Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

There are a lot of good and bad aspects to the Oscar season. On the one hand, it kinda sucks that so many of the quality movies get squeezed into the final two months of the calendar year instead of being spread out over the other ten months. Then again, as a movie fan, it is kinda nice to have this time of year to look forward to, especially if you've read about certain films playing film festivals like Cannes and Toronto and getting great receptions.

For my part, I don't try to see every potential Oscar contender. I can't. Part of it is financial, but also because it gets tiring. In my experience, it becomes less about appreciating the movies as movies and more about a race. I remember in 1997 - which was a very good year for movies - I tried to watch a bunch of contenders in one week in late December, all in Manhattan. Never again. It had nothing to do with the quality of the films (I don't even remember which ones; I know one was Jackie Brown); I just caught up in the Oscar race and felt like I had to see everything as soon as possible and as a result I forgot to take time to really appreciate the movies. 

When I covered the Urbanworld Film Festival this year, it was different. I was seeing movies I had never even heard about before, for free thanks to my press badge, in a limited time period, in one location. Who knew when (or even if) I'd get to see some of those films again? I didn't have that excuse in 1997. If I had bothered to take my time with those movies, which would play for longer periods of time in theaters all over the city, maybe they'd stand out in my mind more.

Anyway, I also say this to explain why you may not see me write about certain films from this Oscar season. I've settled into writing about three movies a week for months now, and even that feels like much at times. I want to see the contenders, but I refuse to knock myself out trying to see them all, or even close to it. So I make choices. If I can wait for a movie to come to the Kew Gardens where I can see it cheaper, I do. If I see a potential contender looks like it's bombing, I know to avoid it. If I can wait until January to see a contender, I will. And if a certain movie simply doesn't appeal to me for whatever reason, even if it is a contender, I'll pass on it.

The Descendants is a good example of this process. It's a movie I had been reading about for weeks, one that had gotten rave reviews at film festivals, and was touted as a major Oscar contender. As a result, I was eager to see it, but I knew it would eventually play at the Kew Gardens after opening in Manhattan, so I was willing to wait a couple of extra weeks and save some money. (I should also say that I'm fully aware of this luxury I have - the ability to pick and choose where and when to see movies like this, and I'm grateful for it. When I lived in Columbus, it wasn't a choice - the art house theaters there would always get their movies later than those in New York or LA - but at least we got them.)

The Descendants is also the kind of film that I want to be able to think about for awhile. It's an outstanding achievement; deeply moving and thoughtful. The dying-wife-and-mother element made me think of my father's final months of life, although unlike the movie, I didn't have any kind of issues with him that complicated my feelings for him. I do remember the hurt, though, the great sense of loss, and it was hard not to think on that as I watched this.

I think we who write about film ought to take more time to reflect on the movies we write about. The need to consistently provide content for our blogs and websites has the potential to preclude our enjoyment of the films sometimes, especially if we, like certain film critic groups, are in a rush to proclaim our opinions of them before everyone else. Just a thought.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

'Kinyarwanda' opens December 2!

Kinyarwanda star Cassandra Freeman:
... Kinyarwanda is like a movie no one has ever seen before. Though it's based around the genocide, the film is really about love in the time of genocide.Going out to parties and being a teenager during the time of genocide. And what it's like to be a freedom fighter in the time of genocide. It's about so much more. It's about what would happen to your life if you chose freedom and forgiveness instead of vengeance and violence. And that's really the story of this movie.
Just a reminder that Kinyarwanda, the second film released through AFFRM, is coming out this Friday (rescheduled from its original date of November 23). Here's my review of the film from the Urbanworld Film Festival back in September. I strongly recommend it; it's quite moving, in unexpected ways, with a message that needs to be heard. Check the AFFRM site to find out which cities and theaters it's playing in. Here's some more items related to the film that have come out since September:

the trailer
Kinyarwanda wins audience award @ AFI Fest 
director Alrick Brown
AFFRM founder Ava DuVernay

 Alrick Brown profile in the October 2011 Vanity Fair (click to enlarge)


Monday, November 28, 2011

The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show
seen online via Crackle

Earlier this month, members of the cast of The Last Picture Show, along with director Peter Bogdanovich, reunited for a 40th-anniversary screening hosted by AMPAS, along with a Q-and-A afterwards. Reading about it made me want to revisit the film myself, since I hadn't seen it in awhile. While it isn't as much of an explicit tribute to cinema as recent movies like Hugo and The Artist, a love of movies is certainly integral to its success as a movie, particularly in the influences it wears on its sleeve. I had never noticed it in previous viewings, but my knowledge of film history has expanded since then.

Though its subject matter is thoroughly American, Picture Show is filmed like a European film: black-and-white, no score (the only music comes from radios and jukeboxes), the casual, realistic approach to nudity and sex, all of it comes across as familiar to anyone who has seen enough Italian and French films of the 50s and 60s. At the same time, though, the wide open Texas spaces recall the work of John Ford easily enough.

Bogdanovich, of course, has always been a huge film nerd, so this comes as little surprise. He came up around the same time as the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Ashby, Lucas, and Spielberg, and like them, brought a vastly different sensibility to moviemaking than the generation before him. A look at his wonderful blog will give you an idea of not only his influences, but his ideas about film history in general.

