Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy new year from Seth & James

I was thisclose to seeing The Interview. The Kew Gardens Cinemas, I'm proud to say, was one of the many indie theaters nationwide that agreed to show the movie after distributor SONY declined to release it; you all know the story by now. After reading about the film itself, though, and already having a general idea of the kind of humor that stars Seth Rogen and James Franco indulge in, I thought that supporting the right to freedom and free speech may not be that important in this particular case. 

Still, I'm grateful for the fact that I am able to see The Interview if I want to, and we have those indie theater owners to thank for that, in particular the awesome Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse and his associates in the Art House Convergence. In an age where movie theaters have become less and less necessary to see a film, I find it wonderful that they not only came through for the movie, but that they also helped uphold the rights that America stands for (most of the time). And that's all I got to say about that.

Buy the new issue of Newtown Literary with my short story in it if you haven't already, and let me know what you think of my story after you read it.

The One Year Switch begins on January 5, when WSW will spend 2015 as a classic film blog. I hope you'll join me for this experiment. We'll have some fun and I think you and me both will learn a few things as well. Happy new year.

Friday, December 26, 2014


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

Love and hate. You can't have one without the other, and ever since the dawn of time, it seems like they've gone at each other like battering rams. We try to use love to rise above our baser instincts, but hate inevitably does its best to drag us down.

Are we forever doomed to be locked in this cycle? I certainly hope not, but for every step forward we seem to make in the struggle to transcend ignorance, intolerance and bigotry, we end up taking two steps back, and - to address the elephant in the room - I'm not just talking about the events this year in Ferguson, Missouri. Horrific as that was, it's only the latest in a long line of examples. All around the world, similar injustices continue to take place, and not all of them get a similar level of attention.

It has been difficult for me to hang on to hope. Not that these are things that I think about every hour of every day, but sometimes, I truly believe the world would be much better off if society as we know it were to be torn to pieces so that we can start over - presumably in order to not make the same mistakes again. I don't believe in God, so I'm not convinced that the answer will come from an omnipotent father figure who fails to make his presence known. So what's left?

The way I see it, we as a species cannot continue to go on this way. We cannot continue to tear away at each other, hating for no other reason than to hate. We not only destroy each other, we destroy the earth itself. So I think that sooner, rather than later, we're gonna reach a tipping point, and when we do, we're gonna fall either one way... or the other. No in-between.

Still, victories do count for something, which leads us to Selma. I had said last year, when I wrote about 12 Years a Slave, that I didn't want its success to lead to more period pieces about blacks and civil rights at the expense of movies about the current black experience. What I failed to realize is that the one informs the other, for better or for worse. 

Obviously, no one could have foreseen that current events here in America would conspire to make this movie even more relevant. I think the filmmakers would agree that this is not the kind of publicity they would've chosen for their film. But the events of Ferguson have happened, and I think that if Selma has a purpose, it's to offer that hope that seems in such short supply lately. To see how Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with bigotry and systemic discrimination in his lifetime means something today, and that would be true no matter how 2014 turned out.

It's an unusual but fortunate coincidence that over the life of this blog, I've been able to track the career of Ava DuVernay, not just as a writer-director, but as the guiding force behind the black film distribution network AFFRM. Over the course of its brief life, they've been responsible for bringing quality independent films to theaters nationwide - not the art houses, but actual multiplexes in big cities. This is a remarkable feat that doesn't get talked about enough.

Even with the small success that Middle of Nowhere saw last year, if you had told me that DuVernay would go on to direct a Best Picture caliber-film as quickly as she has, I would not have believed it. Part of it is timing, of course, and to be brutally honest, I still wish she had done it with a screenplay of hers, but she has made the material her own, and seeing what she's capable of with a bigger budget and a major studio behind her has been breathtaking. And when she becomes the fifth woman to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, it will be an extraordinary accomplishment indeed, as well as a hopeful one. (My money's still on Richard Linklater for the win, though.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

One of the things I remember quite clearly about the first few hours of September 11 was how often the TV news kept showing the footage of the second plane crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and their subsequent demolition. I remember thinking how unreal it seemed, that it looked like a scene from an action movie. Granted, it was tremendously newsworthy, to say the least, but as the day wore on and the networks continued to show the footage, it got to be far too much to have to look at over and over again. I suspect I'm not the only one who felt that way, either.

This is obviously an extreme example, but the point is the same: there are times when tragic news stories have a way of being exploited in the name of higher ratings or more website hits or higher circulation. Maybe it's intentional, maybe it's not, but in 2014-about-to-become-2015, we'd be fools to think this sort of thing doesn't go on.

Look at the coverage of the computer hacking of SONY, which is believed to have been the work of North Korea in an attempt to prevent the release of the controversial film The Interview - an attempt, I'm now proud to say, which was unsuccessful. Still, a great deal of private and personal information was stolen and publicized as a result of the cyber-sabotage, and a number of websites have not been shy about digging through this information for salacious tidbits, to SONY's dismay. None of this material was meant for public consumption, and the only reason we know about it now was because SONY was victimized by a foreign power with an intent to do harm. Given these highly unusual circumstances, did we "need" to know what was in those e-mails and memos?

