Tag Archives: cinema

No Blood on that Popcorn, Please

Despite having grown up during the heyday of slasher movies, I prefer my flicks to be free of gore, or at the very least to use blood and guts sparingly. So when I get a yen for a movie with a supernatural tone, I look for one that’s essentially a ghost story, rather than a horror movie.

Ghost movies enjoyed a brief rise in popularity following “The Sixth Sense”. I enjoyed that one, but here’s another that I prefer, and urge you to check out: “Stir of Echoes”:

It seems that “Stir …” never became as popular as “Sixth Sense”. Not sure why – “Stir…” is more genuinely creepy and less sentimental, it moves at a faster pace, and it uses the familiar elements of the ghost story in a contemporary setting to make a memorable observation about how humans treat (and mistreat) others they perceive as outsiders, or otherwise less-than-normal.

(Apparently there’s also a later movie called “Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming”. I haven’t seen that one and can’t vouch for it.)

Any ectoplasmic flicks you recommend, fellow wonks?

Happy Halloween.

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Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron Menzies

Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron MenziesIt took a Martian invasion to make me aware of William Cameron Menzies. I watched “Invaders from Mars”, and the look of that movie kept reminding me of German Expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.

Menzies was both director and production designer on “Invaders…” Starkly chiaroscuro lighting, abrupt camera angles that deliberately unsettle the viewer, and actors filmed from below so that they loom up into the frame are all hallmarks of his style.

If you’ve seen “Gone with the Wind”, you’ve seen Menzies’ work. The title of “production designer”* was created by David O. Selznick to describe Menzies’ contribution to that epic film. His Expressionist leanings are toned down for “Gone…”, but you can see traces of them, especially in the scenes of Atlanta burning.

Menzies’ style seems to work best in genres like science-fiction (Things to Come) and thrillers (The Maze). These types of movies needed stark visual drama, and often highly-stylized costumes and sets, to put an audience in the right mood. A more lighthearted example is The Thief of Bagdad. Everything in this movie is more curvilinear and organic, and almost every surface is covered with a riot of fanciful, Middle-Eastern-inspired decoration.

Menzies sometimes let his stylings overpower the living, speaking, moving actors who had to inhabit the worlds he created. For example, “Things to Come” is a delight for fans of sci-fi and modernist style. But the heavy emphasis on visuals reduces the actors to stiff figures required to deliver their lines while locked inside the sets, costumes and camera angles that are really the stars of the film.

Once you’re familiar with Menzies’ style, you’ll start seeing his influence in lots of classic 20th-century films. And don’t miss David Bordwell’s entertaining and thoroughly-researched essay on Menzies. Professor Bordwell wonders, “Why has nobody written a book about him?” Good question. Until that book comes along, this essay is a terrific place to start.

* A production designer works with a film’s cinematographer and director to determine how that film will look. He or she determines the visual style that will create the right mood for the film, supporting the plot and ideas the film needs to convey. Typically this includes providing visual references (like photos and scale models) to the rest of the production team, and then translating those references into reality, once his or her concepts for the look of the film are approved.

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Wish I Had Those Two Hours of My Life Back

All films are thieves of time*. The good ones filch roughly two irreplaceable hours of your finite time on this earth, and do it like the archetypical charming jewel thief – in a way that leaves you grateful. And the lousy ones are more like carnival barkers or pickpockets that leave you feeling cheated, disgusted, bored, or nothing at all.

Sure, if you decide partway through a film that you don’t like it, you’re always free to leave the theater, click the “Stop” button on Netflix, or take the DVD out of the player, break it over your knee, and fling the shards across the room. But once I start a movie, I’m obliged to watch it all the way through. Who knows, maybe the plot or the quality of the acting will REALLY come together in those last five minutes! If viewers won’t give a movie a fair chance by at least watching all of it, I don’t believe they have the right to gripe about it later. And griping about crummy works of art is a pleasure unto itself. (Check out some of Dorothy Parker’s scintillating reviews of subpar books and plays, if you doubt this.)

