Kirk Douglas dies at 103 years old

Actor Michael Douglas posted on Instagram that his father, Golden Age Hollywood star Kirk Douglas, died today at 103 years old, according to ABC News. Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, Douglas changed his name before enlisting in the Navy for World War II; he made his Broadway debut in a musical prior to the war, and after he was injured and discharged in 1944, he returned to acting. Nominated three times throughout his career, he was finally given an honorary Academy Award in 1996, the same year he suffered a stroke which impacted his speech.

Amazon Prime review: Victor Fleming’s “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Even though 1946 was commercially the most profitable year in film history as GIs came home from the war in a celebratory mood, 1939 was artistically the richest for classical Hollywood.

Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) exemplifies filmmaking as the great American art form; Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) represents all the Western culture and history European refugees brought to Golden Age Hollywood in the wake of World War II; Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) did for color film what Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) did for talkies.

Conceivably, it was because it was the year Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and the world, already in the throes of the Great Depression, needed an escape more than ever, so these creatives were inspired to lead the way to a more beautiful reality through the visceral medium that is cinema.

Whatever the case may be, it was Fleming’s own Gone with the Wind (1939) which took home the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Fleming’s other Technicolor classic is available on Amazon Prime.

The epic historical romance is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name (with scriptwriter Sidney Howard taking home the Oscar).

In addition to its ten Academy Awards, including Best Director, the film is also the highest-grossing movie of all time (when adjusted for inflation).

It’s 1861 Georgia, and sixteen-year-old Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Best Actress Vivien Leigh) has a crush on Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who, despite leading her on, has eyes only for his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Best Supporting Actress nominee Olivia de Havilland).

As Scarlett manipulates her way closer to Ashely over the next twelve years, she encounters the Charlestonian rogue Rhett Butler (Best Actor nominee Clark Gable), who loves her as obsessively as she loves Ashley.

All around them, the American Civil War and Reconstruction take the torch to the only way of life Scarlett has ever known, until, like the passage of time, it, too, is gone with the wind.

No other anecdote from the tempestuous production better encapsulates the contradictory cinematic importance as well as intersectional regression of the feature than Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress win for the role of Mammy, the O’Hara family’s housemaid.

Though she was the first black person to win an Oscar in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and a woman at that), she was segregated from the rest of the white attendees.

Furthermore, the “Mammy” media stereotype, named for her character, is not a positive representation.

The gender politics are just as turbulent. The iconic image of Rhett sweeping Scarlett off her feet immediately precedes a rape.

Bracketing this mis-romanticized moment in filmic history are scene after scene of the entitled leading man threatening or otherwise verbally abusing  the strong, financially independent leading lady, and worse still, it’s almost as if Scarlett deserves it because she’s such an antihero.

The nearly four-hour affair is technically dated as well. It belongs more to its producer, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures, than it does its filmmaker.

Indeed, Oscar notwithstanding, Fleming’s directorial style is dwarfed next to Selznick’s megalomaniacal sweep.

Gone with the Wind is very much of its time, between its thesis that liberated American slaves were happier in subservient roles, Rhett’s spectacularized, brutal “punishment” of Scarlett, and its self-indulgent, melodramatic production value, but it is still a cinephilic must-watch.

Without it, Selznick might not have been able to recruit Sir Alfred Hitchcock stateside for Rebecca (1940), the auteur’s only Best Picture winner, and we might not have borne witness to the greatest Hollywood works ever created.

And without Hitchcock, we wouldn’t have auteur theory as we know it today.

Then again, the part the producer plays in a picture’s success is frequently overlooked and underappreciated (especially up against the director).

Darryl F. Zanuck, for instance, is the wunderkind behind many of the studio system’s early successes, such as William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). As pedestrian as Fleming is here, Selznick’s genius makes up for it and then some.

Even under Fleming’s studio-interfered direction, Leigh delivers the first of two companion pieces which define her star persona. The second is Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she earned her second Oscar.

Her progression from the vital, self-preservationalistic Scarlett to the poorly aged, defeated Blanche mirrors the multifacetedness of her artistry, personalized by the bipolar disorder she lived with all her life; truly, she was a worthy equal to her spouse, Sir Laurence Olivier (whose classicalism is as esteemed as Marlon Brando’s Method in A Streetcar Named Desire, and who starred in Rebecca alongside de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine).

Gone with the Wind is nothing if not a technical magnum opus, even if it only redeems itself dramatically through Leigh.

Its cinematography, editing, and art direction were also showered with statuettes, and two honorary awards were set aside for the film’s use of coordinated equipment and color.

Sherman’s burning of Atlanta is an ode to practical effects – at eighty years old, the setpiece is more gracefully aged than many of the computer-generated fantasias churned out in our time.

