerns, such as Bend of the River, and I had wanted to sample more of his films. It also had Walter Huston. Sounded like a winner to me.

Was it ever! "The Furies" is the name of a ranch owned by Huston's character, and Stany is his daughter. The movie is basically a power struggle between the two of them for ultimate control of the ranch. Imagine Lady Macbeth as the daughter of King Lear and you'll get an idea of what to expect in terms of tone. I don't think I've ever seen a western quite like this before. Stany is ambitious and seductive in a way few women characters are in westerns, and honestly, the best way to describe the conflict between her and Huston is in Shakespearean terms.

Theirs is a rather unique relationship. At the outset, it's clear that Stany has been made in Huston's image. In fact, he fully intends to leave her The Furies when he passes on, and she's in the process of being groomed for that role. They're more like business partners than parent and child, and the more we see of them together, the more we sense a kind of sexual tension between them. At least, I did!

Stany has a swagger to her here. It's as if she took Phyllis Dietrichson, dropped her into the 19th century frontier, and amplified her sexuality and her nerve - though never in a campy or over-the-top way. We see her sitting with her boots up on her father's desk, doing business with his peers, as he does. For the most part, she is accepted on her own terms. She's almost never looked upon as unusual in any way.

Naturally, she needs a rival, and she gets one in the form of her Strange Love of Martha Ivers co-star Judith Anderson, who catches Huston's eye and seems to have an agenda of her own, which could easily mean pushing Stany out of the picture. This eventually leads to Stany doing something very shocking (I audibly gasped), and from that point on, war is declared between father and daughter.

There's also a subplot involving her seduction of banker Wendell Corey (with whom she also appeared in The File on Thelma Jordon in the same year, 1950, as The Furies), and theirs is also a twisted relationship. There's a bit of a Rhett-and-Scarlett vibe to them; he understands her game, but he doesn't seem to want to make it too obvious that he's hot for her. There is some semi-violent foreplay, which Stany almost seems to like (though not at first). At one point she attempts to throw a cake at him! He also has to do business with her, which further complicates matters. And did I mention that she also has a friend-with-benefits in a Mexican dude whose clan is squatting on the Furies' land? Yeah, there's a lot going on in this story!

Huston is magnificent, as usual. He was a versatile actor. The first movie I saw him in was Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and in the ones I've seen him in since, I always found it tricky to make the connection between him there and him elsewhere, until now. He has an awesome scene in The Furies where he rides on horseback chasing down a bull, lassos it, and WRESTLES IT TO THE GROUND. John Wayne never did that!

This, as if it weren't obvious by now, is a terrific movie. There's a grandness to these characters that's appropriate to the genre: bold men and women doing bold things in a fight for control of the frontier. The difference lies in the shades of gray these characters are rendered in. Metaphorically speaking, no one wears a black or a white hat, and that's what makes them seem that much more real. I'm kinda surprised I've never read a great deal about this movie before now. It feels quite modern, and it holds up.