Friday, August 18, 2017

Menashe

Menashe
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinema, New York NY

Hang around Brooklyn long enough and you'll see some Hasidic Jews. Granted, they don't stray far from their pocket neighborhoods, but you can run into a few in public places like parks, beaches or the subway. The L train goes through their part of town, for example.

How isolated are they from the rest of New York City? When the city wanted to install a bike lane through South Williamsburg several years ago, the locals opposed it, in part, because they objected to the sight of women in shorts and tank tops biking through their neighborhood. (Hasidic women tend to dress very conservatively.) Later, when the city's bike share program expanded throughout North Brooklyn, there was a hole in the network the size of South Williamsburg.

Now, some people might notice the inconsistency in a neighborhood that relies on the same basic utilities - gas, electricity, water, etc. - as the rest of the five boroughs, yet is allowed to dictate how the city can use its streets that run through their neck of the woods, streets built, cleaned and maintained by the city... but those people don't work for the Mayor's Office or the Department of Transportation.



Still, the Hasidim are not so different from the rest of us in the ways that count. Menashe is a film about a single father fighting for custody of his young son. (In that respect, it reminded me a lot of Kramer vs. Kramer.) Is he a drunkard or a junkie? Nope. Is he irresponsible? The man works as a store clerk and hustles to get to work on time and to get his son ready for school. Is he abusive? He adores his son; he reads the Torah with him, takes him to the park and gets him a baby chick to raise at home. So why can't he keep his son?

Simple. He's a widower, and his religion says he has to remarry. Raising a child at home is not supposed to be his responsibility.

Director Joshua Weinstein, who also did the taxi documentary Drivers Wanted, recruited his cast from within the Hasidic community. He shot some exteriors on the down low; not everyone in the neighborhood was thrilled to see a movie being made about their lives. Menashe Lustig is quite good as the father. He is a bit of a misfit within his world, yet he is still a product of it. He never challenges the doctrine that says he has to remarry; he knows the rules, but his love for his son is actually an impediment to following them. Oh, and did I mention this entire movie is in Yiddish, bubbeleh?



I saw this with Vija and Lynn. This was Lynn's suggestion; as soon as I read a review of it, I had a feeling it might be worth seeing. Also with us was Joan, a woman I met not long before I left NYC, back when Vija tried to put together a support group for artists. As I recall, Joan made collages. I remember I used to enjoy giving her a hard time because she claimed to not like the Beatles. (She's old enough to have been around for them.) She's no square, though; she's actually quite kind and pleasant. This was the first time I could recall her seeing a movie with us. I think she liked the film.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Five movies with eclipses

So have you heard about this big-deal solar eclipse that's supposed to happen this month? Bibi first told me about it; she and Eric wanna travel to the west coast to see it because the view is better there, or so she says. I don't recall the last time I actually witnessed one - and yes, I know you're not supposed to look at it directly; you know what I mean - but I figure this is noteworthy enough to pay tribute to it here with a list of movie eclipses. There are more of them than you'd think.

- King Solomon's Mines. H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain novel about the search for the legendary African treasure has been brought to the big (and small) screen five times. The first, with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson, was in 1937. The eclipse happens during the outbreak of a rebellion led by Robeson, the rightful chieftain of his tribe, against the usurper who killed his dad. I'm sure it's a great scene if he's in it.


- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Mark Twain's sci-fi classic has seen numerous interpretations across multiple media. In 1949, Bing Crosby starred in a musical film version (also with Cedric Hardwicke). Here, the eclipse helps der Bingle get out of being burned at the stake. He knows it's going to happen, you see. He tells everyone he caused it, because they missed the Cosmos episode on how eclipses really happen, and he'll stop it if they let him go. Clever, huh? (Thanks to Paddy for assistance on this one.)

Little Shop of Horrors. Who'da thunk this list would have two musicals? Audrey II, the carnivorous, murderous sentient plant of this bizarre but highly entertaining adaptation of the stage musical (itself an adaptation of the Roger Corman flick), is born of an eclipse. How? Eh, that's not really important. It's an eclipse. They're funny like that.


- Dolores Claiborne. One of the best films based on the work of Stephen King is this Kathy Bates/Jennifer Jason Leigh thriller about a bitter New England woman accused of murder. Why does everyone think she did it? Because she killed her husband years ago during, you guessed it, an eclipse - or did she? You thought Kathy was great in Misery? Her performance here blows that one out of the water. How she wasn't Oscar nominated is a total mystery.

