Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Cinema Autobiography

For no reason in particular, I just decided to start going through box office lists. It's actually bringing back some memories here, so I thought I'd talk about what movies I went to see when I was a kid.

I'm reasonably sure--and I've always claimed this--that the first movie I ever went to see was Sleeping Beauty. According to the IMDb, it was re-released on 28 September 1979, which means I went to see it when I was three years old. I don't really remember going, I just have a brief memory flash of being amazed and frightened and riveted by the scene where Maleficent turns into a dragon. It's one of my earliest memories.

:: Looking at lists of other Disney re-releases, I'm not really sure if I saw any of them in the theater or not. I see that in 1980, Disney re-released Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, and Lady and the Tramp, all movies I don't really remember when I saw for the first time.

They also re-released Song of the South, which I might have gone to see. The thing is, I remember seeing Song of the South when I was a kid, and supposedly it's never been on video in the US (even though I swear I remember it being on video in the early eighties), so I either saw it when it was re-released or I somehow saw someone's bootleg copy as a child.

Also, in 1981 Disney re-released Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, which I'm kind of sure we went to see. The memories are a little fuzzy, but I have at least one that stands out, which is the scene in Alice in Wonderland in the Tulgey Wood where that creature with the broom on its face is sweeping away the path, and Alice is alone in the dark.

(I see Disney also re-released Swiss Family Robinson -- why the heck didn't we go see that? I bet I would've loved it as a kid!)

:: I've always said the second movie I ever saw was The Empire Strikes Back, but now I'm not really so sure. Looking at its various releases, did we go see the original release in 1980, or did we go see one of the re-releases in 1981 or 1982? For that matter, when did I see Star Wars for the first time? There were re-releases in 1979, 1981, and 1982, so I have no idea. All I know for sure is that I can't remember a time when I hadn't seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back.

:: And let's hit the trifecta of my earliest influences: I'd like to believe I went to see The Muppet Movie when it was released in 1979, but I have no idea if I did or not. Probably I didn't, but I do remember watching it a LOT on VHS as a kid. The Muppet Show was still on TV, so I watched that every week.

Star Wars, Muppets, and Disney: three things I've always known.

I'm surprised to see that on 12 June 1981, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans were released. That probably wouldn't happen today, since the success of a film is apparently only measured by opening weekends now. I did go to see both of those movies in the theater. I remember we saw Raiders in the evening, in a packed theater. I was a pretty over-sensitive kid, and I remember my Mom worrying that the melting Nazis were going to give me nightmares, but what actually scared me was the scene when Alfred Molina turns around and he's got tarantulas all over his back.

We saw Clash of the Titans at a matinee showing on a weekend. My Dad particularly liked it; he even bought me the action figure of Perseus and Pegasus.

And just a week after that, Superman II came out. I think we went to see it, but I honestly don't remember with certainty. In fact, I can't remember when I first saw Superman, but it's another one that's always been there. It had to have been when it came out on video.

Okay, 26 June 1981 is when The Great Muppet Caper came out, and that I specifically remember going to see. So it's entirely possible I saw that one before I saw The Muppet Movie.

For some reason, I remember we drove to a different theater than we usually went to. It seems like we had to go kind of out of our way to see it. Or we were doing something else and then went to see the movie. I really don't remember for sure, but like I said, I do remember going.

:: The Fox and the Hound came out in 10 July. My Dad took me and my sister to see that one at night; my Mom was having a Tupperware party or something, and we ducked out of the house for a while. That movie really struck a chord with me. It reminded me so much of my Dad, who had a subscription to Outdoor Life and would talk about hunting when he was a kid. He liked the outdoors and the woods, and he liked dogs, and I think I got it into my head for a while that the place he grew up (in the 60s in Des Moines, for gossakes) was like the farms in The Fox and the Hound.

At the time, the suburb I grew up in was still developing. There were still dirt roads and the nearest theater was almost an hour away. You had to drive out just to get to the nearest tollway. It wasn't uncommon to see pheasants or foxes or deer. So, I guess that's another reason that The Fox and the Hound kind of hit with me.

:: Time Bandits came out on 6 November. I don't know if I saw it in the theater or not--probably not, to be honest--but I know I saw it as a kid and then didn't see it again until I was 18 or 19. When I did see it again, those cages in the darkness shot out at me as something I'd seen as a kid.

:: Boy, you go through the box office history, and you see that Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released on 12 June 1981, is in the top 10 until the weekend of 12 March 1982. That would never happen today.

How do you know you're an overly sensitive kid? When your parents decide you should leave the re-release of Fantasia early because they're worried the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence is going to give you nightmares. I don't think it ever did, though; that sequence was on Disney's Halloween Treat for years, and I always rather liked that one.

I'm dismayed to check the Wikipedia and learn that the first time I ever saw Fantasia was the release which had a new soundtrack recorded specifically for that release, so I was listening to a digital recording conducted by Irwin Kostal and not the Stokowski arrangements. (Nothing against Kostal, but there's film history to be considered here.) It was also cut down from the original, eliminating all of the Deems Taylor segments in between, which is less of a big deal to me. Either way, I remember being especially thrilled by the dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring sequence.

(And you know, again looking at the releases on Wikipedia, I find that I've actually NEVER seen the original, uncut, complete Fantasia, as it seems every version I've seen has the black caricature of the centaurette cut out (it was edited out after 1969), and the 2000 "uncut" DVD has Corey Burton re-dubbing all of Deems Taylor's dialogue because the original audio nitrates, which were cut from the film long before, were too deteriorated to be usable.)

:: Poltergeist was released on 4 June 1982. I don't know if I went to see it or if I first saw it on video, but I know I saw it when I was a kid, because we had a big tree outside my bedroom window and, well...

What scared me even worse was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which came out a week later on 11 June. I've told this story before; how it was too much for me and I screamed and ran out of the theater, much to my Mom's complete embarrassment. And it completely traumatized me, too. My sister, who was three, loved the movie, and loved to tease me about it. Even talking about E.T. would freak me out, as would pictures of the thing, and even the Neil Diamond song "Heartlight" made me nervous. For a while, I would have to look out in the yard and make sure E.T. wasn't out there before I could walk out of the house.

Yeah, yeah, it's funny and pathetic now (it really is, I admit), but there you go. It was completely horrifying to me. The mysterious weirdness, followed by E.T.'s screams and the feeling of something defenseless being chased by these faceless men, and then that scene in the cornfield...

You know, my whole life I've had recurring nightmares about being chased in darkness and in small places by faceless men shouting words I can't make out, sometimes with dogs, often with the sound of boots hitting the pavement. I wonder if it's because of E.T. or something created by stress or what.

:: Bambi was re-released on 25 June; we probably went to see that. The scene that always stuck out for me was not Bambi's mother getting shot, but the forest fire. I think it's because we lived on the edge of a forest. Not that I was worried about it suddenly bursting into flame, but I just thought the whole sequence was sort of dynamic and fascinating. I remember, too, that when I was a kid my eye doctor used to have a 16-millimeter strip of that sequence, which he'd have us watch through various lenses to check our eyes with.

On 2 July, The Secret of NIMH came out, which I remember seeing at a matinee. I always remember the matinees especially, because we'd go see them at the Fox Valley theater, where my Mom and I would look at all of the posters for upcoming movies, and then after the movie we'd go to Sears at the Fox Valley Mall and my sister Jayne and I would look at toys and kids' books.

The Secret of NIMH was a movie I loved; when I went back to school in the fall, it was with a Secret of NIMH lunchbox. Still one of my all time favorite movies. I'm not really sure now why it made such a gigantic impression on me at the age of five, but it was a lasting one.

