Monday, August 30, 2010

And The Honorees Should Be...Part 4

Well, as we approach another year where the Kennedy Center Honors will be trotted out (we're pulling for you, Betty White), I'm throwing my two cents in and submitting my own suggestions.



Jane Fonda

Let me state clearly for the record: I HATE Fonda's politics (and I figure, she'd hate mine). She, to her credit, has kept a consistency in her thinking: from Hanoi Jane to Baghdad Barbarella. However, I will be the first to say that as an actress, few have come better. Over her career she has remarkable performances: Klute, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, On Golden Pond, The China Syndrome, Coming Home, Monster-In-Law (OK, maybe that wasn't her finest hour). Still, in spite of her views, she's still remained a star and a consummate actress.



Harrison Ford

How can it be that Harrison Ford has been nominated for an Oscar ONLY ONCE? Think of the films he WASN'T nominated for: the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Fugitive, Blade Runner, Air Force One, American Grafitti, The Mosquito Coast. His only nod came for Witness, and the fact that he didn't win isn't shocking--it's the fact that he's been consistently overlooked. Throught it all, he's always been professional, a hallmark of a great actor as opposed to a great star (even if he is both).





Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men. Long Day's Journey Into Night. The Pawnbroker. Fail-Safe. Murder on the Orient Express. Dog Day Afternoon. Network. The Verdict. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Directed by: Sidney Lumet. Enough said.







Bernadette Peters

On this one, I'm going by reputation more than anything else. She is a Broadway legend. Her career has been made on the stage as one of the premiere divas of the Great White Way, and her résumé includes a galaxy of legendary shows: Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music. Now I confess, I don't know that much about stage musicals, but I do know that the name Bernadette Peters is held in high regard by critics and Broadway audiences. Therefore, I think this is a safe choice.




Carly Simon

This choice has nothing to do with the fact that You're So Vain. It's just that Nobody Does It Better. She holds her audiences in Anticipation and no matter how far one would Let The River Run her voice and songwriting are both inspiring new generations and remarkably current.





Neil Young

Cantankerous contrarian Canadian, isn't he? Whether mourning "four dead in Ohio", telling us of how The Needle & The Damage Done, or calling on us to "Let's Roll" after September 11th (especially given most artists still shy from addressing that particular event), he certainly hasn't been anything but brilliant in his songwriting. I have no idea if he has found one with a Heart of Gold under that Harvest Moon, but so long as he has anything to say (and he has plenty to say), we'll all keep on Rockin' In the Free World.

I don't know if we'll see any of these people get the Kennedy Center Honors they deserve this year, next year, or ever. I just think it's nice that we not forget that when it comes to the arts, we haven't done all that bad.

Clash of The Titans Junior Edition


PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF

I blame all this on The Lord of The Rings. This insane pattern of hyphenating everything to make it appear to make a film merely one part of an epic story. All the pretenders and imitators haven't learned the lesson of The Lord of the Rings: that Tolkien's story IS one VERY LONG story that was broken up into three novels. One can't read The Two Towers or perhaps The Return of the King without having some knowledge of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis created a series (The Chronicles of Narnia) but each of the novels can be independent of the others. The Harry Potter novels (and films) all have Harry Potter in the title because they ARE part of the title. It's not The Sorcerer's Stone or The Half-Blood Prince; it's Harry Potter AND the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter AND the Half-Blood Prince. Having Harry Potter in the title is correct, and note: they don't hyphenate. Perhaps it's a sign of American laziness. People nowadays don't want to make the connection between say, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Prince Caspian (or The Magician's Nephew or The Last Battle) or just have such a lack of knowledge that they COULDN'T if they wanted to.

I went on this tangent to draw a connection to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I've always known it as The Lightning Thief and fail to understand why the producers trust the core audience that little that they think they need to remind them that this is the first novel in a series of five books. The lavish title is clearly to indicate that this is going to be a series, a franchise, and there is a danger in that if it fails (artistically or financially) it makes it look all pompous and slightly pretentious. However, they've made that gamble. Have they succeeded in making a franchise? Not quite.

We begin with Zeus (Sean Bean) and Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) meeting at the door of Olympus (which is now at the Empire State Building). Zeus accuses Poseidon's son of stealing his lightning bolt (hence, The Lightning Thief) and demands that he return it within 14 days or there will be war. We shift to Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) who can spend long periods of time underwater. Can we make a connection between Percy and Poseidon, god of the sea? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Percy has a best friend, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) who uses crutches (this is relevant). Through a series of attacks on Percy by some sort of bat and a Minotaur, Percy discovers he's a demi-god: a product of gods and mortal parents. In short, he's illegitimate. Grover (who is a satyr, hence the crutches) takes him to Camp Half-Blood (a summer camp/safe place for these divine bastards) where Percy's teacher Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan) unmasks himself as a centaur. At Camp X-Men (I mean Half-Blood), he meets Annabeth (Alexandra Dadarrio), Athena's girl, and Luke (Jake Abel), Hermes' kid. Percy (which, curious, makes me wonder if it's short for, uhm, could it be...PERSEUS?!) embarks on a quest to find the Three Pearls of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, in an effort to get his human mother (Catherine Keener) back from the dead. Percy, Grover, and Annabeth do this by going to three locations and facing the mythic monsters Medusa (Uma Thurman), a hydra, and the land of the Lotus Eaters.

Here's the thing about The Lightning Thief: it isn't well-thought out. How could I say that, especially since I have not read any of Rick Riordan's books? Simple: I figured out who the actual 'lightning thief' was after our heroes went through their first adventure, all WITHOUT having read any of the books. Once I solved the mystery (which, frankly, it's pretty obvious WHO the thief is, so obvious I wonder if we were MEANT to solve the mystery before the kids did), I didn't have to worry about any sense of suspense or excitement. I give credit where credit is due: if it's Riordan's intention to subtly introduce Greek mythology to kids via the Percy Jackson & The Olympian books, more power to him. And to think all those hours I wasted by reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology...

However, here's a point of logic with The Lightning Thief that I have yet to have answered. Percy doesn't know who his real father is, right? Therefore, he would have no way of knowing HOW to get to Olympus, let alone steal anything from his Uncle Zeus. That being the case, WHY would Zeus accuse someone completely ignorant of his existence of being the thief? That just never made sense to me, unless of course it was to get the ball rolling, and thus it captures the Number 1 GOLDEN RULE OF FILMMAKING: Something will happen if the plot requires it to. I'd like to add that when we're first introduced to Zeus and Poseidon, I didn't think, 'These are two immortal Greek gods'. I thought, 'This is Boromir and Journeyman (a show I'm unapologetic about having watched) trying so very very hard to convince me they're anything other than Sean Bean & Kevin McKidd posing and trying to be very grand in such a silly manner with silly costumes'.

