Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Well, I used up all of my Mr. Rogers material when talking about Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and I’ve talked about Tom Hanks in depth before, too, so I guess I’ll cut to the chase. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was directed by Marielle Heller, who also did the Melissa McCarthy drama from last year, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Whereas Neighbor was strictly about the life of TV children’s show host Fred Rogers, Neighborhood approaches the man from the perspective of Esquire journalist Tom Junod, renamed here “Lloyd Vogel.” Normally a hard-hitting, combative writer, he’s assigned to write a puff piece on Mr. Rogers for a special issue devoted to heroes. It comes at a time of change and great turmoil for him—which Mr. Rogers can’t help wanting to fix.

It should come as no surprise that Hanks is perfect as Mr. Rogers: the voice, the manner, even the singing, but the bulk of the film belongs to Matthew Rhys as “Lloyd.” It makes sense; his is the more dramatic story arc, and he was quite good. He’s cynical at first as to whether or not Mr. Rogers is for real; then, when Mr. Rogers probes his defenses, he’s confused and vulnerable, until the personal issues he has involving his family spill out. Heller wisely avoids the big cathartic moment, but she does mix reality with the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at one point in a scene meant to dramatize “Lloyd’s” fractured state of mind.

Overall, Neighborhood the dramatic movie is a nice complement to Neighbor the documentary. Really liked how Mr. Rogers’ tiny, artificial landscape from the show’s opening credits is expanded to include the whole city of Pittsburgh, plus New York.

I briefly talked to an older dude on the way out of the auditorium about the movie and Mr. Rogers in particular. He has four adopted kids, grown now. He wasn’t all that familiar with the TV show, but he really dug this movie. I imagine Hanks was the bigger draw for him, rather than Hanks-as-Mister-Rogers.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Through the Never

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Netflix viewing

Metallica: Through the Never
YouTube viewing

One of my Spotify playlists is called “Headbangers Ball.” It’s for metal and punk bands: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Black Flag, The Sex Pistols, etc. Generally, I have anywhere between three to seven songs for each band, for a total of over three hundred.

I have over twenty songs on the playlist for Metallica alone.

I don’t recall when I first discovered the San Francisco quartet, but I do remember buying their album And Justice For All on cassette, when it came out in 1988, around the time I seriously got into metal. I might’ve learned about them from my friends, or from the radio, maybe even from MTV—this was also around the time I first got cable.

Like lots of metal bands, Metallica writes songs about abstract concepts: war, violence, death, fear, politics, religion—you get the idea. Unlike lots of metal bands, they perform with a ferocity and a virtuosity unmatched in all of rock. If you’ve ever seen or heard them live, it’s like they operate at another level. Historically, despite changes to the band through the years, there have only been four active members at any one time, yet they engage the crowd and make them part of the show like few bands are capable of doing. It helps that their fans know the words to their most popular songs: “Enter Sandman,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Creeping Death,” “One,” and of course, “Master of Puppets.” When band and audience combine, the music becomes almost alive.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Good Liar

The Good Liar
seen @ AMC Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

Sometimes two actors star in a movie for the first time and you wonder why they never appeared together sooner. Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have both become big-bordering-on-household names later in their respective careers; the former as a result of her Oscar win for the 2006 biopic The Queen, the latter for his leading roles in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings franchises, but both of them have done consistently good work from earlier in life.

In an industry that worships at the altar of youth, it’s reassuring to know the two of them can be perceived not only as legitimate stars but glamorous ones, in their own ways. McKellen has this sly, almost roguish charm partly inspired by his great friendship with Patrick Stewart. He’s the cool grandpa who’ll not only let you play that Sex Pistols record that drives your folks up the wall, but he’ll buy you tickets to see them in concert and mosh in the pit with you!

As for Mirren, much has been written of her status as a GMILF icon. Recently, actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis and Linda Hamilton have found new life late in their careers as a result of reviving franchises they’re known for, and re-presenting themselves as badass mamas on par with their male counterparts. Mirren, by contrast, can be badass with a look better than other actresses her age can with a gun. She’s deliciously, irresistibly, unmistakably female—and powerful.

Therefore, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see them together in The Good Liar, the latest collaboration between McKellen and director Bill Condon, of Gods and Monsters fame—despite the mediocre reviews. Besides, as I said to Virginia after we saw it, it’s really nice to see thespians of their caliber together in a film that for once, doesn’t have mutants, aliens, giant robots or dragons. There’s still a place for films like this today, and if they’re good, they should be supported when possible.

And we thought it was good. Mirren and McKellen meet through an online dating service for seniors. They see each other, but he has an ulterior motive: he’s a con man trying to cheat her out of her savings. Her grandson suspects McKellen’s not what he seems, but then, neither is she... Lots of great location shots of London and Berlin, lots of double-dealing, an important World War 2 connection, and our two stars, in a story that only works with them as older people, not younger ones. They’re sexy without having sex, though there’s a very good in-story reason for that—-and while there’s some violence, it serves the story. Is it Hitchcock? Not quite, but it’s very watchable.

From what I could tell, it was close to a full house on an early Saturday evening, mostly full of old farts like me and Virginia. Going to the movies with her is a gas. She’s the type that’ll audibly react to everything: an “umph” at a notable plot twist, an “oooh” when things take a sinister turn, a “No, no, no” when the protagonist is on the verge of making the wrong decision—but with a big crowd, like last Saturday, I’m always worried someone will try to shush her, especially in a crowd of old farts! It didn’t happen, and I hope it doesn’t, but I can’t help but wonder...

I don’t go to many “senior-sploitation” flicks like this, probably because I don’t like thinking I’m the audience for them. I’m not even fifty yet! Still, the truth is, most of my friends these days are well north of fifty—hell, north of sixty. Don’t ask me why; it just happened that way. When I wrote about recent shifts in audience taste for comedy films, I acknowledged my tastes have changed from when I was younger. Does that mean I’ve gotten old? I fear it does—but if Mirren and McKellen are any kind of example, being old ain’t what it used to be.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Una O’Connor and her final resting place

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. 

And this is where she’s buried.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Manoel de Oliveira, late-blooming filmmaker

A Luso World Cinema Blogathon é um evento dedicado a filmes e cineastas em língua portuguesa de todo o mundo, organizado por Critica Retro e Spellbound by Movies. Para uma lista completa dos blogueiros participantes, visite os links nos sites de hospedagem.

Portugal, and Portuguese-speaking countries like Brazil, may not come immediately to mind when one thinks of world cinema, but even if you don’t know the films, chances are you may know more actors of Portugese descent than you think. Who can forget Carmen Miranda, dancing with that basket of fruit on her head? Mary Astor, of The Maltese Falcon and many other great 30s and 40s films, was Portuguese on her mother’s side. More recently, Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, James & Dave Franco, Amy Poehler and Jasmine Guy, among others, have some Portugese roots.

Regarding the films, here’s one list of top Portugese movies, and here’s another list of top Brazilian films, keeping in mind there are other countries worldwide that speak Portugese—that’s called being “Lusophone”—and have their own film industries. Many Lusophone filmmakers have made their marks, but one in particular stands above the rest—in part because he lived so long.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Five 5K runs inspired by movies

To be honest, running, for me, is not the transcendental experience it is for some. I jog up and down a small, three-block side street adjacent to my apartment building. I’ve done it in warm weather and now, Zod help me, I’m doing it in cold weather too. It’s lonely, grueling work. Every weekday it’s an effort to push myself to keep going, to keep my legs and feet in motion when all I’d rather do is stay in bed.

I don’t trust my feet. I’ve fallen more than once, not due to poor ankles or weak bones or anything like that, but just because. Falling has always been a fear of mine, and a part of me can’t help but think something is out on the pavement waiting to trip me up, no matter how smooth it may seem.

And yet I still run. Virginia is one reason why, as she is for so many things I do these days: she’s not a runner, but her own ongoing struggle to keep the weight off inspires me—and hell, I wanna look good for her. Why not? I also remember the health problems I had that landed me in the hospital only three years ago, and I do not want to experience them again. I’ve joined a Facebook running group, and seeing other people go from being large and round to leaner and fitter, really makes me think it’s possible for me too.

But I gotta run a lot.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

He Walked By Night

He Walked By Night
YouTube viewing

The cool kids amongst the classic film blogger crowd like to devote this time of year to blog and/or tweet about film noir flicks. They call it “Noir-vember” (get it?). When it comes to WSW, I mostly prefer to march to my own drum, but it occurs to me this is a nice excuse to talk about a film I first watched last year, as research for my Dark Pages article—a film that amazed me.

He Walked By Night is credited to Alfred Welker as director, but Anthony Mann finished it when Welker was no longer available. It’s based on a true story about the search for an LA cop killer and robber who had the police befuddled because he was smarter than the average bear. The film is very much of a piece with Mann’s other noir work, such as T-Men and Raw Deal, as well as other police procedurals from the era like The Naked City.

My Dark Pages piece was about Mann and his favorite cinematographer, John Alton, a guy who really put the noir in film noir due to his deft understanding of light and shadow and how to photograph it. Since they both worked on Night, I had watched it to learn more about them. The familiar noir tropes are there—narrator; hard-boiled lead character; the terse, gruff cops and their lingo; the chase—but it still works! In an era of CSI and Law and Order and their numerous spin-offs on TV, it’s easy to forget how these kinds of stories still have the ability to entertain, but for me, at least, this film did.

Richard Basehart is top-billed as the amoral killer, a role in which he could’ve laid it on thick, but he doesn’t; in fact, his slow-burn approach is part of his character, who’s described on the surface as average-looking, unassuming, kinda bland. When we see his anger, though, it’s on a hair trigger; you get the sense it wouldn’t take much to set him off—but when he’s on the run, his fear, mixed with desperation, is just as clear on his face, however subtly. Basehart’s lack of melodrama makes you watch him closer.

In a story like this, plot is far above character, but there are revealing moments: the cop on the phone, asking about another cop’s child’s wedding while getting important information; the crippled officer visiting his partner and joshing with him as they go over the case; even the killer’s relationship with his dog, who acts as a sentry against intruders to their bungalow. Even the plot itself goes off the track in unexpected ways: in one scene, a detective, disguised as a milkman as he searches for the killer, runs into a chatty housewife with issues of her own. Little things, but they add life and variety to the story.

The highlight, however, is the climax, in which the cops chase the killer through the underground storm drains of LA. Here’s a brief but checkered history of the system and the river that necessitated its creation. Basehart runs through the tunnels with his flashlight the only illumination, while in the distance the cops pursue, their lights dots in the background that turn into penetrating beams of light. Can you imagine not only filming this in black and white, but directing it? Determining where everyone is to go amidst the maze of tunnels, finding appropriate spots to stage shootouts, contending with the different kinds of sounds and sights to produce something coherent for film and not just a murky mess? But Mann and Alton did it, and well.

A young Jack Webb plays a forensic scientist in a supporting role. This is significant because in talking to the police technical advisor between takes of Night, Webb was inspired to create more police-procedural stories, done in a similar faux-documentary style that emphasized the process in which the cops catch the bad guys, and thus was born, a year later, the radio show-turned-TV show Dragnet.

Night has to be one of the most important noir films ever made. It’s in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and watch. If you’ve never seen a noir film before, start here.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Liebster schmiebster

Sally from 18 Cinema Lane has recently discovered WSW, and likes it enough to bestow upon it the gift that keeps on giving: the highly coveted Liebster Award. Thank you, Sally. Now let’s see what it is she wants to know about Yours Truly...

1. Who do you think deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award?
Given his great success as a screenwriter, producer, and actor, how about Sylvester Stallone?

2. Which actor or actress would you like to see star in a Hallmark movie?
A word of explanation: Sally blogs mostly about Hallmark Channel movies, and from what I can tell, she’s a pretty big fan. I, on the other hand, can’t recall ever watching an original Hallmark movie, so I’m gonna have to pass.

3. What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
I dunno. Cookies and cream?

Friday, November 1, 2019

Neighborhood links

Joker director Todd Phillips, previously known for his raunchy R-rated comedies like The Hangover trilogy, has said one reason he made Joker, a drama, was because it was difficult to make irreverent comedies, since audiences are more easily offended these days.

Is it true? The numbers don’t lie: when the tween comedy Good Boys opened at number one this summer, it was the first R comedy to do that in over three years. Once again, PG-13 appears to be the safer choice for Hollywood studios now; in a recent interview, Eddie Murphy, whose R-rated Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name is playing on Netflix, confirmed as much. This Variety piece from 2017 also theorized a change in the culture, but cited the immediacy of late-night television as a factor...

...which brings us back to Phillips’ theory. I know my tastes have evolved over time. I don’t seek out R comedies (Murphy’s movie notwithstanding), but I don’t think I ever did—unless Kevin Smith made them. Why don’t I go to R comedies as much anymore? If I’m being honest, I suppose I want a little more... sophistication. All those Lubitsch and Wilder and Sturges movies made an impression! Plus, a movie like The Hangover works better if you go with friends, and practically none of my friends, who are over forty, like me, have any interest in them either.

Fear of being offended is not a factor for me (I laughed at the “porch monkey” jokes in Clerks 2), yet I can’t deny “woke culture” is a palpable presence these days. Twitter users are ready and willing to pounce on anything that carries even a hint of being un-PC, and if they have led to a decline in irreverent comedies, that would be a shame and a waste. It may be with the best of intentions, but I don’t like the thought of pop culture settling into a safe middle ground where everything is sanitized. If I choose not to see a Hangover-type movie, that should be my choice—and I should be free to change my mind without fear of censure. At the same time, I hope I don’t have that fear-of-offense attitude myself, but if I do, I’m gonna work at changing it.


Lonergan (L), next to the Wyler sisters.
I don’t know who the moderator was.
Last month, Virginia and I had the privilege of attending a New York Film Festival screening of one of my favorite classic films, Dodsworth. It was a new restoration, screened at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and the daughters of director William Wyler, Catherine and Melanie, were in attendance for a Q&A, along with Manchester by the Sea director Kenneth Lonergan.

This was the first time I had seen it with an audience, and once again, I found the experience of hearing other people laughing at moments I didn’t necessarily find funny jarring. I’ve seen other film bloggers talk about this when it comes to old movies, and now I understand this feeling better: you see a film made in a different era, you connect with it, and then you see it with a crowd and that connection changes because others don’t react to it the same way you do. I doubt the audience thought Dodsworth was campy, and I don’t think they were being disrespectful; their reactions just rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t get like this when it comes to more recent movies, or if I do, the feeling’s not as acute. That’s the chance you take with an audience, but it’s okay.

Regardless, the restoration was beautiful. The Wyler sisters and Lonergan discussed casting, including William Wyler butting heads with Ruth Chatterton; Mary Astor’s great performance despite the scandalous divorce she was part of at the time; the overall acting; and the film in a historical context. Virginia loved the film, as I knew she would.


I saw Ad Astra again, this time with Ann, who wanted to see it. I think I understand the movie better the second time around. As I explained to Ann afterwards, the bigness of the movie, the Kubrick-meets-Malick aspect of the storytelling and filmmaking might have blinded me to the humanity at the heart of it all, but the second viewing made it easier to see the characters as people, and I appreciate it better. If you wanna talk about it further, spoilers are allowed in the comments to this post.

More on the other side.