Saturday, March 31, 2012

Seventh heaven

When I first became a LAMB and I saw some blogs with these "awards" festooned all over their sites, nieve me actually thought they represented physical awards, like a golden Oscar statuette. When I realized otherwise, I thought, well, okay, whatever, but I'll certainly never get one... 

A year and a half later and my, how things change! I have the adorable Ruth from Flix Chatter to thank for recognizing WSW with this latest blog "award," the 7X7 Link Award, which I will gladly display with pride after I fulfill the requirements that go with this particular one. Apparently there's some information I have to provide...

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.
"Nobody" meaning my blog audience, or "nobody" meaning in life?

Sheesh, as if I don't reveal enough about myself in this blog... Okay, how's this: when I was about - oh, I dunno, six or seven, perhaps - I was walking home from school and I climbed up on the ledge of a front garden and balanced myself along it. It couldn't have been more than a foot off of the ground, but I was still a little kid and so when I inevitably fell off it and busted my ass on the concrete, it hurt like hell. I landed on my left hip and the bruise it left on my leg, on the front of my thigh, has stayed there ever since. It's down to the size of  about a penny and it's the sort of thing you wouldn't notice unless I pointed it out to you. I can just barely feel it now. It's one of those bodily imperfections I've learned to live with, though it didn't scare me from perching up on ledges and walking along them. I still do it every once in awhile.

2: Link to a post I think fits the following categories:
- The Most Beautiful Piece. My post on the film The Way breaks with the traditional format in a particularly appropriate manner.
- The Most Helpful Piece. I like to think my guide on surviving a summer full of blockbusters was helpful.
- The Most Popular Piece. In terms of hits, that would be my Rocky Horror Picture Show post by a very wide margin. In terms of comments, that would be my piece on LAMB podcasts.
- The Most Controversial Piece. Debatable if I've ever had any truly "controversial" posts, but I suppose the closest I ever came to it was my argument for why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 wouldn't get nominated for Best Picture.
- The Most Surprisingly Successful Piece. A joke post on fairy tale adaptations I'd like to see has gotten a surprisingly high amount of traffic.
- The Most Underrated Piece. I really liked my Born on the Fourth of July piece. Short and to the point.
- The Most Pride-worthy Piece. Hedwig and the Angry Inch probably best exemplifies what WSW is all about in terms of my approach to writing about movies.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.
Ah. The gift that keeps on giving. Well, I'm not sure who does and doesn't have one yet, so I hope no one gets any repeats...

Alex has to get one, of course. Raquelle too. And it looks like neither Page nor Becky have gotten in on this yet, so there ya go. Here's one for Brandie and her cohorts, and one for Jacqueline, and if I may be permitted to extend this outside the film blogger field, then I should like to give one to Michelle also.

There you are. Hope I did this right.

MUST-READ interview with a video store owner

I'll have more to say about this article on Tuesday, but for now, you absolutely must read this wonderful interview conducted by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry with Joe Martin, owner of a Brooklyn video store on the verge of closing after ten years. They talk at length about the recent home video market and the changes it has seen and they defend the existence of not only video stores, but VHS tapes as well. Great read.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
seen @ Center Cinema 6, Sunnyside, Queens, NY

Recently, I wrote about a blind spot I tend to have for certain fanboy movies, and I tried to be as honest as possible with myself about the possible reasons why. Looking back on it now, I feel fairly confident that the conclusions I came to are the right ones, based on my experience and my biases. One thing that subsequently occurred to me came as I wrote to my pal Bibi about this: in recent years, I've been cutting myself off from more and more aspects of pop culture that I used to indulge in all the time - comics, TV, modern music - and it could be that I'm risking a sort of cultural alienation if I continue. And while becoming a hermit is not completely without a certain appeal, I'm fairly sure that it's not what I really want when push comes to shove.

Okay, so maybe not everything that's popular sucks. Intellectually, I know that, but it's a mindset that I'm trying to take baby steps away from. Won't be easy, but the first step I took was this week, when I saw The Hunger Games, a movie that came with a mountain of hype behind it (and we all know how I feel about hype), based on an unfamiliar-to-me series of young adult novels.

It was good, however I thought it was also a pastiche of a lot of similar futuristic bloodsport/reality television/youth-sploitation movies. The common comparison I keep seeing is to the Japanese film Battle Royale, but I saw elements of The Running Man, The Truman Show, Logan's Run, Westworld, etc. Still, it sustained my interest, thanks in large part to another great performance from Jennifer Lawrence. The early scenes in her home district, in fact, reminded me a whole lot of her breakthrough film Winter's Bone.

I really could've done without all the relentless cutting! Gary Ross directed Games, and this looks very different from either Pleasantville (another movie about teenagers thrust into an artificial environment against their will for the entertainment of others) or Dave. Games has more moving camera shots, more handheld shots, and it looks grittier in comparison. Non-stop editing and blurry action scenes were never a problem in Ross' other films, and here, especially in the first half, it was relentless to the point of distraction and I hated it. Still, Games is worth seeing for Lawrence alone.

Now normally, this might be the end of it, were it not for a very disturbing trend I've noticed while preparing this piece. Apparently there's a segment of the audience who have read the books and are shocked, SHOCKED, that some characters look differently than how they'd imagined them in the books. Specifically, they're surprised some characters are black

Now I knew that Lenny Kravitz was in the movie, so I figured it wouldn't be completely devoid of color, but still, I admit, I consciously kept an eye out for how many non-white characters would be in the film. There were indeed a few, and I had no problem with how they were depicted. The problem is with this portion of Fandom that automatically assumed Games was set in an all-white world.

