Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Classic Movie Tourism: King Kong on Broadway


Some 85 years after the great ape's original screen debut, King Kong has made a triumphant return to New York City, this time as the star of his own Broadway musical. There have been plenty of sequels, reboots, revisions, and reincarnations featuring the oversized cinema gorilla, but I've never seen anything quite like this version of the familiar tale. It's an amazing marriage of puppetry and performance that brings Kong to life in a completely new way while also issuing some loving correctives to the thornier aspects of the original film.

The result is truly breathtaking, even if the songs aren't quite as memorable as one might like. I didn't come out of King Kong humming any particular tune, but I did come out with a stunned sense of awe and a weepy teenager overcome by the emotional rapport the audience develops with the incredibly sympathetic Kong. The eponymous ape moves, grunts, and breathes like a living thing, but his soulful and expressive eyes are his most impressive feature. Once you see him, you believe in him, even though the talented puppeteers working his enormous body are always in view.

The new stage production keeps the setting and some of the primary characters from the 1933 film, namely the ape himself, heroine Ann Darrow, and ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham. It eliminates the heroic love interest so that the focus stays squarely on Ann and Kong, and this Ann doesn't need a big, strong man to come and rescue her anyway. She's a brave, kind, adventurous protagonist whose version of the famous Fay Wray scream is a war cry of empowerment rather than a distress signal. The musical also eliminates the racist elements of the movie - there are no human natives on this Skull Island - and goes one better by making Ann herself black. These changes sharpen the focus of the story and breathe new life into it, making this a Kong adventure that resonates with a broad modern audience.

The human performances also make this new incarnation worth catching while the original cast is still attached. Christiani Pitts is a firebrand Ann, feisty and capable, and she gives powerful voice to songs like "Queen of New York" and "The Wonder." Eric William Morris understands the slippery line required for the selfish but seductive Carl; we have to like him enough to see why Ann goes with him in the first place, but Carl is the closest the musical comes to a villain, since he's incapable of understanding the perspectives of Ann or Kong, much less appreciating that they might have equal claims to happiness and self-determination. Lumpy, played by Erik Lochtefeld, offers an antidote to Carl with his sadly sweet affection for Ann, though I couldn't tell if it was the character or the actor or both who strongly brought James Cromwell to mind during his scenes.

As a feminist with a lifelong love of classic movies, puppetry, and musicals, I'm probably the perfect audience for a show like King Kong, but even if you're only casually interested in one or two of those categories this is a production worth seeing. It offers a fresh and thoughtful take on a story most of us think we already know, and it shows how that story can continue to change and appeal to new audiences. 85 years later, King Kong is alive and well on Broadway, and I hope that this show will enjoy all of the success that it truly deserves. It's absolutely stunning, and my entire family loved it.

Related posts:

Classic Films in Focus: KING KONG (1933)

Classic Films in Focus: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Friday, November 16, 2018

The End of FilmStruck

For the last six months my movie watching and review writing have been severely curtailed due to pressing work on other efforts, but I always comforted myself with the thought that FilmStruck would be there waiting for me after November 6 passed. Now, alas, the cruel corporate gods at AT&T have declared that FilmStruck is to end this month, and my comforting hope has evaporated. I only have two weeks left to enjoy the best movie streaming service ever to grace my television with its presence, and I can't seem to get through my long watchlist fast enough.

Originally I had doubts about FilmStruck because they seemed more interested in being an art house service than one with a robust catalog of classics, but once they teamed up with TCM they really took off as a platform for serious classic film fans. It was an especially welcome pairing to me because I love TCM but don't watch it at home, where we don't have cable. I was also annoyed by their lack of availability on Roku during their early rollout, but I signed up as soon as that became an option. Once I started using FilmStruck, I fell in love with its ever expanding catalog and delightful curation of spotlight collections.

When FilmStruck leaves us, we'll be stuck with the lame offerings of Hulu and Netflix once again, and many of the movies I enjoy won't be available except as expensive made-to-order DVDs. I don't know where Criterion will go with its films, given that it ended its partnership with Hulu to move over to FilmStruck (and thus made Hulu practically useless except for watching Saturday Night Live without the commercials). Many actors and film directors are joining with fans to call for FilmStruck to be saved, but I doubt AT&T cares, which means that this holiday season is one that the Grinch is stealing from classic movie lovers. It's going to be a blue Christmas for all of us when we watch our last Lon Chaney silent or Ernst Lubitsch comedy at the end of November, and I'm thinking of telling my in-laws that I'm sick just so I can stay home on Thanksgiving and watch movies all day instead of putting up with small talk over the turkey.