Also, news media often approach tragic stories from a certain judgmental perspective, despite claims of objectivity. Local news outlets in particular are notorious for this. The livable streets movement, for example, often has to contend with local media who tend to favor drivers whenever there's a fatal or near-fatal collision involving pedestrians or bicyclists.

None of this can truly be said to be surprising, but the movie Nightcrawler approaches the notion from a different angle by taking us into the seedy world of freelance cameramen in modern-day Los Angeles, who prowl the streets at night looking for crime scenes they can film and then sell to the local TV news. Gyllenhaal's character gets a taste of this life and finds he likes it a whole lot, becoming the go-to crime scene cameraman for a struggling TV news program, but as his success grows, so does his ambition.

In the early-to-mid-20th century, there was Weegee, the photojournalist primarily known for his pictures of crime scenes in and around New York. He owned a police-band shortwave radio, which meant he often beat the police to a crime scene. He understood that pictures involving high society types made for more interesting and more profitable photos. During his time, he was recognized as an artist as much as a journalist.

Gyllenhaal's character is almost like a 21st-century version of Weegee, but he's quite different in temperament. From the moment we first see him, there's a pathological undercurrent to his psyche that leads him to this profession. He's drawn to crime scenes and car crashes and other such conditions and feels practically no compassion for the victims involved. He's almost preternaturally brilliant, but in a skewed and off-kilter way, and his drive to be a self-made success is relentless. The deeper he gets into his career, the more willing he is to use anyone to help him get what he wants - not unlike Faye Dunaway's character in Network, which this movie is evocative of in places.

Every year, there are movies that I have to pass on seeing because of limited money and time. I know I can't see everything I want to see and I accept that. Nightcrawler almost became one of those movies, even though I knew it was getting good reviews. But then it started appearing on critics' lists... and then Gyllenhaal got nominated for a SAG... and then a Golden Globe. Suddenly I realized that I needed to see this movie, and to my great luck, it was still playing at the local second-run theater, the Cinemart. 

I was absolutely riveted to this movie from start to finish. Gyllenhaal dominates the screen and embodies a morally questionable yet fascinating character to watch, because at every turn, you keep wondering, how far can he push his luck, and at every turn, he keeps on surprising you. This is easily Gyllenhaal's best work since Brokeback Mountain and maybe his best performance ever. Really hope he makes the Best Actor cut for the Oscar.

It was also nice to see Rene Russo again (yes, I know she's in the Thor movies, but I haven't seen them). She had a nice run in the 90s with great films like In The Line of Fire, Outbreak, Get Shorty and Ransom (and yes, the Lethal Weapon sequels, too). She's the wife of writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler is his directing debut), so that explains her presence here, but she's equally terrific in a key role as the TV news executive who deals with Gyllenhaal. I always liked her, and I like her in this one too.

They say that these days, it's hard out here for an Oscar-caliber film, and maybe we're in the middle of a sea change, but I hope not. I have to believe that there will always be a market for quality adult films like Nightcrawler.

Monday, December 22, 2014


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

Should athletes be heroes? I suppose it depends on how you define the word "hero." As a kid, the 1986 Mets were heroes to me, even though I hadn't even followed baseball all that long. I just happened to begin following them at a time when they were growing into a successful team, one that would go on to win the World Series in a dominating fashion. It was all certainly exciting, but would I have cared about them as much if they played .500 ball throughout the 80s instead?

Did I care about them as people? Well, I cared when Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry had their problems with drugs, but if I were to be totally honest, I suspect that I probably cared more about the fact that they wouldn't be able to contribute to the team as much. I was a kid, and even though I grew up in the "Just Say No" 80s, the full impact of what drugs could do to a person never truly hit me, especially not within the context of sports celebrities. From my perspective back then, it was as if Gooden and Strawberry were just really sick and needed time to get well again, and when they came back, I continued to root for them as if nothing had changed.

Did I think athletes could be a force for positive change in the world? That was the absolute last thing on my mind when it came to the '86 Mets. I don't recall Keith Hernandez or Gary Carter endorsing political candidates or advocating to save the whales or whatever, and even if they did, I certainly didn't expect them to. I imagine that any sports fan would agree that people watch sports to get away from the real world.

And yet this notion of athletes as heroes, or "role models," has persisted for a long time, despite the overwhelming evidence that they're as flawed, fallible, and human as the rest of us. Some say the very idea of athletes as role models is a fallacy. Others insist that this is an inherent, unavoidable by-product of fame as an athlete, and that may be true. If it is, then one has to wonder what we're teaching our children.

