Thursday, December 27, 2012

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon

The envelope please…

The winners, the losers, the snubs, the back stories, the gossip, the players, the games…this time it’s all about Oscar!

We’re back! Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula's Cinema Club and I aka Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken and Freckled are hosting a new, mammoth blogathon event that coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, February 1 to March 3, 2013. It’ll be a month filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders.

But this one is not just for classic film fare; we want to see and hear it all from the golden man’s more than eighty-year history, up to and including this year’s nominees. And you don’t have to stick to just Best Picture or acting winners. Posts about nominees or winners in all the other categories…Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Cinematography, etc….are more than welcome.

The details:
Let us know what you’ll be writing about by email [prattkellee[at]] or leave us a comment.
Submit links to as many posts as you would like by email or by comments in time for any of the following due dates throughout the month. Submissions should include as much information about you as possible: First name, Twitter username, link(s) to your site(s) and email address.

January 31
February 7
February 14
February 21
February 28

We’ll promote entries for an entire week after each due date. If you have a preferred promotion date, please make a note of that as well. However, we welcome all submissions by any of the dates specified.

This is the banner our lovely co-host Paula created for the blogathon. We encourage you display it on your site to help promote this event and cannot wait to hear from you. See you on the red carpet!!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Top 25 Movies of 2012

This year has been a great year for film. I hope many of my favorites to be deservedly nominated for the coveted Oscar. It's timely that I should share my favorites from 2012. My whacky, fun, and film-obsessed gal-pals Aurora of Once Upon A Screen ( @citizenscreen) and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club ( @Paula_guthat) and I are about to launch an enormous Blogathon of epic proportions. More details coming out VERY soon!

Let's look back at some of the highlights from the last 12 months in cinema. My taste in film spans in genres from the silly comedies to mega-blockbusters to indies and pretty much everything in between. You'll notice my favorites reflect my diverse and eclectic range. In no particular order I offer up:

