Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blind Spot: The General

There's a theory among cinephiles that when it comes to the comedians of the silent film era, you fall into one of two categories: You're either a fan of Charlie Chaplin and his "Little Tramp" character or a fan of Buster Keaton–"The Great Stone Face". Having never seen a film from either of them, I could never accurately make an educated opinion on the matter. But, having finally caught up with Buster Keaton's The General–what some consider to be the greatest silent film ever made–I guess I'm gonna have to declare myself a Chaplin fan, sight unseen. Because the truth is, well, here goes: I didn't care for The General.

I'll be the first to admit that my education and knowledge of silent film extends to only a handful of pictures, but the thing is, I really enjoyed those other films (Metropolis, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and The Passion of Joan of Arc). So, it's not that I'm against silent films as a whole. Nor do I think the label of "Greatest Silent Film...EVER!" was making my expectations impossibly high. After all, Citizen Kane is considered by most to be the "Greatest Film Ever. Period" and it more than lived up to whatever baggage can come with such a lofty title. (And, believe me, I was prepared to be disappointed. But, damned if it doesn't live up to its hype.)

At the time of its release in December 1926, The General was actually considered a flop. So much so, that it cost Buster Keaton the freedom he had as a filmmaker and he was forced to enter a contract with MGM that severely restricted his control. It wasn't until recently that its status has grown to be included among the greats. But, I'm gonna have to take the side of the critics from the 20s who found the film to be tedious and, worst of all, just not funny.

Set in the South at the start of the Civil War, Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray a train engineer who has two loves in his life, his engine–The General–and his girl, Annabelle Lee. After the firing on Fort Sumnter, Annabelle's father and brother go to enlist in the army. Johnnie, wanting to impress his lady, goes as well, but is dismissed. They believe he'll be better for the cause in the position he's already in. Annabelle tells him she doesn't want to see him again until he's in uniform. A distraught Johnnie sits on the rod of the engine's wheels and, in the most iconic moment of the film, he begins to move up and down with the rod as the train pulls out of the station.

If you know anything about this film, you know about this scene. But, it was over so quickly that it barely had time to register as a moment. Just when the train begins to pick up momentum, it enters into a tunnel and we lose sight of Keaton. I understand how dangerous it is to sit on a moving train the way he did, I just wish it had been just slightly longer.

A year has passed. Annabelle takes The General to visit her wounded father, but little does she know that the Northern army intends to hijack the train from Johnnie when the passengers are at dinner so that they can take it back North and destroy the track and bridges along the way. Unfortunately, she's in the train at the time and taken hostage.

Johnnie sets about trying to get his train back first by foot, then by bicycle, and then finally takes another train to pursue them. An almost 20 minute "chase scene" ensues involving one train right behind the other. On a track. I gotta say, nothing could be more exhilarating than two slow moving trains in hot pursuit.

There's plenty of business to fill the time. Including a bit with a canon, that's not particularly funny if you've seen a Looney Tunes cartoon. (Come to think of it, I never found it funny in the cartoons either.) But, it all just starts to seems like business. And in another daring stunt, Keaton sits on the front of the train and deflects falling railroad tracks. I have to admit, it's pretty impressive when he's able to knock them out of the way of the track, but it's bit that falls flat comedically. Is it supposed to be funny or are we just supposed to applaud this feat of daring do?

After rescuing Annabelle and overhearing about a plot to invade and take the Southern troops by surprise, we now get a second train chase that's also over 20 minutes long. This time the Yankees are in pursuit of Johnnie, who has taken back The General. Have I mentioned that the film is only about an hour and 15 minutes long. The entire length of the film is practically made up of train chase sequences. Once the second one started, that's when I started getting an incredible felling of deja vu and my mind began to wander.

Keaton's comedy is known for two trademarks: his incredible stunt work in which he literally risks life and limb. The other, his stoic reaction to things at a time when the norm in silent films was to be over the top–especially in comedy.

The film is filled with dangerous stunt work. In addition to the feats mentioned before, he flings himself about the moving train and runs across the roof with such abandon, it's amazing he made it through filming alive. But how is almost killing yourself for comedy worth it? Especially when the stunts aren't exactly funny, but more a test of endurance.

