Sunday, April 7, 2013

Roger and Me

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

My discovery of Roger Ebert was a by-product of my hyperactivity. I was one of those kids who could not tolerate his sugar. There’s plenty of Super-8 footage of me hopping around and being a physical nuisance. I moved in fast motion, like Benny Hill minus the chicks and Yakety Sax. However, if my attention were engaged, I became focused with laser-like precision. Time, and my spazzing, stopped, and my universe became that which captivated me.

From an early age, the easiest way to get my attention was to tell me a story. I lucked out by being born into a family of storytellers. Since my Mom couldn’t play Scheherazade 24 hours a day, she geared my focus toward books and her first love: movies. I also lucked out by growing up in the NYC area, where movies were a constant on the independent channels. TV may have rotted my brain, but it saved my kneecaps. For hours, I’d watch movies, and my Mom would tell me useful information, knowing it would glue me even further to the screen. I owe my movie love to my mother, and by extension, I owe my love of Roger Ebert to her as well.

Roger came into my life on a boring day in the mid 1970’s. I was dancing on the ceiling in my room when I heard Mom’s voice bellowing through the house:

“Hey, Odell,” she called from the living room of the first apartment I remember inhabiting, “there’s a show about movies on. Come watch it.”

I found myself in front of the TV, where two men sitting on opposite sides of a movie theater balcony were talking about a movie. I don’t remember what that movie was. I do remember the more they talked, the more hypnotized I became. This was on PBS, so there were no commercials to break the spell. We had a black and white TV, a detail both Siskel and Ebert would have appreciated (they once did a black and white version of their show). In fact, I didn’t know what color Roger’s hair was until 1980 when we got a floor model Zenith color TV. TV type mattered not; I was hooked from that first show.

Roger and Gene looked like normal people—like newscasters to my young eyes—so I took what they said seriously. I loved when they fought, secretly hoping that Gene would  leap from his chair and send the duo rolling down the aisle and over the balcony. (Years later, The Critic made my dream come true.) I loved that Roger talked with his hands, like the folks in my home state of New Jersey. And I was far too excited when they had the “Dog of the Week,” complete with onscreen dog, or (if memory serves me correctly) when a skunk accompanied their bad movie pick of the week. Gene once selected a film where “the ads say you’ll see a man turned inside out.” He showed the poster, which was indeed a man turned inside out. I’ve often wondered where my love of trash came from, and now I think I have my answer. Cute animals plus killer commentary begat a fetish for the forbidden fruit of bad film.

Around this same period, I got the unusual notion that I wanted to tell stories myself, to not just engage in the fine oral tradition but to write them down as well. I can blame another PBS show for that—Zoom. Film became entangled in that desire when I learned that both Siskel and Ebert wrote about film in addition to discussing it over the airwaves. Since I lived In  the NYC area, it would be years before I read anything by either of them, but that didn’t stop me from devouring every single piece of film writing I could get my hands on, from Archer Winston to Kathleen Carroll to Pauline Kael to, bless his bitchy, venomous heart, Rex Reed. I was addicted to movies, addicted to writing, and my addictions would only get stronger.

Fast-forward to my adolescent years. Roger and Gene (in color) were on Channel 11, the same channel that satiated my love of Abbott and Costello, Douglas Sirk and Yankees baseball. Roger had also become syndicated in the New York newspaper, so I could finally partake of his prose. It read as if he were in the room with me, having a conversation. Roger Ebert was educating me about foreign films, arty-fartsy fare and blockbusters. But he was also telling me a story. There was no stuffy pretense to his words; he wrote in a relaxed, engaging style I wanted to emulate. This was odd at first, since I usually sided with Siskel. But great writing doesn’t need to be agreed with to be admired or even cherished. I had found my writer idol.

Plus, Roger had won the Pulitzer, an award I kept seeing on the boring-ass books they gave us to read in high school. For reasons still unknown, I’ve always wanted to win the Pulitzer, which led me to my first actual interaction with Roger Ebert.

Roger’s mastery of the Internet and social media should have come as no surprise to anyone. He was on CompuServe back in the day, an accessible critic holding court over a forum. Drumming up my nerve, I posted some questions to him. I still have his response printed out. One of the questions was “What do you get when you win the Pulitzer?” Roger responded “you get $1,000, a plaque, and when you die, your obit will say ‘Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Odie Henderson died today.’” The only Pulitzer I’ll ever get came from Roger Ebert’s CompuServe nominating committee. I can live with that.

I never dreamed I would one day write for my hero. The closest I had come before July 26, 2011 was The Movie Answer Man column. Like the Great Movies series, Roger made an institution out of this sidebar, a movie-based “advice” column. His occasional one-line answers were legendary. One day, I got a CompuServe message from him:

“You’re going to be in this week’s Movie Answer Man column,” he wrote. “Please send me your location.” 

I screamed like a reject from Bye Bye Birdie

Roger published my words, and those of numerous others, in his book Questions for the Movie Answer Man. He didn’t just belong to his readership; his readership belonged to him too.

Roger and I both acknowledging our love of trash

In the documentary, Sleep Furiously, one of its Welsh subjects says “you’ve got to have characters to make a community.” Roger clearly had this idea in mind when he created Our Far-Flung Correspondents. A motley crew of great writers from all over the world, the FFC’s became fixtures on his site, proving Roger’s theory that the cinema was universal and crossed cultural lines. It was yet another way Roger snuck in educational value, hiding it like broccoli under a ton of melted cheddar cheese.

He also created The Demanders, where my set and I wrote about Movies on Demand. When that experiment ran its course, Roger welcomed us into the Far-Flung Correspondents family, proving once and for all what the world already knew: My home state of New Jersey is a foreign country.

Demanders, Assemble!

