Monday, July 31, 2017

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary [sic]
IFC viewing

I didn't really think Pet Sematary was gonna be that good a movie, but I had hoped it might be, solely on the basis of its awesome theme song. I was mistaken; it sucks, although it does have its unintentionally funny moments, including an epic Big No scene.

I'll have more to say about Stephen King next month when I write about The Dark Tower; for now, I'll say this: I respect him as a storyteller, someone who has been doing for decades what I'm still struggling to do once - write a novel - and making it look easy, but this just wasn't that scary. I doubt it was that scary in 1989, when it was released - and he wrote the screenplay.

Plus, it kinda rips off The Shining: family moves to someplace new because Dad's got a new job; child has precognitive visions of impending doom; older character acts as mentor figure to child, eventually gets killed; wife is useless; supernatural/imaginary being seen by only one character; crazy father stalks son/crazy son stalks father. I suppose when you've been writing for as long as King has, you're bound to repeat certain themes, but still.

Let's talk about Denise Crosby. As you know, she left Star Trek: The Next Generation after one season to pursue better roles. Her character was killed off. In a 2012 interview, she makes it clear she was "miserable" on the show:
...[Leaving] was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many episodes, but I didn't want to spend the next six years going "Aye aye, captain," and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years.
I believe Crosby would have had opportunities to do more on the show had she opted to stick it out, but that's with the benefit of hindsight. By many accounts, the first season of TNG was difficult on multiple levels. Few could have guessed where it would lead. Crosby came back to TNG, of course, in spectacular fashion: dying a second time and reappearing in a recurring role as her own, half-Romulan daughter! (You can do that sort of thing in sci-fi.)

I'm afraid I haven't seen her in much non-Trek material. I saw her in Deep Impact; she was good in that. She's mostly stuck to television over the years; perhaps you've seen her recently in Mad Men, Scandal, The Walking Dead and Ray Donovan, among others. To be honest, I wouldn't rank her among the greatest actresses I've ever seen, but credit where credit's due: she has sustained a career doing way more than genre work.

Crosby doesn't have much to do in Pet Sematary other than be the wife. She gets one big scene where her character talks about her childhood with her disabled sister. It sounded like two different takes were put together, one in which she's crying and another where she's somewhat calmer. The difference is just enough to be noticeable. It kinda threw me out of the scene. One wonders what the story behind that was. Perhaps it's explained in the new making-of documentary!

Friday, July 28, 2017


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

Dunkirk's place in world history isn't something generally taught in American schools; at least, it wasn't taught to me. Wikipedia says the French town is actually a commune, which is like a township. In 1940, during World War 2, the British army was stuck there, having been cut off by Germany, so they had to get out by sea. Winston Churchill put the call out to any and every available boat to come to Dunkirk and help get the soldiers the hell out of Dodge, and they came - over 900 vessels that evacuated over 300,000 troops.

I first became aware of this event through - you guessed it - the movies. One of the highlights of the superb movie Atonement is a roughly-five-minute sequence depicting the Dunkirk evacuation that, in itself, was pretty memorable. Director Joe Wright filmed it as one long tracking shot, following James McAvoy through the beach, amidst the British troops preparing to leave. Atonement isn't a war movie, but this scene definitely sticks out in the memory. (That and Keira Knightley in that green dress.)

Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk obviously gets to do much more with the event, and he does plenty: aerial combat, sinking ships, grim-faced officers, baby-faced soldiers, acts of selfishness, acts of valor, all within an original screenplay by Nolan light on dialogue but still heavy on drama.

Visually speaking, this film is breathtaking. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema goes above and beyond in getting not just beautiful but unique images, on land, sea and air, that belong on a big screen. Editor Lee Smith pieces it all together in a way that maximizes suspense while balancing the multiple storylines, a Nolan trademark.

All this said, I appreciated Dunkirk more than I loved it. Maybe it was because I arrived a few minutes late again (still not used to Cinemart actually starting their movies on time, unlike most multiplexes), but I had some trouble distinguishing certain characters, determining relationships, figuring out why x was doing y. I also found the characters a little too minimal. I found it hard to care about them beyond a surface level. I even dozed off here and there.

It's more than a little surprising to see a war movie do as well as this one has during the summer months, but then, it is also a Nolan movie, and at this point in time, he seems to have the Midas touch. I appreciate his commitment to working with celluloid in a digital age, to making films meant to be seen in theaters, not on iPhones. Dunkirk is a movie that will be analyzed by future filmmakers for its meticulous attention to craft. I just wished I liked it a little better.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

Six years ago, 20th Century Fox mounted an Oscar campaign for Andy Serkis, for his digitally-enhanced, performance-capture supporting role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He didn't get nominated, in part because the whole concept of p-cap was still relatively new and not completely understood. In an assessment of his chances, I said roles like his, and that of Zoe Saldana in Avatar, are only going to increase, and a point would come when they'd be hard to ignore come Oscar time.

Ever since, we've seen franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hobbit, The Avengers and Star Wars employ p-cap technology, among other films, but it's Serkis and his character Caesar that, I believe, remains the most memorable, partially because it doesn't involve robots or dragons or aliens, but something real and familiar, apes - but mostly because the humanity of the character comes through so clearly. After awhile you forget Caesar is something that can't exist in real life; you see the things he does and you accept him on his own terms. That's because of Serkis.

Will that mean any kind of awards recognition, however? In War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment of the Apes saga, Serkis and the wizards of WETA Digital continue Caesar's evolution as the ape-human war escalates into a struggle for survival. 

Director/co-writer Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, portrays Caesar as both Jesus and Moses. The metaphor isn't subtle, but I can accept that. He understands the meaning of self-sacrifice in the name of his people, yet he and his lieutenants are also capable of compassion and empathy towards innocents, like the human girl they encounter. (It didn't take long for me to figure out who she becomes. If you think about it, the answer is obvious to anyone who saw the '68 original.)

WETA is outstanding. The landscapes of Avatar were digital; WETA went one step further by taking the p-cap suit and bringing it outdoors, away from the studio. Throughout all three prequels, they render Caesar and his ape army within a variety of natural locations, in all kinds of weather, day and night, and you are never less than completely convinced of their reality.

War injects some welcome humor into the story. The talking, clothes-wearing chimp Caesar and company meet skirts near Jar Jar territory, but never crosses that line, thank Zod. He's not as cloying, nor as desperate for attention, and he's actually useful. Plus, there's a thread of sadness through him that gives him a gravity Jar Jar thoroughly lacked.

Will all this add up to major Oscar recognition - beyond the technical awards, that is? Due to the critical and commercial success War has received so far, I could see a possible Best Picture nomination, but Serkis for Best Actor would signal a seismic shift in the way roles like his, and films like this, are regarded. I think it's more possible now than it was in 2011 - but it's way too soon to tell. Ask me again in December.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

The Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon is an event studying murder in movie marriages, hosted by Cinemaven's Essays From the Couch. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Rebecca (1940)
from my DVD collection

As a movie about murdering spouses, Rebecca is a bit of a cheat, since the "murder" happens prior to the beginning. We know now that Hitchcock had to change the ending of Daphne du Maurier's book to appease the censors - Laurence Olivier only thought about killing Rebecca for having another man's baby; her death was an accident (yeah, right!) - but most people agree this is still a compelling movie.

According to the Criterion DVD liner notes, Du Maurier was less than thrilled with Hitchcock as the choice of director, because she didn't believe he'd stick with her original story, yet she turned down the opportunity to write the screenplay herself. Producer David O. Selznick was determined to keep the story as is, but the Production Code specifically stated murderers had to pay for their crime - hence the revision.

Hitch wasn't all that satisfied with the finished product, but for different reasons. He wanted Margaret Sullavan as the nameless protagonist; Selznick, after a long tryout, went with the relative newcomer Joan Fontaine. Hitch came to like her eventually, but he had to coach her a lot. Plus, members of the crew were snitching behind his back to Selznick. Hitch also was dissatisfied with what he felt was a lack of humor in the screenplay, although there's certainly a little bit, like in the early scenes with Fontaine's governess. As the director told Francois Truffaut years later,"[Rebecca] has held up quite well over the years. I don't know why."

The day I re-watched the movie was a full and slightly unusual one. I chose to watch it with Vija at her place, but before that, I had spent the day out in Long Island. I had a yen to spend the day someplace I had never been to before; I wanted to go upstate again, but I knew I wouldn't have had as much time. The seaside town of Long Beach was closer. They have a beautiful beach and boardwalk.

I went to a donut shop I had read about, but it was on the opposite end of town, a long walk from where I was. This might not have been so bad, except halfway there, it rained. Hard. I had to rush back to the train station in a downpour under my tiny umbrella, clutching the bag with my box of donuts, my feet soaked in my shoes from all the puddles.

Fast forward to Vija's place in the city. She had opened the occasion up to our movie-going group. Susan came, whom I hadn't seen in awhile. She enjoyed playing with Vija's cat. The DVD player was a second-hand gift from Franz, only he neglected to mention how second-hand it was. While it worked okay when we watched Lust for Life (despite the scratchy disc), here it chose to act up.

Vija had to fiddle with the wires and controls just to get the main menu. The disc played for awhile, but then the player stopped cold at the worst possible moment: right when Olivier was about to tell Fontaine the truth about how Rebecca died! This time, no amount of fiddling worked - and my DVD was stuck inside the player, unable to come out! If Franz had been there, I would've made him pay for my DVD! As for the movie, I had to tell Vija and Susan the ending by reading it off of Wikipedia.

But that's not all! We talked for awhile, and eventually Susan and I left. I walked to nearby Penn Station and bought a LIRR ticket home. Right after I did that, Vija called to tell me she got the player working again! I had about another forty minutes until my train departed, so I rushed back to her place to get my DVD. As I did, I got another call - from Sandi, back from her vacation. We talked for a little bit, made plans to get together on the Fourth, right as I arrived at Vija's place again.

She wanted to watch a little more of the movie, so we did. We got as far as the inquisition scene, in which Olivier is questioned about his marriage to Rebecca and Fontaine faints. Then I had to catch my train. At least I got my DVD back!

Other movies about homicidal spouses (an abbreviated list):
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Double Indemnity
Mildred Pierce

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sabrina (1954)

Sabrina (1954)
seen @ Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, Bryant Park, New York NY

I had always thought of Sabrina as a romantic comedy, but there's not a lot of comedy in the movie. For the most part, it plays like a straight love triangle story: very wistful, very angsty. Audrey pines for Holden, Bogey pines for Audrey. Why was it that Audrey's romantic leads were always so much older: Bogey, Peck, Cooper, Grant? I would've liked to have seen her with someone like Monty Clift, or Warren Beatty - but so it goes.

I find it a little hard to believe Audrey could be so dead set against going to Paris in the beginning, although it's not so much Paris as what it represents: two years away from Holden, living a life she didn't ask for. When she comes back, though, she's a changed woman, in looks and spirit. Old movies were fond of mystifying the City of Lights in this way. 

Andi talks about Paris, and Europe in general, so much. I know she had a boyfriend over there, learned the language, absorbed the culture, but try as I might, it's kinda tricky for me to imagine her as having undergone a Sabrina-like transformation. Maybe it's because I met her later in life, after she had readjusted to living in America again; maybe it's because she strikes me as more of a traditional, working class Noo Yawker than Sabrina - who for all of the class differences espoused in the movie between her and the Larrabee brothers, still can't help being Audrey Hepburn!

I was about the same age as Sabrina when I went to Barcelona, but that was for only a month. If I had spent two years there, I imagine I'd be quite different. The one year I spent in Ohio changed me enough! Europe, though... We Americans fought a revolution to liberate ourselves from it and in a way, we've been longing to return to it ever since, in one form or another.

I went to Bryant Park to see Sabrina, although watching an outdoor movie there is not the best experience in the world, because I really wanted to watch this movie again. As before, I noticed a number of people videotaping scenes on their cell phones. Why? Is it only because it's an outdoor movie? If they were inside a theater, it would be a crime (I'm not entirely sure this is all that legal, either). What do they do with these recordings, besides post them on social media?

I can understand using your cell to record a minute or two of a concert. While that's probably illegal too, I get that it's a live, unique experience that can never be perfectly duplicated and some people want to preserve that moment. A movie isn't live, though. Granted, the novelty of a movie shown outdoors is special, but the movie itself is no different than if you were watching it on DVD at home. I could even get behind taking a photo of the outdoor screen to show that, y'know, you were there - but recording a minute or two of the film on video makes no sense to me.