What is it about black-and-white? It's a question worth pondering again now that The Artist is poised to become a big success. Bogdanovich chose to film Picture Show in B&W partly as a tribute to those old picture shows he loves, foreign and domestic, but there's something else about it, too. It's the reason why I choose to do my variant banners in B&W, and I can even tell you the moment when I noticed it. 

When I did my New Year's Eve banner, I chose an image from a full-color movie, The Poseidon Adventure. It was a shot of Shelley Winters. Just for the heck of it, I removed the color from the image, something I did for the image for my Christmas variant - the leg lamp from A Christmas Story. I didn't notice the difference then because it was a single, isolated object with no background, but here something changed. Suddenly I didn't see Winters the actress so much as I saw... the emotion of fear on her face, as her character is about to be upended by the sinking ship. Something about that appealed to me, seemed purer in a way, and that's when I decided to make all my variant banners in B&W.

Not that I necessarily think Poseidon should've been shot in B&W, or movies in general, for that matter - Avatar would've been much poorer in B&W, for example - but perhaps directors like Bogdanovich use B&W in order to have less distractions. It's easy to focus on a color in a picture, but by paying too much attention to it, one can lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes focusing on color is a deliberate choice on the director's part, but I think using B&W in a film can sometimes free one to notice intangibles like emotion and mood, which Picture Show has plenty of.

Also, B&W can be used almost as a meta-textual element, to call attention to the movie-ness of a movie, to coin a phrase. Think about the first time Dorothy opens the door of her house when she lands in Oz in The Wizard of Oz - you can't help but notice the color before you notice anything else. That was a stylistic choice, not something one sees in real life, because one doesn't transition from B&W (or sepia tones) into full color just like that - but a trick meant to emphasize this brave new world that Dorothy has stepped into. Regardless, I can't imagine Picture Show being made any other way than in black and white.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets

The Muppets
seen @ Main Street Cinemas, Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, NY

At what point in my life did I drift away from the Muppets? It probably began after Jim Henson's death. I remember how heartbroken I was over that, and I suppose a part of me thought the Muppets that I knew died with him as well, even though I knew that wasn't true. It might've been the excuse for me to consciously or unconsciously relegating them to childhood, where I thought they belonged.

I remember watching The Muppet Show every weeknight at 7:30 without fail. It didn't matter if I hadn't finished my homework or my dinner, I'd be there, parked in front of the TV. There were plenty of shows from my youth that I watched and enjoyed, but few inspired this kind of fanatical loyalty. As much as I liked watching Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley, for example, shows like that never captured my imagination in the same way The Muppet Show did. You never knew what kind of madcap sketches they'd come up with next, nor would you know how the show's dynamic would change with each guest star. I suspect most people who grew up with the show feel similarly.

Then Henson died, and while I knew in my head that the Muppets would go on without him... I couldn't. What they say about Muppet fans revering Henson is absolutely true. You couldn't listen to him speak without hearing Kermit's voice; you couldn't watch him talk about the Muppets without seeing the devotion and passion he brought to their creation; you couldn't watch other Muppeteers like Kevin Clash without seeing how much he inspired them. I remember seeing an exhibit at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan devoted to him not long after he died, and feeling reconnected to him and to the Muppets for a little while. When they started making new movies without Henson, though, that changed. I didn't think it was "wrong" as in disrespectful, but more like "wrong" as in awkward, almost unnatural. I remember hearing Kermit's new voice for the first time and thinking, no, that's not right. Irrational? Yeah, I suppose. But that's how closely I identified with the Muppets.

The newer movies held no great interest for me as a result, and eventually I settled the Muppets in a corner of my mind and left them there. Then I heard that a new movie was being made, with some guys I wasn't familiar with writing it. Feelings of mistrust immediately arose within me. Who is this Jason Segal and what makes him think he can write a Muppet movie? Still, it sounded like he wanted to get back to basics and he clearly loved the Muppets too... so I figured he should get the benefit of the doubt.

The Muppets did feel like a homecoming of sorts. The meta-textual nature of the script - in which the Muppets are as passe in their own universe as they had become in ours - certainly speaks to old-time fans like me, as does the reverence for the original TV show. The humor seems evocative of the first Muppet movie in places, and it even establishes a continuity to it. And there were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some deeply sentimental ones.

For all that, though, I couldn't give in to it completely. Some of the songs were mediocre (Chris Cooper rapping? Really?!) and the pacing felt a little too quick, for starters. Why did the story's main conflict resolve itself with a closing credits post-script? Plus, I was hoping the Muppets would rate a higher level of celebrity cameos, in more substantial roles. I mean here, some of the cameos went by too fast and others were barely acknowledged!

Bottom line, though, The Muppets is a nice, enjoyable little love letter to these iconic characters and their wonderful TV show. It may not stack up to The Muppet Movie, but then, that set the bar so very high that the only way to reach it would be to resurrect Henson himself. (I totally want an 80's robot, though.)

A brief word about the theater I saw it in: I had never been to the Main Street before, even though I had passed it lots of times. It's a small neighborhood theater, the neighborhood in this case being a predominantly Jewish one, with lots of kosher markets and restaurants. The Main Street is a sister of the Sunnyside theater, and the layout is similar. There was one guy working both concessions and tickets, and by the time he let us into the auditorium, most of the previews had already played, so we had to quickly find seats in the dark. There were a bunch of kids in the audience, naturally, and they chattered about as much as you'd expect them to during the film. I just tuned them out. At least none of them sat directly behind me and kicked my chair or anything.

