Monday, June 30, 2014

Books: Silent Stars

The 2014 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 like silent movies fine, but it wasn't until I read Jeanine Basinger's Silent Stars that I begun to understand what the silent era of film was like, for audiences as well as for the stars themselves. I don't think anyone today can truly appreciate the difference sound made in the industry, because we've lived with sound films all our lives, but when the movies began to talk, the change was widespread and irrevocable.

Basinger, the author of I Do and I Don't, among other books, chooses to spotlight what she calls "silent film stars who are somehow forgotten, misunderstood or underappreciated." Most film buffs might not think of stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney or Rudolph Valentino as falling under any of those categories, but Basinger argues that there was more to them and their careers than is generally known. 

Even casual film fans know Valentino, for instance: the great exotic lover who danced the tango and carried women away into the desert, but in his day, he was the pre-McConnaisance Matthew McConnaughey, regarded as little more than a pretty-boy of dubious acting ability by the critics, but adored by women. Basinger explores how Valentno's screen image was crafted, little by little, over time, through his wardrobe, his physicality, his air of mystery and, of course, his dancing.

Jeanine Basinger
As for Pickford, while she was a true film superstar, Basinger shows that she was, in a way, a prisoner of that fame as well, specializing in woman-child roles that the public ate up yet a sophisticated and shrewd businesswoman in real life. As co-founder of United Artists, hers is one of the longest lasting legacies of the silent era, and Basinger goes in depth about her career - in which we see how she was as much a funny lady as a drama queen - as well as her marriage to Fairbanks, a public sensation that made Brad & Angie pale by comparison.

Silent Stars sheds light on lesser remembered stars as well, including Western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix; sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge; European beauty Pola Negri (the woman on the cover); Hearst paramour Marian Davies; even Rin-Tin-Tin! As with I Do, Basinger's writing style is engaging and personable without being too academic. One can easily get into this book without knowing much about the silent era or movies in general. Indeed, it has inspired me to seek out some of the movies featuring these stars. I've already started with Fairbanks; expect to see more silent movie posts in the coming months.

Main Street

Saturday, June 28, 2014

MGM Franchises Andy Hardy

The MGM Blogathon is an event commemorating the 90th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of the oldest movie studios in Hollywood, hosted by Silver Scenes. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.

The mind-boggling success of The Avengers has redefined how Hollywood develops a modern movie franchise. It's no longer enough to tell a series of stories featuring a certain character(s); now it has become imperative to build a "universe" of characters, some of whom can be spun off into smaller movie series of their own, in order to tell one big mega-story - and indeed, Spider-Man, X-Men and Star Wars are among the properties whose studios are making plans to do just that.

Sequelization is certainly nothing new in Hollywood. Popular characters from Nick & Nora Charles to Charlie Chan to Ma & Pa Kettle and Lassie had franchises of their own, although they weren't called that back then. (One could even make an argument for silent movie characters like Charlie Chaplin's Tramp as the progenitors of proto-franchises.) Over time, action-adventure characters from James Bond to Sinbad to Jaws begot franchises more often than the more mundane, by comparison, down-to-earth ones like Dr. Kildare or Blondie. Perhaps once television began to sate the public's appetite for such characters, the film industry wanted recurring characters with more big-screen spectacle.

the primary cast of the Andy Hardy series
One example of the type of franchise that used to dominate Hollywood is that of MGM's Hardy family, specifically favorite son Andy Hardy, as played by the late Mickey Rooney. Balancing light humor with drama, they follow Andy through adolescence and young adulthood in a small American town. The franchise began in 1937 with the B-film A Family Affair, based on a play by Aurania Rouverol called Skidding, which focused on the Hardy family in general. Many of the cast members had worked together two years earlier in Ah, Wilderness! 

Family was successful, but not a huge box office smash. It was the exhibitors who pushed MGM for a follow-up, according to the book The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames. The sequel, You're Only Young Once, was made later in the same year, 1937, though not without some casting changes due to schedule conflicts. Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington, the original Judge & Mrs. Hardy, were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden, who would remain throughout the rest of the series. Rooney returned as Andy, of course, as did Cecilia Parker as Marian, his older sister, and Sara Haden as their Aunt Milly. (Betty Ross Clarke would take over her role for the next two films before Haden returned.) Eldest sister Joan never came back.

