Monday, April 30, 2012

Think Like a Man

Think Like a Man
seen @ Jackson Heights Cinemas, Jackson Heights, Queens, NY

Ride around on the subways in New York and you'll see plenty of people reading books. It's always been a habit of mine to look over the shoulders of someone and follow along, whether it's a hard copy or an e-book - if I don't have a book of my own, that is (or even if I do). Ride in the subways long enough and you'll easily deduce which books are the popular ones. In the last few years, I've seen people read the Hunger Games books, the Harry Potter books, the Game of Thrones books, and The Help.

I have yet to see anyone on the subway read Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the relationship-advice book by Steve Harvey. I have no doubt it has sold well, nor do I doubt that it has a modicum of popularity. But the movie Think Like a Man, based on the book, would have you believe the book is all the rage - which, I suppose, is understandable, given the movie's clever hook.

In Think the movie, Think the book is the catalyst for a war-between-the-sexes tale, where first the ladies, then the men, use it to try and improve their respective relationships. Harvey himself pops up periodically to impart nuggets of wisdom from his book in a fourth-wall-breaking manner. It does kinda feel like an infomercial after awhile, but it kinda-sorta works because of the way the book is perceived  on both sides: the women see it as vital information being passed on, though some warm up to it quicker than others. (None of them explain why Harvey's opinions on dating bear any weight to begin with, but again, you have to accept this premise for what it is.) The men, by contrast, feel betrayed that one of their own is calling them out on their bad habits, and they use the book to "flip the script," as it were, on their women.

I suppose Harvey's presence in Think kinda reminds me of Elinor Glyn's in the silent classic It: both have written about male-female sexual relationships and how they work, both have had their writings adapted into films, characters in both films read their writings and try to act on them, and both authors appear as themselves in the films to further explicate their respective philosophies. That's about as far as that comparison goes, however.

I have no dog in this hunt; in the game of love, I've been a third-string bench-warmer planted next to the Gatorade cooler for far too long. Still, I enjoyed Think for what it is - a light, glamorous rom-com. It doesn't say anything new or profoundly different about dating, but then neither do 95% of Hollywood rom-coms. What amused me about this one, and this is something I mentioned on Twitter, is how it has the feel of a classic rom-com from the 30s and 40s. The stars are glamorous and beautiful, surrounded as they are by lovely shots of LA by day and by night; the dialogue is delivered snappily, and the story is less about sex than it is romance. It didn't feel like it was making the men out to be dogs or dummies, like I tend to see in a lot of contemporary rom-coms (especially black ones!), but by the same token, it wasn't afraid to show the women's flaws.

Like I said, ultimately this doesn't add up to anything all that insightful or unique; this isn't vintage Woody Allen here. For what it is, though, it's entertaining. It even begins with an animated sequence!

This was the first film I'd seen at the Jackson since the Queens World Film Festival, and the glamor has definitely worn off. When I entered the side theater, the house lights were off and everything was pitch black. It was less than ten minutes to showtime and I was the only one there. I had to find a manager and ask him to have the house lights turned on so I wouldn't trip over myself finding a seat - which was entirely possible, since the center aisle of stairs is steep and not lit with footlights. (Using my cell as a flashlight didn't help.)

I've been coming to the Jackson for so many years, seen so many movies there, and it's an active link to my childhood, which is probably why I tend to look at it through rose-colored glasses most of the time. Still, I think I'm finally beginning to see it as it really is: old.

When I was in Columbus, there was an old neighborhood theater with only a single screen (the Jackson has three), and it felt more modern and stylish and popular than the Jackson does now. (I'll have to write about it sometime soon.) I love the Jackson and probably always will, but every time I go there, I feel like it's not long for this world. I hope I'm wrong.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let's put a bounty on cell phone users!

...You can't just let The Text-Crazy Kids blaze up Facebook in a theater in order to boost box office without messing it up for everyone else -- and that includes the rest of us old people and that segment of the teenage populace that, you know, doesn't need to compulsively check their phones at the movies and maybe, just maybe, hates it as much as the rest of us when other people do it. To officially allow texting in a theater is to effectively encourage texting in a theater. And while folks like Miles might experiment with outside the box teen baiting strategies -- and good luck to her in that -- how can you even effectively host a text-friendly screening? By offering specialty showtimes, a la Baby Brigade or 21 and Up screenings, maybe?
This has been in the wind for awhile now - the possibility of some movie theaters experimenting with allowing texting for certain films at certain times. I think we can all agree that this idea is wrong, wrong, wrong for so many reasons. I had to confront a cell phone user at a movie recently, and while it may be necessary, it's not always pleasant (I consider myself lucky that I didn't have to yell or get physical in any way). Still, if dwindling ticket sales are the root problem that this idea is supposed to solve, let's find a better solution - one that doesn't reward bad behavior. 

A fine for cell phone use is a good idea, but it would require vigilance on the part of theater staff, and not every theater has the amount of people available for the task. And ushers can't be in the theaters all the time. So why not give the audience the ability to police itself... and in a way that would not only encourage them to root out cell phone users, but actually reward them for the effort!

