Friday, June 28, 2013

Books: For Whom the Bell Tolls

The 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I took Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls with me to read when I spent the summer in Barcelona, Spain, twenty years ago. This was during a period in my life when I felt compelled to read as many literature classics as possible. I was in college at the time, so that may have been part of the reason why. Tolstoy, Lawrence, Hugo, Melville, Dickens, you name it, I either read something by them or they were on my to-read list. 

I didn't return to them very often, however. For all of this old-school lit I was consuming, very little of it stuck with me, resonated with me. I suppose it might've been the slightly antiquated language. I was young, after all, and not used to reading such flowery, formal prose. There were exceptions, though: D.H. Lawrence stuck. The Iliad fascinated me for a little while. Moby-Dick held my interest.

Reading Hemingway while in Spain didn't necessarily enhance my experience of traveling outside my native country for the first time, unfortunately. I don't recall what my initial impression of Bell was. While I did take time to read it, it's not like I could make any correlation between the story and the things I was experiencing. I mean, it's set during the Spanish Civil War and here I was, an art student traveling with other artists in a very modern, cosmopolitan city.

Ernest Hemingway
I was grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to revisit Bell, especially since I've had that long-ago summer on my mind lately (can it really have been twenty years?). As I said, it's set during the civil war of the 1930s. An American expatriate, Robert Jordan, is fighting on the side of the rebels, and he joins this one guerrilla group under orders to help them blow up a bridge. He falls in love with Maria, a chick he meets there, and butts heads with the group leader, who used to be a big shot but has fallen into a drunken stupor in recent years, leaving his wife to run things.

I've never seen the film version with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, so I don't have that as a basis for comparison, which is kinda good in a way; apparently, the film version was up for nine Oscars including Best Picture and all four acting categories.

I get that Hemingway spent a lotta time in Spain and wanted this book to be as authentic in its depiction of Spanish culture as he could, but that doesn't mean I cared for that much. He wrote the English dialogue as a direct translation of Spanish, so it's grammatically correct in Spanish even if it sounds funny in English. Also, the characters often switch back and forth from an older dialect, in which they all say "thee" and "thou" and stuff like that, but it's unclear why they switch and what the rules are for switching. I found that very off-putting. Plus, the literal word "obscenity" is used whenever a cuss word could conceivably be said, as in, "What the obscenity" or something like that. Hemingway was supposedly a great writer, but he couldn't find a better way around profanity than that?

General Francisco Franco
The main character is never referred to in the narration as "Robert" or "Jordan," but Robert Jordan, first and last names, every time. I've tried to think of why Hemingway made that choice. Maybe to emphasize his status as an outsider? Or to make him seem larger than life somehow? I'm not sure. Regardless, I found I was too aware of it.

Despite all this, the story itself is compelling. There's a lot of talk about duty, and of what it means to fight in a war. Hemingway once wrote that in war, "you will die like a dog for no good reason," and indeed, he doesn't take combat for granted in Bell. Throughout the story, Jordan thinks a lot about what brought him to this time and place, and about what may happen afterwards, especially after he hooks up with Maria. There's a lot of internal squabbling. There are stories the guerrillas tell each other. There's not a whole lot of humor... but then, I suppose it's not the kind of situation that warrants a lot of humor.

While I found Bell interesting enough to keep reading, I found it slow going. I was much too aware of the writing style to maintain my interest for longer than a chapter at a time, so I guess not a lot has changed in my perception of the book. However, if I had read it in 1940, when it came out, I'd probably look at it differently. I dunno. I probably didn't finish it the first time, twenty years ago, now that I think about it. 

Look for more entries in this series throughout the summer.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Super Fly

Super Fly
seen @ Mid-Manhattan Library, New York NY

Honestly, I wasn't all that thrilled with Super Fly. It wasn't bad, at least not when compared to other blaxploitation films - and I did like the ending. But it's hard to relate to a drug dealer as a protagonist, y'know what I mean? Oh, I understand why Priest, the main character, does what he does, and I don't think the movie glamorizes drug use to the extent other, later movies do. I just prefer something like Shaft instead. So let's talk about the bigger reason this movie is remembered: the music.

In roaming through my father's record collection not long after he died, I was pleased to see, among other things, the Super Fly soundtrack on CD. He also had a Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions greatest hits collection, so I took both of them. They're both double-CD volumes; the Super Fly one (released by Rhino) has both the original soundtrack on one disc and a bunch of extras on the other.

Mayfield's nine songs get lots of play throughout the movie (and OF COURSE he himself appears in one scene, performing a couple of the tunes). Most of them are played with just the music, not the words - which makes sense, because after all, a song with the title "Freddy's Dead" could be construed as a spoiler. It made me really appreciate the musicianship of Mayfield and his band: the percussion in "Pusherman," the horns in "Little Child Runnin' Wild," the guitar in "Give Me Your Love." So much of black popular music these days is electronically based that it's easy to forget that music like this is part of our legacy as well.

"Been told I can't be nuthin' else/Just a hustler in spite of myself
I know I can break it//This life just don't make it"
Mayfield's lyrics capture the spirit of the movie perfectly, but after all, it was simply a reflection of the issues that plagued black America back in the 70s. It always astonishes me, whenever I listen to singers like the Impressions or the Temptations or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes or Sly and the Family Stone or Marvin and Stevie, how musicians like these could take the pain, the frustration, and the anger of black culture during this tumultuous period in American history and turn it into something beautiful. Something lyrical. Something that rocks! (And yeah, I guess you can say the same thing about hip hop today, to a degree, I suppose, though I'll still take classic soul every time.)

"The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin' times and ghetto streets
Tryin' ta get over"
The liner notes to the Rhino 2-disc version of the Super Fly soundtrack have this to say:
...The genius in Curtis' multilayered dissection of Superfly [sic] is clear when contrasted with most soundtracks of the time. While Isaac Hayes (Shaft), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), and others wrote scintillating themes for movies, the remainder of their scores, though usually brilliant, was 90 percent instrumental, offering only a few loosely related songs. For Superfly [sic], Curtis took [screenwriter Phillip] Fenty's script and composed sharp character studies for each primary player, making every song essential, and thus securing his soundtrack as the genre's finest work.
I tend to prefer the way-down-deep voices of guys like Teddy Pendergrass or Levi Stubbs over the falsetto-voiced singers, but listening to the Impressions collection made me appreciate Mayfield's voice more. Within the context of the film, its sweetness is a contrast to the harshness of Priest and the world he occupies. 

"Everybody's misused him/Ripped him off and abused him
Another junkie plan/Pushin' dope for the Man"
One thing about the movie I should mention that I thought was interesting: there's a montage sequence of still photos of Priest selling his drugs, set to the song "Pusherman." It's a unusual storytelling choice for this movie, though I wouldn't necessarily call it artsy. Does it fit with the rest of the film? Eh. It's debatable. But I appreciate that director Gordon Parks Jr. (who took the photos) tried something different.

"I want you so, baby/Can't even get mad at you
What a thing/You really swing"
I saw Super Fly at the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the more popular New York Public Library (the one with the lion sculptures out front). The film's part of a series of New York-based films they're showing this summer. In high school and college, I went to this place all the time, not just for book reports, but mostly for their picture collection on the third floor. You see, kids, back in the prehistoric days before the Internet, whenever an artist needed photo reference, this was the best place to go, because they had folders and folders and folders of practically anything and everything you'd want. My school mates and I would spend hours there, looking through their files for just that right image at just the right angle. So this place has a few nice memories for me.

The screen they set up was in a first-floor room facing Fifth Avenue, but it wasn't big enough to obscure the view out the window completely, and as a result, I'd occasionally be distracted by people - especially hot chicks - walking outside. One guy in front of me actually took out his digital camera and snapped a few pictures during the movie. Go figure.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

BAMCinemaFest: Mother of George

I've spoken here before about my feelings on starting families. To reiterate: I understand why people choose to do it, but I think reproduction is happening far too much by far too many people unqualified to be parents (or anything else), and that soon we'll reach a point where this planet can no longer sustain so many people.

That doesn't stop folks from making babies, though, especially when it's a cultural imperative, as we see in the new film Mother of George, director Andrew Dosunmu's follow-up to his feature debut, Restless City. It played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during its fifth annual CinemaFest film festival. I hadn't planned on seeing anything else at the fest - I found out about it late - but I knew I had to see this one.

'Mother' star Danai Gurira
Set within a Nigerian community in Brooklyn, it's about a newlywed couple, Ayodele and Adenike, who want to have kids. In fact, it's kind of expected of them by the larger community of family and friends, in particular Ayodele's mother. However, the couple can't quite get it going, so to speak, and Adenike is scapegoated for it, which puts a strain on her marriage. Eventually, she realizes that she may have to consider alternate methods.

Mother reminded me more than a little bit of the film Breaking the Waves, although I can't say specifically why without revealing spoilers. I can say, however, that in both films, circumstance places the burden of "fixing" the marriage on the wife, even though it means defying cultural mores. 

Like Bess, Adenike lives within a small, restricted community with ancient traditions and clearly defined gender roles, and also like Bess, Adenike shows signs of chafing against them. In one scene, we see her on the telephone arguing with her mother-in-law and at one point she pleads something along the lines of, "Why is it always the woman?" The implication is that if she and her husband can't make a child, there must be something wrong with her.

'Mother' DP Bradford Young (l),
costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu (r)
Women get unfairly burdened with a lot of things in this world, and Mother makes that point artfully and with great sensitivity. The Walking Dead actress Danai Gurira, who was also in City, plays Adenike, and she is a revelation. 

Adenike gives of herself completely to Ayodele (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankole), uncomplainingly and unconditionally, yet even when things go sour in their marriage, it's clear that she still loves him, and that she does the things she does out of love. This is her culture; she was born to it and she knew what marriage within it would mean, so when it turns on her, it feels like a betrayal, and Gurira makes you feel the heartbreak.

'Mother' screenwriter Darci Picoult
Once again, the visual style that Dosunmu is becoming known for is on display here. Director of photography Bradford Young (REMEMBER THIS NAME!), who worked on City as well as Middle of Nowhere, shoots black people better than anyone working now. Gurira and de Bankole are both pretty dark, yet they and everyone else in this film look so luminous. The play of light and shadow on their skin make them look like they stepped off a magazine cover, and the colors are used judiciously, bright but never overwhelming. Dosunmu might be a little too fond of in-and-out focusing sometimes, but it's okay.

First-time screenwriter Darci Picoult's script knows just how much to reveal and how much to leave to the imagination, and as a result, it keeps you engaged in the story. You have to pay attention if you wanna know what's going on. At the same time, it doesn't get in the way of the startling visuals, since Dosunmu is very much a visual director.

Mother has it all, folks. Easily one of the best movies I'm likely to see all year, and if it can catch fire the way Nowhere did last year, you're gonna hear a whole lot more about it. It's due to come out in September.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Monstrous links

Good news! Page and I have begun talking about rescheduling the Terrorthon. It was truly unfortunate that we've had to put it on hold for as long as we have, because we had a fairly large amount of people lined up to take part. I don't know if we can get as many the second time around, but I do know that Page has her heart set on making this blogathon happen, and I'm just as eager to help her with it. We haven't settled on an exact date yet, but sometime around Halloween might be a possibility (which, strangely enough, was my original suggestion!). Either way, we haven't forgotten about it, so we hope you won't either.

For all you filmmakers out there: Katha Cato from the Queens World Film Festival wants me to remind you that they're now taking submissions for the 2014 edition, which will be March 4-10. Once again the opening night venue will be the Museum of the Moving Image, and once again there will be all sorts of year-round programming. For more information, visit the website.

I've been meaning to address the recent talk about the future of Hollywood, specifically the comments made by directors Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Ryan sums up my feelings on the matter, but I'd also like to add this: much of this larger debate has focused on the studios and the moviegoers, but what about the theater owners? If the moviegoing experience needs to be more enticing, I'd much sooner trust the individual theaters to make that happen than the studios imposing order from above. 

After all, the theater owners are much closer to the audiences, not to mention their communities - and that's what I believe it comes down to. The theaters need to foster a greater sense of community with their patrons. A couple of years ago, I threw out a few ideas about how theaters can improve comfort for audiences. There's much more that I could add to this list, but like I say, any kind of outreach should come from the theater owners and it needs to fit the needs of the community. This strikes me as a much more sustainable solution for the industry than $50 premium tickets.

How much does Aurora love Judy Garland? This much.

While at BAM last weekend, I saw that they're currently showing all nine of Hitchcock's surviving silent films as part of a series. Here's more about them.

This comic strip pays tribute to Roger Ebert in a way that'll bring a tear to your eye.

Former child star Mara Wilson talks about the perils of being a child star - and how she managed to escape them.

And finally, much love to my pal Caftan Woman for 25 years of marital bliss.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mixtape movies: The Trek captains volume

The Mixtape Movies Blogathon is an event in which the object is to tie together a group of movies with a common theme, in the style of a old-fashioned "mix" cassette tape. It is hosted by Fandango Groovers Movie Blog. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the website.

I have a real affinity for mixtapes. My father used to make them all the time. He was a real music aficionado; he'd buy records and tapes through one of those old mail-order services - the kind where they'd offer the first six cassettes for a penny or something like that - and then, when the industry starting shifting away from LPs and 8-tracks, he'd buy these big stereos and boom boxes and record them onto cassettes (and eventually, CDs). He'd buy cassettes in bulk from The Wiz or Sam Goody (remember those places, New Yorkers?) and hand-write his selections in that beautiful, elegant style of his onto the cassette labels. He took his music seriously... I did the same. I emulated him, only I made mixtapes off of the radio. I grew up a Top 40 kid, so I wrote out my own labels and recorded almost anything and everything - and this being the 80s, that meant Top 40 radio was still a little more diverse than today. Sometimes I'd take these tapes to parties, but it never occurred to me to make one for anybody other than myself. Don't think anyone ever asked me to!

So what would my theoretical movie mixtape look like? In a sense, people are making movie mixtapes all the time on YouTube now. "Supercut" videos (such as this one) seem to embody the mixtape spirit, so my movie mixtape will be along these lines. (I think Andy had complete movies in mind for this blogathon, but I'm going with individual scenes instead.)

My theme is "Star Trek captains in other roles." I know, I know, but it was all I could think of.

- William Shatner in Judgment at Nuremberg. Six years before he boarded the Enterprise, Shat was a captain in this powerhouse all-star movie about the Nazi war trials directed by Stanley Kramer. Here he shares his first scene in the film with Kramer regular Spencer Tracy. I had meant to write about a couple of Kramer/Tracy films I had seen recently - Inherit the Wind and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World - but I never got around to it, so I'll just say here that I loved the former and was lukewarm about the latter.

- Patrick Stewart in L.A. Story. Notice he plays a Frenchman with an actual French accent in this! A common complaint I've heard is that how can Picard be French if he talks with a British accent? My answer is: don't think about it! It's the same artistic license that allows all the aliens on the show to speak English. L.A. Story is actually a wonderful movie, perhaps the warmest one Steve Martin has ever made. I've always enjoyed many of his movies, both comedies and dramas (he's terrific in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner), but I find that this is the one I keep coming back to.

- Avery Brooks in The Big Hit. There's actually a character named "Cisco" in this movie! One wonders if that had any impact on deciding on Sisko for this movie. Avery Brooks hasn't made many movies, and you've probably already seen him in American History X, so I picked this Mark Wahlberg crime flick instead. I haven't actually seen this - it looks kinda like a Pulp Fiction clone (the 90s were full of them) - but Brooks gets to speak Japanese in it! Not in this scene, but he gets to be a total badass here, which is hilarious and awesome.

- Kate Mulgrew in Throw Momma From the Train. I haven't seen this in quite awhile, but from what I remember, it was a very funny movie. Janeway plays the ex-wife of Billy Crystal, who plagarized a book he wrote and became a success and now he wants to kill her. Danny DeVito, meanwhile, wants to kill his pain-in-the-ass mom. So they arrange to kill each other's victims, Strangers on a Train-style. Couldn't find any scenes with Mulgrew on YouTube, but I vaguely remember seeing her in this. How could I not, if she looked like that?

- Scott Bakula in American Beauty. If I'm not mistaken, I think Bakula is the only Trek actor (among the main casts, of course) to appear in a Best Picture Oscar winner. Take that fact for what it's worth. Anyway, you probably remember him in this; he played the gay next-door neighbor of Chris Cooper, which gets him all hot and bothered. This was after Quantum Leap but before Enterprise. His role isn't that big but at least he's going slightly against type.

- Chris Pine in This Means War. After Star Trek, before Into Darkness, this is a halfway decent fight scene between nu-Kirk and Tom Hardy, or would be without the presence of Reese Witherspoon. Pine's non-Kirk roles haven't exactly set the world on fire, and I doubt reviving Jack Ryan will continue that streak, but whatever.

Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek TNG: The Best of Both Worlds
The Captains

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Street Fighter (1974)

The Street Fighter (1974)
seen @ Spectacle Theater, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY

Quentin Tarantino used to work in a video store, and so he's become representative of video store geeks everywhere, and that's understandable. Over the course of his career as a movie director, the stories he's written, for himself and others, have been deeply influenced by the old movies he saw over and over again, movies that are (or were) far off the beaten path.

My seven-and-a-half-year tenure as a video store geek wasn't too different from that. I was deeply into current independent and foreign films during this period, the mid-90s to the early-00s, which was a great period for indy film in general. It led me to seek out other obscure films and recommend them to customers whenever possible.

That said, though, there was always somebody else, another co-worker or two, whose film knowledge ran much deeper and much more obscure. I'd feel proud recommending a film by a director the average customer had never heard of, like, say, Atom Egoyan or Jim Jarmusch, but meanwhile there's this other guy talking about Mario Bava giallo films or some rare Japanese bootleg he picked up in Chinatown.

It felt like a competition sometimes, I admit, especially during the first few years, when I didn't know anything at all and I had to play catch-up so I could justify my position. After awhile, though, I learned to accept that there would always be someone whose cinema skills outweighed my own.

So when I saw True Romance, a film Tarantino wrote, on video, I was curious about these Street Fighter films that Christian Slater's character talked about, but as well-stocked as my video store was, we didn't have those at the time. After awhile I forgot about it - until I saw the original one for the first time at the Spectacle, the tiny screening room in Williamsburg, last weekend. (They're showing the entire series throughout the summer.)

The ultra-violence from star Sonny Chiba wasn't too surprising; one tends to expect that sort of thing in martial arts movies from Asia. Even the "impact" moments, for lack of a better description, struck me as typical bizarro Japanese cinema (when Chiba hits one dude in the head there's a split-second moment where you see a negative image of both fist and head, like an X-ray).

Chiba's character is pretty brutal. He's much more of an anti-hero than Bruce Lee, not above taking liberties with the heroine just because he can, for example. Given that, the presence of a bumbling comic sidekick seems really surprising (one who's not all that funny either). But I suppose even a movie like this felt like it needed some kind of humorous outlet, unlike other action movies I could name (but let's not get into that again).

The audience seemed like they were pretty familiar with the movie, in particular one girl who tossed out the occasional quip. I didn't mind; this is clearly a pure-entertainment movie, not heavy drama. My surprise and delight at seeing an African-American actor speaking Japanese in this movie was slightly mitigated when he turns out to be a rapist. Chiba takes care of him, though, in a way that my uber-feminist friend Jenny would heartily approve of, I think... and that's all I'll say about that!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel
seen @ UA Midway Stadium 9, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

The late-afternoon sun oppressively radiated over the gentrified neighborhood like an occupying army the day I went to see Man of Steel. The torrential downpours that blanketed the city this past week or so had ended, and I found myself strangely missing its absence, like a one-night-stand that slipped away in the early morning, taking the last hundred dollars out of your wallet and leaving you flaccid and unsatisfied and with an itchy feeling in your thighs. 

As I walked up the traffic-clogged boulevard to the movie theater, I spied dirty, limpid pools of water in the gutters, slowly drying up like the hope from a prisoner of war... and I somehow had a feeling it was an omen of things to come.

Reid met me outside the theater. He was early. I should've known he would be. When it comes to seeing movies, he's gotta have his favorite spot. 

The middle. 

Always the middle.

I've seen him dropkick screaming kids out into the aisles for taking his favorite spot. 

Me, I'm an aisle man. Always have been. He and I argue about where to sit but sometimes you've gotta make compromises. Of course, his idea of compromise tends to involve a two-by-four to the head...

We got our tickets and waited on line to get in and Reid started in on his video games again. You know the kind. The kind that have backstories longer than Gone With the Wind with controls resembling a space shuttle and that take eight hours just to complete one level. It's all he ever talks about. If he could mainline this stuff he probably would.

Me... all I ever needed was a joystick, a coupla buttons, and one... single... quarter. 

And that'd be enough.

I don't understand what kind of world we live in when a man can't enjoy his Ms. Pac-Man when he wants to anymore.

Suddenly I realized that I needed my pill again. It had been days, but walking around in all this... fresh air and dry heat... reminded me that it was only a matter of time before the symptoms would start up again. 

I had went to the usual place for my fix but they didn't have what I wanted. I had to settle for something else. 

Something less. 

It did the trick for a little while but it didn't last and I was a wreck before too long. Sweat trickled down my neck as I recalled the watery eyes, the runny nose, the rough scratchy feeling at the base of my throat like the scummiest back alley in the worst part of town. 

Oh yes, I've been down that back alley before. 

I know it well. 

I know that desperate sensation like a motherless stray dog that's been kicked around one too many times. I know the fetid stench from the refuse collecting in garbage cans and plastic bags stretched to the limit, strewn along the cobblestone floor like the dying dreams of yesterday's glories, when I was young and nieve and still believed the world was a great place and worth fighting for. 

Oh yes... I'm all too familiar with those backstreets that I call home every spring.

Damn, but I hate allergy season.

We made it into the auditorium and after the usual set of commercials came the trailers. There was one for Despicable Me 2 and another for some piece of crap called Turbo - animated kiddie movies. 

Was this a joke? 

Who did they think Man of Steel was for? 

This is a Superman movie. No little kid is gonna want to see this action-adventure science-fiction spectacular about a grown man in long underwear and a cape who shoots lasers out of his eyes and punches out other grown men in the spleen amidst acres of mass destruction with the fate of the world at stake. 

I mean, this is SERIOUS BUSINESS!

And yet, as fate, as cruel and harsh a mistress as any leather-clad dominatrix who advertises anonymously on Craig's List, would have it, there were a small number of children in the audience for this teenage-boy power fantasy epic brought to life by the director of Sucker Punch. Their cries and mumblings to indifferent, vodka'd parents trickled up and out into the auditorium like weeds from the sidewalks of an impoverished business district, abandoned due to a crumbling economy and white flight and left to the junkies and the whores.

The one behind Reid was getting his goat. I knew where this would lead. I'd experienced it before: 

Times Square, August 2011. 

Long Island City, December 2007. 

Union Square, May 2006. 

And countless other times. To say Reid has a low tolerance for rowdy kids during a movie is like saying Lindsay Lohan has a slight substance abuse problem. I think his lawyer is still appealing the decision from the last time this happened.

I was wrong this time, however. He was too dumbfounded by the movie to care too much about some attention-deficit brat. 

Good thing too, because I accidentally left the taser at home.

Over dinner afterward we talked about the movie and I was shocked. 

He actually didn't like it. 

He thought the movie fell apart in the final third. He thought there were unexplained coincidences, unnecessary macguffins, and a ridiculously high death toll.

How could he fail to understand what all true fans know: that it's only through REALISTIC interpretations of Superman and other superheroes in film will the general public finally treat superhero movies as Legitimate Cinema? Christopher Nolan clearly understood this with his Dark Knight trilogy, and the critics and the public responded as one.

The world is an abattoir and we are the lambs lining up to the slaughter to appease the whims of decadent, degenerate gods of chaos. And though there are moments of joy, kindness, generosity, brotherhood, selflessness and love...


Shit happens for no reason, and sometimes all you can do about it is brutally punch it into submission.

Just like in Man of Steel.

'Man of Steel' needs to escape Reeve's shadow
The Dark Knight Rises

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Could you accept Melissa McCarthy as a romantic lead?

...In her unassuming way, Ms. McCarthy has quickly earned a freedom to play a wider range of characters than her female peers, and to play them as hard, crude and over-the-top as her male counterparts. Her rising celebrity means she can have roles rewritten for her and movies green-lighted by signing onto them; it has also made her a target for some unexpected and shockingly personal criticism. But Ms. McCarthy isn’t looking to be a pioneer any more than she wishes to be a punching bag: What she wants from her comedy is the chance to play in a world without consequences. 
“You push so far past the normal boundaries of what’s O.K. in society,” Ms. McCarthy said excitedly over a lunch in April, on a trip to New York to host “Saturday Night Live.” “I’m always fully aware of, ‘You can’t do this.’ ”
I'm about to share a secret with you. Not many people are aware of this, so if this shocks you in any way, well, I apologize in advance, but I feel this is something that must be revealed to the world at large. I hope you're sitting down for this. Ready?


Fat people exist.

I should know, because I am one. Have been for many years. If I were to be perfectly honest about it, it's not always easy to live with. The fact that I'm also fairly tall tends to offset the fat part somewhat; I don't have a tremendous, Kevin James-type pot belly, but you would never mistake me for an average-sized dude. Regardless, I make no excuses for my condition; it is entirely of my own making. My bicycle is busted right now, so I don't bike as much as I used to, but when I lived in Columbus, I biked all the time. I do, however, walk as much as I can, as often as I can. Walking is the simplest form of exercise and I go through lots of shoes.

I'm still a guy, though. When strangers on the street call me "big man" or something similar, it's usually with a certain measure of respect (I hope, anyway). The jolly-fat-man image is still a prevalent one in our culture - kids still believe in Santa Claus, for instance. I just name-dropped Kevin James; no matter what you think of his movies, he's just the latest in a long line of fat-guy comics in Hollywood: Jack Black, Chris Farley, John Candy, John Belushi, etc., all the way back to Fatty Arbuckle. My point is that I may not always like my body image - and indeed, most of the time I tend to be camera-shy for this very reason - but it's very rare that I'm made to feel bad about it by society.

Unlike fat women.

Which brings us to Melissa McCarthy. I admit, I haven't seen any of her films or TV shows, but I have been following her recent rise in popularity with some interest. Later this month she's gonna appear in an action comedy with Sandra Bullock called The Heat, and if it gets good reviews, I might go see it. In an advance review of the movie, however, Alex made me aware of something that surprised me for a moment, but then didn't really surprise me upon reflection: apparently there are some posters for The Heat in which McCarthy has been airbrushed - BADLY - to appear skinnier.

In the New York Times article I quote from at the top, McCarthy makes it clear that the success of her Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids has led to more job offers and that she's able to rise above the haters and I think that's awesome. That said, if she's being typecast as the crazy fat lady, and if some people still are resistant to marketing her as she actually looks like, well, can you truly call this success?

I don't wanna get into a larger discussion of obesity in general and so-called "fat-shaming" in specific. What I wanna know is this: can we conceive of a time in the near future where we, the movie-going audience, can accept seeing McCarthy, or an actress like her, beyond the limited box we place them in as a result of their looks? 

Personally, I think McCarthy is adorable, and would love to see her as the star in a Julia Roberts-like rom-com one day - preferably one where her weight isn't an issue - but I fear that we're still a long, long way away from that if she still has to worry about her image being airbrushed on movie posters. Hollywood is a business, and they're under no obligation to champion causes, so I understand that McCarthy has to find her niche however she can. If that means playing the crazy fat lady, well, so be it. I hope she plays it better than anyone who's come before or since.

Still, a movie like The Heat is somewhat different, and for that reason alone I hope it's a good movie, and that it does well.


Can a woman be sexy and "empowered" too?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


seen on TV @ TCM

The only reason I wanted to see Caged was so I could fill a nagging gap in my personal film knowledge. The 1950 Best Actress Oscar race was an epic one. You had a silent film legend, Gloria Swanson, up for Sunset Boulevard, in a show-stopping, bravura performance that would be forever immortalized in film history (and also my all-time favorite film). 

Then you had Bette Davis in an equally larger-than-life performance in All About Eve - but it's eclipsed somewhat by Anne Baxter in the same movie, and she's nominated as a co-lead. It's justifiable; she plays the Eve in the movie's title, after all, but Davis dominates the movie so much that it  does seem wrong to relegate her to supporting. And then you had my girl, Judy Holliday, in Born Yesterday, a comedic role, but one based on the Broadway play that she starred in - and thanks to her turn in Adam's Rib, she was definitely a star on the rise. 

I had never heard of Eleanor Parker, nor had I seen Caged, so for many years, she never loomed as largely in this race in my mind, so I had always thought of this as a four-woman race. So I was eager to finally see this movie last night, and I went into it knowing as little about it as possible, outside of TCM host Robert Osborne's introduction, of course. I didn't even know how old Parker was when she made the movie. I always pictured her as a matronly, middle-aged woman. Maybe it was because of the name "Eleanor." Made me think of Eleanor Roosevelt or something.

So Caged is a women-in-prison movie, though I knew enough not to expect anything along the lines of, say, Pam Grier in The Big Bird Cage. Parker's character is in stir for being talked into an armed robbery by her now-deceased newlywed husband, and as if that weren't bad enough, she's pregnant with his child too. The film follows her time in the big house and how it changes her, and of course, along the way we meet the expected colorful supporting cast of felons, administrators and the ever-present matron.

Parker definitely deserved her nomination. Her transformation from scared waif to hardened felon feels natural, given her circumstances. Yes, there are giggle-inducing moments of camp throughout the film (perhaps unavoidable, given the evolution of this sub-genre), but Parker carries this film the whole way through and even at the end, you still feel for her, knowing where her fate will take her. Look at these stills of Parker at a key turning point in the movie and you'll get an idea of the kind of turmoil her character goes through.

Now, the big question: did Parker deserve the Oscar? Tough question, given the competition. Holliday was the winner that season, and it's so difficult to compare comedy to drama. Then again, it's rare that the Academy even acknowledges comedic roles, much less anoints them as winners, so in that sense, Holliday triumphing over four dramatic roles is of great significance. There has long been a school of thought that says comedy is harder to pull off than  drama because what constitutes humor is so much more subjective. Holliday made it look ridiculously easy, but don't forget that she perfected the role on Broadway. And her Adam's Rib co-star Katharine Hepburn, someone who knew a thing or two about good acting, was a huge fan of hers.

It's probably safe to imagine that Davis and Baxter split the vote. How would you choose between these two? In every scene they share in Eve, you can feel the tension radiating between the two of them as they verbally jab and parry and spar with each other, like two prizefighters going the full fifteen rounds. Davis is the legend, the one everyone remembers most, but in truth, her performance is incomplete without Baxter's.

And then there's Swanson. When it comes to picking a winner, Oscar usually loves a good story; in other words, the larger context behind a given nominee, and if I had been around back then, I probably would've picked Swanson for the win because hers was such a good story: the comeback of a silent film star in a film about the comeback return of a silent film star, with metatextual overtones everywhere you look. Norma Desmond is one of those characters that transcends cinema and is part of pop culture at large. Even casual film fans have heard the line, "Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Could Parker have won? Well, let's see. Parker was the only nominee not in a Best Picture-nominated film, so that was a strike against her. You couldn't move Davis or Baxter into Supporting Actress, because both Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were also in the race, a sign of how deep the acting was in Eve (also including George Sanders, who won in Supporting Actor.) Plus, Caged ends on a down note, as does, to a lesser extent, Sunset and EveUltimately, Holliday's was the only feel-good role, and that may have been the deciding factor. No, the Oscars don't always recognize true quality, but in the 1950 season at least, they went five-for-five in the Best Actress race.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Godzilla (1956)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
seen on TV @ TCM

I would imagine the first time I had ever seen a Godzilla movie was on TV around Thanksgiving, back when local television would show old movies on special occasions. There was a Godzilla Saturday morning cartoon (but the less said about that, the better), not to mention a Godzilla comic book (though I don't recall reading it much), but it was the movies that made an impression on me. I never became a huge fan, but I always watched those movies whenever they'd come on TV.

In hindsight, I should've known better about seeing Roland Emmerich's remake, but I got caught up in all the hype around  it - and the hype was tremendous - to the point where I went to a Tuesday night advance screening (it went wide on a Wednesday, if I recall correctly). It tried to combine elements of the Japanese original, Gojira, as well as the American cut, but in the end, there was too much stupid in the screenplay to overcome.

Of course, looking at the American cut last night for the first time in a long time, I realize it has more than enough stupid on its own! At first, I was interested in seeing how the original Gojira was integrated into this version - for example, showing certain Japanese characters talking to Raymond Burr in English, but with their backs to the camera so you can't tell these aren't the original actors! I have to wonder if American audiences back then were aware of cheats like this - or if they cared.

I mean, the movie doesn't try to hide its origins. If Gojira had been made today, Hollywood would just remake it completely (which they did), instead of making this patchwork version which tries to integrate Burr's character into the story. Did audiences of the day care about the bad dubbing? Burr's intrusive expositional voice-over? Burr's stone-faced visage in general? Or perhaps it was considered "camp" even back then? (Unlikely.)

Burr was really devoted to that pipe, wasn't he?
But let's give Godzilla '56 the benefit of the doubt for a moment and imagine this technique being applied today. Let's say someone like, I dunno, Liev Schreiber or Aaron Eckhart or someone similarly square-jawed in the Burr role and footage from a modern version of Gojira would be integrated into an American cut with new footage. CGI, of course, would make it easy to insert our star directly into the Japanese version. Would it be more successful than Emmerich's remake? (Questions of quality aside, of course. It's not like this is The Dark Knight or anything.)

I suspect the answer is no, for one simple reason: modern audiences are more demanding. Thanks to the geek revolution, they're savvier and more up on modern filmmaking techniques. Plus, the globalization of popular culture means they'd probably be aware of the Japanese original and would bitch and moan over any attempt to "corrupt" it. Look at the furor over George Lucas' tweaking of Episodes 4-6 of the Star Wars saga, for example. And I suspect this is also why American audiences in 1956 probably didn't care much about the changes to Gojira. They weren't geeky enough.

As for me, I can easily appreciate the camp value of Japanese monster movies in general; after all, I grew up watching them badly dubbed and re-cut for American audiences. Plus, there's just something about Japanese culture in general. I mean, they make movies, cartoons and comics with the most outrageous, over-the-top imagery, sex and violence, together or separately, and in numerous combinations, yet it's presented with a high degree of... earnestness. 

Like the scene in Gojira/Godzilla where all those legions of schoolgirls sing to lift everyone's spirits the day after Godzilla wipes out Tokyo. They've just seen their hometown destroyed by a giant lizard and have no doubt seen friends and family maimed and killed, but are they traumatized? Are they emotionally scarred? Hell no! Here they are, lined up in their perfectly neat and clean school uniforms, ready and eager to come to the aid of their country in its darkest hour! I mean, I dunno about you, but I don't remember any choir of schoolkids singing on TV the day after 9/11.

So here's hoping the Japanese never stop making "kaiju" movies, and that Hollywood keeps trying to remake them - so that we geeks will always have something new to complain about!


Monday, June 3, 2013

Links of the living dead

Last month was a rough one for two of my favorite film bloggers, Page and Brandie, but I believe they'll get through it. Admittedly, I don't know them that well, but they both strike me as having the ability to overcome the adversity that life has thrown at them. Do yourself a favor and check out their blogs; let 'em know you're out there.

This past weekend finally felt like summer for real after a cold and dreary spring, and I loved it! I spent both days out and about in the city, mostly Greenwich Village, and I even broke out the shorts for the first time all year. You might have heard that here in NYC, we've just started a brand new bike sharing program, and so far it looks like it's caught on pretty quickly. It's a huge change, and there are always gonna be some people afraid of the implications of that change, but in the long run, I firmly believe it'll benefit everybody.

Warm weather means it's time to start planning outdoor movies. Last night, I was looking at the schedules for the traditional outdoor movie sites in the five boroughs, and there are some particularly sweet selections this year, including a handful of classic movies I've never seen before, so I'm quite excited about it all.

Before the end of the day, I'll have the Sally Kellerman pics from last month's MASH screening up on the WSW Facebook page. Yes, they're late, I know.

From around the film blogosphere:

Courtney uses The Fast and the Furious franchise to examine where Hollywood stands on diversity. I really wish I were more interested in this franchise than I actually am, because Courtney's absolutely right; it does appear that Hollywood treats the F&F movies like a fluke instead of trying to learn from it. Still, it's hard for me personally to care about them with dramatic voids like Vin Diesel and the Rock in it, among others. If I was twelve again, it might be different, but most of the time, I look for a little more in my movies than fast cars and... fast cars. Still, F&F does deserve props for completely defying conventional wisdom on how to make an action movie franchise.

In anticipation of her blogathon in his honor next month, Monstergirl gives you the 411 on director William Castle.

The Lady Eve spotlights Rosemary's Baby and New York's famous Dakota building.

Brian does a good analysis of Steven Soderbergh's recent state-of-cinema speech.

Here's a story from the fine blog Silent Volume about an unusual screening of an early 20s film.

Two different pieces about the digital revolution: how digital movies are projected, and how smaller theaters are adjusting to the change.

The modern Hollywood screenwriter rarely gets to write what he wants to write.