Dear old Dad always had good advice for Andy.
Over the course of the 16-film series, from 1937-58, additional cast members appeared in recurring roles. George Breakston played Andy's pal Beezy. Ann Rutherford played Andy's girlfriend Polly, though there were also a number of romantic rivals, played by, among others, Donna Reed, Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson and Esther Williams. 

And then there was Judy Garland. She appeared in three Hardy movies, beginning with 1938's Love Finds Andy Hardy, as Betsy, a slightly younger girl with an unrequited crush on Andy. Garland and Rooney had appeared together the year before, in a film called Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, and they'd go on to make many more movies together outside of the Hardy series. 

Of course she sings.

From what I've watched of the Hardy films for this post, I can see how they would appeal to audiences back then. In many ways, they represent the idyllic, almost innocent (and white, of course!) ideal of America, even in the latter years of the Depression. It seems more like post-war America than pre-war in how it affirms familial and societal values of its time without getting into any deep moral quandaries. 

No.1 gal-pal Polly appears throughout most of the series
Andy himself does go off to fight in World War 2, but it appears the series skips over this period in his life. 1946's Love Laughs at Andy Hardy begins with him returning from the war, but then it's back into the usual romantic hijinks. Strikes me as a major missed opportunity.

The Hardy movies clearly draw up the blueprint for what would eventually become the television sitcom. From Father Knows Best and My Three Sons through The Cosby Show and Family Ties to The Simpsons and Modern Family, the formula remains consistent, despite changes that suit the times. And while movies continue to tap into the family dynamic, it's hard to imagine a modern Hollywood franchise built around one in the same way. There's Ben Stiller's Focker trilogy (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers), but for all their generational by-play, they also rely on sexual innuendo, gross-out and slapstick humor to a large degree. Extremely un-Hardy-like.

If anything, the Hardy movies, lightweight as they may be, present an image of how America used to see itself. Yes, by today's standards, the image is incomplete, but I believe it can be taken on its own terms and appreciated for what it is. Rooney is exuberant as Andy, mixing the urban scrappiness of his screen persona as seen in earlier films like Boys Town with a more upright, Middle American identity. He may not always come across as the sharpest knife in the toolbox, but then, he is only a teenager!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Obvious Child

Obvious Child
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

I have a friend who got an abortion after she was raped. This was long ago, before I met her, and she's moved far beyond it ever since. She's married now, in fact - but she has no desire to have kids... and knowing her as I do, I suspect that would've still been true even if she hadn't gotten raped.

Roe vs. Wade is 41 years old as of this writing, and while abortion has less of a stigma now than it did at the time of the landmark court case, there are still forces at work in the world that continue to try to control women's procreative abilities. 

Many of them are based in religion. Have you heard, for example, about this movement called "Quiverfull"? As I understand it, these are Christians who have HUGE goddamn families so they can dominate America through sheer strength of numbers. Basically, Quiverfull women submit their wombs to God. At least, that's how it's justified. In the words of the immortal Gwen Stefani, this shit is BANANAS.


As I write this now, I'm briefly reminded of last year's Mother of George, a movie in which the female protagonist is under tremendous pressure from her large family to procreate, as a result of cultural imperatives, and is scapegoated when it appears she can't. In a phone conversation in one scene, she wails in anguish, "Why is it always the woman?" implying a double standard at play between men and women. Indeed, history shows that it has always been the woman.

I will never know what it's like to bear a child, but I know oppression when I see it. Too many people in this world see procreation as something that's a woman's only reason for being, and as a result, there are women all over the world who can't even entertain the possibility that they can choose to not have children, because they've been brainwashed into believing otherwise. I've said it here before, but there are way too many people on this earth as it is, and unless there are plans in the works to move to the moon or something, we're gonna pay for it sooner rather than later.

So yeah, abortion needs to be shown as a legitimate, justifiable option, because not everyone is fully equipped to be a parent, whether financially, mentally or emotionally. That's why a movie like Obvious Child is unique: while it comes from a specific point of view, I never felt preached to, nor condescended to. It felt honest, like we were looking at regular, flawed people and the choices they make in their lives.

It's a simple story: a young woman gets pregnant by accident and realizes she's not ready for motherhood, so she contemplates having an abortion. Writer-director Gillian Robespierre injects a fair amount of comedy into her story, but unlike the too-cool-for-school, Internet Generation quips of Juno, a similar movie from several years ago, the humor here feels more grown-up. At the same time, there are moments of great sensitivity and introspection. Juno had that too, but most of the time, it tended to go for the big laugh. Plus, you could tell writer Diablo Cody (who won the Oscar for her script) was really in love with her own writing. Child doesn't have that kind of vibe.

Child is also fair to the guy involved. It would've been easy to make him a scapegoat for Men in General, but that's not the case. Robespierre lets us see his own, natural reactions and gives us a look at his perspective without vilifying him outright, and I was grateful for that. And mad props to SNL alum Jenny Slate, who is wonderful in this. She gets to do it all in a plum role that'll hopefully raise her profile a few notches. Seek this one out if you can.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunset Boulevard

The Billy Wilder Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Sunset Boulevard
from my VHS collection

I'm pretty sure it was the start of my junior year of college, so this would be September 1992. I was still in the process of arranging my course curriculum for the year, and as I recall, there was an African-American Studies class that I had my eye on taking. At least, I think that's what it was... but that sounds about right, so I'll go with it. I couldn't make it fit into my schedule, however, most of which was already filled up. Switching around other classes simply didn't work, and I was running out of time. I needed a humanities class of some sort to meet the minimum amount of credits necessary for the semester.

I flipped through the school catalog one more time, desperate to find something that I could make fit into my schedule, At this point I was willing to take anything. Then I saw it: a Film History class. I'm pretty sure I had considered taking it before, but there were other things that took priority. Now I reconsidered it. Watching a bunch of movies and talking about them? How hard can that be? Plus, it fit. So I took it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Spoiler Experiment pt. 3: observations

Part 1: Draft Day
Part 2: Million Dollar Arm
the post that inspired this experiment

So after watching both Draft Day and Million Dollar Arm under the unusual (for me) conditions I set out - watching the former without spoilers and the latter with them - I feel like the results weren't that surprising. I thought both films were enjoyable enough. They both achieved what they set out to do. They were entertaining without being terribly challenging, and to my mind, at least, neither one was quite as mediocre as their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores made them out to be. 

Both finished about even on that score - a 62 for Draft Day and a 61 for MDA (54 and 56, respectively, on Metacritic) - and those sound just about appropriate. Although normally, I try not to take too much stock in reviews, for the purposes of this experiment, reviews did play an important factor.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ride the High Country

Ride the High Country
seen on TV @ TCM

At the risk of sounding like Ivan whenever he complains about the cinematic taste of his parents, I have to seriously wonder what my mother gets out of movies - even ones from her generation. The other night, we watched Ride the High Country. It's a western, something I emphasized because she claims to like westerns. 

Most of the time, I don't mind spending time with my mother this way, even though her appreciation for movies doesn't quite match that which my father had. I felt like I could discuss movies with him, if not from one geek to another (while he enjoyed movies, it was in a more casual way than, say, your average video store clerk), then at least as someone who appreciated the themes in a thoughtful movie with something to say. I suspect my mother, on the other hand, just wants simple, mindless entertainment. 

She certainly doesn't want to be challenged by a movie... and it's not even like this was Django Unchained we were watching. High Country was a (mostly) straightforward, entertaining movie much in the spirit of classic Hollywood, with a touch of a more modern sensibility to it, as this came out during a period of transition between the decline of the old studio system and the New Hollywood awaiting around the corner. 

Directed by Sam Peckinpah in the early stage of his long career, it's about a former lawman who recruits an old buddy and a young turk to help him carry gold from a mining community up in the hills to his employer, a local bank. Along the way, they encounter a young woman about to marry one of the miners, but she - and they - get way more than they bargained for. Paddy wrote eloquently about it for our Diamonds & Gold Blogathon, which is why I wanted to see it.

The girl, Elsa (played by Mariette Hartley in her film debut), is sheltered from the world by her abusive, Bible-totin' dad. She's never been anywhere, and no man she happens to meet is ever good enough for Pa, so she runs away from home in order to elope with her boyfriend, who works in the mining community in the hills with his brothers. He, however, turns out to be even more abusive than her father.

