Monday, February 27, 2017

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

I just finished reading the memoir Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama, written back when he was still a senator. He's a very good writer. He's eloquent, of course, but he's also good at composing a narrative, with lively dialogue and distinguishable characters.

Anyway, as everyone knows, the (sigh) former president is the son of interracial parents, an American white woman and a Kenyan black man. The book is about his attempt to come to terms with their legacy and to establish an identity all his own. Early on, he speculates, based on his knowledge of them, about the first time his parents met his mother's parents:
...When my father arrived at the door, Gramps might have been immediately struck by the African's resemblance to Nat King Cole, one of his favorite singers; I imagine him asking my father if he can sing, not understanding the mortified look on my mother's face. Gramps is probably too busy telling one of his jokes or arguing with [Grandma] Toot over how to cook the steaks to notice my mother reach out and squeeze the smooth, sinewy hand beside hers. Toot notices, but she's polite enough to bite her lip and offer dessert; her instincts warn her against making a scene. When the evening is over, they'll both remark how intelligent the young man seems, so dignified, with the measured gestures, the graceful draping of one leg over another - and how about that accent? 
But would they let their daughter marry one?
It's easy to look upon someone from another culture with respect and admiration when they're not suddenly a family member. My sister's Japanese husband is enough like me, that is, American, that he doesn't come across as being that different, despite his not being black. Naturally, Lynne's life has changed; she eats more Asian food, and once, when they went to Japan, I saw a photo of her in a kimono; to pick two small examples. I suspect, though, they have more in common with each other than Obama's parents did...

...or, for that matter, the protagonists of A United Kingdom, the true story of an interracial Cinderella-like marriage that altered the course of two nations. This comes only a few months after Loving, but it seems a little more high-profile. Plus, the political aspect makes this very different from Jeff Nichols' more intimate portrait of Richard and Mildred Loving.

Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams have to deal with factions within both the British government and his native Bechuanaland (known today as Botswana) determined to keep them apart for political and economic reasons that seem bigger than the two of them alone. Their love for each other, however, sees them through. It's the backbone of this film, another hidden chapter of racial history brought to life by Belle director Amma Asante.

I sound like a broken record, but once again David Oyelowo turns in another great performance, in a role recalling his work in Selma, but with the added aspect of a tender, moving love affair, with Rosamund Pike. This was a labor of love for him; he himself is married to a white woman (she has a cameo in the film) and he's listed as a co-producer.

I arrived late again! I walked into the theater about a few minutes after the advertised start time, thinking I'd miss a trailer or two, but either the Cinemart played them before or they skipped them altogether. Could it be they actually stick to their start times, unlike other theaters that show fifteen minutes of ads and trailers first? If so, I'll have to remember that.

One final thing worth mentioning: when the Kingdom trailer played in front of La La Land, a woman in the audience, perhaps responding to the love story aspect, shouted afterward, "Every man should see that movie!" That got a laugh.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


seen @ UA Kaufman Astoria 14, Astoria, Queens NY

At this point in time, many, if not all of us who work with computers, use Google on a regular basis. I remember using a different search engine when I first went online in 2000. After awhile, Google seemed like a better option, so I switched, never realizing how prominent it would become. I experimented with Google-generated advertising here on WSW, but it didn't seem like enough of a money-maker at the time - and after seeing what other problems they can cause, I have to say I don't miss them. Google tech is expanding into other fields, such as self-driving cars. Personally, I think such vehicles will mean little if they still operate on unsafe roads, but that's a different post.

I remember when Google Earth first came out. I was still living in Columbus at the time. My roommate Max and I were looking it over and marveling at the ability to see far-off places from one's laptop. At the same time, it struck me as a bit scary, like the culture of surveillance had gone to its ultimate extreme. That ship had probably sailed by that point, though. Eventually, I learned to accept it and tried not to think about the wider implications, because my head would explode if I did.

Think about it now, though. I've used Google Maps on occasions where I wanted to confirm where I was if I walked into unfamiliar territory. In writing my novel, set in Boston, I've used it to pinpoint specific locations, though I've been to Boston many times. Using this technology just became natural over time, less scary, and most important - available to everyone. Sometimes I may rail against the speedy scientific changes in the world and their unintended consequences, but I can't deny this is one that has benefited me directly.

Could anyone have imagined, back in 2009, Google Earth would one day be used to reunite a mother and son over 25 years and thousands of miles apart, as in the biopic Lion? It doesn't seem possible, yet it's true, and this movie tells the story of Saroo Brierley well.

The first half is practically Dickensian: the accidental separation from his brother on the train at age five; the hard living on the Calcutta streets amidst shockingly uncaring people; the orphanage; the eventual adoption by the Brierleys.

One thing I'm grateful the screenplay included was the part later on where Nicole Kidman says to Dev Patel that she and her husband consciously chose adoption over breeding new offspring because "the world has enough people." I'm almost certain that's a direct quote. Kudos to Oscar nominee Luke Davies for including that vitally important message.

The reviews I had read of Lion had said the second half wasn't as good as the first, however much of a tearjerker moment it is when Saroo finally reunites with his mother. I'm not sure what director Garth Davis could've done differently. This story practically tells itself. I think any directorly flourishes or non-conventional approaches would've hindered its emotional power.

Davis and Davies seemed to do everything right. They touched on Saroo's conflicted feelings about his racial heritage; his feelings of uncertainty about his identity, which separates him from girlfriend Rooney Mara and the rest of his family (including a second adopted Indian boy who didn't turn out so well); and his obsessiveness with Google Earth to help him find his birth village. This is the kind of story which is almost impossible to mess up.

I saw Lion with Sandi on a beautiful late winter/early spring day in Astoria. I had discovered after the fact that admission was $16, but Sandi said it was cheaper with the Regal card. I have one, but I didn't feel like looking for it at the time, and I honestly thought it would only be $13.

Lion was a compromise choice. Sandi didn't want to drive to the cheaper Cinemart, where A United Kingdom was playing, and the Kaufman is the closest theater to her. This is no small thing, since she's got a bad ankle and walks with a cane. I had sworn off Regal two years ago after they caved in to paranoia and instituted a bag-check policy, but obviously, that has gone by the boards. I had no bag last Saturday, nor any of the other times I've gone there with Sandi. Regardless, we had a great day. We had a late lunch at Panera and stayed for hours.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands
MTV viewing

I probably first became aware of Tim Burton when Batman came out. If you weren't there, you can only imagine what a gigantic event this movie was in terms of hype and marketing. The movie itself looks a little frayed around the edges now, post-Christopher Nolan, but Burton had brought to the big screen a Batman who looked and felt like the one in the comics, influenced as they were by Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Returns four years earlier, and helped cement the image of the character in the public's mind for generations to come.

Burton's Batman follow-up, Edward Scissorhands is a striking contrast visually. The cold, gloomy steel blues and grays of Johnny Depp's mansion home are a stark contrast to Winona Ryder's candy-colored retro suburban neighborhood. From the opening credits, it's clear Burton is going for the look of a modern fairy tale.

Depp is Goth before Goth was a thing: an S&M Kewpie doll with a haunted innocence to him that's unsettling, yet also appealing in a gruesome way. Edward was the first of many collaborations between Burton and costume designer Colleen Atwood, future triple-Oscar winner (including one for Burton's Alice in Wonderland).

Is Edward an android? A reanimated corpse like Frankenstein's monster? A homunculus grown to full size? A golem? The movie offers hints, but we never know for certain, nor do we find out why Vincent Price's inventor would stick knives where Edward's hands should be.

If this had been made today, it'd be expected to generate a franchise of some sort. Maybe a prequel starring Price's character as a young man? A spin-off featuring another creation of his? We didn't need any of that crap back then, and neither did Burton.

One unusual thing (among many) about this film is how easily Edward is accepted within the neighborhood at first, relatively speaking. He's clearly unlike anyone they've seen before, but it doesn't take long for him to carve a niche for himself. That's usually the focus in stories like this, but not here. The misunderstandings and ostracism don't come until later.

It has been said that Burton specializes in films about outsider characters. In this online age, people are more closely connected than ever before. I'm not sure, therefore, how deeply Burton's films resonate anymore. His Alice movies were huge money-makers, but they seem like old hat compared to his earlier work, like Edward.

Burton is as successful today as he ever was, but his visual sensibility and distinct style is no longer unique. Worse, he rarely strays from the formula anymore. When he does, to make a Big Eyes or a Big Fish, they're not exactly greeted warmly by audiences. So maybe one can't blame him for sticking with what works. Pity.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Uptown Saturday Night

The 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actor, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Uptown Saturday Night
Netflix rental

There's no doubt about it: Sidney Poitier is a living legend. Before Denzel, Will, Eddie and Richard, there was Sidney, redefining what a black actor could do in a Hollywood film for a long time.

By the 70s, black cinema had established a niche and it slowly expanded. "Blaxploitation" may sound like a negative term (for years, I had thought it was), but the movies exemplified by this sub-genre, while trashy, were vibrant, empowering and had attitude to spare. In 1974, Poitier decided he wanted in on the fun.

Two years earlier, Poitier had made his directing debut with the Western Buck and the Preacher, with Harry Belafonte. Now they got together with rising TV star Bill Cosby for a crime comedy written by notable playwright Richard Wesley, Uptown Saturday Night. Poitier and Cosby would team up for two more movies in the 70s, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.

I've learned to appreciate blaxploitation films, formulaic as most of them were. I think Shaft and Super Fly would be hits today (yes, I know about the Shaft remake), while Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is such a singular reflection of its time and its culture that it almost transcends the sub-genre. Most blaxploitation flicks didn't want to do anything more than entertain, and that's totally cool.

USN was made during a time when it was still rare (well, rarer) to see black people free to be themselves on a big screen. I have no doubt it filled a wide gap at the box office. Black audiences of its day probably responded warmly to seeing so many talented black stars in one movie...

...but this movie sucked. I'm sorry. For a picture with so many funny people, it's almost painfully unfunny. I watched this with my pals John and Sue, and they agreed.

The premise is this: Poitier and Cosby, while hanging out in the local house of ill repute, are robbed, along with everyone else, by a group of armed thieves. Within Poitier's nicked wallet, however, is a winning lottery ticket (which we never see him buy). The two of them go on a citywide search for the thieves, which eventually leads them to the doorstep of an unrecognizable Belafonte, playing a Don Corleone-like gangster.

Wesley's screenplay meanders all over the place with little direction or focus. Characters come and go - Richard Pryor here, Flip Wilson there (his film debut) - that do little to further the plot, such as it is.

Poitier's direction is unimaginative. In one scene, for example, he and Cosby are accosted by thugs. The camera stays fixed in one position while the two of them move in and out of the frame, wrestling with their respective thugs. Poitier and Cosby want to be Redford and Newman, but the plot doesn't hold together well enough to be The Sting, no matter how many colorful characters they meet.

A brief word about Cosby. Watching him in a movie wasn't as painful as I had thought it might be (despite the thick and unruly beard he sports). He was a welcome part of my childhood for many years: a black celebrity with crossover appeal, yet one who never forgot his roots, who appeared to stand for something positive. I have too many good memories of watching him on television for them to be easily erased by the things they now say about him, the damning accusations leveled against him. Celebrity worship is a dangerous thing. We just don't know who these people really are behind their pretty smiles and good deeds.

There has been talk of a USN remake for years. As recently as 2013, Variety reported a screenplay rewrite meant to "fast-track" pre-production. Anchorman and The Big Short director Adam McKay would direct, with Will & Denzel to star. I'd love to see the two of them in a movie together, and USN can only be improved by a remake, as far as I'm concerned. It looks like it's ended up on the fast track to nowhere, though, at least for now.

Other films with Sidney Poitier:
A Raisin in the Sun
No Way Out

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2016 Top 10

Last month, out of curiosity, I counted up the new releases I had seen and written about here, from the past six calendar years, 2011-16. From oldest to newest, the numbers per year are: 48, 34, 33, 30, 20, and 29, for a total of 194 and an average of 32.3. (This total excludes films seen at film festivals.)

