Friday, July 29, 2011

It Came From Beneath the Sea

The 50s Monster Mash Blogathon is an event dedicated to classic movie monsters presented by the site Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The list of blog posts will go up July 28-August 2, 2011.

first seen online via YouTube

Monster movies probably had more appeal to me as a kid than at any other time in my life. Part of it was certainly getting to see them on free TV every once in awhile - during holidays, for instance. I think the best thing about watching those old, low-budget flicks as a kid was that they engaged your imagination a little bit more than similar movies today. As disappointed as I was with Super 8, I can at least appreciate the attempt JJ Abrams made to make a modern monster movie in that old-school spirit.

In watching It Came From Beneath the Sea last night, I thought about the differences in how movies like this were made, then and now. For one thing, this movie took its sweet time - not that it was boring, but it didn't feel the need to deliver the goods right away. There were a great deal of interior scenes - the inside of a submarine, scientists in their lab, conferences with military officials, dinner at a restaurant - probably the result of a small budget.
Also, science is taken very seriously. I liked how the scientist characters in Sea are shown as true professionals - regular people, not nerds or oddballs. We see them investigating the mystery of the sea monster, working with the military in combating the creature and taking more than a few risks to life and limb.

And then there's special effects. Sea was one of the many sci-fi/fantasy movies featuring monsters created by the legendary effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Inspired, as many filmmakers were, by the original King Kong, as well as sci-fi literature of the 1930s, he designed a wide variety of movie monsters throughout his long career, and brought them to life on the big screen using stop-motion animation. Harryhausen's body of work includes such Saturday afternoon matinee classics as Mighty Joe Young, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original Clash of the Titans.

The other day I spoke about how performance-capture effects are reshaping the way modern movies look. There's something about stop-motion animation used in live-action films, however, that always creeped me out. No matter how realistic computer-generated effects have become, on some level, I believe, we're always aware of them as being effects. I've found this to be true in Super 8 and movies like it. It's not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the levels CGI have reached, but I think you do have to consciously surrender yourself to the illusion.

With stop-motion puppetry, it's different. Because these are physical objects interacting with actual people, it has a realism that can be unsettling - and to be honest, I'm not just talking about Harryhausen monsters. As a kid, I'd see stop-motion animated shorts on Sesame Street or The Electric Company that would freak me out sometimes, which makes me think that the kind of fear this stirs may be an instinctual one.

Anyway, no one was better at it than Harryhausen. In Sea, when the sea monster crushes the Golden Gate Bridge, it looks real. It has a physicality you can see that is different (I won't say better) from most computer-generated effects. Although give CGI its due - in the hands of masters like Spielberg or Lucas or Jackson or Cameron, it can be breathtakingly convincing, and as more filmmakers use it, it can only improve over time, and performance-capture will play a great part in that, I believe.

One more note about Harryhausen: I watched a colorized version of Sea. It turns out that Harryhausen helped produce this version, one of several movies he worked on that were recently re-released for DVD in color. I thought the colors looked fine - nothing was especially bright or shiny; if anything, the colors seemed just restrained enough to be believable. Having never seen the original black and white version, I can't make any direct comparisons.

I feel I should also mention that Sea actually bothers to present a decent female character who's way more than just a damsel in distress or eye candy. Don't be fooled by the movie poster: Faith Domergue (who also made This Island Earth, Cult of the Cobra and The Atomic Man in the same year as Sea) is competent, clever and authoritative in this film. It is a shame, however, that the filmmakers felt the need to saddle her with a lame romantic subplot with the naval captain who works with her that adds absolutely nothing to the story. Still, I liked that her character held her own amidst all the men in the story.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Family

My Family
last seen online via YouTube

From an early age, I've always been exposed to Latino people and culture. My best friend from childhood was Dominican. The magazine shop where I bought my comic books was on a street in a Latino part of town, and of course my favorite childhood movie theater, the Jackson, was (and still is) in a Latino neighborhood. The sound of salsa music, the smell of Mexican restaurants, and the sight of flags from Puerto Rico and Brazil and Cuba are as much a part of my memories as anything else. As a kid, I never gave much thought to the differences between the various Latino cultures and my own. I never had any reason to.

Not long ago, I worked in an office with several Latina women ("las mujeres," as I referred to them). Most of them I liked, some I didn't, but I never had a real problem working with them. They'd speak Spanish to each other at least as much as they spoke English to everyone else, if not more. While it didn't make me uncomfortable, I have to admit, it made me a little self-conscious at times. Then again, that could have been due to the fact that one girl in particular was plain annoying - yelling across the room to her friends in Spanish and acting like an entitled queen bee all the time. 

The point is that all of a sudden I'd reached a stage in my life where I was aware of the differences. As a democratic society, we like to believe that as long as we're on the same side, those cultural differences don't matter, but in everyday practice, they do. They have an impact on how we see each other, interact with each other, and treat each other. We can't help but be aware of them, and it's foolish to pretend they don't exist. The most we can hope to do is attempt to understand them and accept them for what they are...

