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Monthly Archives: January 2019

Movie Crash Course: Fantasia

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According to family lore, Fantasia was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was about three, so it was either just before or after my brother was born; most likely in the indie theater at the state university campus the next town over from where I grew up.  My parents probably made the mistake common to a lot of young parents – they saw it was a Disney film, thought “okay, perfect for kids” and didn’t investigate further (or if they’d seen it when they were younger, they forgot about it).  So it wasn’t until we were sitting in the theater, with me wide-eyed at the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence and my mother whispering to me that everything was going to be okay, that they realized their mistake.

I don’t remember any of this, so fortunately it doesn’t seem to have scarred me.  Mom and I chatted right before I watched this, and she teased me that “I’m glad you’re brave enough to revisit it now!”

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What struck me, actually, was just how innovative an idea the whole thing was. Basically it’s an anthology of short films, each of which had been inspired by a certain piece of classical music.  Anthologies-of-films aren’t that novel an idea in and of themselves – the recent Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a live-action example, as is 1993’s Short Cuts and 2006’s Paris, Je T’aime. You could also say that Intolerance back in 1916 was an anthology as well.  But Disney originally planned for Fantasia to be a recurring and ever-changing thing – re-releasing it every year or so, swapping out older segments for newer ones as they were produced, keeping the popular fan favorites and retiring some of the less-popular ones for newer content.

True, there could have been a mercenary motivation (“we’ve gotta find something else to do with these short subject pieces aside from just slapping them in front of newsreels”),  but it seems the original idea went a bit further than that, with Disney rolling out a whole new sound technology, “Fanta-sound,” and encouraging theaters to install it prior to screenings. This was a whole big concept, and I’ve spent several fascinated minutes imagining what else may have come of it if the idea had truly taken off. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of World War II, Disney lost out on their usual European market; and the Fanta-sound system was cost-prohibitive for many theaters, so it didn’t recoup as much of its original investment as Disney had hoped. So this version was the only one until the year 2000 (more on that version in a minute), and the 1940’s Fantasia was left to stand on its own.

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….If you’ve been to a children’s program at a symphony orchestra, you kind of get how the framing device behind Fantasia works.  All the music is performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, all of which are taking their seats and tuning up right at the start; finally composer Deems Taylor walks in, taking up a spot next to the two harpists, and introduces the whole show.  Taylor serves as our M.C. for the film, giving us a bit of a brief music history lecture before introducing each of the seven segments:

  • Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which scores a surprisingly experimental work of abstract animated forms.
  • Selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which here is interpreted by a bunch of anthromorphic plants and pixies with nary a nutcracker in sight.
  • Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, probably the most famous selection – and the only appearance of Mickey Mouse.
  • A bit of an intermission, during which Taylor plays around with an animated version of “the soundtrack” itself – depicted as a plain line that changes shape with each unique sound.
  • Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, interpreted as a story of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.
  • Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, set in a twee Disney version of ancient mythological Greece.
  • Ponchielli’s “Dance Of the Hours”, featuring the graceful balletic stylings of ostriches, hippos, and elephants.
  • “Night On Bald Mountain”/”Ave Maria”, in which Satan presides over a black mass before day breaks and sends him fleeing from a religious procession of monks.

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The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence is probably the best-known today, followed possibly by the “Pastoral Symphony” and “Dance of the Hours”.  They’re probably the sequences I liked best as a child; they’re the most kid-friendly, with cute or funny animal characters and lots of action.  As an adult, I definitely favor the “Dance of the Hours” out of those three – there’s some obvious comedy due to hippos and elephants standing in as delicate graceful ballerinas. From a technical standpoint, I was also impressed with the ostriches – there’s enough of the “body language” of ostriches that it fits, and enough of the ballerina to make you think “okay, yeah, ostriches as ballerinas does work.”  Apparently the animators for this sequence were sent on a field trip to a Los Angeles zoo to spend a day watching their various subjects so they could capture their action.

The opening “Toccata and Fugue” sequence also really grabbed my attention.  It’s pretty abstract; all shifting forms and shimmering shapes, lines morphing into bowstrings floating in space and waves rising and falling with the strings and woodwinds.   (I’m amused to note that I was seeing it on a college campus in the early 1970s, and in retrospect I think I can guess what mental state some of the students in the audience may have been in.)  It seemed the most un-Disney film of the lot, and I was pretty surprised.  The “soundtrack” sequence also gets abstract with the animation, but that looked more like a science-class demonstration.

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The flip side for me was the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence, with chubby little cherubs and fauns and baby unicorns all prancing around in a twee idyllic paradise, all snub noses and cute widdle hoovsies and…yeah.  It was going for endearing, but to cynical grown-up me it just looked saccharine, with some of the characters looking just this side of a “My Little Pony” cartoon.

Also, the “Pastoral” has a bit of a notorious reputation – part of it depicts a group of female centaurs bathing in a stream and then primping to look pretty for their mates.  In the 1940s, the fact that the ladies were topless (albeit nipple-less) raised eyebrows; but today, what gives people pause is the really blatant racism in a centaur servant, depicted as a full-on “Aunt-Jemima” caricature and doing nothing but dressing the other centaurs and fluffing their hair and such.  I watched this thanks to a DVD copy loaned by a friend (Hi, Scott!) which had been issued as a re-release with the Fantasia 2000 disc; in that version, and in any future theatrical re-release, all appearances of that particular centaur have been carefully edited out.  You can find the uncensored version of that segment online, however; and honestly, after tracking it down, I can attest that this character doesn’t add anything by its presence.

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Speaking of Fantasia 2000 – this was the first (and so far only) sequel to the original, borrowing from the initial plan to re-release the film with new short films in each program.  The 2000 version keeps the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, but everything else is new – an appearance by Donald Duck, a piece based on the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” story, a lovely nature tale set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, and a piece set to “The Carnival of the Animals” which sees James Earl Jones as the M.C asking “what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?”  I saw the 2000 version in the theater, and dipped into the DVD again since I had it; one of the pieces that impressed me at the time was a sequence with some humpback whales.  But on re-watch the animation looked a little too blatantly “CGI”, and it put me off.  My favorite sequence from the 2000 edition, however, I watched all the way through – a sequence set in 1930s New York City, with the art done in the style of the famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  Then, as now, it warmed the cockles of my New Yorker heart.

Oh and PS Extra-Credit Oscar Watch

Oh I almost forgot!  I can check off The Favourite from my Oscar Catch-up list (thank you, Brooklyn Academy of Music, for having a membership program for film fans).

There are some deliciously wicked moments of satire in this story of palace intrigue during the reign of Britain’s Queen Anne. And – when was the last time you saw a film with three women leading the whole film, all of whom have received Oscar nominations for their performances?…speaking of which – the Academy granted Olivia Colman a Best Actress nomination, with Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz competing for Best Supporting Actress.  While I suspect this was the studio’s idea to split them up like this, rather than trying to send all three in for Best Actress consideration, I’m still hard-pressed to consider Emma Stone’s performance just a “supporting” role.  The story really belongs to all three equally.  On the other hand, this performance from Olivia Colman is a revelation (from the perspective of someone who mostly knows her from Broadchurch and that’s it).

Oh – and if you saw this film and you understand what on earth that final shot was all about, lemme know.  I’ve heard that baffling final images are kind of a calling card for director Yorgos Lanthimos, but still I was surprised to see the whole thing was over after that shot and sat there a few seconds thinking “…..bwuh?”

Movie Crash Course: Rebecca

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In the interest of full disclosure, I went into Rebecca thinking that I was spoiled for it and knew the ending.  But somehow I had confused the plot of this film with that of Jane Eyre, for reasons that I am unable to ascertain.  So watching this was an unusual exercise in waiting for a plot twist that never came.

That confusion isn’t completely out of nowhere, in my defense.  Both stories are told from the perspective of a young woman who finds herself joining a wealthy estate where everyone is haunted by the memory of the deceased prior lady of the manor.  In Jane Eyre’s case, however, that’s just part of a lengthy epic, which sees our heroine through an entire coming-of-age tale complete with boarding school anecdotes and early jobs as a governess and long-lost cousins and other such English Gothic plot tropes.

