Archives for March 2014

“Readers'” Choice

Hey, I just had an idea. In the coming days I will be doing a lot of prep work for the Tribeca Film Festival. In the meantime, I would still like to post with a degree of frequency. Solution? Let me know what you would like me to write about and I will get to it! It can be on anything to do with the world of cinema, such as:

  • My favorite movie;
  • Favorite actor/actress/director/decade of film;
  • Any movie I have not reviewed and you want to know my thoughts on;
  • The worst film I have ever seen ….

You get the idea. So go ahead and post away in the comments section below!

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Joan Crawford Birthday Post

Any appreciation I have for Joan Crawford is interesting for me. I mean she is not an absolute favorite of mine (her acting never blew me away), I concede that the combination of her striking beauty and indomitable will produced the requisite star power for success in the studio system. This was on full display not only in her early silent performances but, with the advent of sound, during her halcyon days at the dream factory that was MGM.

joan crawfordIn honor of the anniversary of her birth, I decided to dedicate this post to highlighting some of my favorite Crawford films.

The Unknown (1927)of course centered the performance by Lon Chaney, this film is deliciously demented.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)I think the TCM description says it best: “A flapper sets her hat for a man with a hard-drinking wife.” Yup, that.

Our Modern Maidens (1929)Crawford’s final silent film.

Rain (1932)Paging Sadie Thompson. Based on the Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute and missionary stuck on an island.

The Women (1939): Seriously how could this not be on my list? JUNGLE RED FORVEVER

Mildred Pierce (1945)sure she is a pushover for Vida, but she gets hers in the end. Not exactly what I would consider a noir, this performance gave Crawford her Academy Award for Best Actress.

Humoresque (1946): Crawford at her melodramatic finest.

Possessed (1947): Crawford played unstable so well. This was it for me. I love watching this movie.

Sudden Fear (1952): Crawford is a classic film-noir damsel in distress.

Johnny Guitar (1954)A recent add to my list as I have only recently seen it. A saucy Western where the protagonist/antagonist are female and the men feel a little like window dressing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Time to play “opposite day” with previous entry; a film which posits aging females as macabre, grotesque figures that are either to be pitied or feared.

Over her the decades, she went from flapper (ingénue) to a matron, slowly growing off kilter to and finally descended into to the horror camp arena. While this is sadly the fate that many actresses of her time had to suffer (but has a lot changed), Crawford approached every role with equal parts aplomb and dedication to her craft.

What are some of your favorite Crawford pics?

A Decade Under the Influence (2003)

Watching the TCM Premiere of the 1973 crime drama The Seven Ups got me all up in my 1970s cinematic feels. During the live tweeting with my fellow TCM viewers (TCMParty represent!) I was reminded of all the awesome films that came out during this decade. This got me reflecting a bit, like why hadn’t I been on this 1970’s cinema train until recently? Maybe since I was born in the mid-late 1970’s, I always dismissed the cinematic achievements of the period. Or maybe, rather age and experience has given me a level of cinematic sophistication to appreciate the 1970s cultural landscape a bit more. Whatever the actual cause, I am all the better for it.

A Decade Under the Influence Still

The 2003 IFC documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, co-directed by Richard LaGravense and Ted Demme (who sadly passed away before production on the film was complete), is a statement of the times and how what the audiences saw on screen was a reflection that heralded a new era in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling.

My immediate reaction after watching this film was wowsa. The 1970’s ran the gambit and offered quite possibly some of the most creative, innovative and liberating films in the history of Hollywood. I will touch on the whys of that statement in a second.

With all of this creative explosion and freedom, there was bound to be a downside. As the decade drew to a close, the engine that drove these films and exposed them to mainstream popularity came up against the business of show’s commercial interests. One result is the introduction of our current risk-averse moviemaking model.

Now back to the whys – the documentary cites several reasons; among them:

  •  As the old guard, i.e., the moguls who founded Hollywood started to die and be replaced by corporate entities, the hold studios had over its stars became more and more tenuous. This decline in the studio system also meant that the ability of movie stars to ensure box office success left the system at a crossroads.
  • As the adage goes “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The loss of fortune and drive to recoup some of the losses created a ripe environment for young filmmakers to express themselves with limited studio interference.
  • Coming out of the social upheaval (and subsequent ‘social confusion’) of the 1950’s and 1960’s these mavericks put on film what were, as one interviewee in documentary explained was a celebration of the victories gained during this time. And audiences for a time were attracted to this.
  • Borrowing from what came before both in the studio system as well as cinema from around the world, these filmmakers and talent had a worldliness and ‘education’ that stretched their creative boundaries.

Interwoven with interviews with many of the movers and shakers* of the decade are clips from some of the more notable films, which range from the small and personal statement to the crowd-pleasing blockbusters.

Not explored at great length was the Blaxploitation films and the Asian influence, notably Hong Kong martial arts films to the West. Maybe these topics are just too broad for the focus of this documentary; heck, they probably deserve their own space (wink, wink filmmakers).

Another notable omission I observed was the “all-star” disaster movies (The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, The Towering Inferno). One theory: these films do not fit into the social context of many of the films discussed in the documentary. I would further argue that this subgenre could tie into the death throws of the studio system and, as a last ditch effort to bank on star power, led the studios to join forces. The result – the production of mega-watt disaster flicks. Again, maybe this series of films is deserving of its own more detailed retrospective.

Even with these omissions, A Decade Under the Influence wonderfully chronicles the changing landscape of cinema as an art form and as a going concern. It is almost a master class that will add vastly to your list of films to take a look at.

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* It would be remiss of me NOT to mention at least some of the folks interviewed in this documentary, that is chock full of key influencers; here are just a few: Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Pam Grier, Jon Voight, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Roger Corman, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Polly Platt, Julie Christie, Brian DePalma, Roy Scheider, Paul Mazursky, Milos Forman and Robert Towne.

Coming Soon: Belle (2014)

This film was not initially on my “looking forward to seeing in 2014” list, but lists are always subject to change and modification. Belle, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, is the true story of mixed race Dido Elizabeth Belle, the natural daughter of an 18th century Royal Navy Admiral, and her life as a member of an aristocratic family.

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In reading the press notes for the film I was fascinated by how the film got its start. Belle’s writer, Misan Sagay, found inspiration when looking at this Georgian-era portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, while visiting Scone Palace at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland:

Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

Although Belle was not named in the guide accompanying the painting (attributed to painter Johann Zoffay), Sagay left determined to find out her identity.

In what can only be described as serendipitous, Sagay discovered that her son’s Godmother was a friend of Lady Mansfield, the 8th removed descendant of the character from the film, and from there the archives were opened, allowing Sagay to unlock the mysteries of the relationship between the two friends knows as “Belle and Bette”.   

The film gained a head of steam when producer Damian Jones, who also was familiar with the painting, came across Sagay’s script through a mutual friend.

For director Amma Asante, this film was an opportunity to tell a period story that simultaneously deals with the familiar themes of romantic machinations and the British class system, all within the context of the historical issue of slavery:

“I’ve never seen a film about the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery,” says Asante. 

Check out the trailer here:

While the actual story is not be wholly unique, as we are fully aware that interracial relationships and their subsequent offspring occurred (duh), it has not received such a treatment on the big screen.

Equally of interest to me is how racial politics in light of the African slave trade are portrayed outside of the United States of America.

Finally, driving home my enthusiasm for Belle is that the story is told with a decidedly female voice, punctuated by the fact that the director is a woman of the African diaspora (Black British).

The cast features Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Belle), Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton and Miranda Richardson.

Belle will come to American screens on May 2nd.

Movies About Math (A π Day Celebration)

Happy Pi (π) Day everyone! As the child of a mathematics teacher, the number pi holds a very special place in my heart. Well, not really, but it sounds nice and a bit geeky!

Anywhoo, to commemorate the day I decided to compile a list of films that either deal directly with mathematics or it is handled prominently on the periphery. As I conducted research to build the list, I soon realized that I have not seen as many mathematically oriented films as I initially thought (and yes, this includes A Beautiful Mind).

good will huntng directed by gus van sant

As a result, I decided to take the following approach: I went over to the Wikipedia and “borrowed” their list and separated it into films that I have seen and the ones that I have yet to see. In the first list (seen) I have marked my recommendations with an asterisk (*). Note: Although included on the list, I took Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World off my list, because while the source material goes into some mathematic and scientific detail, the film does not really dig that deep into the subject.