To the FFC’s and Demanders, Roger was more than a film critic. He was a pen pal too. We all wrote him for advice, for discussions, and for what we affectionately referred to as “shameless self-promotion,” that is, news of our work at our other writing venues. Of that last item, we almost always would get the same response from our mentor and boss:


That one word response was always such a generous gift. Someone of Ebert’s stature not only liked your work, but was willing to do a little “shameless promotion” for you. He also always thanked us for our work, supplying a supportive comment about his enjoyment of what we had written. I can’t begin to explain how it made me feel.

Our correspondence spanned almost three years of E-mails. I cherish every word, from his advice on dealing with work politics, to his paragraphs on what it was like to read reviews of his book, Life Itself, to the lovely few sentences he crafted for my mother. I rarely wrote him about film. Instead, I told him about the crazy incidents that happened In my travels for work. He encouraged me to write him about this, and his response was always the same: “This is insane. You should blog this.” He’d comment and ask questions—forever the journalist—and for that moment, I felt like Roger Ebert just belonged to me. He had that affect on everyone with whom he corresponded.

My last correspondence with Roger was him suggesting a movie for me to review. He was very good at matching his writers up with material, presumably to see our takes on it. Of a PBS nature doc he assigned to me, he wrote “If anybody can make raccoons interesting, it’s Odie.” “What in Sam Hell am I going to do with raccoons?” I asked myself. But it was a challenge, and I couldn’t disappoint him. He brought out the best in us all.

I only met Roger in person twice, both times at EbertFest, the festival he created to bring filmgoers from all over to his hometown to experience and discuss films. (He had a habit of promoting that unity amongst filmgoers and film lovers.) “I tweeted you today,” he wrote on his pad when I nervously sat next to him. “It’s an honor,” were the first words I spoke to a man who had been a fixture in my life since I was 6 years old. Truer words were never spoken. 

I was at work when I heard the news. I was in the middle of doing a demo, an appropriate detail since Roger liked my tales of software demos gone wrong. I managed to finish my presentation, presumably because I was in shock. I still am, but I’m sustained by the outpouring of love I’ve been seeing on Twitter, in print, and from my fellow FFC’s and friends.

My heart is broken, and will remain that way for some time. In hindsight, it feels as if Roger had meticulously planned his exit, leaving on his own terms and with memorable final pieces. He wrote a beautiful journal entry coining the phrase “leave of presence,” and his final review was of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. Malick’s films wrestle with the huge concepts of life, death and nature, and Roger was a huge fan of the director’s work. The timing is almost too coincidentally perfect, or maybe it’s just my grief trying to find logic in the unexplainable.

I do not have a poet’s soul. I am an Irish wake kind of guy. Remembrances for me are never funereal. I prefer to tell you the fun things I remember about those whom I’ve lost. Roger knew and embraced my refusal to be too serious, and his support of me and those like me provided validation and confirmation for us to find, use, and be proud of our own voices. I guess that is what this ramble of a piece is.

RIP to my idol, my hero, my mentor, my friend. The wound of your loss will heal, but the scar will always be tender.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cleaning Up Some Unfinished Business

by Odienator

Just a quickie while I prepare the next entry for this blog:

I forgot to mention that I did a concluding piece for my Noir City 2013 coverage over at

"Recently I found myself, for the fifth time, among the denizens of a place that celebrates my favorite cinematic genre: the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, home of the Film Noir Foundation's 11th Annual Noir City Film Festival. The 27-film retrospective, which ran Jan. 25 to Feb. 3, featured newly restored prints, thanks to the Film Noir Foundation, as well as obscure films that may not have been seen in decades. Each evening had its own subject, from the wildly popular Bad Girls Night and San Francisco Noir Night, to the newly created African-American Noir Night and 3-D Noir Night. San Francisco Noir is the most popular night in the Festival, though Bad Girls Night is always my favorite. Unfortunately, I missed Bad Girls Night this year due to Bad Odie Day at the St. Francis Hospital Emergency Room. Bad luck befalls all noir heroes, so this revolting development did not surprise me in the least. 

"Of the 27 films shown, I saw 21. Here are five worth mentioning:"

You can find the rest of the piece, and a picture of me and Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, here.

While we're at Roger's, I reviewed Snoop Lion's Reincarnated:

"Reincarnated" opens with a huge puff of marijuana smoke, an appropriate image for a documentary starring the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg. The newly christened Snoop Lion appeared on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" a few weeks ago, and throughout his segment, Maher kept smelling his guest. You can bet your last money that Snoop didn't smell like April Fresh Downy. Somewhere between inhales, Maher told Snoop "you smoke too much weed in this movie!" Snoop agreed, and boy, he was not kidding. If the MPAA were remotely creative, their rating description for "Reincarnated" would be "Rated R for rampant reefer, pervasive pot, some shizznit and constant kutchie passing." This is the first movie that would benefit from being released in Smell-O-Vision."

And I also reviewed Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey:

"Pineda has also had to deal with fan reactions, which has often expressed itself in the typical Internet modes of racism and insult. Even concertgoers have reservations about a foreigner taking over for a local hero. Diaz shows some choice comments from these naysayers, but she also shows how Filipinos flocked to see and hear one of their own. Journey has always had fans of every race and culture (they sold 80 million albums) but the numbers in the Philippines rose with their new acquisition. Outside a concert, a woman selling Arnel Pineda shirts and posters she designed tells us "when Journey found him, they inherited a nation."

Wanna have some fun seeing me get menaced? Try this piece on being Trapped in a Disney World ride!

"Considering that I can't seem to have a normal experience regardless of adventure or intent, I'm surprised at the paucity of my Mickey Mishaps. My most recent glitch happened two weeks ago. This time it featured one of our beloved Far-Flung Correspondents, 2012's Polish Film Critic of the Year, Michał Oleszczyk. He mentioned it during his Sundance coverage of "Escape From Tomorrow," a film shot guerilla-style in the same park where we spent three almost perfect days. The fascination of "Escape from Tomorrow," and how it was executed under the ever-watchful eye of the Mouse House, has been the talk of Sundance. As litigious as Disney can be, you may never see the surreal "Escape from Tomorrow." As a consolation prize for those unable to attend Sundance, I submit for your approval a tale called "Escape from Toy Story."