With so many movies and only two weeks left, I'm trying to concentrate my viewing time on the hardest to find films, things I haven't seen before and am unlikely to be able to see another way. For me that means digging into the silents, especially the Chaney offerings like HE Who Gets Slapped (1924) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). I'm not going to bet on any future platform being willing to give so much space to silents. Warner is reportedly going to roll out some kind of new streaming service at the end of 2019, but given the way things have gone since the end of 2016 we could all be living in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic hellscape by then.

So, fellow FilmStruck fans, what movies are on your list for the last two weeks of streaming? Offer your suggestions in the comments below!

UPDATE: Later on the same day that I made this post, Criterion announced that they will launch their own streaming platform starting in Spring 2019. This is good news for folks who particularly value the Criterion titles, although we'll have to wait to see if the now also promised upcoming Warner service will cater to the classic movie fans who were more drawn to the Warner and TCM offerings. The standalone Criterion Channel will be $11 a month, and you can sign up now to become a charter member on their website.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

High School Movies, Then and Now

Netflix recently released a handful of romantic comedies set in high schools, including To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and their arrival has provided an opportunity to watch a new generation of high school movies and reflect on those that came before, particularly the iconic 80s films of John Hughes. A lot has changed since The Breakfast Club made its debut in 1985, but the basic anxieties of middle class American high school students seem to be the same: fear of rejection, longing for love/acceptance, frustration with parents, and a combination of both hope and fear at the prospect of growing up, whatever that means. At the same time, modern high school movies have opened up in terms of characters - and who gets to be a protagonist - in ways many of us Gen Xers could never have imagined when we were teens, and that's a heartening evolution even when the new movies have problems of their own in terms of representation or execution.

I admit to being mystified by many of the situations depicted in high school movies. My own high school experience was so catastrophically miserable that I escaped to college a year early and never looked back. I didn't see myself in the high school pictures of the 1980s - I was an aggressively nerdy girl who devoured books whole and got kicked out of class for asking too many questions (no, really; I spent 10th grade doing "independent study" for World History because I showed up to class having already read every damn book about Ancient Egypt in the school library and went full Hermione Granger on the subject until the teacher got sick of me, which took all of three days). However, thanks to the gendered roles in movies like The Breakfast Club, I got pegged as the Ally Sheedy "weirdo" instead of the Anthony Michael Hall "nerd" type, although to be fair I probably would have been beaten up and bullied equally often under either label. At any rate, I didn't see myself in the movies then and still don't see much of that younger me in the movies now (thank you forever, J.K. Rowling, for giving me both Hermione AND Luna Lovegood as variations of the girl I once was). My own teenager, now a high school senior, also doesn't "get" high school movies thanks to being homeschooled. She tried 9th grade at a local school and quickly decided it wasn't for her. We're neither of us the people for whom these movies get made.

On some level I find high school movies interesting precisely because most of them seem like stories about alien worlds to me. What is this thing called popularity? What's with the wild parties? Did my peers actually do stuff like that and I was just oblivious? (Spoiler: They did, and I was.) The new Netflix high school movies have a sweetness about them that I also find appealing; there's less sex and a lot more focus on girls' complex emotional lives and their relationships with other girls. We didn't see a lot of that in the 80s, and it's encouraging to see it now, even in the darker Netflix TV show, Stranger Things, where Nancy's whole vengeance and truth-finding arc is driven by her love for and guilt about Barb. Speaking of Barb, Shannon Purser's brief but compelling performance on Stranger Things made me delighted to see her as the protagonist in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and even if the film gets into trouble with its Cyrano de Bergerac revision it's still worth watching because Shannon Purser is so good and so authentic as the kind of girl we didn't see in high school movies before. I'd like more movies with Shannon Purser, please.

I do think high school movies have come a long way in terms of how they depict adolescent experience and whose stories they're willing to tell, but there's still plenty of ground yet to be covered. I have no idea if the Andy Hardy pictures resonated with the real lives of teenagers in the 1930s, but they certainly glossed over the darker realities of youth in the Great Depression. Now we get a wider range of views, from the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Love, Simon (2018) and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which blends its rom-com setup with explorations of what it means to belong to two cultures and what's like to grow up with an absent or deceased parent. Browsing through the posters for high school movies I do think we could use more young people of color in leading roles and more stories about lesbian, trans, and non-binary teens that aren't dark dramas or tragedies because those kids need to see themselves in hopeful, romantic, and light-hearted comedies, too. If I'm still pleased in my mid-40s to see high school movies include more characters I can identify with, then imagine how important it is to today's 16 and 17 year olds to get that in the high school movies they're watching.

There's a 99% chance that your high school experience was really different from mine (but more likely that it was also catastrophically miserable in its own special way). What do you make of high school movies now that you look back at the ones you saw when you were a teen? What do you see in the new ones being made today? Feel free to share in the comments!


PS - I can't end this post without a special shout out to Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film that has long been a favorite high school movie in my house of dedicated comic book nerds. It's goofy and even absurd but pitches the high school experience in a way that my husband, kid, and I all find immensely appealing. It offers diverse characters, lots of self-aware humor, and some very entertaining action scenes that take school fights to a whole new level. Plus, it has Bruce Campbell, Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, and Cloris Leachman in it!





Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

Blonde Crazy (1931) is a Pre-Code cracker that really puts the slap in its slapstick, with Joan Blondell regularly smacking costar James Cagney as the pair make their way through a series of scams and double crosses. Cagney's conman deserves Blondell's tough love; his Bert is too smart for his own good and always on the make, especially when attractive women turn up, but Cagney works the flawed charm of the character for all he's worth, and he and Blondell have excellent chemistry. Director Roy Del Ruth skillfully handles the mix of comedy and drama in this Depression Era tale of likable schemers, which also features Louis Calhern, Ray Milland, and Guy Kibbee.

Cagney plays enterprising hotel bellhop Bert, who uses his job primarily as an opportunity to run crooked schemes. He helps Anne (Joan Blondell) get a position at the hotel in order to chat her up, but when she forcefully rejects his smooth talk he ends up making her his partner instead. The pair work their way up and out of the hotel, but in the city they become entangled with big time conman Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern) and his partner, Helen (Noel Francis). Anne eventually tires of Bert's relentless schemes and falls for the seemingly straight arrow Joe (Ray Milland), but Joe turns out to have a few crooked angles of his own.

There's plenty of tantalizing Pre-Code action in Blonde Crazy, with illicit booze, gambling, adultery, honey traps, robbery, and Joan Blondell's brassiere stuffed full of cash. It's a world of moral relativity that Blondell's character enters somewhat by accident; she's not naturally crooked but is tough enough to handle herself in spite of constant sexual harassment. Anne isn't much bothered by Bert's scams because he usually swindles other swindlers, but she draws the line at outright robbery. When she decides to get out of the game and marry Joe, Bert realizes that he's missed out on his opportunity for a better life with Anne by his side, and he quits, too. Bert's inclination to go straight is then ironically thwarted by Anne's distress when Joe is revealed as the worst crook of them all.

Cagney and Blondell carry the picture with their performances, with Cagney clearly relishing the wolfish energy of his character and Blondell striking just the right balance between cynicism and vulnerability. Bert's favorite endearment, a drawled "Hoooney!" that he often directs at Anne, rolls out of Cagney's mouth with a cocksure smirk that perfectly sums up his personality. Supporting the pair most notably are Louis Calhern and Noel Francis as con artists who make a mark of Bert and cheat him out of his own ill-gotten cash. Their ruthless efficiency makes our protagonists look like angels, but Anne figures out a way to get even with them. Guy Kibbee makes a memorable appearance as one of Bert and Anne's early marks, while Ray Milland pops up fairly late in the picture as the rival for Anne's affections. We don't really see enough of Milland's Joe to form opinions about him until the very end, and it's kind of a shame that Milland doesn't get to work that shifty glint in Joe's eye a little more before his final act of selfish betrayal.