What I Have Seen

  1. Enigma (2001) – Romantic, political and psychological intrigue set in Bletchley Park during the World War II. (*)
  2. Good Will Hunting (1997) – Mathematical genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) begins to turn his downtrodden life around with the help of a psychologist and an MIT professor. (*)
  3. I.Q. (1994) – In this romantic comedy, Albert Einstein helps an auto mechanic pose as a physicist, all in an effort to capture the heart of Einstein’s niece. (*)
  4. Proof (2005) – The film based on the Broadway play about a father-daughter tandem of mathematical brilliance, mental illness and a disputed proof.
  5. Sneakers (1992) – A team of intellectual misfits is tasked with retrieving a code-breaking box developed by a rogue mathematician. (*)
  6. Stand and Deliver (1988) – True story of math teacher Jaime Escalante, who inspired the students in a school in an L.A. neighborhood. (*)
  7. Moneyball (2011) – This was my own addition, and not included on the original Wikipedia list. (*)

 

Films that Have Remained Unseen (for now):

  • 21 (2008)
  • 21 Grams (2003)
  • Agora (2009)
  • Antonia’s Line (1995)
  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  • The Bank (2001)
  • Fermat’s Room (2007)
  • Infinity (1996)
  • An Invisible Sign (2011)
  • It’s My Turn (1980)
  • The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
  • The Oxford Murders (2008)
  • Pi (1998)
  • Raising Genius (2004)
  • Stranger than Fiction (2006)
  • Straw Dogs (1971)
  • A Summer’s Tale (1996)
  • Tall Story (1960)
  • Traveling Salesman (2012)

Let me know if I missed any!

Video Review: Austenland (2013)

I may not be the most die-hard, but I most certainly consider myself an Austen-ite. I have read and love many of her books, as well as enjoyed many of the film adaptations. I even enjoy those films outside of the Austen cannon – the television programs Lost in Austen and Death Comes to Pemberley immediately come to mind. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that there would be a new addition to the Austen-verse coming to a big screen near me late last year. Although I did not see it when released last summer, I recently caught up with the rom-com Austenland on video.

austenland kerry russell

Co-authored by Jerusha Hess and Shannon Hale, directed by Hess and produced by Stephanie Meyer (yeah, the Twilight vampire lady), Austenland is the tale of 30-something Jane (Kerry Russell), who apparently like more than a few women of her generation, holds up Pride and Prejudice (and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in particular) as ‘the ultimate’ romantic ideal. Her personal life in shambles, she decides to indulge this romantic fantasy of hers by booking a trip to Regency-era England and the pleasures of Austenland – a resort for fans of Ms. Austen where visitors are treated to live out their fantasy of being a heroine in a story of their own making. For some additional fun, a group of actors has been enlisted to interact and engage with the guests; it is cosplay at its most ‘refined.’

As one would expect, there are romantic entanglements, intrigues, twists and turns throughout the remainder of the story.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, full disclosure – I have not read the source material. That said, I would not pass up the opportunity, for the concept of the story sounds like something that would interest me.

However, after seeing the film, I get the sense that something went missing or got lost in translation during the course of adapting the text to the silver screen. Many of the scenes felt empty and disjointed. The acting was not bad, but the characterizations seemed more often than not to fall into caricature, thus leaving me with no one to root (or not) for. But maybe that was the point, especially for the actors within the story that were playing along with the guests. I don’t know really, because frankly, I was not compelled to think too hard on it; I just felt ‘meh’ about the whole experience. Even the ‘outtakes’ credits fell flat for me.

Overall, I think my disappointment in Austenland was compounded by my earlier anticipation. Seriously, I was looking forward to a light, entertaining comedic confection that would provide me with a fresh Austen fix. But as the credits rolled, I went back to thinking of all the Austen-themed films I have enjoyed over the years and soon after, rewatched the 1995 version of Persuasion to remind myself of what I loved (and missed).

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Twilight (1998)

Alright before you start wigging out or anything, check out the date for the film. This is NOT the teen-vamp saga. Never seen it, likely never will.

Twilight Robert Benton Paul Newman Susan Sarandon Gene Hackman

Anyway, this Twilight came out in 1998 and stars Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and (a young) Reese Witherspoon. It is directed and co-written by Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, The Human Stain).

When I first saw Twilight I almost did not care what the plot was. As I sussed out, Harry Ross (Newman) is on the search for young Mel Ames (Witherspoon), scion of Hollywood parents Jack (Hackman) and Catherine (Sarandon). But this is only the beginning. Years pass and Ross, who boards on the Ames Estate, is asked to do another solid for the family. This is where the “fun” begins as the viewer is taken on a ride with plenty of twists and turns, including the reawakening of a 20-year old case involving the disappearance of Catherine’s first husband. (Plot Synopsis Source: Wikipedia)

 

I will relent and say that it does plod along at times during the film and the strength is in the performance of acting majesty. It has been years since I have seen this, but I am always fascinated and intrigued by contemporary efforts to capture the atmosphere and spirit of those noir films of the 1940s and 1950s.

Also, it is quite possible I have a thing for Paul Newman. Only just so. Seriously, I think if he had released a film in which he was reading the phone directory or staring at a wall watching paint dry, I’d be there.

But there is a sentimental reason why I love him so. As mentioned in this space before, he was an actor that my late father and me had a shared affinity for. So whenever I think of Paul Newman, a part of me is reminded of my beloved father.

Celebrating International Women’s Day w/ Cinema

Thursday the buzz was about books (World Book Day). Today (March 8th), the focus is on celebrating women all over the world with International Women’s  Day.

I cannot think of any better way to join in the celebrations by taking a look at women’s role in global cinema.

 

Women Behind the Scenes

woman director with clapboard

Indiewire has done a great job in covering women in the film industry:

The New York Times has also over the years, examined women’s participation as both performers and creators; here are some articles that have resonated with me:

 

Women Front and Center on Screen

Oscar Cate Blanchett

Michael Yada © A.M.P.A.S.

Cate Blanchett drew a lot attention this past week when, during her Oscar acceptance speech, she called out the ‘powers that be’ for their hesitance to promote and encourage the production of films that have women in central roles. The box office returns for 2013 back her up. According to Time.com, in 2013, movies featuring strong female characters actually were a financial boon to the industry. The basis for determining this phenomenon used the now infamous Bechdel Test. Created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, it is a ‘sniff test’ of sorts that asks a work of fiction:

1. to have at least two [named] women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.
(Source: bechdeltest.com)

I encourage you to go to the website (http://bechdeltest.com/) to see if (any) of your favorite films pass. The best part of this Time.com piece is the infographic which shows in unquestionable detail Hollywood’s hits and misses for 2013 and the correlation to the presence of female lead(s) (Source: Vocativ).

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Some Movie Recommendations

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It would be remiss of me to close out this post without offering up some suggestions for films featuring a strong women in the narrative. After drafting my preliminary list, I ran all of the films through the Bechdel; unfortunately, some of my favorites did not make the cut, either they are not in the database or  they really did not meet the minimum criteria. Note, an asterisk (*) indicates that the film was directed by a female.

  • * Strange Days (1995): directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Angela Bassett, Strange Days is a pulse-pounding actioner that remains a personal favorite of mine (but it just passes).
  • All About Eve (1950): Backstage drama on the Great White Way. Margo (Bette Davis) and Eve (Ann Baxter) are formidable sparring partners.
  • Alien (1979): Ripley! Sigourney Weaver became a hero for a generation of young women.
  • The Color Purple (1985): While this film is a beautiful and sweeping epic I know it also courts controversy in many corners with its depiction of the male (emasculated?) and female (wanton?) characters.  But for me, it has an emotional resonance because it is one of the few moments in my life I have accompanied my mother to the cinema.
  • Children of Men (2006): Nothing stronger than being the carrier of the future of human civilization.
  • * Pariah (2011): Embarrassingly this has been in my queue for a minute and is the only entry that I am recommending sight-unseen.
  • A Room With a View (1985): This film is simply sublime for me.
  • G.I. Jane (1997): Just ‘cuz.
  • Heavenly Creatures (1994): The picture that gave us the gift of Kate Winslet’s presence on our screens. Based on a true story.
  • * Daughters of the Dust (1991): I need to rewatch this it has been a while.
  • Never Let Me Go (2010): This one fell under so many radars, it deserved a lot of recognition than it received. Haunting and beautiful.
  • Jane Eyre (2006/2011): Take your pick as to the version; Jane is boss.
  • Before Midnight (2013)
  • * Red Road (2006)/Fish Tank (2009): Double-bill directed by Andrea Arnold.
  • Persuasion (1995)
  • Black Narcissus (1947): The most passionate film about a group of nuns you will ever see.
  • * Bend it Like Beckham (2002): The air is indeed rare when you have a teen/sports/cultural clash comedy that features strong young women.
  • Far From Heaven (2002): Julianne Moore gives an Academy-nominated performance in Todd Haynes’ homage to the Sirkian (subversive) melodramas of the 1950s.
  • * Love & Basketball (2000)
  • Sense and Sensibility (1995): It’s Jane Austen, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.
  • Short Term 12 (2013)
  • Muriel’s Wedding (1994): Toni Collette and ABBA go on a journey of self-discovery.
  • 12 Years a Slave (2013): Nothing more needs to be said on my part.

… I could go on. In fact this list is growing a lot longer than I imagined. Let me know if you think I missed anything!