So what movies do you wish you could un-see? Below are three of mine. Hollywood, I’m sending you the bill for these six hours of my life:

  • Quantum of Solace: A bloated, joyless slog, starting with that inscrutable title. (Brings back thoughts of every concept in math and science classes that either bored me witless or made absolutely zero sense.) Maybe there’s no going back to the free-loving fun of Bonds like Sean Connery and Roger Moore. But this one isn’t even leavened with the dry, dark humor that the British excel at.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Great cast and sumptuous locations wasted on a talky script and Woody Allen’s very, very tired notions. The feeblest of these is his idea that any interaction between men and women who are potential romantic partners is automatically hilarious, no actual cleverness or originality required. Cripes, I wish Penelope Cruz’s character had shown up much earlier with that gun of hers and shot several more people, and saved us all some tedium. Fellow wonks, have you ever read wildly positive reviews of a film that left you cold, and wondered if everyone else had somehow seen a different movie with the same title? That was my experience with this film.
  • Ghost: When people gush over this one, I struggle to recall anything except way too many close-ups of Demi Moore crying with her mouth partly open. It required a visit to Rotten Tomatoes to remind me that it also included Whoopi Goldberg’s “magical Negro” character.

* with apologies to Tony Hillerman

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Tippecanoe and Movies, Too

Fed up with politicians’ monkeyshines? Can’t wait til the elections in November are finally over? Is that what’s botherin’ you, Punky?

Well, you’ve come to the right blog. Movies that point out the absurdities of elections, governments and political processes have become one of my favorite mini-genres. Blame it on Watergate: that was the big story around the time I was old enough to start paying any attention at all to any kind of news. Or maybe it was all those evenings watching “Laugh-In” with my politically-astute mom when I was a cine-tot. For whatever reason, to me real-life political topics almost inevitably swerve into the realm of farce.

So if you’re in the mood to just turn all those rascals out, here are a few appropriate flicks:

“In the Loop”: Be prepared to turn on the subtitles, and possibly stop and re-watch a few scenes, to get the hang of this one. Your efforts will be rewarded with hilarious dialogue, particularly the tapestries of high-speed, inspired Scottish profanity woven by Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi).

“Idiocracy”: Imagine a world in which people believe that irrigating farms with Gatorade is a good idea, and the president’s name is Frito. Depending on your mood, this one will either console you by showing how much dumber the human race could be, or depress you by showing how much dumber the human race is likely to become.

“Dr. Strangelove”: OK, confession time: this post is really just an excuse for me to write about my favorite flick of all time*. “Strangelove” spells out all you need to do: just keep your bodily fluids pure, and never let the Russkies see the Big Board.

“C.S.A.”: What if the Confederates won the American Civil War? This one is horrifying and hilarious by turns. Whether this highly-detailed alternate history seems plausible to you or not, it’s at least thought-provoking.

“The Mouse on the Moon”:  You’re a tiny mythical country in need of a spot of cash for some new plumbing. What do you do? Hit up a couple of superpowers for the money by pitting them against each other, of course. Whimsical and dry as only the British seem to be able to do, with nods to Jules Verne and Georges Méliès in the look of the British rocket’s interior and the moon’s surface.

“Duck Soup”: Hail, hail, Freedonia! When disputes arise with your neighbor, do like Harpo Marx does: take off your shoes, roll up your pants, climb into that neighbor’s lemonade dispenser and make bicycling motions with your legs. (This is probably what really goes on behind closed doors at the U.N.)

“The Juche Idea”: If Christopher Guest made a film about North Korea, it might look like this. This mockumentary about a South Korean video artist in the land of Kim Jong Il includes the subtitle, “Your video ‘Dentures of Imperialism’ seems underdeveloped. It doesn’t quite make sense, and I’m not sure what the point is.” Well, that makes two of us, sunshine. If you have insight in to this one, readers, feel free to elucidate in a comment!

