Monday, October 29, 2012


This year's Halloween posts are all for movies seen at the Landmark Loews Jersey Theater this past weekend, the 26th-27th. I was planning to go with a different theme this year, but when I saw that the Loews was showing six movies in two days, I knew I had to take advantage of this somehow. I saw three of the six films, and between now and Thursday we'll get to all three, if a certain hurricane doesn't stop us...


I think I might be slightly more interested in horror movies these days if they weren't all so damn grim and serious. Fans seem to eat it up - how many Saw movies did they make? -  I find it all off-putting. Say what you will about The Blair Witch Project, but there was a movie that knew how to sell itself, how to make it stand out from the pack. The selling of the "history" of the Blair Witch and the question of whether or not the "found footage" was real made me want to see it, and while I wouldn't recommend such tactics for every horror movie, at the least I'd want to know that this film had a sense of playfulness, or mystery, to it. That's still no guarantee that I'd see it, but it'd get my attention.

William Castle was a director who knew the value of such things. A former assistant to Orson Welles, Castle's directorial career spanned four decades, from the 40s to the 70s, but it wasn't until the latter half that he started coming up with wild promotional gimmicks for his films. How wild? How about glow-in-the-dark skeletons, nurses in the lobbies, or buzzers in seats to encourage screaming? In a time when, it must be said, film was competing with the new medium of television, he really went all out.

Friday night, the Loews showed Castle's film Homicidal as the first half of a twin bill, and they did a good job of recreating Castle's accoutrements. At the door they issued certificates entitling the bearer to a refund if the film is too scary for them. Within the film itself, there's a pause just before the climax, in which anyone too scared can leave and redeem their certificate, but it comes with a price: the bearer must sit out the remainder of the film in a specially constructed "cowards' corner," no doubt to be subjected to public shame and ridicule. The Loews had the booth set up in the lobby, but only one person took advantage of it, and I think it's safe to say that he was a ringer.

The Loews' version of the "coward's certificate" looked very similar to this.
Not that the movie was all that scary to begin with. It's a twist on Psycho, though I can't say how exactly without giving away spoilers. Castle himself appears at the film's outset to introduce it. Though this was a pretty cheesy movie overall (in a likable way, though), I was honestly surprised by the ending, which I did not see coming - and I was not the only one. I actually expected Homicidal to be a little more over the top in terms of scary stuff, but it wasn't, not really.

What the "fright break" looked like on screen.
All weekend, the Loews set up a "haunted house" on the second floor of the theater, across from the staircases. All it was, was plastic skulls and fake cobwebs in a darkened corridor with a couple of dudes in fright masks and robes popping outta nowhere to yell at people. Some women were screaming with fright, and delight too, I suppose. Lame, but it's not like one can expect something elaborate on a shoestring budget. The best "haunted house" I ever saw was this huge one in New Paltz which I saw with Bibi and Eric one year. It's a local tradition, done for many years, and it's set up in a park. When we went, the line to get in was huge, and it was absolutely worth the wait.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gone fishin'

This is an especially busy and hectic week for me, so I'm afraid I'm gonna have to take a brief siesta until next week. In the meantime, take a look at this post from the Lady Eve on a movie that played on TCM yesterday called The Letter. It's the earlier version of a Bette Davis classic and apparently it's a real rarity, so much so that it's generated quite a bit of discussion among the classic blog community. I watched it; thought it was alright, but I don't have too much more to say about it, especially since I've never seen the Davis version. Still, I think it's worth your attention.

Be here next Monday for Halloween week!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Books: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures


As I got deeper into Emma Straub's debut novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, it occurred to me - and I had pointed this out on Twitter at the time - that this isn't so much a story of the rise and fall of a classic Hollywood actress so much as it is a story about a career woman, trying to balance work with her personal life. The glamor of the Golden Age of Hollywood is certainly felt within the story, but one should not go into it expecting a paean to the silver screen - which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The closest comparison between Laura and a real Golden Age actress would probably be Jennifer Jones: Oscar-winning actress with an alliterative stage name, married to a studio mogul who carefully molded her image and career, born to parents who operated a theatrical troupe, and who had a prior marriage to a fellow actor. Most of the actors, directors and studios in the book are fictitious, and there's very little in the way of interaction with real ones beyond passing references. (There is one character who appears to be a stand-in for Lucille Ball.)