I remember reading years later that Disney actively tried to kill the release of The Secret of NIMH by going to theater chains and telling them that they wouldn't be getting any more Disney movies if they carried Don Bluth's movie. I used to work for a guy who told me that that was the reason he made sure to go and see it; he was disappointed in Disney for being so shady.

:: Also on 2 July, Annie was released. We may have seen it in the theater; I want to say we did, but I honestly can't remember for sure.

I see Raiders of the Lost Ark was re-released in July 1982. We might have gone to see it again. Just look at that dynamic re-release poster! And Star Wars was re-released in August. I'm pretty sure we went to see it then, because I remember going to a show where they were selling these new Star Wars posters and I got one. It was hanging on my closet door for years.

In fact, it was this one:
So, if anyone knows which specific release this accompanied, let me know.

:: I didn't see it until I was a teenager, but holy crap, Rocky III played FOREVER.

Wow, The Last Unicorn was released on 19 November, and according to Box Office Mojo, it opened in sixth place. Every time I brought that movie up for years afterward, no one knew what the hell I was talking about. Weird. Still, I don't know if a sixth place $2.2 million opening in 1982 was a big deal or not; today it would be notable for how little it made on its opening weekend.

Anyway, that's one of my favorite movies. We went to see it at a second-run theater, though, as far as I can recall. And even then, no one knew what the hell I was talking about. But I always loved it. And for once, it was my sister who was scared by a movie and not me, because she was afraid of the Red Bull and the Harpy, and today she refuses to watch it because it makes her cry.

Released the same day as The Last Unicorn was another animated film called Heidi's Song. I remember seeing it and liking it as a six year-old, but I don't think I've seen it since. Gosh, is it even available anywhere? I wonder if it's actually horrible.

The Dark Crystal came out on 17 December. That's another movie we went to see and which made a huge impression on me. It was just so alien, so inhuman, but so absorbing, too. I was scared by the Skeksis (still am, a little), but it was just such a powerful movie for me. I think this was the movie that began my interest in practical/physical special effects and puppetry; I saw a making of special about this on, I think, Nickelodeon, and read about how they made it in Starlog, and for a long time I really wanted to work in special effects. Between this and the Star Wars movies, I was fascinated by how these things worked.

The Dark Crystal is a movie we went to see as a family, yet I can't really remember my Mom being with us for some reason. For years, I was convinced this was a movie Dad took us to see because of a Tupperware party or something. I think my Mom's a bit hurt by that.

Also, this is another movie my sister won't watch because it makes her cry.

:: That same weekend, Disney re-released Peter Pan. I'm almost positive we went to see that. And The Empire Strikes Back was re-released about that time, too.

Alright, this is getting long, but I think I'm going to keep this going in future installments. Apparently, I love nothing more than myself and my past, so I'll do this for a while.


Well, Whitney won.

I can't say I'm displeased; I've liked Whitney from the beginning, I've found her food intriguing, and I've found it refreshing that she had less of an ego than some of the others who could be incredibly obnoxious. She had two things going against her (inexperience and time management), but she pulled it all together in the end.

On the other hand, it's been obvious for a while that the judges really wanted Whitney to win. Even during the judging on this last episode, when Whitney and Lee were squaring off against one another, you could especially tell that Gordon was in Whitney's corner. I think it came down to what was going to be a more spectacular win for the "first" American series of MasterChef, and they obviously loved the idea that the first winner would be this young, inexperienced girl who left college to be in the competition and has this natural talent.

Not that I'm not happy for Whitney; I wanted her to win. But you could see it coming.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Interesting film about a pre-op transsexual (Felicity Huffman, in an excellent performance) who discovers just before the surgery that will make her biologically a woman that she has a son she never knew about. Driving across the country together, they get to know one another, even like one another, but he has no idea about the truth of her identity, and the movie sort of has this impending confrontation simmering the whole time. It's an interesting meditation on identity, including the identities we present to the world, the identities we make (or try to make) for ourselves, and the identities others impose on us, as well as the expectations that come with them and how we manifest them. I love the ending. ***1/2 stars.