“Election”: This is what happens when you mess with destiny by trying to rig a high school’s election for class president. Reese Witherspoon‘s wide-eyed, straitlaced delivery of the phrase “It’s a travesty!” is just one of the delights of this cynical little flick.

“Four Lions”: Four dedicated but dimwitted Islamic fundamentalists decide to make a statement that London can’t ignore. What could go wrong? You’ll have a hard time getting this one out of your head. It’s an unsettling mix of the broadest British slapstick, and truly shocking bursts of menace and tragedy. Whatever humor remains by the end has turned an absurdist shade of utter pitch-black. (Watching with subtitles turned on is the only way to understand what’s going on in some of the scenes, especially those which layer Arabic insults on top of 21st-century UK slang.)

*Depending on the day, my favorite flick alternates between “Strangelove” and “Sunset Boulevard”.

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Father of the Wonk

Father of the WonkDads. They ask for so little for themselves, even on the day that’s dedicated to them. (Click here for gift ideas.)

My own dad is not quite the cinema buff that my mom was. So my fond memories of growing up with him include more things like a Saturday morning spent learning how to cross my eyes, and watching many drawings of horses – usually dressed in hats, collars and big wide neckties – emerge from his mechanical pencil. But here are a few movie-related experiences with my dad that helped shape the wonk I am today:

True Grit” (original and remake): As a teenager I came close to being nocturnal (thanks partly to my job at the local movie theatre). Coming home late one night, I found Dad still up and watching “True Grit”. “You gotta listen to this dialogue,” Dad said, and turned up the volume just in time for me to hear Glen Campbell say to Kim Darby, “A little earlier I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss from you, although you are very young… and you’re unattractive to boot. But now I’m of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” That was all the reason I needed to stay up and keep watching with Dad. Growing up in Oklahoma, I had seen plenty of Westerns – both the TV and film varieties. And my mother’s interest in classic Hollywood movies had already introduced me to the idea that good dialogue was important to a film. But this kind of pleasingly quirky talk was not something I expected from horse operas. When Dad accompanied my husband and me to see the remake of “True Grit” in 2011, that scrumptious bit of verbage was one of the ones I was hoping that the Coen brothers would see fit to keep in, along with “A clumsier child you’ll never see than Horace; I bet he broke 40 cup” and “Son, your partner’s kilt you and I’ve done for him.”

“Cat Ballou”: This was the first movie I recall watching on the first VCR that my parents bought, around the time I started college. My sister and I had never heard of this film. But Dad had seen it when it first came out, and recalled a scene in which Lee Marvin, drunk, is mounted on his horse, also drunk, which has its front legs crossed and is leaning against a building while they both try to look nonchalant. So when I was home on Thanksgiving break, we gave it a look. It’s a hoot: Lee Marvin playing twin brothers, one of whom sports a prosthetic silver nose, Greek-chorus-style musical commentary by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, and … oh, go check this one out, or watch it again.

“Raising Arizona”: Another offbeat gem set in the American West. This was the last movie we went to see all together as a family before I left for college. Come to think of it, this was probably my first Coen brothers movie. We arrived at the showing a little late (very unusual for my punctual family), but took our seats, had a heck of a good time guffawing at lines like “Son, you got a panty on your head”, stayed just long enough into the next showing to see what we’d missed, then trooped out just as quietly as we had come.

“To Please a Lady”: Finding out that both my dad and I had seen this movie was a complete surprise. I plucked it off the DVD shelf at the public library, figuring that any movie with both Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck had to be just odd enough to warrant a look. The title made me think it would be geared for a female audience, but there’s a lot of auto racing in it. Clark Gable plays a midget car racer who performs in a “Thrill Show” owned by Joie Chitwood. I only recognized Chitwood’s name because it had come up not long before in conversation with my dad (a lifelong car enthusiast). An email to Dad revealed that he’d seen “To Please a Lady” when it first came out. Same movie, viewed 60 years apart, for different reasons.

