Monday, January 30, 2017

The Major and the Minor/Monkey Business (1952)

The Major and the Minor
TCM viewing

Monkey Business (1952)
YouTube viewing

I don't think I really began to appreciate Ginger Rogers until I started seeing her films independent of Fred Astaire. I knew she had made plenty of movies without him, but it's difficult to think of her as something besides one half of the greatest dance team in film history.

Truth is, she was a dynamite comedic actress who won an Oscar for drama (of course). I hadn't planned on watching two of her films so close to each other, but since I did, I figured I might as well talk about them. In both films, she gets to act like a child.

The Major and the Minor was the directing debut of Billy Wilder. Rogers is trying to take the train home from New York, only she doesn't have enough money. In a desperate ploy, she dresses up as a kid so she can pay a reduced fare. While on the train, she meets Ray Milland, a military officer, and falls for him. He, however, thinks she's only a kid.

I had always thought this premise was way too wacky and unbelievable for even the great Wilder. I was prepared to lower my expectations. This one holds up, though, silly as it is, because of Rogers. As an adult masquerading as a child, she doesn't try to oversell the role. The comedy comes from her interactions with Milland and others, including an actual teenage girl who sees right through her ruse, and an assortment of military academy cadets vying for Rogers' affections.

None of this should work, but Rogers' character combines world-weariness and desperation with charm and spunk. She makes the whole thing watchable. Wilder fans will recognize the Swiss watch-like nature of his screenplay, with Charles Brackett, in which jokes are set up and paid off further down the line and simple things are expressed in more sophisticated ways.

Monkey Business is a Howard Hawks flick, co-written by frequent Wilder collaborator IAL Diamond. This one's much sillier. Rogers is the wife of scientist Cary Grant, who's working on some manner of pep pill that he has been testing on lab monkeys. One of them sneaks out of his cage and fiddles around with the formula. The resulting mixture works too well: it makes people as spry and energetic as kids. Predictable hijinks ensue as a result.

Unlike Major, Rogers really cuts loose while acting child-like under the formula's influence. She was 41 when she made this; it's not the kind of role you'd expect for an older actress, but Rogers is more than game. Apparently, she insisted on having her character expanded in this way. She has great chemistry (so to speak) with Grant as well, although the scenes where they act like kids are pretty over the top.

One year before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire vaulted her into superstar status, Marilyn Monroe has a thankless role as a secretary who spends a day with Grant while he's under the formula's spell. She shows off her legs in one scene and we see her in a swimsuit in another.

The scene where the monkey mixes the formula was done in mostly one long take. I don't recall seeing a credit for "monkey trainer" or anything like that, but whoever worked with that monkey did a fine job with him. It reminded me a bit of the scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar discovers the chemical that makes apes smart for the first time. No, he wasn't a real monkey, but so what? Anyway, the one in Business was fun to watch.

Friday, January 27, 2017

20th Century Women

20th Century Women
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Looking back at the new releases for 2016 that I saw, one trend that sticks out is that of senior leading ladies in starring roles: Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky; Sally Field in Hello My Name is Doris, Susan Sarandon in The Meddler, and now Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. In fact, when I first saw the trailer for this one, my first reaction was omigod, Bening's old! I suppose it's always a bit of a shock to realize your favorite movie stars, or any celebrity you've seen in the public eye long enough, may still be glamorous, but are no longer young. I've talked about this feeling here before; I've even devoted a blogathon to great performances by actors 50 and over.

Regardless, Bening is terrific in this semi-autobiographical tale from Beginners director Mike Mills. She's the divorced mother of a teenage son in the 70s. She fears losing touch with him as he grows up, so she turns to the closest role models available for help: his teen gal pal and the 30ish woman boarding in their house. They both strive to teach him how to be a woman's idea of a man.

