Saturday, November 25, 2017

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
AMC viewing

As a kid, I had this peculiar habit whenever a musical, whether live-action or animated, came on TV: if I really loved the music, I'd write down the song titles, or at least, what I thought the titles were. This was important to me in some way I can't explain; it was as if by doing this, the songs became, I dunno, more mine in some fashion, like they'd be easier to remember.

I don't recall what I did with those lists. Maybe I stuck them in a notebook and left it in my desk. It's not like I went back and referred to them whenever the need arose. Why do kids do anything?

A number of those songs I committed to paper were written by Richard & Robert Sherman. The songwriting brothers - triple-Grammy winners and double-Oscar winners, along with a legion of other accolades - are the most prolific songwriting team in movie musical history. You know their songs because everyone knows their songs: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Bare Necessities," "It's a Small World (After All)," to name a few - many of them for Disney, for over four decades.

The scions of a songwriter, the Sherman Brothers first attracted the attention of Unca Walt when they wrote pop music for Mousketeer Annette Funicello in the late 50s/early 60s. In 1964 they struck gold with the earworm "It's a Small World (After All)," for the World's Fair. A year later, they made movie history with their soundtrack for Mary Poppins.

They went on to write songs (and a few screenplays) for film, TV and the stage, not to mention other theme park ditties and pop tunes, such as "You're Sixteen." Here's an excellent interview with them from 1996.

In the wake of their Mary Poppins success, British producer Albert Broccoli, caretaker of the James Bond film franchise, enticed the Sherman Brothers to provide the songs for an adaptation of another Ian Fleming story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, co-written for the screen by director Ken Hughes and celebrated children's book author Roald Dahl.

Even now, I have to remind myself it's not a Disney movie, and with good reason. It's clearly an attempt to recreate the Poppins formula: it's a musical, set in Britain in the early 20th century; there are elements of magic and fantasy, with colorful characters; two children, brother and sister, play a part.

Broccoli even wanted to reunite Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke for the leads, but he had to settle for the latter; Andrews wasn't interested and van Dyke only did it for the money. He's not a fan of the movie.

The Sherman Brothers' music here may not be as recognizable as that of Poppins, but I remembered a few from when I was a kid. A wide variety of characters got songs to sing. That was one of the few knocks I had against La La Land; Gosling and Stone did almost all of the singing, and other than the opening number, there were hardly any grand, epic numbers with lots of extras. Chitty had a few, of various sizes. The Shermans knew the value of diversity in the songs.

Van Dyke, in his prime, was no Gene Kelly, but he was good as a song and dance man; I had forgotten how good until I saw him here. If his recent performance at an LA Denny's is any indication, he hasn't lost much vocally. Sally Ann Howes was obviously brought in as an Andrews sound-alike, but she was a good sound-alike.

Watching this for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, I was gratified at the number of names I now recognized besides van Dyke: Dahl, Broccoli, Benny Hill - even Barbara Windsor of the Carry On films, who appears in one scene. Still, it wasn't too hard to look at it like I was eight years old again. I was glad of that.

Monday, November 20, 2017


IFC viewing

When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko forged the modern Marvel universe, their superheroes came with flaws: Spider-Man was burdened with guilt over an act of selfishness that came back to bite him; the Thing was bitter over his monstrous condition, blaming Reed Richards for it and taking his frustrations out on the Human Torch; Dr. Strange was an arrogant SOB who had to learn humility before he could master the mystic arts.

Then, in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move, superheroes became "relevant": Green Arrow's sidekick took drugs; Iron Man became an alcoholic; Green Lantern was criticized for not helping "the black skins."

Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns escalated this trend to Olympian levels. Because they were popular, everybody tried to copy their success, and we've lived with the consequences ever since.

Superheroes - people with paranormal abilities who wear gawdy costumes and fight psychopaths out to conquer the world - aren't real (in case you might have forgotten), but for decades, comics writers and artists have bent over backwards trying to make them "realistic," as if by doing so they'll remain relevant, when it was Hollywood and Madison Avenue that did that. When you have the chutzpah to show Doctor Doom shedding a tear at Ground Zero on 9-11, you've lost the struggle for superhero "realism" for all time.