In Foxcatcher, a film based on a true story, Steve Carell, as millionaire John Du Pont, sells Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, on the notion of athletes as heroes in order to get Schultz to agree to letting him be his coach. He comes across as a patriotic type, one who sees the youth of America in desperate need of public figures they can look up to, and a gold-medal-winning wrestler about to participate in the World Championships (and the next Olympic Games further down the road) fits the bill for him just fine - and though he talks a good game, Du Pont has issues of his own.

The movie doesn't delve very deeply into the athlete-as-hero concept. In fact, Du Pont remains largely an enigma from beginning to end, but Carell embodies the character masterfully, to the point where I barely recognized him in the role. I never knew he had these kind of acting chops in him, and I can see why he's getting serious Best Actor consideration.

This is my first time seeing Tatum, and he, along with Mark Ruffalo as his older brother, look very convincing as world-class wrestlers who, of course, employ different methods than professional wrestlers. The two of them have an excellent rapport with each other.

Foxcatcher is well made all around, but ultimately it left me feeling cold. It was difficult to care about what was going on, in part because the movie feels as deadpan as Carell's Du Pont, almost Kubrickian, in fact. At around the halfway point, I actually started nodding off (although in fairness, I was fighting a cold and didn't have much sleep). 

I was unfamiliar with the true events behind this story, so the ending caught me by surprise, but otherwise, I can't see much to recommend about this movie beyond Carell's great performance. I went into this with the impression that it would be different than the usual wave of biopics we get year after year, including this one, and in a way, it kind of is, but emotionally speaking, I found it hard to care much about this film.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Off-topic: Newtown Literary w/my short story now available!

This is the front and back cover for the latest issue of Newtown Literary, which includes my short story "Airplanes." If you're in the New York area, you can pick it up directly at Astoria Bookshop, which is super easy to get to; just take the N or the Q trains to Broadway in Queens and walk a half block north. The rest of you can order it online right here. The theme for this issue is "speculative poetry and prose," and there's quite a variety of quality material here, so this will be well worth your while. Pick yours up today and let me know what you think!

Top Five

Top Five
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens NY

Last year, when I wrote about Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, I said that I missed his comedic work. There's no doubt that he has made himself over into a sensational dramatic actor, with two Oscars to back him up in this regard, and he hasn't completely given up on comedy, but the fact remains that he made a conscious decision to, if not abandon comedy, then at least to step back from it for awhile.

He's far from the first comedic actor to do so. Many funny men and women approach a point in their careers when they get the itch to test out their dramatic chops. Last year, seven minutes of footage from a documentary about Jerry Lewis' Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried surfaced. The comedic legend made the film over forty years ago, but it was never released, and he has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about it, for the most part, ever since. In this interview from 2009, though, while he's candid on some things about the film, he's evasive on others, and it's hard to tell for certain how he really feels about the movie.

Most of the time, I'm willing to give a comedian the benefit of the doubt whenever they go serious: Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner, Mike Myers in 54, Jim Carrey in The Majestic, to pick a few examples. I think actors should be willing to try new things once in awhile if they feel they have it within them to expand their boundaries...

... but they run the risk of alienating their audience if they do - and this is the conflict at the heart of the movie Top Five. It's funny that this should come out at around the same time as Birdman, another movie with similar themes. Both protagonists are Hollywood actors known for a specific character that has made them rich and famous, but has also pigeonholed them to a large extent. Both protagonists take a risk by starring in wildly different vehicles meant to redefine them as actors, and both of them suffer from self-doubt. Both are also comedies, but their approaches are as different as night and day.

For a brief time, back when I was still making comics, I was worried about whether or not I'd be able to escape the shadow of a graphic novella I made which got me the best reviews I'd ever had. It was tied to some deeply personal experiences I'd had which eventually came back to haunt me as a result of this book, and while I was proud of what I'd made, I was also frustrated with it as well, and I had to be talked out of taking it out of print (though that ended up happening anyway). I made subsequent stuff, but nothing that reached that book's heights, which were not even that high to begin with.

I suspect being perceived as a one-hit wonder is a very real fear for many creative people. Maybe that's one reason why serialization has become so popular in narrative fiction across multiple media. While I've been working on my novel, I've been doing a lot of reading about the craft of writing novels, and a lot of sources emphasize building a brand that one can be identified with in the marketplace. I have no idea whether or not I even have one novel in me, much less a series of novels, and naturally, I have no guarantees that this one novel will even be any kind of success. I recently talked to Jacqueline about this, and she assured me that there's no shame in making only a single novel if it's from the heart. It's something I'm trying to keep in mind as I write.

Back to the movie, though: I've always had great respect for Chris Rock, going back to my days in video retail when I'd occasionally put on one of his stand-up videos late at night, before closing, and became familiar with his routine. I remember watching early movies of his like CB4 and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka on video as well, and of course, he was one of the highlights of the Kevin Smith films Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

In the interviews he's done to promote Top Five, he's talked about, among many other things, the nature of comedy, and I think part of what makes this movie, which he wrote, produced and directed, notable, is that on a meta-textual level, this is his bid for "serious" legitimacy, as a director as well as an actor, but he does it without alienating his audience or sacrificing the things that make him unique and funny. 