Roy Del Ruth, who started in the silent era, directed a wide variety of pictures, including Born to Dance (1936), It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), and The Alligator People (1959). For more of Cagney and Blondell together, see The Public Enemy (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), and He Was Her Man (1934). Ray Milland is just a young up-and-comer in Blonde Crazy; catch him in his prime in the 1940s in The Major and the Minor (1942), The Uninvited (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945).


Blonde Crazy is currently streaming on FilmStruck.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Movie Log for June 2018

I've been unusually busy this summer, which means that my movie viewing has been fairly limited. In spite of that, I've been enjoying the summer blockbuster fare and classics on FilmStruck, which has a wonderfully robust collection that changes frequently (the subscription is definitely worth it, so check out FilmStruck if you don't already use it!).

Because my new, unpaid "day job" is pretty stressful, I'm gravitating toward comedies more than ever, especially English ones that provide me with an escape from the concerns of the day. Filmstruck has been happy to provide exactly what I'm looking for, with Ealing comedies, Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple films, and other light romps.

My spouse, ever eager to suggest movies that appeal more to his own tastes, has introduced some horror into the mix, which explains the presence of Found Footage 3D (although I have to say it was quite funny and worth your time if you enjoy horror comedies). Shudder continues to be our go-to streaming service for horror, although I would still like to see more silent, classic, and B horror selections there. The "Foundations of Horror" category needs more entries to live up to its name, and I'd love to have access to more Hammer and drive-in sci-fi horror.

Here's the movie log for May and June of 2018 -

May

After the Thin Man (1936)
Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This And Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)

June

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)

What are you watching this summer? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: JULIA MISBEHAVES (1948)

Directed by Jack Conway, Julia Misbehaves (1948) is a charming, frothy romantic comedy that reunites the stars of Mrs. Miniver (1942) for a rather different look at the ups and downs of marriage. Greer Garson kicks up her heels as a bohemian performer long estranged, but not divorced, from husband Walter Pidgeon. The picture also features a host of familiar faces, including Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford as a young pair with romantic issues of their own and great character actors like Cesar Romero, Nigel Bruce, Mary Boland, Reginald Owen, and Henry Stephenson. The cast alone makes the film worth seeing, but Garson and Pidgeon share a delightful chemistry that enriches their scenes together even when their characters are being most ridiculous.

Garson stars as Julia Packett, who long ago left her husband and infant daughter and returned to the stage to make her own way. Broke but persevering on pluck and a steady stream of schemes, Julia is surprised by an invitation to her daughter's wedding and decides to attend. Her mother-in-law (Lucile Watson) hopes to eject Julia from the nuptials, but husband William (Walter Pidgeon) quickly falls for her all over again, much to his mother's dismay. Meanwhile, daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor) is preparing to marry an unseen groom while fighting her attraction to the handsome young Ritchie (Peter Lawford).

Julia Misbehaves resolutely focuses on the comedic aspects of its material, but there's a lot of heartache lurking beneath the bubbly surface. Over the course of the picture we learn that Julia married William when she was only seventeen and he was a young soldier abroad. They had happy days together at first, but we get the distinct sense that their separation was orchestrated by William's mother, who disapproves of Julia and schemes to divide them once more by inviting Julia's acrobatic admirer, Fred (Cesar Romero), into the Packett family home. Several scenes touch on the longing Julia has felt to be reunited with Susan all these years, and the conversations between Julia and Mrs. Packett suggest that Julia was forbidden that contact. These details matter because we're supposed to like Julia and understand that she didn't just abandon her family for life on the stage; she was pushed out against her will when she was still very young. When she returns, Julia has become a force in her own right, no longer vulnerable to Mrs. Packett's intimidation.

The story, therefore, is essentially a comeback comedy, with Julia regaining the things she lost so many years ago. In order to survive and become a match for the scheming Mrs. Packett, Julia has learned to be quite a schemer herself. She wheels and deals to get the money she needs; we first see her in a bathtub threatening to commit suicide in order to induce her friend Benji (Reginald Owen) to pay off her debts. She later bamboozles an old gambler (Nigel Bruce) so that she can buy gifts for Susan. The men in the picture also resort to underhanded plots for good causes; William turns out to be just as crafty as his mother and his wife, especially as he works to rekindle the flame of his marriage, while Ritchie hatches plans to frighten Susan into his arms with some help from a friendly bear. Even sweet Susan turns out to have a few schemes up her sleeve at the story's close, much to the surprise of her parents. Everybody, it seems, has to be a trickster sometimes in order to make happy endings happen.