...which is why films like My Family are so important. They open a window into another culture that we can look through from a safe distance and see it for what it is; the good, the bad, and everything in between. This is as much an American movie as it is a Mexican one (co-writer/director Gregory Nava was born in San Diego), since the story of America is one of immigrants. The generational clash that is a major theme in the movie is one of old-world versus new-world ideals, and they inform the choices the characters make in their lives, for good and ill.

Bottom line, My Family is a delightful film that is intrinsically American, and speaks volumes about who we are as a society. (It also has one of Jennifer Lopez's best performances!)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The state of performance-capture filmmaking

It all comes down to the actors looking each other in the eye and that’s where the truth is told. That’s where all the drama or the comedy happens. You see Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot, they’re dressed outlandishly and everything else. The truth of those performances, when they’re looking at each other, they’re acting together. Actors just need each other to act together, all that stuff is forgotten. So even though our actors are in motion capture suits, performance capture suits, they’re wearing headgear, a little camera, dots on their face, after laughing at each other for 10 minutes and getting that out of their systems, they’re just performing characters and I think that is the secret to great acting. You have to bring your imagination to the party.
One of the biggest panels at Comic-Con this year was the Tintin one with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in attendance. Among the many things they talked about in relation to the upcoming film was the use of performance-capture technology, the revolutionary process by which regular human actors can be digitally transformed into aliens, animals, monsters, cartoon characters, or any such non-human creature. While it has greatly expanded the boundaries of what's possible within a modern film, it has also been much misunderstood by other filmmakers and actors who don't quite understand how it works.

During Avatar's Oscar campaign, I closely followed director James Cameron's attempts to educate Academy members on P-cap in order to convince them that what they were seeing in his film was not animation - how it was, in fact, something that goes beyond mere animation. While I believed I grokked the basic concept behind it all, it wasn't until I read the preceding quote from Spielberg, at the Tintin panel, that I was finally able to find the proper context.

When I studied Meisner-technique acting, we were told repeatedly to forget ourselves and focus entirely on our partner in a scene. How one's partner reacts to the words one is saying will determine one's own reaction, so that level of focus is vital in order to uncover the truth of the scene. Spielberg is saying the same thing here - and while I don't doubt that it must be difficult to look past all the hardware, on that level it seems to me that it must be little different than working a scene with someone in heavy makeup, playing an alien or an older version of their character or someone with a deformity. Either way, latex or hardware, your goal is still the same - to focus on your partner and react to what he's doing. So seeing Spielberg frame it in that context was helpful to my further understanding of P-cap.

Tintin star Andy Serkis, regarded as the Chaplin of P-cap, said something similar in this interview:
[Tintin is] the perfect use of performance capture because it allows you to bring an abstract cartoon character to life without losing the original energy and heart of the source material by Herge... You’re still playing the truth of the character, whether it’s rendered finally as a more animated visual style or photoreal.
Serkis, who will reprise his breakthrough Lord of the Rings role as Gollum in the Hobbit duology, also has a role in the forthcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where he uses P-cap to play Caesar, the genetically-enhanced ape who sparks the ape uprising against humanity. In the same interview, he talks about how the P-cap technology now allows him to perform on the same live-action set or location with the other actors:
There is a positive side to performance capture... It gives you the time to revisit the character and rework stuff. But there’s nothing like the immediacy of playing off another actor and creating the scenes very intimately on the floor with the director. I suppose this interface is the most significant change in performance capture technology. At the end of the day, it’s just a tool to enable actors and the director to work together.
As with Zoe Saldana in Avatar, the O-word has come up as a possibility for Serkis' role in Rise, but I think it's safe to say that the Academy still isn't ready to acknowledge such a part yet.

This Avatar featurette goes into further detail about performance capture, showing how the actors' movements, interactions and facial expressions are indeed preserved in the digital transfer into a computer-generated character.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America

Captain America: The First Avenger
seen @ AMC Loews Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

It was not my idea to see Captain America at an AMC theater. I've talked about my frustration with AMC before, and once again I was disappointed by it, but I'll get to that later. Reid and I were arguing about where to see the movie and we settled on here because it was close. He could take only one bus and I could take two - although I got on the wrong bus and ended up taking a third. I don't go to this particular theater that often, which would explain me getting lost. It's by the side of a highway, next door to a Hooters, if you can believe that.

This was the weekend of Comic-Con, and as I've read the movie-related reports out of San Diego, I've once again become amazed at how geekdom in general has become mainstream. After being scorned and marginalized for generations, geek culture now has a profound impact on the movies we see, the TV shows we watch, even the clothes we wear. Having unprecedented levels of access to pop culture media, past and present, has helped tremendously. Comics are a big part of that culture. When even the president of the United States can claim to be a Spider-Man fan, you know a corner has been turned.