My mother was convinced that everything that happened afterward, including more than a few deaths, was Elsa's fault. After the movie ended, she said that if Elsa had just stayed at home, all the people who died wouldn't have died. That may be so, but it was not that simple at all, and I told Ma so. I said, "You saw how her home life was. She couldn't live like that anymore. And she had absolutely no way of knowing what would happen." 

Ma remained unmoved, muttering something about how perhaps it was just a consequence of her being old-fashioned that she thought that way. Granted, the ending was sad, but the upside was that at least now Elsa can leave her father's farm and see the world, and hopefully find someone who will love her unconditionally, without the threat of violence. I feel I should also add that Ma wasn't paying complete attention to the movie in the beginning; she was flipping through some catalogs for about 10-15 minutes in the first half.

My mother is no dummy. I can't imagine how she could fail to see the bigger picture, especially as a woman. Recent events have made crystal clear that even in the 21st century, in this so-called modern age, the threat of violence by men against women is still painfully real, whether you wanna blame the movies of Judd Apatow or not. My mother has been fortunate in that most of her adult life was spent in a happy marriage to a good man, but still, I find it shocking, and to be honest, more than a little disappointing, that she would not only fail to sympathize with the Elsa character, but to go so far as to blame her for deaths that were in no way her fault.

Still, she is my mother, and I suppose I can forgive her her insensitivity, but I gotta say that it's a little bit harder for me to look at her in quite the same way anymore. That's a terrible thing to say, I know, but I can't help it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

It seems hard to believe now, in these days of multiple-part "epic" storylines in superhero comics, but when Chris Claremont wrote the original X-Men story "Days of Future Past," it took up only two issues - Uncanny X-Men #141-142. By this point, early in his long and celebrated run on the book, the second-generation cast of characters that replaced the original team had become wildly popular, and although superstar artists John Byrne and Terry Austin would leave after the next issue, Claremont would continue with his intricate, sometimes convoluted stories of intense action mixed with sensitive soap opera subplots and the occasional bits of social commentary.

Even while reading X-Men as a kid, there were times when Claremont's scripts rubbed me the wrong way. As anyone who has read his work from this era knows, he had a tendency, more than most Marvel Comics writers of this era, to indulge in flowery yet expository narrative mixed with familiar epitaphs and catchphrases. This wasn't all his fault. It was a credo of Marvel editorial that every single comic be treated as if it were the reader's very first - a laudable goal, yet in practice, it could be off-putting to regular readers if taken to extremes. And Claremont often took it to extremes.

That said, he also provided some of the greatest moments in superhero comics history - and I don't just mean the battles. A big part of what kept me coming back was the humanity Claremont brought to these characters, hated and feared by the same world they seek to protect. The times when they had to reaffirm their commitment to peaceful coexistence with humanity, even in the face of naked prejudice and bigotry, made for truly mature storytelling and elevated the book to something beyond mere good guy-bad guy antics.

Not every issue had to have an end-of-the-world battle. Claremont could advertise an X-Men issue with a fight between Colossus and Juggernaut, for example, but the really important part of the story would be the breakup of Colossus and Kitty Pryde's relationship. The X-Men (and junior varsity group the New Mutants, also written by Claremont) would do things like play baseball in their backyard, or tell bedtime stories, or throw slumber parties! It was stuff like this that made these characters so much fun to read about, because you actually cared about them as people.

During the mid-80s, the multi-book crossover trend picked up steam at Marvel and DC, and Claremont and the mutant books caught it sooner than most. This was when I began to lose interest. It's true, Claremont was a master at weaving new stories into older stories that were winding down (anything to keep you reading). When you needed flowcharts and checklists to figure out which book follows which within a single storyline, however (which Marvel cheerily provided), that's when I began to sense that things were changing for the worse. 

Claremont picked up the pace to the point where stories got longer, characters went through all sorts of changes, and the quieter moments were fewer. Perhaps this was due to editorial fiat as well, or perhaps Claremont really enjoyed overseeing these longer, more tangled stories involving several mutant books at once. Perhaps it was both. But it no longer held any appeal to me... which is why "Days of Future Past" was, in retrospect, such a little miracle in its compactness.

