Pre-Codes at TCMFF 2017

Another highlight of my time spent in Hollywood for this year’s TCM Film Festival involved getting to catch a couple of pre-Code films.

While I may not be as well-versed as some, this is a sub-genre that holds great interest for me within the greater world of classic cinema.

And sure, a lot of these films are available for view at home, but seeing them on the big screen is an added treat.

One such example is the Howard Hughes-produced 1932 aviation comedy Cock of the Air, which thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been restored and includes some of the original dialogue which had previously been censored. While I did not personally record the pre-screening introduction in the theater, here is a video (provided by the Academy) which discusses the restoration project:

The other pre-code feature worthy of attention features a not-exactly-“Blond Bombshell” Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman. I can only describe this experience as a wild ride that did its duty and left me in stitches as I witnessed Harlow’s Lil Andrews’ outrageous behavior on full display. Based on a novel of the same title by Katherine Brush and with an uncredited “written by” from the likes of no other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the official screen credit is attributed to writer Anita Loos, who took the reigns from Fitzgerald and adapted the source material.

If you are a newbie to the world of pre-Codes and/or Jean Harlow, I highly recommend that you start with this film. You will thank me later 🙂

Nitrate and the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

This is the first in a two-part series in which I discuss some delights from my attendance at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival.

For the most part, this festival can be summed up for me in word – nitrate. Now I will admit my knowledge on this subject is rather limited and restricted to a base level understanding; if you want to know more,  direct you to this pretty awesome article that NPR posted to coincide with the screenings at the TCM Festival last month.

From the description of the likes of Martin Scorsese, who, as Founder and Chair of The Film Foundation, was on hand to introduce the first nitrate projection of the festival (Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much), the beauty of nitrate lies in the richness of the contrast in the film stock, whether it be black and white (which produces luminescent whites and deep blacks) or Technicolor (with deep, rich color pigments) cinematography.

As the NPR article suggests, this visual “wow” factor enhances the argument of the film being a medium in which the artist is painting images with light.

Of course, this all came with a high cost and great personal risk to projectionists, since the nitrate stock is very unstable and highly flammable. The result was scenes like this:

Not only was nitrate highly flammable, but it also degraded if not properly stored. The consequence for our collected film history means that before the shift to the more stable cellulose “safety” stock (introduced in the early 1950s), improper care meant that a large percentage of the “nitrate library” has been lost to time.

The joint ventures and continued efforts of organizations such as The Film Foundation (*), American Cinematheque, TCM, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have one goal in mind – to preserve this catalog for our film heritage. But that is only half the battle. It is one thing to collect the films, but what to do, next? Exhibit them, of course!

The key here is to create a projection environment where they can be displayed and shown to the public in as safe a manner as possible. And that is exactly what the above-mentioned parties have done. The projection booth at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood has been refitted to allow the nitrate prints to be projected without the catastrophic fire risk.

Interior of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre

And thus the stage is set for one of my recent singular cinematic experiences at this year’s film festival.

Not only did I get to see The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I also was able to relish in the delights of Otto Preminger’s Laura,  Powell-Pressburger’s lush and sensual Black Narcissus (personal favorites of mine). Rounding out my experience was a first-time viewing of the Mitchell Leisen adaptation of the Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. This film, which stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, was a nearly indescribable lavish and spectacular psychiatric trip, whose dated sexual politics yielded more than a fair share of chuckles. But have no fear, this only added to my overall enjoyment of the picture.

One final note – it cannot be stated enough that in seeing these films I am not only seeing them in their original intended glory – these prints are 70-80 years old! It is quite remarkable, indeed.

* For more information, check out the Film Foundation’s writeup: http://www.film-foundation.org/nitrate-at-the-egyptian

 

FEUD: Bette and Joan

Here, at the outset, I will admit to the following – I was not particularly excited at the prospect of watching Ryan Murphy‘s latest televisual project on FX (FEUD: Bette and Joan). And not because of the subject (obviously). In fact, I have a great appreciation for both Ms.’s Davis and Crawford. The latter, in particular of whom I have developed a particular affinity for in recent years.

It also has nothing to do with Ryan Murphy – whose work I have generally enjoyed on level or another over the past decade.

I decided to meditate on what exactly was holding me back until I was able to figure it out. And here is my conclusion: I think it is to do with the fact that when I think of Bette and Joan, I am drawn to these screen icons and the film that serves as the series’ nexus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a series of evolving emotions about it all.

In other words, while I enjoy the ‘horror’ and suspense of the film, something left me unsettled about how these women, who once were the queens of the studio era were reduced to grotesque caricatures and put on display for our derision and ridicule. All simply for the fact that they have the temerity to have aged. It is all rather disturbing and cruel on so many levels.

However, thanks to the recommendation of some friends, I put this reservation to the side and indulged in a post-TCM Film Festival binge (more to come). And boy, am I glad I did.

As the final episode of this first series has come to a close (on the East Coast), I can think of no way that this story could have been told with more empathy and movingly. FEUD is a story is a love note of sorts to women who the Hollywood studio/factory system so readily discarded and left to be footnotes in the history when they no longer saw value in their talents.

Sure, Bette and Joan’s was a well-storied feud – but to reduce it to petty machinations and entanglements of what took place does a great disservice. Thanks to some wonderful writing and acting, FEUD has really illuminated the full scale of the ‘rivalry,’ which in many ways was orchestrated and agitated by several outside influences, including the public itself.

As for the two women caught up in the tumult, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, in their takes on Davis and Crawford, give noteworthy performances that peel away the layers of these women to reveal how their back and forth played into and off of their personal demons and insecurities.

Granted, while FEUD is based on actual events, you have to make a few narrative allowances, such as overt exposition about what happened and a bit of melodrama. One standout event of the series is their notorious clash at the 1963 Academy Awards –  an event which Davis friend Olivia deHavilland recently dismissed as not being of much consequence. On the other hand, there is the conceit many audience members may not know the particulars and history of the Baby Jane co-stars, so a little exposition goes a long way.

It is my sincere hope that for any members of the viewing public who may have come into this story cold, I encourage you to examine these women and their careers beyond this hagsploitation (what a word) phase in their body of work.

At its best, FEUD gives its audience enough of a moving and empathetic account of the people, places and events to make us take another look at these women in particular and women in Hollywood in general (both past and present) and how they are treated.

 

Summary Thoughts on “Logan” (2017)

This has taken way, way too long to make its way to my blog.  But it is here now so let’s have at it – my thoughts on the recent release Logan. Stated plainly, Logan was not only a superior part of the “Hugh Jackman as Wolverine” franchise, but in general, it is a superior superhero film. Full stop. Unlike most films of its genre, which often hint at the “allegory for humanity,” Logan has a heart and pulse running through it which is distinctly relateable whether or not you are a mutant with enhanced powers.

If I am honest, I vaguely recall the actions of the preceding two films leading into this chapter (note – the previous installment was also written and directed by James Mangold). I chalk this mostly down to them essentially being pretty forgettable. As a result, I more or less was going into this third (and final) installment with no additional information save for the fact that it was a Wolverine film.

Set several years into the future, the audience is transported to a world where mutants (those uncanny X-Men) , those that are alive are basically relegated to the fringes of society. Logan (Jackman) is currently caring for an ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the aid of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Of course, a quiet life in a remote location is not in the cards for our protagonists. A mysterious woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) enters the scene requesting that Logan help her protect a young child in her charge, Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen). There are some bad men lead by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) after her for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses; I will spare you the details here just in case you have not seen the film.

For me, what proceeds from this point in the story is quite reminiscent of 2006’s Alfonso Cuaron project Children of Men, a tale that also involves a somewhat reluctant man traveling across an expanse with the goal of escorting someone to a destination that is a sign of hope in a world seemingly devoid of it.

Another movie reference which informs, is featured and runs parallel to the actions of Logan is the similarly eponymous title, Shane – the 1953 western drama directed by George Stevens. Now, for all my classic film buffs, this on-the-nose reference should be enough to give you a general sense of where we are likely to be headed with respect to Logan.

As I mentioned at the open, above all else, this is a story about aging, relationships and what it really means to live, love and be a part of the world (or not). Yes, it is that much 🙂 In short, Logan really packed an emotional punch.

The performances top to bottom were engaging and noteworthy. Of particular note, I would like to call out young Dafne Keen and Jackman (of course). In his final go as our favorite adamantium-infused, ‘anti-hero,’ we feel the weight of the burdens the man carries and the journey he is on throughout as he comes to terms with his place in the world.

One final note, with Logan, not only are we being offered up this wonderful character drama, but there are some pretty solid tension-filled action sequences woven into the narrative to scratch that itch. The end result is a very satisfying outing to the cinema.

Have you seen Logan? Let me know what you thought

Logan James Mangold Hugh Jackman

Umberto D. (1952): A Lovely Introduction to Italian Neorealism

Something washed over me when I was watching Umberto D., the 1952 classic Italian neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica.

In the wake of Ken Loach‘s masterful I, Daniel Blake, I felt a sense of deja-vu in reverse. The similarities were jarring – the tale of a poor, elderly pensioner (Carlo Battisti) for whom the social safety net has failed, resulting in him struggling to regain his footing and dignity in a seemingly indifferent world. In Umberto D., this “world” is embodied not only in the form inadequate pension compensation but also in the person of the landlady (Lina Gennari) of the Roman boarding house where Umberto resides. Due to back rent due, Umberto is facing eviction.  Through this struggle, there are a few bright spots, his loyal four-legged companion Flike and the young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) who manages the housekeeping for the boarding house. In the latter, he finds a kindred soul for she is struggling with her own personal crises – being an unwed young woman who has fallen pregnant.

As the film progresses, so does Umberto’s desperation to try to hold onto something of a normal life and not one of absolute destitution and homelessness. The story builds and builds to a harrowing climax, which is sure to leave you on the verge, if not in a full state of tears. By the time the word Fin appears on the screen, you are left with a feeling that is part life-affirming, part uncertainty about what the future possibly holds.

I really do not know what else to say about this film – it is a simple story beautifully told and portrayed. Often, the most impactful moments are captured with the bare minimum dialogue. It’s in the quiet, still moments, when we see our characters wearing their weariness on their faces, that the story is at its most profound and poetic.

Italian neorealism is not something that I am overly familiar with except in the general knowledge that it was a popular movement in a post-war environment, punctuated by stories of the of the working- or under- class. On the heels of Umberto D., my interest is definitely piqued.

Umberto D. is available on Criterion DVD/BluRay as well as iTunes.

My Take on “Get Out” (2017)

Where does one begin with Get Out? I feel as if I can’t even put much together in terms of a critical analysis since I am, hours later, still trying not to stumble over my thoughts as to what all of it means. This alone is one reason that makes this feature, written and directed by Jordan Peele, a must-see – even if you are not a fan of the horror genre.

As was brought up to me earlier today in a conversation with a friend, Get Out has carved out a space in the horror genre which has been the often abandoned or forgotten for the splashier (pun intended) torture porn of recent years. Get Out is a psychological trip that serves as an allegory; in other words, it is not horror for the sake of horror. And that – at the end of the day – is what makes it so terrifying. It is telling us a story that is a glimpse into our own realities, whether we fully realize it or not.

DANIEL KALUUYA as Chris Washington in Universal Pictures’ “Get Out,” a speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of “The Visit,” “Insidious” series and “The Gift”) and the mind of Jordan Peele. When a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

As a critique of race relations in America, this film is a clear rebuke of how we engage and interact with one another cross-culturally, particularly when African Americans enter predominantly white spaces. In that way, Peele gives equal presentation – from trading in racial stereotypes, to the supposed more enlightened or “liberal stance” some might take. This latter attitude is most pronounced in the presentation of the protagonist Chris’ (Daniel Kaluuya) girlfriend’s parents, played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. They are so “down,” they would have voted for Obama a third time (insert chuckle here).

But let me pause – I am getting a little ahead of myself.

From the outset, Peele frames the story by starting with a (seemingly unconnected) breadcrumb that will have some payoff a little later in the story. After this cold open, we are introduced to Chris, a young, successful photographer who is about to embark on a weekend trip to meet the aforementioned parents of his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris and Rose’s interaction includes some cute and ultimately benign dialogue where they make light of the racial dynamics of their relationship.

As I write this out, that is actually kind of where I want to leave things, plot-wise, if I am honest. Establishing that Chris and Rose are headed from the city to her parents’ crib out in the ‘burbs is enough of a setup in my opinion. Mainly because you know that things are going to take a decidedly dark turn and likely spiral into a terrifying hellscape – with this being a horror film and all … That said, the journey to this destination is worth it because not only are you getting moments that will offer up a jump scare or two, but woven into the narrative fabric are some light moments, mainly in the form of Chris’ bestie Rod (LilRel Howery). This levity has added another layer to an already entertaining and enthralling piece of filmmaking.

Of course, the centerpiece of all of this is the cleverly constructed allegory which I have previously alluded to. There are moments where it really drives home the effect that these social interactions have on the likes of Chris. One quote in particular, at a point in the story where all is essentially revealed, really is stuck in my head and probably will be there for quite some time. It might be minor in the larger arc of the story, but it is something that really resonates with me.

So as you can tell, I really enjoyed Get Out. With its blend of terror, humor and social commentary, it is an accessible piece of movie making worthy of a look.

(L to R) Missy (CATHERINE KEENER), Dean (BRADLEY WHITFORD), Rose (ALLISON WILLIAMS), Georgina (BETTY GABRIEL) and Chris (DANIEL KALUUYA) in Universal Pictures’ “Get Out,” a speculative thriller from Blumhouse (producers of “The Visit,” “Insidious” series and “The Gift”) and the mind of Jordan Peele. When a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Commentary on Deadline Article on “Moonlight”

Yesterday, an ILC reader brought something to my attention that amazed and excited me in equal measure. So much so I decided to take a short break from my other drafts to wax poetic about what I read; it concerns the international market success for the Oscar-nominated film Moonlight, which I reviewed late last year.

For proper context, I enlist you to read the article on Deadline.com titled ‘Moonlight’ Shines At International Box Office As A24 Grows Offshore Biz Model.

As you will see in the article, a deliberate and strategic effort has been put in place by the film’s director (Barry Jenkins) and distributor (A24) to generate commercial success overseas, in spite of the subject matter and not having any star power that would normally be a draw for international audiences.

What I find fascinating in reading between the lines of this piece is that in addition to the above, there is the factor worth noting – Moonlight is a film which centers on African American lives.

Although the tide does seem to be shifting a bit in recent years, for quite some time I have read about the challenges film and television studios have had when trying to sell or promote their products that prominently feature casts of color. The conclusion being that there just isn’t a market for this “niche” piece of filmmaking overseas. The implied impact, of course, being that if you can’t repeat the domestic success abroad, one must consider carefully any future development projects that fit this profile. Now in the case of Moonlight, there is the recognition that because of the critical/awards successes and high profile it has received, the film’s cache increases as it enters the worldwide box office. Other films, unfortunately, might not be so lucky.

But if this article proves anything, is that with a little creative marketing strategy, the full-throated support of the studio and a general faith in a discerning and sophisticated movie audience, many films can find their footing outside of the United States.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016/7)

Where does one begin with this amazing documentary and make no mistake – let’s get that out of the way – this is an AMAZING documentary that I recommend everyone seek and discover.

In these uncertain times, I have often found myself at a loss of words on how to articulate exactly what I feel as I look at the world around me. On that level alone, the Academy Award ®-nominated I Am Not Your Negro could not have come at a more perfect time. After watching this documentary, I felt as if many others and myself are given a voice through the eloquent thoughtful words of James Baldwin.

Based on a 30-page manuscript from an abandoned 1979 project wherein Baldwin set out to detail a personal account of the lives and deaths of friends and civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the project never went past these few pages, they are more than enough to be brought to life through the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

The eloquence of the spoken words is accompanied with a wonderful visual language that director Raoul Peck has chosen to broaden out this original story to examine race relations in America.

As someone who (obviously) loves the language of film, I must say this cinematic technique was really put to good use. Archival interviews featuring Baldwin, photographs of the past and present, clips from classic Hollywood films, as well as contemporaneous images chronicling current events are beautifully woven to tell a story that is both very personal as well as serve a larger narrative purpose.

Often when you watch a documentary film, one tries to decipher what the central thesis of the work is. As the story revealed itself to me, I almost immediately registered that the filmmakers are trying to drive home one simple fact: history is not the past, it is now. Sure, some events may have happened in the past and as such, are a matter of record in the present. But never forget – the events of the past are alive and all around us, informing us as we journey through our lives. And sure enough, as the film neared its conclusion at 90 minutes, Baldwin in his own words said very much the same thing as if speaking to the audience from whatever realm he currently inhabits.

And given the dour circumstances and moments the documentary captured, there is a lovely and emotional chord of optimism struck at the end.

I Am Not Your Negro is an instructive and masterful work that will touch your heart and mind with its powerful message.

Fences (2016) – from the Great White Way to the Silver Screen

Many years ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform the August Wilson play Fences on Broadway. Fast forward a few years later, imagine my surprise (?) when news came out that they would be reprising their roles for the big screen. Of course, the cynical side of me immediately went to this being the ideal awards-bait. This status was further assured when the release date was announced. Would I allow this cynicism to deter me from seeing what is sure to be a cinematic display of tour-de-force acting (which it was, by the way)? Well, obviously I am writing about it, so I did not let this transient thought dissuade me one bit.

With a screenplay from the late playwright August Wilson and directed by star Washington, Fences is part six of Wilson’s ten-part saga (“The Pittsburgh Cycle”), which chronicles the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century.

Set in the late 1950’s, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh sanitation employee married to Rose (Davis), devoted wife and mother to their teenage child Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is a former Negro League baseball player who showed a great deal of promise until his life takes an ill-fated turn. It is this life-altering event which forever changes Troy and leaves him with a great deal of “bitterness,” a bitterness which becomes more apparent as our story progresses.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. By all accounts, given the time and circumstances under which they live, the Maxsons have a rather ordinary and stable home life, which includes visits from Troy’s recently departed (from their shared home) disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, reprising his stage role) and Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russel Hornsby, reprising his stage role) from a previous marriage. Another member of the extended Maxson clan is Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his stage role), Troy’s coworker and best friend.

As earlier mentioned, eventually the combined impact of Troy’s feelings about the course of his life and a myriad of forces from the outside world collide and manifest themselves, impacting the internal life of the family; I will leave it to you to see how fences come into play.

Beyond the literal and/or figurative meaning of “fences,” we have a dynamic family drama which unfolds beyond our eyes. Maybe because of my nearly seven-year separation from seeing the stage production, I was able to simply watch and enjoy without playing that mental game of “checking off the plot points.” Not doing this allowed more than a handful of scenes to really pack a punch and emotionally resonate with me.

One thing that always makes or breaks a movie adaptation of a stage play for me is the way in which the environment that surrounds the central action is presented on screen. In other words, how much the “visual world” of the story is represented on film. At its worst, it can go either the direction of being too isolated (maintaining the “single set” feeling stage plays are generally confined to) or go way too big – this usually feels like the film production is all too aware of matters of scale and therefore attempts to remedy this by expanding the movie to what they perceive will make it better suited for the cinema. Fences strikes this balance quite well. In fact, such a personal, intimate family drama lends itself to this visual storytelling.

One final point I had made note to point out as I reviewed Fences was the physicality of Mr. Washington. This is more a credit to how well he has aged over the years than anything else in my opinion, but I do remember thinking to myself as I watched the stage show, that he looked a little young in the role. So fast forward to the film adaptation, and I have to say that just the look of him really seemed to suit the character of a world-weary Troy Maxson much better.

As I reflect on these words, I really did not anticipate that this post was going to heavily rely on me comparing my stage and screen experiences, but I guess that was inevitable, especially as I enjoyed each in its particular medium. Not sure when (and if) this play will ever return to the Great White Way, but in case it doesn’t I highly recommend you take the opportunity to catch it at your local movie theater.

Sing Street (2016)

Maybe somewhere buried in this blog (or maybe not), I have talked about my unwavering love of music from the 1980s. Hands down and without a doubt it is a favorite period of mine. Just talking about the sounds of the era automatically fill me up with a sense of nostalgia.

I guess some of my friends know me and my penchant for this period well enough because it is a mate of mine who recommended I watch the film I will be discussing (Sing Street). And boy, I am very glad I took her up on her recommendation 🙂

Sing Street, which made its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, is written and directed by John Carney (Once, Begin Again). Set in 1985 Dublin, this musical/drama/comedy tells the story of teenaged Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), whose life is turned upside down when he is told by his parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) that due to money problems, he will have to leave his tuition fee-paying school and enroll in a local state (free) school, Synge Street CBS (Carney was a former pupil here).

Almost immediately, he finds himself on the wrong side of things with the school bully (Ian Kenny) as well as with the hard-nosed school principal, Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley).

At the same time, Conor makes an immediate connection with a beautiful yet mysterious young woman, Raphina (Lucy Boynton); he attempts to win her over by asking if she would like to feature in his band’s music video. Only problem? He doesn’t actually have a band – well not yet anyway. Conor uses this moment to set in motion the formation of a band (named “Sing Street” of the title), comprised of a few of his classmates. At the start, they primarily cover 1980’s pop songs. Then at the recommendation of his ne’er do well older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), himself a self-proclaimed music aficionado, Conor decides to take up the task of producing original music with fellow bandmate and instrumentalist extraordinaire Eamon (Mark McKenna).

I think I will stop here in terms of providing you all with a plot synopsis 🙂 What follows is an inspiring story which has its fair share of laughter, drama, and joy. Sing Street has a heart and musical soul that will remain with you well after the credits roll.

And speaking of music – major props to the composer Gary Clark for the work he did on this film. His original music wonderfully captured the tones and the sounds of the era as they accompanied the songwriting efforts of John Carney, Ken and Carl Papenfus (of the Northern-Irish band Relish), Graham Henderson and Zamo Riffman (Source: Wikipedia).

In addition to this original music, Sing Street also features songs from established acts including The Cure, A-ha, Duran Duran, The Clash, Hall & Oates, Spandau Ballet, and The Jam. And in case you are wondering, YES – many of the songs did make it onto the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

As I mentioned in my previous post recapping 2016, Sing Street was one of the highlights of my moviegoing year.

If you love music from the 1980s and are intrigued by “small” stories that are “big” with emotional resonance, then I cannot recommend Sing Street highly enough.

Have any of you seen this film? What did you think of it? Hit me up in the Comments section below.