Lest I forget, my Black History Mumf 2013 output is all here:
The Opening Shot
Spike Does Mike: Bad 25
Get to Know Your Movie Negroes: Part V
The Content of Their Character Actors: Brock Peters
Notes on the 1951 version of Native Son
The Richard Pryor Retrospective Field Trip
The Poitier-Cosby Trilogy: A Piece of the Action 
Causing Trouble With Odienator: The Princess And The Frog
One Drop of Black Cinema: Sid Haig
Happy Valentine's Day: Waiting to Exhale
Negroes for Rent: The Toy
Three The Hard Way's Stars Team Up Again
President's Day Double Feature: The Jackie Robinson Story 
President's Day Double Feature: The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars & Motor Kings
Penitentiary Review
A Different World Appreciation
Cornbread, Earl, and Me, or Furious Styles' First Movie
Happy Oscar Day! Live and Let Die Review
A Raisin in the Sun Appreciation

Like I always say: I may not be here often, but I am by no means sitting on my ass.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Odienator's Ostentatious, On-The-Money Oscar Oracles 2012

by Odienator

Oscar night is upon us yet again, which means it’s time for Internet bloggers to make fools of themselves by second-guessing a body of people who use darts to select winners. This year, I considered doing just that, but I kept hitting the wall instead of the Oscar ballot I printed out. One dart went into an electrical outlet. Sorry for the power outage, neighbors!

Anyway, enough shenanigans on my part. I’ve broken down the main categories into Who Will Win, Who Should Win, and the spoiler category called, in honor of the newly-married Gomer Pyle, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”

Last year, I won the Oscar Pool. My crown will be taken this year, I am sure. But enough of my bragging. Unlike the Oscar show, I won’t make you sit through 4 hours of Seth MacFarlane reminding you  why you hate him before you get to:

Best Picture

In typical cockeyed fashion, the Academy allows up to 10 nominees but once again settled on 9. I think the expansion of this category results in some severe bottom-of-the-barrel scraping, but I digress. The nominees are:


Who Will Win: Argo
Who Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Silver Linings Playbook

Had the goddamn Best Director category done its job, we’d be talking about a different Best Picture winner here. Not that Argo is a bad film—I loved it—but it would lack the sympathy vote I think will push it over the edge. Director Ben Affleck would win the Directing Oscar and this category would be wide open. As it stands, the odds of Argo winning are so good that not even the most desperate bookies will let you bet on it.

Had the goddamn Best Director category done its job and nominated Kathryn Bigelow, it would have made history (a woman nominated twice in 85 years—cue the exploding heads) and beat a path for Zero Dark Thirty, the best film on this list, to be Best Picture. One can have endless discussions about torture and intent, but one will have to have them someplace other than this blog. This would be my choice if I had a ballot. Sorry, Django! You’d be my second choice.

For the first time in 25 years, there’s a film in this category I haven’t seen before Oscar night. That film is Les Miz, and while some say it could play spoiler, ‘tis doubtful. Les Miz’s big win comes elsewhere. The other movie I’ve been hearing a lot about as a spoiler is Lincoln, but if I had a No Guts/No Glory choice, it would be for Silver Linings Playbook to take this top honor. It has a nominee in every acting category, plus best directing, writing and picture nominations. The last film to do that was Warren Beatty’s Reds, which wound up with two of the acting awards but no Best Picture. That sounds about right for Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Director
Michael Haneke, Amour
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Who Will Win: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Who Should Win: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Reds also won Best Director, which is why I put David O. Russell in as spoiler. If I were smart, I’d put him in as winner of this award. But I think Ang Lee has it sewn up. The backstory behind bringing Pi to the screen, and the amount of effort it took on Lee’s part should push him over the edge. With Ben Affleck consoling himself with the DGA but not an Oscar nod, the category toughened to the point where I’m only about 60% sure of this prediction.

I didn’t choose Haneke as spoiler because his film will win elsewhere. Nor did I opt for Spielberg as spoiler because he, like four other nominated people this year, has a chance to bring home a third Oscar. They won’t give it to him for the same reason they won’t give it to Sally Field or Denzel. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, I’m Ready for my Close-up Mr. Tom Hooper
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Who Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who Should Win: Abraham Lincoln was a good ol’ man…
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: The only surprise will be if Day-Lewis loses.

This is the “bet yo’ Mama” bet, that is, the surest bet of the 85th Academy Awards show. There’s a shot Argo loses best picture, despite what the bookies say. The only way Day-Lewis can lose is Price Waterhouse sabotage. Hell, even Robert DeNiro’s character from Silver Linings Playbook wouldn’t bet against Lincoln—and his son’s nominated here! Absent Lincoln, I could make a case for Denzel getting his third Oscar for FINALLY getting completely dirty in a role, but Lincoln’s here. So Washington loses.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Who Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Who Should Win: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

The Best Actress category has the youngest and the oldest Actress nominees in history this year. They are respectively Wallis, whose unusual, beautiful name is hard to pronounce, and Riva, whose unusual, beautiful name is pronounceable only because we’ve all seen that Sylvia Kristel movie. Riva contributes the most to her overrated film, saving it with her fellow actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant. Plus, she is an acting legend in the twilight of her life, so a case could be made for her snatching Oscar from the eager hands of the career-hot Jennifer Lawrence. Naomi Watts has gotten lots of praise for The Impossible (even from critics who hate the film), but this nod is her reward. The same holds for little Hushpuppy.

Maybe next time, kiddo.

Left in the dust is Chastain, who despite having one of the worst lines in recent memory (“I’m the motherfucker who found this place!”) gives this category’s richest, most interesting performance. I’d vote for the chameleon-like Chastain in a heartbeat here.

Like last year, the winner of this award will piss me off. My dislike of Silver Linings Playbook is old news, and as good as Lawrence has been even in dreck like The Hunger Games, I don’t think she deserves an Oscar for this overwritten, clichéd role. Her father-in-law in Playbook is another story…

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Who Will Win: Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Who Should Win: Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

The toughest call of the night. All five of these actors have won Oscars--DeNiro has two. Had either Christoph Waltz or Alan Arkin not won recently for Inglorious Basterds and Little Miss Sunshine respectively, this would be a dogfight between the two. I knew Arkin would get nominated after I saw Argo, but in a year with roles like Sam Jackson’s house slave in Django Unchained, Arkin should have been shown the door here. Waltz is doing a variation on his Oscar winning role, the Pale Rider to his earlier High Plains Drifter, and while he’s great, I would have voted for Sam. Hoffman is here because he got swept up in the two-for-one deal that put Phoenix in the Best Actor category; you can’t honor one without the other. But he’s well outmanned here.

That leaves Jones and DeNiro, two actors scoring their first nods in at least 20 years. I’d be inclined to give Jones the edge, but DeNiro has been working the publicity tour jovially, while Jones has been staring at cameras as if he were about to run everyone over with the trucks he shills for in commercials. Jones is excellent in Lincoln; he’s given some great dialogue and situations to play. Robert DeNiro is not so lucky, but he manages to turn his role in Silver Linings Playbook into something magical. He plays several emotions, switching between them on a dime, and his story is a lot more interesting than the Benny and Joon main story. DeNiro kept me from walking out of Silver Linings Playbook, and I think the Academy will award him for it.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Who Will Win: White Jennifer Hudson
Who Should Win: Sally Field, Lincoln
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Helen Hunt is really the lead, so as much as I loved her performance in The Sessions, I can’t pick her here. I wish she’d been in the Best Actress category. At least she’d be away from the OTHER sure bet in the show. If you can bet your Mama on Daniel Day-Lewis, you can bet your Daddy on Anne Hathaway. Miss Hathaway goes from the Beverly Hillbillies straight into Dreamgirls territory, buoyed like her Dreamgirls predecessor by THE SONG THAT WILL NOT DIE. In Hathaway’s case, it’s I Dreamed a Dream, the song that got Susan Boyle a career and will get Hathaway her Oscar. Truth be told, I Dreamed a Dream is a horrible song made bearable by the fact it’s the best thing in the Les Miz soundtrack. It’s like that line in Eddie Murphy Raw: If you’ve been starving, a saltine will taste like a Ritz cracker. In Jennifer Hudson’s defense (and I loved her in Dreamgirls), she got more scenes to act than Hathaway does. In Hathaway’s defense, homegirl knows how to sell a performance. So she’s got this.

Sally Field has won 2 Oscars, and I highly doubt the Academy wants to give her a third despite just how delicately balanced her work is in Lincoln. In this case, they like her, they really like her, but not enough to keep Hathaway’s Fantine at bay.

Best Original Screenplay

Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Who Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Who Should Win: Django Unchained
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Amour

This is a tough category. I was tempted to ignore Amour altogether, and put my spoiler money on Moonrise Kingdom. But I wondered if the older Academy folks would go for Anderson’s idiosyncrasies. I don’t believe they will. If they didn’t give it to Quentin for Inglorious Basterds, they’re not going to give it to him for Inglorious Blacksterds. This category is between Zero Dark Thirty and Amour. I couldn’t make up my mind on Oscar’s choice, so I flipped a coin. Heads, Zero Dark Thirty, tails, Amour. The coin handed on heads. So here we are.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook

Who Will Win: Argo
Who Should Win: Lincoln
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Lincoln

This is an even TOUGHER category, especially with Argo’s defeat of Lincoln at the WGA’s. Life of Pi came from a seemingly unadaptable book, which may score it some points but not enough to take this category. Silver Linings Playbook has better shots elsewhere. That leaves Tony Kushner’s epic dialogue vs. Argo’s big Hollywood-style action. It’s almost too close to call, which means this category could split and go someplace unexpected. I doubt it, though. If Argo is going to win best Picture, it’s got to win something else in a major category. My heart says Lincoln, and my head says Argo. Always bet with your head.

Best Animated Feature
The Pirates Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Who Will Win: Wreck-It Ralph
Who Should Win: Frankenweenie
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Brave

I liked all five of these with varying levels of enjoyment. But for Oscar voters, it’s Pixar vs. Disney. With two movies in the category, it appears Disney has better odds. Pixar’s Brave wasted its PR about being the first female-centric Pixar film by saddling poor Merida to a standard story. The main character is Toy Story-quality, but the script is in the basement that brought us Cars. Paranorman and Pirates are quirkier than what usually wins the category. Frankenweenie, my favorite of this list, has Tim Burton behind it and perhaps his labor of love will appeal to voters who think he’s owed an Oscar. I’m going to stake my money on Wreck-It Ralph, my second favorite here, because it’s won more awards than its competitors. A win here would be a first for the studio that pioneered animation.

This picture has nothing  to do with my choice of Wreck-It Ralph.

This show is running way too long! The rest of the field:

Best Art Direction: It’s between the Great Emancipator and Throw Anna In Front of the Train. I’m going with Lincoln.

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina is my pick.

Best Cin-tog: Life of Pi will trump 10-time loser Roger Deakins’ work on Skyfall. The latter I couldn’t even appreciate because my theater had the goddamn 3-D filter on the camera, turning Bond’s latest adventure brown.

Best Editing: William Goldenberg is guaranteed an Oscar, but for which movie? Zero Dark Thirty or Argo? I’m going to go with Argo. You know, best picture, best editing go together like rama-lama-lama you know the rest.

Best Foreign Film: Kon-Tiki could spoil, but I’m going with Amour.