- I'm confident this film will be nominated for several Oscars and may very well win Best Picture category. It's my pick too and a real triumph for Ben Affleck's directing skills. It's my opinion that he directed THE TOWN (2010) very skillfully as well with his best work being behind the camera. Even though we already know the outcome, based on history; the climatic tension points are serious nail-biters. I was on the edge of my seat as the story unfolded.
- I really enjoyed this sci-fi thriller. It's a more unique plot and it's another example that Bruce Willis chooses his sci-fi vehicles well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows us again that he's one of the very best young actors working today.
- What an enjoyable coming-of-age mini journey. It is signature Wes Anderson film making; both in style and with it's ecsquistate cast... Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartz, Tilda Swinton and more. The wit is sublimely delicious.
- I won't deny that I thoroughly enjoy the superhero flicks. Of the latest Marvel characters and blockbusters... IronMan, Thor, Hulk and Captain America- all of these and a couple more are represented in this. However, due to the mastery of Joss Whedon and his artistic story-telling ability to bring the best in character development and humor, we get SO much more than a reunion of superheroes. This movie was absolutely marvel-ous and a top-grosser with good reason.
-More and more, Jack Black reminds us that there's more to him than the overt physical comedian. This film is an intriguing story about a uniquely charming yet odd character in a small town whose stand-out qualities brings compassionate support from his fellow citizens, even in the face of lies and murder. Black plays this role so superbly and with tremendous sympathy, you find yourself rooting for this exceptional character even when you know you shouldn't. Shirley MacLaine is divine as always.
- I'm a Bond girl. No, not that kind. I've always been a James Bond film fan. Bond films are predictable for a certain formula that's repeated in every Bond flick. Based on Ian Fleming's books of this strong spy character, the films may change the actors over the years but we've grown to expect the same evil villians, the gorgeous Bond girls, beautiful and exototic locales, fast cars, spy gadgets, and supporting cast of Q, M and Money Penny. But Skyfall stood apart from the others for me. It seemed less formula-driven and more focused on a quality action movie. All the Bond traits were present but instead of feeling like a forced formula or campy, it was simply well-done. Daniel Craig is incredibly talented and brings the raw physicality the role demands. I won't reveal too much for those who havent seen it, but there are some wonderful nostalgia nods for us classic Bond fans, too.
- This is a sweetly witty Indie film that explores the intimate play-out of the layered relationships of an aimless man, his friend and her sister. This film takes it's time to explore the natural minutia of a love triangle and it's well-acted with a cast that includes Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt.
- Here's another Oscar prediction for me. I believe Lincoln will be nominated for Best Picture amongst other noms and may indeed win. I wasn't certain before seeing Lincoln if they were going to cover part or his entire life in a broad scope of specific timelines, including his assasination. SPOILER ALERT: Turns out, the plot mainly covers the behind the scenes politics regarding the 13th Admendment and his 2nd term as President. I've always been an ardent fan of President Lincoln and there have been many films to cover this popular President. My favorite was always Henry Fonda's charming and funny portrayal of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939). But I'm so blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal here that I predict that he will not only be nominated for Best Actor but will assuredly win that golden statuate, too.
-This film is getting a great deal of Oscar buzz too- and it's not surprising why. It's a close look at some very real characters with some very real problems. Bradley Cooper adeptly plays a troubled soul, just released from rehab with acutely obsessive traits that centers on his cheating wife and the trauma triggered by that jarring discovery. He gets help and support from family (his father played by Robert DeNiro shows the fruit doesn't fall very far from the tree) and friends- including a new friend played by the very talented Jennifer Lawrence. But we see that in real-life, our friends and family have their own troubles and flaws, too. On a side note, I was also pleased to see Chris Tucker included in this great cast in such a wonderful vehicle.
-I was practically dragged to this film. I had low expectations going into this as I anticipated it to be some campy animated kids' rehash of any Tim Burton production. I was actually pleasantly surprised. Yes, it's undoubtedly trademark Tim Burton style but not in a tired and over-done way. Instead, it was a surprisingly fresh twist to the classic Burton style. It almost felt like the 1st time watching EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990). Despite a generally predictable plot, there are some very funny scenes and without giving away too much, I urge you to look out for a litle girl and her kitty. Hilarious and magnificent animation.
-Unlike so many folks, I have not read this popular book so I went in with an open-mind- only assuming from trailers it has something to do with a young man curiously stuck in a boat with a tiger. I won't give away the plot here but it was an interesting and absolutely beautiful adventure. I recommend seeing it in 3-D, as it's worth the higher ticket price.
- This was another movie I grudgingly attended yet exited with serendipity. The animation style was unique with a nice departure from the typical Pixar/Disney fare. This story was surprisingly sweet and heart-felt for a Halloween theme with character development. It's a great family film for most ages.
-It's rare when a third film in a series/franchise of mega-budget blockbuster is both financially successful and as critically acclaimed as this one. This Batman film does not dissapoint but rather delivers a roller coaster of constant action, a steady stream of plot twists and turns, dark stylings from director Chris Nolan with a solid cast of perfectly suited actors. It even has some emotionally charged moments. For a fun thrill ride, skip the pricey amusement park pass make an insignificant investment in this film.
- For me, this was the most hilarious film of 2012. I give full warning that one must possess a dark and kinda twisted sense of humor to fully appreciate the comedic genius of this. Sam Rockwell, Colin Firth and Christopher Walken are spot-on. Although the storyline can be rather fiendish, if you're as sick-humored as myself I think you will find yourself in stiches. I honestly think this was one of the best films I've seen all year (in a year of many greats.)
- This film takes on the gritty and uncomfortable subject of addiction, a great deal more than aviation (the opposite of what I expected from the trailers). Denzel Washington gives a stellar performance and should be nominated for Best Actor for this role. The core plot and ending was fairly predictable but Washington's contribution makes it more than worthwhile.
- I really enjoyed this movie. It was delightfully different to see such an honest and close look at intimacy of married couples in their mature years. It was less cliche than it could have been but instead took on a more respectful view of the realities and challenges of marriage deep into the hum-drum routine of decades together. Both Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific. And in reference to his supporting role, I always enjoy seeing Steve Carell take on less humor-based roles as he brings a certain sensitivity with authenticity.
- Raunchy yes, but damn funny. I'm a Seth McFarlane and "Family Guy" fan so I'm clearly the right audience for this level of humor. If you enjoy toilet humor with a bit of FLASH GORDON, you'll appreciate this one.
- I'll admit this one follows a pretty predictable formula but I enjoyed the ride anyway. The pace is fast, as it should be, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers supremely as usual. I think by now it's obvious I am biased towards Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
- I heard many critics pan LAWLESS when it was released, but I thought it was great. It takes on the story of brothers trying to deal with economic hardship and gangsters during Prohibition, on their own terms...via moonshine. Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pierce bring the stand-out performances here.
-Another surprising solid third in a series. It's definitely no Oscar contender but special effects are strong and the storyline keeps you engaged enough. Josh Brolin plays the perfect younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K.
-You gotta LOVE a sassy, independently-minded, strong-willed Celtic lass with a mind of her own. Perhaps I can relate to this young lady just a bit. But I also found myself relating to the mother... in the struggle that every Mom and daughter relationship goes through as the daughter approaches the age of adulthood. There are some very funny and believable scenes of animation skill when the mother turns into a bear. A sweet family film.
- My kids read the books so we went into this film with high anticipation. Although slightly different from the book (as every film usually is), the translation still resulted in a fabulous film. The story is compelling and Jennifer Lawrence gives an especially outstanding performance.
- This witty film with a mostly British and strong ensemble cast, shares multiple characters as they each seek a better life in a renovated hotel in India. The plot is mostly light but the superior acting brings a healthy dose of heart. I found it to be delightful.
- I just saw this last weekend and I'll admit I'm not a big LORD OF THE RINGS fan nor did I read THE HOBBIT book. (Although I believe it was one of my Mom's favorite books.) But I enjoyed this movie very much. It has the right balance of an adventuresome storyline, beguiling characters and a lot of action to keep the quest moving along. If you don't want the HFR effect in 3D, there's always the just as entertaining 2D version.
- We went to see this just last night. I was especially anxious to see this one because I have been a hard-core fan of Hitch since childhood. I was curious to see how they would portray my beloved and obsessively quirky director. Instead of depicting the entire and prolific career of Alfred Hitchcock, most of the film focuses solely on the time he worked on one particular film... a film that made him the most famous (I'll let you figure out that one or simply go see for yourself). But it also explores Hitch's relationship with his wife Alma, in a more intimate and meaningful way. I loved this film and found it to be intriguing. The entire cast is wonderful. Helen Mirren gives integrity to Alma and sympathetic insight to their complex relationship. Anthony Hopkins does an uncanny Hitch portrayal- certain profile and full length shots were chilling in physical similarity. And James D'Arcy is eerily unmistakable as Tony Perkins.

