Monday, April 29, 2013

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

I liked All Quiet on the Western Front well enough, but something about it bugged me, and the more I think about it, the more it bothers me. I'll get to it in a minute. 

Okay, so this is a war movie, right? And it's fairly ahead of its time too. At first, all I noticed were the usual war film cliches: boot camp, the heartless, hard-ass drill sergeant, being sent to the front lines, the rookies meeting the veterans, the rookies getting freaked out at being in combat for the first time, et cetera. Then I realized that all those cliches had to come from somewhere. I'm not sure if this is considered the ur-war movie, but I imagine all war movies that followed must owe a debt of some kind to this one.

What impressed me most was the sound, the camerawork and the editing. This was made during the period when sound in films was still a very new thing, and yet, sitting in the Loews Jersey City watching this, I was bowled over by the sounds of the explosions and the gunfire and the yelling and all of that. This was accompanied by exciting battlefield tracking shots from a trench-eye perspective. As the camera sweeps horizontally across the plains, we see soldiers getting mowed down and blown away one by one, plus the fast-paced editing cuts to shots of soldiers leaping into trenches and engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Visually speaking, this is remarkable to watch.

So what bothered me? Simple. How is it that an image like this

(which happened so quickly that I almost thought I imagined it) makes it into the film, along with other scenes of dudes getting shot at, bayoneted, blown up and beaten to death, but an image of a man and a woman in bed is verboten? There's a sequence late in the film where Paul, our protagonist, hooks up with some French chicks, along with his friends. In one scene, we see - or rather, it's implied - that Paul is talking with a chick in bed; talking, mind you, not having sex. Yet all we see is a static image of the bedpost shadow on a wall. We hear them talking, but this is literally all we see. It's especially bizarre given how well photographed the rest of the movie is.

Yes, I know the "real" reason why it had to be this way; because of the double standard that exists when it comes to sex and violence in the movies. It didn't ruin the movie for me, but it came close. I mean, if a man and a woman in bed can't be explicitly shown on screen (BUT FRIGGIN' SEVERED HANDS CAN), there had to have been better alternatives than what we ended up with.

Don't wanna seem like I'm putting the whole movie down, though. This is a powerful movie, expertly made. One can easily see why it won Best Picture.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World (1925)
seen @ Pavillion Theater, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

Dinosaurs! Such lovable critters, aren't they? I vaguely remember seeing those dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History as a kid and being blown away by them. I recall reading a young adult book involving modern-day dinosaurs of some kind. That's about all I remember about them from my childhood. They say kids, especially boys, love dinosaurs, and while that's not entirely untrue in my case, I guess it never quite caught on.

Still, there is the thrill I vividly recall upon seeing Jurassic Park for the first time. In terms of visual effects, it was a great leap forward. I believed those dinosaurs were real, in a way I had never been convinced of before, and to see them on a big screen like that, running around terrorizing all the stupid humans, was amazing. 

Seeing The Lost World, the dinosaur adventure film from the silent era, unfortunately, was slightly less thrilling. The film is from 1925; it's gotta be one of the oldest motion pictures still intact in the world, and the picture quality is less than pristine, even on a DVD. I expected that. What I didn't expect was how stupider the humans in the story would be. Wallace Beery plays the professor who tries to tell the world about the hidden land of dinosaurs, and he literally fights anyone who gives him a hard time about it, especially reporters. And then there's the totally useless romantic subplot... and the obligatory racial stereotype...

Thank god the dinos were fairly impressive for 1925. The King Kong influence is obvious, not just in terms of plot but in the stop-motion animation used to make these fantastic creatures come to life, and if I were watching this in 1925, I'd probably be gob-smacked. The eyes move, the tongue moves, and there's even some indication of breathing. I've talked about stop-motion animation before, and I've said - and still maintain - that it's creepier than almost anything rendered in CGI.

What also made this screening enjoyable was seeing it with a live orchestra - or band, in this case. The local quartet called the Andrew Alden Ensemble provided the music and the atmosphere for the film. I found out about this event by complete chance by seeing this article the day before, and expected a large and festive crowd. Alas, there were maybe a half dozen people in attendance, total.

I suspect part of the reason had to do with the location. The Pavillion has gotten a truly awful reputation in recent years. A huge part of the reason why has to do with allegations of rampant bedbugs running wild, which the management has denied. Now there's new management, and they're in the process of renovating the place, which means it's not exactly looking its best right now. I had only been there two other times, but I never felt the presence of bedbugs, for what it's worth. This is the only theater in the Park Slope neighborhood, so it's an issue plenty of people feel strongly about. Hopefully the new people in charge will make this a top-notch theater again.

