Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Construction Starts Tomorrow

In true Hollywood fashion, Love & Squalor's about to go under the knife, to return leaner, shinier, and newer than Carol Channing's taut, 90 year-old cheek. Keep checking back with us as we go offline for a brief reboot. See you on the other side...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Love: True Grit


The Coen Brothers are two of the greatest storytellers of the past and current centuries, and True Grit, their adaption of many an adaptation (although mostly the novel by Charles Portis) is a further testament to their mastery of each of the small qualities needed to do it right.

The secret of the Coens is their ability to let the story tell itself. There is little fancy camera work, little fancy lighting, and only the fanciful language of the late 19th century, pulled directly from the letters, speeches, and cadences of a time when law and order was down, but vocabulary was up. With the gentle back-light of sunlight, starlight, or firelight, their perfectly cast group of characters come out of the dust and shadows fully formed and engaging, creating an instant connection with the audience. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in the lead as Mattie Ross easily holds her own as she maneuvers the uncertain ground of Indian Territory and the untamed West (it was West then) with Jeff Bridges grumbling Cogburn and Matt Damon’s charmingly boyish Texas Ranger in tow.


The brilliant dialog certainly helps Bridges and Damon get into character, but both are incredible, Damon in particular who usually only just blurs the line between himself and the person he’s playing, but here becomes someone new. Bridges’ performance is one of the best of his career, revitalizing the played out character with new depth and feeling. Both are relaxed and easy in the roles, giving the Coens the space and ease to tell the story as it comes, allowing the viewer to luxuriate as usual in the starkly Romantic, nostalgic, and absorbing world they create.


But by the time the emotional climax comes and the elegant performances hit you as hard as the butt of Cogburn’s gun, the Coen boys lose confidence in their abilities. The steady pace of the film comes to an abrupt halt, as Mattie’s narration ties everything up in a neat bow, complete with a last shot of her silhouette as a modern, sappy country song suddenly flairs to life with the first credit. It disrupts all they built, and makes what was something extraordinary, suddenly crash back to earth, just one step above the atrocity that was the end of  Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (of course, the rest of that movie wasn't much better).

Westerns are easy to find, but hard to make right, and the Coens, with their straightforward, subtle, and eloquent style have made a work of art as American as the masterpieces of Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Love: The King's Speech

The King's Speech is pure Oscar bait.  Here we have it, ready, set, go: a film not only about the British monarchy, but also featuring wartime, inspirational storytelling, costume pieces, and obstacle disability delivered by a host of actors who already receive that little "Oscar nominee/winner" official title each time their name is listed in a trailer.  At first glance, there's nothing tremendously novel about The King's Speech.  It's a 'lessons learned' type of film about human shortcomings.  Just a gentle little drama built up around a crippling stammer.  Of course, first glances count for naught here.  The crippling stammer here belongs to the man who would become King George VI (Colin Firth), an individual of noble blood who can't overcome his own tongue long enough to get a full sentence out to his young daughters, let alone address a troubled nation.  The future King, nicknamed Bertie by his family, is dragged from therapist to therapist by his sharp wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) in a desperate attempt to fix up his elocution.  A last ditch effort brings them to the shabby chic office of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unconventional Australian prepared to take some serious risks to untangle Bertie's tied up tongue. A remarkable thing happens when Bertie when he enters Lionel's office: a staid, Oscar-bait story transforms into a clever, eloquent little buddy comedy.
As Bertie and Lionel struggle to transcend their very different social statuses and proud personas, they become a very unlikely odd couple.  The scenes in Lionel's office are delightfully tense, witty bits of comedic timing; entertaining us with a dancing, singing, cursing royal battling his demons and his doctor in between very real political drama.  With the next direct line to the throne philandering himself into the shame of England, Hitler rising to power, and the Prime Minister warning of impending war, Bertie takes his elocution lessons seriously.  He is a man petrified and the look on his face suggests that every moment of interaction is a painful one.  Firth is remarkable.  After one career-defining performance last year in A Single Man, Firth has turned around and upped his game even further.  In taking on Bertie and his impediment, the actor seems preternaturally aware of just where to draw the line.  The stutter is never taken too far, but never too little.  There's a very real strain here, a physical undertaking that really hits at the agony Bertie must be in.  You feel for Bertie, know that he'd be a great man if he could ever manage to get past his hangups.  Firth does for King George what Helen Mirren did for Elizabeth II.  That is, he transforms a familiar historical figure into a very real, very dimensional, wholly accessible character.  The King's Speech offers an intimate portrait  of a man, whom, in his lifetime, interacted very little with 'common folk,'  aided in no small part by a dry yet ebullient performance by the too oft underused Rush.
When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th, The King's Speech will be a surefire contender in no fewer than five categories.  It's the rare bit of Oscar bait that actually really deserves whatever acclaim it receives. The actors, the script, the subtle beauty of the art direction and costumes are all top notch.  But, you know, the emphasis is definitely on the actors.  King George's is a story that translates beautifully to the screen without overselling itself or giving way to insipid, overtly sentimental rewrites.  Here's the rare historical drama that works as well as a comedic piece of solid entertainment as it does a homework assignment.  See it.



