Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2017

Again, not a whole lot of rare or unusual things happened at the movies this year, but there were some rare and unusual movies.

5. Talk of the Town at the Astoria Historical Society. It wasn't exactly a large crowd - it wasn't even a crowd - but Sandi and I enjoyed the movie nonetheless, we made a new friend, and the day on the whole was pleasant. I think the Society gets more people at screenings when they're tied to a major event of some sort. This wasn't. It's okay, though.

4. Rebecca at Vija's place. Also more for that entire day, pouring rain, donuts, and all, although the situation with the malfunctioning DVD player was certainly an event in itself. I would've hated to have lost that DVD. In fact, I wrote a short story inspired by that incident. Gonna shop it around next year.

3. Island of Lost Souls at the Loews JC. Once again, Halloween at the Loews means party time; I got to hang with Aurora, plus I finally met Monstergirl (along with her girlfriend). Wish I could've stayed for all three movies in the triple bill, but I had a good time anyway.

2. Loving Vincent. One of the rare occasions I've loved a movie more for its looks than its story. The plot was good; it's just I wanted to bask in the visuals more - and every single frame of this extraordinary film literally is a work of art. It's a singular achievement that needs to be seen to be believed.

1. Mother! Full stop. I'm still not sure how I feel about this movie, but I do know it took brass balls to make, and Darren Aronofsky has got 'em. Maybe if I had gone into it knowing everything, I might not have been as freaked out by it as I was, but it seems to me this is why we go to the movies in the first place: for the possibility of seeing something you've never seen before that will shake you up in some way, even if you don't understand how or why. This may not make my top 10 for the year, but damn if it wasn't the craziest two hours I've spent in a movie theater in a long time.

Happy new year to you all. Barring any news about the future of the Lincoln Plaza, I'll return January 9.

2016 top five
2015 top five
2014 top five
2013 top five
2012 top five
2011 top five

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Even as a kid, I had the impression King Kong wanted to, um, do the horizontal mambo with the chick. Maybe it's not as obvious in the Fay Wray original, but it sure as hell is in the Jessica Lange version, the one I grew up with. I couldn't have articulated it then, but I distinctly remember having "that funny feeling" when he was alone with her, using his finger to tug at her clothes...

In all those old monster movies where the heroine is carried by the alien or the creature or the robot or whatever - a trope stolen from the covers of pulp SF books and magazines - I suspect the implication of sexual intent was there, but how often did we actually see it happen?

Friday, December 22, 2017

Off-topic: cookies a la Paddy

So I was rummaging through Paddy's back pages and found this recipe for chocolate chip cookies, which she calls choir cookies (click the link to find out why). I've made a few desserts ever since I've seriously taken up cooking, but I hadn't tried cookies of any kind yet, so this seemed like a good time.

The good news is, they were edible!  I didn't follow the sequence exactly (I was finishing dinner at the same time I was working on these) and I thought they would come out wrong; plus, my oven didn't cook them all the way through the first time, so I had to bake them longer, but in the end, they looked the way chocolate chip cookies should look.

They're not as soft as I expected: firm shell outside, softer on the inside; tasted a little buttery (even though I used I Can't Believe It's Not Butter); lots of chips. They're okay. I'm sure Paddy makes them better.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Lincoln Plaza the latest theater to close

...In an interview with Deadline, owner Dan Talbot and his wife said that they have done “everything we could ask for the lease to be extended,” but building owner, Milstein Properties, is only “looking to make money.

This one hurts. The Lincoln has an excellent selection of movies, good food, nice seats; some of the auditoriums have beams that obscure your view depending on where you're sitting, but not by much and not that many. The owners say this closure is only to make renovations, but no one knows for certain what the timetable for that will be.

On a personal level, I don't know if everyone else in our film club feels this way, but I know I had come to think of it as almost "ours." Vija and Lynn and Andi like going there for Woody Allen movies (although this year they saw Wonder Wheel across town at the City Cinemas), but we like seeing all kinds of movies there too. This was one venue we all agreed on for a long time.

The neighborhood is upscale; Lincoln Center is a stone's throw away, so the restaurants and shops cater to that particular crowd, but if we have time to spare, we'll occasionally go to a diner on Columbus Avenue, a little further over.

The online reaction has been big. This is more than a neighborhood theater, like Cinemart; it's a nationally-known venue that has a tradition of providing a home for indies and foreign cinema. Plus, a number of people see this as another sign of developers having their way with city planning at the expense of cultural institutions.

A petition to attempt to stop this from happening has already been formed; I've signed it. If you live in the New York metropolitan area and you care about indie film, I hope you will too. I'll keep an eye on this and provide any updates.

