Tuesday, June 27, 2017

20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet From Stardom
seen @ Herbert von King Park, Brooklyn NY


20 Feet From Stardom was one of those movies that got away from me at first. I remember when it came out; I told myself I would see it for sure, but I never did. Either I was short of cash or it came and went in a hurry; I don't recall. I was pleased to get a second chance at it last weekend as a free outdoor movie.


Stardom is the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers throughout rock history. They sing the parts of songs that are always fun and easy to sing along with: the shoo-bee-doo-bee-doos, the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dongs. We may not be able to sing like Aretha Franklin, for example, but we can always do the "re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-spect JUST A LITTLE BIT!" part, whether we're in the shower or the car or in Aisle 6 reaching for the can of corn.

Among the many singers interviewed, including superstars like Jagger and Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, the best-known of the backup singers is probably Darlene Love, who sang with many of the big names of the 50s and 60s. The songs on which she sang lead were not credited as such for a long time. She talks about her struggles with uber-producer Phil Spector, as well as the events that led to her solo career and greater recognition, in and out of music (she was Danny Glover's wife in the Lethal Weapon movies).

Darlene Love

We get to meet other singers, mostly black, mostly female. Things changed for them when they were encouraged, and more to the point, allowed to sing the way they knew how, the way they were used to singing all their lives as opposed to simply filling in the spaces between the lyrics. Rock stars like the Stones, Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, put them on their records, brought them on tour, made them more in-demand. Why didn't these singers become stars in their own right? The movie suggests there's no one answer - but they have no regrets. (Seeing this made me wish, not for the first time, that more black people made rock music today - and that radio would play them - but that's another post.)

Naturally, I thought of my sister Lynne as I watched this, though in her case, it's different. She's the lead singer of a band, one that has been her support structure for years as they play around New York. Her husband is part of that band. As far as I know, she hasn't tried being a backup singer for anybody. Still, the theme of pursuing a career in the field, gaining recognition, resonates.

Lisa Fischer

I think Lynne is a great singer, but she kinda got a late start in going for a career, and in a field that values youth so highly, I think it's fair to say the odds of ever hearing her on the radio one day are long. I think if she did nothing but play bars and clubs with her band for the rest of her life, though, she'd be okay with that. She enjoys the music so much; always has. I think that's what matters most - and Stardom suggests that's the best way to be.

This was the first outdoor movie of the season for me. Von King Park is deep within a part of Brooklyn with which I was unfamiliar. It was a warm summer night, with lots of people having cookouts and playing music and kids roaming freely - but with few people actually watching the movie.

Merry Clayton

The inflatable screen was set up on a largish lawn area. I came without a blanket to lie on (I forgot) and I was concerned my spot would get eaten up by the encroaching audience, like it would if I were at, say, Brooklyn Bridge Park. In fact, the crowd was so sparse, there was room for kids to play catch with a small dog and to kick a soccer ball around. This went on behind me for the most part, though the dog trampled my leg once while running.

If the surrounding park-goers had any interest in the movie, they didn't show it. Far behind me, music (modern hip-hop, of course) continued to play, though the movie was loud and clear enough that it wasn't a problem. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, at one point fireworks went off behind the screen. You'd think a free movie prominently featuring black people would attract more interest in what looked like a mostly-black neighborhood. I dunno. I'm just glad it didn't rain.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fargo

The Reel Infatuation Blogathon is an event devoted to favorite movie characters, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Fargo
from my VHS collection

Larry wasn't born with the brains God gave a duck but he was my brother and he shouldna oughta died like that: shot, left in the snow in the middle o' the night. I told him to stay on 71 when he called me: "Stay on 71," I says, "that'll take ya to I-94 and I-94'll take ya to Minneapolis." Don't know how he ended up in Brainerd, but that's Larry for ya - and all on account o' him and his girlfriend needin' to go to that damfool Three Stooges film festival.

I went to Brainerd to... you know, identify the bodies and all. Long drive from Billings.

I got there and went to the police station and that's where I met Sheriff Marge Gunderson.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The pros and cons of post-credit scenes

The Avengers post-credit scene ended the movie on a laugh.
When I saw Wonder Woman, I anticipated a post-credit scene. I stood against the back wall of the Movieworld auditorium, watching the audience slowly file out, as the long, detailed list of names rolled on the screen. A staffer discreetly cleaned up with a broom. A part of me felt slightly ridiculous. I never stick around for the credits (if I'm by myself, anyway), because I'm usually too eager to go to the bathroom.