Which brings us to the film version of Days. Self-contained as it is, it's also a culmination point of all the X-Men films before it, and while one doesn't need to have seen everything before it to understand what's going on, it definitely enhances the experience. The X-Men movie franchise has struggled to achieve the heights of the corresponding comics, and while it has aspired to greatness, I'd argue that between 

  • "You know what happens to a toad when it gets hit by lightning?" 
  • "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!"
  • Scott dying off-screen
  • Xavier dying and coming back to life STILL without any explanation
  • Deadpool-in-name-only
  • Halle Berry's ever-evolving wigs
  • The Wolverine Show, guest-starring the X-Men
  • characters of color dying and then quickly forgotten about

the franchise has managed to be better overall than one could have hoped for back in 2000, when the first movie debuted. It's given us

  • the best movie version of Wolverine we could've hoped for (thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Hugh, for everything)
  • "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?"
  • Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen
  • Sentinels (and goddamn were they worth the wait)
  • the Nightcrawler White House scene
  • the Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" scene
  • the opening credits of X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • world events weaved into the storyline
  • Lauren Shuler-Donner overseeing the whole damn thing

and that's not too bad when you think about it.

Days brought together everything good about the franchise - including director Bryan Singer - and gave us the X-Men movie to top all X-Men movies. It's not perfect, don't get me wrong, but it took Claremont's original story and gave it a new level of depth and pathos while staying true to its spirit. It's a little bit less of The Wolverine Show than I feared it would be, if only because it has such a gigantic cast. The time-jumping actually made sense, if not the method (you just have to somehow accept that Kitty has this power now), and yes, the violence is bloodless, but if it weren't it wouldn't be PG-13 - and there's no way an X-Men movie is gonna be rated R - so again, you have to accept it. (This last point jumped out at me because of the many deaths in Days, some of which, I admit, would be gorier with blood.)

I know the franchise is gonna continue, but I can't help but think of Days as an endpoint, at least for me. We're shown the extremes of the mutant-human conflict, as well as the ultimate happy ending for the X-Men (am I really spoiling it for you by saying Days turns out alright in the end? I don't think so), and almost everyone comes back for this movie, which unites two generations of X-casts. I don't see how it can be topped... 

...but Fox will certainly try. "The Age of Apocalypse" is another alternate-timeline story from the comics (think Mirror Universe), which leaves me to question the wisdom of doing two such stories back-to-back. Claremont followed up "Days of Future Past" with a solo story featuring Kitty against a supernatural creature, set during Christmas. There's still action, but it's on a smaller scale and has a different vibe to it. Unfortunately, superhero movies these days (and a lot of other action franchises) constantly feel the need to up the ante every time. Eh. We'll know soon enough what they do with it, I guess.


We're gonna need a bigger shelf...

I'm starting to feel like Daniel Day-Lewis with all of these awards! Thank you, Kellee, for this latest laurel, the Versatile Blogger Award. I certainly like to think WSW is a versatile blog. I've tried many different kinds of posts and ongoing features; some have worked, some haven't. As long as I know you guys are out there reading, and (hopefully) appreciating what I do, then I'm a happy camper. (You'll pardon me if I don't pass this award on to fifteen other bloggers, though.)

As for the usual list of fun facts about Moi that you can drop at your next film festival after-party, well, let's change things up a bit. I'll tell you seven more things about me, alright... but only two of them are true! See if you can guess which ones they are:

1.  At summer camp in 1995, we had a "lip-synch night," and me and this other counselor both performed songs by Seal back to back! Neither of us realized it until the show started, but it wasn't a contest, so we were cool about it to each other. If I recall correctly, he lip-synched to "Dreaming in Metaphors" while I lip-synched "Don't Cry." I went on after him, though, so I got more applause!

2. At a comic con in North Carolina back in 2003, there was this fan who mistook me for comics and animation writer Dwayne McDuffie - and I, feeling impish, lied and said I was. I fed him all this BS about Justice League Unlimited, which he totally bought. I even said there was a two-part episode in the works which would guest-star Space Ghost!

3. My older sister Lynne and I shared a bedroom during childhood. She had this really huge, comfy pillow on her bed that she was very protective of. One night, when I was about seven, maybe eight, she went on a sleepover at her friend Tanisha's next door, and I took her pillow for the first time and curled up in front of the TV watching The Dukes of Hazard. I remember it had a tiny hole at the bottom that I poked at. I fell asleep during a movie, though, and when Lynne unexpectedly came back to grab her shoebox of 45 records, she saw me and threw a fit. We fought for a couple of minutes before my mother broke it up. We fought a lot back then.

4. I have a small birthmark on my right thigh roughly in the shape of Florida. At least I've always thought that's what it looks like.

5. During my year in Columbus, I taught a life-drawing class for adults, but we couldn't afford a model, so guess who had to do double-duty as the model? I didn't pose nude, but I did emphasize gesture as a means of communication. I think my class got the idea, though some had a harder time with it than others. And they always liked it when I demonstrated by doing some drawing of my own.

6. During my senior year of college, I had a brief fling with a New Age girl. It only lasted less than a month. The one time we slept together, she did this very odd ritual in which she surrounded her bed with rocks and crystals, meant, she said to improve the energy flow of our chakras. I won't tell you what else was involved, but the end result did not feel all that sexy. I will say that I drew the line at the Kama Sutra. I do not have the body for that sort of thing - although if I had to do it all over again...

7. I take my coffee with way too many sugars. I've been trying to cut down on it lately by substituting things like Sweet & Low or Equal, but I always notice the difference and it's not the same. Lately, I've been trying milk and that helps a little, but after the first few sips I always end up adding sugar anyway out of habit. I know, I know, I need to lay off. At least now I drink smaller cups!

So which two are real?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad
seen on TV @ TCM

Being a child of the 80s, I tend to think of that decade as the time when the action movie - and the action movie hero - came of age. Arnie and Sly, of course, but also Bruce, Clint (to a certain extent), and Norris, Russell, Ford and Bronson. Most of these guys were part of my moviegoing experience as a child. When it comes to action heroes, though, there's one guy who predates them all, and he goes way farther back.

I can't say I knew a great deal about Douglas Fairbanks other than the basics: silent film superstar, married to Mary Pickford, co-founded United Artists. Lately, though, I've been reading about the silent era (more about that in a future post) and his was one of the many stories I've been learning about, which is why I watched The Thief of Bagdad [sic] yesterday, to see him for the first time. It's basically a story in the Arabian Nights tradition: hood rat and career thief makes good by winning the hand of the princess through struggle and great quests.

Fairbanks was known for his great athleticism, and indeed, he does a whole lotta running and jumping and leaping in Thief. Needless to say, he usually did all his own stunts. Like many silent film actors, his acting style is expressive to a degree which we might think of as excessive today, but it's only because they didn't have sound back then. Meaning of thought and emotion had to be made clear, so you get things like Fairbanks throwing up his arms a lot, in surprise or joy, depending on the context. The medium was still new, after all, and everyone was in the process of creating a visual language.

Can anyone today be compared to Fairbanks? Tom Cruise has the dedication and the variety of action settings, but he doesn't have Fairbanks' infectious joie de vivre. In his prime, Cruise's on-screen persona tended to be more cocky than boisterous. Jackie Chan has that exuberance, but Fairbanks, of course, never knew martial arts. Truth is, action stars are cut from a different cloth. They tend to be glowering and humorless most of the time, and in the absolute best shape of their lives. Fairbanks was obviously not a 98-pound weakling, but he looked like a guy you could see in real life, as opposed to a bodybuilder. And he wasn't afraid to smile in his movies.

Thief simply bowls you over and knocks you the hell out with its scale. Today we think of movies like Avatar or the Lord of the Rings movies that create these fully realized worlds almost entirely through computers, creating a virtual environment of the imagination. Back then, though, Hollywood did it the old-fashioned way - by hand - and Thief is startling in its sheer size. The palace of the caliph, the Bagdad streets, the fantasy realms that Fairbanks travels through, they're all tremendous! They dwarf the human actors at every turn, and of course they were all hand-built and are therefore solid and physical. 

It's spectacle of the kind you don't expect from such an old movie. After awhile, I stopped thinking about the plot holes and leaps of logic and just gave in to the splendor - which also included the costumes, the props, the makeup, the primitive, yet surprisingly effective visual effects, and the cast of thousands. It's not perfect, but for what it is, it's impressive.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Troll 2

Troll 2
seen @ Videology, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I'm not a vegetarian. Never have been, don't think I ever could be. I'm familiar with the basic arguments against eating meat. I've read Fast Food Nation; I'm aware of the inhumane tactics used by this country in making burgers, although I haven't eaten a McDonald's hamburger in many, many years. Whenever possible (read: affordable), I try to buy organic or free-range or cruelty-free or whatever the alternatives to standard-issue meat are these days (which includes luncheon meats as well), but those times are rare.

If I absolutely had to, I imagine I could live on nuts and berries, fruits and vegetables alone, but to be honest, I don't want to. Period. I'm not interested in the ethical implications of eating meat because humans have been eating meat since the dawn of time. I try to balance it out with other kinds of food as often as I can (though I don't always succeed) and I exercise by taking long walks, but that's the extent of it for me. If that still makes me a bad person, so be it.

I'm sure I must know more people who are vegetarians, but the only one I can think of at the moment is my pal Eric - Bibi's husband, not the one from high school. Bibi and Eric were in town this past Saturday and they were telling me about their European vacation last month. Eric said that he had to forego his vegetarianism temporarily because they were staying with relatives and he didn't want to force them to make special compensations just for him. He dealt with it fine. He's not the type to push his meat-is-murder beliefs on other people (though I doubt he's quite that militant about it).

Which brings us to Troll 2. Despite what you've no doubt heard, I wouldn't call this the Worst Movie of All Time. (Like I said on Twitter, I'd happily concede that title to Manos: The Hands of Fate.) It's lousy, make no mistake about it, but the production values are a wee bit above average; the location shooting was a nice touch; the gore quotient isn't bad for a low-budget horror movie; and yeah, there were a couple of moments here and there where I genuinely flinched. And I'm convinced that underneath the bad acting and shoddy dialogue there's a germ of a seed of a halfway decent idea. I can't say that about The Room.

As part of some kind of family-exchange program (?), a typical all-American family spends a summer in the small rural town of Nilbog (yes... that's the actual name), where the natives are vegetarians, but the food they eat isn't exactly the kind you'd find at your local Whole Foods. The young son is haunted by the ghost of his late grandfather, who knows the truth about the townspeople - they're actually man-eating goblins straight out of ancient legend (not trolls... goblins) - and it's up to the boy to keep his family from eating of the Nilbog food, which stirs a biological change that turns humans into a bizarre kind of plant life suitable for eating by the goblins. It's one part Soylent Green, one part Grimm Fairy Tales, one part Dungeons & Dragons.

Troll 2 (my understanding is that the first Troll movie has absolutely nothing to do with this one) should've been played for satire. In the hands of, say, Mike Judge, this could've been an intentionally funny spoof that would've skewered both vegetarian health nuts and redneck meat-eaters alike, and also provide a critique on the American food industry in general. Apparently, though, Italian director/co-writer Claudio Fragasso (a.k.a. Drake Floyd), along with his wife and co-writer Rossella Drudi, wrote the screenplay in bad English, which they insisted was to be read by the actors verbatim. Sounds like they - like Tommy Wiseau, like Harold P. Warren, like Ed Wood - thought they were geniuses who couldn't be told anything.

Cracked recently did a piece on how to distinguish "good-bad movies" from legitimately bad ones, and I'd say Troll 2 fits most of the criteria. There was lots of unintended humor, the awfulness definitely escalates, and one can certainly learn from Fragasso & Drudi's mistakes on how to write a screenplay. That said, however...

...I really wish I saw this with a bigger crowd. I saw Troll 2 at a place called Videology, in Williamsburg. For years, it was a simple video store, but recently, they made a drastic overhaul and now they're a bar and restaurant that screens movies and TV shows - in addition to still renting videos! This was my first time in the place. I remember how it used to look because I'd often pass by it when I worked in Williamsburg. It's completely different now. The bar is in the front, with seating space; in the middle is a booth where one can rent and return videos, along with bathrooms and the kitchen; and in the back is a larger dining room area where the movies are shown. DVDs line one wall off to the side, and a door and curtain separates the room from the bar area. It's very nice.

By the time the movie started, I was the only one in the room. I got there about a half hour early because this was a free show, and I figured a movie with as big a cult following as it has would mean a large crowd. Not so. A couple of guys came in about five or ten minutes into the movie, and they chattered to themselves here and there, about the movie and other things, as I munched my very salty popcorn. This was one time, though, where I didn't object to people talking. I knew that Troll 2 was the kind of movie you don't watch the same way you watch, say, a Scorsese movie, and I was fully prepared for some audio commentary from the crowd. I kinda wished they were more vocal in their heckling!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Majority of One

A Majority of One
seen on TV @ TCM

It started with a post from the TCM blog about how to judge films with actors cast against race, gender or sexual orientation. The subject was hardly a new one for me, yet I still found it worth meditating on once again. Then came a blogathon post about an old Charlie Chan movie, in which I stated that the fan-favorite character may have merit as a character, but I found it difficult to see past the fact that he was portrayed by a white man. That generated a lot of feedback and got me thinking about my own ingrained biases when it comes to acting.

Then came this. For my Diamonds & Gold Blogathon back in April, Jacqueline wrote a post about a movie I had never heard of before called A Majority of One, starring Rosalind Russell in a Golden Globe-winning performance as an old Jewish woman who learns to put aside old prejudices when she meets a Japanese businessman, played by a white actor, Alec Guinness. It would've been easy to have had the same reaction to this as I did to Charlie Chan - oh, Hollywood racism strikes again - but Jacqueline's interpretation of this casting in the context of the film as a whole made me stop and think:
...Sir Alec Guinness plays his role with subtle grace, an economy of movement, and if you do not believe he is really Japanese, that is not the point. He is, like Rosalind Russell, a symbol, an allegory like the tale he tells of the ancient emperor and his commoner bride. This is a movie that speaks to the heart and must be embraced the same way, as symbolic and allegorical. The real brotherhood of man takes place when we walk in each other’s shoes.
Suffice it to say that I had to see this movie for myself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day's Night
seen on TV @ TCM

I was a schoolboy when I heard my first Beatles song; "Love Me Do," I think it was. From there it wouldn't take long... Oh wait, lemme start over...

Actually, I'm not quite sure which Beatles song I heard first, but I do remember at what time in my life their music began to have an impact on me - high school. It was my buddy Eric who introduced me to classic rock in general, and the Beatles in particular. I clearly remember afternoons after school rummaging through Tower Records, comparing albums - and I do mean albums, the big black discs, though by this time I was more into cassettes for my newly-bought Walkman and wondering about the future of these strange new golden platters called compact discs.

Fast forward a bit to 1995. I spent that summer working as a sleepaway camp counselor, and there was a ton of Beatles hype in the air, in anticipation of the Beatles Anthology. Campers as young as seven and eight knew the songs, and I remember being shocked that they were not only as familiar with them as they were, but that the music spoke to them like they spoke to me almost a decade ago.

There have been numerous essays describing what the Fab Four meant to America, England, and the world at large, and chances are you've read a fair amount of them. What do they mean to me? I imagine my story's not too different from yours. The unpretentiousness of the music. The phenomenal creative output over such a shockingly short period of time that made them far more than a trendy boy band. The hair. 

A Hard Day's Night captures the Beatles during the early days of their successful arrival in America, and while it may have been a cash grab designed to capitalize on their immediate success, the Beatles themselves don't come across as fabricated. You can tell that they're amazed at being at the center of such a phenomenon and that they still don't quite believe it's real.

Fame these days comes so cheaply. We take for granted how relatively easy it is to get noticed, and not just through the traditional media of music or television or movies, but new media like the Internet. Someone makes a video (or gets captured on video) and it's put on YouTube and a million people watch it and boom! That person is famous for a minute or two. But it's hollow, and it's fleeting, and ultimately unsustainable for 99.9% of those involved. How many of us could cope with real fame, like the kind the Beatles enjoyed for so long? This movie, fictionalized as it is, provides a clue, and while we know now that the four of them weren't always as buddy-buddy as they seem here, we still accept the legend.

Music has always been a big business in America, and it's a completely different one today than it was fifty years ago, but the music of the Beatles have remained a constant, whether it's used to sell sneakers, mashed up with modern rock bands or rappers, heard on a scratchy LP or an MP3. I think that in one way or another, they'll always be a part of us.

Lovely Lily