- Pitch Black. You ever have one of those days where you're stuck on a planet with three suns and the darkness from an eclipse releases deadly underground creatures ready to tear you limb from limb? I hate it when that happens... Anyway, this is the scenario of the Vin Diesel action flick, the first in the Riddick series, which also spawned an animated film and some video games.

The real eclipse happens this Monday. If you see it live, let me know how it went.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The seven-year Rich


Every year I keep saying this, but only because it's true: I can't believe I'm still here writing this blog! Seven years of slaving over a hot keyboard has taken me places I'd never been before, led me to people I never thought I'd meet, even if only in a virtual manner, and it's even been therapeutic at times. Balancing this blog and my novel hasn't been as difficult as you might expect; writing is my thing now, and I wanna keep writing. So I guess that means I'll keep this blog going. Thanks as always for reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Sugar

Sugar
Cinemax viewing

Jerry was my best friend throughout junior high school. My memory of him is as a happy-go-lucky dude who liked to joke around a lot. I wish I could remember when and how we met; it was probably in either fifth or sixth grade. I just know we bonded pretty quickly on a lot of things - especially baseball.

In Flushing there's a Modell's Sporting Goods on Main Street. It's one of the last remnants of my childhood still standing in the neighborhood - and I've lost plenty. Downstairs, there used to be a giant bin filled with baseball gloves. Whenever Jerry and I went in there, we'd scour the bin, looking for gloves with the autographs of players we liked. As a left-hander, I always had a harder search than he did, because lefty gloves were few and far between - plus, it had to be a glove with a comfortable fit. I was very picky about that sort of thing. 

We'd go to Flushing Meadow to play catch, sometimes with his younger brothers. We had few opportunities to play an actual game outside of school - there were never enough of us to form a team - but we made do. Any dreams we had of playing for the Mets one day were only that. We weren't athletes; our interests ultimately lay elsewhere. It was okay.


Jerry was also Dominican, like the protagonist of Sugar. When Jerry was twelve or thirteen, I think, his family moved down there for a short time. I still have the letters he sent me. Sometimes Dominicans get hassled by other Latinos for whatever reason. That always annoys me because it's like they're insulting Jerry. I haven't known any other Dominicans since him - at least, none that made half the impression he did...

...and certainly no aspiring ballplayers. Sugar reminded me of the films of John Sayles: immersive in foreign cultures in a low-key, unobtrusive manner. Co-writers/co-directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck present Sugar's struggle to reach the big leagues simply, from a distinctly Latino perspective. This isn't The Natural or even Bull Durham; for all of Sugar's ability to throw a fastball, one always feels he's facing very long odds and a trip to The Show is anything but certain.


Do I wish I had tried to become an athlete? Eh, not really. I might wonder about it once in a blue moon, but I tend to think the chance of long-term injury doesn't make a few fleeting moments of glory worth the struggle - not that I thought that way as a kid, and neither did Jerry. Dreams don't work that way. Sugar is about one young man's pursuit of his dream. I can relate to it because while he doesn't end up a star pitcher, not everyone can be. He still finds a way to do what he loves, though, and that may be more important than glory in the end. I think Jerry would agree.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Books: Desilu

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.

I was always more of a Honeymooners fan when I was younger, but I remember watching enough of I Love Lucy to appreciate it as one of the all-time great television sitcoms. Lucille Ball's transformation from B-movie starlet to television icon to studio mogul is one of the greatest of Hollywood success stories. Her love for husband, co-star and business partner Desi Arnaz lasted even beyond their eventual divorce, right up to their deaths.


Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders & Tom Gilbert chronicles their life together in front of and behind the cameras. Desilu, of course, was the name of the studio they founded, the place where they filmed I Love Lucy, and its hour-long spin-off, The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, and created or produced some of the finest shows of TV's Golden Age. The book details its genesis, its rise and fall.

Lucy & Desi had a fiery relationship. For all the love they shared, their fights were equally epic. Desi had a reputation for drinking, gambling and womanizing, but as their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, explains in an early passage, it was his wild ways that drew Lucy to him in the first place:


... There's something in the kind of man you choose, the strength of the kind of man you choose. She knew what she was doing when she chose my father. She knew that he was a man who loved women, a 'Latin lover.' She always went after people like that, and kind of liked the challenge. It made her feel really womanly to love a guy who is clearly the 'loverboy,' and 'loverboy' falls in love with you, the clown. How fabulous that would make you feel.