This movie doesn't even feel like one of those comedy-drama hybrids that many comedic actors sometimes make (Good Morning Vietnam, Man on the Moon, Funny People, etc.). You know what I mean? A movie that's ostensibly a drama, but allows the comedian a context in which they can still be funny. 

Top Five isn't like that at all. People have been comparing it to the work of Woody Allen, but I think a better comparison might be to Steve Martin's sublime LA Story. On the surface, it feels like it could've come from the same guy who did The Jerk and All of Me and Three Amigos, but there's definitely a lot more going on here. And like Top Five, there's a love story at its heart. If you weren't a Chris Rock fan before, I think his movie will make you one.

And for the record, my top five rappers list (that's what the title refers to) is strictly old school: Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J and the Fat Boys. Basically, anybody who was in Krush Groove.

Monday, December 15, 2014

5 recent Xmas films that aren't really about Xmas

Paddy and I recently concluded that most modern Christmas movies tend to pummel you to death with Christmas cheer and Christmas spirit and Christmas themes in general. I suppose some people dig that sort of thing, but me, being the grinch that I am, I tend to sneer at it, especially if it's done poorly. When it's done well, as in, for example, Miracle on 34th Street, that's different - but few movies aspire to such heights. (Especially those featuring Kirk Cameron.)

I like movies that happen to take place during the holiday season, but aren't necessarily about the holiday season. I'm sure we can all cite movies like Die Hard, Home Alone, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns as examples, but I thought I'd try and think of more recent ones, like within the last twenty years. So if you've had your fill of mistletoe and eggnog and caroling - and even though it's only ten days before Christmas, I'd imagine it's quite possible! - consider these recent movies as an alternative to sitting around watching Jimmy Stewart gush about Zuzu's petals for the millionth time:*

- The Ref. Hilariously dark comedy about a bickering married couple held up in their home by a criminal during Christmas Eve, featuring Denis Leary, a pre-Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey and the underrated Judy Davis. I remember playing this one a lot during the holiday season during my video store days, and looking back on it now, I'm genuinely surprised this wasn't a bigger hit. Leary was hot at the time, and this was made as a vehicle for him and his motormouth stand-up routine, but the back and forth between Spacey and Davis is wickedly sublime - credit to co-screenwriter Richard LaGravenese of The Fisher King fame - and foreshadows Spacey's Oscar-winning role in American BeautyJudy Davis was moderately big in the 90s indie circuit, but never quite hit the heights like her fellow Australian Nicole Kidman. Still, her work in films like this, Children of the Revolution, Everyone Says I Love You, Husbands and Wives and Barton Fink is well worth seeking out.

- Frozen River. I still remember how blown away I was by this powerful drama set around Christmas time and Melissa Leo's towering performance in it. Two single mothers hard up for money join forces to engage in smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border, across the titular river. I fully believed this story from start to finish, and the stark realism that Leo embodied was etched on every line of her face. This is the kind of role every thespian, and especially every actress, dreams of. (On a side note, the tragic disappearance and death of co-star Misty Upham was heartbreaking to hear about.)

- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Speaking of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, who wrote that great sort-of-Christmas movie, also wrote and directed this great sort-of-Christmas movie, featuring Robert Downey Jr. (with whom he'd team up again in Iron Man 3) and Val Kilmer. It's a neo-noir film set in LA, with lots of the trademark Black brand of humor. I'd argue that RDJ's Hollywood renaissance began not with the first Iron Man movie, but here - another movie that should have done better at the box office than it did. Despite his troubled history, though, he's made mostly good choices with his roles, I think.

- In Bruges. Colin Farrell's always been kind of hit or miss for me, but I liked him in this crime comedy set in the titular Belgium city. He's a hitman who has to hide out in Bruges during the Christmas season when a hit goes wrong. Brendan Gleeson's in it too, so expect copious amounts of profanity laced with the humor. This is another one I discovered on video, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

- You've Got Mail. The Shop Around the Corner for the Internet age. Seems a bit dated now that bookstores in general, the corporate ones as well as the indies, are facing hard times, but it's Nora Ephron, and it's Tom & Meg, and you can't ask for much more when it comes to contemporary romantic comedy. Looks like Tom & Meg may team up for a fourth time, if only briefly.

Feel free to add your favorite sort-of-Christmas movies as well.

