Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New release roundup for April '15

- Ex Machina. Tony Stark-like billionaire engineer creates robotic intelligence that he recruits a low-level tech employee of his to determine how lifelike it is. I was able to guess at some of the plot twists in this directing debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, but overall, it wasn't bad. Differs from Her in that the hand of the creator plays a central role in the story and acts as a wedge between the protagonist and the AI character. Visual effects are spectacular, making actress Alicia Vikander look truly robotic. Definitely worth a look.

That's it. I had heard good things about the horror film It Follows, but by the time I decided to give it a chance, it left the theaters. Guess I'm not used to the concept of an American horror film not sucking. I'm relying more on word of mouth from small film blogs for new movies this year (as opposed to reading reviews at the traditional movie sites), as a by-product of The One Year Switch, and Ex Machina was one such example. 

Once the summer movies get going, I expect you'll see me write about more movies here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

They Drive By Night

They Drive By Night
seen on TV @ TCM

It was said that Ida Lupino referred to herself as the poor man's Bette Davis (even though they were both women, duh!). After seeing her in They Drive By Night, I can understand why. The movie is about the hard lives of truckers, in particular two brothers, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, who dream of making it in the business. Lupino plays the wife of a trucking owner. She has the hots for Raft, but he won't mess around with the wife of a friend. Besides, he's already got a girlfriend. This does not exactly deter Lupino, as you might imagine.

Apparently parts of this movie were lifted wholesale from another WB film called Bordertown, starring Bette Davis, who plays a character similar to Lupino's. (Drive isn't considered a remake, however.) Watching Lupino, I could see how the comparison to Bette is a valid one. She has that same sharp manner, sardonic smile, and waspish attitude that defined Bette throughout the 30s and 40s. In Drive, Lupino can't really say what it is about Raft that attracts her to him, but she acts like she has an almost territorial claim on him. She can't stand her husband, so one imagines she feels entitled to someone better. 

The most remarkable part is that she gives such a bravura performance at the age of 22! Looking at her, I was reminded of the first time I saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. Despite her youth (she was 20 in that film), she gave such a mature performance that you just knew she had the goods. It was the same here with Lupino. Unfortunately, a third-act twist forces her to go way over the top with her character, in a matter that may have been dramatic in 1940, but looks kinda silly now.

I had first heard of Lupino as a director. I even thought she might've been a Latina with a name like "Lupino." I still find it hard to believe she was British! There were women directors before her, but they were still very much a rarity in 1949 when she stepped behind the camera to finish Not Wanted, a film she co-wrote and co-produced, when original director Elmer Clifton had a mild heart attack. 

Later that year, she co-wrote and directed the drama Never Fear (aka Young Lovers), and from there, she pursued a long career directing both film and TV shows, including The Donna Reed Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun Will Travel, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone and Gilligan's Island, in addition to acting. She was also part of the collective Four Star Productions with Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer. Quite a career.

Getting back to Drive: it's another film that I saw on Paddy's recommendation. (I haven't kept track, but I think I've liked most of the films she's recommended!) Until the Lupino story arc kicks in, it feels more character-driven than most films of the era, with a wide array of supporting players. Things happen, of course, as we follow Raft and Bogey around, but at a fairly leisurely pace, and for the first half, it's not entirely certain where the story will lead. The Lupino subplot leads to a climax and an ending that I thought was a bit too convenient, but I still liked the film overall.

Raft was part of the reason why. I've definitely seen him in other films, but this was the first time I had really paid attention to him. With Bogey around, I felt drawn to him at first, but his is definitely a supporting role. Raft is the star, and he's quite good. There's a scene early on where he takes Ann Sheridan to a hotel and gives her money for a week. It's clear that he likes her, and that he hopes to score with her, but Sheridan isn't that comfortable with him yet, and as a woman alone, hitch-hiking to LA late at night, you wonder for a moment whether or not Raft will take advantage of her. I did, anyway. In the end, he doesn't. He falls asleep, Sheridan leaves him where he lay, and by the morning, she's more relaxed around him, sensing that he's a good guy after all.

