Wednesday, December 28, 2016


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

I've spent the past three years struggling to write a novel about baseball. It really has been a struggle, too. Some days I think it's brilliant, other days I think it's a complete waste of time. I can write the stuff with pitching and batting and home runs and strikeouts, but tying it all to real, believable people, who laugh and cry and are virtuous and vicious, that's another story. I've written for much of my life, in one form or another, yet I feel like I don't know a thing about storytelling: the ability to create a narrative and sustain it, to find the ups and downs of human behavior and to end someplace different than where I began. Maybe I don't.

I chose baseball because I grew up with it, because I have strong feelings about it still, all these years later, even when I think I've outgrown it and it doesn't speak to me anymore. I chose it because I still stop and watch kids playing with aluminum bats on a neighborhood field, or softball teams from rival midtown businesses going at it in Central Park. I can't help but watch. It's my hope I can convey my feelings for the game, good and bad, within my novel. My writing group seems to think I'm on the right track, at the very least.

Then I see a movie like Fences and I'm ready to burn my manuscript. To call it a sports movie isn't really accurate; for all the talk of baseball (and football), the closest we come to it are passing shots of kids playing stickball in the street that have nothing to do with the story directly. 

Mostly, baseball is used as a metaphor to express the life and worldview of Denzel Washington's character Troy, a former Negro League player who never had the chance to cross over into Major League Baseball. Troy is a larger-than-life figure; a hard man, set in his ways, one who loves openly and freely, yet at the heart of him is a secret. Its revelation, as you might imagine, changes everything.

August Wilson's award-winning play is one part A Raisin in the Sun, one part Death of a Salesman. Like my novel, there's a family with issues, but seeing this story makes me believe I could push my characters' conflicts harder. A lot harder. See, as a writer, if you spend enough time with your characters, you start to like them. You want to protect them from harm. 

Like Troy says to his younger son, though, there's no law saying I have to like them. I do, however, have to be truthful to them, even if it means taking them places I don't want them to go. This movie reminded me of that. There are uncomfortable moments and harsh moments and WTF moments, but they all make for a better story, a more truthful story. That's something I've gotta try to remember with my novel.

One review I read thought Denzel might have given the best self-directed performance in film history. That got me thinking about which others could fall into that category: Chaplin in Modern Times; Welles in Kane; Olivier in Hamlet; Woody in Annie Hall; Costner in Dances with Wolves and Gibson in Braveheart. I think you'll agree those are all pretty monumental.

I can't imagine how hard it must be to not only direct yourself in a movie, but to do it in one where you're on the screen most, if not all, of the time. Directing requires a hyper-awareness of so many things at once: the film's tone; how little or how much you're getting out of the actors; the light, especially if you're outdoors; any potential distractions; scene continuity; the list goes on. Now throw your own performance, your interaction with the rest of the cast and whether you yourself are up to snuff, on top of all that. Is it any wonder Hitchcock stuck to cameos?

This is Denzel's third time in the director's chair, and in each of his films, he has played the starring role. Seeing actors direct themselves is no longer a novelty, but I think we've taken for granted how difficult it has got to be. 

In Fences, Denzel made it look easy. Yes, he performed the play on Broadway (and won the Tony for it), so he knows Troy inside out by now. Knowing how big this film had the potential to become, though, and is, he raised his game to another level - as if it wasn't high enough to begin with! 

Working once again with Viola Davis (someone get her a box of Kleenex already! She's always running her nose in movies), who appeared in the play with Denzel (and also won the Tony), must have been a big help. The rest of the cast is great, and if the film's stage origins are obvious, that's hardly a hindrance. This may be one for the ages.

I saw Fences on Monday, the 26th, the "observance" of Christmas Day, so it was like a holiday. The late afternoon show I had planned to attend at the Cinemart was sold out! Hadda get the next one. Again, though, it means the neighborhood supports this place. Given that the Cinemart has been on the comeback trail for the past couple of years, it's really good to see. On the down side, though, Assassin's Creed was playing next door and it was LOUD.

The audience, from what I briefly saw of it, was a mixture of black and white, but the black folks made their presence known, if you follow me. There were more than a few oh-my-gods and is-he-seriouses, and some you-go-girl-type applause in a key scene with Davis.

I just had to laugh. It had been awhile since I had seen a movie with a vocal audience of any kind, black or white. I admit, sometimes I miss it. Then again, several cell phones went off during the movie, so maybe I don't miss it that much!