In fact, Chris Columbus couldn't really get any of his actors (adult and juvenile) to be convincing as either divine, semi-divine, or human. It's a curious thing that Columbus appears to be the go-to man for adapting children's books for film when he seems to have great difficulty connecting to what made said books so appealing. This is his second turn at bat in this endeavour (the first two Harry Potter films being the first) and like in those, The Lightning Thief didn't translate to film as well as they could have. I can't say if it was because like in the Harry Potter films he directed, he was too slavishly devoted to trying to put everything from the book in the film (since I haven't read any of the books). I think it comes from Columbus' too strict efforts to make them "children's films", movies that should be shown to those on the same intellectual level as viewers of Dora the Explorer or The Wiggles. My private theory is that since he directed Home Alone and got wonderful results from cast & crew in that film he now is seen as adept at all films geared toward children. However, with The Lightning Thief he and scriptwriter Craig Titley spent more time aping other films (such as the original Clash of the Titans or even Star Wars, when Percy hears his father's voice all but say 'Use the Force' while in the Lotus Hotel sequence) and putting in things that seem to stretch the running time (hearing Poker Face at same sequence) to get whatever adventure the books had into the film.

Never were adults in a 'children's film' so sadly wasted. Melina Kanakaredes had I think ONE scene at the end of the film as Athena, and if you can't give a talented and beautiful actress much to do in a film that involves the Greek gods (and side note, she's perfect as a beautiful Greek goddess) then you frankly shouldn't be filming. The same can be said of Keener, Thurman, Brosnan, and Joe Pantoliano as Keener's brutish boyfriend (although now her reasons for staying with someone as awful as Joey Pants would explain so much about smart women who are with stupid men). As stated earlier, Bean and McKidd tried their best but fell flat, it was almost as if their hearts weren't in it. Faring slightly better was Rosario Dawson as Persephone as well as the kids. Lorman's Percy started out as weak but as the film progressed he became more aware of his powers and grew in character. Daddario reversely starts out strong as a new Xena: Warrior Princess (another story The Lightning Thief apparently paid homage to) and by the end became a slightly admiring fan of Percy. Both gave good performances--not great, but good. Jackson's Grover fared the worse: I wondered if he was suppose to be annoying (which he was most of the time). I would have preferred Sesame Street's Grover over Jackson's Grover.

There was one scene in The Lightning Thief that was impressive: when they go to Hades in order to get Miss Jackson back. Visually, it was quite impressive, which couldn't be said of the last scene when Percy & Annabeth meet their parents in Mt. (Empire State Building) Olympus. The special effects in 1940's The Thief of Bagdad with Sabu were more impressive than those in 2009's The Lightning Thief with Logan Lorman...and more believable. That's a ringing endorsement on the former, and a sad comment on the latter.

If the film had attempted to delve more into the danger and fear the quest Percy & Annabeth took to clear his name and stop the war in the heavens, The Lightning Thief could have been far greater. Instead, Columbus decided to play it safe, to go for something that he thought would appeal specifically to kids than to the kid in all of us. There are some really strong themes here that weren't explored. The Lightning Thief isn't a bad film, but a slightly frustrating one, a film that leaves you asking, 'if only...', 'if only...'; when arriving at Camp Half-Blood, Grover explains that some of the god's progeny lead simple lives while others, "not to brag, are White House famous". I wonder who this satyr (who is black) is referring to? Chester A. Arthur? Grover Cleveland? I do wonder what President could be seen as divine (or at least semi-divine) in Hollywood...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

And When We Get Behind Closed Doors...



STORY 215: THE LODGER


There comes a point in life where one has to leave home. The Doctor, for all his wanderings, has never had an actual home of his own (minus Gallifrey, and now that appears to be gone forever...I still have hope). The Lodger, therefore, would be a milestone in that it's the first time he's had to behave like your average, ordinary bloke and tried to pass himself off as 'one of us'. I suppose all this was done for laughs mixed in with some good old fashioned horror courtesy of the Room Upstairs. Well...

The TARDIS is being prevented from fully materializing, and The Doctor (Matt Smith) jumps out of the ship in time to see it dematerialize with his Companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) still aboard. Meanwhile, a man named Craig (James Corden), with his best (girl) friend Sophie (Daisy Haggard) are calling it a day. It's obvious that Craig likes Sophie and Sophie likes Craig but as in all romantic situations they can't quite tell each other how they feel. As it happens, Craig is in need of a flat-mate (roommate in America), and who should come around looking for a place to live but our dear Doctor? It's all part of a plan, though. The fact that the TARDIS can't fully materialize and is trapped in some sort of Localized Time Loop is related to the goings-on of the flat/apartment above Craig's. While Amy monitors the situation from the TARDIS, the Doctor tries his darnedest to be just one of the lads. Hilarity ensues, right down to a football/soccer match. However, there is serious business at hand. People have been disappearing, being called up to the second floor by mysterious voices. Craig's own life is in danger when, against Doctor's orders, he touches a mysterious mold that has been growing above his ceiling. When Sophie herself is in danger, the Doctor (along with Amy and Craig) discover the secret of what is upstairs and, in a sense, bring down the house.

The Lodger seems to be going for a lot of comedy, which is fine, but I wonder if Gareth Roberts' script didn't make The Doctor a bit of a bumbling idiot. My biggest complaint on this point involves when he's been invited to play soccer with Craig and his friends. He asks Amy something along the lines of "Now, that's the one with the sticks, right?" Given how the 5th Doctor was proficient at cricket, it strikes me as just odd that he wouldn't know 6 regenerations later the difference between cricket and football. You'd think that after having spent so much time with humans he'd know how to behave around them, but no, all these little bits were done to show just what a funny 'fish out of water' the Doctor is. (Side note: I figure the soccer sequence was done to cater to Smith's still-impressive football skills. Landon Donovan, watch out). We can tell it's suppose to be comedic by the fact that the Doctor gets an electric toothbrush and tries to use it as his sonic screwdriver. I guess I figure I was suppose to laugh at that, at seeing the Doctor in the shower, at seeing the Doctor drop his towel when rushing out to see who was going upstairs, and yet, I didn't. Neither did I find it funny (or even relevant) when the Doctor goes to work, filling in for an ill Craig. And I'll say, what is with the constant complaints about the bow-tie? I like the bow-tie, and all those jokes about it are all starting to fall rather flat. Finally, I didn't think this "Doctor Goes Domestic" bit to be at all funny, and I think the Doctor wearing nothing but a towel menacing an alien with an electric toothbrush may be one of the Worst Moments of Series/Season 5.

I was also confused when The Doctor head-butted Craig to reveal a lot of information. It was nice seeing a montage of Doctors, but at this point I just didn't know what to make of it or where it was going. I'll confess to being confused. Rush rush rush quick quick quick. In short, I cannot get over the idea that The Lodger was trying desperately to make me laugh and not doing it. I also want to say this: OK, who DIDN'T think the Doctor was going to be at the door when Craig opens it to tell the person there, "I Love You?" It just struck me as so obvious as to be expected, a bit cliché. Add to that this odd bit: in one scene where Sophie and Craig are talking in the hall, there is a painting of a clown between them that I couldn't stop focusing on. It was the creepiest clown portrait in history and the fact that director Catherine Morshead had it so prominently placed between them made me wonder if I should have paid more attention to it than to the conversation. As for the voices that lure the victims to the Upstairs Room, the last one sounded too much like the child's voice in THE EMPTY CHILD (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) to not have me flash back to that episode. One of the victims appeared to have already been physically abused before being lured upstairs, and it gave me the creeps.

