Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Another Quiz From Sergio Leone And The Infield Fly Rule

Missed this one a while back. You're welcome to play along, of course:

Professor Birdman's Wing-Flapping, Plumage-Flaunting, Beak-Busting Thanksgiving Weekend Movie Quiz

1) Most obnoxious movie you’ve ever seen
Obnoxious is defined in Merriam-Webster as "odiously or disgustingly objectionable : highly offensive"

By that definition, the all-time most "obnoxious" movie for me is Electrocuting an Elephant from 1903, in which a real live circus elephant was electrocuted for Thomas Edison's cameras because apparently it didn't occur to anyone not to.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was not amused.

2) Favorite oddball pairing of actors
Robert Conrad and Michael Dunn on The Wild Wild West television series. In ten unforgettable episodes, the 3'10" Dunn — an Oscar- and Tony-nominated actor — played the nefarious Dr. Miguelito Loveless across from Conrad — a handsome athletic actor who famously performed all his own stunts. For two characters who are busy trying to kill each other, they had a weirdly warm, affectionate rapport.

By the way, if you're only going to see one pairing of Dunn and Conrad, watch "The Night of the Surreal McCoy" in which Loveless moves back and forth between paintings hanging on a gallery wall to rob a museum of priceless jewels. Surreal is right.

3) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ken Russell?
Tommy — although it's unforgettable in its bombastic, excessive way, it does a real disservice to the music of the Who.

Oh, wait, that's not the question. I read it as which Ken Russell movie would I pay to see remade, but you mean which movie would I like to see remade by Ken Russell.

So, which movie would I want to see remade as an exercise in bombastic excess? The answer is a very easy "none."

4) Emma Stone or Margot Robbie?
Emma Stone for Easy A

5) Which member of Monty Python are you?
In terms of preferring to work behind the scenes, Terry Gilliam. In terms of being a fan of travel and Ernest Hemingway, Michael Palin. In terms of what makes me laugh, John Cleese
6) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Vincent Minnelli?
Minnelli was, in my book, a merely competent director of Hollywood musicals and not much more. But off the top of my head, Minnelli in his prime maybe could have improved on the very overrated La La Land — he might have insisted on better songs and better choreography. And a tighter story.

7) Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte?
Franco Nero, but I'm not going to fight anybody over it.

8) Your favorite Japanese monster movie
Gojira (which is to say, the original Japanese-language cut of the 1954 Godzilla) — although the only one I ever saw in the theater was Godzilla versus the Smog Monster in 1972.

9) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Stanley Kubrick?
Artificial Intelligence: AI which of course was his baby. Steven Spielberg handled it fine, I suppose, but if ever a movie demanded Kubrick's chilly elegance, this would be it.

Otherwise, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. Kubrick had a true appreciation of madness and institutional evil. The director of Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining could have handled Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader with his eyes closed.

Of course, anything would have been better than that hot mess starring Hayden Christensen.

10) Hanna Schygulla or Barbara Sukowa?
I don't really care one way or the other, but I more readily recognize the name Hanna Schygulla, so her.

11) Name a critically admired movie that you hate
The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

12) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Elia Kazan?
Nothing. To me, his movies always have a hammy, stagey quality to them that only the great acting of Marlon Brando could transcend. Who needs hammy-stagey now that Brando is dead.

But if I must pick something, then I'll go with any one of the Hallmark Christmas movies, which are by design hammy and stagey.

13) Better or worse: Disney comedies (1955-1975) or Elvis musicals?
I prefer the Disney comedies of 1955-1975 to any of the Elvis musicals, no matter how much I like Elvis Presley's music.

14) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Alfred Hitchcock?
I have read that Hitchcock wanted to make The War of the Worlds after he did The 39 Steps but couldn't secure the rights. Would love to see that. I'm sure it would have been much more like Spielberg's version than the 1953 version, but would have been much closer to The 39 Steps than either of them — a lone man running across the moors while a giant Martian ship chases him.

Otherwise, Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. Instead of the story of a whiny teenager cock-blocked by the Force, Hitchcock could have done a psychological thriller about an ace pilot who dips into the dark side of the Force out of expediency and lives to regret it.

15) Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum?
Ryan Gosling — is this a trick question?

16) Bad performance in a movie you otherwise like/love
Bruce Cabot in the original King Kong — possibly the worst acting of all-time in a classic movie

17) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Howard Hawks?
From 1932's Scarface through 1959's Rio Bravo — with Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, The Thing (From Another World) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in between — the best director working. Certainly my favorite.

I've read that he bought the rights to The Sun Also Rises but couldn't lick it and wound up selling the rights to Darryl F. Zanuck who made an okay but not great picture starring Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner. Hawks directing The Sun Also Rises might have been a hell of a film.