Desi gets his due in the book as not just the perfect straight man for Lucy, but as an exceptional businessman and evaluator of ideas, one who built Desilu up into a formidable entity despite no prior experience as a Hollywood executive. Even after their divorce, Lucy sought his advice on day-to-day studio operations from time to time, including for series development.


We see Lucy not just as a gifted comic actress, but as a controlling, often dictatorial presence on the set, particularly on her subsequent series The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy, both made without Desi. She had very specific views on what she felt her audience wanted and expected from her, she used excessive measures to get them, on herself and others, and she refused to change with the times, even when she became less able physically to perform the same kind of slapstick she used to do in her prime.



That said, we also see examples of her remarkable generosity and sense of loyalty, her ability to make the cast and crew of each of her shows feel at home, like family. For all of the complaints of her intransigent ways, there are more hosannas in her honor. Plus, we see Lucy & Desi's children, Lucie and Desi Jr., their respective careers as well as their problems.

Among the many people interviewed include the late Robert Osborne. Long before he became the host of Turner Classic Movies, he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, but more importantly, he was an actor and a confidante of Lucy's way back in the 50s. Osborne was part of a group of Desilu contract players, organized and supervised by Lucy (including, Star Trek fans, a young Majel Barrett). I was pleasantly surprised to see what he looked like as a young man.


My only real criticism is that I would've liked a little more about some of the better known I Love Lucy episodes. Sanders & Gilbert touch on a handful here and there, but not the all-timers, the ones everyone knows: Vitameatavegamin, stomping the grapes, the chocolates on the conveyor belt, etc. I didn't expect an episode guide, but these were the moments that helped build the legend. Otherwise, I liked Desilu. Seeing the specifics of Lucy & Desi's relationship, the tension as well as the passion, was quite moving, especially towards the end. Theirs was a rare and unique love.


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Related:
The girl from Stage 12
The Long Long Trailer
Forever Darling

Previously:

Tracy and Hepburn
Groucho

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jolly Good Fun: England's 'Carry On' films

The British Invaders Blogathon is an event dedicated to films made and/or produced in Great Britain, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Somewhere in-between the absurd verbosity of Monty Python and the bawdy sexual hijinks of Benny Hill lie the "Carry On" films, a film franchise almost sixty years old, mostly unknown in America but adored in its native Great Britain. 31 films and counting, from 1958-92 (plus assorted television and theatrical spin-offs), they were all produced and directed by the team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, respectively, made at Pinewood Studios, the birthplace of the cinematic James Bond, workplace for such legendary British directors as Laurence Olivier, David Lean and Powell & Pressberger, and launching pad for film franchises such as Superman, Alien, Star Wars and The Hobbit.


Carry On Sergeant
It all began in 1958 with the low-budget (£70,000) army comedy Carry On Sergeant, based on a play and adapted by Norman Hudis, who would go on to write five more films in the Carry On series. Think Bill Murray's Stripes with a British flavor (or should I say, flavour). The title was a spin on an earlier film called Carry On Admiral. Sergeant went on to become the third-highest British moneymaker for 1958. Here's more about the film from a fan.

With the advent of the Swinging Sixties, the movies started to reflect the changing mores and took on a naughtier bent, reveling in innuendo, double entendres, and of course, pretty girls showing lots of skin. The movies depicted either aspects of contemporary British life, or were period pieces of some sort, usually from a blue-collar point of view.


Carry On Dick
In time, Rogers and Thomas used certain actors again and again, and a Carry On repertory of sorts was formed, featuring players such as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacques, Terry Scott, Bernard Bresslaw, Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Jim Dale. Many of them appear in the 1998 documentary What's a Carry On?

I watched three Carry On movies for this post: Carry On Camping, Carry On Abroad and Carry On Columbus. Of these three, I think I liked Abroad best: a bunch of vacationers go to this foreign country but are forced to stay in an unfinished hotel. While the staff goes nuts trying to keep the place in one piece, the residents get to know each other and start bed-hopping.


Naturally, the sex stuff is tame by today's standards, but it's still amusing to see these broadly-drawn characters interact. I remember watching The Love Boat as a kid and having a general sense of what the adults on the show were up to, though of course you could only do so much on television. I think if some of the restraints had been lifted, the result might resemble Abroad. In either case, the humor relies on the chemistry of the actors and their willingness to be bawdy in the name of comedy.


Carry On Loving
Camping was in a similar vein, only set at a camping park for RVs. I thought that one had some gentler character moments as well. Columbus was a spoof of Christopher Columbus, not unlike a Mel Brooks movie. I liked how the Indians saw Columbus and his men as rubes and tried to con them. Overall, I thought the films were okay; a pleasant way to spend time, but nothing particularly exciting, either. I didn't connect with them the way I would with, say, a Kevin Smith movie.

Last year, it was announced that the franchise was being revived, with fresh writers but without any of the familiar faces from the previous incarnation that are still alive. Whether they'll succeed as well in a more politically-correct 21st-century environment remains to be seen, but they have a chance to attract a wider international audience as well, especially depending on casting. It might be worth keeping an eye on.

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Other British-produced films (an abbreviated list):
Brief Encounter
Attack the Block
The 39 Steps
Happy-Go-Lucky
The Gorgon

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The link tower

Been feeling a little blue recently. Jen had to leave my writing group, for personal reasons. She was easily the best friend I had made in two and a half years with the group. Going home, we'd ride the train together. That's how I learned she was a classic film fan. I've met her husband, I've gone to her parties, she came to my bookstore reading. I've even confided in her, on several occasions. I'm gonna miss her.

She and I were the group's moderators, along with this other girl named Claire (who is also terrific). All this year we've lost people who were regulars for months, even years. The group has been smaller, on average, as a result, so Claire and I decided we don't need to name a new moderator at the moment. Still, I kinda feel some added pressure. I did not expect to run the group for as long as I have; it was one of those situations where I took the job because someone had to do it, and I've done it to the best of my ability. 

Now that I'm closer to the end of the first draft of my novel, though, I'm thinking maybe I should switch to a smaller group of beta readers from that point on. I don't wanna run the group indefinitely, and with Jen officially gone, some of my motivation to do so went with her. I'll stick around for now, but I may be next out the door before too long.

The weather on the Fourth wasn't the greatest, so Sandi and me had dinner at this parkside restaurant near the East River and watched the fireworks from her place again. She actually has a great view of them. She kept oohing and aahing excitedly at every little display, as if she had never seen fireworks before. It was the most worked up I had ever seen any adult get over them in perhaps, ever! It was cute.

So chances are you might have heard about this new thing going around called the Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. From what I understand, it's kinda like my monthly link posts, only people get to host a "link party" on their blogs or some such. I'm not entirely sure I grok it all, but Paddy let me in on it, I submitted a post and it got accepted, so thanks to all involved. Nice to be on the receiving end for a change.

Your links:

Debbie reexamines the Disney/Lucas deal, five years later.

Paddy swoons for Errol Flynn as Don Juan.

The death of horror director George Romero prompts Jennifer to reflect on the summer she became a film fan.

I disagree with her assessment of War for the Planet of the Apes, but Jacqueline's story about going to the drive-in is still worth a look.

And then there was the time they encoded a movie onto living DNA.

Ava DuVernay's next film will be an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time - for an important reason.

What does Christopher Nolan have against Netflix?

What was Romero's favorite film? (It's not what you think.)

Remember when Planet of the Apes was on TV?

Joan Crawford wrote a style book called My Way of Life.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary [sic]
IFC viewing

I didn't really think Pet Sematary was gonna be that good a movie, but I had hoped it might be, solely on the basis of its awesome theme song. I was mistaken; it sucks, although it does have its unintentionally funny moments, including an epic Big No scene.

I'll have more to say about Stephen King next month when I write about The Dark Tower; for now, I'll say this: I respect him as a storyteller, someone who has been doing for decades what I'm still struggling to do once - write a novel - and making it look easy, but this just wasn't that scary. I doubt it was that scary in 1989, when it was released - and he wrote the screenplay.

Plus, it kinda rips off The Shining: family moves to someplace new because Dad's got a new job; child has precognitive visions of impending doom; older character acts as mentor figure to child, eventually gets killed; wife is useless; supernatural/imaginary being seen by only one character; crazy father stalks son/crazy son stalks father. I suppose when you've been writing for as long as King has, you're bound to repeat certain themes, but still.