This isn't to say there aren't good, even great things, about The Lodger. Roberts' script gives Smith an exceptionally beautiful speech about "Trying Better Than Failing", chastising Sophie and Craig for settling when they could go for much more. Smith's delivery of this speech is one of his best pieces of acting in the series (may be one of the Best Moments of Series/Season 5). Gillan, though not a major part of the story, still brought a sense of anxiety and fear in Amy (and with the comedy about the bow-ties even an attempt at laughter--I didn't laugh). As for the guest stars, both Corden and Haggard are excellent as the average couple who are in love but who cannot express it to the other. They have a 'regular man and woman' quality to them, and their scenes together, especially in their first, speaks volumes about the subtext between them. It's a scene that is all too familiar to anyone who has fallen in love with their friend.

As for the conclusion of The Lodger, at first I thought I was seeing a glimmer of hope that perhaps my hopes that more Gallifreyans could be kicking about could be true, but I found I might have been mistaken. And of course, we have that crack. By this time, I wasn't surprised, but luckily my mind was occupied by wondering if the Van Gogh magnet on the refrigerator was deliverately suppose to remind me of Vincent & The Doctor to really care.

I'll say this about The Lodger: it deserves a second viewing. I think there was far too much focus on how funny, how quirky, how goofy the Doctor could be in a domestic situation which distracted from the danger above them (side note: the danger they faced brought to mind both THE EMPTY CHILD and Idiot's Lantern. Don't know why, just did). It was almost as if there was a mash-up between Doctor Who and Friends. I wasn't overwhelmed with The Lodger. Perhaps a better title could have been The Beast Above?

4/10
Next Story: THE BIG BANG

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Balcony Is Closed



It would be fair to call Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel the deans of televised film critics. All of us who review films for art or profit (I'm in the former) own them a great debt. Whatever we may have thought of their views on individual films, their passion and love for films was total and sincere. Siskel & Ebert was inspirational to those of us who love film because we could hear intelligent conversation about what made a good film good or a bad film bad without it being grandiose and esoteric. It was no longer, "I liked it because I liked it", but because of such things as acting, story, mood. As is true of life, the viewers (or at least this one) did not always agree with their views. They sometimes didn't agree with each other. However, what they DID share with each other (and us) was a true love of film: film as Art, film as Escapism, film as Entertainment, film as a positive in our lives.





After Siskel's death, Ebert looked around for someone to sit alongside him (it would be disingenuous to say Siskel could be replaced). Whom he eventually selected was Richard Roeper, fellow Chicagoan and in spite of his relative youth more cantankerous than either Siskel or Ebert. Once the newly-christened Ebert & Roeper came along, we still got the intelligence, but we also got better fights. One that my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) and I remember particularly well was the review of XXX: State of the Union. Now, it should be noted, Fidel & I watched Ebert & Roeper/At the Movies with a fanaticism that is usually reserved for Lost or Sex & The City. We would watch the show and discuss how either or both were complete right/wrong. In any case, Roeper went psycho when discussing XXX 2. He was on the verge of a complete breakdown so looney both of us actually feared for Ebert's safety. It got so bizarre that Ebert had to tell him on air to calm down, & I thought Roeper was going to go all Hulk and lunge at Ebert. Admittedly, it made for great comedy, but one never doubted their passion for film.



Yes, there was something lost when Siskel passed away, and while Roeper was no Siskel, he had a charm and eagerness for good films and hatred for bad ones (see XXX: State of the Union as example), that was total and sincere. Ebert's health forced him off the air, and Roeper gamely soldiered on with various guest hosts, sometimes good (Michael Phillips) and sometimes bad (Jay Leno?). Eventually Roeper himself left. And then came...






THE BENS,


as in Lyons and Mankiewicz. This team should have worked; at least on paper it did. Lyons is the son of film critic Jeffrey Lyons, Mankiewicz the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz (co-writer of Citizen Kane) and grand-nephew of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (writer/director of All About Eve). Both worked around the film industry: Lyons on E! Entertainment and Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies. Both should know what makes a good film and a bad film. Yet...yet...to say they weren't liked is putting it mildly. The union of Lyons & Mankiewicz will be one "that will live in infamy".

The brunt of the casting disaster lay with Lyons, whom I lovingly called "Baby Lyons" and/or "Cubby". In fairness to him, it's not his fault that he looks far younger than his then 26-27 years. However, just because he LOOKS like a twelve-year-old boy doesn't mean he has to REVIEW film like a twelve-year-old boy. Lyons had this odd eagerness and enthusiasm, a chipperness for almost any film that came his way. His reviews appeared to not come from a dispassionate analysis of whether whatever artistic goals it had were met. Rather, he seemed to like films he thought were "cool" or "funny".

The best example of how this union entre Lyons/Mankiewicz was really unholy can be summoned up by the review of Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories, which Lyons called "a comedy the whole family can enjoy". He then spends the rest of the time describing the plot and how Bedtime Stories will be another successful Sandler comedy, but not about WHY the film was worth my time/money. Mankiewicz, frankly, looked stunned. "I don't know where to begin," Mankiewicz starts, almost depressed about having to call out this tyke on his views. "You weren't right, I believe, about Any Single Point you made in this entire review....It wasn't funny, one time". He looked almost incensed that this KID could actually have thought Bedtime Stories was good (for full disclosure I have not seen it so I cannot say whom I would agree with). Lyons' defense was "everyone was laughing, I was laughing" (which is a pretty weak defense, I might say), and "Mank" was becoming more agitated, even frustrated, at Lyons' cluelessness about how much Mankiewicz disliked both the film and (apparently) Lyons personally while Lyons just sits there, almost painfully oblivious to what contempt Mankiewicz has for him at that moment. "I thought it was a really heartwarming film. I really enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun", was Lyons' reply.

Watching it now, it's both painful and comical about how horridly mismatched Lyons and Mankiewicz are. The latter seems to have a frustration, a growing, growling sense that he's almost babysitting. 'How did I END UP having to take care of a child?' he almost seems to be asking himself. Lyons appears delightfully cheery in how he approaches every film. This marriage ain't gonna work. Yet, I digress.

Lyons had difficulty articulating a defense for his likes beyond just "liking" them. He also had a strange conflict of interest. E! Entertainment is built around pleasing the actors/stars they are dealing with. How could Lyons go from fawning over someone to being dispassionate about their work? His looks were against him. Truthfully, his lack of expertise in film criticism were against him. His background was against him. It was a recipe for disaster.

This isn't to let Mankiewicz off the hook. This is the man who recommended Beverly Hills Chihuahua. This time, it was Lyons' turn to be stunned. Mank, with his goatee and laid-back persona, attempted to be the hipster to Lyons' child (side note: was it wrong that I referred to the latter as "Baby Lyons" or "Cubby"?). However, he also was wrong because his background didn't have film reviews either. It's one thing to introduce great films on the weekend, where his laid-back, relaxed atmosphere is adequate. It's another to discuss why a film works or not. Moreover, Fidel & I would snicker about how Mankiewicz would introduce himself as being from Turner Classic Movies, rather than from TMZ. Again, for full disclosure, I'm not a fan of his politics--while I've been mistaken for a young Turk, I certainly am not one.