He also wanted to do a James Bond movie, but couldn't get the rights.

Otherwise, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. If anyone could have added some humor and forward momentum to that turgid mess, it would have been Hawks. I am convinced he would have changed Anakin Skywalker from a toddler to a mid-20s hot-shot pilot out of the mold of Han Solo. Having made several movies about pilots (the best of which is the Cary Grant classic Only Angels Have Wings from 1939), he would have turned the movie into a humorous meditation on what it means to be a professional flyboy in difficult times.

At the very least, though, he would have ditched Jar-Jar Binks, because Hawks wasn't an idiot.

18) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?
Kim Novak for Vertigo and Bell Book and Candle, although for hanging out, Tippi Hedren anytime, anywhere.

19) Best crime movie remake
The Maltese Falcon (1941) followed by Ocean's 11 (2001).

20) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Preston Sturges?
Laughs with a raging undercurrent of blistering social commentary. I would like to see what he might have done with near-misses such as Wag the Dog, The American President and Bulworth, which were neither as funny nor as insightful as they could have been.

Or maybe All The President's Men as a screwball farce, which is probably closer to the truth of it.

21) West Side Story (the movie), yes or no?
Overlong and wildly uneven. I respect the artistry of the dance sequences, but I think the acting is pretty atrocious.

22) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luchino Visconti?
Don't know his work well enough to comment.

23) What was the last movie you saw, theatrically and/or on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming?
Theatrically? Star Wars: The Last Jedi — thumbs up. Thought Luke Skywalker doing the brooding Achilles in self-imposed exile thing was great, and Mark Hamill finally got to show off the acting chops that makes his animated Joker so great. Plus, I think Daisy Ridley is a great action hero(ine).

DVD/Blu-Ray — After The Thin Man on New Years Day, of course. A classic.

Streaming — The Muppet Christmas Carol. We had never seen it. Meh.

24) Brewster McCloud or O.C. and Stiggs?
How about neither? Is neither good for you?

25) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luis Bunuel?
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp tried so very hard to capture the anarchic spirit of the novel and cranked out a tedious dud. I think Buñuel captured better than anybody the paradox that the more seriously society takes itself, the more ridiculous and surreal it becomes.

26) Best nature-in-revolt movie
I don't know — Jaws? Not really my thing

27) Best Rene Auberjoinois performance (film or TV)
Star Trek Deep Space Nine

28) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ingmar Bergman?
Any of Woody Allen's Ingmar Bergman knock-offs — e.g., Interiors, Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, etc.

29) Best movie with a bird or referencing a bird in its title?
Duck Soup or The Maltese Falcon

30) Burt Lancaster or Michael Keaton?
Burt Lancaster. Again, this feels like a trick question.

31) In what way have the recent avalanche of allegations unearthed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal changed the way you look at movies and the artists who make them?
It will make me view careers differently, and all those awards Weinstein successfully lobbied for differently, but the movies are the movies.

32) In 2017 which is “better,” TV or the movies?
Television, and it wasn't close.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Hallmark Christmas Movies: A Brief Guide

Some day I'm going to write a 3000 word essay about the phenomenon known as the Hallmark Christmas movie, but not today.

The dog has been under the weather lately which means a lot of couch time for me and her. But what to watch while glued to the television? I've seen every rerun of every Law & Order there ever was or will be, and the Star Trek Channel (a.k.a. BBC-America) has worn me out. So flipping channels, I stumbled across the two Hallmark cable channels — Hallmark and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries — which show nothing but Christmas movies 24/7 from the week before Halloween through New Year's Day.

And not just any Christmas movies, but movies made by Hallmark for Hallmark. This year alone, Hallmark will wind up debuting thirty-three new movies.

So far, I've seen 24 of them.

Jeebus, do they turn them out on a lathe? As a writer and amateur movie historian, I had to figure this out.

After extensive research (passive bingeing), I can report that all of them can be distilled down to a single storyline: a damaged soul is made whole again through the redemptive power of Christmas and heterosexual pair-bonding.

There are lots of pretty young widows, single moms, career women, angels longing to be made flesh, soldiers returning home, children hoping for a second parent, burned-out writers in need of a Christmas goose and shop owners looking to sell out or stay put. Long lost loves meet again through a series of coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush.

Santa Claus — the real one — shows up about one time in three, mostly to act as a matchmaker, but sometimes just to remind people that decorating an artificial tree can make all the difference.

Our heroine typically battles one of three great villains: cynicism, death and/or corporate capitalism, the latter a pretty interesting choice considering the source.

Spoiler alert: she will win with minimal fuss.