A classic example of his stoicism, occurs at the end of the film when he's made a lieutenant. Trying to kiss Annabelle, he is constantly interrupted by soldiers saluting him–a higher ranking officer. When an entire troop passes by, he calmly turns and blindly starts to salute as he finally gets the kiss he's after. It's actually one of the funnier scenes in the film. But instead of laughing out loud (which I never did the entire film), you find yourself thinking it's funny instead of actually finding it funny. And that is ultimately the disconnect for me regarding Keaton and the film. There is much to admire. All the elements are there. But, in the end, the admiration isn't enough. You don't want to think something is funny–you want to actually let loose with a laugh of approval.

This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.

The Tony Award Nominations Are In!

The 2012-2013 Broadway season is officially over and what better why to celebrate some good ol' fashioned theatre (pronounced thee-AYE-ter...but, honestly, don't really pronounce it that way.) than with an awards show! Broadway may not be as accessible as film or television, but it's the heart of NYC and nothing quite compares to seeing live theatre! (For those of you that live in NYC or plan on visiting, there's a lot of affordable options to see shows. I LOVE theatre, but I sure ain't paying $130 for a show. If you are 35 and under, Roundabout has a program called Hiptix. It's free to join and the tickets are $22 to all their shows. LincTix is the Lincoln Center version for 35 and under. It's free to join and their tickets are $30. Manhattan Theatre Club has a 30 Under 30 program. And Playbill always lists the Rush ticket policy for the Broadway shows. Don't say I never did anything  for you! Go out and see something!)

The nominations were announced this morning by two-time Tony award winner, Sutton Foster (love her!) and Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson (yep, he was...also there). So without further ado, let's look at the nominees!

Best Play
The Assembled Parties
Lucky Guy
The Testament of Mary
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The only one of these I haven't seen yet is Lucky Guy. I'll have to try to get a standing room ticket on a Tuesday or something. I am very surprised with the inclusion of Mary here–especially since it's star, Fiona Shaw, isn't nominated for Actress! It's a one-woman show! If you didn't like her in it...what are you nominating?!? Despite enjoying Shaw's previous work with director Deborah Warner (Madea and Happy Days), I can't say I was a fan of this one. Shaw seems lost at what to do and her unnecessary busy work of moving ladders and taking baths combined with her vocal acrobatics distract from the story. The purpose of the work is to give Mary back her humanity after centuries of being glorified. It would have been better accomplished by something more simple and intimate, which doesn't exactly work on Broadway. This afternoon it was announced that it's closing on Sunday. So...congratulations on the nomination?

I would have much preferred to see Douglas Carter Beane's The Nance in Mary's place. The play, about a burlesque performer in the 30s that plays the stock gay character known as a nance and just happens to be gay in real life, is about censorship, being true to yourself and is both ridiculously funny and achingly bittersweet. 

But, the play to beat this year is (for once) a comedy: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. I just saw it last week and really enjoyed it. It's a modern-day, comedic take on Chekov, but you don't really need to know much about that playwright to enjoy it–it only gives the humor more depth. (You can think while you're laughing!) The playwright, Christopher Durang, known for his absurdist comedies, has never won a Tony. I have a feeling this play just might do the trick...

Best Musical
Bring It On: The Musical
A Christmas Story, The Musical
Kinky Boots
Matilda The Musical

I would just like to point out that all these are based on movies (well, technically Matilda is a book. But, there's still a movie!). I get that there's a built in audience from a film (did anyone actually see the movie of Kinky Boots?), but I just wish that new musicals would take more of a chance and show a little more creativity. However, I have not seen any of these, so who am I to judge? I do really wanna see both Matilda and Kinky Boots–and it looks like it's between them for the win. Matilda had more buzz going in, but Kinky Boots received more nominations today. Do we have an actual race here?

Best Revival of a Play
Golden Boy
The Trip to Bountiful
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I almost fell asleep typing out those nominees. Granted, I heard good things about Golden Boy and Woolf. But, how did Orphans get here? No one seemed to like it and I know people who literally feel asleep at it. This one is Woolf all the way. Only...I never saw it. Don't tell, but...I don't really like that play.

Best Revival of a Musical
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

I love that 5 shows were eligible and 4 were nominated. True, Jekyll and Hyde didn't stand a chance (countdown to closing announcement begins...now), but it just seems so cruel. I saw Drood  and liked it a lot. But, Pippin is winning this. I tried to get rush tickets, but didn't get there early enough. But I reeeeallly wanna see it. I've got magic to do!