Julia Misbehaves is the final film directed by Jack Conway, who had started in the silent era and gone on to direct a number of Jean Harlow comedies, including Red-Headed Woman (1932), Libeled Lady (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon star in eight movies together, with Julia Misbehaves as their fifth pairing and a rare foray into comedic territory. More typical of their collaborations are Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). For another film featuring both Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor, see the 1949 adaptation of Little Women, or move on to Father of the Bride (1950) for more of young Liz in a wedding dress.


WHERE TO WATCH: Julia Misbehaves is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) reunites director W.S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for a sequel to the 1934 hit, The Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles first cracked wise and drank heavily through a crime-solving adventure. We pick up right where we left off at the end of the first movie, with Nick, Nora, and Asta on a train to California, which makes the first two films a great double bill, even though they were released two years apart. After the Thin Man offers more of everything that made the first picture such a success, with the wealthy couple boozing their way through the new year and a series of homicides. Along for the ride are a number of familiar classic stars, including James Stewart, Joseph Calleia, and George Zucco, as well as Elissa Landi as Nora's troubled cousin, Selma.

Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy) arrive in San Francisco for New Year's Eve only to find that Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), is in distress after the disappearance of her faithless husband, Robert (Alan Marshal). Nick has no trouble locating Robert and his mistress at a crowded hot spot, but then Robert turns up dead in front of Selma's house, and it looks like Selma might have killed him. Her longtime admirer, David (James Stewart), arrives on the scene to help, but Robert is just the first corpse of the mystery, and two more rapidly follow. With plenty of suspects on hand, including sketchy businessman Dancer (Joseph Calleia), jealous loser Phil (Paul Fix), and sinister Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), the police have their work cut out for them, even with Nick and Nora's help.

Much of the comedy of this outing lies in the contrast between Nick and Nora's social sets, whom we first see set against each other and then brought together thanks to Robert's shady habits. Nick knows every low-life, ex-con, and purse snatcher in town, and even the guys he sent to prison seem to like him. When Nora is greeted by a well-heeled couple in a passing car, she wryly tells Nick, "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." It turns out, however, that Nora's relations are not all that respectable themselves; they merely preserve the appearance of respectability while engaging in coercion, blackmail, adultery, and obstruction of justice. Selma's philandering husband is up to his neck in self-made trouble, but Selma's mother (Jessie Ralph) bullies and manipulates Selma into keeping quiet about his disappearance and his behavior. The rest of Nora's relatives are just antiquated bores; poor Nick has to make up both sides of the conversation when he's left alone with a table full of snoring, elderly gents after a family dinner party. It's little wonder that both he and Nora prefer Nick's more exciting acquaintances.

Asta's domestic woes feature as an odd running gag throughout the film, creating a canine version of the plot's themes of adultery, betrayal, and romance gone wrong. Asta returns from his Christmas travels to find that Mrs. Asta has produced a litter of puppies, but one of the bunch looks suspiciously like the Scottish Terrier who keeps sneaking onto the property. Asta chases his rival off repeatedly but never seems to get rid of him for good. Perhaps it's the stress of his romantic frustrations that makes Asta snatch and then eat part of a vital clue. Nick and Nora, who lavish attention on Asta, never seem to give the slightest thought to Mrs. Asta and her children, which might explain why the neglected pup, shut up in her backyard pen, has gone looking for affection elsewhere. At least the dogs don't resort to murder to solve their problems with each other, and on the whole they're better behaved than most of the movie's humans.

Powell and Loy continue the series with Van Dyke in Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) before moving to other directors for The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). For more of a very young Jimmy Stewart, see Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Born to Dance (1936). Look for Elissa Landi in The Sign of the Cross (1932), By Candlelight (1933), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Penny Singleton, billed as Dorothy McNulty, proves quite a scene stealer as nightclub singer Polly; she would go on to play the title character in more than two dozen Blondie films and provide the voice for Jane Jetson in the cartoon TV series, so be sure to appreciate her early appearance here.

Want to watch The Thin Man series? All of the films are currently available for streaming on FilmStruck.

Related Reviews:

LIBELED LADY (1936)
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)