Saturday, January 16, 2016

Branching Out: Wrapping Up TREEHOUSE '15

We're coming to the end of the illustrious Dennis Cozzalio's "2015 SLIFR Movie Treehouse," and it's been a week of fun exchanges and wise insights from Dennis and the other Treehouse denizens (including Odie Henderson, Marya Murphy, and Phil Dyess-Nugent), and occasionally from me, too! If you're coming to this post out of order, you can begin the process of catching up by clicking on the above, which will take you to Dennis's introduction of the round-table; if you read my earlier post, you can zoom ahead to what's followed by clicking here, here, here, here, here, and--well, hell, you can find your way around the branches after that, right? Climb on up and join us, won't you? There's no membership fee, and we only kick out Batman.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cinephilic Review: The 2015 SLIFR MOVIE TREEHOUSE

The wise and witty Dennis Cozzalio, proprietor of that cinematic Shagri-La, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, has re-instituted his SLIFR MOVIE TREEHOUSE gatherings this week. It's Dennis's semi-annual round-up/discussion of the year-just-passed in movies, and this time he's asked me to climb on up the wooden steps and join in the fun. So, if you want to learn more about me, what I actually look like, and my year in film-watching (and if you want to read other people's thoughts, for some reason), please come and join us over the course of this week (and maybe into next, depending on how crowded and full of empty Jolt bottles and discarded Crackle wrappers the place gets). Dennis's introductory post can be read here, with my first post, Odie Henderson's first post, and the thoughts of Phillip Dyess-Nugent and Marya Murphy to follow. Hope to see you there: None of us bite (as far as we know) and a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Grace Inside A Sound: Best Performances of 2015

Over at Roger, they've posted a piece collecting contributors' favorite film performances of 2015. I wrote about the intertwined work of Paul Dano and John Cusack in Love & Mercy, which is still my favorite film of the year. There's a lot of other good writing in the piece, too, on Clouds of Silas Maria, Mad Max: Fury Road, I'll See You In My Dreams, and a lot more. Go, read (and have a great Christmas, if you are so inclined!).

Friday, December 18, 2015

Small-Town Cinephilia: The Top 10 Movies of 2015 According to Me

It's the most wonderful time of the year! I refer, of course, to the annual tradition of list-making that goes on in mid-December, as everyone gathers up their memories of books, songs, TV shows, theater pieces, comics, and movies, and either excites you or makes you feel guilty about what you haven't caught up with yet., where I am an occasional contributor, has posted two "Balder&Dash" pieces on the Top 10 Films of 2015, the first a composite of its contributors' individual lists, and the second a more detailed posting of those individual lists. The latter-- which includes a list from me, as well as some thoughts on what it means to be a cinephile in a small town--can be found here. There's so much good stuff covered by everyone's rankings, and a lot of good film writing to be found therein. Go, read.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Six Different Ways of Looking at a Balboa

"Rocky! Boy, that's a picture I wish I had made," Frank Capra declared in an interview in early 1977, just as the movie that launched Sylvester Stallone's career into the stratosphere was nominated for ten Academy Awards. "I think it's the best picture of the last ten years. It's got my vote for the Oscars all the way down the line." (For the record, the film ended up winning three, including Best Picture).

That the saga of the "Italian Stallion" was ever linked to the legendary Capra, or with such grandiose talk, might surprise anyone who came of age cinematically after Rocky IV was released (given the way the title character became more and more of a superhero over the course of the first four films, it might also surprise younger viewers to know that the "Stallion" nickname was ironic in the first film, signifying the gap between the fighter's PR hype and his sadder reality). Roger Ebert rightly noted in his review of the fourth Rocky, "It's tempting to forget how good the original "Rocky" was, back in 1976...with "Rocky IV," almost all of the human emotions have been drained out of the series, and what's left is technology."