A lot of people are talking about comic book movie fatigue, but I think the bigger issue, in terms of Hollywood movies, is geek fatigue. Seems like half the movies either out now or in the works are sci-fi, horror or fantasy movies. It's something we touched upon in the first Freeze Frame roundtable - how adult material is slowly getting supplanted by movies for fanboys. I love genre movies, always have, but I don't wanna live on a steady diet of them. North American comic books have been dominated by a single genre - superheroes - for decades. I would hate to see a similar thing happen to the movies, where sci-fi and horror crowd out everything else. 

That said, Captain America was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it. This goal that Marvel Studios is building towards - making separate superhero movies and then uniting all of them under one banner (Avengers) - is an ambitious one, and as a fan, I hope it succeeds.

So as for the AMC: we met up at the theater at about ten minutes before showtime. Reid had some free passes that he used for us. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the auditorium was perhaps three-quarters full at least. The movie did not start until a half hour after the scheduled start time! We all had to sit through the same damn trivia games and word puzzles over and over again without so much as a word from anyone in charge as to the reason for the delay. Eventually the lights dimmed and the trailers came on, but at this point I was fuming. I could not believe this was happening again at an AMC theater. 

After the movie, I sought out the manager on duty and inquired as to the reason for the delay. He said something about having to transfer the film from the downstairs theater to the upstairs theater (where we were) and it taking a bit longer as a consequence. Like I've said before, there are gonna be instances where it'll be difficult to avoid going to an AMC theater, especially if I'm with friends, but it's incidents like this that make video-on-demand a little more enticing.

You've probably heard more than enough about how hot this past weekend was, both here in New York and elsewhere. I've managed to keep as cool as possible, though I haven't gone biking in awhile - the last time I did, the heat was oppressive. Reid actually broke out in some sort of rash - he came to the movie with his face covered in a bandana. It wasn't as bad as it sounds; he said that it was worse the other day. I remember one summer long, long ago I had gotten a rash on my thighs as a result of the heat while I was on an overnight trip at day camp. It made walking a bitch, lemme tell you. Wouldn't wanna go through that again. Still, I'll take summer over winter any day of the year.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

My Hometown Blogathon: The posts

I didn't expect anything huge, but to those of you who contributed, I thank you. First there are my own posts, representing my hometown of Queens, New York:

The Terminal
Coming to America
The Wrong Man

And now the rest:

The Dark of the Matinee, Chloe

San Dimas, CA
The Great Movie Project, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

New York/Quebec border
Insight Into Entertainment, Frozen River

Whittier, CA
The Great Movie Project, Masters of the Universe

Freehold, NJ
Flickers, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle

San Francisco
Colleenie's Couch, Medicine For Melancholy

Soundtrack Saturday: Paul McCartney

I don't have a favorite Beatle. It always changes depending on my mood.

"Can't Buy Me Love" (with the Beatles) from A Hard Day's Night

"The Night Before" (with the Beatles) from Help!

"No More Lonely Nights" from Give My Regards to Broad Street

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Wrong Man

This is the My Hometown Blogathon, the first WSW theme week doubling as a blogathon. The goal is discussing movies set in one's hometown, or at the very least, the general area of one's birth. All this week I'll write about movies set in my home borough of Queens. Check back on July 23 for a list of participating bloggers in this blogathon.

The Wrong Man
seen online via YouTube

I discovered that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film set in Queens while preparing this blogathon and I was pretty excited about it. The Wrong Man wasn't what I expected, however. Perhaps it's because it was based on a true story, but Hitchcock took a different approach with this. It doesn't have the feel of any of his usual suspense thrillers; in fact there's a certain mundane feel to the storytelling. Henry Fonda is a club musician who is mistaken for a robber on the loose. The attempt to clear his name takes a mental toll on his wife. The simple fact that it's Henry Fonda in this situation makes this story compelling to watch, because who could believe that any character played by him would be guilty of robbery? (Yes, I have seen Once Upon a Time in the West; that movie has no bearing here!)

Fonda's character lives in Jackson Heights. I've written plenty about that neighborhood before, though certainly not as it was in the early 1950s. I know Hitchcock used lots of location shots in that area and elsewhere in New York, though the only part I can honestly say I recognized was the 7 train in the background. So other than that, I don't have too much more to say. It's a good movie; a definite change from the usual Hitchcock fare.

Previously in the My Hometown Blogathon:
The Terminal
Coming to America

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Coming to America

This is the My Hometown Blogathon, the first WSW theme week doubling as a blogathon. The goal is discussing movies set in one's hometown, or at the very least, the general area of one's birth. All this week I'll write about movies set in my home borough of Queens. Check back on July 23 for a list of participating bloggers in this blogathon.

Coming to America
last seen online via YouTube

Queens Boulevard runs through the heart of Queens and is our most popular and commercial street. Starting in downtown Jamaica, in the southern part of the borough, it expands into a wide thoroughfare that makes its way north and west all the way to the Queensborough Bridge. The elevated 7 train follows it a brief way from the Bridge into Sunnyside. The Queens Center Mall is on the boulevard, as is a high school, a community college, two movie theaters, a YMCA, and of course Borough Hall and the Courthouse, not to mention a wide variety of large and small shops and restaurants.