I'm more convinced than ever today that superheroes should abandon any and all attempts to be "realistic" and "relevant" and become weirder and more bizarre and further removed from reality instead. Kirby understood this better than anyone before or since (though Grant Morrison comes close). He put a silver-skinned alien on a surfboard and made it cool! And that was only the tip of the drafting table.

All this said, there have been some worthy attempts made in the "realistic superheroes" motif in comics, and television and film are learning how to do likewise.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy made him a geek superstar, James Gunn was merely... Super. His breakthrough feature film, after coming up from TV and Troma horror, contained elements of the things that made Watchmen unique for its time: superheroism as a form of delusional psychosis; the difficulty of being one without powers or training; the mask as a cure for sexual impotence, etc., fused with a wickedly dark sense of humor.

In the words of Billy Joel, however, it's just a fantasy. It's not the real thing. If Super were truly "realistic," the Crimson Bolt (and Boltie) would've been arrested long ago at the least; at the most, he wouldn't have lived to earn his "happy" ending.

I'm willing to let it slide because I enjoyed the movie (Ellen Page is adorable, in a twisted way), but do you see what I mean about "realism" in the superhero genre? Kirby would've had the Crimson Bolt take on two-headed fire wolves from Dimension Z and not apologized for it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Road to Perdition

The It Takes a Thief Blogathon is an event devoted to theft as depicted in the movies, hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host site.

Road to Perdition
Cinemax viewing

In both the graphic novel and the film versions of Road to Perdition, Tom Hanks' character Sullivan (O'Sullivan in the book, but I'll stick to Sullivan here), on the run from his double-crossing mob boss Rooney, forces a wedge between Rooney and his Chicago ally Al Capone by robbing banks with their money. Sullivan shrewdly gives the bankers a share of the cash to ensure their silence. 

The book has a poignant scene between Sullivan and his son Michael where he explains this money will be Michael's one day, to do with as he pleases. 

Michael is overjoyed at the amount they have, especially since this takes place during the Depression, but Sullivan makes it clear it means nothing without their family, his wife and younger son, murdered by Rooney's son Connor.

I liked the film version, but thought, and still think, Hanks was miscast as Sullivan. The role needed a Clint Eastwood type. While Hanks can do tough-guy roles, I just wasn't convinced of him as a stone-cold killer, partly because of who he is. He's Tom Hanks! He wouldn't hurt a fly, would he?

If I was director Sam Mendes, I might have put Hanks in the Rooney role and had Daniel Craig play Sullivan, but that would've deprived us of a great performance from Paul Newman (one of his last, as it turned out) as Rooney, so maybe it's just as well.

In the introduction to the 1998 Paradox Press edition of Perdition, writer Max Allan Collins acknowledges how much truth there is to this tale: John and Connor Rooney (nee Looney) were real - a father and son who ran an organized crime business in the Iowa-Illinois Tri-Cities region.

Capone and Frank Nitti were real, obviously (Eliot Ness appears in the book too), and according to Collins, there was an actual enforcer whom Looney betrayed.

Perdition, however, is a work of fiction; for Collins, the fusion of fact and legend, as exemplified in films like Bonnie and Clyde, are what give it its strength:
...These things had really happened, right where I lived; there was a truth underlying the noir fantasy, more than moldy old books, musty magazines and library microfilm had ever brought to life for me... and that was where my impulse to develop what has been termed the "true-crime fiction" subgenre began.

Other movies about theft (an abbreviated list):
High Sierra
The Drop
Across 110th Street
Bob le Flambeur
Gun Crazy
The Town

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
seen @ AMC Loews Orpheum 7, New York NY

I regret I have not travelled often by train. Oh, I take the subway all the time, living in New York, not to mention the occasional ride on the commuter rails to Long Island and upstate, but to sit in a reclining seat (one you can sleep in), to have a separate car where you can eat, another where you can look out on the vast landscape as you chug along to wherever you're going... that's special.

Train travel is more of a social experience than air travel - or it used to be, anyway, before everyone had a laptop or a cell phone or an iPod. Back in the 90s, I went to Chicago by train; on the way back, I met this pregnant Japanese girl who was meeting her husband in New York. We had a nice time chatting. When we arrived in Penn Station, I recall giving her directions to - was it Port Authority? - someplace important like that; wherever it was her husband was supposed to meet her.

Currently, Amtrak links New York to the rest of the country via two tracks within a single tunnel, however, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy dealt serious damage to this connection.

The Gateway Tunnel project is an initiative led by Amtrak to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River. Amtrak believes construction could begin next year, despite a lack of commitment by the president to supply federal funding. Personally, I'll believe it when I see it.

Around the world, train travel is regarded differently. High-speed rail (HSR) makes regional travel quick and relatively easy. China's trains are the fastest overall, but the "Red Arrow," the Trenitalia Frecciarossa 1000 - doing a crisp 220 MPH up and down Italy - is currently the fastest in Europe. The Amtrak Acela Express, by contrast, goes 150 MPH between Boston and DC. Although HSR is coming to California soon, the truth is, rail travel isn't the priority here that it is in other developed nations.

Still, none of these sleek, ultra-modern jaguars have the mystique and allure of the Orient Express. Begun in 1883 as a route from Paris to Istanbul (not Constantinople), it evolved into the ultimate luxury rail line. A version of the original line still exists today; if you got the dough, you can ride it.

The Orient Express has been represented in almost every popular media you can think of, including the Bond film From Russia with Love, a George Cukor film called Travels with My Aunt, and of course, a caboose-ful of adaptations of the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express.

Kenneth Branagh is the latest filmmaker to ride the famous rail, readapting the Christie tale; he also leads an all-star cast as the epically-mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot. This was my first exposure to the story; I never read the book or saw any of the other films, so I liked it more, perhaps, than a number of reviewers, or Vija, with whom I saw the film.

I recognize the classic mystery conventions of the story, because they've been re-used and parodied so often: everyone bowing to Poirot's genius; the relative civility of the suspects; the way they conveniently line up for Poirot when he's about to reveal whodunnit. It's okay. This is a modern movie but it has an old-fashioned aesthetic.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Letter From an Unknown Woman

Letter From an Unknown Woman
YouTube viewing

I met Ann Marie when I was seventeen. I was taking an afterschool art class in Greenwich Village. It was also the first time I had explored the Village on my own and I had fallen in love with what I perceived as the Bohemian romance of the neighborhood. I was discovering things about the Village, and New York, for the first time, such as street musicians.

I couldn't tell you what about her in particular made me stop and listen to her play, and talk to her, beyond the sheer novelty of seeing someone, anyone, performing on the street. Maybe that was enough.

Her perch was outside a bank a block from the Christopher Street subway station. Unlike most street musicians, she played original material, just her and her guitar. She wasn't bluesy like Joplin; she wasn't a poet like Patti Smith. The last time I described her here, I said she was more Melissa Etheridge than Suzanne Vega, but I think she was a combination of the two.

These days, I see street musicians and I may stop to listen or I may keep walking, but I almost never talk to them, not without a good reason. Back then, though, I was way too naive to know better. Ann Marie could have been a junkie, a pedophile, a racist, anything; there was no reason for her to indulge the curiosity of some punk kid who had nothing better to do than hang out on street corners talking to strangers... but she did.

For weeks afterward, I'd go see her after my art class. I wasn't in love with her; she was twice my age at least. If I was in love with anything, it was with the musician lifestyle she represented. I met her at a time when I was experimenting musically, and to do what she did seemed like the coolest thing in the world, even if she didn't make much more on a given night than money for a fancy dinner.

When I told her I played keyboard, she asked if I'd be interested in joining her in the studio on a track or two. You can imagine my reaction. She gave me photocopies of the sheet music to some of her tunes; I took them home and scrutinized them, hearing Ann Marie's voice and guitar in my head and doing my best to add my keyboard improvisations. No, I had never done anything like this before; like I said, I was too young and stupid to know better.