(Thanks Debbie and Lynn for telling me!)

More NYC theaters facing the wrecking ball
What if more movie theaters were non-profit?

Movies I saw at the Lincoln:
Loving Vincent
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
Cafe Society
Les Cowboys
45 Years
Blue Jasmine
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Blue Valentine
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist
seen @ AMC Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens NY

I've always felt I had some measure of artistic talent. People I trust - family, friends, teachers, critics - have said as much, and it has been a driving force, maybe the driving force, in my life: the belief I could do something with it, even if I could never decide exactly what... but what if I've overestimated myself?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Alan Hale Sr.: More than Flynn's sidekick

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

Mention the name Alan Hale today and if you don't get a blank stare, you might get a response associated with Gilligan's Island - but that was Alan Junior, a noted film and TV actor in his own right. We'll get to him in a bit. Today's subject is his dad, Alan Senior, a fixture within classic Hollywood going way back.

The former Rufus Edward Mackahan originally aspired to sing opera before going into the movies instead. He spent the early 1910s appearing in a wide variety of shorts before graduating to features. As a young man, he's recognizable; his mustache is smaller, but he's still a big guy (6' 2"), still has that wavy hair. 

In addition to making movies with Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney, Jackie Coogan, Tom Mix, Colleen Moore and others, he had a side as a director. He helmed a movie called Braveheart seventy years before Mel Gibson. Here's a funny story from his silent era days.

In 1922, Hale made the first of three Robin Hood movies, playing Robin's right hand man Little John in all three. The silent Robin is pure Tinseltown spectacle, with a large cast and larger sets: the castle alone is believed to be the biggest for a Hollywood silent. It's Fairbanks' movie through and through, but Hale acquits himself just fine in it.

It's not until the talkies that we get a better sense of Hale's boisterous screen persona, usually in support to the protagonist(s). In It Happened One Night, for example, he's the driver who stops at the sight of Claudette Colbert's bare leg, singing as he drives.

My favorite role of his is in Stella Dallas, where he plays Barbara Stanwyck's drinking buddy who inadvertently drives a wedge between her and her family; Stanwyck wants to be respectable, but at the same time her association with Hale, who isn't a bad guy at heart, embarrasses her husband.

Hale made thirteen movies with Errol Flynn, including the 1938 Robin; they were mostly adventure films of one kind or another, whether they were swashbucklers, like The Prince and the Pauper and The Sea Hawk, or westerns like Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail. When Hale reprised his Little John role in 1950 for Rogues of Sherwood Forest, it was without his friend Flynn; John Derek put on the green tights, but not as Robin: as Robin's son, who must reunite the Merry Men.

Alan Jr. was born to Alan Sr. and his wife of over thirty years, actress Gretchen Hartman, in 1921. Junior made movies beginning in 1933 after starting on Broadway. He made a bunch of films and TV shows before he set sail on that ill-fated three-hour tour beginning in 1964. In 1979, he reprised his father's role of Porthos (from the Three Musketeers film The Man in the Iron Mask) in The Fifth Musketeer.

I like seeing Hale Sr. in old movies; he has an easy charm and ebullience that plays well with his bigger co-stars. He shared a screen with two of the biggest action heroes of all time, Fairbanks and Flynn (not to mention Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and perhaps that's how he's remembered best amongst cinephiles, but he also had a substantial career that began deep within the silent era and well beyond, which is pretty impressive.

Films with Alan Hale Sr.:
So Big!
Stella Dallas
The Adventures of Robin Hood
They Drive By Night

Sig Ruman
Shelley Winters
Joe E. Brown

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lady Bird

Lady Bird
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Let's talk about Saoirse Ronan, because I have a feeling we're gonna talk about her a whole lot more in the future. As I've said here, I knew she was going places the first time I saw her, in Atonement. Child actors who achieve success rarely live up to that promise as an adult, but so far, Ronan has bucked that trend.

She's worked with quality directors: Joe Wright, Peter Jackson, Peter Weir and Wes Anderson, among others, with baby steps into the mainstream - though I'm sure it's only a matter of time until somebody puts her in a superhero movie or a Star Wars spin-off or whatever.

She's American! I totally did not know that; she was only raised in Ireland. Not only that, she's a New Yorker, born in the Boogie Down Bronx. "Saoirse" is Irish Gaelic for "freedom."

Every year, it seems, some fine young actress comes along who is proclaimed as the new "it girl," the next Audrey Hepburn; movie pundits love anointing one, whether it's Emma Stone or Jenny Lawrence or Anne Hathaway or Kate Hudson or Gwyneth Paltrow, etc. etc.