… and a few flicks Dad wasn’t too crazy about: Most conscientious parents end up sitting through films they don’t much care for, just to please their kids. Mom and Dad both endured their share of Disney’s kid-focused extravaganzas. (Although my dad has expressed a fondness for “The Jungle Book”.) And during my especially awkward early-teen years, when I was old enough to be obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, but too young to drive myself anywhere, who gave up irreplaceable weekend time to take me to the entire original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Flash Gordon”, and Ralph Bakshi’s version of “Lord of the Rings”? My dad.

If your pop is a cinema buff, treat him to an afternoon at the movies on Father’s Day. If he’d rather be doing something else, give your movie obsession a break and join him in that activity. Because whether you spell it “paterfamilias” or “far-ger”, you’ve only got one dad.

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Would You Watch Flicks With A Goat? Would You Watch Them In A Boat?

Watching movies in a boat, with a goat For true cinema wonks, the answer is always “Yes!” (unless the goat has neglected to bring along some chevre to share, or the boat is loaded with people who talk during movies and have come equipped with crying infants and jangling cell phones.)

Funny how much the physical setting we’re in affects our impression of a film. Recently my husband and I found ourselves in a makeshift drive-in in Medicine Park, Oklahoma while we were on vacation. There we were, minding our own goat cheese, ambling down the main drag in the soft evening air, when a big parking lot across the street sprang to life with an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”, projected onto a screen just slightly too big for someone’s living room. So husband and I found an open park bench and passed a pleasant 20+ minutes in the company of Jed Clampett and kin, along with dozens of fellow Okies watching from lawn chairs and the beds of pickups.

Turns out this was only the beginning: as soon as the final notes of Flatt and Scruggs died away, “The Flying Tigers” blazed onto the screen. Husband is a lifelong fan of the Duke, and I’ll watch just about anything, especially if it’s older than I am and in black-and-white. So we watched as long as we could, til the park bench became too hard and we weren’t sure we could find our way in the dark back to our charming cottage if we waited any longer. Next morning, the drive-in was gone like Brigadoon (although the coffee and outstanding baked goods at Mrs. Chadwick’s were wonderfully real).

This got me thinking about the different environments I’ve watched movies in, aside from the usual living room/auditorium/theater settings. Actual drive-in theaters (not the DIY Medicine Park kind) were a little past their peak by the time I came along. Neither of my parents was that interested in trying to watch a movie with squirmy or drowsy kids from inside a car using a tinny sound system, surrounded by others trying to do the same (or not). So I have only one very hazy memory of being at a drive-in as a youngster, as well as a couple of visits as an adult to the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, Oklahoma with husband. (The films we saw at the Admiral Twin were “Desperado” and “Waterworld”. The drive-in setting wasn’t particularly kind to either one.)

Here are a couple of other offbeat settings I’ve encountered, and the movies I saw there:

  • The restored Orpheum Theater in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, for “Lilo and Stitch”. This is the only two-story movie theater I’ve ever been in. (I think our showing was upstairs.) Kinda cramped, but the caged bird in the lobby added to its charm.
  • The dining hall of a nursing home in midtown Tulsa, for “Boys Town”, “White Christmas”, and several other old flicks. At one time, my church did kind of a “movie ministry” at one of the local nursing homes. No big agenda, just a way to spend a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon a month with older folks who didn’t get many visitors. Showing movies that they might remember from their younger days seemed like something we could manage without requiring too much time or expense. We did get a few audience members each time, most of whom shuffled in and out, or dozed through whatever VHS tape we were able to coax the home’s balky VCR to play.

What are some unusual settings that you’ve watched movies in? (And would you recommend these environments to others, or not?) Share your experiences in the Comments, won’tcha?

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Mom, the Movies and Me

Mom and me: 2 popcorn buckets at the moviesMother’s Day is coming up. (Quick, order a nice bouquet, or something more unexpected,  if you haven’t already obtained a Mom-appropriate gift!) My own mom had a lot of influence on my interest in movies (to say nothing of the countless other ways she shaped me). Maybe your mom did, too. Here are a few film-related gems of wisdom she passed on to me:

Movie manners: my mom was the one that taught me that it was OK to come into a movie after it had already started, and then stay just long enough into the next showing to see the part you missed.

Some words are so much funnier than others: Like “kumquat”. Mom pointed this out one fine day when I was watching “It’s A Gift*”, probably on the “Channel 8 Morning Movie” from KTUL. She was walking through the room with a load of laundry during the scene in which W.C. Fields is cornered in his grocery store by a customer with a very specific demand. And that demand is KUMQUATS. (Watcher beware: a lot of the humor in the YouTube clip at this link is at the expense of the sight- and hearing-impaired.) But, laundry-burdened though she was, Mom had time to point out to me that “kumquats” made that scene much funnier than “apples” would have. This insight seemed magical to me at the time. And for someone like me who really treasures anything funny, and who on occasion tries to be funny myself, it’s been priceless. Can’t thank you enough, Mom.

Alec Guinness had a career before Obi-Wan: One branch of Mom’s family came from the British Isles, and she was always partial to the particular brand of dry wit that the British do so well. Lest I think that Alec Guiness‘ distinguished career began and ended with “Star Wars”, she introduced me to “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and the original “The Ladykillers” . Which opened the door to the quaint, often funny, occasionally dark world of films made at Ealing Studios. Their movies are still comfort food to me.

It’s OK for feminists to laugh at dumb blondes: Mom and Dad both made sure my sister and I got good educations and were otherwise well prepared to thrive as independent women. (Regrettably, I don’t think any video exists of Mom, my sister and I sashaying around the kitchen while Helen Reddy belted out “I Am Woman” from a cassette in our clunky portable black tape recorder.) That said, Mom wasn’t above the occasional snicker at the expense of our own gender. She and I watched “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” together, and Mom hooted louder than I did at Lorelei Lee’s “I can be smart when it’s important“. Which introduced me to the idea that, once in a while, it’s OK to be just clever enough to get what you want. She also sent the occasional mixed message. There’s a scene in “The Quiet Man” in which John Wayne drags – yes, literally drags – his wife, played by Maureen O’Hara, up hill and down dale to bring her back home after she’s tried to leave him. It’s supposed to demonstrate that he cares about their marriage enough to take drastic action. But by more modern standards – the standards my parents wanted to instill in us – it’s cringe-inducing. Yet when we watched it together, there was Mom at the other end of the couch, chortling. And when one of the village matriarchs steps in to lend John Wayne a hand with the words “Sir!… Sir!… Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady“, Mom dissolved completely in laughter.

Later she made a point of taking me to see “The Color Purple“. But I wasn’t quite ready to take in all that that film had to say. (My escapist tendencies were already forming.) Wish I’d been a little more mature.

It seems fitting that one of my last memories of spending time with my mom includes a movie. By this time, she was having serious health problems, but sitting together watching movies was something we could still manage. That evening, it was Marilyn Monroe again, in fabulous black-and-white, in “Some Like It Hot“. The terrific dialogue (Billy Wilder, one of my all-time favorites, was one of the screenwriters) includes Marilyn lamenting, “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” Mom managed a soft chuckle, and that expression earned a permanent place in my vocabulary.

Mom passed away a few years ago, but as you can probably guess I think of her just about every time I’m about to enjoy a classic movie. If your mom is still with us, be sure and give her a hug on Mother’s Day and every other time you get the chance. And if you have any movie-centric memories of your own mom, dad or other family members, I’d be honored if you shared them here.

* This movie was hilarious to me when I was in kindergarten, and forty years later it still cracks me up. How many things are there in life that you can say that about? You must meet Mr. LaFong: click here.

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