Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rifftrax Live presents Night of the Living Dead

Rifftrax Live presents Night of the Living Dead
seen @ Regal Cinemas Union Square, New York NY

Heckling, like comedy in general, is a kind of art. I'm convinced of this. There's a certain level of arrogance involved, sure - there kinda has to be; after all, the heckler is placing himself above the heckled - but to be good at it, and not just some douchebag with too much to drink - you've gotta know how to make it funny. Who can forget that scene in Roxanne where Steve Martin holds a symposium on how to heckle somebody with a big nose?

In the film world, mocking films, good or bad, is almost always more entertaining than praising films, especially since negativity tends to have a longer shelf life. Last week, Ryan talked about how social media has dramatically shortened the period of backlash on a given film. Some people, it seems, are eager to put down a popular movie in a bid for attention. To a certain extent, I can relate to that mentality, but that can get old after awhile because it tends to be mean-spirited.

Light-hearted mockery is different. Not being any kind of comedy expert, I can't express the difference accurately, but I think it may have something to do with having an intimate knowledge of the subject, flaws and all, and still appreciating it. Perhaps this is where the art comes in.

Which brings us to Rifftrax. It's an outgrowth of the long-running TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which the stars - Michael J. Nelson and the two guys who voiced the robots, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - sell audio files of their trademark heckling stylings to be played with specific movies. They also sell DVDs of films that come with their audio commentary. In essence, it's like watching MST3K without the silhouetted robots in the corner, or the original material in-between movie segments.

Every once in awhile, Rifftrax stages live events, in which they do their schtick before a live audience and the event is simulcast around the country in select movie theaters. My pals John and Sue are big Rifftrax fans, and that's how I wound up getting to see Rifftrax' take on the horror classic Night of the Living Dead last Thursday.

The screening was preceded by a bunch of horror-flavored parodies of movie slide-show word games and trivia, accompanied by silly songs. At the appointed hour, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett appeared on a Halloween-decorated stage at a theater in Nashville. Before the main attraction, there was what is a Rifftrax Live regular feature: a short that they also heckle, featuring an unlucky Mr. Bean-type character that's part of a series.

Night played while the Rifftrax guys sat off to the side and did their thing. I'm told by John that they used to ad lib, but at this performance they wrote their lines in advance. I couldn't help but be a tiny bit disappointed, but it didn't matter. For one thing, they never have to worry about stepping on each other's lines. It looked like they all took turns, and for the most part, they knew when to come in with the jibes and when to allow for the dialogue. 

At regular intervals, the simulcast goes from the film to a split-screen of the film on one side and the Rifftrax crew on the side, Brady Bunch style, as they heckle. It's a little off-putting at first, but you get used to it eventually.

An example of how the Rifftrax crew looks onstage. This is taken
from their Manos: The Hands of Fate performance.

Anyone who has seen MST3K knows how funny these guys can get, and they were hilarious. I was a bit skeptical about them riffing on a good movie, but it's not the first: they've done all three Lord of the Rings movies, Star Trek II, and even Casablanca! That, of course, is in addition to all the horrible films and shorts they've riffed as well. The crowd was a surprising mix of young and old people, and it was very nearly a full house. The whole thing was a lot of fun.

MST3K presents Manos: The Hands of Fate
MST3K presents Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Once in a blue moon, I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had been born a slave. My ancestors probably were slaves. I don't know for absolute certain; I've never researched my family tree that far back, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't the case.

I've always imagined that if I got sucked into a temporal anomaly of some sort and was pulled back in time into the antebellum South of the early-to-mid 19th century, like the protagonist in Octavia Butler's Kindred (great book; you should read it), and was forced into slavery, that I'd sooner kill myself rather than submit. I think we can all agree that slavery is wrong, full stop, and that it's no way for anyone to have to live. 

Maybe if I were living in a sci-fi story and I was convinced there was a way out it might be different, but I'm not smart enough to whip up a frammistat of some kind that would generate a frequency capable of emitting enough chroniton particles to reopen the temporal aperture and return me to 2013. That's just make believe. (For now.)

I would miss my old life, my family and friends. Still, I like to believe that the act of defiance - of a person of color opposing a brutal, racist, immoral regime - would make the white people of that era stop and think about what they were doing, if only for a brief moment. It's probably the most one could possibly ask for. It sounds very heroic and noble, I realize that, and maybe it's more than a little self-serving to imagine myself capable of such a deed... but hey, it's my imagination. It's certainly not likely to happen. (**knocks wood**)

And then I saw 12 Years a Slave, which argues that it could be just as heroic to live. Make no mistake: Solomon Northup had absolutely no way in hell of knowing when, or even if, he'd be able to escape captivity. He had no one he could truly trust and almost no resources he could count on. True, he had something to live for, his wife and children, and that has a way of motivating one's will, but he was no dummy. He knew the odds were completely against him the moment he woke up chained in that cell.

About halfway through the movie, though, when another slave asks Northup to kill her because she just can't take another minute of being the plaything of their slave owner, he's shocked that she would even consider the idea, even after all he himself has been through to that point. Somehow, someway, Northup was able to cling to hope, even in a situation like his - a free black man tricked into being captured and sold into slavery.

America has done so much to try to crush the spirit of people of color in general. Even after the official abolition of slavery, many (though not all) white people's attitudes about blacks were already heavily ingrained and passed down, generation to generation, so that the notion of "equality" between the races has, at times, seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream - and yet, stories like this poke through. It's no wonder that his life has been made into a movie - twice!

So yeah, this is a breathtaking movie. I'm a wuss; I hid my eyes from all the beatings and whippings. I knew those scenes would be long and without cutaways, and I've read director Steve McQueen's justifications for filming them the way he did. I agree that the horror, the inhumanity, the sheer brutality of what was slavery in America needed to be part of the story; how ironic that it took a Brit to show us Americans our legacy. But I still couldn't look at it. You're a stronger viewer than I am if you could.

I liked the semi-Shakespearean dialogue, which is, I'm sure, a reflection of Northup's autobiography. I interviewed screenwriter John Ridley in 2007, back when he was making comics, following the success of Three Kings. (He wrote a great graphic novel called The American Way, about a black superhero in the early 1960s.) We mostly talked comics, but we also talked about his Hollywood career, and this is what he had to say at the time:
...It’s really hard to get a movie made. To get the right director, the right stars, the right chemistry, the right performances. It’s really hard. I’m at the point now where if a movie [of mine] gets made, and they give me credit for getting it made, that’s a big deal…. Everything changes. It changes in the studio process, it changes when the director comes in, it changes when the stars come in, it changes in the editing. People say the editor saved the picture in the editing. That’s what the editors do all the time. Their job is to take that footage and shape it into something…. So if you go into it trusting that what an individual writes is never gonna change, you’re gonna be slowly disappointed. From the moment you pitch it, the moment you take that individual story in and say "Oh, I’d like it to be like this," and the moment they say, "Okay, we’re gonna have George Clooney," he’s a great actor, great guy, nice guy – but he’s not black. So the minute you take that out, there’s all manner of story in there that’s gone.
I imagine this must have felt like a step up for Ridley. He'll get Oscar-nominated for his screenplay, I'm sure.

And speaking of the Oscars... I'm sure you're well aware of how 12 Years was proclaimed the Best Picture winner back in September. As I've said here before, it's a huge mistake to proclaim the race over so quickly. Everyone thought The Social Network was a lock to win Best Picture too, and look what happened. 

But let's imagine for a moment that 12 Years will win the big prize. What would that mean? As excellent a movie as it is, one cannot get around the fact that it's yet another period piece in which race defines how we see these black characters. When will the Oscar race see a black movie that speaks to who we are and how we live today? I've been writing about Mother of George almost all year long, a movie that has gotten its own share of praise, yet nobody's talking about it as an Oscar contender. Fruitvale Station made a tremendous splash upon its release, yet its shot at Oscar glory is fading. Why is that? I realize it's an extremely competitive year, and that Academy voters tend to have short memories, but that shouldn't be an excuse.

My fear is that if 12 Years does win, black period pieces will continue to be entrenched in the Hollywood mindset, and that between The Butler, 42, The Help, Dreamgirls, etc., quality modern-day movies like Middle of Nowhere or Pariah will continue to operate on the fringes, when there should be room for all kinds of black movies. I hope I'm wrong. I'm glad 12 Years was made and I'm glad it has become a success, but it would be a great shame if it (and maybe The Butler too) was perceived as the final word on black movies today, because it's not.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Links, a book review, and blog news

Last things first: I have decided to take part in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) this year. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's a literary event in which a bunch of writers around the world get together and attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Well, 50,000 is the minimum, anyway; I'm told that this number is a relatively small one for the average novelist, but the challenge, obviously, comes in putting together a draft of a novel in such a constrained time period. 

I'm gonna devote a significant amount of time towards doing this, therefore I likely won't be around here as often as I normally am. I won't be completely absent, though. I've got two blogathon posts on deck in November, for one thing. Also, I plan on writing smaller, capsule reviews on any and all current movies seen in November, including Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club (and possibly All is Lost too, if I don't get to it this month). If anything major happens in the movie world that I feel like commenting on, I may say a few words about it, but don't count on that. Basically, it's gonna be light around here while I compete in NaNoWriMo, but I will have stuff for you, so keep checking in. Things will return to normal by December.

Next: I've sung the praises of my friend and fellow film blogger Jacqueline and her blog, Another Old Movie Blog, in the past. If you've been there, you know that she is also an accomplished author, with a handful of novels to her credit. She recently held a contest where the prize was one of her novels, and yours truly won, so I got a free copy of Meet Me in Nuthatch.

Think Cold Turkey meets Midnight in Paris: the residents of a dying Massachusetts town called Nuthatch, in a desperate attempt to keep their community alive, adopt a scheme in which they makeover their town and themselves as if it were the year 1904, just like the film Meet Me in St. Louis, which is set during that year. Unexpected complications, however, ensue.

I've always enjoyed Jacqueline's witty and playful style of writing in her blog, and I'm glad to state that it's also on display here. She knows New England well, and she brings Nuthatch to life with little details as well as larger ones. It sounds like the kind of small town you might encounter while on your way to or from Boston or Hartford or Providence. The characters are distinctive without being stereotypically eccentric, like you might expect in a novel like this, and she's got a good ear for dialogue. It's not a nostalgia-fest, nor is it maudlin. It's light, but it's deep enough that you'll care about the characters. It's a nice story, and it's just under 200 pages, so it won't even take you long to read. Give it a try.

Your links:
Aurora has the news that one of the old Loews movie palaces in New York is set to show movies once again.

From the New York Comic-Con, Will reports on a panel about old-school action cartoons from Hanna-Barbera.

Danny from has been writing about horror movies from the pre-code era this month. Here's one example: White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi.

From Brazil comes the blog Critica Retro. This is a recent piece on watching English movies dubbed into Portugese. If you have Google Translate, it should automatically translate the blog into English for you.

Another blog I've been following recently, called Virtual Virago, has the story of a gay actor from the Golden Age named Laird Cregar.

Next month will see the release of the first of two massive volumes of what's being called the definitive Barbara Stanwyck biography. Here's an interview with the author.

The Museum of the Moving Image has an exhibit featuring photos of film projection booths.

PJ Soles remembers the original Carrie.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock
seen on TV @ TCM

First of all, let it be known that I do respect Elvis Presley as a musician. He made some awesome records that genuinely rock, and that still hold up today. He was a bit of an iconoclast, he certainly embodied the spirit of what we now call rock music as something dangerous and sexy (though I don't think he was that great looking), and yes, I'll even go so far as to say that he does deserve a place in rock history as one of the earliest, if not the first, superstars.

But the "king" of rock? Elvis?

Fuck that.

I grew up with rock history, okay? My father was a total music nerd. He would buy records, cassettes, and 8-tracks through those Readers Digest mail-order deals, and he would get music by what we call rhythm & blues or soul singers: everybody from Motown and Atlantic, doo wop singers, rockabilly, country, a little classic gospel, I mean, he had it all. And even though I grew up on Top 40 Radio from the 70s and 80s, my father's music often filled the house.

In high school, I did a report for some class on music history. I wanted to borrow some of my father's records to sample in class, and he generously let me borrow some. He also recommended I read a book: The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George, a book which traces the roots of black popular music in America. I discovered that what we now call "rock music" began with R&B - black music - long before Elvis came on the scene.

All Elvis did was take from R&B and gospel and make it his own, and while he was good, he gets way, way, WAY too much credit for somehow kick-starting the rock revolution from ignorant people who don't know (or perhaps, don't care) how Elvis became Elvis. I used to resent him for it, but now that I'm older, I find I don't anymore. Not as much. If it hadn't been him, it would've been someone else.

Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself. From Elvis to Pat Boone to the Osmonds to Vanilla Ice to Eminem to Miley Cyrus - and many more in between, I'm sure - there have always been, and there will probably always be, white musicians who appropriate black music and/or styles for their own and often end up making way more money off of it than the original black musicians. Regardless of quality, it's this imbalance that's the real problem, one I've attempted to redress on my own in recent years by learning more about the pre-Elvis days and listening to more music from that period.

I fully acknowledge that much of the music I grew up with owes a debt to these pioneers, something I took for granted as a kid even though, like I said, I heard this kinda music more than most kids my age. I can't change the way I feel about the music of my generation, but I like to think I'm at the very least, a little less ignorant. I hope. And if anyone truly deserves the title "king of rock," I nominate Chuck Berry. (Or perhaps, Run DMC.)

All that said, what do we make of Elvis the "actor"? I wasn't gonna watch Jailhouse Rock at first, but then I realized I had never actually seen the movie, and besides, it's been awhile since I wrote about a musical, so why not. I thought the whole movie was gonna be set in jail. I didn't think the story was gonna be so... I dunno... obvious. Elvis the rising rock star in a movie about the rise of a rock star. Ooh, how original. I watched this with my mother, and even she, who is no Pauline Kael by any stretch, noticed in one scene how Elvis wasn't looking directly at whoever it was he was talking to. She said his eyes were lowered. I didn't catch it, but I'm sure it was true.

I was greatly amused at the scene in which Elvis' character discovers the record label's star attraction took his song and recorded it himself, without crediting Elvis. I can't believe no one noticed the irony. Actually, no, I can believe it. It was a different time.

TCM showed Jailhouse Rock in widescreen, and I had to explain the widescreen process to my mother who, of course, thought the picture was cut off by the black bars. Reminded me of my video store days. At one point, I actually drew a diagram illustrating the difference between widescreen and pan-and-scan and kept it near the counter for whenever it needed to be explained to a customer. As you might imagine, it got quite a bit of usage.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips
seen @ AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

I still miss the old Tom Hanks.

This is one of the biggest modern actors whose career I've seen progress almost from the beginning. I mean, I remember watching Bosom Buddies on TV, which seems like a lifetime ago now. Why I watched it, I couldn't tell you, but I remember seeing Hanks go from that ridiculous sitcom to the big screen and making some awesome comedies. Sure, everyone remembers Splash and Big, but where is the love for films like Bachelor Party, or even Dragnet? (Dragnet was a cable staple for years, though I'm pretty sure I saw it theatrically too.)

Hanks had a slightly innocent, or at the very least guileless, goofiness to him that was quite endearing in his comedies. He wasn't a wiseguy like Eddie Murphy or Bill Murray; he wasn't a wild man like John Belushi; and he didn't have the distinctly Jewish charm of Billy Crystal. Hanks brought a sort of gee-whiz enthusiasm to his comedic roles that made you wanna follow him on whatever adventure he was going on, tempered with a humanistic, empathetic seriousness at the same time that made him that much more believable. He's been compared to Jimmy Stewart, but I think early Hanks was much more of a goofball, whereas there always seemed to be a slight sense of self-consciousness in Stewart's early comedies, in my opinion, anyway.

Hanks hasn't completely abandoned comedy ever since he switched to becoming a dramatic actor, and maybe more "mature" roles in films like You've Got Mail and Larry Crowne are the inevitable result of age, but every once in awhile I wonder what his career would've been like had he remained a funnyman. It's not like he was failing at it; Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own were big hits, and he could've easily continued in that vein - especially since his first major dramatic role, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was a huge bomb. After the one-two punch of Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, though, there was no turning back - and this was probably for the best, because we otherwise would've never have gotten to see Hanks give performances like the one he gives in Captain Phillips

In recent years, and this year in particular, we've seen a rise in films based on real-life events, especially ones inspired by recent history. Some say it's the by-product of the 24-hour news cycle, in which information travels quicker than ever before. Could be. I think another factor might be the increasing reliance on properties with name recognition, such as comics or video games or TV shows or young adult books. Like all of those, a true story usually (but not always) comes with a certain level of familiarity, especially if it's something that's been followed on CNN before a worldwide audience. And while you can't make a franchise out of stories such as the hunt for Osama Bin Laden or the creation of Facebook, you can bet that such movies will attract Oscar attention.

So it is with Phillips, which documents the remarkable story of the cargo ship captain whose vessel was raided by a band of Somali pirates in 2009, leading to the captain's abduction and a frantic search. The film doesn't get much into the pirates' motivation behind their actions beyond a terse mention of how America had plundered Somali waters for their fish, leaving the natives with little to none for themselves. 

The focus is on the action, and Hanks perfectly embodies the captain throughout an intense and horrifying situation, and when I say Intense, that's with a capital I. He's had physically demanding roles before, such as Cast Away, but I can't recall ever seeing him this physically and emotionally vulnerable before. The emotional part comes at the very end - it's not a spoiler to say that he gets rescued; this is based on a true story, after all. He had been working so hard to hold himself together throughout the whole ordeal, and when it's over, he just lets go, in a sustained moment of pure emotional overload that is kinda shocking to see.

We never expect really bad things to happen in the movies to superstar actors like Hanks. Yeah, they may get involved in car chases, get shot at by the bad guys, and all that stuff, and we know they'll be alright in the end, but we rarely think about the cost it takes on their characters' mental health. So I'm glad director Paul Greengrass (who did an outstanding job overall) chose to show us this as well as everything else, because it reminds us that Phillips is a real guy, not a cliched action hero out of central casting.