Ronan's new film, Lady Bird, written and directed by indie film lifer Greta Gerwig, is a very good, very pleasant coming-of-age story that has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes; as a result, Ronan has become the current "it girl" and an Oscar contender.

It's my hope all this sudden attention won't go to her head; I want her to be popular enough to keep making good movies, but I don't want to see her get sucked up into the movie star hype and wind up on Page Six with a pop singer. It's way too soon to tell if that will happen - she's only 23 - but so far, she strikes me as level-headed and smart, and most importantly, she grew up and still has a career. That alone is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, I've seen very few of Gerwig's films as an actress. She was good in 20th Century Women; I don't remember who she played in Jackie. As a director, she gave us a nice sense of her hometown of Sacramento, the setting for Lady Bird. Her script was very character-driven, balancing humor with drama; Lady Bird is believable as a modern teenage girl who knows what she wants. I liked her relationship with her parents. This is one hell of a debut; a Best Picture nod has got to be a possibility.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Requiem for a Heavyweight
TCM viewing

By the year 1954, television was taking off: Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Ozzie & Harriet Nelson had top-rated shows; The Tonight Show debuted; Senator Joseph McCarthy became an unwitting TV star at the peak of the Red Scare - and a 30-year-old ex-radio writer had moved to New York with his family, stepping up from local TV in Cincinnati. His name was Rod Serling.

If you've ever stared out an airplane window, wondering if a monster is riding the wing; if you've ever looked at a child's doll and suspected it had a mind of its own; if you've ever noticed the lights in the night sky and feared aliens had infiltrated your cozy suburban neighborhood, you've been touched by his legacy.

Long before he led us into another dimension, not of sight and sound but of mind, Serling was another struggling freelance writer looking to break into the new medium that took America by storm in the 1950s, rewriting rejected radio scripts and pitching them to anthology series. In 1955, his teleplay for Kraft Television Theatre called "Patterns" was a hit, and it got him noticed. (I watched it for this post; it's very good.)

Playhouse 90 is now considered the gold standard of anthology series on television. After the success of "Patterns," Serling sold to the series' producers a teleplay that he would later call one of his greatest achievements as a writer: the boxing drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight," the tale of an over-the-hill pugilist searching for a life outside the squared circle even though fighting is all he knows. Jack Palance and Kim Hunter starred.

Serling and director Ralph Nelson both won Emmys for this episode. Adaptations were filmed in other countries, including England (where Sean Connery starred!). The New York Times called it "a play of overwhelming force and tenderness.... an artistic triumph."

In 1962, Serling and Nelson re-teamed for the film version, with a new cast: Anthony Quinn and Julie Harris, plus Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney. That's the version I saw on TCM.

It begins with Quinn's character getting his butt kicked in the ring, but it's shot entirely from his perspective, Lady in the Lake style. (This must have been where Ryan Coogler got the idea for use in Creed.) The camera blurs, going in and out of focus as if Quinn's eyesight was fading. When Quinn loses, Gleason and Rooney walk him back to the trainer's room (the walking is more convincing here than in Lady; a hand-held camera must have been used). We even see a rope lifted as he leaves the ring.

When we finally see Quinn's face, it's in a mirror, and he's a bloody pulp; that's when the opening credits roll. Oh, and did I mention his opponent is none other than Cassius Clay - before he became Muhammad Ali? He even got a line.

Quinn doesn't get a visit from the devil, offering him a deal; nor does he slip into an alternate reality or discover he's really a mannequin or anything like that; it's a straightforward drama with the same attention to human frailty and foible we've come to associate with Serling, held together by a dynamite cast.

I watched this with my mother, who once again, couldn't appreciate the artistry of the screenplay because it had a downer ending. Maybe I shouldn't complain - different people like different things in different ways - but my father would've loved this movie. He would've gotten why it ended the way it did and he would've appreciated it in a way my mother can't, for whatever reason. It's frustrating, but what can I do?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Five films based on self-published novels

...Bestselling self-published authors attract producers because they have a proven track record if they stay on Amazon sales charts over time, Howey said. “Hollywood is always looking for a built-in audience. They want to know they’ll recoup their investment,” he says. “Modern films easily cost $100m to make, usually more. There isn't much room for risk here.”
I've reached the end of the manuscript for my novel, though I can't call it finished yet; as a story, it's coherent, but there's more I can do to make it stronger, like streamlining the characters, removing excess detail, researching certain legal and medical plot points. I won't start until next month, though. After living with these characters for four years, I could use a break.

At some point, though, I'll have to make a serious decision about this novel's fate: will I get it professionally published, or will I do it myself? Neither option will guarantee success, but from what I've read, self-publishing sounds like a more sensible option, even if it's also the harder one.

No matter which way I go, I definitely don't expect Hollywood to notice. I wouldn't have thought self-published books were high on their radar, but if the article at the top is any indication, a tiny handful have beaten the odds and gotten made into films.

The 50 Shades franchise is the reigning champ so far. E.L. James created a website to publish her disguised Twilight fanfic, which got some notice and took off in a big way. Andy Weir took the same approach for The Martian. I don't know if that approach would work with me; besides, it's not considered a good idea to use outliers like these as a model.

Self-publishing has become easier than ever thanks to the rise of e-books, but it's certainly not new, and Tinseltown has taken chances on self-published novels before, as you can see in the following examples:

- Peter Rabbit. The manuscript for Beatrix Potter's turn-of-the-century children's book The Tale of Peter Rabbit drew more interest for her illustrations than the story itself, so in 1901, she made 250 copies for family and friends (including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle). One friend took it upon himself to revise it and send it to a publisher, Warne, and after some debate over the pictures, among other things, Potter signed a contract the next year. In 1938, Potter turned down a Disney adaptation over marketing issues, but Warner Bros. made a short film inspired by the book called Country Boy Rabbit. In later years, the book led to a ballet film and several animated series, and next year, it'll become a CGI movie.

Spartacus. When Howard Fast got thrown in the slammer by Congress for not ratting on his Communist pals, he wrote this sword-and-sandal book in 1951 in response and got a bunch of supporters to fund the printing. When Kirk Douglas got a hold of a copy, he bought an option on the book with his own money, and set up the film adaptation at Universal. (Little-known fact: Yul Brynner also wanted to make a Spartacus movie, at United Artists.) Fast struggled with the screenplay, so Douglas got blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo instead, who finished it in two weeks.

- Eragon. Christopher Paolini wrote the first book in his fantasy saga as a teenager, if you can believe that. His parents happened to run a small publishing company of their own, so maybe it's not entirely accurate to say this was self-published. While touring the country to promote the book, in which Paolini would dress up in a medieval costume, the stepson of author Carl Hiaasen bought a copy. Hiaasen showed it to Knopf, and they republished it in 2003. A year later, Fox bought the film rights, but the movie bombed big time.

Still Alice. Neuroscientist Lisa Genova self-published this women's fiction story in 2007 through iUniverse, one of a number of websites that offer publishing services. In 2009, Simon & Schuster republished it. Before it became an Oscar-winning film, it was a play. Christine Mary Dunford of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater Company adapted the story for the stage; it lasted a little over a month. British producers Lex Lutzus & James Brown bought the rights for co-directors Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland. Glatzer had recently been diagnosed with ALS, and his experience factored into the development of the film, in which the main character has Alzheimer's disease.

- The Shack. William Young wasn't going to publish his Christian fantasy novel, a Christmas gift for his kids, until he was talked into it, working with two ex-pastors and a filmmaker to self-publish the book in 2007. Word of mouth, through churches and blogs, plus a website, pumped it up to the top of the New York Times best-seller list for paperback fiction in its debut week. Some religious critics didn't like the book, calling it heretical (the main character encounters three avatars of the Holy Trinity, in non-traditional forms). Summit Entertainment made a film version that came out earlier this year. It made $96.4 million on a $20 million budget.

Writing a novel and getting it published is one thing; having that novel turned into a movie is something else altogether. The thought of the latter is mighty enticing, but I think I'll worry about the former first. It's a hard enough goal on its own.

Five books I read after seeing the movie

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Facts of Life

The Lucy & Desi Blogathon is an event honoring the television and film careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host site.

The Facts of Life
YouTube viewing

Everybody associates Lucille Ball with her husband Desi Arnaz, but she also had a professional and personal relationship with Bob Hope. The Facts of Life was one of four films the legendary comedians made together, along with Sorrowful Jones, Fancy Pants (before) and Critic's Choice (after).

Ball and Hope had a different rapport with each other. Hope was more of a natural comedian than Desi; in Hope's first extended scene in Facts, for example, he does stand-up. In watching I Love Lucy, or her movies with Desi, there's more of a sense of Lucy as the special one, even though the spotlight is on both of them. Lucy's the one doing the crazy things: stuffing eggs down her blouse, driving a lawnmower out of control, etc.

With Hope, it feels more like a match-up of equals, at least here; they both have so much experience, not just as comedic actors, but as actors, and it shows whenever they're on screen together. Desi was an actor, but he was also a musician and a producer, careers about which he was equally passionate.

In Facts, Ball and Hope are friends who cheat on their spouses with each other. Age plays a role, but for laughs: in one scene, they swim on the beach at night, but when they're about to kiss, she catches a cold; in another, they both squint at their playing cards until they both admit they need their glasses after all. It's not Brief Encounter.

Ball and Hope start their affair while on vacation; the problems arise when they go back home and attempt to recapture the magic. The moments are funny, but they're also tinged with a little sadness, too: in trying to evade their respective spouses, they're like teenagers sneaking out of their parents' houses to rendezvous at Lovers Lane.

Facts was released in 1960, the same year as Lucy's divorce from Desi, as well as the end of the I Love Lucy spin-off, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. According to the book, Desilu, by Coyne Steven Sanders & Tom Gilbert, Desi was charged with "extreme cruelty" and "grievous mental suffering" as a result of his drinking and womanizing. Lucy knew how their fans would react to the news:
..."I received eight thousand letters at the time of the divorce announcement and read most of them," Lucille said later.... "They said, 'Why isn't there something you can do?' They didn't know I had been trying to do it for years. I was painfully aware of the feeling the American public had for Lucy [Ricardo] and their need for Lucy and Ricky as a happy family. The awareness held up my decision for a long time, until I couldn't allow it to do so anymore. Lucy solved a lot of marital problems for our viewers, and the idea of finding a laugh in a hopeless situation worked for Desi and me for a long time, too."
Their separation was amicable, all things considered; in fact, Ball and Hope tried to get Desi to appear in Facts, but he said his TV production commitments left him with no time.

Lucy would go on to meet comedian Gary Morton and marry him a year later; they'd stay together until her death in 1989...but that is another story.

Desilu Studios
Books: Desilu

Other Lucy & Desi movies:
The Long Long Trailer
Forever Darling

Friday, December 1, 2017

Disastrous links

If I were to guess, I'd say most of us knew, or at least suspected, sexual harassment existed within Hollywood and either accepted it as fact or perhaps assumed there were channels through which someone could go in order to combat it - SAG, for instance. 

If there's any justice, this current wave of exposure will have repercussions beyond the film industry because it is by no means limited there (as long as it doesn't morph into a witch hunt); what I wanna talk about, though, is how do we, the movie-going audience, move on from here?

When I talked about Bill Cosby earlier this year, I had said I have too many good memories of him on television for them to be easily erased by the mountain of accusations leveled against him. On a fundamental level, this feels right. Kevin Spacey's career as a Hollywood actor may be finished, but no one's gonna erase American Beauty from the record, or The Usual Suspects or Seven; he still did excellent work in those and other movies.

Flawed people are capable of great works of art. Should discovering the flaws negate the work? I say no. Barbara Stanwyck was a right-winger who was rabidly anti-Communist and she is still my favorite actress.

I think we, the audience, have to be very careful not to look upon movie stars, or celebrities in general, or anybody in the public eye, really, as role models. Back in the studio era, it was easy to fall for the myth of the star as a larger-than-life demigod, because that's how they were sold to us -- but it was as much a lie then as it is now.

We need to draw a line in the sand that separates our respect for movie stars as entertainers from admiration little different from idolatry. That's not easy... but I think it's necessary. We just don't know who these people really are anymore. We never did.


The novel is done! This draft, anyway; the next phase is revision, but I won't start that until next year. I have a fairly good idea of what needs fixing, and of what needs to be researched. I'll know more once I get feedback from my beta readers (I want four, but I'll settle for three).

Once it's DONE-done, as in proofread and strengthened, will l I try to take it to the big publishers, or will I self-publish it? Still don't know for sure. I'm reading so many writing blogs, learning all kinds of things about the industry and Amazon and e-books and this and that... It's safe to say it'll be awhile before I decide one way or another.


This has been a hard week for me, so I'm gonna talk about two new movies here instead of giving them separate posts: 

- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was quite good. Frances McDormand's character is justifiably angry over the lack of justice for her murdered daughter, and that anger threatens to consume her, but we run out of movie before we discover how far she's willing to go. That was deliberate on writer-director Martin McDonagh's part; I'm still not sure how I feel about that, but regardless, this is a dream role for McDormand and she nails it.

- Coco comes a year after another animated movie set in a foreign culture about a young guitarist, Kubo and the Two Strings, but Pixar takes a different approach, using a holiday, the Day of the Dead, to define this world, the way it works, and how the characters act within this world. I was unfamiliar with the specifics of the holiday, so I had to really pay attention to understand why X does Y and how that will lead to Z, but it was so worth the effort. The opening act was a new Frozen Christmas short featuring the magic snow golem Olaf, and I hated him within the first two minutes. I'm in no hurry to see the original film.

Links after the jump.