I watched it on the rear perimeter of the lawn, standing up. I had a seat on the left-hand side of the perimeter, but by the time the movie started, too many people were standing in my line of sight; plus, too many others were coming and going in front of me. I think I may opt to stand at Bryant Park for a movie from now on. I had no obstructed views, and it kept me awake.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Books: Groucho

The 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

Groucho Marx was a film legend whose fame transcended the movies. The ones he made with his brothers - Chico, Harpo and Zeppo - are hilarious, anarchic and witty; live-action cartoons that follow no rules save their own. Like many great comedians, though, Groucho lived quite a different life off-screen.

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer chronicles that life in substantial detail. We meet his stage mother Minnie, who pushed all five of her sons into a life in vaudeville before they had a chance to fully mature. We follow the ups and downs of Groucho's career on stage, film and television, both as a Marx Brother and solo. We witness the funnyman's three marriages, to women he dominated yet couldn't live without, and the three children who grew up with issues of their own because of their father's mercurial behavior. We acknowledge Groucho the intellectual, hobnobbing with literary big shots, writing plays, essays, books. Finally, we see Groucho, in his twilight years, grow entirely dependent on a woman more than half his age who may have taken advantage of his goodwill for purposes of her own.

The portrait Kanfer paints of Groucho is of a man who missed out on childhood and spent the rest of his life making up for it, in which Groucho the character - iconoclastic, puckish, irreverent - became more important than Julius Henry Marx the man. His mother was never completely satisfied with him, which could explain his impaired relationships with any woman who wasn't Margaret Dumont. He tried to goad his children into show biz, like he was goaded by his mother. Late in life he was blind - perhaps willfully so - to the machinations of someone who said she loved him, but alienated him from friends and family and made him perform to order.

While this is a well-written and highly informative biography, a part of me almost wishes I hadn't read it. The tale of Groucho's life is tragic in many places. The image of the sad clown is a cliché, but it contains truth: comedians often use laughter to hide deep pain.

Stefan Kanfer
Groucho wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his mom, herself the daughter of entertainers, wanted something different for him and his brothers. She went to extraordinary lengths to get her way. Although her path led to fame and fortune for Groucho, a part of him always resented her because he could never completely please her; a relationship which set a pattern for everything that followed. Still, it's a fascinating book; well worth the read for anyone who ever enjoyed a Marx Brothers movie.

I bought Groucho used. Once again, signs of the previous owner are apparent: there are some notes written on the sides of the pages, some which correct an error made by Kanfer, others which supplement what he wrote. These are very few, perhaps four or five, all in the first half.

Tracy and Hepburn

Monday, July 10, 2017


Cinemax viewing

Everybody remembers William Friedkin as the director of two of the biggest hit films of the 70s, The French Connection and The Exorcist. He was one of the "new Hollywood" breed from that pivotal era, the ones who rewrote the rules of American cinema. In Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin describes the moment he met director Howard Hawks, after the younger filmmaker had made the gay melodrama The Boys in the Band. Hawks, Old Hollywood and macho to the core, had criticized Friedkin for making such a somber, dramatic movie instead of something with more action:
...Hawks's words did matter to Friedkin. "They really stayed with me," he recalls. "I would have embarked on a course of having made obscure Miramax type films before Miramax. But I had this epiphany that what we were doing wasn't making fucking films to hang in the Louvre. We were making films to entertain people and if they didn't do that first they didn't fulfill their primary purpose. It's like somebody gives you a key and you didn't even know there was a lock; it led to The French Connection."
It was an approach that had worked for him for a time. A life of excess, however, led to ambitious projects that failed at the box office, and Friedkin's career was never the same.

Over thirty years later, Friedkin teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts, to adapt his play Bug. The result was more of a "Miramax type film" (it was actually made at Lionsgate), meaning - if I interpret this correctly - heavy on the drama, B-level stars at best, narrower distribution.

Does that equal obscure in this case? Bug opened domestically on 1661 screens in May 2007. By way of contrast, Spider-Man 3, which opened the same month, played on 4252 screens. As for Miramax itself, they released the French drama Golden Door on two screens in June, while Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men opened on 28 screens in November, so Bug actually had a much wider release than the average Miramax movie. I think, though, Friedkin may have referred to content instead of distribution.

Regardless, this was an awesome movie. Ashley Judd plays a waitress living in a motel room, trying to avoid her ex-con ex-husband. She meets a pre-fame Michael Shannon, who's also trying to put his past behind him, only in his case, it's much worse. When his personal demons are brought to the surface, they infect Judd in a profound way. Revealing any more would spoil the story.

Bug doesn't resemble any of Friedkin's other work visually; it looks modern. Perhaps because it's a play, there are fewer cuts; we linger on the actors in longer takes, a refreshing contrast to many modern films. I never thought of Friedkin as an actor's director - he is the guy who nearly crippled Ellen Burstyn just to get a genuine reaction from her on camera - but he gets Oscar-caliber performances from Judd and Shannon. Much of the action takes place in Judd's motel room, but it doesn't feel too stagey.

According to Riders, Friedkin was afraid of being labeled an art film director. When Connection took off, making big money and winning Oscars, he embraced commercialism. Bug made a little over $7 million from an estimated $4 million budget. Granted, the 21st century economics of American film are substantially different from the 70s, but with this film, it does look like Friedkin reembraced his original aesthetic.

Bug wraps themes of paranoia and conspiracy within an unconventional love story, one with a downer ending - not the kind of movie audiences flock to the way they did for The Exorcist, and certainly not the kind of which Hawks would have approved. I suspect, though, that Friedkin no longer cared.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)
IFC viewing

The work of Philip K. Dick has been a Hollywood go-to source for decades, even today. The current Amazon series The Man in the High Castle is based on Dick's 1962 Hugo-winning novel. This fall, a sequel to the hit movie Blade Runner - based, of course, on the short story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" - will be released. 

I've never read any of his work, so I can't speak to how much (or how little) Hollywood has changed his material. I imagine there's a substantial difference. Prose sci-fi, especially from the mid-20th century, is fairly dense. Sci-fi movies tend to go more for broad strokes, though that's slowly changing.

Dick was born in Chicago. He went to high school in California with future SF peer Ursula LeGuin. His literary career began in the 50s. Though he wrote SF, he aspired to do more mainstream stuff. He married five times and tried to kill himself once. He was a heavy user of amphetamines.

He had some pretty wacky ideas throughout his life: he thought he had lived a past life in ancient Rome; he believed he was possessed by the spirit of a Biblical prophet; he subscribed to "panentheism," which basically means God is everywhere and in everything. You can read more about his beliefs here.

"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the 1966 short story that was the basis for the film Total Recall (both versions), is emblematic of the kind of stories Dick favored, in which what we think of as "reality" is ephemeral and highly subjective. In Paul Verhoeven's adaptation, we never know for certain if everything that happens to Arnie is real or simply implanted memories. I like that aspect; it seems important for this kind of story.

Verhoeven movies are always a trip because of their over-the-top nature. He'll have his characters do the craziest things, often out of nowhere: a gentle, friendly lady scientist violently slaps her milquetoast young assistant to keep him from freaking out; a little old lady tries to steal Arnie's briefcase and curses him when she fails. Scenes like these, campy and funny as they are, don't seem completely out of place.

Can I get some love for Ronny Cox? Scenery chewer par excellence, he made for some memorable and scummy bad guys, both here and also in Verhoeven's RoboCop. In both films, he's paired with a henchman: the stern Michael Ironside in Recall and the slick Kurtwood Smith in Robo. Cox has more of a relationship with Smith, though. Ironside just takes orders from him. Cox is better when he has someone equally smarmy to play off of, like Smith and Miguel Ferrer. It's always good to see Cox being bad!

Is reality subjective, like Recall and Dick's writings, would have you believe? Maybe, but if so, I think we still gotta go on living as if it wasn't - because how else can we relate to each other? There are way too many stupid things we hairless apes fight over to begin with, like skin color, or whose invisible sky fairy is the best. If one group suddenly decides grass is blue and another says it's green, we'd be in even worse shape. Some things we simply have to accept as givens until proven otherwise.