This was the film I used my AMC free pass on, the one I got after the fiasco at the Gravity screening. It gave me an excuse to go back to the Lincoln Square again, since I hadn't been there in awhile. I don't think I've talked about the Lincoln Square. It, more than other modern multiplexes in Manhattan, doesn't provide an old-school movie palace atmosphere so much as celebrate the past through its interior design. All around the place are murals of old movie marquees and images evocative of movie stars of the past, all done in soft pastel-like colors. The entrances to the auditoriums have elaborate facades that again, suggest fancy movie palaces. Even the bathrooms have framed photographs of classic film stars.

I went to high school in the area, and back then, my friends and I would usually schlep either further uptown to what is now the AMC Loews 84th Street, or downtown to Times Square, to see movies. It always irked me a little that the Lincoln Square opened after I graduated, but that's alright. It irks me a hell of a lot more that I would've had to have paid $14.50 without my pass!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley
seen on TV @ TCM

On the final night of my summer vacation in Barcelona as part of a painting class, we had a big dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and there was this one woman in our group named Amanda who claimed she could read tea leaves. Unfortunately, I don't remember what, if any, fortunes she read into my tea leaves or anybody else's, but I do remember how fascinated everyone seemed to be just at the idea. 

Amanda was middle-aged at the time, and she always struck me as being fairly normal in the sense that she didn't dye her hair purple or spout anarchist manifestos or anything like that. She was a very pleasant woman; she could be your aunt or your neighbor or your co-worker, and while she was an artist like the rest of us, she seemed very grounded in the real world. So for her to suddenly pull this trick out of nowhere was a novelty to the rest of us for sure, but more than that, I think we wanted to believe for a moment that reading fortunes in tea leaves was possible.

I suspect this is also true of anyone in general who subscribes to the parlor tricks of so-called "mentalists." There are always gonna be people who are convinced certain supernatural forces are at work in the world based on what they think they see from mentalists, psychics, and other such people, even today, in what we laughingly think of as a more enlightened, scientific age. For many people, like Amanda and my friends from the Barcelona trip, we may know intellectually that reading tea leaves is a gag, but we were willing to play along because the idea sounds fun and slightly kitschy, but for others, they take that stuff a little more seriously.

In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays a dude whose skill in making people believe he has psychic powers takes him from a small-time carnival to the inner circles of high society. One of many interesting aspects to this dynamite film is how the need to believe in the power of the mentalist is common regardless of class. It's made perfectly clear that Stan, Power's character, has no actual powers, that he's working from a pre-arranged code, yet we see him fleece the poor and the rich alike. 

Is Stan that good or are people that gullible? The film would have you believe the former, but look what happens later on when, with the help of a psychologist Stan meets during his rise, he convinces a rich old lady that he's in communion with her dead daughter, and the old lady gives him a big pile of money so that he can continue his work on a wider level. You can't tell me that that old lady wanted to believe in Stan on some level, which helps do his work for him.

This incident leads to him getting a bit of a messiah complex, and his wife/partner calls him on it in a fascinating scene where she accuses him of tempting the wrath of God by continuing to play the role of "miracle worker," even though Stan had never previously invoked God or spiritualism in his act, a fact he points out to her.

Coolest moment in the movie. Especially with her in that outfit.

While Stan is hardly blameless - indeed, he walks all over his friends in his rise to fame and fortune - I think it's also clear that his rubes, be they rich or poor, have clearly elevated him to this position through their own wants and desires. They see in him what they want to see in their own lives, even though what they see is a lie. Maybe they're aware of this, maybe they're not. Maybe it doesn't matter either way. It's a danger inherent whenever someone in a position of power lets that power corrupt him.

A brief aside about that "tempting God" point: assuming the existence of God, and also assuming all things in humanity came from Him, why should Stan worry about that when he has never explicitly invoked God in his act? Earlier in the film, Stan says that some of the rhetoric that he uses comes from reading the Bible when he was younger (he strikes me as being a secular man, possibly agnostic). One could argue that all he's doing is, in essence, applying the talents God gave him.

I should also mention the scenes in which Joan Blondell tells fortunes with her tarot cards (which she pronounces with an un-silent 'T,' tah-rot instead of tah-row). I don't know much about the tarot, but I know for sure that the "death" and the "hanged man" cards do not automatically mean literal death, as this movie would have you believe. That part kinda bugged me a bit.

Alley ends five minutes or so too late, unfortunately, with a sappy denouement that doesn't fit the dark and cynical tone of the rest of the story, not unlike similar films like Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd. And poor Blondell, an underrated actress whom I love, gets relegated once again to supporting status in the story even though she's second-billed on the poster behind Power - one day I'm gonna have to write about her at greater length. Still, this is a fascinating movie with a standout performance from Power at its heart. It was unappreciated in its time, but it's acknowledged now as one for the books.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who is killing the great horror icons of cinema?

