Humbugs, MSG, and an ambitious film list for 2015.

The more I read, the more I realize how little I know. Philosophy, history, the arts, sciences, you name it. It’s a humbling experience, losing myself in the pages of great writers. I put down my book about every other paragraph to jot down a sentence that absolutely, positively, cannot, must not be forgotten. For example, this one:

“Success is filled with MSG.” – Amy Poehler, Yes Please

It’s on my fridge, right next to the fortune cookie fortune that tells me I am “the crispy noodle in the vegetarian salad of life.” (Whatever that means.)

It’s not just quotes. References to classical painters, foods I’ve never heard of (thank you, J. K. Rowling, I never would have known that a humbug is edible), medieval medicine (Bile! Bile everywhere!), other prominent novelists, filmmakers … Especially filmmakers.

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Mint humbugs.

I learned about famed Japanese director Yazujiro Ozu from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. François Truffaut entered by way of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (or perhaps I should say the entrance stone?).

It’s funny. I heard of classic French films from a Japanese writer and definitive Japanese works from a French author.

To get to the point. From my recent literary wanderings I have compiled a list of films to watch this year. You are my witnesses.

Floating weeds

Ozu:

  • Floating Weeds
  • Tokyo Story
  • The Munekata Sisters

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Truffaut:

  • The 400 Blows
  • Jules and Jim
  • Shoot the Piano Player

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Other films:

  • Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
  • Metropolis
  • Vertigo

Random side note: I’ve noticed that a good chunk of works titled after nature elements are 99% sad. Think about it. How Green was My Valley. The Sun Also Rises. The Wind that Shakes the Barley. October Sky. Or films with “happy” or “beautiful.” The Inn of Sixth Happiness. The Pursuit of Happyness. Life is Beautiful. A Beautiful Mind.

So … pass the kleenex, please!

GODZILLA VS. PIGZILLA!!!

Godzilla spawned a bunch of corny sequels with different nemeses like Mothra and Megalon, but I’d like to introduce a much superior one:

PIGZILLA!!!

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This is Bertha Mason. I adopted her from a guinea pig shelter (yes, those actually exist!) as a companion for Beaver, whom I introduced in a previous post.

 

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Not Pigzilla.

 

Bertha’s not really into classic films. She prefers Nicholas Sparks adaptations. The Notebook is her favorite (also that one with Miley Cyrus). When she’s not binge-watching Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, she likes to read James Patterson novels while jammin’ out to Kenny G. on her iPod.

 

Bertha chowing down mercilessly on a carrot train.

Bertha chowing down mercilessly on a carrot train.

 

Sadly, she and Beaver didn’t get along. He’s laid-back and Bertha has a dominant personality, so she drove him crazy (hence the name). Thanks to an unexpected new roommate, though, everything ended happily. But that’s for another post. Now back to the film.


godzilla_1954_poster_03The original Godzilla came like a kick in the gut for its target audience, which was still reeling from the Hiroshima disaster and operation Castle Bravo. Hydrogen bomb tests destroy a harmless sea creature’s natural environment. Radioactivity deforms it into a giant voracious monster that emerges on land to forage for food — i.e., humans, and a couple of cows. Daisuke Serizawa, the eye-patched scientist, refuses to kill it with his top-secret formula. Kyohei Yamane, a prominent archaeologist, wants to keep Godzilla alive for research … which would make sense if they had any way to contain it. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko, goes around crying (although it looks more like she’s trying not to laugh), and tripping at crucial running-away-from-Godzilla-moments.

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Emiko and Daisuke observing The Oxygen Eliminator’s effects in pure terror.

I love the top-secret formula’s name: “The Oxygen Eliminator.” Serizawa insists it can be used for good … in spite of the fact that it removes oxygen from the environment and then liquefies its victims’ flesh. That kind of thinking happens when you’re holed up in a basement lab for years. Plus in its present form, he argues, it’ll be manipulated by politicians. Newsflash: nothing’s safe from that in any form. When the others attempt to persuade him to use it, he tries to destroy it — in a scene that reminded me of this great Mitchell and Webb skit:

I thought ———— SPOILER ALERT!!! ———– Serizawa’s sacrifice in the end was needless. They could have pulled him up with the rope after he detonated the Oxygen Eliminator. Maybe the producer was trying to make a point — the scientific community suffers when its discoveries are manipulated for personal gain.

Godzilla surprised me. I walked in expecting a goofy, B-type film with no substance, just shots of a monster terrorizing Tokyo. Instead I saw a sombre, dialogue-driven film denouncing war and atomic weapons. The acting is powerful, the dialogue thoughtful, and the special effects — for the most part — are impressive for the time. Godzilla depicts the toll weapons take on society, regardless of their shape. If ever there was a film promoting peace, this is it.

Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of life minimum-waged among bloodthirsty department store throngs will resonate with those who’ve worked on the other side of the counter (and that probably accounts for most of us in the 99%).

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The classic 1923 silent comedy follows the misadventures of “The Boy,” who works as a lowly sales associate in The Big City.

It’s so accurate I’m convinced the film’s creators worked at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at some point. Not much has changed since then. That the phrase “Safety First,” which the film’s title parodies, is still used in corny mandatory safety videos just confirms it (John ignored safety first rules and stood on the top ladder rung. Now he’s dead. *Cue ominous music*). And the scene where hordes of sale-crazed shoppers attack The Boy could come straight from a modern-day Black Friday free-for-all.

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It brought back fond memories. There’s this one scene where a matronly patron asks to see every bolt of cloth on the shelves. In the end she leaves with just a tiny free sample. My experience was similar, only it involved king comforter sets and the tallest shelf in the store. Ah, retail. How I … don’t miss you. 

The Boy promises his fiancé, The Girl (Mildred Davis), he’ll send for her as soon as he makes enough money for them to get married. Of course he lies, writing that he’s making gobs of money and ordering peons around when in reality he’s a lowly clerk behind on rent in the ratty apartment he shares with “The Pal” (Bill Strother, who has a fantastic albeit stomach-churning scene reminiscent of Ebbet’s famous photograph).

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To prove his fabulous success, The Boy buys her a pendant — instead of paying rent — then later a matching chain (instead of paying rent). So naturally The Girl takes matters into her own hands and heads on over to The Big City to marry him. Seeing as he’s so wealthy and all…

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This of course presents a problem for our endearing, not-quite-so-honest hero, and he concocts a scheme to attract customers to the store in exchange for prize money. The idea? Have his friend scale the store building. Only he can’t make it at the last minute, so guess who does it instead?

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It’s a fantastic film; witty, true to life (some parts, anyway), and just plain fun to watch.

 

 

A Trip to the Moon

Liz asked if I would like to post about Georges Méliès’s 1902 French short, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Which apparently was inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the Moon and From the Earth to the Moon, and by Offenbach’s operetta Le voyage dans la lune, a parody of the two. What! Offenbach made fun of Jules Verne? This I must see.

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But anyway. I realized my post comes at a most opportune time — thanks to my procrastinating ways — since the Western lunar eclipse begins tonight. And while some may think it sheer lunacy to stay up past midnight, I most definitely will be awake. I’m already crazy to start with, anyway.

Back to our film. The story begins with an outlandish proposal: A journey to the moon. Astrologers are handed telescopes, which magically turn into stools, and they sit down. Lectures last a long time, after all. (Can they turn them back into telescopes, I wonder?

All obstacles overcome, they build a bullet-shaped rocket. A group of women sporting sailor outfits and tights push it into a cannon, and they set off. The ship approaches the moon — which looks more and more like a huge meringue pie with a face — landing smack dab in its eye.

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day...

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day…

They land, disembark, and after wildly gesturing at earth, fall promptly asleep, because making history is exhausting. Naturally, all the exciting stuff happens while they’re unconscious, including a lunar shower, which wakes them up. Armed with umbrellas, they begin exploration into a mushroom jungle. Or perhaps I should say umbrella jungle? Because as soon as one astronomer sticks his in the dirt, it morphs into a giant mushroom. Then a Selenite, an alien resembling a cross between a triceratops and the creature from the black lagoon, shows up. Curious but minding its own business, it hops about until one of the explorers kills it. It explodes in a puff of smoke. Way to destroy the natives, people. Soon an army of them surrounds the scientists and takes them to see their king, whom the explorers also destroy before making a dash for the bullet-ship. At this point, I started wondering how they would return to earth without a giant cannon and a bevy of sailor beauties. Barren landscapes meet the eye, the Selenites look hideous, and even if they didn’t, where would they find a sailor suit?

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There’s no way the Selenites can look like this without some serious plastic surgery.

But never fear! One heroic scientist stays outside and pulls the bullet off a cliff with a sturdy rope, making it splash straight into earth’s ocean. Because gravity.

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One of the creatures falls along with it, which begs the question: why is this the first time a Selenite lands on earth? At least one of them must have tried cliff-diving before.

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I read that the scene where the rocket falls into the sea was filmed using a cardboard cutout in an aquarium with tadpoles. Pretty neat.

This film employed ingenious new special effects for its time, which makes it a must-see for any film fan. Its quirky French humor is just an added bonus.

 

The times they are unchangin’

So guess who gets DVDs by mail now? This girl! Two weeks ago Modern Times (1936) blew in through the post, along with Bridesmaids (I tell you I watch everything).

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Modern Times was Chaplin’s first sound film — the 1940 film The Great Dictator his first “talkie”, which interestingly, he swore he would never make. In 1936 it seems he hadn’t reconciled himself to the advent of talkies. Except for a scene in which Chaplin’s  Tramp entertains a cafe audience by singing complete gibberish, he says not a peep. Narration and dialogue occur mainly on intertitles.

It’s also my first exposure to Chaplin’s work — don’t judge, internet. Can I be honest here? All that his name brought to mind before this was a goofy tramp with a tiny mustache. Modern Times changed that. The clarity! Paulette Goddard’s first scene stunned me. Her character, so joyous, so alive as she scrambles along the docks to survive, gritting her teeth against a sharp knife — and life.

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Goddard as “A Gamin.”

The satire and humor! It’s impossible to pick a favorite scene from this film. Among the many is when Chaplin, on the verge of a nervous breakdown after working on a production line, goes on autopilot and attempts to tighten the secretary’s skirt buttons with his wrenches. Or how about after he falls into the cogs?

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Or when the mechanic falls through it? And who can forget the American daydream house where grapes grow around the kitchen door and cows walk up for milking?

It’s not all laughs, of course — they live in the midst of the Great Depression. Tragedy comes in the form of a bread line. The tramp alternately lands in jail and gets fired. Life fights dirty and they fight back — often ending up on the losing side — but they try.

I was excited watching this film. Excited, frustrated, saddened, amused. I could relate to it in different ways — many people can. But the main feeling threading its way throughout the film? Hope. “Buck up — never say die!” the tramp tells “a gamin” as they sit, homeless and exhausted, along the side of a vast, empty highway. She does … and we do too.

Opera haters, you’re missing out.

I went on a crazed movie purchase binge recently, and now the 1955 film Interrupted Melody sits atop my T.V. (Does anyone put their DVDs back in the cabinet? Really? Okay, never mind). Finally! This film is seriously underrated. Based on opera singer Marjorie Lawrence’s  memoir, it recounts her rise to, and later, her fall from fame after she contracts polio.

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Eleanor Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and with good reason: her performance was gripping, emotional, inspiring.

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Parker as Dalila in a scene from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila.

Parker’s voice was dubbed by Eileen Farrell, who insisted on going uncredited for the score.

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Opera singer Eileen Farrell.

Something to do with Marjorie Lawrence wanting to sing the score, and the producers not, and Farrell not wanting to steal her thunder. Pretty selfless if you ask me.

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I read that Parker actually sang on set to make the scenes more realistic. It worked. All of the opera scenes are spectacular, but their collaboration on Carmen was my favorite.

Glenn Ford also delivered an excellent performance as Thomas King the doctor, Lawrence’s love interest.

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But his character grated a little on my nerves. He bordered on sexist at times, wanting her to stay home as much as possible and make babies, wanting her to sacrifice her 6 month tour (which isn’t that long), the opportunity of a lifetime, to keep him company. And the film seems to agree, because she contracts polio during the tour. “I’m such a fool,” she says, weeping, as Tom gazes down at her immobile form. As if to say, if she had just stayed home and made babies with Tom like a good wife should, instead of gallivanting all over South America, this would have never happened. Hello! When you’re a world-renowned opera singer at the height of your career and love what you do, some compromises have to be made. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s challenging being spouse to a celebrity. She made sacrifices. He just didn’t appreciate them. 

But I digress. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know when she contracts polio. Therefore, I can’t assume anything. Plus, later on he makes up for being a jerk.

On doing research, I discovered that Eleanor Parker passed away this past December. She was 91. The Baltimore Sun wrote a short but warm tribute on her passing.

Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: James Stewart

Most people think of James Stewart as the upright, fight-for-your-ideals, invite-to-the barbecue-for-a-beer kind of guy. But the iconic actor did play a villain. Twice. Yes, all of TWO times. Not surprisingly, he played the roles early in his career. The films hit the box office in 1936, two years after his debut in the short Art Trouble. In both, he’s so overshadowed by ridiculously famous on (and off) screen couples that he appears as a mere whisker on the cinematic canvas.

Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy fans will remember Rose-Marie, in which Eddy plays a dashing Canadian Mountie pursuing MacDonald’s no-good, on-the-lam brother played by – guess who – James Stewart.

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Stewart led in handcuffs by Eddy, who proves that no one looks good in Mountie breeches.

Then there’s After the Thin Man, a William Powell/Myrna Loy collaboration, but I won’t say more about it, given that it’s a mystery film and all …

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Did I say too much?

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On the set of After the Thin Man with a tall glass of milk and looking … not quite so villainous.

Now for all his good guy films. Everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to the film’s copyright issues, or rather, lack of them…

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This is the scene I remember most vividly — when realization sets in and he stares into the camera. Creepy.

That and the pool/ensuing camellia bush (?) scene.

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“I could sell tickets!”

Of course there’s his brilliant work in Hitchcock’s films: Rope (’48), Rear Window (’54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56) and Vertigo (’58)

And my favorites, both Capra films co-starring Jean Arthur: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (’39) …

The filibuster scene. Capra was a genius.

… and the screwball You Can’t Take it with You (’38).

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Stewart discussing photosynthesis and the possibility of solar energy (really!) in You Can’t Take it with You.

Stewart also starred in The Shop Around the Corner (’40), on which In the Good Old Summertime (’49) and You’ve Got Mail (’98) were based. I didn’t care much for it. Due to the bickering star couple, cheating spouses and — spoiler alert — an attempted suicide, I found it pretty downbeat (is that a word?) for a romantic comedy.

For big-band lovers like myself, I recommend the delightfully music-saturated film The Glenn Miller Story (’54).

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Stewart accompanied by Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story.

And Harvey (’50), the hilarious, thought-provoking, poignant film about a rabbit and his visible human companion nominated Stewart for an Oscar (which I think he deserved).

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They had such great chemistry.

As for his personal life, Roger Ebert wrote this tribute on Stewart’s passing in 1997 (Interestingly, Ebert neglected to mention the villainous role in Rose-Marie).

Stewart also starred in a bajillion other movies — including his Oscar-winning film The Philadelphia Story (’40) — of which you and I have neither the time nor patience to read/write about. Suffice it to say, Jimmy Stewart was awesome.