Monday, September 28, 2015

New release round-up for September '15

Once again, I didn't see any new films, so I'll talk TV instead...

...and there's only one new TV show that's on my mind right now. When I first saw the print ads for the new Muppet TV show, The Muppets, at first I was excited. Then I looked at them closer and thought: What are the Muppets doing with cell phones? Then I remembered: it's 2015, not 1979. No matter how often I see Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the rest in a modern context, I simply cannot get used to it. To me, they'll always be of the late 70s-early 80s, the time when I was a kid and watched them on TV. I understand they can't stay preserved in amber, though, as much as I might want them to, and I had been looking forward to seeing them back on TV.

Pam at Go Retro recently wrote back-to-back posts about the Muppets. The first was about why she thinks Miss Piggy sucks. I never thought about the pig and the frog as being in an abusive relationship. I mean, yeah, she was possessive and jealous and always making with the karate chops, but at the same time, despite her flirtatious nature, she had made it pretty clear that Kermit was the only man frog for her - until they "broke up" this summer, anyway. Pam's second post was a preview of the new show, in which we learn that there's a lot more sexual innuendo than usual.

Now that I've seen it, I have to admit that it's not too different in spirit from the original Muppet Show, although yeah, some of the humor, as well as the modern setting, will take some getting used to if you grew up with these characters (Kermit actually said "hell"!). Will wrote a piece that helped set my mind at ease. I didn't realize there was such an active protest against the new show, but then again, everyone's so hyper-sensitive and politically correct these days that it's possible for almost anything to be offensive to someone.

The new show has humor, but it also has moments of genuine drama. That's not new - some of the movies had such moments, especially the original Muppet Movie - but it still took me by surprise. Kermit and Piggy's breakup is being treated as seriously as any Hollywood romance, both within and without the show's context, and I like that. It's clear that Kermit has had to tolerate a great deal from Piggy over the years, as Pam pointed out, but I always believed he believed she was worth it. Sure, I know they'll get back together in the end, but I wanna see how this plays out. This new character Denise may seem like a better match for Kermit on the surface, but I'm sure we'll discover something peculiar about her in time. Speaking of romance: Fozzie dating a human girl? This is one of those new changes I'm on the fence about. I'm not sure I wanna think about Muppet-human sex.

Other observations: If the characters-talking-to-the-camera moments are a reality-show-inspired trope from other sitcoms, I don't think it adds anything of great value here. I'd rather see more character interaction.... I can see I'm gonna have to bone up on some of these modern celebrities. I've never heard of the band Imagine Dragons, nor did their music strike me as a big deal. And I know Piggy is dating Josh Groban, but I don't know who he is either.... Gonzo seems much less wacky, and Scooter was much ruder! I couldn't believe the way he talked to and acted with Elizabeth Banks. That's not the Scooter I remember.... Will was right, Fozzie does come across like a Woody Allen character around his girlfriend, but he always did have a neurotic streak. Fozzie was always my favorite Muppet, so I am glad to see him growing out of his role as Kermit's sidekick.... Where was Walter from the recent movies? Not that I'm that excited about him, but I thought he was conspicuous by his absence.

Overall, The Muppets isn't bad, but there are some things that still rub me the wrong way. I just have to keep telling myself when I watch that it's 2015, not 1979. Maybe I won't make the adjustment, maybe I will. And if you think this sort of thing makes me cranky now, wait until The Peanuts Movie comes out this fall...

The 2011 Muppets movie
Muppets Most Wanted
The frog prince: the legacy of Jim Henson

Friday, September 18, 2015

Saul Bass

In high school, I took a class in advertising and graphic design. It was quite a challenge for someone unused to the rigors associated with the field. 

I came to think of it as something akin to making art with letters. 

There was an assignment in which we had to design a logo for a word that would illustrate its meaning at the same time - similar to what this guy does. The word I chose was "hydrant." In addition to freehand-ing the letters of a font I got out of a book, I substituted the "H" with an image of a dog lifting his leg next to a hydrant and it kinda sorta made the shape of the letter. 

When I got into making comics, I had to hand-letter word balloons and design sound effects and logos, before computer lettering became more common. The approach I took was what I thought was the simplest one: to leave space for the text at the top and bottom of each panel and use a T-square to rule each line of text evenly. I knew that it was important for people to be able to actually read my words, so I took the time to make sure it came out right. 

Sound effects and logos were harder. My first comic book series had two different fonts for the title (seemed like a good idea at the time) and I remember all the long hours spent at Kinko's trying to shrink them down to the right size, and then struggling to make them level with each other and with the cover. As you might imagine, this was long before I got the hang of Photoshop and how scanners work. 

All of this is my way of saying how much I appreciate the work of someone like Saul Bass. In a time where movie posters have become less and less imaginative and distinctive visually, his work, much of it made in conjunction with his wife Elaine Makatura, stands out now more than ever.

And of course, in addition to posters and title credits, he also designed some of the best known corporate logos in the world.

His work seems simple, but speaking as an artist, I can attest to the fact that you have to do a whole lot of drawing and sketching and playing around with images to get to that level of simplicity in the end. Don't be fooled by what you see on the surface.

The fact that Bass' influence is still felt in Hollywood today is a testament to his impact.

Next: Ruby Dee

Movies with titles and poster designs by Saul Bass:

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks   Gloria Swanson
Robert Wise

Monday, September 14, 2015

Robert Wise

The timing for this post on Robert Wise is fortuitous: his birthday was last Thursday (the 10th) and he died on this day ten years ago. Once again, I didn't plan it that way. Just happened.

Speaking of milestones, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Wise's film adaptation of The Sound of Music, and there have been quite a few events surrounding the musical. The cast reunited for a screening at this year's TCM Film Festival. Vanity Fair did a nice piece which includes interviews with stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. There's also a new stage production that has begun this month throughout North America. I have never seen The Sound of Music. It always struck me as looking too saccharine-sweet for my taste - but of course, I know the songs. Everyone knows the songs.

Looking over Wise's filmography, I'm surprised to see how much genre material he did - not just the ones about the alien and the robot, the haunted house, and the TV spaceship - but stuff like The Andromeda Strain, The Body Snatcher (Karloff & Lugosi!), and The Curse of the Cat People! Not exactly the kind of movies that one would expect from the director of two of the greatest movie musicals of all time, but it's cool that he had such a diverse range.

Did you know that Wise was the editor on Citizen Kane - and was Oscar-nominated for it? His film career began at RKO in the 30s, editing sound and music. He edited such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and My Favorite Wife before Orson Welles recruited him for KaneHe also edited The Magnificent Ambersons for Welles. Here's an article that goes into a little more depth about Wise's experience on Kane, which is notable for, among many other things, Welles' use of "deep focus," which brings the fore- and backgrounds into focus thanks to special lighting. Wise would adapt the technique for his own films. 

I wanna talk about one film of his that I've seen on TCM several times but I've never written about until now: an ensemble called Executive Suite. It's a very fine, underrated drama about the machinations within a corporate boardroom when its head unexpectedly kicks the bucket. The pivotal character belongs to William Holden, who has an opportunity to change the direction of the company for the better, but is opposed by competing forces with agendas of their own. I think it's one of his best roles. He also gets to share a scene with his old friend Barbara Stanwyck, for the first time since they starred together in Golden Boy, the film that put Holden on the map, thanks to Stany.

Wise does a great job at balancing several different plot lines with a wide range of stars, including Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters. It's not based on a play, but it could be; it has a bit of a theatrical touch. There's no score in the film, a rarity in an Old Hollywood movie, but it doesn't really need much of one. The performances carry the film. CBS tried to revive Suite as a TV series in the 70s, but it only lasted one season.

Despite directing two Best Picture winners and a number of other memorable movies, and especially considering his connection to Welles and Kane, Wise doesn't really get mentioned in the same breath as other Hollywood star directors like Hawks or Wilder or Lang, and I don't think anyone's ever called him an "auteur." (One day I'm gonna have to write about why I think that word is extremely overrated.) He's gotten his due from way more than just the Academy: the AFI, the Directors and Producers Guilds, the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics, etc., but I get the impression that he's not as big a household name as he should be. Maybe I'm wrong - but there's no doubt that his place in Hollywood history is secure.

Next: Saul Bass

Films by Robert Wise:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
West Side Story
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks   Gloria Swanson

Friday, September 11, 2015

So Big!

The William Wellman Blogathon celebrates the life and career of the director, hosted by Now Voyaging. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the website.

TCM viewing

I'm used to seeing Barbara Stanwyck playing urbane, brassy types in her pictures, so it was a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to see her playing a more demure, countrified woman in So Big! But that was part of her great gift - her ability to make a role hers, no matter where she was set or what kind of woman she portrayed.

Stany embodied the life of a young woman who comes to a small Midwestern town as a schoolteacher and lives her life there, marrying a farmer and becoming a farmer herself, raising a son and watching him become a success in the big city. The "old age" makeup they used on her was minimal, as far as I could tell, but it didn't matter, because I totally believed her as this woman, both young and old.

So Big! is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber. I was content simply following the life of Selina, the main character, but late in the movie, a theme tries to rear its head. Earlier, we see this teenage kid, a budding artist, with a crush on Selina. She likes him and his artwork. Selina's son Dirk, as an adult, aspires to be an architect at first, which totally excites her, but then he goes into selling bonds instead, and Selina gives him this cautionary speech about not turning his back on art and beauty or something like that, and it sounded kind of important at the time, but I couldn't really tell where it led to, or even if there was a payoff. Dirk gets an artist girlfriend, and at one point he asks her, "Do you want me to give up my job and go back to architecture?" and she says no, so I didn't really feel like his artistic soul was in jeopardy or anything like that, if that's what the screenplay was trying to go for.

To be honest, I wasn't paying as much attention to the story as I probably should have at this point because I was too preoccupied with OMG BETTE DAVIS IS IN A MOVIE WITH BARBARA STANWYCK ARE THEY GONNA SHARE A SCENE??? Bette was fourth-billed in the opening credits, so I can only assume this was made before she became BETTE DAVIS. I kept wondering when she'd pop up, and after she did - she plays the aforementioned artist girlfriend of grown-up Dirk - I wanted to see her and Stany in a scene together in the worst way. In the end, they do have a scene together - kind of. They're in the same room together, and Bette talks about her, but not to her. As scenes with acting legends go, it wasn't exactly De Niro and Pacino in Heat, but then again, Stany and Bette weren't quite legends yet. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.

As I watched this, I was reminded, however indirectly, of another Stany movie, Stella Dallas - and not just because of Alan Hale Sr. They're both tales of motherhood; there are instances in both movies where the child is embarrassed by the mother for one reason or another (Dirk is reluctant to talk about Selina's asparagus-farm-raising ways in one scene); the mothers' sacrifices for their children are held up as virtuous and heroic (though Stella is the more extreme example); and both films follow their protagonists for huge chunks of their lives.

Dickie Moore plays young Dirk. According to his autobiographical book about child stars, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Stany was his favorite movie mom.

I could go on and on about Stany, but this post is for a blogathon about the director, William Wellman, so it's time to say a few things about him. So Big! was one of five films Wellman made with Stany; the other four being Night Nurse, Lady of Burlesque, The Great Man's Lady and The Purchase Price. A leap-year baby, born on a February 29th, Wellman was as known for his service as a World War 1 pilot as for his film career. He learned to fly with the French Foreign Legion and ultimately flew for France in the war until he got shot down in 1918.

He was an acquaintance of Douglas Fairbanks, whom he met in his native Boston when he was younger, and it was through him that Wellman broke into Hollywood, first as an actor, and then in a variety of production roles before becoming a director for several studios. Wings was his breakthrough hit, made at the studio now known as Paramount - a movie he was uniquely qualified for due to his aviation experience. It would go on to become the first Best Picture Oscar winner, and the rest was history.

Other films by William Wellman:
Night Nurse
A Star is Born
Nothing Sacred

Friday, September 4, 2015

Raging Bull

Raging Bull
seen @ Central Park Conservancy Film Festival, Central Park, New York NY

You certainly don't need me to tell you how great an actor Robert De Niro is, but I haven't talked about him in detail here, so indulge me for a little bit. I don't remember the first movie I saw him in. Might've been The Untouchables. Might've been Midnight Run. Not sure which. I watched both of those movies on cable quite a bit as a kid. The big ones - Taxi Driver, Godfather 2, Mean Streets, and today's subject, Raging Bull - didn't come until later.

Is it possible we take physical transformations in actors for granted these days? Whether it's Christian Bale getting super-skinny for one movie and fat for another, or Nicole Kidman wearing a fake nose or Charlize Theron getting ugly, we may appreciate and celebrate actors who go the extra mile for a role, but it's fair to say that it's not as unusual anymore. It's hardly a new practice - Lon Chaney Sr. was probably the originator for this sort of thing in Hollywood movies - but you look at a movie like Bull and you see De Niro go from being a physically fit boxer in his prime to being fat and bloated in middle age and it still has the ability to amaze after all these years.

One can't talk about De Niro without talking about Martin Scorsese, and indeed, it's remarkable how time and again, the director has been able to summon personifications of the reckless, out-of-control human id in the form of De Niro, his greatest collaborator. De Niro's Jake LaMotta is possessive, ill-tempered and full of himself sometimes, but he's different from the psychotic Travis Bickle in Taxi or the delusional Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy. And yet the essential De Niro is recognizable from role to role. He's not like, say, Johnny Depp, who can disappear into a role, but that's okay. It's what makes him De Niro.

De Niro has gotten some flack in recent years for appearing in movies that would seem to be beneath him, but honestly, how many roles like Jake LaMotta are out there? More to the point, how many movies with characters like Jake LaMotta are being made by Hollywood these days? Not that the past fifteen years have been a total wasteland: of the ones I've seen, the original Meet the Parents was funny (can't speak for the sequels); and he was quite good in Silver Linings Playbook. Plus he had that cameo in American Hustle.

Bull looks like an Old Hollywood film, and not just because it's in black and white. Certain camera movements and compositions Scorsese makes throughout the film give it an old-school kind of feel to it. I've thought about whether or not Scorsese has an identifiable visual style. I think he does, but it's hard for me to pin down exactly. Bull looks different from GoodFellas, which looks different from The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think they all "feel" like his films to a certain extent. I dunno. I'd have to look at a bunch of his films all in a row to describe it better.

I saw Bull with John and Sue in Central Park. I had been there for movies before, but I had forgotten how much pre-show activity there was. There was a trivia contest, and some annoying local TV sports newscaster, all of which I could've done without. There was someone there from the Museum of the Moving Image, however. That wasn't so bad. Anything to promote Queens, after all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Love's labors, linked

Gonna have to cut back on posting this month in order to focus on my novel. I won't be entirely absent: I have a blogathon post in the works, plus another Battle Royal installment, and two more profiles, as per usual. I hope to also do one more Cinematic World Tour post; the movie I had planned to watch last month, Roman Holiday, was an outdoor movie held on a rooftop, and by the time I got to the venue, they had reached capacity and closed it off to any more spectators. A whole lot of people went to see that one. Anyway, last month's surge of activity was unexpected, to say the least, and next month will be devoted to classic horror, so now seems like the perfect opportunity to dial it back while I return to writing The Great American Novel.

A brief word about the late Wes Craven: The Elm Street movies were a part of my childhood, however small, and the Scream movies actually got me excited about the genre again, if only for a little while. I'm not as hardcore about horror as some, but if ever there were an auteur of the genre, Craven absolutely qualifies - and props to him for his forays outside the horror genre. Who would've thought, for example, that he'd make a movie with Meryl Streep? Or that she'd get Oscar-nominated for it?

Just a few links this month:

You MUST check out this poem Jennifer wrote about film noir.

Aurora files this report from the rare-film festival CapitolFest.

Will recalls the time he met the late Yvonne Craig.

Raquel reviews a book about a black actor with a difficult-to-appreciate career, to say the least: Stepin Fetchit.

Pam is astounded at the wacky commercials American movie stars and other celebs have made in Japan. (Warning: the Hulk Hogan one is an earworm.)

Ever wonder how the Marx Brothers got their nicknames?