* - Yes, I know Christmas isn't the central theme of It's a Wonderful Life, but it has become the definitive de facto Christmas movie.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Princess Bride and fairness

Scott Roberts is a cartoonist friend of mine and is very erudite when it comes to American pop culture, and most other things, actually. Anyway, he recently wrote the following piece about the ending of The Princess Bride on his Facebook page and he has graciously allowed me to present it here, with only minor spelling corrections:

...At the end of the story, the boy is disappointed that Prince Humperdinck is not killed or, in any way that he can measure, punished for his deeds. In a traditional fairy tale he most likely would have been. His punishment may have even been one of great artistic irony. 
But the ending of THE PRINCESS BRIDE is actually truer to life. Westley is the bigger person. He chooses to let Humperdinck live, believing that the humiliation of his defeat and the undoing of his plans should be punishment enough. Noble and honorable. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Friday Night Lights (2004)
seen on TV @ AMC

It's hard for me to think of Friday Night Lights as a successful TV show or movie much of the time because I always think of the book before anything else. I remember buying the book, written by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, after reading an excerpt in Sports Illustrated (you know this was a long time ago if I was still reading SI). 

I've never been a huge football fan. I rooted for the Giants and Jets growing up, naturally, and I was excited when the Giants had their Super Bowl season in 1986. If there was any reason why I stopped following football, I suppose it was a result of when I stopped following baseball. After they cancelled the World Series, I guess you could say it killed my interest in sports in general.

New York sports fans love their pro football, no doubt, but when it comes to college and high school football, the relationship between a town and their team is different. I experienced this first-hand, of course, when I lived in Columbus, home of the Ohio State football Buckeyes. Actually, the "football" part is superfluous; though OSU has lots of other athletic teams, in Columbus, there's no doubt who you're referring to when you say the name Buckeyes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Switch is coming...

I've been thinking that I need a shakeup of some kind here at WSW. You may know this, but if you don't, this blog was always more about keeping me writing (and drawing, occasionally) than about any kind of deep study of films. As much as I enjoy them, they've always been the means to an end. Plus, I really feel like I need a break from following and writing about current movies. I've been doing it for what feels like so long that I think it might benefit me if I gained a little perspective and stepped back from them for a little while.

So with that in mind, this is what I have planned for next year...

Monday, December 1, 2014

The links will come out... TOMORROW

MAJOR BLOG-RELATED ANNOUNCEMENT THIS TUESDAY. This is big, folks, big enough to require a separate post, because it concerns the direction of the blog for 2015. I highly recommend you come back here for it tomorrow. Not kidding.

December 17! That's when the launch party for the next issue of Newtown Literary comes out, the one including my short story, "Airplanes." That's later than I expected, but that's okay; I'm just glad it's gonna be out there at last. It's not like I expect to be discovered by a publisher or anything, but it feels like a progressive step forward for me. 

Another step has been me joining a local writing group here in Queens. We meet on Sundays. We spend an hour writing, about anything in general, and afterwards, we critique work that's been submitted by members. These people seem fairly committed to writing. The analyses they give are quite detailed at times.

In other news, I've already started writing the second draft of my novel, although in  a sense, it feels more like a first draft. The basic story idea was salvaged from my NaNoWriMo draft last year, but it's been greatly expanded on to the point where it's almost a different story, but not quite. I hope to submit a piece of it to my writers group for analysis sometime within the next month or so.

Regarding the WSW collection, I'm no longer sure whether or not releasing it as an e-book is right for me. I'm pondering other options at the moment, so consider it on hold until I decide how I want to release it.

Your final link round-up for 2014:

Winding down her year of Ann Blyth, Jacqueline goes into the actress' singing career.

The modern silent film Blancanieves, a Spanish take on Snow White, was one I wanted to see but missed. Le did not miss it however, and in this post she compares it to an old Snow White silent film. (Google Translate required.)

Dorian salutes the fine character actress Agnes Moorehead.

Ryan saw Dear White People and has nothing to say about it.

Spotlight on TCM host Robert Osborne.

What was "Smell-o-Vision" and why did it fail as a cinematic gimmick?

Now that the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has dropped, it's as good a time as any to reflect on why the Star Wars franchise has succeeded the way it has.

The Hollywood Film Awards get a lot of hate and scorn, but is it possible that they're good for something?

Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson looks back on what went right - and wrong - in the history of his involvement with the film franchise.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

The death of British pop singer Amy Winehouse in 2011 didn't really register with me at the time because I barely knew her. I knew the song "Rehab," of course, but I wasn't aware that she was considered a superstar, especially in the UK. And I certainly didn't know how deep her personal problems ran. (The cultural rock I live under is quite comfortable, thank you. It keeps out the rain.)

We know the multiple Grammy-winner had problems with drugs and alcohol. She admitted to also having problems with depression. In that, she was hardly unique among musicians. Her story is all the more tragic, though, because she achieved fame and fortune at such a young age, and for whatever reasons, was ill equipped to cope with it.

One suspects that young women may have it harder: Rihanna, Brittney Spears, and Whitney Houston are only a few recent examples of women musicians whose drama and controversy in their personal lives have generated at least as much attention as their records. Part of it may be the result of all that success so soon in life. Part of it may have to do with the unrealistic expectations of glamor and hyper-sexuality we've come to expect from young women pop stars. Part of it may simply be bad choices, which all of us are guilty of sooner or later.

Beyond the Lights attempts, as its title suggests, to peel back the layer of glitz and find the humanity within one such pop star that rarely gets exposed on Entertainment Tonight or Perez Hilton. An attempted suicide by up-and-coming R&B/hip hop sensation Noni - a sort-of hybrid of Winehouse and Rihanna - is thwarted by a cop. She lies about the incident to the media, which rubs the cop the wrong way, especially when he hopes to use the incident to launch a political career. Still, they form an unlikely romantic relationship over time, which leads to further complications.

Last week, I talked about romantic movies and how the greats of the past were able to use plot obstacles in a way that modern movies either can't or are unwilling to do anymore. The lie Noni tells is the chief obstacle here, and although it doesn't stop her and Kaz, the cop, from being together, it still looms over them and affects their actions. In addition, there's Noni's stage mother, who goes to great lengths to make her daughter a star, but keeps her under her thumb, to a certain degree. These are good examples of obstacles used by a modern movie, and they're pertinent to this kind of story, in which fame and public imagery are crucial to both of the central characters' lives.

I feel about Lights the same way I felt about Enough Said last year and Obvious Child this year: a modern romantic movie that took me by surprise and completely drew me into the story, and was neither condescending nor patronizing. All three movies were written and directed by women; in this case, it was Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also did Love and Basketball (a movie I missed the first time but will definitely look for now). I gotta admit, movies like these are a very welcome response to the naysayers who claim that romance is dead in Hollywood.

It was wonderful to see old favorites Minnie Driver and Danny Glover in Lights, and while male lead Nate Parker didn't bowl me over, he did his job. But I think it's safe to say that this movie should put Gugu Mbatha-Raw over the top and firmly establish her as a star to be reckoned with. Between this and Belle, she's had a dynamite year, and as good as she was in that, she's even better in this. Yes, she does her own singing, and I'd say she's good enough to cut a record.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Reputation

My Reputation
seen on TV @ TCM

There's been a great deal of discussion over the past few years about the decline of the romantic film, whether comedy or drama. (Earlier this week, The Dissolve was the latest film site to have a discussion about it.) When I addressed the matter a couple of years ago, I talked about how many of the industry's biggest leading men have been reluctant to appear in romantic movies (comedies in particular), a problem that didn't exist to anywhere near the same degree back in the studio-era of Hollywood, but I also alluded to the belief that modern living provides fewer obstacles to keep potential couples separate.

One major obstacle that succeeded in romance movies back in the day was war, something I noticed as I watched My Reputation yesterday. There's no doubt about when this is supposed to take place: Barbara Stanywck mentions things like planting a Victory Garden and serving in the Red Cross. (And yet this was released in 1946!)

For all of the movies that Hollywood made that depicted the fighting going on overseas, as well as propaganda films that supported the war effort, movies like these that showed the impact WW2 had on the homefront are equally compelling as historical artifacts. The beauty of it is that no special attention is given to details like these; they're simply part of the background of a wartime movie.

George Brent's character is a major in the army, and the romantic plot he shares with Stanwyck is contingent on his availability. He has a limited amount of time with her because eventually, he has to go where the army sends him, when they send him, and that adds a great deal of urgency to the story. 

Class was another romantic obstacle. Stanywck also has to deal with gossiping friends (and her shrewish mother) who claim she's out on the prowl too soon after the death of her husband. While class doesn't figure in her relationship with Brent, it's definitely a factor in her conflict with her upper-middle-class, suburban pals. Early in the film, for example, her mom keeps insisting that Stany wear black in mourning, because it's something "our kind of people" do, or words to that effect. There's a clear indication that by dating again, so soon, Stany's violating an unwritten social code of conduct that her peers live by.

It's true, that these days, social mores are less of a big deal between groups of friends. I don't think of my friends as having the exact same set of social standards as me. We may share lots of things in common: movies, comics, music, what have you, but I feel pretty confident in saying that when it comes to public behavior, we don't think alike. But then again, I'm not upper-middle-class, and none of my friends are either. It's different when you've got money and live affluently. 

Yet Hollywood made movies like these - that is, movies from the perspective of high society - often, and we plebes were supposed to be able to relate to people like Stany's character. Expectations from movies are different now because society's different. We don't necessarily have to look at life from the angle of the well-to-do anymore.

So yeah, obstacles like these either don't exist anymore or can't be portrayed in the same way when it comes to romance, but I like to think that it doesn't mean that romance is dead in the movies. Writers just need to be smarter about how they approach the subject.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
seen on TV @ TCM

I first saw Sunrise in my college film history class way back when. I don't recall what my reaction was. It was without a doubt one of the very first times I had seen a silent movie, for what it's worth. As a movie, it's good, if somewhat melodramatic (to say the least). I like how it's almost entirely reliant on the visuals. There are few title cards, and the ones it has are used in unusual ways. There is, of course, the way the line "Couldn't she get drowned?" is animated to look like it's going down a drain, but there's also the way some cards fade into and out of a flashback. The cards are a more integral part of the movie and not merely what comic book maestro Will Eisner might've called a desperation device (that's what he called word balloons).

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor completely sell this movie with their faces, not just because it's silent, but because within the context of the film itself, the dialogue is sparse. It's not like in most silents where you can clearly see the actors' lips moving even though you can't hear what they're saying. There's not a whole lot of that either, which makes me think director FW Murnau worked overtime to get the actors to express what he wanted them to express. 

Silent film acting tended to be big and over the top so that the emotions and the situations could be better understood by the audience, but there's less of that here. There's a greater emphasis on interior thoughts. Murnau helps sell it even further by using tricks like superimpositions. When O'Brien contemplates going through with his scheme of killing Gaynor, we see Margaret Livingston, his would-be lover, as a ghostly impression, hovering over him, seeming to clutch him close and tempt him. For 1927, it's a brilliant trick and it adds to the psychological depth.

That said, it's not a perfect movie. Gaynor's character is a total crybaby wimp who is passive to the point of helplessness; after awhile, you kinda root for O'Brien to just kill her already. Also, they reconcile way too early in the film; there's a long second-act stretch where nothing of great importance happens other than seeing the two of them all lovey-dovey. Well, O'Brien captures a runaway drunken pig, but that's about it.

Sunrise has the unusual distinction of winning the 1929 Oscar for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, which was distinct from the actual Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture, as they called it then) winner that year, Wings. It was the first ever Oscar ceremony, and at the time the rationale was that both categories were equally important, but slightly different. Still, they dropped the "Unique and Artistic" category after Year One.

Having seen both films, I gotta say that they both seem pretty unique and artistic. The flying sequences in Wings were groundbreaking and spectacular, and lest we forget, this was during a time when film was still a relatively new medium. I suppose you could say it's like comparing Avatar and The Hurt Locker, only in this one instance, the Academy decided to give both films top honors. Then again, if they were both considered equal, why did one need to have the appellation "Unique and Artistic" attached to it? Methinks that even back then, people knew which award was meant to be the "real" top prize.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Force Majeure

Force Majeure
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Pop quiz, hotshot!

You're on vacation with your spouse and children at a ski resort. You're eating on a terrace when a big-ass avalanche comes tearing down the mountain headed straight for you and fixing to bury you alive. What do you do?

What do you do?!

Part of the appeal of superheroes, which are more popular than ever now, is the idea that anyone can become one, given the right circumstances. Pseudo-science aside, if we were bitten by a radioactive spider, or injected with a super-soldier serum, or were given an alien power ring, or what have you, we like to think that we would automatically have what it takes to fight evil and save lives. And sure, there are lots of people who do have the right stuff for that. Some of them have been trained for the job over many years, and others are somehow born with it.

And then there's the rest of us.

The problem is that we rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to test the belief that heroism is inherently within us. I was miles from Ground Zero when 9-11 went down, but if I had been in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, would I have had the courage to save even one life? I like to think so, but I'll never know for certain unless something similar were to happen again - not that I'm in any hurry to find out (knock on wood).

This is the central quandary behind the Swedish film Force Majeure. The decision the father makes as the avalanche approaches haunts him and the rest of his family throughout the rest of the story. At first, I thought the mother's reaction to the father's act was indicative of a deeper problem in their relationship, and perhaps it was, to an extent, but as the film progresses, it's clear that the father's act is the crux of the problem. There are quite a few awkward, uncomfortable moments as a result of the level of introspection that takes place. It's a hard thing to come face to face with the self you are as opposed to the self you imagine yourself to be, and we see that here.

I remember seeing the trailer for this twice before, but I found it difficult to figure what it was really about. I thought it was perhaps a dark comedy, but I wasn't sure. I was gonna pass on it until I saw all the glowing reviews for it. So I gave it a try, and I liked it more than I thought I would. In addition to the story, there are some wonderful skiing images and great shots of mountain landscapes. I've only been skiing once, as a kid, at a resort not unlike the one in this movie, and it was hardly anything terribly challenging. Seeing the skiing going on here kinda makes me wanna try it some day.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kirikou and the Sorceress

The Fairy Tale Blogathon is an event devoted to films inspired by fairy tales, folk stories and various tall tales from around the world, hosted by Movies Silently. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the site.

Kirikou and the Sorceress
seen online via YouTube

Once upon a time... in a small but culturally-diverse village called Queens...

...there lived a young(ish) blogger named Antonello. He loved to write about all manner of things, from the books he read to the places he went to. He wrote about the quality of fruit sold at the market he shopped at. He wrote about the jousting tournaments held every month at the village green. He wrote about the duke and duchess, especially when the local paparazzi took pictures of them drunk and bickering outside Astor's Tavern late at night and posted them all over Instagram the next day.

But none of it paid very well.

Friday, November 7, 2014


seen @ Bow Tie Cinemas Ziegfeld Theater, New York, NY

Is film - the physical medium - dead? Hollywood studios have endorsed digital photography as the cheaper way to go, and movie theaters have been forced to compensate by installing digital projectors, at great expense for some. A small-but-growing number of filmmakers, however, have asserted that they have every intention of keeping celluloid alive for as long as they can. Many of them have gone on the record about this, and the reasons why have been discussed in detail.

Earlier this year, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino took over as programming head of the LA theater he owns, the New Beverly, and he has made it crystal clear that he's going to make every effort to preserve 35mm film there, for both old and new releases. Recent films such as The Master, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Beasts of the Southern Wild were all shot on celluloid, by directors, old and new, with a strong preference for the medium. And preservation of older films is a cause that has grown in support in recent years thanks to directors like Martin Scorsese.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Running Man

The Running Man
seen on TV @ IFC

Over four years of doing this blog and I have yet to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger? This must not stand!

Arnie was one of my cinematic heroes growing up, especially once I got cable and I could see his earlier films as well as his more recent ones. Lots of film writers have talked about the action movie stars of the 80s and 90s and how they reflected the attitude of America at large, especially under Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. How ironic, then, that perhaps the biggest action movie star of all was a foreigner, a former bodybuilding champ who didn't have to do much more than flex his muscles and punch out the bad guys - at least in the beginning.

And America accepted him, in a tremendous way. Back then, we wanted our movie heroes to be larger than life, in a way we rarely, if ever, see anymore. Arnie and Sly and Chuck and Steven and JCVD and Bruce and Dolph - these were guys who took no shit and kicked all kinds of ass, and the characters they played and the settings they were in didn't matter much, as long as we got to see them do what they did best. In that sense, they were not unlike the silent movie heroes of days long gone by. People responded to the personas they generated over the course of their filmographies, which tended to carry over from one film to the next.

Arnie was the muscle-bound, strong-but-silent type, the grim badass who was deadly with a machine gun or a sword or his bare hands, whether fighting powerful wizards or alien assassins, as a good guy or a bad guy, and I loved it as much as everyone else did. Chalk it up to boyhood power fantasies if you like, although as I said, I didn't come to really appreciate Arnie until I got cable in the mid-80s and I could see movies like Conan the Barbarian and Commando and Predator. (I'm fairly sure I had already seen The Terminator by then. Not sure, though.)

The Running Man was an odd duck in the sense that he's supposed to be a "regular guy," with a "regular" name like "Ben Richards," despite the fact that he talks with a foreign accent and has bulging biceps! In his other films, his physique could be explained as part of his character as a soldier, or a savage warrior from an age undreamt of, or an artificial intelligence from the future. But it didn't matter! We still accepted him in this role because he's still a badass doing badass things. It's as if he became an American in the movies before he became an American for real.

And as an American in the movies, he had more of a swagger, more of an attitude as a result. Here we see him tossing off more one-liners and silly puns as he disposes of his adversaries, in addition to his by-now trademark catch-phrase, "I'll be back." (All good action heroes need one!) And indeed, by this point he's much more comfortable, much more relaxed as a movie star, and it shows. 

He was ready for the next phase of his career, where he could portray more complicated characters, relatively speaking (Total Recall, True Lies) and take baby steps into comedy (Twins, Junior) and self-parody (Last Action Hero). He could even return to his signature character, the Terminator, and put a spin on it that retains the spirit but also provides a great re-interpretation. All told, from 1982-94, he had a phenomenal run of films unmatched by any other action movie star.

But of course, it wasn't all wine and roses. We suspect now that Arnie may have been a little too friendly with the women sometimes. His marriage to Maria Shriver wasn't as happy as it could have been. And he had his share of controversy as governor of California. It's always a hard thing when you discover your idols have feet of clay. Even today, I still see him, to a degree, as he was during his peak as a movie star, and it's hard for me to accept that he might not have been a good guy. I bought into the myth of Arnie, manufactured through the movies, and I want to accept that. Ultimately, Arnie's story is the kind that could've only been made in America.

So why haven't I seen any of his post-governorship movies? I suspect the answer has less to do with Arnie specifically than with the action movie genre in general. I accept that Arnie and Sly and Bruce and all the rest have gotten older. But action movies today aren't like they were thirty years ago. For one thing, Arnie didn't need a cape and a mask to be a superhero; he already was one! More importantly, though, there was a rougher, anything-goes spirit that's missing from today's more sanitized, PG-13 movies. Also, they don't feel as special anymore - at least not the American ones. In this, as in many other things, it would appear that foreign countries are better at doing what we were once the best at.

Watching The Running Man once again made me think of reality TV and how wacky it's gotten. (It's set in 2017 - only three years away!) Recently, I saw my mother watching one of those shows - I think it was Survivor, not sure - where the contestants have to survive in what looked like some jungle environment, but the real kicker was this: they were naked. Naturally, the naughty bits were blurred or pixelated, so looking at it didn't have quite the prurient appeal it might have had under other circumstances, but this does seem like the kind of TV show one would find in the future dystopias of films like The Running Man or Robocop or what have you. So I guess the future is here. Yay?