There's a lot I could say about this, but what it comes down to is simple: when you're part of a privileged majority, one in which your stories, your experiences, your perspective is considered the default setting by unspoken agreement, this kind of reaction, to seeing people who don't look like you, is not surprising at all. You don't have to think about minority representation because it's not an issue you have to worry about. You take it for granted that yours is the "normal" perspective.

This reminds me of a situation a few years ago in which a prominent, white sci-fi author wrote a well-intentioned essay on how to approach writing "the other" in literature. Let's just say it was not well-received by the POCs within the online sci-fi communityMy understanding is that the black characters in Games were, in fact, described as such in the book, so how did Fandom Assembled somehow miss that? (Maybe the black characters should've worn hoods.)

See, this is what I meant when I said that Fandom can be disappointing. And because this is an issue that's bigger than Fandom, I'm not sure what can be done about it.

But I don't wanna end this on a down note, so I'll return to my original point. I was mistaken; not everything that's popular sucks, and I'll try to remember that in the future.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bully for us

The documentary “Bully” will be released without a rating, its distributor, the Weinstein Company, announced Monday in a news release. The decision to release the film unrated comes after a contentious battle between the MPAA and “Bully’s” backers, including its director Lee Hirsch and Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein. 
The MPAA gave the film — which followed bullied children around for one year and spoke to the families of kids who committed suicide — an R-rating over six uses of the “F” expletive, a decision the Weinstein Company appealed to no avail. Despite criticism from celebrities, including Meryl Streep and Justin Bieber, politicians, educators and writers — who believed the film would be unable to reach its target audience without a PG-13 rating — the MPAA and its chairman, former Senator Chris Dodd, did not back down from their decision.
Like most kids, I had my share of bully problems. I vividly remember two in particular from third grade; their names, if I recall correctly, were Eric and Patrick. My biggest problem as a kid was my great big mouth. It got me into more trouble than I care to remember. At some point in my early childhood, I developed a sense of machismo, and if insulted, I had to respond in kind, which inevitably led to fisticuffs.
Eric and Patrick knew they could bait me, so they did, and often. I don't remember with what; it was probably fat jokes. I got a lot of that growing up. Anyway, they wouldn't even have to beat me up all that often. I got much more verbal abuse from them than anything else. I almost always ended up throwing the first punch, though, and as a result I'd be the one who got in trouble, not them.
I told my father about these guys, and one day he met me after school so that he could see them for himself. Now, I've written here before about what a people person my father was, how gregarious and charming he could be with others. And he wasn't looking for a confrontation per se. He just wanted to talk to Eric and Patrick. And he did.
And he ended up doing the absolute last thing I wanted him to: he befriended them! Why would he do that? I wondered. I wanted him to strike down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger! What good was becoming their buddy?
Plenty good, as it turned out. Eric and Patrick eventually laid off on me, though it took awhile. Not a solution I would've imagined, but then, it was exactly the sort of thing my father would've thought of. He was not a violent man. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was intellectual in a down-to-earth way, one might even say he was street smart. He knew enough to keep a level head when it came to dealing with bullies.
As a social worker, he'd absolutely have to. He dealt with kids all the time. That's why I know he'd be quite disturbed to read about how serious the problem of bullying in school has become. I believe he'd be in favor of a film that tried to document this situation using real case studies.
But I don't believe he'd be put off by the language such a movie would have. My father wasn't nieve; he worked with enough children to know that many of them use profanity, though he himself never did (and frowned on it in our house). His great gift was the ability to relate to people on multiple levels without the need for profane language of any kind, without coming across as being elitist or judgmental. (Even he had his blind spots, though, but that's another post.) Too many people tend to think that you won't be taken seriously unless you swear, but not my father.
My wonderful sixth grade language arts teacher, Ms. Brooks, once imparted to us that yes, there were indeed times when she said "shit," which shocked and amused us at first - ooooh, teacher said a curse word in class! - but in that particular case she was making a point, that just because she stands in front of a blackboard talking to ten-year-olds all day doesn't make her any less human.
Obviously, I'm in favor of the movie Bully being shown as is, profanity and all, and it's good to see that it will be, MPAA be damned. Language is imperfect, but it's the best thing we have when it comes to communicating. Deciphering what's behind language - the things that go unsaid as well as said - is tricky, and difficult to learn, but if we remain hung up on the words themselves we'll only get so far. And bullying is too critical an issue to let language get in the way of finding solutions.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fredric March on Broadway

The March-In-March Blogathon is a celebration of the life and career of the actor Fredric March, hosted by the website Sittin' on a Backyard Fence. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

Fredric March is remembered today by film historians as one of the few multiple Oscar -winning actors, capturing Best Actor twice for both the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and for Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives, as well as starring in such renowned classics as Design For Living, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, A Star is Born, Death of a Salesman and Inherit the Wind. He was also a notable stage actor, with a career on Broadway that ran concurrently with his Hollywood career, and which led to great successes as well.

March first appeared on Broadway in the mid-20s after working as an extra in films shot in New York. In 1926 he starred in a comedy called The Devil in the Cheese (with Bela Lugosi, among others). By the decade's end, he signed with Paramount Pictures and began making movies full-time, receiving his first of his five Oscar nominations for 1930's The Royal Family of Broadway and winning the Oscar for Jekyll two years later.

In 1927, March married actress Florence Eldridge, who performed with him on film and television as well as on stage. In 1938, March returned to Broadway with Eldridge in a comedy called Yr. Obedient Husband, which was a huge bomb. They publicly apologized for it after it opened, taking out pages in the New York papers and running a cartoon of a trapeze artist missing his partner and saying "Oops! Sorry!"

In 1942, however, March and Eldridge would hit it big on Broadway with Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth, with Tallulah Bankhead, and directed by Elia Kazan. An unusual family comedy, it embodies different time periods simultaneously and contains a number of Biblical and ancient Greek references. The play would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In 1946, March made Best Years and would go on to win his second Best Actor Oscar for it, and later that same year he and Eldridge starred in Ruth Gordon's Years Ago. Gordon, a legendary writer/actress known for acting in such films as Harold and Maude and Rosemary's Baby and writing films like Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike (with her husband Garson Kanin), wrote Years Ago as an autobiographical account of her teenage years, when she first pursued a stage career. March played her father (Eldridge played her mother), and he would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Actor in the Tonys' inaugural year of 1947. In 1953 Gordon would adapt her play into the film The Actress, with Spencer Tracy in the March role.

In the 1950s, March continued alternating between the stage and film, plus he began appearing in television productions, including a 1954 anthology series called The Best of Broadway, in which he revived his role in The Royal Family of Broadway. In 1957 March and Eldridge starred in perhaps their biggest stage play, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the tumultuous Tyrone family, which mirrored O'Neill's own. 

March and Eldridge played James and Mary Tyrone in the Broadway debut (the world premiere was in Stockholm), which also included Jason Robards Jr. March won his second Tony Award for his role, and the play won Best Play. In 1962, Sidney Lumet would direct a film version with Katharine Hepburn. March would later call Journey his favorite stage play.

March would make one last Broadway play after Journey, Paddy Chayefsky's Gideon in 1961, about the Biblical judge, starring Douglas Campbell in the title role and March as an angel. March's film career continued, including roles in Seven Days in May and The Iceman Cometh, before dying in 1975. A complete list of his Broadway roles can be found here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


seen @ College Point Multiplex Cinemas, College Point, Queens, NY

I have so many thoughts about Casablanca that I find I can't arrange them in a seamless narrative, so I'll have to list them point-by-point instead:

- I'm more convinced than ever that movies need to be seen on a big screen with a (good) audience, especially classic movies. I don't care what anybody says, watching a movie, any movie, on an iPod is not really watching it. This is a point I've made here before and I'll continue making it for as long as I write this blog.

I had seen Casablanca before, naturally, but it wasn't until last night that I truly appreciated it. On a big screen you notice things you wouldn't on a TV or a computer monitor - and yes, I know they make TVs bigger now, but not everyone owns those widescreen ones (yet), and even the biggest of them still can't compare to a movie screen.

I also had a good audience to watch it with. They clapped at the scene where Victor leads the crowd at Rick's into a chorus of "La Marseillaise" to drown out the singing Nazis, and at least a couple of women actually hissed every time Renault's boss came on screen! And of course, everyone cheered when Rick finally killed him.

This was the rare movie where I sat in the middle of the row instead of on the end. I had no choice; I was waiting on line for candy, and by the time I got inside the room it was mostly full. I sat next to an old dude with a younger companion and they exchanged brief but quiet asides throughout the first half. Didn't bother me too much; I can hardly begrudge a little talking in appreciation of a movie like this. The old guy breathed kinda heavily, though, and that bothered me a little more, but what can you do?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

WSW Rerun: Rocky IV

Circumstances have forced me to go with a repeat for the first time today, but I'll be back on Thursday with a post about the Casablanca anniversary screening. In the meantime, enjoy this re-mastered (spell-checked, pictures added) post from November 2010 about the movie Rocky IV. This is one of the first posts where I began to feel like maybe I had found my rhythm. It's about the movie, but it's also about my childhood, my father, the Cold War, and one of my old neighborhoods as well. As most of you know by now, I write about way more than just the movies I see, and this early post is as fine an example of that as you'll get. Back with new stuff on Thursday.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Five characters for my bizarro basketball team

My college was not fortunate (?) enough to have an athletic program of any kind, much less a basketball team, so I have no dog in the hunt when it comes to the college basketball tournament. Still, I know how to capitalize on a popular trend when I see one, and since my Twitter feed is gonna be clogged with words like brackets and seeds and pools and upsets for the next two weeks or so, I figure the least I can do is find a way to tie all that stuff in with the movies somehow.

A few caveats: there are no superheroes, aliens, monsters, or any similar supernatural characters on this team. Too easy. (So that leaves Teen Wolf out.) There are no cinematic basketball-playing characters, or indeed, any professional, collegiate or high school athletes of any kind to be found here. Again, too easy. Sometimes, in the search for greatness, you have to think outside the box...

- Point guard. The man with the plan. The guy who sets up the action for everybody else. The Magic Johnson role. The action on a basketball court can be, and often is, fast. You need somebody who's used to working with a team of specialists in a tense environment where the difference between success and failure can be measured in seconds...

Sound like a job for Ethan Hunt to me! I had also considered Danny Ocean, but anyone who can dangle off the world's tallest building like it ain't no thing isn't gonna be afraid to drive the lane against the big 7-footers in the paint, y'know what I'm sayin'?

- Shooting guard. The marksman of the team, especially from long-distance. It takes nerves of steel, not to mention preternatural confidence, to hit your target when the lane is jammed with defenders and there's only five seconds remaining on the shot clock. Seems to me we need someone fearless. Someone with ice water in their veins, who can look their opponent in the eye and never blink...

... a professional. Leon, you magnificent bastard, you know you've got a permanent spot on my All-Star team.

- Small forward. Now this one was kinda tough. I need someone who can go toe-to-toe against the likes of LeBron James without flinching, and that ain't easy. He should be strong, quick-minded as well as quick of foot, someone not afraid to get more than a little rough in the paint if the situation requires it, but will stand his ground and make the play no matter what. I need a cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about...

Can ya dig it? I mean, there's a reason one of his sequels is called Shaft's Big Score, after all!

- Power forward. The Charles Barkley of the team. Sure, this person can score, but what I really want out of the position is defense, especially on the road. When the team is in the enemy camp, with 20,000 screaming maniacs calling for their blood, I need to know that this person will protect the rim against any and all comers, grab those rebounds, and keep the team alive. Hmm. Someone resourceful, who can protect something small, vulnerable and precious against a hostile aggressor. Let's see...

O hai, Ellen Ripley! You say you're not afraid of mixing it up with the guys after being stranded on a penal colony with a bunch of convicts? And you've got a killer half-court shot, too? That's all I need to hear!

-Center. Um... all I really need here is a big guy who can block shots and make the occasional Kareem-like lay-up.

Okay, Cinque, no need to get all dramatic and stuff. You can be my center. You were pretty badass when you were slicing up all those white slavers. Maybe we can make a player out of you.

So whaddya think? I bet I could make a pretty awesome team outta these guys. I need to remember, though, to be careful if we ever play a game where Mickey Gordon is refereeing...

...I hear he doesn't miss a thing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake
seen online via YouTube

Why were 30's actresses blonde? Do you know how tough it can be sometimes to keep track of who was who back then when it seems like 90 percent of the young actresses from that period were skinny and blonde? I suppose it's less of a problem today, though not by a whole lot. I remember reading once that Amy Adams is a natural blonde, but she became a redhead just to get noticed - and whaddya know, it worked! Still, these days, even natural blondes tend to change their hair for different roles. I don't think that was the case back in the 30s. In terms of looks alone, it makes many of them seem interchangeable - at least those that didn't have Davis' eyes or Dietrich's cheekbones.

Take Miriam Hopkins for instance. When I saw her in Design For Living a few months ago, that was when I realized that she was the same woman who was (non-blonde) Olivia De Havilland's aunt in The Heiress. Yeah, she was younger, but still, I've seen The Heiress a dozen times; it's one of my favorite classic movies. I should've recognized her, but I didn't. She easily fits into that 30s-blonde mode, and while she's known by classic film fans, she wasn't a superstar like Dietrich or Harlow or Davis.

Still, I liked her well enough to decide to see this pre-Code movie she made called The Story of Temple Drake. Ivan recently said this was an underrated movie, and I had an opening in my schedule, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Set somewhere in the South (though it feels about as Southern as the Lower East Side), it's about a young belle who gets around, if you know what I mean, and won't settle down no matter how much the hapless male lead wants her to. Then after getting in a car accident in the country, she runs afoul of a gangster and some assorted local bad men, witnesses a murder, and that's when things get complicated.

Drake is based on the novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner, though apparently the screenplay diverges significantly. Faulkner, of course, is the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who would eventually come to Hollywood and help craft the films To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks. I've never read his novels, but I've seen both of those films, and while Drake doesn't seem to be in quite the same mold, it has its moments, and Hopkins is quite good in it.

Unfortunately, I can't talk about the heart of the movie without giving away stuff, so, spoilers for an 80-year-old movie to follow. The abrupt ending seems to suggest the possibility that Temple, Hopkins' character, may have perhaps fallen for Trigger, the gangster who abducts her, even though it's implied that he probably raped her. That's what went through my mind at the very end, anyway. It's hard to say for sure since there were probably lots of things that had to be implied and changed around from the book, which is ultimately what makes the ending more than a little frustrating for me: the things that couldn't be said. Still, there are just enough shades of grey in this story that make it worth watching.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Confessions of a cynical and crotchety fanboy

Earlier this year I told myself that I might give The Hunger Games a chance, even though I had never read the series of books on which it's based. I certainly like Jennifer Lawrence, the rest of the cast ain't too bad either, and the impression I get from those who have read the books is that it's no Twilight. So why can't I work up the energy to even get excited about the movie? I've given this some thought, and I think the answer encompasses my feelings about a number of recent Hollywood fanboy franchises.

Like most kids, I grew up consuming pop culture in all its forms: television, movies, comics, books, music, etc, but as I've gotten older, in a number of cases, I've either stopped or limited my interest in current product in favor of rediscovering older material. (Movies, obviously, are an exception, since this is not an exclusively classic film blog - though I've thought about making it one on occasion.) Tastes change; what was once considered cool now looks stupid; I get that and I accept that. 

Movies, however, always seemed like the one thing that would never go out of style for me, especially fanboy movies - Batman, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, etc., the ones usually (though not always) based on a popular pre-existing property in another medium and usually (though not always) sci-fi/fantasy. The ones you see with your like-minded friends, usually on opening weekend, if not opening night.

Somewhere along the way, though, I developed a resistance to the newer stuff. Maybe it's a result of getting old, I dunno, but suddenly I looked at anything new and popular (the key word here) with suspicion. Harry Potter is perhaps the best example. I never read the books because I was sick of seeing them everywhere and besides, they can't possibly be that good, right? Of course, that never stopped me from liking something in the past. I started reading Anne Rice's horror books in college because I had heard how good they were. Same thing with George RR Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" books over a decade later. But then, the Potter books were supposed to be "young adult" novels, and I figured that meant they weren't for me. So why did I keep seeing adults reading them - normal-looking adults, not fanboy stereotypes?