Best Makeup: Because it held up no matter how close Tom Hooper put his camera, the winner here is Les Miz. If Hitchcock wins, I will shoot my television. They put Edward G. Robinson’s lips on Alfred Hitchcock. NO!

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi’s 3D effects (which as usual I could not perceive) and its tiger, Richard Parker, will rule the day.

Best Original Song will go to that dreary ass, sleep-inducing Adele song, Skyfall. I hope Shirley Bassey tackles her and runs off with the Oscar while singing the Moonraker theme song. And Sir Paul McCartney blocks Adele from running after Shirley.

Best Original Score:
I’m REALLY tempted to go with Life of Pi, but I’m going out on a limb to say Argo.

Best Animated Short:
Paperman, which I saw but have NO recollection of, is the favorite in a category that rarely goes for favorites. My choice is Adam and Dog.

Best Documentary Short: Eenie-meenie-miney-mo…Open Heart.

Best Documentary: I’ve seen four of the five. The one I would vote for, The Central Park Five, is nowhere to be found. Out of this list, I’d vote for How to Survive a Plague. The Academy will go for the least troubling of the five, however, Searching for Sugar Man.

Best Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty is loud. Let's go with that.

Best Sound Mixing: Like a 70's sitcoom, Les Miserables was recorded LIVE LIVE LIVE! That has to count for something.

Happy Oscar Watching guys! Remember: Seth MacFarlane is NOT a valid reason to murder your TV. Bad Oscar choices, however, are perfectly good reasons to do so.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Noir City 11 #2: The Wicked Worlds of Whale, Wyler and Wilder

by Odienator

Life lessons are never in short supply here at Noir City: You learn a lesson, and it usually costs you your life. Cautionary tales abound, and I’m surprised how timely they remain. Gun Crazy’s fixation on firearms felt ripped from the headlines, and the first of this installment’s films literally was.

The Hunky, Evil Side of Beau and Jeff's Dad

Based on a 1934 murder case in nearby San Jose, Try and Get Me treads some of the same ground as a prior adaptation of this true story, Fritz Lang’s Fury. Originally called The Sound of Fury, Try and Get Me depicts a town whipped to lynch-mob extremes by an overzealous reporter whose stories pander to the basest emotional instincts of his readership. In Fury, Spencer Tracy’s character is innocent, losing his humanity as a result of his treatment by the murderous mob. In this version, the doomed prisoners are guilty, either by association or intent, and the outcome skews closer to the actual events.

Frank Lovejoy plays an out of work husband with an understanding wife and an incredibly obnoxious little boy. (This kid drove me batty; I wanted my mother to show up onscreen to beat his ass.) Feeling less manly because he can’t provide, Lovejoy hooks up a job with flashy, well-to-do hunk Lloyd Bridges. Unbeknownst to Lovejoy, The Big Lebowski’s dad is loaded with dirty money. Bridges and Lovejoy’s initial meeting is more than a tad homoerotic, a hidden note not lost on the Castro Theatre audience. Bridges parades around shirtless, showing off a stunning physique that drew applause, then browbeats Lovejoy into being his criminal accomplice by attacking his masculinity. The duo start knocking off grocery stores and other easy monetary marks.

Lovejoy is happy with these payouts, which give his unsuspecting family material items and neighborly stature. Bridges is dissatisfied with the work-to-payout ratio, and convinces Lovejoy to try a harder crime. They’ll kidnap a rich family’s son, steal his car, and hold him for ransom. Or so Lovejoy thinks; Bridges has more murderous intentions. Lovejoy is terrified at first, but assists in the gruesome murder. Lovejoy’s stricken conscious leads him to misplace a crucial key to the crime, and that, plus his emotional breakdown, leads to his capture. Bridges is caught soon after, because he picked the wrong week to quit hiding from the law.

Running parallel to this story is a European physicist’s visit to a newspaper reporter in Lovejoy’s town. The physicist becomes an interesting delivery mechanism for the film’s message. Once the kidnapping killers are caught, the reporter goes all New York Post on them, writing a series of charged articles that try Lovejoy and Bridges in the court of public opinion. The physicist tries to reason with the reporter, as do the cops, but he’s got to sell papers. Enough of those sold papers lead to mob mentality and more murder.

Try and Get Me is the third Cy Endfield film at Noir City, and one of the last films he directed before being blacklisted. Endfield’s direction is masterful in the mob sequence, mixing the unsettling chaos and violence with shots of Bridges freaking out in his cell. Lovejoy and Bridges both give excellent, complimentary performances, but the one you’ll remember is given by the fine character actress Adele Jergens. Playing a mousy, unintended victim of Lovejoy’s criminality, she gives a haunting, complex performance. She elicits several emotions from the viewer, pity, concern, sorrow, rage and ultimately compassion. Compassion is eventually what Try and Get Me wants the viewer to feel, even if the target of said compassion is two murderous men.

A Thug Not Even a Mother Could Love

Compassion is the last thing to feel for Lawrence Tierney—and he’d probably belt you if you did. The quintessential tough guy actor stars in The Hoodlum, a movie so blisteringly nasty that it runs only 61 minutes—any longer would be intolerable cruelty. Tierney plays an unrepentant criminal who takes what he wants regardless of the outcome. He uses his good-hearted brother viciously by stealing his girl, using his legitimate business as the jumping off point for armed robbery, and eventually driving him to violence. The casting of the good brother adds an extra jolt of realism to the nastiness: He’s played by Tierney’s brother, Edward.

The film both begins and climaxes with speeches by Tierney’s ma. Her first speech begs the parole board to release her boy; her last is a dynamite maternal beatdown, with words as tough as any horrible physical action perpetrated by her bad seed of a son. Tierney is irredeemable, causing death and destruction in pursuit of sex and money. Ma’s realization of this, and her subsequent expulsion of the last vestiges of maternal love, give the audience the biggest reason to cheer. It’s a tour-de-force by actress Lisa Golm.

