Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

My father did not suffer a significant loss of his faculties in his final years. My mother, I'm also happy to say, is the same way. She'll complain about forgetting things every now and then, but it  can be chalked up to what one would normally expect with age (though who knows what kind of effect watching Dancing With the Stars may have). Since neither of my parents contracted Alzheimer's Disease, I doubt that I or my sister will either, but ever since I reached a significant plateau, age-wise, earlier this year, I can no longer fool myself into thinking I'm still a spring chicken.

My father spent most of his final years in his bed watching TV all day, rarely going out, and even though he remained sociable with his friends and certainly wasn't what you'd call a recluse, it wasn't, and isn't, the way I want to spend my twilight years. Part of me hopes, in the immortal words of The Who, that I die before I get old - I mean really old, as in unable to see to my most basic needs.

Certainly losing my memory would suck, although there are certainly many things I'd love to forget. In keeping this blog, I've found myself repeatedly reaching back into my past for bits of memory that I can recreate; wondering whether an event went one way or another, whether I met someone at this time or that. If worst comes to worst, I'll just guess at the facts, but I do strive for accuracy whenever possible. The point is, this blog keeps my memory active.

All of which brings us to Robot & Frank, a film set in the "near future," about an aging cat burglar whose son gets him a robotic home attendant to see to his needs. The robot, however, ends up becoming an accomplice to the old man's crimes. I didn't expect this to be as funny as it is. A lot of the humor is the odd-couple type: grouchy old man unfamiliar with modern technology versus artificial intelligence programmed to keep him healthy. Frank Langella totally makes you believe it, though, in a performance that evokes both dark humor and deep compassion. Naturally, I was reminded of last year's outstanding film A Separation, only the emphasis is on the patient instead of the caregiver.

The robot is an amalgam of familiar sci-fi automatons, from C3PO to HAL 9000 to Twiki. Watching their relationship evolve is fun to watch, especially since it never crosses over into maudlin sentimentality. (At most, it skirts the edge.) The robot isn't programmed with a sense of morality, but exposure to Frank means it slowly develops a conscience of sorts, which is ironic since it repeatedly claims that it's not a sentient being.

There was a hint of what may have been a subplot having to do with Liv Tyler's character (whom I did not like) being part of an anti-robot movement of some sort. In this future, robots are part of everyday society (there's also a library robot in the film) and it sounded as if her character's stance against them was part of a wider philosophy. I would've liked to have seen a bit more of that, though not if it meant seeing more of Tyler. I liked this a lot. I hope Langella gets a Best Actor Oscar nod.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Animal House

National Lampoon's Animal House
last seen @ Central Park Conservancy Film Festival, New York, NY

I went to college here in New York, but I almost went away. There was a school in Rhode Island that I was accepted to, and if not for the costly tuition, I would've gone. Naturally, I liked the idea of spending four years in another part of the country. Still, I'm glad I ended up where I did. School of Visual Arts was good for me; I had some excellent teachers and I made some good friends.

Still, I wonder sometimes what it would've been like to have gone to a school out of the city, where I would've had to have lived on campus. I don't know if I would've joined a fraternity or not. I see it as one of those things that I would've done and regretted later for some reason. Besides, I did my share of partying without belonging to a fraternity.

Animal House is, of course, more than a movie about college hijinks. Like American Graffiti before it, it's a tribute to what we laughingly think of as a "simpler" time. It's still funny, though maybe not quite as funny as I remember it. Mostly I like it, as I'm sure many people do, for John Belushi, and for the amazing comic talent that he had on display. (Apropos of nothing: the site College Humor recently ranked the best college movies and Animal House finished second to Will Ferrell's Old School. Not sure I like that!)

Central Park has been in the news lately on account of reports that bikers have been going too fast on the roads inside the park. A blind marathon runner was hit by a cyclist, which made the front pages of the tabloids. The Daily News in particular has gone to great lengths to present bikers as a menace to society. It's not that they're wrong to report about this, it's more the extreme measures the tabloids (and certain websites) take in order to paint bikers in general in the worst light while routinely ignoring the damage cars do every week. It's frustrating...

