Archive for December, 2011

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART with tags , , on December 31, 2011 by travsd

If I do say so myself, some of the best performances I have ever given are forever lost and were witnessed only by an audience of two (and, gee, I sure hope they back me up on that!). I refer of course to bedtime reading to my two boys. The various Tin Tin books were a personal favorite as they allowed me to voice the titular boy reporter, the crusty Captain Haddock, absent-minded Professor Calculus, detectives Thomson and Thompson, and even Snowy. Like millions of others, then, we had a personal stake in the current screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg.

To say that we are disappointed would be an overstatement. This is a perfectly entertaining family film, appropriate in every way to its audience and the needs of the moment. And, as the saying goes, it ain’t Shakespeare.

But it is Spielberg. A genius of action, suspense and horror, he has been capable of cooking up near perfect confections when he is smart enough to stay away from “significance” or sentiment, which times have been depressingly rare. To my mind, he’s only hit the bull’s eye on a handful of occasasions: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan. Of the rest of his films, most range from forgettable to bad, generally because Spielberg seems unacquainted with that ancient Greek dictum: “Know thyself”. His two heroes (Hitchcock and Disney) both had the good sense to know what sort of films they were making, and for whom. Speilberg is always stepping out of his element to express “ideas” and “feelings”, which are just not his metier. But when he sticks to thrills, magic happens. This is why we had high hopes for Tin Tin, which contains nothing but colorful adventure.

While, as I said, the picture is fine, it does stop short of the Spielbergian tour de force you might hope for given the source material. Based on three Tin Tin books, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), it gives us plenty of chase scenes, gunplay, kidnapping, and twisty-turny mystery. What it never does do is take that extra step we come to look for from Speilberg. At his best, he takes us on a ride we’ve never been on before, and strings it out like a merciless roller coaster ride, until we are begging for mercy by the end. There’s none of that here, although there were several opportunities for him to do so. At one point, the heroes are heading into a bank of thunderheads in their little airplane. For a second it looks like we are in for a thrill ride, but he blows it off. Similarly a long chase scene through a Moroccan port city (the film’s climax) feels perfunctory, with perhaps one or two nice surprises, rather than the two dozen we would rightly expect. This is despite the fact that the film is animated (consider the possibilities) and in 3-D (the potential of which is not really explored). My working theory is that, because Spielberg was simultaneously directing another film (War Horse) when he made this one, he stretched himself thin, and didn’t go as deeply into this one as he might have. (I may have to stay away from War Horse for some time, though, reeking as it does of “significance” and sentiment).

To his credit, Spielberg leaves in some of the politically incorrect elements: Tin Tin is a pistol-packing teenager, and Captain Haddock an unreformable drunkard. In true modern Hollywood style, however, the script steers clear of the slapstick potential of Haddock’s predilection, and the script in general is not as funny as it ought to be. The fabric of the books contain as much comedy as adventure. Speilberg’s comic touch here  is light to nonexistent, given the potential. And of course he falls in line with the sick modern impulse to humanize cartoon characters. What bizarre freaks did Hollywood market-test this trend on, that they think we want to see the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat played by comedians in make-up, Under Dog as an actual canine, and Scooby Doo with human eyes? The charm of Herge’s drawings is missing here in favor of semi-human 3-D people-oids, with boring-ass actor voices, rather than lively, funny character voices one wants and expects from such material.

Yet, still, it’s not by any stretch “bad”. It’s a wonderful movie to send kids to without worrying they are going to come home with their minds full of garbage. And that’s rare enough, so The Adventures of Tin Tin has my endorsement. (Besides, it sets us up for a sequel involving a Caribbean treasure hunt. This one feels like it ends before the true climax — perhaps it occurs in the sequel)

Stars of Vaudeville #412: Rex Allen

Posted in Crackers, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on December 31, 2011 by travsd

Rex Allen (born this day in 1920) is undoubtedly best known to modern audiences as that highly recognizable narrator of Disney wildlife movies (and many other films and commercials. He started out as a vaudeville singer, moved on to radio, record albums and B movie westerns as a singing cowboy in the the 1940s and 50s. He primarily did voice-over work during his last decades, right up until his death in 1999.

