Tag: movie

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 990: The Wonderful Wizard Of Political Allegory

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When digging one’s mental spoon into the lumpy broth of film studies, there are three things one must remember:

  • A disturbing number of gender-based analyses will reveal that most cinematic conflict is based upon the male fear of castration.
  • With a little imagination, you can build a political or social allegory out of almost anything.
  • No, seriously, it’s all about castration. Whether it’s Woody from Toy Story, Andy Dufresne or Han Solo, it’s all about castration.

Turning our attention to point #2, it should come as no surprise that a humongous heap of thread-pulling has been devoted to perhaps the most widely-revered and universally beloved of 20th century fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows it, and the characters within are so bold and unprecedented, drawing a line from them to some aspect of modern society is a natural academic pursuit.

It helps that the heart of the movie can be found in a series of books, written by a man who was very much aware and engaged with the politics of his era. This adds a measure of validity to any political dissections of the literary world of Oz – though it should be restated that, like most conjecture and analysis, this is a wide portal of interpretation. This isn’t fact, but it’s a friendly maybe.

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Frank Baum has gone on the record as describing his Oz books as modern fairy tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, only without the romance and heavy-handed moralism. He was also seen as a political activist in his day. So who’s to say L. Frank wasn’t looking to poke a few of his own ideas about 1890’s politics into the flesh of his story? Read more…

Day 969: Pound-For-Pound Performances

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If anyone asks, I’m currently beefing up for the lead role in the upcoming biopic about Orson Welles’ final days. I haven’t been cast yet, and to my knowledge no such movie exists, but when Hollywood finally comes around to making it, I’ll be ready. So yes, I will have that second bag of deep-fried Oreos.

Screen actors – and perhaps stage actors as well, but that information is trickier to find – must occasionally alter their physical weight to slip into a part. Sure, they can cheat like Chris Evans in Captain America, whose 220-pound bulk was deflated to a scrawny pre-Atlas sand-faced wimp through the magic of CGI, but outside of the superhero genre, you’re not likely to see that. These self-abusatory body-wallops are a good reminder that some of the faces speckled across movie screens are actual artists who are willing to endure physical torture for their craft.

In tracking down some of the wonkier stories for this piece, I tried to uncover an actress who has made a similar transformation, but there aren’t many. Renée Zellweger snarfed back some pastries to gain twenty pounds for Bridget Jones’ Diary, but her final appearance was hardly extreme. I’m more impressed with Anne Hathaway’s 25-pound drop for Les Miserables, much of which occurred throughout the filming process. If anyone knows of any other actresses who pulled off feats like these, please tell me in the comments section. It’s quite the sausage-fest on this page.

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Considered to be one of the greatest actors of the last 50 years, Robert De Niro has yet to win an Academy Award since 1981. While I’ll withhold judgment on some of the scripts he has chosen in the last 20 years (I still can’t scrub The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle from the part of my brain upon which it splattered back in 2000), watching him perform usually justifies the cost of admission. If you have somehow deprived yourself of seeing 1980’s Raging Bull (for which he won his most recent Oscar), then you must immediately stop calling yourself a film fan until you do so – particularly if you have seen even one Tyler Perry movie. Read more…

Day 958: Day One Of Peace & Music

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“I have come to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”

I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.

Perhaps the images of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.

2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.

To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.

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In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict. Read more…

Day 943: Rolling Through The Revolting – Worst Films Part 8

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It can never be said that I do not sacrifice for my art.

Just as my eyes have been manhandled by Manos: The Hands Of Fate, and later subjected to the probing fright of Deep Throat, I have once again endured one of cinema’s most masterful clusters of unmitigated celluloid sewage, strictly for the purposes of advising you, my dear reader, of what you’re missing. Last night found me roller bootin’, jive turkeyin’ and keepin’ on truckin’ through the film that arguably closed out the all-too-brief huzzah of disco musicals: Can’t Stop The Music.

This was a film that appeared too late to save a dying fad. And not just a dying fad, but one that was being actively butchered by anyone and everyone more than ten feet outside the protective sphere of Studio 54 (or whatever might have been your local equivalent). No trend has become so resoundingly reviled by its non-participants – and thus subject to spontaneous surges in nostalgic re-emergence. But in its immediate aftermath, disco was a ripe and easy-to-despise carcass.