...but it had no bearing on the screening last Friday. I ran into my friend Terry while heading to the subway afterwards, and while we were talking she brought up a point about outdoor movies in general that I don't think I've mentioned here: the propensity of some moviegoers to bring a plethora of "fancy" snacks - basically, the kind of stuff you'd get from Whole Foods, like fancy cheese, grapes, crackers made someplace in Europe with different kinds of dip, etc. Maybe it's a New York thing. I don't necessarily think ill of it, but it is kinda funny.

Monday, August 27, 2012

SUTS 2012: Jeanette MacDonald

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

Since SUTS lasts all month long, and there are so many stars to choose from, I decided I should probably pick at least one star I knew nothing about for this blogathon. I picked Jeanette MacDonald only because (a) she fit into my schedule and (b) I hadn't done an actress yet, so there you go. And I lucked out when I saw that she was a singer, because it gave me an opportunity to do something different yet again.

So let's see: MacDonald was born in Philly and went to New York to appear on Broadway with her older sister. Ernst Lubitsch took a chance on her in 1929 with The Love Parade, his first sound film, with Maurice Chevalier. From there, she went on to star in a number of mostly musical films, mostly at Paramount and MGM, spanning close to twenty years. Concurrently, she made a lot of records and did a lot of concerts, including opera, and she even did some radio and TV in her later years.

I've picked five songs that she sung in five different movies and reviewed them. I've tried to be as objective as possible, given that these songs come from a very different era; I don't expect her to sound like Adele or anybody like that.

"San Francisco" from San Francisco. Well, she's certainly having a good time in this scene - or sequence of scenes, actually. MacDonald had a very trilling, operatic voice, and it's certainly used to full effect here, though I wonder how the song would sound with a more earthier voice; Mae West's, for example. High marks for stage presence; I could easily imagine her voice carrying in such a small, intimate theater - and it's a nice, rousing number too. 9.0

"Wanting You" (with Nelson Eddy) from New Moon (no, not that one). Here's a romantic little ditty - and whoa, how about that glass-shattering high note towards the end? Sopranos going for those stratospheric notes is impressive and all, I guess, but to me, musical range is more important than whether your singing will make dogs bark in response. (IMDB says MacDonald had a three-octave range.) Not to knock MacDonald; she and Eddy sound very good together in what is - I'm sorry - a typical sappy love song. From the rolling of her R's, I imagine MacDonald's character has an accent of some sort as well. 7.0

"Will You Remember, Sweetheart?" (with Nelson Eddy) from Maytime. Okay, it looks like they start out as young lovers and later on we see her when she's older (dying?) but their souls, I guess, are reunited? That's what this looked like. I dunno. This song is boring. Again, not knocking MacDonald or Eddy's talent, but it is just such a super-sappy number, and I realize this film was made during the Depression and people wanted something uplifting and romantic but oh my god gag me already. 6.0

"Springtide" (with Jane Powell) from Three Daring Daughters. Older MacDonald, and with another female singer this time, this one's shorter, which may be why I like it. Seems very melancholy and wistful, and the way the two voices compliment each other towards the end is very pleasing. This one actually makes me wonder what the rest of the story is about - like, for instance, what the other two daring daughters were thinking when they walked in on Mom and big sis singing. 7.5

"Italian Street Song" from Naughty Marietta. Another upbeat song. This is from an operetta, so I expect her to hit high notes here - and boy, does she ever! I guess high notes impress me more in operas (or operettas) than anyplace else. You win, Jeanette MacDonald. Well played. (This song only hit #2 on the Billboard Classical chart? What song possibly beat it?) 10.0

So yeah, that's Jeanette MacDonald. Phenomenal singing voice, though I don't know if most of her movies interest me all that much, at least not the ones with Eddy. Still, since I'm writing about her, I guess I should watch one of her movies today.

UPDATE: I watched Three Daring Daughters this morning. It was alright.

