Friday, December 28, 2012

Two Jews sing their 'Les Mis' review

Mostly, anyway. These two are so damn awesome and if you've never seen their show before, this video is a perfect example of why you should. Here's their YouTube channel.

That's it for me in 2012. I'll be back January 2. Don't forget, my new weekly comic strip, "City Mouse Makes a Movie," debuts January 5 and will run on Saturdays throughout the year. Look for a sneak preview on my Twitter page next Thursday!

Have a happy new year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
seen @ AMC Lincoln Center 13, New York, NY

I once wrote a short story about a superhero team in which the wife of one of their number is murdered, and they go off on the trail of the killer. (It was inspired by a superhero mini-series with a similar premise, one which I did not like and thought I could improve on.) One of their allies in the search is a former hero who tortures a man whom he believes can lead them to the killer. The former hero was a soldier before he got his powers. When his crime-fighting partner died saving lives, he retired in order to protect his partner's secret identity from exposure. He justifies his use of torture, something he had never done before, by citing loyalty to one's comrades above all else.

Many of the stories we tell, and have told, throughout human history, involve one of the oldest and most basic maxims: an eye for an eye. Someone does you wrong, you balance the scales and get them back. Most of the time, when we see or hear those stories, we don't particularly care too much how payback is achieved. After all, these are only characters in a story. It's not real. I'm certainly no different; I don't think about degrees of morality when I see Batman toss the Joker around a room in order to get him to reveal where Harvey Dent is.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Cable Guy

The Cable Guy
seen on TV @ Comedy Central

My parents first got cable television when I was in high school. Of course, it was a big deal at the time, but I don't recall ever marveling at this relatively new advance in home entertainment technology. I knew about MTV, of course, and I was eager to watch plenty of that, as well as the less hip (but still watchable) VH1. Plus, I could see more Mets games.

My sister had already moved out by this time, so I didn't have to worry about sharing the cable with her, and my parents, if I recall correctly, didn't make as much use of cable as they would in later years (though I could be misremembering). My father definitely watched more sports, at least.

I don't think I watched that much more television growing up than others of my generation. Oddly enough, even with cable, most of the shows I watched were still on free TV, but then cable networks like HBO didn't start excelling in original programming yet. Like I said, for me, cable mostly meant videos and sports...

...especially the latter. One could still see Mets and Y-nk--s games on local networks as well as cable back then, but that number was dwindling, so I was grateful to see the Mets more often, as well as basketball and hockey and the occasional boxing match. Cable definitely fed my sports jones growing up, and even sparked interest in other sports, like tennis. (It always amused me whenever my father would mute the sound when watching a baseball game; he'd say that the announcers weren't saying anything new to him. My mother didn't seem to care for them, either. I remember she hated ESPN's Chris Berman in particular.)

These days, I don't watch as much TV as I used to, but I've definitely watched more ever since I got into TCM (thank you, classic movie bloggers). I have basic cable, not the pay channels; no HBO for me. Still, most of the time, I've found TCM to be enough. Still, that doesn't stop me from checking out other channels, obviously. I saw The Cable Guy on Comedy Central, which I don't watch much of apart from the intermittent episode of The Daily Show.

I first saw The Cable Guy on video. I've always liked it, and it's a bit of a shame it didn't do better at the box office than it did. Audiences at the time weren't ready yet to see Jim Carrey as a slightly more nuanced character than Ace Ventura, I guess. It was directed by Ben Stiller, who, like Carrey, came to film from television, and while it's not on the level of something as vivid and prophetic as Carrey's later film The Truman Show, I think both movies would make for an excellent twin bill, as they both examine the power of television culture from both the audience and the entertainer's sides - the watcher and the watched. (One could even throw in Man on the Moon as well; a real-life TV star who subverted his audience's viewing experience.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Yuletide links

I should have a post for you about this movie next week.
What a surprise - the world didn't end after all! Just like it didn't end a year and a half ago when everybody was screaming about the rapture, just like it didn't end when the Y2K bug had everyone in a panic, just like it hasn't ended for what, billions of years now? And still people fall for this crap. Why do people wanna believe in the end of the world so much? Seriously, it bugs me so much because it keeps people afraid and ignorant. I saw a link on Twitter yesterday to an article about a bunch of schools in Michigan that closed because they were afraid of the apocalypse. (Residual paranoia as a result of the Newtown massacre was also cited as a cause, but still.) The gullibility of some people really angers me.

But I don't want this to be a downer post. After all, it is the holiday season, and even if that means zip-a-dee-doo-dah to you, even I'm willing to quit grinding my axe for a little while. This was indeed a crap year overall, but not for movies! It was a pretty awesome year for movies in fact, even though I still haven't seen all the ones I wanna see yet - but then, that's what January is for.

I even have an announcement! Earlier this year, I had said something about starting a new Saturday feature, but life kinda got in the way and I put it on hold. Now, though, it's almost ready to go. Beginning January 5, I'll have for you a new, serialized City Mouse strip that will (fingers crossed) run throughout 2013! This will be the longest City Mouse story I've ever worked on, and it'll feature characters from the original series as well as new ones in a story about movies, so you'll wanna be here for that!

The final link list of the year for you is a brief one:

Raquelle goes shopping for DVDs in a rare video post from her.

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, Hollywood's rethinking violence again (even as the NRA chastises them for it).

Here's a nice piece about the history of New York's Penn Station and its appearances in movies.

Hollywood cliches about holidays abound.

I'll be back on Wednesday the 26th. Enjoy your holiday.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Double Indemnity

Barbara Stanwyck is the Star of the Month this month on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and because she's my favorite actress, I'll talk about some of the airing movies throughout this month - notably the ones I've never seen before. To see other posts about Stanwyck, type her name into the search bar or click on the "movie stars" label.

I wasn't gonna talk about Double Indemnity at first; so much has already been written and said about it already. Still, it was the first movie I ever saw Barbara Stanwyck in, so I figured I could probably talk about that much at least. I rushed home from Brooklyn to see this, but I still missed the first fifteen minutes. No big deal, though; I've seen this plenty of times.

The last time I saw it, if I'm not mistaken, was in Bryant Park during their annual summer movie series. That might have been the first time I had seen it on a big screen. What I remember most was the crowd laughing at what they thought was unintentionally funny, which irritated me, but what can you do?

Actually, I'm not certain where I first saw Double. I keep thinking it might have been in my college film class, which is possible, but I could just be associating it with Sunset Boulevard, which I know I saw in film class. If it wasn't there, then it would've been during my video retail job for sure.

Either way, I do recall with some clarity my first impressions of Stany. I didn't think anything about the blonde wig, after all, I didn't know that she looked like without it. I do recall that it took me awhile to get used to seeing her as a brunette in other movies. (Thank god she didn't start her career as a bleached blonde like sooooooooo many other actresses in the 30s!)

I'm fairly certain that this was the movie that started the debate between me and my friend Steve about her looks. He didn't think she was ugly, but he thought she looked unconventional at best. It's true, Stany was no Rita Hayworth, and the wig does her no favors, but I defy anyone to look at her in the first scene in only a towel and that honey of an anklet and not call her sexy!

In Dan Callahan's recent biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, he writes about how Stany was reluctant at first to take the part:
Stanwyck admired Double Indemnity as a script, but she was nonetheless uncertain about it. "I had never played an out-and-out killer," she remembered. "I had played medium heavies, but not an out-and-killer." (I love her term "medium heavy," which suggests there is a kind of human scale for perfidy). She went to see Wilder. "I was a little frightened of it and, when [I went] back to his office, I said, 'I love the script and I love you, but I am a little afraid after all these years of playing heroines to go into an out-and-out cold-blooded killer.' And Mr. Wilder—and rightly so—looked at me and he said, 'Well, are you a mouse or an actress?' And I said, 'Well, I hope I’m an actress.' He said, 'Then do the part.'"
I don't think I was familiar with the term "film noir" at the time I first saw it, but I had a basic awareness of some of the tropes, including the "femme fatale" - only I always saw them as parodies, cliches. Double may have been the first time I saw them for real - the hard-boiled dialogue, the speedy delivery of that dialogue, stuff like that. I could never imagine people talking that way in real life, yet on the screen, it seems more believable somehow.

In fact, there was a brief period where I tried getting into old crime novels. I read Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler (who co-wrote Double with Billy Wilder), but that was about the extent of it. They didn't do much for me, though I was much younger when I read them.

Wilder talks about Chandler's writing style in Conversations With Wilder (yes, I'm still quoting from this book; what can I say, I like it). Wilder loved his dialogue but not his method of constructing a story:
... He was about sixty when we worked together. He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn't used to it. He was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. "There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool." That is a great line, a great one. After awhile I was able to write like Chandler.... I would take what he wrote, and structure it, and we would work on it. He hated James Cain [the author of the original Double novel]. I loved the story, but he did not care for Cain. I tried to get Cain, but he was busy making a movie.
Wilder's regular collaborator at the time, Charles Brackett, backed out from adapting Double, finding it too grim, according to Wilder.

That hard-boiled dialogue belongs to another era now, I think. Whenever I watch Double, I always try to imagine spouting it, but I know I'd only end up tongue-tied. I used to have trouble speaking publicly, and it was only with a conscious effort that I was able to overcome it - by talking slower. Studying acting helped in that regard. So I'd never choose to perform in roles like these. I look at someone like Edward G. Robinson in this film, and I marvel at his ability to make that dialogue simply crackle with life.

Going back to Miracle Worker, Callahan examines the theory, which I've seen elsewhere, that Robinson and MacMurray's characters are secretly gay, particularly the former. I briefly thought of this while watching the movie, but I still don't buy it. The relationship between Keyes and Neff strikes me as much more surrogate father-son than anything else. I do agree with Callahan, however, in thinking that Keyes is probably misogynistic, though that doesn't make him any less of a great character to me.

Did you know that there was an alternate ending to Double where we see Neff executed? From Conversations again:
... It was a close-up of Robinson and a close-up of MacMurray. The looks. There was a connection with his heart. The doctor was standing there listening to the heartbeat when the heartbeat stopped. I had it all, a wonderful look between the two, and then MacMurray was filled with gas. Robinson comes out, and the other witnesses are there. And he took a cigar, opened the cigar case, and struck the match. It was moving - but the other scene, the previous scene, was moving in itself. You didn't know if it was the police siren in the background or the hospital sending the doctor. What the hell do we need to see him die for?
I'm glad he chose to drop it, though I wouldn't mind seeing this scene sometime.

Banjo on My  Knee/Remember the Night

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner
seen on TV @ TCM

In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations With Wilder, which I mentioned yesterday, director Billy Wilder talks at great length about his idol, Ernst Lubitsch. It's only recently that I've taken a good look at his films. Wilder was, and has remained, my favorite director for so long - it never occurred to me before to ever wonder who he was influenced by. In this section from the book, Wilder attempts to define what makes Lubitsch distinctive:
CC: It's been analyzed quite a bit by others, but what was "the Lubitsch touch" to you? 
BW: It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect. That was the Lubitsch touch. To think as he did, that is a goal worth having. Collaborating with him, he would have many questions. "What are you going to do with this story point?" "Let's find some way to say this differently." 
CC: How can one contemporize the Lubitsch style? 
BW: Find some new way to tell your story. That was the magic of Lubitsch. He is eternally essential to me.

Wilder cites as an example the silly little dress hat in Ninotchka. The first time Greta Garbo sees it, she hates it because, coming from Russia as her character does, to her it's a symbol of capitalism at its worst. The second time she just tsk-tsks at it. The third time, after she begins to fall for Melvyn Douglas, she buys it and wears it, no longer beholden to the things she'd been taught all her life about the world.

I knew about the movie The Shop Around the Corner before, primarily because it was remade as You've Got Mail, but I had never seen it, and it still managed to surprise me in places because Lubitsch found different ways to tell his story. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are clerks in a gift shop who, unbeknownst to each other, are also secret pen pals in love with each other. The irony, of course, is that they can't stand each other while they're working together. 

Jimbo finds out who Sullavan really is before she discovers his true identity, but instead of confronting her with it, like I expected, he strings her along for awhile, even going so far as to build up his alter ego as an actual person, just to get a better sense of her, to see her as a woman and not just as a co-worker.

The only thing I didn't like about this delightful movie is that I didn't believe for one minute that it's supposed to be set in Budapest. Stewart and Sullavan make no attempt at Hungarian accents. If their characters were American, that'd be different, but they weren't. You just have to accept the artifice, but I think Wilder would've agreed with me about the odd-ness of it, if this passage from Conversations, about his film Irma la Douce, is any indication:
... There is always something wrong about people not speaking the language of the foreign country where the picture takes place. And you could not stand a [Jack] Lemmon or a [Shirley] MacLaine speaking English with an accent, either. It's false. It just does not work.

On that last part I tend to differ with the master in that learning a foreign accent is something we expect now, whenever an actor does a movie in a country not his or her own. Heck, Meryl Streep does it almost every time she makes a movie! However, as I speculated earlier this month when I wrote about Barbara Stanwyck in Banjo On My Knee, perhaps the audiences of the day didn't hold their stars to such high standards. Maybe they wanted someone like Stewart to be recognizable as Stewart from one film to the next.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Are leading men allergic to rom-coms?

