Seeing the Classics on the Big Screen, the Hits and the Misses

One thing most movie lovers tout is seeing a movie on the big screen.  Now, I understand plenty of people don’t want to go to a theater, spend a fortune on tickets, popcorn, and a drink just to see the glow of cell phones and hear people rudely talking while someone kicks your seat from behind.  I don’t want that experience either and, for the most part, never get it because I see almost all my movies exclusively at the earliest matinee of the day, during the work week.  But in a perfect world, where everyone in theaters behaved and we all enjoyed the big movies together, seeing a movie on the big screen really is an unbeatable experience.  That’s why when I used to live in Silver Spring, Maryland, home of the AFI Silver, the best movie theater I have ever been to, bar none, I used to see classic movies at the AFI that I had already seen on the small screen a dozen times.  Why?  Because I knew the experience would be different.  Better.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case.  Sometimes, the overwhelming expectations we bring to certain big screen viewings of classics can have a slightly negative effect on the outcome.

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Vertigo: Hitchcock was wrong

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“VERTIGO: ver´ti-go –
a feeling of dizziness . . .
a swimming in the head . . .
figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed
in a whirlpool of terror.” – from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)

The title of my post is somewhat deceiving but that’s the idea. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about deception in the movies, particularly when it comes to the medical condition known as vertigo.

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Love Is In the Air: Rome Adventure (1962)

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I marked the arrival of summer by watching one of Delmer Daves’ grandly romantic teen melodramas, Rome Adventure (1962). It is earnestly sweet travelogue about a 21-year-old ex-librarian who seeks her independence in Italy and falls for blonde bombshell Troy Donahue. Like the other films Daves made with Donahue (A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade), Rome Adventure is disarmingly frank about the desires of its randy young characters. Instead it revels in the unstable beauty of these kids and their still-forming moralities. Rome Adventure pairs teen idol Donahue with the plucky, world-weary Suzanne Pleshette, an immensely likable personality to follow for the two-hours of the film’s Roman tour. Much of the film’s pleasures derive from simply walking around Rome with two-good looking kids while admiring Charles Lawton’s Technicolor cinematography. Since I won’t be making any European vacations myself this summer, Rome Adventure will have to do.

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Star-pics: Biopics of the Stars

Tomorrow, TCM devotes its daytime programming to biopics, or biographical pictures. Fans of this genre know not to expect an accurate chronicle of the life of a famous person; instead, biopics (or, “bi-opics” as a former coworker used to insist on calling them) offer the mythic version of that life. In other words, biopics use the lives of the famous to depict a universal truth, to offer a life lesson, or to represent a value we can all relate to. TCM has selected several film biographies that focus on prominent leaders throughout history, including Alexander the Great, Marie Antoinette, and Gandhi. Expect stirring stories of individual self-sacrifice for the greater good of the people.

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Personally, my favorite biopics are those about show business figures, especially movie stars. Biopics are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself (The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1908), but star-pics did not emerge until the postwar era. By that time, the first generation of popular movie stars had evolved into legendary icons as reflected in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), Valentino (1951), and The Story of Will Rogers (1952). Also during the postwar era, the studios lost vertical control of the industry, meaning they were forced to loosen that vice-like grip on production, distribution, and exhibition. The systems and practices that had led Hollywood to become the most successful film industry in the world began to break down. Not coincidentally, the industry released a spate of movies that looked back on its history, warts and all (Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful). In contrast, the star-pics of the 1950s are affectionate re-creations of early Hollywood—nostalgic valentines to past legends and industry high points.

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From outside the box to within the sphere

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If I had to select one day this week on TCM to engage in some binge watching it would be Tuesday, starting with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948). The next four films? The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), The Earrings of Madame De… (Max Ophuls, 1954), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), and then The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973). The incredible range represented by these movies, be it in style, substance, or approach, shows only a small microcosm of the rich diversity that have made motion pictures one of the greatest art forms of the 20th century. This art, whether we saw it on a big movie screen or at home on a TV monitor or laptop, was framed in a rectangle. Now here we are in the second decade of the 21st Century, and Virtual Reality headsets are about to flood the consumer market with entertainment and content that are forcing story tellers like Robert Stromberg, a 2010 Academy Award® winner for his art direction on Avatar, “to think in terms of spheres instead of rectangles”.  [...MORE]

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June 11, 2016
David Kalat
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Alices in Wonderslands

The latest installment in Walt Disney’s Tim Burton’s Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland series has arrived only to falter unexpectedly. The 2010 film was an outsized international hit, and the sequel seemed to promise more of the same—but I’m not here to pick over its bones. I haven’t even seen the latest film so I’m supremely unqualified to comment on it. But I am a lifelong fan of all things Alice so I can’t help but feel an emotional investment of some kind.