Love: True Grit

I'm not amongst those who are perhaps most qualified to discuss True Grit's transition from novel to John Wayne film to Coen Brothers film.  I've read the Charles Portis book, sure, it's one of only two true to genre "western" novels I can recall opening (the other, a seventh grade requirement, was Shane), but it didn't speak to me.  To make matters worse, I haven't seen John Wayne's performance as Rooster Cogburn in 1969's True Grit or 1975's Rooster Cogburn, and will confess that this is likely for the better.  Hell, I mean, I can't even pretend to have ever had a real desire to watch either of those Hollywood semi-classics.  My grave American sacrilege is this:  I simply do not care for 'The Duke', nor do I particularly care for the old notion of the Western as a genre.  That's right. Scalp me here.  Of course, there are Westerns I've found passable and the rare ones I've truly loved, but they're usually of the Revisionist variety; the sort that sweep away Wayne's heroes and replace them with corrupt systems and dimensional, oft-villainous individuals.  So, while The Searchers gets a pass, the Wayne western is not my western and you will find no general allegiances to the '69 adaptation here.  With that out of the way,  I am free to inform you that this 2010 edition of True Grit is no John Wayne film, but also no Revisionist work.  It's a straight-played adaptation that catches all the best little facets of the novel while remaining faithfully reverent to the old genre standard.  What else?  Well, Jeff Bridges plays Rooster with a style I'd imagine John Wayne simply wasn't capable of.       
The beauty of True Grit comes from it being a simple tale of retribution told simply.  It's the story of 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl out for revenge on the hired hand who killed and robbed her father.  True Grit has always been Mattie's story, and the Coen Brothers don't forget this.  As she seeks the assistance of trigger-happy, whiskey-addled Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and finds her quest to be one shared by Texas Ranger LaBouef  (Matt Damon),  Mattie is never cast off as a misplaced bit of teenage estrogen, an anchor of childish emotional wreckage,  or an inappropriately sexualized love interest.  The Coen's managed to allow a little unknown girl to remain in control of a film otherwise containing a legendary character here portrayed by a very recent Oscar winner, and Jason Bourne.  In many ways, it's a tremendous risk to take.  Luckily,  newcomer Steinfeld admirably holds her own as the true central focus for this version of True Grit, and when she forcefully pushes her way into the good graces of the hunting party she's inadvertently assembled, she does so because she's got real grit of her own.   The chemistry here is marvelous.  Steinfeld is an immovable object; she's as rigid, domineering, precocious and tough talking as the day is long. To make up for her character's at times grating threats and strictly business attitude, Bridges and Damon must bring the humanity back to the revenge drama.  Damon seems content to sidestep the spotlight and serve his purpose as the occasionally dim Texan white knight forever belittled and engaged in idle banter by Rooster.  As Rooster, of course, Bridges brings what Wayne cannot, and that is not the Duke but the Dude.  Bridges isn't afraid to play the lone wolf occasionally for laughs.  The performance is a surprisingly layered one, balancing the grizzly vigilante Cogburn perhaps was with the foolhardy aging drunk he has become.  He's unpredictable and often as dangerously reckless as he is lovably absurd.  Bridges never tries to be Wayne.  He never allows the character to drift towards impersonation or caricature, but is instead unmistakably a product of himself.   This Cogburn is a black humored rogue with a vulnerable side, and as such the character, and all of his interactions, change in timbre to something refreshingly free of the marks of heavily treaded terrain.
The film's other star is undeniably its dialogue.  The Coen Brothers have brought a strange syntax to True Grit, and it's one that will either annoy or delight you.  Doing away with the straight-up tough talk of the Wayne western, the characters here speak in a manner that's so formal yet so loaded with wit and wisdom that there are points at which it verges on sounding remotely Shakespearean.  From it, they pinpoint True Grit in a very particular place, in a very specific time; one which is far from our own.  We don't know how real cowboys spoke, but this rewriting sounds like a pretty good one.  If you can get past the lack of contractions and insistence on drawing every sentence into an almost unnaturally un-colloquial "I do not,"  "that is not,"  "he has," "she has,"  the script is a brilliant departure from the flat machismo of the strong silent lawman.  The exchanges sparkle, adding a real literary intelligence to the simplicity of the unfolding drama.  There's a pre-Victorian sensibility here that makes sense, that feels authentic even if it's historical accuracy isn't actually founded in anything other than the merger of Charles Portis' language and the Coen's imagination.  I have to admit, at times, I found the dialogue seemed to push the viewer away.  That lack of contractions speaks to a basic reading level remembrance of things past, even when the wordplay and vocabulary is as amped up as it is here.  A line like, for example, "that is not LaBouef" conjured up Karen Brewer in Baby-Sitter's Little Sister where it most certainly wasn't intended.  There were points, for me, at which the delivery of certain lines felt stilted, and I became temporarily distracted.  This, I fear, will grow into a more permanent distraction for certain audiences; one which will prevent True Grit from being fully recognized as the vital, necessary remake it is and keep it in the eyes of many as a stagey, old Hollywood throwback.  I don't know how True Grit has been snubbed thus far in awards season, but I can't say I'm all that surprised.  True Grit's reinventions are subtle.  It doesn't reinvent the story into the dark, brutal Coen picture you might expect, but keeps it quietly dignified with its own brand of true grit.





Saturday, December 25, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: Forbidden Planet

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


As I've mentioned throughout this little recurring holiday feature, there are only a handful of films truly beloved by my Dad.  Of those few, Forbidden Planet is clearly his favorite.  It's one he quotes with regularity, and one he will actually note the absence of if the time between viewings has been too long.  During the holiday  season, Forbidden Planet became the antidote  to all the average Christmas screenings.  See, Christmas isn't my Dad's holiday.  It's not something he was raised with so, while he can tolerate the once a year visits with A Christmas Story and White Christmas, he'd really rather avoid them.  So, somewhere between that ideal lodge in Vermont (must be beautiful this time of year, all that snow...) and shooting our eyes out, we would visit the Krell laboratories on Altair IV.  Of all the 50's science fiction B-movies (Day the Earth Stood Still included), Forbidden Planet is easily my favorite as well. The story is a reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with that remote island here replaced by a mysterious planet in deep space.  Though the poster seems to suggest otherwise, the stakes here are not truly a matter of man versus giant robot or alien.  It's a tale of monsters from the human id.  And that giant robot?  He's just subservient Robby, pretty much the best walking trash can you'll ever encounter.  I'd be lying if I told you that I hadn't secretly wanted a Robby the Robot for Christmas nearly every year.  Ah well, science, maybe one day...
On the surface Forbidden Planet is an unusual movie to bond over, but imagine the shared joy that occurred when both Wilde.Dash and I discovered that our fathers had indoctrinated us both from an early age. I can’t remember when or how I started watching it, just that I’ve always watched it, and always heard my father going on and on about what it was like to see it in the theater with his grandmother. Like Wilde.Dash, it’s my favorite 50’s sci-fi film. It’s not just the bonding with my dad that always made it special. As Wilde.Dash said, there’s much more to the film--a great Shakespearean translation, and a deep expression of the battle with the id. But my favorite thing about it is the atmosphere. While it’s totally 50’s, all bright neon Technicolor (the version I grew-up on) and space age furniture from the Jetsons, it feels different…truly strange and surreal, a mix of Dali and Dr. Suess, particularly when Morpheus unleashes the monster from his id with special effects that rival anything Michael Bay’s put out there. The other thing that always caught my eye? Altaira’s wardrobe custom made by Robby the Robot. 


Friday, December 24, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.
 
