Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Huston and the Huston filmmaking clan

The 2018 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

I'm eager to talk about Walter Huston for this year's blogathon because I think he's one of the most underrated actors of the Hollywood Golden Age, not to mention the fact that he's the progenitor of a filmmaking family as prolific as the Barrymores.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was the first film of his I saw, although of course I had no idea who he was at the time, nor did I know the director was his son John. 

You don't need me to tell you what an outstanding movie it is. The elder Huston's character is part of Bogey's quest for gold, though he's not as obsessive about it as Bogey or Tim Holt. His role is more like the provocateur, the one who pokes fun at the others even as he leads them on their quixotic hunt, as eager for the prize as them. Like many of his roles, it's contradictory. He's lively, quick-witted, yet ruthless, in his way, and he almost steals the movie right out from under Bogey.

For a long time, I'd see him in other films and I could never make the connection  with him in Treasure: was that really the same guy? Huston would've been a successful actor in any era: his was a powerful presence on screen, energetic, daring, and above all, versatile.

The Toronto native was born in 1883 and first acted in stage, in 1902, after going to acting school. He moved into vaudeville and eventually Broadway, in 1924. Five years later he appeared in the Gary Cooper western The Virginian, and his career in film took off, alternating between lead and supporting roles in films like Rain, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Furies, The Devil and Daniel Webster, the macabre Kongo, and the exquisite Dodsworth.

Son John was born in 1906, to Walter and his first wife Rhea Gore. John initially pursued a career in writing; Walter appeared in two early films of his, A House Divided and Law and Order. John was given the chance to direct after hitting it big with films like Sergeant York and High Sierra. His debut was the noir classic The Maltese Falcon.

John originally imagined Walter in the Bogey role when he first read the book in 1935. World War 2 changed his and Warner Brothers' plans for the film, but after it was over, the studio wanted their top gun, Bogey, for the lead. Walter didn't want a supporting role at first, but John talked him into it. Walter even performed without his dentures. Both father and son would win Oscars.

During the war, Walter did voice-over work on a number of informational  propaganda shorts, while John made films for the Army Signal Corps, as told in the Mark Harris book Five Came Back. Ironically, the Canadian Walter portrayed Uncle Sam in December 7, a Pearl Harbor documentary. Father and son teamed up for Report from the Aleutians, a notable doc about a US military operation at sea against Japan. John directed and Walter narrated.

The Huston clan eventually produced more filmmaking offspring in Walter's grandchildren: screenwriter Allegra, actor-director Danny, actor-writer Tony, and of course, actress Anjelica, the third generation of Hustons to win an Oscar; plus great-grandson Jack, an actor.

Back in 1938, Walter appeared in a Broadway show called Knickerbocker Holiday, in which he sang a sentimental tune called "September Song." 

It went on to become an American standard (I remembered this as one of the songs I learned while taking lessons on the Hammond organ as a child). Many years later, Anjelica would perform it on television.

So yeah, Walter Huston. Up there with the greats, as far as I'm concerned.

Films by Walter Huston:
The Furies

Sarah Polley
John Candy
William Shatner

Saturday, February 3, 2018

New release roundup for January '18

Aargh. I was gonna do regular-sized posts on these movies, but I've been preoccupied with the novel, plus, y'know, procrastination, so I'll just do a quick summation here.

- The Post. Spielberg made the right movie at the right time. Amazing how so much of what we're seeing with the current presidential administration is just history repeating itself, which is exactly what happens when we forget the lessons of the past. Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham is a reluctant heroine who finds the strength within herself to take a stand against an oppressive regime, ultimately becoming a women's lib heroine as well. Oscar number four? Maybe! I would vote for it for Best Picture, but it's not as dominant a nominee as I had expected. We'll see.

- Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Meanwhile, Annette Bening continues to do excellent work without racking up even one statuette. As former film noir bad girl Gloria Grahame, in a love affair with a much younger British actor, this seemed like a slightly unusual choice for her at first, but I totally bought the romance. Jamie Bell, the dancing Irish lad from Billy Elliot, now grown up, was quite good also. This was the last film I saw at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was close to a sellout, but I suspect that was more because of people wanting to say goodbye to the venerable theater than anything else.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Links and a fare-thee-well

Let the record show that the final movies shown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas were the following: A Ciambra, The Insult, Darkest Hour, My Coffee with Jewish Friends, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, Happy End and Wonder Wheel. The final day of this beloved indy movie theater saw a packed house, with patrons and staff sharing memories and offering best wishes for the future.

