Friday, June 28, 2019

Yesterday’s links

I’m taking a longer summer vacation than usual to catch up on my fiction writing. If anything eventful happens, or if you wanna talk, I’ll be on Twitter (@ratzo318), but otherwise, I’ll return here on July 12.


Add the City Cinemas Paris in midtown Manhattan to the endangered species list for movie theaters in New York. I haven’t been here much, but it’s a gorgeous one-screen theater that feels both modern and old school. I even remember the first film I saw there; it was Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, with Sigourney Weaver. Also saw Life is Beautiful. In recent years, I went there a few more times with my movie-going crew. Don’t know if I’ll make it back there this summer or not, but if it folds, New York will have lost another cinematic treasure.


Not much else to say right now, so let’s go straight to the links:

Gill discusses an Australian TV show that was a launching pad for a number of future film stars.

Ruth reviews a book about a group of Bela Lugosi B-movies that may have more to them than meets the eye.

Le writes about Errol Flynn’s first feature film.

Virginie makes up some thematic double features.

Toy Story and the nature of consciousness and individuality. (SPOILERS)

Quentin Tarantino is still serious about making a Star Trek movie!

The surge in biopics and other films featuring popular music is fueled by branding.

The Lion King remake challenges the meaning of “animation.”

Robert De Niro is building a new studio in Queens.

Sony named a theater on their lot after the late John Singleton.

A film composer discusses his craft.

What is the top Canadian film of all time?

Neil Patrick Harris tries New York’s new subway fare payment system for the first time. (A system we should’ve had years ago, but whatevs.)

See you in two weeks.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY


The first three Toy Story films rank up there with the greatest live-action trilogies in history. The fourth is a kind of post-script, one I never would’ve thought was necessary until I actually saw it. TS4 reminded me that these films were, and always had been, Woody’s story. His relationship with Andy has always lain at the heart of everything: not a parent, not quite a guardian, but something more than a friend (Randy Newman’s theme song notwithstanding), and for the first three films Woody’s purpose was to be there for Andy, no matter what. Now, though, Andy has grown up and moved on, and Woody is young Bonnie’s toy now — but his relationship with her is not the same.

Toy Story was Woody’s story. But his story has come to an end.*

Monday, June 24, 2019

Five films about the 1969 Mets (sort of)

This weekend, members of the 1969 World Champion Miracle Mets team will gather at Citi Field here in Queens, for what may be the last time in such a formal setting, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the summer they accomplished what many thought was not only improbable, but just plain impossible.

In 1969, the Mets were an expansion team not even a decade old that had known nothing but futility for their entire baseball life — and I mean epic futility. In 1962, their first year, they lost 120 games, and were only marginally better in subsequent years. Still, they had a lovable charm to them that New York embraced. Then they acquired some legitimate talent, as well as a manager who refused to tolerate losing, and dreamt of becoming a contender, but no one expected the leap forward they made in that summer when men walked on the moon and anything seemed possible.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Rolling Thunder Revue

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
seen @ IFC Center, New York NY

I opted to see Rolling Thunder Revue with Virginia at the last minute because I was afraid it would rain on Sunday (it did) and Toy Story 4 wasn’t out yet (though she doesn’t have much interest in that), but when I realized this is a Netflix film getting a theatrical release, I felt funny about paying money to see it.

With Roma, the big attraction in seeing that theatrically was Alfonso Cuaron’s beautiful visuals and deft compositions on a wide screen — not to mention the excellent story. That was worth paying for, and I did, twice in fact. Nothing about Revue screamed “See this on a big screen”; I doubt most documentaries “need” to be seen that way. Martin Scorsese’s next film, The Irishman, will also come out theatrically and on Netflix simultaneously, and at this point I’m not sure if I’ll make the same choice.

So. Bob Dylan. I told Virginia after the film that it was difficult for me to truly appreciate what a cultural icon he was during the 60s, as much as I’ve read about him, watched videos about him, and listened to his music. Revue helped, but for someone who wasn’t there during his creative peak, what he meant to people still strikes me as peculiar, especially now that songwriting skill in general feels devalued these days.

In 1975, Dylan organized a tour with Joan Baez and other folkies, plus counterculture figures like Allen Ginsberg, in which he played small towns in smaller venues, riding around in a bus which he drove himself. It was called the Rolling Thunder Revue. Concert footage from that tour, plus new interviews with Dylan and others, comprise this doc, continuing a streak of concert films Scorsese has pursued on and off for years, including The Last Waltz (The Band), Shine a Light (the Rolling Stones) and George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It also captures some of the zeitgeist of the era.