As for Bogey, he's got a good rapport with Raft, and he gets a few moments for himself, but as I said, he's still second fiddle in this one. (Can you imagine him losing his [SPOILER], as he does in this film, if he were the star?) His next film, however, would be High Sierra, with Lupino, and that would cement his status as a leading man.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

James Dean

Earlier this month, I came across this post, which reproduces the eulogy given for James Dean in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana in 1955. It provided me with a completely different perspective of the actor who died so horribly young. I knew he had to have come from somewhere, but I didn't know he was raised in a small Midwestern town, and from the sound of it, they were extremely proud of their favorite son, whom they knew better than anyone else:
...we find it hard to be charitable with publicity hungry, amateur psychologists, who have entertained themselves psychoanalyzing our boy. Because we knew him as a normal boy, who did the things normal boys do. He was part of a good solid home in the community where understanding people live. He was loved by the members of that home, and he loved them in turn. He was not brooding, or weird, or sullen, or even odd. He was fun loving and too busy living to sulk.
One may find it a bit tricky to reconcile this image with that which Hollywood left us with: the tortured, angsty Everyteen who seemed to speak for a generation in Rebel Without a Cause, his signature film.

The impact Dean made, despite such a brief career and life, probably can't be understated. My generation had Kurt Cobain, who was and is at least as popular, but projected a much more nihilistic, self-destructive image. Within the film world, we recently had Heath Ledger, but his was not the "bad boy" persona of Dean's. He was a little older when he died; he had a wife, Michelle Williams, and a child; and while he is still remembered fondly, does his off-screen image resonate as strongly? I doubt it. I believe he's remembered more for his films, especially Brokeback and Dark Knight, than for who he was away from the camera.

Not counting television (of which he did a lot) and uncredited bit parts, Dean made a grand total of three movies before his death. Three! Yet they were all huge, and they were all made by known and respected directors. One, Rebel, has become a cultural touchstone; the other two, East of Eden and Giant, earned him Oscar nominations after his death. He was the first actor to officially get a posthumous Oscar nod, and he did it in two consecutive films! That's how big he was...

...and he has only gotten bigger. Forbes ranked him 13th on the 2014 list of top-earning dead celebrities. Here are only a few pieces of Dean-related merchandise I found online: Rebel Cologne for Women ($14.99); 12 varieties of leggings ($44-55); a James Dean maternity T-shirt ($34.50); James Dean Beanie Babies ($10 each); and from Etsy, a painting of Dean on a deer skull ($43.09).

Hype aside, though, was he really all that? I've seen Rebel and Giant - though not recently for either - and while I thought he was good in both, I still found it hard to see him the way 50s audiences saw him, the way I saw River Phoenix, or a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, for example. The Method style of acting was still relatively new to movie audiences at the time. Brando was synonymous with the Method, and Dean was a fan of his - and his work reflects that influence. I find it a little off-putting on him, though, especially now that I know that he was a Brando fan.

Ultimately, I think that while Dean was a decent actor, he was also very much of his time, and unfortunately we'll never know how his acting ability would have grown as he got older, and more experienced. Would he have gotten into the French New Wave, like Warren Beatty? (I think so.) How would the decline of the studio system have impacted the kinds of roles he would've gotten offered, or chosen for himself? How would he have played a husband, or a father? Even with someone like Marilyn Monroe, another Hollywood superstar who will be forever young to us, we saw the beginning of a transitional phase in the last few years of her life, where she made a greater effort to break out of her familiar sex-goddess image.

I think much of the hype surrounding Dean's legend revolves more around his image and less around the actor himself. Rebel came out during a period in American history when youth culture began to shape pop culture in general. It was part of a wave that included rock music (Elvis in particular), television, the Beats, fast cars, and more, a wave whose influence was felt throughout the rest of the 20th century. It may be a mistake to define Dean by it, but that seems to be exactly what has happened, for better or worse. One wonders what the boy from Fairmount, Indiana would've made of it all.