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Christmas Wish

A Christmas Wish (AKA The Great Rupert)
YouTube viewing

Jimmy Durante was one of those people I'd see on TV as a kid, in one form or another, but never thought of as "real." It was as if he was a cartoon character: that nose, that voice, that routine. Even today, I find it somewhat hard to believe he was the kind of comedian to whom people turned for entertainment.

And yet, in my life I have been entertained by him. I saw him in The Man Who Came to Dinner and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He was the narrator of Frosty the Snowman. His voice and mannerisms have been parodied in cartoons I watched as a kid. Perhaps that's why he never seemed like a real person! Regardless, I think he's best appreciated in small doses.

Earlier this week, my friend Melissa alerted me on Facebook to a Durante movie she had re-discovered called A Christmas Wish, originally known as The Great Rupert. To call it a Christmas movie is a slight stretch: Act One takes place during the Yuletide season, but the story moves forward in time from there - though this is hardly the first Christmas movie with a slender connection to the holiday. I was one of several friends Melissa thought might find this interesting, so I decided to look at it for the heck of it.

Durante is the patriarch of a family of - what else? - vaudevillians. They've fallen on hard times, renting a run-down apartment secretly inhabited by a dancing squirrel. Yes, a dancing squirrel. He makes his unseen presence felt in the apartment in a way Durante and family mistake for divine intervention. The squirrel is responsible for a change in their fortunes, but of course, this leads to bigger problems.

Rupert, the squirrel in question, is a combination of live action and stop-motion animation that is somewhat less than Harryhausenesque in execution. Like the gopher in Caddyshack, he clearly has a personality of his own, though he's not as mischievous. His human owner features him in a stage act, but somehow this is not as big of a deal as perhaps it should be. Naturally, I'm reminded of that great Looney Tunes cartoon about the singing and dancing frog who only performs for one guy and no one else, no matter how badly the guy tries to cash in on him. Rupert and his master aren't like that, though.

Melissa was the one who first told me about The Room, so I had expected Wish to be, y'know, a total camp fest. Indeed, she said she had bought it on DVD years ago because it looked like crap ("It had a squirrel in a kilt on the cover!... How could I resist?"). Well, it's not great, that's for sure, but I didn't quite find it MST3K-level mock-worthy, either.

Is the acting bad? Yeah, especially the male romantic lead, but it's tolerable. Nothing about it made me want to yank my ears off or gouge my eyes out. Poor writing? Durante cracks plenty of bad jokes. The screenplay calls for some Character Induced Stupidity, with a rushed ending. It never quite sinks to Ed Wood levels of Bad, though, or So Bad It's Good. The cinematography is mostly stagey and pedestrian, but it's not like I expected Kubrickian levels of composition. And as for Durante's God-forbid-I-should-call-it-singing, I just fast-forwarded that.

Wish is milquetoast. It's harmless and inoffensive and not really worth making fun of in the end. Somehow, I find myself strangely disappointed by that, yet I can't call it a good movie either. I don't think I've ever reacted to a movie like this before. Odd.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

La La Land

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

I love my classic film blogger friends. I consider myself fortunate to have gotten to know these people through their writings about Old Hollywood, to have learned about movies through them. In the year I spent as one of them, I discovered some fundamental differences in philosophy between what I do and what they do. That's okay. I respect that difference. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling some of them are pretty resistant to modern movies.

Most of the time, yes, I get it: many of today's Hollywood movies are not made with the same attention to characterization, plot, composition, light and shadow, and sheer star power as those of the studio era (though in all fairness, they made their share of stinkers back then, too). Once in a blue moon, though, a new movie comes along that's clearly made with a love and appreciation of Old Hollywood and the way they made films then. This year alone, between Hail Caesar!Cafe Society and Allied, we've seen a fair amount of films either set in the studio era or made as if it was one.

La La Land is the best of them this year. It's certainly one of the best homages to Old Hollywood since The Artist. It's one I really hope the classic film bloggers will go see once it comes to their hometowns, maybe even write about if they're inclined.

They will find much in the movie for them. Not just the Old Movie Weirdo Easter eggs, of which there are lots, but the old-fashioned romance between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third movie together - does that make them a modern day Tracy and Hepburn?), approached as a modern movie, but with the feel of another era. I read one review comparing it to the films of Jacques Demy. I can see that: the bright colors, the location shoots, the downbeat (though not depressing) ending. I think Stanley Donen could've made this too, or Robert Wise.