Wilder's 'Sabrina', w/two of H'wood's great leading
men, Bogart and Holden (w/Audrey Hepburn)
I just finished reading the book Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe's one-on-one series of interviews with Billy Wilder from 1999. It's a book I've coveted for many years, and I recently found it in a used bookstore in Brooklyn for only ten bucks! Needless to say, I was pretty thrilled. It's a rare look into the mind of one of the all-time great film directors, reflecting on his career and his life. It's an absolute treasure.

I wanna talk about one section of the book, where they talk about romantic comedies, something Wilder was no stranger to. Crowe puts forth a theory (not his) which postulates that because there are fewer racial and class distinctions these days, it's harder to find obstacles to keep couples separate. Wilder says that people are still essentially the same; it just takes a sharp writer to come up with those obstacles. He goes on to lament the lack of true leading men today like there were in his day. Then there's this exchange:
CC: In my experience, it has often been difficult to talk a leading man into playing pure romantic comedy. It's hard today to find actors who want to say "I love you" on film. They're afraid of looking foolish. They'd rather have a gun. Was it similar in your day? 
BW: It was not that way. (A) We had leading men and leading ladies; we had them by the dozens. (B) We didn't think in terms of "That's a comedy, that's a light picture." It was just a picture, and you made a lot of them. It's very different now, to have something with three thousand car crashes, or actors always looking up at the dinosaur.... The popular pictures are a little heavier, a little more masculine.
Cruise hasn't made a rom-com in over fifteen years,
not since Crowe's 'Jerry Maguire' (w/Renee Zellweger)
I doubt anyone could dispute the inescapable facts that movies are more masculine these days and that there are fewer true stars. But is it really so that actors are avoiding rom-coms for the most part? I suspected that it was, but I still wanted to see for myself.

I took the ten Hollywood actors that could reasonably be considered the biggest and most popular in the business right now - George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler, Will Smith and Denzel Washington - and looked at their movies over the past ten years, 2003-12, to see what percentage of them are rom-coms. I counted feature films only and not shorts or television. Their last rom-com is listed in parentheses, along with the year. Boldface titles are outside the ten-year span:

Clooney           1/16 (Intolerable Cruelty, 2003)
Cruise              0/11 (Jerry Maguire, 1996)
Damon             2/25 (Jersey Girl, 2004)
Depp                1/20 (...And They Lived Happily Ever After, 2004)
DiCaprio          0/9 (Celebrity, 1998)
Hanks               1/13 (Larry Crowne, 2011)
Pitt                     0/14 (The Favor, 1994)
Sandler             3/17 (Just Go With It, 2011)
Smith                 1/9 (Hitch, 2005)
Washington       0/12 (The Preacher's Wife, 1996)

Does anyone even remember seeing Pitt (in glasses,
no less!) in this pre-'Seven' flick 'The Favor'?
A few notable items: in some of these rom-coms, these stars are not pivotal characters. For instance, Damon has what amounts to a cameo appearance in Jersey Girl, while DiCaprio's screen time in Celebrity is just over ten minutes total. Washington's the star in The Preacher's Wife, but he's basically a matchmaker. Sandler is the only pure comedic actor on this list (though Hanks started out in comedy long ago), so he has had more opportunities to do rom-coms than most. I wasn't sure whether or not to count I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, since he's only pretending to be gay in that movie, but apparently he ends up falling for a girl, so I included it as well.

One thing I find remarkable about this list is that many of these stars - Depp, DiCaprio, Pitt - are notable as "heartthrobs," guys that women go ga-ga for - in fact, six of these ten are former People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" winners. I have no doubt that they're aware of their sex appeal, but as far as the movies go, they leave rom-coms to the likes of guys like Paul Rudd or Ryan Reynolds. (They have, however, done romantic dramas, like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or romantic thrillers, like The Tourist.)

Who today could share screen time with a leopard the way Grant does
in 'Bringing  Up Baby' (with Katharine Hepburn)?
I trust Crowe's rationalization for this deficit in rom-coms from the superstars, since he's actually part of Hollywood, but if it's true that they're afraid of looking silly in a rom-com, that's quite unfortunate, especially when one considers the leading men of yesteryear. Cary Grant, for example, is probably the poster boy for male heartthrobs who alternated between screwball rom-coms and serious drama, and perhaps part of the reason why goes back to what Wilder said: genre distinctions were less relevant back then.

From an acting standpoint, I don't doubt that comedy in general is tough, rom-coms more so. It requires a degree of vulnerability and risk that's harder to convincingly pull off than drama (take it from one who has studied acting). Then again, one could say the same thing about action movies, yet that doesn't stop Cruise, Damon, Depp and Smith from headlining action movie franchises.

I suspect no one knows how to write a really good rom-com anymore. Maybe a lack of racial and class distinctions has something to do with that, I dunno, but so many Hollywood rom-coms today look uninspired and derivative when compared to the stuff made by Wilder, or George Cukor or Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges. And if that's the case, one can't blame the superstar actors for not wanting to be in them.

Do you wanna see more rom-coms from Hollywood's leading men?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2012

I did this last year, so I think I'll try it again this year. My top ten movies list won't be ready for another month at least, so in lieu of that, I'm presenting a different list, one more relevant to this blog in particular. Movie-going can sometimes lead to a surprise or two, or a distinctive moment that lingers in the memory for months or years afterward, and that's what this top five list is devoted to. If nothing else, consider it an incentive to continue seeing movies in theaters and/or other people. It's an act that, regrettably, was a little less safe this year, but I doubt it'll ever fully go away.

5. Salim Akil makes fun of my cell phone camera at Urbanworld. He wasn't cruel about it, and he laughed and shook my hand afterward, so I hold no grudge. Maybe next year, I'll stop trying to do two jobs at once and just focus on writing about the films at the festival. Hell, I'll bet I could even wrangle an interview or two instead. What do you think - would you rather see pictures or read interviews from a festival? In addition to reviews, of course.

4. The director and cast of Wet Hot American Summer makes a surprise appearance at a screening of their movie. It was the first time I had seen the movie, so it wasn't like I had any great attachment to it, or any of the stars, but the crowd at Brooklyn Bridge Park sure did - and boy, were they thrilled when this happened! It was quite a moment, and I'm glad I was there for it.

3. Halloween at the Loews Jersey City. I originally had a different theme for Halloween this year, but between the William Castle-inspired gimmicks for Homicidal, the "haunted house" section of the second floor, the costumes, and the movies themselves, I knew I couldn't miss going to the Loews the weekend before Halloween (and before Hurricane Sandy, too - talk about trick or treat). There were even more movies than the ones I ended up writing about, and I wish I could've seen them all. Side-note: I spent that Saturday afternoon up in City Island dropping off my artwork for my gallery show, which would've been the following weekend if not for Sandy, so I ended up covering a tremendous amount of ground: from eastern Queens through Manhattan up into the Bronx and City Island, then back down into Manhattan and over into Jersey City, then back into Manhattan and ultimately home to Queens. All in one day!

2. Seeing Battle for Brooklyn on the night the Barclays Center opened. You gotta understand - I, like many New Yorkers, had been reading about the impending opening of the new sports arena in downtown Brooklyn for months, and about what it'll mean for the borough in general - and lost in all the shuffle was the hard reality that a number of neighborhood residents were displaced from their homes in order for this to happen. While watching this compelling documentary, the Barclays was literally right down the street, laser lights flashing into the sky. It felt a bit surreal... and yet quintessentially New York also, in this time where the 99 percent are making their voices heard.

1. Opening day for The Avengers. I've said it before, but if you haven't been reading superhero comics most of your life, I doubt you can fully comprehend what this day meant to people like me, and in Astoria/LIC, where I saw the movie, there was a certain atmosphere floating outside the theater. From the Applebee's across the street where the waiters were dressed in superhero outfits, to the sidewalk comics dealer selling comics and posters, to the kids running around the hallway of the theater giddy with anticipation, this was what going to the movies should feel like. Lots of high-falutin' film critics love to cite movies like Avengers as heralding the death knell of "real" cinema, and I've admitted that I'm beginning to get a little burned out by effects-driven spectacle movies all the time, but I'm proud I was part of this. My inner child wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Banjo On My Knee/Remember the Night

Barbara Stanwyck is the Star of the Month this month on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and because she's my favorite actress, I'll talk about some of the airing movies throughout this month - notably the ones I've never seen before. To see other posts about Stanwyck, type her name into the search bar or click on the "movie stars" label.

The recent biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan briefly goes into her period as a New York chorus girl. She followed in the footsteps of her older sister Millie, having learned how to dance from Millie's vaudevillian boyfriend. A gig at the Strand Hotel as a teenager led to Broadway revues and nightclubs, and eventually, the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922. Callahan runs a quote attributed to Stanwyck, in which she says of her Broadway period, "How my memories of those three years sparkle! My chorine days may not have seemed perfect to anyone else, but they did to me."