And Gone with the Wind, as socio-politically indefensible as it is, is still a towering cinematic triumph. It is as watchable now as it was in 1939, all five acts of it, and it does illuminate how the penal code substituted slave labor for Scarlett.

Between this and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), another influential (and problematic) Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind and the survivalistic woman at its core marks the superior film.

It is a treasure from a lost moment in filmmaking, back when the studios were dream factories crafting fantasies with all the dependency of a Fordist assembly line, long before they became conglomerate-owned toy manufacturers rebooting and remaking focus group nostalgia.

It is a totem of a bygone era that united strangers all across the globe by the millions in a time of diplomatic and economic strife. It is a product of its time in all the worst and best ways, a filmmaking gilded age gone with the wind.

Amazon Prime review: HBO’s “Sharp Objects” (2018)

The 2012 novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn should have won the Pulitzer Prize, or, at the very least, a National Book Award, for its postmodern black comedy of manners on marriage and relationships.

David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of the same title, from a script by Flynn herself, was likewise snubbed at that year’s Academy Awards.

Flynn, a hybrid between Stephen King and Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Missouri’s answer to King’s Maine, debuted in 2006 with Sharp Objects, and mainstream literature as well as popular genre fiction have found a lovechild in her, too.

If you don’t know what to watch next, HBO’s Sharp Objects (2018) is available on Amazon Prime.

Marti Nixon’s psychological thriller miniseries was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series of Movie for Amy Adams, Outstanding Supporting Actress for Patricia Clarkson, and Outstanding Limited Series.

Flynn herself executive produced.

Recently released out of a Chicago hospital for self-mutilation, alcoholic crime journalist Camille Preaker (Adams) is assigned to cover multiple child murders in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri.

The visit forces her to reunite with her estranged mother, Adora Crellin (Clarkson), a small-town socialite.

As the mystery unfolds, the troubled Camille finds herself losing the battle with the demons from her past.

Camille is one of the great antiheroes in the Golden Age of Television, as desperately needed a woman for this archetype as Norma Bates.

Across a pseudo-feminist landscape of problematic superwomen who do not so much empower women with humanization as pander to their pocketbooks for corporate fat cats who run Hollywood from the other side of the glass ceiling, Adams’s turn is a breath of fresh air.

She is as flawed as any noir protagonist, but not at the expense of an ethical characterization.

What makes her a sympathetic leading lady are her faults, for she is as much a victim of Wind Gap’s violent misogyny (which is symptomatic of the slave state’s Confederate history) as the girls whose murders she’s compromising her own mental health to help investigate.

A contemporary Southern Gothic murder mystery in the same vein as William Faulkner and Daphne du Maurier, the quasi-Italian neorealistic setting calls to mind the juxtaposition of ancient Roman artifacts against postwar modernization in the aestheticism of Federico Fellini.

The production constructs a morose tone through the overexposed lighting of the cinematography and the suffocating diegesis of the soundtrack, provoking the same numbing mood as the traumatized main character between her broken interactions and dark flashbacks.

The Crellin family is the most dysfunctional this side of Tennessee Williams, even though they’re just as picture perfect. Anchoring this dichotomous image is Clarkson.

Adora recalls Blanche DuBois in the tradition of Scarlett O’Hara herself, Vivien Leigh, the aging Southern belle in a changing world, using her fading beauty to dress up the ugliness of Southern American culture in moth-eaten clothes.

Clarkson is an icy Hitchcock blonde where Adams is a psychologically tortured noir antihero.

But a filmic adaptation of Flynn’s book might have been stronger.

The episodic format of the miniseries pads some scenes for runtime until they’re filler, with subplots from secondary characters who pale in comparison to Camille’s character study and the murder mystery as a framing device.

Granted, at two and a half hours, Gone Girl still makes a meal of its source material, but not one frame of the final product belongs on the cutting room floor; the same can’t be said about Sharp Objects.

But if Sharp Objects is guilty of any sin, it’s being too much of a good thing.

Some would call it and its writer misogynistic, and the case could be made against the “false accusation” narrative in Gone Girl (though one could argue it’s a critique of “white woman gone missing” feminism), but Sharp Objects is not unsympathetic toward Camille, or even Adora.

To the critical viewer, it is more an indictment of its setting than its cast (like many Great American Writers, Gillian Flynn trained in the unsentimental, lowest-common-denominator mass appeal of commercial journalistic storytelling).

She is possessed of a Hitchcockian pragmatism for dolling up such universal themes of the human condition as sex and death with timeless craftsmanship and mastery, casting all her Tarantinoesque pulp fiction through the same literary lens as her masterpiece.

Chicago theater revives “Sunset Boulevard” musical

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Hollis Resnik stars as Norma Desmond alongside Billy Rude as Joe Gillis. (Image Courtesy: The Chicago Tribune).