In the course of two hours, minus commercials, two good-looking B-listers will fall in love, kiss around the 1:58 mark and take that job or move to that small town that once seemed too quaint for words but turns out to be just perfect.

The movies star the likes of Mira Sorvino, Lindy Booth, Rachel Boston, Catherine Bell, Maggie Lawson and very occasionally a male lead as well-known as Dermot Mulroney.

Supporting work from everybody: Judd Nelson, Danny Glover, Joan Cusack, Shelley Long, Beau Bridges, James Brolin, Jewel Staite, Giselle Eisenberg, and on and on.

These movies are not in any sense great — there are no memorable lines or scenes or images or performances, and none of the emotions they tap into will resonate beyond the closing credits. In fact, they are so cookie-cutter, I image there's a template (or three) and the writers simply fill in new character names and a bit of explanatory dialogue and bang, done.

There's even one called A Cookie Cutter Christmas — how on-point can you get!

But like macaroni and cheese out of a box — or should I say sugar-frosted Christmas cookies hot out of the oven — predictable can be terribly comforting. Especially in terrible times.

Recommended, if you're in the right frame of mind.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Bruce Brown (1937-2017)

Bruce Brown, whose documentaries helped spark America's love of surfing, passed away Sunday at the age of 80.

For my money, his 1966 documentary The Endless Summer is the best film about surfing ever made — and one of the greatest documentaries on any subject. Here are some words I wrote a while back about that great film:

Adrenaline is the drug of choice for most Americans these days (that, and self-righteous bile). And of the over-the-counter mood-altering agents, it's also the most overrated, a jangling noise that drowns out any quiet thought of our own mortality.

But Monkey, you may well ask, who wants to contemplate their own mortality? Nobody, admittedly. The end of everything — knowing death is coming — is our unique curse as a species.

But it's also our blessing. Do you think an animal is ever aware of a perfect moment, the fleeting in-between when the doing is done and we exist in harmony with the elements, and when, if you listen quietly enough, you can even hear the music of the spheres.

The world keeps turning, of course, and the perfect moment ends almost as we become aware of it, but because we're aware the moment will end, we know just how special, how precious, how fleeting those moments are.

In this time of constant distractions, there's something quaintly charming about the notion that a four-foot curl off the coast of South Africa was once thought of as the perfect wave. These days surfers ride fifty-foot monsters in the middle of the ocean, waves they can only reach at the end of a towline, and riding them is more akin to falling off a mountain than anything your father ever did on a surfboard.

I imagine The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown's 1966 documentary about an around-the-world search for the perfect wave, has as much in common with today's surfing scene as flying a kite does to space travel.

Maybe that's why I like it.

With Brown's passing, we speed a little bit faster into a future that has no time for perfect waves or perfect moments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Newsroom (2012-2014): A Short, Belated Review

In between binge-eating and binge-napping, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I spent our Thanksgiving holidays binge-watching Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, a short-lived cable series now streaming as part of our Amazon Prime subscription.

Made for HBO, The Newsroom followed the ups-and-downs of a band of idealistic cable news reporters trying to put on a worthwhile show in an era characterized by insipid junk-news pandering. Jeff Daniels won an Emmy playing the face of the franchise, the grumpily affable Will McAvoy; Emily Mortimer played his ex-girlfriend-turned-producer; Sam Waterston was their boss.

The series also featured fine supporting performances from Oscar winners Jane Fonda and Marcia Gay Harden.

By and large, the critics hated the show — finding it preachy and pretentious — and in the 25 episodes that made up its three seasons, it never attracted a large enough audience to make anybody forget The Sopranos.

Katie and I, on the other hand, liked it — a lot.

It's not that we're devoted fans of Aaron Sorkin. Back in the day, we occasionally dipped into The West Wing without ever really carving out time for it, and what little we saw of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, we frankly despised.

This, though, we fell in love with.

Katie thought The Newsroom was a warm, witty drama that didn't overstay its welcome. She liked spending time with the characters, especially Olivia Munn's intellectually-brilliant, socially-clueless, hilariously-deadpan Sloan Sabbith.

Me, I saw it as a screwball comedy in the tradition of His Girl Friday and The Front Page — tales of bumbling reporters, puffed up with self-importance and seriously lacking in self-awareness, who somehow manage to get a quality newscast out on a daily basis. The comedy is punctuated by moments of dramatic relief — war, death, national crisis — but the show never strays far from its classical Hollywood roots when fast-talking actors like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell wisecracked their way from scoop to scoop.

Absolutely nobody else read The Newsroom that way, but who are you going to believe, me or nobody's lying eyes?

Anyway, it's a freebie included with a subscription to Amazon Prime. If that's your streaming service of choice, check it out.