Think about it: how many more people would turn out for the movies every week if the theaters offered a lucrative reward for catching cell phone users in the act? When you go out this summer to see Avengers or Amazing Spider-Man or Men in Black 3, you don't wan't the experience ruined by some douchebag texting in the middle of the movie, but most people don't feel inclined to do anything about it. Well, if you knew that the theater would reward you with, say, a $50 gift certificate and unlimited popcorn at your next screening, would you do something about it then? You bet your ass you would! And if you're there with a bunch of your friends, well then, you've got a whole posse backing you up, pal! What's one little pimply-faced teenager gonna do against that?

The theater could also provide some sort of silent signaler which one could use to alert the staff, for those times when the cell phone user may have friends backing him or her up. Because after all, you wanna collect on that bounty, but you don't wanna have to fight for it - unless you feel you can win, that is!

And of course, it's entirely possible that more than one person could lay claim to the bounty, in which case management can simply split the reward equally. The important thing is to emphasize teamwork. Everybody should be encouraged to work together towards a common goal. And management should recognize that you've gotta spend money to make money - because isn't a little financial incentive worth a bigger ticket-buying audience?

I think it's worth a shot, don't you?

[Eh, okay, so this is only half-serious. Feel free to improve on my idea all you like.]


Thursday, April 26, 2012


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

For what it's worth, I saw the PG-13 version of Bully and I'm convinced that the big rating hoo-hah that preceded this film's release was a whole lotta nothing in the end. Say what you will about the film's uber-producer Harvey Weinstein, but at the very least, I can see why he chose to champion this film. It's moving and powerful, and the bullied children, along with their families and friends, eloquently lay bare the narratives of their lives. It's tough to sit through at times, but it's worth the effort.

That said, I don't think Bully was as comprehensive a film as it could have been. Why? No one talked to any actual bullies! As harrowing and at times even inspiring, the stories of the bullied children are, after awhile one gets the feeling of preaching to the choir. We all agree that bullying children is wrong and that something should be done about it, but in order to do that, I feel it's necessary to first ask: why does it happen?

Bullying is not an inherent act; it must be learned. It's an act that transcends gender, race, environment and generation. Without getting too deep into psychology and sociology, I think it's safe to say that it's learned from being around other peers, and is the result of a variety of societal pressures and fears. But talking to actual bullies and finding out straight from them why they harass other kids would've been as enlightening as hearing from the bullied - not to lay blame, not to antagonize, but simply to understand. The more I watched Bully, the more I felt that it was a little bit one-sided.

Still, when you see these stories unfold, you can hardly blame director Lee Hirsch for wanting to give as much time to them as possible. A few highlights: the town meeting held by the parents of the teenager who killed himself, in which an entire community bares its pain over the effects of bullying; the mother of the girl who faced her tormentors with a stolen gun, hugging and singing to her daughter; the father of the small-town lesbian teen, saying how he never truly understood what it meant to walk in another's shoes until he raised a gay child in an intolerant town. These are only a few of the images that linger long after seeing this film.

From a different angle, I was quite curious as to how they filmed the scenes on the school bus with Alex, the Iowa tween who is shockingly blase about the amount of bullying he gets. It looked like there was an actual cameraman on the bus and not a hidden camera, so if that was the case, how did they get the kids to act normally and not mug for the camera?

Reality television has challenged our perception of filmed, intimate (read: unscripted) moments, and while this is certainly not unique to Bully, there were a few scenes where I couldn't help but wonder at the level of veracity. I'm talking about any scene meant to be spontaneous, but filmed from more than one angle, such as the bus scenes. Seeing cuts in such scenes make me think there's a "jump" in time implied. While it's possible that there was more than one camera on that bus, how likely is it - especially when one is specifically after naturalism uninhibited by the presence of cameras? Like I said, this is not something unique to this film, but I couldn't help but think about it as I watched.

Regrettably, I had to take action against a chronic cell phone user while watching Bully. I was in Theater 6 of the Kew Gardens, a small screening room, half of which has stadium seating. I was in the front left side of the first row of stadium-seating, and in a corner in the far rear, right side, was a middle-aged (I think) couple. There were perhaps a half-dozen other people in the room when the film started.

The woman's cell went off early. I didn't see her at first because she and her companion were so far back, but after the second time it went off, I spotted her. The movie was just loud enough at first that I could pay her yapping on the phone no mind, but I was getting irritated. The third time her cell went off, however, during a quieter moment, I got out of my seat, walked halfway up the stairs, pointed straight at her and demanded she get off the phone. (I even remembered to say please.) Surprisingly, she didn't put up a fight - and I was ready for one. I didn't hear her cell for the remainder of the flick.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Restless City' opens this Friday!