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Also, Jane Eyre is actually named after the narrator.  Not so with Rebecca – which is actually named after the dead first wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the nobleman that our heroine (Joan Fontaine) meets while in Monte Carlo.  ….Our heroine is never named in the original Daphne du Maurier novel on which this is based, and the movie carries on that convention (which is kind of weird on film). Most reviewers or scholars refer to her character as “The Second Mrs. De Winter”, but that is impossibly clunky so I’m instead going to call her…Hortense.

Hortense is the lady’s maid to an elderly socialite, and meets De Winter while out on a stroll on the cliffs overlooking the beach at their resort.  She’s looking for something to sketch – and he looks like he’s about to jump off the cliff.  Understandably Hortense is alarmed and blurts out a plea to him to stop.  He tells her to scram and mind her own business, but her interruption has distracted him enough to give him second thoughts – and he thanks Hortense later in the hotel.  He’s charmed by her sweet nature and naivete, and sweeps her up in a whirlwind two-week courtship before spontaneously proposing to her on the day she’s due to leave Monte Carlo. Hortense agrees, they hit up a Justice of the Peace to marry right away, and De Winter brings Hortense back to his English estate “Manderley”.

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Hortense was due for some culture shock no matter what; the goings-on of an estate would be completely foreign to someone from Hortense’s background.  But in the case of Manderley, Hortense has to deal with the house staff keeping things just as the first Mrs. De Winter had them.  Rebecca’s letterhead and address book still grace the office, her old bedroom is left intact while Hortense is sent to sleep in another wing of the house, and the creepy head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) keeps commenting on all of Hortense’s decisions by remarking about what Rebecca would have done differently.

Mrs. Danvers and De Winter both seem weirdly hung up on Rebecca, albeit in different ways.  Mrs. Danvers seems to regard Rebecca with nearly religious fervor; there’s a lengthy scene where Mrs. Danvers catches Hortense timidly exploring Rebecca’s old bedroom, but instead of throwing her out, Mrs. Danvers gives her a grand tour, pointing out each of Rebecca’s possessions and forcing Hortense to touch Rebecca’s furs and lie on her bed and admire the lace in her negligee, all the while talking about how elegant and classy and gracious and suave Rebecca had been and how devoted Mr. De Winter had been to her, why just look at these slips after all, they were made by nuns in an Italian convent and he bought them for her…  De Winter, on the other hand, seems hellbent on avoiding all reminders of Rebecca entirely, violently lashing out at Hortense if she reminds him of Rebecca in any way.  But since he’s pretty tight-lipped on what Rebecca was like or how she died, Hortense ends up pissing him off more than a few times.

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Things really come to a head when Manderley throws a costume party.  Hortense is struggling with a costume idea, and Mrs. Danvers suggests that she dress as one of De Winter’s own ancestors, pointing out a specific portrait in the hall that she implies De Winter will really like.  Hortense trustingly agrees, keeping her costume secret from De Winter until the day of the ball.  But he blows up at her when he sees it – for Rebecca had worn exactly the same costume at a prior ball.   Now Hortense knows Mrs. Danvers has it in for her; it’s time to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.

The bulk of the film is taken up with the psychological fallout of Hortense getting thrown into the situation in Manderley.  The scene where Mrs. Danvers shows off Rebecca’s things is profoundly creepy, thanks to Anderson’s performance; it’s the first time we’ve seen any emotion other than disdain from Mrs. Danvers, but it’s still delivered with the same stern gaze and monotone she’s been using to address Hortense throughout.   It’s an eerie calm which suggests that something about Mrs. Danvers is very, very wrong.

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Also creepy is De Winter’s repeated admiration for Hortense’s “innocence” throughout. He says a couple times that he’s drawn to her because of her simplicity and sincerity, both of which he implies comes from her innocence and youth.   That kind of attitude seems pretty oogy, frankly; however, when Hortense discovers more about Rebecca, it kind of explains De Winter’s attitude.  Not to the point that I’m going to forgive him, though; Hortense has some dang brave moments towards the end, but instead of applauding that, De Winter remarks that she’s lost that girlish look in her eye now.  I mean, he still loves her and everything, but he does note that she’s changed.  ….Ew.

