Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Untouchables

The Untouchables
seen on TV @ AMC

Chicago! The Windy City. I've been there twice, once for business (working a comic convention) and once for pleasure. The former was during a blizzard, and I think I've talked about that here before. 

The latter was during the summer. This, I believe, was 1997 or thereabouts. I spent a week there, and did all the tourist-y things one does when in Chicago: I took a boat ride on Lake Michigan, I went to a Cubs game, I went to the art museum, I even went to a South Side blues joint!

What I didn't do is take very many pictures. Don't know why! I especially wish I took some pictures of Wrigley Field. All I have left as proof that I was there is a Cubs soda cup that's not only cracked but faded. Don't even remember who won the game.

I'd like to go back now that I've read Erik Larson's The Devil In the White City, the book about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. I know nothing's left from that era, but I'd still like to see the places associated with the Fair, the places where the Fair was, and make the connections. That was such an incredible story - a serial killer stalking the city during what should have been its most inspirational and celebratory moment. I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio wants to make a movie of that book. I could totally see him as the gentleman killer, H.H. Holmes, but to do that book justice, I think you'd have to make it an HBO mini-series.

Chicago, it seems, has a bit of a rep for being a dangerous town in general, mostly because of the gangster era. As movie fans, we remember films like the original Scarface and The Public Enemy and Little Caesar and we watch Jimmy Cagney gun down people with a wink and a smile and Eddie Robinson do his whole "Yeah! Yeah!" shtick and we think it's all kinda amusing now, but we forget that these movies reflected a very real situation at the time. A look at some of the most notorious Chicago gangsters of the day reveals only a glimpse of the damage they caused and the lives they affected.

And yet, we've glamorized them, to an extent. Their deeds may have been heinous, but even in their day, they exuded a certain power and notoriety that the public found alluring as well. Chalk it up to human nature, perhaps, but we like gangster stories, as cautionary tales, if nothing else, and we especially like it when there's a hero who stands against them... a hero like Eliot Ness.

We now know that much of the Eliot Ness vs. Al Capone myth is greatly fictionalized, but so what? Ness' book, The Untouchables, the TV adaptation of same from the late 50s with Robert Stack, and of course, the 1987 feature film, make for great American theater: good guys and bad guys that are larger than life, and who were real. So what if the movie, directed by Brian DePalma and written by David Mamet, was more Hollywood mythmaking? This is the way it should have happened!

What I like about the way Kevin Costner depicts Ness is that he's not the square-jawed, two-fisted hero who knows what to do. He needs direction, he needs guidance in order to take down Capone, and who better to give it to him than James Bond? Sean Connery's one and only Oscar-winning role is so much fun to watch not just because he's the take-no-shit cop, but because he's the take-no-shit cop who helps makes Ness into a legend.

(BTW, if you want more Eliot Ness, I highly recommend the graphic novel Torso, about Ness' post-Capone career in Cleveland, where he's on the trail of a serial killer.)

Battle Royal: The gangsters

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris

Hello, My Name is Doris
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

I'd go out with an older woman. Why not? It's not like I'm a spring chicken anymore anyway, so it probably wouldn't be a Dustin Hoffman-Anne Bancroft situation. (Fun fact: they were only six years apart in age when they made The Graduate. Still are, I would imagine.) There have been older women I've been attracted to in my life, although my luck with them has been no better than with chicks my own age or younger.

There are, of course, those ladies known oh-so-affectionately as "cougars." I've yet to meet one. Only half-convinced they even exist - but then, I'm pretty sure I run in the wrong social circles for that sort of thing. None of Vija's female friends fit the criteria, nor does Vija herself - in fact, she'd get a pretty big laugh at being mistaken for one.

Age may be nothing but a number, but what they don't tell you is that it's only true past a certain point in life. After, let's say for argument's sake, forty, you start becoming less picky with regard to age if you're not already hooked up with someone. Yes, there's the stereotype of older dudes with younger women, but the cynic in me thinks that's strictly a money/power thing.

Still, in the end, we fall for who we fall for, age differences or no, and such is the dilemma at the heart of the movie Hello, My Name is Doris. Doris' mom just died, and Doris spent a good chunk of her life taking care of her. Now she's (presumably) in her sixties and kind of at loose ends when she meets new thirty-something co-worker John, and it takes one random act of kindness on his part for her to want him. Problem is, she's not exactly the type that stands out in a crowd, if you know what I mean.

I recently read a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It discusses the skills introverts possess, but that are not always visible in a world that expects one to be more expressive. Now, I have a friend whom I've known and loved for many years, but there have been certain aspects to her behavior that I've never completely understood and at times, have found quite frustrating. 

She recently recommended that I read this book to find out why she is the way she is, and to a degree, it helped. I've learned to deal with it if she doesn't write back to me for weeks at a time. I've learned to not take it personally if she doesn't wanna hang out, at least not right away. Basically, I've learned to be more patient with her, which isn't always easy, but I've always believed she was worth the effort, and still do.

Doris, at times, is kind of a difficult person with whom to sympathize. In the movie, there's a self-help guru who gives Doris the courage to talk to John, and for awhile, it works. She learns to adapt to his hipster world and she's able to come out of her shell. But then the other shoe drops, and she doesn't adapt quite as well, to say the least. And then there's all the hoarding.

The movie doesn't quite seem to hold up at times from all the quirk, but what keeps it together is a great performance from Sally Field. Yes, we still really like her after all these years, and roles like this are the reason why. Still looking terrific in real life at 69 (!!), her dowdy looks and peculiar style of dress in Doris oversell the character, perhaps, but putting someone like Doris - not just an introvert, but an old introvert - at the center of a romantic comedy is a pretty brave act in and of itself.

The older women I know - and I'm thinking mainly of Vija and her female friends, who are my friends too - may not be introverts in the strictest sense (or maybe they are; I'm not sure), but many of them have a quiet, understated strength all their own that may not make them stand out in a crowd, but make you want to know them better. Doris, at the movie's start, doesn't have that. I wouldn't say for sure she has it by the end, either, but she's on her way to having it, I think.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky
seen @ City Cinemas East, New York, NY

Eye in the Sky deals with a relatively new and unusual form of combat, namely, drone warfare. Pilots fly planes by remote control and target people or places via surveillance cameras. There's a lot of debate as to how America has used drones, and whether or not they even should, and if you wanna see the arguments on both sides, just look at this.

How do I feel about it? Well, as far as I understand it, the technology is being used by other countries already, and it could give some of them a leg up on us if one of them decides to use it against us. Naturally, I would hope that we can be judicious and responsible in the use of this technology, or at least, as much so as we can, though that may be easier said than done. But I admit I don't know enough about the issue to have a strong opinion either way.

Eye (another movie without opening credits, by the way) imagines one of those no-win situations that come up every now and then in movies like this: a joint US-England drone warfare operation, led by Helen Mirren, leads to the discovery of known, wanted terrorists in Nairobi. Mirren's about to call down the thunder on them when a little local girl is discovered within the kill zone, and suddenly Mirren has to try and figure out how to carry out the strike against the terrorists without killing the girl.

It was really good; very tense and very good at showing us what drone warfare is really like. Mirren tries hard to stick to the rules of engagement, but the rulebook obviously doesn't prepare one for a scenario such as this. Much of the problem involves getting permission from her superiors in London, who are split on the issue, as you might imagine.Plus, even with all their surveillance cameras and agents on the ground, they can still only see so much.

It was nice to see Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated actor from Captain Phillips, again, and as a good guy this time - a field agent who can pass for a local, and who controls hidden cameras that let Mirren see into the bad guys' hideout. I hope Hollywood continues to find work for him, especially in movies other than this. I have no idea how much range he has as an actor, but he deserves a shot at escaping the dangers of typecasting.

It was also very nice to see the late Alan Rickman one more time. He plays Mirren's boss back in London, who has to deal with the politicians. I wouldn't say his is a spectacular role, but he's fine. A little stiff, perhaps. As fine a dramatic actor as he was, I thought he had a particular gift for comedy as well, and I'm glad we got to see him do a little bit of both throughout his career on film and stage.

I saw Eye in a theater I'd never been to before, the City Cinemas East on East 86th Street. I suppose it's an annex of the more well-known City Cinemas further south on East 60th, though it's (currently) cheaper by three and a half bucks. Seats were comfortable, bathroom was clean. I'd go there again.

I went with Vija and Franz and a relative newcomer to our moviegoing group: Vija's old boss, Jane. From what Vija used to tell me, the two of them did not always get along when they worked together, yet now that they don't have to see each other every day, they looked like they were great pals. I thought she was quite nice, but then, I've always liked Vija's friends. Didn't get a chance to ask Jane about her time working with Vija, though, not even afterwards when we went for Japanese food. Maybe next time.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Are opening credits becoming uncool?

Dr. Strangelove's opening credits made an eye-catching
use of typography and design.
Last fall the Indiewire blog The Playlist offered their choices for the 50 Best Opening Credits of All Time. Many of the ones you'd expect, both classic and contemporary, are there: Dr. Strangelove, Do The Right Thing, Vertigo, The Pink Panther, Watchmen, Seven, etc., as well as several Bond movies, of course. Many online cinephiles also know about the website The Art of the Title, which celebrates the very best in title sequences, past and present. Clearly, there's a segment of film fans that really appreciate a well-done opening credit sequence. So why does it seem like more and more films these days eschew the opening credits altogether?

I don't have exact statistical figures to back this up, but if you've gone to enough movies recently, you've got to have noticed: a lot (though certainly not all) of contemporary films tend to favor the bare minimum for opening titles, namely, a few producer credits ("Lotsa Dough Pictures in association with Big Explosion Studios present an Alan Smithee Film") and then a title card, and then boom, the movie starts, and you don't get to see the full credits until the very end.

The impression I get is that it's so you won't have to wait a minute longer for the movie proper to start, so you can be thrilled with its scintillating dialogue, amazing acting and sparkling visuals. I tend to associate this trend with Oscar contenders - there's something about it that adds a veneer of faux-gravitas to a dramatic movie - but I've seen it done for comedies and action movies as well.

The detailed and stylistic credits of Seven established the mindset
of its serial killer antagonist.
As with many things in modern film, I blame George Lucas. I've read testimonials about what it was like the first time audiences in 1977 saw those words - STAR WARS - and the weekly serial-inspired opening crawl, pop up on the screen, followed by the first shot of the giant Star Destroyer firing on the tiny spaceship. I imagine it must have been breathtaking. Kubrick opened 2001 in a similarly bombastic, overwhelming manner nine years earlier, of course, but it's A New Hope that everyone remembers more. So yeah, there's no doubt that starting without opening credits can give your movie the opportunity to start on just the right tone.

But there are good reasons not to abandon opening credits altogether. For one thing, and this is certainly something I've experienced on many an occasion, from a movie-goer's perspective, the opening credits are, or at least should be, a kind of last-chance buffer for latecomers to arrive and find their seats. Seriously, if you haven't arrived at the theater by the time the opening credits end, then as far as I'm concerned, you deserve to miss the movie! 

These days, in particular, with all the pre-show ads and the parade of trailers that precede the movie, arriving on time shouldn't be a problem, yet all too often it still is for some people. Well, the opening credits are kinda like the final hurdle to clear. You can make it before they finish and still have it be a minimal disturbance to everyone else at best - and you probably won't miss much, plot-wise.

The main titles of Watchmen established the differences in this
alternate reality where history looks the same, but isn't.
More importantly, though, opening credits have been used to do things like convey important plot information, get inside the head of important characters, establish a mood or an attitude important to the movie, or simply to have a few laughs. 

I don't think these things should be minimized. They're fun, they're artistic, and they're an expression of the character of their respective movies. Going without them every so often can seem dramatically different, but they have a value to the overall movie, and I'd hate to think that modern filmmakers might be moving towards this trend too much.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Go the distance for the Athletes in Film Blogathon!

You've blogged for years to get to this point. You've studied the films, you've written the posts, you've networked with other bloggers, all to reach this place and time, and I'm proud of you. You've shown you got what it takes to succeed as a film blogger. Now there's one more road to go down before you can call yourself a champion.

It's the Athletes in Film Blogathon. It's the event you've been training for all season. Me and Aurora from Once Upon a Screen will be there to host this blogathon devoted to athletes turned actors, as well as movies about athletes, both real and fictional, but it'll be up to you to blog about it! And I know you won't let us down - we've come too far, worked too hard, to expect anything less than a spectacular collection of posts from the greatest film bloggers on the Net!

Now this is what I want you to do: I want you to sign up for this blogathon, either here or at Aurora's site. I want you to pick a banner from among the ones selected here, to help spread the word about this event, which takes place June 4-5. And when the time comes, I want nothing less than the smartest, funniest, most entertaining posts that this blogosphere has ever seen!

Oh, and win one for the Gipper.

A few basics: all eras are AOK with us; please provide the URL for your blog along with your blog name in the comments; if you have a preference for June 4 or June 5, let us know, because we're not assigning dates; and please tell us when the finished piece is up. Thanks!

I'm gonna write about basketball legend turned actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while Aurora will write about the Buster Keaton movie College.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

Okay, so even if you're not a hardcore cinephile, chances are you've heard the story of how Lana Turner was discovered. Maybe you never quite believed it. Maybe you thought it was just Hollywood legend, an exaggeration of the truth. I mean, after all, how many actresses get discovered simply sitting around in a malt shop in LA at age sixteen?

Can you imagine trying something like that today - just plucking someone off the street and making them a movie (or TV) star based on looks alone? Actually, these days, where stardom is much less of a thing than it used to be, it might be more possible, but I think shows like American Idol and their ilk have conditioned audiences to expect unknown wanna-bes to at least have a modicum of measurable talent that we can see, along with the looks.

When I wrote about MGM uber-producer Louis B. Mayer months ago, I talked about the star-making system he established in which movie stars were carefully manufactured. Once Turner came over to MGM in 1937 after initially signing with Warner Brothers, she, too, was subject to the Mayer system, making movies with the likes of Clark Gable and earning fame as a World War 2 pin-up girl.

The way Turner was able to achieve stardom sounds so simple in retrospect. Granted, she did indeed have the looks, and that obviously went a long way, but how many young ingenues were lured to Tinseltown believing they could get in the pictures as easily as she did? There's something almost insidious about the Old Hollywood star system in terms of its consistency, but then, its success relied on the audience's eagerness to buy into the myth of stardom, that these glamorous men and women were somehow larger than life when they were up there on that screen. Today it's about computer-generated spectacle - stars incidental. Quite different.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is probably Turner's best known film. I had seen it during my video store days, of course, not that I remembered anything of it in the years since, so seeing it on the big screen at the Loews Jersey City was bound to leave an impression. The only other Turner movie I've seen was the remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so I've never had a firm impression of her as an actress. I never regarded her as part of the pantheon of superstars - Hepburn, Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford, etc. - but I never disliked her either. I just never had an opinion of her either way.

She surprised me. I thought she got better the deeper the film went. Postman, naturally, is a noir classic, and she seemed much more convincing as a femme fatale as the complicated plot got more involved and her character got better defined. It's basically a lovers-conspire-to-kill-the-unsuspecting-husband story which, in my mind, invited comparisons to Double Indemnity (as in that movie, the actual murder takes place in a car, perpetrated by the male lead from the back seat). Much more happens after the murder, though, including a courtroom drama and a few more twists and turns.

On the whole, Postman isn't bad, though parts of it come across really silly now (that highway cop really had a thing for cats, didn't he?) and I thought Turner and John Garfield took way too long to go through with the murder. Seeing it on the big screen, once again, made the difference; it held my interest in a way that it might not have if I were watching it on TV. As a result, I was able to better appreciate, for example, Hume Cronyn's sleazy lawyer in the second half of the film.

It was nice to be back at the Loew's JC. Hadn't been there in months. And guess who I saw there...

Yep, Aurora was there too, who I also hadn't seen in awhile. And it so happens that the two of us have something special planned in the coming weeks. Check back here in a few days for an announcement...

Sunday, March 6, 2016

These Three

These Three
seen on TV @ TCM

So Paddy and I were talking about These Three the other day. The inevitable comparisons to The Children's Hour came up, of course. Paddy said that the former holds up as well as the latter, even if it is a censored version of the latter. I had said that in my mind, Three can't hold a candle to Hour, since Hour, after all, is the original version.

It's important to note that Lillian Hellman, creator of the original stage play that led to both film versions, wrote the screenplay for Three with the full knowledge that the original couldn't be presented on screen, at least not in 1936. William Wyler directed both versions, 25 years apart..

I saw Three first, back in my video store days. My old manager Bill, a gay man, had put it on. I learned a great deal about Old Hollywood from him. I don't recall what he said about Three as he put it on, though I'm sure he mentioned the fact that it was censored. It was a middle-of-the-day movie, when the in-store traffic was light, so I could follow the story better than I could if it were put on in the evening, though I couldn't give it my complete attention. 

I thought at the time it was okay. By that point, I was used to splitting my attention between serving customers and watching movies, and most of the time, it wasn't too difficult. Three has a relatively simple plot, so if I lost a plot thread while ringing up a customer or answering the phone, I could pick it up again. Not the most ideal way to watch a movie, but what can you do?

For those who've never seen either version: these two chicks open a private girls' school. One of them falls in love with this dude, a local doctor who helps them out. There's one girl who's a total brat. She resents the teachers and loves playing the innocent, all the while bullying the other girls. Now, in Hour, the original, Bratty Girl spreads a rumor that Martha (blonde teacher) is secretly in love with Karen (brunette teacher) based on circumstantial evidence. In Three, the rumor is that Martha is in love with Joe, the doctor who's already committed to Karen. Either way, the result is the same: the parents suspect there's some kind of hanky panky going on and bad things result.

I've talked about Hellman here before, and I've given her her due as an exceptional American playwright, ahead of her time in a number of ways. Looking at Three again, without any distractions, I have to say that she did the best job she possibly could in altering her material. The lesbian themes are completely excised, and if you never knew they were there to begin with you'd never notice the difference. I doubt anyone else could've done a better job with the material.

That said, knowing Hour exists, and having seen it multiple times (and owning it on VHS), I still can't help but be drawn to it as the better movie. The hubbub over what may or may not have been an affair between Martha and Joe seems lightweight. I can imagine a controversy brewing, I can imagine parents getting upset, but I couldn't quite buy the level of moral outrage, the paranoia, that would cause parents to pull their girls out of the school. Fear of gay teachers, on the other hand, has been a real thing for a long time. Plus, I honestly think Shirley MacLaine's Martha is better than Miriam Hopkins' Martha, though Hopkins is very good here (and of course, she appears in Hour as Martha's stage diva aunt).

One edge which I'll concede to Three is Bonita Granville as Mary, the Bratty Girl. Karen Balkin in Hour is very good in the role, but Granville is damn near frightening. She was Oscar nominated for her work, in fact. She gets a lot of screen time in the film, which surprised me a bit, but clearly Wyler and Hellman knew what they had in her.

So Three is better than I had remembered, but for me, it's difficult for it to escape the shadow of Hour, which is, after all, the original, uncensored version.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

All Our Yesterdays: William Shatner's 'Leonard'

Most of the time I don't bother with the personal lives of celebrities. One, it's not my business, and two, 95 percent of the time it's presented in the most sensational manner possible. Still, I'm like anyone else in that I'm curious about certain people. As a Trekkie, I'm particularly interested in the Trek stars. I own Nichelle Nichols' autobiography Beyond Uhura and William Shatner's Star Trek Memories, as well as other books that provide details about the cast of the original Star Trek series along with the series itself.

Shatner's new book Leonard, co-authored with David Fisher, is different from most biographies in that the perspective of the author is not only integral to the understanding of the subject, in this case, it is essential. Leonard Nimoy - Mr. Spock to Shatner's Captain Kirk on TV and film for over twenty years - wrote two autobiographies of his own, and they have their own unique, specific insights, but reading about the same man from the perspective of one of the tiny handful of people who knew him intimately, written after the man's death, is a bittersweet experience bordering on the cathartic for Trekkies who have lived most, if not all their lives, revering Nimoy and what he represented.

Shatner goes deep into Nimoy's family history, comparing and contrasting it with his own: both born into Jewish culture during the Depression, drawn to the theater and forced to reconcile that love with their disapproving parents. We discover the first time Nimoy saw the arcane Jewish hand gesture that he would one day adopt for Spock's character, and we see how Nimoy's Jewishness, over time, became a vital part of his identity and a source of great creative inspiration.

Shatner talks about Nimoy's long years as, by Nimoy's own admission, a character actor before Trek, and as he did in his documentary The Captains, Shatner makes the harsh reality of being an everyday working actor clear: the long hours, the need to take work wherever one can find it and make it one's own, the uncertain future - Nimoy went through many long years in obscurity, playing bad guys, ethnic characters, etc., but always looking for that little bit of truth to the characters he played that he could exploit, no matter how small. 

It was a trait that would serve him well when he had to fight for the integrity of Spock's character, and Shatner covers the Trek years with this in mind. He also opens up about his own feelings of jealousy toward Nimoy when Mr. Spock became at least as popular, if not more so, than Captain Kirk. The two men had more of a business relationship than a friendship in the beginning; it wasn't until after Trek was cancelled and they started doing convention after convention together that they started to enjoy each other's company and to learn more about each other.

Shatner writes about the beginnings of Nimoy's problems with addiction and his subsequent divorce, and contrasts it with his own unsuccessful marriages, especially his third, in which he married a woman he knew was an alcoholic. Toughest part of the book to get through for sure. Both men bounce back from these setbacks with new loves, but what we see emerge is how the ties that bound the two of them grew ever tighter as a result of these personal crises.

The rest of the book deals with Nimoy's wide-ranging interests in and out of acting, as well as his final days. Shatner marvels at the fact that he and Nimoy became as close as they did when by Shatner's admission, he has had few close friends in his life. He mostly attributes this to the nature of the industry he works in, where you can become "close" to someone while working on a TV show for years, promise to stay in touch after it ends, and then never see each other again. Trek was different because of the fandom that kept it alive long after its initial demise, and then provided an opportunity for Shatner and Nimoy to continue seeing each other, through conventions.

Leonard is a very emotional examination of not just a rare life, but a rare friendship. I don't think anyone who reads it will look at either Shatner nor Nimoy quite the same way again.

(I bought Leonard for myself; this is not a review copy.)

A long life, and a prosperous one