I was all ready to post I Heart Huckabees for my version of today's 12 Days of Favorites, but while getting ready for family to come over and scrubbing out dishes, The Fantastic Mr. Fox happened to come on HBO, and I just couldn't leave it off. Wes Anderson's stop-motion classic is all over this website, and will probably be on here again. Both Wilde.Dash and I loved it (five hearts and all), because its just magical. Nostalgic, beautiful, funny, and inventive, it's impossible not to be utterly charmed by it, especially with George Clooney voicing the title role. Anderson spared no expense, on time or art production, formulating a world that encapsulates everything holy about childhood without downgrading the surroundings or humor to include the kids, allowing the work to naturally draw them in instead of patronizing them. It's also a great holiday movie, with an autumnal setting, perfect for sitting by the fire while snow falls outside.

12 Days of Favorites: Star Wars

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


It feels, at this point, like a gigantic cultural cliche to write on Star Wars as some sort of early youth influence or experience.  Isn't it?  It's like Star Wars has become a universal truth.  It's the absolute blend of mythologies, origin stories, and genres.  It swipes from fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and tragedy to build up the ultimate space opera in three (that's right.  three)  acts.  No child should be allowed to age past ten without being exposed to Star Wars.  While the effects of the early episodes may pale in comparison to the later ones, the storytelling succeeds on a simplistic level that speaks to nearly everyone.  When I was a kid, pre-theatrical re-releases and prequels (thought those also arrived fairly early on), Star Wars wasn't quite as popular amongst girls.  I recall going on the only Girl Scout camping retreat I ever went on and conversation turning to Star Wars over marshmallow snacking and pipe cleaner crafting. Someone had mentioned it as a favorite movie, only to be slammed by another scout as Star Wars was, patently, not for girls.  At the time, most couldn't argue for or against it, as they'd never watched it.  All they knew, as a counter argument, was that the series featured a princess and in one episode a tribe of walking teddy bears.  These days, if we can thank the remastered re-releases and prequels for nothing else, we can perhaps thank them for clearing up the gender bias that followed young female Star Wars geeks throughout much of childhood.  I love the whole Star Wars trilogy, but there's always something about starting Episode IV, knowing the exact pattern of how things play out, the grandiosity of the score and all its little transitions, the familiarity of the characters that's like going home.  



Thursday, December 23, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.

I really didn't want to bring up ties to George Lucas more than once (at least Spielberg directed this one), but my history with Indiana Jones is undeniable. It started with a set of Time Life videos about ancient archeology narrated by John Rhys-Davies. As my obsession grew, I began collecting articles about ancient Egypt and Sumer, and pasted them to my closet doors alongside the unicorns and the American Girl Dolls. I became very serious (I'm still mad that I missed a traveling Egyptian exhibit due to a bad case of chicken pox) about the whole thing, taking many unsupervised missions to neighborhood creeks and collecting fossils (the closest thing I had to archeology was paleontology). Last Crusade came at just the right time, setting off a chain reaction. When I saw a young Indy take the historical reigns I related. I saw my future shimmer before me, sailing off to hunt the world's artifacts, Rhys-Davies and Marcus Brody in tow. It took me to the places I craved to see, the underworld of hidden catacombs, secret, old European libraries, and on to Petra or Al Khazneh, which in my little mind, seemed like the most magical, exotic place I could ever visit. Twenty-odd years later, I still feel the way I did as a budding historian, and am proud to say that I'm finally making it in the Indiana Jones business, minus the Nazi's and undead Knights Templar of course....but something tells me they aren't worth all the trouble.

