Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lady Bird

Lady Bird
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Let's talk about Saoirse Ronan, because I have a feeling we're gonna talk about her a whole lot more in the future. As I've said here, I knew she was going places the first time I saw her, in Atonement. Child actors who achieve success rarely live up to that promise as an adult, but so far, Ronan has bucked that trend.

She's worked with quality directors: Joe Wright, Peter Jackson, Peter Weir and Wes Anderson, among others, with baby steps into the mainstream - though I'm sure it's only a matter of time until somebody puts her in a superhero movie or a Star Wars spin-off or whatever.

She's American! I totally did not know that; she was only raised in Ireland. Not only that, she's a New Yorker, born in the Boogie Down Bronx. "Saoirse" is Irish Gaelic for "freedom."

Every year, it seems, some fine young actress comes along who is proclaimed as the new "it girl," the next Audrey Hepburn; movie pundits love anointing one, whether it's Emma Stone or Jenny Lawrence or Anne Hathaway or Kate Hudson or Gwyneth Paltrow, etc. etc.


Ronan's new film, Lady Bird, written and directed by indie film lifer Greta Gerwig, is a very good, very pleasant coming-of-age story that has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes; as a result, Ronan has become the current "it girl" and an Oscar contender.

It's my hope all this sudden attention won't go to her head; I want her to be popular enough to keep making good movies, but I don't want to see her get sucked up into the movie star hype and wind up on Page Six with a pop singer. It's way too soon to tell if that will happen - she's only 23 - but so far, she strikes me as level-headed and smart, and most importantly, she grew up and still has a career. That alone is noteworthy.


Unfortunately, I've seen very few of Gerwig's films as an actress. She was good in 20th Century Women; I don't remember who she played in Jackie. As a director, she gave us a nice sense of her hometown of Sacramento, the setting for Lady Bird. Her script was very character-driven, balancing humor with drama; Lady Bird is believable as a modern teenage girl who knows what she wants. I liked her relationship with her parents. This is one hell of a debut; a Best Picture nod has got to be a possibility.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Requiem for a Heavyweight
TCM viewing

By the year 1954, television was taking off: Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Ozzie & Harriet Nelson had top-rated shows; The Tonight Show debuted; Senator Joseph McCarthy became an unwitting TV star at the peak of the Red Scare - and a 30-year-old ex-radio writer had moved to New York with his family, stepping up from local TV in Cincinnati. His name was Rod Serling.

If you've ever stared out an airplane window, wondering if a monster is riding the wing; if you've ever looked at a child's doll and suspected it had a mind of its own; if you've ever noticed the lights in the night sky and feared aliens had infiltrated your cozy suburban neighborhood, you've been touched by his legacy.

Long before he led us into another dimension, not of sight and sound but of mind, Serling was another struggling freelance writer looking to break into the new medium that took America by storm in the 1950s, rewriting rejected radio scripts and pitching them to anthology series. In 1955, his teleplay for Kraft Television Theatre called "Patterns" was a hit, and it got him noticed. (I watched it for this post; it's very good.)

Playhouse 90 is now considered the gold standard of anthology series on television. After the success of "Patterns," Serling sold to the series' producers a teleplay that he would later call one of his greatest achievements as a writer: the boxing drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight," the tale of an over-the-hill pugilist searching for a life outside the squared circle even though fighting is all he knows. Jack Palance and Kim Hunter starred.




Serling and director Ralph Nelson both won Emmys for this episode. Adaptations were filmed in other countries, including England (where Sean Connery starred!). The New York Times called it "a play of overwhelming force and tenderness.... an artistic triumph."

In 1962, Serling and Nelson re-teamed for the film version, with a new cast: Anthony Quinn and Julie Harris, plus Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney. That's the version I saw on TCM.

It begins with Quinn's character getting his butt kicked in the ring, but it's shot entirely from his perspective, Lady in the Lake style. (This must have been where Ryan Coogler got the idea for use in Creed.) The camera blurs, going in and out of focus as if Quinn's eyesight was fading. When Quinn loses, Gleason and Rooney walk him back to the trainer's room (the walking is more convincing here than in Lady; a hand-held camera must have been used). We even see a rope lifted as he leaves the ring.