Next: Ethel Waters

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell

Friday, April 17, 2015

Battle Royal: The gangsters


************BATTLE ROYAL!!!!!!************





Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Superman II

The Great Villain Blogathon is a tribute to the greatest, most sinister and most memorable antagonists in film history, presented by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of these sites.

Superman II
from my DVD collection

Ladies and gentlemen,
the President of the United States.

This is your President. On behalf of my country, and in the name of the other leaders of the world with whom I have today consulted, I hereby abdicate all authority and control over this planet to General Zod. Only by following all his directives will the lives of millions be spared.

There have been numerous reports over the past few days that describe the general and his associates as having participated in wanton, destructive acts of terrorism across the country. I wish to state unequivocally, and for the record, that these reports... these reports are exaggerated and grossly distorted by the media. Let me take a few moments now to explain to you why the general comes not as a conqueror of humanity, but as a liberator, a savior from the, um... from the true threat to our planet... Superman.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What if more movie theaters were non-profit?

The caretakers of the Loew's Jersey Theater think it has
a future as a multimedia, non-profit venue. 
Weeks ago, the Center Cinema theater in Sunnyside closed down. It wasn't the greatest of movie theaters, and I have no fond memories of it from my childhood (or my adulthood, for that matter), but it was local, a neighborhood theater still trying to compete against the AMCs and Regals of the world, and it was part of a number of theaters in Queens and Nassau County over the past five years that I've seen bite the dust.

I accept that this is the way of the world. Nothing lasts forever, and theaters like the Jackson, as much as they may be cherished by people like me as touchstones of our youth, cannot continue to get by on nostalgia and warm fuzzy feelings, especially when the corporate theater chains will have the edge 99 times out of 100. Still, seeing more neighborhood theaters go under lately is disturbing, and not just here in Queens: ask the Bronx how much they'd like more theaters.

I thought about possible solutions, and then I remembered a bit of wisdom from another neighborhood theater fighting to stay alive: the Loew's Jersey Theater in Jersey City. The heart of their struggle involves a lease between Friends of the Loew's (FOL), the volunteer group that has kept the theater up and running, and Jersey City, and whether or not the city has lived up to the terms of the lease in order to help preserve the movie palace. 

Jersey City wants to bring in national, commercial promoters like Live Nation to run the Loew's so that they can attract big concerts, but FOL wants to keep it local, where big concerts would be one facet of a larger, multimedia plan, which would include film. The difference, they say, is in making the Loew's non-profit:
...Why non-profit? Google “Live Nation” and “AEG” and look at the schedules of theatres they run. You won’t see a lot of the kinds of programming in addition to major concerts that most people agree the Loew’s should have: local arts, community-centered, family, ethnic, affordable, film. That’s because for profit theatres are run by commercial promoters who can only worry about one thing: Making the most money for owners and shareholders. They have no reason to want to do more. 
It would be presumptuous to assume that for profit management will suddenly guarantee of [sic] a lot of concerts at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre. Promoters have been known to want to take over a venue not so much to use it but to keep potential competitors out. 
Friends of the Loew’s has always planned to work with major promoters to bring in big shows, but [to] put the income earned back into other programming along with donations and grants. 
That’s what all those other non-profit managed theatres do, and that [sic] what FOL and Jersey City are supposed to be doing in partnership of the Loew’s, per the terms of our lease.
The Colonial in Phoenixville, PA, is one of several
examples of successful non-profit theaters
in Brian Real's thesis.
In 2008, a University of Maryland Film Studies graduate assistant by the name of Brian Real wrote a thesis while he was at Johns Hopkins University, getting his Master of Arts in Communication, about turning historic movie theaters into non-profits. In his paper, he points out how local, urban-based movie theaters have always relied on community support from as far back as the early days of the film exhibition industry; he provides case studies of struggling theaters reborn as non-profits; he emphasizes the role of local businesses and local government in preserving the theaters, as well as the ways the community took a direct hand in re-shaping the theaters; and he shows the results. 

While he acknowledges the value of film theaters as performing arts centers, like what FOL wants to do with the Loew's, his emphasis is on film theaters which remained (primarily) film theaters, through the non-profit path: 
...All of the movie theatres in this sample followed a non-profit structure that allowed them to remain financially stable. Non-profit status allowed them to receive grants from governments, foundations, and businesses that are not available to for-profit institutions. These theatres also offered tax-deductible memberships to their patrons. While for-profit theatres could offer membership programs with similar patron benefits, these memberships would not be tax deductible. Additionally, the groups in this sample concentrated their efforts on publicizing their membership programs and explaining why their theatres function as non-profits.
It's a must-read if you've got a half hour or so.

Here within the five boroughs, we have the Film Forum as the most successful example of a non-profit film theater, one that has been a Manhattan institution for over forty years by specializing in independent and foreign cinema, as well as the classics. While Hollywood movies will always dominate the marketplace, there will also always be a market for alternative cinema, in small towns as well as big cities, and it's a format that works well for non-profit theaters.

Reading about this has, I admit, got me wondering if I could apply it to bring back a theater like, say, the Jackson. I'd have to give it some serious thought... and I would definitely have to bring in some friends... Worth thinking about.

My dream movie theater

Friday, April 10, 2015

Off-topic: Meet me at Queens Writes Weekend 4/24-4/26!

You may recall a few months ago that a short story I wrote, "Airplanes," was published by the Queens lit zine Newtown Literary (you can still buy a copy here). For those of you in the New York area, you'll get a chance to see me read from it in a couple of weeks!

Queens Writes Weekend is an annual fundraiser event held by NL in which they host "write-ins" at different locations around Queens. This year it kicks off with a live reading from published NL authors at Astoria Bookshop, and guess who's been invited to be one of the authors? This is a major first for me, and I couldn't be more thrilled about it. That'll be April 24 beginning at 7pm. But that's not all!

I'm also hosting one of the write-ins! No matter what your writing level, style, or experience, if you just wanna spend an hour or two writing with folks like you, then you might wanna give this a try. This is the schedule; my write-in will be April 26 at Forest Park's Wallenberg Square beginning at 1pm. We'll talk about writing for a little bit, and then we'll write whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, don't worry, I'll have some writing prompts to help get you going. The suggested donation of $5 goes toward printing future issues of NL.

If you can make it to either or both events, I hope you do. Queens is growing as a literary hotspot, and NL is doing its part to help it thrive. I feel proud to be a tiny part of it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood
seen on TV @ TCM

There's something about Old Hollywood movies shot in Technicolor, aside from the obvious fact of them being in color in a black-and-white medium. The coloring process gives those movies a heightened sense of realism, but they tend to look realer than reality, if that makes any sense. The colors pop in a way that they usually don't in most modern color movies, and the effect is startling, to say the least. I suspect it was part of the effort to make movies larger than life, to give the audience more bang for their buck, so to speak.

Would The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, still be as well-remembered as it is if it were in black and white? I suspect not. As good and as fun a movie as it is, I think one could make the argument that Technicolor made a big difference.

It was Warner Brothers' first color film that used the 3-strip Technicolor camera, the go-to technology for color films throughout much of the 30s. There had been numerous forays into color before, but with the 1935 film Becky Sharp, the Technicolor look had been mastered for live-action, feature-length movies. The following year, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine took Technicolor outdoors for the first time, and the year after that, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, animated in Technicolor, briefly became the highest-grossing sound film. Robin Hood, therefore, was made at just the right time for feature-length color movies to take off in America. It was the highest-grossing film of 1938 and it won three Oscars, including Best Art Direction, Color.

While Technicolor was used for dramas and comedies as well as action films, it seems particularly appropriate for a period piece based on one of the greatest legends of all time. Part of the reason why may have to do with the overall mood: even though it's technically a movie about class warfare, abuse of power and a people's revolution, it is 100% angst-free. While it has its serious moments, it never gets thematically dark, and while there's danger, it never feels hopeless.

Credit Errol Flynn's flawless performance in the title role for that. As I watched him play a de facto superhero, I was reminded of other superheroes known for laughing in the face of danger, like Spider-Man or Captain Marvel. It may seem odd to modern audiences used to the "cooler" brooding of Batman or the soap opera angst of the X-Men (the comics much more so than the movies), but if the current wave of Marvel movies are good for anything, it's for attempting to bring back the spirit of movies like Robin Hood, updated for the 21st century, of course. The Iron Man movies and especially Guardians of the Galaxy share a little bit of that same swashbuckler spirit...

...but Robin Hood is distinct. I watched a few clips of the Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie from 2010, by way of comparison. While I'm sure it has its merits, from what I saw, it looked little different from watching Crowe in Gladiator: huge armies engaged in big battles, passionate speeches to rally the troops, and yes, the desaturated color. In 1938 it would've been revolutionary, but in 2010, and even now in 2015, it looks like what we've come to expect from "epic" action movies post-Lord of the Rings

I'm not even saying this is necessarily bad, but it's such a marked contrast to Flynn's version as to be a completely different movie. And the proof is in the pudding: Crowe's Robin Hood, only five years old, is barely remembered now, despite all the hype and money that was no doubt spent on it (a 43 score on Rotten Tomatoes and it only made $105 million on a budget that was almost twice that). Flynn's Robin Hood, meanwhile, continues to endure over seventy years later: a biopic on Flynn released last year, starring Kevin Kline, was called The Last of Robin Hood. Nuff said.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Joan Blondell

The Pre-Code Blogathon celebrates the films made from 1930-34, before the institution of the Hays Code in Hollywood films, which placed restrictions on what could be depicted in movies and how. While not as permissive as modern movies, Pre-Code films generally were more explicit in their use of adult themes and situations than American films had been to that point in history. The blogathon is hosted by and Shadows & Satin. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

I don't recall for certain, but I think it might have been Danny from, one of the co-hosts of this very blogathon, who tweeted a link one day last year to a Facebook group of Joan Blondell fans. I had seen her in enough films by that point to know who she was, and I liked her, so I joined, just for the heck of it. At the time, I had mistakenly thought that she was a career second fiddle and not a leading lady, but as I have since learned, as a result of following this group, this wasn't always the case.

The first thing you notice about her are those eyes. They might not have been as memorable as those of Bette Davis, perhaps, but they do seem to pop out of her face when you look at a picture of her. She was also pretty curvy. While she was no Melissa McCarthy by any means, compared to her peers in the 30s, she looked a little less like a 20s flapper/30s showgirl type, at least in some of her promotional pictures.

Blondell spent the 30s at Warner Brothers, and her pre-Code films were among some of the best of the period: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, among many others. She specialized at being the wisecracking, fun-loving, gold-digging dame, and while she was popular, she never quite hit the superstar heights of contemporaries Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow.

This being the Old Hollywood studio system, Blondell spent a number of her 30s films with the same actors over and over again, but three in particular stand out. The first is Jimmy Cagney, with whom she starred on Broadway in a play called Penny Arcade. It only lasted three weeks, but among those who saw it included Al Jolson. He bought the rights and sold them to WB with the caveat that Cagney and Blondell star in the film version. They did. The 1930 film, retitled Sinners' Holiday, was a hit, and the rest is history.

They made six movies all told, including The Public Enemy. I saw them in another pre-Code film, Footlight Parade, not too long ago. Liked it. This film was from 1933, and you could tell that by this time they were well in sync with each other, and given how fast a talker Cagney was, that's no small accomplishment.

