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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Movie Crash Course, Field Trip: Oscars 2017

So! I got rid of my cable subscription a whie ago, which has only been an issue when I want to see big “event” type of TV like the Oscars.  Fortunately, there are a number of bars in the city that are showing it, so I’ve come out on the town.  I’m at a place in Williamsburg that caters to a film crowd (at least, I assume so from the conversations around me and from the people subtly checking their phones and lingering over shots of Ryan Gosling), so the crowd reactions could be entertaining as well.

8:30 – okay – red carpet stpudiness over.  And Justin Timberlake is getting his performance out of the way early, hooray!

…Okay, that wasn’t nice, sorry Justin. (Every time I start to eye-roll over how a song from a movie about Trolls got a best-song nomination, I remind myself that “Happy” was from one of the Despicable Me movies.)

8:35 – So far, as a host, Jimmy Kimmel is coming across as a slightly more family friendly Jon Stewart.

8:38 – the bar is LOVING the routine here.  Good on you, Jimmy.

8:46 – the bar just audibly  said “aww…” when they featured Robin Williams in a clip montage.

8:48 – aw, Dev Patel brought his mom!

8:49 – the bar just erupted in screams at Mahareshala Ali’s win.

8:58 – yeah, this is definitely a movie crowd, someone at the bar just had an impassioned reaction to the Best Makeup winner.

9:01 – brief revolt in the bar – the DVR has started losing its mind and randomly switching over to Big Bang Theory.  Someone has been dispatched to fix things.

9:11 – it’s just hit me. Every single one of the Best Documentary nominations have been about a facet of race relations in America.

9:16 – YAY MOANA SONG!!!!  …Auli’i Cravalho at age 17 has more poise in her little finger than I have in my entire body at 47.

9:26 – it was gloriously silly, but dang if I don’t now want to be in a room where Junior Mints are being parachute-dropped over a crowd.

9:27 – Okay, a presenter just misprounced the name “Siobhan”, the Hiberniophile in me is mad.

9:44 – Viola Davis as Best Supporting Actress is only wrong in the sense that she shold have been put up for best Actress, period.  She was phenomenal.

9:46 – and she is giving one HELL of an acceptance speech.

9:56 – Charlize Theron in a pre-taped piece gushing about Shirley MacLaine. Then giving way to Charlize and Shirley in person.  The entire bar just went “awwwwww!”

9:58 – I have really found a cinephile crowd.  They just had an impassioned reaction to the Best Foreign Language winner and I haven’t heard of any of them.  I gotta come here more often.

10:08 – and in the “no surprise” category, a Pixar film wins for Best Animated Short.

10:11 – okay, it’s okay that Moana didn’t win Best Animated Feature, Lin-Manuel Miranda can still win the Best Song.

10:13 – Dear Hollywood – please don’t keep trying to get me to see any of the Fifty Shades films, I really don’t want to.  Thanks.

10:20 – Okay, the whole thing with the tour group visiting the Oscars was a cute idea, but it’s running kind of long…

10:29 – I am sitting in a corner, and the people on either side of me are each here singly. She has been chatting with me through the night, and then he just leaned over and asked us both a question about the Meryl Streep joke.  She’s now chatting more so with him, and it’s actually kind of cute.

10:35 – I love that Lin-Manuel Miranda is so tickled by the Hamilton shout-out.

10:43 – my neighbors are asking “how many more awards do they have to give out??”

10:52 – John Cho and Leslie Mann are kind of adorable with the Sci-Tech award section.

…I’m seeing three people outside the bar watching through the window; it is kind of crowded in here.

11:06 – I am going to confess right now that if Lin-Manuel Miranda does not win Best Song I may very well teleport myself to the Dolby Theater through sheer will and pull a Kanye West upstaging moment at the podium.

11:10 – I am starting to get a little concerned about how much sleep I’m going to get tonight.

11:13 – okay we’re with best score eeep
this probably means that Best Song is next and Lin-Manuel Miranda must have the mother of all nervous knots in his stomach.  Jimmy Kimmel just tried to do a bit with him and this is the first time I’ve ever seen Lin not able to think of anything ot say.