And that’s where Can’t Stop The Music enters the scene: the Village People’s A Hard Day’s Night, without the charm, the wit, or the enduring tuneage. Battling for an audience who had mostly moved on to the next disposable trend (and also for any theater-goer who wasn’t headed to see The Empire Strikes Back). The movie was a career-killer for almost everyone involved. Well, except for one guy.

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That’s right, The Gute himself – future star of Police Academy, Three Men & A Baby, Cocoon and Short Circuit – was catapulted to some level of glittery fame on the backs of the Village People, which is far less homo-erotic than it sounds. Guttenberg plays a thinly-disguised version of Jacques Morali, the composer who put together the Village People back in 1977. Throughout this insipid film, The Gute is perpetually enthused and 1000% committed to the role, displaying plenty of the charisma that would make him a star, all while delivering dialogue that resonates in the brain like a malnourished cat trying to deliver a monologue from the bottom of a laundry chute. Read more…

Day 925: The Titanic’s First Cinematic Splash

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Mention the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic to someone and you’re bound to get one of these responses:

“What an overpriced piece of CGI crap!”

“I loved that movie!”

“Not just a great film, but that Celine Dion song is the best!” (these are the people with whom I won’t spend a lot of my free time.)

There’s no question that Cameron’s movie – despite its mostly unnecessary formulaic love story – best captures the realism of the mighty liner’s demise. Other movies have focused on various passengers and dynamics aboard the RMS Titanic: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is a musical about the American socialite, Titanic (1953) is a movie filled with historical inaccuracies – also with a fictitious love story crammed into its frames, and A Night To Remember (1958) was a British film praised for its attention to detail.

But the first movie about the Titanic to hit the silver screen? We’ll have to venture deep into the realm of silent cinema, years before the advent of talkies and even years before the first World War. The first movie to capture the horrors of that fateful April night in the cold claws of the North Atlantic was called Saved From The Titanic. It was released on May 14, 1912. Twenty-nine days after the ship sank.

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The story of this lost classic begins and ends with the beautiful and talented Dorothy Gibson, a singer, dancer, Broadway performer and one of the first ladies of silent cinema to earn top billing as a genuine star. She was a natural comedic actress, working briefly at Lubin Studios but getting her big break with the American branch of Éclair Studios, which was based out of Paris. In the early spring of 1912, Dorothy took a six-week holiday with her mother in Italy. She was booked to sail home aboard – what else? – the Titanic.

Dorothy and her mother – both of whom had been up late playing bridge – were awake when the Titanic became intimate with that iceberg (or whatever actually happened – I’ve been over the conspiracy theories already). Along with the other bridge players they raced to lifeboat #7, which was the first to be lowered into the water at 12:40am, one hour after the collision. For almost six hours Dorothy Gibson bobbed through the waves, watching the unsinkable vessel’s final descent into the shadowy brine and listening to the desperate and doomed souls, fighting fruitlessly against hypothermia and/or drowning. Dorothy’s mind slipped off its axis; she was heard muttering “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again” over and over.

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Jules Brulatour, a successful movie producer with Éclair and (coincidentally?) Dorothy’s lover, heard of the disaster and immediately dispatched a fleet of tugboats dotted with cameramen to New York to capture the return to port of the RMS Carpathia, the ship which had rescued a heap of Titanic survivors. He stitched together his footage along with a few shots of the Titanic’s official launch, some old clips of Captain Edward Smith aboard the RMS Olympic, and some stock footage of icebergs. The newsreel was rocketed around the country in less than a week. People were buying tickets to movie houses just to see the footage.

This gave Jules an idea – why not throw together an actual film of the disaster? After all, he had the Carpathia footage, he had a top-notch studio at his disposal in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the pre-Hollywood Hollywood), and he also had a girlfriend who had actually been there, and who could provide details that no other screenwriter could possess. Whether Dorothy was persuaded to participate in the picture out of tribute to the lost souls who perished that night or because it would be a huge career boost, we’ll never really know.

The term 'Oscar Bait' had not yet been invented.

The term ‘Oscar Bait’ had not yet been invented.

The production was filmed at Éclair Studios and also aboard an abandoned transport vessel in New York Harbor. It took only a week to shoot, and the studio insisted on racing through the editing and processing stages so the film could land in theaters as quickly as possible. This was before the era of the feature film, so the entirety of Saved From The Titanic fit onto a single reel – it was only ten minutes long.

Dorothy Gibson starred as “Miss Dorothy”, a fictionalized version of herself. Miss Dorothy is shown arriving aboard the Carpathia and meeting her mother, father and fiancé. She tells the story of the sinking in flashback, after which the mother pleads with her fiancé to quit the US Navy, as the sea is simply too dangerous. The fiancé asserts his patriotism and the film fades to black. The lesson here is yes, people died and it was a tragedy… but AMERICA!

Kind of brings a tear, don’t it?

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Dorothy, who was said to have burst into tears several times throughout the film’s production, added to the realism by donning the same dress and overcoat she’d been wearing on the night of her rescue. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that reliving an unfathomable tragedy immediately after having experienced it – even wearing the same clothes – is not an advisable route to mental recovery. Critics picked up on the look of shock and devastation on Dorothy’s face throughout the movie. She probably didn’t have to do much actual acting.

The movie was released worldwide on May 14, 1912, less than a month after the events that inspired it. Motion Picture World praised the film and in particular the braveness of Dorothy’s performance. Éclair made a point of emphasizing the actress’s actual participation in the disaster, and promoted the authenticity her involvement had provided. The New York Dramatic Mirror was less kind with their review, finding it “revolting” that Éclair – and Dorothy herself – would capitalize on the worst maritime disaster in history.

This sounds about right. Had there been a 9/11 movie released within a month of the atrocities of 2001, most of us would have been disgusted, but ticket sales would have nevertheless been through the roof.

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Unfortunately, a 1914 fire at Éclair Studios destroyed the only known prints of Saved From The Titanic. All that remains are a handful of production stills and the movie’s dubious legacy of questionable taste. For Dorothy, making the film plummeted her fragile sanity into a frothing crisis. She retired from movies immediately after the film’s release, and despite being neck and neck with Mary Pickford as one of the two highest-paid actresses on the planet, she never made another movie again. She returned to stage work, and eventually moved to Paris, then to Italy, where she became an alleged intelligence operative and Nazi sympathizer.

Éclair eventually shifted their focus from movie-making to camera-making (the makers of the Woodstock film used Éclair cameras), but they found their curious niche in cinematic legend with this film. Was it a good movie? No one who has seen it is alive to say. Was it in poor taste? Perhaps. But at least it didn’t feature that deplorable Celine Dion tune. So that’s something.

Day 908: It’s Hee-ere… This Article About Poltergeist

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Despite being physically nothing more than distortions of light and shadow on a few reels of tightly-wound celluloid, a movie can possess the power to frighten free the literal turds from viewers’ backsides. I was eleven or twelve when I first saw Poltergeist, and I remember clearly the electric squirms it blasted through my vertebrae.

I’ve since grown to find I’m more a fan of comedies, documentaries and films involving talking badgers than horror flicks, mostly because I find the tropes of the horror genre to be repetitive. Who dies, who lives – that’s the central question a typical slasher pic makes its audience ask, or in the case of the torture-porn subgenre (the Saw movies and their ilk), how grotesque can the human imagination become when there’s a multimillion-dollar budget at stake?

But some horror films are truly glorious in their ability to capture the human psyche and scare the ever-lovin’ bejeebus out of it. The Exorcist is one; The Ring is (for me) another. And I’ll drop Poltergeist into that column too, despite the fact that I can still only see the film through my eleven (or twelve)-year-old eyes. But there was a lot more to the weirdness of the movie than what we saw on the screen, which is why today it gets a kilograph of its own.