And it includes material Scorsese simply made up.

Why? He comes close to explaining his rationale in this interview, though if you look at the film on its own, you could easily be fooled into thinking the whole thing was genuine. Theories abound — here’s one — but ultimately this doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should. Dylan always struck me as this enigmatic, almost mythical figure. The pompous subtitle kinda implies there’s more going on here than what lies on the surface, something that feeds into the myth of Dylan — and Scorsese’s not the first filmmaker to recognize this. Remember that Todd Haynes “biopic” of Dylan, I’m Not There, in which “Dylan” was played by, among others, a black child and a woman? Something about Dylan seems to inspire reinterpretation... but I’m not the one to explain why.

Virginia really dug this movie. She had wanted to see it before I off-handedly suggested it, and not just because she did live through the peak Dylan era. She knew peripherally a couple of people in the film from musical performances she was part of in the past — a fourth or fifth degree of separation, I think. She kept telling me about it during the film.

Watching it with an audience, I felt like everyone else understood Dylan and his career, not to mention the people involved in this story, better than me: there was knowing laughter in spots I didn’t think was funny, and even Virginia made “mm hmm” noises to herself in recognition, as if she was having a conversation with the film to which I wasn’t privy. I half-expected this sort of thing. Every time I think I’ve gotten a handle on 60s culture (Dylan is of the 60s, and this movie feeds off that vibe), something new comes along — like this.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Binge Experiment

Binge-watching television has become such a natural part of our lives that sometimes we’re not even aware we do it. Part of it has to do with technology, in particular the evolution of home video, from VHS and DVD box sets to the DVR to streaming services such as Netflix. Part of it is the explosion of new cable networks that need something to put on the air before they develop original programming. And of course, part of it is the Internet, where you can upload entire seasons of old and new shows (I’m currently making my way through The Honeymooners on YouTube).

Some people take bingeing way too far, though, and last month I sought to understand why. I studied the binge phenomena in further depth by taking two streaming shows on Netflix, Ozark and Longmire, and watched the first seasons of both, the former one episode at a time and the latter all at once.

But first I asked my friends about bingeing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Books: All About ‘All About Eve’

The 2019 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.

I used to work in video retail with a middle-aged man named Bill. He was instrumental in giving me a classic film education, so I think kindly of him, but I knew him as mostly irascible and gruff. He was also a gay man of a certain age, and as such, there were particular classic movies and movie actresses he placed upon a pedestal. Watching them could change his whole attitude in an instant.

Every year on his birthday, without fail, he’d put on All About Eve for one scene: At midnight, the phone operator wakes up Margo, Bette Davis’ character, for a west coast call to her fiancĂ©e Bill. At first she’s confused; she doesn’t realize the call was arranged secretly by Eve. Then Margo recognizes the occasion and smiles. “Bill!” says Margo. “It’s your birthday!” “My” Bill would hear that and melt.

But then, Bette Davis had that effect on people.

All About Eve is a fantastic movie that has dated little over the years. The theater isn’t as central to American pop culture as it once was, but the themes of ambition and careerism and middle age are as relevant now as they were in 1951, when it won the Oscar for Best Picture. The book All About ‘All About Eve’ by Sam Staggs chronicles the evolution of the tale of the aging theater diva and the mousy young groupie, and there’s much more to the route than most people realize.

Elisabeth Bergner, the inspiration for the character
who would become Margo Channing 
Did you know Eve was inspired by a true story? In the book we discover the middle-aged thespian from long ago, Elisabeth Bergner, who was the basis for the character of Margo Channing, and the young actress who wanted to be her. A third woman, only peripherally connected, was inspired to write a short story about the two. It was published. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz saw it, adapted it for the screen, and the rest is history.

Staggs writes about that initial author, Mary Orr, and how her story got her in trouble with the real-life “Eve,” plus Orr’s struggle for proper credit on what would become the Eve screenplay, and her reunion with “Eve” many years later. We learn about who else was considered for the role of Margo, the significance of the film in the lives of the cast, including an up-and-coming starlet named Marilyn Monroe, how hangers-on like George Sanders’ wife Zsa Zsa Gabor played a factor, the budding romance between Davis and co-star Gary Merrill, and of course, all the off-camera bickering. In addition, Staggs discusses the Broadway adaptation Applause, with Lauren Bacall, and the embrace of the film by the gay community.

Mary Orr, who wrote the story that
became All About Eve 
Staggs writes All About in more of a fannish manner than a journalistic one, by his own admission. Davis and Merrill and Anne Baxter are Bette and Gary and Anne (with the occasional “Miss Davis” for period authenticity). His style is chatty in an Entertainment Tonight, Liz Smith kind of way: in interviews with living subjects, like Orr, he includes asides in the conversation like “You don’t really wanna know about this, do you?” and things like that.

You either like that kind of stuff or you don’t. I found it a bit distracting, and yes, I realize how that sounds coming from me, Mr. “I am not a film critic.” It makes me want to reevaluate my own writing, for this blog, but that’s another issue.

Staggs rambles on a bit too much at times. He’s extremely erudite, but I did think he loved the sound of his voice too much. I would say that’s the risk one takes when writing as a fan, but bloggers like Farran Smith Nehme, Kendra Bean, even Raquel and Aurora put the lie to that, so I dunno.

Bottom line, All About is very informative and illuminating. You might not be put off by Staggs’s writing style. If you love Eve the movie, check this out; just don’t expect it to read like Cahiers du Cinema.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rocketman (2019)

Rocketman (2019)
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

The “tortured artist/musician” biopic has become a sub-genre all its own. True, these lives are dysfunctional and make for poor role models, but they’re almost always more interesting to see dramatized than a “clean” life. I mean, there’s very little about my life as an artist and writer that would make for high drama without some heavy embellishment — but then, I’m not famous. I think, cliche though it may be, a troubled life might be the price one pays for artistic immortality.

As I write this, I’m reminded of what Jacqueline told me about her Ann Blyth biography: that the actress led a comparatively “clean” life, and that’s reflected in the book, but Jacqueline speculated such a life might be a difficult sell to major publishers — one reason among several why she chose to self-publish it.

We want torture in our artist biopics, torture and weirdness with a redemptive ending if possible, especially when it’s about a musician — and when Hollywood inevitably makes movies about people like Bowie, Prince, Michael, Cobain, Tupac, Amy, etc., they’ll get it in spades. Artists like these live these crazy lives so we don’t have to. It’s the Achilles dilemma: which is better, a long life lived in obscurity or a short life which will be remembered forever? Maybe there’s a third option.

Which brings us to Elton John. In the op-ed he wrote for The Guardian prior to the release of his biopic Rocketman, John said some studios wanted less sex and drugs and more rock and roll, so to speak, so it could play as a PG-13 film, but John told them his life wasn’t quite as neat as all that:
...I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a lot of both during the 70s and 80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for company.
Left unspoken is the implication of a lesson to be learned here: John led this life of debauchery that almost killed him, but it didn’t. He came out more than okay, in fact; he’s bigger than ever and more successful, with a husband and children to boot. One could say he was able to have his cake and eat it too — not that I would recommend treading this path to anyone. He didn’t become a cautionary tale.

Rocketman comes hot on the heels of another biopic about a gay rock musician who had issues, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody (a PG-13 movie), it doesn’t shy away from the rougher bits. We see Taron Egerton, as John, have passionate sex with another man; we see him snort all manner of drugs, we see the Bacchanalian parties, and while it was all handled artfully, I wasn’t as shocked by any of it as perhaps the filmmakers had hoped. Maybe I’ve become jaded?

What impressed me more was how this was a musical in the traditional sense: the songs weren’t just for when John performs in concert; they’re also used to help tell the story. They’re recontextualized to fit John’s narrative: songs that were written at later times in his life, such as “Crocodile Rock” And “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” are used at earlier points in the movie because they fit the scene. Other songs are used similarly, sometimes as part of big, glitzy dance numbers.

It felt much like a Broadway show instead of a movie, which was probably intentional on director Dexter Fletcher’s part. John’s younger self reappears at key moments in the narrative. Flights of fancy occur, such as John levitating off the stage. John’s rehab group in the framing sequence accompanies him into the song-and-dance numbers. It’s all pretty bizarre, but you’re encouraged to just go along with it. And Egerton is outstanding, doing his own singing and coming across convincingly as John. It’s early days yet, but is it possible we could see back-to-back Best Actor Oscar winners for rock biopics? Basically Rocketman is what Rhapsody wasn’t, and should have been.

I saw this with Ann. She was more open to seeing a rock movie than I had thought. She said afterwards that the movie sustained her interest even though she wasn’t familiar with John or his music beyond knowing a few big hits of his.

Saturday, June 8, 2019


The 2019 Reel Infatuation Blogathon is an event devoted to favorite movie characters, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

from my VHS collection 

No one believes us when we talk about Matilda, but that’s how it is with grownups. They think just because you’re little you don’t know anything

That’s so dumb. 

Matilda was our friend. She could do things, magic things. She got rid of the Trunchbull. But the grownups always say it was something else.

Except for Miss Honey. She loved Matilda. That’s why they’re together now.

Matilda saved all of us and that’s why we love her too.

But her story is pretty weird.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The military career of Flight Lt. James Doohan

The D-Day Blogathon is an event memorializing the events of June 6, 1944 through film, hosted by Hamlette’s Soliloquy and Coffee, Classics and Craziness. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

I blew a chance to meet James Doohan. It was the mid-90s, and I was at a comic book convention — in Boston, perhaps, but I can’t swear to that. This was during my venture into self-publishing my own comics, and I was on my way to a panel discussion I had thought would help me in my fledgling career. I strode down a carpeted hall. To my left were tables with artists and celebrity guests from TV and film. If you’ve ever been to a con, you know they’re a regular sight, even if they have no direct connection to comics or even sci-fi/fantasy.

I looked and there he was: Scotty from Star Trek.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Jersey Boys

The Broadway Bound Blogathon is an event spotlighting film adaptations of Broadway shows, hosted by Taking Up Room. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.

Netflix viewing

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys received mediocre reviews, but I didn’t think it was that bad. It certainly didn’t redefine the famous-musician biopic — it hits all the familiar beats chronicling the rise, fall and redemption of the 60s doo-wop group the Four Seasons, and maybe one shouldn’t expect more than that, particularly from a director as un-flashy and workmanlike as him. It certainly didn’t feel like a stage show, I’ll say that much — and I had no problem with him using the stage stars, including Tony-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli.

I remember hearing the Four Seasons on AM radio as a kid. In fifth grade, in fact, I had a crush on a girl named Sherri (with an “i” not a “y”), but I’d feel awkward whenever I heard the song “Sherry,” like it was advertising to the world how I felt about her. I recall thinking the group’s high-pitched voices were very unusual for guys. They couldn’t be girls, could they?

The Four Seasons were not the kinda doo-wop group my father listened to. Growing up, I always heard him play the black groups: the Drifters, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, all those pre-Motown acts from the 50s and early 60s. I discovered the white groups like the Four Seasons on my own. I know I heard Valli’s solo hit “Grease” on the radio. I had heard the R&B remake of “Working My Way Back to You” first and thought it was the original. And I remember liking the storytelling aspect of  “December 1963” and wanting to know more about that night. Even as a kid, I had a yen for songs that told stories.

One of Virginia’s friends sings barbershop music, and she was briefly part of his quartet for a time. Barbershop is in the same ballpark as doo-wop, though I associate doo-wop with the inner city. It’s the music of street corners and dance halls, on hot summer nights — and while I never heard anybody sing doo-wop on any corners in my neighborhood, that image is inherently urban. With barbershop, I think of state fairs. Totally different vibe.

Jersey Boys is still playing in Manhattan, at the New World Stages. It opened in 2005, with the book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elise. Young was part of the original cast, as Valli, along with Daniel Reinhard as Bob Gaudio, Tony-winner Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito and J. Robert Spencer as Nick Massi. It won the Best Musical Tony as well as the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. The musical was Gaudio’s idea. Here’s an interview with him discussing the show. Brickman & Elise also wrote the screenplay for the film version.

Eastwood talks about the making of the film here. Recently there was a lawsuit involving Eastwood and Warner Brothers in which the matter of whether or not material from a DeVito autobiography was used without consent. The lawsuit originally applied to the stage show before the film version was included too. You can read about it in this THR article.

Other adaptations of theatrical shows:
Little Shop of Horrors 
West Side Story 
Guys and Dolls 
The Music Man 
Bells Are Ringing
Hedwig and the Angry Inch 
Carmen Jones
Brighton Beach Memoirs 
A Bronx Tale 
Watch on the Rhine 
A Raisin in the Sun