Back To The Future and Trapped In The Past

Sunset Blvd. made its 4K Digital Restoration debut at Noir City, proving once and for all what I’ve always said about Norma Desmond—she truly IS a femme fatale. The print looked gorgeous, too, with its silvery black and white John F. Seitz cin-tog casting a spell over all those people out there in the dark. I’ve written plenty about Ms. Desmond in the past, so try my conspiracy theory piece Norma Knew What She Was Doing.

Pairing with Norma was Repeat Performance, a film I originally saw at my first Noir City. That night, the film’s star, Joan Leslie, was in attendance. The original print of Repeat Performance obtained that year was in such bad shape that the screening was almost cancelled. Someone contributed their own private print of the film, and I got to see this amusing New Year’s Eve based noir with a Twilight Zone vibe. Like Bette Davis’ The Letter, Repeat Performance opens with Joan Leslie shooting her husband in cold blood. The flashback structure takes on an otherworldly tone; courtesy of a wish, Leslie suddenly starts living the previous year over. She has until midnight on New Year’s Eve to change the course of fate. Of course, fate has other ideas, and the screenplay’s numerous twists and tricks are fun to watch. Adding a note of batshit craziness to the proceedings is Richard Basehart, whose poet is just wacky enough to believe Leslie has gone Back to the Future. And why wouldn’t he? He’s in the loony bin.

This year’s print of Repeat Performance was newly restored, and looked great on the big screen. Also looking great was Ms. Leslie herself, who had an Aaron Spelling-era amount of wardrobe changes as she did her damndest to keep both her husband and Basehart from their eventual fates.  The outcome is familiar to anyone who’s ever read an O. Henry story or seen Rod Serling torment his characters on either of his anthology programs. The real treat is in the journey.

Ask for Babs: Three from Universal Studios' Pre-Code Era

Good ol’ Will Hays had nothin’ to say about Monday night’s triple feature of pre-Code features from Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios. Noir City denizens were treated to an early talkie by Willie Wyler, a suspenseful and funny courtroom drama helmed by James Whale, and a completely WTF Pat O’Brien on a chain gang feature called Laughter In Hell. I’ll go to Hell later; let’s start with the man whose last picture my mother saw before going into labor with me.

William Wyler directed more people to Oscar nominations than any other director. His 1931 feature, A House Divided, stars future Oscar winner Walter Huston in a role originally played by Lon Chaney. He’s the richest man on a South Pacific island, a violent drunk who holds the other residents both in thrall and in terror. His tumultuous relationship with his son boils over after the funeral of Huston’s wife. Disgusted by his father’s carousing and partying mere minutes after his wife’s interment, Sonny Boy challenges his Pa, who easily lays him out and carries  his unconscious body home.

Later, Sonny Boy helps his Pa write a  letter to a mail-order bride magazine. The woman in question, an older madam “lonely and willing,” doesn’t come C.O.D. Instead, a much younger model graces the Huston family doorstep. After first stating “she won’t do,” as she’s too pretty for housework and too weak-looking for chores, Pa decides to marry her anyway. Unfortunately, the much more age-appropriate Sonny Boy has eyes for his new Ma, which leads to him accidentally crippling his father.

A House Divided ends with a spectacular battle at sea, man (and woman) against an extremely angry Mother Nature. Wyler directs this sequence with the physical ferocity Huston brings to his now-crippled patriarch. Huston flings his body around recklessly once he’s been incapacitated, and Wyler juxtaposes the equally reckless sea against the bound legs of Huston as he is tied to a rowboat to attempt the rescue of his unfaithful wife. Fueled by his real son, John’s dialogue, Huston gives a memorably over-the-top performance. His last scene, where his presence is merely implied, is appropriately the last scene in A House Divided. The movie wouldn’t survive without Huston’s preternaturally intense life force.

Speaking of women on angry seas, Gloria Stuart appears in the second and third of our Universal triple feature, both times playing adulterous women. In the first of the Titanic star’s Noir City visitations, she’s directed by James Whale. Whale had his hands full in 1933 with The Bride of Frankenstein, but he had time to also do this picture of marital infidelity and murder. Pulled post-Hays Code for its nude scene, The Kiss Before the Mirror follows the trial of a man (Watch on the Rhine’s Paul Lukas) who murdered his adulterous wife (Stuart) in the first degree. Lukas is defended by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan. The Wiz is a lawyer married to Stuart’s best friend (Nancy Carroll). Lukas explains, with much emotion, how he discovered his wife’s affair simply by sneaking up on her and kissing her while she did her makeup. She freaked out, which made Lukas follow her, which led to her adulterous discovery, and Voila! Half-naked murder ensues.

Morgan freaks out when, in front of her mirror, Carroll reacts the way Stuart did before HER mirror. He gains a newfound appreciation for Lukas’ feelings just before his crime of passion. Since this is Noir City, Morgan also realizes that, if he can get Lukas off, he’ll have a perfect legal precedent for when he defends himself at his own trial. That’s right: If Morgan gets Lukas off, Morgan will know how he can kill his wife with impunity and ALSO get off.

I won’t be spoiling matters by telling you Morgan pulls a gun on his wife. The context of that is the spoiler. Instead, I’ll tell you about Hilda, Morgan’s awesome legal assistant played by Jean Dixon. She gets some great, hilarious lines (in a film where everybody seems to have a bitchy gay screenwriter feeding quips into hidden earpieces), and she has this butch lesbian vibe Whale gleefully refuses to hide. Whale also winks at his brethren with a blatantly gay sketch artist from Central Castro Casting. Hilda refers to herself with the Jodie Foster-friendly term “single,” and while every hetero person in this film has pistol pointing melodrama in their DNA, Hilda is as happy as that sketch artist is gay. Is this Whale’s hidden commentary on those pesky breeders? Who knows, and who cares? This movie is aces—funny, suspenseful, and emotionally satisfying.