Seeing her in the quasi-musical Banjo On My Knee was a nice reminder of her showgirl days: she sings, she dances, she plays a little piano. She was no Ginger Rogers, but she could hold her own on a dance floor. As for her singing, again, it was nothing spectacular, but it was pleasant enough. She had a low singing voice, smoky and velvety, the kind you wouldn't hear on the radio today (unless you were listening to a jazz station, perhaps).

Movie musicals are not as in demand as they were back in the 30s, but when they pop up (like the current revival of Les Miserables), it's always interesting to see actors get the chance to sing - nobody seems to have their voices dubbed anymore. Stany has sung and/or danced in other movies, such as Ball of Fire, but her character in Banjo doesn't start out as an entertainer of any kind. I call it a quasi-musical because it's not wall-to-wall singing and dancing - there are long stretches without music - but at the same time, there are enough musical moments that it should probably still qualify as a musical.

Stany shares a duet with contemporary singer-turned actor Tony Martin.
It's set in the American South, but no attempt at an accent is made on the part of either Stany or Joel McCrea. Sometimes I wonder what she would've done with accents. Today we applaud actors who can sound English or Scottish or German or what have you, but back then, I suspect audiences weren't as interested in such thespian trickery. I thought the movie overall was okay, though I was uncomfortable with all the wife-beating jokes!

Remember the Night was written, though not directed, by Preston Sturges, one of the most prominent comedy writer/directors of the 30s and 40s, but this felt little like a comedy; indeed, I was genuinely surprised at how dramatic and moving it was. Stany plays a career petty thief who, when put on trial, is allowed out on bail for the Christmas holiday until her trial can continue in the new year. Fred MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney who bails her out, and seeing that she has nowhere else to go, opts to take her back to his mom's place in Indiana for the holidays. 

Sparks fly between the two, as you might expect, but the combination of the holidays, the small-town atmosphere, and MacMurray's loving family has a profound effect on her as well. This could've been cloying and overly sentimental, but I bought it - especially after seeing the decision she makes once she and MacMurray return to New York and the trial.

Sturges' script goes for some laughs in the beginning (including an unfortunate black manservant stereotype), but once the action moves to Indiana, the mood changes significantly. As a director, Sturges was known for his zany, fast-paced romps such as Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve (another Stanwyck film), and the deeper into the film I got, the more I kept waiting for a return to the funny stuff, but it never really happens; in fact, the movie ends on kind of a down note, but it had me hooked the whole way. Night came out in 1940, the same year Sturges would make his directorial debut with The Great McGinty.

Stany has a great pivotal scene with MacMurray's mom that's so heartfelt and emotional. You can see the change in her character as it happens. The mom is played by veteran character actress Beulah Bondi, who was terrific in the whole film. You may have seen her in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.

Seeing Stanwyck and MacMurray together naturally made me think of Double Indemnity, though their relationship here is quite different. At one point I kept trying to think of ways to connect their roles in both movies, as if characters could be reincarnated from one movie to the next. In fact, I'm fairly certain I remember reading part of an article where the writer tries to draw a thematic line connecting the characters from Indemnity to the ones in the later flick There's Always Tomorrow, also starring the duoI'd have to see that again to decide on my own.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Making the case for Frank Langella

The Making the Case blogathon is an event in which the purpose is to profile a movie from 2012 that deserves Oscar consideration, even though the odds on it getting a nomination are slim at best. It is hosted by Cinematic Paradox. For a complete list of participating blogs, please visit the host site.

So this is the time of the Oscar season when we start hearing from critics groups around the country, as well as some of the major film industry organizations, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes this week alone. In the acting race, some names are definite shoo-ins, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence; others are less certain. One name I have yet to see is Frank Langella for his performance in the film Robot & Frank, and at the time I wrote about it I believed his performance was Oscar-worthy. I still believe it.

Between The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Hope Springs and Amour, among others, this has been an unusually strong year for movies featuring senior citizens, a highly unusual development given Hollywood's constant pursuit of the youth market. In these movies, seniors confront their own mortality in different ways: either through perking up their sex lives or coming to terms with their impending demise as best they can.

In the sci-fi flick Robot & Frank, Langella's character initially sees the presence of a robot home attendant not only as an intrusion but as an ever-present reminder of his own senility, until he uses the robot for a more sinister purpose. It's a great character, and Langella finds the right balance between pathos and laughs. He's not as showy as other potential Best Actor nominees, but he rarely is. It helps that the sci-fi elements in the movie never overwhelm the human factor; indeed, they're much more low-key than, say, your average Marvel superhero movie.

Langella has never been a marquee name actor, but he's always been around, quietly turning in quality work year in and year out on both the small and big screens, sometimes being the only noteworthy element in less than quality material. I recently mentioned here that he's always been my favorite cinematic Dracula. He's definitely been typecast as a bad guy most of the time, but I find it awesome that he's even able to take pride in something as cheesy as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe

His one and only Oscar nomination was for Frost/Nixon, playing Richard Nixon. I saw it on video and I honestly don't remember much about it, but I do remember liking Langella in it. His take on the former president was different from Anthony Hopkins' in Nixon, perhaps because of the story's theatrical roots. His Nixon felt more lived in, more familiar.

At this point it doesn't look like Langella will even get in the Oscar conversation this year, and that's unfortunate, but then it has been another highly competitive year in the Best Actor category.

The argument for Viola Davis
Weighing Serkis' Oscar chances
When will Meryl get her third Oscar?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In defense of A Christmas Story

...Many moments of the film seem quite superfluous to the central plot. Why the broken furnace? Why the bully? Why the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin? At a mere 94 minute [sic], all these extra scenes, that have not made quite the splash in pop culture, have come to feel like cheap padding. If it were just a story about being a kid, I'd understand but it's so specific to the holiday season, that these moments don't seem to really fit into the overall celebration of Christmas.
The first time I saw A Christmas Story was at a friend's house around the ol' Yuletide season. She couldn't believe I had never seen it before, so naturally I had to plunk down in front of the TV and watch it. I was pretty shocked to see that it was, in fact, running non-stop for 24 hours on TBS - I thought only The Yule Log got that treatment at Christmas time! Regardless, I liked the movie, though  I never gave it a hard look the way Rachel does in her post.

Don't get me wrong; I have no great attachment to the movie. I don't rush to the TV to watch it every Christmas Eve. My favorite holiday film has always been Miracle on 34th Street (THE ORIGINAL, thank you very much). Still, I think I can address the reason why this movie is as beloved as it is. Nostalgia is certainly a huge part of the equation, but I think it goes deeper than that.

A Christmas Story is what we used to call a "shaggy dog story" - the kind that has a tendency to ramble and go all over the place and is not in any great rush to get to the "point," such as it is. Such kinds of stories tend to be part of the oral tradition (A Christmas Story is narrated by Ralphie as an adult), so there's a much greater emphasis on storytelling rather than story. It should also be noted that director Bob Clark partly based this film on a volume of short stories. 

I admit, it never occurred to me that this approach might not appeal to everyone. I hesitate to suggest that it may be a generational thing, but I honestly find it next to impossible to imagine a movie quite like this enjoying the same level of success today. 

I would argue that A Christmas Story is very much about being a kid, and that Christmas is the vehicle for that theme. Kids may seem more sophisticated and savvy about the world around them today, but some things don't change, no matter what the era, and I believe the enduring popularity of this movie proves that.

Agree? Disagree?

Friday, December 7, 2012


seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

In Steven Spielberg's twelve-year odyssey
To bring the Lincoln story to the screen,
There must have been moments of great despair
And distractions that led him off the path.
My artistic ideas, they come and go
I tend to flit from one thing to the next.
Therefore I respect Spielberg for his faith
In his opus though fortunes rose and fell
'Cause inspiration is a tricky thing
One's ideas ne'er fully satisfy
How many drafts did Mr. Lincoln make
In his great plan to liberate the slaves?
If roles were switched, could I have persevered?
What, me, a filmmaker? That's pretty weird!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
seen @ Cinemart Cinemas, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

Awhile back, when I was still writing my online comics column, I did a piece about a woman named Hilda Terry. I met her late in her life - her career went all the way back to the 40s, when she did a newspaper strip named Teena. She was, in fact, one of the first prominent women cartoonists in America. She went on to other accomplishments in her long life, but one of the most significant aspects of her personality was her belief in past lives.

This was different from the Shirley MacLaine-variety belief. As far as I knew, Hilda herself did not truly believe she lived a previous life. Rather, she was convinced she was in communion with a past life, one outside herself, which inspired her to make her comics. According to her, it was a little girl from colonial times, whom she discovered during the 70s, when she made a concerted effort to discover what she firmly believed was the true source of her artistic inspiration.