Just a reminder that Restless City, the movie I reviewed from last year's Urbanworld Film Festival and the latest film to be picked up by AFFRM, opens this Friday nationwide (here's the list of where and when it's playing). This is a really good movie, but if my review alone isn't enough to convince you, check out the trailer, or this video interview with director Andrew Dosunmu, or this review from The Hollywood Reporter.

I'm gonna see it with friends, and since I've already written about it once here, I'm gonna write about this second viewing on the WSW Facebook page, so be sure to look for it there.

'Restless City' picked up by AFFRM!!
My obligatory Top 10 for 2011

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A few thoughts on Dick Clark

I'll probably remember Dick Clark more as the New Year's Eve guy than anything else. I do remember watching American Bandstand as a kid, but I can't honestly say that it was all that influential in shaping my musical tastes. I'm a child of the MTV generation. Music videos had a much greater impact on me. That and Casey Kasem's "American Top 40."

I certainly recall seeing Clark every New Year's Eve on TV. It was part of the fun of getting to stay up late on such a night as a kid - imagining myself in Times Square with half of New York, yelling and screaming. I should say, though, that the appeal quickly vanished after I actually did spend one New Year's in Times Square with a friend. We didn't get closer than 50th Street, it was cold as hell, and standing around for hours, unable to move, much less see anything, was not as cool as it looked like on TV; in fact, it actually sucked!

And then there was also Pyramid, a fun little game show, as well as TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes. I think I watched that more for Clark and Ed McMahon than anything else. Those two always seemed part of my television viewing experience while growing up. They were just there, in one way or another... and they were likable, so why wouldn't I watch this silly little show?

I spent a New Year's with John and Sue not too long ago, and we were making fun of Clark, still hosting New Year's Rockin' Eve post-stroke, and yeah, I guess I feel a little guilty about it now. Seeing him soldier on like that was awkward, no doubt, but foolishly heroic as well, I suppose. I mean, he had absolutely nothing left to prove, but there he was, still ringing in the new year like he had been doing for so long, like nothing changed and obviously he was unafraid of embarrassment..

Dick Clark was an American institution, an integral part of our pop culture for generations. I know I'll miss him.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pride of the Yankees

Pride of the Yankees
seen on TV @ TCM

Did you know there's a Y-nk--s fragrance? I've been seeing subway ads for it lately and every time I do, I wonder who thought it was a good idea and why would anyone choose to wear it? I imagine it smelling of sweatsocks, tobacco, and whatever else the inside of a professional baseball player's locker smells like. Call it Eau de Jock Strap.

There was a time, still within living memory, when the Team From the Bronx was the only team in town. And while I'm grateful that this period ended, since the Mets came along in 1962 to fill the void left by the Dodgers and Giants (50th anniversary this year, by the way - just sayin'), sometimes I wonder what it would've been like growing up with only one ball club. Indeed, when it comes to sports, New York is greedy; we have to have two of everything (the Nets will return to this side of the Hudson this fall in a new arena in Brooklyn). I never questioned the need for this until I spent a year in Columbus, a smaller town where everyone - and I do mean everyone - gets behind one team: the football Buckeyes of Ohio State U. 

It was a very different feeling. Having a single team in a single sport unites the town in a manner unlike here in New York, where there are always gonna be divided loyalties. Let's face it, anyone who says they like both the Team From the Bronx and the Mets equally are not real New York baseball fans. (I suppose a similar argument could be made for the Giants/Jets and Rangers/Islanders, but I wouldn't know for sure.)

More than any other sport, baseball has been a hugely integral part of New York's identity, and yes, the Team From the Bronx is largely responsible for that, but the Mets, Giants and Dodgers were and are also part of that identity too (I've touched before on what makes the Mets distinct from their crosstown rivals). But what if New York remained a one-team town after the Giants and Dodgers left?

Would it have been so bad to eventually get behind one team, the team with more championships than anyone else? Sure, it would've been wrenching at first to be forced to shift loyalties after rooting against them for so long - I know how it would make me feel - but once the reality set in, I imagine that eventually I'd have to concede that any team is better than no team. (Actually, now that we've got minor league teams within the five boroughs as well, that'd be a compromise I could live with...)

These days, however, sports teams change cities at an alarming rate, as greedy owners stick up their host cities for money to build ultra-modern arenas. The Team From the Bronx held up Y-nk-- Stadium for ransom too, demanding the capital necessary to make a new ballpark, and because no one can conceive New York without the Team From the Bronx, they got it, though not without a drawback or two (for instance, parking space that no one uses).

It's pointless to speculate on what a one-team-per-sport New York would be like, I know, but with the imminent return of the Nets this fall, it's been on my mind a bit lately, and I've wanted to get it off my chest.

So: about that Lou Gehrig biopic from the 40s. You know the one. I used to see this on TV every so often around the start of baseball season, and of course, because I knew my baseball history, I knew who Gehrig was. Watching it the other day, I was gratified that I now know who Teresa Wright, Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea were in addition to, of course, Gary Cooper, and could better appreciate their performances as well (especially Brennan).