For years, however, it had a well-earned reputation as a dangerous street to cross. According to Wikipedia, Queens Boulevard averaged 10.2 pedestrian deaths a year between 1993-2000, earning it the monicker of "the boulevard of death." It is a ridiculously wide street, even with medians, and take it from a local: crossing it requires alertness and quickness. The medians separate the street into "fast lanes" in the middle and "slow lanes" on the sides until you get to Sunnyside, where the elevated 7 train runs down the middle of the street. The signal lights were recently re-timed to make crossing time longer, but you still can't afford to be slacking.

Queens Plaza lies at the base of the Queensborough Bridge, where the boulevard ends. It's a great big tangle of street traffic and elevated trains (not just the 7 but the N and Q coming from Astoria) that the city has taken steps to untangle in recent years - for instance, bikers now have a protected path leading to the bridge. And while the ongoing construction has created difficulties for local businesses, the city says the end result will make it easier for pedestrians to navigate the area.

I like walking up and down Queens Boulevard for exercise, if nothing else. If I go to the Queens Center Mall, it's usually to eat rather than to shop - their food court includes a Charley's, a Ranch 1 and a Five Guys. I can't recall the last time I've actually bought anything there. But anyway, after I eat, I like walking my meal off by heading east towards Continental Avenue, which is quite a distance on foot - uphill, no less. One of the boulevard's movie theaters is at that intersection, but I don't go there anymore because they're too expensive. I think the last movie I saw there was The Losers (bleech).

In Coming to America, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall work at a fast-food joint on Queens Boulevard near (I believe) Grand Street, where the R and M trains run. It's a Wendy's now, but if you go there, you can see not only the restaurant, but the billboard where the ad for Soul Glo went. Late in the movie, Murphy follows Shari Headley into a subway station on the boulevard, but the station is what is now called Briarwood-Van Wyck, which is very far east from the fast-food joint. It would've required Headley to walk a considerable distance in the rain.

I'm not entirely certain, but I don't think all the location shots in the movie were in Queens. The run-down apartment building where Murphy and Hall stay in is in a neighborhood with an elevated train, and at first I thought they were in Astoria, but Astoria never looked anywhere near that bad. I suspect that was somewhere in either Brooklyn or the Bronx. The plot required Murphy and Hall to check into as scuzzy a place as possible, and while I don't doubt that Queens has its share of such places, I guess they weren't scuzzy enough.

Previously in the My Hometown Blogathon:
The Terminal

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


This is the My Hometown Blogathon, the first WSW theme week doubling as a blogathon. The goal is discussing movies set in one's hometown, or at the very least, the area of one's birth. All this week I'll write about movies set in my home borough of Queens. Check back on July 23 for a list of participating bloggers in this blogathon.

seen online via YouTube

I feel about the 1986 Mets the way most long-time Mets fans feel about the 1969 Mets. That entire year of 1986 was something of a landmark for me: not only did I start high school, but my whole self-perception began to evolve. I realized that art was more than just a fun little diversion for me, and I began to think about seriously studying it - with some encouragement from my parents, of course. I also put more effort into writing, and took my first steps into acting as well. All things seemed possible that year.

That also held true for my favorite baseball team. The previous year the Mets and Cardinals were involved in a furious dogfight for the division title that came down to the final three games of the regular season, head-to-head in St. Louis. The Mets came up short, but many people believed they had what it took to triumph the following year - and boy, did they ever. They didn't just triumph, they conquered, winning the division by 26 games over their nearest competitor, with a swagger and brashness that made them hated and feared throughout the National League. They won the league title in six games after an epic 16-inning battle in Houston and the World Series in seven games after coming within one strike of defeat on their home turf. And I was witness to it all.

The 1969 team was quite different. They were seven years removed from being an expansion team, formed in the wake of the loss of the Dodgers and Giants to California. In the franchise's first two years, the Mets were the laughingstock of professional baseball, losing games at a mind-boggling rate, yet doing so with a shaggy-dog resignation and an innocent, gee-whiz attitude that endeared them to their fans. The Mets of those early years knew they were bad, but they could still laugh at themselves in a way The Team From the Bronx could never do. And then they started to get good. Really good. The nickname "Miracle Mets" was well-earned, given how low the franchise started off - and how high they rose.

I grew up relatively close to the old Shea Stadium. My father and I would drive to the games at first, but when I got older I found I could walk there too if I wanted. I sat in all parts of Shea - the box seats, the mezzanine section, and especially the upper decks. I remember going to a Dwight Gooden game with my father and friends one night, bringing a giant homemade "K" sign that I'd proudly hold up and wave every time the pitcher struck out a batter. 

Shea used to serve RC Cola, which I never cared for. It always tasted slightly watered down and nowhere near as strong as Pepsi, my soda of choice for many years until I recently cut back on soda. Most of the time, though, I'd end up getting a cup of the stuff along with my hot dog and Cracker Jack because you need something to drink on those hot summer afternoons at the ballpark and it never occurred to me that I could just order a different drink (don't ask me why).

I don't know if they still do this, but every year the Mets would host Banner Day, where a parade of fans with homemade banners would march around the perimeter of the field. A team of judges at home plate would pick a winner and runners-up, and there would be prizes. One of the proudest moments of my childhood was when I came in third place one year and won a color TV and a stereo. I still have the TV.

I can close my eyes and still picture myself at Shea... Bob Murphy's voice on the radio, the concrete ramps, the DiamondVision scoreboard, the outfield bullpens, the Home Run Hat (every time a Met hit a home run, an apple with the Mets logo would rise out of a giant hat in right field, underneath the scoreboard, and light up), the stairway and landing outside the 7 train subway station where if you stood at a certain spot, you could see a sliver of the game from right field.

I think perhaps the most profound difference between the Mets and The Team From the Bronx is that the Mets, after all these years, still feel like a local team. One can find fans of The Team From the Bronx all over the country, and indeed, all over the world. They have been immortalized in numerous songs, novels, and yes, films. They have an aura about them that is recognized even by non-baseball fans, and give them their due - they have absolutely earned it. The Mets, however, still feel like they belong to New York in general and Queens in particular, even in the face of an increased corporate mentality over the years that rivals that of The Team From the Bronx (the innocence of the 60s has completely worn off).

The premise of the movie Frequency - a father and son communicating across 30 years of time through a ham radio - is no more odd than anything The Twilight Zone ever did, although I felt the movie was more than a little ham-fisted and unsubtle. I won't even go into my problems with the butterfly-effect aspects. But it was nice to see a movie in which the '69 Mets play a pivotal role in the plot. 

It's supposed to take place in Bayside, and I suppose it kinda looks like Bayside in a highly generalized way. It would've been nice to have gotten in a shot of Bell Boulevard, the main drag in that area. I'm assuming the prominently-seen bridge must be the Throgs Neck, which I always confuse with the Whitestone because they look pretty much the same. If so, then the park must be Clearview Park, which I've never been to.

Previously in the My Hometown Blogathon:
The Terminal

Eight Men Out
Game 6

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When will Meryl get her third Oscar?

LAMB Acting School 101 is a regular event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given actor. This month's subject is Meryl Streep. The complete list of posts for this month will go up July 31 at the LAMB site.

 It's become a running gag by now: every time Meryl Streep makes a movie, she gets nominated for an Oscar. She has two of them already, and critics and fans alike recognize her as the finest actress of the modern era and among the pantheon of all-time greats. But there's a slight problem: if she's so great that the Academy continues to shower her with Oscar nominations year after year, why hasn't she won in the past 28 years? It's generally agreed amongst Oscar pundits that she will, eventually, get that third Oscar... but they've been saying that for awhile now and it still hasn't happened. (Let's agree at the outset that the Oscars in general, while of tremendous cultural significance, are rarely a true indicator of quality, and that they get as many choices wrong as they do right, if not more.)

Let's take a look at the record: a staggering sixteen Oscar nominations for acting, more than anyone, over a 31-year (and counting) span; thirteen for lead, three for supporting. Two wins: Kramer vs. Kramer (supporting) and Sophie's Choice (lead). An almost-guaranteed seventeenth nomination would appear to be in the cards for her upcoming role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She's been nominated for dramas and comedies, period pieces and modern-day stories, in films by acclaimed directors (Eastwood, Redford, Nichols) and lesser-known ones (Carl Franklin, David Frankel, Hector Babenco - not exactly household names), and of course, in a wide variety of accents. (Another great stat: she's been in three Best Picture winners in only seven years: The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer and Out of Africa.)

There's no easy explanation for Streep's Oscar drought, because there have been so many circumstances beyond her control that have kept her from that elusive third Oscar. She has lost to legendary actresses that had never been feted with an Oscar before (Shirley MacLaine, Geraldine Page), to actresses caught up in a Best Picture domination (Gwyneth Paltrow, Catherine Zeta-Jones), to actresses that gave overpowering performances that would not be denied (Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren), and to actresses that were controversial choices at best (Kate Winslet, Sandra Bullock).

Is it possible for an actor to be too good - to be taken for granted after so many memorable performances? Many of today's most popular actors have yet to win one Oscar, much less two: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Annette Bening, to name a few. We're so used to seeing them at the top of their game time after time, making a great performance look effortless, that we draw the conclusion that if they don't have an Oscar now, they will one day.

But let's not forget that Streep does own two Oscars already. Some pundits make it seem as if she's unsuccessful in some manner because she hasn't won in so long. If anything, the fact that she gets nominated as often as she does by her peers is an indication of how highly regarded she has become through the years.