I was gonna post these photos on the Facebook page, but I changed my mind. The post I originally wanted to write wasn't coming along the way I liked, and I feel like doing something different here anyway. And what better time to do so than for my 700th post?

So I was in Ozone Park the other day - a normally quiet, pleasant part of southern Queens, not unlike, say, Haddonfield, Illinois - and I passed by a most unusual graveyard on a street not unlike, say, Elm Street. It appears that someone has targeted a number of cinematic creeps and gone on a killing spree.

As you can see, our mystery monster hunter has been quite busy. Michael Myers, for example, has survived ten movies. (I'm making allowances for misspellings on all the tombstones. You and I both know which characters are being referenced here.) I was never sure what exactly kept him going; he's not particularly fast or versatile, so I imagine taking him out couldn't have been too hard, as long as our anonymous assassin was not a babysitter. As for Jekyll & Hyde, all you have to do is wait for the latter to turn back into the former, and BLAM! Put a bullet in his head. If I recall correctly, the tombstone in the back with red lettering is for Freddy Kruger. I don't even wanna imagine what it took to put him down.

I'm unsure what to make of the tombstone with "Dead Zone" on it. Are we talking about Christopher Walken's character Johnny Smith from the movie, or perhaps Anthony Michael Hall's version of the same character from the TV show? Why would someone kill him? Wasn't he a good guy? Or does "Dead Zone" refer to something... else?

Maybe it has to do with whoever - or whatever - it was that escaped from that turned-over coffin embedded in the turf. Maybe it's not worth dwelling on too much. Let's move on...

Okay, people, how many times do we have to say it: Frankenstein was the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself. But then again, maybe that is the scientist in that grave. We already know he didn't stop with just one monster, after all. The 1602 date on the headstone confuses me, however. Mary Shelley wasn't even born until 1797. Was there some time travel involved in this execution, perhaps?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it, so I'm more than glad to see Leatherface put down. As for Jack the Ripper, well, if Johnny Depp couldn't catch him, I don't know how anyone else could. (That movie was crap, by the way. Read the original graphic novel instead.) This killer of killers must have some serious inside information. Maybe he knows who killed JFK too!

The original Child's Play was also very scary to me as a kid. I wouldn't wanna get within a hundred feet of Chucky, so kudos once again to our mystery hunter for capping the killer doll. Once again we see an anachronism, though, this time with Lizzie Borden's gravestone. She was born in 1860, so why does it say 1801? More time travel? Still, since Borden was acquitted of the charges of murder, I can easily imagine somebody going after her in an attempt to carry out justice. (By the way, did you know that Elizabeth Montgomery played Borden in a TV movie?)

Look, I understand that some purists still can't get over the fact that they rebooted Halloween, but honestly, is that any reason to kill director Rob Zombie over it? He's always been a big horror movie fan, and his band White Zombie was pretty awesome too - hell, their videos were practically mini-horror movies in themselves. Methinks our mystery killer has a serious grudge - but I'm willing to bet Zombie won't let a little thing like death stop him. That's his handprint on the tombstone because HE OBVIOUSLY CRAWLED OUT OF HIS OWN GRAVE.

I don't recall whose grave that is behind Zombie's, but the one in the back behind the coffin says "Hannibal." Well, The Silence of the Lambs has been talked about to death, so let me lead you instead to this recent piece about the movie Hannibal for a further examination of everyone's favorite long pig connoisseur. Frankly, I'd kill Mr. Lecter for that TV show. [UPDATE 10.21: I went back to this street. That grave in the middle: Norman Bates!]

So there you have it, folks. Looks like we can all rest a little easier this Halloween knowing that these cinematic ghouls have been given the big dirt nap, but as all good horror movies have taught us, you can't ever be sure the killer's dead until the very last frame... 

...and sometimes not even then.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


seen @ AMC Loews Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens, NY

It was nice to see the response - on Twitter, if no place else - about the news that the Voyager 1 probe left the Milky Way galaxy. (Whether it will evolve into an artificial life form and return to Earth searching for its creator remains to be seen.) Once upon a time, exploring outer space was a much bigger deal than it is now. Sure, it initially had to do, in part, with keeping up with the Soviets, but the way JFK pitched it to the American people in 1962, it seemed like a holy calling:
...We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
I feel that exploring space is more than just a cool thing to do; it's something we seriously need to work on. As people keep on procreating at a ridiculous rate, we're gonna use up Earth's resources quicker and quicker. Plus, I don't need to explain to you how climate change has become a Thing. Simply put, we need someplace else to live, and soon. So we gotta figure out how to start colonizing the moon, and maybe Mars. And that means we gotta get back into exploring space again.

The problem is, though, that nobody in a position of authority is really standing up for space exploration the way Kennedy did. Has it fallen out of fashion, politically speaking? I think perhaps it has. It's easy to imagine someone thinking something along the lines of "Who cares about space exploration when we can't even agree on what constitutes proper health care?" Short-term goals with a more immediate payoff are always gonna seem more pressing to a politician, especially when you've got one eye towards getting re-elected.

Fortunately, there are individuals outside the political sphere who are thinking bigger. 100 Year Starship, for example, is a group dedicated to getting humanity back on the space exploration track within the next century, and they don't just mean to the moon or Mars; they're talking other star systems. They've held symposia where they've laid out their ideas and they've been written up in the world media, and while it's still early days yet, a lot can happen in 100 years.

But space exploration is a difficult undertaking, to say the very least. As a certain country doctor once said, "space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence" - it's completely inhospitable to life and one mistake can cost you everything if you're not careful. Which brings us to the film Gravity.

Everything you've heard about it is true. Everything you've read about Sandra Bullock's performance, the physical stress it required of her, the visual effects, the way it looks in 3D, the cinematography (they go from outside Bullock's spacesuit to right inside her helmet and back out again!), how nerve-wracking it can be to watch, all of it, it's all true.

True true true.

But it's so much more as well.

This movie has gotten people talking about space travel again. Unlike fine movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, this isn't a movie that commemorates past accomplishments in space travel. It's an original story that puts us back out into the final frontier without the presence of alien invaders or phasers or lightsabers or any of that stuff we generally associate with movies set in outer space. 

We've gotten so used to seeing movies like that over the years, that it has become easy to forget that, in real-world terms, all that gee-whiz technology, those spaceships and stuff, they don't just magically happen. They take time to develop and they require a lot of brave people taking risks - often big ones, sometimes life-or-death ones, like Bullock's character in Gravity

And I think if there's one thing that we can take away from this monumental film achievement with regard to the future of space exploration, it's that yeah, it's dangerous, it's scary, it's unpredictable, but in the end, the only ones that can stop us from pursuing it... is us.

I almost didn't get to see this monumental film achievement. I like the AMC at Fresh Meadows, but now it seems like every time I go there, something happens. Check this out: I got there about five minutes before showtime with a medium-sized crowd in attendance, but there's only audio coming from the usual pre-show bullshit. This goes on for longer than it should, so I went out to find an usher to complain to, and she said they'd take care of the problem.

Fifteen more minutes or so later and we were still waiting for someone to take care of the problem. Eventually the usher comes into the auditorium and tells us the projector is screwed up or something and they're gonna have to move us into another auditorium (a smaller one) to show the movie. The audience was surprisingly understanding about the whole thing. It helped greatly that we were all given passes to a free admission, plus free popcorn and soda, as compensation. The usher was joking around with people as she gave the passes out and the crowd was just as light-hearted about it. You'd think this sort of thing happened every day.

So eventually the movie starts in the alternate auditorium (sans trailers). The house lights go out. The first shot is of Earth from space, with the space shuttle slowly coming into view, but it's all quiet. This is the first we're all seeing of the movie, so we're not sure whether or not it's supposed to be this way, but then we see George Clooney spacewalking, and though his lips are moving, we can't hear what he's saying. The film is still messed up.

Now the audience is not quite so understanding anymore. A couple of people storm outside to complain as others start grumbling and moving around in their seats. I have yet to put on my 3D glasses.

Suddenly the sound comes on in the middle of the opening scene. We try to readjust to the movie, but then the film cuts out. An usher yells that whoever's in the projection booth is gonna restart from the beginning. And finally, the movie plays as it should, picture and sound in perfect synchronicity.

Now, this is certainly not the first time the Fresh Meadows has shown 3D movies, and I don't think the viewing requirements for Gravity are any different than those for, say, your average DreamWorks animated 3D movie, so I couldn't tell you what the deal was here. I did get to see the movie and I got some free swag out of it as well, so I can't complain too much, but it seems like I always do have something to gripe about whenever I go to an AMC in general (even when it's not my fault). Can't say it pleases me.

So what movie should I use this free stuff for?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

7 more indie films and where to see them

I did it before and now I'm gonna do it again: in an ongoing attempt to be more proactive about independent films that I like, here's another set of films that I've positively reviewed in the past and where you can see and/or buy them.

Away. Seen at the Queens World Film Festival, this is a documentary about women surfboarders in the Rockaways. It's on Vimeo. Plus, here's an interview with director Elisa Bates, along with a link to her website.

Brooklyn Boheme. Seen at the Urbanworld Film Festival, it's another doc, about the black artistic community in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, directed by Diane Paragas and journalist Nelson George. There's a website for the film which includes a link to download it from iTunes. The film's website also includes a trailer.

'Brooklyn Boheme' co-director
Nelson George
If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent. Also seen at QWFF, it's exactly what it says on the tin. You can watch it on IMDB, plus the film has a website where you can pick up the DVD through director Heather Quinlan. The site includes a trailer. Here's an article written by Quinlan about her film.

Marley. Kevin Macdonald's doc didn't get as much hype as I thought it would, but it's worth seeing. The official Bob Marley website has links to buy from several sources, plus a trailer.

My Brooklyn. The looming specter of gentrification in downtown Brooklyn, from the perspective of a self-identified gentrifier, is the subject of this doc. The film has a website with a link to purchase the DVD. There's also a trailer. Here's an interview with director Kelly Anderson about the film and gentrification in general.

Pollicino. Seen at QWFF, this is a silent short from Italy about a day in the life of a middle-aged man with Alzheimer's disease. It's on YouTube. The Facebook page for the film indicates that the film is still playing film fests, which is good. There doesn't appear to be a website for director Cristiano Anania.

Soul Food Junkies. Seen at UFF, it's one more doc, this one about the long history of "soul food" in black culture and how it has come under fire in recent years for its questionable health benefits. You can rent or download it at Amazon. Here's an interview with director Byron Hurt about the film, and here is one woman's response to the film.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady
seen on TV @ TCM

Did you know that William Powell and Myrna Loy made 14 movies together? I mean, that's amazing when you think about it - the two of them not only had their own franchise, the Thin Man series (six films), but people loved seeing the two of them together so much that they appeared in eight other movies - including a Best Picture Oscar winner, The Great Ziegfeld - and all of this in the space of only 13 years. No matter how you slice it, this is an incredible streak of success as an on-screen duo, the kind one almost never sees anymore.

In her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, author Jeanine Basinger talks about "love couples," on-screen pairings, often (but not always) in romantic comedies, that the audience tends to imagine as a natural pairing, "married" in the audience's minds if not necessarily in reality.

Powell and Loy might be the quintessential example of this. In films like Libeled Lady, while their characters aren't married, they spent a lot of time together and inevitably fall in love. This was their fifth movie together, after the twin successes of Ziegfeld and the first Thin Man, and by this time I think it's clear how easy and comfortable they feel together. Just look at them!

Powell and Loy looked glamorous, but they weren't sex symbols in the sense that Clark Gable or the young Joan Crawford were considered sexy. Their sex appeal came from their chemistry together, an elusive quality to be sure, but one that's not difficult to recognize, and time has obviously borne this out. 

Powell was the kind of guy who was more dashing than sexy, especially in a tuxedo, but was still a bit rough around the edges. You can hear it in his voice. His kind of charm was different than that of, say, Fred Astaire, to whom everything seemed to come so effortlessly. Powell's characters always seem a bit more roguish, as if they had to work to obtain and perfect their charm. In Lady he gets some choice scenes with Jean Harlow too, his fiancee at the time, so making this movie must've been loads of fun for him!

As for Loy, it's funny, but I used to think she was kinda funny looking. Something about her eyes, or perhaps the shape of her face or her lips, I'm not sure, but while I never thought she was out and out ugly, I was never sold on her looks until watching Lady. Now I totally see it, especially in the scene I linked to above. She looks absolutely stunning in that dress. I'd probably react the same way as Powell if she proposed to me!

The dress in question.
In Lady, Spencer Tracy's newspaper accidentally prints a piece about Loy's sexual escapades that isn't true, and she sues for libel. He uses Powell and Harlow in an elaborate scheme to entrap Loy in a manufactured scandal instead of simply firing the reporter who wrote the article and printing a retraction, like you'd expect a normal newspaper to do. 

It's completely silly, but Powell and Loy make it worth watching (the fishing scene in particular is a hoot), as does Harlow. It begins with this odd pre-credit image of the four stars merrily marching towards us, dressed to the nines, arm in arm in arm in arm, as if they're all so darn happy to be together. I know this was made during the Depression, when the studios wanted to sell glamor, but still. And the movie doesn't end so much as stop.

This was the first movie I watched as part of TCM's Saturday night "Essentials" series, which Robert Osborne co-hosts with Drew Barrymore, of the prolific Barrymore acting clan. For the longest time, even after she became an adult, I could never shake the image of Barrymore as the little kid from E.T., possibly because even as an adult she still looked childlike. Then she got all toned and muscled up for Charlie's Angels and she didn't look like a kid anymore. Now, though, it looks like she's slowly settling into middle age. She's got a kind of Joan Cusack look going now. It's not surprising that she knows classic movies, given the family she comes from, and even if she's not quite as erudite as Osborne on the subject, it's nice to see her in this role.