December 26, 2010

My movie-related resolutions

Let me preface this by saying that I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. They're doomed to fail because you're picking an essentially arbitrary date to change something in your life. If you have not been able to make that thing happen previously due to any combination of guilt, rewards, punishment or ambition, then a day on a calendar isn't going to do jack. So really, the following are just movie-related goals that, due to the year being nearly over, I will almost certainly accomplish next year.  

- I need to see The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. I have no excuse. My boyfriend owns it, even. I realize that not having done so makes me a wretched human being unfit to interact with most of society. But I want to make amends! Let's set this right!

- I would like to continue my exploration of Westerns, a genre I had previously avoided whether intentionally or not. I've made good progress this year, seeing essentials like Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Once Upon a Time in the West, Red River and Unforgiven. With those down, I have more room to "play" and explore lesser-known Westerns that appeal to me. Shane and The Wild Bunch still loom over me unseen, though.

- I'm afraid I've been rather Eurocentric in my exploration of foreign films, but this year I dipped my toes into Kurosawa and knocked out some of the biggies (Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Ran). Ikiru didn't really work for me, but it encouraged me to seek out more Kurosawa with a modern setting, so I'm going to make Stray Dog, Drunken Angel, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low priorities in 2011. Also Ugetsu - not a Kurosawa but an Asian classic I need to see.

- This year, for the first time in my life, I achived the dream of getting Turner Classic Movies. It's been fantastic. However, since it was a prized commodity that we would have for a potentially limited time, it took priority over other ways of viewing films - notably Netflix Instant. I want to make more use of that feature in the coming year (which shouldn't be difficult, since they're trying to switch to an all-streaming format) because they have all kinds of great stuff. That said, we'll probably get TCM again at the first possible opportunity!

- I need to see Tootsie and Harold and Maude. Progress has been slow in this arena because my boyfriend doesn't want to see these films but feels that he must, and somehow responsibility for making this happen fell on me. He said I need that I hold him hostage and use all kinds of bullying and threats to force him to watch them (and I can't watch them by myself because then he'll NEVER see them). Needless to say, that's not a very appealing proposition, so we've hit a stalemate. Hopefully there is a peaceful resolution to this in the future. (LOVE YOU BABE!)

- As detailed in a couple of earlier posts, I have been working on seeing all the films that everyone but me saw in their youth. I've made good progress this year, but Raiders of the Lost Ark (well, all Indiana Jones movies) and Return of the Jedi still elude me.

- I've missed going to repertory screenings this year, since I lived in a city that had very few of them (Portland, OR). But after my move to the City of Angels in the new year, I plan to absolutely gorge myself on the repertory scene!

- My movie-watching guide is an ever-expanding Google Doc of several hundred titles I've collected over the years that I want to see. Its primary purpose is making sure I don't forget about any of them, but as an unfortunate byproduct I sometimes feel stressed that I'll never get to them all. This need to catch up on numerous decades of cinema history often pushes any desire to rewatch a film to the back burner, and consequently I'm pretty much a single-viewing gal. So in 2011, I will try to discover and indulge in the joys of the multiple viewing. (Is it a step forward or backward that a section of my list is "films to rewatch?")

What are your movie-related resolutions?

December 16, 2010

I'm goin' Hollywood!

I've given my notice at work, so now I can share the news without fear of it leaking - I'm moving to Los Angeles! I always swore I never would, but over time I was convinced that the normal people living there outnumbered the tanorexic Barbies and that there's a richer culture than there appears to be. This will be the fourth state I've lived in since August 2009 - I didn't plan on being so nomadic, but that's just how it worked out. I'm sure this will lend my posts an air of glamour, and I'll be reporting on my close friendships with the stars by about...a week after moving, would you say?

December 7, 2010

Cinematic rainbow!

Meme alert! A cinematic rainbow for a gloomy winter day! (As always, I have seen and can recommend all of these).

Red River (1948)
    A Clockwork Orange (1971)
        Golddiggers of 1933 (1933)
            The Night of the Hunter* (1955)
                The Moon is Blue (1953)
                    The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
                        Grey Gardens (1975)
                            Black Narcissus (1947)
                                The White Ribbon (2009)

* Hunter is totally a shade of green, you guys. What? The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern don't come out til next year. JUST LET ME HAVE MY RAINBOW, DAMMIT.

December 3, 2010

Favorite dance films

I absolutely love the art of dance. From the time I could walk, I was twirling and leaping. I had a brief stint of little-girl ballet, and then took up the discipline seriously at age 11 and continued through high school. Tough auditions and a lack of non-competitive opportunities at college forced me out of the sport, though I remained an ardent spectator. But dance shows are expensive, so when the art form is captured on celluloid I'm in hog heaven. In anticipation of the impending release of Darren Aronofsky's ballet horror freak-out Black Swan and in honor of the fact that dance just roolz, here are some of my favorite dance-themed or dance-centric films. To make things interesting, I'm going to assume that anyone remotely interested in this post has seen the "obvious" choices here (i.e. Singin' in the Rain, The Red Shoes, Fred and Ginger musicals). I have divided my picks into three somewhat ill-defined categories for your convenience.

The Biz - what it takes to be a pro

Limelight (1952) - People often forget that Charlie Chaplin had a career post-1940, and while it was hardly prolific he did produce a couple more gems, including this bittersweet showbiz story. Echoing A Star Is Born, it chronicles the friendship between a ballerina on the rise (Claire Bloom) and a vaudeville star on the decline (Chaplin). The final scene at the theater will have you reaching for the tissues, but also laughing - it's the only onscreen pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

The Band Wagon (1953) - Do you love film noir and musicals? Well, I have got news for you! It's not a film noir musical (though at least one exists for the stage), but rather the glorious "Girl Hunt Ballet" that serves as the big number in this film. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse slink through a 12-minute tour-de-force surrounded by trenchcoats, gats, and impossibly versatile sets. Aside from that, though, the film offers many other delights, such as the self-conscious mockery of Astaire's failing career, a zippy script by the crack team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (perhaps you're familiar with their work on a certain Singin' in the Rain?) and the leads' lovely pas-de-deux in the park.

