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October 4, 2014
David Kalat
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Ode to Strats; or How I Learned to Stop Being a Jerk and Love Sports Movies

I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports movies. Actually, more properly stated, I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports in general, and sports movies were just a subset of that entire category of human activity that I disdained. As a kid, I wasn’t athletic—I have joked I was an avid indoorsman. It wasn’t that much of a joke.

And as sports movies go, Hoosiers was my go-to case study, the exemplar of exemplars, Patient Zero. The 1986 film is a perfect conglomeration of sports movie clichés: the down and out kids who find self-confidence as a team, the star player who needs to learn the meaning of “team,” the washed-up has-been coach struggling for redemption, the game that comes to mean Everything in the World to the main characters, who have no shot at winning it until they do… I remember reading a review (in Newsweek, I think?) when it first came out that dismayed at how predictable and routine the story beats were.

For a time, back in the early 1990s, I taught a screenwriting class in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a terrible teacher. I think I crushed the spirit of everyone foolish enough to sign up for the class—the only thing I focused on was teaching Syd Field’s three-act structure and how to properly format your scripts. As if people who signed up for an extended learning program through a community arts organization in Bloomington, Indiana wanted to learn how to sell their scripts to Hollywood agents, rather than just have a rewarding creative writing class. Well, anyway, I used Hoosiers as a case study in story structure, because its status as a generic formula picture in the most formulaic of genres meant it wore its structure very obviously on the surface and was therefore easy to dissect.

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KEYWORDS: Hoosiers
COMMENTS: 12
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What’s your October pleasure?

Ghost and Mrs Muir

But enough about you — let’s talk about me. The Halloween costume and ornament catalogs have been coming for weeks and are lying about the house in various states of destruction, pawed at by the kids and chewed on by the rabbit. I gave them a cursory flip-through and haven’t looked back. Halloween for a great many in the 21st Century seems to be an especially charnel affair, all about severed arms and legs and jars of eyeballs and such and such. Zombies dominate the costume section but not the zombies of old, with their blank stares and solemn business attire – no, these are post-WALKING DEAD flesh-eaters, with their dangling mandibles and missing parts. Thank you but no. Blood and gore and free-floating viscera have their place and I’m grateful to live in a world where they can hang out. But that’s not Halloween to me. [...MORE]

Ghost Stories: THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)

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October has arrived and as usual, TCM has scheduled a nice selection of films this month that will undoubtedly appeal to classic horror film obsessives like yours truly. Among the Hitchcock thrillers, silent scares, mummy movies and horror anthologies airing you’ll be able to tune in every Thursday and catch some spooktacular ghost movies. I love a good ghost story and if you happen to be one of the few who regularly keeps track of my blog posts you know that it’s a film genre I’m particularly fond of so I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight one of my favorite ghostly movies that’s airing this evening; the fun, family friendly and still surprisingly fresh Abbott & Costello horror comedy, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946).

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Titleology 101

Sometime in early 1947, almost a full year before its Broadway debut, Tennessee Williams presented the final draft of his play, The Poker Game, to be read by his agent Audrey Wood.  She thought it was great but when she said, “The Poker Game?  You can do better than that,” Williams was panicked.  He thought she meant the play was a failure.  No, she exclaimed, the title was.  He tried several different titles and eventually settled on the one we all know, A Streetcar Named Desire.   What a difference.  That title evokes something The Poker Game does not.  Blanche DuBois, the self-destructive figure at the play’s center, is the one chained to that streetcar, her life ruined by her desires, desires for boyish men or simply boys, a desire that runs down a single track, unable to veer from its course even when disaster clearly looms ahead.  The Poker Game evokes something else entirely and, it could be argued, just as important.  It seems to direct our attention more towards Stanley Kowalski, Blanche’s main antagonist, and her brother-in-law.  Stanley spends the entire play essentially calling Blanche’s bluff.  She’s in a poker game with an expert and thinks she can bluff her way through it, not realizing he’s holding a straight flush from the outset: to wit, he’s a better manipulator than she is and he’s on his home turf.   Both titles work but the final title, A Streetcar Named Desire, says more about the hopelessness of Blanche and less about the cunning of Stanley.  The audience isn’t watching a poker game to be won or lost but a streetcar, headed down the tracks towards a brick wall with nothing to stop it.  It’s not just a more memorable title, and it is that indeed, it’s a more meaningful title to the story.  The play would have been the same no matter what the title but it might have felt a little different.  That title, whether we consciously recognize it or not, is guiding us towards a more understanding and sympathetic view of Blanche.  That’s what all titles do, good or bad.  They guide us to one specific understanding or feeling about the story even if, in the end, the effect is minimal.