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Tom Hanks Lucky Guy
Nathan Lane The Nance
Tracy Letts Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
David Hyde Pierce Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tom Sturridge Orphans

I think the biggest shocker here is that Alan Cumming didn't receive a nomination for his tour-de-force performance of playing all of the characters in Macbeth. His spot was taken by Tom Sturridge, who is gonna have to be happy just to be nominated because this one is going to Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut. Since I don't see Lucky Guy winning Best New Play, it would be a way of honoring the late Nora Ephron as well. Lane, Hyde Pierce, and Letts are all great (and all previous Tony winners), but I really don't see any of them beating America's favorite actor of the 90s.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Laurie Metcalf The Other Place
Amy Morton Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kristine Nielsen Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Holland Taylor Ann
Cicely Tyson The Trip to Bountiful

Jessica Chastain, Scarlett Johansson, Sigourney Weaver, Bette Midler, Jessica Hecht, Fiona Shaw–just a list of actresses who didn't receive a nomination in a (surprisingly) really crowded year. I think an even bigger surprise is that Kristine Nielsen was able to get a nod here when it was originally considered featured. I thought there was no way she could break in, but I'm glad to see her here as I thought she was best in show from V&S&M&S. She does a Maggie Smith impression! I think she has a shot to win, but she has stiff competition in Metcalf and Tyson. But, I'm still bummed that the Divine Ms. M didn't get a nom. Bette!

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Bertie Carvel Matilda the Musical
Santino Fontana Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
 Rob McClure Chaplin
Billy Porter Kinky Boots
Stark Sands Kinky Boots

It could only happen on Broadway– the battle of the drag performers: Carvel Vs. Billy Porter. I'm gonna give the slight edge to Porter since Carvel's performance is technically featured.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Carolee Carmello Scandalous
Valisia LeKae Motown The Musical
Patina Miller Pippin
Laura Osnes Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Everyone was shocked when the 4 actresses playing Matilda were deemed ineligible for this nomination. And now little Annie herself, Lila Crawford, is snubbed as well. The Tonys hate childern. It's as simple as that. It'll just make it easier for Patina Miller to walk away with that Tony...

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Danny Burstein Golden Boy
Richard Kind The Big Knife
Billy Magnussen Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tony Shalhoub Golden Boy
Courtney B. Vance Lucky Guy

I'm kinda confused by the inclusion of Magnussen. He was just so annoying in that show. But, that is his character, so I guess he did a good job. But, let's be honest, he's hot and in his underwear for most of the show. The nomination is for his abs. I just wish that Jonny Orsini who plays Nathan Lane's lover in The Nance had been included here instead. As for the winner? Shalhoub. I really have no idea.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Carrie Coon Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Shalita Grant Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Judith Ivey The Heiress
Judith Light The Assembled Parties
Condola Rashad The Trip to Bountiful

After I saw The Assembled Parties, I turned to my friend and said, "Judith Light is winning her 2nd Tony." And in the second act when she came out on stage, the guy next to me said aloud, "I. Loooove. Her." Angela from Who's the Boss?– 3 back-to-back Tony nominations and a possible back-to-back win. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming. 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Charl Brown Motown The Musical
Keith Carradine Hands on a Hardbody
Will Chase The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Ebert Matilda The Musical
Terrence Mann Pippin

The only one I've seen is Will Chase...so, yeah. I've got nothing for this. 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Annaleigh Ashford Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Andrea Martin Pippin
Keala Settle Hands on a Hardbody
Laurence Ward Matilda The Musical

All I've been hearing about is how great Andrea Martin is in this. I think she's hilarious, so I'm game. I'm surprised that Chita and Jessie Mueller didn't make it from Drood. How do you not include Chita?! She's 80 years old and still got it!

More Nominations after the jump

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Star(s) Are Born

It has been said that there are no new ideas. Which would explain Hollywood's love of re-makes. But, anyone who thinks the phenomenon is a recent occurrence needs only look at the the oft-filmed story of A Star is Born to know that what's old is always new again. In fact, the first filmed version from 1937 was already inspired from a 1932 film called What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor...who directed (you guessed it) the 1954 musical version of the story. It seems that the only thing Hollywood loves more than a good re-make is the tale of a girl destined for stardom and the fall of the man who helped get her there.

The story of Esther (her biblical name already gives the story a certain gravitas), the titular star being born, has had the good fortune to be portrayed on screen by three very different, but no less talented, actresses. Janet Gaynor, who plays her in the 1937 version, was a popular silent screen star who made the leap to talking pictures and was the first recipient of the Best Actress Oscar for her work in three films (the only actress to do so before the rule was changed). Barbra Streisand, herself a Best Actress winner (although she did tie Katharine Hepburn for the honor that year) for her work in 1968's Funny Girl, played Esther in the 1976 version in which her profession has been changed from an actress to a singer. And in the 1954 musical version, in what has become a signature role and, perhaps, the actress most associated for the role (and rightfully so), the legendary Judy Garland.

3 Esthers, 2 Vickis, a couple of gay icons and the first Best Actress winner

I've spent almost 7 hours with these woman over the past couple of days (apparently in the case of Garland and Streisand, it takes a looong time to birth that star. Gaynor's assent was relatively quick by comparison at about an hour and 45 minutes). I had personally never seen any of the films before this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience, and ended up watching the movies in the order of preference and, well, quality: Garland, Gaynor, and, a distant third, Streisand.

I actually quite enjoyed the Janet Gaynor version, but after Esther becomes Vicki Lester (the name the studio gives her), the film follows the same trajectory as the Judy version almost scene for scene and line for line (well, minus the musical numbers). And once you've already seen Judy do it (complete with singing and dancing to boot), no offense to Gaynor, but you're no Judy. But, the reason the Judy Garland one works the best is for the simple fact that Norman Maine (the established star that takes Esther under his wing. Here played by James Mason) wants to help her become a star is because he's witnessed her talent and truly believes in her. And after seeing Judy Garland perform "The Man Who Got Away", how could you not be blown away? Just click on that link and tell me you wouldn't want to make her a star as well.

But for both Gaynor and Streisand, the only reason Norman (or John Norman in the 76 version) even takes an interest in Esther is because he's attracted to her. So there's no reason why we as the audience would believe that she's destined for greatness.

Gaynor's Esther is working as a cater-waiter when she bumps into Maine (played by Frederic March) at a director's party. He ends up getting her a screen test because he thinks she's "lovely". She only gets her big break starring opposite him by accident. When she's rehearsing her one line for a film as a telephone operator in the studio cafeteria, he confesses that his film needs a leading lady. The requirements are she's gotta be "little, cute, and sweet". Why, that's right in front of him! A star is born! He still hasn't seen her act. And judging from her impressions and accents she's been trying throughout the film, talent isn't necessarily a requirement to be a star in this film.

Kris Kristofferson's John Norman Howard actually does meet Streisand's Esther while she's performing in a seedy bar. But, he's too busy dodging the advances of fans and starting brawls to actually pay attention to her act. And when they finally talk he never mentions her talent. He only comments on how cute she is. Which, I don't know if you can tell in that picture from above, but she's not at all in this film. Sporting what may be one of the worst hairstyles captured on film and parading about in a series of increasingly bad 70s outfits (suspenders, tuxedos, knickers, caftans–at one point she wears an outfit that looks like the one Luke Skywalker wears in Star Wars), we can tell he's only after one thing–and clearly a liar. It's also hard to buy that a a musician that sports Halloween masks on stage and screams/sings lines like "go to hell" would ever be impressed or interested in the easy-listening stylings of Barbra Streisand.

The three Esther's outlook on fame and getting there couldn't be more different. Gaynor is full of pluck and determination. After all, she's just a small town girl that moved to Hollywood with a dream (and the financial assistance of a kindly grandmother). When the woman in Central Casting tells her the odds of making it are 1 in 100,000, Esther, rather than being discouraged, optimistically states, "Maybe I'm that One." She isn't above taking bit parts–it'll lead to something. And when the studio decides to change her name from Esther Blodgett to Vickie Lester, she happily goes along. Just eager to receive the chance.

I'm still trying to figure out if Streisand's Esther even wants to be a star in the first place. Unlike Gaynor who dreams of fame and makes it her goal, Streisand seems perfectly content to continue singing cat food commercials and performing with The Oreos (her girl-group that consists of two Black back-up singers and herself. Ugh.) When John has her go on stage at a concert, she seems more annoyed than thrilled. Her assent to rock stardom happens so quickly she never seems to take the time to wonder if it's what she actually wants. And when she's asked by a reporter if she'd ever consider changing her name from Esther Hoffman she snaps back at him, "why would I do that...It'd be a bother." She's so self assured of herself, as if she's been a star her whole life and nothing has changed. She seems ungrateful.