Not satisfying at all is the last of the triple feature, Laughter in Hell. This Pat O’Brien picture feels like three films in one, none of which plays well with the others. The first part deals with the death of O’Brien’s mother. The second part deals with the death of his wife (Gloria Stuart--she gets around!) and her lover, a guy who tormented O’Brien’s character in the first part. The last part puts O’Brien’s escape from a chain gang, where he’s surrounded by singing, praying darky stereotypes. The Black stereotypes are especially itchy in scenes where several Black characters are hanged. Their lifeless bodies occupy way too many frames while their fellow Black chain gang members sing and pray. Even without these troublesome (though common) Black characters, the film would still have insurmountable problems. I wasn’t interested in O’Brien’s fate  at all, and the screenplay can’t find an appropriate means of linking the story elements together. Laughter in Hell’s ending is also puzzling, but at least I was glad it was over. I don’t think I’ve seen a film I’ve disliked more in any of my five Noir City attendances.

Next time: Noir Film Noir, I Left My Film Noir in San Francisco, and Bad Girls, Talkin’ Bout the Sad Girls.

Also: I should note that the great posters here are cribbed from the Noir City website. Let's hope Eddie Muller doens't beat me up for that.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Noir City 11 #1: A Strangely Merciful Life Taking Pity: Odienator in Noir City

by Odienator

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City celebrates its eleventh incarnation January 25-February 3 in San Francisco’s gorgeous Castro Theatre. For the fifth time, I have a front row seat to the mayhem, murder, madness and mystery promised by my favorite genre of film. There are 27 films on the slate, each lulling me into a state of dangerous, sweet surrender. But I must tread cautiously: From pretty dames to the pursuit of happiness, everything in Noir City has a price tag that can quickly become a toe tag. And while none of the big-screen shenanigans will drive me to murder, they will leave me with an unsettling identification with the characters I’ll encounter. I have to live with the knowledge that I understand why Noir City’s denizens always succumb to their hearts of darkness. Sometimes I wish I could succumb to mine.

Such wishes are the seeds of destruction, and I can’t afford the flower pot in which to plant them. As a worthy consolation, however, I have the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, to lead me and my Castro Theatre brethren through the fields of those who reaped the destruction they sowed. Festival nights are broken into themes, with this year offering an African-American Noir night alongside the recurring (and wildly popular) San Francisco Noir night. There’s also a 3-D Noir night, which I dread for the obvious, one-eyed reasons, and my favorite night of every Noir City: Bad Girls Night. Several films at the festival are not on DVD, while others are making their world premieres after being restored. Also on tap is a brand new 4K restoration of the film whose main character was the beneficiary of the strangely merciful life I alluded to in my title, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, Sunset Blvd.

Ms. Cummins in her heyday

My first dispatch from Noir City deals with the four D’s: Demons, Dames, Drivers and Desperation. The festival opened with Gun Crazy, Joseph Lewis’ influential lovers-on-the-run tale starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins. The latter appeared at Noir City, older than her three scheduled onscreen versions but still looking good. Ms. Cummins received multiple standing ovations before the film, and several more during the post-screening interview with Muller. She stole the show, and Muller wisely endorsed her grand larceny. 

The festival’s guest of honor also appeared in the Saturday matinee double feature of Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers, neither of which is technically noir, but whose darkness and grittiness made them cousins worthy of inclusion.

Cummins spoke of her Hollywood origins: She was  brought to Tinseltown by Darryl Zanuck to star in Forever Amber. The book version of Forever Amber was apparently so popular that Fox’s casting call for the lead rivaled Selznick’s for Gone With the Wind. Cummins won the part, but it was a short-lived victory. “Someone at the studio said I wasn’t pretty enough,” Cummins informed an audience who’d just seen her looking absolutely fantastic onscreen. She was dropped, and Linda Darnell appears in the version preserved for posterity. As a result of the recasting, Cummins went from Forever Amber to Deadly Is the Female, or as noir lovers would come to know it, Gun Crazy.

While I prefer the film’s original title, Gun Crazy remains an apt description. Lewis’ film influenced Godard’s Breathless and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and its potent fetishizing of guns keeps it from being too dated. This is a firearms boner to rival the one wielded by the NRA. It’s a microcosm of America’s love of guns, and it was made 63 years ago. Here is the story of a man who loves to shoot his guns. It’s the only thing he’s good at, and it becomes an obsession of his. Lewis and company barely hide the sexual symbolism from the censor, substituting Dall’s mastery of shooting for both masturbatory satisfaction and perceived expert cocksmanship. The latter is even more subversively notarized when Dall meets Cummins’ equal marksmanship at a carnival. Their shooting battle is a fiery game of William Tell, with matches instead of apples, and as each takes turns firing dangerously close to the other’s head, sexual arousal runs down the screen like Niagara Falls. The female is not only on the same erotic mastery level as the male, she’s more cunning in her execution. Dall wins the shooting contest because I think Cummins purposely misses her final shot. She’s playing coy to make him feel masculine.

The mixture of sex and guns made flesh by Cummins drives Dall to do her bidding. Addicted to excitement the way Dall is hooked on triggers,  Cummins leads the duo into a life of increasingly violent crimes. She can kill but he cannot, and he knows she sees that as a weakness. Cummins is spectacular here, toying with Dall’s sexual insecurity like a film noir Lady Macbeth. When Dall finally seals the deal, putting a bullet into his beloved, it’s a short-lived form of consummation, an affirmation of his manhood. Muller called Cummins’ character in this film “the most ferocious female in noir,” and after revisiting Gun Crazy, I can’t argue.