The following is from a collection of Teena strips, essays and short stories Hilda co-authored called The Baby Sitter's Magic Mouse Storybook:
In my 65th year I began to realize SOME one was HELPING me [with my cartoons]. And it wasn't God.... In 1979 I was doing the kooky things trying to reach my invisible collaborator. I wound up with a child crying MA-MA for a woman being tried for witchcraft. [When I] asked if she was my guardian angel, the tangled hair shook. Negative. A dirty hand gestured back and forth indicating she and I were one. Hey! A past life? [When I] asked her name, she lifted her tunic and MOONED me. 
[When I] asked how she happened to be me, she said "Rebecca." Actually, we never spoke. She pulled words out of my head and highlighted them. "Rebecca your mother?" I asked. Shaking her head "no" again, she brought up 3 words, Grandmother, Rebecca, Nurse. MY grandmother's name was Rivka, Russian for Rebecca. And I had lived with her through my first years. You could say she nursed me. I assumed she was naming MY grandmother. It didn't make sense. My grandmother was alive in 1914. 
Clearly, my head was playing games with me. Still???
Further research led Hilda to discover a real child from that era that she believed was her mystery spirit: Dorcas Good, an alleged witch from the late 17th century, along with a grandmother named Rebecca Nurse, another alleged witch who, Hilda believed, somehow facilitated their meeting.

Hilda goes on to say that she was convinced Dorcas not only helped her create her Teena strips, but was the unconscious inspiration for a supporting character within the strip. Still, Hilda made it clear that she is distinct from Dorcas:
I have had my OWN life. I have a whole raft of friends of my own in the next world. I don't know if Dorcas Good is my past life, but she HAS been something in my PRESENT life.... Through me, she has had a life that made up for the last one. To the extent that we share one mind, she learns what I learn. And what she knows, I know... so many things I have no way of knowing otherwise.
Having interviewed her and spoken casually with her on several other occasions before her death in 2006, I'm convinced she believed all this stuff, even as she was aware of how crazy it all sounded. Her strips are very good, and they still hold up today, and as a cartoonist, I've certainly used a variety of real-life people as inspiration for my stories (maybe even unconsciously in one or two cases), but I've never heard a story like Hilda's, before or since.

All of which leads me to the movie Cloud Atlas, a story about reincarnation, which made me think of Hilda and wonder what she would've made of it. I think she would've appreciated the overall message about how humanity is connected to each other in ways we can't begin to fully comprehend. Hilda was a very spiritual person, and though the movie is completely secular, I doubt that would've made a difference to her.

Personally, I found the film breathtaking in its scope. As with many of the great stories, love lies at the heart of it all, and even if you don't quite grok everything that goes on in the story, I think that much is clear. It's certainly a movie that invites repeat viewing, if for no other reason than to see it knowing who played what. I imagine this was an actor's dream, to play not only multiple roles in the same film, but different races and genders in some cases.

The multiple timeline-jumping was disorienting, no doubt, and not easy to get used to. What it reminded me most of was channel surfing. You know how it is, going from watching, say, A Game of Thrones on HBO to a college basketball game on ESPN to Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon to some reality show on E! to a Bogart movie on TCM and back again. Do it long enough and a pattern may emerge, or at least you may think you perceive one.

I remember seeing the book Cloud Atlas several times at my favorite bookstore and being tempted to try it, but the format was very off-putting. Now that I've seen the movie, I may try the book at some point, though my understanding is that the movie takes a few liberties, format-wise.

The Cinemart is a neighborhood theater on a commercial stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills. It probably wasn't always a second-run theater, but it is now, and as such, it's relatively simple and no-frills. It's hung on for a long time in the face of digital screens and 3D movies and other such changes. I can't ever remember seeing it attracting large audiences, not that I've gone there all that often, but it fills a need for me, and when it finally goes to that great multiplex in the sky, I'll miss it, if for no other reason than it's local.

Metropolitan Avenue runs from southern Queens all the way to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. This section is nice and cozy, with lots of different restaurants that stay open long after the rest of the area closes for the day. There's an awesome ice cream and candy shop across the street from the Cinemart that's straight out of the 1950s; one step inside and you'll be eight years old all over again. Further down the street, there's a comics and collectibles shop - not as good as the ones in Manhattan; I've only been in there once - and a Trader Joe's, right before you hit a major cross street and a cemetery beyond that. I like coming to this part of town a lot.