Still, the movie doesn't hold up as well for me anymore. For instance, there are places where the action stops dead (why did we need to see that dance number?). The narrative is not as dramatic as it could be. The drama should come from Gehrig's slow realization that he can't perform as well as he used to because of his neurological condition, but in my opinion this gets the short shrift because the movie is so eager to show you the whole of Gehrig's life, which, prior to his illness, is less dramatic.

The worst part, though, is how they can't even be bothered to explicitly tell you why Gehrig can't play ball anymore, never naming amyotrophic lateral sclerosis even once, which I find a little offensive, actually. It minimizes the disease and keeps it at a safe distance for no good reason and makes it less real, and by so doing cheapens Gehrig's life a little bit. I realize a lot of people love this movie, but that's just how I see it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Marley (advance screening)

Bob Marley, poet and a prophet
Back during my days as a summer camp counselor in Massachusetts, there was this guy named Nick. He was one of the counselors, and he was a good guy; very laid-back. Nick played guitar, and his bag was world music. I remember him teaching me about some Brazilian music that I really dug. Nick played guitar, and all summer long he tried to get the kids into reggae music. There were two songs in particular he loved playing most. "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals was one; the other was "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley.

He had mixed success. Nick was popular and well-liked by both campers and staff, so it wasn't anything to do with his personality. He was a decent singer, so it wasn't that. I suppose some songs connect with kids more than others.

Every now and then I think of Nick whenever I hear reggae music, and in my neighborhood, I hear it almost as often as I do hip-hop. To be honest, reggae has always been difficult for me to get into. A lot of the time, I can barely understand what the singers are saying, partially because of the thick Jamaican accents, partly because of the cadence of their singing. "Pop" reggae stars like Shaggy and Sean Paul are different, naturally, though I imagine most reggae fans would probably turn their noses up at those guys. And then there's someone like Matisyahu, who is perhaps in a league of his own.

Bob Marley taught me how to off it
Still, when you talk about reggae music, sooner or later you have to come to Bob Marley, because in practical terms he was the Elvis of reggae. No one in the field has the following he does, even long after his death, because over the course of his brief life he grew to become much more than a singer. Like John Lennon, he was an icon for peace.

The forthcoming documentary Marley captures his life and music beautifully, including interviews with members of his band, The Wailers, plus family, friends, and business associates, and of course, lots of news and concert footage.

The film goes into the singer's conversion to the Rastafarian religion, but it doesn't go that deep into the faith's basic tenets. We do see quite a bit of discussion on the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who's revered as some sort of reincarnation or direct descendant of Christ or something, like Linda Fiorentino's character in Dogma, but we don't really find out how he got that way. Rastafarianism is such an integral part of Marley's music; it would've been nice to have gone a little more into it, I thought.

And then there's the political aspects of Marley's life. We see the opposing political parties in Jamaica during Marley's time, his involvement, the attempt on his life during a concert in Jamaica, as well as the subsequent concert, years later, that the country practically begged him to do in order to restore peace between the factions.

Seeing all of this reminded me of the activism in pop music that I grew up witnessing in the 80s. Whether it was to fight drugs, or South African apartheid, or hunger in Ethiopia, I don't recall ever questioning its place, even if I didn't always understand what the cause was about. Take apartheid, for example. I vaguely remember learning a little about it in school, but I probably learned more about it from singers like Peter Gabriel than anything else. It's an aspect of 80s music that's rarely discussed. People sometimes mock 80s music, but for all its synthesized sound and big hair and heavy makeup, it was also a period of great activism, and that activism was front and center in the mainstream.

Bob Marley, walk it like he talk it
Marley, though... imagine an entire country looking to a singer to quell civil unrest and inspire hope and freedom amongst the populace. And not just in Jamaica, either; the doc also shows him in a concert in Zimbabwe on the eve of that nation's independence. (Of course, no one knew at the time what their leader, Robert Mugabe, would turn out to be like, but hey.)

Perhaps the only contemporary musician comparable to Marley in terms of combining popularity and politics might be Bono, but even he doesn't come close to the reverence many people felt, and still feel, for Marley. There was no one quite like him.

Marley the doc was screened last Thursday at a club called the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. This was my first time there. The bar/lounge area is surrounded with paintings of musical stars, like Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and Johnny Cash. In one corner there was a video game console where people were playing Tetris. I played it for a bit before we were all let into what would normally be the concert hall for bands. There were folding chairs all around in front of the screen on the stage. I sat up in the front row for a change.

The audience was a diverse one, and it soon became clear to me that some people knew Marley's history better than others. A woman in the row behind me periodically responded to salient points on Marley's history with knowing "um hmms" in recognition. She talked to her friends quite a bit, but it never quite reached the point where I felt I had to shush her.

Marley will be released April 20 (Four-Twenty, of course).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Movie Year

My Movie Year Blogathon is an event in which the purpose is to write about a favorite year in movies, hosted by the site Fandango Groovers Movie Blog. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.

It's hard to argue any year other than 1939 as the best year for movies: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Women, Ninotchka, The Rules of the Game - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Fortunately, I'm not here to discuss that particular year.