12 Days of Favorites: La Dolce Vita

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


I wasn't going to include La Dolce Vita this time around.  There are quite a few reasons for this.  It would be best to save the film for lists of actual favorites, for example. Or, I should hold off until we get around to counting  the movies that inspired us.  The main reason for its exclusion, however, would be because it's actually my favorite movie.  Period.  As such, my repeat viewings have absolutely nothing to do with tradition or family connection.  There's not a thing in the film I can relate back to holidays or gatherings around the television.  Yet, excluding it feels wrong.  La Dolce Vita is generally a solo affair, and there are points in my life where I just need to put that DVD in and totally disappear into Fellini's sparkling black and white; into that dark, beautifully twisted Rome.  As with the bulk of Fellini's work, there's much that could be written about the film and its impactwhich is why for the purpose of this entry I'll skip over that completely and do as I've been doing.  My first encounter with the film was actually during a very black period of civilization in which La Dolce Vita was not available to purchase or rent in any format.  How could one of the masterworks of cinema be out of commission for so long?  I haven't the faintest idea, but let's all look back and reflect for a quick second upon how limited our options were with home video, shall we?  And done.  The first time I ever saw the film, it was in a double set of VHS tapes that had lost their cardboard packaging at some mysterious point just after the dawn of time.  It was the summer just after my freshman year of college and, for academic purposes (as I was in fact basically getting a crash course in world cinema courtesy of a research scholar position), I convinced the normally obtuse media librarian to dig through the stored portions of the under construction school library and dig up this particular artifact.  That's not all, I also talked her in to letting me take the film off campus.  If it sounds like no big deal, let me tell you: you never met this woman.  She was terrifying.  I kid you not when I tell you that (in the old library) her calendar was pinned to the wall with a knife.   Somehow, though, I talked my way through it.  After all, I couldn't be expected to park myself for three hours in such squalor.  I mean, come on?  I heard they were testing for asbestos and everything.  Moving on.  There's no other way to say this: that viewing, in the midst of roughly 75 other films during the course of those two months, changed everything.  When I watch it, it's because I have to.  It's art, and it simply doesn't feel like anything else out there and I love it, am in love with it, and am terribly jealous that I will never make it.  One day, when you're older, I'll talk your ear off about the film itself...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: Desk Set

 The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


I’m not one of these people that love Katharine Hepburn. I love the idea of her and who she was but there’s something about her manner that gets under my skin in movies, more grating than great. But Desk Set, one of her many collaborations with Spencer Tracy, is the major exception. Hepburn is the head librarian at a TV network who can answer just about any question. The women there  pride themselves (as most reference librarians do) on their speed, accuracy, and general knowledge, until Tracy barges in with a computer that they think is there to replace them. I used to hate this movie. When my parents would extend their executive veto on movie nights and choose it, it was the worst sort of boring torture for someone under the age of 10. But now, after more than a decade of maturing, I have joined my mother in the niche market for this film: library nerds. But the great thing about Desk Set, in addition to the unending subtle witty banter, awesomely feminist atmosphere, and love story, is that it does something we don’t see a lot of these days. It deals with these grand philosophical topics, particularly the advent of technology and how it changes the human landscape, without getting saccharine, sappy, or preachy. Tracy is not the bad guy, nor is Hepburn an old stick in the mud whose dreams are rightfully smashed with a pink slip. Despite all the antics and comedy (giant thudding computer and all), it’s one of the most human films out there. Hepburn and Tracy, two of Hollywood’s biggest actors, are unrecognizable here, totally immersed in their roles. And even though our computers don’t need an entire large room to fit in these days, everything about Desk Set is relatable, particularly in this recession. So when someone gets all excited about watching Up in the Air or any number of numbing romantic comedies, pull this one out instead. It’s sexier, it’s funnier, and 100 times more comforting to those fighting joblessness and the tide of new technology that might be replacing them.

12 Days of Favorites: 20th Century Fox Musicals

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.

When I was younger, my family had a special section of the VHS mini-library reserved solely for those big-budget musicals of yore.  In this VIP area sat a series of black-spined, VHS editions of 20th Century Fox musicals.  On nights my parents didn't want to drive out to rent a movie (remember when that was a thing?), the sibling and I would scramble down to this special section of the basement to bring back a stack of options.  Inevitably, one of these always made it in there.  Inevitably, it was usually the one chosen.  The repeat offenders were, specifically: My Fair Lady (which is WB, but was distributed by Fox), The Sound of Music, The King and I, and the one which my parents are both truly, madly, deeply in love with:  South Pacific.  These were the primaries.  Three Rodgers and Hammersteins, one Lerner and Lowe; four songbooks I've had committed to memory (alright, maybe not all of The King and I, that one was a little less popular) since I was like what, four?  At this very moment, I'm on the verge of bursting into song.

These films are epics, each in their own way.   My Fair Lady is a masterful musical comedy in spite of the fact that Audrey Hepburn's singing voice is not her own.  Have I always had a soft spot for the comically misogynistic (or is he just misanthropic?) phonetician Henry Higgins?  Yes, I have.  Call it strange, but I've always found something of my own issues with the general human race in the song "I'm an Ordinary Man," and I tend to identify as a feminist.  I think it's because Rex Harrison just nails it.  As for South Pacific, well, that one is all about the Technicolor.  When we watch South Pacific, it's so that my Mom can sing along while my Dad marvels at the vividness of those pink and yellow skies.  Bali H'ai, it calls them.  The sibling always loved it too, as the grandiosity and its 'racism is very bad' subplot (no, seriously, that's actually what's going on there) are underscored by Ray Walston in a coconut drag and "Happy Talk," a song with accompanying goofy hand signals.  We take our South Pacific seriously.  Yes, we saw the Lincoln Center revival.  The King and I, meanwhile, is the dark horse.  There might be years between its viewing, possibly because it has a downer of an ending.  Still, though, there's a palpable nostalgia there.
What of The Sound of Music?  Somehow, that became my favorite of the bunch.  There was a point in my life where I reconciled general public memory of the story with what's actually going on in the film itself and realized that though 75% of the population has a recollection of watching this as a sweet little family movie when they were in infancy, it is not and never was that simple.  I'm comfortable admitting that I watch The Sound of Music every year, and that I am always impressed.  The scope and scale of the film are incredible.  It breaks away from the stage and throws you into an Austria framed by the Alps in which everything is appropriately massive.  Watch this film and note that there isn't a claustrophobic shot in its near 3-hours.  The ceilings are high, the spaces are big, the cinematography is epic.  It's a beautiful film marked by legendary performances on behalf of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.  On top of that, it's so much more than the sum of "Do-Re-Mi."  The kids stay in the picture, but they're mere pawns in a sweeping tale of political anxieties, rebellion, and familial strife.  Also, I may not be a Christian, but there are some bad ass nuns in this movie.  I repeat: bad ass nuns.  Those nuns are like, "you do what you need to do, and also, imma go over here and mess with some Nazis."

12 Days of Favorites: Blade Runner

The story of Love &Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.



I don't just live out my day, wake up, go to work, come home, and start the cycle again. I inhabit the world, half reality, and half some other created mash-up from my head, finding different moods, characters, and directions. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is the aesthetic that most influences that inner dialog and the filter through which I see things. I can feel it when walking through the city when its rainy, or when the lighting hits things just right, or when I have imagined talks with myself before writing, the soft voices of Rachael and Rick at the piano populating the voices in my head. Blade Runner was the first DVD my Dad ever purchased. We made a special trip to Best Buy to pick-up the player and wandered up and down the aisles trying to find the best movie to christen it with. His eyes instantly lit up when he found the movie, holding it triumphantly for us to see and roll our eyes at. But that night, when I watched it alone (my sister, still a baby had fallen asleep) and it was just me and Deckard, and the mix of smoke, grit, neon, and golden sunlight, it made a connection to something deep inside my head. It was my gateway drug. I picked-up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the next day, got into Noir and more Philip K. Dick the following year, the film and the book marking a transition of my creative mind and thinking into something much more adult that only got clearer and clearer on the constant repeat viewings and readings. Mom... I think I just finally figured out where that philosophy major came from.

P.S. Wilde.Dash.............BLADERUNNERBLADERUNNERBLADERUNNERBLADERUNNER!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: Alien

The story of Love &Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


In what's likely a fairly common story, my parents had gone on a date to see Alien in the theater.  In that infamous chest-bursting scene, my mom had flipped.  She was totally done.  It became a mythology.  For years, the tale of my mother's irrational response to an image has been the source of much mockery.  To make things worse, the baby alien that caused it skittered about screeching like a rat, yet another thing my mom irrationally fears.  She'll never give Alien a second shot and I'm pretty sure she's sworn off the sci-fi/horror genre for good.  There you have it, family mythology.  No one can let this story go and she'll hate that it's posted here.  Sorry mom, really.

I knew what Alien was long before I saw it, is the point.  I knew all about it.  In addition to the tale of my mother's terror, explanation was given in abridged stories on the plight of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  This is why I had a Beanie Baby named Ripley (I think it was a tiger?) before I'd ever witnessed the heroine in action.  When I finally did, the payoff was spectacular.  I love Alien.  It is, again, one of the films on this list of replayed familial traditions that is a serious favorite.  In this case, it was a case of indoctrination.  In the never ending debate as to whether Alien or Aliens is the better film, I always land on the side of the Ridley Scott original.  Aliens is a great film too, but this just isn't James Cameron's world.  Plus, it goes without saying, there wouldn't be an Aliens if Alien hadn't been executed so successfully. The defining characteristic of the film (other than striking gold with Sigourney Weaver) is the design.  The aesthetic is a glorious one; the H.R. Giger  alien design austerely both incorporated into and juxtaposed against the film's art direction.  There's a sense of place so menacing that even though the film is beautifully shot, you absolutely never want to board the Nostromo.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Love: The Fighter

The Fighter opens with Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) sitting on a couch talking about their relationship for a documentary film crew.  "Taught him everything he knows,"  Eklund informs us, looking as excitable as a pop-eyed stick figure. The scene is our introduction to the brothers.  Micky, the younger of the two, idolizes Dicky.  See, Dicky once downed Sugar Ray Leonard in a match.  He's got an outdated reputation as the pride of their hometown.  About three minutes into the movie and you realize that what you'll be getting isn't anything like what the almost drippingly sentimental, overly inspirational trailer was selling.  This is a David O. Russell film.  In the wake of I Heart Huckabees, he hasn't taken to extremes to play The Fighter totally straight.  There's humor here, actual entertainment.

Though  built up around that same old simple story, The Fighter is not your average underdog sports story.  In fact, it's less about the boxing than it is about the over-the-top, based on a true story, family melodrama.  It's a good thing.  There are enough standout boxing films that play it ultra straight, The Fighter didn't need to squeeze into a class already dominated by heavy hitters like Raging Bull or Rocky.  Russell approaches the material as if he's not even trying to compete with those other films.  He's got this story, he wants to tell it, there's a little bit of tension but no proper villains.  Micky is a sweet-natured kid too dominated by his overbearing family, Dicky is a wild eyed crackhead ex-con...but perhaps the nicest, funniest, most well-intentioned one around.  Nah.  No one's here to make you feel depressed and then lift you up with a little glimmer of sucker punch hope, they're just here for the proverbial family shitshow, good times and bad.  Lemme tell you right now: the Wards put on a first rate shitshow.
The Fighter is Mark Wahlberg's dream project, and one that took a lot to get off the ground.  Wahlberg spent four years training to get into the proper shape to play "Irish" Micky Ward, in the meantime, the film bounced between directors, at one point landing in the lap of Darren Aronofsky (who wound up serving as executive producer).  For what it's worth, Wahlberg plays Micky with heart.  He comes across as young here; guileless, likable, and obviously struggling between moving on with his bartender girlfriend (Amy Adams) to greener, more financially lucrative pastures, or remaining under the management of his loudmouthed proud mama (Frozen River's Melissa Leo) and her supportive posse of his seven sisters.  That said, while his character is the warm little pushed-around center of the film, the other actors seem to outshine him scene after scene.  This is a film filled with fighters.  Every character has their own little battle going on (though the sisters generally act as one hive collective of massively teased hair).  Melissa Leo's got serious 'tude, Amy Adams manages to shirk her peaches and cream princess demeanor for genuine brass, Jack McGee, who plays Micky's surprisingly bold father, is winning.  But, it's Christian Bale who makes the movie.

Bale nails it.  As Dicky Eklund, he's almost completely unrecognizable.  The actor has become famous for undergoing drastic physical changes to slip into his roles; for Dicky he drops 30 pounds, gets a bit of a chicken neck going, and transforms into a cartoon character.  Early on, as Dicky parades down the street for the camera crews shooting what he believes to be a documentary on his career comeback  (but which is actually an HBO special studying the victims of crack addiction in America), he's so animated, so full of uncharacteristic vitality, that it literally seems as though you could drop that Acme anvil on his head and he'd pop right back up to go after that road runner.  Yet, he's in full control of Dicky's mercurial nature.  He's en pointe with the comedic timing when he needs to be, but never fully deserving of being referred to as 'goofy'.  Bale catches all of Dicky's character.  He seems to understand the push pull of the addiction, the well-meaning mama's boy lurking beneath the sullen skin of a man who knows he's nothing but a joke in the eyes of the world.  That struggle makes an effortless transition to the screen.  When The Fighter starts to get a little too close to those heartwarming cliches, Bale's performance is the one that seems to single-handedly insure it never fully makes it to that Blind Side level of saccharine.  While there might not be much new presented in The Fighter, the story it has is expertly told and superbly acted.  A really pleasant surprise.

12 Days of Favorites: Dr. Zhivago

The story of Love &Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


Nothing says winter like my favorite Egyptian bridge player struggling to keep love alive in the barren wastelands of Communist Russia. Dr. Zhivago, the epic Russian romance that stars Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as two lovers thwarted at every turn by fate and politics, isn’t something you want to watch unless you expect a good cry and a lingering feeling of despair for a few hours afterward. Like the forces keeping love apart, it was fate itself that brought me to Dr. Zhivago. Even though I was known for being totally obsessed with Omar Sharif since I saw him narrate an IMAX presentation on Archeology when I was a tiny, I didn’t see the movie until college. I was working at Blockbuster, and mysteriously, we were shipped a DVD copy of it without a case. It wasn’t on the invoice, and for all intents and purposes, it was a really random thing to have sent to you with other new releases. I took the orphaned disc home, and the rest was history. My giant crush on Omar Sharif aside, the film is brilliantly engrossing. It’s epic, stretching across decades and moving from the high class surroundings of Moscow and St. Petersburg, all the way out across Siberia. It’s tense, as the lovable characters struggle to find a balance between personal politics, reality, and the upheaval violently wracking the country. Sharif is the key to the success of the whole film, and his sympathetic and subtle performance (in addition to his prettiness) makes you desperate for everything to work out for him, and darn pissed when things don’t. I won’t tell you what happens, but you might want to make it a double feature with a comedy to close.



12 Days of Favorites: The Philadelphia Story

The story of Love & Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.


Believe it or not, The Philadelphia Story isn't one of those movies my mom made me watch.  She made me watch High Society, which is the same story set to music and shot in technicolor, sure, but never The Philadelphia Story.  I'm not sure who signed off on making High Society just 16 years after George Cukor's stellar version, but they were missing something when they shot it.  Namely, three incredibly charismatic leads with a chemistry that's undeniable.  Can you replace Cary Grant with Bing Crosby?  Uh, no, not even close. The Philadelphia Story ranks high as a personal favorite, and its wit is undeniable.  As one of the original predecessors to the modern romantic comedy, it uses what we now consider to be genre conceits in the best way imaginable while offering up what no recent rom com can offer: the sharp edges of Katharine Hepburn in her youthful prime as perpetually stubborn Tracy Lord.  I adore these characters, and the blend of personalities on screen opens up the possibility for surprises and dialogue you never saw coming, and though I've seen this movie a half million times now, I never tire of the expertly timed, bantering exchanges.  As the years have gone by, The Philadelphia Story has become a tradition by default.  It's a comfort film, and one that I will go to not once a year, but usually twice.  The thing is, see, that when someone puts on a film featuring Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Kate Hepburn, it's pretty hard to ignore it.  You have to sit down.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

12 Days of Favorites: Looney Tunes

The story of Love &Squalor begins many years before the fateful meeting of Wilde.Dash and M, long before the almost nightly movie marathons on uncomfortable and rank smelling dorm furniture and Sound of Music sing-a-longs. From the mid 80’s on, unaware of each others’ presence, M and Wilde.Dash were bonding with family, not over board games or a large family meal (ok, there was a lot of that too), but over the likes of Woody Allen and Walter Pidgeon. The holidays in said families were filled with the usual Christmas fair, but also with strange family film favorites and traditions. So hang your stockings with care and when your sister starts complaining about your billionth viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life and how boooooring it is, spend your 12 Days of Christmas with the movies that have followed Love & Squalor from infancy to bloggerhood.

 
When my grandparents started dating in the mid-1940's, my grandmother would purposely avoid seeing movies with my grandfather. Back then, in addition to your feature film, you'd have a few Looney Tunes cartoons beforehand and my grandfather would laugh so hard, get so red in the face, that he would embarrass my grandmother as people turned around to stare at them. Flash forward to the 80's when both my parents worked and my grandparents babysat me during the day. I'd curl up with my grandpa in the basement and watch Looney Tunes (then on TV), and laugh along with him as we ate grilled cheese with pickles. But it wasn't just my grandpa that would be sent into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. The quickest way to make my dad cry, is to put on "Bully for Bugs," the Looney Tunes short in which Bugs Bunny, whose taken the wrong turn on his way to the carrot festival, ends up in a bull fight. The Looney Tunes are the world's greatest collection of cartoons. They're nostalgic, educational (just think of all that history you picked-up while Bugs was in a wig singing opera), and nothing beats watching the people you love laugh so hard they pull a muscle.



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