I had both my parents around for my childhood, but over the past decade-plus of my life, the vast majority of my friends have been women: many of my close comics friends; Vija and her circle; Bibi; Jen; Sandi; and of course, most of my blogger friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether or not that's coincidence. I don't think I consciously seek women companions over men. I certainly didn't when I started film blogging, for example, and yet they're the ones I've been drawn to most, especially older women, to bring it back to that theme. Granted, the overwhelming majority of bloggers I've encountered have been female - don't know why that is - but even if the reverse were true, I think, though I'm not certain, I might still gravitate towards them.

In that sense, I suppose that makes me similar to the character Jamie, learning from the women who just happen to be around him. I don't feel like less of a man because of it. Romantic failures aside, I feel like I've learned things from them that I wouldn't from other men, as they, hopefully, have learned from me. Of course, that doesn't mean I fully understand them, but what man truly does?

What I liked about Mills' screenplay is his concision. He knows when to sustain dialogue within a scene and when to provide the bare minimum necessary, which could be no more than one or two lines. I recently talked about brevity while critiquing someone in my writers group. It's a problem I'm encountering with my novel - giving too much detail when it's not necessary - so it's something with which I'm becoming aware.

Mills' compositions, his experimentation with film speeds, his use of vignette-like shots in character moments, and even his occasional use of text, all remind me of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like PTA, Mills is good with balancing an ensemble of actors, all of whom fill niches within the story. He's a bit less showy when it comes to the actors. I could not imagine him writing a character like Frank TJ Mackey from Magnolia, or Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but that's okay. Not everybody can.

Women was a pleasant surprise. I knew it'd be good, but I didn't expect to be drawn into it as deeply as I was.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Blah blah blah Oscar 2016

For Best Picture:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

The rest.

You might have noticed that I don't follow the Oscar race all that closely anymore. I guess I've finally wised up to the fact that it's all a crapshoot, a popularity contest, that has no real meaning to my life and only rarely awards the truly worthy, and trying to predict who will win is not worth the hassle. That said, it is still, y'know, THE OSCARS, and as such, I can't help but pay attention. So while I'm no longer gonna bother with predictions and such, this is me paying lip service to the whole dog and pony show.

Mel Gibson made a movie? This is how far out of the loop I am; this is still news to me. I guess all is forgiven with him. He's back, and in a big way. I read about Hacksaw Ridge the other day; it sounds like Gary Cooper in Sergeant York all over again. I read a lukewarm review of Ridge that noted how for a movie about a non-violent man, it sure is violent. Whatever, I guess.

I'm glad it's popular and successful, but Hidden Figures is not Best Picture-worthy. I'm sorry. Certainly not compared to Loving, which was snubbed (except for Ruth Negga; good on her), or 20th Century Women; I saw that one last night and I found it remarkable.

I am pleasantly surprised to see Hell or High Water made it in. This was absolutely one of the best films I saw last year, but I didn't expect it to get anything more than a Screenplay nod, which it did get as well.

Arrival continues the trend of sci-fi/fantasy films getting Best Picture love (Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, Hugo, Inception, District 9), which may be because in spite of everything, good sci-fi/fantasy films are still being made. And yay for Bradford Young getting a well-deserved cinematography nod; I predicted his future greatness on this very blog five years ago!

Kubo and the Two Strings for Animated Feature; definitely deserved... Yay for Ava DuVernay's 13th making the cut for Documentary Feature... I'll have more to say about 20th Century Women on Friday, but I'm glad Mike Mills' screenplay made it in. Annette Bening was totally snubbed... Perhaps I'll go see Lion. That's another one that flew under my radar... Star Trek Beyond for Makeup!

So, yeah, the Oscars; very nice, very nice. I'm sure La La Land will clean up here like it did at the Globes. Either that or Manchester.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Your movie poster sucks

I've been wanting to do this for awhile because someone should. I've talked before about how living in New York means being constantly surrounded by movie (and TV) posters. I get to look at them a lot, on a daily basis. As someone trained in the visual arts, I can't help sizing them up as works of art, as well as how effective they are in selling movies. I think you can guess what I think of most of them.

Yes, I understand many other factors go into making a movie poster, not the least of which includes what the studios think is most marketable. I'm sure it's a long, careful process that isn't approached lightly and I believe those who make them are professionals. That said, some of them could be better designed. So let's look at some recent ones.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hidden Figures

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

Math was probably as intimidating to me as it was to most people in high school. I remember taking pre-Calculus in my freshman year because I actually did fairly well in math in junior high. This, however, was entirely different. I don't remember a thing I learned in the class. I struggled with it the entire semester. I don't know how I passed with a 65 but I did, and once I was done, I never wanted to see it again. To this day, I don't know why I had to take that class.

When I was an upperclassman, I had a scheduling snafu one semester and I was stuck in a class called Computer Math. It might have been the first class in which I used a computer (it was probably a Mac), but it was a remedial course. I clearly didn't belong, but as much as I tried, I couldn't get out, so I made the best of it. The teacher knew I didn't belong there, too, and was sympathetic. There was even a cute girl I helped out within the class. All things considered, I didn't have too bad a time there.

Basic math is easy once you grasp it, but the really tough stuff, the material involving square roots and fractions and letters, well, that requires an exceptional level of intelligence. I mean, I have to have a chart taped to the inside of my kitchen cabinet to remind me of measurements and half-measurements. There's no way I could nail down all those fancy algebraic equations.

For a long time, those who can were mocked as nerds. That's changing, though; we're starting to see more stories, across multiple media, in which that kind of intelligence is well-regarded, even glamorized, to an extent.

Hidden Figures is the latest example, and it is particularly noteworthy because it involves black people, black women, to be precise. It's the true story of a trio of mathematicians who were instrumental in helping put the late John Glenn into outer space during the height of the Cold War.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are not presented here as what you might call "nerds." The movie, in fact, goes to great lengths to present them as ordinary women in spite of their great skill with numbers, albeit women who had to live with institutional racism on a daily basis, like all black Americans in the early 60s.

The whole nerd stereotype almost never included black people when I was growing up, except perhaps for Urkel from Family Matters. That never bothered me back then. Nerds were uncool, after all. During my years in the comics industry, I met a number of black creators and fans who probably wouldn't object to the term now, not because they're exceptionally intelligent, but because of a change in the zeitgeist.

As a result, though, I became a little more aware whenever I saw an above-average smart black person in the movies, especially when race wasn't a factor. The Martian had one, for a recent example. Joe Morton in Terminator 2 is another one. The character Theo in Die Hard is yet another. In addition, someone like Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a surprisingly popular real-life figure.

As a movie, Figures was pretty conventional and by-the-numbers. It was easy to figure out what would happen and how, and once again this was a movie in which the editor had way too much of a free hand. That doesn't matter as much, though, as the subject. Knowing these super-smart black women existed, and made a difference, is more important. Now they, too, are part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Vija came out to Kew Gardens in the snow to see this with me, although we had gotten all the white stuff the previous day, a Saturday. By Sunday, the roads had been cleared pretty good and the trains had no abnormal delays (relatively speaking, of course). The Kew wasn't nearly as crowded as it was the last time I went there for a Sunday matinee, to see Manchester by the Sea, but by the time Figures ended, the lobby was much busier, so I guess the weather wasn't much of a deterrent.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Made For Each Other

The Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of the actress, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

Made For Each Other
YouTube viewing

As I watched Made For Each Other, I couldn't help drawing comparisons to Penny Serenade, which I saw weeks ago. They're both ordinary, down-to-earth tales of married couples trying to start families and sustain their relationships amidst the travails of pre-war life. Compared to modern movies, it's surprising to see such care and detail applied to stories like these without some kind of "hook" attached - and I don't even mean magic or aliens or superpowers; more like the wacky best friend, or the wacky scheme that grows out of control.