Here he is now singing the perennial cowboy classic “I Ride an old Paint”:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Philly Mummer’s Parade

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, New Year's Eve, PLUGS with tags , , on December 31, 2011 by travsd

The coolest New Year’s Day event that I know of doesn’t even happen in New York — it’s Philadelphia’s annual Mummer’s Parade. Rooted in Medieval tradition, the Mummer’s Parade has been happening in Philly since the 1800s. It steps off tomorrow morning; full information here.

Hugo

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

Hugo? Children? Allow me to digress with this reminiscence, concerning the other Hugo, the Man of a Thousand Faces:

Okay, now that’s out of the way.

After weeks of eager anticipation I finally got to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with my kids yesterday. Frequently such waiting periods are killers, creating expectations that can’t be met when confronted with the actual work. Further, there’s that omnipresent Scorsese-worry, e.g. the concern that he can only make masterpieces when the subject matter is thuggery. Though he’s proven otherwise with such brilliant films as The Aviator and his Bob Dylan documentary, the statistical evidence, the sheer weight of his expertly-realized goombah pictures vs. flawed experiments like The Age of Innocence gives one pause. What would he do with, or should I say to a children’s book?

The answer turns out to be “interpret it perfectly”. One hoped, if not suspected, that that would be the case given the subject matter, but ya never know. Based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story concerns an orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who spends his days maintaining the clocks in Paris’s busy train station. His companion in the station’s attic is an automaton he had been fixing with his father before the latter died in a fire. Hugo’s quest to fix the automaton and learn where it came from leads him to its creator, the actual Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) now a humble toy merchant utterly abandoned by the public that once adored him. The story is a paean to the powers of fantasy, and one wonders at first how that could be right for Scorcese, whose metier is normally brutal reality. It’s the gritty realism of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull that everyone raves about. And think of what happens when he tries other genres.  His attempt at a Hollywood musical  New York, New York is downright hilarious, essentially having at its center a foul-mouthed psychotic wife beater (Robert DeNiro) and his battered abused wife (Liza Minnelli). Hugo is the sort of movie we usually get from Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam (although I must say “not lately” in either case).

Yet, knowing Scorcese’s well-publicized backstory (not to say myth) there is much here for him to latch onto, and that’s just what he does. Scorcese was a sickly child, and a loner. A severe asthmatic, he spent all of his time looking out the window and going to the movies. He relates to Hugo big time. You see it in the first shot of the boy, peeking out from behind a clock in the station. Peeking, peeking, always peeking. The connection between the voyeur and the future film-maker. It’s part of Hitchcock’s myth and Scorsese’s as well. And the fantasy part? Well, the movies are fantasy, aren’t they? And (especially when we’re talking about Hollywood) even the most “realistic” of them are fantasies. They aren’t, after all, our own lives. We watch them to get away from the meanness of our own streets. This movie is a love poem, not to only to the magical artistry of Méliès, but to the movies in general.

I might add that this film does have its documentary aspects.  Scorcese uses this opportunity to teach us about a great film-maker, just as he had previously taught us about George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan and the great blues musicians. One of my happiest take-aways from this film is that children will walk out of it knowing about the birth of movies.

Further, technically, he knocks it out of the park, and it shouldn’t be surprising. While he’s famous for his realism, he’s not a “straight-ahead” film maker. His effects are frequently, one might say usually hallucinatory. Think of those fight scenes in Raging Bull or Henry Hill’s cocaine meltdown in Goodfellas. My experience was MUCH enhanced by the fact that the movie was preceded by several previews for films that represent 3-D at its LAMEST — several re-releases of previously non-3-D films with 3-D effects now slapped on top.  Right from the first frame, Scorcese uses the three dimensions at his disposal, taking us up and down corridors, staircases, walls, moving past crowds of people, over them, under them. Snowflakes fall. He thought the entire movie through in three dimensions before he created it; then he shot it that way. 95% of the time, it is organic and it works, though there are moments when it is a hair too gratuitous, not only in that old-fashioned “Comin’ At Ya!” 3-D way, but also in Scorcese’s OWN way (I’m thinking of shots like Griffin Dunn’s thrown keys in After Hours). But the VIGOR it took to make this film, both physical and intellectual, is impressive in the extreme.

The danger of the old Scorcese rearing his head appears only once, and where that danger emerges is predictable. As the villainous station master, he cast Sacha Bara Cohen. It is a risky, inspired choice.  Cohen is an improvisational actor par excellence and Scorcese is Hollywood’s premiere director of improvisational actors. I think he had the idea of getting some silent comedy type slapstick antics into the film, in honor of the subject (we also get clips and references to Harold Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton, Max Linder, and Jacques Tati). But Cohen and Scorcese have dark sensibilities. It’s a bit like getting a couple of alcoholics in a room together, and they come a couple of times a hair’s breadth from crossing the line. (Perhaps they do cross it, but I’m pretty dark myself). The leg brace Cohen wears as the character has divergent functions. It gives us more sympathy for him. And it creates opportunity for slapstick. Unfortunately, the slapstick doesn’t work…because we have sympathy for him (sympathy we wouldn’t have had if not for the leg brace, because the character is a nasty piece of work.) Thus a scene where the station inspector is being dragged by a train down a platform because it is hooked to his leg brace is not just not funny, it’s, well, objectionable. Cohen ad libs many funny lines in the film, but again, many of them I feel are inappropriate for young people.

But the edifying effect Hugo will have on young people far outweighs those fleeting moments. In the end, all the characters in the film (including the station inspector, a big change from the book) are a big, happy family. That may be a fantasy of course, but that’s just sort of fantasy I go to the movies to see.

Marx Bros. All Day Tomorrow!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

What a way to polish off the old year! Tomorrow (December 31), starting at 6am (eastern), Turner Classic Movies is featuring several of the Marx Brothers’ films, and I’m just crazy enough to watch ’em all! the only things that bug me is they aren’t being shown chronologically, and they are missing a few (namely Cocoanuts, The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy). Nothing like being about 69% thorough! At any rate, here are the ones they ARE showing:

6am: Go West

7:30am: At the Circus

9am: Room Service

10:30am: A Day at the Races

12:30pm: A Night at the Opera

2:15pm: Animal Crackers

4pm: Monkey Business

5:30pm: Horse Feathers

6:45pm: Duck Soup

Stars of Vaudeville #411: Vincent Lopez

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Latin American/ Spanish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

Vincent Lopez (born this day in 1895) was a popular bandleader of the 1920s and 30s. He started out as a piano player for vaudeville acts like Rooney and Bent. In 1917 he organized his first band and began touring big time vaudeville (including the Palace) in the early 20s. Once vaudeville faded he played live radio from hotel ballrooms through 1965. He passed away in 1975.

Here now his 1929 recording of “Chant of the Jungle”

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Bank Dick Today

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), PLUGS, Television, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

Today at noon (eastern) on TCM, W.C. Fields second-to-last starring film from his brilliant late period at Universal: The Bank Dick. One of his most subversive films (undoubtedly because he was old and sick and no longer gave a damn) Fields lays into small town hypocrisies and even (as he would do with even more force in his last film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) Hollywood itself. Fields gets away with murder in this film, naming his favorite watering hole The Black Pussy, and telling young Og Ogilvy that his name “Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” — what can he be referring to but a fart? Somehow this stuff got past the censors, as did Fields’ much more dangerous example as a human being — getting the bank examiner (hilariously played by Franklin Pangborn) drunk so he won’t notice the money Fields (the bank’s security guard) embezzled so that he can invest in the Beefsteak Mines. The terrific ensemble includes Shemp Howard (who really sacrificed a decent solo career when he stepped in to bail out the Stooges–see here), Jack Norton and Una Merkel, among many others. A couple of nods to Mack Sennett here too.

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