My own relationship with this series is still one that surprises me, as I think back on it-- I saw my first Rocky film (the third one) in the theaters in 1982, when I was nine. Over the next eight years or so, I became kind of obsessed with and involved in the series. I'm not saying I took up boxing, or jogged up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum (although I did note, when visiting Philly years later, that Rocky's only rival as city icon was Ben Franklin, who never had the guts to face him in the ring). I didn't eat raw eggs for breakfast, get screamed at by my tiny Irish stereotype of a trainer, or even have pet turtles to whom I talked (just a series of dogs, and a couple of guinea pigs).

But I did tape the films off of television, and watched them repeatedly. I did have the soundtrack to the first film on a well-worn cassette (until it was devoured by the heads of my Walkman). I'm mentioning this outdated technology here because I want to emphasize what an analog hero Rocky was to me as a kid (at least at his best). That the films were, in so many ways, impossible fantasies, didn't matter to tween me-- what sold them was how human they felt.

Like other movie totems of my childhood (primarily the Spielberg and Lucas films), the Rocky series was a fantasy avatar that worked as a gateway into slowly understanding film history: If Star Wars and Indiana Jones introduced me to science fiction, movie serials, and Humphrey Bogart (among many other things), the Rocky films segued me into sports movies, films about the city (any city-- "the city" as its own character), 70s "New" Hollywood, film noir, and, yes, Frank Capra. They also thrilled the part of me that day-dreamed about matching the character's strength and speed, and longed for his inspirational arc (the part of me that also read comics, in other words).

As Creed hits theaters this week, and connects Oscar talk to the Rocky series for the first time in nearly forty years, it's worth noting that we're about the same distance from the original film as that movie was from Capra classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1976. Will the acclaim of the Michael B. Jordan vehicle work the same trick on new viewers that the original Rocky movies did on me, and cause them to seek out its inspirations?

What follows is my take on the first six films in the Rocky series, running the voodoo down from tomato can to champ.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Time Passages: The Age of Adaline

Blake Lively knows just where the light hits her when she walks past the camera in The Age of Adaline (2015). She understands how to tilt her head so her cheekbones can be half-cast in shadow, so her Veronica Lake waves can fall exactly where they need to for proper effect; she precisely times each flicker of a smile, seems to have worked to a science the spatial dynamics between a glance of her eyes and a sway of her hips; the rhythm of her hands when she picks up a book or grazes the knuckles of a co-star are a graceful, cinephilic metronome.

I know this might all sound condescending, as if I've ignored Lively's actorly interiority (and that of her titular character) altogether. But I assure you it's a compliment. Watching Lively float amidst the shifting time-frames of The Age of Adaline, I kept thinking about David Thomson's famous passage about Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep:

This touches on a vital principle: that it is often preferable to have a movie actor who moves well than one who "understands" the part. A director ought to be able to explain a part, but very few men or women can move well in front of a camera. In The Big Sleep, there are numerous shots of Bogart simply walking across rooms: they draw us to the resilient alertness of his screen personality as surely as the acid dialogue. Bogart's lounging freedom captures our hopes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Magical Realism: Northern Exposure 25 Years Later

Who are any of us? Are we one person fixed at birth or do we grow like a snow ball coming down the mountainside of life? Or can we change? Shed our skin? The caterpillar becomes the butterfly, leaving the remains of his former self behind. I look at my yearbook photo, class '81, and I wonder who that stranger is. Damn if I know, maybe that's the point, maybe we are not supposed to know, maybe that's what this earthly joyride is all about. Like Robert Frost said 'We dance around the ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows."
   --The wisdom of Chris Stevens, poured out over the airwaves of KBHR,
Northern Exposure

On July 12, 1990, an eight-episode summer replacement series about a New York doctor displaced in a quirky Alaskan town debuted on CBS. No one expected much of it, but when it left the air on July 26, 1995, Northern Exposure had launched several careers, won multiple Emmys and Peabodys, and stretched the boundaries of style, tone and genre in ways that outlined the future of television. I remember the series and explore its influences in a piece up at