In a 'special mention' for my top 2012 films, I'd like to note that I look forward to seeing Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED that comes out on Christmas Day. I'll let you know if it should be worthy to add to the list. Also, It's likely I unintentially omitted quality movies that I failed to include. This would be the result of my middle-aged brain forgetting many of the films from earlier in the year or perhaps I simply haven't seen them yet. I've seen all of the films I listed above and an overwhelming majority I watched opening weekend, as I prefer with all the films that pique my interest. Hope you enjoyed my list! What are some of your 2012 film favorites ?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Memories and Holiday Movies

What is it about Christmas time? Even for a non-religious person like me, I'm incredibly sentimental and always the cheerleader of Christmas. As many of you may already know, my husband's twitter handle is @Santaisthinking ... yup, Mr. Kris Kringle himself. So, it is very fitting that I should be Mrs. Claus.

I'm actually one of those lunatic folks that could listen to Christmas music year-round (that is if anyone around me would allow it.) So instead you will find me quietly humming Christmas carols in the kitchen long after the season has ended. And the moment the fresh cut trees hit the lot (often about a week prior to Thanksgiving), I'm there as their first customer. We always decorate our tree with an Irish theme to match my Irish heritage and of course some Hallmark keepsake ornaments, too. I festoon the rest of the house in shades of silver and mercury and with trees, snow globes and a multitude of other holiday decor.

My love for this holiday comes from my mother. She loved Christmas with a passion, too. She once told me, "a Christmas tree isn't magic unless it's a real tree." Since birth, every one of my Christmas trees has been real. Times have been tight many, many times over the years. So there was a couple of my Christmas trees that were actually house plants covered in ornaments because we couldn't afford a Douglas or Fraser fir from the lot. But the Christmas spirit was still present those times- in a Charlie Brown kind of way.

Back when I was a child and when both my mother and grandmother were still alive, Christmas must have been bittersweet for my Mom. She would often fight with her mother at Christmas. My maternal grandmother was bipolar and there was something about that holiday that seemed to bring out the intensity and conflict in her. Fortunately, my mother was the poster child for child-like optimism. So despite that bitter history associated with Christmas, she always made Christmas magical for us. Christmas Eve has always been spent with my mother's side of the family and Christmas day with my father's side. On my father's side, I have fond memories of so many of us - aunts, uncles and cousins (my father has six sisters) all cramming into my grandparents' house... more than a couple dozen of us spread out all over the place. I recall coming over on Christmas days, looking forward to my knee sock stocking that always had the same treasures of an orange, some chocolate and comic books. I loved those youthful holidays where my winter break from school meant countless hours of playing board games and enjoying grandma's cooking with all my aunts, uncles and cousins. This family scheduling tradition has been held over the years without alteration because when you come from such a large Irish family, with extended family and divorces, it's really the only way to see everyone. Christmas morning is reserved for immediate family to see what goodies Santa brings.

One of the fun parts of Christmas time are the holiday movies and TV specials. There are so many favorites I look forward to enjoying, year after year. I'm a fan of so many of both the old classics and some modern ones, too. One of my fondest memories were those Bass Rankin claymation shows. My husband bought the collection years ago so we can continue to enjoy them, along with our own kids. "Charlie Brown Christmas Special", "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and "Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer" are my favorites. "The Little Drummer Boy" was always my mother's favorite.

My favorite holiday-themed movies are numerous. Of the classics, my family introduced me to the best in Christmas flicks as a child:

It's A Wonderful Life
The Bishop's Wife
The Bells of St. Mary's
Miracle on 34th Street
Christmas in Connecticut
The Thin Man
White Christmas

Despite my obvious affection for classic film, there have been some newer holiday-themed movies that I also enjoy (perhaps with less nostalgia):

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Love Actually
The Holiday
Planes, Trains and Automobiles* (Thanksgiving is actually the holiday here but that's close enough for me)
Die Hard
Home Alone (despite the physical prank and child abandonment focus, it has some very sweet holiday moments)
Four Christmases

All of these above films either take place during the holidays or it's a main topic. Thank you for indulging me as I share my holiday movie list and I hope you enjoy your own holiday favorites this special time of year. Remember to slow down enough from the hectic hustle and bustle to enjoy the lights, the decor, the smells, the sounds, the tastes and all the treasures of what this season means to you, spent with dear friends and family. HAPPY HOLIDAYS from my family to yours...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

KC's Horror Hostess: Crematia Mortem

The Classic Film TV Cafe aka Rick at @classic_film has partnered with the new Classic TV Blog Association to host a tribute to those memorable TV hosts who brought us late night horror movies. The Classic TV Horror Host Blogathon will run from October 24-31 (concluding, appropriately, on Halloween). It's an opportunity to pay homage to such memorable hosts as Dr. Evil, Svengoolie, Sir Graves Ghastly, Dr. Paul Bearer, Elvira, Sammy Terry, The Bowman Body, Vampira, Chilly Billy, and countless others.

For me, I can't help but fondly recall my favorite local horror TV hostess of Kansas City, Crematia Mortem. This hostess with the creepy most-ess (aka Roberta Solomon, vocal and TV talent in KC) was the host of a late night TV show "CREATURE FEATURE" which aired from 1981-1988 and featured the best of the worst in horror and monster flicks. So, it was throughout my high school years that I would stay up late on weekend nights along with my sister, sometimes my uncle Pat (when he was home from college in the summer months) or friends. My mother died in May of 1981 so my little sister and I left Taos, NM and moved in with family members, back to a suburb of Kansas City.

You could say growing up watching old movies was always a favorite pastime of mine. But by the time my mother died with yet another major change injected into my childhood, watching campy creature and horror flicks became an enjoyable form of escapism for me. At around the age of 12, I followed the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and read from my favorite book of Alfred Hitchcock stories that I received for my birthday. So, by that summer of 81', KSHB Channel 41's "CREATURE FEATURE" was a fun distraction on weekend nights.

The show's premise featured Crematia Mortem as a pale-faced with black wig character like a vampiress that hosted mostly B level horror and creature flicks, always with a healthy dose of camp. The gags were silly and obvious. Props were hilariously cheap. The set was basically a high-backed wicker chair, a coffin (Crematia's bed, of course!), hand-painted walls and poor lighting. And the cheap cheesiness of it all was thoroughly entertaining. 

Crematia was known for her bad jokes and puns- that were all fabulously terrible. She had a supporting cast that joined in from time to time like her 2 servants, Dweeb "aka man in the wall" and Rasputin, who were heard but never seen on-camera.  Her creepy-camp family members would make appearances like her sister "Cremora", her mother "Desiree" (essentially a man in a dress) and goofy lunatic cousin Henry.

Crematia Mortem and the "CREATURE FEATURE" represented a simpler time. Not just for me personally but for countless others who loyally followed and relish those years of classic and campy horror films. It was a time when many TV stations were still independently and locally owned in towns across the country; allowing such creative shows to thrive on even the lowest of budgets. She remains a Kansas City legend for those of us who were coming of age during the 80's. Roberta Soloman continues work as a well-known vocal talent on radio and TV to this day. By the way, the Crematia Mortem's legend continues to thrive via social media. Yes, she does have a Facebook page and yes, I do follow her!   

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Val Lewton: A Horror Original and Modern Influencer

When I discovered there was to be a Val Lewton blogathon hosted by twitter film pals Stephen aka @sreggie and Kristina aka @HQofK , I just had to to get in on the action. This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man and Kristina of the Speakeasy blog.

I'm a fan of the horror genre. Not the typical youthful fan that enjoys 'the more blood splatter, the better' school of thought though. Most of the horror genre I love generally falls into 'classic horror' camp. I want to be scared in a slowly building process. I want the fear to hit me at the core only after it's gotten inside my head, in that more subtle way. When I think of a filmmaker who was masterful at doing this in a most beautiful way, I think of Val Lewton.
Lewton was Russian-born as Vladimir Leventon in 1904, then landed in the United States in 1909 after a brief few years in Berlin. He was a natural storyteller from a young age. Raised in a suburb of New York, he then studied journalism at Columbia University and went on to write 18 works of both fiction and non-fiction. He worked for a stint writing copy and promos at MGM's Publicity department. While writing a few novels on the side, only "No Bed Of Her Own" brought success at that time. So he quit and moved to Hollywood to work for David O.Selznick, as his assistant and publicist throughout the late 30's. Here he gained some good experience and better exposure. He was known for suggesting the aerial wide-shot view of streets chock full of dying soldiers scene in GONE WITH THE WIND, which Selznick chose to add.

But in 1942, Lewton was offered a lucrative deal as head of the Horror Dept. for RKO. He was paid handsomely but his burden was to crank out horror flicks fast and furious on a low budget with catchy titles. RKO wanted to capture the same magic Universal experienced with it's line-up of horror genre films that headlined Karloff and Lugosi. Val Lewton had an uncanny ability to remain true to his responsibilities to please RKO, yet still managed to turn out his own magic within these low budget films. One of his most well-known of these RKO horror flicks was his very first production, Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE (1942).
CAT PEOPLE (1942) is such a great example of the Val Lewton style. Filmed in a beautiful noir shades of black and white, it imbues a sexy tone in more ways than simply via the plot. It oozes a moody eroticism in imagery. It's a psychological thriller that builds suspense gradually and never overtly. Serbian Irena Reed (played by Simone Simon) falls for an American man whom she then loses to another woman, Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph). With a brief yet bizarre encounter with a strange woman in a restaurant, Irena becomes convinced she's part of ancient tribe of 'cat people' who turn into panthers whenever passionate jealousy is triggered. There are two scenes in this film that remain in anyone's memory whose seen this film. One is the infamous pool scene, where Alice is in a pool alone, yet becomes terrified as she 'senses' the presence of cat people/stalker, Irena. The other scene is where Alice is walking along a dark street, passing under street lamps and while we initially hear nothing but the clicking of her heels as she walks along, she also begins to 'sense' another presence following her and we see her terror gradually set in.

What's key about these scenes and reflective of the Val Lewton style, is that they exhibit a building tension that is truly more terrifying that any typical blood fest film. With little dialogue and no tricks nor props, Lewton creates horror by getting inside our heads and arousing our senses slowly. Everything about Irena's character is sexual and primal in nature, just like a black sleek panther. The symbolism is haunting and erotic.

I've always been drawn to Lewton's style and any films that exhibit such similar style. I think Lewton's approach was unique and he was an original in horror genre and film-making. Impressive considering his low budget restraints. He influenced countless others but he was an original in creating this magnetic quality. It's said that he's influenced Alfred Hitchcock (whom he was instrumental in bringing to the U.S.), Martin Scorsese, George Romero and Robert Wise to name a few. Personally, when I think of the horror genre films that followed his productions, there are many who clearly took cue from the Lewton style book. One such example of an attempt at a Lewton style for me, is the popular TV show, F/X's "American Horror Story." Although it clearly infuses the modern elements of horror, it also blends in the Lewton influence. Now in it's 2nd season, this show takes moments to create a sexy, often primal tone. From it's characters to plot points, there is a decidedly sexual tension as the show moves through fascinating story lines.

I encourage you to test my theory. Please watch CAT PEOPLE (1942) and all of Val Lewton's productions, then watch horror films, especially films that followed by the aforementioned filmmakers and even "American Horror Story" and "American Horror Story:Asylum" (2nd season). Then, watch for potential connections of style and tone. Be sure to let me know if Lewton affects you in the same way and whether you see his ongoing influence today.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Original Vampire: Nosferatu

Last weekend I was delighted to attend a live screening of F. W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922). The timing of this silent classic fits in nicely with my October series of horror classics. My town's local arts center in partnership with Footprints' Birkenstock sponsors an ongoing series for silent film screenings. This was the 2nd of silent gems I had the pleasure to see as part of this series.

My husband and I were once again joined by our dear twitter pal, Trevor (aka @tpjost whom some of you may know as a #TCMparty co-host along with Paula aka @Paula_Guthat), who drove a few hours to get to our little college town of Lawrence, Kansas. We started off by meeting at a local gourmet burger joint, The Burger Stand, which is beginning to become a bit of a tradition for us prior to our Lawrence silent film screenings. As Trevor would likely tell it, apparently my Irish has influenced these gatherings based on the level of imbibing that takes place each time. Luckily for my hubby and me, we've reached an age where we pace ourselves. Nuff' said.
After filling up on burgers and spirits, we walked over to the Lawrence Arts Center and settled into seats right up front and center. I recognized neighbors and other familiar faces in the crowd. Then, Bill Shaffer, best known as for his work with the Kansas Silent Film Festival, came out on stage to introduce our fabulous event. He also introduced our evening's musical accompaniment, The Alloy Orchestra.
What a treat to see this masterpiece with live musical sound editing in harmony, newly composed by The Alloy Orchestra just for this film. Alloy is known for it's unique stylings of sound with use of unusual objects, all within a three man ensemble. They've helped revive a modern following to silent film via film festivals and venues such as The Telluride Film Festival, The Louvre, Lincoln Center and even The Academy of Motion Pictures. And boy, did they deliver!

It had been many, many full moons since I had seen NOSFERATU so I was looking forward to this screening for weeks. What a perfect way to prep for the Halloween season. In watching this German expressionist classic I was reminded why it's endured as the vampire flick that has truly influenced all the others that followed. Based upon Bram Stoker's infamous novel, Max Schreck is an absolutely startling vision on the big screen as "Dracula." His long, dark coat drapes his thin body in stark contrast with his ghost-white glowing gaunt face, with no neck to speak of.  His bald head creates no distraction from his bat-like over-sized and pointy ears with darkly shadowed, hollow eyes that literally send a chill up your spine. Adding to this visage were his tremendously long, sharp fingers and nails always reaching out or extended like animal claws. But the zinger for me was his teeth. Unlike what's commonly seen with vampires in more recent depictions, Schreck's teeth are all fangs- not just a couple of bicuspids. And they are uniformly long, skinny, and almost like white needles.

What's always amazing to me with silents is that with very little dialogue typed up on that screen, the bulk of storytelling is left to expression, reaction, and visual mastery. NOSFERATU does a beautiful job of telling the "Dracula" story in a more raw and simplistic way than modern films yet it remains a chilling cinematic experience to this day.     

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

As part of my ongoing tribute to fun and spooky classic films throughout October, today I present to you my offering of Alan Rafkin's THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966). Yes, this family classic is the perfect addition to my line-up of what reflects my childhood favorites and I continue enjoy with my family.

After a successful run on the popular TV series, "The Andy Griffith Show" (1960-1968), Don Knotts who played the bumbling, high-strung deputy Barney Fife decided to branch out on his own in a film career. Knotts left at the end of the 1964/1965 season. By the time he made the decision to leave the show, he had already been working in supporting roles on several TV series and a few bit parts in films like Stanley Kramer's IT'S A MAD, MAD WORLD (1960) and Michael Gordon's MOVE OVER, DARLING (1963). Then came the chance to show his ability to play a headliner in Arthur Lupin's THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (1964). It validated his name could bank at the box office.

So, with Alan Rafkin in the director's chair and Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum writing the screenplay, the successes this trio experienced at "The Andy Griffith Show", they brought to THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966). In addition to "The Andy Griffith Show", Emmy award winning Alan Rafkin also directed episodes from over 80 TV series of the cream of the crop in successful sitcoms like "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H," "Murphy Brown," "Get Smart," and "Coach." In addition, the supporting cast in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966) included some of the most active and popular characters actors (including many Andy Griffith Show alumni) working in television at that time:

Joan Staley... Alma Parker
Liam Redmond... Kelsey
Dick Sargent... George Beckett
Skip Homeier... Ollie Weaver
Reta Shaw... Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell
Lurene Tuttle... Mrs. Natalie Miller
Philip Ober... Nicholas (as Phil Ober)
Harry Hickox... Police Chief Art Fuller
Charles Lane... Lawyer Whitlow
Jesslyn Fax... Mrs. Hutchinson
Nydia Westman... Mrs. Cobb
George Chandler... Judge Harley Nast
Robert Cornthwaite... Lawyer Springer
Jim Begg... Deputy Herkie (as James Begg)
Sandra Gould... Loretta Pine
James Millhollin... Mr. Milo Maxwell
Cliff Norton... Charlie, the Bailiff
Ellen Corby... Miss Neva Tremaine
Jim Boles... Billy Ray Fox

With a talented team both behind and in front of the camera, Knotts stars as our awkward, jittery unexpected hero of this family-fun ghost story- Luther Heggs. Luther is a typesetter for a small Kansas town's newspaper but has ambitions of moving up to to the 'big time' of reporting. His chance comes when the editor tasks Luther to spend the night at the spooky, unoccupied Simmons mansion on the 20th anniversary of the infamous murder-suicide that took place there. Nick Simmons, family heir to the estate has returned with intent to demolish it. So Luther has little time to waste to sneak in a brave night at the eery home. The entire town buzzes with excitement as Luther reports tales of haunted sightings from his brave attempted sleepover. From strange organ music that plays by itself to garden shears stuck in a portrait painting dripping blood and other ghostly sightings, Luther witnesses first-hand the dusty dwelling having a creepy life of its own. His accounts of his scary night becomes his introduction to reporting and an instant town legend. Nick Simmons is less favorable than the rest of the town over this news, and takes Luther to court, suing him for libel. With some courtroom antics and a final trip to the Simmons' mansion, the truth behind the strange happenings and even the identity of a real killer are finally revealed. In the beginning the community has very little confidence in our nervous-natured Luther, but he ultimately becomes the town hero, even winning the heart of the prettiest gal in town.

I won't mislead you into thinking this movie is high level cinema nor even frightening, considering it centers on a haunted mansion with the word 'ghost' in it's title. But it's a ghostly classic family flick that even the younger members of the family can watch. That seems to be an exceedingly rare quality in starting a Halloween cinema tradition, with the current domination of bloody slasher films. Now mind you, my tastes are diverse within cinema and the horror genre is no exception. So, while my favorite shows on TV right now are F/X's "American Horror Story" and AMC's "Walking Dead" (both pretty scary stuff my younger kids' are not allowed to watch), I admit still enjoy watching THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), with or without my kids. I hope you enjoy tickling your funny bone with this family fun classic, too!

By the way, if that Simmons mansion looks familiar, it should. Filmed at Universal's backlots, the street scenes were also used in Joe Dante's THE BURBS (1989). And the opening shots of the mansion, also known as the Harvey House, was used in well-known TV shows like "Desperate Housewives" and the Munster house in "The Munsters."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Young Frankenstein

As I promised, my blog scribblings for the month of October will focus on the spooky and fun film classics I have enjoyed since child hood. Today, I bring to you that hilarious Halloween classic parody, Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). I grew up being entertained by the people who made and starred in this film. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were, and continue to be, comedic gods to me. And the entire cast is nothing short of brilliancy in farce genius. 

By the time this movie was filmed, Mel Brooks was already a seasoned comedy writer and director. His writing portfolio highlights by 1974 included "Your Show of Shows" (1950-1954), "Caesar's Hour" (1954-1957), "Get Smart" (1970-1979) on TV and screenplay writing/directing for THE PRODUCERS (1968), THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970), BLAZING SADDLES (1974). And this was still early in his continually successful career! Brooks is one of only a handful of few to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. He won an Oscar for the screenplay of THE PRODUCERS (1968); 3 Emmys for his guest appearance as Uncle Phil in "Mad About You" (1992); 3 Tonys for the Broadway version of "The Producers" and 3 Grammys- for Best Spoken Comedy Album along with Carl Reiner, "The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000" (1998) and two for The Producers (2001). Impressive for a guy known best for his low-brow gags and indelicate taste, all with memorable Yiddish vernacular. As he said, "my movies rise below vulgarity."  

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks met back in 1963 when Wilder was performing a bit part in a play "Mother Courage" with co-star Anne Bancroft, who was dating Brooks at that time. Brooks invited Wilder to read pages from a screenplay he was working on, "Springtime For Hitler" and offered to give him a part upon completion. A few years pass by with no contact from Mel Brooks. In the meantime, Gene Wilder landed his debut film role in BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) as the neurotic undertaker Eugene. Then out of the blue, Mel Brooks shows up backstage as Wilder was performing in a play and said they were ready to start "Springtime For Hitler" but he needed to audition against Zero Mostel. Zero greeted him with a bold kiss right on the mouth, eschewing any nervous energy Wilder had and after the reading; and the part was his. 

Thus began the ongoing collaberation between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, who both wrote YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Mel Brooks has referred to Gene Wilder as “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us.” Wilder echoed Brooks' character assessment of himself, “When I first met Mel Brooks, he told me that, in his eyes, I was like a sheep surrounded by wolves.”  

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) is a loving spoof and hilarious tribute to Universal Studios' movies of the 1930's films based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. To capture this properly, Brooks insisted it be filmed in black and white- highly uncommon in 1974. When Columbia Pictures discovered this, they were emphatically opposed to the idea which caused Mel Brooks to take the project immediately over to 20th Century Fox Studios where Alan Ladd Jr's recent command was much more accommodating to the black and white experience. Interestingly, all of the lab and electrical equipment used in the film was from the original James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Brooks was thrilled to discover that the original designer of this equipment, Kenneth Strickfaden, had kept all of it in his garage after so many years. It was used in the film and you can see Strickfaden's name credited for both films- same contribution, 43 years apart.

Gene Wilder plays the lead as the descendent of his infamous grandfather/mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He inherits his grandfather's castle where we are introduced to the supporting cast of hilarious talents like Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn and Gene Hackman. This film is brimming with the funniest gags and dialogue that remain just as entertainingly hilarious to this day.

Some of my favorite bits include Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced "eye-gore") who acts oblivious to his ever-shifting hump- this idea was added by Feldman himself. Or the corny yet still laughable, "walk this way...this way" bit which was influenced by William Powell as THE THIN MAN and later inspired Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" famous rock song. And let's not forget Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher whose very namesake brings whinnying terror to the horses, every single time.

There are some true gems in dialogue throughout, as well. And who doesn't know verbatim the line, "nice knockers" delivered by Wilder's Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced "fronk-en-stein") referencing the large door handles yet Teri Garr's Inga assumes it's a compliment to her own assets. Another unforgettable quote is when Igor reveals he took the wrong brain and when asked the name on the substitute jar he admits, "Abby something... Abby Normal." And I would be remiss if I did not mention the quote my husband and I love to lob to each other all the time. While digging in the graveyard, a filthy job as Wilder's Dr. Frankenstein bemoans; Feldman's Igor cheerfully responds, "Could be worse... could be raining." And immediately it downpours. To this day, whenever my husband or myself complains in a grumpy tone, the other chirps in with "Could be worse" and it's immediately retorted with, "it could be raining." It always brightens our mood and brings a smile.

This is a film I own on DVD and watch several times throughout the year but always during October as Halloween approaches. I love the way this film always makes me laugh, no matter how many times I've watched it. I adore the cast. Every actor is uniquely talented in their character portrayal. I'm biased because I find Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman especially hilarious in all their roles. For me, it's a "no-brainer" that this should always be seen as part of your October cinematic traditions, as it is in mine. Happy October!

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's October~ Fun for All!

Fall is such a wondrous time.. a real awakening to the senses. The temps start to cool off in the evenings. The leaves start to turn such beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red. I break out all my standard Autumnal decor for the porch and house. I've already planted deep purple clusters of mums along the sidewalk, leading up to the front porch where my collection of various pumpkins and gourds has already begun. I love to fill the house with that delicious aromatic smell of pumpkin spice so the scented candles have been burning daily for the past week. And yes, I'm a holiday nut so the Halloween decor is gradually popping up all over, as well.

I adore Halloween. What a fun holiday for both kids and adults to play. And one of my favorite pastimes for this month is watch all the fun and spooky Halloween-themed classic films. I have a sentimental fondness for all those films I enjoyed as a kid. I realize that many enjoy those bloody slasher films that have become so popular, often with the theme of creatively figuring out how to gruesomely torture young people to death. Literally.

But for me, most of the films I prefer this time of year range from suspenseful thrillers to the thoroughly silly. I plan to watch these films all this month, as I tend to do every October- and share them with you! Be on the look out for blogs to come over the next few weeks including such family fun classics like Mel Brook's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), Alan Rafkin's THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), and Frank Capra's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). In addition to these family favs, and perhaps a spine-tingling classic horror (Vincent Price comes to mind), I plan to blog on a very special cinema treat- a live screening of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's silent classic NOSFERATU (1922). My local arts center is showing this legendary film that influenced countless others on October 14th, so you can count on that being included in my line-up. Additionally, I signed up to participate in the Val Lewton Blogathon, hosted by Stephen of Classic Movie Man and Kristina of Speakeasy. I'm bringing an interesting angle to this piece. I ambitiously hope to show Lewton's influence on modern horror from Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE (1942) to today's popular TV series, American Horror Story.

So, as you enjoy this month through hayrides, haunted houses, apple cider sipping, jack-o-lantern carving or whatever may be your favorite October tradition, please follow my blogs this month to possibly add some new Autumnal treats. These are films that can be enjoyed with friends or the entire family over and and over again, so I hope they become a tradition in your family, too!

Monday, October 1, 2012

2012 Buster Keaton Celebration

 I'm a classic film fan. Not a historian, not a film critic. I've only taken one film class in my life. It was about 20 years ago while a Communications student at the University of Kansas. So while I do not profess to be an expert in film, I've always been a passionate fan. And if the wisdom of living this long teaches one anything, it's that we cannot avoid our passions. We follow our passions whether through vocation and education or otherwise. As such, I found myself following my passions again this weekend with the paths leading me to Iola, Kansas to the 20th Buster Keaton Celebration.

I'm a Kansas native. But I lived in Taos, NM for a chunk of my childhood- from ages 8-14. In Taos, there was a local arts center that also offered screenings of silents and a few 'talkies' of classic comedies on Saturday mornings. I was enthralled by those showings such as: Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, Keystone Cops, Abbott and Costello. In the last half decade, I've explored my passion for classic film more deeply (including blogging about it.) And more recently, my desire has come to learn more about the origins of classic film and especially within my favorite genre of comedy, silent film.

In February earlier this year, I discovered through fellow twitter pals and silent film aficionados, Trevor (see us above) and Nikki (aka @tpjost and @nikkilynn4), the Kansas Silent Film Festival. By attending this delightful cinematic experience, I discovered another Kansas silent film tradition- the Buster Keaton Celebration. This year marked the 20th year of the Keaton Celebrations.

The event takes place in Iola, Kansas; about an hour and half drive from my house and about seven miles from Pique (pronounced "pick-way'), Kansas- birthplace to Buster Keaton. I felt fortunate to attend the 20th year as much of the event was a nod to the past 20 years. Before this weekend, I knew little about the event other than it was free and an annual 2 day line-up devoted to Buster. I figured I had nothing to lose beyond a pretty drive through the Kansas countryside in Autumn.Wow, was I pleasantly surprised.
My first surprise hit me when it became clear that the Keaton Celebration is just that- a celebration, not a film festival. Unlike a film festival which is often a series of film screenings with introductions, this 'celebration' is a true tribute to the man and his work. This year included a schedule of educational lectures from college professors and Keaton historians from across the country, the Founders' panel recapping highlights from the past 20 years, a Keaton family panel with 3 family members, and a film historians'/preservationists' panel. And, yes, there were a few Keaton screenings, as well.
I found the panel discussions and lectures informative and fascinating. It was a revealing lecture by Dr. Brian Johnston of Indiana State University that Keaton's/co-directed by Clyde Bruckman's THE GENERAL (1926) was based on a true event in history. Only Buster Keaton's genius could turn thorough planning and research of this historical event into an enduring classic work of comedy. Somehow, that historical significance was unknown to both me and my silent film enthusiast, Trevor. That background history made the Saturday evening screening of THE GENERAL (1926), on the big screen and with live orchestral accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, even more spectacular.

One of the highlights was the appearance and candid discussions by film historians/preservationists' Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard. British filmmaker, director, editor, producer, author and silent film expert- Brownlow is one of only a few film preservationists in history to win an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. From his restoration work at the AFI to his own Blackhawk Films Library, Shepard is a renowned for his restorations and quality video production of a long list of significant silent films. To be in the same room with these folks whom are so responsible for the restoration of Keaton's work and countless other silent and rare film treasures, I was undoubtedly awe-struck. 

What a treat to listen to the very personal stories and see family photos of Buster Keaton from an intimate point of view from Barbara Talmadge (daughter-in-law), Harry Keaton, Jr. (grandson) and his grand daughter, Melissa Talmadge Cox (clearly the favorite grand child). You could feel the very personal and affectionate welcoming in that auditorium. This was so much more than a schedule of film screenings- it was more like a friendly reunion of close family and friends mixed with all the college classes you wish you had taken, but never did.

Another surprise to me was the number of celebrities that have attended and continue to appear at this gathering in a small town in Kansas. This year's noteworthy celeb was award-winning actor and long-time friend of Buster's, James Karen. He was kind enough to pose with me. I posted the photo above, which reflects me awkwardly blushing and a bit star-struck, as he had just complimented me with, "always happy to take a picture with a beautiful woman." Of course, that was the icing on the cake after an enlightening weekend. Some of the celebrity appearances from past years' include: famous film critic/ writer/ and producer, Leonard Maltin (year 1996), Steve Allen (in 2000, who impromptu played piano after his discussion yet sadly passed one month later), Edie Adams (in 2004, to graciously take the place of her recently deceased husband Ernie Kovacs, a longtime friend and colleague of Buster's), and family members of W.C. Fields, just to name a few.   

Overall, it was a magical experience that I plan to make an annual tradition. I was happy my husband joined the 2nd day and I know he especially enjoyed the rare Keaton showings up on the big screen. See their site for the full schedule and details on the Buster Keaton Celebration: Oh, and one more serendipitous moment... it turns out that a key Keaton Celebration organizer who also has provided most of the artwork for their posters is Kansas City film historian and multi-talented John C. Tibbetts. I recognized him immediately. He was the KU professor who taught me the only film class I've ever taken. As I said, we can't hide from our passions. They lead us down sometimes unexpected paths. This past weekend, mine led me to Iola, Kansas.