I've talked before about who I'd want to play me in the movie of my life, but I never talked about what the story would be. Covering the entirety of it would make no sense; I'm not famous, nor have I done anything that has significantly changed the world (yet!). I would choose instead to spotlight one particular year and fashion a narrative out of that. There are several that would do, but the one I keep coming back to is 1986.

It's memorable for a variety of reasons. It's the year the Mets won the World Series, of course, and that was a defining moment in my childhood. It was also the year I entered high school, and that precipitated a number of changes in the way I thought about myself and the world around me.

Okay, so maybe 1986 wasn't that great.
As far as movies go, it was a solid year: Aliens, Platoon, The Fly, Labyrinth, Blue Velvet, She's Gotta Have It, Highlander, Star Trek IV, Three Amigos, Short Circuit, Back to School, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sid and Nancy, Down By Law and Little Shop of Horrors, among others. What I wanna talk about in particular is the movie music from 1986.

In 1986 I listened to a whole lot of Top 40 radio, though by year's end that would change as I slowly started getting into classic rock. I was aware of movie soundtracks, and even if certain songs were from movies I was too young to see, thanks to videos, I could get a fairly good sense of what they were about. The following movies had some of the best songs that I remember well from that year:

- Top Gun. Duh! I still have this soundtrack on vinyl, and it's nothing but hits, "Danger Zone" and "Take My Breath Away" being the biggest. I remember being disappointed that "Danger Zone" didn't make it to number one on the charts - if I recall correctly, I believe it plateaued at number two! I also remember thinking how strange it was that Berlin's Terri Nunn had blonde hair with black tips at the bottom. Dyed hair was still a relatively new concept to me, and between Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Annie Lennox and dozens of big-hair metal bands, there were plenty of examples of them to be found.

- Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I was a sleepaway camp counselor in 1995 when the Beatles Anthology was released, and all summer long, kids as young as six, seven, eight years old had the Beatles on the brain. So it was with us in 1986 when "Twist and Shout" got a big boost thanks to this film. The Beatles, man, they just never go out of style. I have a friend in her 70s who claims to not like them, but I suspect it's only a mildly passive dislike at worst and not an out-and-out hate.

 - Stand By Me. Oooh, man, I can recall it like it was yesterday, how big Ben E. King's classic hit was amongst us eighth-graders when this movie came out. I had a father who played old-school soul all the time, so I may have been a bit more familiar with this song than my classmates, but still, we all loved this song so much. We liked the movie, of course, but the song just felt special somehow even without the movie. Between this, Ferris, Soul Man and Jumpin' Jack Flash, it was a good year for old songs getting a new lease on life thanks to movies.

- Transformers: The Movie. "You got the TOUCH! YOU GOT THE POWERRRRRRRRR!!!"

Also, Weird Al.

- Pretty in Pink. Yeah, I was in love with Molly Ringwald like the rest of teenage America in 1986, and this film had another killer soundtrack, with "Pretty in Pink" and "If You Leave" being the big highlights. I wouldn't really begin to appreciate new wave music until later on in high school, though.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Freeze Frame: The WSW Roundtable take 6

And we're back once again for another go-round on the world of film. This is third and final session with the current group of fellow film bloggers:

Rachel and Jess from their brand-new blog, Reel Insight 

A new group will come on board beginning in June. 

And here are this month's questions:

The Searchers

The Searchers
seen on TV @ TCM

Back in the 90s, there was a popular comic book series called Preacher, which Hollywood has been trying to turn into a movie for awhile now, without success. The plot is... rather complicated. What's relevant here, though, is that Jesse, the main character, is a huge John Wayne fan; has been since he was a child. Periodically, throughout the story, what appears to be Wayne's ghost appears to Jesse to offer advice and inspiration when he needs it, a relationship not unlike that of Clarence and Elvis Presley in True Romance. It could be a ghost, but it could also be the protagonist's imagination. As in that movie, we never quite see Wayne's face; it's always in shadow, but there's never any question that it's him. 

Wayne in Preacher represents a certain idea of America in general and American manliness in particular (which is ironic, since it was written by an Irishman). Jesse has always tried to live his life according to the principles represented by Wayne in his movies, handed down through Jesse's father, but over the course of the story, Jesse learns how to grow beyond those basic, black-and-white, might-makes-right ideals in order to be with the woman he loves. In the story's context, it's not that they're inherently wrong. They're simply not enough.

The America of today bears little resemblance to that of Wayne's time, when we kicked Hitler's ass, stared down the Commies without blinking, and were the envy of the rest of the world, or so said the legends. The reality was much more complicated than that, but it was in a John Wayne movie, after all, where we learned what to do when the legend becomes fact. Wayne personified that era of American history, that self-image of the country, as much, if not more, than any other actor. Where can his like be found today?

Some have lamented that the male movie stars of the 21st century lack a certain ruggedness found in their forebears, and to a certain extent, it's hard to argue that. Shia LaBeouf or Taylor Kitsch can't hold a candle to the Duke and I think it's safe to say that they never will. Still, there ought to be some sort of middle ground, where Wayne's machismo is wedded to a more modern sensitivity. George Clooney probably comes closest to embodying that middle ground, though he's more Cary Grant than John Wayne.

On screen, Wayne was like a force of nature. His physical size was a factor, naturally, but it was also his bearing, the way he interacted with the rest of his cast, the way his most memorable characters lived by their own code - their own sense of right and wrong - that was evocative of less complex times. And I suspect that's why he remains appealing to those who believe life would be a lot simpler if it were more like a John Wayne movie (in spirit, I would hope, not in fact).

But then there's The Searchers, a movie with all the grandeur and scope of Wayne's greatest films, but one in which Wayne's character Ethan is problematic, to say the least. There's no delicate way to put it - Ethan is straight-up racist. The first time he meets Jeffrey Hunter's character, he calls him a half-breed. He spends all these years looking for his young niece, who was kidnapped by Indians, and when he finds her, he's ready to shoot her because she's been assimilated into their culture. What the hell is that about?

Perhaps it's about the reality behind the legends of the Wild West: that if you were anything other than a white male, you had it a hell of a lot rougher. That's not something people usually choose to dwell on, but it's impossible to avoid when looking at The Searchers today. 

The movie remains compelling to watch, though, partly because of all those breathtaking Monument Valley landscapes, and partly because of Wayne himself. One gets the impression that Ethan knows that the things he's seen and done sets himself apart from everyone else, an idea expressed in the famous final shot of Ethan, having returned his niece to their family, standing on the threshold of the frontier house, but not quite able to cross it. He loves her and goes to great extremes to rescue her, but he hates what she has become and won't be part of it. Not exactly a black-and-white, might-makes-right situation, and yet Wayne fits into it well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The ship still sinks!

So I was gonna see the Titanic re-release in 3D, but after reading that the 3D is nothing to write home about, I decided to opt for a 2D viewing, if there was one. I couldn't find one, and after thinking about it some more, I decided I didn't need to see it again that badly after all. Still, I can't let the occasion go by without putting in my two cents about the movie... everybody else is...

I was still working video retail when it first came out in December 1997. I know I saw it in Manhattan, but I can't remember which theater. I don't think I saw it opening day, but I'm not sure. I do recall talking to a few people who had already seen it, and I had steeled myself for it in advance, determined not to fall prey to cheap emotionalism and to be as objective in my evaluation of the movie as possible. But the truth is that this is simply not that kind of movie.

Yes, I may have shed a tear or two towards the end. Seriously, it's hard not to get caught up in the story, especially once they hit the iceberg and the carnage begins. Titanic is the kind of movie that has to be seen on the big screen to get the full impact of it, and James Cameron knew that when he made it. Love him or hate him, he does not make movies for people to watch on their iPhones. And maybe the creation of movies like these has turned him into a dick with a massive ego. If so, that's unfortunate, but you and I will probably never know for certain. It's certainly unfortunate that Cameron doesn't feel the need to collaborate with a writing partner. Maybe that's a sign of his ego; I don't know.

I bought Titanic on VHS - widescreen, two tapes - but I don't recall watching it at home all that much. If I were being completely honest, I'd say the reason I bought it in the first place was because I got caught up in all the hype, but long before it came to home video I knew about the backlash. Obviously I didn't have the internet back then, but I read Premiere and Entertainment Weekly regularly. I knew that people were saying it wasn't all that. And now we've come to expect a backlash to movies like Titanic.

I think Titanic is half of a great movie - the second half, obviously - but that second half is powerful enough to justify the first half. And give Cameron credit for making the movie he wanted to make, without apologies. Like Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean before him, Cameron thinks on an epic scale and has the stones to pursue his vision, no matter where it takes him, from deep space to the bottom of the ocean, from the far-flung future to the distant past. That's a rare thing... and he should be recognized for that much.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spanning the web to bring you the constant variety of blog

So this holiday weekend, I thought I'd shine a light on what the rest of the film blogger world is up to, as we prepare for the summer movie season to arrive...

- Titanic has docked into theaters once again, this time in 3D, and here's a nice appreciation of it, in which the author explains how Kate Winslet's Rose inspired him to follow his heart.

- Brandie and the crew at True Classics are devoting this month to the films of Barbara Stanwyck, so I highly encourage you to check them out for that. 

- Speaking of Stany, here's a post about her films with Fred MacMurray.

- Imagine Siskel & Ebert as an old Jewish couple and you get Two Jews on Film, a pair of video bloggers whom I have thoroughly enjoyed lately. Here's their YouTube page.

- Rachel and Jess have combined Rachel's Reel Reviews and Insight into Entertainment to create Reel Insight.

- Here's a follow-up to the Queens World Film Festival: a piece from local news network NY1 about the young student filmmakers whose work played at the fest.