I was one of a handful of people taking pictures of the joint, as you can see. It was tempting to pick a "souvenir" of some sort to take with me, but it wasn't like I could walk out with one of their framed movie posters under my arm — hence the pictures. I had never really noticed how much original non-film related art was in the lobby.

Vija was sick and couldn't make it; most of the others had already paid their last respects earlier this month, and some weren't interested in seeing Liverpool (I liked it), so it was just me and Sue from our film group who helped preside over the end, but we were part of a huge crowd for the movie. (More on it soon.)

Earlier in the day, there was a ceremony held in memory of the Lincoln and the late co-owner Dan Talbot attended by, among others, filmmaker Michael Moore (who blamed corporate greed for the closing).

It has been quite encouraging to see the love and support shown for this local, independent movie house, as well as for the Sunshine downtown (being replaced by this monstrosity), not just here in NYC but throughout the film industry in general. Even in this Netflix era, the movie-going experience still counts for something.

That's no small thing, especially when it's built on a foundation of quality films in a pleasant environment run by people with taste. If you have a theater like the Lincoln or the Sunshine where you are, consider yourself fortunate — and support them when you can. They're rare birds these days.


That's Katha & Don in the front row.
In other news, I attended the kickoff party for the Queens World Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. Good news: it was held in the Astor Room, the chic supper club located at the Astoria Kaufman Studios. Bad news: they had to move us to the basement because of repairs.

That didn't diminish the spirit of the gathering, though with QWFF head honchos Don & Katha Cato in the house, diminished spirit is never a problem. By the time you read this, the updated website, with this year's lineup of films, should be live. If you're in the New York area in mid-March, consider coming out to Astoria for the show.


I'm grateful for the turnout for the Time Travel Blogathon hosted by myself and Ruth from Silver Screenings. This is shaping up to be a very eclectic lineup, which is always cool to see. Plenty of time to get in on the fun if you want, but if not, you can always hop in your DeLorean or slingshot around the sun and, you know... It all goes down the weekend of March 9-11.

Links after the jump, plus more Lincoln Plaza photos.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oh, BTW... the Oscars

For Best Picture:

Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The rest.

Wow, where to begin?

I'm no longer as hung up on the Oscars as I used to be, so when I saw The Post last week (my post on The Post, as it were, is coming, promise), I was convinced it would dominate the nominations. I forgot how gaga everyone was over Water, which I thought was just good, not great, and besides, genre movies never get anything but technical nominations, right?

The definition of "Oscar movie" is changing big time. That's something I'm still getting used to, but ultimately it means now there's room for movies you wouldn't ordinarily think would get a place at the table.

I still underestimate stuff, though. I passed on Get Out because it looked like a Crash rip-off; I passed on Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread because they looked boring to me; Dunkirk was boring; I thought Lady Bird wouldn't get anything more than a screenplay nod, and while I certainly thought Sally Hawkins was a legit contender, I thought Water would settle for below-the-line nods.

So you can imagine how surprised I am right now.

Seriously, though, it's good that we're getting new blood in the ranks; films I had never even heard of, nominees with names I can't pronounce; it's exciting in that sense. Will it entice me to follow the Oscars again? Ask me in about five years.

So I guess Netflix is no joke, huh? I'm still unsure why they qualify as Oscar-caliber movies instead of well-done TV movies, but I guess that's how it is now, so... yay Dee Rees for this movie Mudbound. I'm sure it's quite good. I knew she had the right stuff after I saw Pariah years ago.

No Andy Serkis for Best Actor? Oh well, that was always a long shot anyway — but I still say a performance-capture acting nomination is a possibility, sometime in the future.

I guess Mother! was too polarizing to get any recognition, which is certainly understandable, though I think Darren Aronofsky should have gotten a Director nomination anyway. It will be very interesting to see how this movie is regarded in twenty years or so.

I finally saw Logan, a few weeks ago, and I did like it; it felt quite different from the usual long underwear fare and was a fitting farewell to the character (though I'm sure they'll find a way to revive him somehow). Kudos to James Mangold and his partners for the Adapted Screenplay nod.

Yay for Greta Gerwig for joining a very exclusive (for now) club. Yay for Loving Vincent for the Animated Feature nod. I sure hope it wins. And yay for The Disaster Artist for their Adapted Screenplay nod. If ABC is smart, they'll get Tommy Wiseau to be a presenter!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

If you know me by now, you may be able to guess what my favorite scene was in Darkest Hour. England had the Nazi wolves howling at the door, the government was all set to negotiate for a surrender, and Winston Churchill was the only official left who still wanted to fight. He decides to talk to the people, get their opinion, so what does he do?

He takes public transportation.