Let's talk about Denise Crosby. As you know, she left Star Trek: The Next Generation after one season to pursue better roles. Her character was killed off. In a 2012 interview, she makes it clear she was "miserable" on the show:
...[Leaving] was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many episodes, but I didn't want to spend the next six years going "Aye aye, captain," and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years.
I believe Crosby would have had opportunities to do more on the show had she opted to stick it out, but that's with the benefit of hindsight. By many accounts, the first season of TNG was difficult on multiple levels. Few could have guessed where it would lead. Crosby came back to TNG, of course, in spectacular fashion: dying a second time and reappearing in a recurring role as her own, half-Romulan daughter! (You can do that sort of thing in sci-fi.)



I'm afraid I haven't seen her in much non-Trek material. I saw her in Deep Impact; she was good in that. She's mostly stuck to television over the years; perhaps you've seen her recently in Mad Men, Scandal, The Walking Dead and Ray Donovan, among others. To be honest, I wouldn't rank her among the greatest actresses I've ever seen, but credit where credit's due: she has sustained a career doing way more than genre work.



Crosby doesn't have much to do in Pet Sematary other than be the wife. She gets one big scene where her character talks about her childhood with her disabled sister. It sounded like two different takes were put together, one in which she's crying and another where she's somewhat calmer. The difference is just enough to be noticeable. It kinda threw me out of the scene. One wonders what the story behind that was. Perhaps it's explained in the new making-of documentary!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Dunkirk
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

Dunkirk's place in world history isn't something generally taught in American schools; at least, it wasn't taught to me. Wikipedia says the French town is actually a commune, which is like a township. In 1940, during World War 2, the British army was stuck there, having been cut off by Germany, so they had to get out by sea. Winston Churchill put the call out to any and every available boat to come to Dunkirk and help get the soldiers the hell out of Dodge, and they came - over 900 vessels that evacuated over 300,000 troops.

I first became aware of this event through - you guessed it - the movies. One of the highlights of the superb movie Atonement is a roughly-five-minute sequence depicting the Dunkirk evacuation that, in itself, was pretty memorable. Director Joe Wright filmed it as one long tracking shot, following James McAvoy through the beach, amidst the British troops preparing to leave. Atonement isn't a war movie, but this scene definitely sticks out in the memory. (That and Keira Knightley in that green dress.)



Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk obviously gets to do much more with the event, and he does plenty: aerial combat, sinking ships, grim-faced officers, baby-faced soldiers, acts of selfishness, acts of valor, all within an original screenplay by Nolan light on dialogue but still heavy on drama.



Visually speaking, this film is breathtaking. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema goes above and beyond in getting not just beautiful but unique images, on land, sea and air, that belong on a big screen. Editor Lee Smith pieces it all together in a way that maximizes suspense while balancing the multiple storylines, a Nolan trademark.



All this said, I appreciated Dunkirk more than I loved it. Maybe it was because I arrived a few minutes late again (still not used to Cinemart actually starting their movies on time, unlike most multiplexes), but I had some trouble distinguishing certain characters, determining relationships, figuring out why x was doing y. I also found the characters a little too minimal. I found it hard to care about them beyond a surface level. I even dozed off here and there.



It's more than a little surprising to see a war movie do as well as this one has during the summer months, but then, it is also a Nolan movie, and at this point in time, he seems to have the Midas touch. I appreciate his commitment to working with celluloid in a digital age, to making films meant to be seen in theaters, not on iPhones. Dunkirk is a movie that will be analyzed by future filmmakers for its meticulous attention to craft. I just wished I liked it a little better.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


War for the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

Six years ago, 20th Century Fox mounted an Oscar campaign for Andy Serkis, for his digitally-enhanced, performance-capture supporting role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He didn't get nominated, in part because the whole concept of p-cap was still relatively new and not completely understood. In an assessment of his chances, I said roles like his, and that of Zoe Saldana in Avatar, are only going to increase, and a point would come when they'd be hard to ignore come Oscar time.

Ever since, we've seen franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hobbit, The Avengers and Star Wars employ p-cap technology, among other films, but it's Serkis and his character Caesar that, I believe, remains the most memorable, partially because it doesn't involve robots or dragons or aliens, but something real and familiar, apes - but mostly because the humanity of the character comes through so clearly. After awhile you forget Caesar is something that can't exist in real life; you see the things he does and you accept him on his own terms. That's because of Serkis.

Will that mean any kind of awards recognition, however? In War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment of the Apes saga, Serkis and the wizards of WETA Digital continue Caesar's evolution as the ape-human war escalates into a struggle for survival. 


Director/co-writer Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, portrays Caesar as both Jesus and Moses. The metaphor isn't subtle, but I can accept that. He understands the meaning of self-sacrifice in the name of his people, yet he and his lieutenants are also capable of compassion and empathy towards innocents, like the human girl they encounter. (It didn't take long for me to figure out who she becomes. If you think about it, the answer is obvious to anyone who saw the '68 original.)


WETA is outstanding. The landscapes of Avatar were digital; WETA went one step further by taking the p-cap suit and bringing it outdoors, away from the studio. Throughout all three prequels, they render Caesar and his ape army within a variety of natural locations, in all kinds of weather, day and night, and you are never less than completely convinced of their reality.


War injects some welcome humor into the story. The talking, clothes-wearing chimp Caesar and company meet skirts near Jar Jar territory, but never crosses that line, thank Zod. He's not as cloying, nor as desperate for attention, and he's actually useful. Plus, there's a thread of sadness through him that gives him a gravity Jar Jar thoroughly lacked.


Will all this add up to major Oscar recognition - beyond the technical awards, that is? Due to the critical and commercial success War has received so far, I could see a possible Best Picture nomination, but Serkis for Best Actor would signal a seismic shift in the way roles like his, and films like this, are regarded. I think it's more possible now than it was in 2011 - but it's way too soon to tell. Ask me again in December.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Rebecca

The Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon is an event studying murder in movie marriages, hosted by Cinemaven's Essays From the Couch. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Rebecca
from my DVD collection

As a movie about murdering spouses, Rebecca is a bit of a cheat, since the "murder" happens prior to the beginning. We know now that Hitchcock had to change the ending of Daphne du Maurier's book to appease the censors - Laurence Olivier only thought about killing Rebecca for having another man's baby; her death was an accident (yeah, right!) - but most people agree this is still a compelling movie.



According to the Criterion DVD liner notes, Du Maurier was less than thrilled with Hitchcock as the choice of director, because she didn't believe he'd stick with her original story, yet she turned down the opportunity to write the screenplay herself. Producer David O. Selznick was determined to keep the story as is, but the Production Code specifically stated murderers had to pay for their crime - hence the revision.

Hitch wasn't all that satisfied with the finished product, but for different reasons. He wanted Margaret Sullavan as the nameless protagonist; Selznick, after a long tryout, went with the relative newcomer Joan Fontaine. Hitch came to like her eventually, but he had to coach her a lot. Plus, members of the crew were snitching behind his back to Selznick. Hitch also was dissatisfied with what he felt was a lack of humor in the screenplay, although there's certainly a little bit, like in the early scenes with Fontaine's governess. As the director told Francois Truffaut years later,"[Rebecca] has held up quite well over the years. I don't know why."



The day I re-watched the movie was a full and slightly unusual one. I chose to watch it with Vija at her place, but before that, I had spent the day out in Long Island. I had a yen to spend the day someplace I had never been to before; I wanted to go upstate again, but I knew I wouldn't have had as much time. The seaside town of Long Beach was closer. They have a beautiful beach and boardwalk.

I went to a donut shop I had read about, but it was on the opposite end of town, a long walk from where I was. This might not have been so bad, except halfway there, it rained. Hard. I had to rush back to the train station in a downpour under my tiny umbrella, clutching the bag with my box of donuts, my feet soaked in my shoes from all the puddles.



Fast forward to Vija's place in the city. She had opened the occasion up to our movie-going group. Susan came, whom I hadn't seen in awhile. She enjoyed playing with Vija's cat. The DVD player was a second-hand gift from Franz, only he neglected to mention how second-hand it was. While it worked okay when we watched Lust for Life (despite the scratchy disc), here it chose to act up.

Vija had to fiddle with the wires and controls just to get the main menu. The disc played for awhile, but then the player stopped cold at the worst possible moment: right when Olivier was about to tell Fontaine the truth about how Rebecca died! This time, no amount of fiddling worked - and my DVD was stuck inside the player, unable to come out! If Franz had been there, I would've made him pay for my DVD! As for the movie, I had to tell Vija and Susan the ending by reading it off of Wikipedia.