- Finally, I've seen several different renderings of a Pac-Man "movie," but this is by far the best. (Via Rope of Silicon)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Star Is Born (1937)

A Star Is Born (1937)
seen online via YouTube

Hollywood marriages must seem fleeting and ephemeral to the average moviegoer sometimes. Relationships are forged between actors, or perhaps an actor and a celebrity in another field, last a few years, and then something goes wrong, whatever it may be, and then it's in all the papers. The relationships that stick, that last the longest, tend to be taken for granted, and they're certainly not talked about as much - Brad and Angelina being a notable exception, of course.

Generally, I don't pay much attention to the personal lives of the stars, though of course there are some couples that I have liked at one point or another. I liked Will Smith and Jada Pinkett before they started turning their kids into celebrities too. I also liked Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins; never would've imagined they'd break up but they did.

I can't think of too many current examples of a Hollywood couple in which one is on the rise and another is on the way down. Katie Holmes was already making movies and was known before she married Tom Cruise, and though he did have a dry spell for a few years before Mission: Impossible 4 last winter, she hasn't exactly set the world on fire either. And it wasn't like people suddenly forgot who Tom Cruise was when he was in his slump.

But maybe it was different back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. I can see why A Star Is Born has been done so many times throughout film history - it's the kind of story that helped fuel the Hollywood fantasy, that (white) stars can come from anywhere. That's still true, but this dream is no longer solely dependent on the studio system to make it possible. Now it looks like Clint Eastwood, of all people, wants to do another one. Not that I'm all that eager to see yet another version, but I am curious as to how much modern media in general and the internet in particular will play a part in Clint's version.

Fredric March's character made me think of the stories I've read about Spencer Tracy, who apparently was a notorious boozer throughout his career, and of course Janet Gaynor's character stands by him the way Katharine Hepburn stood by Tracy. It's all very romantic and tragic at the same time on the big screen, though in real life I imagine it's probably a hell of a lot rougher. Of course, one also can't help but also be reminded of The Artist, even though this takes place entirely in the sound era of film and the ending is quite different. It's enjoyable, for what it is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Requiem for the video store, part 2

Last week I posted a link to a conversation between filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and video store owner Joe Martin about the home video market, video stores in general, and Martin's Brooklyn store, Reel Life South, in particular, which is going out of business. As someone who spent over seven years working in four different video stores (from the mid-90s to the mid-00s), there were so many things in this article that I found I could relate to and recognize from my experiences, and I just wanna highlight a few. 

For instance, I, like Perry, worked at Kim's Video in Greenwich Village, though at a different location, and if I recall correctly, I think there was a girl there who might have also worked at RLS at one point. Don't remember for sure. I've never been in RLS; I sometimes pass by the place whenever I'm in the Park Slope neighborhood and I knew its reputation, but I never knew it was in danger of closing. I vividly remember when the St. Mark's Place flagship location of Kim's closed and as a former Kim's drone, I can verify Perry's statement that mismanagement led to their downfall.

Re: VHS-to-DVD transition: I was working at the Third Avenue store at the time and among the first DVDs we picked up that were big renters were Fight Club and Austin Powers. I remember an afternoon flicking through the latter's extras, amazed at all the peripheral items to choose from. We started out with maybe fifty or so DVDs lined up in a box behind the counter. VHS was our bread and butter, not only for regular customers, but for a number of corporate accounts we kept for years - ad agencies, magazines, TV networks, places like that. They'd order 20, 30, 40 tapes at a time and we'd deliver them as well. These accounts were immensely profitable, as you can imagine, but they didn't order DVDs in anywhere near the same amounts.

I remember we had to work at keeping DVDs relatively clean and usable. They were rentals, so they'd be handled by who-knew-how-many different people a week. We would apply this cleaning goop to a DVD whenever somebody brought one in claiming that it wouldn't play past a certain point or whatever, which happened all the time of course because DVDs were still very much a new technology and people didn't know how to treat them properly.

Also, DVDs were priced to own; i.e., there was no period where it was rental only; the street date was the date for both renting and owning. We began selling off used VHS tapes in larger numbers than usual to compensate. Eventually they filled up an entire cabinet. As I recall, the only new VHS movies we'd sell tended to be Disney and other children's movies, because they generally hit the street priced to own as well as to rent. (Those over-sized "clamshell" containers - never cared for them.) We special ordered stuff for daily customers as well, though that was never a big business for us; VHS rentals were always the big thing. When I worked in the video department of Tower Records, the product there was strictly to buy only, but then I don't think Tower ever trafficked in the rental business.

Personally, I started getting more into buying DVDs. One of the last notable things I did while at Third Avenue was special ordering a DVD box set of I Claudius, which I was pretty excited about. By this time I owned a desktop computer and would play my DVDs on it. By the time I came to Kim's, my DVD collection had grown significantly. I usually went to the Virgin Megastore to buy them because they had a Criterion section, and it wasn't long before I discovered how special Criterion DVDs were - and are.

The clientele at Third Avenue was more sophisticated than your average Blockbuster crowd in terms of movie taste, but we had very little of the hardcore, scouring-the-city-for-rare-editions collector. That was much more of a Kim's thing. I consider myself fortunate that three of the four video stores I worked at were very much neighborhood stores. At Third Avenue, our everyday customers were mostly middle class families and aesthetes looking for a wider range of movies than what Blockbuster offered; the Film Forum/Angelika-type.

Oh, and of course, the porn watchers. Porn was another steady source of revenue for us, another service that Blockbuster didn't provide. RLS' Martin says in the interview that a good video store should specialize in horror, noir and foreign films. To that, I would also add porn. While I was at Third Avenue I was always a bit uncomfortable with porn, but by the time I got to Kim's, I was cool with it, but in both places, the porn section was always well-stocked and well-trafficked, and having it absolutely made a difference.

Perry says later on, in comparing the video store experience to Netflix and online streaming, that spontaneity, the ability to come into the store wanting one thing and end up leaving with something completely different, has a value. At Third Avenue, we had a section where, on one end were the boxes for about five or six new releases, and next to each one were older movies that were similar thematically, that one could conceivably choose from if the new release was out. For example, on a shelf next to, say, Magnolia, one could put movies like Boogie Nights and Hard Eight (other Paul Thomas Anderson films), or Short Cuts (PTA has often been compared to Robert Altman). To be honest, not everyone understood what we were trying to achieve with this section, even though we had signage explaining it, but those that did often took advantage of it, and I personally enjoyed helping to put it together (though I enjoyed arranging my staff selection shelf more).

I always liked recommending films to people. I don't think a day went by at Third Avenue without somebody asking, "What do you suggest?" when the new release they wanted wasn't in. Often times, we tried to steer them towards other new releases, but we also would suggest older movies, of course, and both Perry and Martin agree that this ability to talk to an actual human, an expert, is something we as a society are moving away from as online services make ordering products easier, perhaps too easier. I can't argue that; at both Third Avenue and Kim's, we established and maintained relationships with our customers that were as important as anything else in our businesses, maybe more so. Not every customer was pleasant to be around, naturally, but those that were made the job fun and easygoing. And that's something you can't possibly put a price on.

Requiem for the video store

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
last seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

I've always liked bowling. I think it gets mocked sometimes by some people who don't think it's a "real" sport, like say, tennis or golf. If nothing else, it requires a certain amount of arm strength and wrist and hand dexterity, and not everybody has that. It looks effortless, but it's not. And honestly, who cares if it's "legitimate" or not? Plenty of people enjoy it and it's fun.

Don't know if they still do it, but Wide World of Sports used to show the Pro Bowlers Tour on Saturdays, and as a kid I'd watch it fairly often. I'd always root for the left-handed bowlers, me being a lefty and all, although they were pretty rare. I couldn't tell you what exactly kept me watching bowling on TV. It's not like I aspired to become a pro bowler myself. As far as sporting ambitions go, mine was to play right field for the Mets. I guess it was just something to watch on a Saturday afternoon before or after the Game of the Week on NBC. 

The last time I went bowling was a few years ago, as part of an office Christmas party held in a bowling alley in south Brooklyn. I almost wasn't gonna go, but there was this girl that I liked who was going too, so I figured what the hell. She bragged that she was an excellent bowler, and she was pretty good, though I don't remember how she fared. I do remember seeing her get hit on by some drunk co-worker, though.

Whenever I try to bowl, I always think back to watching all those pros on TV and I try and do what they do, although as a lefty I have to reverse everything. I don't think much about things like putting enough spin on the ball or proper footing or anything like that, though; I just try to put as much power behind my release and aim for the two or the four pin and pray I don't get a split that's too wide for me to convert for a spare.

And you know, after all these years, I'm still not entirely certain how scoring works in bowling. Every time I think I've got it figured out, I get tripped up again. I don't remember how we would do it whenever my friends and I would go bowling in high school. We didn't have automatic computer screens keeping track of the scores then.

I saw The Big Lebowski when it first came out and I wasn't that impressed. Didn't hate it, but at the time it struck me as silly-but-lesser Coen Brothers material and  I quickly forgot about it. Years later, of course, I learned of the cult that has grown around the movie in general and Jeff Bridges' character in particular, and sooner or later I knew I would have to see it again in order to reassess it.

Now that I have, my opinion hasn't changed much. It's absolutely funny and enjoyable, but I think what soured me on it the first time was that I lost the thread of the plot halfway through and never recovered it. I've read that Lebowski is a modern spin on The Big Sleep, and maybe that's true, but as far as screwball Coen movies go, I'd still take Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou? over Lebowski. It does have a killer soundtrack, though; I'd forgotten about that.

This was one of, if not the biggest crowds for a film at the Loews that I'd ever been to.  The auditorium looked close to full, even on the sides. Fortunately, I arrived early and got a great aisle seat up front. I saw at least two replica Lebowski bowling shirts worn by a couple of dudes, and I suspect there were a lot of people attending the Loews for the first time. Wonder if they'll come back?