Alec Guinness stars in a funny, unique performance as the brains of a heist operation who rents a room from a sweet old lady with a tilting house. Pretending to be a string quintet, he and his four partners (including Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers) plan the robbery and make the old lady a key piece of the robbery (much to her surprise and, later, disappointment). The heist comes off without a hitch and pretty early; the rest of the movie--and this is a hilarious comedy--is spent on double-crosses and trying to find ways to deal with this woman who has figured out their purpose. Brilliant ending, and perfectly constructed. **** stars.

Monday, September 13, 2010

TV Report: Hellcats

Okay, this is pretty much the entire reason I wanted to watch Hellcats: I absolutely love it when Ashley Tisdale gets bitchy.

I've seen pretty much everything La Tisdale has ever done, but I think she's at her absolute best when she's in a role that elevates her above the crap. I adore her in the first two High School Musical movies because, as Sharpay Evans (who is the kind of rich bitch you find in an Archie comic), Tis is better than anything else going on. She gets the kind of comedy she's in, and goes for a cartoonishness that simultaneously fits right in and is the only enjoyable aspect of the movies because she finds just the right pitch. She's incredible.

I also used to watch The Suite Life of Zack and Cody for Tisdale and Brenda Song, who I still believe were in a secret lesbian relationship on the show. Just too many subversive symbols too ignore: London and Maddie raising a child substitute together for a class assignment (from Catholic school, no less), or getting trapped in a closet together where they literally try to lick food out of the carpet... Yeah, it was awesome. Go, Disney Channel.

So, where La Tisdale goes, I will follow.

I also dig Aly Michalka. Another girl from the Disney Channel, from Phil of the Future, a show that was way too funny to be killed after its second season. She was painfully adorable as Keely Teslow. Since then, she's really found a niche playing the tough gal, and that's exactly what she does here.

So we have athletic, tough Aly Michalka playing off of perky, bitchy Ashley Tisdale. And I am in heaven here.

Now, before we go on, I'll be completely honest. A huge part of my love for this show is the cheerleading. And when I say cheerleading, I mean this:

Yeah, it's going to take a lot to not get me to watch a show where Ashley Tisdale and Aly Michalka wiggle around in bare midriffs, shaking their miniskirt-clad asses to stripper moves. This show would have to be incredibly stupid for me not to sit and watch it. And by "incredibly" I mean Battlefield Earth levels of dumb, the kind of dumb where someone walks up to you, unscrews the top of your head, and fucks you in the brain with his massive dick. You know, like how you feel after watching a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay movie.

Luckily, Hellcats isn't really stupid. It's not exactly smart, but as a sort of slick teen soap opera, it's surprisingly fun.

What I didn't know until I started watching it is that the show was created by Kevin Murphy, the former executive producer and writer of Desperate Housewives, as well as a writer and producer of Reaper and the guy that wrote the musical Reefer Madness. So that helps a lot. And the pilot is actually directed by Allan Arkush, which really surprised me!

So it has a tone that's very soap opera, but also just silly enough. Like, you get the feeling that show is really poised to pull some trashy stuff, but in a way that doesn't seem outlandish for the tone that's been established.

Another thing I dug about the show: it gets a lot of the obvious out of the way. Aly Michalka, as Marti, plays a townie dedicated to being a student so she can claw her way out of her crappy childhood, but because her mother screws up, she loses her financial aid. When she finds out there's a scholarship for cheerleaders, she tries out, joins the squad, and starts working hard. All of the obvious stuff is there: Marti learns to be a cheerleader in just a couple of days and beats everyone else at tryouts, she thinks cheerleading is shallow and being a "football groupie" but ends up becoming one, she and Savannah (La Tisdale as the cheer captain) start off on the wrong foot and growl at each other, there's a townie boy with shitty hair who is totally in love with her (secretly but, you know, obviously), Savannah establishes that cheering is athletic and not frivolous, etc... all of the stuff you expect in a teen drama like this. Marti even learns to be a cheerleader by buying a copy of Bring It On and then imitating what she sees and adding dance/stripper moves. (After seeing her tryout routine, the first thing I said to Becca was "Wow, that stripper's going to have back problems one day.")

But, you know, it gets a lot of that stuff out of the way as though it's just obligatory set-up and goes in a couple of surprising directions.

The most pleasant surprise is the way the relationship between Savannah and Marti develops. They become roommates at cheer headquarters or whatever, and they find themselves becoming friends very quickly. Instead of being threatened by Marti's arrival, Savannah is enthusiastic about it. When the coach says she picked Marti because Marti's moves were so different and stood out from the usual routines they've been doing (and the coach needs to shake things up to keep funding for the cheerleading squad--because the college has hired her sleazy ex as a coach and are going to pay him a lot of money, leading to potential love triangles among characters I just don't give a shit about yet, to be honest), instead of getting angry over it, Savannah joins in and follows Marti's lead and starts improvising. After getting off on the wrong foot, Savannah and Marti see each other for who they are and become friends through conversation and shared purpose, instead of being pissy rivals.

Of course, this cuts down on bitchy Tisdale time (there's another girl that Marti gets into it with as a rival), but what more than makes up for it is that look Savannah's giving Marti up there. There's this sort of... intensity to the way they play off of each other. It reminds me of Maddie and London, actually. So... once again Tis is part of what looks to me like a covert lesbian relationship on television. And with the Disney Channel just degrading in quality at an almost constant level, it's nice to have some kind of constant to go to.

Seriously, it's just so weirdly charged. When Savannah starts to relax during the cheering improv, there's this moment where the two face each other and get into this routine...

Good God, it's like they're symbolically fucking through cheer/dance/stripping/tumbling. It's AMAZING.

I love this fucking show on a couple of different levels right now.

Realistically, I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who isn't a teenager or who doesn't like these kinds of trashy, slick, almost satirical soap operas (shows like Desperate Housewives, a show that totally ended up winning me over when it hit syndication). But a certain kind of person is going to enjoy the hell out of it. It's fun, it's sexy, it's just the right amount of silly.

You've got me back, CW. It took Kevin Murphy to do it again, but you've got me back.

25 Years of Super Mario Bros

Wow, Super Mario Bros. was released 25 years ago today. I actually remember playing this game at an arcade before even having an NES. Of course, Mario really starts with Donkey Kong, and then Mario Bros., which I also played many times at the arcade. But his career as "super" began 25 years ago today, and... wow, yeah, it's one of those moments that remind me how old I really am.

I think I'll finish up Super Mario Galaxy 2 tonight, as a mini-celebration/acknowledgment. I finally completed Twilight Princess, so I've got to get back to the other game.

My life in video games. From Donkey Kong to Super Mario Galaxy 2.

UPDATE: Here's the Mario history tribute video from Nintendo of Japan. (Thanks, Richie!)

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kevin McCarthy 1914-2010

Kevin McCarthy is an actor who, in a way, I grew up with. I think I probably first saw him as the villain in Innerspace, and then in UHF. I always look for him in Joe Dante movies, and I delight whenever I see him elsewhere. I can't even recall all of the movies I've seen him in at this point, though of course he's best known for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a role he repeated, in a way, in the 1978 remake of the film--and also, in funny moments, in Robert Rodriguez' RoadRacers and Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action). He had a long life, and I always loved to see him in movies and on TV. He passed away yesterday at the age of 96 of natural causes.

Thanks for the fun, sir.

Song of the Week: "This Charming Man"

I love the Smiths. I hope that's not the basis for anyone to fall in love with me without knowing anything else about my personality, wants, or desires, though. I have a feeling the story they told about it would be rather one-sided and cheesy...