Monday, March 23, 2020

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die


The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
YouTube viewing

I think it’s a shame the superstar actors and filmmakers of the Golden Age of Hollywood—the Bogarts, the Hepburns, the Wilders—rarely, if ever, made sci-fi or fantasy or horror movies while in their prime. Genre material such as that wasn’t taken as seriously back then. What kinds of films might we have gotten if it had been? Who knows.

Movies like Frankenstein or House of Wax really stand out amidst the mountain of schlock, but they also made stars out of the actors in them—Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, respectively, as opposed to stars coming to such movies. That’s not a bad thing, though, and it’s something we still see today, as Daniel Radcliffe and Kristin Stewart, for example, will attest.

Also, with so many old movies being rediscovered and reappraised by younger generations, “stars” are created retroactively by film nerds like us. In googling about the SF/horror flick The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, I noticed one of the movie’s stars, Virginia Leith, died last year. I didn’t think she was big enough to warrant an obit in The Hollywood Reporter, much less one that would use this movie as a selling point—I had certainly never heard of her. (She was in Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire, and had smaller parts in TV and film.)

Friday, March 20, 2020

The WSW 25 for the 2010s


I was going to save this for August, when the tenth anniversary of WSW will come around, but I think I’ll put it up now instead. These are the 25 movies that, to me, best represent the previous decade in film, culled from my annual Top 10 lists. You’ll notice this list isn’t ranked; there’s no way I could decide which of these is the “best,” and it doesn’t matter much. Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it.



Thursday, March 19, 2020

Queens World FF goes online and streams movies for free!


I don’t have to describe the situation we’re all facing now. While we wait for a resolution (and may it come soon), there’s good news to be had: the Queens World Film Festival, the annual event I’ve blogged about here on WSW, has arranged to stream online many of this year’s crop of movies. I’ve told you about this festival for years and this year, QWFF’s tenth anniversary, you can see it for yourself beginning tonight at 7PM EST, and continuing through March 29, absolutely FREE, on Discovered.tv.

I gotta say, I’m not very surprised that Don & Katha Cato found a way to keep the festival going, because if you knew them and understood their commitment to independent film and their ability to get things done even in the face of great challenges, you’d know that not even a worldwide virus could stop them from putting on the show. I’m glad to be reminded.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Borderline

Borderline
YouTube viewing

Recently there was a blogathon devoted to Claire Trevor and I wanted to take part in it so bad because I really dig her. I haven’t seen her in much, but her bad-girl characters were so memorable and she was so believable and sympathetic as them. I’m glad Crystal and Virginie put her back in the spotlight. Alas, I had too many other blogathons too close together to add another one, but I still wanna talk about her.

Sister Celluloid did a post about a Trevor movie called Borderline, a comedic crime picture with Fred MacMurray, and once again she was kind enough to embed the YouTube video. Borderline is It Happened One Night meets Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, and while it’s more funny-amusing than funny-ha ha, it was worth watching to see Trevor as a good girl!

The Brooklyn native graduated from Columbia and did a lot of stage work on and off Broadway before heading west to Hollywood. You probably knew she was a three-time Oscar nominee, winning for Key Largo in Supporting Actress, but did you know she also won an Emmy for a TV remake of Dodsworth? I’d love to see it if it’s available.


In the 80s, after retiring from acting, she took up mentoring young performing artists at the University of California-Irvine, to the point where after her death in 2000, the School of the Arts was renamed in her honor. From the Claire Trevor School of the Arts website:
Ms. Trevor was a frequent visitor to the School, sitting in on rehearsals and interacting with student actors and faculty. She liked getting to know the drama students and seeing their work, according to those who knew her at that time. She often spoke of the important role the Arts had played in her life, and she believed that using one’s imagination to its fullest is necessary in order to live a happy life. She was thrilled to be able to help the School’s students achieve their goals and assist them, in some small way, according to her friends.
Borderline, like I said, has a slight, gentle comedic touch to it, though it’s mostly a dramatic crime pic. It made me think of the kinds of movies Lucille Ball made in the 40s, before she came to television, and Trevor does feel like she’s channeling Lucy in places. It’s also an unusual role for a woman of the late-40s/early-50s in that she plays a undercover cop, one who was an intelligence agent during the war and speaks fluent Spanish. I would’ve loved to have seen a little more of this life than we do in the movie.


Trevor goes south of the border to infiltrate a drug-running racket in Mexico and expose boss Raymond Burr, once again playing the heavy, and at first it seems as if this will be her movie. Then she crosses paths with MacMurray, a G-man who’s also undercover, and suddenly they’re both on the run and it becomes a buddy road movie, where neither of them know each other’s true identities. Of course, they fall in love.

In the final reel, MacMurray is the one who does the heavy lifting and catches the bad guys while Trevor watches, which was disappointing, but seeing the two of them together is fun. They both come across as mature adults, and the humor is never over-the-top or inappropriate. The location shooting is good as well.


Trevor subverts her bad-girl image at first by having her character pretend to be one. We see her dancing as a chorus girl in a Mexican cafe, trying (and failing) to attract Burr’s attention, then turning to one of his henchmen, wearing a tight blouse off the shoulders and getting him drunk so he can take her to Burr’s hotel room. Trevor would’ve been 40 when she made Borderline, yet she still got to be sexy and seductive and brave, sneaking around Burr’s room looking for evidence of his illicit activities and surviving a shootout between Burr and MacMurray.

Borderline is not perfect, but it’s a nice showcase for Trevor, older but not having lost a thing, playing a rare kind of woman in the Old Hollywood era.

Friday, March 13, 2020

5 Minutes to Live

The Pop Stars Moonlighting Blogathon is an event devoted to singers who act, hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

5 Minutes to Live (AKA Door-to-Door Maniac)
YouTube viewing

He was a musician in the fields of not only country music, but rock, folk, and gospel, a pioneer whose influence continues to be felt today. He had a roguish reputation, fueled by his addictions to alcohol and drugs. He was a deeply spiritual man who wrote songs about the plight of Native Americans and other disenfranchised people. They called him the Man in Black—but his name was Johnny Cash.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Those dancing feet of Ruby Keeler

The 2020 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.


Ruby Keeler was an established Broadway dancer, the child bride of the legendary hoofer Al Jolson, when in 1933, film producer Darryl Zanuck, then with Warner Brothers, came to her with a role in a movie. It was a musical about Broadway called 42nd Street.

Keeler, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and raised in New York City, had been a professional dancer since the age of 14, in shows produced by, among others, Florenz Ziegfeld—and other than a brief cameo in a talkie in 1930, had no film experience. As a member of Zanuck’s production, Keeler would meet a man who would prove influential to her career, both as an ingenue in film and an veteran many years later back on Broadway: choreographer Busby Berkeley.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Piranha II: The Spawning

The Out to Sea Blogathon is an event devoted to films set on the ocean or any body of water, hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Piranha II: The Spawning (AKA Piranha II: Flying Killers)
YouTube viewing

James Cameron loves being on or under water. When he made The Abyss, he filled up an abandoned nuclear power plant with 7.5 million gallons of water just so he could control the environment in which he would shoot—which, by the way, required new equipment designed by his production crew. On Titanic, he got his studio, Fox, to give him $2 million just to travel to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and record footage of the actual ship. Much of the forthcoming Avatar 2 will require shooting motion capture scenes underwater, and the goal is a look of total realism.

Actors in James Cameron films set on or under water... well, some of them are just plain lucky to have survived. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a nervous breakdown on the Abyss set due to the stress of working such long hours, and Ed Harris allegedly punched Cameron because the director supposedly kept filming when Harris was on the verge of drowning. Kate Winslet told the Los Angeles Times that after principal photography on Titanic had ended, she “looked like a battered wife.”

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Cameron, the first human to explore the Mariana Trench alone, has made water a big theme in his filmmaking. He has made two 3D documentaries underwater: one, Ghosts of the Abyss, incorporated his footage of the real Titanic and delved into the ship’s history; the other, Aliens of the Deep, was a collaboration with NASA in which he filmed previously-unknown life forms within the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

Long before all of this, however, Cameron cut his directing teeth by making a B-grade horror movie, also using underwater footage, about killer mutant fish.


Cameron, like a number of top filmmakers and actors, got his “bachelor’s degree” in film from working under Roger Corman—first making miniature models, then working as a production assistant, art director and production designer and FX man. Among his early credits include Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Escape From New York.

At first, Cameron was the special effects man on P2 before stepping into the director’s chair at the request of Italian executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who wasn’t satisfied with the previous director. Cameron also did a rewrite of the screenplay under a pseudonym. Assonitis considered him little more than a hired hand; Cameron was not only uninvolved in the editing process, he didn’t even get to see the footage while he shot the film. At one point Cameron was himself fired as director by Assonitis, who did his own rewrite of the screenplay, but had to return because of contract reasons. Cameron was able to make a cut of the film on his own, but Assonitis re-cut it, and his version was the one that was released to theaters. Though his name is on P2, Cameron has all but disowned it.

P2 was shot in Rome and Jamaica, and most of the underwater scenes were shot in Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean. Like Jaws, the way-better film P2 tries (and fails) to emulate, there are lots of POV shots of the critters as they’re about to attack, but when we do see the flying fish, the special effects are decent for 1981. The actual species of fish used are grunions, commonly found along the California coastline.


The movie is crap, but elements of the Cameron influence can be found, even here. Tricia O’Neil’s character isn’t too far removed from the Ellen Ripley/Sarah Connor mold, and I thought her relationship with Lance Henriksen was reminiscent of that between Harris and MEM in The Abyss. The injections of humor in the script, though, are corny and don’t feel at all like something Cameron would write (for instance, the cougar who pursues male lead Steve Marachuk at the resort).

According to IMDB, Cameron came down with a fever in post-production, and one night he had a dream “about a metallic torso emerging from an explosion, and dragging itself over the floor with kitchen knives.” This initial image would lead to the creation, three years later, of The Terminator... but that is another story.

————————-
Other movies involving bodies of water (a partial list):
The Shape of Water
Jaws
The African Queen
Noah
Captain Phillips
It Came From Beneath the Sea
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid/Splash
Life of Pi

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon
seen @ The Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, Queens NY

I think I saw Flash Gordon when it came out, but I would’ve been  only eight, so I’m not sure. It probably was on my radar then; I was aware of comparable movies from around that time like the original Clash of the Titans and Superman, so if I saw it advertised on TV, I would’ve begged my parents to take me to see it.

It seemed every sci-fi/fantasy film in the 80s wanted to be the next Star Wars, and Flash was one of many pretenders to the throne. It had elements of both: outer space and alien planets mixed with sword fights and kingdoms—and no one cared that much about scientific or historical accuracy or making everything look “realistic” because they were too busy having fun with the subject matter.

Everything in Flash screams over-the-top—the costumes, the props, the sets, and especially the performances—but watching it again for the first time in decades, at MOMI, I realized as unlikely as it seems, it’s still watchable. More than watchable, in fact, even in an age where we demand a certain level of “realism” in our comic book movies, to the point where they’re almost ashamed of their four-color origins.

Not Flash, though.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Invisible links

Once again, I need to learn to keep my big mouth shut when it comes to premature Oscar predictions, because Parasite took Best Picture and 1917 didn’t. It’s okay, though: Parasite is an outstanding movie and it deserves to win. Kudos to Bong Joon-Ho, who also won Best Director and Original Screenplay, for making a suspenseful, often times funny, and ultimately relevant picture that also just happens to be in a foreign language.

The Academy got it right—and acknowledging the best movie as coming from someplace beyond America speaks to how the world is shrinking culturally. We’re more aware of different filmmakers and different filmmaking styles than before, and that’s bound to have an impact on our own homegrown filmmakers in the future.

—————-

Virginia and I went to a late-night screening of Rosemary’s Baby and afterwards she was convinced she had seen a cut earlier in life where you actually saw the baby at the end, or at least its eyes. Take it for what it’s worth, but according to IMDB, Roman Polanski rejected producer William Castle’s suggestion that the baby be shown. There’s a fleeting glimpse of demon eyes after Sidney Blackmer says “He has his father’s eyes,” and that’s what made Virginia think she had seen the baby, but I always thought that was supposed to be the devil in that shot.

More interestingly, though, was something else she picked up on: she said that Blackmer and Ruth Gordon’s characters are supposed to be WASPs, but the other witches were either Jewish stereotypes or minorities (remember the Japanese guy snapping photos?). I admit, as many times as I’ve seen the movie, I never thought of that—and later, she even sent me this article, which points out the Jewish metaphors. It didn’t wreck her enjoyment of the movie, though—she wanted to see it.

——————

So that’s that. On to the links:

Aurora attends a ceremony in New Jersey in which a street is named after John Barrymore.

What did Virginie learn after watching all 31 Carry On films?

Karen’s favorite pre-code films (updated).

Maddy gets into the water with Jaws.

Will the Parasite TV show feature Mark Ruffalo?

The Oscar telecast got its lowest ratings ever.

Wes Anderson’s forthcoming film is inspired by The New Yorker.

The latest Invisible Man remake is a parable for domestic violence.

Antonio Banderas on his first Oscar nomination and what it means.

Corey Feldman’s “Me Too” documentary about his childhood will play once and once only.

Beloved YA author Judy Blume is ready to go Hollywood.

The enduring friendship of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.

Rick Moranis comes out of retirement, but not for the new Ghostbusters movie.

Was Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger movie better than we thought?

Are you ready for a KISS biopic?

Check out this 19th-century Lumiere Brothers short updated in 4K and a 60 FPS frame rate.

Monday, February 24, 2020

2019 Top 10



I would’ve posted this sooner, but I have no excuse except laziness. As you’ll see, several of these movies were ones I saw within the last two months, so I didn’t settle on this list until the 11th hour. And, of course, some of these are from Netflix. I’ve already talked about how streaming movies are making a difference in my viewing habits. It’ll likely continue to do so. We’ll see. Anyway, here’s the quick version:

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Day One of the Butlers & Maids Blogathon is served

The Butlers & Maids Blogathon is off to a fine start. I’ll collect today’s batch here and Paddy will collect the rest tomorrow. Thanks once again to everyone who’s taken part and I hope you enjoy the posts. My entry, in case you missed it, is for the movie The Innocents.

Movie Movie Blog Blog II
Another Fine Mess

Taking Up Room
Benny and Joon

RealWeegieMidget Reviews
The Others (trailer)

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
If You Could Only Cook

Caftan Woman
Personal Maid’s Secret

Another Old Movie Blog
Sullivan’s Travels

The Midnite Drive-In
Clue

Grand Old Movies
two Jeeves movies

The Story Enthusiast
Imitation of Life (1934)

Critica Retro
Murder by Death

Old Hollywood Films
The Fallen Idol

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Innocents

The Butlers & Maids Blogathon is an event that honors the domestic servants of film. Paddy and I thank you for taking part. You can find the roster of participating bloggers here and at her site.

The Innocents
YouTube viewing

I thought I had seen The Innocents before, when I worked in video retail, and maybe I did, but either it was on while I was helping customers and I couldn’t pay attention or I just forgot, because I would’ve remembered. This is one weird, freaky movie.

The only Henry James novel I’ve read was Washington Square and that was way back in high school, so I’ve never read The Turn of the Screw. It was published in 1898 as a 12-part serial in Colliers Weekly (with illustrations by one Eric Pape) and has enjoyed a long life, not only within academic circles, but in other media: it has been reincarnated as a ballet, an opera and a stage play. There have been film adaptations in multiple languages. Ingrid Bergman starred in a TV version directed by John Frankenheimer. A prequel was made called The Nightcomers. And references and homages to the story have popped up lots of places in different media. The Innocents, though, might be the best-known adaptation.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Left Behind (2014)

The 2020 So Bad It’s Good Blogathon is an event devoted to films commonly perceived as bad, yet enjoyable, hosted by Taking Up Room. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Left Behind (2014)
YouTube viewing

In 1996, following a career of edgy, left-of-center work in mainstream and independent films such as Wild at Heart, Moonstruck, Raising Arizona and Red Rock West, Nicolas Cage won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Leaving Las Vegas. It’s fair to say, though, that success went to his head, and after spending his money on some pretty wild things, he got in trouble with the IRS. To pay off his debts, he has had to take parts in some... questionable films.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Television: Star Trek: Picard

One thing I wasn’t prepared for regarding the latest Star Trek series was the hype. Discovery was an unknown property, with new characters in what was a kinda-sorta familiar Trek setting, but it wasn’t your parents’ Trek! It represented a new look and a more modern direction for the franchise, and while CBS gave it the hard sell, Fandom Assembled received it with a great deal of trepidation.

Picard has been different, and not just because it’s the return of a familiar and beloved character—its reach has gone lightyears beyond the fandom, and much of that is because of Patrick Stewart. In the eighteen years since the last TNG film, Nemesis, he’s become a huge celebrity, but it’s the kind where his real-world persona has become as important, if not more than, his roles: his presence on social media, his charitable work, his talk show appearances, his friendship with Ian McKellen, his knighthood. Virginia, who is not what you’d call a Trekkie, was giggling over that country music video of Stewart’s to the point where she actually bought the CD.

That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean. On the one hand, stage work aside, Stewart is ensconced as a genre actor now; he doesn’t make as many non-SF/F movies as he used to (Conspiracy Theory, LA Story, Jeffrey, etc.), but because his reach has extended deep into the mainstream, he has transcended Trek and genre in general in a way only William Shatner, and arguably George Takei as well, has done.

The difference, I think, between Stewart’s fame and Shatner’s is the former appears more selective in the projects with which he involves himself. No one will remember Shatner for things like $#*! My Dad Says or War Chronicles, but I think Shatner’s motivated very differently. Between the acting, the writing, the spoken-word CDs, the commercials, and more, he seems determined to do it all. Stewart doesn’t strike me that way.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

So. Pedro Almodovar. Can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan. I don’t hate his movies, but I’ve never been particularly moved to rush right out to the local art house theater every time one of them comes out, either. During my video store days I watched Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up Tie Me Down and was entertained by them. Maybe he was too European for me to grok—or maybe I needed more life experience. I dunno. I’d rather stick with Woody Allen.

As I recall, Vija and Andrea saw Pain and Glory when it first came out last fall. I had passed without even learning what the new film was about. I think they liked it. Then it got Oscar nominated twice, including Antonio Banderas for Best Actor, and it was re-released—and Virginia and Ann wanted to see it. Well, at least this time I had a little more incentive.

Banderas is a hypochondriac filmmaker in the late stages of his life. Unexpected reunions with people from his past alternate with memories of his childhood, involving his mother and other individuals. Less a plot than a loose connection of character vignettes, it works mostly because of Banderas. I’ll come back to him in a minute.


I can’t say for certain what distinguishes Almodovar as a filmmaker, but as I watched Glory I wondered how much of this story is autobiographical: Banderas’ character is internationally known, has never been to Hollywood, and has similar hair to Almodovar. The director says there’s only a passing resemblance, and I have no reason to doubt him; still, I was drawn to Salvador’s story as much as the way it was told: gently, compassionately, unhurriedly.

The layers of his life—his childhood; his relationship with his mother; his career and his estrangement from his star; his business partner; his former lover—are peeled back a little at a time and presented, warts and all. Aside from one early CGI-animated sequence describing Salvador’s numerous ailments, there’s nothing flashy here...

...just Banderas embodying a complicated person with vulnerability, dignity and pain. When he crossed over into Hollywood, they tried making him an action hero, and I dug him in movies like Desperado and The Mask of Zorro, but Glory reminded me of his more dramatic turns in films like Philadelphia and Evita. I think drama is a better fit for him. Glory is his seventh film with Almodovar, and after all these years, it would seem he handles Banderas better than anyone else.


A few words about Penelope Cruz, who plays Banderas’ mom in flashbacks: like Banderas, Cruz also broke through in Hollywood. You may have seen her in Vanilla Sky, the American version of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, in which she also starred. Recently she was in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express.

I liked her in Glory; she had a Sophia Loren kind of vibe as a woman of the country, raising young Salvador in a domicile fashioned out of a cave—yes, a cave; that’s how she refers to it. In the opening scene, we see her washing clothes with other women by a river, singing songs. Her character is an important part of the story; later on, we see her, still in flashbacks, as an old woman (played by Julieta Serrano) and Banderas gets to interact with her in some very fine scenes.

The acting all around is quite good. In judging acting ability with foreign language actors, I find I respond more to things like physical presence and being in the moment than I normally might with English-language actors. Since I constantly have to have one eye on the subtitles, it helps to be able to read body language and tone of voice, something I suspect we take for granted when we can automatically understand the language being spoken. Anyway, good movie.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

He was Spartacus


The THR obit. He was 103, if you can believe that. One of the last of the old Hollywood legends.

——————-
Films with Kirk Douglas:
A Letter to Three Wives
Lust for Life
Spartacus 

Five precedents for the proposed changes to the Hollywood Walk of Fame

...Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell unveiled a 90-page concept Thursday [January 30] aimed at creating a less gritty, more welcoming atmosphere for the millions of tourists who visit the Walk of Fame each year. 
The initial proposal draws inspiration from world-class streets across the world, including the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. That could be achieved in Hollywood, too, the plan says, with wider sidewalks, more shade trees, more space for sidewalk dining — and far less space for drivers.
I haven’t been to Los Angeles. I hope to go one day; the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the must-see attractions of the city, a glittering tribute to the men and women who shaped the American film industry. Because I’ve never been there, though, it never occurred to me that for all its glamour and prestige, it’s still part of a street, like any other in LA—two of them, in this case: Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. And like many big city streets in America, it has been engineered with driving private vehicles in mind over everything else.

This proposal to traffic-calm the WOF area and make it more pedestrian-friendly reminds me more than a little of when Times Square underwent a similar change, over a decade ago. It was considered radical at the time, but the end result slowed vehicle traffic and made walking and biking through the area safer and more pleasant, which was a boon to the local businesses. It didn’t take much, either—just paint and some extra chairs.

I believe the same is possible for the WOF area, but there will likely be those who object, who believe it’ll have an adverse effect on traffic and will drive away business. There always are. So let’s look at what Councilman O’Farrell’s plan entails and see how it works in other cities.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Links of prey

I don’t have a whole lot to say this month for once—except, of course, to remind you the Butlers & Maids Blogathon is later this month and there’s still time to join Paddy and me for it if you want. Leave a comment here or tweet me at @ratzo318 and you’ll be set.

Let’s get straight to this month’s links:

Ivan on the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows.

Virginie visits an Audrey Hepburn exhibit in Amsterdam.

Aurora collects a bagful of Cary Grant appearances on the radio.

Ruth tells of how Edgar Rice Burroughs called out Hollywood in a novel.

Hollywood’s Walk of Fame may become more pedestrian-friendly.

More about the Parasite mini-series for HBO.

A Jewish critic on Jojo Rabbit.

Adam Sandler and the Safdie Brothers reunite for this short film set in Times Square.

Jojo Rabbit versus Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be.

Leonard Maltin will be feted at this year’s TCM Film Festival.

Comedy is dealt another mortal wound as Hank Azaria caves in to the PC Police and gives up voicing the character Apu on The Simpsons.

When the city of Hollywood hooked up with Los Angeles.

What is the most expensive horror movie prop of all time?

Friday, January 24, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Last month I had said I didn’t find Knives Out as funny as other people did and I questioned whether seeing it with an audience made a difference or not. Now I’ve seen another comedy film, Jojo Rabbit, a movie I found hilarious, as did the audience I saw it with—one woman behind me was laughing her head off for most of the movie—and irony of ironies, the first time I looked it up online after seeing it, I encountered all these reviews saying how unfunny it is. (Its overall Rotten Tomatoes score, however, is a “certified fresh” 80, which is very positive.)

Granted, director Taika Waititi, who also adapted the screenplay from the book Caging Skies, walks a tightrope, attempting to find humor in a story taking place in Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler (sort of) as a supporting character. I was reminded of the 2018 Cold War comedy The Death of Stalin, which also balanced humor with the realities of life within a fascist regime—and, of course, older comedies like Life is Beautiful, The Producers, To Be or Not To Be and The Great Dictator.


Jojo deals with a young Hitler Youth recruit, one so devoted to the Nazi cause he imagines Hitler himself as his best friend, and what happens when he learns his mother is secretly hiding a Jew in their house. Why is the movie funny? For one thing, the dialogue feels almost contemporary, which is incongruous with the time and place. The Nazi characters are depicted broadly; the situations they’re put in ridiculous. Hitler especially, played by director Waititi, is practically a cartoon—and yet there are moments that remind you these are Nazis and if you’re a dissenter, or a Jew, you trifle with them at your risk. And there’s an overall message of tolerance that’s heartfelt and welcome, particularly in this time where anti-Semitism is making a comeback.


The child actor, Roman Griffin Davis, carries the bulk of the movie. He gives Jojo a naive fanaticism that almost makes him endearing. Jojo doesn’t quite measure up to his peers, most of whom bully him, but he’ll do anything to be a true soldier like his absent father, off fighting in the war. His idealized version of Hitler acts as a kind of surrogate father, but none of this is as frightening as it sounds because of the goofy tone of the movie.


And then Jojo discovers the teenage Jewish girl and things change for him; that which he’s believed in all his life about German superiority is called into question. It was good to see Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace again; she plays the Jewish girl and I think she’s even better here.


Jojo is pretty different from Knives; both are satirical, but to different degrees, and Jojo, by nature of its subject matter, is more risqué and “out there.” Did that make it easier to laugh at? Could be. Knives was an ensemble; we saw the story through different perspectives, some of which were funnier than others and all of whom were adults. Jojo is told from the angle of a ten-year-old with a very specific worldview, one we wouldn’t normally laugh at, but here it’s purposely exaggerated to a bizarre extent.

Laughing helped us, the audience, approach the premise more easily, whereas with Knives, there was no trepidation of the premise to overcome. It was easier to accept at face value, and while it was entertaining, I don’t think I felt the need to laugh as much as I did with Jojo. From the first scene and the opening credits—yes, this was a rare film with opening credits, set to the tune of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German—it gave us permission to laugh at it... and we did. Knives wasn’t quite like that, at least not for me, but that’s okay.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Parasite

Parasite
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

When I began WSW over nine years ago (!), I was more up on new releases than I am now. You could say I believed it was part of my responsibility as a film blogger. Hanging around classic film bloggers over time made me think otherwise, and now I no longer pay as close attention to things like who’s getting cast in what movie, what project a given director is eyeing, or what the weekend box office take for the latest franchise movie was.

So when I saw that this foreign movie I had only recently heard of called Parasite was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it took me completely by surprise—but if I had been following the Oscar race year-round, like I used to, chances are I could’ve seen it coming. This was the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. It has a score of 99 at Rotten Tomatoes. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and has been nominated for a ton of other awards around the world.

This film is a huge hit. I had thought the Academy was being enlightened and progressive by nominating it for its top honor, and they kind of are, but I think in this case, it might have been simply too big for them to ignore.


Still getting used to the name Bong Joon Ho, the director and co-writer (I keep saying “Boon Jong” instead). He’s been around awhile—months ago I saw his SF movie Snowpiercer on Netflix. I thought about doing a post on it, but never did. No real reason.

I’ve watched quite a few movies on Netflix I haven’t blogged about. That might be another way WSW has evolved: used to be I felt I needed constant content to stay visible, so I would blog four to six times a week, on everything I saw, but a pace like that was unsustainable for me. Some bloggers can do it. I can’t.

Snowpiercer had Western stars like Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton in it (a sign of how well known he is already), but Parasite was made in his native South Korea, with Korean actors. The premise is original and delightfully subversive: a dirt-poor, unemployed family figures out a way to infiltrate the household of a rich family by posing as strangers and secretly getting the established staff out, one by one, which leads to different problems. There are plans for an HBO miniseries that will expand the original story further.


Once I figured out the basic premise, I really got into the story. It’s funny in places, and the climax is a gory bloodbath, so it’s hard to classify this movie. I’ve seen it described both as a black comedy and a thriller; I lean more toward the latter but really, it’s its own thing. The class struggle is obviously a major theme, but it’s not like it preaches. Every character is unsympathetic to one degree or another, and the friction between the two families produces the movie’s memorable moments. I’m reminded of the work of Luis Bunuel, or to a lesser extent, Mike Leigh, crossed with Tarantino. I’d have to see more of Bong’s work to know whether or not this is typical of him.

Not much more to say. Good acting, good set design—the contrast between the families’ homes is sharp—great screenplay, obviously, good score. This is everything you would want in a movie.

Monday, January 13, 2020

It’s all about Oscar

For Best Picture:

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman 
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 
Parasite 

The rest.

Wow, I missed the boat on a lot of movies this year, didn’t I?

When I say I can’t see every Oscar-caliber new release that comes out every year, I’m not just playing around. I really can’t—and I no longer try. It’s too stressful, too expensive, and some movies just don’t interest me, at least at first. Plus, in recent years, I’ve lost interest in the whole Oscar horse race anyway—but I can’t deny the Oscar imprimatur on a film is worth something.

Especially these days. I’m still not used to this new Academy, that takes indie movies like Jojo Rabbit and foreign films like Parasite seriously in the Best Picture race instead of going for the usual awards bait every year. It’s exciting, and makes for a more interesting race, to be sure.

That said, my money is still on 1917 for the top prize. A thrilling story with breathtaking cinematography and assured direction by Sam Mendes, who should get Best Director too, it deserves to be the last film standing—though that’s now conditional on whether or not I see the ones I haven’t seen yet.

In the acting races: Antonio Banderas getting a Best Actor nod for a foreign language role isn’t terribly surprising; every once in awhile such roles break through, and the Academy loves Pedro Almodovar... Harriet was a film I was on the fence about whether to see it or not; nice to see newcomer Cynthia Erivo get the call for Best Actress... Hanks in Supporting Actor? The Academy actually gauged his role in Neighborhood correctly? Amazing... ScarJo in Lead and Supporting. Could she win both?... Yay Adam Driver; I kinda hope he wins Best Actor. Yay Saoirse Ronan; maybe she should keep making movies with Greta Gerwig. Yay Anthony Hopkins and Kathy Bates, even though I didn’t see their movies. I just like them.

No Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy for Best Actor, boo hoo. Whatever. That would’ve gotten a serious amount of buzz... I thought Noah Baumbach deserved a Director nod for Marriage Story, but at least his original screenplay is in the mix, as is Rian Johnson’s for Knives Out. That’s good... Kinda surprised Gerwig wasn’t caught up in all the love for Little Women... Really disappointed in the lack of love for Rocketman in general and Taron Egerton for Best Actor. I genuinely thought he had a legitimate shot because he was terrific... I had thought 1917 would easily take the two sound categories, but I think Ford v Ferrari will provide some stiff competition there... If The Lion King wins Visual Effects, that would be bittersweet indeed since its FX house, MPC, recently closed its doors... And no love for Cats? Awww...

Which films might I try to see? I believe The Two Popes is on Netflix. I remember seeing the trailer for it, but it didn’t interest me at the time... Little Women is still playing in theaters; I know Virginia saw it with Ann last weekend. I didn’t think anything new could be said about this story; I had already seen the Hepburn and the Ryder versions. Guess I was wrong... Parasite might still be playing in the city, a movie I had never even heard of until a few weeks ago... I hope Jojo Rabbit gets re-released. I remember reading a capsule description of it and initially  thinking it was silly.

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Adam Sandler, like many comedians before him, wants to be taken seriously as an Actor. That’s okay by me; I like seeing actors of all stripes try new things. They should. Sometimes when a comedian switches to drama, though, they never switch back, and that disappoints me, but it’s their career, after all, to go in whatever direction they choose.

I was never a huge Sandler fan. I think the only comedy of his I can honestly say I liked was The Wedding Singer, which had Drew Barrymore in it too. His comedy music is pretty good, though—and his Hanukkah song kicks ass.

Sandler has ventured into dramatic films before. I never saw Spanglish, but I did see Punch-Drunk Love, a romance with Emily Watson (no relation), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was lukewarm to it at the time, but now I’m thinking perhaps I should revisit it. Still, I doubt any of his past work prepared us for Uncut Gems, his latest film, which has people mentioning his name and Oscar in the same breath—and who could’ve predicted that?


Full disclosure: I saw this film on January 2, still recovering from New Year’s Eve. Not that I had a hangover—the drinks at the bar Virginia and me and our friends were in were way too expensive for more than one beer—but I didn’t get home until sometime after three. At the theater my sleep cycle was still off, plus the beginnings of a cold stirred. Bottom line: it’s possible I was in the wrong frame of mind to watch any movie...

...much less one like this. Sandler plays a New York jeweler addicted to gambling, particularly on NBA basketball. There’s a subplot about an Ethiopian rock with all sorts of precious jewels embedded in it that attracts the attention of a Boston Celtics star, there’s Sandler having an affair with his co-worker, there’s some leg-breakers Sandler owes money to—and the dialogue comes and goes at a rapid clip, with Altmanesque overlapping, and Sandler being very manic and high-strung, schmoozing with everyone he talks to in a sleazy and profane fashion.

On Twitter, I compared Sandler’s performance to Dustin Hoffman, which I still stand by. He’s got a little Pacino mixed in as well. This is a movie which could have been made in the 70s: its milieu, its character-driven plot, its antihero lead all scream “New Hollywood” era. In fact, Scorsese is an executive producer on Gems. That said, the whole thing gave me a headache. Sandler, good as he was, felt shrill and one-note after awhile, though I’m not sure if that was because of where my head was at or not—and I’m in no great hurry to see the movie again.

Garnett (left) was convincing in his supporting role. Don’t know
if he had any prior acting experience, but I doubt he had to stretch.
Gems was directed and co-written (with Ronald Bronstein) by brothers Josh & Benny Safdie, indie filmmakers who had done some stuff before this. Sandler’s character Howard is a Shylock, but the Safdies immerse the film in Jewish culture; it’s a big aspect of its identity. Mostly, though, it’s New York hustle: Howard haggling with NBA star Kevin Garnett (as himself) over the Ethiopian rock, Howard haggling with the goons over money, Howard haggling with his wife and his lover, and all at a go-go pace.

Like I said, I may not have been in the right mood to see such a movie, but at the least I can appreciate its craft. The score was good, so was the cinematography, and this was Sandler in a different context, if nothing else. How much you’ll like this depends on how you feel about Sandler. I never hated him, but a little always went a long way with him. In Gems, he is the movie, he dominates it, and you may not be willing to spend two hours with him in a non-comedic manner. It’s enough to give you tsuris, know what I mean, bubbeleh?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Eating Raoul

The Beyond Star Trek Blogathon is an event which spotlights Star Trek cast members, from all the shows, in different roles. It is hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the lists at the host sites.

Eating Raoul
YouTube viewing

On Star Trek: Voyager, Robert Beltran played Commander Chakotay, the first officer to Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway. He was part of a group of renegades called the Maquis, Starfleet officers and ordinary citizens pissed off at the Federation for signing an unfavorable peace treaty with a former enemy. The Maquis expressed  their anger through terrorist attacks. Janeway was hunting down Chakotay’s group when they both ran afoul of a powerful alien being who sucked them into a distant part of space. To get back home, the Starfleet and Maquis crews must set aside their differences and work together.

BBC America reruns Voyager episodes, so I’ve watched it again in another attempt to find the good in the show, and I have kinda warmed up to it overall. Chakotay originally struck me as dull and little more than Janeway’s lapdog, and he has had his moments, but honestly, little has changed my mind on that score. A large section of the Voyager fandom have ’shipped him and Janeway, and there were moments where it looked like sparks might have flown between them in a Sam-and-Diane, will-they-or-won’t-they fashion, but of course, nothing came of it because the writers were adverse to permanent change. Don’t get me started on that.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Master cordially invites you to the Butlers & Maids Blogathon

Ladies and gentlemen, the Master of this web log extends his greetings to you all and hopes you will join him on 22-23 February for what promises to be a rather dashing soirée, if I may be so bold. The only requirement for admittance is a post from you on the subject of butlers and maids in cinema and television history. Although that is the theme, rest assured, posts on other domestic servants—chauffeurs, cooks, gardeners, what have you—shall also be accepted.

The Master is aided in this endeavor by Madame Caftan Woman who, I am told, will provide a preview of her spring fashions in caftanwear from Paris. Her post will be about the film Personal Maid’s Secret, starring Ruth Donnelly.

Champagne and hors d’oeuvres will be served promptly at six, with dinner and dancing to follow—oh, and the Master wishes to add that he has learned his lesson from last time and promises to leave the mashed potatoes on the plate where they belong.

Please accept one of these invitations. There are more on the end table out on the veranda as you leave.


((Thanks to Ruth for the banner assist.))

Second Sight Cinema
Ruggles of Red Gap

Movie Movie Blog Blog II
Another Fine Mess

Strictly Vintage Hollywood
Sunset Boulevard

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
If You Could Only Cook

A Shroud of Thoughts
Our Man Godfrey

Old Hollywood Films
The Fallen Idol

Hometowns to Hollywood
Higher and Higher

The Midnite Drive-In
Clue

Citizen Screen
Rebecca

Taking Up Room
Benny and Joon

Grand Old Movies
Thank You, Jeeves!
Step Lively, Jeeves!

Pale Writer
Cluny Brown

Critica Retro
Murder By Death

Another Old Movie Blog
Sullivan’s Travels

The Story Enthusiast
Imitation of Life (1934)

RealWeegieMidget Reviews
The Others

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

1917


1917
seen @ AMC Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

Shooting a film in one shot, or at least making it appear like one shot, might be the greatest challenge a director can undertake, yet when I wrote about the last movie I saw to attempt this feat, Best Picture winner Birdman, I didn’t write about that aspect much because the movie as a whole befuddled me more than I expected it would, but that had more to do with the screenplay than the camerawork... which was not an issue with 1917, a World War 1 film by American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes that puts the viewer in the trenches and battlefields of France with the protagonists, a pair of soldiers who must warn a battalion cross country of an impending attack, and it doesn’t take long before you stop thinking about how cinematographer Roger Deakins kept the visual flow so consistent and how editor Lee Smith made every cut so seamless and invisible and you get caught up in the story because the cumulative result bonds you with Blake and Scofield; you feel their pain when they get hurt and your heart races when they crawl across a battlefield anticipating enemy fire and you fear their mission may not succeed in time because we stick with them through everything, every step they take, every friend and foe they encounter, every obstacle that slows them down; a lifetime spent watching movies and TV has conditioned us to anticipate cuts in the action but we don’t get that here, and one has to adjust one’s thinking to compensate, but it’s worth the effort because I’m convinced this is one of the best war movies ever made—and Mendes discusses most of the nuts and bolts behind it here.


Monday, January 6, 2020

New year’s links

This Chaplin GIF is submitted in an attempt
to lighten all our spirits.
It’s not too late to reboot 2020 so we can start over, is it?

The holiday season, at least, was a good one. Virginia took me to a Cirque du Soleil show at Madison Square Garden, and in turn, I took her to a performance of Messiah at Carnegie Hall. These were our Christmas gifts to each other. It was the first time I had seen either one. On Christmas night we had dinner with friends—I made a salad—and on New Year’s Eve she and Sandi were once again part of the annual free choral recital in midtown Manhattan. Ann was part of it too, for the first time. It was kinda funny how many people I knew in the chorus this year. Our after-party was a tad smaller than last year, but that was okay.

——————

Last month was a sad one for Trekkies. On the heels of the death of popular Deep Space Nine supporting player Aron Eisenberg, we lost more stars, from both sides of the camera. I’ve talked about DC Fontana here before; not too much more to add. As a woman writer, she was an inspiration to many who came after her, whether they were professionals in the industry or fans writing for SF zines. As for Rene Auberjonois, I remember feeling good about him joining the cast of DS9 because of his TV and film work elsewhere, and his was a tremendous contribution. His interpretation of Odo was as a multi-faceted character, loaded with contradictions, yet with a human touch underneath his brusque exterior. His relationships with Kira and Quark were fascinating to watch unfold and they brought so much depth to the overall story. Great artists who gave us much to be thankful for as fans.

——————

On a somewhat happier Trek-related note: I had made peace with the belief I would never get to see Star Trek: Discovery, but Ann acquired CBS All Access last month and she was kind enough to invite me to her house so we could binge-watch it. No, I did not expect to do that quite so soon after my little experiment, but life, y’know?

We watched the first twelve or so episodes of Season 1, over two nights. I won’t go into specific details here, but while some things were impressive—Michael Burnham is a unique character in Trek lore, with her own set of morals, and I like the premise of a disgraced Starfleet officer seeking redemption—there was a lot more I didn’t care for. The technology which clearly is superior to that of Kirk’s era; the profanity, which wasn’t Scorsese-level but served no purpose I could tell; the gee-whiz shots of outside the Discovery and then zooming inside; the stronger-than-usual emphasis on action; the unnecessary redesign of the Klingons; the de-emphasis on Starfleet values; the generic American crew; the lack of humor, THE CONSTANT GODDAMN CUTS.

If you wanna get into specifics, let’s talk in the comments. For now, I’ll just say: I understand this is set during a time of war, but even during the Dominion War, DS9 placed a greater emphasis on character and plots tailored around each character than what I’ve seen from Discovery so far. That may change, but I’m not convinced yet. Here’s hoping Picard will be better.

———————

Let’s go straight to the links:

Le uses All Quiet on the Western Front to address violence in war movies.

Jacqueline on Lionel Barrymore and Christmas.

Cats is gonna lose a ton of money.

Sam Mendes on how his grandfather inspired 1917.

The animation studio behind the Lion King remake shut down.

Could Adam Sandler win an Oscar? If he doesn’t, he’ll unleash a bomb of a movie on us.

Former DS9 star Nana Visitor on Rene Auberjonois.

CBS All Access is expanding Star Trek in many directions.

This post sums up my feelings about the whole CGI James Dean thing.

The struggle to preserve film backdrops.

Spotlight on former NBA star Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems.

And then there was that time the US government thought Wakanda was a real country.