I didn't know and by that point I didn't much care. The movie adaptations were in full swing and I guess I didn't feel like jumping on the bandwagon. (I'll say this much about the Potter films: I knew they'd never get anywhere close to a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but I didn't realize until recently that they had never won any Oscars at all. For a franchise that has been as insanely profitable as it has, with a quality cast and crew behind it, it strikes me as quite shocking that it never won a single Oscar for anything, and I suspect this cannot be attributed to merely luck of the draw. But that's another post.)

And now we've got The Hunger Games, poised to fill the void left by the Potter franchise, and once again my initial reaction was to bristle at all the hype surrounding it. If early reports are to be believed, it could do tremendous business at the box office. (Fandom Assembled is certainly ready.)

I think for me, what it comes down to is that when it comes to both Potter and Games, I have no stake in this - i.e., I've never read the books and have no desire to. Why do I have no desire to read the books? Because I can't shake the nagging belief that this is not for me; that it's for the younger (whiter) generation, even if adults do read these books as well. It's not something that's tied to fond memories of my childhood - which is why I don't feel this way about Avengers and most superhero movies. I grew up with superhero comic books, so of course I'm gonna feel emotionally connected to their big-screen incarnations (unless, of course, they suck; I mean, I don't watch them out of blind loyalty). And who knows - maybe it's this kind of attitude that prevented the last Potter film to get nominated for Best Picture.

I also think that it's possible that I'm the type of fan that liked it better when Fandom was a closed, insular circle, a secret language spoken by only a privileged few, instead of the worldwide, multi-billion dollar, multimedia industry it has become. Now that it's become easier than ever to immerse oneself in Fandom, it's less special. When everyone's a fanboy, no one is, and while Fandom can be a rewarding and enriching experience, it can also be irritating and disappointing as hell.

All of this is more or less me trying to convince myself to give Games a chance. I might. We'll see.

I don't suppose anybody else out there has ever felt the same way?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
seen at the IFC Center, New York, NY

In recent months, I've taken faltering baby steps into the world of the culinary arts. I can't say whether it was any one thing that inspired it; I guess I simply figured cooking was something I oughta have a little bit of skill in. Of course, there were already some things I was (and am) fairly confident I could cook without too much trouble: a hamburger, a grilled cheese sandwich, pancakes. Still, I felt it was time to stretch my boundaries a bit. (Feel free to laugh where appropriate.)

I remembered how my mother would occasionally make Rice-a-Roni when I was a kid, so one day I picked up a box at the supermarket and gave it a shot. Unfortunately, no one told me how difficult it is to actually make rice! (Even if it's only Rice-a-Roni.) I used too much water, it didn't cook long enough, and it was a great big mess in the end. The second time I tried, I overcooked it, and although this made it slightly more edible, it still wasn't something you'd wanna serve to dinner guests. So much for rice.

Pasta was a lot easier. Making spaghetti is easy and fun! Can't believe I never made it on my own sooner. As a kid I always ate that Franco-American canned stuff, but now, it's Ronzoni all the way! Once I mastered that, I tried rigatoni, and that worked out fine as well, but then I got cocky. On the back of the box, there was a recipe for chicken cacciatore. I looked at it and I figured I could try that as well. But see, chicken cacciatore requires a lot of different ingredients, and as I slowly filled my shopping cart with them, I thought to myself two things: (1) This stuff is getting really expensive, and (2) when I inevitably mess up - because there's no way I was gonna get it right the first time - I'm gonna be left with ingredients that I may not use for anything else. They're just gonna sit around the kitchen taking up space, and I'll have wasted money. I concluded that I didn't need to learn how to make chicken cacciatore that badly.

When I was in junior high I had a home ec class where I learned a little bit of cooking. (Do they still have home ec classes?) We had to keep a notebook for writing down recipes. The only thing I remember making in that class was biscuits, and I considered that a major triumph.

I have no ambitions to be a master chef like those on TV. I don't watch any of those cooking competition shows and have no aspirations to enter any of them. Cooking just strikes me as a pleasant and useful thing to be able to do, and I don't care that much if I can't make rice properly as long as I can make a few things.

The one and only time I can remember eating sushi was well over a decade ago. I'm pretty sure I was with Jenny at the time. We were at a sushi joint in the East Village in Manhattan. I knew what it was (I think), and I wasn't all that eager to try it, but I did, and I was less than impressed, to put it mildly. Haven't touched the stuff since, although I have eaten other kinds of Japanese food; the last time being at my sister's wedding. I suppose it's possible that I haven't found the right kind of Japanese food, but honestly, I'm in no great hurry to look. I don't even know how to hold chopsticks right!

Given that, I very likely would not have chosen to see a movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi on my own, but this was a night out with friends: Vija, with whom I haven't gone to a movie in awhile, this young dude named Donald, another fellow artist, and this lady named Alicia, whom I met once before at one of Vija's parties. This outing was her idea; she's trying to make such nights a regular thing. The choice of movie was Don's idea.

So the Jiro in the movie is Jiro Ono, an octogenarian master sushi chef in a tiny shop in Tokyo. Dude's been making sushi most of his life and he's obsessed with making it the best it can possibly be, and as a result he has been feted for it, both at home and abroad. This doc covers his career and what goes into making great sushi. It's well made, even if I didn't necessarily find all the gorgeous close-ups of sushi appetizing.

Also featured in the film are Jiro's two sons, who have followed him into the business. At one point Jiro says that they wanted to go to college, but he coerced them into becoming sushi chefs instead. The oldest son admits that there were other vocations he wanted to pursue as a younger man, but doesn't seem to have any regrets. I have to admit this part troubled me. While there may be more to this aspect of the story that the director chose not to go into, on the face of it, I find the thought that Jiro strong-armed his kids into his profession disturbing. The oldest son also said that when Jiro dies, he'll be expected to be twice as good as his father because Jiro has set such a ridiculously high standard for great sushi. If true, that's insane. There may be cultural mores at play here that I'm unaware of, though; the oldest son also said that in Japanese culture, the eldest son is expected to succeed the father, so it's entirely possible there are nuances that I'm not grokking. I dunno. Still liked the movie, though.

The IFC was packed! There must have been a great deal of anticipation over Jiro; the place was almost sold out and people still kept coming in 5-10 minutes after it started, and afterwards, there was a huge line of ticket holders waiting outside. I suspect part of the reason for the big crowd was that director David Gelb was in attendance. He said his Japanese was minimal, so he worked with several translators in conducting the interviews, and when it came time to edit the footage together, sometimes he'd have to go through hundreds of feet of film thinking Jiro or his sons were saying something important about sushi and it turns out they're only talking about baseball. He said it was worth it, though, if it meant he could find something meaningful to the story he was presenting.

Alicia came late to the theater, and as a result the rest of us didn't catch up to her until afterwards, but afterwards we went out for pizza and talked about the movie and other stuff.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

'Restless City' picked up by AFFRM!!

Awesome news

This made my Top 10 for 2011 and I can't wait to see it again. Read my review from Urbanworld.

AFFRM to co-distribute 'Middle of Nowhere'

The brief life of Carole Lombard

The Gone Too Soon Blogathon is an event celebrating the lives and careers of movie stars who died before their time, hosted by the blog Comet Over Hollywood. For a full list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

I don't think I've ever been really scared of dying in a plane crash. Not even post-9-11. The last time I flew was in 2007, when I went to San Diego. I remember being seated in the back, and that bothered me more than anything else. I remember feeling a little trepidation at the moment of takeoff, which I imagine is natural, but once we were comfortably in the air, it was all good. When I flew to Charlotte, we had already taken off and were well above the airport, when the captain announced that he had to re-land the plane due to a problem with the air pressure within the plane. That pissed me off, but again, I didn't necessarily feel like I was in imminent danger. These days, people are more concerned about terrorism on aircraft than crashes - and not without reason, I suppose - but when it comes to crashes, the evidence seems to suggest that flying is safer than ever.

The plane crash that killed Golden Age actress Carole Lombard was a result of pure chance - the flip of a coin. She was eager to fly home after attending a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana, but the press agent to her second husband, Clark Gable, as well as her mother, insisted she take the train instead. Like singer Ritchie Valens did before his deadly flight 17 years later, they let fate settle the decision. Lombard's plane crashed into a mountain just outside of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942, killing all 22 people aboard, including fifteen army servicemen. Lombard was only 33. Her death prompted Gable to join the Army Air Corps, and he reached the rank of major, flying a B-17 as an observer-gunner. In 1944 a ship was named after her.

Lombard is remembered as one of the great comedic actresses of the 30s. Admittedly, I haven't seen many of her movies, but I've seen the big ones: Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, and her last film, To Be or Not To Be, and she's quite enjoyable in all of them. Her career dates back to the silent era, and she worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, and actors such as Cary Grant, John Barrymore, Frederic March, and Jack Benny. Her only Oscar nomination was for Godfrey.

Lombard's first husband was actor William Powell, whom she met in 1930, married less than a year later, and divorced two years after that, though on friendly terms. They appeared in three films together, including Godfrey, which came after their divorce. She met Gable while still married to Powell - they did a film together as well - and pursued a relationship with him after her divorce, even though Gable himself was married at the time. Gable, as it turned out, accepted the part of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind only when MGM head Louis B. Mayer offered him enough money to get a divorce from his wife so he could marry Lombard. They stayed together until her death.

If you want to know more about Lombard, this is one of the better fan sites.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

High Fidelity

High Fidelity
last seen @ Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn NY

The first time I heard about Nick Hornby was in a comic book. The protagonist was a book store clerk, and in one scene he's trying to impress a new co-worker, a young and attractive girl. She eventually mentions how much she liked High Fidelity (this was back when the book was still relatively recent). So when the film version came out a few years later, I remembered the name. As it happened, I was with a friend who wanted to see it, but at that particular moment I wanted to see something else. She talked me into seeing this, however, and in the end I didn't really object. Still, I never warmed up to the movie. I didn't hate it, but I never felt like I could relate to John Cusack's character, having never suffered a series of emotionally scarring yet hilarious breakups.

Time passed, however, and then one day I was in a bookstore and saw High Fidelity and I decided it was time to give it a second chance. So I bought it and read it. Hornby has a very lively writing style. He has a knack for digging into a person's emotional psyche and uncovering their fears and insecurities in an entertaining way, and weaving pop culture into the mix is certainly part of the secret. As a result, I felt like I could appreciate Cusack's character Rob a little better. Plus, it made me appreciate the movie better for seamlessly transposing the setting from London to Chicago. Eventually I went back to the movie and genuinely liked it.

As for Hornby, I quickly snatched up the rest of his books and I found I loved the rest of them as much, if not more. Romantic relationships are a common thread in his stories, although they aren't always the main focus; for instance, A Long Way Down is about a quartet of people looking for reasons to not commit suicide (not as depressing as it sounds). I find his stories comforting; to me they acknowledge the screwed-up craziness of life and relationships and everything else, yet enable you to laugh about them. even occupy a shared universe - supporting characters in one book often turn up as fringe characters in another. And as for the other films based on his books, I don't remember whether I saw About a Boy before or after reading the book - may have been before, but I'm not sure. I have yet to see Fever Pitch.

Getting back to Fidelity, though, as I watched it last night, I found that I could relate to Cusack's character Rob more than ever. I've written before about how much breaking up with a girl can hurt, as well as whether or not getting back together was a good idea, and sure enough, I realized that I have more in common with Rob than I thought. I guess all I needed to appreciate this movie was time and experience.

So I saw Fidelity at the Brooklyn Public Library, a beautiful, grand old building across the street from Prospect Park and within shouting distance of downtown Brooklyn. It's part of a series of films they're doing about movies based on books. There were a surprisingly large amount of old people in attendance; this doesn't seem like the kind of movie for the AARP crowd, but I guess they must've liked it. The hostess provided a briefing on the film beforehand which perhaps provided a little too much information (though it wasn't spoilery) - I mean, some things should be discovered for themselves. She did make mention of one thing that was news to me: apparently the woman who played Laura, Iben Hjejle, is a Danish actress whom director Stephen Frears discovered, and I could hear faint traces of her accent throughout the movie. There was supposed to be a discussion of the movie afterwards, but I didn't bother sticking around for that.

The library is located at Grand Army Plaza, a major traffic intersection surrounding a small green space with a huge arch at one end, similar to the one in Washington Square Park in Manhattan, but much more majestic. Not that I used to come to this part of Brooklyn often, but whenever I did, I always hated trying to cross it because of the wide traffic lanes. Recently, the GAP has undergone a major facelift that has not only made crossing it much easier, but it gave  pedestrians and bicyclists much more space to maneuver. The result is beautiful, and it makes GAP a much more pleasant place.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

QWFF Post-script: Queens logic

Ever since I returned to New York, the way I view this city has changed in many ways. Recently, I've found myself preferring the atmosphere of Queens (and Brooklyn) to that of Manhattan. In fact, you could say I've re-discovered my home borough over the past months, taking in sights and places I either hadn't been to in years or are learning about for the first time, and it was this re-exploration that led to me finding out about QWFF and wanting to be a part of it.

The reason why I've been writing about the old neighborhood in addition to writing about the fest is because, in my mind, the two are one - a perfect blend of the old with the new. Attending QWFF has not only allowed me to see a bunch of great movies, but it's also reminded me of the things I used to love about where I grew up - and even if many of those things are gone or changed, they've been replaced with newer ones. (For example, I discovered a great new coffee shop in Jackson Heights this past weekend that I might not have known about otherwise.)

When I covered Urbanworld last fall, it was my first film fest and seeing so many celebrities, taking pictures from the red carpet, all of that stuff kind of confirmed my expectations about what going to a film fest was like. QWFF changed that. It wasn't glamorous in the traditional sense. You could count the number of "celebrities" in attendance on one hand. And I've written about certain minor annoyances in watching a few of these movies.

Still, I would go through all of it again because when you add it all up, I got to see some awesome movies I never would've even heard about - and now you know about them too. See, what I forgot, and what I was reminded of this weekend, is that you don't need a big production and a bunch of stars to enjoy a fest as long as you've got good movies and a good crowd to see them with, and good people putting the whole thing together. I salute Don & Katha Cato for making QWFF what it is, and especially for bringing it to the old neighborhood.

I even made a few friends. Remember the projectionist at P.S. 69 I mentioned the other day? We got to talking because I arrived so early. Turns out she's an animator. Her name's Elizabeth. Here's her YouTube page. There were these two French-Canadian dudes who gave me a DVD of their film, which I hope to write about within the coming weeks. There was the volunteer at the Jackson whose name I've forgotten, regrettably. There was the couple I met at P.S. 69 whom I talked about the show with and the dude at the Renaissance School I chatted with briefly. It was all good.

QWFF made me proud to be from Queens.

QWFF Day 1: Things to come
QWFF Day 2: What's up, doc?
QWFF Day 3: A gay-all time
QWFF Day 4: The next generation

Monday, March 5, 2012

QWFF Day 4: The next generation

The Queens World Film Festival is a four-day event which showcases films from around the world at venues within the New York City borough of Queens. Throughout this weekend, I'll write about select films from the show, as well as highlights from the presentation. For more information about the festival, visit the website.

I was born in East Elmhurst, but even as a kid I always thought of Jackson Heights and Corona as part of what I considered my neighborhood. Partially because I was never entirely sure what constituted "East Elmhurst," geographically speaking; partially because I hung out in those adjacent burgs as much as my own, if not more so. My best friend Jerry lived in Corona and we would often hang out either at his house or in Flushing Meadow Park. (Whenever I hear Simon & Garfunkel's "Me and Julio," I usually think of those days.)

During a long break between movie blocks, I had lunch and walked around, revisiting those streets and places from back in the day. The old public pool, now renovated. The local library I went to for school assignments and such. The bodega where I would play video games after school. My old junior high school. The site of the stationery store where I bought my comic books. I thought about passing by my old house, but I didn't want to indulge my nostalgia that much.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

QWFF Day 3: A gay-all time

The Queens World Film Festival is a four-day event which showcases films from around the world at venues within the New York City borough of Queens. Throughout this weekend, I'll write about select films from the show, as well as highlights from the presentation. For more information about the festival, visit the website.

The Roosevelt Avenue/Broadway bus and subway hub in Jackson Heights is all renovated and modern now, but I can't help but see it the way I remember it, when it was a little less sleek. Five trains pass through this junction, including the ever-popular 7 train, plus it's a major bus terminal. The underground section used to have a few small, scuzzy looking shops, including the video arcade I've written about before (and still miss!). As a kid, 12, 13, 14 years old, I suppose I should've been more cautious about this part of the station than I was, but that never occurred to me. This wasn't during the really bad old days of the 70s, but the poorly-lighted passageway, combined with the questionable characters that tended to hang around, made for an unhealthy atmosphere, one not too far removed from most well-travelled stations in the five boroughs back then.