For me, Alice is a jewel of (il)logic puzzles, absurdism, and wordplay—and I despaired that the 2010 Tim Burton adaptation abandoned that in favor of Joseph Campbell-style SF adventure. But to say the 2010 Alice wasn’t to my taste is a pointless remark as absurd as anything in Carroll’s book. It’s like me complaining I didn’t like the flavor of birdseed. Of course not—it wasn’t intended for you, dummy.

And therein lies the story.

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KEYWORDS: Alice in Cartoonland, Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, Walt Disney
COMMENTS: 10
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When Do The Movies Move Past Us?

Today on TCM, The Spirit of St. Louis airs, one of the all-times stretches in performing a character far younger than the actor portraying him.  James Stewart, at the age of 49, plays Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh, at the age of 25 and younger.  Lindbergh was 25 when he made history crossing the Atlantic solo and that’s the oldest his character is in the movie.  For most of the movie, done as flashbacks while Lindy is making that historic flight, 49 year old James Stewart is actually playing younger than 25!  I’ll be honest: I’ve never really bought it.  Especially any scene where Stewart turns his head and you can see the neck skin sagging (see here) but everyone involved deserves an A for effort.  The makeup folks had to plaster Stewart with enough pancake to simulate a man half his age and give him a wig to boot and they didn’t do half bad.  But still, at 49, it’s simply hard to believe he’s 25.  Why am I bringing all of this up now?  Because recently, in the comments of my last post, commenter George mentioned how some actors in movies today get CGI makeup that makes them appear much younger than they really are.  Just last year, in an episode of American Horror Story, Jessica Lange was CGI “youthed” for a flashback sequence in which she was suddenly the Jessica Lange of the 1970′s all over again.  Will actors eventually be replaced by CGI likenesses with computer voices that none of us could distinguish from a real actor’s face and voice?  Yes, most likely.  Soon?  Probably not but what do I know?  My real question is at what point will all of this feel like the movies have moved past the point where they feel like movies to me anymore?

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Billy Wilder: A Poster Gallery

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Throughout June, TCM is airing a string of Billy Wilder films every Friday night for your viewing pleasure. Wilder was the child of a Jewish Austrian-Hungarian family and made his first film (Mauvaise Graine; 1934) in France before fleeing Europe following the rise of Adolph Hitler. His family didn’t survive the Holocaust but the émigré filmmaker went on to become one of Hollywood’s most accomplished writers and directors.

His dark comedies and bleak dramas have a jagged edge and cutting wit that often took aim at society’s ills and our questionable moral fiber. Some of my favorite Wilder films include Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), which are wonderful examples of his distinct talents and you can catch them all on TCM in June.

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This week on TCM Underground: Some Call It Loving (1973) and Lolita (1962)

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Neither of the features that comprise our TCM Underground lineup this weekend is new to Turner Classic Movies but the pairing of them is likely to raise eyebrows and emotions in light of certain current events — in particular, a highly-publicized court case involving a California man’s sexual assault of an unconscious woman (and his unconscionably lenient sentencing) and the ascension of the first female nominee for the office of President of the United States. Both SOME CALL IT LOVING (aka SLEEPING BEAUTY) and LOLITA are stories about the possession of women, the control of women, the having of women; both were  written by men, presumably for men. What each film says, ultimately, about the never untroubled relationship between the sexes is less important than the questions it raises about the ever-widening gap between male expectations of womanhood and what life actually has to offer.

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Martial Artist: Xu Haofeng’s The Final Master (2015)

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Xu Haofeng is a student of martial arts, a chronicler of its lore and history. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1997, but instead of entering the movie business, he spent over a decade tracking down old kung fu masters and writing wuxia novels. His most famous publication is The Bygone Kung Fu World (Shiqu de Wulin, 2006), a book about Li Zhongxuan a practitioner of xingyiquan, one of the Wudang styles of Chinese martial arts (Wong Kar-wai admired the book, which led him to hire Xu to co-write The Grandmaster). When Xu found him, Li had been working as a receptionist for a household appliance store in downtown Beijing for decades. Xu is obsessed with preserving the minutae of kung fu history. He told China Daily that,  “A real kung fu battle lasts only seconds. And the results of a competition between top practitioners are decided even before opponents begin combat.” This reveals itself in his directorial debut The Sword Identity (2011), an elliptical and idiosyncratic martial arts film  in which fights end in the blink of an eye. Xu’s latest feature, The Final Master, was released into U.S. theaters this past weekend, and is yet another intensely ritualized take on the kung fu film.

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