It’s July 3. Of course, I’m going to write about Ken Russell—it’s his birthday. (It’s his 84th birthday, if you’re keeping track.) Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that three things will happen today. I’ll write something about Ken. I’ll call him up to offer birthday greetings. I’ll watch a Ken Russell movie—or two. It follows as the night follows the day. And as is often the case, I’ve grown reflective—that we may attribute to my own aging.
Last week was Father’s Day and because of my daughter, I ended up spending a good bit of the past week watching Bing Crosby movies. In other words, she sent me the most recent Bing Crosby Collection. It’s actually a very apt choice, since I mostly owe my lifelong love of Der Bingle to my father, who not only introduced me to Crosby, but slightly resembled him and sang very much in the same style. (At the same time, he wrong-headedly preferred—oh, my, no—Frank Sinatra.)
Well, here we are at the tail end (you should excuse the term) of the sixth month of 2011. That means that the year is half over. That also means that the movie year is half over. And I have to say that it ain’t a very inspiring sight. Usually by this point, I can come up with eight or nine candidates for a Ten Best list. This year, I can come up with three—and maybe a couple more if I fudge things. What’s going on out there?
So here’s the rest of the alphabet of movies that may or may not be worth another look. Having now seen Thir13en Ghosts twice, this is beginning to look like a risky and unnecessary undertaking, but I’m determined to perservere—at least as far as the titles I have on hand. It’s not that Thir13en Ghosts is any worse than I thought, but it didn’t warrant another look. Opt for its predecessor, the 1999 House on Haunted Hill, instead. Just about everything worth seeing—and a whole lot more—comes from the earlier film. I am sincerely hoping that this does not turn out to be a harbinger of things to come. But let’s look at letters “M” through “Z.”
The other week, I had occasion to sift through just about everything I’ve written for the Xpress since 2000. This wasn’t something I undertook lightly since there are over 3000 reviews and what not to sift through, but to provide a friend with some information, there really was no other way. In the process, I kept bumping into titles that I’ve long had it in mind to revisit—some (many) to the degree that I bought the DVDs. I have, however, not actually rewatched a single one of these.
Before it’s possible to entertain the question of movie snobbery—and are you or aren’t you?—it’s necessary to arrive at some kind definition of what constitutes a movie snob. One way and another, almost all of us are some kind of movie snob. I think I once heard of someone who wasn’t, but he ended up as curator of the Martin and Lewis archives and was never heard from again (apart from strangled cries in the night of “Hey, Dino!”). We won’t mention him again. There is, after all, a very fine line between “discerning viewer”—generally defined as being capable of recognizing that anything from Michael Bay should be avoided—and the outright “movie snob”—an altogether more slippery proposition.
Anyone with even a casual interest in the history of the movies has almost certainly encountered the widely accepted “fact” that 1939 was the best year for movies ever. (TCM’s Robert Osborne never tires of reminding us of this.) The claim seems to be based on 1939 producing Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz with everything else of even moderate value packed in afterwards to support what is to me an insupportable point. Or like the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Of course, that statement means I have to attempt to support my assertion that 1939 is not the best year for movies. It’s a fool’s errand, but I’ll have a bash.
I suppose it happens less often these days, but I imagine it still does happen that most people with a serious interest in movies have—or have had—some title or other they’ve read about or heard about that they’ve never been able to see. This used to be common back in the pre-video days. Now, it sometimes seems that nearly everything your little viewing heart could desire is but a trip to the video store, a browse on Amazon, or even a mouse or remote control click away. That’s not really true, of course, but it’s certainly more the case now that it ever was. I sometimes wonder if this is necessarily a good thing.
The other evening Justin Souther and I—and maybe a few others—were loitering in the bar of the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina having a meaningful conversation in depth (read: we were killing time) when—for reasons that are obscure to me now—I chanced to mention the movie Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1962). Upon invoking said title, I found myself on the receiving end of one of those looks. You know the kind—expressing disbelief in your veracity. I made it clear that indeed there is such a movie and that it could hardly be said to live up to its title. This in turn led to the discussion that brought us to the state of events you’re encountering now.
Having just encountered Tyler Perry’s tenth self-directed feature, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, and his eleventh big screen venture (he didn’t direct the first one), it’s incredible to realize that prior to February of 2005, I had never even heard of a Tyler Perry. That’s about the time the standee for Diary of a Mad Black Woman went up in the lobby of the theater that qualified as my day job. Just glancing at it, I was intrigued by the title and thought this might be something worth checking out. (That translates as “something I wasn’t going to fob off on another reviewer.”) I did notice that the name Tyler Perry was more prominently—and more often—featured than that of the titular director, Darren Grant, and I read up on just who this Perry fellow was.
Last week’s ActionFest—which was eschewed by some cineastes who don’t like “action”—and my narrow escape of having to watch Soul Surfer—which I was spared thanks to Justin Souther—give rise to the question of what people just plain, flat-out, categorically, without fear of going back on it, simply won’t watch. Since I long ago surrendered the possibility of playing the “you couldn’t pay me to watch that” card, my own feelings in the matter are largely theoretical. At the very least, my feelings are reliant on whether or not someone else can be forced or somehow cajoled into stepping into the breach. Most of the world has no such consideration. So what evokes my paraphrase of Mr. Astaire’s song about not dancing in you?
Actually, I always have questions, but I’m limiting myself here to questions that involve movies, since those are germane to this column. In this case, I’m posing two questions. I don’t necessarily expect any answers, but these seem to be worth some contemplation. Let’s start with this PG-13 version of The King’s Speech that crept its way into theaters this week.
I’m going to revisit—albeit briefly, since I don’t have a lot of time this week—one of my earliest (March 2008) “Screening Rooms,” which was called “In Praise of Trash.” Why? Well, because I think there’s a lot to be said for “trash,” and because I was recently taken to task (I’d have rather been taken to Paris or London, frankly) for praising Drive Angry 3D. I was told I had “lost all credibility” with the reader, which actually suggests that the reader was not quite the regular follower of my reviews he claimed to be, since it was hardly the first time I’ve given an exploitation picture a good review. It doesn’t really matter, but what does matter to me is the idea that there is some etched-in-stone rule about what sort of movie can and can’t be liked. I don’t buy that.
Officially, it may be that today is only the first day of spring, but the movies—so far as the studios are concerned—have their own idea of time. That’s to say that they’re officially in the countdown to summer mode. This year, it appears that summer—that time when the studios unleash what they fervently hope will be the Really Big Pictures—starts on May 20 with the release of Rob Marshall’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, or possibly even on May 6 with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, though that’s a more dicey proposition.
What do Night of the Hunter (1955), Carrie (1976), City Lights (1931), The Hours (2002), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Old Dark House (1932) have in common? Well, nothing really—except that at recent Asheville Film Society and Thursday Horror Picture Show screenings, I spent all but one of those titles standing up. Why? Because there weren’t any seats or even supplementary chairs left and I’m too old to sit on the floor. The only one where I got a seat—The Old Dark House—was a very near thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, but I am on the perplexed side.
Probably no genre of filmmaking is so generally disdained as the biopic. It’s actually less the films themselves than it is their often somewhat-to-extemely dubious veracity. I would not deny this aspect of the movie versions of the lives of the great. It’s certainly there, though most times I’d argue that it’s no worse than your average high school history book, especially as concerns older biopics where anything too disturbing tends to be given as fine a coat of whitewash as Aunt Polly’s fence ever saw. But it seems to me that even these films served a function in terms of general knowledge that was not without its value.
Well, here it is—Oscar weekend—and what had started out as a seemingly predictable year at the Oscars now looks a little less predictable, and has also become one of the most promoted ceremonies I can recall. It’s certainly evolved into the busiest Oscar season I’ve ever had since I’ve been Svengali’d into—along with Justin Souther—this Oscar party at The Carolina on Sunday night.
As a movie reviewer I probably spend more time in theaters than the average person. As a movie reviewer who—writing being a far from lucrative occupation—spent years working in theaters as well, I can guarantee that statement. In those capacities over the years, I’ve learned an awful lot about movie houses, how they work, what they do right, and what they do wrong. And I’ve also gotten a pretty good sense of what audiences do and don’t understand about how theaters work.
In case you missed the fact, Monday is Valentine’s Day, and the day means a movie, this year—well, you’re kind of out of luck. Or you’re not exactly choosy. First of all, let’s make one thing perfectly clear—no matter what it’s title may imply, there is no way in hell that Blue Valentine is a good idea for this purpose. (I’m assuming you aren’t wanting to break up, mind you.) That leaves you with what? Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston in Just Go with It? This duo doesn’t exactly spell romance to me.
It’s the dead of winter, I know, and the movies have a tendency to be rather grim at this time of year. However, there’s usually some relief from this as the stragglers of the previous year’s limited release offerings make their way into the provinces. And, of course, that’s happening, but last year that included Pedro Almodovar’s colorful and playful neo-noir Broken Embraces and Terry Gilliam’s fantastic and fantasticated The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus. This year it seems to be largely grim, grimmer, and grimmest.
So the Oscar nominations were announced bright and early on Tuesday. Actually, it was probably dark and early in Los Angeles, but since we all know the only real time is Eastern Standard Time (read: New York time), they pretend it’s morning out there. (Similarly, they will pretend it’s a gala evening instead of late afternoon on Feb. 27. It’s a funny old world.) And there was nary a surprise in the lot, which wasn’t much of a surprise in itself. That, of course, doesn’t mean that most of us don’t feel compelled to attempt to dope out the results on at least the major awards.