Now the hub is better lit, the shops have been replaced with an expanded stairway, an elevator, an escalator (which keeps breaking down!), a streamlined passageway for the buses, countdown clocks to tell you when the trains will arrive, and a renovated outdoor facade. Cops patrol the platforms regularly. As a vital connection to important Queens locations like Citi Field, the National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadow Park, and LaGuardia Airport, these upgrades were absolutely necessary, yet even after all this time, the changes still seem strange and... "wrong" to me. In my mind, it's still 1987 and I can still play Jungle King in the arcade before getting on the 33 bus to go home.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

QWFF Day 2: What's up, doc?

The Queens World Film Festival is a four-day event which showcases films from around the world at venues within the New York City borough of Queens. Throughout this weekend, I'll write about select films from the show, as well as highlights from the presentation. For more information about the festival, visit the website.

I've written about my earliest memories of Jackson Heights and the theaters I frequented, those that are long gone and those that remain. 37th Avenue is a busy commercial stretch that I never explored in any great depth as a kid; not sure why. I suppose I preferred my little chunk of 82nd Street, and why not - it had two theaters, a Woolworth, and I think it had a bookstore too. It also had the music studio where I used to go for guitar lessons (they never took). I appreciate 37th Avenue better now, though - it's got a nice wide selection of places to eat, most of it local. 

It's also one of the primary conduits between the three locales for QWFF, and once I discovered that they were all well within walking distance of each other, that made my life easier. There's P.S. 69, a grade school, where the movies are screened in the auditorium. There's the Renaissance Charter School, a fancy school a few blocks east. Finally, a couple of blocks south and east, there's the Jackson Heights Cinema, and last night I hit all three venues for a night of mostly documentaries. (Since QWFF screens their films in small groups, my reviews will be the same way.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

QWFF Day 1: Things to come

The Queens World Film Festival is a four-day event which showcases films from around the world at venues within the New York City borough of Queens. Throughout this weekend, I'll write about select films from the show, as well as highlights from the presentation. For more information about the festival, visit the website.

I've written before about how Queens in general, and the Astoria/Long Island City area in particular, is a venue for film and television production. The Queens World Film Festival sets out to prove that Queens is also a great place to see films as well, and no place in the borough is better for that than the Museum of the Moving Image, which hosted the QWFF opening night.

The impression I got is that this year's show is bigger than last year's. Last night's films were a sampling of the ones to be screened this weekend, and they were a highly diverse selection indeed. The near-full house in MOMI's main auditorium included a large number of the filmmakers with movies in the fest, who all got up on stage at the end of the night (I estimate there were about at least fifty, spilling off the stage and into the aisle).

Councilman Daniel Dromm

QWFF co-directors Don and Katha Cato were the evening's hosts. How best to describe Katha Cato? Enthusiastic? Exuberant? When I arrived at MOMI, she was right there at the inside front door, shaking hands and greeting everyone as they came in. When she first stepped up onto the stage, she waved her arms to pump up the crowd's excitement - not for her, but for the fest, and the audience happily complied. The podium had a microphone, but as you might imagine, she did not need one. Several other speakers that evening marveled at her energy and excitement, and I suppose you can't blame her for it. Don Cato, by contrast, is the quieter one, though he also seems to be the one with the eye for the talent.

 In addition to the films, QWFF presented a couple of festival awards last night. One went to Councilman Daniel Dromm of Jackson Heights, where the rest of QWFF will take place; a man who, among other things, has done much to improve pedestrian space in his district. The other award went to Troma president Lloyd Kaufman, Troma being based here in Queens. While I can't say I care a great deal for most Troma films, Kaufman himself was a lively presence, dissing The Artist and appearing on stage with a model dressed as Troma's star character, the Toxic Avenger. Kaufman, in turn, presented the Catos with awards of recognition of his own - "Troma diplomas," he called them. A new Troma film, Mr. Bricks, will debut here tonight.

Troma's Lloyd Kaufman, w/Don & Katha Cato (l), Kaufman's wife Pat (r) and Toxie

QWFF screened eight short films last night, half of which were world premieres (WP):
  • War Story (WP), an Iranian film about two soldiers facing off in the desert sands. Very Sergio Leone-like in its use of its landscape, the elements, and music.
  • Andrew: Story of a Closet Monster, a stop-motion animation story about an ineffective bedroom monster. Funny, but I thought the kid looked creepier than the monster (something about the material used to make him), but then, I've always found stop-motion slightly disturbing.
  • Model Rules, featuring long-time TV actress Marlyn Mason, whose career goes back to the early 60s, in a character study about a nude art-class model (and yeah, she still looks pretty good at her age!).
  • Easy Street, about an unusual job interview between a law student and a judge with political implications.
  • Something Left, Something Taken, a computer(?)-animated piece about a couple who may or may not be getting taken for a ride by a serial killer. It looks computer-animated, but the way it's done makes everything look like it's made out of fabric, or cardboard, or things like that. Quite eye-catching.
  • Can't Dance (WP), about a widower who is spurred towards finding love again by the ghost of his late wife, directed by a Queens native.
  • There Is No Goodbye (WP), a Spanish film. Unfortunately, this was shown without subtitles, so I can only guess at the story. I thought it was about two characters at three stages of life - as kids, as young adults and in old age - but I'm not certain about that. It looked nice, though.
  • Queen (WP), the one that got the biggest cheers, and deservedly so, because this one totally rocked. It's about a drag queen trying to adopt a child, and it was awesome. I'll talk more about it on Sunday.
All in all, QWFF got off to a great start.