A far less ferocious, though still fine and flirty Cummins appears in two other films at Noir City: Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers. Both are  from 1957 and written by blacklisted writer-director Cyril Endfield. Demon made me long for the days when I was 9 years old and watching movies on WOR-TV in New York City. This would have scared me silly and giddy back then. Staring at the demon in the title on the big Castro Theatre screen, I felt compelled to reunite with that prior incarnation of myself. I had a great time, helped by the gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography by Edward Scaife.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Curse of the Demon is more horror picture than noir, but stars a staple of noir, Dana Andrews. Andrews imbues his role with more conviction and credibility than a film like this requires, and his performance keeps the film from descending too far into the ridiculous. Andrews’ shrink is in town to evaluate a member from a devil-worshipping cult. This is for research purposes, as Andrews is a pure skeptic when it comes to the supernatural. His point of contact has been murdered by the titular demon before Andrews’ arrival, and Andrews teams up with the victim’s niece (Cummins) to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, a deliciously evil Niall MacGinnis is cursing people (including Cummins’ uncle) with some kind of parchment paper covered in runes from Stonehenge (or something like that). You may never want to take anything handed to you again after you see what this guy’s modus operandi is. He even has the Lucifer beard, which should be enough to convince that disbelieving Mr. Andrews. But no, Andrews has to get cursed himself, and even then, he keeps applying science to whatever happens to him. This is an endearing characteristic of the film—it keeps trying to explain away all the great Val Lewton atmosphere Tourneur and Schaife provide.

Some of the creepy, shadowy images here are as stunning as the demon is goofy-looking. (The filmmakers hated that an actual demon was added post-filming by the producer. Its smoke-filled suggestion was more than enough.) Tourneur, who directed Lewton’s Cat People (as well as the noir classic Out of the Past), knows how to ratchet up suspense from things dropping into the corners of the frame. A sudden hand at the bottom right of the screen actually got me to jump, and the director’s sly nod to his former feline flick manifests itself as a scary yet hilarious attack on Andrews. Even when wrestling with an obviously fake panther, Andrews is committed. You gotta love movies like this, and without irony.

Hell Drivers is a suspenseful, gritty British drama about truckers who risk their lives for a corrupt trucking company. It’s The Wages of Fear with ballast instead of dynamite, featuring a “Who’s Who” of soon to be famous British stars. Led by the British Jack Palance, Stanley Baker, Hell Drivers also stars a pre-Bond Sean Connery and a pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, who is superb as Baker’s rival for truck-driving superiority. Playing Baker’s rival for Cummins’ feisty, jeans-clad secretary is a pre-Pink Panther Herbert Lom. As an Italian immigrant who befriends Baker even when the other men turn on him, Lom provides Hell Drivers with its tragic, broken heart. Even after being betrayed, Lom still helps Baker in his quest to unseat McGoohan’s corrupt foreman.

Baker’s prize if he should best the cheating alpha-male McGoohan is a solid gold case. Like most things in Noir City, it’s a shiny, overpriced object of desire for whom payment is more than just monetary.

Next time: More Cyril Endfield, a dash of Laurence Tierney, pre-Code naughtiness and Ms. Desmond’s close-up.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

QT and Odie: Perfect Together

by Odienator

I've been gone from here a while, but I've actually not been sitting on my ass doing nothing.

There are two things I want to quickly pimp over here.

The first is my latest "Black Man Talk" with Steven Boone over at the other site I run, Big Media Vandalism. Our last Black Man Talk was right here at Tales of Odienary Madness, on Tyler Perry. Now we're riffing on Django Unchained, the controversial Quentin Tarantino Spaghetti Southern about slavery and revenge.

"Unlike the Nazism QT's heroes combat in Inglorious Basterds, slavery makes America the villain. The American way of life at the time is the bad guy here, and this creates a discomfort that I've seen reflected in several reviews: "Where's the morality in Django?" I acknowledge that Inglorious Basterds adds a morally ambiguous layer to its heroes, whereas Django Unchained is more a product of QT's love of Blaxploitation and the Sweet Sweetback notion of a "baadasssss nigger comin' back to collect some dues." Why is that wrong?

Yet, Tarantino knows that, as a White man, he processes his rage against the institution of slavery differently than Blacks. I can make this statement based on the mini-arc he crafts for Dr. King Schultz."

Read more here!

The other thing is my first "according to Hoyle" video essay. It's a two-parter over at Press Play. I wrote it and it is my melodious voice you hear on the soundtrack. In keeping with the Tarantino vein, it's on Jackie Brown. Both parts are available for viewing, and were both superbly edited by Jason Bellamy of The Cooler blog.

From part 1:

"Here, he lifts Foxy’s last name, her movie’s title font and her portrayer. Grier was the queen of Blaxploitation, wielding a shotgun, razors in her ‘fro and a take no prisoners attitude that was simultaneously terrifying and sensual. Jack Hill, who directed her in Foxy Brown, Coffy and two other films, said that Pam Grier had “that something special that only she has. She has ‘it’.” Hill could get a witness from any fan, for we knew: Not only did Pam Grier have “it,” she could whip your ass with “it” as well."

And part II:

"Quentin Tarantino relishes putting a gun in Pam Grier’s hands, throwing us back to the good old days of Nurse Coffy, Sheba Shayne and Friday Foster. Her genre reputation precedes her, and one can almost hear QT cackle as he merges Brian DePalma’s split-screen, Jack Hill’s dialogue and an overzealous sound man’s rendition of that “CLICK” that accompanies that gun aimed at Ordell Robbie’s favorite toy. But this commandeering of DePalma and Hill serves the drama—Elmore Leonard crafted the Ordell-Jackie pas de deux in his novel, Rum Punch, to get us here. It’s Max’s gun Jackie’s stolen, and its retrieval leads not only to Max’s seduction but also to some of the most poignant dialogue Tarantino has scripted. Notice how delicately the camera moves in on Grier’s profile. It’s almost as if we’re eavesdropping on Pam and Robert, not Jackie and Max."

I promise to be more diligent in writing here in 2013, It's been rough due to work, but I'm recommitted myself to at least showing up here once iin a while. Stick with me here, and of course, over at Big Media Vandalism.