48 seems like such an outrageous number now. I know there are a number of reasons why I haven't come close to that total since - finances, greater interest in older movies, less willing to pay for crap. I don't have any great observation to make out of this; I just wanted to do this for the sake of doing it. Anyway, here's my top ten:

Monday, February 13, 2017


YouTube viewing

There were a lot of fantasy movies in the 80s - I'm making a clear distinction here from sci-fi (Conan the Barbarian, Clash of the Titans, Time BanditsThe NeverEnding Story, Willow, Splash, etc.) - and I think many of them had a sort of innocence to them that's missing from the genre today. It's hard to explain if you weren't there. These days you have Game of Thrones on TV, with all its carnage and sex, while on the big screen there's The Hunger Games and its copycats, set in bleak, dystopic futures.

The fantasy films of my childhood weren't like that. No doubt as a result of the original Star Wars, which owes at least as much to the familiar tropes of fairy tale fantasy as to sci-fi - and which itself was a reaction to the bleak SF films of the 70s - these movies felt more like simple good-time, PG-rated adventure stories. I'm told there's a current Netflix series called Stranger Things which tries to recapture this vibe to a certain degree, but for the most part, it's less prevalent in modern fantasy.

I remember seeing ads for Krull in my comic books. I think Marvel may have even done an adaptation. I never saw the film until last week. I was prepared to mock it, but it wasn't as bad as I had expected. It's totally derivative of other, better stories - think Star Wars meets King Arthur - but for what it is, it's mildly entertaining. It's a Saturday afternoon matinee movie, not unlike those 60s Sinbad movies, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Journey to the Center of the Earth. It felt like it was in that spirit. The bombastic James Horner music underscored this feeling.

The plot is nothing more than find the weapon of power, recruit allies, save the princess - or queen, in this case; the hero is a very young king. The special effects are minimal; more money was probably spent on props, costumes and set design. (The bad guy's lair, in particular, is really trippy and abstract. The young queen wanders through it like a carnival fun house designed by Salvador Dali.)

The most memorable thing about Krull, I think, may be its location shots. They were filmed in Italy. The vistas are truly breathtaking, especially in the scenes where Ken Marshall climbs a mountain to acquire the ninja throwing star thingie. There are grassy meadows, and forests, but those mountains were really spectacular.

Plus, there's an unexpected bonus: a pre-Darkman Liam Neeson! His is a small role; he's one of a band of thieves Marshall meets along his quest. Neeson gets a small moment or two, but nothing that would make me think one day he'd make Schindler's List. His IMDB page, however, reveals he was in two King Arthur films, Excalibur and a TV film called Arthur the King, in addition to this Arthur-like Krull. Interesting.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Character builder

 ...if I am going to identify with anything, it is usually feelings or emotions or ways of thinking rather than actual characters.... I’ve always thought there was a dearth of certain kinds of personalities, though, and my question has been, do I not identify because people tend not to write about characters who I would identify with, or is it simply the way that I approach books that prevents me from more closely seeing myself in other characters?

This struck me as another "what do we want from our fiction" kind of essay, one that made me think about not only how it applies to movies, but to my own novel - still plugging away at it after three years.

The blogger uses Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and the character Fanny Price as a basis. I have read nothing by Austen, so I can't speak to her points regarding that example. Looking through my library, I find a few books with protagonists who might also be considered passive: Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Louis in Interview with the Vampire, Pecola in The Bluest Eye. I may have found it hard to relate to some of them, but not to sympathize.

Now that I think about it, I can't recall many books in which I truly identified with the protagonist - Hesse's Siddhartha, perhaps - but I don't think that's necessarily a problem. One of the best pieces of fiction-writing advice I've gotten to date is this: it's better to write with one person in mind rather than many. In trying to please a wide audience, the logic goes, one ends up pleasing nobody, so as a writer, one is better off keeping a specific individual in mind and composing one's story accordingly. (I know who I'm writing my novel for based on this concept, but I'm not telling.)

As a reader, the odds of that individual being you are too high to ponder. I tend not to think about it when I'm choosing a book. Nick Hornby's protagonists are generally easier for me to empathize with, despite the occasional cultural differences that come with him being a Brit. Jhumpa Lahiri, however, writes characters pretty far removed from my realm of experience and that doesn't stop me from loving her books. Plus, when you throw sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, the differences are even more pronounced. (At the other extreme, I couldn't get more than fifty pages into A Confederacy of Dunces because I found the protagonist completely unlikable. That book wasn't written for me. C'est la vie.)