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The creepy Anderson is the highlight of the show, ultimately, backed up by Alfred Hitchcock’s direction.  This was Hitchcock’s first film for producer David Selznick, who was still working on Gone With The Wind.  It seems that Selznick had a couple of showy ideas for shots which Hitchcock found ridiculous, and simply didn’t film; one concerned a scene with a fire at Manderley, during which Selznick wanted a shot of the smoke billowing into the sky to magically shape itself into a huge “R”.  Not only am I not sure how Hitchcock would have been able to pull that off, it sounds really, really stupid.  Hitchcock also thought so, and simply didn’t film any shots of smoke billowing into the sky during that scene.  Instead, he filmed some of Rebecca’s monogrammed possessions burning, forcing Selznick – who liked to be hands-on in the editing room – to work with that instead.  The film got a whole raft of Oscar nominations that year, and ultimately won Best Cinematography and Best Picture, so it seems that Hitchcock’s instincts were superior.

State Of The Kim: Of Resolutions And Rejuvenation

So I’ve recovered from the employment shock a bit, and I think I’m going to be okay.  I dove into job-hunt mode for a few days and have stashed a whole ton of irons into the fire, I have a bit of a game plan set into motion and I even have the promise of some temporary income streams coming in that will sustain me for at least the next two or three months.  In fact, the prospect of the next two or three weeks potentially being “downtime” actually sounds…attractive, instead of being a cause for blind panic.  I’m still going to be browsing job postings every day, but I’m also going to be going on long walks with my camera, checking out local museums with “free weekday” deals, and Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of a couple closets.

Best of all – since most of the challenges I set up for myself in the Year Of Challenges  don’t involve any cash outlay, I can stick with it. Maybe temporarily tweak a couple of them and make up for it later.

In fact, let’s check in on how I did in January.

  • Visit a New Neighborhood: ….Er, I haven’t just yet.  I may save the “January” plan for the first week of February to distract myself from the first couple days of “oh crap I don’t have a job to go to today”.
  • Eat lunch at a restaurant in my neighborhood:  I think I can be excused this. I may also have to put this on hold for a couple months, and double up when I’m in funds again. But there’s a fish sandwich place that opened up on my actual block last week that I have my eye on as the first visit.
  • Reading Challenge: now, this is interesting. I initially signed up and planned to do the Penguin Books UK Classic Reading Challenge, thinking that there was going to be a specified list of books they’d mapped out for the month.  But when two weeks elapsed and I never saw any notice about that, I finally just scoured my own bookshelves and gathered a little stack of Things I’m Meaning To Read and dove into that instead.  But then just when I was finishing the first book….I finally got an email from Penguin, with January’s title on their Classics challenge.  And….so I read both.  I think I may just keep going at that rate – one from my own stack, then one from Penguin.  This first month, the first book was Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis – an unusual construction, sort of like a cross between Memento and Benjamin Button, but with Nazis.  (I have made total hash of that description, but trust me, it’s applicable.)  Penguin suggested Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! which was…alright, but a little too hand-over-heart embrace-the-salt-of-the-earth for my taste.  But – that’s double the success rate on the reading challenge.  Go me!
  • Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday: Yep, did that. Didn’t avail myself of any of the special events they have each time, but I rarely do anyway; I tend to prefer to visit some of my own favorite corners. Although I was drawn to a couple quirky things on display; there’s a retrospective of the museum’s feminist art collection there, and one of the pieces was a series by the artist Wendy Red Star, who found a series of five photos taken of Crow tribe chiefs in the 19th Century at a time when they were visiting Washington DC to negotiate land rights. Wendy Red Star’s work is a series of extensive notations on each photo, describing some of the symbolic elements of each chief’s attire and giving details about their lives.
  • Chinese Cookbook: ….So, I’m cutting myself slack on this for this month. My grocery list for the next few weeks is going to have to be trimmed and simplified, so I don’t quite have the money to spend on some of the specialty ingredients I’d have to buy for this (a shame, as I had my eye on making wontons).  However, there are some recipes that can be made using regular supermarket fare, and I just need to find those and then re-launch.  However, I have another cooking challenge I’m going to add to make up for it:
  • NEW Soup Cookbook Challenge. I also have another overlooked cookbook, this one concerning simple seasonal soups; it’s written by an actual monk, sharing recipes from his own kitchen at his actual monastery, so there’s also an intrinsic frugality there.  I’ve used this one a little more – but there are still quite a few recipes I’ve never tried.   So I’m also going to dive into that one over the course of the coming year.  Brother Victoire-Antoine also helpfully organizes the book with a separate chapter for each month of the year, so I can keep track.  (Coming up in February: mostly bean and vegetable soups, mostly French.  I’m down.)
  • Five Photos every weekend: Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.  We’ve had a couple of BITTER cold weekends, but I’ve still stuck with at least picking up the camera and trying to find photo material indoors.  Also, I’m not so hung up on the “five photos” part as I am on the “every weekend” part; one weekend I only took three photos, but at least I took photos.  Last weekend I also signed up for a “photo walk” with a local photographer and birder; it was a friendly group of people who’d gone on walks with him before, and me, so the focus was mostly on people just diving in and taking pictures.  Exactly what I needed.  He led us on a ramble through some of the residential back corners of Coney Island, finishing with a stroll down the boardwalk back towards the subways. And I found a wealth of subjects…
  • Hike: According to my Fitbit the walk around Coney Island Creek counts as a hike, so there.
  • Craft Projects: I finished something!!! I have been working on a throw blanket for a couple years now; I’d had the yarn salvaged from a more complicated throw blanket kit I’d purchased some years ago, started, and decided I didn’t want to fiddle with it.  But that left me with a couple oddball balls of yarn that wouldn’t really work in other things; it’s a weird sort of fuzzy yarn, really lightweight and fuzzy, so not suitable for a garment. But the quantity was just enough for a simpler lap blanket, which is finally done and gracing the living room. img_5439