Garland's Esther Blodgett, on the other hand, knows what it's like to struggle. When Norman tells her to leave her steady job as a singer, she's very hesitant. It's not that she doesn't want to be a star, but she's been at the dream for a long time and knows how long it took to get where she is. But her conversation with Norman, who sees something in her, sparks a longing that's always been there. It's time to take a chance and get to that next level. Unlike Gaynor who's hungry for it and Streisand who's ambivalent toward it, Garland is realistically optimistic about it. (After discovering that the studio has changed her name to Vickie Lester when she goes to pick up her first paycheck, Garland's line reading of the name–first as confusion, then annoyance, and finally, acceptance shows the conflict she feels and the layers of emotions she has regarding her destiny.) She has the talent and may be afraid to admit it, but all she needed was that extra push from someone who believes in her to send her on her way.

And that's where the real heart of A Star is Born lies. There's a love between those two characters and a journey they take together. It's not just the tale of someone achieving stardom, but the simultaneous decline of the man who got them there. That relationship is why the story works and has been told so many times. Can you truly be happy for the person you love when it comes at the cost of your own success? And then can you be content with stardom when the man you love is obviously suffering? All of my shots from the films illustrate the complex relationship that Esther shares with her mentor/husband.

When Gaynor's Esther first arrives in Hollywood, her first stop is Grauman's Chinese Movie Theatre. While looking at the handprints and footprints of the famous movie stars, like Shirley Temple, in the cement in front of the theatre, she comes across the footprints of her favorite actor: Norman Maine. His was the last film she saw before she made her journey and it inspired her to take a chance. Full of possibility that anything can happen, she places her own feet in his:

Little does she know how soon their lives will be entwined. And he'll never know about this secret moment they shared, but it was the start of their relationship. 

Even if Streisand's Esther didn't seem to want stardom, there is no denying that she was deeply in love with John Norman. It's actually almost sickening the way the two roll around with each other, gaze deeply into each other's eyes, take candlelit baths as lovahs, and take about how crazy about each other they are. But they also have a tumultuous relationship full of shouting and broken bottles–just an excuse to have passionate make-up sex. After he is killed in a car crash (it's not really clear in this version if he crashes on purpose or if he's just so drunk he lost control), Esther is devastated. As the house they shared is being cleaned out she finds a tape recording of him trying out new music. Left alone in the empty house they shared, she listens to his words:

Ever the fiery relationship until the end, she begins to talk back to the recording, calling him a liar. She pulls out the cassette tape and destroys it, cursing him for not being with her anymore. This shot perfectly illustrates the emptiness and loneliness she feels now that he's no longer in her life.

In the 1954 version, Esther first meets Norman at a benefit concert. She is performing with a band and he is, of course, drunk, and wondering on and off the stage. She attempts to help him and ends up saving his reputation, as the audience believes it's part of the act. Later, as she is leaving, he shows his gratitude by drawing a heart with their initials in it on the wall with her lipstick. It isn't until later, when he can't stop thinking about her, that he encounters her in the bar singing "The Man That Got Away" and he realizes how special she is.

As the film progresses, thanks to Norman's guidance and help, Esther/Vickie becomes the star she was always meant to be. But, Norman's career is fading out. Already a heavy drinker, Norman begins to spiral out of control with his alcohol problem. Esther/Vickie's career couldn't be brighter, but she decides, after his stint in rehab puts him back on the bottle again, that perhaps fame isn't as important as taking care of her husband. She decides to give up her career to care for Norman. Norman, hearing this from the other room, makes the ultimate sacrifice. So as not to hold her back, he walks into the ocean and drowns himself.

This sets her on a depression in which she refuses to get out of. When she is due back at the same benefit show that they first met at years before, she is reminded by her friend (her pianist that was there from the begining and saw their relationship grow) that Norman wouldn't have wanted her to mourn like this. He wanted her to be great. If she didn't go out and share her gift with the crowds she would not be honoring his legacy.

Determined to show that she won't be defeated, Esther/Vicki goes to the benefit. But right before she goes on stage:

She is reminded of all that they shared and is flooded with memories. In the Gaynor version, at her premiere after Norman's death, she sees his footprints again. But, the reason this moment works on a more emotional level in this film is because this is their first memory together. Norman was actually there with her. It was the first time that they shared a connection. And rather than being reduced to a puddle of tears, like Streisand, she must compose herself to face the public. This moment makes her final moment of the film, "Hello, I'm MRS. Norman Maine" have that much more poignancy because we too, along with her, experience the time we spent with Esther and her man that got away.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My 10 Most Anticipated Summer Movies

The official kick-off of summer, Memorial Day, may still be over a month away, but summer movies are already starting in two weeks with the first big blockbuster, Iron Man 3 on May 3rd. (God, that's so soon. I was still wearing a winter coat this week.) And well I'm hardly excited for the release of that film (didn't we just see that Iron Man guy last summer? It's hard to miss you when you don't go away...), there are plenty of movies coming out that I'm eagerly looking forward to.

Summer is such a good time to escape the heat in an air-conditioned theatre to watch superheroes and things blow-up, but I just don't really have any of those movies listed here. I don't have anything against them, it's just that this summer's offerings aren't looking that appealing to me. (I mean, a 6th edition of the Fast and Furious franchise? C'mon.) I will say that I'm curious to see the new Star Trek mainly for future Oscar Nominee, Benedict Cumberbatch, and I liked the last one (people who actually like Star Trek said it wasn't Star Trek. Maybe that's why I liked it.) I'll also give Elysium a chance (although it looks an awful lot like Neill Blomkamp's last film, District 9. Now with Jodie Foster!) And I'm interested in the Superman reboot, Man of Steel (although, the last Superman was hoooorrible. And I don't know if I can get on-board with a red-headed Lois Lane, a female Jimmy Olsen named Jenny Olsen, and, most importantly, a Superman without the red briefs). Also, none of those movies need the help of some little blog writing about them–people are gonna see them regardless.

So without further ado, here are 10 films that are an alternative to the typical summer fare. And it just so happens, they're the 10 films I'm most excited about seeing this summer.

The Great Gatsby (May 10)

God, it seems like I've been waiting for this movie since last December...Oh, wait, I have. When news came that the release was being pushed from Christmas 2012 to May 2013, most people saw it as a bad sign. But, the same thing happened with the release of Moulin Rouge! (December release pushed back to summer) and I'd say that things turned out pretty well for that film (Best Picture nomination! 2 Oscar wins! And have I mentioned that I love it?!). So, I'm not too worried about this one. And with every new trailer and song release (Beyonce covering Amy Winehouse!), I'm getting more and more excited. There's Carey Mulligan on the cover of Vogue! A collaboration between the film's costume designer (and Baz's wife) Catherine Martin with Brook's Brothers! There's interviews with Baz giving very Baz-like answers to questions about the soundtrack! The only problem I have is, why do all the posters and trailers keep telling us it's from the director of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!? Don't people recognize a Baz Luhrmann film when they see it? They're pretty distinctive...

Stories We Tell (May 10)

I'm so annoyed that I waited so long to get tickets to see this when it was playing here in New York as part of the New Directors New Films series. Director/Actress Sarah Polley was there for a Q & A! I love a good Q & A...with a good moderator. Once they open it up to questions from the audience it can get kinda dicey...Although, calling someone who was two well-received films already (Away From Her and Take This Waltz) and an Oscar Nomination for Screenwriting, a new director seems kinda like cheating. Since the festival is for first-time filmmakers. Anyway! It's Polley's first documentary (new genre!) and she focuses on her own story–the rumor that her actress mother had an affair and that the father she grew up with isn't her real father. I've heard nothing but good things about it since it was at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. I find it interesting that her first documentary is an extension of her other films in that it focuses on what I love most about fiction–the storytelling.

Frances Ha (May 17)

I actually already saw this film back in October at the New York Film Festival. That's right, I'm putting a film I've already seen on a list of films that I can't wait to see. But, that's how much I enjoyed it! I really want to see it again, but most importantly, I want to get the word out for people to go see it! Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg) collaborated with the star of the film (and his girlfriend) Greta Gerwig on the screenplay about a twenty-something modern dancer in New York trying to find her way as she aimlessly drifts through life. Eh...that kinda makes it sound like every other coming of age story. Or Girls. Did I mention it's really funny and that Greta Gerwig gives her best performance to date?! She's really the reason to watch. Her natural charisma and skills as a physical comedienne are in full-force here. It's her star-is-born moment.

Before Midnight (May 24)

Alright Hollywood, you win. There is a trilogy that I'm interested in seeing that's being released over the Memorial Day weekend. Only this one is one is an adult, talky, comedic drama about a couple's relationship, that I've been invested in for almost 20 years. So, just to be clear, it's not The Hangover III.
   After their courtship in 1995's Before Sunrise and their rekindled romance in 2004's Before Sunset,      Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine are back! Taking place 9 years after the last film, the couple is now married with children and the film focuses on sustaining a relationship for the long run after the initial spark of attraction has faded. I adore the first two films and love that we get to see where these characters grow and develop over the years. I would be happy if we visited them every 9 years. Julie Delpy actually joked about that saying the last film would be like the Oscar-winning Amour.

The Bling Ring (June 14)

It was just announced this week that this latest film from director Sofia Coppola is set to open the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes this year–a part of the festival that focuses on young talent and promotes the use of innovation. I'm not sure how a director in her 40's who's releasing her 5th film in 14 years fits the description, but who understands the goings-on of the French anyway. The film is based on the real-life events of a group of girls in LA who stole from the homes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
  It's been 10 years since the success of Lost in Translation brought Copploa recognition as a director. Her films after that haven't exactly lived up to the hype of that film. I, for one, am a fan of her polarizing Marie Antoinette film, but feel that Somewhere tread on too-similar ground that she already covered more interestingly in Translation. But, that being said, I enjoy her aesthetic and still look forward to her films. This one sounds like it could be interesting–they're already doing a great job of selling it with the trailer and poster. And for me to want to see a film starring Emma Watson (an actress I usually find wooden and forgettable) is already saying a lot!

More after the jump

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saturday Mornings Chat and Chew

Lee: Good Morning.

Kiki: Morning...

Lee: So, here's the buffet...What's going on?

Kiki: Nothing. I'm great. Just great!

(Waitress walks by)

         Oh, ma'am? Can I get some more butter?

Lee: A word of advice: when you hit formica? Stop.

Kiki: You know the expression, "falling off the wagon", Lee? This is what it looks like.

Lee: Yeah, but, you've got 20, 30 pounds of food to break your fall. What the hell happened?

Kiki: Bad morning. Proceeded by 33 bad years.

Lee: Does this have something to do with Gwen?

Kiki: Mmm, of course not. I love my sister. I love everything about her...

         "Kiki. Kiki-kins. Who's smoking? I smell smoke. Is someone smoking within a six mile radius of
          where I'm standing?!? Stop them, Kiki! Stop them–"

(Waitress walks by)

        Oh, Ma'am? The butter?

        What are they out of butter? How can you run out of butter?

Lee: Well, I have one theory–

Kiki: You know, what? I need an assistant. If I had an assistant she would be outside right now–
         milking a cow–and I would never–ever–run out of butter...
         "Oh, Kiki, my butter has touched another food. I need new butter."
         (under her breathe) Oh, I need more honey.
        That's the way it goes, Lee. Right? You're a publicist. You know. Anything they want, right?

         She's got a green dress. Looks like crap on her. Brings out the circles under her eyes. She knows
         it. I know it...She gave it to me. It actually looks pretty nice on me. And then she says, well,
         maybe she wanted it back–you know what I mean? She doesn't want it. She just doesn't want me
         to have it. That's the truth.

Lee: So, what is it? You're in love with Eddie?

Kiki: Wouldn't that be stupid?

Lee: Kiki, I have done every one of their movies. I've never seen him look at her the way he's been
       looking at you. And if you're in love–you should just go for it. The way you went for this
       breakfast! Well, not the way you went for this breakfast...that's just...you know

Kiki: Lee? I think...I'm gonna be...sick...could you just...

Lee: Oh...

(Kiki leaves)
(Waitess sets down butter)

     Hi. Listen, I'm gonna take all this to go. I'll need, I don't know, 20-40 bags and a forklift.

(Waitress leaves)

     No Laugh. No tip.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Welcome to Jurassic Park

I never got to see Jurassic Park on the big screen in the summer of 1993. We never went to the movies very often. Maybe once a year when my aunt would take us at Christmas. But, I remember thinking that summer that I was missing out on something special. Everyone was talking about how amazing it was! Dinosaurs! Those new fangled computer animated special effects! The Blum! And it was the highest grossing movie of all time...for a little while anyway. It was the first time I can remember being aware of an "event" movie and I had to wait months –months!–to finally see it on VHS. But, I still remember that first viewing in our living room with all the lights out. The sheer joy of being as equally terrified as I was entertained.

And watching it again (20 years after it was released and probably about a decade since I last saw it) for this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience, I was amazed at how well it's held up. I forgot how much of an actual plot (with ideas!) there is before the non-stop action. As inventive as the computer stuff was at the time, what I love best is the use of the animatronics. I miss the days of actual concrete objects interacting on a real set, casting real shadows, getting genuine reactions from the actor. No computer could replicate the intimacy of that shot of Sam Neill lying against the Triceratops while it was breathing:

And that's the thing. How do you pick just one shot from the film with so many great ones to choose from? Do you go big with one of the iconic T-Rex shots:

Or what about that awesome venom-spitting dinosaur with the colorful frill. He's like the evil cousin of Frank in The Rescuers Down Under. After all, he was able to do something that Seinfeld was never able to do: destroy Newman.

How about one of the many overreaction shots of the ever expressive Laura Dern:

After a series of over-the-top faces, I love the blank stare of the last one. It's as if her inner monologue is saying, You know what, Spielberg? I've been giving it 110% for the past two hours. I have a fuckin' Oscar nomination, for Christ sake. I've had it with these motherfuckin' over-grown lizards...

But, ultimately I decided on this shot as the best:

I love how the juxtaposition of the painting on the wall, with the shadow of the lurking raptor, and Tim's turned head, builds the suspense. The composition is carefully planned out. Three profiles: one fake, one cast, and one of a very real little boy. The fact that we don't see the actual raptor and just feel the impending danger, is greatly influenced by the choice of the shadow. After all, our fears are compounded when we began to imagine what's behind us. Spielberg is an expert at getting into the mind of a child and using Tim as a stand-in for the audience. We are able to gasp along with him.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Pair of Shorts

Shorts films are in many ways the redheaded step-child of filmmaking. While the narrative form is honored every year at the Oscars in both animation and live-action form, you'd have to encounter a serious Oscar buff who would be able to name even this past year's winner. (I know Paperman won for animation, but Best Live Action Short Film...Um, was it about the Holocaust? A person with a disability? Oh, I know–a heartwarming tale about someone who overcame an obstacle. Oh, hell. Thankfully the internets can tell me it was Curfew.) And also thanks to the internet, short films have an outlet to actually be seen. It isn't necessarily that people don't want to watch shorts, it's just that without the wonderful world wide web it makes it nearly impossible for them to find an audience.

Also, thanks to Nathaniel over at The Film Experience,  a pair of B&W short films (one animated, one live action) are the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot. And, wouldn't you know, both are available online for free! Here and here. Go watch them!

Both the Eagleman Stag and Death to the Tin Man concern the hubris of men and the fate that befalls them after the severing of appendages.

Eagleman is a precocious child that grows up to be a world-famous entomologist (or, in his words–a fucking legend). When he is denied funding for an expedition, he cuts off the heads of all his insects. But, he discovers the Eagleman Stag is able to regenerate an entirely new one. He then begins an experiment on himself...

Bill is "the town pariah, the most hated man in a 20 mile radius". Considered a danger to the community, his girlfriend's father puts a curse on him. His ax causes him to cut off his limbs, but his friend is able to provide him with alternates made of tin...

The Eagleman Stag

The stop-animation in The Eagleman Stag is so meticulously detailed. The shot I've chosen above is only a brief second in a series of images that are flashed on screen in a montage. After Eagleman injects his brain with the insect's regenerating cells, we are taken on a fantastical journey through time and space. Things that occured previously in his life are reflected in a mystical way. I love how the book is opening up as tendrils of life-force flow out of it, inviting the audience in. It's as if they're reaching out to our own minds to release the infinite possibilities of our own imaginations.

Death to the Tin Man

Calling to mind a marriage of Wes Anderson and early Tim Burton, Death to the Tin Man has a wonderful sense of tone and atmosphere. The quirky set-up and deadpan dialogue begin to give way to a heartfelt (but never saccharine) story told through the filter of magical realism. The image I've chosen was, for me, the moment I was hooked. Like the image in Eagleman's Stag, it's a moment of unleashed imagination–but, this time, of the filmmaker. His unique vision is being shared with us through the medium of short film.