Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It (2017)

It Chapter One
seen @ AMC Loews Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens NY

My childhood fear was dogs, and I had it for a long time. It's perhaps my earliest memory: me, at perhaps two or three, on vacation at my grandma's house in Florida, running away on account of her dog. It was the first time I had ever seen one; don't remember what kind it was. I just know it disagreed with me. I didn't get far - at least I'm fairly sure I didn't - but by the time my parents caught up with me the psychological damage was done.

For many years afterward, I could not be within barking distance of a dog, no matter what size, no matter if it was on a leash or not, no matter how friendly its owner claimed it was: if I saw one on the sidewalk coming toward me, I'd cross the street and continue on the far side. It took a combination of therapy and sheer willpower to overcome that fear. I'm actually starting to like them more. Recently, I was at Lynn's apartment and I played with her therapy dog Mackenzie like it was no big deal.

My childhood, all things considered, wasn't terrible. Sure, there were lots of things I wish I could change, but I had a stable home life with both parents, I did well in school, and I had good friends. Not the kind of material on which horror novels are based, or for that matter, movies.

I would guess the appeal of the Stephen King opus It lies not only with the demonic killer clown Pennywise terrorizing little kids; scary as he is, the real world threats within the story are almost as bad, if not more so. Watching this new film version, originally done as a TV mini-series, I realized Pennywise is little different from his cinematic forebears: Jason, Freddy, Michael, Jigsaw, etc. It's the contrast between him and characters like the sadistic bully, the sexually abusive father, the over-protective mother, that elevates this material, however slightly.

I remember the TV version, of course - no one who saw it the first time could forget it - but this cinematic remake has to have a CGI-enhanced showdown at the end like so many SF/fantasy/horror movies these days. I suppose it was inevitable. Still, the film was okay overall. I liked how Derry felt like a real place, with a history, specific locations, and an environment all its own. It was a smart idea to make this a duology: one film set in the past, one in the present. I'll probably come back for the second half.

King, it seems, is more popular than ever now. I've read little of his work because so much of it gets scooped up by Hollywood that I suppose I've never felt the need. The one King book I own is, oddly enough, one of the few that hasn't been adapted: Rose Madder. Mousy wife flees crazy abusive husband; he pursues. She acquires a certain painting... and things get weird. Jim Sheridan was attached to a film version back in 2011, but nothing has happened since.

I've seen it written that part of King's skill is in finding the creepy out of the mundane. Based on what I've read of him, I agree. He's also not afraid to make his villains truly evil - not just his supernatural ones, but his real-world ones too; It is the perfect example. 

I can't say whether he's coasting on his reputation or if he's still got it at this point in his career. Regardless, King has earned his reputation for sure, and as someone who's struggling with one novel, to see him crank out books as consistently as he does is intimidating, to say the least. I hope I can achieve a fraction of his success.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Rita Hayworth Primer

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

I threw out most of my oil and acrylic paintings prior to my move to Ohio, in an attempt to straighten my closets and unburden myself of non-essential material, but I remember some of what they looked like. They were from my high school and college years, which also includes the summer I spent in a painting class in Barcelona. None of the work - none of what I remember, anyway - was anything special. My artistic talent has always manifested itself better in pencil and pen & ink and watercolor; oils, and especially acrylics, were a different animal.

Monday, October 9, 2017

What a Life

What a Life
YouTube viewing

What a Life is a largely forgotten entry in the careers of Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Wilder doesn't even mention it in Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe's book-length interview with the writer-director.

It's based on a play, but Paramount liked it enough to turn it into a franchise, featuring Jackie Cooper's lead character, Henry Aldrich, no doubt to compete with Andy Hardy over at Metro. Prior to this, I only knew Cooper from the Superman movies from the 70s and 80s, but of course, he had a notable career as a child star in the 30s, as one of the Little Rascals and in films like The Champ.

Henry is more of a schlemiel than Andy; he doesn't try to get into trouble, but it seems to find him anyway - and you can bet he gets the blame. He's Peter Parker without the benefit of a radioactive spider bite. Dad is implied but never seen, so there's no one with whom he can have a "man-to-man" talk (though a sympathetic teacher offers him guidance late in the film). There's a Mary Jane character for him to pine over and a Flash character to bully him, some oddball teachers, a semi-romantic adult couple, Hedda Hopper as Henry's mom, a glowering principal, even a cop!

To be honest, if this was the first Wilder film I saw (he only co-wrote; he didn't direct), I would not guess he'd go on to make films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, though there are hints, however small. The film opens with the school marching band parading through the campus and into the halls, and at the tail end, one kid provides a jazzy flair to the music before his music teacher scolds him. It's easy to miss, but it's there, and it's funny. The cop is called in to investigate some missing musical instruments, for which Henry is framed. The cop is belligerent to the snooty music teacher at first, but by the end, they're dancing together at the climactic school dance. The love interest actually has braces - but of course, she's only Hollywood Homely, so she gets a makeover and suddenly becomes a hottie.

What a Life came out in 1939, the same year as Ninotchka and Midnight; a huge difference. Here's a quote from Wilder about the film from Charlotte Chandler's Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography:
...The picture doesn't seem like much now, but at the time it was a very, very big challenge for me, it was so American. I had never worked on that kind of subject before, and this one was twice as tough, because it was about American teenagers in an American high school. The Europeans in Hollywood usually got European subjects, but with Charlie Brackett, they trusted me. The lines I contributed didn't speak with an accent.
Given those circumstances, I can certainly cut him slack. Still, this would probably be best appreciated by Wilder completists.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Books: The Star Machine

The Star Machine is the third book I've read by Jeanine Basinger, and for someone who doesn't read a great deal of books about Old Hollywood (at least not as much as some), I've found I really enjoy her writing in particular. She totally knows her stuff about film, but she writes almost like a really smart blogger than a university professor, which she is.

You get a sense of her through her books: her life, her history with film, the things about them she values, even her sense of humor. Her books give you an education for sure, but it's one filtered through her specific experiences. In a way, it's within the same ballpark as what I do here, only she's way smarter about film than me.

Oh, and she has some pretty famous students: Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, Akiva Goldsman, Martin Scorsese's daughter Domenica, among others. They talk about her in this THR article from a couple of years ago.

Machine is about how the old studio system, from the dawn of the sound era onward, took the actors in their films and made them stars. In a way, it's a rather sobering account: Basinger emphasizes the business side of show business, the way the studios took a given actor's on-screen persona, crafted films to match that persona, and sold it to the public through the media. The studios regarded stars the way GM regarded cars: as product, and they treated them as such - but they gave them fame, fortune and a sort of immortality in return.

Basinger provides examples of the machine at work, profiling the careers of not only A-list stars, but supporting players, actors who found stardom later in their lives, stars created to fill the void left by World War 2, stars who were, to put it kindly, less glamorous than others, even child stars. We see actors who worked with the system and those who rebelled against it, actors who strove to make quality material and those who provided light escapist fare.

Basinger understands their appeal. She writes critically about why a Tyrone Power or a Lana Turner were marked for stardom, and how the machine shaped their careers, but she never forgets the audience's perspective; indeed, it's crucial to that understanding, and she is as much a part of that audience as the reader. She never forgets that either. She also does a brief comparison at the end with today's stars, free of the studio system but with a different set of obstacles.

The Star Machine provides an intimate understanding of what it meant to be a star in Old Hollywood that's both terrifying and mesmerizing. It's a very unique film history book.

Also by Jeanine Basinger:
I Do and I Don't
Silent Stars

Monday, October 2, 2017

Link runner

I'm sure I've talked about this before, but I was reminded of it again recently and I feel like complaining. As you know, I come from a comics background. Marvel and DC Comics have broken into television and film in a big way now, to the point where secondary and tertiary characters, the ones only hardcore comics fans would have known in the past, are getting their moments in the spotlight.

If you still actually read the comics themselves, I imagine it's pretty exciting, though my passion for superhero comics cooled long ago. If you're a fan of a certain age, like I am, you can remember when they were - not a secret thing, exactly, but something that required specialized knowledge to fully comprehend, and only a minority possessed it. Having that knowledge made us unique and distinctive, if not exactly popular, but that was the price we paid for knowing important things like Wonder Girl's convoluted history or the fate of Cyclops' second brother.

It's more than a little grating to me to know the walls of the fortress called Comics Fandom have been breached; that anybody with a Netflix account can get a basic education on the fringe elements of the Marvel Universe, the kinda stuff that used to be the exclusive province of the fanboy. Even ten years ago, TV shows based on characters like Luke Cage and Iron Fist and now the Inhumans would have been nothing more than fodder for a Wizard magazine "Casting Call" column. It's just a struggle to accept (though I wonder how many people who watch these shows and films read the comics on which they were based).

Speaking of TV, between DiscoveryThe Orville and Feud, I've watched way more of it this year than usual, and um, how do I say this without sounding like a prude... It's surprising what you can say and do on TV now. You're all saying "No duh," but it's one thing to write about how shows look more like movies now and another to actually see it for myself. I mean, they were bandying the word dick around pretty casually on The Orville (it's a Fox show, so I really shouldn't have been surprised).

Feud was on basic cable, but even so, I couldn't quite get used to the profanity - which is odd, because if I were watching a movie on IFC or Cinemax that had profanity, I wouldn't think twice. Maybe it's because I know it's a movie that makes the difference?

It's not just the language. The production values on Feud, as I said at the time, were outstanding: sets, wardrobe, cinematography and editing. The aliens and ships in Discovery and Orville, not to mention the visual effects, make every episode look theatrical. It's no wonder film is suffering another downturn in sales. I guess that's why some theaters are so eager to install luxury recliner seats and have a wait staff bring you your food. What's next?

In other news, my novel is close to done. When it comes time to revise it, I'll have to do things like fill in research gaps, such as for medical and legal story details; rethink certain character traits now that I know more about them; rethink certain plot details; and rewrite where necessary... and it will be necessary. In a lot of ways, it's a bigger task than writing the story. This was a good idea, right?

Two blogathon posts for you this month, and now that fall is here, the good new releases will multiply. I may even write about a few.

Your links:

Ivan checks out an early film from dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Marsha explains why Marilyn Monroe made her cry.

Aurora has a terrific guest post from a woman who grew up a classic film fan in Spain.

Silver Screenings Ruth peeps behind the curtain at movie stars before they were glamorous.

Le looks at the friendship of Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

The reaction to Mother! is the latest example of the need for audiences to have everything explained to them. (Excellent article.)

One of my favorite childhood TV series, The Carol Burnett Show, debuted 50 years ago last month.

John Lennon once appeared in a fourth wall-breaking war comedy.

Ever wonder how theaters started selling popcorn?

Wanna buy some of Audrey Hepburn's old clothes?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid vs. Splash

You can go all around the world and find mermaid stories. The earliest tales go as far back as around 1000 BC, in ancient Assyria. Christopher Columbus thought he saw some. PT Barnum claimed to have one, but it was just a hoax. And of course, millions of people see mermaids every day on their coffee cups!

A chance showing on TV of the Ron Howard romantic comedy Splash, a favorite from my childhood, reminded me of another mermaid movie, one I hadn't seen: Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. I doubted the latter was as good as the former, but I watched it on YouTube anyway, thinking it might be fun to compare the two. Well, I was right; Splash is better by a country mile.

I believed the romance in Splash more. Tom Hanks, a young man, is set up as a lovelorn guy, someone convinced true love was out of his reach. Darryl Hannah seems like a dream come true to him, but of course, she's got a secret: she's a fish. When he finds out, he has to learn to look past that, and with effort, he does.

In Peabody, William Powell meets Ann Blyth, the mermaid, as a much older man, a married one at that. For all his poetic waxing to her, he never struck me as going through anything more than a mid-life crisis, precipitated by his wife casually flirting with another man. Even when wifey goes conveniently missing, I never believed in Powell and Blyth as a couple; partly because of the age difference, which the movie, to its credit, doesn't ignore, but also because the wife, flirting aside, was a decent person, and Powell is not presented as a cad. Might've made for a more interesting movie if he was, but as it is, everything is milquetoast.

There's some talk in Peabody of the ruts marriages go through, which cause the eye to wander. As if a mermaid wasn't enough, there's another young chick who catches Powell's attention. She's not a mermaid, but she sings a song and swims a little. Powell actually implies at one point he prefers a woman he can feel superior to - and along comes Blyth, who can't speak, knows nothing of the world, and is totally reliant on him. Again, if his character began as more of a sleaze, and his dalliance with Blyth made him realize he really loved his wife after all, I could buy that, but this movie is too slight to go in that direction.

Hannah, by contrast, learns how to speak to Hanks on her own and was willing to give up her mermaid superpowers to be with him. She's a more active character than Blyth, and Hanks is way less paternalistic than Powell.

Peabody is a Blyth movie, so that means we gotta get Jacqueline's opinion:
...the 36-year difference between [Powell and Blyth] did not really make for any awkwardness in the crush the mermaid and the man had for each other on screen, mainly because the crush was so innocent and so was the mermaid. For his part, William Powell strolled through his character's midlife crisis with the panache and bemused sophistication of The Thin Man [movies], with that sly humor that uses discretion as a springboard to irony. He's perfect in the role.
She calls Peabody an "offbeat charmer." (Many behind-the-scenes pics at her post; take a look.) I was bored to death. It certainly wasn't as funny as Splash, which has lots of Noo Yawk character moments, plus it has the wonderful John Candy and Eugene Levy. Powell and Blyth fans should stick to his Thin Man movies and her musicals instead.