But that's not all! We talked for awhile, and eventually Susan and I left. I walked to nearby Penn Station and bought a LIRR ticket home. Right after I did that, Vija called to tell me she got the player working again! I had about another forty minutes until my train departed, so I rushed back to her place to get my DVD. As I did, I got another call - from Sandi, back from her vacation. We talked for a little bit, made plans to get together on the Fourth, right as I arrived at Vija's place again.

She wanted to watch a little more of the movie, so we did. We got as far as the inquisition scene, in which Olivier is questioned about his marriage to Rebecca and Fontaine faints. Then I had to catch my train. At least I got my DVD back!


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Other movies about homicidal spouses (an abbreviated list):
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Double Indemnity
Gaslight
Mildred Pierce

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sabrina (1954)

Sabrina (1954)
seen @ Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, Bryant Park, New York NY

I had always thought of Sabrina as a romantic comedy, but there's not a lot of comedy in the movie. For the most part, it plays like a straight love triangle story: very wistful, very angsty. Audrey pines for Holden, Bogey pines for Audrey. Why was it that Audrey's romantic leads were always so much older: Bogey, Peck, Cooper, Grant? I would've liked to have seen her with someone like Monty Clift, or Warren Beatty - but so it goes.

I find it a little hard to believe Audrey could be so dead set against going to Paris in the beginning, although it's not so much Paris as what it represents: two years away from Holden, living a life she didn't ask for. When she comes back, though, she's a changed woman, in looks and spirit. Old movies were fond of mystifying the City of Lights in this way. 

Andi talks about Paris, and Europe in general, so much. I know she had a boyfriend over there, learned the language, absorbed the culture, but try as I might, it's kinda tricky for me to imagine her as having undergone a Sabrina-like transformation. Maybe it's because I met her later in life, after she had readjusted to living in America again; maybe it's because she strikes me as more of a traditional, working class Noo Yawker than Sabrina - who for all of the class differences espoused in the movie between her and the Larrabee brothers, still can't help being Audrey Hepburn!


I was about the same age as Sabrina when I went to Barcelona, but that was for only a month. If I had spent two years there, I imagine I'd be quite different. The one year I spent in Ohio changed me enough! Europe, though... We Americans fought a revolution to liberate ourselves from it and in a way, we've been longing to return to it ever since, in one form or another.


I went to Bryant Park to see Sabrina, although watching an outdoor movie there is not the best experience in the world, because I really wanted to watch this movie again. As before, I noticed a number of people videotaping scenes on their cell phones. Why? Is it only because it's an outdoor movie? If they were inside a theater, it would be a crime (I'm not entirely sure this is all that legal, either). What do they do with these recordings, besides post them on social media?


I can understand using your cell to record a minute or two of a concert. While that's probably illegal too, I get that it's a live, unique experience that can never be perfectly duplicated and some people want to preserve that moment. A movie isn't live, though. Granted, the novelty of a movie shown outdoors is special, but the movie itself is no different than if you were watching it on DVD at home. I could even get behind taking a photo of the outdoor screen to show that, y'know, you were there - but recording a minute or two of the film on video makes no sense to me.

I watched it on the rear perimeter of the lawn, standing up. I had a seat on the left-hand side of the perimeter, but by the time the movie started, too many people were standing in my line of sight; plus, too many others were coming and going in front of me. I think I may opt to stand at Bryant Park for a movie from now on. I had no obstructed views, and it kept me awake.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Books: Groucho

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.

Groucho Marx was a film legend whose fame transcended the movies. The ones he made with his brothers - Chico, Harpo and Zeppo - are hilarious, anarchic and witty; live-action cartoons that follow no rules save their own. Like many great comedians, though, Groucho lived quite a different life off-screen.


Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer chronicles that life in substantial detail. We meet his stage mother Minnie, who pushed all five of her sons into a life in vaudeville before they had a chance to fully mature. We follow the ups and downs of Groucho's career on stage, film and television, both as a Marx Brother and solo. We witness the funnyman's three marriages, to women he dominated yet couldn't live without, and the three children who grew up with issues of their own because of their father's mercurial behavior. We acknowledge Groucho the intellectual, hobnobbing with literary big shots, writing plays, essays, books. Finally, we see Groucho, in his twilight years, grow entirely dependent on a woman more than half his age who may have taken advantage of his goodwill for purposes of her own.


The portrait Kanfer paints of Groucho is of a man who missed out on childhood and spent the rest of his life making up for it, in which Groucho the character - iconoclastic, puckish, irreverent - became more important than Julius Henry Marx the man. His mother was never completely satisfied with him, which could explain his impaired relationships with any woman who wasn't Margaret Dumont. He tried to goad his children into show biz, like he was goaded by his mother. Late in life he was blind - perhaps willfully so - to the machinations of someone who said she loved him, but alienated him from friends and family and made him perform to order.

While this is a well-written and highly informative biography, a part of me almost wishes I hadn't read it. The tale of Groucho's life is tragic in many places. The image of the sad clown is a cliché, but it contains truth: comedians often use laughter to hide deep pain.


Stefan Kanfer
Groucho wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his mom, herself the daughter of entertainers, wanted something different for him and his brothers. She went to extraordinary lengths to get her way. Although her path led to fame and fortune for Groucho, a part of him always resented her because he could never completely please her; a relationship which set a pattern for everything that followed. Still, it's a fascinating book; well worth the read for anyone who ever enjoyed a Marx Brothers movie.

I bought Groucho used. Once again, signs of the previous owner are apparent: there are some notes written on the sides of the pages, some which correct an error made by Kanfer, others which supplement what he wrote. These are very few, perhaps four or five, all in the first half.

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Previously:
Tracy and Hepburn

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bug

Bug
Cinemax viewing

Everybody remembers William Friedkin as the director of two of the biggest hit films of the 70s, The French Connection and The Exorcist. He was one of the "new Hollywood" breed from that pivotal era, the ones who rewrote the rules of American cinema. In Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin describes the moment he met director Howard Hawks, after the younger filmmaker had made the gay melodrama The Boys in the Band. Hawks, Old Hollywood and macho to the core, had criticized Friedkin for making such a somber, dramatic movie instead of something with more action:
...Hawks's words did matter to Friedkin. "They really stayed with me," he recalls. "I would have embarked on a course of having made obscure Miramax type films before Miramax. But I had this epiphany that what we were doing wasn't making fucking films to hang in the Louvre. We were making films to entertain people and if they didn't do that first they didn't fulfill their primary purpose. It's like somebody gives you a key and you didn't even know there was a lock; it led to The French Connection."
It was an approach that had worked for him for a time. A life of excess, however, led to ambitious projects that failed at the box office, and Friedkin's career was never the same.



Over thirty years later, Friedkin teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts, to adapt his play Bug. The result was more of a "Miramax type film" (it was actually made at Lionsgate), meaning - if I interpret this correctly - heavy on the drama, B-level stars at best, narrower distribution.

Does that equal obscure in this case? Bug opened domestically on 1661 screens in May 2007. By way of contrast, Spider-Man 3, which opened the same month, played on 4252 screens. As for Miramax itself, they released the French drama Golden Door on two screens in June, while Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men opened on 28 screens in November, so Bug actually had a much wider release than the average Miramax movie. I think, though, Friedkin may have referred to content instead of distribution.



Regardless, this was an awesome movie. Ashley Judd plays a waitress living in a motel room, trying to avoid her ex-con ex-husband. She meets a pre-fame Michael Shannon, who's also trying to put his past behind him, only in his case, it's much worse. When his personal demons are brought to the surface, they infect Judd in a profound way. Revealing any more would spoil the story.

Bug doesn't resemble any of Friedkin's other work visually; it looks modern. Perhaps because it's a play, there are fewer cuts; we linger on the actors in longer takes, a refreshing contrast to many modern films. I never thought of Friedkin as an actor's director - he is the guy who nearly crippled Ellen Burstyn just to get a genuine reaction from her on camera - but he gets Oscar-caliber performances from Judd and Shannon. Much of the action takes place in Judd's motel room, but it doesn't feel too stagey.



According to Riders, Friedkin was afraid of being labeled an art film director. When Connection took off, making big money and winning Oscars, he embraced commercialism. Bug made a little over $7 million from an estimated $4 million budget. Granted, the 21st century economics of American film are substantially different from the 70s, but with this film, it does look like Friedkin reembraced his original aesthetic.

Bug wraps themes of paranoia and conspiracy within an unconventional love story, one with a downer ending - not the kind of movie audiences flock to the way they did for The Exorcist, and certainly not the kind of which Hawks would have approved. I suspect, though, that Friedkin no longer cared.