With movies, less is left to the imagination because you're watching the story unfold in front of you, rather than putting it together in your mind by reading, so identification is perhaps easier. Hollywood bends over backwards trying to make their movies appeal to broad audiences. Maybe that's why many of them tend to not linger long in the memory despite all the hype generated around them. (I touched on this when I discussed the Russell Crowe Robin Hood.)

I've talked before about how deeply I identify with Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy because of where I was in life when I first saw that film. It's one in which I truly feel as if Kevin Smith wrote it for me - but that's a rare feeling. I suspect the blogger may want to feel it more often from the books she reads, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt that's possible. If it does, great, but I don't think it's worth dwelling on much.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sarah Polley: Stories She Tells

The 2017 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

It's been a long time since I saw The Sweet Hereafter, but I remember when it came out, what a big deal people made over this Canadian drama. I remember liking the movie, though it's not the kind you wanna watch over and over. It's pretty heavy.

One aspect of the film that lingers in the memory, however, is the performance of former child star and Canadian TV actress Sarah Polley. The Toronto native had bounced back and forth between the small and big screens, at home and abroad (perhaps you saw her at age four in Terry Gillam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) before Hereafter made her famous.

Polley in The Sweet Hereafter
While she has had flirtations with Hollywood and American cinema in general (perhaps you saw her in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake), she is better known north of the 49th Parallel, as much for her political activism (she once lost two teeth in the middle of a protest in Toronto) as for her acting.

I'm here to talk about her second career as a writer-director. It began in 1999, two years after the release of Hereafter, with two short films. I couldn't find Don't Think Twice anywhere online, but the other, The Best Day of My Life, is available on YouTube. A tale of teen angst and unrequited love, it was part of the On the Fly Festival, a showcase for films shot in a day, edited in a day, and screened in a day.

Given these time restrictions, Polley did a good job. There are some nice visual compositions, and she even changes from black & white to color at a key moment in the story.

Polley on the set of Away From Her
Two years later, another short, I Shout Love, a marriage-in-crisis drama, won the Genie (the Canadian Oscar) for Best Live Action Short Drama, as well as the ACTRA (the Canadian Emmy) for Outstanding Performance, Female, after it aired on the CBC in 2002. The IMDB reviews make it sound really good.

In a 2010 Indiewire interview, Polley talked about what drew her to making movies:
Throughout most of my acting career, I had zero interest in filmmaking. I always wanted to write, though, and felt an urgent need to express myself more literally than I could as an actor. About eight years ago, I decided on a whim to make a short film and discovered that I knew almost nothing about the process of actually putting a film together, and that I had never been so challenged or rewarded by anything in my life. I knew then that I never wanted to stop.
Another short and a TV gig followed, and then, in 2006, Polley struck gold when she adapted Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" into the feature film Away From Her. It won seven Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay; two Toronto Film Critics Association awards; the Writers Guild of Canada award for feature film; three Directors Guild of Canada awards, numerous international print and online accolades, and the Golden Globe for Julie Christie's lead performance.

Polley on the set of Stories We Tell
Polley followed up Away with two more domestic dramas: one fictional, Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams; the other non-fictional, the documentary Stories We Tell, about the history of her family. My posts about both of these films are elsewhere on this blog. Last summer, she announced her next project, writing and producing a Netflix mini-series adaptation of the Margaret Atwood crime novel Alias Grace. American Psycho's Mary Harron will direct.

Polley's loyalty to Canadian cinema is such that at the height of her fame as an actress, she turned down the role that went to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous to make a Canadian film instead. A quote from a 2008 interview with MovieMaker sums up her feelings on the matter:
I think there is more creative freedom for filmmakers [in Canada]. That affects me as an actor, too. When I sign on to a film, I'm signing on to a filmmaker's vision of the film, not the studio's vision or anybody else's. I just want to know that it's going to be the filmmaker's film that I'm making. Of course, as a filmmaker, I feel like, in Canada, it's a given that a first-time filmmaker always has final cut. Why would I choose to work anywhere else?
Other films directed by Sarah Polley:
Take This Waltz
Stories We Tell

John Candy
William Shatner