The second star associated with Blondell is Glenda Farrell. They made nine films together, the first three of which were pre-code: Havana Widows, I've Got Your Number and Kansas City Princess. In Widows and Princess, they're both gold diggers. From the clips I saw of each on YouTube, they seem like lightweight, formulaic material, though the fast talking isn't limited to movies with Cagney.

The third star often paired with Blondell was the man who would be the second of her three husbands and the father of her second child, singer turned actor and director Dick Powell. They were in ten movies together, including one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, the bizarre-yet-spectacular Gold Diggers of 1933, where Blondell secured her place in movie and pop culture history with this song:

Okay, so Joanie wasn't much of a singer.

Blondell left WB in 1939 and continued to have modest success on the big and small screens: her one and only Oscar nomination for the 1951 film The Blue Veil; two Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations much later in her career; a Tony nomination for her role in a Broadway play called The Rope Dancers; and she even wrote a novel. Her younger sister Gloria also had a career in film and TV, albeit a much smaller one.

Cinephiles probably remember her best, however, for her years at WB in the 30s, especially her pre-Code films. In a lot of ways, she embodied that brief yet freewheeling period of American film history. It may not have been politically correct at times, but the naughtiness, the violence and the just-plain-weirdness were unlike anything audiences of the time were accustomed to, and they still speak to audiences today.

Next: James Dean

Films with Joan Blondell:
Night Nurse
Gold Diggers of 1933
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Nightmare Alley

Other Pre-Code Movies:
The Smiling Lieutenant
Duck Soup
Dinner at Eight
Grand Hotel
The Thin Man
The Story of Temple Drake
Trouble in Paradise
Design for Living
Ladies They Talk About
Horse Feathers
Baby Face
All Quiet on the Western Front

Previously in this series:
Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A fool and his links

So we're a quarter of the way into The One Year Switch and I think I've learned a few things so far. In terms of numbers, after the big January start, the amount of pageviews have settled down and are about on a par with 2014. The CinemaScope Blogathon was a very nice and very unexpected boost, to say the least.

One big difference, I find, is that I'm planning posts for a specific date as opposed to before, where I'd post whenever I was ready. With new releases, one naturally wants to get them up in a timely manner, while they're still playing in theaters, but I never had a specific time period in mind for that. Here, I'm more conscious of hitting dates, and not just for the blogathon posts...

...not that I always hit the ones I aim for. The Frank Capra post should've gone up weeks earlier, but I was kinda intimidated by the man's history. He had accomplished so much in his life that it was tough to find a focus, and then, between the blogathon and the Queens World Film Festival, it just became easier to put it on the backburner until I had to return to it. So that's why the Capra piece and the Bernard Herrmann one ran so close together. I fully expect to get back on track with the Joan Blondell piece this week. That's a blogathon post, after all.

Two blogathon posts this month, plus a new feature that you'll be able to participate in making. Also, I've got another guest post for you, from a young lady by the name of Maria Ramos. Even if you don't know the name, you might have seen her work on pop culture sites here and there, and I'm pleased to have her contribute a piece for me. She's planning to talk about Cold War-era sci-fi, so stay tuned for that.

Your links for this month:

The Japanese lettering for this month's banner, featuring the great Toshiro Mifune, was put together by Danny from, so if you like it, visit his blog and tell him so... 

...and while you're there, check out this post about the one and only movie featuring all three Barrymore siblings. (UPDATE 4.1: I've just learned that today is actually Mifune's birthday. I swear I did not know this!)

Ivan tells the tale of a rare 60s film about heroin addiction by a woman director.

Leah has a cat with a classic movie-related name.

Ruth saw Wings for the first time.

Glory hallelujah, Retrospace is back! Here is a collection of title screens.

The death of camerawoman Sarah Jones could've been avoided if someone had been able to say no to her director.

Blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt, whom I've talked about here before, is gonna get an award named in her honor this month.