Movie Crash Course: His Girl Friday

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I appreciate quick wit, and I appreciate the madcap pace of screwball comedy.  I also appreciate Cary Grant when he’s at his screwball best.  So I’m not sure why I didn’t really get into His Girl Friday, which has all of the above elements.  Maybe my problem is simply that it has a little bit too much of them.

Grant may have one of the top-billed spots here, as Walter Burns, chief editor of Chicago’s Morning Post newspaper.  But his co-star, Rosalind Russell, ably does most of the heavy lifting as Hildy Johnson – formerly Hildy Burns, Walter’s ex-wife and one of his papers’ star reporters.  At the film’s rise, she’s already divorced him, and has come by the Post office to announce that she is quitting the business and is looking forward to a happy domestic life as the wife to an insurance salesman, whom she’s due to marry on the morrow.   Burns is convinced that she doesn’t really want to quit, though, and concocts a set of schemes to lure Johnson into staying – including luring her with a chance to interview Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man on death row for a controversial murder case. He’s scheduled to be hanged the following day, Burns opines, but he may be innocent, and may just be getting set up by the corrupt sheriff.  A star reporter like Hildy could save the man’s life, if only she’d consider one last piece…

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Johnson relents, and drops by the courthouse to speak to Williams, planning to write up her interview real fast before hopping the night train to Albany and retirement.  But the familiar vibe of the courthouse press room slows her down a bit, and then when Williams stages a jailbreak, positioning Johnson in just the right place for a coup of a scoop, Johnson is really hooked, struggling to cover the story and still make it to Albany in time.

The film is based on a 1928 play called The Front Page, which is set entirely in the courthouse press room.  Hildy Johnson is a man in the play, and while he is indeed planning on a retirement and sees his plans get interrupted by the jailbreak, there’s no subplot about a jealous ex of Johnson’s trying to win him back.  So it sort of makes sense to me that that element was the weakest part for me.  Grant is clearly having fun with the role, Russell even more so (honestly, she acts rings around Grant); but too many of Burns’ schemes to stop Johnson are actually pretty mean, like sending interns to frame Johnson’s fiancé for crimes by planting stolen goods on him. Twice.  It’s not a good look for Grant, and it put me off.  To make things worse – Johnson catches him at it each time, but by the movies’ end it seems she’s cheerfully forgiven him.

The film also moves at a breakneck pace – way more so than other screwball comedies, to the point that I occasionally had trouble following what was happening or understanding what people were saying. It’s almost as if the extra subplot getting squeezed in made everyone involved feel like they had to talk even faster just to get in all the extra words.  Again, I know that screwball comedies are supposed to be fast, but this one felt just a little too fast for my taste.

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There are some fun one-liners, and Rosalind Russell is a treat, but ultimately there was a little bit too much to wade through to find the gems for me.

Movie Crash Course 2019 Oscar Extra Credit – PostScript

….I was so quick to check the list of Best Picture nominees for this year, that I missed that there was a very large and glaring omission in the Best Documentary category.  The Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was not nominated for a dang thing.

That feels wrong on a cosmic level.  But instead of taking to Twitter or anything I’m going to just Be More Like Fred….

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Movie Crash Course – 2019 Oscar Extra Credit

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So!  Way before the Crash Course, I made a promise to myself that I would try to see all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees by the time the awards are announced.  That’s gotten tricky in recent years, after they changed the rules to allow for more than five nominees, but it’s still lead me to see some fantastic contemporary films that I may not have seen otherwise (y’all, I’ve already started writing my Crash Course review for Call Me By Your Name even though I won’t need to post it for about five years or so because that’s how much I love it, and I’m not sure I’d have seen it if it wasn’t nominated and oh god how worse off I would be).

So this morning, almost as soon as I was able, I checked the list of nominees for this year to get my marching orders.  And the nominees are:

  • Black Panther
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Roma
  • A Star Is Born
  • Vice

…There are a couple of surprises here.  I thought First Man would have been kind of a shoe-in, and I’m a bit disappointed that If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t get any Best Picture love.  But most surprising of all is that Black Panther got nominated.  Alex and I discussed this a few days ago; I thought it was getting an unusually high amount of buzz, but Alex was doubtful.  “It was good, but it was a superhero movie,” he sighed.  “It’s not gonna get nominated.”   (I confess that one of my first acts upon reading the list was to text him at work with the news; he’s just as pleasantly surprised as I am.)

I’ve also managed to have seen more of the nominees this year than I usually have at this stage.  I hadn’t seen Black Panther in theaters, but had an inkling Oscar would be kind, and watched it at home recently.  Others have raved about how it depicts women and people of color, and I absolutely agree; I was also surprised to find myself pondering what the film seemed to be saying about the responsibility placed upon you when you find yourself blessed with privilege and power.  If you have the means to help benefit others, doesn’t it behoove you to do so?  Or do you have a greater responsibility to protect yourself and those in your circle?

These were deep thoughts from a Marvel comics movie.

I’ve discussed my response to BlacKkKlansman before.  The third film I’ve already seen is Vice, which I saw with my parents on Boxing Day this year.  Mom and Dad fortunately share a lot of my political beliefs; when we do differ, it’s more of a Nancy-Pelosi-vs.-Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez thing, where we have the same ideals but differ only in how aggressively we should pursue them.  So watching Vice was an interesting exercise in conversion for me (“Oh, man, I knew he was bad but I didn’t know he was that bad!”  “….guys, this is stuff I was trying to tell y’all in 2003.”).  Vice was created by the same team that did The Big Short, and that same kind of dark-humor fourth-wall-punching approach brought some much-needed levity to the story; if it was nothing but a whole listing of Dick Cheney’s misdeeds, the film would have been impossibly dour.  But as it was, I heard as much laughter in the crowd around me as I was hearing gasps of shock; and I admit, I was cheered to hear as many of those gasps as I did.  (Again: I’m one of those people who’s known about the ills of the Bush/Cheney administration since 2003.)

So this leaves me with a marching list of five films:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Roma
  • A Star Is Born

I think that there are a couple of those that I would only be able to see on Netflix at this stage as it is.  Which is fine for someone of temporarily-slender means.  But – as I was saying, there are some films each year that I probably would only have seen because of their nomination, and for some of those films I already know that it’s not really gonna be my bag.  In recent years I’ve just been skipping those films altogether; I didn’t see La La Land, I also didn’t see Lady Bird.  And as much as I respect Bradley Cooper, I’m getting a similar vibe off A Star Is Born this year.

But we’ll see.  I have a month and will have a good deal more free time; let’s see what I can do.  I might be pleasantly surprised.

Movie Crash Course: The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums

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The slow, meandering pace of this film almost put me off at first; most of the scenes are slow, the takes are long, conversations are long and winding, things felt like they were just taking a darn long time to get going.  But that slow pace ended up sucking me into an affecting story despite myself.

Set in the theater world of Japan in the 1880s, it’s the story of Kiku (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of a renowned Kabuki actor. Kiku is being groomed to follow in the family business, and he is everywhere celebrated as the successor to his father’s theatrical dynasty – at least when he’s in the room.  When he leaves, however, everyone gossips about how bad he is, largely because he’s spending his nights partying with the geishas instead of perfecting his craft. Kiku starts to question everyone’s praise, however, taking aside a couple trusted friends to get an honest opinion; but they too tell him no, everything’s fine.  The first person to ever speak frankly with him about his talent is Otoku (Kakuko Mori), a servant girl in his family’s house; she’s the wet nurse for Kiku’s baby brother, but snuck out one night to watch him perform.  And….she didn’t dig it.  But – she eagerly tells Kiku – she believes he could be good if he started to really practice at it.

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Otoku’s sincerity and faith touch Kiku deeply, and he falls for her hard, swearing off the partying and staying home to study his art.  But of course, since Otoku is also there, Kiku’s family gets the wrong idea about why he’s home all the time now, and fires Otoku. An indignant Kiku announces he’s leaving as well; if he’s going to become an actor, he wants to succeed on his own merits instead of riding his father’s coattails, so he’s going to go off and pay his dues.  And he’ll have Otoku with him when he does, so there.

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The next several years are grueling for the couple, as Kiku struggles for gigs – regional theater here, cheap touring companies there – with Otoku struggling to hang on and support him, selling her few belongings and doing odd-job sewing to make ends meet.  They go through poverty, sickness, and disillusionment, Otoku trying harder and harder to encourage Kiku to keep going.  In desperation one day, when she sees that Kiku’s uncle is producing a show in the small town where they’re staying, she sneaks to him and begs him to cast Kiku in something, swearing that Kiku’s struggles have lead him to hone his craft.  Kiku’s uncle makes her a deal: he’ll cast Kiku in his latest show and see how he’s doing. If Kiku’s really a better actor, they’ll bring Kiku back home to Tokyo – but without Otoku, since Kiku’s father never approved of their union.  Do they have a deal?

It’s a pretty soapy melodramatic plot.  But the slow pace ended up working its patient magic with me, and I ended up sucked into the story; grieving with the couple when they were stuck in doing cheap show tours, rejoicing with Otoku when Kiku tracked her down after her dismissal.  The calibre of Kakuko’s performance drew me in as well; there’s a moment when Kiku is giving that pivotal performance with his uncle’s company, with scores of different people watching eagerly from the wings, Otoku among them, to see what will happen.  But Otoku can’t watch after a while, and flees to a space under the stage; but then she lingers, listening to his show, torn between hope for his success and pain for what his success would mean to her.  She says nothing – only listens, aching.

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The film also resonates with an old theater person like me; even though the performers are doing kabuki instead of something more familiar to Western eyes, there are some lengthy clips of Kiku’s performances that allow you to track his progress.  There’s even an unintentionally funny bit where the road show Kiku’s in gets its contract cancelled early because the theater manager wants to bring in a female sumo act; and he’s brought the lady wrestlers in as muscle to evict the actors.

But it’s mostly a tragic tale, quietly affecting in its sincerity;  much like the quiet Otoku.

Bit Of A Bobble

So things got an eensy bit quiet in here for a couple days and I should probably explain why.

A few days ago, I learned that the company I work for is closing its office in New York City.  There is no option for me to do my job remotely.


Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is not a wholly new situation for me.  The bulk of my employment history was during the ten years following the financial collapse, and for a few years temporary work was all there was to be had.  So I’ve thrown myself full-tilt into a job search, and am pretty confident this will just be a few months’ bobble, and I’ll console myself by humming “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” now and then.

In the meantime – I’m keeping up with the Movie Crash Course, of course, and am going to definitely keep up with some of my other resolutions, especially the five-photos-a-week and the new-neighborhood-a-month.  A lot of the things I was planning on doing will require nothing more than time to accomplish anyway – and time is something I’ll have a little more of than planned for a few weeks.

Right.  Onward.

Movie Crash Course: Babes In Arms

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I was initially amused to see that Busby Berkley directed this film, an early Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle.  But the more I think about it, the more it makes total sense.

You probably guessed when I mentioned the two stars; but confirming that yes, this is an early film from the genre “Hey, let’s put on a show in the barn and save the orphanage!”  You know what I mean – small community facing financial hardship, plucky teens have the idea to put on some kind of show as a fundraiser, rehearsals are a mess but it all comes together and the day is saved.  Often with a side order of “producer boy enlists local hottie as the lead, but realizes the girl next door is actually better and recasts at the last minute”, frequently with a garnish of “and they fall in love too”.  It’s become a very familiar trope, getting used in everything from The Blues Brothers to The Full Monty to TV’s Scrubs and The Brady Bunch and a number of others.  It’s even inspired real-life attempts (in 2009, I helped stage manage such a show to raise funds for my high school’s music program).

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With Babes in Arms, however, there was another nuance that I only caught in retrospect.  In this film, the kids are all show-biz kids, the sons and daughters of old vaudevillians now struggling to book shows  in the movie era.  Many of the kids – especially Mickey Moran (Rooney) were part of the family act and are on the cusp of embarking on solo careers; Moran is trying to break into songwriting, encouraged by his girl Patsy Barton (Garland), herself a fine singer.  But when the parents all team up to collectively launch a greatest-hits revival tour, in a desperate bid for money, they insist the kids sit this one out.  Some even suggest to their kids that they could consider other careers.

But these are theater kids.  And speaking as a former theater kid – telling us to give theater up does not work.  It just makes us twice as determined that we will put on a boffo show and show you we can do it, so there.

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It’s a fantastically predictable plot; the kids struggle to put on the show, Moran and Barton have a lovers’ tiff after he casts the silly Rosalie “Baby” Essex as the lead (she’s a former child star with gobs of money, but Barton gets jealous), there are initial disasters, but everything works out in the end – this time, with a Busby-Berkley-choreographed production number.  But Berkley’s involvement added a particular bit of subtext; maybe it was unintentional, but this felt like a bit of a torch-passing, with the cast from earlier musical movies giving ground to a team of younger and fresher-faced performers.  One of Berkley’s regular go-to character actors, Guy Kibbee, even has a role as a sympathetic judge who buys up a whole block of seats for the kids’ show as a gesture of support.  And in a poignant note towards the end, Moran and his father have had a severe falling-out about the younger Moran’s show business career – largely sparked by the father’s career collapsing right when his son’s career is dawning.  But Moran fils finds a way to extend an olive branch by giving his father a job on the show and making him feel valued by show biz again, even in his dotage.

Even Berkley’s final number is different, doing away with most of the pyrotechnics and showcasing his young leads.  It’s still gloriously excessive – a whole team of dancers filling the aisles and stage of a theater, dancing and singing about the simple pleasures of the U.S. of A. – but instead of a tightly choreographed team of nameless smiling dancers in a swimming pool, the centerpiece of the number is Rooney and Garland trying to do impressions of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt delivering their weekly radio addresses before leading a group of folk-costumed folks from other lands in a tap dance. It’s no longer 1932; the times are different, the priorities are different, and there are younger, newer stars – grateful for those who paved their way, but eager to set out on their own in a land that’s now theirs for the shaping.  It was a surprisingly poignant note to end on.

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….I have one confession by way of epilogue.  There was one scene that I simply could not watch all the way through, and I mention it only as a warning. The scene depicting the kids’ initial performance of their review is a salute to minstrel shows, which ultimately sees the whole cast in blackface singing a medley of minstrel songs – save for one lone young man, dressed all in white and sitting in a grand chair on the stage, and looking for all the world like a plantation owner surveying his “staff” as they entertained him.  Now, I know that this was a scene very much of its time and that I am a person very much of my own time, but I’ve seen quite enough of that. I fast-forwarded it all until the end, where – possibly karmically – a rainstorm interrupts the kids’ open-air performance, leaving Mickey Rooney pleading with the audience to stay as the rain washes off his blackface.

…Good for the rain.