Beginning Tuesday night, Porchlight Music Theatre artistic director Michael Weber is reviving the stage adaptation of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through December 8, according to the Chicago Tribune. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber as well as lyrics and book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, the two-and-a-half-hour play first opened in 1993 London after leading lady Gloria Swanson spent much of the 1950s fighting to create a musical interpretation. Patti LuPone played Norma Desmond during the production’s London run, while Glenn Close, Petula Clark, Diahann Carroll, and Kim Zimmer were cast in the role stateside.

Greta Garbo’s letters up for auction

Sixty-five handwritten letters between Stockholm-born star Greta Garbo and Austrian actress and writer Salka Viertel, composed from 1932 to 1973, are expected to bring in sixty thousand film collectors’ dollars at auction, according to The Guardian. The correspondences, first sold to a fan in 1993 Florida, humanize the Swedish Sphinx’s “Nordic Noir” onscreen persona, articulating the isolation and melancholy she lived behind the scenes far from home with only her European friends’ writings to accompany her through Hollywood. Viertel, who biographers say was Garbo’s closest friend, cowrote a number of her classics and appeared alongside her in Jacques Feyder’s Anna Christie (1930).

Letters, memos, telegrams from Golden Age Hollywood published in new book

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When she was cast in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964), Audrey Hepburn asked the director for the designer’s sketches of her shoes so her private Parisian bootmaker could cobble them because she had “trouble” with her feet after dancing ballet. (Image Courtesy: NPR).

Rocky Lang and film historian Barbara Hall have edited and compiled the new book Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking, a collection of written correspondences between classical stars, according to NPR. Hall says the documents humanize the artists who wrote them, and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who penned the foreword, says this publication is more historical than it is an invasion of privacy. Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Hattie McDaniel, as well as Henry Fonda are among the authors found in the text, writing to everyone from Ernest Hemingway to George Cukor to Jack Warner to Hedda Hopper to William Wyler.

Netflix review: Showtime’s “Dexter” (2006-2013)

Dexter Morgan is remembered alongside Jaime Lannister and Patty Hewes as one of the greatest antiheroes in the Golden Age of Television, and for a time, all three of these characters were flying high.

But in the end, none of them could stick the landing.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) is available to stream on Netflix. The crime drama mystery series is James Manos, Junior’s, adaptation of the 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay.

Leading man Michael C. Hall and guest start John Lithgow both won Golden Globe Awards in 2010 for their portrayals of the Bay Harbor Butcher himself and the iconic Trinity Killer, respectively.

Dexter is a forensic blood spatter analyst for the fictional Miami Metro Police Department moonlighting as a serial killer who murders other serial killers.

His adoptive father, the late Detective Harry Morgan (James Remar), secretly raised him to act on his violent sociopathy as a vigilante.

In order to blend into the civilian crowd, Dexter enters a relationship with the fragile Rita Bennett (Julie Benz) as part of his double life, and because his adoptive sister, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), works homicide at Miami Metro, his criminal lifestyle threatens all he has.

The show overstays its welcome by about three or four seasons, but for the first half of its run, it is both a playful dark comedy as well as an astute psychological thriller, fashioning a sharp character study of a psychopath whose victims deserve it.

At its best-written, Hall’s dry voiceover narrates Dexter’s truth, when so much of the character’s life is performance. At its worst, it is repetitive, lazy exposition for onscreen events we can already see for ourselves.

The supporting cast is unevenly characterized also, sometimes to satisfactory effect, only for most of their promising developments to be forgotten about in service of some contrived new conflict.

Filler abounds in the later seasons, and, sometimes, the lattermost villains are unmemorable (the cliched Eastern European hitman, “the Wolf” (Ray Stevenson), in the seventh season; the been-there-done-that “Brain Surgeon” (Darri Ingolfsson) in the eighth season).

Other times, they’re ridiculous (the laughable “Doomsday Killer” (Colin Hanks) in the sixth season).

Much ink has been spilled about the finale, which could’ve been passable without the whack at an ambiguous, open-ended coda tacked onto the end.

To the showrunner’s credit, it is uncanny that Dexter could salvage enough material for its fourth (and best) season after a second season that would have been the last season for any other drama.

While can be argued that it should have ended with the bloody, poetic climax of the fourth season, one of the most game-changing twists of all time, the fifth season is still watchable.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the sixth season.

Even then, there are still two more seasons to go before it’s put out of its misery.

Dexter is a classic example of TV milking its appeal dry until it becomes a pale shadow of its former self, rather than blowing out on a high note like AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

It is a cautionary tale that any premise, no matter how ingenious, will be known for how unwatchable it becomes past its shelf life.