A more dispassionate view of the Lyons/Mankiewicz era shows that they weren't the clowns or imbeciles they were seen as. Some of their reviews were quite good, albeit not as detailed or deep as during the Siskel/Ebert or Ebert/Roeper era. However, At The Movies was becoming almost a parody of itself. Fidel especially hated the "Critic's Roundup" segment, where more critics were thrown into the mix to discuss one film. It took away from the combative nature between the two main reviewers, and so unnecessary. Neither of us could comprehend WHY this was being done.

I end this part by saying that I've not know two film reviewers who inspired as much HATE as Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. I was shocked at the vitriol launched at them on YouTube. I think there was slightly LESS celebration when Baby Doc Duvalier was forced out of Haiti or when the Taliban fell from power. I thought they were miscast, and frankly, neither of them are suffering--Lyons is still at E!, Mankiewicz at TCM. Don't cry for me, Argentina. Still, in the final analysis I doubt either Mankiewicz or Lyons will hold up their brief tenure at At The Movies as one of their shining moments. Come to think of it, perhaps the fact that they had steady, secure gigs at other channels made them less inclined to put their career/reputations on the line for At The Movies. Just a thought.





Alas, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips were too little, too late to save At The Movies from final collapse. It was a bit like bringing in a new crew onto the Titanic. Yes, they were better critics because they had a background in film criticism, just like Siskel & Ebert in the beginning had. Yes, regular At The Movies viewers knew who they were because of their time filling in for Ebert or Roeper. However, too much damage had occurred due to the Bens Debacle for anyone to have rescued it. As it stands, Scott & Phillips brought intelligence back to the show, but by this time, who was watching? There were, like us, a few holdouts, but overall it was doomed and nothing could have saved it.

In the end, I want to take this opportunity to mourn the end of At The Movies, but also to thank Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper, A.O. Scott, Michael Phillips, and even up to a point, Ben Lyons & Ben Mankiewicz. Thank you for sharing your love of films, for teaching us to look beyond what was on the screen, for sharing your passion for cinema and infecting us with it. Thank you for showing us the beauty we can find in the dark.

Au Bientot, At The Movies.

Monday, August 23, 2010

And Away We Van Gogh



STORY 214: VINCENT & THE DOCTOR


There's something peculiar about the title Vincent & The Doctor. It makes me think of an 80s New Wave band. For example, the 7th Doctor story Delta & The Bannermen is an echo of Echo & The Bunnymen (pun intended). With Vincent & The Doctor, there is no mystery of who it will involve: I doubt we'll have a story featuring Vincent Price (though that would be very cool). Here, we get the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, and apparently an explanation for his mental state.

Visiting the Musee D'Orsay, the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his Companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), tour an exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh paintings. While observing The Church at Auvers, the Doctor notices a strange figure, a monster, lurking within the church. With that, they go off to see the Dutch painter to find out what's going on. Vinnie (Tony Curran) is a most unhappy man: poor, unable to pay his bar tab, depressed about where his career is NOT going. The Doctor, who now is a patron of the arts, attempts to befriend him, but Van Gogh finds common bonds with Amy (beyond the red hair). There have been a series of killings which the townsfolk blame on the odd painter, making him even more self-loathing. Van Gogh knows he hasn't been successful in terms of selling his work, and constantly puts himself down. However, we soon discover what is behind the killings: it's a monster--the Krafayis--which only Vincent can see. Going to the church at Auvers, the three fight off the Krafayis and defeat it (albeit accidentally) even as we discover it's not as monstrous as we thought. Van Gogh, sad to see them leave, is taken to the D'Orsay, where the tour guide there, (Bill Nighy in a cameo, and with rather a cool bow-tie himself), tells Amy & The Doctor within Van Gogh's earshot that the Dutchman is the greatest painter of all time (I suppose the Citizen Kane of painters). Tragically, even this good news isn't enough to stop Van Gogh from eventually taking his own life, much to Amy's sadness. However, there is a note of joy: Van Gogh's Sunflowers now bears the inscription "For Amy".

Vincent & The Doctor is pretty light, pretty average, nothing to write home about. This monster, the Krafayis (who looked a bit like a dragon of sorts), is almost secondary. We get a lot of Van Gogh paintings in what I figure is an attempt at comedy...oh look, Van Gogh is painting over another of his masterpieces. Wow, the Doctor & Amy are declining to take a self-portrait he's made. (Side notes: I still am of the old school which pronounces his name as "Van Go". Hearing the updated pronunciation of "Van Go-ff" did throw me a bit. Also, while looking at the self-portrait, I couldn't help but think, 'Van Gogh--which I still pronounce as Van Go--looks a lot like Kirk Douglas. I think writer Richard Curtis would have done better to have him paint a portrait of The Doctor & Amy, but perhaps that would have been a touch too much, yet I digress). Going on about the Krafayis, is it me, or is there some obsession with making the monsters less...monstrous? I keep wondering whether there are actually any villains, seeing that the aliens we've encountered, minus the Daleks, are actually more misunderstood than truly evil. (Then again, in Dalek, the lone Dalek was more sympathetic than usual, but again I digress).

The performances, under director Jonny Campbell, were good. Curran, I understand, has gotten criticism for having a Scottish accent in Vincent & The Doctor, but one must have some sense of disbelief. Douglas didn't have a Dutch accent when playing Van Gogh in Lust for Life and I don't hear people going on about how American he sounds. He was thoroughly sympathetic as Van Gogh, and even added touches of humor, especially in his scenes with Gillan's Amy. They made a wonderful couple. Come to think of it, Vincent & The Doctor was a very contained story, less about monsters and more about people; with three main characters, it might have been better called Vincent, Amy & The Doctor. It was delightful to see Nighy as Dr. Black, which wasn't a showy part but added another layer of lightness to the story.

While much of the story was good, here's where I find fault with Vincent & The Doctor. In real life, Van Gogh had serious mental issues which led to his suicide at 37. Having his hallucinations be explained the way they are (that he was actually SANE because the monsters were real) strikes me as a bit dicey. It potentially downplays the fact that those who suffer from mental illness are shown to be accurate in how they see the world when they should be treated with therapy and perhaps medication. I don't think Curtis, Campbell, or Steve Moffat are trying to minimize the seriousness of mental illness, especially when at the end of Vincent & The Doctor, a telephone number was given in an effort to help those with mental health issues. This (which I don't remember happening in the American broadcast on BBC America), feels almost as if they're trying to be sensitive when for nearly an hour they've used mental illness as a plot device. It brings to mind Tears & Laughter: The Joan & Melissa Rivers Story, where Joan & Melissa Rivers played themselves in the story of the aftermath of the suicide of the elder Rivers' husband Edgar Rosenberg. There was also a hotline number given then, but the fact that it all appeared so tawdry got them jeers rather than cheers. I get the same feeling here, a sense that something is not right in all this.

That said, I should cut them some slack, given the fact that we've had a "monsters going after a historic figure story" before (The Girl in The Fireplace), it would be difficult to come up with a reason as to why no one save Van Gogh could see the monster. There IS one thing in Vincent & The Doctor that I did enjoy tremendously: NO CRACK, at least none that I remembered. Did I miss the crack? Did I Ever So NOT Miss That Damn Crack! I tire of that crack, and given that minus Amy's Choice this is the only story NOT to feature it, I suppose it should get points for that.

Overall, Vincent & The Doctor was a light story, almost unimportant in this grand "THE CRACK IN TIME THAT WILL DESTROY ALL EXISTENCE" that has been plaguing this series since The Eleventh Hour. The performances, especially Curran's was brilliant (his scene where he hears of the impact his work has had on the world post-mortem is especially moving), and one can't help enjoy seeing a bit of how a genius like Van Gogh sees the world (the scene where he shows Amy and The Doctor how starry a night can be, beautiful). I didn't like the monster, I didn't like the more humorous bits, I have concerns about how mental illness is handled, and these things can't be dismissed so easily. Still, it isn't worth cutting off an ear over.


VINCENT VAN GOGH: 1853-1890


Pity I had no time to visit the Musee D'Orsay while I was in Paris. And to think, we looked for Van Goghs at the Louvre only to discover they were only a few miles away. Alas...

6/10


Next Story: The Lodger

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why So Sirius?



HARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN


After the first two Harry Potter films, I was beginning to wonder about why the series had kids in such rapture. Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets were, to my mind, pretty much the same story: his guardians mistreat him horribly, someone (an surrogate for his nemesis Lord Voldemort) was trying to kill him at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, there are false clues to the agent's identity, and eventually he has to face said agent alone where an easy/convenient solution is found for Harry to defeat said villain and...The End. I really started to think that every subsequent Harry Potter film was going to be exactly the same. Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban proved me wrong. It showed me that there is intelligence behind the magic, that the material can create a dark story, but that some habits (deus ex machina, my dears), still cannot be overcome.

We now have Harry (Daniel Ratcliffe) back at the Dursleys, but now he's reached a point where he's growing up rapidly. We begin the film with Harry under the covers, doing something in secret, something forbidden...magic. Harry, at long last, finally takes a stand against all the years of abuse he's suffered under his aunt & uncle and their extended family. Another aunt, Aunt Marge (Pam Feris), is the worst Muggle in the series' history, snapping her fingers at Harry to get her things and even referring to Harry's mother as "a bitch" (admittedly, the context was about dogs, but the subtext was quite clear). At this point, his fury is unleashed, and while I would have gone medieval on all of them, his anger merely results in Aunt Marge blowing up like a balloon and floating away. Harry FINALLY leaves and eventually finds himself riding the Knight Bus, a magical transport that is unseen by Muggles. Once in the Wizard World, Harry discovers that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an ally of Lord Voldermort who was involved in Harry's parents murder, has escaped Azkaban, the great prison for errant wizards. Of course, it is believed by all that Black has escaped to come after Harry.

Still, Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) go off to Hogwarts, but this time, something wicked this way comes. The Express is halted by Dementors of Azkaban, frightful ghost-like beings who literally suck the life out of you and who normally serve as guards at the prison. Harry is nearly killed by a Dementor and it's only the intervention of Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) that saves him. Professor Lupin is the new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts (the third in as many years, I might add, which begs the questions A.) will the students ever actually LEARN to defend themselves against the Dark Arts, and B.) why would ANY wizard want to take such a dangerous job, but I digress). We also have Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the rather wacky Divinations teacher. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) has been elevated to teacher as well, and now he attempts to train the students in coming into contact with such creatures as Buckbeak, a hipogriff, but even here, along the taunts of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) there is still danger. The Dementors are apparently still after Harry, even at a Quidditch match.

Harry desperately wants to go to the local wizard village of Hogsmeade, but since he didn't get his permission slip signed by his legal guardians, he cannot go. He does have that invisibility cloak, though...and a convenient Marauder's Map which shows one secret passages and the location of anyone at Hogswart (a Wizarding GPS, I suppose). While at Hogsmeade, he makes a shocking discovery: Sirius Black helped Voldermort discover Mr. & Mrs. Potter's location...and Black is his godfather! Vowing revenge, he trains with Lupin, attempts to rescue Buckbeak from execution, and finally confronts Black, who makes a few revelations of his own.

There is a change in Prisoner of Azkaban that is noticeable from the first two outings, and it can't be from Steve Kloves, who I figure will now adapt all seven books. The change has to come from Alfonso Cuaron, who has taken over from Chris Columbus as director. Columbus saw Harry Potter as a cutesy children's series. Cuaron sees Harry Potter as the story of a young adult in mortal danger with death all around him (sometimes, as with the Dementors, literally). Prisoner of Azkaban is a darker take on the series than either Sorcerer's Stone or Chamber of Secrets. Harry isn't a kid. He's an angry young man: angry at the Dursleys, angry at being kept out of things, angry at his parent's death. All the conflicts within him that we did not see in the first two films come forward in Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuaron doesn't spend as much time on potentially cute things, such as Buckbeak or the book on monsters that can literally chew one up. Even though, like its predecessors, it's a long film (nearly two and a half hours), the story itself was tighter because most of the film dealt with the actual story of Harry facing the dangers Sirius Black poses.

Cuaron gives Prisoner of Azkaban a darker visual style. The film is dominated by grays, with a lot of the story taking place at night or in the rain (including the Quidditch match). There are some bright spots, especially when Harry is able to fly the hippogriff, which is beautifully shot. We also get a few iris shots (where the image closes in a circle and opens in a reverse circle) which end and begin scenes and flow beautifully. The scene where Harry is tormented by the Dementor on the Express is extremely effective and frightening.

Cuaron not only creates a better visual style, but shifts the focus of the story to Harry and his two friends. We did get the obligatory Dursley scene, but that actually got the plot rolling instead of just being there because J.K. Rowling's book put it there. We get something from Ratcliffe he haven't seen: a genuine anger within him, a sense that he's being pushed and manipulated by forces out of his control and doesn't want that anymore. In fact, Harry Potter actually seems more relevant in Prisoner of Azkaban than he has before, which is a genuine shock. Grint simply has been consistently good as Ron, who still shows fear with a mix of comedy and confusion that makes him good comic relief and a unique character. When he come face to face with Harry and Hermione in the hospital wing of Hogwarts after their adventures gives him a chance to show Ron's conflicting emotions of fear and befuddlement so well. Watson still emotes from time to time (when she strikes back at Malfoy, for example), but those moments are not as dominant as they once were.

The focus on the three does mean that the other regulars don't get much screen time. Dame Maggie Smith, for example, seems to be there as Professor McConagall only for plot exposition, and while Alan Rickman has a greater role as Severus Snape he's there only in flashes. The newest member is Michael Gambon, who takes over as Dumbledore from Richard Harris (who died shortly before Chamber of Secrets was released). I think Gambon is an improvement over Harris: the latter seemed to be permanently tottering and confused about the goings-on, while the former is more steady and aware of the dangers Harry has to face. Of the newer members, Thompson is having as much fun in Prisoner of Azkaban as her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh had in Chamber of Secrets as the whacked-out Divinations professor, with her large glasses and bandanna. She does have one brief moment where we see just how great an actress she is: when it appears she becomes possessed and passes on a message to Harry she is quite frightening. Gary Oldman creates a frightening figure in Sirius Black but who by the end has us care for him. It's Oldman's ability to be able to shift his characters from dangerous to endearing that makes him such a great actor, and here he gives another brilliant performance although it's not a large part. Thewlis as Professor Lupin appears to be the caring 'father' figure Harry so desperately needs, but you do wonder what secret he has until it is finally revealed.

Here is where I start finding some issues with Prisoner of Azkaban. If you have a basic idea of where the word 'lupin' bears a striking similarity to 'lupine', and if you have a basic knowledge of what 'lupine' refers to, you've already solved Professor Lupin's secret (and already have an idea where the plot is going). You also have the aforementioned Dursley scene, and I have longed argued that these scenes (along with being examples of child abuse as entertainment and highly exaggerated) were the things that dragged the Harry Potter series down. While it was at least better related to the overall story here than before, it still makes one cringe as to how horribly Harry is treated. I also see that again, no matter what Harry and his friends do, they will never suffer any consequences of their actions. When Dumbledore at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban appears to almost give tacit approval of their actions, it makes me wonder why adults would allow and especially encourage such dangers to/for children.

THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH HAS A MAJOR SPOILER. BE WARNED.
My biggest complaint against Prisoner of Azkaban is the still strong reliance of deus ex machinas to get Harry out of the dangers he's in, and this film has the most obscene D.E.M. I've seen yet: a time-traveling device Hermione has been using (which would solve the mystery of how she can take so many classes). Here, we have them literally travelling back in time to stop much of what had happened before. We basically have Harry saving himself from the Dementors because he himself is the mysterious stranger that emerges just in time to release a powerful spell to ward them off. While that would explain why he thought he had seen his father come and save him, it struck me as the most idiotic solution to the situation our heroes faced. It begs the question of how it was possible that Hermione couldn't remember that they weren't leaving Hagrid's hut. This was the least convincing D.E.M. that I've come across, as well as the cheapest way out. Just travel back in time and fix things. Very Doctor Who, isn't it? It also makes me think on the spell that allows Harry to help him: Expecto Patronum. You'd "expect" a "patron"...or father, perhaps...to resolve things, mais oui?
END OF SPOILER.

Certainly, Prisoner of Azkaban has stronger acting and a tighter story than Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. This is clearly because there was a new director who created a darker world, both story-wise and visually, to the franchise, and who was able to bring stronger, deeper performances out of the actors. There is also a better story with some beautiful lines. "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times," Dumbledore tells the students, "if one only remembers to turn on the light". When the kids are forced to sleep in the Great Hall, Snape asks Dumbledore if they should wake Harry up. Dumbledore says no. "For in dreams we enter a world that's entirely our own", he tells Snape. These are the first lines which are almost poetic, elevating the film to a standard it hasn't reached until now. If it weren't for that 'if I could turn back time' bit, it would have been a better film. I can't be convinced that the whole thing wasn't a pretty easy way out, and it made me wonder, is this how Harry and his court would be able to get out of any future scrapes--just turn a dial and go back and fix things to your favor? However, Prisoner of Azkaban is a leap forward in the Harry Potter series. It could have been the best of the series so far, but that damn mini-TARDIS deal brought it down.





It's enough to make me want to scream.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The Face That Launched A Thousand Quips. Review of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work



JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK

Joan Rivers is a legend, and she's not at all happy about that. She knows she's influenced many female comics ranging from Roseanne Barr to Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Kathy Griffin (whom she seems to have some sort of pathological hatred/jealousy towards). However, she is not interested in being praised and especially in being enshrined. Rivers wants to WORK: get club dates, be on television, continue gaining an income to ensure the life to which she's become accustomed to. Moreover, she wants respect, to be seen as a serious actress rather than 'just a comedienne'. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, follows her on her seventy-fifth year as she keeps looking for work, looking for respect, and more important, looking for cash.

We get Rivers telling us her story via interviews and clips from her career then and now. Many of the more well-known points in her biography are hit: her early appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the rise and fall of her relationship to Johnny Carson, the failure of her nighttime talk show and the ensuing suicide of her husband Edgar Rosenberg, and cuts them with the various events of her eventful 75th year: various comedy club appearances, London tryouts for her new play, Celebrity Apprentice, a Comedy Central roast, paying tribute to the late George Carlin at the Kennedy Center when he was posthumously presented the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

That last one gives an insight into the conflicting nature that Rivers presents in A Piece of Work. She is to a certain point thrilled to be appearing at such a major event (complete with television exposure it will give her), but she also is puzzled why Carlin would be part of something so 'establishment' when he, according to her, was so 'anti-establishment' and made a career out of that persona. (Side note: it strikes me as curious that of the ten years the Mark Twain Prize has been presented, Rivers herself has not been a recipient of this award in spite of her career, while Tina Fey, who is only 40 years old and certainly hasn't had the career or been as influential on others as Rivers, has. That certainly gives credence to Rivers' long-held belief, which she discusses in the documentary, that she is not taken seriously by critics, unlike Fey, whom critics constantly swoon over). The fact that all her contemporaries are being presented Mark Twain Prizes or Kennedy Center Honors while she still works small clubs appears to be a constant source of irritation, aggravated more by the fact that she hears how 'influential' and 'groundbreaking' she is. In A Piece of Work, Rivers points out (rather sharply) how Griffin is basically taking all the big club dates while she still has to fight for small venues and better dates.

There is a certain anger within Rivers that she doesn't try to hide: anger at being 75 and still working (keeping up an intense schedule that would exhaust many people half that age), anger of being treated as an antique to be respected instead of an actress to be hired, anger at having her work dismissed by higher-ups because of who she is, anger at being treated as a joke merely for telling them. This is shown when she gets recognition, not at a tribute at the Kennedy Center, but a Comedy Central roast. She knows that it will focus on her age and plastic surgeries, and the clips they show prove her point. While Rivers doesn't want those aspects of her life and persona to be the central points, she succumbs to this rather dubious honor because there is money to be made. In fact, although she has a lavish apartment in New York and gives every indication of being well-off financially, Rivers insists that she needs to work for the money. While watching A Piece of Work, I got the sense that she needs to work to sense that she's still vital and alive.

As she herself states, "anger fuels the comedy", which she insists she almost fell into by accident, using stand-up to earn some money while she pursued a more serious acting career. However, despite her simmering anger and frustration, A Piece of Work also shows us a side Rivers under normal circumstances wouldn't show. Every Thanksgiving she goes to hand out meals to those ill and alone through her work with the charity In God's Love We Deliver (which she delivers via limousine), then gives a gentle, heartfelt prayer of thanks for her life, family, and career at her own lavish dinner. She shows us the hurt she goes through when she is forced to fire her long-time manager Billy (an especially sad episode that brings tears to her). She also talks about her falling out with Carson, and we can tell that she still has reverence for him, a love for him, and the hurt feelings she still has all these many years later over his refusal to speak to her after she left her "permanent guest host" post at The Tonight Show and the chaos that her own late-night talk show brought about, up to the suicide of her husband. I would argue that she should have talked more about Tears & Laughter: The Joan & Melissa Rivers Story (aka Starting Again), the television movie she and her daughter Melissa made about Rosenberg's suicide and its aftermath where they played themselves. I remember watching it, and remember reading and hearing all the harsh criticisms (with some merit) about how tawdry it all was that they were reenacting rather horrifying moments in their lives. (Side note: given how "reality television" has degenerated to more tawdry exhibitionism, even in this age of Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Celebrity Rehab, Tears & Laughter now seems more in line with Masterpiece Theater than Jersey Shore). Tears & Laughter, despite all the best intentions, did just as much harm to Rivers' reputation as anything, and whether co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg decided it was only a footnote I do not know.

They do however, get Rivers when she's at her best: when she's performing. Some of her material will have you laughing, even the jokes that cause Rivers the most trouble, such as when her idea of referring to First Lady Michelle Obama as "Blackie O" gets shot down, or when a heckler takes aim at a Helen Keller joke because he has a deaf son. In fact, the heckler shows both her anger AND her quick wit, how she soon takes charge of the situation and turns it to her advantage. Still, it's evident that the heckler had an effect on her, given how she talked about it after her set ended. While not being unsympathetic to the heckler's plight, she reflects that him venting was probably 'therapeutic'.

Contrary to whatever Rivers may fear, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows her as she truly is, ever the trooper, wanting to work and doing her best at the career that she has. She has us like her, and when she wins Celebrity Apprentice we cheer for her, especially since she beat the woman who got Melissa off the program. Though she may protest, the woman behind the facelifts is quite attractive, in her love for her daughter and grandson, and in her love for striving to be the big hit she knows she should be and will be. "My life is just...jokes", Rivers muses at one point. Joan Molinsky Rosenberg, we couldn't find a better way of putting it ourselves.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Curtains Are Drawn



And thus we conclude another year of the Plaza Classic Film Festival, which we were reminded, is the Biggest Classic Film Festival in The World (take THAT, TCM). It has to be...it's in TEXAS.

Be that as it may, I failed in my original goal. Out of the 14 scheduled, I saw only 10. It certainly wasn't for lack of interest, merely lack of energy. It should be remembered I have a full-time job and am quite happy at it. I derived no pleasure from having to drive clear across town at night and then drive all the way back home after midnight. It should also be remembered that on my days off, I spent most of the day at The Plaza. Unlike those running the show, my presence isn't required.

Now, it isn't to say that I WON'T watch a few that I missed. By happy coincidence, TCM featured a day of Gene Tierney films, so Leave Her To Heaven is on my DVR. I got Easy Rider from the library, and I'm on the waiting list for Howl's Moving Castle. As for The Best of the Dallas Video Fest, well, I wish the individual filmmakers well, but I was just so worn out I had to sleep. I simply was too exhausted to go. This happens every year: I push myself so hard that I end up collapsing at the end of it.

Next year, I have decided I will watch SIX films and SIX films only: three Must-Sees that I have seen but would love to see on the big screen, and three New Discoveries which I've only heard of. Of the ten I did see, I made a few pleasant discoveries and had a great deal of fun with some old standards.

A highlight was Debbie Reynolds' appearance before Singin' In the Rain. She's a pistol of a interview subject, a woman with no censor. Nick Clooney asked her if her first husband Eddie Fisher liked Singin' In the Rain. "He liked Elizabeth Taylor", was her witty response to applause and laughter from the audience. It was so well done I wonder if it wasn't staged. She sang a bit of Good Morning and Tammy, and she still has a pleasant singing voice. One thing she mentioned only briefly was her continued hope to build a Film Museum with her extensive collection of Hollywood props/memorabilia. I thought she had already built it, and it would be worth investigating how far she's gotten and what we can do to help. I think of Reynolds as a brassy broad, a woman with a sharp wit who even at 78 I think still has the capacity to shock with what she says. As I told my friend, she's less a raconteur and more a "rack on tour". He was shocked, I was amused. I get the odd sense that if Debbie Reynolds heard that, she might be howling with laughter and be in full agreement.

Another great moment was listening to the Alloy Orchestra play their score to Metropolis (which will be included in the DVD release). One became so thrilled with the score and images combined one forgot that it was a 'silent' film. Though it wasn't a sell-out, the fact that people in El Paso and surrounding areas yearn for films like these is, to my mind, a giant step forward. Admittedly, we don't have the cache that TCM has. It be doubtful we could get Louise Rainer or Jean-Paul Belmondo to appear here (though we did get Peter Bogdanovich, so we're moving up in the world). Still, it warms my heart to no end to see so many people from this area and as I understand it from other parts of the country and even the world coming here to enjoy films on the big screen. "Classic" films are nothing to be afraid of. They are things to enjoy.

It is the traditional saying at Passover, "Next year in Jerusalem". I say something similar: next year at The Plaza...

Reviews of Saturday Night Fever, Singin' In the Rain, Citizen Kane, Metropolis, Wild Strawberries, The Godfather, Eyes Without A Face, The Rules of The Game, Breathless, and The General will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. I hope to also include reviews for at least two that I had scheduled but was able to see the first time: Leave Her to Heaven and Easy Rider.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Could It Be The Citizen Kane of Film Festivals?


I share with you, my readers, a childhood memory: the Plaza Theater in my hometown of El Paso, Texas, USA. I was not fortunate enough to see it in its heyday. When I went there, it was to accompany my mother and grandmother to watch Mexican movies (this may be why I hate it when the host insists on saying that movies stopped playing at the Plaza in the mid-1970s. It's more correct to say ENGLISH-language movies stopped playing there, but I suspect they aren't all interested in non-Spanish foreign language films that did play there, but I digress).

Even then, when the Plaza was not as posh as it is now (which is why I get a private kick seeing how people dress up to events at a place which I remember as a child as a bit low-rent), it still had a certain magic, an aura, of something spectacular. If I ever got tired of watching Vicente Fernandez or Mario Almada (who were my ideas of what 'movie stars' were), I could always look around the theater itself. I was fascinated by the lights above me, which sparkled like the stars they were suppose to be. I marvelled at the stage and the bushes in the upper levels which I was never sure were real or not (I was about 5-7 at the time, so cut me some slack). Now, I don't remember this, but my mother tells me that I loved to run up to the balcony and hide in the curtains, which caused her endless frustration...and me endless delight I suppose.

Still, in spite of its weakened state I think going to the Plaza (and sometimes the Colón Theater down the street) gave me that appreciation of film that I have now. Almost all my friends have the disadvantage of knowing nothing but multiplexes. To them, if a movie theater has only seven screens it's in their mind quite small. Imagine if they fully realized people usually would see ONE film on ONE screen. The Horror, The Horror. I got only a slight taste of what a movie palace was like (and, oddly enough, I also got to experience something few nowadays have: a drive-in theater. Yes, they also were Mexican movies, but on the whole a wonderful experience. Pity people now like to hide away in a maze of screens, but again I digress). There was a great beauty and art to the architecture within and without the Plaza and their breed, an elegance that signaled that you were going to be taken into fantastic new worlds. It was opulent and inviting all at the same time.

Now, we in humble little El Paso (2nd safest city in the nation, I might add, as well as larger in population than Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, Kansas City, Miami, Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, all of whom have National Football League teams--just a passing thought), have an unfortunate reputation of having no culture, no intelligentsia. This is odd since we have both the oldest symphony and oldest library system in all of Texas. We have an inferiority complex compared with Austin or San Antonio. They, we foolishly believe, have better culture and intellectual life. To be fair, we sometimes help in this erroneous perception (how do you brag about being called the 2nd LEAST patriotic city or one of the least read and most overweight cities in America). However, the Plaza Classic Film Festival shows what I have long argued: if people are given a chance and if they give a chance to good movies, real good movies, those classics they all seem afraid of, they will find they had nothing to fear.

I have been an enthusiastic supporter/booster for the PCFF since Day One (at least morally and vocally. Let's face it: I'm poor). Now we go into its third year, and yes, I will be there once again. The first year, I flocked to all my favorite films and those I'd seen before without even thinking about what I was NOT watching. The second year, I realized too late, that I was missing out on one of my Core Beliefs: Giving Something New A Try. I did see at least one film I'd never seen before (It Happened One Night) and found it an extremely rewarding experience. For Year Three, I will expand to concentrate more on those films I have yet to see. However, I will be watching some old favorites, but I will actually skip some in favor of newer fare.

Here is my compiled list of films I plan to see (new films in bold):
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • Singin' In the Rain
  • Easy Rider
  • Citizen Kane
  • Metropolis
  • Leave Her to Heaven
  • Howl's Moving Castle
  • Wild Strawberries
  • The Godfather
  • Eyes Without A Face
  • The Rules of The Game
  • Breathless
  • The Best of Dallas Video Fest (an anthology of short films)
  • The General

That's a pretty impressive count: 8 out of 14, more than half of the films will be new. In fact, this new policy means that I will not go see Psycho, since it's playing at the same time as The Rules of The Game. I note that four of the eight (that's half) of the new films will be foreign-language (Howl's Moving Castle, although from Japan, will I suspect be dubbed). I LOVE foreign-language films (side note: for being a town where Spanish is more prevalent than English, El Pasoans have a complete phobia to foreign languages...I suppose that's because here, English sometimes IS the foreign language), so this will be no problem for me. Even better, I enter them with no preconceptions and barely the vaguest notions of what they are about. I know, for example, that Wild Strawberries is Ingmar Bergman, and Breathless, The Rules of the Game, and Eyes Without a Face are French, but other than that, my notebook is blank. Therefore, I go in like with any other movie: expecting to be entertained and overwhelmed with the power of the story/acting/directing.

In the case of the Dallas Film Fest, there, I do worry. Younger film-makers today seem more intent and interested in making "A STATEMENT", of being "AVANT-GARDE" and self-consciously "ARTISTIC", rather than letting the story tell itself or trusting their audience to get what they're trying to say. I remember one particularly grotesque moment from the UTEP Film Festival a few years back. One of these (in my view) pretentious 'artistes' decided to mix the imagery of the title number of Singin' In the Rain with the audio from A Clockwork Orange that had the same song. I bet she thought she was being clever, being intellectual, being edgy and creative. Now, normally I have no objection to trying something new...in fact, I support such efforts. In this case, however, the results were disastrous. She failed to realize one small thing: they work brilliantly in their own version, but can never be mixed because by taking them out of their context, you end up polluting both.

I was appalled, as was my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead). The audience sat in stunned silence when that clip rolled, and I remember no applause. She didn't get it: they take place in two wildly different scenarios, and she was perverting BOTH versions by this weak attempt at being 'artsy, daring'. Gomez, a Kubrick fanatic, thought she was mocking one of his favorite films, while I, a musical aficionado, was disgusted by her efforts to connect the violence McDowell was displaying with the beauty of Kelly's performance. I KNOW what she was going for, and the fact that A.) she misjudged so terribly, and B.) failed so disastrously, forever made me suspicious of college film-makers who are more interested in showing off than in showing a story. She seemed so intent on being clever she failed to be good. That may be my only hesitation when it comes to this anthology. How I hate 'artistes' trying to show off. It's one thing to try for originality (which can be achieved), but another when originality is the ONLY thing you're going for. Still, this is WHY I'm going: to conquer my fear and make new discoveries. I may yet be surprised and find that there are some people who genuinely want to make good films, as opposed to clever ones.

I note there are now silent films into the mix, and I couldn't be more delighted. I love silent movies and wonder why they don't make them anymore. Oddly, the answer may come from Singin' In the Rain: like Kathy Selden, people may believe silent film acting is all 'dumb show', with people making wildly exaggerated faces and very broad, bombastic acting. This perception is shattered once someone sees a silent Greta Garbo film: she never made faces and was very subtle in her performances, in fact, to quote Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, they "HAD faces", a certain screen presence that needed no translation. I have seen Metropolis and The General, but in the case of the first this will be the newly discovered extended edition, so it's like seeing it for the very first time. In the case of the second, I hope children get to go: visuals that funny don't come every day.

Of course, there are some familiar films I HAVE to see on the BIG SCREEN. Last year, it was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (still one of my all-time favorites). This year, it's Singin' In the Rain. If there is such a thing as the perfect musical, this is it. I love The Godfather (and curiously enough, so did my grandmother--who'd imagine a sweet old Mexican lady would be into Sicilian mafiosi); it is a brilliant film, I daresay, the Citizen Kane of crime dramas, but that's more for my brother Gabe than for me: all one has to do is say to him, "I believe in America..." and he's off and running. He knows EVERYTHING about the film; in fact, I think he knows how many rooms the Corleone mansion has, right down to where the closets are and what's inside the cupboards. Finally, yes, CITIZEN KANE. Dear God, CITIZEN KANE. We forget that, even though it's the greatest film ever made, it also is a good film. Ah, the pity...

Well, there it is. 14 films is not as ambitious as I think, though I'm still debating Saturday Night Fever--that's at 10 p.m. and I do work the next day. I will write about all of them, so I expect there will be a nice gap between today and reviews. Still, to see these films as nature intended, oh the glory. I can only hope that people will expand their minds and try new fare. I know some people will go to the PCFF because they LIKE these old films, but I hope that there will be a few who will go and be shocked to discover that film did not start with Star Wars and that there are films older than your grandparents that are actually BETTER than Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Grown Ups. Who knows: it may just get someone away from ESPN and onto TCM (not that I have anything against the former).