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The 2014 New York Film Festival: Gone Girl and Two Days, One Night

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The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl  (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.

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Back to the Drawing Board

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)Next Monday, October 6, TCM presents an evening of early American animation, a must-see for cartoon fans of all ages. The line-up begins with the cartoons of Winsor McCay, followed by animation from two companies lost to the history books, the Bray Studio and the Van Beuren Studios. At 12:15 am, Lotte Reiniger’s unique Adventures of Prince Achmed airs, followed by the 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels and the Japanese feature Magic Boy. Chuck Jones’s beloved Phantom Tollbooth concludes the evening’s entertainment, which has been dubbed “Back to the Drawing Board” by TCM. Of the vast array of styles and stories represented in this selection of pre-classic animation, I am most excited to see the work of the Bray Studios and Prince Achmed by Reiniger (above).

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Half of Me, Why Not Take Half of Me?

As I wrote up Gone with the Wind last week, it occurred to me, though I didn’t want to say it in the piece, that I only like half of the movie.   The piece emphasized what a great “making of” story Gone with the Wind is so there was no room for me to casually say it but I really only like the first half.  That’s not to say the second half isn’t good, only that I prefer the first half.  In fact, there are plenty of movies that have distinctive first and second halves.  Most movies have a flow to them where the story progresses gradually and seamlessly from beginning to end but for those movies that feel like two parts of a whole stuck together, I often like one part substantially more than the other.  I should make clear, very clear, since I will be discussing highly regarded classics, that this does not mean I do not think the movie is good, rather, there’s a distinct preference for one half, even if I like the other half and the movie as a whole.

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September 27, 2014
David Kalat
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This is Not a Post About Gone With the Wind.

With all the hoopla and conversation here over the last week regarding Gone With the Wind, I thought it might be fun to take a glance at GWTW’s evil twin, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1946 The Strange Woman.

It starts in 1945 when 20th Century Fox released a film called Leave Her to Heaven, based on Ben Ames Williams’ novel of the same name. A glorious Technicolor prestige picture with Gene Tierney, Cornell Wilde, and Vincent Price, it was a huge commercial success, nominated for several Oscars of which it won one. In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Bring on the clones!

Enter independent producer Hunt Stromberg, with a fistful of the rights to Williams’ other bestseller The Strange Woman. Both books dealt with conniving ice bitch women who destroy the people around them. You have to wonder what happened to poor old Williams that led him to become such a misogynistic writer, but in any case Hunt Stromberg had cleverly gotten a hold of not just any book by the same author as Leave Her to Heaven, but practically a remake of it—same story, different time period.

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KEYWORDS: Edgar G Ulmer, Hedy Lamarr, The Strange Woman
COMMENTS: 10
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Halloween reveille! Fallllllllllllllllll IN!

Ub Iwerks skeletons

All right you mangy myriad of moldering monsters… October is only 5 days away and I need to whip this army of darkness into shape for the Halloween season. Fall in as I call your names! [...MORE]

You’re Invited! Join the #TCMParty on Twitter

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If you watch a lot of television you’re probably familiar with hashtags or #hashtags that programs now regularly promote to reach audiences on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. On PBS for example viewers are encouraged to use the hashtag #DowntonPBS, #DowntonAbbey or #Downton when watching their popular series DOWNTON ABBEY and during events such as the 2014 Winter Olympics many hashtags including #Sochi2014, #Olympics2014 and #TeamAmerica were regularly used online. Hashtags are a simple way to link conversations about a topic on social media sites so anyone can search for them easily and join in the discussion. And if a hashtag becomes popular on Twitter it can become a ‘trending topic’ that gains national or even international attention.

A couple of years ago I noticed that the hashtag #TCMParty was trending on Twitter while TCM was showing a marathon of Japanese giant monster movies from Toho Studios. Naturally this piqued my curiosity so I began following their activities at @TCM_Party. The Twitter group is made up of classic movie fans who regularly watch films shown on TCM and enjoy discussing them online. I’m not an active participant myself but I occasionally jump into conversations when they’re discussing a movie I love or happen to be watching. Recently @TCM_Party celebrated their third year anniversary on Twitter so I decided to reach out to them and ask a few questions about what they do and how TCM viewers can participate. @TCM_Party host, Paula Guthat (aka @Paula_Guthat) was kind enough to get back in touch with me and what follows is a brief Q&A about the group and their events.

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