Did this moment really happen? Who cares? It makes for good drama; indeed, it's not unlike Henry V walking among his troops on the eve of battle. Churchill mentions he had never taken the subway before — believable, given the kind of life he had led prior to that moment — yet he understood this was where he could take the pulse of the people. True, he could have gone into a pub, but he chose the subway, or the underground, as the Brits call it, and the people told him what they wanted: to fight. More to the point, he listened.

It goes without saying that we're currently experiencing a leadership void in Washington, but here in New York, there's another lack of leadership taking place, and it, too, involves the subways.

We have a governor, who controls the administration that operates our subways, who has also ridden the rails to talk to the people, only it's usually for things like ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a new station (usually delivered late and over budget).

Meanwhile, the trains themselves fall behind schedule, suffer derailments (my train had one the day I went to see Hour; I had to take a second bus and walk a long way), operate with ancient signals, and keep more and more passengers late for their appointments. The buses are little better.

In this election year, the governor finally claims to have a plan to get transit the money it needs to not only update the system, but to simply keep it functional, although this is the same guy who, in the past, raided the transit coffers for his own ends.

In Hour, Churchill knew enough about the value of the subway to go there and engage the people in a dialogue during a time of crisis. Twitter overflows with stories of our broken trains, tweeted directly to the governor, the same guy who declared a state of emergency on the subways last year, but his silence has been deafening. Which man looks more like a leader to you?

Anyway, back to the movie: these days we take this period in history for granted in the sense that we say, of course we had to fight the Nazis; no question about it, but at the time, in England, it wasn't so obvious. No one knew for sure how far Germany would go, and negotiating a peace with them must have made sense to a lot of folks because who the hell wanted them to come in and kick England's ass arse? Churchill, however, saw more to the situation than that.

Joe Wright made this film in a way that, ironically, reminded me of a German expression, "Sturm und Drang:" bombastic music, extremes of light and shadow, dramatic camera angles, heavy on the emotion, yet it never feels too melodramatic or over-the-top. And do I even need to go into Gary Oldman's towering performance, in all that prosthetic makeup, no less, one which should FINALLY get him the Oscar he has deserved for so very long?


Friday, January 12, 2018

Five classic film chicks (and one dude) in glasses

I've worn glasses most of my life, going all the way back to grade school, in different shapes and colors. I can't say exactly when I first became conscious of how I looked in them. I had my high school yearbook photo taken without them, so it was probably sometime when I was a teenager. Even today, I prefer being photographed without them, so yeah, I guess that makes me a little vain — not that I look like a movie star or anything without them.

I remember when Jen got contacts because she said her husband preferred her without the specs, but I always thought she looked better with them because her eyes are small and glasses make them look bigger. Most of the time, I tend to not have a real preference when it comes to chicks, unless the glasses themselves look ugly.

Four-eyed movie characters are not uncommon throughout film history, but for a long time they were a sign of nerdiness and/or unattractiveness (even if it was only Hollywood Homely), especially the ladies, and you can be damn sure they were often meant to make the lead actress more glamorous.

No other movie drives this portrayal home more, to me at least, than Vertigo, featuring the patron saint of four-eyed movie chicks, Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge. Every time I see this movie, I think the exact same thing: why, oh why, was Jimmy Stewart so blind to her? She dug him (Zod knows why) but she was in the wrong movie. She should have been in a late 30s romcom with him instead!

The specs were like a bright shining neon sign above poor Midge's head that said "number two," "consolation prize," "bridesmaid," but give her credit for having the audacity to paint her portrait in a fancy 19th-century dress — with her specs! That takes a certain level of self-confidence, folks.

Vertigo is an all-timer, but I wonder how it would look if Kim Novak was the "plain Jane" — as much as it was possible to have made her look ordinary, anyway? Would Jimbo still have pursued her the way he did?

Anyway, I wanna show some love to a few more bespectacled beauties from the good old days of film — plus one token guy:

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Time is on your side in the Time Travel Blogathon!

I'm very excited to do this year's blogathon with someone who has pretty much become an expert at it: Ruth from Silver Screenings — and we've got one we think you'll dig for sure!

Time travel movies include more than just the Terminators and Back to the Futures of the world: think of A Christmas Carol or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or Brigadoon. We're sure you can find similar movies from throughout all of film history, and we wanna see them in our Time Travel Blogathon. (Here's a list.)

You know what to do: let either Ruth or myself know what movies you want to write about and we'll collect all your entries on the weekend of March 9-11. Your banners are here (so nice to have great looking banners for a change, thank you Ruth!).

Ruth will write about one called Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, while my film will be Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah!