A Perfect Movie Organism

alien1979theatricalreleNext year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest sci-fi film ever. Or at least, the greatest one in my book.

I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a number of times, often under the influence of assorted imbibements. George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine was my favorite movie growing up, and the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of funtertainment. But the film I keep returning to again and again for aesthetic and psychological reasons that are so primal and deep they’re difficult to grasp—is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

I recorded the slightly longer Director’s Cut version of the 1979 film on my DVR recently, and weirdly, have watched it a half dozen times in the last two months. Needless to say, it gets better with every viewing. But what is its pull? On the surface, it’s a bare bones concept that barely qualifies as science fiction: space mining crew investigates signal on distant planet, accidentally allows monstrous alien creature to board their ship and kill nearly everyone. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett had a scary B-picture in mind when they sold their script to producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll at Fox. But with Ridley Scott’s masterful direction entwined with the late H. R. Giger’s creepy-beyond-belief concept art, a haunting, gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith and one of the best casting jobs ever, the film is a gripping, endlessly fascinating nightmare that puts its sinewy arms around you and won’t let go. Still more frightening than any space film ever made, it’s also UNLIKE any space film ever made.

The tag line the Fox publicists finally settled on was an instant classic: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In its womb-like art direction and quiet, measured approach, the sense of isolation in space permeates every moment—beginning with this dialogue-free introduction to the towing ship Nostromo:

The seven crew members emerge from their cryogenic cocoons to enjoy a communal breakfast before learning they’re not even close to Earth, and it’s in this scene where the true genius of Alien is on display. These are not the zombied astronauts from 2001, the cartoony heroes from Star Wars, or even the obnoxious jarheads from subsequent Alien sequels. These are genuine blue collar people who happen to be working their daily jobs in outer space. Watch this clip and check out the concerns and attitudes of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They could just as easily be on a graveyard shift at a Monsanto plant.

Stanton later said that Scott wrote out a biographical sketch for his character that ran five to six pages, including how many missions he’d been on, how he got along with his parents, etc. None of that info was used in the film, of course, but it gave Stanton embedded feelings that infused his smart-alecky character. Sigourney Weaver, in a later interview, praised Scott’s vision, which is that “space is a real place: filthy, greasy, and grimy.” Hardly the cold, antiseptic environments present in many a science fiction film. In the first ten minutes, we feel like we know every one of these characters, and like spending time with virtually all of them. Which makes the subsequent horrors all the more affecting.

The now-famous scene of the alien creature birth-bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach while at dinner is not just a thoroughly shocking moment that caused audience members at a Dallas preview to flee to the lobby and bathrooms to vomit, but a simple, dynamic plot point that sends the entire story smashing into a wall. Oddly, while it’s the absolute definition of the “first turning point” in dramaturgy terms that normally occurs a half hour in, this one falls dead center in the middle of the film. The second half basically becomes a “ticking clock”, as the crew tries to find and eliminate the creature while it’s gradually hunting them. Scott’s decision to show as little of the alien creature as possible adds to the characters’ terror and sense of isolation, and makes the experience very scary for us. What little we do see of the alien is so ghastly it lets our darkest imaginations run wild. And as the tension mounts, as they are throughout the film, the performances are pitch perfect:

After a brilliant plot twist that reveals Ian Holm’s Ash character to be a company-embedded robot with a hidden agenda to bring the alien home at all costs, the final third of the movie goes into complete overdrive, a breathless hide-and-seek game between Weaver’s Ripley character and the beast, with the imminent self-destruction of the ship providing a second ticking clock. Add to that sped-up camera work, shooting steam machines and strobe lights, and the finale comes as close to a mix of terror and sexuality as you’re likely to experience. After the climax and post-climax, we’re left with heroine Ripley back in her cryo-chamber, drifting back to sleep with her cat, the audience finally safe again.

On every single level, Alien works, even with models and miniatures employed instead of CGI, even with computer interfaces no more advanced than early Commodores. As Ash’s robot head utters before it’s blow-torched, the alien is a “perfect organism…I admire its purity.” I’ll say the same for this incredible, timeless film.

I Miss Hockey Player’s Heads

1972-walt-tkaczuk-bobby-orr-gerry-cheevers-079114223For about five years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I went to see NHL games at the old Montreal Forum. I was living about two hours south in Burlington, VT. One of my roommates was a huge fan of the Canadiens, so often assembled mini-caravans over the border so he could cheer on the Habs. I was and still am a devout Boston Bruins fan, so our fandom was rarely in sync, but there was one visual I associated with those trips that has always stayed with me: Guy Lafleur, Montreal’s dashing, legendary right wing, streaking down the ice toward the enemy net. Even from high up in the smoke-filled rafters—which through brilliant arena design had sight lines directly over the rink—you could see Lafleur’s slightly balding dome, his sideburns, and his sandy, longish hair flying behind him over his classic red jersey as he skated. When he made his signature move it literally put the home crowd into a frenzy.

lafleur-hockey.jpg.size.custom.crop.520x650Earlier in the 70s, the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad Street Bullies, had a bunch of guys with crazy curly hair and few teeth. Bob Nystrom of the New York islanders had Lafleurian hair and a snappy moustache to go with it. Ron Dugauy of the New York Rangers had a rock star mane. Watching on lousy Magnavox TVs back then, you could identify most of the hockey players on the ice even when you had issues seeing the puck. You could see their faces and expressions. You knew their character.

Today? On 62-inch hi-def LG screens, it’s ten times easier to follow the puck, yet watching an entire NHL game is much more of a chore than it used to be. And the reason seem very obvious to me:

THOSE STUPID HELMETS!

Now I’m not one to clamor for unsafe sports, and asking the NHL to get rid of helmets is akin to asking baseball to remove the netting behind home plate. It will never, ever happen, so shut the hell up, Jeff. No, the purpose of this piece is to just wistfully long for the days when you could actually tell hockey players apart, and had a clear sense of who they were as people.

bobby-nystrom-52242329Whether at the arena or on television, hockey is often viewed from center ice, a few sections up, allowing you to take in the speed and grace and circular movement of the players’ lines. With ten combined goals in one game considered a “slugfest”, the sport lends itself to drowsiness at times, especially in low-scoring contests. And with the helmets obscuring every player’s hair and face and the camera usually too far away from reading the names on the backs of the jerseys, I find it very difficult to differentiate them, and the action can lull me to sleep much faster.

I realize I’m being an old hockey fan yelling on my porch here, but think about it a second. Would you like it if actors in a movie or play all wore headgear to obscure their faces? How enjoyable would that be? Granted, football players have helmets, but there are TV close-up shots of faces between every play on the field. And one of the greatest things about baseball are the individual pitching windups and batting stances affixed to every player. Joe Morgan’s flapping elbow. Willie Stargell’s windmill swing. Juan Marichal’s high leg kick. Carl Yastrzemski high hands.

Now I seem to recall Wayne Gretzky being the first great hockey star to wear a helmet, but he was so good that he transcended the issue, and his penchant for parking himself in his “office” behind the net to whistle perfect passes to onrushing scorers was a a signature visual in itself.

But few hockey players from now to forever will ever be Wayne Gretzky.

Here’s over two hours of a 1974 Stanley Cup Final game between the Flyers and Bruins. Watch two minutes of it and then tell me you prefer seeing guys in helmets. Then I’ll go away.

 

The Joy of Tracks

TearsOne of my favorite things about the New Era of Downloading is the freedom you suddenly have to be your own record producer. Remember the days when you liked one or two songs on a new release and were forced to spring for the entire album if you wanted them? That was almost as annoying as having to fast-forward and rewind your cassette for five minutes just to find a particular track!

Anyway, like most people, I have a playlist of “desert island” songs I would gladly be shipwrecked with as long as I had them on my magic smart phone that never needed charging. But why dream about such a scenario when you can turn your favorite songs into downright celebrations any time?

SummerFrank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was my favorite tune of his for a long time but I never had a copy of it, so one day I went on iTunes and typed it in the search window. Lo and behold, there were well over 100 versions of the song available from various artists—everyone from Julio Iglesias to Madeleine Peyroux to the Swingin’ Fireballs. It took a little time and cost me around $25, but I downloaded the best two dozen or so versions of the tune from that initial list of 100 and made myself a fun, swanky playlist called Summer Winds that runs for an hour and a half.

 

VinesI have since done this same thing with Marvin’s Vineyard (50 different versions of “Heard it through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye), 24 versions of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”, and just recently, 25 awesome versions of “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians.

A few years ago, I even burned a mix CD for my dad called Can’t Get My 26 Sets of Eyes Off of You, a tribute to the Frankie Valli classic that also happened to be my dad’s favorite song. He liked the thing so much he asked for another CD after he lost the first one!

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It goes without saying, but the key to making a successful song tribute mix is arranging the tracks very carefully to prevent you or another listener from getting bored with the tune. It all starts with selecting as many different musical styles as possible. In the Marvin’s Vineyard mix, for instance, there are soul versions, funk versions, a reggae version, an a capella version, vocals by men or women or both. I even found a punk version for the Frankie Valli mix. The Vineyard collection runs a good three hours, and it took forever to get the songs in the right order, but if you do this right with one of your fave tunes, you can have yourself a sweet little tribute concert that will resonate for an entire long car drive or ear-budded hike.

Thanks, digital age!

By the Time I Got to Woodstock (Again)

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My friend Lou is the only person I know who was at Woodstock in 1969—or at least, the only person who told me they were. He says he remembered seeing Richie Havens open the festival, and Jimi Hendrix closing it, when the soggy hill overlooking the stage had more trash on it than people. In between, thanks to taking “too much acid”, everything except the swarm of humanity was a total blur.

I was still in junior high school at the time, a state away from the festival, and was not old or inclined enough to attend. Among those of us who read morning newspapers or watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, though, the “happening” quickly became the number one topic of conversation in the school halls.  I became a huge fan of the subsequent concert movie and double album that helped the promoters recover some of their losses, mythologize the three days for eternity and propel a handful of the musicians into lucrative careers. I saw the marathon movie at least three times in a theater, including once with my dad (a very big Santana and Sha-Na-Na fan), bought the four-hour director’s cut when it was released on DVD, but hadn’t watched it again until early this week, when Turner Classic Movies aired it in its entirety, complete with the very brief “Interfuckingmission.”

And you know what? This time I appreciated the film and actual event more than ever, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll get to.

3.1wmFor starters, Michael Wadleigh’s document of the festival is still an amazing technical achievement. Using a dozen cameras, his multi-angle and split-screen views of the best performances capture every moment of their excitement, particularly the raw, unbridled power of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Latin rock ecstacy of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”, and Sly Stone’s funky epic version of “Wanna Take You Higher”. The interviews with concertgoers, town residents, snippets of dialogue from some of the artists, even words from a port-a-potty cleaner create a fascinating mosaic of Woodstock’s populace, and there is so much more Wadleigh shows without using even one second of narration. Forget the skinny-dipping and mud-sliding; the shots of gridlocked back roads and endless lines of young attendees trying to call their parents at a small bank of pay telephones are staggering. (“How did they ever pull this thing off without cell phones?” I asked my wife.)

Of course, some of the music is also forgettable, and due to length restrictions, there was a mountain of tuneage that was never featured in the movie or on the album. Tim Hardin, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Bert Sommer, Sweetwater, Keef Hartley, Quill, the Jeff Beck Group, The Band, Iron Butterfly, and Johnny Winter were all on the original concert poster, and Creedence Clearwater Revival apparently showed up and played. The Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin numbers wedged into the director’s cut are nothing special, but it’s sure good to see them all alive.

Still, watching the film in 2018 was a very different experience, because it brought on a brand new feeling of bittersweetness. It had nothing to do with nostalgia. No longing for Wavy Gravy, or funny announcements about bad acid, or Pete Townsend tossing his guitar in the crowd. Dripping over every hippie cliche and cultural milestone about Woodstock was a focused purpose: stopping the Vietnam War.

Nearly fifty years after the festival (good god, really?), so many horrible things are happening in this country now, so little has been learned, that I long for that same concentrated protest. Where do you even start? With the daily subverting of our Constitution? The insane gun laws? Voter suppression? Immigration nightmares? Rampant sexual harassment? The dismantling of environmental protections? The tax scam? The daily bald-face lying? Whatever tomorrow’s new outrage will be?

One thing is pretty clear, though: Aside from giving future generations a cultural icon to hang the hippie movement on, Woodstock changed virtually nothing. You can argue that it may have fueled subsequent anti-Vietnam demonstrations and helped end that war, but with the daily tsunami of horrors now submerging us, I’m not confident a massive poltical-themed rock festival these days would be little more than another mass selfie opportunity. Barring further Russian hacking, filling ballot boxes seems the best way to move back to the light.

“The New York State Thruway’s closed, man!” said Arlo Guthrie to one of the Woodstock promoters early in the film, with an almost triumphant glee in his voice. It was an innocent time, indeed.

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49 years after…

Melancholy Masterpiece

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I haven’t been blogging for a while (again), because in this currently insane world, I need something truly inspiring to get my fingers humming.

Well, that’s over.

Last weekend I watched my favorite movie release of 2017 on Amazon Prime, and by the time the one hour and 32 minutes were over, the competitors had peeled away and dropped in a pile like the inside of an artichoke. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is emotional, sublime, creepy and truly transcendent. I don’t use the term “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” lightly, but this film is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Shot in Texas for probably less than it would cost to buy an Arby’s, A Ghost Story is a nearly mute, gracefully filmed meditation on human existence, with an extremely simple premise that ruins nothing if I share it: Casey Affleck plays Rooney Mara’s husband or boyfriend—it’s never made clear and doesn’t even matter—who dies in an auto accident early on and spends the rest of the film inhabiting their house wearing a “ghost sheet” with two sad eye-holes. At first the concept seems somewhat goofy, but with Andrew Droz Palermo’s hushed, arresting cinematography, sparse use of Daniel Hart’s haunting score, and a sterling performance by the perpetually haunted-looking Mara, it doesn’t take long before Affleck’s ghost becomes a silent, deeply affecting character.

ghoststoryWith a mere droop or turn of his head as the lonely spectre glides through days and weeks and months and generations, so much is said about love and loss without one line of dialogue being uttered. A Ghost Story is a tour de force that in the end is nothing short of miraculous. It also has a tad of mystery and ambivalence at the conclusion but that only makes you want to discuss the film with someone even more.

Richard Brody of the New Yorker had it on his ten best list today, and due to its lack of promotion, the movie had a snowball’s chance in hell of being nominated for any Oscar. But I could care less. I would watch it again tomorrow.

Wonderful World

People in the LAX arrival lobby. (Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu)

I have a new favorite place in L.A. And no, it’s not the Pacific Palisades, or Topanga Canyon State Park, or the Expo Line to Santa Monica, or some hip fusion coffee bistro in Los Feliz with healthy tacos on Fridays and jazz music on Sundays.

It’s the international arrivals terminal at LAX.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Los Angeles is its extreme cultural diversity. People from so many nations visit and move to southern California, and despite the current anti-immigrant political climate, the global assimilation here still feels inevitable and completely natural. The region is a pastiche of vibrant, multi-cultural neighborhoods (Feel like Ethopian tonight? Head over to Fairfax Ave. between Venice and Olympic), and as Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary is sadly pointing out, we can never learn enough about other countries.

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A line of limo drivers for Emirates passengers, all in a row.

The international terminal is decidedly different from the other arrival facilities at the airport. While most of those are just dreary baggage claim belts and congested curb sides with taxi and pickup lanes, the Tom Bradley Terminal is like a non-stop global convention. There’s a Coffee Bean, a Pinkberry and a Mexican restaurant called Cantina Loredo nearby, but the centerpiece of the place is a wide ramp where the arriving passengers emerge from the customs area below, pushing their luggage carts—some piled high with every personal belonging imaginable—and are greeted by dozens and dozens of families and friends flanking rails on both sides, a huddled mass of multi-lingual humanity eager to see their first glimpse of the person or people they were waiting for.

One of the things I used to love about the “old” airport days was when people could welcome their arriving loved ones (or send them off) right at the plane’s gate. If I had time to kill while waiting to board a flight myself, it was always fun and comforting to wander from gate to gate and watch people I didn’t know embrace each other.

LAX International Arrivals is the next best thing, aside from instantly reminding us of how small a slice we really are in the global pie. And it’s a lot less painful than riding the “It’s a Small World” boat at Disneyland.

Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues and Greys

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Sorry I haven’t posted a blog for a while. Life duties and the political state of the country has had me in a slight creative funk, and the last thing I’ve wanted to do is join the 26,343 others writing about this administration.

The other day, however, I began to think about the Civil War. Maybe because we could very well have another one if our toddler-in-chief is booted from office. Or maybe because my wife was watching the Ken Burns documentary again recently, and the melancholy sound of Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” wafting down the hall put me in the appropriate mood. But I suddenly remembered how much that war meant to me when I was growing up.

From 1962-1965, there was a Civil War Centennial going on in our culture. Despite a superb short film version of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” that Rod Serling featured one night on The Twilight Zone, Hollywood tended to steer clear of the subject, but manufacturers of children’s entertainment were quick to pounce.

Death BattleTo begin with, my friends and I collected Civil War bubble gum cards. Years before “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch” hit the big screens, these cards were the first graphic depictions of violence many of us ever saw. Released by Topps in 1962—and remaining one of the most collected trading card sets of all time—no color rendering of horrific battlefield death was left on the drawing board. “Vicious Attack”, “Wall of Corpses” and “Flaming Forest” were just a handful of the vivid hand-painted scenes by Norman Saunders, Maurice Blumenfeld, and Bob Powell. I don’t think I had more than three dozen of the 88 collectible cards (which I would bet $20 my mom threw away when I was at school) but the ones I had certainly left an impression, and my friends and I giddily ranked them by gore factor as often as we could.

WheelCrushWhich probably explains why I was soon clamoring for a “Civil War set” for one of my birthdays. Released by Marx, the set came with a few hundred pieces, including blue and grey soldiers, a stone bridge, a plantation(!), cannons, fences, wagons, a few horses, and characters for Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Many a summer backyard, either at my house or a friend’s, would double as a vast miniature killing ground for the infamous Battle of Yarmouth Street or Massacre on Drury Lane. And I would bet another $20 that my mom threw the entire set away when I was at school.

Less than a decade later, deadly doings in Vietnam would take over the TV news and our political consciousness, and my brief fascination with the Civil War went into hiding. We all learn about history in different ways; a friend of mine n Maryland is an avid Civil War collector, attends memorabilia shows, and once showed me his actual piece of a Gettysburg fence, still pockmarked with bullet holes. I was perfectly content with my grisly bubble gum cards and little plastic soldiers, but the most catastrophic war to ever occur on our shores would forever stay embedded in my view of the world. Here’s hoping it stays embedded.

On Walking Without a Device

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Last weekend I knocked on my son’s door, and told him I would do the fifteen-minute walk to Subway from our house to get him a sandwich for lunch. I always like to listen to music on my iPhone earbuds when I do this, but my phone was down to about 10% power, so instead I left it charging in the house and braved reality by taking a half hour walk without a device.

It was a beautiful warm early afternoon in March, the Chinese elms in our neighborhood providing plenty of shade. Birds chirped and hopped through the branches and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves. It took a few minutes to get used to them, but natural sounds and my own breath were actually a perfectly pleasant substitute for the usual Brazilian samba or European trip-hop that filled my ears.

As I passed through an empty school parking lot and a short bridge over Ballona Creek, my thoughts began to stray. Suddenly I was back in Western Massachusetts, trudging home from high school through a frozen path in the woods and along slushy suburban streets. The time of that solitaire walk was usually 30 minutes one way, twice as long as the one I was doing now—and I had no smart phone, Sony Walkman, or electronic device of any kind to listen to.

Thoughts of high school girls I knew, or creeps or jocks I didn’t want to know, occasionally filled my head, maybe mixed with visions of a TV show, movie, or sporting event I’d been looking forward to. Most of the days I walked home, though, were normal and somewhat dull. Ninety percent of the time, I walked alone.

So how did I pass the time?

I used my imagination. If I wasn’t devising a scenario for a new little Super 8 movie I wanted to make, I was self-producing imaginary record albums in my head. This would entail quietly singing through a dozen or so of my favorite songs (six on each side of the album, naturally), expertly arranged for maximum artistic impact so I would be seen as the dynamic young rocker I apparently fantasized being. While I walked to Subway the other day, I desperately tried to conjure up the specific songs I sang, but this was many decades ago, and has sadly become a blur. I’m pretty sure “Jet” by Paul McCartney and Wings was in there, maybe a Simon & Garfunkel or Who tune. I do remember that my album rarely changed, and a song had to be pretty special to make the cut and bump another one out.

The important thing is that this was a very enjoyable way to spend idle time. When you are not plugged in electronically, your mind can grow, and dare I say it, experience the world around you for what it is.

For my device-less walk back from Subway last weekend, I thought about Saturday afternoon kid matinees I would attend with my pack of movie friends. Nearly every time while waiting in front of the theater for someone’s mother to pick us up, we would pass the time acting out the supernatural, sci-fi, pirate or Roman slave movie we just watched, everyone choosing a different character. Today we instantly jump back on our phones, no matter our age, to check texts or emails, maybe hit up IMDb to learn about an actor.

I also remembered what happened in a large house I once lived in with three or four others up in Vermont. My friend who owned the house was the news editor of our weekly paper but also a freelance rock critic, and one entire wall of the huge living room consisted of a stereo system and shelves and shelves of record albums. Many of the nights there were a joy, everyone just sitting around talking, drinking beers, smoking, and just listening to music.

Then one day my friend moved out, and the stereo system and shelves and shelves of record albums left too. A television replaced them, and the vibe of the house changed overnight. People would get home from work, grab their dinners and eat in front of the TV, watching whatever was on and barely talking. Petty fights began over cleaning the kitchen and other house duties. Factions developed. It got ugly, and I can’t help thinking it all started when people allowed themselves to be plugged into something other than human contact.

Anyway, back home from Subway, I gave my son his sandwich, and went down the hall to see if my iPhone was charged. It was. I began to unplug it, then decided to leave it there a little longer. Grabbed a good book I’d been reading and went out back to sit with it under a shady tree.

Why I Liked “Sing Street” More than “La La Land”

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Granted, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land deserves its big basket of nominations and will probably win the Best Picture Oscar barring a last-minute, anti-Trumpian nod to Moonlight, but I’d like to take a few minutes here to talk about a hardly-seen Irish comedy/musical currently streaming on Netflix.

Sing Street is by Dubliner John Carney, known for two other very fine indy films about music, Once and more recently, Begin Again with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. He writes witty, likeable characters, completely understands the emotion and power of music, and manages to put you in a good mood using gritty. vulnerable characters we can easily identify with. “Street” does that in spades, telling the tale of Conor (played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a sweet, gullible ‘80s lad who wants nothing more than to become a rock musician. Transferred to a tough Dublin boys school by his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) and inspired by a local rebel girl he has a crush on named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), he gathers a small gang of goofy misfits together to start a rock band and film a rock video, and the results are hilarious, turbulent, and life-affirming.

Basically, Sing Street has the exact same message La La Land does about listening to and following your creative dreams, but the two films couldn’t be more different in their approach. La La Land, while magical and beautifully staged, is obsessed with being a tribute to Hollywood musicals while it’s poking mild fun at L.A., and in the end, even though there are many things worse than looking at Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for two hours, I never felt completely connected to their characters. The movie has a perfectly crafted sheen and polish to it, like a hit single by the Eagles, yet it often seems a little too aware of itself at the expense of good storytelling.

Here’s an example. The opening one-shot musical number on the freeway, likely to go down as one of the great filming achievements ever, would have been far more effective if it had happened five or ten minutes into the film, rather than kicking it off. Having just sat down in the theater, I wasn’t prepared for its immediacy, for throwing us into its rekindled genre right out of the box. If Chazelle had set up the two leads for a few minutes and let them drive onto the freeway and get stuck in the slowdown traffic, suddenly turning the scene into a musical number would have been completely magical and delivered the viewers into his musical tribute on a silver platter.

I much preferred Chazelle’s last film, the brilliant, mesmerizing Whiplash, which was just as smart (if not more so) about music and established an unforgettable human conflict between student and teacher. La La Land, while inventive in many ways, feels less organic and more like Chazelle really wanted to win an Oscar. And he no doubt will, but if you prefer some endearing, emotional, unbridled fun with characters more grounded in reality, do not miss Sing Street.

Room with a Rear View

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On New Year’s Day night, TCM ran a marathon of classic Hitchcock movies, all in pristine, restored hi-def. Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Trouble with Harry all made the list, but for its 112 minutes, Rear Window captivated me like it never has before.

The 1954 release is simply a perfect film. In a medium that essentially requires viewers to sit in a dark room and watch other people’s lives, it’s about a man physically trapped in his New York apartment and spends all his time watching other people’s lives. The art direction and Hitchcock’s manipulation of it is beyond brilliant, giving us just enough visuals and sound from all of the apartment courtyard’s mini-dramas to keep us as intrigued as Jimmy Stewart is.

I won’t elaborate on the particulars of the story, seeing most of you have seen the film, but I thought it would be fun to delve deep into the Internet and provide portraits of L.B. Jeffries’ colorful and memorable neighbors, because they’re as much a part of the story as Stewart, snarky Thelma Ritter, evil Raymond Burr and the ravishing Grace Kelly are…

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GEORGINE DARCY (Miss Torso)
Darcy, who was born in Brooklyn and urged by her mother to become a stripper to “make a fast buck”, studied ballet and worked as a model before appearing as the voluptuous, forever dance-practicing neighbor directly across from Jeffries’ apartment. She was paid just $350 for her work in the film, and had a spotty acting career from then on. In 1962 she played Madge, a “dancing firestorm” in the Chubby Checker movie Don’t Knock the Twist. She had a few TV roles after that, but died of natural causes in Malibu in 2004 at age 68.

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JESSLYN FAX (Sculptor with Hearing Aid)
The dotty artist who lived directly below Miss Torso was played by Canadian actress Fax, who was a “short, dumpy, cherubic character actress,” according to Wikipedia, and had small roles in The Music Man and Kiss Me Deadly following her appearance in Hitchcock’s film. She also occasionally served as comic foils to Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. Born in 1893, she died in Hollywood in 1975.

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ROSS BAGDASARIAN (Struggling Composer)
Bagdasarian, known for being the friendly acquaintance of Hitchcock in the director’s Rear Window cameo scene, was an actual pretty successful composer who wrote “The Chipmunk Song” for Alvin and Co. and specialized in “catchy, hummable melodies.” As an actor he appeared in 20 films, including Hot Blood, Three Violent People, The Proud and Profane, and The Girls of Pleasure Island. He was just 52 when he died in Beverly Hills in 1972.

FRANK CADY (Sleeping Man on Fire Escape)
Cady, who died in Oregon in 2012 at the age of 96, may have been the most successful of the courtyard’s supporting cast. Most people remember him as Hooterville general store owner Sam Drucker on the twin TV series Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Before playing the husband who slept with his wife on one of Rear Window’s fire escapes to beat the heat—and later got caught in a rainstorm—he appeared in a whopping 42 other movies, most in uncredited roles, including D.O.A. and The Asphalt Jungle.

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SARA BERNER (Sleeping Woman on Fire Escape)
The neighbor with the only true speaking part in the film, Berner was a successful voice actress who worked a lot in the 30s and ‘40s, almost exclusively in animation, and did the voices for cartoon characters Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, as well as the mouse who “danced” with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh. In Rear Window, she lowers her and her husband’s little pet dog in a basket every day, and when Raymond Burr’s character strangles it later in the story, gives a shrill lecture to everyone in the courtyard about human decency that’s virtually the only strained moment in the film. Bernier lived to be 57 and died in Van Nuys, CA in 1969.

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JUDITH EVELYN (Miss Lonelyhearts)
Evelyn, who beautifully played the sad single woman in the bottom apartment who restrains herself from overdosing on sleeping pills when she hears the gorgeous piano number played by the single composer upstairs, appeared in a handful of movies after Rear Window, including Giant and The Tingler with Vincent Price, but had a full career of TV work before passing away in New York at age 54.

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RAND HARPER & HAVIS DAVENPORT (Newlyweds)
Harper, the hunk who carried his new wife across their apartment threshold in the first few minutes of the movie, then lowered the window shade for two or three days, was mostly a TV actor who had a recurring role on Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, along with small parts on Perry Mason and Gunsmoke. At 87, he is the only Rear Window resident to still be alive. Davenport only lived to be 42, with parts in just two other films, Scandal Incorporated and A Star is Born. The newlyweds’ late scenes, in which it’s depressingly clear they are threatening to turn into Raymond Burr and his disappeared wife, are deliciously ironic.

Which brings us finally to…
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IRENE WINSTON (Mrs. Emma Thorwald)
Lars Thorwald’s unfortunate bedridden wife, who appears to be mocking her husband in a few early scenes before ending up in various parts of the East River, was a New York native with a 1940s career in radio who later wrote for television. Like all of these supporting apartment players, her pantomime from afar was exceptional, and helped create one of the greatest underrated ensembles in cinema history.

And now, as Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont might have said as she coyly lowered Jimmy Stewart’s blinds, “Show’s over for tonight…”