I, too, believe Streep will win a third Oscar at some point in the future. As remarkable a streak as hers is, it also defies probability. This year, she'll likely contend against another overdue actress: Glenn Close, in the gender-bending drama Albert Nobbs. For Streep, I think a great deal will depend on the success of The Iron Lady in general. Assuming a Lead Actress nomination for her, will the film receive multiple nominations - maybe even Best Picture - or will her nod be the film's only Oscar representation? Many Oscar experts believe The Blind Side's Best Picture nod made the difference for Bullock winning over Streep, whose film, Julie & Julia, did not make the Best Picture cut. Regarding a possible Streep-versus-Close contest, British dramas and biographies are considered "Oscar bait" for the Academy, but then, so are roles where women play men. Close is very well respected, but Streep is Hollywood royalty. To say this is the year the streak ends is far too premature at this stage.


Previously in LAMB Acting School:
Natalie Portman
Gary Oldman
Willem Dafoe

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Terminal

This is the My Hometown Blogathon, the first WSW theme week doubling as a blogathon. The goal is discussing movies set in one's hometown, or at the very least, the general area of one's birth. All this week I'll write about movies set in my home borough of Queens. Check back on July 23 for a list of participating bloggers in this blogathon.

The Terminal
last seen online via YouTube

Whenever I think of Queens I inevitably think of airplanes. I've lived in both the northern and southern parts of the New York borough, and seeing airplanes fly overhead all the time has become such a regular part of my life that living without it, as I did when I lived in Ohio, seems odd. I don't claim to be any kind of expert on airports, though - it's not like I fly a great deal.

I grew up in East Elmhurst, near LaGuardia Airport. It's a quiet little residential neighborhood. I lived practically walking distance from LaGuardia, so I quickly learned to get used to the sight of airplanes flying overhead - very closely, I might add. There's a city bus down my old street that goes to LaGuardia, and I would take it to junior high school (unless I felt like walking, which I often did). Also down my street there were rent-a-car services at one end and several hotels on the other end. Hotels were a common sight, as you might imagine.

Often times, the planes would fly so low that you felt like you could reach out and touch the wheels. The roaring sound the planes made would herald their arrival and reverberate long after they departed. It would scare me a little bit when I was very young, walking to elementary school for the first time. They seemed not unlike giant birds of prey, swooping down to claim an unexpected victim.

I never gave much thought about where they were going. I was content just doing stuff like trying to ride my older sister's three-speed bike (and failing), playing video games at the corner candy store, and playing with the neighborhood kids. Serious thought about travel didn't come until I was much older. Travel to me was a trip to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with my mother on a Saturday.

Living near JFK Airport is a quite different experience. I'm high above in an apartment building, for one thing, so the planes don't look quite so intimidating. They don't fly anywhere near as low, either. I do have a great view of JFK and the surrounding neighborhood from out of my window, however. 

Strangely enough, the last time I flew anywhere, I left out of LaGuardia. I was going to California in 2007 and my departure was delayed a day due to heavy rain. My seat was all the way in the back, which made me really nervous for some reason. Plus I didn't like having to look at the wing of the plane instead of open sky. But what can you do? At least I didn't have to go through quite as much post-9-11 security hassle as others have in more recent years.

I know that Steven Spielberg had JFK re-created in a huge hangar for The Terminal. I doubt complete verisimilitude was a big issue; it looks like a modern airport, and that's what's important. If anyone complained as to how they didn't get it 100% right, then they obviously missed the point. 

I remember not liking the movie a great deal when I first saw it. I think I like it more for the craft - the challenge of making this huge airport replica and making it look completely real, not to mention Tom Hanks wrapping his vocal cords around that Eastern European accent - than anything else. The plot has a Capra-esque feel to it - you never doubt things will turn out okay in the end even though Hanks' character is stuck in that terminal. It adds up to a light diversion for Hanks and Spielberg. (I was pleased to recognize Zoe Saldana in this movie, and how ironic is it that her character is a Trekkie?)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Diana Ross

I always loved listening to her on the radio in the late 70s and early 80s.

"The Man I Love/Them There Eyes" from Lady Sings the Blues

"Theme from Mahogany" from Mahogany 

"Home" from The Wiz

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Warriors

The Warriors
seen @ Epix Movie Free For All, Tompkins Square Park, New York, NY

I've been fortunate in that I grew up in New York without running afoul of any gangs. The only one I can recall even hearing about was during my early years of high school. They were called the Decepts, as in the Decepticons from The Transformers. I never saw one, but I heard about them a great deal during my freshman year. I'm not sure where their turf was either. I went to school during the late 80s on the far west side of Manhattan, near Lincoln Center, so perhaps they were staked out in that vicinity; I don't remember for certain. I don't recall ever being afraid of running into them, either. They probably only came out at night. After school my friends and I would either linger around the building, playing Chinese handball, or else we'd go to Central Park and play hacky sack or frisbee, but either way, we never saw any Decepts.

Gang warfare was a much bigger deal here in New York during the time The Warriors was released. I was too young for that, of course, but it was a major factor in the city's notorious reputation. Some people have a certain nostalgia for that era. I can't possibly imagine why; New York in the 70s was a much crazier place. Just watch Taxi Driver and you'll see what I mean.

I hadn't seen The Warriors in quite awhile. This was a last-minute change to my schedule; I was prepared to see a different outdoor movie on Wednesday night, but it got rained out (and I was caught in the rain - ugh!). This movie screening at Tompkins was way different than when I saw the genteel Mr. Hulot's Holiday. For one thing, there was a live band playing before the show! Not a great one - another Motorhead/ACDC wannabe among thousands - but still, how often do you see that at an outdoor movie screening? There was free food (of the popcorn/cotton candy variety), a tiny carousel for the kiddies (though why you'd bring kids to a movie like The Warriors is beyond me) and a raffle with free giveaways, including the grand prize of an iPad! To my knowledge, this is the first time the cable channel Epix has hosted a summer movie series, and it looks like they went all out. 

There were two screens; one at the same spot as where I saw Hulot, where the old bandstand was, and the other on the lawn towards the center of the park. A smart move; they accommodated more people in search of a spot that wasn't obstructed by tree branches. I got to the park much later than I had planned, and I certainly wasn't expecting such a sight. I found a spot on the lawn, amidst the fireflies, wishing I had brought a blanket, like I did for Manhattan, or a chair, like I did on Wednesday (when it rained I had to use my chair as an umbrella!).

I had forgotten that The Warriors makes use of comic book imagery throughout the movie. It's not based on a comic, but there are transitional sequences throughout the film in which you see the image turn into a comic book-like image and it pulls back to reveal "panels," like in a comic, complete with narrative captions, to take you from one scene to the next. It's clever, and I can't help but wonder what made director Walter Hill decide to do it. The violence in the movie is no different from what you'd find in a mainstream action movie of that era; it's not graphic nor is it campy, and the Warriors are more anti-heroes than superheroes. Should this movie count as a comic book movie?

The extensive use of the subways make this film a distinctively New York movie. Of course, the  subways were nothing to write home about back in the 70s, either - graffiti everywhere, less reliable service, and less safe. These days the pendulum has swung in the completely opposite direction: much more secure (this was true pre-9-11 as well), almost no graffiti, comparatively cleaner, and equipped with countdown clocks to let you know when the train's coming (in the movie, someone says something like, "I hate waiting for the trains!" and that got a big cheer from the crowd). 

The biggest difference, though? The pervasive politeness. The MTA, in recent years, has rolled out a new line of subway cars and installed them with automated messages piped through the PA system. It began with post-9-11 admonitions to report any "suspicious" activity, and expanded to a variety of suggestions on proper subway behavior. They get played constantly, and while I don't doubt that they fill a need - we New Yorkers tend to treat subways like our own personal, private space without thinking about others - there's something about it that seems inherently wrong. It's hard to explain. Modern New York (20th century and beyond) has had a rep for pushiness and rowdiness that has always been part of its character. People used to be less uptight. An insult wasn't always meant to be derogative and people understood that. And the subway system never needed to double as a nanny. 

Again, don't get me wrong; many of the changes, not only in the subway but in the city in general, are for the better and I approve of most of them. But at the same time, I'd hate to see New York scrubbed completely free of its rough edges.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


last seen online via YouTube

This one was a last-minute addition, causing me to re-work my schedule a bit, but I did it out of curiosity. Lately I've been reading Big Thoughts From a Small Mind, another LAMB blog. It's a good one. CS, one of the writers, recently made a throwaway reference to his dislike of the movie Pleasantville in an unrelated post. When asked in the comments why he doesn't like it, this is what he said:
I would probably have to write a separate post on all the things that bothered me about Pleasantville. The condensed version is that the film takes place in the all white sitcom world of the 1950s. Yet it has the nerve try to teach us the importance of equality by showing the divide between the whites and the colours. The thing is, the "colours" are still essentially white folks. Joan Allen even has the option of hiding the fact she becomes coloured via the use of make-up. I just found it insulting that a film featuring an all white cast is teaching us about the evils of racism. 
This didn't quite jibe with my memories of the film. I had seen it several times, both theatrically and on video, and I never felt that the movie was strictly an allegory on race. When I saw that it was available on YouTube, I decided to watch it one more time with an eye to answering two questions: Is Pleasantville absolutely about racism, and if so, could it have been made with characters of color?

First, though, I think it's important to get writer-director Gary Ross' perspective. In this CNN interview, Ross talks about his father Arthur, a blacklisted screenwriter from Hollywood's Red Scare period of the 40s and 50s, whom he credits as a major influence on the story:
"This false One America, One Way ... I think it's destructive... My '50s were different than other people's '50s... The myth didn't permeate our world, 'Donna Reed' and all that. I longed for that, I wanted to be like other normal families on TV." 
There absolutely is a political vibe to Pleasantville, which becomes more obvious once a line in the sand is drawn between the "black-and-whites" and the "colors" (for lack of better terms). Burning books and destroying paintings are without question the acts of a society that suppresses unfamiliar ideologies they're afraid of. Pleasantville is a limited world not only by nature but by design. Its inhabitants are not interested in breaking free of their daily rituals or expanding their knowledge. They're happier that way and they'll fight to keep it that way.