For the masterpiece it could’ve been, quit bingeing at the fourth season, and for more of what makes it entertaining, the fifth season.

For the example it’s made of itself in TV history, subject yourself to the slow, painful end.

Barbara Stanwyck marathon coming to Criterion Channel

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The New York Times is quoted as reporting that Stanwyck saw as many pictures “as her pennies allowed” during childhood to help her cope with growing up impoverished. (Image Courtesy: Fox News).

Beginning August 16, Criterion Channel will spotlight eleven films Barbara Stanwyck made between 1930 and 1934 before Hays Code-era restrictions censored the silver screen, according to Fox News. Imogen Sara Smith, the historian hosting the marathon, says Stanwyck (born Ruby Stevens in 1907 Brooklyn) was orphaned at the age of four, dropped out of school as a thirteen-year-old, performed for speakeasies at fifteen, became a Broadway star five years later, and found work in Hollywood in 1929. The actress did not retire until her late seventies, with more than eighty movie and television credits to her name when she died from congestive heart failure in 1990.

Netflix review: AMC’s “Mad Men” (2007-2015)

Tony Soprano… Walter White… Frank Underwood…

All three of these characters would be loathsome human beings, but, in the Golden Age of Television, they make for our favorite antiheroes. They are sociopaths with a body count between them that makes us ask ourselves why we root for them (or at least it should).

Don Draper ranks as one of the greatest among them, and he did it without killing anyone.

If you don’t know what to watch next, AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) is available to stream on Netflix.

No stranger to the antihero, series creator Matthew Weiner saw HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama in 2004 and 2007, when he served as their executive producer.

Mad Men itself earned the same award four years in a row, from 2008 to 2011.

Set in 1960s Manhattan, the period drama focuses on the hard-drinking Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the self-made creative director at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Again, Don isn’t a violent criminal – his failure as a husband, father, and professional are what characterize him.

Meanwhile, all around him, the countercultural revolutions of the decade change life at work and at home.

An episode of Mad Men can go by without much happening, and its commitment to historical realism includes deadpan representations of the sexism, racism, homophobia, child abuse, alcoholism, and smoking of the era, which may be off-putting to modern audiences.

Though not for everyone, Mad Men’s slice-of-life experimentation with TV storytelling is complex with subtext. The setting itself is the star of the show, striking an unpredictable tone of crippling lawnmower accidents and nipples in gift boxes between the more mundane moments.

The aesthetic is a snapshot of the American Dream imperial capitalists at the time were propagandizing for the rest of the world in an effort to combat the global influence of communism during the Cold War.

Indeed, the 1960s may look glamorous on Mad Men, like one of Don Draper’s cigarette ads, but once you realize it’s only to sell a product that slowly kills the consumer, the glamour fades like the passing of time to reveal the social inequality and decadent consumerism lying underneath.

The fourth and fifth seasons are the crown jewels of the series, when the drama comes into its own, finds its voice, and develops its cast into their most dynamic.

One wishes, however, that Weiner were as ethical in his approach to Don Draper as he was with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).

In the final season of The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist, Doctor Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), comes to accept what an irredeemable monster he is and condemns him in a scene that’s cathartic for anybody who’s ever had to “break up” with an antisocial personality.

Mad Men, on the other hand, features no such reckoning for Don. The closest we get is a phone call in the series finale with leading lady Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who he manipulates out of chastising him for his selfishness, to talking him down off the ledge.

As a result, Don’s actions could come across as romanticized for the less-than-critical viewer. In spite of everything else, he is a successful, talented, attractive businessman with a tragic backstory that, for those who long to identify with him, could make him too sympathetic.

The ambiguous ending does not clarify whether Don is a changed man or not after his conversation with Peggy, which could mean he gets away with his narcissistic behavior one last time…

…Or not.

While Mad Men is not known for lending itself to easy interpretation, that’s what lends it well to re-watches – you can binge it over and over again and find something new every time. It is a powerfully honest character study of a man on the run, not from the law, but from himself.

Criterion Channel off to a strong start, reviewer says

After debuting last month, Criterion Channel offers over a thousand titles from the Criterion Collection as well as distributor Janus Films for eleven dollars a month, according to Fortune; the archive is relatively small, but there are more Golden Age movies than on Netflix, which largely limits itself to the last twenty-five years, and Amazon Prime, which charges members extra to watch older pictures. Reviewer Lance Whitney writes that Criterion includes a diversity of silent, sound, short, feature-length, international, and independent releases from Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, Lionsgate, and IFC Films; while the likes of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), or Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s American classics are not yet part of the selection, the library will grow if more studios sign licensing deals. Overall, Whitney’s review is positive, praising special features such as interviews, documentaries, and collections; however, while the fledgling streaming service is compatible with all browsers, some available texts are only searchable on the website.