The Turning Point (1977) - This film is now remembered mostly as a bit of Oscar trivia - it's tied with The Color Purple (1985) for the greatest amount of nominations (11) without any wins. That's a shame, because it's actually quite good and a real treat for dance fans. You have Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine turning in incredible performances as former rival ballerinas - their scenes together are an absolute feast for anyone who loves great actresses. You have dancer Leslie Browne as MacLaine's daughter, showcasing her wonderful talent. And you have Baryshnikov! Most of all, though, it's a thoughtful look at the inherent tragedy of an industry that pushes its stars into retirement at a relatively young age.

All That Jazz (1979) - There aren't a lot of death-obsessed musical auto-biopics out there, so I think it's pretty safe to say that this one reigns supreme. Director/choreographer Bob Fosse gives the audience a look at his troubled but incredibly fruitful life, from popping pills to creating masterpieces to sharing tender moments with his daughter. A lot of the dancing is incidental and casual, but there are two show-stopping numbers - a vaguely airplane-themed bit where the dancers are almost naked, and the final showdown with death that features women dressed as...aortas, I guess? Roy Scheider is terrific in the lead role, but you'll notice that he manages to avoid any real dancing himself!

Center Stage (2000) - Okay, full disclosure: I am in no position to objectively discuss this film's merit (or lack thereof, as the case may be). It came out around the time that I started dancing myself, and became inextricably intertwined with that part of my life. Everyone in dance class knew all the lines and quoted them frequently, and my ballet teacher borrowed liberally from its moves on more than one occasion. With the exception of Zoe Saldana (and bless her multi-talented soul), the dancers of the film are played by real dancers - aka not actors - so you're not exactly gonna find the next Brando here. But despite the uneven acting and the ludicrous and melodramatic plot, it always stays fun and funny - whether intentionally or unintentionally. And the dancing is fantastic and plentiful - from ballet to salsa to the knockout final number with a little bit of everything (including simulated dance sex!)

Talk to Her (2002) - You shouldn't need another reason to see Almodovar's universally acclaimed masterpiece, but for dance nuts it might interest you to know that one of the characters is an aspiring ballerina. It's hardly a focus of the film, but you do get rehearsal scenes, two beautiful and unconventional performances at the ballet, and a choreographer played by the inimitable Geraldine Chaplin (yes, daughter of Charlie).

I Just Wanna Dance! - dancing for funsies or narratively ignored reasons

The musicals of Stanley Donen that don't end in "Rain" (1949-1958) - While director Donen will probably be mostly remembered (dude's still alive!) for Singin' in the Rain, his other musicals deserve attention and praise too - and the man knows how to stage a dance number. I've previously expressed my affection for On The Town (1949), which in my opinion is nipping at SitR's heels in terms of quality and, like its more famous cousin, features an elaborate fantasy ballet conceived and executed by Gene Kelly (plus Ann Miller's incomparable tap dancing!). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) needs a boatload of charm to compensate for the fact that it essentially endorses kidnapping as a dating technique, and it delivers in spades with the mind-boggling "barn-raising" number. Funny Face (1957) teams Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire for a fun romp that features dancing of both the dreamily classical and brashly modern variety. And The Pajama Game (1957) boasts not only Doris Day, but the sultry "Steam Heat" and absolutely bonkers "Once-a-Year Day" sequences. I still haven't seen all of Donen's musicals, but I'm inclined to say that you can't really go wrong.

My Sister Eileen (1955 - not to be confused with the 1942 non-musical version) - I found myself pleasantly surprised when I recorded this on TCM earlier this year. Janet Leigh and Rosalind Russell star as sisters coming to New York to make it big, and while that setup has been exploited infinite times this incarnation is fresh, funny, and sweet. On hand to play their paramours are a young Jack Lemmon and a young Bob Fosse, who also provides choreography and dances a springy, effortless interlude. But if that's too highbrow for you, there's also a huge conga line at the end.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - It would appear that director Jacques Demy appropriated my fantasy of life being a happy dancey musical, went back in time, and made it a film. In this candy-colored wonderland, people dance through the streets and sing their feelings, and besides the radiant Catherine Deneuve we also have none other than Gene Kelly himself (speaking fluent French and still moving marvelously at age 55!). The songs are infectious and while the dancing by the leads is rather light, Demy packs the Rochefort town square full of extras to pull of some big numbers.

Sweet Charity (1969) - It always comes back to Fosse. Bob directed this adaptation of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, starring Shirley MacLaine as the titular girl who just wants to be loved. MacLaine, trained as a dancer, is a joy as always, as are the quintessentially Fosse "Rich Man's Frug" number and the awesome psychadelic "Rhythm of Life" with Sammy Davis Jr.

Forever Fever aka That's the Way I Like It (1998) - Okay, tough guy who's been smirking through this post thinking all my choices are obvious, I raise you this DISCO MOVIE FROM SINGAPORE! I watched it in an Asian Cinema class, and although it might have just been due to relief that it wasn't another morbid or disturbing film like everything else in that class, it was a real crowd pleaser. It's a quasi-adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, in which John Travolta's character from that film steps out of the screen and serves as a disco mentor to dorky Hock. Yeah, it's a bit silly, but it's got killer moves, some serious subplots, and it's always interesting to explore the popular entertainment and culture of a lesser-known country (although the film is in English, one of Singapore's two official languages).