Sidney Poitier
James Cagney

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mister Roberts/Anchors Aweigh

Mister Roberts
seen on TV @ TCM

I never had a hankering to join the Navy, or any of the armed forces, for that matter, but for a long time I had a fascination for ships and water. Chalk up the latter to a love of swimming as a kid, though my skills have gotten mighty rusty since. Oh, I can tread water in the deep end of a pool just fine, but you'll not see me go much farther than my waist at the beach. I suppose that's due to the unrestrained nature of a beach: waves that come and go at will, no (visible) boundaries, not being able to see the bottom - it can be a little scary if you're not careful.

As for ships, well, one of the highlights of my trip to San Diego five years ago was going down by the waterfront and taking guided tours on the sailing ships, military vessels, and even a submarine. Every so often (though not as much as I used to), I like to go down to South Street Seaport or Battery Park to watch the ships. And of course, I got to visit the Intrepid for the first time last year. I've read some of the Horatio Hornblower books, and I started, but never finished, a Jack Aubrey book, and I read Moby Dick when I was in college.

It's amazing how much mileage Hollywood has gotten, and continues to get, out of World War 2 movies, regardless of which branch of the armed forces (or civilians), regardless of genre. For someone who was born during the height of Vietnam, grew up with the Cold War, and has lived to see two conflicts in Iraq, it's harder for me to imagine a time when war was seen as not only a necessity, but as The Right Thing To Do - at least, not through the mythology of pop culture, but as something real.

I bring this up because in both Mister Roberts and Anchors Aweigh, we see the desire to serve, to get involved in the conflict despite the risks, because the war and/or the Navy have an allure to them. In the latter, there's a subplot involving a little kid who wants to join the Navy, but of course, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra don't have the heart to tell him he's too young. In the former, Henry Fonda's title character believed he'd get involved in the fighting at sea, but at the time the film begins, he hasn't - and he wants to. Nobody questions this desire in either case.

Regardless of whether it's in times of war or peace, with either a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, we're always gonna need fighting men and women, and I have nothing but respect for those that do serve or have served. But I think entering the armed forces, and wanting to go where the fighting is, is not something that should be done lightly. It's a decision that needs to be made with eyes wide open to all of its realities and all of its possibilities. We have a tendency to glamorize war, to give it an allure it probably doesn't deserve, and that's awful dangerous.

Yes, this is the one where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry.
This, however, is probably thinking too much about two otherwise enjoyable, delightful movies about the Navy. With every movie of his I see, my admiration for Fonda grows. He never made it look like acting, and he always seemed to project such a morally upright character. One not only believes him, one believes in him. As for Kelly & Sinatra, you'd be hard-pressed to find two better song-and-dance men. And did you know that the 23rd would've been Kelly's 100th birthday?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sparkle (2012)

Sparkle (2012)
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

I may have mentioned before that one of the first records I ever owned was Whitney Houston's debut LP. My father bought it for me; as a music geek going way back, he knew from good music and he knew, like the whole world would soon know, that this new singer was something special.

Time passed, however, and Whitney, like Etta James and Billie Holliday before her, struggled with personal demons. By the time her problems with her marriage and with drugs started becoming public knowledge, I had moved on from Top 40 music, and to be honest, while I sympathized with her situation, it didn't surprise me a great deal. I think we've reached a point in the evolution of American pop culture where we come to expect our pop stars to have some kind of drama in their lives...

...which is why her role in the remake of Sparkle is rife with subtext. There are moments throughout the film where, when Whitney's character Emma talks about her past as a singer, one gets the feeling she's really talking about herself. The line between fact and fiction gets blurred a bit, and it's reasonable to believe that Whitney was well aware of this.

At one time or another, we all dream of fame, but we never ponder what happens after we achieve it. These days, pop stars are younger and more expendable than ever, it seems, whether in movies or music or sports or what have you, and one wonders what, if any, kind of guidance they receive while millions follow their every move. Becoming famous is far, far too easy - it's holding on to that fame that's the real challenge.

I feel fairly certain that Whitney had positive role models that helped her on her meteoric rise to success, but somewhere along the way - maybe when she married Bobby Brown, maybe not - something went seriously wrong, something not too different, perhaps, from what went wrong with Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and (currently) Lindsay Lohan, among others, not to mention the character Sister in Sparkle. I believe part of the reason might have to do with achieving fame so relatively early in their lives. To be fair, though, this doesn't happen to every young pop star, and Sparkle ends with the hope that Sparkle herself will not turn out like Sister, but it's an idea worth pondering, given Whitney's role in this, her last film.

Sparkle was what I expected it to be: pleasant, safe, entertaining. I had expected it to resemble Dreamgirls in some fashion, even though the original film Sparkle predates the original Broadway musical Dreamgirls, but the similarities are purely superficial. I had also anticipated it being more of a showcase for Jordin Sparks, but though this is an ensemble, like Dreamgirls, Sparks doesn't get many "showy" moments, at least not like Jennifer Hudson did. Indeed, this is as much Sister's story as it is Sparkle's.

Sparks (anybody else getting a little confused between Sparks and Sparkle?), from what I could see, doesn't go for the vocal pyrotechnics as much as Hudson, but her role doesn't require her to. I guess I was under the impression that most, if not all, American Idol winners tend to go for the Aretha-like, up-and-down-the-vocal-register ooh's and aah's in order to impress the judges, and maybe Sparks did the same when she was on the show. Don't know. I sampled some of her songs on YouTube afterward. She's good. If she had come up in the 80s, I would've been a big fan of hers.

What was it about that song?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"I'm quietly judging you."

So Andrew from Encore is putting together a rather... ambitious project. He's getting his readers to determine the best acting performances of the 90s and is arranging the whole event in one big NCAA Tournament-style competition. So far he's only into the second round, but now he's conned invited other LAMBs to help promote the thing by writing about the players in this contest, and that includes Yours Truly. I have to admit, I wanted to do something similar to this on my old comics blog at one point, but it never worked out. He looks like he's pretty hardcore about this thing, though, so maybe you better head on over there and cast your vote for your favorite actor or actress. But before you do, permit me to make my own contribution by making the case for one of the players: number 3 seed Tom Cruise, in the film Magnolia.

I own Magnolia on DVD. It's a mesmerizing movie; seeing all these disparate characters and how they relate to each other is fun to watch. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has gone from the Altmanesque ensembles of his earlier films to smaller, tighter, more focused casts, and though he takes a longer time between films, they're always worth the wait. His latest, The Master, was shot in 70mm, the first fiction film in that format in almost twenty years, and I cannot wait to see it. Here's a recent interview with Anderson on The Master that's well-worth reading.

A role like Cruise's in Magnolia could easily dominate the entire film. The flashy theatrics of men's self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey when he's on-stage, not to mention his emotional breakdown when he confronts his absentee father, are undeniably showy and "actor-ly," but what really sells both the character and Cruise's performance for me is the interview scene, where the reporter - who, to her credit, doesn't back down from Frank - attempts to probe into his personal life, and you can see Frank's shields slowly go up little by little, the barely-repressed rage bubbling close to the surface. There's also a little bit of real-world subtext as well - Cruise's association with Scientology has made him, like Frank, a somewhat controversial figure with certain views that challenge conventional wisdom. If nothing else, it's one of his most memorable roles. It's rare that someone of his superstar caliber gets to be part of an ensemble, especially one as deep and talented as this.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sparkly links... and another award

So summer's winding down and I promised myself I'd go back to the beach. The past few weeks, the weather's cooled off a little bit, but I'm still hoping for some real beach-appropriate weather. This summer hasn't been too bad. I've seen my share of outdoor movies, got involved in some great blogathons, and made some new City Mouse strips. I'd like to make some more strips, and hopefully I will, once I come up with a new idea or two.

I don't know what to say about the death of director Tony Scott beyond the obvious platitudes. I was never a huge fan of his, but I did enjoy True Romance, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State. And of course, Top Gun gave us one of the most awesome movie soundtracks ever, though I'm not sure how much of that can be credited to him. For someone who seemed to have everything one could want in life to cash in his chips is an undeniable tragedy.

I gladly accept this Liebster Award from my friend Alan over at The Great Movie Project, but I'm sorry... I am not passing this along to eleven more people. I'm just not.

Alan's questions:

What are your top five favorite movies of all time? They change fairly often, but today I'd say they are: Sunset Boulevard, Die Hard, Breaking the Waves, The Apartment, and Krush Groove. How's that for eclectic?
In your opinion, what is the best film translation of a book? There are a lot of books turned into movies that I've never read, but to pick one example among many that I have: I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after seeing the movie and I thought the latter captured the spirit of the former very well.
What is your favorite movie moment? Again, far too many to choose one above all, but to pick one recent example: the climax of Toy Story 3.
What's the strangest movie you've ever watched? I dunno. Andy Warhol's Empire? Not that I sat through all of it, of course. 
Has it ever embarrassed you to watch a movie in the theater? If so, which one(s)? I'm sure there must have been at least one, but I can't recall which.
Are movies still relevant as an art form or has Hollywood's mass production strategy made them something else? There's a hell of a lot more to movies than Hollywood, so I'd have to say the answer to that is a big fat yes.
Which of the four Hogwarts Houses would you want to belong to? Pass. Never seen any of the Potter films nor have I read the books.
Who's the best movie villain?

You're sitting in a quiet theater during a horror movie, watching the killer creep up on the unsuspecting babysitter on the screen. What flavor of ice cream are you eating? Scare-amel, of course! Haw!
Who is your favorite movie hero/superhero? If we're going with superheroes, I gotta say the Christopher Reeve Superman.
What's a movie that surprised you by how much you enjoyed it? The Matrix. Got dragged to see it and I thought it was gonna be just another shoot-em-up.

Eleven things about me:
I'm a Pisces.
I'm left-handed.
I have a Worf T-shirt that I first bought back in the mid-90s and I still wear it!
I used to edit a short-lived comics magazine.
The first concert I ever went to was Rick Springfield at Radio City Music Hall with my sister.
I can recite the first few verses of Poe's "The Raven" from memory.
I went to college with The Tick creator Ben Edlund.
In junior high school, I used to draw portraits of my friends for money during lunch.
I once waited on Chloe Sevigny when I worked in video retail.
I taught a life drawing class when I lived in Columbus.
I prefer cats over dogs.

A reminder: my photos from the Red Hook waterfront (like this one) are up on the WSW Facebook page. Just click on the banner to the right - and 'like' me too, while you're at it!.

And now the links:
Ted from FlixChatter has some bad movies for you. (I've gotten away from bad movies lately; I should try and find one to write about again.)

Props to John for including Carol Burnett on his list of ten people who helped make him funny.

I am totally jealous of Alex for making this super awesome poster of every live-action Catwoman who has ever been.

The Master, the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, filmed in 70mm, secretly screened at MOMI last week.

Here's a nice piece about how critical opinion on movies can change over time, using, of all things, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as an example.

Finally, speaking of Alex, I found this on her Twitter feed: now let me ask you... what are the odds that two film bloggers would celebrate their 500th posts on the same weekend? Even more, what are the odds that both of them are also visual artists, and that both would choose to commemorate their 500th posts with original art? Behold!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

For my 500th post...

I wanted to have this fall on the 16th, which was the second anniversary of WSW, but things didn't quite work out that way. No big deal. Both milestones come as a surprise to me, however. I've said it before, but writing this blog has been a real learning experience for me in more ways than one. If this is your first post, or if you've been with me from the early days, or anything in between, thank you. I'm still experimenting, still playing around with formats and trying to find what works and what doesn't, and I'm always open to suggestions.

I totally did not originally plan to do two City Mouse strips in the same week. I wasn't sure how to approach the TCM SUTS Blogathon in the beginning. I've committed to doing three pieces, and I soon realized I didn't want to have them all be the same, especially after such a pedestrian first post. So I decided to go in a radically different direction. I was already working on the CM strip you're about to read, but I had to put it aside because I only had a week to make the SUTS strip and my schedule was thrown out of whack, like it often is. No matter, though - I'm here, you're here, and so is, once again...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Red Hook Summer

Red Hook Summer
seen @ AMC Magic Johnson Theaters, New York NY

In the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, the noted scientist and outspoken atheist devotes an entire chapter to the way organized religion can be harmful to children's development. He makes a strong case for giving them the opportunity to think for themselves while they're still starting out in the world:
...I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure....
We think we're doing our kids a favor by bringing them up in religion. After all, if the end goal is heaven, or paradise on earth or what have you, why wouldn't we wanna share that with our kids? They'll thank us for it one day.

So we indoctrinate them. We get them to study the holy books, observe the proper rituals, and never once do we let any doubt or uncertainty enter their heads, because just like eating vegetables and getting vaccinated, we tell them, "It's good for you. We know best. Just have faith."

And so these kids go out into the world with this new information - that our way of life is right and everyone else's is wrong - but often times, it clashes with what the world thinks, and they're marked as a result. They sense that the rhetoric they've been trained to believe (without a choice in the matter) makes them outsiders. Weird. Different. They can't do things other kids can and that bothers them. They don't wanna be different; that's the worst thing you can be at a young age. But Mommy and Daddy say this is how it must be if they wanna reach the end goal, even if the end goal may never be eclipsed in their lifetime.

So the kids double down and try harder, but the pain of being laughed at, of being a freak, is too much to bear. And then they get older and learn other beliefs, and suddenly they wonder how they could've ever grown up believing the things they did. But our indoctrination is strong. They may decide they don't believe the things we do anymore but are unable to articulate it properly. Why? 

Because of fear. Fear of disappointing us. Fear that we won't love them anymore. Fear of abandoning a lifetime of religious dogma, even if that dogma has stunted them emotionally and intellectually. But we can't see that because we're still convinced that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Why? Because of faith.

Blind faith, one could say.

Let's just say that this is a situation I know something about and leave it at that.

I thought at first that Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer was gonna be about the dangers of blind faith. Then I thought it would be about the dangers of religious fundamentalism. But then [SPOILER] happens, which I have to admit was a plot turn I figured out back in January when I read about its Sundance debut and people wrote that there was a dramatic third-act twist. It struck me as a kinda cliche route to go down, especially since it comes so close to the end. I would've preferred it to come a half-hour earlier, so we could see more of the fallout and more of how the preacher character deals with it. (And that's probably all I should say about that, but if you know the movie's basic premise, it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out.)

It's no spoiler to mention that Lee reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing here, but to what purpose? He appears only twice in the narrative and both times in passing. He's not part of the story at all and his appearance seems gratuitous. I suppose Lee wanted to draw some sort of thematic comparison between the two movies, but they're nothing alike.

I've already talked about Red Hook (though if this movie is any indication, then I must've been in the more gentrified part of the neighborhood), so I'll briefly say a few words about where I saw Summer - Harlem! I don't make it up there very often, but I've certainly spent some time there. The main drag, 125th Street, is always jumping. Street vendors of all types line the corridor's sidewalks, selling a variety of Afrocentric products, including books, CDs, DVDs and clothing. The Studio Museum is well worth a visit, but I'm afraid I've never been to the World-Famous Apollo Theater. I hope to go one day. And of course, almost every major street and landmark is named for a black historical figure. There's no place in all the five boroughs like Harlem: the history, the culture, the food, the people. It's truly one of a kind.

The Magic Johnson is like any other AMC theater, with a few exceptions. In the hallway leading to the auditoriums, there are black-and-white photos of black entertainers and historical figures from the 20th and 21st centuries that is quite inspiring to look at.  In addition to posters for new and upcoming movies, there are also posters for black movies from the past, such as What's Love Got to Do With It, Jungle Fever, and Poetic Justice, among others. And of course, they played trailers for black movies, like Django Unchained. You never forget where you are when you're at the Magic.

There was a middle-aged woman on line ahead of me and another guy who couldn't decide what movie to see and kept asking questions about other movies to the clerk. She either saw what was currently playing or didn't have any interest in the others, and right when I was about to  tell her to either decide or move on, she moved on. Some people...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

SUTS 2012: James Cagney

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

For newcomers to my site, a quick primer on what you're about to see:

I'm a trained cartoonist. In 2008, when I was living in Columbus, Ohio, I wrote and drew a strip called City Mouse Goes West, that appeared in the Short North Gazette. He started out as being an avatar for myself, but he's since evolved into a cooler version of me. When I started WSW, I brought him back and have done a few film-related strips with him and other characters from the original series, and for the SUTS Blogathon, I've brought him back once more. Enjoy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Grand Hotel

The Cinematic World Tour Blogathon is an event in which participants use the movies to take virtual trips around the world, using settings and moments in movies to inform their writing approach, hosted by All Good Things. This blogathon lasts from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so check back periodically at the host site for posts from participating blogs.

Grand Hotel
seen on TV @ TCM

Greetings from Berlin!

I've met all kinds of remarkable people while traveling around the world this summer. Currently I'm in the company of the lovely daughter of a French diplomat who has invited me to spend a week with her in Berlin. I've promised to paint her portrait as a gift for her father, and I'm being paid quite handsomely for it too, which is fortunate because I'm almost out of dough!

Here's a shot of the lobby of the hotel we're staying in. This is fancy-schmancy stuff - a four-star joint, one of the best in all the world!

Thursday, August 9, 2012


seen @ Red Hook Flicks @ Valentino Pier, Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY

Red Hook, like many a Brooklyn neighborhood before it, is currently in the slow process of gentrification, but in this case, the process puzzles me a bit for one simple, but vital reason: it feels cut off from the rest of Brooklyn. In a literal sense, it is: one has to cross the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to get there. However, it's also relatively far from the nearest subway.

There are buses, of course. There are always buses. But in 2010, bus service was reduced all over the city as a result of budget restrictions (brought about by Albany stealing money from the MTA to balance its own books), and Red Hook was one of the neighborhoods that got hit hardest. The F and G trains just barely skirt the outer reaches of the neighborhood, but wouldn't you know it - the "closest" station is currently closed for massive repairs!

So perhaps it's no surprise that I never go out to Red Hook. Still, there's supposedly a "scene" going on there there, or so the Wall Street Journal tells me. For instance, for several years, Red Hook has held a free outdoor movie festival, and this year I figured it was high time I checked it out.

From what I saw, Red Hook is still very much factories and warehouses lined up against what my bike map refers to as the Buttermilk Channel. There's very little in the way of recent development, like what we've seen in Williamsburg. The buildings are old, and many have a history to them that you can see. In addition to the obligatory bodegas, pizza joints and laundromats, one can see some upscale restaurants, a boutique or two, a community garden, a winery, even a big supermarket - and, of course, there's an Ikea. Again, though, it's not like Williamsburg yet (and hopefully it never will be, but that's another post).

The waterfront is nice, though. Valentino Pier, where the movies are held, gives you a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty, and murals adorn the sides of buildings surrounding the pier. In addition, there's a section further down where one can see ancient streetcars lined up on what used to be rail tracks. There's a little museum here too, but I don't think it was open when I was there. Look for photos I took along the waterfront on the WSW Facebook page within the coming days.

The crowd that gathered to see Zombieland was largish, but in a relatively comfortable way. It's not like Brooklyn Bridge Park, where you're overwhelmed by a sea of humanity. Here, the crowd felt big, but I had a bit more elbow room. In my case, though, my spot was in the very front, to the left side of the screen, and not anywhere in the middle. I arrived a couple of hours early (as per my rules on attending outdoor movies), but in this case, I was too early. The screen wasn't even set up yet!

As for the movie itself, it was awesome. Why did I pass on Zombieland when it came out? While I still believe no zombie movie can ever top Peter Jackson's Dead Alive for sheer over-the-top madness, this was a lot of fun and had its fair share of gore as well. (It also made me realize that as much as I love The Walking Dead, there's simply not enough humor in it.) And do I even need to mention how thrilled I was to see that the main character's nickname was "Columbus," as in Ohio, as in where he's trying to get to? Too bad it didn't survive the zombie apocalypse, though.

So while Red Hook still doesn't strike me as a neighborhood I'd go out of my way to hang out in, it's nice to know that it's got some life to it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

SUTS 2012: Sidney Poitier

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

In 2009, a satirical novel came out called I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett, which is part parody of the actual Sidney Poitier's films and part examination on race and class in America, centered around a young man whose actual name is "Not Sidney Poitier," and he even looks like the actor to boot.

For a generation of moviegoers, to be Sidney Poitier, at least on screen, was to be a paragon, a symbol of blackness in general and male blackness in particular. He was not the first black Hollywood movie star, but his great success opened the door a little bit wider for those that followed.

Born in the Bahamas, he moved to Miami at age 15 and then New York at age 18, working odd jobs and serving briefly in the Army. In Harlem, he auditioned with the American Negro Theater, but his Caribbean accent proved an impediment, so he spent six months working on getting rid of it. Eventually he started receiving stage work, including a brief run on Broadway in an all-black version of Lysistrata.

In 1949, Poitier signed a contract with 20th-Century Fox and was cast in a film noir called No Way Out, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which came out the following year. (He was 22, but told Mankiewicz he was 27.) He played an ER doctor who has to deal with a bigoted patient, played by Richard Widmark, with whom Poitier got along great during shooting. Poitier's character was originally going to die at the end, but producer Darryl Zanuck disapproved, believing his death served no purpose in the story, and the ending was changed. Ebony Magazine praised it for its direct addressing of everyday racial discrimination, though several states demanded re-cuts before showing it.

Poitier in 'Blackboard Jungle'
Poitier's performance lead to other roles atypical of black actors at the time (including his wild high school kid in The Blackboard Jungle), until he was offered the lead in the adaptation of the musical Porgy and Bess. The musical was deemed as insulting and demeaning to blacks at the time, and Poitier's friend Harry Belafonte (whom he once understudied for back in his theater days) had already turned the role down. Poitier, however, took the part because he feared that if he didn't, Porgy producer Samuel Goldwyn would stand in the way of the role he really wanted: Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958).

The Defiant Ones was about two escaped convicts, one black, one white, chained together and forced to cooperate to survive despite their mutual distrust. At one point Kramer had cast Marlon Brando, but had to delay the start of production in order to wait for Poitier to be available. As a result, he lost Brando to another obligation the actor had. Tony Curtis was cast in his place. It was Curtis who insisted Poitier's name be placed above the title with his own. This would prove to be fortuitous, as Poitier's performance led to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, making him the first black man to be nominated in that category. Though he lost, he would eventually go on to win Best Actor for his 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

Poitier w/Ruby Dee in 'A Raisin in the Sun'
Poitier thrived in the 60s, appearing in such popular films as A Raisin in the Sun, To Sir With Love, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the film with perhaps his most iconic role, In The Heat of the Night. Later in his career he turned to directing, helming such films as Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and Stir Crazy.

There have been those in the past who have criticized Poitier's selection of roles, saying that at his peak he kept playing the same kind of flawless, saintly Negro character over and over again, and maybe there was some truth to that. Still, one should remember the time period: the late 50s and the 60s were a time when white America was slowly beginning to change the way it looked at blacks in general after hundreds of years of institutionalized bigotry, not to mention the slave trade. To return to the original theme of this post, to be Sidney Poitier, in Hollywood's eyes, was to finally recognize that blacks could be more than just maids and porters (and song-and-dance performers), an attitude that the civil rights movement - which Poitier contributed to - was expressing in no uncertain terms. And it's not like they were offering him many roles with more dimension.

Poitier in 'To Sir With Love'
In the late 60s and on into the 70s, Poitier took up writing and producing as well as directing, and even co-founded a studio with Paul Newman and Barbara Streisand called First Artists Corp., which produced such films as The Main Event, A Star is Born, The Getaway and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. In subsequent years, Poitier has received numerous honors and accolades, including being named a non-resident Bahamian ambassador as well as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire; receiving an NAACP Image Hall of Fame Award, an honorary Oscar, and the Medal of Freedom (given to him by President Obama).

To be Sidney Poitier has come to be associated with dignity, distinction and inspiration.

Look for more posts in this series throughout the rest of this month.