The Case For Seeing B&Ws On the Big Screen

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca in a packed house at the AMC Lincoln Square in NYC. New York was one of the twenty cities selected to screen this all time classic as part of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) 20th anniversary festivities. After seeing the film, a brainwave hit me for something I wanted to discuss: my new appreciation for watching the classics as they were meant to be seen – on the big screen.

tcm_20_casablanca

Yes it is something that I am getting more and more used to over the years, previously confining my exhibition of said films to home viewings. But a couple of years ago, my preferences started to shift when I asked my readers their thoughts on attending repertory movie theaters to watch restored/classic films. I did not however, take the opportunity to explain fully why I think it is a wonderful way to see such films, mainly due the low number of films I had seen this way. Allow me to do so now.

I know for some the idea of paying for a film or acquiring a free pass, seems like too much trouble, especially when you factor in that you have to leave the comfort of your own house; well I am here to tell you why I think everyone should try it at least once for the following reasons:

  1. Level of Detail: I am not stating any groundbreaking laws of physics or anything when I say the smaller the screen, the smaller all the objects and minor details, whether they reside in the background or foreground. In many of these cases, these objects/actions may have story significance. Seeing them projected on the big screen (obviously) magnifies their visual presence and emphasizes their importance. Remember that these films (made before televisions invaded domestic life)  were made for ALL the detail to be seen since they were produced for exhibition and projection on a theater-size formatted screen.
  2. Audience Engagement: Sorry, but there is just something about seeing a film with an audience (of primarily strangers) that amplifies one’s viewing experience. It really becomes a community event, and barring any craziness with audience members (often the case in NYC) it is a friendly reminder and affirmation of a human desire to congregate around a shared purpose.
  3. It Takes You Back to Days of Yore: This point is a continuation of sorts to my discussion of level of detail (1). Because people my age are accustomed to watching “old”/classic movies on a television screen, we may not think of these actors and actresses of yesteryear as ‘larger than life.’ In doing so, we forget this is  the only way audiences of the time pre-television saw their favorite performers. The stars were very much larger than life. It truly is a transformative experience to see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman striding across the screen, with a presence like that of gods parading before a mass of humanity, sat lowly in their theater seats.
  4. Support for Your Local Community: On this point, I am a lucky gal indeed – I live in a major metropolitan area, so I am spoiled for choice when it comes to seeing older film at the in a theatre, whether it be a chain multiplex or smaller multi-screen house. But even if I venture, say 30-40 minutes outside of Midtown Manhattan, there are independent movie houses that exhibit new releases and first-run films in addition to offering screenings of restored classics to the community. No matter where you live take a moment to do a quick internet search and see what’s out there. And do not just limit to these indie theaters – libraries, schools, and museums also screen films on occasion.

 

It’s World Book Day! (Checking Out My Cinematic Bookshelf)

Happy World Book Day everyone!

In celebration, let’s take a moment to highlight some new additions on this cinephile’s bookshelf as well as some upcoming titles that may be of interest to any lover of the movies.

America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewer’s Guide to the 50 Landmark Movies Added To The National Film Registry in 97814411586972009-10 (2012), by Daniel Egan.

[Editorial Review from Leonard Maltin] … This slender paperback covers the fifty newest films to join their ranks during the past two years, and like the overall roster, they truly run the gamut in terms of age, genre, and popularity. Eagan’s clear-eyed essays place each film into proper context within the larger picture of American cinema that the Registry seeks to represent, whether dealing with the 1906 actuality short A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, or Sally Cruikshank’s nutty animated cartoon Quasi at the Quackadero.”

ILC’s Take: Given to me as a gift, I find this to be a great resource to have in my cinematic library.

 

An Empire of Their Own: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1989), by Neal Gabler

51WBbCixkiL._SS500_[Editorial Review from Library Journal] Gabler has written a thoroughly researched history of the early Hollywood film industry and the men who ran it. Coming from similar humble Eastern European and Jewish backgrounds, Fox, Laemmle, Meyer, Zukor, and the Warner brothers shared an overwhelming desire to achieve wealth and status in their new country. Finding barriers to success through traditional means, they gravitated to the fledging film industry where they “could simply create a new country an empire of their own, so to speak one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well.” Gabler documents the consequences of their quest and the tragic results that followed.

ILC’s Take: I only THOUGHT I knew the history of the foundation of Hollywood. This book went into exhaustive and personal detail about what motivated these early moguls to create the dream factory that entertains us and influences us to this very day. A must read.

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Coming Soon ….(or Just Released)

Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds by Jeff Smith (April 2014)
The UC Press synopsis is quite descriptive so there is no need for me to rephrase. But given the title, it seems to be an intriguing subject that intersects the worlds of Hollywood and politics. I am sure that we will see the worlds are much closer than we think.

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by Noah Isenberg (January 2014)
Chosen as a must read recently by TCM, Isenberg examines the life and work of the director best known for the noir classic Detour.

 

What have you read lately? Please share 🙂