Hairspray (2007) - I'm sure most people are aware of this film...but are they aware of how downright awesome it is? Even though musicals are still being made, most of them are afraid to plunge headfirst into the classical tradition - they'll use pop songs instead of showtunes and create logical reasons for anyone to be singing and dancing. But Hairspray just GOES there. A fantastic ensemble cast shines down to the smallest part, the songs are groovy, the dancing is retro-wonderful and John Travolta in drag isn't quite as disturbing as you'd think. A film about integration on an "American Bandstand"-type show shouldn't be this fun, but I think it would be right at home in MGM's Golden Age.


Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (2002) - What makes this documentary great is that it not only gives a thorough account of Kelly's life and career, but it really probes his technique and creative process. Despite being a fervent admirer of Kelly for some time, I didn't quite realize how relentlessly innovative he was when it came to dance on screen, and how hard he pushed to integrate dance with the story and emotional arcs of the characters. And of course, it'll have you queueing up his movies like crazy!

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) - Ignore the abysmal title that denotes bargain-bin horror - this is actually a silent film adaptation of a ballet adaptation of Dracula directed by Guy Maddin. If that sounds trippy - well, it is. Maddin evokes the look of a highly stylized silent film (but with more cutting) to film this hallucinogenic combination of cinema and ballet (but on sets, not a stage). It's like nothing you've seen before - and I mean that as a compliment.

La danse (2009) - There are two very niche audiences for this minimalistic three-hour documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet - serious dance aficionados (like myself) and those who are endlessly fascinated by watching people practicing their trade (like my boyfriend). There's no interviews, intertitles, or narration - just footage of the company preparing a season of shows and snippets of the resulting performances. It's an unprecedented look inside possibly the best ballet company in the world, and if you've got the stamina for it, it can be a very rich experience.

What are your favorite dance movies?

November 23, 2010

Black Friday, Harold Lloyd style

As I was watching this scene from Safety Last! (1923), I couldn't help but notice the parallels to Black Friday shopping madness and was reminded why I feel no need to participate. Enjoy!

November 17, 2010

De-Coding films

I just finished reading the fantastic 1958 novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Often cited as a possible progenitor of "Mad Men," it chronicles the hardships and personal entanglements of working girls in 50s Manhattan. It sounds like fluffy chick lit, but instead it's a thoughtful and well-written exploration of how the gender roles and social mores of the time doomed women who strayed from the proper path. I knew before I started reading it that there had been a 1959 film adaptation, but as I read on I started to wonder what small percentage of the novel could be transferred to a 1950s screen.

Yes, folks, the Production Code - everybody's favorite Hollywood censorship doctrine and a subject of personal fascination - was still in full swing. In adapting a story focused primarily on the matters of infidelity, premarital sex, marital dissatisfaction, unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, obsession, and serious critique of a woman's role in mid-century America, what could you preserve? Very little, if the synopses of the film are any indication. It glosses over everything that gives the novel weight - spouses are conveniently removed, the abortion becomes a miscarriage, sex becomes attempted sex, all moral ambiguity is eliminated and at the end of the day, it emphasizes that all women should just be wives and mothers. It's an adaptation of the book only so far as a ransom note comprised of magazine letters is an adaptation of that magazine. True, I haven't seen the film, but there's nothing really motivating me to do so.

Now, unsatisfactory film adaptations happen all the time. But they are the result of deliberate decisions, not mandatory excisions. The film was the way it was because the filmmakers literally had no choice. And that bums me out, because I feel that a faithful adaptation of the book would really be something special. Of course someone could always make another version, perhaps piggybacking on the success of "Mad Men," but the opportunity to tell the full story from the unique vantage point of the era in which it takes place is unfortunately gone.

The degree to which the Code interfered with a film's effectiveness was widely varied. The fact that any of James Cagney's gangsters had to die at the end of the film was an awkward add-on, but didn't change the fact that until that point he could be as gloriously sadistic and violent as he wanted to be. It was still a gangster picture that delivered all the proper thrills of the genre. But with something like The Best of Everything, the fabric of the story is fundamentally altered, and in trying to adapt a bestseller they neutered everything that made it so.

I know it's impossible, but it would be amazing to see a "de-Coded" version of The Best of Everything from its own time. So think hard and share your filmic fantasies: what films would you like to see de-Coded? (Reminder: the Code was in effect from 1934 until a slow death in the mid-60s.) And I realize that you can't miss what you never knew should have been there, so most of these cases of longing will happen in adaptations of some sort.

November 16, 2010

Unusual endorsements of the classic stars

For as long as celebrities have existed, they've been hawking products to the public. The integration of sponsors into TV or radio programs further blurred the line between advertising and entertainment, so it was quite common to see a top box office star promoting something. Most often it was cigarettes, with beauty and hygiene products a close second. They're glamorous and fun - I have a Chesterfield (cigarette brand) ad with Rita Hayworth hanging on my wall. But in browsing the great site Vintage Ads and Stuff, I came across some odd ducks - famous faces lending themselves to ads for unexpected products, or some ads that are just downright strange. I thought I'd share some of my favorites. If you like what you see, I should note that the thousands of ads seen on the aforementioned website are originals available for sale (mostly at under $5 a pop!). Click any image to enlarge.

Joan Crawford for Fleers Gum - it's kind of hard to read, but it seems like Joan has a personality test to determine if you're a good person, and you should buy gum, and those are unrelated thoughts.

Arlene Francis for The Wallpaper Council (!) - I'm thinking about making "Wallpaper is smart!" my catchphrase.

Zsa Zsa Gabor for Paper-Mate - Sex sells...pens?

Susan Hayward for Sunsweet Prunes - Ms. Hayward is a beguiling young lady with a lovely figure, but despite the claims of the text on this I don't think she maintains it by having a GIANT BOWL OF PRUNES for lunch on set.

Bob Hope for Texaco - Just Old Ski Nose relaxing at home with a cold glass of sponge. And ya know, I never questioned Texaco's competence at doing their job until they placed an ad to convince me...

William Bendix for the American Meat Institute (?!) - "On the air for MEAT!"

Sammy Davis Jr. for Alka-Seltzer - No words.

Joan Blondell for Auto-Lite - Both Joan and Auto-Lite spark plugs have rhythm and perfect performance! That's probably better for Joan than saying that the spark plugs are cheap and easy to use.

A couple of Woody Allen ads for Smirnoff - before Scarlett, before Mia, before Diana, there was Smirnoff.

November 9, 2010

Documentary subject matter vs. quality

Recently, I saw two of the most buzzed-about documentaries of the year, Waiting for "Superman" and Inside Job. Despite the extremely urgent and pertinent subject matter (education and the financial collapse, respectively) and the universal critical praise, why did I find the net result to be rather underwhelming?

While some might grumble that narrative films about wars or social issues get a lot more love at Oscar time, the disparity becomes jacked up so much in the documentary world that a nonfiction film can coast on its subject alone. In an article over at Cinematical earlier this year, Christopher Campbell notes that despite its worthy topic, he found the documentary Food Inc. to be downright mediocre. He claims that "the majority ignored the problems with its storytelling, editing and narrowness of testimony because they favored the cause," and offered excerpts from critics who were essentially unable to defend the film on its own merits but just kept stressing that people should see it. Despite the opportunities offered by the cinematic medium, he concludes that the film offered nothing beyond the book on which it was based.

Now, I will say that making a documentary about an issue as opposed to a specific person, group or event poses great challenges. Do you include lots of facts and figures? Interviews with experts, the common man, or both? What stance do you take? These questions have no right answers, but with Inside Job and Waiting for "Superman" I can't help but feel that something was wrong about the approach.

WfS must be making serious bank off the guilt of the privileged and insulated, because the chatter in the ladies' room afterwards seemed to indicate certain viewers' lack of awareness of the state of American education. Listen, I don't expect everyone to know the details and statistics, but as far as I'm concerned knowing that education here is awful is as basic as knowing that we went to war with Iraq. But I guess if everyone knew that, not as many people would be finding the film so eye-opening. As a way of demonstrating its point, the film follows a handful of students in different cities in their quest to escape the public school system and get into a private or charter school. I had trouble getting involved in these stories, because of the distance maintained by the constant reminder that the education of these kids isn't what's really at stake, but they're Representative of a Larger Issue.

I also understand a documentary's desire to convey a specific stance, but even with my limited knowledge of the situation I know that nothing on earth is as binary and straightforward as the director, Davis Guggenheim, makes it out to be. Basically, the take-home message is that everything is the fault of the cackling, nefarious cults known as teachers' unions, and we just need to send all kids to charter schools because charter schools are perfect. But how convenient that all the charter schools they feature are excelling, which is not entirely representative of how they're actually faring nationwide. And how convenient that it's entirely the fault of the unions, and has nothing to do with politicians, government, parents, or anyone else. Look, I'm fine with biased documentaries, and if you're Michael Moore you're sure as hell going to leave out any information that hurts your cause. But if a film is urging reform, I think it's actually detrimental to say there's only a single cause and single solution. Why was there no mention, for instance, of Brockton High School, which went from performing dismally to outperforming most of the state by an aggressive implementation of literacy and writing lessons in every class, including gym? There was no government involvement, no unions got their feathers ruffled, it didn't cost a thing, and no personnel was shuffled. Did I mention that this was at a school with 4,100 students? Where's the documentary on that? I suppose that ultimately, this film can be galvanizing and startling to those who genuinely believe that the American education system is peachy. For everyone else, however, it's clunky and simplistic, and its likelihood of winning the Oscar because the voters feel guilty about sending their kids to private school bums me out.

Inside Job, conversely, could never conceivably be described as simplistic - it's a barrage of information that's actually pretty well organized. The problem, though, is that the movie has no exclusive information. Oh sure, there are plenty of interviews, but they don't offer anything new - economists and scholars reemphasize that they predicted the meltdown, and the fat cats squirm in the spotlight and act like nothing happened. All the information is already out there - frequently on the front page - making the film simply a synthesis. That's fine, I guess, but I tend to agree with critic Shawn Levy's assessment that it hasn't "been rendered in a way that's genuinely worth paying contemporary movie ticket prices to learn about." I couldn't help but wondering if it was really more of a TV special, something in the vein of 20/20 perhaps. Had it been produced and aired in that format, it probably would have reached a significantly wider audience. But instead they had Matt Damon narrate it, released it in theaters and cinched a Best Documentary nomination.

Look, I'm always glad when any form of media gets people talking, especially about issues and current events. I just don't think that should be confused with good filmmaking, and if the best-made documentary of the year is actually about a cute kitten with a funny hat, it should be recognized as such. What do you think? Does subject matter trump all? What was your reaction to these films?

October 28, 2010

Halloween picks for fellow Halloweenies

As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I will happily watch absolutely any genre except super-scary horror. For both scholarly and entertainment reasons I wish I could bear it, but despite a perfect tolerance of violence and suspense my overactive imagination goes into hyperdrive when viewing anything aggressively terrifying. A film like The Shining, The Exorcist or even more recent fare like the Saw films would leave me unable to sleep or function for several weeks. I have refused, however, to let this handicap impede me from enjoying a marathon of spookiness every Halloween, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite discoveries. I feel that movie weenies do not receive adequate support in this arena - any Google search for non-scary Halloween flicks just leads you down a path of family-friendly animated specials. So here's suggestions for my cinephile brethren who enjoy the mysterious and macabre, but don't derive pleasure out of being utterly petrified. (But don't think for a second that these films can't also be enjoyed by non-weenies!)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Oh hello, possible singlehanded launch of German Expressionism and inspiration for Tim Burton's entire career. If you like shadowy, lopsided sets with unusual angles and very unnatural-looking people (and who doesn't?), this one's for you. Full of twists and turns and years ahead of its time, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by skipping out on what some consider the film true horror film. And don't avoid it just because it's a silent film - it's short, sprightly and could give any number of talkies a run for their money.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) - The story has been filmed countless times, but I can only vouch for this version, which is regarded as (one of) the best. Fredric March is in fine form, winning a deserved Oscar for his dual performance. Miriam Hopkins is also a standout for her work as the prostitute Ivy, and their scenes together are incredibly risqué (gotta love that pre-Code era!). And let's not forget the transformation scenes - instead of taking the easy way out and cutting around it with timid camerawork, director Rouben Mamoulian employed a spinning 360-degree shot where the transformation happens progressively before our very eyes (and kept the mechanics of his technique a secret for decades).