I can't imagine what her backing band thought of me: did they think I was some manner of prodigy Ann Marie had discovered out of the blue? I went to the "Fame school," after all; I must have something. Or more likely, did they know the truth: she was humoring this starstruck fan this one time, not expecting anything to come of this session.

From what I remember, I didn't embarrass myself, but I didn't distinguish myself either. Probably too nervous: wanting to do well, too afraid of messing up. I did not expect a return engagement, nor did I get one, but hey, I can say I once recorded with real musicians in a real studio.

So obviously, I thought of all this while watching Letter From an Unknown Woman, a movie about a groupie in passionate, let-me-be-your-dog monkey love with a turn-of-the-century Elton John who's totally clueless as to her true feelings, even when he can remember who the hell she is - which is not often.

Joan Fontaine tries, she really tries to live her own life; she knows Louis Jourdan ain't bringing chicks back to his pad to play Cards Against Humanity and watch 30 Rock reruns, but she simply CAHN'T, I tell you. When she finally does win her dream date with him, though, it leads to unforeseen complications.

It's all so old-fashioned and romantic and bloody tragic, but dammit, it hooked me. I admit it. I certainly know what it's like to love someone who can't or won't match those feelings; it's no fun. Easy to say to Fontaine, "forget about him, move on with your life," but when you got it bad like she had it, nobody can tell you otherwise.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Super Size Me

The Food in Film Blogathon is an event devoted to movies with an emphasis on food, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Super Size Me
YouTube viewing

It wasn't the burgers or the fries that enticed me, not at first; it was the cookies. I remember the box they came in, with its colorful cast of characters: the clown, the burger thief, the burger-headed law enforcement official, the purple... thing. It's not like the cookies themselves were that special; I, like millions of American children, had simply fallen under the spell of those characters. Credit where credit's due; whoever thought of them was a genius.

They made me want to eat at McDonald's.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Justice links

This is all I will say about Harvey Weinstein, because I know you're sick of reading about him by now: I can't say I'm surprised, for one thing. Given his past inability to keep his hands off films (they called him "Harvey Scissorhands" for a reason), it follows that a man who wields power so cavalierly might also have a problem with keeping his hands off women too.

Harvey will do his time in Hollywood jail (and maybe real jail too) and he'll return; the only question is how long. I mean, if Mel Gibson can come back, and direct a film nominated for Best Picture, anything is possible, no? Bottom line, though: the industry needs to retire the casting couch for good.

Moving on: the novel is close to done, although I've been doing a lot more reading about the book business, and getting a debut novel published is a hell of a lot harder than people think. I was uncertain I wanted to sustain a career as a writer, but the signs point to building up a body of work before your novel can even get considered for publication: short stories, freelance articles - oh, and I should probably write a second manuscript while I'm at it. 

Do I wanna do all this? I can't deny I like writing; this blog is proof of that - and I have no shortage of ideas. I've come this far; I don't feel ready to set fiction writing aside yet. I think next year I may look into doing shorter stories, in addition to revising the novel; I'm told short stories are in now. I guess I'm willing to keep going; I'm just trepidatious as to where this all will lead...

I still haven't decided whether to see Justice League or not. I probably won't, but something could still change my mind.

Your links: 

FlixChatter Ruth's short film played at the Twin Cities Film Festival!

Aurora and pals got to visit Joel McCrea's ranch.

Raquel eulogizes Hugh Hefner as a film fan.

Danny reviews a rare Edward G. Robinson film that sounds really interesting.

Jacqueline writes about the Claude Rains version of Phantom of the Opera and the tragic tale of its leading lady.

Debbie is reminded of her parents' wedding while watching Father of the Bride.

Tippi Hedren on Harvey Weinstein (and Hitchcock).

Marsha Hunt, whom I've talked about here before, hit the century mark last month.

Why didn't anyone ever tell me Tom Petty was in The Postman? Also, there was a movie called I Hate Tom Petty.

What if Lord of the Rings had been made in the late 30s by Warner Bros?

And then there was the time theater owners helped curtail rowdy trick-or-treaters on Halloween.