Also, there was a Toy Story short before the film. This was the second one Pixar has made, if I'm not mistaken, and it seemed derivative of some of the earlier movies (Buzz separated from the others, a new group of toys with issues). I wasn't that impressed with it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
seen @ IS 227, Queens, NY
circa mid-80s

Did you know that Harrison Ford has been nominated for an Oscar only once in his entire career? (It was for Witness, a good movie). That's a bit surprising, given how big a star he is. To me, and to many other film fans, I imagine, Ford always struck me as (primarily) an action hero who was a notch or two above the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Seagal in terms of acting ability. I would put him with the likes of Bruce Willis - best known as an action hero but capable of deeper and more versatile roles as well.

Ford has certainly had opportunities to do more than pilot spaceships and crack bullwhips. Looking over his roles, I'd say his peak years was 1977-94, which saw a wide variety of roles in films of different genres, and many of them were big hits. In his heyday, Ford, unlike Arnold or Sly, never needed to show off his muscles or mow down entire armies of goons while quipping one-liners. His was a masculinity that was easier to relate to: he could be charming and roguish as often as he could be tough, and if he didn't know the way out of a jam at first, well, he just needed some time to come up with something.

I'd like to think he has one more great role in him, another Oscar-caliber role perhaps. Even if it means a supporting role in an ensemble drama or a starring role in an independent feature, that would be fine by me. I'm still not used to seeing him billed second in films with Daniel Craig and - bleech! - Brendon Fraser. Would he be cool with it, though? After being on top for so long, it can't possibly be easy to take secondary roles, but it'd be mighty nice if he found one that would remind us why we love him...

...particularly for films like the Indiana Jones series. (Let's not discuss Crystal Skull.) I wish I could remember the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's remarkable how well it still holds up after all these years. There's violence, even a little bit of gore at the end, but it's not gratuitous, nor does it feel the need to cater to the youngsters. 

And Marion is one of the sexiest women characters in any action movie, bar none, not just for her looks but for the things she does. She seems like the kind of woman that can hold her own against a man like Indiana Jones. And the little character moments throughout the film mean so much, and add up over the course of the story. It is an absolute treasure.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on reflection, doesn't hold up quite as well, though as a child, of course, I ate it up. I don't think I liked Willie even back then (I can't stand her now), but yes, I did like Short Round; how could I not appreciate a kid sidekick, me being a kid at the time?

My junior high school screened Temple for us; I don't remember if it was for a special occasion of some sort or not. I don't think there was; I think it was just something they did for us. I distinctly remember sitting in the auditorium with my friends watching it. We had great seats, too; in the center, near the front. I remember squirming at the part where Willie has to stick her hand in that hole full of spiders, scorpions and other bugs, though I thought the part where the bad guy ripped out that dude's heart was pretty cool.

Does anybody remember the Temple of Doom arcade game? I played it fairly often. It captured most of the cool moments from the movie, and the graphics were decent.

Temple is one of those movies I closely associate with my childhood, which may sound strange considering the high levels of violent imagery (and political incorrectness), but back then, things like that didn't get people as uptight as they do now. I don't feel scarred from the violence in it, nor do I feel it turned me into a bad person. Strange how often people forget that kids can take stuff like this without it completely warping their minds.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stop ripping off H'wood, B'way

I'm not a Broadway follower by any stretch. In my life, while I've certainly been to lots of live theater performances, only two of them were on Broadway, and both were musicals. One was called The Life, a story about Times Square hookers and pimps, in the days before Disney steamrolled over them all. It was recommended to me by Bill from the Third Avenue video store I used to work at, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a pity it didn't last longer. The other one was Rent

Now it's not even like I'm all that picky when it comes to Broadway shows, because like I said, I don't go to very many of them, but these days, I have even less of an incentive to see one. Why? Because chances are, I've already seen it - on the silver screen!

Yep, I'm talking about the disturbing trend of Hollywood movies being made into Broadway musicals. A stroll down the Great White Way in recent years looks more and more like a Netflix queue: The Lion King, Sister Act, The Color Purple, Mary Poppins, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Hairspray - whether the film version had a musical element to it or not, Broadway looks more and more towards Hollywood (and films in general, really) for its ideas. And now we can look forward to musical adaptations of Newsies, Ghost, Once, and even Rocky! I really love it when Hollywood then makes a new movie out of the musical version, which itself came from a movie! The snake devouring its own tail in one big cycle.

Personally, I blame The Lion King. When Disney staked its claim to the Broadway scene, it came at a time when Times Square was undergoing its metamorphosis into family-friendliness. Now as a New Yorker, I'm of two minds about this, and this is something I've written about before: on the one hand, it is a city government's responsibility to make its city the best it can be for everyone who lives there. However, even those peep shows and grindhouse theaters served a purpose, and for better or for worse, they were an intrinsic part of New York's identity (as The Life made quite clear). But that's tangential to my main point.

Disney arrived, hyped the hell outta The Lion King musical, and quicker than you can say "hakuna matata," it became a phenomenal success, and ever since, the floodgates have remained open for more musicals based on movies. (Although to be fair, the reverse has also been true, particularly back in the old days.)

I'm not getting into issues of quality; I haven't seen The Lion King or any of the other movie-based musicals, but I'm sure they have their merits. But I think it's disappointing that the same industry that made stars out of Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein (& Hart), Lerner & Lowe, George & Ira Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber now follows Hollywood's lead instead of doing the leading themselves. And again, I'm saying this and I'm not even a Broadway fan.

Yes, I know there are plenty of gems to be found off-Broadway, and not every Broadway show rips off the movies. (Some of them just take a famous singer's songbook and builds a show around that.) I just feel the need to complain since this is something I've seen happening for years and it bugs me a little. If Broadway audiences want regurgitated material like Hollywood audiences want them, who am I to say no?

Any Broadway fans out there who hear what I'm saying?

Monday, November 21, 2011


seen @ Clearview Cinemas Ziegfeld, New York NY

The name Georges Melies may not mean much to even the casual film fan, much less the average person. I admit I myself knew only that he was an early filmmaker from the turn of the century, nothing more. His best-known film, A Trip to the Moon, is often cited as an early sci-fi classic by genre experts. His is a fascinating story for film fans of all kinds, and in the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, his life is reimagined as a means to celebrate not only the man, but the medium of film itself.

I don't wanna get too deeply into the specifics of the film itself - it deserves to be discovered on its own terms, because it starts out one way and ends up another, but you should at least be aware of Hugo as a film that is, at its heart, for film lovers, whether you watch them or make them. Scorsese's love and appreciation for film history is well documented (late last year, just to pick one example, I talked about a documentary he made about Elia Kazan), and I suspect that love was what drew him to this story, based on an award-winning children's book.

Melies' films are characterized by a great sense of whimsy and imagination. They were very often flights of fancy with elaborate costumes and sets, as well as innovative camera tricks, the result of his early career as an illusionist. Moon, for instance, imagines space travel being as simple as shooting people out of a cannon pointed at the moon, while the moon itself is a fantasy land populated by strange creatures. When you consider how much "realism" audiences demand these days in genre films, this stands out as a striking contrast. 

It's an attitude that I succumb to as well, more often than not. I mean, we're willing to accept artistic license on certain things - sound in space, superpowers that defy the laws of physics, improbable stunts that would mean certain death in real life - but we're only willing to go so far. Part of it, of course, has to do with our expanded knowledge of the way the universe operates, but if a consequence of that is an unwillingness, or at least a reluctance, to lose ourselves in pure fantasy every once in awhile - to be able to tell a story and just not give a damn whether it adheres to scientific principles or not - then that's unfortunate. A film like Moon would be considered kiddie fare if it were made today, but Melies and his audiences didn't make such distinctions.

Hugo is Scorsese's first 3D film, and while I didn't necessarily think it needed to be in 3D, he handled it well. It's immersive in the same way Avatar is; the opening scene envelops you in the snow falling all over the Paris cityscape. The sets are obviously not as spectacular, though they're impressive in their own right (Scorsese had an entire period-specific train station built for the movie). There are some show-offy moments - a dog barking angrily in your face, the neck of a guitar poking through the screen, but Scorsese never lays it on thick. 

As more star directors continue to experiment in 3D - Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Baz Luhrman, Wim Wenders - the more we may start to see 3D films that don't necessarily rely on fantasy or sci-fi elements. Hugo seems like a fantasy movie because of its elaborate sets and sense of bigness, but it's not. Even its Macguffin, the humanoid automaton discovered by Hugo's father, has real-life precedents, such as the infamous chess-playing "Turk." I don't know if the world is ready for romantic comedies or courtroom dramas in 3D, but that does seem to be a direction we're slowly moving towards.

Hugo played at the Ziegfeld as a special SAG screening which I went to with Reid, he being a SAG member. After the show, there was a special Q-and-A with cast members Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley, along with screenwriter John Logan, hosted by film critic Glenn Kenny. They each talked about their experiences on set, working with Scorsese, that sort of thing. One observation I remember Kingsley saying was about how working in 3D means the camera captures everything the actors do more readily. He said something about being able to see Butterfield's emotions even before they surfaced, which I thought was interesting.

A word or two about the Ziegfeld: it's actually the namesake of the original Ziegfeld, located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Named for Broadway mogul Florenz Ziegfeld, it has been a venue for theater, film and television over the years. It was torn down in 1966 to make way for a skyscraper, but the second one opened three years later, for movies only. Throughout the lobby there are sculptures, photos and other memorabilia celebrating the history of the original Ziegfeld, surrounded by lush red carpeting and ornate chandeliers. The last time I was there was, I think, for one of the Lord of the Rings films (probably Return of the King), and before that, for Attack of the Clones. Every time I've gone to the Ziegfeld, there has always been lines wrapped twice around the block. It's a single screen theater that seats a large amount of people, so perhaps that's not too surprising.

Look for photos of the Ziegfeld and of the Hugo Q-and-A on the WSW Facebook page.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl
seen online via YouTube

What's left to say about Marilyn Monroe that hasn't already been said? No other actress since has had the impact she had on pop culture worldwide. You'd have to look at stars in other media, like Madonna, to even come close (I think we can all agree that we think of Madonna as a singer first and an actress second) - and even she has invoked the spirit of Marilyn.

She was a movie star - maybe the movie star - but we rarely think of her as an actor in the same sense as someone like, say, Laurence Olivier. So perhaps their pairing in The Prince and the Showgirl might seem unusual in that sense. Surprisingly, though, Marilyn holds her own when matched with the master thespian. The story involves a prince (actually a prince-regent) of a fictitious European country who's got a hard-on for a minor actress in an English stage show. (An American actress; Marilyn thankfully doesn't attempt an accent.)

Maybe being around someone like Olivier enabled her to raise her game, but Marilyn is by turns sly, witty, and more than a little devious, in addition to being hot (but that goes without saying). It's not like she was a mediocre actress before this movie, but she was no Katherine Hepburn, either. Here, she's given a substantial role, and she makes the most of it, as much from the looks she gives in certain scenes and the chemistry she has with co-star-director Olivier as anything else.

As for Olivier, I find myself once again forced to re-evaluate the image I've always had of him as a straight-laced, prim and proper, stiff-upper-lip Brit. He's actually funny! He comes close to being farcical but never quite crosses that line, and while the movie itself is a bit longer than it should be, it's enjoyable.

Of course, it turns out that there's a story behind the making of Prince, which will be portrayed in the upcoming film My Week with Marilyn, featuring Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Monroe and Olivier. I'm not convinced it's the most compelling story that could be told - crew member has a brief dalliance with Monroe during the shooting of Prince - but I'm certainly eager to see the uber-talented Williams portray the screen legend.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

I still like the Kew Gardens. Not only is it a nice, cozy place to see art-house movies, it's close to me and I can pay less for a movie there than if I were to go into Manhattan. That hasn't changed. But yesterday they screwed up.

I went to a late afternoon showing of Martha Marcy May Marlene. There were maybe about six or seven other people in the small theater, including three little old ladies who seemed very interested in the film from what I could tell. Everything was going well for about the first hour or so. It was an intriguing story, well-shot, with a great performance from the young Elizabeth Olson at its heart, and I think it's safe to say that most of us in the room were absorbed by it. (The guy behind me sounded like he might've dozed off at one point.)

Then the projector stopped.

It was so sudden and unexpected that at first I just sat there, stunned. The movie stopped, the lights went up and music started playing, just like that. There was a confused buzz through the room, then a couple of people went outside to find a staff member. I looked up at the window to the projection room. I couldn't tell what had happened, so I called up there, "Hey! What happened to the movie?" No response. "Hello?" Still nothing. Apparently there wasn't anyone there. I went out into the hall as well, only to find that a staffer was notified, and he insisted that they would fix the projector. Disgruntled, I went back to my seat, not knowing how long this would take.

This was the first time this had happened to me at the Kew Gardens, but not the first time it's ever happened to me. If I recall correctly, the last time it happened was at the Village East in the city, when I saw an indie film called Smoke Signals. The projector stopped early in the film then, and there were a lot more people. I remember this because there was this great big Native American dude in the audience, bigger than me, with a frown on his face. (Smoke Signals was a comedy with a Native cast.) I imagine if you go to enough movies, this is bound to happen sooner or later. As long as the problem is fixable, it shouldn't be more than a minor inconvenience, and here at the Kew Gardens, that was the case. The projector was fixed in about five minutes or so and the movie continued...

...and then it stopped again. What the hell? At least the repair time was quicker, but still, how can you have the projector give out on you twice in one film? Now I was getting paranoid, and I watched the film with increasing trepidation, fearful of a third stoppage and ready to complain loudly to somebody if that happened. Fortunately, it didn't, and we made it through the rest of the film uninterrupted.

And like I said, it was an excellent film. I never watched Full House, so I never gave a crap about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, though I do remember working at the Avenue A video store when Mary-Kate (I think?) went into rehab for something or other. My point is that Elizabeth Olsen may be their younger sister, but that carries no weight with me. The entire movie is on her back; indeed, the camera lingers on her a lot, and she absolutely nails a great performance.

At first I thought Martha might've taken place in the past, since you don't see communes much anymore. They were more a thing of the 60s and 70s, if I understand my history right. Then I thought it might've been some kind of religious order, like the one in Higher Ground, which also takes place in an isolated rural area. It's not, although John Hawkes' character seems to have some sort of guidelines that make it seem like an order, not unlike Scientology, perhaps. Clearly Martha is fully indoctrinated into this life and found it hard to shake even after she fled from it, which made me think of some of the stories I've read about those who leave the Scientologists.

After the movie ended, I left right behind the three little old ladies, who were animatedly discussing the abrupt ending. One of them turned to me for my opinion. I shared mine, which, on further inspection, now seems wrong, though they seemed to think it was as valid as anything they could come up with. I can only imagine how different Martha is from most films they've seen in their lifetimes, and yet they took to it well. They kept discussing the plot while we waited for the projector to be fixed, trying to get it straight in their minds, and the nudity and bizarre sex scenes didn't seem to bother them. I dunno, maybe I stereotype too much about old people, thinking they won't "get" a movie as off the beaten path as this, but I just thought it was cool that they were able to appreciate Martha on its own merits.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Five movie crushes (and one actor I'd go gay for)