It didn't feel like an all-the-way musical. The songs were pleasant, and I'm sure at least one of them will get Oscar nominated, but there were also long stretches without song and dance routines. Compare this to an adaptation from the stage and you'll see the difference.

Traditionally, musicals have a better balance of moments with and without singing. I would've liked another large-scale show-stopper similar to the opening number on the freeway, for example; maybe some more songs from supporting cast members besides John Legend, too. It's not a big deal. Seeing Gosling and Stone sing and dance (and play piano in Gosling's case) was enchanting enough.

La La Land is also a love letter to Los Angeles. I've never been there, but seeing this film really makes me want to go one day. Writer-director Damien Chazelle shows off the City of Angels, not just in the day and night, but the twilight as well, with deep, warm, glowing colors that almost don't seem real. And did I mention the impressive cinematography?

I admit, there are times when I find the term "feel-good movie" suspect. It can have the ring of lowest-common-denominator pap, which Hollywood is all too familiar with. Not this time. La La Land is feel-good in the best sense. Even the downbeat ending doesn't leave you sad or depressed. You leave with the sense things will be okay, in spite of everything. That's one message I find extremely welcoming.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Mein lieber herr, Sig Ruman

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

Okay, I was all set to write about the life and career of Sig Ruman, but it turns out there's not a lot of information on him out there. His IMDB and Wikipedia pages have the same handful of facts: born in Hamburg, Germany in 1884; studied electrotechnology (yes, that's a real thing; it's the science of the application of electricity in technology); fought in World War 1; appeared on Broadway before switching to movies. I looked through my Billy Wilder biography, but he's barely mentioned there. Ditto for my Ernst Lubitsch biography. I guess I kinda hoped there was more information available.

So what can we say about him? For one thing, he was totally typecast. He usually played the pompous European blowhard. He was good at it, though! His size (six feet even, says IMDB), combined with his voice, made him a forceful presence on the screen. At the same time, he could inject a certain amount of whimsy into his roles. He seemed intimidating at first, but not so much that Groucho Marx or Jack Benny or Peter Lorre couldn't take him down a peg or two.

Obviously, he was a go-to guy to play a Nazi. One wonders how he felt about that. We know he shortened his name from Siegfried so it wouldn't sound too German. As many movies as he made, though, I imagine he was simply eager to accept the work. Even a cinematic Nazi is better than the real thing.

Not too much more I can say. For a long time, he was "that German guy" who always popped up in 30s and 40s movies until I learned who he was. I always enjoy seeing him, whether he's doing comedy or drama, but especially comedy. I can't think of any modern actor comparable to him. Christophe Waltz isn't as physically big as Ruman, nor as buffoonish. Ruman, like so many character actors from his time, was an original.

Films with Sig Ruman:
Nothing Sacred
To Be or Not To Be
Border Incident
Stalag 17
One Two Three

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What Are Little Girls Made Of? Discovery has its lead

According to Entertainment Weekly, The Walking Dead star has captured the lead role in the upcoming series. [Sonequa] Martin-Green’s casting marks the first time an African-American woman has had the top role in a Star Trek series. As has been previously reportedDiscovery’s lead character holds the rank of Lieutenant Commander (with caveats) aboard the titular vessel. Deadline is reporting that her character’s name will be Lieutenant Commander Rainsford.

I have to admit, even though I knew the star of Discovery would be a relative unknown, this announcement still feels somewhat anticlimactic. Naturally, I wish the best for Sonequa Martin-Green (there's a name that'll take some getting used to), but I haven't seen her in The Walking Dead or anything else yet. I don't know how she'll do as the star of a new Trek series. Hopefully she'll do fine.

As I read about this last night, it hit me how different Discovery is going to be from its predecessors. I imagine this must have been how Trekkies felt about Deep Space Nine when it debuted. The difference for me was, Trek was still relatively new to me back then. Now, I guess you could say I have a more established idea of what Trek is "supposed" to be. Starting out with a lead character who's not the commanding officer feels very odd indeed, but hey, I'm willing to play along. It's not like I'm gonna see much of this show once it goes up behind the CBS paywall anyway...

Other cast members have been announced in the past few weeks. I know Anthony Rapp from Rent, of course. Very pleased to see him make Trek history as the first original gay character. Doug Jones was Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, so his casting leads me further to the belief his character will be a really weird looking alien, maybe a non-humanoid if they go the motion-capture route. And what would Trek be without Klingons?

Bryan Fuller has said Discovery is all about tolerance. If ever such a message was desperately needed, it is now. The next four years will put this idea through a great test, and I suspect it's gonna go through the wringer. People will need reminders of what it means to find common ground with those who are unlike themselves. Discovery should be well-suited to provide them. I wish everyone involved success... or as the Klingons say, Q'apla!

The Alternative Factor: Axanar and the nature of fan fiction
All Our Yesterdays: William Shatner's 'Leonard'
And the Children Shall Lead: two Nimoy docs
Errand of Mercy: Lin brokers Axanar settlement
Bread and Circuses: action Trek vs. mental Trek
A Piece of the Action: the new Trek fan film rules
Metamorphosis: Discovery to break the Trek mold
Return to Tomorrow: Star Trek at 50
The Way to Eden: Rod Roddenberry's quest for a better world
By Any Other Name: Yeoh joins Discovery cast

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


seen @ City Cinemas 123, New York NY

It's the end of the year, and once again, the studios wait until now to trot out all their prestige pictures; the ones they hope will win Oscars. They only do it this way so the Academy voters are less likely to forget these films. As a movie-goer, though, I've never liked this practice. I remember one year, back when I worked video retail, in which I watched five or six movies in one week during the Christmas/New Year's period. I'd never do that now, outside of a film festival.

If I were a studio head with a prestige film I thought could go all the way, I'd release it in July or August - perhaps after a world premiere at Cannes. Depending on how much positive buzz it got, I'd keep it in theaters for as long as possible, slowly expanding the screen count based on demand. Midnight in Paris followed that pattern, and look what happened: it got nominated for Best Picture. Obviously, you couldn't do that with every award contender, but at least it would loosen the three-month logjam we get every fall.

As it is, I've made peace with the fact that I can't see everything. I'm (mostly) content to use January to catch up on the good stuff released in December. Whatever I miss, I miss. I refuse to drive myself crazy trying to watch all the new movies. I bring this up more as a reminder to myself than anything else. Every so often I feel tempted to rush right out and binge.

It's particularly enticing when I've got friends with which I can go to the movies. I didn't want to wait for Jackie to come to the Kew Gardens, so I schlepped into the city instead, opting to go to the City Cinemas on Third to take advantage of their nine dollar matinee. I could've waited another couple of weeks, but I just had to see that film now!

This was the first time I saw a movie with Lynn, without the rest of the movie club. The experience wasn't too different. Through the years, Vija's friends have become my friends so easily. I've never felt uncomfortable around them despite the age differences.

Jackie is, of course, the story of former first lady Jackie Kennedy post-JFK assassination. The director is a foreign guy named Pablo Larrain. He and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim take a non-linear approach. I thought it worked well. I had expected to be unable to follow along, but I did. The format feels like memory, as Jackie relives the day of November 23, 1963, and what came immediately after, for a visiting reporter.

I was sold on this movie the first time I saw Natalie Portman was playing Jackie. It has been a pleasure watching her grow up through the movies. She has become a superb actress, one who recently added writer and director to her resume as well. At this point I'd have to say Oscar number two for Best Actress is hers to lose.

Seeing Jackie with Lynn gave me the added advantage of having someone to talk to about the Kennedy assassination who was alive when it happened. In those pre-24-hour news channel days, everyone was glued to the TV to find out what was going on. Apparently, it wasn't immediately apparent JFK was dead at first. That information wasn't released until hours later. She remembered Walter Cronkite shedding a tear. 

Lynn liked the movie but was surprised Jackie was portrayed as being so alone, relatively speaking. Bobby Kennedy was there, obviously, but in the film there was no one from the Bouvier family depicted.

Afterwards, we had lunch at a fancy pizza restaurant around the corner from the theater. It was pretty cold out and I don't think either of us wanted to walk very far to eat. It was the kind of place where they serve you the pizza pie on a tray raised up off of the table. It was a nice day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Books: Moviola

I found Moviola purely by chance: digging through the bargain bins outside the Strand in Manhattan. It was night. I was on the phone with Vija, walking through the East Village until I headed west and stopped at the bookstore. I hadn't planned to go there; I just wanted to do something other than walk while I was talking. I told her about the book when I found it and she agreed with me that it was worth getting, especially for only two bucks.

Anyone familiar with Old Hollywood, not to mention old Broadway, will know the name Garson Kanin: screenwriter of such great films as Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, and It Should Happen to You, among others, some in collaboration with his wife Ruth Gordon; playwright of Born Yesterday, which made Judy Holliday a star; author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. His credentials are legit, is my point. Keep that in mind.

In 1979, he released a novel called Moviola, an alternate history of Hollywood through the eyes of a prominent film producer. Many superstar actors, directors and producers appear in the story, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer, Rene Clair and many more.

Ben, the protagonist, tells his life story as an old man to a younger man, sent as an emissary of a foreign businessman intent on buying Ben's studio. The film industry of the present, the late 70s - the so-called "New Hollywood" that, in the notorious words of Dennis Hopper, vowed to "bury" their predecessors - is held in contrast to its forebears as we follow Ben, from his beginnings as a Jewish immigrant to his modest career as an exhibitor to his move west to become a producer, and the many lives he touches along the way.

Garson Kanin
Kanin obviously knew many people within Hollywood. His knowledge is put to good use here. When he puts words into the mouths of people like Fatty Arbuckle, John Garfield or Joan Crawford, they have an air of authenticity. If Kanin didn't know these people directly, he knew their history, long before there was an IMDB or a Wikipedia for him to access. He combines fact and fiction, weaving Ben in and out of these people's lives, exerting his influence to various degrees, though not enough to radically change the history we know to be true.

That said, while I appreciated this dramatization of the lives of so many key Hollywood players, I didn't love this book. Kanin's writing style defies basic storytelling rules I've spent the last three years years attempting to understand as I'm writing my own novel. He switches tenses, past to present and back to past again, often within the same chapter. He switches point-of-view. At first, Guy, the man to whom Ben tells his story, narrates Moviola, speaking in the first person. Then the POV switches to that of Ben, in the third person, not just for the flashbacks, but for the present-day narrative too. Then there are scenes set in the past which presuppose knowledge Ben couldn't know firsthand, even though he's clearly the one telling the story. It made reading the book frustrating.

When I told Sandi about Moviola, she suggested no one called Kanin on these things because he was Garson Kanin, Hollywood screenwriter. I suppose that's possible. If so, that's unfortunate, but if not, I couldn't for the life of me understand why he chose to write this way. Sandi also said in plays and screenplays, such literary mistakes would not be easily caught. Does that mean he didn't know any better? I sincerely doubt that. Regardless, it marred what should have been a great read.

Moviola was adapted into a three-part TV mini-series in 1980. It was actually three two-hour movies, based on three sections of the book: Garbo and Garfield, the casting call for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, and Monroe. I can't tell from this article if the character of Ben even appears in the TV movies or not.

So that's that. Oh yeah, one more thing about my used copy of Moviola, found completely by chance in a bargain bin...

"2.xi.79 Dear Jill - Who took that goddam picture? Much love, Gar (?) NYC"'s autographed.

UPDATE 10.30.17: I've just read this and now I wish I hadn't gotten rid of this book because I have a feeling I should probably read it again.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Lust for Life

The Kirk Douglas Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of the actor-producer on the centennial of his birth, hosted by Shadows and Satin. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Lust for Life
library rental

When I ran a Google search on the name Vincent van Gogh, I was surprised at the number of recent articles about or related to him. For instance: there's a new book out containing previously-unseen drawings of his that some people say are fakes. Another new book about the 19th-century Dutch painter claims he cut off his ear because his brother Theo was getting married. A third new book claims the Metropolitan Museum of Art's VVG painting is fake too. Plus, there's an upcoming VVG biopic requiring over 60,000 original oil paintings to animate.

Over a century after his death, the strange life and brilliant career of VVG continues to captivate modern art lovers and incite discussion. Despite his talent, the dude had some serious mental issues. He was the original tortured artist. The theories as to why he was the way he was abound: he was bipolar; he was epileptic; he was a mama's boy; etc. It's unlikely we'll ever know the truth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

I haven't talked about the Kew Gardens Cinemas in awhile. They recently upgraded the theater, installing a bunch of video screens everywhere: for "coming soon" displays, the box office listings, the menu, and even the individual theaters. All this new technology has meant a slight increase in admission prices, but they're still way cheaper than Manhattan. Plus, I can see where my money's going.

I went to the Kew on a Sunday for a change (before going to my writers group) to see Manchester by the Sea. Imagine my surprise when I saw a line to get in that went out the door and around the corner! Now, by Manhattan standards, this isn't as impressive as it sounds. Besides, the Kew is located very close to the corner of the block. Still, I took it as a sign that the neighborhood supports this place, which is always great to see. For a moment, I felt like I was at Film Forum or the Angelika.

Manchester played in Theater 3, the big auditorium. I was worried I might not get a ticket, but I did, and wouldn't you know it, the house was packed. I had to take a nostril seat in the front row. The movie didn't have many really tight close-ups, though, so this time I didn't have the sensation of staring up Casey Affleck's nostril.

The start was delayed in order to seat everybody. I took advantage by going back to the crowded lobby for some (unsalted) popcorn. As I waited on line, I heard them announce Manchester was sold out, though there were about five or six empty seats to my right and one to my left. Still, I'm glad I arrived in time.

Manchester is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who made a splendid movie called You Can Count On Me way the hell back in 2000, and another one, Margaret (which I missed), five years ago. Mostly he works as a writer. Affleck is a Boston janitor who becomes a surrogate parent to his nephew after his father, Affleck's brother, dies. Affleck, however, isn't cut out for the job due to long-simmering issues of his own.

Is it possible Casey's a better actor than his brother Ben? He's terrific in this one. He's been quietly building up an impressive array of roles in films like Gerry and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, though to me he'll always be Patrick Kenzie in Gone Baby Gone.

This movie is a showcase for him. His character Lee is wound tighter than a drum and has serious anger management issues as a result of something that happened years ago. He:s never been able to make peace with that incident, which has meant his relationships with other people are hampered. The introduction of his nephew Patrick does little to nothing to change that state. Don't expect a happy ending.

As well written, acted and directed as Manchester is, though, I can't say it moved me the way, say, Moonlight did. I'm glad I saw it, but I suspect the mountain of hype behind this movie, the tons of critical praise it has received, led me to think it was gonna be spectacular when I just found it very good.

I'm kinda glad I sat where I did. There were more than a few people shushing each other in the upper rows behind me. It's funny, when I saw Allied, the relatively small audience made the talkers' voices stand out more. Here, at a packed house, I can't say I noticed any problem talkers, but that may have been because I was in the front row.

I didn't get a good look at the crowd, but I'm pretty sure it was mostly older (though not necessarily old) people. I don't wanna make a big deal of this, though; who knows what hearing problems may be at play I don't know about? I'm just glad I wasn't disturbed by the audience.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Books: Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star (audio)

Earlier this year, Jacqueline was kind enough to send me a gratis copy of the audio book version of her recent biography Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star. This was my first audio book. I have noticed the recent growth in popularity of the medium, though I suppose I used to think they were for either blind people or folks too lazy to read or something. I mean, I feel funny even calling it a "book." Still, these things sell, so there must be something to them.

Blyth the audio book is narrated by Toni Lewis, a TV actress. I have not seen her in anything. She has a pleasant voice, well suited for this line of work.

I don't know if this is normal in audio books, but here Lewis makes an effort to "get in character" a number of times throughout the reading. She clearly adopts a different type of voice for Blyth - a little lighter, a little gentler. When reading newspaper reviews, she talks a little faster, more hyperbolically, as if she was in a Jimmy Cagney movie. She even attempts accents for people such as Blyth's Irish mother, though they're not very pronounced. The experience is not unlike listening to an old-time radio drama.

Those who followed Jacqueline's blog in 2014 will recognize the chapters here as having been adapted and polished from the blog and put in chronological order, covering the whole of Blyth's life and career, including her work on stage and television. There are even testimonials from other film bloggers. The whole thing is as comprehensive as one can imagine. One can only hope Blyth herself (or her children) gets to see this before she shuffles off this mortal coil.

Pearls = classy.
If there's a criticism, it does not stem from the writing and it's certainly not serious. After awhile, I kinda got a bit weary of hearing how great a person Blyth is! That's a terrible thing to say, but I can't help it: she has lived, by all accounts, a good life, which is commendable, but one almost suspects it's too good to be true, especially for a Hollywood star.

We have come to practically demand scandal from our celebrities. As a biographer, of course you want to present your subject in the best possible light, but as a reader, you tend to wonder: where's the struggle with alcohol? The abusive parent? The bitter spouse?

It's possible in ten years, another biography will be more forthcoming - assuming there's anything more to be found. I can't imagine another biography being more complete. For now, though, Blyth is a thorough, respectful and insightful portrait of a woman who succeeded in Hollywood on her terms, written by an author who loves old movies.

[Edited 12.5.16]
Meet Me in Nuthatch

Saturday, December 3, 2016


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

As much as Robert Zemeckis loves making movies with spectacular visual effects, you'd think he'd be a geek icon on the level of Cameron, Jackson, Lucas and Spielberg. I think he comes close. He did make the Back to the Future trilogy, after all. I'm not sure. I'm not as in tune to geek culture as I once was. I know seeing his name on a movie means something to me. That's why I went to see Allied. I was gonna pass on it until I saw it was his film. Ironically, it's one of his rare movies that's not an obvious special effects extravaganza. 

I still remember the first time I saw Forrest Gump. It was mind-boggling. How'd they make it look, I thought at the time, like Tom Hanks was interacting with Nixon and John Lennon and other people from the past? How'd they make it look like Gary Sinise really lost his legs? I couldn't begin to figure it out. It was so new and different. Moments like that are what keeps me going to the movies - that hope I'll see something like that.

I wouldn't say Allied had comparable moments, but for what it was, it was worth the price of admission. Seeing Brad Pitt in period clothes, in a period setting, reminds me once again that he would have been an A-level star in any time period. This film does have an Old Hollywood feel to it, which seems intentional. It's as if Zemeckis sought to remind us of a time when stars carried a movie - glamorous people doing exciting things.

Was it only a few days ago I was lamenting the inability of today's leading men to love a woman in the movies? Allied has romance to spare. In fact, it's what Jeanine Basinger would call a "marriage movie." The love between Pitt and Marion Cotillard, cemented with the birth of their child, is the point of the movie, something I forgot when trying to figure out if she was a Nazi double agent or not. It was nice to see in a big Hollywood movie again. Would that we could see it more often.

I saw Allied with a small late-afternoon audience of mostly old people. I know this because they talked. Not enough to make me want to beat them over the head for it, but enough to be noticeable. In one early scene, Pitt and Cotillard are talking softly; some dude across the aisle actually yelled, "Louder!" as if there was a problem with the audio. (There wasn't.) Several rows behind me, two or three other seniors periodically felt the need to comment on the action. I arrived late, like after the title card (yet another movie without opening credits), so I kinda felt, in a way, like I had no right to complain. If they had been more chatty, however, things would be different.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Roguish links

Let's call it like it is: this has been an ugly, ugly year. I don't hold out much hope for 2017, either. All I can say at this point is the same thing people in many cultures, from many walks of life, have been saying for thousands of years. Marvin Gaye put it quite nicely: "War is not the answer. Only love can conquer hate."

It hasn't been all bad, though. Sure, I had to spend time in the hospital way back in February, but that has lead to a dramatic change in my life, in which I've eaten better, lost weight, and discovered a talent for cooking I never dreamed I possessed. I can guarantee you I feel better physically today, as I write this, than I did a year ago. I'm grateful for that, and for the wave of support I've received from my friends who have encouraged, advised and cheered on my culinary activities. Sure hope I can keep it going...

In other news: November was a huge month for the blog. Mostly on the strength of the Trek posts from September, I got my second-highest monthly pageview count ever. Ever! So thank you for that. I knew people would still read those posts, but at this rate? Awesome.

Two blogathon posts this month, plus the final part in my series on Star Trek today, plus a couple of book reviews, and a fair amount of new movies to talk about. If you like what you're reading, let me know.

Just a few links this month:

In the face of a bleak four years to come, Jennifer suggests watching these movies.

If I had known there was another Imaginary Film Blogathon, I would've totally taken part. Here's a post I liked: Phyllis reimagines Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory as a 40s film about Communists.

Ivan examines a new Blu-ray of Orson Welles' Macbeth.

Not movies, but notable anyway: Paddy comes clean about her recent health problems.

Aurora imagines classic film characters running the country.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Penny Serenade

The Cary Grant Blogathon celebrates the life and career of the classic film star, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the website.

Penny Serenade
YouTube viewing

Watch enough movies and listen to enough music and sooner or later, you'll start to imagine what a soundtrack to your life might sound like. Many of us program our iPods with certain songs we play over and over, or fine-tune our Pandora or Spotify playlists for that perfect selection of tracks. What I'm talking about is similar, only the songs represent specific times and places in your life. Since we're all the stars of our own personal movies, it follows that they need killer soundtracks, right?

I have given this some thought, as you might imagine. One day I'll make up some excuse to name my ideal soundtrack, but not today. I will say that it includes a little bit of everything: Motown and country for my parents, disco for my sister, Top 40 for my junior high years, classic rock for high school, grunge for college - though beyond that point, the timeline of my life will get older, and so will the songs!

I've even toyed with the thought of starting a second blog for this purpose: to talk about music the way I talk about movies, with less critical discourse and more personal meditations. Nick Hornby released a volume called Songbook, which collects a bunch of essays he wrote about individual songs and his unique relationship with them. He can talk critically about music, and at times in the book, he does, but he spends more time discussing memories, feelings and thoughts associated with the songs he's chosen. If I were to start a music blog, I would want it to read like this, though I'm not half the writer or critic Hornby is. Maybe after I finish the novel? I dunno.

Penny Serenade plays with the personal soundtrack idea (though I doubt they called them soundtracks in 1941, the year this movie was released). In the beginning, the marriage of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne is about to end. Dunne is ready to leave him for good, but before she does, she goes through her record collection. Each song she plays triggers a memory of their relationship, and that's how we learn what brought us to this point. It's not a bad storytelling device, though after awhile, you start to wonder when she's gonna finish and leave already.

This movie earned Grant the first of his two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, without a win. Hard to believe, isn't it? One of American cinema's greatest, most iconic, most versatile leading men never got nominated for The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, Suspicion, or North by Northwest, much less won. I'd say it's the curse of the pretty-boy actor (see also: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp), but it's hard to say for sure. Leonardo DiCaprio did finally win the Best Actor Oscar, after all, so maybe there's hope.

From Grant's first scene, we can tell his performance in this movie, about a young couple's quest to have and raise a child, is different. We remember Grant as the suave, debonair man-about-town who's smooth with the ladies, yet not afraid to take a pratfall or two sometimes. The Grant in Serenade is, in general, quieter, more down-to-earth, and more emotionally vulnerable.

A few years ago, I tried to speculate why today's leading men avoid romantic movies like the plague. I cited Grant as an example from the past of an actor as convincing making love to a woman as when he's doing other things in the movies. In Serenade, he doesn't court Dunne as a sophisticated ladies man; he does it in an almost introverted way. He buys a bunch of records in the record shop she works in, even though he doesn't have a player, just so she can wait on him and they can talk longer.

Because this is Grant and Dunne, you expect some silly antics or witty banter, but they play it straight. Throughout the movie, Grant expresses his love for Dunne, in words and deeds, with a naked sincerity and passion rarely seen in today's leading men when their characters have wives or girlfriends...

...and that love is extended to their adopted child. Indeed, director George Stevens goes to great lengths to portray the reality of parenting: the hard work, the constant worry, the sacrifice, and how it can cause problems in a marriage. There's one extended diaper-changing scene, shot in real time with very limited cuts. Dunne is frustrated and nervous over the procedure, but Edgar Buchanan is calmly confident. I found it interesting that Dunne's character was so gung-ho about having a child, yet so clueless about how to care for it also. It's the sort of thing that makes you think parenting might not be for everyone...

Serenade isn't perfect. Spoilers for a 75-year-old movie to follow: in the scene that undoubtedly clinched the Oscar nod for Grant, he pleads with a judge to let him keep his adopted daughter. The judge insists it's a matter of law, but in the very next scene, there's Grant with the baby, happy and smiling. So much for the law! Also, it was shot from too far a distance. We really need to see Grant's face in close-up and we don't.

It doesn't matter, though, because later on, the child dies - off-screen! We find out in a letter Dunne writes to adoption agent Beulah Bondi, only Dunne's handwriting is a little on the fancy side. I had to stop the movie several times to read her letter! The death drives Grant and Dunne apart, but it's okay; Bondi finds a new baby for them at the last minute before they can break up. Hooray! Whatever.

Still, it's a good movie overall and a rare chance to see Grant not be Grant in a movie. Sort of.

Other Cary Grant movies: