Friday, December 27, 2019

Top 5 movie-going moments of 2019

2019 was the year I learned to stop worrying and love Netflix. Well, okay, that may not be completely true, but I can’t deny I went to the movies fewer times because of it. Is that a good or a bad thing? I’d say the jury is still out on that one. Netflix is convenient, almost too much so, perhaps—and the fact that it has enabled me to save money and see new releases at home is a game-changer. That said, I won’t abandon the moviegoing experience that easily. Things like the following can still happen:

5. Seeing Movieworld reborn as the Squire Great Neck. It’s further away from me than the old Movieworld location was and it has less character, but it exists, it’s still a bargain, and with enough advance planning, I can get there for the price of a single bus fare. The spirit of Movieworld, a local movie theater that cares about its patrons, is alive and well and I am grateful.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Angela’s Christmas

Netflix viewing

Angela’s Ashes is one of my most cherished books and Frank McCourt is one of my most beloved authors. The vividness of his descriptions, the way he created a narrative voice and sustained it, his sense of humor, his empathy for his characters, made him a treasure to read, and still does. Plus, he became a literary star late in life, which provides hope for this aspiring writer.

In 2007, two years before his death, McCourt wrote his first and only children’s book, Angela and the Baby Jesus, which could be considered the prequel to Ashes. It’s based on a story his mother, Angela, told him as a kid about when she was a kid, set during Christmas. In 2017, Netflix and Ireland’s Brown Bag Films adapted the story into a 30-minute animated short, Angela’s ChristmasMalachy McCourt, Frank’s brother and a bit of a celebrity himself, narrates and Ruth Negga voices Angela’s mother. The late Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries performed a song.

In 1910 Limerick, Ireland, young Angela is about to celebrate the Christmas season at church with her family. She sees a doll of the baby Jesus on display in its traditional tableau, with Mary and Joseph, in the stable, etc., and being a child, thinks He must be cold. She secretly steals the doll and takes it home to warm it up, only to discover why what she did was wrong from her mother. Director Damien O’Connor, in this interview, discusses the meaning of the story to him:
The story is ultimately about family with warmth representing love. That connected into everything - visually you have the blue and gold in almost every shot with gold representing love. As Angela moves through the story she moves from the cold blues into the warmth, eventually ending up fully basked in the gold heat of the family fire. Once you have the theme then you have a clear path for the writing, if a scene was not working in the script it was usually because we strayed from the theme.
Frank McCourt fans will recognize the Limerick represented here as the one from his childhood as depicted in Ashes: devoutly Catholic to the point of superstition, yet basically warm-hearted and sentimental like many people at Christmas time. The computer-generated animation is splendid; Angela is wide-eyed and innocent, yet with a soupçon of Irish sassiness. I like the interaction with her brothers. Negga as the mother adds exactly the right touch. Absolutely worth viewing whether you’re Catholic or not.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Cats link round-up

Because it’s not like I’m gonna come within a million miles of this abomination...

Highlights from the scathing reviews.

Tom Hooper on the online backlash.

He finished the film WHEN?!?!?

The estate of TS Eliot says he probably would’ve dug it.

 The Guardian’s poetic review.


...and you can hear Eliot read from it

Maybe a newer version with better FX will save this turkey.

That scene in Six Degrees of Separation (with Ian McKellen!) where they talk about a Cats movie

How does Cats stack up against movie musicals of the past?

...or the original stage musical, for that matter?

Audiences are turning the viewing experience into a camp-fest

A storyboard artist analyzes Hooper’s shot selection

Comparisons to cat people in other media

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Astonished Heart

The Astonished Heart
YouTube viewing

I can’t say I knew much about Noel Coward beyond the fact that he wrote one of my favorite movies, Brief Encounter, but then I was enticed to see another movie of his. Sister Celluloid did a post about The Astonished Heart, a film Coward also wrote that not only has actresses from Encounter in it, but it can be looked upon as the flip side to Encounter; at least, that’s how SC pitched it. And as if that wasn’t enough, Coward himself stars in it and even wrote the score!

Encounter was about a married woman, Celia Johnson, tempted to carry out an affair but doesn’t do it in the end. Heart, made five years later and based on one of Coward’s plays, is about a married man, Coward, who does go through with an affair, but it doesn’t work out the way he hopes it should. Johnson is his wife in the film. SC goes into more detail about the film (and even embeds it in her post), but I wanna talk about Coward.

As an actor, he was alright—he talks in a very clipped, rushed manner that sounds unnatural to modern ears. I actually thought he got better the deeper into the story he went and the worse his situation got. SC said she disagreed with those who thought he was miscast; I thought the character, in a twisted kind of way, was miscast. He should’ve been in a Fatal Attraction-style, crime-of-passion thriller. His ultimate fate is grim enough, but I thought it would’ve been cooler if he just went berserk and stalked and attacked Margaret Leighton, the chick he falls for.

Coward was what people used to call a “Renaissance man.” Guy wrote plays, you probably already know that much, but he also wrote screenplays, poetry, short stories, songs (including songs for theater productions), a novel and an autobiography that actually took up three volumes. He trained in dance as a kid, he sung, he acted of course, and he also directed. He won an honorary Oscar during WW2, and you better believe he was knighted.

He was a bit of a character; he had a public image as a dandy with an acerbic wit. Yes, he was gay; in fact his lover, Graham Payn, appears in Heart as his business assistant. Apparently, Coward talked the way he did because as a kid, that made it easier to communicate with his deaf mother. As for his cultural influence as a playwright, composer, etc.... well, just read this.

I prefer Encounter to Heart in the end, though, because I felt like I understood Johnson’s character in the former better than Coward’s in the latter. At first I didn’t believe Coward had the hots for Leighton like he kept claiming. It wasn’t until tension arose between them that I was more convinced—and he’s so straightlaced for much of the film it was hard to feel the depth of his love for her. Johnson in Encounter, on the other hand, is an open book. She narrated the story, but even if she didn’t, her feelings were closer to the surface, even beneath her own layer of British propriety. Maybe it’s those eyes of hers... Plus, Heart, as SC also pointed out, had the annoying habit of jetting us from scene to scene too abruptly.

Joyce Carey, the lady at the train station cafe from Encounter, is also in Heart. She, like Payn, also works for Coward. She was so convincing as a cheeky working-class lady, I admit I didn’t recognize her as a dignified upper-class woman. Liked her.

Friday, December 13, 2019

What’s so pure about entertainment?

What’s wrong with the modern American cinema? Out of the top twenty films in 2015, why were twelve rated R, six rated PG-13, and not one rated G? The reason for these depressing statistics is a simple one: films are merely rated but not censored. In other words, all obscene content is allowed as long as audiences are warned of it. Many people complain about the shocking content of nearly every film released in this country, and moral Americans dream about times in the past when they could go to the theater and see good films. Not even all senior citizens remember a time when every film was decent.
This is the opening passage from a post on a blog begun in 2016 called the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, originally written as a research paper by the blog’s creators, Tiffany and Rebekah Brannan. I first heard of the blog a few months ago, when I saw some bloggers taking part in one of the Brannans’ blogathons. The subject was the Hays Code, one about which the sisters know plenty: the bulk of their paper discusses the origins of the Code and its effects on Hollywood.

The Brannan Sisters are on a mission to not only educate their readers about the “benefits” of the Code on the American film industry, but to try to bring it back. They have a petition with which they hope to lobby modern Hollywood into making today’s movies more like those of the 1930s and 40s. To further quote them, “With films getting worse every year and the immorality in America rising to terrifying heights, something must be done to regain order. If America is going to change, Hollywood must change first.”

Friends and neighbors, I’ll be blunt. These women are severely misguided and wrong.

Here’s how.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Is comedy always better with an audience?

Knives Out
So Sandi and I were discussing Knives Out, the new murder mystery, and she confirmed for me what I was uncertain about at first: it is meant to be a comedy. When I told her neither I nor the audience I saw it with found it that funny, even though I still enjoyed the film, she was all “Whaaaaat? But what about so-and-so and such-and-such a scene” and I agreed they were amusing, just not the laugh riot she and her audience thought it was. And that got me thinking...

I think we can agree that not all comedy is created equal. There’s the traditional pie-in-the-face gags of slapstick, which never really goes out of style. There’s the wacky, almost non-sequitor-like wordplay found in the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. There are sex jokes and innuendo, like you’d find in Benny Hill or the Carry On films. There are the more highbrow comedies based on class distinction, that Oscar Wilde dealt in, and the ones based on race or gender, like the humor of Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman. You get the idea.

Regardless, I had always believed experiencing humor with an audience had a way of amplifying the jokes, making them more enjoyable than if you were alone, but that’s not entirely true, is it? Duck Soup is hilarious whether you see it with other people or not; so is Annie Hall. Two different types of humor, yet both hold up as examples of funny movies—at least according to critical reception, box office success, and their places in film history, markers which are about as objective as you’re likely to get—with or without an audience.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Marriage Story

Marriage Story
Netflix viewing

The first time I saw Scarlett Johansson was in the indie teen comedy Ghost World. She was second-billed to star Thora Birch, who was coming off of Best Picture winner American Beauty and was touted to be the star on the rise, but for whatever reasons, it never happened. I didn’t think ScarJo outshined her—I thought they were about equal, talent-wise—but two years later she made Lost in Translation, which put her over the top and made her the It Girl. I’ve liked her since then—she has been more of a kick-ass Black Widow than I would’ve guessed—but I never appreciated how good an actress she really is until seeing her in Marriage Story.

Written and directed by indie lifer Noah Baumbach, it’s about a marriage in decline. ScarJo and Adam Driver, parents as well as spouses, are going through a painful divorce, and though they say they want to keep it amicable and civil, the things that drove them apart escalate till they reach a breaking point.

This film reminded me a lot of 80s-era Woody Allen, but his dramas, good as they are, still have a measure of gentility, of civility, as if Woody wasn’t quite willing to take his characters all the way to the edge, and maybe even over it. Marriage does go to the edge. After speaking through intermediaries for much of the story, whether they’re lawyers or family or friends, the characters end up unloading all the cruel things we think about our loved ones whenever we’re really pissed off at them. It’s ugly, but it’s horribly real.

And omigod, can we talk about Driver? He came from the TV show Girls, and the few film roles of his I had seen didn’t really blow me away until now. (I don’t blame him for Kylo Ren. That’s just a poorly-conceived character.) We see both tenderness and great affection for his young son, and rage and bitterness for the woman he once loved, and he is never anything less than convincing. He really gives it all he’s got in this role. They both do.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Knives Out

Knives Out
seen @ Cinepolis Chelsea, New York NY

Knives Out is a movie based on an ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY. These days it’s rare that such a beast exists in Hollywood, much less one that becomes a hit, much much less that it’s written and directed by the same person, so I feel it’s important to establish this up front. In this case, that person is current wunderkind Rian Johnson, the guy who directed the Star Wars movie everybody hated—or so it seems, if you go by social media.

I did not see The Last Jedi, nor am I likely to anytime soon. I’m burnt out on Star Wars right now, and being reminded of it everywhere I go these days doesn’t help—but I am familiar with Johnson’s career before he hit the motherload. He did the SF time travel flick Looper, which was interesting, and he did an earlier one called Brick, a suspense movie of a different stripe from the sound of it, which is currently in my Netflix queue.

Johnson has become the new caretaker of the Star Wars franchise: he’s slated to write the next three movies after this month’s latest installment, The Rise of Skywalker (which he did not write or direct). If so, I hope it doesn’t mean a moratorium on films like Knives, because it was good. If you’ve heard about it, you know it’s a modern-day, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, with an all-star cast.

Daniel Craig plays the sleuth looking to solve the mystery, a character who’s more Tennessee Williams than Agatha Christie. Craig puts on a broad Southern accent for this one, and once you get past the sight of James Bond talking like Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he’s actually not bad. I wouldn’t call him flamboyant; it’s just that he stands out among a cast of very Northern, very modern characters.

In this story, you’re led to believe a specific someone committed the murder; in fact, halfway through the film you even see how the deed was done, but the murder only leads to subsequent events that are equally important—and was it a murder anyway, or did it only look like one? Johnson guides you down one blind alley after another before changing the rules of the game so that you’re no longer sure of anything. It’s quite clever.

Is Knives meant to be a comedy? The marketing for it, as well as interviews with Johnson I read, made me think so, but neither I nor the smallish audience I saw it with (perhaps 20-30 people) did a great deal of laughing. That’s okay, it was still an excellent movie, but I was kinda hoping it was a comedy, in the vein of earlier flicks like Clue and Murder By Death.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the first fiction movie I’ve seen that directly discusses the current occupant of the White House. His actions are debated in a scene where they’re both condemned and defended, and while this scene doesn’t play into the plot, it gives us a deeper insight into the squabbling family of the story: their privilege, their conscience, and ultimately their cluelessness. One of the big themes of Knives involves immigration and what it means to live in America as a foreigner, but Johnson doesn’t hit you over the head with it, to his credit. This movie’s real good.

Have I talked about Cinepolis before? It’s in Chelsea. The national chain took over this local theater a few years ago and they’ve done a good job. Gourmet food though not on the level of Alamo Drafthouse, single-digit matinee screenings (barely; it’s $9.50, but still), reclining seats with trays, even programmed events and film series. It’s a good bargain, for Manhattan.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Irishman

The Irishman
Netflix viewing

Before I start talking about The Irishman, I wanna make one thing clear: I waited till it came out on Netflix because it’s a three-and-a-half-hour movie and I wanted to be able to take breaks! I also wanted to save a little money, but mostly, I wanted to take breaks. Marty, I love ya, but seriously, bro, why couldn’t you have made this an HBO miniseries?

I bring this up because a lot of people in Hollywood are still freaking out over the fact that Netflix exists, much less that it’s making Oscar-caliber movies with directors like Marty—and I totally understand. I’m lucky to even have Netflix. I think we need, once again, to address the current mishegoss behind it and online streaming in general, because friends and neighbors, it’s changing the way we consume entertainment quicker than you can say “Marvel movies aren’t cinema.”

This Variety piece discusses how the traditional window between theatrical release and TV/home video release is less of an issue overseas than domestically with The Irishman. The limited (at first) domestic theatrical release was motivated, in part, by Netflix’ desire to win Oscars with the movie, and you may recall from earlier this year that some within Hollywood don’t like that streaming movies are Oscar-eligible. That’s the business end.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Links out

I announced it on Twitter and perhaps you’ve already noticed the change here, but for the record: WSW now moderates comments. This is a change I had thought about doing before, but I didn’t believe it was truly necessary until the spammers started getting bolder. I don’t want this; we’ve gone this far without needing to moderate comments, but I believe it’s better this way, at least for now. You (and you know who you are) have always provided insight and wit to go along with my posts. You’re not the problem and never were.


My third 5K run turned out well, but it didn’t feel that way. I beat my personal best time by perhaps three minutes, but the whole run felt tougher than usual. It was windy, but not gusty, the sky was mostly cloudy, and there was no hint of rain or snow. I just felt like the whole thing was a harder push than usual, like I was pushing harder than before. I slowed to a walking pace a lot, and I had to remind myself to not get comfortable. And once again, the presence of so many other people changed my mental approach, making me think of the competition instead of my own game... but I still set a personal record. I did something right.


Last month Virginia and I went to an unusual twin bill of Georges Melies films: A Trip to the Moon and Kingdom of the Fairies. Both silents were accompanied by original live scores by composer Kyle Simpson and his chamber orchestra, held at The Dimenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan. A university professor, musician and conductor, as well as a composer, he briefly talked of his love for film in general and how with this project, he sought to create scores that would match the story and themes of these movies, and I thought he did. His scores made both films feel almost contemporary. In addition to the movies, there was an “undercard” of film scores by Phillip Glass and Alexander Borodin, performed by the Red Line String Quartet. I’ve always liked Glass’ music. I’ve seen it performed live before, but not like this. It felt different, yet recognizable as his work. Virginia loved the whole thing, of course.

Links on the other side.