... I think a real crush is when you like an actor so much you just can’t get enough of them. You want to see everything he’s ever done, and you’re willing to track down even the most obscure little thing you could find, even if he has only like 5-minute screen time. That’s what I did as a wee girl when I fell for Christopher Reeve in Superman. Or the time I ordered a DVD of this British sit-com Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married all the way from New Zealand because Gerry Butler has a part in it, ahah. Turns out to be a pretty funny show thankfully.
I haven't gone into much detail about the movie actresses I adore, for their looks as much as (or even more than) their talent. I devoted an entire week to Barbara Stanwyck, of course, but other than that, not much. No real reason; perhaps I might've thought it too self-indulgent. But my blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, so perhaps I should! In many of the film blogs I come across, it's a common practice for some of them to be decorated with images of the authors' favorite movie stars. Sometimes the association between blogger and beloved star extends to the former's identity. There's a blog I read in which the writer's Twitter handle, as I've recently discovered, is "ACaryGrantFan."

Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard that silent film stars like her "didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" I suspect that was a major reason why film in general took off like it did: the instant attraction we, the audience, felt to those larger-than-life faces on the silver screen. When you see those faces act out a life, with or without sound, black and white or color, 2D or 3D, it can be pretty thrilling. Seeing these people big absolutely makes a difference in how we perceive them, so it's no surprise that we fall in love with them, in a vicarious way (most of the time).

The five movie crushes I've picked to talk about here cover a pretty wide portion of my life. There have been others, of course, but these five in particular, I think, portray the evolution of my cinematic tastes over the years. And just for laughs, I will even demonstrate how secure I am in my sexuality by naming an actor I would switch teams for! The lengths I go to in order to entertain you folks...

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Afternoons with Margueritte

My Afternoons with Margueritte
seen @ North Shore Towers Twin Cinema, Floral Park NY

She's back.

Actually, she's been back for less than a couple of weeks, but after three months traipsing around Spain and France, Andi finally came home on Halloween. And although I'm certainly glad to have her back, she insists she would've stayed in Europe much longer if she could. She loves it over there.

As I'd talked about before, she went hiking on a cross-country trek called the Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage to the final resting place of St. James in Compostela. She also spent a week in Paris afterwards (wouldn't you?). Paris means the world to her. In her youth, she had a beau from France, and she spent some time over there with him, and you can imagine the impact that would have on a young American girl. It's a major reason why she adores all things French.

Andi says that she feels more at home in Europe than in America, which is a remarkable concept for me, but then again, I've only been out of the country once in my life. Still, I suppose I can relate, on a smaller scale. I've done a good deal of traveling all over America, plus I've lived in Columbus for a year, so in a way, New York feels a little less like home to me now than it did three years ago. Anyway, Andi's talking now about trying to get work abroad. I shudder to contemplate the possibility of her leaving for good one day - but if this will make her happy, how can I get in the way of that?

So last weekend, I e-mailed her, wanting to know when we can get together again. She said that a friend of hers had recommended a French film that she had been eager to see called My Afternoons with Margueritte, and would I wanna see it too? Obviously, the timing on this was unusual, seeing as how I was about to spend an entire week watching old French movies! As luck would have it, this film was playing in only one place in all of New York: a tiny theater way out on the Queens/Nassau County border. Did I mention Andi lives way up in the Bronx? Yeah, this is how much she wanted to see it. 

She was gonna see it on Monday, but she changed her mind for some reason - which was fine by me, since I was still trying to shake a massive cold at the time (I missed seeing the NYC Marathon for the first time in years, not counting my year in Columbus), so Thursday it was instead, by which time I felt much better.

I have a passing familiarity with the area. As a little kid, I would go to the hospital there for check-ups and stuff like that, but of course, we always drove there, and it's not like I've gone there very often since. Andi was getting there via an express bus from Manhattan. I would have to take three different local buses.

When I got on the third bus, I thought I'd make it well ahead of time, but it turned out to be the wrong one! This bus has two different endpoints in east Queens, and by the time I realized the driver wasn't going where I wanted him to go we were headed back the other way on the parkway! And of course the driver has no idea where my ultimate destination is. I kept telling him, "There should be a movie theater in the vicinity," but he wasn't aware of any such theater, although he knew the street I was looking for. So we ended up going all the way back to Queens Boulevard, which was much further away than where I started. The driver gave me a transfer and I got on what I hoped was the right bus.

It was - but I got off at a point where I would've had to walk a long distance to my destination (and I was already running late). Once again, I tried to explain to the driver that I was looking for a movie theater in this part of town, and he didn't know what I was talking about either. Fortunately, a woman on the bus did, and after consulting with the driver, he re-opened the doors just as I was about to start walking and told me to get back on; he'd take me further up the road to the next stop.

The woman explained that the theater was part of a gated community of condos called North Shore Towers. From the looks of the residents, it's a retirement community. They seem to have everything, despite being so far away from the city, a small golf course, a swimming pool, a diner, and a small movie theater that plays obscure foreign films (among other things; they also were showing 50/50). She was going there too, so we got off the bus together and I followed her to the building with the theater.

I found Andi in no time. I had expected her to look - if not dramatically different, then noticeably different at least. And while she did appear to have lost a few pounds, she was as I remembered her. (The movie version of her would probably be played by Marisa Tomei, just to give you an idea.) We ate dinner in the cafe as she happily told me about her vacation.

The theater was much bigger than I had expected. It looks like what you'd see in your average multiplex, and I was expecting something more like a screening room. There were about nine other people there besides us. The projector didn't align the film dead center with the screen for some reason - it was flush with the left side. Not a big deal, just unusual. The seats were comfy with lots of legroom. There were no trailers.

Margueritte is about a middle-aged gardener with a reading disability of some sort who befriends an old woman who loves reading and inspires him to read better. I initially thought it was gonna be a Forrest Gump rip-off. It wasn't, but neither was it all that great, either, and for once Andi agreed with me. If anything, it's notable for the woman who plays Margueritte. Her name is Gisele Casadesus, and she was 95 when she made this film, if you can believe that. IMDB says her career goes all the way back to the 30's, having done mostly TV work in France. I don't recognize anything she's been in, although she is also in the current Kristin Scott Thomas film Sarah's Key. I liked her.

Andi's express bus goes straight to the North Shore Towers, and after the movie we waited together for about a half hour for it, only to find that no, the last bus out actually wasn't due to leave for another twenty more minutes. Another bus came by that we thought was ready to depart but wasn't. By the time the last bus came, we had said our goodbyes three times! I managed to find the bus stop for my bus, and this time there were no problems. I got home easily.

I don't wanna think about a future without Andi around, at least not yet. I'm just glad she's back home now.

The Guard
Higher Ground
The Way

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pierrot le Fou

C'est la Semaine de la Nouvelle Vague française! Toute la semaine, nous allons voir des films de cette période révolutionnaire et les plus influents dans l'histoire de certains de ses plus grands réalisateurs.

Pierrot le Fou
seen online via YouTube

Okay, remember earlier this year when I talked about whether or not so-called boring movies had any value? I said that it depended on one's level of receptiveness, and that if you didn't like a certain movie, you shouldn't let other critics opinions of it sway you. I still believe that - but I'm kinda struggling with applying that belief myself here, so bear with me here.

As we come to the end of French New Wave Week, I've saved the biggest for last: Jean-Luc Godard. Like Francois Truffaut and others, a writer for Cahiers du Cinema prior to becoming a filmmaker. Also like them, started out doing short films before graduating to features (though Godard also made a feature-length documentary during this period). At Cannes in 1959, when The 400 Blows made its big splash, Truffaut introduced Godard to a producer willing to take a chance on him and the result was 1960's Breathless, the film, Godard said, that was the product of "a decade's worth of making movies in my head." And the hits just kept on coming. Contempt. Band of Outlaws. Alphaville. And much more.

I understand that JLG did things in movies that nobody else had done before, like jump cuts. I understand that his films were radically different than others in terms of story and storytelling. And I understand that his influence could be felt in America, which led to a similar cinematic renaissance in the mid-60's and into the 70's. And maybe I just picked the wrong movie of his to watch...

... but Pierrot le Fou made no damn sense to me at all. I tried, I really did try to stick with this as long as I possibly could, but I bailed out just before the end, partly because I was running late with this post on account of not only being sick earlier this week, but massive schedule changes as well, partly because I got in late last night and didn't watch it like I had planned (I'll explain on Monday), and partly because I simply got tired of trying to make heads or tails of this movie, which so many people are convinced is a masterpiece of some kind.

This isn't even my first JLG movie. That would be Contempt, but at least that had a naked Brigitte Bardot in it! This one has everything and the kitchen sink, plus the Liquid Drano, the scouring pads, the dishwashing detergent, the plunger, and even the tiles on the floor! On the one hand, it is undeniably audacious filmmaking of a kind never seen by anyone else before, but on the other, I didn't understand any of it, and I realize it may be possible that that was intentional on JLG's part.

Here's what I liked: The recurring motif of visual art throughout the film, even going so far as to inter-cut images from paintings and illustrations into the "narrative," such as it is. The vibrant color. The composition of certain images. The lovely shots of the south of France. Even the cameo appearance by Samuel Fuller.

That's about it. I can see some parallels to Bonnie and Clyde, another movie about two young lovers on the run committing crimes (and I have no doubt Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn were influenced by Pierrot), but to the extent that these "characters" are characters in any literal sense, I still need a reason to care about them, to stick with them for two hours, and JLG didn't give me one. Musical interludes aside, it's not light enough to be an escapist comedy, and it's not heavy enough to be a grim noir, and very little Jean-Paul Belmondo or Anna Karina said or did interest me, and the film trickery wore thin after awhile.

But it's a film that traditional film critics cream themselves over. I dunno. Like I said, I don't have the benefit of watching it in 1965, so I can only speculate, and read through historical accounts, about what watching a film like Pierrot back then was like, to see its impact from the point of first contact onward. Maybe I shouldn't need to do that. All I know is I gave it my best shot, and I will try not to let other people's opinion of it influence me. Though perhaps at some point in the future I'll watch another JLG movie.

Auparavant, dans la Semaine de Nouvelle Vague française:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The 400 Blows

C'est la Semaine de la Nouvelle Vague française! Toute la semaine, nous allons voir des films de cette période révolutionnaire et les plus influents dans l'histoire de certains de ses plus grands réalisateurs.
seen online via YouTube

What do you do if your child keeps on acting up? I would imagine that's got to prey on the minds of every parent at some point - the worry/fear that their child may be a budding Bart Simpson only without the "cute" catchphrases and weird hair. While I'm not a parent, I've had to deal with my share of problem children, but I never felt that any of them were in danger of becoming an actual delinquent. Hyperactive, yes; insufficiently disciplined at home, possibly; but a serious troublemaker, never. That's the point where a parent's love would be severely tested.

I can't imagine giving up on my hypothetical child, though under such circumstances I'd bet it would be deeply tempting. You naturally wouldn't want to think it's your fault your kid is the way he is, but self-blame would probably be unavoidable, as would jealousy (everyone else's kids are good, so why not mine?) and embarrassment (everyone must think I'm a terrible parent). Of course, when you've got parents that spoil their kids rotten and justify their bad behavior, perhaps it's a wonder that we don't get more bad apples.

While not a crime movie in the sense that Bob le Flambeur was, The 400 Blows did put me somewhat in mind of those old 30s gangster movies that show you how they grew up, what kind of homes they came from, and what led them to their inevitable life of crime. The movie doesn't point to any one reason for Antoine's behavior. No, he doesn't have the greatest parents in the world, or for that matter, the greatest teachers, but he makes his own choices, and lives with the consequences.

As for his parents, what can you say? Clearly they weren't cut out for the job. I love the part where the mom actually resorts to bribery to get Antoine to do better in school. I think they did care for Antoine to a degree, but they were utterly clueless to the things he needed because they were wrapped up in their own issues.

Blows was directed by French New Wave superstar Francois Truffaut and dedicated to the memory of Andre Bazin. Bazin was a French film critic who co-founded the seminal film magazine Cahiers du Cinema and helped develop the auteur theory of filmmaking. He died of leukemia in 1958, the year before Blows came out and a day after shooting began on it. Truffaut was one of several writers for Cahiers who would go on to become notable FNW directors, including Jean-Luc Godard. 

Truffaut wrote a piece for the magazine called "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" which attacked the French studio system for its conservative attitude towards filmmaking. Truffaut and his contemporaries preferred the work of guys like Griffith and Chaplin from the silent era, and Lang, Lubitsch, De Sica, Welles and Ray from the sound era, plus some French directors who worked outside the studio system like Melville and Tati, and old-schoolers like Renoir.

Truffaut and friends started down their filmmaking careers by making shorts, and eventually, when Truffaut blew up with Blows in 1959 at the Cannes Film Festival, suddenly everyone was talking about the New Wave, given that name by the Cannes journalists, inspired by an article in L'Express from two years earlier referring to changes in society in general. The rest was history, and Truffaut's career as a world-renowned director was only beginning.

Auparavant, dans la Semaine de Nouvelle Vague française:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cleo From 5 to 7

C'est la Semaine de la Nouvelle Vague française! Toute la semaine, nous allons voir des films de cette période révolutionnaire et les plus influents dans l'histoire de certains de ses plus grands réalisateurs.

seen online via YouTube

One reason why I like movies in general is that they provide an opportunity to see other places, both around the country and around the world. Cleo From 5 to 7 is practically a tourist's guide to Paris, even if it is the Paris of the 60s. Director Agnes Varda takes you all around the city in this real-time film, all through its streets, restaurants, apartments, and parks. In talking about Bob le Flambeur on Monday, I mentioned how director Jean-Pierre Melville was among the first French directors to shoot on location. Well, that turned out to be one of the defining characteristics of the movement, though a lot of the time it was simply cheaper to shoot that way.

In the movie, Cleo's a pop singer who has been diagnosed with cancer, and she spends most of the film trying to either forget about it or to come to terms with it before she has to go back to the doctor for an official confirmation. It all takes place in one afternoon, and we see her hanging out with her maid, her boyfriend, her songwriters, and ultimately, a soldier she meets in a park. Story-wise, it's paper thin. It's basically a character study, and Cleo is, by turns, petulant, hysterical, frivolous, frightened, and contemplative - but learning you probably have a terminal disease will do that to you.

Cleo is a well-crafted movie. One gets the impression that Varda was willing to try different things, and for the most part, they work. The opening credits scene is set in a room where a fortune teller is reading tarot cards for our heroine, and Varda does a curious thing: the shots of the cards on the table are in color, but only those shots - the rest of the movie is in black and white. The fortune that Cleo receives sets the tone for the rest of the movie, so it's an important scene, but I found the alternating color and B&W gimmicky.

Much more impressive was the camerawork and editing. The street scenes are impressive in themselves, but I also get the impression Varda's cinematography and editing was used to convey emotion in places. For instance, in the scene with the songwriters, at one point the camera sways back and forth from them to Cleo as they sing, which was amusing.

So what do we know about Varda? Well, while she broke through around the same period as the French New Wave, the history books place her as part of an alternate group called the Left Bank (left as in politics) that were characterized as more Bohemian and experimental. Still, the Left Bank often collaborated with the FNW group, and they were endorsed by the seminal FNW magazine Cahiers du Cinema (which we'll talk about later this week). Varda's filmmaker husband Jacques Demy was also considered part of the Left Bank.

Cleo was Varda's breakthrough hit, and she even got Jean-Luc Godard to make a cameo appearance in it. He's part of a silent short film that Cleo watches at one point. Varda's first husband, Antoine Bourseiller, also appears as the soldier. Varda's still around; her last film was in 2008.

Auparavant, dans la Semaine de Nouvelle Vague française: