Tag Archives: Hollywood

I’ll Always Give Thanks for the Movies

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, the time when we take stock of our lives and acknowledge the amazing gifts we’ve been given.

Like most well fed, well cared for, comfy Americans, I have more things to be grateful for than I can list, especially this year, as my husband and I welcomed into our home a magical and mysterious creature, a now 10-month-old daughter who keeps us on our toes.

On a more playful note, and with no disrespect intended to the One our thanks is owed, I’ve been reflecting on my many movie-related blessings. It may be silly, but film is an important part of my life, helping me celebrate what is good and process what isn’t, shining some light into a dark world.

I’m grateful that for 15 years I was privileged to work at my dream job at a local newspaper. Over the course of my career, I performed many different tasks, some of them tedious, but I never grew tired of writing about movies.

Being a film critic is, hands down, the best job ever. I got paid to drive to Los Angeles and see the latest releases before anyone else did. Most Friday afternoons, I’d pop my head through the door of my boss’s office and say, “I’m going to the movies,” before strolling out of the building long before quitting time.

Pondering over, analyzing, nit-picking and discussing films is my favorite pastime and I got to do it for a living, in print, which often resulted in lively debate with readers.

Though I worked on the fringes of Hollywood, I had the opportunity to indulge my passion for movies with a wide spectrum of assignments. I interviewed fans at midnight screenings, talked to actors and directors by phone, covered film festivals, went to museum exhibit openings, delved into Tinseltown history and maneuvered my way onto film sets in the middle of the desert.

I perturbed Steven Spielberg by sneaking onto the Palmdale set of “The Terminal” (at least that’s what his publicists told me). And I passed out right in front of “Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill at a local premiere (but that’s another story).

After all these adventures, I’m surprised at how much I don’t miss my newspaper job, but I do miss spending every day immersed in the silly, strangely satisfying world of Hollywood.

That’s why I’m thankful I still get to go to the movies fairly frequently, thanks to a pair of wonderful grandmothers who don’t mind babysitting. And I’m blessed to continue writing about what I love on this blog, so if you’re reading this post, thank you.

Going to the movies wouldn’t be half as fun without my two moviegoing partners in crime. My husband, Nick, and I spend almost every date night in front of a flickering screen. When I traveled to L.A. for screenings, he was usually at my side, even though those nights could be tiring.

He gamely allows me to drag him to “artsy” fare like “Nightcrawler,” sits through the documentaries I put on our Netflix queue, briefs me on the horror movies I don’t have the nerve to watch and makes sure I’m up-to-date on the latest action flicks.

Best of all, as we leave the theater, he listens patiently while I chatter away, deconstructing everything we’ve just seen. I don’t know if anyone else would be willing to put up with my pompous, opinionated rants.

When I can’t convince Nick to come along with me, I can always count on my fellow film buff, Kristy. She’s the one who goes with me on a Tuesday night to see “Laggies” or “Tracks” or “Boyhood” when no one else will.

When I worked at the paper, she often rode shotgun with me to those exhausting L.A. screenings, hashing out the merits or lack thereof of what we’d just seen during the long drive home.

Kristy and I are gearing up for Oscar season, our favorite time of year, when we spend much of our time tracking the results of awards shows, handicapping the various categories and checking off the list of films we have yet to see.

We also spend way too much time, energy and money organizing the best Oscar party ever, at which someone is always guaranteed to do something crazy, like run down the street wearing a trash bag or dress up like Jennifer Lawrence.

This brings me to the next item on my list of blessings — the fact that one of the best seasons of the year is rapidly approaching.

With the holidays looming, Hollywood is ready to inundate theaters with long anticipated, must-see movies, including “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (opening Friday), “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Into the Woods.” It’s like Christmas. Wait, it is Christmas.

Even when January rolls around and the studios clean out their closets, resulting in one lackluster weekend at the box office after another, I’ll still have much to be grateful for, thanks to my go-to movies, the films that are a constant presence in my life, always there to comfort or enlighten or provide a bit of escape.

It’s not possible to list them all, but I’m grateful for the irrepressible hopefulness of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the soulfulness of “Lost in Translation,” the gothic atmosphere of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” the comedic brilliance of “Bringing Up Baby.”

I’ll never take for granted the perfection of “Casablanca” or “Almost Famous,” “Roman Holiday” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

For these and so many other cinematic gifts, I will always give thanks.

Lavender Kristy trash bagsLavender Vroman and fellow film buff Kristy Rivas take a jog around the block in honor of “Silver Linings Playbook” at a 2013 Oscar party. 

Image at top: Lavender Vroman on one of her moviegoing adventures. Photo by Fawn Kemble.












Hollywood Halloween: ‘The Canterville Ghost’

Looking for Hollywood movies to put you in the mood for Halloween? This classic should help you get into the holiday spirit.

The Canterville Ghost
94 minutes
Available to buy on Amazon and Amazon Instant Video.
There are also countless dubious remakes to choose from, including one from 1996, starring Patrick Stewart and Neve Campbell.

Oscar Wilde, pro-American wartime propaganda, a spooky, ancestral British castle and a portly 17th-century specter make for a strange but pleasant combination in the classic comedy “The Canterville Ghost.”

I recently revisited this World War II-era reworking of Wilde’s short story courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. The network is dusting off classic ghost stories Thursday nights throughout the month of October.

I know I saw this eccentric little black and white comedy as a child, but I had forgotten how wacky it is. This is part of the film’s charm. It’s the sort of harmless haunt you can easily watch with the kids.

“The Canterville Ghost” stars classically trained stage and film actor Charles Laughton, hamming it up as the titular phantom, who shamed the family name by shirking his duty in a duel and was cursed to forever roam the halls of the clan’s stately, old mansion.

His pudgy belly draped in lacy period garb, a wild wisp of a mustache perched precariously atop his lips, Laughton makes for a comical sight, especially with the film’s “transparent” ghostly visual effects. (Before there was Nearly Headless Nick, there was this guy.) The movie’s more dated elements only add to the fun, especially once a troop of American GIs takes up residence in the castle.

The lady of the manor, the precocious, young Jessica (played by the adorably prim and proper Margaret O’Brien), warns the soldiers to be wary of the castle’s unwanted guest. They don’t believe her, of course, until the Canterville Ghost makes an appearance in an encounter that goes refreshingly against the grain of ghost story cliches. (You gotta hand it to those American GIs. They ain’t afraid of no ghosts.)

Merry slapstick ensues as Lady Jessica befriends good natured soldier Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), who might just be the man to break the Canterville curse.

Though the film is shamelessly patriotic, screenwriter Edwin Blum takes pleasure in poking fun at Americans and their lack of historical awareness. And the movie literally ends with a bang.




Up All Night With Turner Classic Movies

Being a movie critic is the best job in the world. You get paid to watch films and, even better, to discuss them endlessly in a running dialogue with readers. I would never complain about the best job in the world, but it does have a down side. Keeping up with the latest releases, in theaters and on DVD, is an enormous, time-sucking task, so I rarely had the opportunity to go back and revisit old favorites.

As a kid, I was a voracious consumer of classic film. My tastes were cultivated by parents who weren’t afraid of movies shot in black and white or made before the ’80s. My grandmother would call us to her room to watch musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and that charming duo, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The result was that my little brother became obsessed with tuxedos, my parents were forced to listen to our renditions of show tunes on a loop during car trips and my siblings and I developed an enduring love for the classics.

That love never disappeared but it diminished during the 13 years I spent as film critic for a local newspaper. Sitting down and revisiting a gem made more than 30 years ago was a luxury of time I could rarely afford. Sometimes I’d fantasize that my boss would insist I take a year-long sabbatical to do nothing but watch Turner Classic Movies. That never happened while I was at the paper, but the fantasy did come true in an unexpected way.

At the end of December, I had a baby, a daughter who, as most infants do, required constant care through the wee hours of the night. As a new parent, I was subjected to a level of sleep deprivation so intense it made my head spin. Since my husband was working to keep that little mouth fed, I was on night shift and, let me tell you, those were some long nights. As any insomniac knows, there is no loneliness as profound as the loneliness of being awake after 2 a.m. As delightful as my new baby was, as I sat with her in my arms in the darkened living room, it was all too easy to cave in to the enveloping blackness, a despair that the morning would never come. I felt like I was the only person left in the world.

When I remembered Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel that shows vintage flicks all day and all night, a light broke through the gloom. My husband was bemused to see our DVR fill up with 1930s screwball comedies, war pictures and Westerns, Technicolor musicals, black and white melodramas, cheesy sci-fi oddities and legendary foreign films from the 1960s and ’70s — whatever struck my fancy when I stood at 4 a.m., blinking bleary-eyed at the television screen.

Hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz became my best friends. The chiming sound of the late-night TCM promo was a cheerful beacon, cutting through my mental fog. I felt like a human being again. And I learned a lot.

I realized that I had never really paused to appreciate Sidney Poitier and his graceful mastery of acting. After a marathon of “The Defiant Ones,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Lilies of the Field” and “The Slender Thread” — in which he spends most of the film on the phone with Anne Bancroft, trying to talk her out of suicide — I was left dazzled by his dignity and playfulness.

I rewatched 1947’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a childhood favorite that is an entirely different animal from Ben Stiller’s recent, surprisingly wonderful remake, and laughed aloud at Danny Kaye’s physical comedy antics. A scene in which Mitty struggles awkwardly to move a chair while holding a teacup should be among the most celebrated moments in comedy, but I fear few people have even seen the film.

Diving into the deep end once again with that swimsuit-clad goddess — Esther Williams — a favorite of my grandmother, I marveled at how much bang these classics gave audiences for their buck. It wasn’t enough to simply tell moviegoers a good story, these films also delivered numbers conducted by famous orchestra leaders, solos by jazz or opera singers, tap dancing interludes or an elegant ballroom dance, a choreographed water ballet or a fashion show. The clothes were stunning. The settings were exotic. These were the days when people got dressed up to go to the movies and the studios were careful to give audiences what they wanted. Hollywood really knew how to put on a show.

What else did I learn during my late nights with TCM?

Everyone wore the most fabulous negligees to bed and the men wore ridiculous smoking jackets over their shirts and pants. Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford and every other leading lady worth her salt could not drift off to sleep unless she was swathed in a feminine cloud of silk, tulle, ribbons and lace.

I remembered why I love Doris Day movies, all that pert, wholesome perkiness mixed, like a dry martini, with ribald sexual innuendo. In contrast, as an adult, I found the beloved screwball comedy “His Girl Friday,” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, to be much darker and more problematic than I recalled, a scathing but weirdly blithe indictment of media carelessness.

I discovered the rakish charms of Melvyn Douglas, a suavely mustachioed screwball comedy king who starred opposite Greta Garbo in 1939’s “Ninotchka.” I was struck again by the blistering chemistry of the radiant Katharine Hepburn and her on and off screen love, the rumpled but sexy Spencer Tracy. I never knew that Jimmy Stewart actually sang and tap-danced — albeit it briefly — in the 1936 Cole Porter musical “Born to Dance.” He wasn’t half bad.

I watched Rosalind Russell vamp it up in “Auntie Mame” for the first time ever. How is it possible that I existed without seeing this sublime comedy?

Other firsts for me included “The Red Shoes,” the phantasmagorical masterpiece that influenced Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” with its mouth-watering production design, “The Bicycle Thief,” which crushed me with just about the saddest ending ever.

What I learned most of all is that the films of Hollywood’s heritage are indeed glorious. They are called “classic” for a reason. That isn’t to say they’re perfect. One of the things that astonished me was the rampant sexism and racism of Golden Age films, in which women are routinely punished for desiring a career over a husband and minorities are resigned to play dim-witted servants.

Despite their flaws, these movies have endured for decades, passed from one generation to the next like treasured artifacts. Scholars have attributed their magnificence to the great studio system that spawned them, to superior methods of writing, acting, filming and composing. Whatever the reason for their success, I think what makes an old movie truly great is not that it was shot in beautiful black and white or stars a timeless legend. It’s that the movie nudges us into feeling something deeply.

One particular lonely night spent with TCM stands out to me among the dozens and dozens of lonely nights. I was watching “Singin’ in the Rain,” lulling my baby to sleep to the watery sounds of the title song.

“What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again,” sang Gene Kelly, swinging himself around the lamppost in a scene that has been viewed millions of times by millions of people.

Once again, Gene Kelly splashed in a puddle. Once again, he sang. My heavy heart lifted.


Stop Grousing and Go See ‘Gravity’

This year’s Academy Awards race is one of the closest in recent memory with three of the nine films nominated for best picture in a tight heat. Oscar analysts agree that at the conclusion of Sunday’s ceremony, Hollywood’s most coveted prize will be presented to the producers of either “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle.”

Entertainment Weekly, in its Oscar predictions issue, forecasts that 19% of the Academy vote will go to “Gravity,” with 18% for “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” with 16% of the ballots. Last month, in a rare occurrence, “Gravity” and “12 Years” tied for the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards. The ceremony is usually a good predictor of Oscar outcomes.

For months, the three front-runners have generated considerable buzz. “Gravity” racked up an impressive $700 million at the global box office. “American Hustle” crossed the $200 million mark and even the harrowing “12 Years” drummed up $100 million in ticket sales. The fact remains, however, that many people have not bothered to head to the theater to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course, this isn’t unusual when it comes to the Oscars, a ceremony that is treated with reverence in Tinseltown but tends to elicit yawns from an indifferent general public. Unless it’s one of the few years in which a major blockbuster is nominated — “Avatar,” for instance, viewed by practically everyone on the planet — it’s common for best picture candidates to languish unseen.

But this time around, the front-runners are worthy of your time and attention. In a year of exceptional films, they are the best Hollywood had to offer — a visually innovative cosmic thriller; a brutally honest historical drama; and a shamelessly entertaining glitter-pile of 1970s glam.

Oddly enough, it is “Gravity” that seems to have encountered the most resistance from a certain segment of filmgoers. I’ve talked to a number of people who stubbornly turn up their noses at Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey. Perhaps their reticence stems from the film’s minimalist but epic premise. At first I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so compelling about watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney float around in outer space.

Still, the skepticism is baffling, considering what a taut nail-biter of a thriller the film is, not to mention its stunning visual achievements and emotional heft. If you’re lucky enough to find a place where you can still catch an IMAX screening of the movie, it will be one of the most suspenseful, immersive, uplifting and intense cinematic experiences of your life. The film was released Tuesday on Blu-ray, so you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, but you’ll be missing out. If ever a film demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible — preferably in 3-D with a kick-ass sound system — this is it.

The story of a medical engineer adrift after her space shuttle is torn to shreds, “Gravity” features one of Bullock’s most fragile and moving performances. The film ingeniously registers on two levels – it’s one heck of a popcorn movie ride but it’s also packed with existential symbolism and musings on hope, rebirth and the significance of humanity in a terrifyingly infinite universe. It’s as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.

“American Hustle” is an easier sell. Directed by “Silver Linings Playbook” helmer David O. Russell and reuniting several members of that crowd-pleasing comedy-drama’s cast, “Hustle” is a trashy, over-the-top romp through 1970s sleaze and the most fun many of us had at the movies in 2013.

Nothing about the film is hard to love, from the gloriously kitschy period costumes and art direction, to the go-for-broke acting, to the twisty plot about a pair of con artists embroiled in a government sting operation. Bradley Cooper’s perm and Christian Bale’s comb-over may appear to steal the show, but it is the film’s leading ladies – both nominated for Oscars – who are the real stars. Amy Adams, as a chameleonic temptress looking for love, and Jennifer Lawrence, as an unstable, accident-prone housewife, deliver the most mesmerizing performances of their already accomplished careers.

“12 Years a Slave” is difficult to love, despite the fact that it is quite possibly the most authentic movie of its kind. While other films about America’s dirty, devastating past soft-pedal the indignities of slavery, director Steve McQueen lays them bare in merciless fashion, making for a film that is necessary, yet excruciating. After seeing it, my husband and I were silent the whole way home. There was literally nothing to say in the aftermath of so much shame and sadness.

McQueen specializes in depicting human depravity and desperation — he made a movie titled “Shame,” after all — and “12 Years” is his masterwork. It is brilliantly acted with performances so naked, it’s hard to look them in the eye — Chiwetel Ejiofor as the kidnapped Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as a lascivious slave owner and, most searing of all, Lupita Nyong’o as the tormented target of that slave owner’s twisted obsession.

Yes, “12 Years” is painful to watch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it, even if you only watch it once. The film has profound and indispensable things to say about the insidious nature of racism.

There are great treasures to mine, great revelations to discover in Oscar’s favorite trio and time and opportunity to rectify what you’ve missed, long after the Oscars are over.

Why deprive yourself of greatness?