These days, however, audiences for superhero movies have come to expect some sort of Easter egg scene tacked on to the very end of the film, long after the last production company logo unspools. (In industry lingo, they're called "stingers." They predate the superhero movies by quite a margin.) They usually come in two flavors: a light-hearted, jokey moment, or a tease for the next movie. Are they necessary? No; they're usually a little something extra for the fans, a way of saying "thanks for watching." Could it be, though, that they're drawing more attention than necessary?

Josh Brolin's uber-baddie Thanos has been teased after the
Avengers movies for awhile.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had FIVE post-credit scenes - or more accurately, closing credit scenes. They were interspersed throughout the credit roll. Two of them, arguably three, were teasers for the next movie. In and of themselves, they were funny and intriguing, but I feel like this is a sure sign of success going to the filmmakers' heads. It's self-indulgent.

When Marvel Studios did it with the first wave of Avengers movies, they bonded the films and built up anticipation for the Avengers movie, when we'd finally see all these characters together in one film. Could they have been integrated into the bodies of their respective films? Probably. Would they have generated the same amount of attention? Debatable.

That's what these scenes are about, at the heart of it all: buzz; generating hype for what's to come - because we know there will be more shared-universe superhero movies, from Marvel and WB (parent company of DC Comics), at any rate. It's like they're the US and the Soviet Union, engaged in an ever-escalating nuclear arms race, only the end result here is more like Mutually Assured Box Office.

Some scenes, like the one after X-Men: Apocalypse, can
leave non-TruFans® baffled with their vagueness.
The whole thing almost makes me wish all these superheroes were in the public domain, so we could get interpretations of these characters that weren't shackled to the shared-universe concept. (I know the prospect excited me at first, but that was before I realized what it would lead to.) In the comics, they publish alternate-universe stories, reinterpreting the heroes in different times and places. Imagine if the same were done for the movies: a Superman inspired by the "World of Tomorrow" future of the 1939 World's Fair. A Batman set during the Revolutionary War. A Marvel Universe set in the time of Queen Elizabeth. But perhaps we're not ready for that yet.

Getting back to the post-credit scenes. I hear you complaining: "If you don't like them, don't watch them!" What can I say? If I lived without the Internet, maybe I would. If it were possible to avoid any and all discussion of them, on- and off-line, from now until the end of time, I might do that. The fanboy mentality, however, has infected moviegoers, and like zombies looking for some brains to munch on, we notice and discuss the minutiae of genre movies, especially things like post-credit scenes. I think the jury's still out deciding whether or not this is a good thing.

The Movieworld staffer saw me and said there was no such scene after Wonder Woman. I thanked him and left. Its absence didn't bother me. Who knows? Maybe it's the sign of a counter-trend.

--------------------
Related:
Are opening credits becoming uncool?
The main title work of Saul Bass

Monday, June 12, 2017

Books: Tracy and Hepburn



The 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

The unique professional and personal relationship of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn lasted a quarter century. Though they never married, they were a couple in almost every way that counts; a true meeting of the minds who brought out the best in each other, as actors and as people. One who knew them intimately was writer Garson Kanin. In 1970, he shared his memories of the celebrated duo of Hollywood and Broadway in his book Tracy and Hepburn.

I bought this at a used book sale at Symphony Space in Manhattan last fall, when I went there to see For the Love of Spock. This was my first Kanin book. You'll recall I also wrote about his novel Moviola months ago, in which I said I wasn't impressed with his writing style, though I liked the story. Style is less of an issue here. Kanin takes a non-linear approach, sharing anecdotes about his friends as they come. I found this an easier read by comparison. Changing tenses and shifting points-of-view were non-issues here.

Kanin and his wife, actress-screenwriter Ruth Gordon, were the Fred & Ethel to Tracy & Hepburn's Lucy & Ricky. We know the former as writers for the Tracy & Hepburn movie Adam's Rib, as well as for a number of films and plays. Off screen and off stage, the four of them were close companions, intellectual and cultural aesthetes who split time between the east coast, the west coast and Europe when they weren't working. T&H is as much about their friendship as it is about the actors' lives and careers.

With Hepburn, we discover her cultivated eccentricities, her exceeding generosity and her formidable sense of will. We also learn the extent of her influence behind the camera. If she had wanted to, and if she had been given the opportunity, she could have been a director, as well as a producer and even a writer. As for Tracy, his health issues are discussed, as well as his rep among others in Hollywood, his theater experiences, and his own peculiarities.

Kanin drops a ton of names in T&H, a number of which are from the early 20th century theater and film worlds. He writes as if you're already familiar with them. I have a tendency to take my audience for granted too, so I probably shouldn't complain, but a little context here and there wouldn't have hurt. Kanin comes across as a rugged individualist intolerant of ignorance, not unlike his subjects, and his wife. By his admission, there have been moments where he took a joke too far with his friends and paid the price for it. We see this aspect of their relationship in T&H also.