The heart of the story concerns Laura's emotional life. She becomes a movie star, but her success is tinted with feelings of guilt and regret because of the premature death of one of her older sisters, who wanted to be a star much more than Laura did. Indeed, she's never far away from Laura's thoughts throughout the book. Then there's her conservative mother, who disapproves of Laura's career. There's a lot involving Laura raising her children while trying to sustain her film career, as well as trying to adjust to the changing times in cinema.

Emma Straub
Straub's style is blessedly straightforward and doesn't rely on any off-putting literary gimmicks. There are some story elements that don't go as far as I would've liked; for instance, the conflict with her mother. Some don't get addressed at all; Laura becomes a pill-popper, and I kept expecting something to come of that, but her addiction doesn't carry much in the way of consequences. 

Still, Laura is a sympathetic character, and her story manages to veer from the familiar path of A Star is Born in deeper, more introspective ways. For example, while she doesn't suffer an identity crisis, a clear distinction is made between the woman she starts out as and the woman she becomes as a result of her name change. It's a consistent theme throughout the book, and it speaks to the changes she goes through in becoming a movie star.

Like I said, Laura Lamont should not be read in expectation of an homage to all the things we love and admire about classic Hollywood, but rather a tale of the inner life of a woman in pursuit of success and what that success does to her.

[Full disclosure: I bought this book for myself; it's not a review copy.]


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Roaming the blogosphere in this session

I'm beginning to think somebody or something is keeping me from seeing Middle of Nowhere in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. I went to see it on Thursday at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square which is, so far, the only theater in all of New York playing it, and maybe twenty minutes into the film the theater experiences a power surge and the film stops dead. (It happened on several other screens, too.) 

This after I had just begun to settle into the movie after the usual number of late arrivals, plus the irritating sounds of a door opening and closing (though not from the late arrivals, I think). I tried to wait for the theater staff to fix the problem, but I couldn't. As I mentioned when I first saw it at Urbanworld, this is a quiet, introspective film that demands a great deal of focus, and my anxiety level was already elevated somewhat before the power outage. It didn't help that there was no one in the projection booth to complain directly to. 

I got my refund and high-tailed it out of there, though not before hearing from an usher that the power was restored and the movies were resuming. I didn't care at that point, though; I was too damn frustrated to bother going back, so I'll have to try again next week. I can't remember the last time I had this many problems trying to comfortably see a movie. Technically, I have seen it, from start to finish, but not under the best of circumstances. This is really killing me!

Moving right along, however...

Silent Volume is a blog devoted to silent films. Here's a post from last month about a recent silent from Spain that's quite different from The Artist.

Brandie did a post for the Paramount Centennial Blogathon about the animation maestros at Fleischer Studios. (Always did love their Superman shorts.)

Page does her best Robin Leach impression in a huge picture-filled post taking us through the old mansion of silent film legend Harold Lloyd.

In the wake of Argo, here's a piece about how the Iran hostage survivors reacted to the film.

You've probably heard that Oscar-winning DP Wally Pfister dissed The Avengers for its cinematography. Here's a take on what he said.

Speaking of which... 2015: Justice League versus Avengers.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY

Ben Affleck always struck me as a likable actor. I remember him, of course, from his Kevin Smith movies, in particular, Chasing Amy. I related strongly to his character in that film, so perhaps it's no surprise that I would take an interest in Affleck's movies following that one. The fact that he was a comics fan certainly helped. I was certainly glad to see him and Matt Damon win the Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting, even though I personally thought Boogie Nights was the better screenplay that year.

After that highlight, though, his career went on a different path. It seems like he became the glamor boy of lots of trashy, big-budget flicks, chief among them, of course, being Armageddon, and while I didn't necessarily begrudge him all that much for making these movies, I think it was when he was with Jennifer Lopez and was in all the gossip rags that he became tiresome for me - and a lot of other people, I imagine.

So seeing him reinvent himself as a director - a quality one, to boot - is quite exciting. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were both enjoyable and thrilling on their own, but with Argo, it's like Affleck elevated his game to the next level. It's based on a true story, and so we know that the good guys will win in the end, but that makes it no less awesome to watch.