Regarding the question of whether this is a racial allegory, I think it's a mistake to read too much into the way the movie uses the word "colored." Yes, there definitely is a parallel with racial discrimination in the real 1950s America, which becomes more obvious when the Pleasantville "black-and-whites" create laws limiting the freedoms of the "colors." But it's important to also remember that these two states of being are metaphors for two states of mind, conformity and self-determination, and are completely transitory. The "colors" were not born that way; they didn't even exist until David and Jennifer infected their fictional world with knowledge of the real world, and that's a profound difference.

Could David and Jennifer have been played by minority actors? I say no. While they're in Pleasantville they play the parts of "Bud" and "Mary Sue," and those characters in the  Pleasantville TV show are white. If that show is meant to be an archetypal 50s sitcom, then they can't be anything else. A movie about a black kid who identifies strongly with a white TV sitcom family could be quite clever in the right hands (I'm reminded of the scene in Crooklyn where they're all watching The Partridge Family and innocently singing along), but it would be completely different from this one. A non-white David and Jennifer would attract attention from the moment they arrived in Pleasantville and the direction of the story would change significantly. Again, that might make for a interesting movie as well, but it would not be this one.

I have to conclude, therefore, that while one can read parallels to racism during certain points in Pleasantville, these are by-products of the film's overall theme: the dangers of ideological conformity and the need for free-thinking individuals to express themselves, despite the risks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The girl from Stage 12: Lucille Ball and Desilu Studios

"Loving Lucy" is a blogathon hosted by the site True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, celebrating the life and career of Lucille Ball. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up August 6, 2011.

Lucille Ball would have been 100 years old on August 6. Today she is fondly remembered as perhaps the most beloved American comedienne of the 20th century, with a career that spanned from the early days of talking motion pictures to prosperous runs on television. One of her finest accomplishments, however, was as a businesswoman, co-founding her own TV studio with her first husband Desi Arnaz, one that was home to programs that would become major pop culture institutions and continue to thrive even today.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Blue Steel (1989)

Blue Steel (1989)
seen online via YouTube

I admit that I never gave much thought as to whether or not a woman would ever direct a Best Picture Oscar winner. So few women have even come close that the odds seemed mighty long, to say the least, but then one could say that prior to February 2010, those odds were still better than that of a woman being elected president, especially given the fact that the history of women directors goes back further than most people think. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis hit the nail on the head, though, when she stated that these days, a male director is "allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail." How many women are even being given opportunities to direct Oscar-caliber pictures (however you define that)?

Prior to The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, to me, was simply "James Cameron's ex, who makes action movies." I'd seen some of her films, but I never thought of her body of work in the same context as a DePalma or a Mann or a Fincher, and perhaps that was my chauvinism at work. I never thought about how she could sustain a career making movies that weren't stereotypical rom-coms or dainty costume period pieces. Bigelow's films were generally entertaining, but Locker was on a completely different level, and represented a great leap forward for her.

Blue Steel is one of three feature films Bigelow either wrote or co-wrote (IMDB says she also wrote a TV movie and an episode of The Equalizer) and the last screenplay with her name on it. A rookie cop saves the life of a dude in a robbery (unbeknownst to her), and he develops a creepy fixation on her while going on a killing spree, for reasons that aren't made entirely clear. There are some good character moments in this story, but the third act kinda devolves into a cross between Dirty Harry and Fatal Attraction, and the bad guy takes so damn long to die that you'd think this was a horror movie. Perhaps it's appropriate that the star is the original scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis.

What struck me about Blue Steel was how very 80s it looks. The soft lighting, the cinematography, the generous use of close-ups, all gave it the look of a Bruckheimer-Simpson 80s movie, like Beverly Hills Cop or Flashdance. One would not recognize this as a Bigelow film if one saw it after seeing Locker, but then, Locker was made far outside the studio system.

The opening credits of Blue Steel have lots of slow, lovingly-rendered pan shots of a gun, which we eventually see get loaded with bullets. This fetishized sequence seems a bit at odds with the movie. In the robbery Curtis' character stops which sets the plot in motion, she does use excessive force, but more out of fear than anything else - she's a rookie cop, remember - and she faces direct consequences for that act from her superiors. Ron Silver's character seems to get off on the power of a gun, but that's not his primary motivation, so I'm not sure what kind of point Bigelow was making with the opening credits.

I found the subplot with Curtis' parents at least as interesting, and I would've liked to have seen a little more development with it. Dad abuses Mom, who takes it passively. Plus, Dad really hates that his daughter's a cop. Curtis' attempt to resolve the problem with Dad fits her character, and it nicely compliments her situation with Silver, whom she can't prove is the killer even though she discovers it's him.

Bigelow has carved a niche for herself by making the kinds of movies that appeal to her, and while they may vary in quality, the fact that she has lasted as long as she has is a testament to her persistence in a field that has been difficult for women to thrive in.