The Old Dark House (1932) - As the title suggests, it's your classic oh-noes-our-car-broke-down-in-the-rain-let's-take-shelter-in-this-foreboding-mansion flick, but with a great  sense of humor and irreverence. The all-star cast includes Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey (among others) as the kooky/creepy residents of the house and its unfortunate but impeccably witty visitors.

The Invisible Man (1933) - Hard to believe, but Claude Rains' breakout role is one in which he's only momentarily visible. This being The Invisible Man, however, Rains is still very much the main character, and he takes viewers on a snappy and suspenseful ride. The special effects are still astoundingly good today, and I can't even fathom how they were able to create intricate interactions with all kinds of props and people.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - To be honest, I was pretty underwhelmed by the original Frankenstein (1931). It's certainly an important chapter in cinematic history, with some good moments and of course Boris Karloff's iconic performance, but it hasn't aged very well as entertainment. On the other hand we have the sequel, which somehow manages to be funny, sad, spooky, campy, and genuine all at once. Some people griped about Karloff's monster learning to speak (only up to about a caveman level), but I think it adds depth to each of the character's many facets - dryly humorous, lonely, destructive, monster, man. (And if you're wondering whether you can skip ahead to Bride without seeing the original, you'll be fine if you have even a totally basic understanding of the Frankenstein story.)

Cat People (1942) - Meow! I thoroughly enjoyed this feline flick, which is considered emblematic of producer Val Lewton's approach - high gloss on a low budget, implying things instead of showing them, and coating the whole affair in dark, dripping shadows. If the presence of 40s psychology, ancient Serbian curses, giant wildcats and bewitching actress Simone Simon doesn't sell you, then believe me when I say that director Jacques Torneur's manipulation of the suspenseful scenes honestly rivals prime Hitchcock.

Gaslight (1944) - No ghoulies or beasties here, but it's a shadowy Victorian thriller that chronicles a descent into madness. Ingrid Bergman nabbed an Oscar for her great leading performance, including a marvelous final scene, and she's ably supported by Charles Boyer, Angela Lansbury, and Dame May Whitty - not to mention a spooky house that seems to be turning on her. Director George Cukor proved himself to be just as skilled with Gothic chillers as with the urbane comedies he's known for.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Invasion flicks from the 50s that may or may not have symbolized fears of Communism are a dime a dozen, but this is arguably the definitive one. What sets it apart, I think, is that while many of its peers succumbed to hysteria and (perhaps unintentional) camp, IotBS keeps a pretty detached and serious approach despite its modest means. There are no giant ooky creatures, just plant pods that eventually turn into people identical to ones you know. There's no blood and guts, just a barely perceptible transformation into a high-functioning zombie. Very tense, taut, and effective. "You're next!"

Horror of Dracula (1958) - Eager to delve into the world of Hammer Horror, I started with one of their most famous titles and was not disappointed. With all due respect to the original Lugosi Dracula from 1931, that film - like the original Frankenstein - reads more as a historical artifact than entertainment (at least to me). Hammer's version has two major things going for it: sumptuous Technicolor and a lack of American prudishness. Thus we get to witness bold erotic undertones and gloriously bright red blood spurting out of the staked chests of numerous victims. The plot's pretty twisty too - the focus keeps shifting between characters, and I'm not sure that there's ever a definite protagonist. Plus, the ending kicks ass.

Cape Fear (1962) - Not exactly a horror movie, but Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is one of the most deliciously sinister villains ever, and the ominous lighting turns otherwise friendly suburbs and lakeside cabins into claustrophobic nightmares. But the scariest part is the well-exploited truth that police can't really protect you from a dangerous person swearing revenge until they actually strike, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the terrorized Bowden family.

The Raven (1963) - Roger Corman directs the holy horror trio of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price - plus an insanely young Jack Nicholson! And it's kind of a spoof comedy! All the fixings are here - dark castles, black magic, nefarious schemes - but with hammy performances and a hearty wink to the audience. You could probably even watch it with kids, if they're okay with the somewhat relaxed pace.

Plus a couple of recent picks:

Shaun of the Dead (2004) - Horror and comedy may seem like strange bedfellows, but it was a natural and common pairing in the 30s. Shaun rocks it like it never went out of style, combining the British comedy trifecta of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright for what was called a "romzomcom." It does get rather scary and even heartwrenching at times, but it's balanced well by the fantastically smart comedy and I'm sure most weenies can stomach it. Did I mention it's hilarious?

Zombieland (2009) - Another romzomcom (who would have thought that that phrase could have multiple applications?), but with a lighter tone than Shaun despite its more dire circumstances. The talented cast has great chemistry, and of course there's That Cameo which despite being spoiled all over the internet is still amazing.

And to augment your viewing, might I suggest a liberal sprinkling of Looney Tunes? I've been getting back into them lately due to my boyfriend owning all the giant box sets, and I promise that they're as funny as ever. Plus, it can be fun to pair shorts with features. This link offers some viewing ideas to get you started, but make sure you include one of the two cartoons starring the supremely underrated character of Gossamer. Because he's a giant red monster that wears only sneakers.

This is truly only the tip of the iceberg and includes just the movies I can vouch for personally. However, my Halloween list for future years keeps growing, and if you too are hungry for more I've included some links for exploring other fantastic but weenie-friendly fare.

Classic Universal horror
Val Lewton's RKO films
Hammer horror
Films directed by Roger Corman

Happy Halloween, everyone! I've got a full slate of flicks lined up for the weekend, but I'm afraid that those will appear in next year's installment. In the meantime, what are your favorite Halloweenie flicks?

October 15, 2010

Catching up on a lost cinematic childhood - #2

Some months back, I shared with you the terrible secrets of my movie-starved childhood. It wasn't that I wasn't watching movies; I just somehow managed to miss all the culturally important ones. But since I belive that 70s-80s blockbusters are just as important to film fluency as some of their loftier brethren, I'm holding myself accountable and trying to set things right. In my last installment I shared my progress catching up with classics from Star Wars to Dumb and Dumber, and here's more that I've either seen since or forgotten about for the first round. Again, these are films that seemingly everyone of my generation saw as a child or young teen (except me!).

Beetlejuice (1988)
Earlier this year, there was a Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that has since gone on tour. The exhibit featured drawings, designs, props, costumes, and any other film-related paraphernalia imaginable. Why do I mention this? Because sadly, I feel that Beetlejuice would have been more entertaining as an exhibit of this nature than as a film. The overall look of the thing is classic Burton and is a joy to revel in, but nothing seems to be gained from inserting people into the sets and costumes. I also found the character of Beetlejuice to be exceptionally grating. Sorry, Tim.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This was my first John Carpenter movie, and I was pretty underwhelmed. Everyone has a different definition of good silly and bad silly, and I'm afraid that this was bad silly for me. The undeniable charisma of Kurt Russell is a strong point, but mostly it felt like an 80s arcade game with some arcane depictions of women and Asians. I didn't give up on Carpenter, however, and discovered that The Thing (1982) was much more on my wavelength.

Die Hard (1988)
And speaking of charisma, holy 80s Bruce Willis! For as epic and explodey as this gets, it effectively milks a really simple premise of one man against a handful of others. Many action films undercut their own impact by having a lot of characters, locations, and plot details, but less is definitely more here. Willis is at his peak, conveying not only gruff charm but the rare notion that the physical hell he goes through actually takes a toll on him (most action heroes perpetually seem like they've done nothing more than lift a gallon of milk). I was a bit underwhelmed by Hans Gruber, to be honest (maybe the notion of a sophisticated villain just isn't as novel to me?) but that might be partially because instead of experiencing the memorable debut of a new talent as 80s audiences did, it was more "why yes, that is noted thespian Alan Rickman."

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

I ran hot and cold on this one. I think a lot of it depends on how on board you are with the Pee-Wee Herman persona, and while I could mostly dig it I think I was held back a critical 10% or so. That said, I did enjoy spending time in a completely uncensored Burton world that predates his seemingly interminable "kooky macabre" phase. I probably could have enjoyed it as a kid, but only if I had a special edition that edited out the Large Marge scene, thus preventing the need for years of therapy.

Rocky (1976)
I admit I approached this one with apprehension, because its reputation as a corny-but-classic underdog sports flick wasn't really doing anything for me. Why it has that reputation I have no idea, because this is first and foremost a romantic drama and a terrific one at that. It's just a superbly written, acted, and directed blue collar love story, with Sylvester Stallone acing the role of a talkative dork who is rather incidentally a boxer. It's telling that after the big fight, Rocky seems somewhat disinterested in the outcome and is focused solely on finding Adrian. Definitely deserves its classic status.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

A movie that combines film noir and cartoons? Where has this been all my life?! A combination that shouldn't work is a true delight, laden with cheeky references and wonderfully wacky characters of both the real and animated variety. Special effects that could probably be done pretty effortlessly today still hold up well despite how much harder it must have been to create them, and the animation and live-action meld seamlessly. Seeing it when I did was definitely for the better, though, since the villain (Christopher Lloyd) would have scared the crap out of me.

Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones films and the Bond films remain embarassingly unwatched by me, but I feel that I am slowly earning back my right to be an American child of the 80s. Have you seen any childhood staples for the first time as an adult? What did you think?

September 30, 2010

In memoriam x 6

The Hollywood deaths need to stop, because it's bumming me out.

Seriously, though, I'm not usually one for eulogizing (or eugooglizing, if you're Derek Zoolander), but they've been happening so fast and furious lately that I figured I should say a few words. There's plenty of biographical information out there, so I won't bore you with that, but rather I'll relay my personal thoughts and feelings on each person. In chronological order:

Kevin McCarthy (age 96...he died a bit outside of the current "wave" but I'm including him anyway)
I'm not gonna lie and pretend that I've seen his work outside of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (although apparently he had a small role in The Misfits). But the film is a favorite of mine - I don't have much nerve for horror films, but I love this one for its eerie restraint. Nothing jumps out at you, there's no blood, and the villains are carbon copies of people you know. McCarthy makes a great transformation from suave and charming to frenzied and terrified. And apparently he had no qualms about parodying or referencing his most famous role in other films.

Gloria Stuart (age 100)
Three digits! You go, girl! I haven't actually seen all of Titanic, where she played her most famous role (I was watching it with a spacey friend who fast-forwarded through any part she found boring, which included all of Stuart's screen time). However, I can heartily recommend two of her earliest films - The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933). Throw them both on at Halloween and bask in a time where horror was mixed with humor and snappy writing. (Side note: she was kind of a babe pre-Titanic, huh?)

Sally Menke (age 53)
A week ago, I could not have told you who Sally Menke was (to be fair, I probably only know a few editors by name, one of which [Roderick Jaynes] isn't even real). I obviously knew who Quentin Tarantino was, and I guess I could've figured that SOMEBODY edited his films. It's great to hear that they developed the working relationship that she did - she's edited all of his films from the start, and it almost makes you wonder how much of the Tarantino style is actually hers. From the chop-socky cuts of Kill Bill Vol. 1 to the tight but meditative pacing of Inglourious Basterds, it's clear that she was very talented. I imagine that his films won't be the same without her.

Arthur Penn (age 88)
Enough has been said about Bonnie and Clyde that I doubt I could really add anything meaningful, especially since I saw it a long time ago. But we may never know the full extent of its influence. He seemed like a visionary guy, and I'm definitely bumping Night Moves and Little Big Man up on my list of movies to see.

Tony Curtis (age 85)
I'm ashamed to admit that I've only seen Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot from Curtis, but that's all you'll need to adore him. That, and his fantastically irreverent personality and swagger. Oddly enough, I was reading his Proust questionnaire in Vanity Fair the day before he died and chuckling at his witty answers. When asked how he'd like to die, he said "Alone." He also wishes to be reincarnated as the son of Ali Baba. Let's hope he gets his wish...

Greg Giraldo (age 44)
I'm not really familiar with Giraldo's ouevre, but I'm mostly including him because it's just senselessly sad. Accidental prescription drug overdose. I take medication, and there have been times that I almost took too much in a day because I can't remember if I took it already. He died from that. May he judge "Last Comic Standing" in heaven.

Which of these people (if any) affected you, and how?

September 21, 2010

Is this actually a movie? #8

It's been a while since I did one of these, but this one's a special retro edition taking us all the way back to 1989. Now, everyone knows that the 80s produced an abundance of schlocky, ridiculous or otherwise questionable films. However, only one of them starred Meryl Streep.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present: 1989's She-Devil.

There's not even anything that weird about this movie on paper - sounds like a pretty standard comedy about a jilted wife enacting zany revenge after catching her husband cheating. But it's all in the execution, I just have to watch the trailer, embedded below, in all its glowing-red-eye glory...

I guess they can't all be winners. But then again, as a testament to the fact that anything Meryl Streep touches turns to gold, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here. She even manages to look good on the poster while Roseanne threatens to eat her alive. Even when she does wrong, she can do no wrong. Damn you, Streep!

September 10, 2010

A to Z #3

Hey, I'm getting pretty good at the alphabet! Today's rule is that the films must be from 1981 or after. Again, I picked a film for each letter that I like and would recommend, aiming for variety and trying to stay away from more obvious choices whenever possible. And thanks to the powers of the X-Men, I didn't even have to cheat this time! Click, explore, enjoy!
A The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
B Barton Fink (1991)
C Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
D Dogville (2003)
E Election (1999)
F Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
G Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
H Happy Together (1997)
I The Ice Storm (1997)
J Jackie Brown (1997)
K The King of Comedy (1982)
L The Lion King (1994)
M Mishima (1985)
N Night on Earth (1991)
O Office Space (1999)
P The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Q ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984)
R Ran (1985)
S sex lies and videotape (1989)
T Three Kings (1999)
U Up in the Air (2009)
V A Very Long Engagement (2004)
W Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
X X2 (2003)
Y The Yes Men Fix the World (2009)
Z Zodiac (2007)


So I'm a bit late to the game on this one...I stumbled upon the Twitter hashtag "#inadequatemovies," where the idea is to change a film title to something rather less enticing. Twitter was being finicky, so I found a goldmine of them in the comments section over at Glenn Kenny's blog. Does it get any geekier than having to stifle your laughter (in the workplace) from reading these? My favorite might be "Intern Zhivago," with "The Nifty Ambersons" a close second. And for some reason, as I was falling asleep last night and then commuting to work this morning, I couldn't stop thinking of my own. I share with you the fruits of my excessively nerdy labor. Throw down your own in the comments!

Jackie Beige
Reservoir Puppies
Permanent Resident Kane
M. Hulot's Staycation
Breakfast at Zale's
Last Jitterbug in Paris
The Passion of Joan of Arkansas
Schindler's Grocery List
The Spy Who Only Liked Me As a Friend
Big Trouble in Little Malaysia
Catch Me If You Feel Like It
The Prunes of Wrath
Pedicab Driver
Who's Afraid of Emily Brontë?
A Dozen Perturbed Gentlemen
Rebel With Justifiable Motivation
My Own Private New Mexico
Night of the Gatherer

September 9, 2010

Great comedic roles by dramatic actors

It's fairly common for comedically inclined actors to take dramatic roles, particularly if they can sense awards buzz. Audiences tend to love when actors do this, gasping with shock and delight at the previously unseen depths of Jim Carrey or Robin Williams (and rightfully so). But a less ubiquitous and less-discussed jump is that of dramatic actors to comedic roles. It's a very risky move from their perspective - where funny guys and gals have everything to gain from making the leap, their more serious counterparts could lose major credibility. Another factor making these cases rare is that for better or worse, most actors from past to present have more than a few comedies on their resume, usually at the beginning. I started digging into the filmographies of stoic types like Gary Cooper and Fredric March - figuring that their gigs in the comedy Design for Living (1933) were anomalies - only to discover that they both got their start in a string of frothy yukfests. So I took up the task of finding great comedic roles from stars that did very little comedy in their careers (excluding voice work). Here are my picks, in chronological order:

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
"Garbo Laughs!" proclaimed the tagline for this classic Lubitsch film. A modern reaction to that might be "so what?", but you have to understand that prior to this point, Garbo had been as serious as a heart attack. She starred exclusively in costume dramas and epic romances, always playing an enigmatic and devastating woman. For the first half or so of the film, she continues being deadly serious (in a role of a no-nonsense Russian official) but to the point of absurdity - my boyfriend and I were doubled over from laughing. After Garbo laughs, the humor slows down to make way for romance, but she's still charming and delightful in a way that audiences hadn't seen from her before.

Gene Tierney in The Mating Season (1951)
Known primarily as a femme fatale or seductress in films like Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Tierney gets to show her lighter side in this sprightly comedy that also features Thelma Ritter. Tierney plays Maggie, a girl from a rich family who tries to keep everything together after marrying a man she's known for a day. She's bouncing all over the place, particularly in an early scene where she makes the old gag of several simultaneous cooking disasters seem fresh. Perhaps it's unfair to single out this movie since it's unavailable on DVD and I only happened on it via TCM, so I'll also add that she has fun, saucy chemistry with Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait (1943).

James Cagney in One, Two, Three (1961)
It was hard to pick just one for Cagney, who despite playing mostly tough guys also excelled in his relatively limited funny roles (see also The Strawberry Blonde and The Bride Came C.O.D.). Cagney's comedy is that of a man endlessly frustrated by the ludicrous circumstances he finds himself in, and he usually fights back by scheming, bellowing, or punching. In this criminally underrated Billy Wilder flick, he's a smarmy capitalist who has to keep his boss' daughter away from Communists in Berlin. He talks ten miles a minute leading up to the breathless third act, where he pulls out all the stops to rectify his situation. How lucky for audiences that he found another outlet for the rapid-fire delivery he cultivated in gangster pictures.

Edmond O'Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The town drunk in a western might be the oldest cliché in the book, so it's a testament to O'Brien's skills that the character of Dutton Peabody is not only bearable, but lovable. Known mostly for noirs, O'Brien doesn't do anything particularly unusual in his depiction here, although it surely helps that Peabody publishes the town newspaper instead of just lounging around. The film is not really a comedy, but for once the obligatory comic character doesn't feel like an awkwardly inserted drag.

Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Here's a film that needs no introduction, but I feel that Hayden's contributions have often been overlooked in appraising it. Hayden starred almost exclusively in serious films (typically crime or noir) both before and after Strangelove, but his foray into comedy here is unforgettable. As Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (subtle, eh?), he brings the perfect mix of swagger and demented insanity to a character who can deliver lines about the Commies' intent to "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids" in a hysterically genuine way. He might just be my favorite character in the movie. I'll also give a shoutout to George C. Scott's work as Buck Turgidson, but his resume is surprisingly filled with quite a few comedies.

Natalie Wood in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Wood was rarely a purveyor of laughs, but somehow she was a perfect fit for this sex satire. Maybe it's just me, but I've always found it hilariously incongruous when wide-eyed, innocent-looking ingenues speak bluntly and authoritatively about sex (see also: Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue). Having absorbed perhaps the wrong message from a totally 60s spiritual retreat, she faces her husband's extramarital affairs with overwhelmingly zen acceptance. The "suburban housewife who has veered slightly off the path" role can be tricky, but Wood pulls it off with aplomb.

Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (1979)
No, I am not under the impression that this film is a comedy. But I love how in the midst of all the unfathomable warfare, we have the utterly irreverent Lt. Kilgore, who loves surfing, Wagner, and napalm. Someow in the chaos of the Vietnam War he's completely in his element - as casual as if he were sprawled on the couch at home. Just as the rest of the film dials it to 11 in terms of the horrors the men witness, Coppola lets Duvall go way over the top. And yet I don't doubt that Vietnam saw men just like Kilgore...

Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
I'm hardly the first person to comment on Penn's unbelievable Spicoli-to-solemn evolution. But...damn! Nowadays he seems like the most humorless person alive, but his breakout role was as everybody's favorite stoner. With pothead characters a dime a dozen, it's telling that Spicoli has endured in our collective memory. And let's not forget his second comedic outing (and hopefully not his last - let's hope his on-again off-again relationship with the Three Stooges film in development turns permanent!) as jazz musician Emmet Ray in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. He dons a sort of manic persona - not entirely unlike Allen himself - and works up a frenzy opposite Samantha Morton's completely mute character.

Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995)
Kidman has starred in a handful comedies, but by far her most successful outing is as Suzanne Stone Maretto in this deranged Gus Van Sant film. She plays a sociopathic career woman to perfection, with perky renditions of lines like "you aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." Her strangely gleeful manner while plotting the murder of her husband is almost reminiscent of Alex DeLarge, and she won a well-deserved Golden Globe for her performance.

Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski (1998)
Bridges hadn't done much comedy before Lebowski, but something magical happened the minute he put on that robe. The result was one of the funniest and flat-out best characters of our time. To quote the film's mystic narrator: "Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there." Over a decade and dozens if not hundreds of Lebowski Fests later, it's pretty clear that Bridges did something right to make The Dude such an icon. Offering backup is Julianne Moore, proving she should really do more comedies (The Kids Are All Right is a step in the right direction, but it's really more of a drama). The "weird feminist artist" archetype is a pretty tired one, but Moore gives it just the right deadpan sensibility.

Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys (2010)
After seeing this film, my boyfriend made the interesting observation that Wahlberg acts exactly the same in both comedies and dramas. In every role he has an overwhelming sense of earnestness and honesty, which Andy Samberg nails in the "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" sketch - "Wahlberg" truly wants the donkey to say hello to his mother for him. In The Other Guys he's doing angry man comedy, a style that's often grating (I'm looking at you, Adam Sandler) but that Wahlberg can pull off because he actually seems like the type who would be angry all the time (whereas it seems rather misplaced with Sandler - maybe his characters are just constipated?).

What other performances can you think of? (And before you chime in with "I CAN'T BELIVE YOU MISSED ______", please note that for all of these actors I went painstakingly through every single film on their IMDb page, and had to cut out several that I would have included otherwise due to a higher comedy presence than expected.)