There are a few important structural differences. Unlike Penny, Made forgoes the courtship period between Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard and begins with the two of them already married, after an unusually brief whirlwind acquaintance. Made places a greater emphasis on outside pressures, in the form of Stewart's boss, Charles Coburn, and his mother, Lucille Watson (no relation), threatening the stability of the marriage. The former doesn't really appreciate Stewart and the latter doesn't really appreciate Lombard.

Both films, though, emphasize long-term career issues for the husbands and domestic difficulties for the wives. I found it interesting that Lombard gives up her career goals to become a wife and mother without any complaints. They could've used the extra income later on when they have money problems.

Speaking of which: Lombard's a housewife and Watson lives with them, yet Stewart throws away dough on a maid? Several, in succession, in fact? No wonder they have money problems! At first, I thought they were upper-class because of Watson's proper enunciation and bearing, but they weren't. Poor acting choice there.

Starting a family is a big deal in both films, but Penny places a greater emphasis on this plot point. For Cary Grant & Irene Dunne, the success or failure of their marriage is directly tied to their ability to have and raise a child. This is not nearly as true in Made; having a child feels more like a natural outgrowth of events as they progress.

Both films place the child in jeopardy (spoilers to follow). In Penny, the child gets sick and dies off-screen. Her death is not as important as Grant & Dunne's reaction to same. In Made, the child's sickness is played for MAXIMUM GRIEF: the shocking discovery; the tears, Lombard's, anyway - Stewart's tears are implied but not shown, because, y'know, he's a man (in contrast to Grant's "Please let me keep my baby" scene in Penny); the desperate search for a cure; even the daring cross-country plane trip through inclement weather with the serum that'll save Junior - I mean, it's shameless how this film milks the suspense down to the wire.

Sociologically, these films, and others from around the same period such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and the Andy Hardy moviesrepresent detailed glimpses of the kind of life Americans aspired to before World War 2 flipped the script. No mention is made of the Depression in either Penny or Made; the hard times the characters suffer have no relation to the national economic conditions, or to the slowly-building European conflict. In that sense, these films are idealized, but it was probably as comforting to audiences of the day as your average MGM musical.

While I can't say I loved either movie that much, I think I give the very slight edge to Penny. Grant & Dunne's relationship seemed a touch more complex than that of Stewart & Lombard. Plus, I liked the use of music as a storytelling device. Made seemed more straightforward by comparison.

Other films by Carole Lombard:
Nothing Sacred
To Be or Not To Be

Saturday, January 14, 2017


seen @ AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

The day I left my apartment to go see Silence, a woman got on the elevator with me. I had never seen her before. It was a cold day, and we were both bundled up pretty good. For no reason I can think of, she said, "It can't be too bad out there." I shook my head, agreeing with her, not wanting to get into an idle chat about the weather. Then she said something like, "Jesus never gives us more than we can handle," which led to a few more statements about how Jesus is great and so forth.

She looked at me as if expecting me to agree, but of course I would do no such thing. I said nothing. Too many times in the past, I had let myself get drawn into theological debates with Jesus freaks. They always end up the same way; at an impasse. The worst part is, I didn't say or do anything that would prompt her to start proselytizing. Then again, people like her rarely need a reason.

Near the subway, there were more like her. Most of the time, the religious types I see in this part of town fall into one of three categories: the loud, militant black Jews; the quieter, yet ubiquitous Jehovah's Witnesses; and the solitary, fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumpers. This fourth group appears every now and then. They set up booths called "prayer stations," they dress in bright red vests, and almost without exception, they're white. The sight of them in a black neighborhood gives off an impression not unlike that of 19th-century missionaries in Africa, saving the heathen darkies for Jesus while bringing malaria and other brand new diseases.

I realize these people see it as their duty, their holy calling, to spread the word of God. In a fair world, they would realize not everyone is interested in what they have to say; that some people would not only prefer to be left alone by them, but their very presence is resented. As long as these people believe they're "right" and everyone else is "wrong," however, they're not likely to change.

It was in such a frame of mind that I saw Martin Scorsese's new movie, which I went into completely ignorant of what it was about. I had decided I'd pick one movie this season which I'd see with no advance knowledge. I chose Silence. All I knew was Scorsese had made it, which is certainly enough of an enticement on its own. Whatever he makes is almost always worth a look.

So imagine my surprise when I realized the film continued the thematic path I seemed to be on that day. Andrew Garfield is a 17th-century Portuguese priest. He and fellow priest Adam Driver travel to Japan to search for their missing mentor, Liam Neeson, who has appeared to have turned on the faith. They encounter a number of converted natives, but they also get heavy resistance to Catholicism, and they suffer persecution for their faith.

It was difficult for me to sympathize with Garfield's character. I probably wouldn't have in other circumstances, but because of the woman in the elevator, I was even more predisposed to not care too much whether or not Garfield found other Catholics in Japan. Nothing justifies the violence inflicted on him and others like him, but I found myself understanding, at least, why it happened. Indeed, Garfield struck me as incredibly naïve to the reality of his surroundings. Neeson sets Garfield straight once they meet, and soon he's faced with the same choice Neeson faced.

Absolution is a recurring theme in the movie. One character sees the act as a kind of Get Out of Jail Free Card: yes, he did this bad thing, but if Garfield forgives him, he figures, everything will be okay. Then he does the bad thing again and restarts the cycle. If the concept of sin hadn't been introduced to his culture to begin with - something they never asked for - chances are he might not have suffered as much as he does throughout the movie, but no one brings that up.

I still found Silence thought-provoking. I could see why the director of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun would be drawn to this material, based on a novel Scorsese had been wanting to adapt ever since he made Temptation.

If I had known all about Silence beforehand, would I have gone to see it when I did? Eh... maybe not. I might have taken my time, gone to see other movies first, maybe even waited to see if it got any Oscar love (it probably will). Scorsese's name alone was enough to get me to see this movie. That's a powerful thing. It shouldn't be taken for granted.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2016

So the most eagerly awaited movie-going moment of the year for me - the grand opening of the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn - turned out to be less than I had hoped due to the high cost of the theater, at least in comparison to its Yonkers location. I'd be willing to go back there, but it would have to be for something super-special, not on a semi-regular basis as I had hoped. Still, all movie lovers should see a movie at the Alamo at least once. I have no problem recommending it to the uninitiated. Just be prepared to unload some dough.

At any rate, I still had some wonderful moments seeing movies at other venues this year. And here are the best:

5. Spaceballs at Syndicated Bar. Other venues are starting to replicate the Alamo experience, and Syndicated, also in Brooklyn, is one of them. It's a repertory house and not a first-run, but I enjoyed their food and drink, their seats are very comfortable, and they're a whole lot cheaper. Seeing a great movie like Spaceballs with my friend Alicia was the icing on the cake. I hope to go back there this year.

4. Lust for Life on video at Vija's place. If for no other reason than seeing her cat and Chris' dog interact, which was pretty funny. It would've been nicer to have had a DVD that didn't act up, too, but the company and the food more than made up for that. Also, Vija didn't find the DVD at first. I had told her that was okay, I'd watch something else, but she kept on looking until she found an available copy. This is why she has been my friend for over twenty years. I'm so lucky to have her in my life.

3. Nosferatu/Dracula's Daughter at the Loews Jersey City. With Aurora, no less! Halloween at the Loews is always a special time. This wasn't on October 31 exactly, but it was close enough for another huge crowd to turn out for this sweet vampire twin bill.

2. Run Lola Run at Prospect Park. In case it wasn't apparent, none of the versions of the story I told about seeing this movie at Celebrate Brooklyn was 100% accurate. I was aping the storytelling style of the movie itself. The stuff about the music - the musical guest, Joan as Police Woman, and the band live-scoring the film, The Bays - that was true. Most of the time, CB makes excellent choices with the films they show, and this was no exception.

1. Star Trek Beyond in New Paltz with Bibi & Eric. Yeah, this is a pretty easy choice. A Trek movie, during the 50th anniversary year, in a slightly peculiar-shaped theater, outside of NYC, with two of my favorite people in the world. It simply does not get any better than this. And I got to hang out with them three times last year! Highly unusual for us. What luck!

2015 top five
2014 top five
2013 top five
2012 top five
2011 top five

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon is coming, time-wise!

I can't say enough good things about Jack Lemmon. He was what every good actor should be: versatile. Whether he did comedy or drama, as the lead or part of a team, in his youth or as an old man, you always believed him in whatever he did. In his best roles, he had an everyman charm that made him relatable, but he could be a right bastard at times, too. His influence can be seen in a number of today's best actors.

It's not his birthday. It's not the anniversary of his death or his first Hollywood role or anything like that. I just wanna do a blogathon for him. It's that simple. I'm teaming up with my pal from south of the equator, Le, on this one, and we hope you'll join us too.

March 30-31 is the time. Anything related to the life and career of Jack Lemmon goes. Duplicates are AOK. I'm gonna write about The Out-of-Towners, while Le will discuss the remake of 12 Angry Men. If you're game, let us know in the comments and we'll see you then!

Monday, January 9, 2017

New year's links

I don't have too much more to add to the hosannas written for Carrie Fisher. There were other iconic female characters in sci-fi/fantasy film: Maria in Metropolis, the bride of Frankenstein, Fay Wray in King Kong. Princess Leia, though, was an undisputed hero in her own right, one central to the plot, one who made things happen. Remember the moment when, in a fit of frustration, she grabs Luke's blaster and starts shooting the Stormtroopers herself? I have no doubt that scene inspired a generation of girls. Fisher was open about her mental health issues and turned them into comedy, which eventually became a hit movie. That took guts.

As for Debbie Reynolds - and what are the odds of a mother and daughter dying on back-to-back days? - I'm afraid I have even less to say. I don't really know her work other than Singin' in the Rain, which, of course, is an all-timer. She was marvelous in that film.

On to brighter things. I had the best New Year's Eve in years! I went to an orchestral concert held in a Manhattan church to hear my pal Sandi sing with a chorus. She's a classically trained soprano vox. Even though she had been sick as a dog for a couple of weeks, she healed just enough to perform that night. She has a dynamite voice, too. The concert even had a movie connection: among the selections performed were pieces from composers James Newton Howard and Aaron Copland.

Afterwards, I hung out with Sandi and some of her choral friends at a nearby bar and grill, where we awaited 2017. I had met some of her friends before, but I got along pleasantly with everyone despite being the youngest person there.

Sandi actually bought party hats, horns and noisemakers for the occasion, which she cheerily handed out to everyone in our group. The hats didn't fit me, so I had to settle for a "Happy New Year" tiara which kept falling off. I had a horn, though! Considering how last-minute this whole affair was - Sandi didn't decide to attend the concert until the night before, I think, on account of how sick she had been - it turned out great.

No themes for the blog this year. After two in a row, I saw no real need to continue the pattern. Six years of blogging and I still feel like I'm searching for the right direction. All I know for sure is what I don't want: to read like one more blog that critically analyzes movies. If that means going in all different directions, trying different things to see what sticks, well, so be it. I don't know any other way to approach blogging.

More new releases this month, plus some unfinished business from last year, and a blogathon post. A new all-time record for monthly pageviews was set last month, breaking a 4 1/2-year-old record, so thank you big time for that.

Your links:

Raquel loved La La Land.

FlickChick loved La La Land too, though with a small caveat.

Ivan rocks out with Chuck Berry and Alan Freed.

Fritzi can't understand the hate for The Artist.

Pam works out with Debbie Reynolds.

Finally, not movie-related but worth reading: if 2016 got you down, and if 2017 looks hopeless, Le has some advice for you. And speaking of whom, come back tomorrow for a special announcement from the two of us...