What I find most inspiring about Affleck as a director is the kind of movies he makes. You may recall that earlier this year, Warners allegedly wanted him to direct their proposed Justice League movie. There's no doubt in my mind that he could make it good: it would be an ensemble, like all of his films; it would take advantage of exotic locations, like Argo; there would be big action sequences, like in The Town, and it's comics, which he is certainly no stranger to. (Speaking of which, did you know about Jack Kirby's connection to Argo?) Could he have elevated the material, the way Christopher Nolan did with the Batman movies? I wouldn't rule it out, though, let's be honest: few filmmakers are in Nolan's class.

As it turned out, however, Justice League wasn't on Affleck's slate, and after seeing Argo, I'm even more grateful for that. In an industry becoming more and more dominated by fanboy fantasy that caters more and more towards undiscriminating foreign audiences, Affleck dares to not only make intelligent, truly adult movies, but he makes them for mass audiences, the way Hollywood used to do, not all that long ago. 

I admire him for that. I admire the fact that he has (so far) resisted the urge to make a movie like Justice League - because, let's face it, the fanboys will see that no matter who's directing it. Affleck's going down the path less traveled, and in Hollywood, that takes guts. On top of all that, he chooses to still shoot on film instead of digital.

As for Argo itself... well, my memories of the Iran hostage crisis are vague. I do remember Walter Cronkite counting the days the hostages were in captivity, and though I didn't fully understand the situation (I was a kid!), I knew it wasn't good. I've learned more about Iran since then, of course; movies like Persepolis and A Separation have helped loads on that score. Argo shows footage of the anti-Iranian sentiment that went through America during the crisis. Some of it was really disturbing, and sadly, awfully familiar to the anti-Iraqi sentiment that we went through in the weeks and months following September 11.

Like I said, we know that this rescue mission will succeed because it's part of history, but watching it unfold in this movie, it genuinely feels like an edge-of-your-seat experience. Affleck has said in interviews that one of the toughest things about making Argo was finding the right balance between the rescue mission stuff and the more comedic Hollywood stuff, and I believe he did find the balance. I expected the Hollywood elements to come across like a version of The Player, but it's not that broad.

The fake "Argo" movie definitely sounds like the kind of thing that would've come out in the wake of Star Wars, like Logan's Run or Flash Gordon, only without the literary pedigree. I can even imagine discovering it on cable TV or on VHS as a teenager, only to be embarrassed I ever liked it years later. That's never anything I'd say about the real Argo, though. I hope Affleck continues to make many more movies in this vein.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Oranges

The Oranges
seen @ AMC Loews 19th Street East, New York NY

The Oranges is the first movie I've ever gone to see during its theatrical run for a single scene. Actually, it was more like a shot than a scene, and it turned out to be several shots, but the point is that I didn't go for the movie itself. In fact, this was the rare occasion in which I knew absolutely nothing about the movie, neither plot nor director nor stars. So why did I go, you ask?

It was because of Vija. As I've mentioned before, she's a fine artist of considerable skill. She tends to lean towards the realistic in her paintings, but every so often, she'll experiment with a more impressionistic approach. Recently (before she started on her famous women portrait series), she went through a phase of stylized, slightly abstract paintings of animals. She did one of a crane, or perhaps a heron. Her pal Parsla had it at her place, and as it turns out, she knew a production designer who was working on this new indie film being shot in New Jersey...

Well, one thing led to another, as they say. He saw Vija's painting one day and liked it enough to include it in the movie in question, The Oranges. She had already seen it prior to last Saturday, but this time, she invited me and she even bought my ticket. How cool is that? 

Alas, the painting is not part of any crucial scenes. It can be plainly seen in the background in the bedroom of Hugh Laurie's daughter in several scenes throughout the first half of the film. (I checked all throughout Google Images and couldn't find a shot of it, so you'll have to take my word for it.)

Laurie plays this middle-aged husband and father who falls in love with his best friend's (college-age) daughter, wreaking all sorts of havoc in the process. It's a trifle of a movie, but it reminded me more than a little bit of many of the 90s indie movies I'd watch when I worked video retail - no big surprise, since it included three of my favorite 90s indie movie actors: Oliver Platt, Allison Janney and Catherine Keener. The Oranges eschewed any opening credits, so seeing them as they first appeared was a pleasant surprise, since I wasn't even sure if this film would have anyone I know in it.

Back in the mid-to-late 90s, I kept up with movies through Entertainment Weekly and Premiere, primarily. I didn't need subscriptions; I'd just go into the magazine section of Barnes & Noble and read them there, although I did buy Premiere. Being a monthly, they had longer, more in-depth articles. 

Anyway, this was how I learned who was who in the indie field, and I'd go to the Angelika downtown or the Lincoln Plaza uptown to see their movies. Whatever I missed theatrically, I'd see when they hit the video store, and I was quite fortunate to have worked in stores that made concerted efforts to acquire the indies as well as the Hollywood stuff.

The Oranges would've fit in well with the indie movies from this era, when the Weinsteins were still at Miramax, the field of indie distributors was wider and deeper, and there was no such thing as Netflix or online streaming. It's a light comedy with dramatic moments - nothing that'll set the world on fire, like Pulp Fiction or The English Patient, but pleasant enough for what it is, and if nothing else, another opportunity to see great character actors do what they do best. 

Andi was supposed to come with Vija and me as well, but couldn't make it on time, but she did rendezvous with us afterward, to our surprise. This was the first time I had seen her in awhile; she had spent much of the past year continuing to globe-trot. Over dumplings and soup, the three of us caught up on old times and talked movies. We debated the merits and meaning of The Master for quite awhile.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

My sister Lynne is a singer. She plays in an R&B cover band with her husband, who plays drums, and they play around the city. Having seen them live on a number of occasions, I can attest that they're mighty awesome, and I'm not just saying that because I'm her brother and I get in for free. She's not young, which, to be honest, is probably an impediment in terms of getting discovered and becoming big, but I suspect that even if that never happens, it would be okay for her. 

She needed a creative outlet for a long time; she had trained in music when she was much younger (she went to the Fame school!) but had moved away from it for awhile. I distinctly remember her talking to me about how she needed to get back to her craft because the stress of her job was getting to her. Performing in the band has been a tremendous lift for her, and I suspect that has meant as much to her as any potential fame and fortune, if not more.

The delightful documentary Searching for Sugar Man is about a musician who discovered success in another country after striking out here, and though he could live like a king there, he chooses to live humbly here instead. Early 70s folk singer Rodriguez made two albums that didn't sell at all, and then he sort of disappeared. Why didn't they sell, though, especially when they sound as good as this?

No one knew what happened to him after those two albums; in fact, many people firmly believed he was dead! Certainly his music never hit anywhere in America. But what actually happened, and how he and his music were re-discovered, is a story that, if it were a Hollywood movie, would never be believed. I was gonna go into more detail about it, but I honestly think it's better if you discover the story on your own through this movie.

Rodriguez' sound is basically Dylan, if Dylan could sing - and that extends to his songwriting as well. Given that his albums came out during a time when folk music was at the peak of its popularity, it's hard to believe he never caught on. His music is well-featured in Sugar Man, accompanied with beautiful panoramic shots of Detroit and Cape Town, South Africa, as well as a few brief animated sequences. The look of this film is quite unique and lively.

John recommended Sugar Man to me, excitedly e-mailing me about it and saying that I gotta see it, and in a way, this is appropriate too. John's always been two steps ahead of me in terms of knowing what's cool in music; indeed, it may not be much of a stretch to say that he helped shape my musical tastes, so if anyone would've steered me towards a film like this, it would be him.

Seek this movie out if you can. I promise you; you'll not see another one like it all year.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What happened to the word 'the'?

Does this bother anybody else? I can't possibly be the only one. (Not a judgment on the movies' quality, BTW.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Master

The Master
seen @ Ziegfeld Theater, New York NY

And now, five things I thought about while watching The Master:

1. This doesn't look like how I imagined 70mm would look. Part of the reason I held out so long to see this movie was so I could see it in 70mm at the Ziegfeld (the place could certainly use the business). Vija and I sat in the middle of the cavernous auditorium at my suggestion (maybe favoring the rear a little) because I was expecting, as I told her afterwards, a panoramic, Lawrence of Arabia-type image. What I saw didn't quite feel that... majestic. Maybe it was because it wasn't anywhere near the same kind of movie as Lawrence of Arabia.

Vija thought it was because we were sitting as far back as we were, which makes more sense to me. The Ziegfeld is far bigger than that of your average multiplex auditorium, making it easy to throw off your sense of scale - and it's not like I go to the Ziegfeld all the time. I talked to an usher afterwards to make sure that this was indeed, the 70mm print and she said it was... my first 70mm experience turned out to be slightly less than epic. If I ever get to see another one, I'll make sure to sit closer to the front.

2. This really looks like a Stanley Kubrick film. I think I may have mentioned it before, how Paul Thomas Anderson started out making movies that look like Robert Altman and now he's switched to Kubrick. What does a Kubrick movie look like? Definitely panoramic, for one thing, but he also loved to use long takes focused on a face, or maybe two people in conversation, usually centered.

Look at The Shining or A Clockwork Orange or 2001 and you'll recognize it immediately - the way he builds up tension within a scene by holding a close-up during a conversation and making few cuts within the overall scene. PTA does that here. Also, like Kubrick, he uses music carefully and judiciously.

3. Joaquin Phoenix' character is difficult to watch. I read somewhere that Phoenix studied the movement of apes for his role of Freddie, and indeed, the way he lopes around, swinging his arms to and fro, leanign forward with his chin jutted out, is reminiscent of some manner of primate. Plus there's his violence (the jail scene in particular is quite disturbing) and his sexual urges - thought they did provide us with a scene with lots of naked women!

4."Processing" is not unlike certain acting techniques. There's a scene early in the movie where Phillip Seymour Hoffman asks Phoenix a long series of personal questions that, I presume, are meant as an initiation to the Cause, the Scientology-like cult that PSH's character Dodd runs. 

I've talked before about my experience in studying acting, specifically about learning the Meisner technique, and it's quite similar to  how Dodd engages Freddie in this scene: staying completely focused on your partner. Repetition. Reacting to your partner; their face, their body movements, the sound and inflection of their voice, all of it (don't say "ouch" until you get a pinch - that's how they taught it to us). And above all, stay in the moment.

Seeing Dodd and Freddie go back and forth in their interrogation felt a lot like that technique, in which the goal - as Dodd makes clear himself - is to get at the truth. For an actor, that means emotional truth, and I'd say both PSH and Phoenix achieved that.

5. Why would anyone choose to follow Dodd in the first place? This is the big problem I had with The Master - I couldn't understand how Dodd got to where he was, because the Cause wasn't explained adequately enough for me. (Why is it even called "The Cause"?) Yes, Dodd is charismatic and has an air of knowledge and authority, but we never see him make the study of "past lives" sound appealing, like something you and I would wanna explore. Never mind the parallels to Scientology - which I think is a hoax and a sham, by the way - I found it difficult to fully invest in the reality of Dodd's cult.

The Master wasn't bad by any means, but I feel like there wasn't enough "there" there. It fell too much on the navel-gazing, introspective side and I wasn't as open to the premise as I should have been.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


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

Ever since Urbanworld I've been a little bit frazzled regarding this blog. This is the time of year when all the good movies start coming out, and as a result, there's more stuff I wanna see and only so much time and money to see them. So what ends up happening is that I fall behind in my schedule and have to play catch-up.

I mentioned my friend Ryan from The Matinee recently and how he passed the 1000-consecutive posts mark. I could never do that, not in a million years. I hate feeling pressured to post something, even though in the beginning my goal was to post as often as five or even six times a week. Now I'm closer to three or four times a week. Why? It's less pressure. Once blogging becomes a chore and not something fun, that's when it becomes a problem for me.

Also, as you may have noticed, I've become less regular regarding which days I post on. I had settled on Monday-Thursday-Saturday with an occasional extra post on Tuesday or Wednesday, but even that's sort of gone by the boards. Still, I do strive for three days a week, even if it's not those specific days.

See, I plan stuff and then other stuff happens and I have to change everything. I mentioned how I've put off seeing The Master because I wanna see it with Vija and I wanna see it in 70mm. Then John recently emailed me about this indie movie that he said I absolutely have to see. Plus I had to finish up my post for Ruth's blogathon, only to be invited to another one, so I ended up taking Trouble With the Curve off my schedule, figuring out a time and place to see John's indie movie, rechecking the Ziegfeld's schedule, plus trying to figure out what I wanna watch for Halloween this year... 

It sounds more hectic than it actually is. I'm not complaining; I'd rather have too much to post about than too little. But I ended up falling behind on certain posts that I wanted to have finished sooner than now. Which is why today I dragged my laptop out of the house with me, even though I hate going out on the weekends with it, just so I can say something about Looper, a movie which I liked well enough, but it didn't blow me away like it has so many other people. Also, because I've seen so many other movies lately, it hasn't registered in my mind that strongly and I'm finding it hard to articulate what I found appealing and unappealing. I should probably go see it again (like Ryan always advocates), but there's that time and money shortage problem I mentioned earlier. (Sometimes it seems like my fellow film bloggers go all out to see every major new release. I can't do that, nor do I want to.)

But I should say something about Looper, right? Well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great at imitating Bruce Willis. I could almost believe they were the same person, prosthetic nose or no. The issues of predestination and free will reminded me of last year's The Adjustment Bureau, which also had Emily Blunt in it. And its approach to time travel is unique, even if I couldn't quite grok some of it. But that's about all I got for this one right now. 

The hoopla over this reminds me of Drive, also from last year, another movie that the film blogosphere seemed to go ape for more than I did. I don't care all that much if I don't agree with the consensus opinion about a movie, but there's still that sense of disappointment I get when a hyped-up movie turns out to not quite match the hype. I'm sure if I sat down with Looper by myself, months later, I might begin to see different layers to it and blah blah blah. Maybe I should take a break from movies for a week or so and write about other stuff, just for the hell of it. I can tell you I've got another book review coming up, for instance. I'll think about it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ava DuVernay profile in the NYT 10/7

...A film marketer turned filmmaker, she knows her audience and how to stoke its desire. She speaks both as an artist and as an entrepreneur who is clearing a new path for film distribution. To the predominantly African-American crowd at BlackStar she talked about how to end-run the studios and find private equity to finance indie films. “It’s not about knocking on closed doors,” she said. “It’s about building our own house and having our own door.”

The print edition of this New York Times article comes out Sunday, but you can read it online now. And you totally should. There's a reason I keep writing about this woman.

Urbanworld FF: Middle of Nowhere
I Will Follow

Dr. No/Goldfinger

Dr. No
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey City, Jersey City NJ

I was never that into James Bond. I didn't hate the Bond movies, but to me they never held that much of an appeal for whatever reason. I can't explain why. I remember seeing A View to a Kill when it came out, though that might have been because Duran Duran did the theme song and I was really into them at the time, but the movie never made an impression of me. I remember a fight on the Eiffel Tower and Grace Jones, but that's about it.

I was working in video retail around the time that Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role, and I remember all the discussion about this choice - basically, that he seemed like the perfect choice to play Bond since Sean Connery and that he should've been Bond long ago, et cetera. I watched Goldeneye on video and thought it was kinda cool, but again, I never bought the hype. By that time, though, I was beginning to become more disaffected by action movies. Indie films were attracting my attention more and more, and for awhile, I thought I was too cool for action flicks. Tomorrow Never Dies was notable for me because it was my first real introduction to Michelle Yeoh, but other than that, it meant nothing.

If I had to think of a reason why I never got into the Bond films, I suppose it might be because plot and character always seemed incidental to me. They may be enjoyable, but he basically does more or less the same stuff in every film with little in the way of character development. And yeah, there are other franchises in which you could say the exact same thing, but I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about Bond.

That said, I took the opportunity last weekend to see a doubleheader of Dr. No and Goldfinger because I had never seen either one before, and I wanted to see how the legend began. It's quite remarkable to see how many of the familiar tropes and catchphrases have almost always been with the character. And I'm not used to seeing Sean Connery so young. He's just barely recognizable as a younger man compared to his older self, but the charisma is definitely there.

Bond's been around for 50 years, so I reckon he's doing something right. I'm certainly aware of how big an impact he had in the first decade or so. Back in the 60s, it seemed like everyone wanted to be a secret agent. There were songs, TV shows, comics, parodies, all having to do with spies and how cool it was to be one. I'm sure the Cold War played a big part in that. But who are we spying on today? North Korea? Iran? It's not quite the same thing. Russia was the "evil empire," our counterpart, our rival. The Cold War wasn't fought the same way as the War of Terror...

...and yet Bond remains as popular today as he ever was. Maybe he's seen as a modern-day superhero, like Batman: he's got all those wonderful toys, he always thinks two steps ahead of the bad guys, and his rogues gallery is as memorable as he is. 

Who's the best Bond? Hard to argue against Connery, though in this case I imagine that, like Doctor Who, each one has its adherents who will swear up and down that their man is the best and to hell with all the others. I once read a theory that "James Bond" is a title, not a name, which would not only explain the constant changing of each actor, but would put the entire series in one continuity instead of successive reboots. I like that idea myself.

By the way, can I bring up Austin Powers for a second? I can't say that Mike Myers has ruined Bond for me because I never held Bond in as much high esteem as others. And I think Austin Powers is great, even though I only saw the first two films and not the third. But see, Bond is so much a part of the popular culture that I more or less recognized many of the Bond tropes that Myers parodied.

So while I don't love Bond, I don't hate him either. Will I go see Skyfall? I might. Great cast, good director. We'll see.

Soundtrack Saturday: The James Bond movies part 1 and part 2
Soundtrack Saturday: John Barry

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Battle for Brooklyn

Battle for Brooklyn
seen @ the Dean Street playground, Brooklyn, NY

Even if you're not a sports fan, chances are you've heard by now of the new sports arena that has been built in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center, at the nexus of several major thoroughfares in the heart of the borough. The one-percenters responsible for its creation would have you believe that it'll elevate the borough's cultural profile in the eyes of the world, as well as restore Brooklyn's glory and pride because a spectacularly mediocre pro basketball team will play there, the first major league sports franchise in Brooklyn since the Dodgers.

As a Queens native, I find this idea dubious, because I never realized that Brooklyn ever lost its pride. Yeah, it sucks that the Dodgers don't play there anymore, but as any Brooklynite - hell, any New Yorker - will tell you, Brooklyn is about a helluva lot more than a baseball team that moved away over fifty years ago. Its identity has changed considerably over the years, but one thing I've never doubted that Brooklynites lacked was pride.

Atlantic Yards, the site where the Barclays Center was built
Now, of course, Brooklyn is cooler than ever. You can't walk fifty paces in Brooklyn without seeing somebody wearing something Brooklyn-related, or see the borough represented in some fashion somehow. Many pixels have been employed to chart the rise of this phenomenon; this article is a particularly noteworthy example. The Barclays is at the center of this renaissance, literally and metaphysically, and its corporate overlords appear to be reaching for the moon and stars themselves when it comes to expectations.

There's another side to this story, however, one ably presented in the 2011 documentary Battle for Brooklyn. In true underground cinema fashion, it played for free on the same night as the grand opening of the Barclays at a playground only a couple of blocks away. The Barclays occupies an area atop a commuter train yard in a wedge shape, pointing in the direction of the landmark Williamsburg Bank Tower. 

Traffic in the surrounding area was a major issue during the arena's development, which is why both the Barclays and the city have aggressively promoted the use of public transportation to and from the arena (eleven subway trains, plus the commuter rail, lead there). As I made my way to the park Friday, the night of the opening concert at the Barclays by Jay-Z, I noticed the increased police presence on the streets, the traffic cops directing cars and buses, and of course, the laser lights shining from atop the Barclays in multiple directions. Traffic didn't seem that troublesome to me on Friday night, and as it turned out, it wasn't.

Daniel Goldstein
Battle centers mostly around one guy, Daniel Goldstein, who was the last holdout in a neighborhood building where all the other tenants were bought out by Barclays developer Bruce Ratner in order to make room for the arena. Goldstein was the only one who refused to vacate, not only because he didn't want to leave his home, but because he believed that Ratner, not to mention the city and state, was abusing the eminent domain law. That's when the state can seize property for public use.

The doc shows that Goldstein had a case, and he, along with activists, local officials, and others in the area, fought the Barclays development tooth and nail. He faced long odds. To pick one example from the film: we see Goldstein and his allies at a public hearing attended by city officials. Representatives of the Barclays and their allies dominate the proceedings throughout much of the morning and then leave before Goldstein has his say, and he winds up getting much less time to speak by comparison. His anger at being slighted is keenly felt.

Bruce Ratner
The important thing to remember about this case is that no matter how one spins it, people - black, white, Latino - were removed from their homes in order to make way for this arena. And while Ratner promised that affordable housing would be built in conjunction with the arena, as of this writing, there's no immediate sign of any. Indeed, while on my way to the park to see the film, I passed by a couple of dudes who were discussing this very point.

It was a damp night. The rain had stopped, but the artificial turf in the park was still somewhat wet, so garbage bags were provided for people to sit on. The crowd looked somewhat small at the film's outset (which was preceded by a performance by an actual, honest-to-god protest singer), but by the end the audience was much bigger. It was somewhat surreal to see a film about the development of the Barclays while one could easily see the finished product down the street. Also, it should be noted, one-way Dean Street had double parking as far as the eye could see, and while cars and buses were reduced to a single lane, the bike lane was blocked.

Goldstein (center) at a demonstration outside of Borough Hall
Afterwards, some of the filmmakers answered a few questions from the crowd. As they spoke, some guy walked through the park towards the sidewalk. He looked like a blue-collar worker, wearing a uniform of some sort (I think; it was hard to tell in the darkness) and he was putting down the movie and the speakers, saying, "Everything that guy's saying is bullshit" over and over. It was hard to tell whether he really believed what he was saying, or if he was just trying to make trouble. No one paid him any mind.

Regardless, this is a powerful movie. The drama of Goldstein's struggle to keep his home is tempered by the "sub-plot" of seeing him fall in love with a fellow activist he meets after breaking up with his previous girlfriend as a result of his struggle. Even though Battle doesn't end on a happy note, there's still an element of hope.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Small Roles, Big Performances: The Kevin Smith edition

The Small Roles, Big Performances Blogathon is exactly what it says on the tin. It is hosted by Flix Chatter. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

Okay, so the truth is that because I was so caught up in the Urbanworld Film Festival, not to mention several other movies that I've seen lately, I didn't give this blogathon as much thought as I wanted to (sorry, Ruth). However, I did come up with a few selections that, though they stretch the definition of "big performances," they mean something to me personally because I've always enjoyed Kevin Smith movies. None of these roles are Oscar-caliber material, but they make their respective movies, in their own little ways, and they're memorable. To me, anyway. So here you go:

- Stan Lee in Mallrats. Yes, he takes too much credit for his role in creating the Marvel Universe, but if that's what Smith wrote, then surely that's more his fault than Stan's. We all know  about the cameos Stan has made in the Marvel superhero movies, but this is his biggest movie role - as himself, who provides Jason Lee with the perspective he needs to go after Shannen Doherty - through comics, of course. Stan's public image has always been equal parts fact and fantasy - by his own doing; he's always been a shameless huckster! - and this version of himself certainly feeds into the Stan Lee myth. But that's the thing: if you're a Marvel Comics fan, who grew up with the Merry Marvel Marching Society and Bullpen Bulletins and FOOM and No-Prizes and all that, this is the only way we want to see Stan - and Smith knows this, because he's a comics geek too. So why shouldn't Stan be the one to help save the day in the end?

- Alanis Morissette in Dogma. I had a conversation with someone recently about musicians crossing over into film, and the point I made is that too often, Hollywood thinks that fame in one medium automatically crosses over into another, so they make star vehicles for musicians-turned-actors, thinking that, just like Ringo Starr sang, all they have to do is act naturally and they'll make a big pile of money. For every Bodyguard, though, there are half a dozen Glitters. Alanis Morissette was at the peak of her popularity when Dogma came out, and yet not only is her role a small one, she doesn't even get to speak, even though she plays none other than God. Hers is a deus ex machina appearance, at the end, right when it seems like the plan of renegade angels Ben Affleck and Matt Damon is about to succeed. She's the way you'd want God to be, if s/he actually existed: just, forgiving, yet sweet and playful too.

- Jay and Silent Bob in Chasing Amy. Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, that is, but when it's the two of them together like this, one simply can't refer to them any other way. In Clerks and Mallrats, the two of them were simply mischief-makers, running around creating havoc and hitting on chicks, and it's a strong indicator of how different Amy is from those films in that they only appear in one scene here. While they're still funny, they also, like Stan in Mallrats, inspire the protagonist (Affleck in this case) into making a crucial decision. And Smith, as Silent Bob, even gets to break his silence in order to tell his story, one he tells without passion or prejudice. I love this movie with a great passion, and this scene is a great big reason why.