Holding events like this will help. The AAE was very good - not like the more famous Alloy Orchestra, also known for scoring silent films, but different. There were four of them, sitting in the front, directly underneath the screen. Alden, on keyboard, sat with his back to the audience (such as it was) and conducted even as he played, with hand gestures right before tempo or mood changes in their score. A few odd instruments broke out in places, such as a PVC pipe that Alden (I think) used during one of the first dino fight scenes. It had a grating, harsh sound that fit the conflict on-screen. They were good. They deserved a much bigger crowd than they got.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Star Trek TNG: The Best of Both Worlds

Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Best of Both Worlds
seen @ College Point Multiplex, College Point, Queens, NY

It's amazing how wedded we as a society have become to technology. The thought crossed my mind last weekend as I saw a jogger in the park adjusting a small iPod worn on her arm. It seems like such an everyday thing now, and yet, when one stops to consider what a miracle it is, the thought is mind-blowing. All these gadgets and gizmos that have become shockingly commonplace, however, have had an unforeseen impact on how we relate to each other.

I can't begin to tell you how often I see people with their faces buried in their iPhones as they walk down the street, not noticing other people about to obstruct their path. What text message, what social network update, what conversation is so important that it prevents the average person from being aware of their immediate environment? Maybe living in New York exaggerates this phenomenon to an extent, being as constantly on the go as we are, but I doubt it. And of course, as bad as this is with pedestrians, it's exponentially worse when drivers are involved.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Here Comes Mr. Jordan
seen on TV @ TCM

First, I should mention that Here Comes Mr. Jordan is badly plotted. The film is about a boxer named Joe who dies in a plane crash, but it turns out he wasn't "supposed" to, according to an afterlife bureaucracy run by the eponymous Mr. Jordan. 

Joe's wayward soul must then find a new body so that he can fulfill his destiny. On a micro level, there's the matter of the magic saxophone. (Joe is also an amateur musician.) It comes with him to the afterlife and returns to reality as if it, too, had a life of its own. How? At one point, Joe is able to touch it even though it is matter and he is spirit. I realize it's part of Joe's "identity," but the movie goes to odd lengths to keep it with him.

On a larger level - spoiler alert for a seventy-year-old movie - eventually Joe quantum-leaps into the body of another boxer who just got shot during a match (long story), AN INCIDENT WHICH NO ONE NOTICES. The second boxer, Murdock, was losing the fight and Joe wins it for him as his soul departs his body, but nothing is made of the fact that someone just got shot! 

Did audiences from 1941 simply not notice this? I mean, it's pretty damn obvious - so obvious, in fact, that I thought perhaps it didn't happen, but it did. Plot holes aside, however, that's not what I wanna focus on.

Jordan is another film that deals with destiny and the afterlife, like Heaven Can Wait, Cabin in the Sky, and the more recent The Adjustment Bureau. As I mentioned last week, the concept of predetermination is one I find of great interest, even though I don't believe in it myself. I believe the ways in which the concept manifests itself in popular culture tells us a great deal about ourselves and how we relate to the world.

Like Bureau, the afterlife in Jordan is run by a secular agency of supernatural beings, as a kind of substitute, or perhaps, a supplement, for God (though I believe Bureau makes allusions to some kind of supreme being). However, from the get-go, we see that this agency is fallible, as one of its agents, Edward Everett Horton's character, is responsible for the mix-up that causes Joe's premature death. This is important, and I'll return to it.

Mr. Jordan assigns Joe the body of a wealthy-but-unscrupulous businessman until he can find a body better suited for a boxer. Joe gets this new body in fighting shape, however, and redeems the previous user's character, even as he falls in love with a chick. 

So when Mr. Jordan returns to tell Joe he's found a new body, Joe is reluctant to leave. Mr. Jordan, however, insists he must leave it, because it was never meant to be anything other than temporary. In order to fulfill his destiny as a champion, he must vacate this body and occupy the new one. Joe tries, but is unable to resist.

The ancient Greeks believed that one could not fight one's fate, even though the path one takes toward that fate can be controlled to an extent. According to Mr. Jordan, Joe's fate is set in stone, and even though in this case his fate happens to be a positive one, Joe, like Matt Damon's character in Bureau, wants to reassert control. 

In Bureau, Damon's struggle for control is the central conflict of the movie, and it's seen as a brave and heroic one. Here, we're led to believe that the paternalistic Mr. Jordan knows what's best and that he should be trusted.

But why should he be trusted, especially when his organization has already mucked with Joe's life once, through no fault of his own? 

Mr. Jordan's agents answer to him, making him responsible for them. If they're imperfect, that makes him imperfect by association, and if Mr. Jordan can be seen as a metaphor for God - a reasonable parallel - then this movie would have you believe that God is, in fact, fallible, which goes against everything we've been led to believe about Him for thousands of years. 

I doubt that this is what we're meant to take away from the film. Still, that's not even the effed up part.

When Joe quantum-leaps into the boxer Murdock, he finishes the fight and becomes champion, fulfilling his destiny. As a result, Joe's soul... how to put it... assumes the Murdock identity, even though the original Murdock's soul has left the body, a fact confirmed by Mr. Jordan himself. Besides the fact that there should be no Murdock identity left on the earthly plane, this strikes me as a total miscarriage of justice. 

When Joe was in the businessman's body, his personality was dominant. This is a point that the film goes to great lengths to make clear: even though the world sees him as the businessman on the outside, on the inside, it's still Joe. 

After Joe wins the championship as Murdock, he loses his identity and becomes Murdock, body and soul - and this is wrong! 

Joe originally died as a result of incompetence on the part of Mr. Jordan's organization; it's made explicitly clear that he was not supposed to die at that point in his life. Therefore, Joe's soul is owed a second chance at life, not Murdock's. 

No one questions Murdock's death; there's no doubt that Murdock died at the proper moment. Mr. Jordan, in fact, even states that Murdock (a soul without a body now) was happy to see that Joe won the fight for him. So why does Joe become him? 

That makes no sense, and worse, it cheats Joe out of the rest of his life, which Mr. Jordan says has another fifty years to go on it.

Of course, if you believe in reincarnation, then this is probably no big deal. However, the hierarchy of the afterlife as presented in Jordan, with a central authority figure and numerous subordinates, is too similar to the Christian concept of heaven for it to be interpreted otherwise.

So Mr. Jordan makes up for his error and everything works out in the end - Joe even manages to get his girl back, in a roundabout way - so everything's cool, right? I dunno. Jordan seems to provide contradictory messages that I remain uncomfortable with. 

If Joe's soul had stayed in his temporary body, I'm inclined to think that things would've worked out for the best. Joe's boxing knowledge remained intact, he was able to get back in shape, and he was on track to get his shot at the championship. Plus, he had his girl. 

Mr. Jordan insisting on a different body strikes me as him reasserting his need for control over Joe's destiny, and by extension, all mortals. But maybe I'm reading too much into what's essentially a light comedy?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

City Mouse Makes a Movie #15

Previously: Progress is being made on the movie, even as the cast and crew stays loose.

Terrorthon delayed on account of LIFE

I don't know if you noticed... but now is probably not the best time to host a blogathon about scary things in movies. There have been more than enough scary things going on in America lately. As a result, Page and I have decided to put our blogathon on hold for awhile out of respect. We'll let you know when we're ready to go again. Apologies to everyone involved, but we think this is the right thing to do.

Friday, April 19, 2013


seen @ AMC Fresh Meadows, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

And now, five things I thought of as I watched 42:

1. I wished my father had lived to see this, because this would've soooooo been up his alley. I got my appreciation for baseball from him at an early age. (It used to be love at one point. It must have been love, but like the song says, it's over now. Invite me to a ball game and I'll go, especially if it's a minor league game; I just don't feel the passion for it that I once did.)

For all of our conversations about baseball and race over the years, I regret never asking him what his memories were of Jackie Robinson entering Major League Baseball, an event he would've been around for as a kid. I'd ask my mother, but she's never had any interest in sports. Of course, Jackie Robinson transcended sports, but still, I doubt she'd provide me with much in the way of insight. Maybe I'll ask her anyway.

2. This seems kind of silly, but it occurred to me that Robinson's style of play is anathema to the Moneyball philosophy of today. I bring it up because the Brooklyn Dodgers were considered the number three team in New York back in the day (behind the Y-nk--s and Giants), but history shows that they won the 1947 pennant with scrappy little guys that didn't exactly overpower the competition, but found a way to win somehow, much like the Oakland Athletics of Moneyball.

Modern-day sabermetricians - the fans who examine the game through mountains of statistics - have determined that the stolen base, Robinson's forte, is actually counter-productive to a good offense. (I'd explain how, but it'd probably bore you. Just go watch Moneyball again.) Basically, it's considered too high-risk a ploy. Back in 1947, however, it was different. No one ran the basepaths with as much tenacity and alacrity as Robinson, and as we see in the film, it rattled pitchers fiercely. Plus, it was entertaining to watch.

I suspect that's something the sabermetricians might forget for all their number-crunching. Yes, baseball is a game that's played to be won, but there's also something to be said for spectacle. Unlike football and basketball, the action in baseball is slower and more methodical - but to my way of thinking, that means the big moments feel even bigger when they happen. And that's probably what it felt like to watch Robinson in action.

3. Gee, it would be nice if Harrison Ford got a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for this. I almost didn't recognize him at first, what with the bushy eyebrows and the voice. Nothing against star Chadwick Boseman, who was decent if not outstanding (and kudos to Warner Brothers' marketing department for actually putting this relative unknown actor's name ABOVE THE TITLE on the poster), but I think of Ford, and how his star has faded in the past decade or so, and how much of a shame it is that throughout his great career he's only been Oscar-nominated once (for Witness).

Ford, like Bruce Willis, has been a classic, old-school, marquee action star who can also do serious drama and even comedy on occasion. Looking back over his career, one could argue that his last great leading-man role was The Fugitive, and that was twenty years ago. I don't need to see him as Indiana Jones again, and I definitely don't need to see him as Han Solo again (if either one happens), but I would love to see him in another Oscar-caliber performance. Maybe this is it. I think a Lifetime Achievement Oscar is more likely, however, and if that's the case, that would be unfortunate... but what can you do.

4. Writer-director Brian Helgeland's screenplay is more faithful to history than I thought it would be. Take Dodger manager Leo Durocher, for instance (husband of actress Laraine Day at the time). He was one of baseball's more colorful characters, but the fact that he didn't manage the Dodgers in 1947 could be considered problematic from a storytelling angle. 

I thought the movie would either revise history by having him as the manager for the entire season, or simply not mention him at all, but they stuck to the facts; mentioning his extramarital affairs and how the Catholic groups wanted him disciplined for it and his eventual suspension, leading to the search for a new manager. This seems like the kind of detail that films "inspired by actual events" or "based on a true story" tend to ignore for simplicity's sake, but Helgeland didn't. Also, big-ups to Helgeland for not being afraid to use the word nigger in its proper historical context. (I notice no one's complaining about it THIS time.)

I recommend reading the book Opening Day by Jonathan Eig for a more detailed account of Robinson's rookie season. Among other things, you'll find that there's no historical evidence to support whether or not shortstop Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson in a game at Cincinnati. Still, it's the sort of thing that should have happened, because enough people seemed to believe that it did, so it became part of the legend.

5. No World Series? 42 ends with Robinson hitting a home run and the Dodgers winning the pennant, but we never see them go on to the World Series, likely because they lost to the Y-nk--s - and that feels like a cheat. Moneyball showed the A's losing the World Series, which I definitely didn't think it would do, but that's a different kind of movie, with very different themes. 

If I had written the screenplay, I would've begun and ended with an older Robinson at Game 7 of the 1955 Series, which Brooklyn won for the first and last time, and having him reflect on his path to the big leagues. Then we'd see all the stuff that was in the film, and it would end with him celebrating his World Series win with the rest of the Dodgers. 42 is worth seeing for all sorts of reasons, but - forgive the inevitable baseball metaphor - it's a hard-hit double to the left-center field gap instead of a home run.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Actress

The Actress
seen on TV @ TCM

I don't recall the first time I ever heard of Ruth Gordon. I suspect the first time I saw her was very likely in Rosemary's Baby, though I didn't know who she was then. I had a teacher in college who claimed she completely identified with Gordon's character in Harold and Maude, even though she was nowhere near as old as Gordon was in that film.

Both of these films came in the latter phase of Gordon's career, and I have yet to see her when she was younger, but even so, my initial impression of her was a great one. Both films have a dark, wry sense of humor that fits her to a T. She's lively, daring, charismatic, and a scene-stealer for certain.

Later, as I learned more about movies, I discovered that Gordon was an accomplished writer as well. So to me, I find it a bit odd that the movie about her childhood is called The Actress, especially since she adapted it for the screen from a play she wrote. In my mind, she's a screenwriter first and an actress second. The Actress is directed by George Cukor, with whom Gordon and her husband Garson Kanin worked on several occasions, mostly on comedies like Adam's Rib (which introduced Judy Holliday to the world), and I expected this one to be funny as well. In fact, it's played straight: teenage Ruth wants to go to New York to study acting but her daddy disapproves.

One would think that autobiographies would be more historically accurate than biographies, since the subject is the one telling the story, but even in this case, I've learned to take everything with a grain of salt. After all, in telling one's life story, one is more apt to make the highs higher and the lows... not so low, at the very least. (Exception: if one's story is meant to be a cautionary tale.) Indeed, you yourself should take the same attitude towards this very blog. There are things I pick and choose to reveal about myself, and while I do strive for honesty, I'd be lying if I said I never exaggerated events or did a little selective obfuscating from time to time - if it makes for a better story.

Also, there are dangers inherent in telling one's story accurately. In my experience telling such stories in comics form, I've discovered that other people involved in my stories can be and sometimes are subject to hurt feelings if certain aspects of the story are deemed too personal. That's why I never use last names when talking about my friends here. Sometimes I don't even use first names.

Gordon doesn't strike me as having exaggerated greatly here, not that I would know the difference either way. It helps that she's telling a very straightforward story. I didn't sense any lingering bitterness towards her father for standing in the way of her dream; he comes across fairly. It helps, of course, to have a giant of an actor like Spencer Tracy portray him. Gordon's childhood, as depicted here, isn't totally idyllic; we see the idiosyncrasies of the house she lives in and the financial hardships her father had to deal with. I do think the dude who was crushing on her might've gotten the short end of the stick, but then again, I couldn't help but sympathize with him since Ruth chooses her career over him.

Jean Simmons was not the first person I would've thought of to play young Ruth. I initially thought Teresa Wright was gonna play her, until I realized that Wright had already grown up! (I'm so used to thinking of her as a teen actress.) Simmons' American accent comes and goes in places, but overall, she wasn't bad - she plays Ruth big and broad, which is no doubt how Gordon envisioned herself at that age. I imagine big and broad plays even better on the stage anyway.

It must've been a fantastic moment for Gordon when she won the Oscar (and the Golden Globe) in the twilight of her career, for Rosemary's Baby, but she was also Oscar-nominated thrice as a screenwriter, with Kanin, and she was a five-time Writer's Guild nominee. I don't know what made her decide to switch tracks from acting to writing, but I'm glad she did. She was as talented a writer as an actress, and this movie is proof. I admire her for what she accomplished and I'm grateful her dad let her chase her dream.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Unfaithfully Yours

Unfaithfully Yours
seen on TV @ TCM

Like most kids of my generation, I was first exposed to classical music through - what else? - cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and other television staples from childhood had episodes that used classical music in the score as well as a plot point - from Bugs impersonating a conductor to rid himself of an annoying opera singer, to Jerry disrupting Tom's piano concerto, not to mention all those Peanuts specials where Schroeder played his Beethoven. You've probably seen them too; they played often enough. As a kid, I was vaguely aware that the songs in these episodes were really old, but I never gave them much more thought than that.

When I started taking lessons on the Hammond organ my mother got for my sister and me, classical music became a bigger part of my life. I wasn't required to know who wrote what, but I had to learn how to play more than a few of those songs - or at least the most basic versions. I never came close to the level of skill of a Mozart or a Beethoven - or even Billy Joel - but I learned enough to eventually try my hand at songwriting in high school... but that's another story.

It's pretty amazing that classical music has survived for so long, and the creators - Bach, Wagner, Verdi, Handl, Brahms, etc. - remain familiar even to people (like me) unfamiliar with most of their music. This is especially true given how much world music has evolved. I have nothing against it, that's for sure. I remember attending one or two recitals put on by the music department of my high school, though if I did, it was probably because I had friends performing more than anything else.

In fact, I took a music class myself back in junior high. They gave me a clarinet and expected me to play it. I made sounds come out of it, though I'm not entirely sure if you could reasonably call it music. Maybe the wooden reed was never inside the top part correctly, or something. Needless to say, I never picked up the clarinet again after fifth grade. All the musical talent in the family went to my sister, and I'm proud to say that she utilizes it much better than I ever could!

But like I say, for me, cartoons and classical music go together, and there must be something about that combination, because Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours plays a lot like a cartoon. It's about an orchestra conductor who's convinced that his wife is cheating on him, and he imagines different scenarios to deal with the situation. 

Sturges has to be one of the most underrated directors of all time. Film critics love to toss around the word "auteur" when talking about guys like Welles, Ford, Wilder and Hawks, but what about Sturges? The man wrote and produced his films as well as directed them, in a time when big-boss studio producers held the power, and his films practically define the term "screwball comedy." But nobody ever calls him an auteur. Or do they?

This is one of the few Sturges films I had never seen before, and after seeing Caftan Woman rave about it, I knew I had to make time for it. There are genuine laughs, to be sure. Sturges' gift for gab is very much on display here; in fact, Rex Harrison spits some mighty verbose and ornate dialogue, and at a frighteningly rapid clip (I found it a little tough to follow at first). Once I caught up, though, I found it funny in places, especially in the daydream sequences where he imagines how to deal with wife Linda Darnell. Plus, there were a couple of moments that were genuinely surprising in their audacity.

That said, though, the entire premise struck me as paper-thin and stretched out beyond its limits. A wordless slapstick scene with Hamilton late in the picture lost my interest after awhile (though, truth be told, this was partly because it was sometime around 11:30 PM and I was dozing off. Didn't I swear off watching movies after 10 PM?), and the silly sound effects didn't help. I kept imagining someone like, say, Cary Grant pulling this scene off instead of Harrison, whom I didn't buy doing pratfalls. I liked him better when he was setting things on fire and kicking wastebaskets around. Unfaithfully Yours has its moments, but it's far from Sturges' best.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

City Mouse Makes a Movie #14

Previously: As shooting begins on the movie, leading man Aiden is optimistic but cautious.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Living with movie posters... EVERYWHERE

Colossal movie murals that take up entire sides
of buildings are fairly common in NYC.
This is a topic I've wanted to write about for awhile now, because while it's an intrinsic part of living in a major media capital like New York, it's also something that many people tend to take for granted, and that's the near-omnipresence of movie and television posters.

Advertising in general dominates the environment of most major American cities, and New York and Los Angeles in particular are prime examples. Who can think of Times Square without the giant Coca-Cola display, for instance? Still, movie and television posters in particular are different, I think, because even if you don't drink soda or wear a certain brand of jeans, chances are you care about movies and TV shows, to one degree or another.

For me, movie posters and murals and billboards are a double-edged sword. As a movie fan, I can't help but love seeing them. The quality of the images themselves aside, simply seeing a poster for an upcoming movie that I'm excited about is always a bit of thrill, because it means that opening day is that much closer. This tends to apply more towards the summer blockbusters than the fall awards contenders, mainly because the former captures the imagination to a greater degree...

Movie posters and other ads in odd locations generate
more revenue for the cash-strapped transit system.
...which can lead to more creative posters. In advance of Roland Emmerich's Godzilla remake, for example, there were monumental billboards all over town that emphasized Godzilla's size, saying things like "His tail is longer than this bus," or "His foot is wider than this building" or things like that. And to my eternal shame, these posters worked on me. Not only did I go see the film, I went to a Tuesday night advance preview, one of the only times I've ever done that. The movie sucked, of course, but there was no doubt that those posters generated a certain level of interest.

That said, however, seeing them all the time, everywhere, can get old quick. I used to believe that the worse a movie is, the more posters of it you'll see. Now I know that this isn't always true, but sometimes it seems that way, such as a few months ago when posters for Identity Thief dominated the subway stations. The unimaginative and just plain stupid poster (doofy head shots of stars Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy) was a turn-off in and of itself, but when the movie improbably opened at number one despite atrocious reviews (20% on Rotten Tomatoes), that made it even worse.

Then there are the ever-popular variant posters, which isolate individual characters - quite popular for animated movies. In the past month or so, the TV show Game of Thrones has bombarded NYC subway stations and buses with character headshot posters in advance of the new season. The show is an ensemble, so there's no one dominant star, like in Mad Men or Dexter. I have no doubt it's a great show (I've never seen it but I've read the books), but the ubiquity of even these posters, which are not very imaginative either, has begun to wear on me.

The different shape of a movie bus poster
presents its own challenges.
Another curious aspect of movie posters throughout New York is what happens when they're reformatted for the bus. I'm not sure what the exact ratio is for bus posters, but they're at least four times as wide as they are high. Sometimes a different image is used for bus posters, but often times the original image is either cropped or expanded in some fashion to fit the format.

Sometimes formatting problems go in the opposite direction. The poster for the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic 42 fits the "landscape" bus format perfectly - an image of star Chadwick Boseman sliding into a base. What they did for the upright, or "portrait" format, however (seen on bus shelters), is flip the image onto the right side of the frame, so it now looks like Boseman's falling instead of sliding. It looks very awkward.

It's the subway stations in which movie and TV posters tend to dominate most. In recent years here in New York, we've seen movie posters and other ads displayed in more unconventional spots, like support pillars, stairways, and even turnstiles, all in an increased attempt to generate more revenue for the financially-weak transit system - which has taken some serious getting used to. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the opportunity for playful vandalism. For example, when Clint Eastwood made his perhaps-ill-informed speech last fall at the Republican National Convention, addressing an imaginary President Obama in an empty chair, I spotted a subway poster for his film Trouble With the Curve altered to reflect current events.

There's a lot to like and dislike about an environment dominated by movie and TV ads. I suppose I like it more than I hate it, though if I wasn't such an avid film fan I might feel differently. Yes, one can argue that advertising in general clutters the landscape and we'd all be better off without it, though I think that argument holds more water when applied to more rural areas. Here in the city, it's simply a fact of life, and always has been - and I'd rather look at a creative, cleverly-designed ad, for movies or anything else, than a boring, unimaginative one.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ich bin ein Liebster!

So I got another one of these Liebster Award thingies. I don't know if this sort of thing is common among bloggers in general or film bloggers in specific - I never saw anything like it when I did my comics blog - but it's a nice idea, and if nothing else, it shows that somebody thinks kindly of this blog. In this case, that somebody is Brian from Films From Beyond the Time Barrier (awesome blog title).

That said, this particular award has been rather... generously spread out, so I don't feel the need to pass it on further. However, I will answer Brian's little personal quiz:

1. What is your guiltiest movie pleasure? I dunno... Dude Where's My Car?

2. What is your favorite character actor/actress? I wouldn't call him my all-time favorite, but I always liked J.T. Walsh.

3. What movie would you show to an alien visitor to best illustrate the meaning of life on earth and being human? Perhaps The Apartment. It depicts the struggle to succeed in ultra-competitive modern life, the pettiness, cruelty and absurdity of humanity along with the nobility, the compassion and the grace, with both humor and drama.

4. What movie made prior to 1970 would you show to a teen or twenty-something who insists that nothing that old could be any good? Maybe A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Young protagonist, simple coming-of-age story, based on a book that's probably still taught in schools, not too long.

5. What movie or actor/actress that you were indifferent about or maybe even disliked at the start, has grown most in your estimation over the years? I thought Bradley Cooper was just another pretty face until I saw him in Silver Linings Playbook.

6. What movie or actor/actress has declined the most over the years? Not that he was ever an outstanding actor to begin with, but once upon a time Nic Cage had an edge to him that made his roles eminently watchable. I'm thinking of movies like Wild at Heart, Red Rock West and even Moonstruck. He has not had that edge in so long it's not true. He needs to make an indie movie or two again (though if the stories of his financial troubles are accurate, I understand why he probably never will).

7. What actor or actress is most like you? That's an odd question. I don't know any movie stars personally! If, however, I am to assume that this is based on their overall on-screen persona... I still wouldn't know the answer. Sorry!

8. Which would you prefer to do: direct, produce or write? Definitely write.

9. What 3 neglected, underdog movies are most deserving of a revival on TV, DVD and/or online? (A) It Should Happen to You, because I love, love, LOVE Judy Holliday, it's Jack Lemmon's first film, and its themes of advertising and instant celebrity still hold up today; (B) The Thief and the Cobbler, because it's a crying shame how its talented director got screwed over by Disney because of it; (C) Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, because I thought it was better than people thought at the time it came out.

10. Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi? Karloff.

11. What unfamiliar movie genre terrain are you most keen to explore? Even though I devoted a week to kung-fu movies, I've only scratched the surface of them - though I suspect there's little in the way of variety.


My previous Liebster Award win

Saturday, April 6, 2013

City Mouse Makes a Movie #13

Previously: As shooting on the movie begins, Sophie is anxious about her role.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thumbs up

It took me awhile to truly appreciate the kind of film critic Roger Ebert was. I remember watching At the Movies during the 90s, when I was first getting seriously into movies, but at the time, I didn't think what he and Gene Siskel were doing was so unusual. By that time, there were similar film review shows on TV, and I figured these guys were simply part of the trend, though they were certainly more popular than most. I thought that was because they argued so much.

Film criticism in general was easy to take for granted back then, partly because it was so ubiquitous. Back then, I didn't necessarily have any favorite writers. I remember always being frustrated with the reviews in the Village Voice because it never seemed like they told you outright whether a given movie was good or bad, which is what I wanted nine times out of ten.

Over time, however, I began to recognize film criticism as an end in itself, and not always a means to an end. When I first started working video retail, I began buying books about film history and theory in order to bone up on the subject, and one of the books I bought was Roger Ebert's Book of Film. I highly recommend it; it's a collection of writings about the medium from a wide variety of conventional and unconventional sources. Seeing how film has been dissected and analyzed and appreciated over the years helped me gain a deeper understanding of the value of film criticism.

Nowadays, critics seem less relevant; partly because they're no longer as ubiquitous (at least not in print), but mostly because so many movie-goers continually disregard authoritative critical opinion, especially when it comes to lowest-common-denominator Hollywood tripe, of which there's no shortage.

Roger was different, though. His opinion still mattered, still counted for something, and if that was the case, then that must mean that authoritative critical opinion still mattered too. He spoke with erudition and candor, but was never too high-falutin' for the average person - and if a movie was bad, he had no qualms about saying so.

When the cancer and the surgeries wrecked his health and his appearance, he didn't hide. I remember gasping when I saw that full-frontal Esquire portrait shot of him post-surgery. It took guts for him to let the world see his face that way. I couldn't have done it. He didn't look so bad, in fact. He simply didn't look like the Roger we remembered from TV... but that was okay.

Today feels like the end of an era. Online film bloggers have become the new paradigm for film criticism (though I do not consider myself a critic). Tweets have assumed a new level of importance in analyzing a movie for the masses, for better or for worse. Who knows if any one critic will ever again have the same level of authoritativeness as Roger, or Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. Doesn't matter though. While we had him, Roger Ebert taught us more about movies than we ever could've hoped for, and for that, we should all be forever grateful.

Variety obituary

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Five more classic films that could run on holidays

“The Ten Commandments” pulled off another of its holiday ratings miracles over the weekend, delivering ABC’s best non-sports Saturday since — the last time ABC aired “The Ten Commandments” about a year ago. It also pulled off ABC’s best non-sports Saturday among the younger viewers who are the currency of broadcast TV since the network aired the flick “Transformers” on Christmas Day of 2010. ABC’s 32nd broadcast of “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille biblical flick that stars Charlton Heston, scored 7 million viewers in primetime Saturday night.
So did you watch The Ten Commandments this year? I didn't sit through the whole thing, but I had to see the parting-of-the-Red-Sea scene at least. It's remarkable that this old chestnut continues to get plenty of mileage, and the pairing of this movie with the Easter/Passover holiday season is obviously integral to its longevity. Regular people will say things like, oh, I don't like those old films; they're too corny, they're in black-and-white, they're not as good, blah blah blah - and yet they'll gather round the TV for one during a particular holiday, whether it's this or It's a Wonderful Life during Christmas. This makes me wonder: what other classic films could be tied to a holiday?

They need to be films that everyone knows, or at the very least, have stars that everyone knows. They don't have to have a direct correlation to a holiday (Life isn't really a Christmas movie, for example), but it certainly helps. They need to be able to play on free TV - ABC shows Commandments every year - so that it can have the widest audience. They should probably be feel-good movies as well, or at the very least, they should end on an up note. And they absolutely should remain in black-and-white (unless, y'know, they were originally shot in color). Here's what I came up with:

- Yankee Doodle Dandy for Independence Day. Duh. This one's a no-brainer. I watched it again recently and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did the first time I saw it. When I was in video retail, I would play it if I was working on July 4th. It's hard to see how anyone could resist a movie like this: yeah, the patriotism stuff is over-the-top, but if that sort of thing can't play on America's birthday, when can it play? Besides, it's so awesome to see Jimmy Cagney dance.

- To Kill a Mockingbird for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. To be honest, I don't feel comfortable about this choice. Given the parameters of this experiment that I set for myself, it fits perfectly, but I would much rather see a movie like Do The Right Thing playing on MLK Day instead - a movie written and directed by a black man. Still, it would never play on free television given its language, even though that language is necessary to the story. So I figure it's either Mockingbird or something horribly outdated and schmaltzy, like - ugh! - Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

- The Great Escape for Memorial Day. Um, don't hit me, but I've never actually seen The Great Escape... but I do know how highly regarded it is as a war movie! It's got manly men doing stuff! It's got Steve McQueen on a motorcycle! And most importantly, it's got American soldiers (and others) resisting the Nazis and being heroes, and let's face it, what better time would a movie like this play than on a holiday devoted to those who served this country in times of war? Plus, it's in color.

- Casablanca for Valentine's Day. This is another questionable choice, I think. To me, this is a war movie with romance added, but I suspect many, many more people see it as a romance movie with some war stuff added. Who's right? I say we both are. Still, when you think of the great movie love stories throughout history, few can top this, so I guess my view of it doesn't count for a hill of beans in this crazy old world. Besides, if any movie should be available to watch every year on free TV, it's this one.

- Holiday for New Year's Eve. Perhaps not as well known as these other movies, but it's got two of the all-time biggest, most beloved movie stars ever in a light romantic comedy with a New Year's Eve scene in it. I think if it were played often enough on New Year's Eve, it could catch on. Besides, it's called "Holiday"; I kinda think it deserves to be associated with an actual holiday, don't you?

So what do you think?