11:18 – LA LA LAND CRAAAAAAP

11:20 – The In Memoriam section is gonna be long. Someone here in the bar just held up a copy of Wishful Drinking in tribute.

11:24 – Carrie Fisher. Drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra, and getting the ultimate nod in the Oscar tribute of 2017.

11:31 – We’ve gotten to the sexier awards, the crowd in the bar is starting to get more vocal.  …Manchester By The Sea for best screenplay just got a big cheer.

…Personally – watching that movie in a small-town theater in Cape Cod is seriously meta.

11:34 – Oh good, Barry Jenkins won for Moonlight‘s screenplay.

11:39 – okay, this is running so long that my computer battery is starting to die…

11:42 – wow, we have gotten a lot of good films this year.  Just listened to the Best Director nominees and realized that.

I think we’re nearly there – we just have Best Actor & Actress, and Best Movie.

11:47 – I kind of like the clip montage introducing each of the acting awards.  It’s been like a greatest-hits of moments from other Oscars.

Here is where my battery died.  And so I missed liveblogging the following occurrences:

  • Casey Affleck winning Best Actor, and the bear hug Ben gave him before he went onstage.
  • Emma Roberts winning Best Actress for La La Land.
  • Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty first announcing La La Land won Best Picture, and the producers getting halfway through their speeches….before someone came running out and announcing that they’d read the wrong card, and that Moonlight actually won.
  • Social Media TOTALLY BLOWING UP over that.

….I need to sleep on this, it was far too weird.  Good night.

Feeding Others

On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”.  My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!”  Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else.  But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.

My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.

I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.

My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips.  Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.

I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.

And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth.  Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda.  Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.

I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there.  There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well.  I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.

I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking.  After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.

When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.

Intermisson: On Movie Theaters

My push to see all the Best Picture Nominees is sending me back into movie theaters themselves – something which is making me weirdly nostalgic.  Because I’ve been kind of depriving myself of going out to a movie, and I’ve realized that in the days of DVDs and streaming video, I kind of miss that.

For a while, when I was a child, my aunt managed the movie house on campus at the University of Connecticut. I don’t remember whether we ever used this to get in free – although my aunt did score me a couple of movie posters from the place, including the poster for Snoopy Come Home which had pride of place in my childhood bedroom. That is probably where I saw my very first movie, at the age of three – my parents took me to see a screening of Fantasia, thinking that “okay, it’s Disney, it’s a cartoon, this is perfect.”  But – just like many parents over the years who probably thought exactly the same thing – they forgot about the “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence.

Reportedly, I spent the entire sequence staring wide-eyed at the screen, and my parents kept worriedly asking me, “are you okay, Kimmy?” and I would whisper back “uh-huh.”

College Cinema had already closed by the time I was in my teens, otherwise I’d probably have gotten one of my summer jobs there. Instead I ended up at the local multiplex in my own town, which was one of your bog-standard multi-screen theaters showing the big blockbusters.  I worked there two summers in a row, bookending my freshman year in college, usually at the concession stand doling out popcorn and Goobers to guests.  Occasionally I was an usher, which involved not just ripping the tickets but also doing the “movie walk” – our manager took the notion of “keeping order” very seriously, so ever yfifteen minutes, I had to enter each theater, walk all the way down the center aisle to the front of the theater, and then walk back up the aisle and leave.  Ostensibly this was so I could check on things in the house and speak to any troublemakers, but the manager insisted on the walk the length of the aisle to remind patrons that we were watching.  For some movies, I would time this so as to catch my favorite scenes – when we had Terminator II I always did one of my early walks during an early scene, when Schwarzenegger’s character first arrives in our time and stumbles into a dive bar, intimidating the patrons into giving him clothes and a motorcycle, just so I could see him make his exit.

That was also the year I was sent into the theaters to make a special announcement; one of our guests had parked in the fire lane, and was in danger of being towed. The manager sent me into each theater to announce that the driver needed to move their car or else.  When I got into the Terminator II screening, I improvised a bit:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have an announcement: the white Toyota with license plate 12345 is illegally parked.  Please move your car….or I’ll be back.”

That was all in small town Connecticut.  When I got to New York….that was different.

During my freshsman year, I lived two blocks from Cinema Village, which back then was a second-run and revivial house. The schedule seemed to change every couple days, and I’d get the poster-sized calendars every month – whoever was making the selections liked to schedule two films per day, run back-to-back, and you could buy a double-feature ticket and just pick which film you wanted to see first and just stay for the next one.  I saw so many old films there which I’d always heard about but never saw.  Sometimes without planning it – one college friend was shocked to learn that I’d never seen a Marx brothers movie. A few days after I told him that, I was in my dorm room one Saturday when he came by asking if I had plans for that afternoon.  “Not….really.”

“Good. Get your shoes on.”

“…Why?”

“Cinema Village is showing Day at the Races and Night at the Opera today.  You’ve never seen a Marx brothers movie and I need to do something about that.”

After freshman year, college caught up to me and I wasn’t able to get to Cinema Village after that; by the time I graduated it had turned into a more independent-movie schedule, and by then I was living closer to the Angelika. I actually have the Angelika to thank for introducing me to one of my favorite films – one brutally hot day in the 90s, my air conditioner was busted and I went to the Angelika, figuring that I could just see a movie for a couple hours and cool down. I didn’t even care what I saw, I figured that anything at the Angelika was going to be good, so I just wandered in and picked something that was about to start.  And that’s how I ended up seeing Smokea beautiful little adaptation of a Paul Auster short story.

And then working in theater cut into moviegoing time for ten years, and then movies got more expensive.  Every so often I’d see something in the huge multiplex here in Downtown Brooklyn, usually when friends were rounding up a group to see something like the latest Star Trek film or something like that.

But lately I’ve been trying to change that. I got a membership to the Brooklyn Academy of Music solely for its film center, so I could get discounts on tickets. I also signed up for the email newsletter for a couple of indie houses in Williamsburg, one of which hosts Saturday morning cartoon screenings – I keep meaning to go, but haven’t yet.  There’s also an Alamo Drafthouse that finally opened up in Brooklyn – within walking distance.

I also discovered there’s a smaller indie house in Bushwick that  just opened up, which seems to combine all the best elements of my favorite houses – it looks like it will have a combination of first- and second-run films, like Cinema Village; it will serve food like Alamo, and cheekily names its burger the “Royale with cheese”; and it’s only seven dollars a ticket. I can see myself heading there a lot.

And there’s something about seeing a film in the theater, you know?  The filmmaker has chosen their shots specifically to be seen on a big screen, and specifically for the viewers to be watching in a darkened room.  If you’re watching at home, it’s too easy to multi-task, to be checking your email now and then while you watch. In a theater, you have nothing to do but watch the story.

I have a whole plan mapped out over the next week, trying to get all the films in before Oscar night. I’ve also got seven different theaters I’ll be visiting, dotted throughout Brooklyn. I sincerely hope that this will be the beginning of more of a habit.

Movie Crash Course: Within Our Gates

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)

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There is some debate as to whether Within Our Gates was intended to be a response to D.W. Gtiffith’s Birth Of A Nation.  It almost certainly is a response to the world wrought by the Klan, however, and the Jim Crow era.

The story mainly follows the tale of Sylvia, a young African-American woman from the South. At the movie’s start, she is engaged to a soldier, but her cousin Alma busts up their engagement in an effort to snag the man herself; in response, a heartbroken Sylvia resolves to devote herself to “the betterment of my race” and joins the administration of a small school in Georgia. When the school falls short of money Sylvia ventures north to Boston on a fundraising tour, where she catches the eye of Dr. Vivian, a young African-American also “passionately engaged in social questions,” who agrees to help her in her cause. But Sylvia soon meets a wealthy Bostonian widow who agrees to pledge several thousand dollars to save the school and Sylvia rushes home, money in hand.

Dr. Vivian can’t forget her, though, and sets out to find her. He retraces her steps to find a repentant Alma, who agrees to help the pair reconnect. Before she does, though, Alma braces him with a story of Sylvia’s childhood – she was the adoptive daughter of a loving couple who strove to get her an education, but when her father was framed for the murder of a white man, both her parents were lynched.  This serves to strengthen Dr. Vivian’s devotion, though, and the very last scene features Sylvia and Dr. Vivian in their home in the South, newly married and chatting lovingly.

Considered technically, this is not a perfect film. There are subplots that drag down the story, there are improbable melodramatic twists, and a couple of inexperienced actors (I have to admit, I was kind of glad the film got rid of Sylvia’s initial fiance because the dude couldn’t act). The director, an author and self-taught filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux, also seemed to really like inserting short clips as tableaux, either to show a character’s state of mind or as a flashback or to show contrasting action happening elsewhere. But these tableaux are simply mixed into the film without any kind of clarification, which made for some difficulty following the action in a couple spots (“wait, Sylvia went south, what is she doing back talking to  – ohhhh, gotcha, Dr. Vivian is just remembering that.”).

But those subplots actually have some pretty keen social commentary, particularly when you consider that this was made in 1920.  There is an extended sequence with a travelling preacher, “Old Ned”, whose gospel advocates subservience to white men and a clean life in anticipation of Heaven. There is a scene where Old Ned visits some white men in a quest for donations, and as they reach for their wallets, one asks him what he thinks of the notion that black men should get the vote.  Absolutely not, Ned says, grovellingly adding that he thinks that “White folks is mighty fine”.  But as he leaves, he chides himself – “Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage. Negroes and Whites—all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, hell is my destiny.”

The flashback to the death of Sylvia’s parents has another telling subplot. As the lynch mob is chasing her parents, one man from the mob has been tracking down Sylvia, cornering her in her family’s cabin; the scenes with their murder are intercut with scenes from a grippingly violent attempted rape. But Sylvia’s would-be rapist is stopped by the sight of a birthmark on her chest – for that is how he realizes she is his illegitimate daughter.

The scenes with the lynching are pretty grim as well. We don’t actually see Sylvia’s adoptive parents dying, but by the time they are in their nooses, they’ve been very roughly handled.

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There’s an even more graphic tableau earlier. Efram, the man who frames Sylvia’s father, first offers to lead the lynch mob through the swamps where they’re hiding – but the hunt takes longer than planned, and the bloodthirsty mob turns on Efram himself.

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It seems that the director was entirely self-taught, and making things on the thinnest of shoestrings compared to other film’s budgets – Micheaux didn’t have enough film stock to do more than one take for each scene, and had to borrow all the costumes and props. Micheaux may not have been as skilled, but he had some things he very definitely wanted to say.

Movie Crash Course: Extra Credit Syllabus

This isn’t really part of my official “movie crash course” program, but it’s another personal movie habit; I try to make sure I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees by the time the Academy Awards are given out each year.

I will admit, though, that it was a hell of a lot easier to do that when there were only five nominees.  There always seem to be a couple films that sneak onto the list now that I really don’t want to see, and some years it’s only the sense of completion that drives me to see them; there have been years when even that wasn’t enough to make me want to see something and I threw up my hands and said “oh well, I’ll just not see them all this year then.” (I’m looking at you, American Sniper.)

And let’s face it – movie tickets these days are expensive, yo.

So here are this year’s crop:

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

I’ve gotten a couple under my belt already. My parents and I saw Manchester By The Sea the day after Christmas; seeing that film in a tiny theater in a tiny Cape Cod movie house was a whole other level of realism.  I was in an even smaller theater for Hidden Figures, where I was one of only five people in the audience at the 9 pm showing on a Saturday night in Saugerties Village.  I’ve been meaning to see Arrival and Moonlight anyway….and I confess that I just had to look up Hell or High Water.

Movie Crash Course: Broken Blossoms

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)

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Okay! After a busy week at work, I am back, with another D.W. Griffith offering. You’ll remember his last offering Intolerance, a massively-budgeted epic, nearly bankrupted not just Griffith himself, but an entire studio. So he really had to rein things in out of necessity for this – there are only about four sets and five prominent characters. That minimalism, plus the melodramatic love story within, helped the film turn a profit and the studio turn a corner.  I also think it helped the film, in the end.

The love story takes place between Cheng Huan (actor Richard Barthelmess, in somewhat unconvincing yellowface) and Lucy, a poor and abused teenage orphan. Huan and Lucy live in London’s Chinatown, where Lucy is the ward of a cruel boxer, “Battling Burrows” (Donald Crisp). The prelude scenes introduce Huan taking his leave of China on a self-imposed mission to “spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands”, but by the time he meets Lucy he is a disillusioned shopkeeper who has a tiny opium habit. He often sees Lucy peering longingly through his window at the selection of dolls he has on offer; his shop window is one of the few tastes of beauty available to her. So one night, after a particularly cruel beating at Burrows’ hands, she staggers out of their house in a daze and wanders to Huan’s shop, collapsing on the floor. Huan takes her in, devotedly tending to her wounds over the next day or so, and showering her with chaste affection until Burrows – who has been on the hunt for her – learns where she is, and immediately following a prize fight he storms to Huan’s shop, destoys everything, and drags Lucy home to beat her soundly. But love for Lucy spurs the pacifist Huan to get a gun and track down Burrows himself.

This is a melodrama with a big ol’ capital M. All three principals end up dead, and all three cast members ham things up considerably; much of Barthelmess’ performance consists of simply looking at Lucy with quiet devotion, and Crisp seems to have a permanent sneer on his face.  And there are plenty of lingering close-ups of Lillian Gish as Lucy, looking sadly into the camera with big tear-filled eyes. There’s even a running bit where Burrows repeatedly chides Lucy to “put a smile on yer face”, and because of the sheer misery of her life, all she can muster is to manually use two fingers to prod the corners of her mouth into shape.

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The exception is the film’s “closet scene”, a moment towards the end where Lucy, in an effort to escape a thrashing from Burrows, barricades herself in the closet – but Burrows has a hatchet, and starts chopping his way through, to Lucy’s terror.

Reportedly, Gish really sold this scene on set during filming, to the point that neighbors were knocking on the studio door asking after hearing the screams and asking “is everything okay?” Even Griffith himself was rattled – immediately after the take, there was a moment of silence, broken by Griffith finally retorting, “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that??”

One other shot may not translate as well into today’s conventions.  During a scene where Huan is tending to Lucy, he is watching her sleep; there is a long closeup of his face, as he stares directly into the camera, followed by a two-shot of him turning away from her on the bed and leaving. I know that it’s probably supposed to be a way to depict Huan’s tempation and desire, but visually, it just looks really, really creepy:

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Alternately, it reminded me of Peter Capaldi’s very first appearance as The Doctor on Doctor Who

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The smaller scale actually helps Griffith, I think; he doesn’t have the money to throw two-story sets or period costumes into the mix, and there are much fewer of the throwaway tableaux that he sprinkled throughout Birth of a Nation or Intolerance.  He even goes minimalist with the title cards; save for one small scold in the film’s opening, Griffith steps back and lets the story simply unfold. There is one small scene with a whiff of social commentary that made me chuckle, though; early in the film, as Huan is opening up his shop, he is visited a pair of priests. One is the local minister, and is greeted warmly by Huan; he introduces the other to Huan as his brother, proudly saying that his brother is “about to depart for China to preach the gospel to the heathen.” The scene comes no more than two minutes after shots of Huan ambitiously departing China on his own evangelical crusade; but Huan simply smiles blandly, teeth slightly grit, and says “….I wish him luck.”

Oh, P.S. – I have discovered another blogger who has also embarked on watching all 1001 movies; he seems to be much more knowledgeable about film, and I may be reading him for more extra-credit schooling now and then.  Me, I’ll take the “unschooled amateur” corner, though.