L-R: Tracy, Gordon, Kanin, Hepburn
Tracy & Hepburn were far from perfect. Hepburn's strident nature occasionally comes across as bullying, and Tracy rarely discusses his other life with his children and his wife Louise Treadwell, whom he never divorced.

T&H is a totally subjective book; we see the duo through Kanin's eyes. A more objective biography might be more rounded, but Kanin makes it clear at the outset this is not that book. That's okay. For what it is, it's a rare and valuable portrait of two of Hollywood's finest.

------------------
Also by Garson Kanin:
Moviola

Recently:
Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, Queens NY

SPOILERS

So Warner Bros. finally stopped dicking around and gave us a Wonder Woman movie (mostly) worthy of her status within the DC Comics pantheon, and the wider pop culture at large. For years, DC kept selling us the idea of Wondy being one of superhero comics' Big Three, along with Big Blue and Long Ears. WB, the parent company, tended to stick with making movies with just the other two, however. With bombs like Supergirl, Catwoman, Green Lantern and Suicide Squad on their resume, you almost can't blame them. Almost.

Kudos, therefore, to WB for simply getting this movie made. They gave it to a woman director, also a good move. Patty Jenkins might be best known for Monster, the film that got Charlize Theron the Oscar. Jenkins had been lingering in TV since, until this one. Although producer Zack Snyder's fingerprints are detectable, she did a real good job overall.

Gal Gadot has the goods. I didn't expect her to put on an accent (Greek? I suppose). That took some getting used to, but it was no big deal (unless that's her real accent; I dunno). Kinda embarrassed I didn't recognize Captain Kirk at first, but it was nice to see him in another franchise.

All this said, I have a problem with the ending, which is a shame, because I was with this movie until that point. If you don't wanna be spoiled, go no further.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Wonder links

I've noticed something about classic film bloggers lately. Blogathons have gotten so popular, some bloggers go from one to the next, with no other type of post in between. It's a tribute to the ubiquity of the meme that this is totally possible. When I began WSW, I was convinced I had to blog all the time in order to establish a presence. I think if I were to start out now, knowing what I do about blogging, I might stick to blogathons too, at least at first. Eventually, though, there would come moments like this, where I wanna blab about other stuff.

Last month, Sandi and I went to a local production of Raisin, the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun. It was put on by the Astoria Performing Arts Center, which I admit I wasn't aware of before. Raisin is basically the Lorraine Hansberry script with songs added. They're very good songs. All the principal characters get them, both solo and in groups. As I told Sandi afterwards, whoever plays Walter Lee will have to contend with the memory of Sidney Poitier, a heavy weight to bear. Warren Nolan Jr. didn't have his physical energy, but he was good. He had a superb singing voice.

Comings and goings: Bibi & Eric came into town over Memorial Day weekend and we went down to Coney Island. It was their first time there. We rode the Wonder Wheel and the Tilt-a-Whirl, but they balked at the more daring rides. Pity. We ate at a Ukrainian restaurant, where the matronly waitress told us all about the food and tried to teach us a few Ukrainian words. 

Also, a couple of weeks earlier, John & Sue threw a going-away party on the occasion of their impending departure from New York. After too many years at a job that drove him nuts, John's gonna pursue writing on more of a full-time basis. They're only going upstate. Still, I feel like an era is ending. John's my oldest friend. Knowing he was always around was comforting. As for Sue, I've grown to deeply appreciate her as a friend and the perfect companion for John. I can't imagine anyone else putting up with him on a daily basis!


Behold the trailer for Star Trek: Discovery. It certainly looks more cinematic than its predecessors. I'm thrilled to see Michelle Yeoh in Star Trek, but one has to remember she's not the star here. That would be Sonequa Martin-Green. Her Cmdr. Rainsford does look like she's gonna undergo a kind of trial by fire, with the Klingons as the forge. Judging from their look, as well as the look of the uniforms and sets, I'm convinced this is the alternate timeline, which is not what we were initially led to believe. Sigh. Well, I'll be there for the premiere, if they ever manage to finish this bloody show. It's been delayed at least twice! (By the way, check out the trailer for Seth MacFarlane's live-action Trek-like series - on free TV!)

It's been a light year for new releases around here so far. I expect that to change somewhat this summer. After debating whether or not to return to the long underwear scene, I decided I gotta see Wonder Woman simply because it's a movie that's shamefully overdue. Plus, it's not directed by Zack Snyder. The new Apes movie is a given, and holy guacamole, Christopher Nolan doing the battle of Dunkirk? Sign me up. Also, outdoor movies - assuming the weather warms up enough for them - may be thin this year because there are so many screenings of films from the last year or two. We'll see.

Your links this month:

Aurora offers a guest post from someone who has a slightly dissenting opinion on Feud.

Paddy reviews a book about a pre-code actor and interviews the author.

Ivan, like, totally grooves on the 80s Sarah Jessica Parker series Square Pegs.

Kristina falls under the spell of Boris Karloff's Invisible Ray.

Pam plays with some shockingly age-inappropriate Alien toys.

Angela on Feud.

This review of Feud provides more of a historical perspective.

When the late Jonathan Demme was still an actor, he appeared in schlock like this.

Now it can be seen: lost footage of the Beatles filming Help!.

In appreciation of Joan Crawford, the Thespian.

No, seriously, WTF were they thinking in trying to remake Dirty Dancing?

Friday, May 26, 2017

More NYC theaters facing the wrecking ball



...Landmark — which opened in 2001 in the 1898 building that had been a Yiddish vaudeville house — struggled to keep up with rising rents and hoped to reinvent itself a few years back as a dining destination like Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema. Locals, however, fought those plans, with Community Board 3 rejecting the theater’s liquor license application.The art house theater's lease ends January 2018, and it will likely be pushed out, though, Pagoda said he'd be open to negotiating with Landmark.
I've been writing way too much lately about movie theaters in the New York metropolitan area dying off. When they are replaced, they're usually pricey Alamo Drafthouse-style luxury joints in Manhattan (and occasionally Brooklyn). I'm thinking of possibly putting together a guide evaluating the best first-run theaters in the other four boroughs (maybe beyond) and where they are, while we still have them. For now, here's the last rites for the latest batch:

- Landmark Sunshine. While it's a good theater, it's on Houston Street, which is well-serviced by the Angelika and the Film Forum, not to mention the IFC Center a few blocks north on Sixth Avenue, and even some newer venues across the river in Williamsburg, almost all of them catering to the same indy crowd. Sunshine had a decent run, given that heavy competition, but I tend to think this won't be a great loss. Moviegoers on the Lower East Side are still spoilt for choice.
What I saw there127 HoursThe RoomThe Contender

RKO Keith's
- RKO Keith's. I recently had a nice Twitter conversation about the Keith's with Debbie from Moon in Gemini. Turns out she's from Flushing, though she doesn't live in NYC anymore. It's hard to believe such a primo piece of real estate, in a busy part of Queens, has lain fallow for over thirty years (!), but now they got somebody who wants to turn it into condos. Yay. From the looks of the design, it'll be the tallest building east of CitiField. Can't say I care for the way this will change the character of the neighborhood, but then, my Flushing vanished with the Keith's.
What I saw thereRocky IV

- Brooklyn Heights Cinema. Never made it there. As I recall, it was a fairly small venue. It would've benefited greatly from the sprucing up of the surrounding area.

- Pavilion Theater. If Nitehawk Cinemas is indeed expanding south from Williamsburg to Park Slope, that will be the best thing to happen to this perpetually shat-upon theater. I never felt bedbugs in any of the times I went there, though there's no denying it had (has?) a run-down feeling about it. The last time I was there, a few years ago, they were in the middle of some renovations. This is an area starving for a quality theater. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is great for the art-house crowd, but there should be a place for the blockbusters east of Court Street. If only the renovated Kings Theater showed movies.
What I saw thereSin CityPreciousThe Lost World

Center Cinemas
- Sunnyside Center Cinemas. Never liked this place much. The seats were tiny, the d├ęcor threadbare. It was in a great location, however: right under the 7 train in a growing neighborhood. Its sister theater in Kew Gardens Hills (not to be confused with Kew Gardens) is still hanging in there, perhaps because it's in a part of town in no danger of gentrifying anytime soon. With a little love and investment, this could've been another Cinemart. Sunnysiders probably schlep to the UA Kaufman in Astoria now.
What I saw thereThe TownDriveThe Hunger Games

- Ridgewood Theater. Before my time. I don't go to this part of town often. I imagine if you live in Ridgewood, you have to go all the way to Williamsburg for a movie.

Maybe this only amounts to changing deck chairs on the Titanic - Netflix, VOD and streaming video are as popular as ever - but I still believe in the communal experience that comes from seeing movies in theaters. I'm not ready to let that go yet.

-------------------
Related:
What if more theaters were non-profit?
To save the drive-in, you must destroy it
My dream movie theater

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Five movies about musicians who died young

I hope you don't mind; I gotta talk about Chris Cornell for a minute. When I think of Soundgarden, I think of John, who first introduced me to them (though I do remember hearing them on the radio in the early 90s). He's always two or three steps ahead of me musically. He was the one who first told me "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wasn't some Weird Al-like novelty song. John believed SG was the real deal. I figured he was probably right.

The first SG album I bought was Badmotorfinger, on cassette. I had initially thought the "grunge" sound was something akin to metal. Indeed, SG used to get played on MTV's Headbangers Ball. I'm still not sure what exactly defines grunge musically other than being from Seattle. Ultimately the labels don't matter. As far as SG was concerned, I was hooked right away.

Superunknown came out in 1994. Hearing the apocalyptic "Black Hole Sun" puts me in mind of the sleepaway camp I worked at in the blissful, glorious summer of '95: A-frames, canoeing in the river, hot chocolate on those cold nights in the Adirondack mountains of Massachusetts. I remember organizing a "band" of 10-year-old campers to lip-sync to "Outshined" (a cut from Badmotorfinger) on talent night. I wore a wig of fake dreadlocks as I "sang" lead.

Audioslave was a better fusion between Chris and Rage Against the Machine than I could've imagined. As for his solo stuff, it wasn't as intense, but I liked most of it, the highlights including the James Bond song "You Know My Name" from Casino Royale, and a dirge-like cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" that's almost as good as the original.

When I was much younger, the whole rock-star-dying-young concept had more... I don't wanna use the word "glamour," but it's true, in a way. Yeah, it sucks that they're dead and all, I had thought, but that made them larger than life. It added to their legend and made their music immortal. I don't think that way anymore. Chris' death was a suicide, just like his Northwest contemporary Kurt Cobain, just like way too many rock superstars over the years.

Maybe rock has lost its standing in American pop culture. Maybe it's only for old fogeys like me. God knows I hardly ever hear it anywhere near as much on the radio anymore. All I know is another of my favorite singers is dead before his time, by his own hand, and it doesn't feel cool or glamorous.

The movies have given us a number of biographies of musicians who died young. Not all of the deaths in the following examples were by suicide, but they were as shocking at the time. These films are how we remember them.

- La Bamba. The day the music died, it took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper along with Latino guitarist Ritchie Valens in that fateful 1959 plane crash. He was a mere babe at 17! I was in eighth grade when this movie came out. The Los Lobos soundtrack was all the rage, and even if I didn't understand the words to the title track, it still rocked. Lou Diamond Phillips personified Valens perfectly, and that ending... Omigod, that ending.

- Lady Sings the Blues. Cirrhosis of the liver took the life of jazz legend Billie Holiday at 44, a life defined as much by drugs and drink as by her distinctive voice. In 1972, Diana Ross gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Lady Day in this biopic. If IMDB is to be believed, co-star Richard Pryor coached her in how to act like a drug user. I guess she couldn't have asked for a better teacher...

- Beyond the Sea. Multiple-genre crooner (and Oscar-winning actor!) Bobby Darin died of a heart condition at 37. He was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in this recent biopic. I didn't see it, but Pam did. In fact, she's a really big fan...


- Sid and Nancy. One hesitates to put the Sex Pistols' bassist in the category of "musician," but there's no doubt he contributed to the punk movement of the 70s before his death of a drug overdose at the age of 21. Truly, one of Gary Oldman's finest moments in film was as Sid in a biopic that was equal parts tragic, comedic, and just plain surreal.

- Amy. The latest member of the infamous "27 club," contemporary jazz/blues singer Amy Winehouse, was the subject of this recent Oscar-winning documentary. I've discovered more of her music through Pandora. She could've easily been one more pop diva, but she followed another path, one which gave her a much more individual sound. Like Holiday, however, Winehouse battled with inner demons before drinking herself to death, in 2011.

I've probably depressed you big time. Sorry. Here, listen to some Puffy AmiYumi. You'll feel a million times better, I guarantee it.

---------------
Related:
Marley
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale
Showtime viewing

I don't know much about the Boogie Down Bronx. I hardly ever go there, for one thing. To get there, I'd have to either go through Manhattan or take a really long bus ride. Even if I were to go there, I wouldn't know where to go besides the spots everyone knows: the Zoo, Y-nk-- Stadium, the Botanical Gardens.

I don't have many friends who live there, either. Andi does. John used to live there, before I met him in high school. Jen is from there, too. In fact, when she first met her husband Alex, it was a bonding thing for them. He's also from the Bronx, and he's very proud of his old neighborhood.

City Island is considered part of the Bronx. You may remember I was part of a gallery exhibit there several years ago. It's nice. It's kinda like a New England fishing town. A few hours there and you can easily forget you're still in New York City. They have a great ice cream parlor, too. I wouldn't want to live there, though. It's a bit too far away from the city proper for my taste.


The Bronx of A Bronx Tale is of the 60s. I like that Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri didn't sugarcoat the period. They present the bad alongside the good. Sonny may be a mobster, a killer of men, but he cares for Calogero, in his own way. Cee's father Lorenzo may try to do right by his son, but he's not exactly comfortable with Cee dating Jane, a black girl.

Cee has to find a middle ground between these two extremes, one that works for him. In the end, he does, but at a price. Such ambiguous characters strengthen this story and make it compelling to watch.


I knew Chazz wrote the play upon which the movie, and subsequent Broadway musical, is based. I suspected it was semi-autobiographical. I did not know it was a one-man show. The idea of such performances amaze me. Does the performer converse with themselves on stage, or is it a series of extended monologues, or what? I suppose it depends on who does it and how. I wouldn't know how to write something like that. Chazz, apparently, did it without any playwriting experience. That's impressive.


De Niro has only directed one other film in his long and celebrated career, the 2006 CIA thriller The Good Shepherd. That strikes me as a bit surprising; given the caliber of directors he's worked with, plus his familiarity with the stage, he strikes me as the kind of actor who would make a good director. He is credited as co-director (with Jerry Zaks) of the Bronx Tale musical. If this interview is any indication, though, his contributions were minimal.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
HBO viewing

I loved game shows as a kid. Before daytime television was littered with flimsy talk shows, game shows dominated the airwaves. If I was home from school, I would watch them all: The Price is Right, The Joker's Wild, Tic Tac Dough, Let's Make a Deal, Press Your Luck, Card Sharks, The $25,000 Pyramid, plus nighttime shows like Match Game and Hollywood Squares. I remember Wheel of Fortune when Chuck Woolery was the host! Being a kid, I could only dream of being on one of them one day, but I was content to play along at home.

When I was in high school, there was a game show called Win Lose or Draw, a kind of Pictionary with celebrities. One week, they filmed it from Wollman Rink in Central Park. My friends and I were part of the audience that got to sit on the stage. One of the celebrity guests was Kim Fields from The Facts of Life. I got to help her up onto the stage. 

Jeopardy! is the kind of game show you can't help getting sucked into if you see it's on. Everybody thinks they're smart enough to win. From what I've heard about the screening process for contestants, though, it's pretty tough, as you would expect. I mean, it's not like you can fake being smart - although I've heard some people make a good living that way!


Jen loves trivia games. I told you about the time we went to a movie trivia night in Brooklyn. Well, she goes to trivia nights like that all the time. At the game parties she and her husband host, sometimes we'll play the home version of Jeopardy!, which isn't easy when you've got a crowd. There are "clickers," small noisemakers meant to substitute for the buzzer on the show, but someone has to judge who clicked first, and there are always disputes. Friendly ones, but disputes nonetheless.

When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? debuted, I, like many people, was initially flabbergasted that a game show offered so much money - a million dollars - as the grand prize. I remember when $100,000 was a big deal for a game show, or even a "measly" $10,000.


Is it me, though, or were the questions on Millionaire not that difficult on average? At least compared to Jeopardy? The contestants on that show and the game shows of the past, like 21 (as depicted in Quiz Show) looked like exceptional individuals. The ones on Millionaire, by contrast, tend to come across as more down-to-earth. I suspect that's deliberate, given how much they bend over backwards to try and make it easier for the contestants with those "lifeline" options. With Jeopardy!, you're on your own.

What happens, however, when a contestant is so ordinary his success seems impossible? That is the subject of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's Best Picture winner from almost a decade ago. The movie would have you believe Dev Patel's character was fated to succeed on the show. It's a nice fantasy, particularly since he only did it to find Frieda Pinto, which of course, he does in the end - and everyone dances a Bollywood-style dance and it's all good. Fine. I'm willing to give in to the fantasy when it's in service to a movie like this.



I'm not sure if Boyle has a signature style. He has done a little bit of everything: suspense, comedy, sci-fi, horror, drama. None of them look similar, either. I didn't watch the 2012 Summer Olympics, so I don't know how he handled the opening ceremonies. I'm sure he did a great job. Boyle doesn't work with many superstars (DiCaprio, a few years removed from Titanic - that's about it), nor does he have a go-to repertory of actors or any kind of recurring theme in his movies. He pretty much follows his muse, wherever it leads him.

I was very surprised he made a sequel to Trainspotting earlier this year, with the entire original cast, no less. The mediocre reviews kept me away, although John and Sue liked it. They're huge fans of the first movie. John in particular will see anything with Ewan McGregor. I might look at it if it comes to cable, but it's been so long since I've seen the first Trainspotting, I probably wouldn't remember who the characters are or what they're doing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Toy Story 3

The "No, You're Crying" Blogathon is an event devoted to movies that make us cry (for whatever reason), hosted by Moon in Gemini. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site.

Toy Story 3

Top five favorite toys from my childhood:

5. Hess trucks. Whenever I went out with my parents and we passed a Hess gas station, I had to have a toy Hess truck. If you put batteries in them, the headlights and tail lights would light up. The doors to the cab would open. I had one with a retractable hose. To this day, I could not tell you why I was so into them. I just was.

4. Lincoln Logs. I was a fiend for building toys. With this, I liked the way the logs fit into the notches at the ends so neatly. I wasn't very creative in building my log cabins, but that was okay. I just liked putting the logs together, little by little.


3. Tinkertoys. These, on the other hand, were the kind of building toys with which you could go nuts. I think I favored abstract sculpture-type designs. I didn't care what they looked like. The weirder the better.

2. Lite Brite. Loved this one! It was a bunch of colored lights that you stuck in specific patterns into holes on a kind of light box. You'd get images like a clown face, or a sailboat or a house, stuff like that. When it was finished, you turned off the lights in your room and turned this on and voila! 

1. Domino Rally. Oh. My. God. I could not get enough of this. You would line up these small colored tiles shaped like dominos and knock them down. They came with all these cool accessories that you could add to your rally, like bridges, contraptions with rolling marbles and moving parts, etc. I would set it up on the kitchen floor, which always pissed my mother off because she wouldn't be able to walk through the front door until I knocked the dominos down.


I don't recall imagining my toys having lives of their own. I didn't have many dolls or action figures or stuffed animals, though, so it likely didn't occur to me much. Given how big action figures have become, I kinda regret not having any. I saw the same commercials for GI Joe and Transformers and He-Man and the Superfriends as everyone else, but I never bugged my parents for them. They probably would've gotten them for me. My interests were in other kinds of toys.

The Toy Story films, as far as I'm concerned, stack up with any live-action movie, past or present, foreign or domestic, you care to name. They show how cool it is to be a toy. Buzz has delusions of being an actual person (sort of) in the first movie, but Woody sets him straight. Why? Because nothing is more important to a toy than the bond between it and its human owner. It's what they live for. That's the theme that runs throughout the entire trilogy. They're not miniature people. They're toys - and they're meant to be played with.


Okay. The crying. I'm gonna proceed on the assumption you've seen Toy Story 3 (if you haven't, what are you doing reading this? Go watch it; it's great) and jump straight to the climax of the movie: the part where they're trapped on the garbage conveyor belt, about to be melted into slag by the incinerator.

I saw TS3 theatrically. As this scene took place, a part of me knew they weren't really gonna die... but I wasn't sure! It was one of those no-way-out situations in which the hero(es) somehow finds a way out, but I didn't see a way out. I was on the edge of my seat, dog!

Then the Pizza Planet aliens snatched them up at the last second ("THE CLAAAAAW!"). I swear to you, I cannot remember the last time a movie left me feeling so euphoric. My tears at that moment were mixed with laughter. It was one of those rare moments where it felt good to be alive! That animated characters could make me feel this way was a tribute to the remarkable work Pixar put into making them real over the course of these movies... and the story wasn't even over yet.


The ending. Omigod, the ending. Even now, I can't think of it without choking up. Why? Perhaps seeing grown-up Andy hand off his toys to little Bonnie triggered some latent paternal instinct in me - which is odd, because the last thing I want is to be a parent. Perhaps it was coming to the end of the road, the parting of ways between Andy and Woody, that made me so emotional. Perhaps it was a little of both. Either way, I was a puddle of goo afterward - and I don't think I was the only one in the audience in such a state.

Toy Story 4 is happening. I would say, "How can they possibly top the last one?" but I said that after 2, about 3. So I guess I'll reserve my spot in line now... with extra handkerchiefs.

--------------------
Related:
TS3 and Oscar's anti-animation bias

Other movies that have made me cry (that I'll admit to):
Field of Dreams
Breaking the Waves
The Children's Hour

Monday, May 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

For almost as long as I can remember, comic books have made me want to create a sci-fi epic. I've tried, more than once: As a kid, I made my initial foray into self-publishing comics. Among my attempts included a Fantastic Four-inspired yarn set in space. I did them strictly for myself. I made no attempt to reproduce them. That would come much later.

In recent years, I started (but never finished) a comic that was a SF remake of The Wizard of Oz (substitute a wormhole for a cyclone) and an SF graphic novel originally meant to be a pitch to Marvel until I changed the names and made it an original. I have a bad habit of not finishing stuff, which kinda irks me. That's why I'm so determined to complete my novel (almost two-thirds done as of this writing!).

Comics were great for these kinds of tales growing up. Post-Star Wars, the movies were starting to get a better handle on the special effects, costumes, sets, props and makeup necessary to create better alien worlds, ships and beings. Comics, however, could go anywhere and do anything, on a way smaller budget.


To a ten-year-old kid like I was, these four-color sagas blew my mind. They also fired my imagination, right around the time I began to discover my artistic ability. The fantastic worlds and strange dimensions depicted in comics made me want to create a few of my own.

Comics are still capable of going anywhere and doing anything, but these days, so are the movies. While watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I had to take a moment to, pardon the pun, marvel at what I was seeing: a talking raccoon with ray guns; a plant-like child alien; a godlike being and his heavenly home planet; a giant squid monster; sophisticated weapons and ships that move and function in ways that would've been impossible to depict thirty years ago.


Once, comics were the best at visualizing such things. Now, they're not only possible to create for the movies, they've practically become commonplace. I don't think we properly acknowledge this minor miracle enough. (I found it telling that the new Marvel Studios logo contains images from the Marvel movies instead of from the comics, like it used to.)

What does this mean for comics? Well, no one's stopped reading books because of the movies; I suspect the same will be true of comics. They still have their own unique properties - the comics theory books of Scott McCloud go into great detail about this - that should be emphasized if they're gonna move further in the 21st century. That's gonna mean way more than superheroes. But that's an argument for another day.


Director James Gunn wrote G2, as he did the first film. This feels a bit more like a Marvel Universe movie. Kurt Russell's character is one I never thought I'd see in a movie, because of its obscurity and its cosmic scale, but this is a franchise tailor made for both. Gunn found a way to not only bring him closer to human scale, but to tie him to the Guardians in a convenient way. In a series so eager to celebrate 70s/80s pop culture, casting Snake Plissken (and Sly Stallone too!) was a good call.

So what did Stephanie Zacharek think of G2? Previously, the film critic (now working for Time) sneered at "Fun! with a capital F" movies like Guardians. This time, sad to say, her opinion hasn't wavered: "[G2] feels not so much crafted as squirted from a tube.... This is a movie that praises viewers for being cool enough to show up and then proceeds to insult them - but only ironically, see?"


Needless to say, I did not feel insulted, ironically or otherwise, and neither did the audience I saw it with (who applauded at the end). G2 expands on the surrogate-family theme in the first film, contrasting it with conflicts within actual families. Granted, this is not unfamiliar territory, but it's all about execution. Gunn gives us enough human moments (for non-human characters!) in-between the humor to let us believe in these people and care about what happens to them. Special kudos go out to Michael Rooker, who was particularly dynamite here.


Then there's the songs. Zacharek says: "Freed from their original contexts and given flimsy new ones, if any, they toil in the service of a movie that's invested in little beyond smirking at its non jokes." I tend to agree with the part about the music. Outside of the song "Brandy" by Looking Glass, which plays a significant role, one does get a feeling the music's there in G2 because it's what we've come to expect now, not because it impacts the story in any way. This is always a risk when pop songs are a big part of your soundtrack. I would hope Gunn becomes more judicious in how he employs music in the future. Look at the way "Hello Stranger" is used in Moonlight and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Also, after a post-credit cameo in the last film, Howard the Duck makes another brief appearance in G2, a slightly longer one this time. Howard was a character from the 70s who was unique in that he had a very countercultural bent, reflecting the sensibilities of his creator, the late Steve Gerber. Unfortunately, he's remembered more these days for that awful George Lucas movie from the 80s. Could Marvel be setting us up for a Howard reboot - one in which he's done right? Sure seems possible!

Cinemart started screening G2 Thursday night, May 4, so I took advantage. Their renovation has continued; they upgraded their bathrooms, which was nice. Not that they were sub-par before, but this is better. I was dismayed to see, however, that their popcorn comes pre-salted, without a salt-free option. I sampled a really small bag. Couldn't taste the difference, but I won't eat it in the future, even if they are giving it away - which they were. Points off, but there's always candy. Perhaps they'll add healthier options to the menu in the future. I hope so.