When we finally see Quinn's face, it's in a mirror, and he's a bloody pulp; that's when the opening credits roll. Oh, and did I mention his opponent is none other than Cassius Clay - before he became Muhammad Ali? He even got a line.

Quinn doesn't get a visit from the devil, offering him a deal; nor does he slip into an alternate reality or discover he's really a mannequin or anything like that; it's a straightforward drama with the same attention to human frailty and foible we've come to associate with Serling, held together by a dynamite cast.


I watched this with my mother, who once again, couldn't appreciate the artistry of the screenplay because it had a downer ending. Maybe I shouldn't complain - different people like different things in different ways - but my father would've loved this movie. He would've gotten why it ended the way it did and he would've appreciated it in a way my mother can't, for whatever reason. It's frustrating, but what can I do?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Five films based on self-published novels

...Bestselling self-published authors attract producers because they have a proven track record if they stay on Amazon sales charts over time, Howey said. “Hollywood is always looking for a built-in audience. They want to know they’ll recoup their investment,” he says. “Modern films easily cost $100m to make, usually more. There isn't much room for risk here.”
I've reached the end of the manuscript for my novel, though I can't call it finished yet; as a story, it's coherent, but there's more I can do to make it stronger, like streamlining the characters, removing excess detail, researching certain legal and medical plot points. I won't start until next month, though. After living with these characters for four years, I could use a break.

At some point, though, I'll have to make a serious decision about this novel's fate: will I get it professionally published, or will I do it myself? Neither option will guarantee success, but from what I've read, self-publishing sounds like a more sensible option, even if it's also the harder one.

No matter which way I go, I definitely don't expect Hollywood to notice. I wouldn't have thought self-published books were high on their radar, but if the article at the top is any indication, a tiny handful have beaten the odds and gotten made into films.

The 50 Shades franchise is the reigning champ so far. E.L. James created a website to publish her disguised Twilight fanfic, which got some notice and took off in a big way. Andy Weir took the same approach for The Martian. I don't know if that approach would work with me; besides, it's not considered a good idea to use outliers like these as a model.

Self-publishing has become easier than ever thanks to the rise of e-books, but it's certainly not new, and Tinseltown has taken chances on self-published novels before, as you can see in the following examples:


- Peter Rabbit. The manuscript for Beatrix Potter's turn-of-the-century children's book The Tale of Peter Rabbit drew more interest for her illustrations than the story itself, so in 1901, she made 250 copies for family and friends (including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle). One friend took it upon himself to revise it and send it to a publisher, Warne, and after some debate over the pictures, among other things, Potter signed a contract the next year. In 1938, Potter turned down a Disney adaptation over marketing issues, but Warner Bros. made a short film inspired by the book called Country Boy Rabbit. In later years, the book led to a ballet film and several animated series, and next year, it'll become a CGI movie.


Spartacus. When Howard Fast got thrown in the slammer by Congress for not ratting on his Communist pals, he wrote this sword-and-sandal book in 1951 in response and got a bunch of supporters to fund the printing. When Kirk Douglas got a hold of a copy, he bought an option on the book with his own money, and set up the film adaptation at Universal. (Little-known fact: Yul Brynner also wanted to make a Spartacus movie, at United Artists.) Fast struggled with the screenplay, so Douglas got blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo instead, who finished it in two weeks.


- Eragon. Christopher Paolini wrote the first book in his fantasy saga as a teenager, if you can believe that. His parents happened to run a small publishing company of their own, so maybe it's not entirely accurate to say this was self-published. While touring the country to promote the book, in which Paolini would dress up in a medieval costume, the stepson of author Carl Hiaasen bought a copy. Hiaasen showed it to Knopf, and they republished it in 2003. A year later, Fox bought the film rights, but the movie bombed big time.


Still Alice. Neuroscientist Lisa Genova self-published this women's fiction story in 2007 through iUniverse, one of a number of websites that offer publishing services. In 2009, Simon & Schuster republished it. Before it became an Oscar-winning film, it was a play. Christine Mary Dunford of Chicago's Lookingglass Theater Company adapted the story for the stage; it lasted a little over a month. British producers Lex Lutzus & James Brown bought the rights for co-directors Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland. Glatzer had recently been diagnosed with ALS, and his experience factored into the development of the film, in which the main character has Alzheimer's disease.


- The Shack. William Young wasn't going to publish his Christian fantasy novel, a Christmas gift for his kids, until he was talked into it, working with two ex-pastors and a filmmaker to self-publish the book in 2007. Word of mouth, through churches and blogs, plus a website, pumped it up to the top of the New York Times best-seller list for paperback fiction in its debut week. Some religious critics didn't like the book, calling it heretical (the main character encounters three avatars of the Holy Trinity, in non-traditional forms). Summit Entertainment made a film version that came out earlier this year. It made $96.4 million on a $20 million budget.

Writing a novel and getting it published is one thing; having that novel turned into a movie is something else altogether. The thought of the latter is mighty enticing, but I think I'll worry about the former first. It's a hard enough goal on its own.

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Related:
Five books I read after seeing the movie

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Facts of Life

The Lucy & Desi Blogathon is an event honoring the television and film careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host site.

The Facts of Life
YouTube viewing

Everybody associates Lucille Ball with her husband Desi Arnaz, but she also had a professional and personal relationship with Bob Hope. The Facts of Life was one of four films the legendary comedians made together, along with Sorrowful Jones, Fancy Pants (before) and Critic's Choice (after).

Ball and Hope had a different rapport with each other. Hope was more of a natural comedian than Desi; in Hope's first extended scene in Facts, for example, he does stand-up. In watching I Love Lucy, or her movies with Desi, there's more of a sense of Lucy as the special one, even though the spotlight is on both of them. Lucy's the one doing the crazy things: stuffing eggs down her blouse, driving a lawnmower out of control, etc.

With Hope, it feels more like a match-up of equals, at least here; they both have so much experience, not just as comedic actors, but as actors, and it shows whenever they're on screen together. Desi was an actor, but he was also a musician and a producer, careers about which he was equally passionate.



In Facts, Ball and Hope are friends who cheat on their spouses with each other. Age plays a role, but for laughs: in one scene, they swim on the beach at night, but when they're about to kiss, she catches a cold; in another, they both squint at their playing cards until they both admit they need their glasses after all. It's not Brief Encounter.

Ball and Hope start their affair while on vacation; the problems arise when they go back home and attempt to recapture the magic. The moments are funny, but they're also tinged with a little sadness, too: in trying to evade their respective spouses, they're like teenagers sneaking out of their parents' houses to rendezvous at Lovers Lane.



Facts was released in 1960, the same year as Lucy's divorce from Desi, as well as the end of the I Love Lucy spin-off, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. According to the book, Desilu, by Coyne Steven Sanders & Tom Gilbert, Desi was charged with "extreme cruelty" and "grievous mental suffering" as a result of his drinking and womanizing. Lucy knew how their fans would react to the news:
..."I received eight thousand letters at the time of the divorce announcement and read most of them," Lucille said later.... "They said, 'Why isn't there something you can do?' They didn't know I had been trying to do it for years. I was painfully aware of the feeling the American public had for Lucy [Ricardo] and their need for Lucy and Ricky as a happy family. The awareness held up my decision for a long time, until I couldn't allow it to do so anymore. Lucy solved a lot of marital problems for our viewers, and the idea of finding a laugh in a hopeless situation worked for Desi and me for a long time, too."
Their separation was amicable, all things considered; in fact, Ball and Hope tried to get Desi to appear in Facts, but he said his TV production commitments left him with no time.

Lucy would go on to meet comedian Gary Morton and marry him a year later; they'd stay together until her death in 1989...but that is another story.


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Related:
Desilu Studios
Books: Desilu

Other Lucy & Desi movies:
The Long Long Trailer
Forever Darling

Friday, December 1, 2017

Disastrous links

If I were to guess, I'd say most of us knew, or at least suspected, sexual harassment existed within Hollywood and either accepted it as fact or perhaps assumed there were channels through which someone could go in order to combat it - SAG, for instance. 

If there's any justice, this current wave of exposure will have repercussions beyond the film industry because it is by no means limited there (as long as it doesn't morph into a witch hunt); what I wanna talk about, though, is how do we, the movie-going audience, move on from here?

When I talked about Bill Cosby earlier this year, I had said I have too many good memories of him on television for them to be easily erased by the mountain of accusations leveled against him. On a fundamental level, this feels right. Kevin Spacey's career as a Hollywood actor may be finished, but no one's gonna erase American Beauty from the record, or The Usual Suspects or Seven; he still did excellent work in those and other movies.

Flawed people are capable of great works of art. Should discovering the flaws negate the work? I say no. Barbara Stanwyck was a right-winger who was rabidly anti-Communist and she is still my favorite actress.

I think we, the audience, have to be very careful not to look upon movie stars, or celebrities in general, or anybody in the public eye, really, as role models. Back in the studio era, it was easy to fall for the myth of the star as a larger-than-life demigod, because that's how they were sold to us -- but it was as much a lie then as it is now.

We need to draw a line in the sand that separates our respect for movie stars as entertainers from admiration little different from idolatry. That's not easy... but I think it's necessary. We just don't know who these people really are anymore. We never did.

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The novel is done! This draft, anyway; the next phase is revision, but I won't start that until next year. I have a fairly good idea of what needs fixing, and of what needs to be researched. I'll know more once I get feedback from my beta readers (I want four, but I'll settle for three).

Once it's DONE-done, as in proofread and strengthened, will l I try to take it to the big publishers, or will I self-publish it? Still don't know for sure. I'm reading so many writing blogs, learning all kinds of things about the industry and Amazon and e-books and this and that... It's safe to say it'll be awhile before I decide one way or another.

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This has been a hard week for me, so I'm gonna talk about two new movies here instead of giving them separate posts: 

- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was quite good. Frances McDormand's character is justifiably angry over the lack of justice for her murdered daughter, and that anger threatens to consume her, but we run out of movie before we discover how far she's willing to go. That was deliberate on writer-director Martin McDonagh's part; I'm still not sure how I feel about that, but regardless, this is a dream role for McDormand and she nails it.

- Coco comes a year after another animated movie set in a foreign culture about a young guitarist, Kubo and the Two Strings, but Pixar takes a different approach, using a holiday, the Day of the Dead, to define this world, the way it works, and how the characters act within this world. I was unfamiliar with the specifics of the holiday, so I had to really pay attention to understand why X does Y and how that will lead to Z, but it was so worth the effort. The opening act was a new Frozen Christmas short featuring the magic snow golem Olaf, and I hated him within the first two minutes. I'm in no hurry to see the original film.

Links after the jump.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
AMC viewing

As a kid, I had this peculiar habit whenever a musical, whether live-action or animated, came on TV: if I really loved the music, I'd write down the song titles, or at least, what I thought the titles were. This was important to me in some way I can't explain; it was as if by doing this, the songs became, I dunno, more mine in some fashion, like they'd be easier to remember.

I don't recall what I did with those lists. Maybe I stuck them in a notebook and left it in my desk. It's not like I went back and referred to them whenever the need arose. Why do kids do anything?

A number of those songs I committed to paper were written by Richard & Robert Sherman. The songwriting brothers - triple-Grammy winners and double-Oscar winners, along with a legion of other accolades - are the most prolific songwriting team in movie musical history. You know their songs because everyone knows their songs: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Bare Necessities," "It's a Small World (After All)," to name a few - many of them for Disney, for over four decades.


The scions of a songwriter, the Sherman Brothers first attracted the attention of Unca Walt when they wrote pop music for Mousketeer Annette Funicello in the late 50s/early 60s. In 1964 they struck gold with the earworm "It's a Small World (After All)," for the World's Fair. A year later, they made movie history with their soundtrack for Mary Poppins.

They went on to write songs (and a few screenplays) for film, TV and the stage, not to mention other theme park ditties and pop tunes, such as "You're Sixteen." Here's an excellent interview with them from 1996.


In the wake of their Mary Poppins success, British producer Albert Broccoli, caretaker of the James Bond film franchise, enticed the Sherman Brothers to provide the songs for an adaptation of another Ian Fleming story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, co-written for the screen by director Ken Hughes and celebrated children's book author Roald Dahl.

Even now, I have to remind myself it's not a Disney movie, and with good reason. It's clearly an attempt to recreate the Poppins formula: it's a musical, set in Britain in the early 20th century; there are elements of magic and fantasy, with colorful characters; two children, brother and sister, play a part.


Broccoli even wanted to reunite Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke for the leads, but he had to settle for the latter; Andrews wasn't interested and van Dyke only did it for the money. He's not a fan of the movie.

The Sherman Brothers' music here may not be as recognizable as that of Poppins, but I remembered a few from when I was a kid. A wide variety of characters got songs to sing. That was one of the few knocks I had against La La Land; Gosling and Stone did almost all of the singing, and other than the opening number, there were hardly any grand, epic numbers with lots of extras. Chitty had a few, of various sizes. The Shermans knew the value of diversity in the songs.


Van Dyke, in his prime, was no Gene Kelly, but he was good as a song and dance man; I had forgotten how good until I saw him here. If his recent performance at an LA Denny's is any indication, he hasn't lost much vocally. Sally Ann Howes was obviously brought in as an Andrews sound-alike, but she was a good sound-alike.

Watching this for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, I was gratified at the number of names I now recognized besides van Dyke: Dahl, Broccoli, Benny Hill - even Barbara Windsor of the Carry On films, who appears in one scene. Still, it wasn't too hard to look at it like I was eight years old again. I was glad of that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Super

Super
IFC viewing

When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko forged the modern Marvel universe, their superheroes came with flaws: Spider-Man was burdened with guilt over an act of selfishness that came back to bite him; the Thing was bitter over his monstrous condition, blaming Reed Richards for it and taking his frustrations out on the Human Torch; Dr. Strange was an arrogant SOB who had to learn humility before he could master the mystic arts.

Then, in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided move, superheroes became "relevant": Green Arrow's sidekick took drugs; Iron Man became an alcoholic; Green Lantern was criticized for not helping "the black skins."

Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns escalated this trend to Olympian levels. Because they were popular, everybody tried to copy their success, and we've lived with the consequences ever since.

Superheroes - people with paranormal abilities who wear gawdy costumes and fight psychopaths out to conquer the world - aren't real (in case you might have forgotten), but for decades, comics writers and artists have bent over backwards trying to make them "realistic," as if by doing so they'll remain relevant, when it was Hollywood and Madison Avenue that did that. When you have the chutzpah to show Doctor Doom shedding a tear at Ground Zero on 9-11, you've lost the struggle for superhero "realism" for all time.



I'm more convinced than ever today that superheroes should abandon any and all attempts to be "realistic" and "relevant" and become weirder and more bizarre and further removed from reality instead. Kirby understood this better than anyone before or since (though Grant Morrison comes close). He put a silver-skinned alien on a surfboard and made it cool! And that was only the tip of the drafting table.

All this said, there have been some worthy attempts made in the "realistic superheroes" motif in comics, and television and film are learning how to do likewise.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy made him a geek superstar, James Gunn was merely... Super. His breakthrough feature film, after coming up from TV and Troma horror, contained elements of the things that made Watchmen unique for its time: superheroism as a form of delusional psychosis; the difficulty of being one without powers or training; the mask as a cure for sexual impotence, etc., fused with a wickedly dark sense of humor.



In the words of Billy Joel, however, it's just a fantasy. It's not the real thing. If Super were truly "realistic," the Crimson Bolt (and Boltie) would've been arrested long ago at the least; at the most, he wouldn't have lived to earn his "happy" ending.

I'm willing to let it slide because I enjoyed the movie (Ellen Page is adorable, in a twisted way), but do you see what I mean about "realism" in the superhero genre? Kirby would've had the Crimson Bolt take on two-headed fire wolves from Dimension Z and not apologized for it.