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For starters, we can’t even say for certain who directed this thing. Tobe Hooper (in the middle) gets the official credit, and if you ask him, he’ll swear it’s his picture. The guy had made his bones in the horror game, with the gore-fest Texas Chainsaw Massacre under his belt, as well as 1981’s The Funhouse. But if you compare the shot composition, the framing and the overall aesthetic of Poltergeist to those films, it just seems… different somehow. Read more…

Day 892: 8 Obscure Poetry Forms For The Love Of 80’s Movies

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I have a tendency to mistrust my own ambition. One morning I felt the urge to spend that day’s kilograph using however many haikus would be necessary to fill a thousand words (eight-two, apparently). Another day had me wrestling to produce nine Shakespearean sonnets, adhering as closely as possible to the specific rules the Bard created for himself. Once I stuck my e-quill into the murky ink of limericks. Every time I drift from prose into the rhymey, heavily-structured stuff it sucks up most of my daylight hours.

Yet here I go again, this time seeking the lesser-known twists of poetic construct, and aiming to siphon yet another perfectly good weekday into the mire of make-workery. Such is the sacrifice that I shall make for you, the reader of my manifesto of madness.

And because nothing is really drop-kicking my heart of hearts between the uprights of noble inspiration this morning, I’m going to use films from the 1980s as my muse. Suck it, romanticism.

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I’ll start with a seguidilla, a Spanish form of verse with a specific syllable count (7,5,7,5,5,7,5) and rhyme scheme (x,A,x,A,B,x,B).

 

Consider: five lives meeting,

locked in detention;

overcoming plot points, and

child-scar retention;

it might happen there –

in Fiction, Illinois, sure;

fist-pump in the air!

 

I’m not winning any awards with these – best to accept that early on and continue. Read more…

Day 883: The Starlet Of The Sports Pages

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“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

So said sportswriter Joe Williams of the New York Herald-Tribune. He was writing a critical (and overtly misogynistic) piece about Babe Didrikson-Zaharias. Babe’s name is anything but household today, though at the time she was the most important woman in the world of sports.

To claim that Babe was the single greatest female athlete of the 20th century would not be an unmerited hyperbole; she played a myriad of sports and excelled at every one of them. Babe was tough, she was brilliant, and she wasn’t afraid to be an “athlete” instead of a “woman who plays sports”. She hammered out her own identity and handled all her own PR. How her life story remains unknown to so much of the general populace today, I have no idea; we all know Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Red Grange… and those schmucks only mastered one sport apiece.

Babe Didrikson-Zaharias conquered most of the sports section, game by game.

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Mildred Didriksen (she’d later change the ‘-en’ to ‘-on’) was born to Norwegian parents in Port Arthur, Texas – also the birthplace of Janis Joplin. She took the nickname ‘Babe’ from her mother’s childhood pet name for her, though she’d later claim she was given the nickname in honor of Babe Ruth after she’d hit five home runs in a childhood baseball game. Her version of the nickname origin was an exaggeration, though I suspect the baseball story is true. Read more…

Day 878: A Dingo Took Your Baby?

EDITORS NOTE: IMAGE WAS CLEANED AT SOURC

I generally avoid topics that have been made into major motion pictures starring Sam Neill and Meryl Streep, since I figure the story is already out there, and told in a much more thorough and entertaining way than I could tell it here. But some stories are too strange to ignore. And in this case, the 1988 film A Cry In The Dark was something of a box office bust, so I’ll assume there’s a ripe audience for this twisted tale.

The story takes place in Australia, a land where every living creature wants to kill you, and most have the ability to do so with ease. Nevertheless, Aussies are a resilient people, and they are often willing to go camping in the frothing throes of this ludicrously blood-lusty ecosystem. Michael and Lindy Chamberlain were two such Aussies.

They took a trip to Uluru, which was then known as Ayers Rock. Along with them were their two sons, Aidan and Reagan, and their 9-week-old daughter, Azaria. It was on the second night of their trip, August 17, 1980, when things went horribly wrong.

Uluru: The great nipple of the Australian Outback.

Uluru: The great nipple of the Australian Outback.

According to Lindy Chamberlain, her young daughter Azaria was taken from the family tent by a dingo. Though their name might suggest a fun-loving, cuddly cartoon creature, the dingo is actually a vicious predator and a major pain in the collective ass for Australian livestock farmers. They’re like wolves, but without the charm. There had been no reported incidents of a dingo scooping a small child from a tent, but it was possible – in fact, Derek Roff, the chief ranger at Ayers Rock, had been warning the government about the increasingly aggressive dingoes in his neighborhood for two years. Read more…