Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (March, 2011)


Free-Talking Series: Next Post

[Note: The monthly Free-Talking post is updated every five days, give or take a day every now and then.]


I realized something this week that’s got me pretty depressed over the state of multiplex moviegoing.

Now, as everyone who’s likely to be reading this post knows, I’m a committed theatergoer. I pay good money to see a movie at the multiplex just about every week. I do that because I enjoy Hollywood movies. I really do. I prize the things they’re reliably good at, like technical artistry and spectacle. I like a lot of the popular actors. I even happen to particularly enjoy some of the currently popular genres.

I’m really pretty easy to please too. I’ve even been accused of turning into another Roger Ebert.

What I realized that has me so depressed is that despite all of that, it seems like I hardly ever walk into a movie anymore expecting it to be good.

Instead I go in hoping it will be better than I think it will be and expecting at best to find enough to enjoy to make it worth seeing.

There wasn’t anything in particular about the new movies I saw in March to trigger this realization other than their Hollywood-fare-of-the-last-few-years averageness: one good not great; two modestly entertaining for genre fans; and one lousy. That’s what an average month looks like now. That’s what I’ve come to expect. And that’s not good.

So why is the accompanying still from Days of Heaven, you ask? I drove to Bloomington yesterday to see a revival screening at the IU Cinema. It was glorious. I’ve been waiting to watch it on the gamble that Terrence Malick has enough of a cult following that I’d someday get the chance to see it on a big screen. It was worth the wait. I don’t expect I’ll be able to hold out until the next revival screening for my second viewing.





I was super excited when I first learned about The Warlords. Was it because of the grand and fascinating historical backdrop? Because it was directed by Peter Chan? Maybe the reported budget, big enough to mount a 19th century-set war film in style? All positives, but no. It was because it stars three- count them three- of my favorite actors: (pictured left to right) Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro.

The Warlords proved to be an excellent film with excellent performances; a career-to-date best from Li, even. However, I know I would have enjoyed it (very nearly) as much even if it had been half as good a movie as it is, for the sole reason that it features those particular actors in good parts.

The dictionary definition of “favorite” is “a thing regarded with special favor or preference.” That accurately describes my feelings, yet somehow seems inadequate. The actors- and nearly all of them are actors; actresses are in a small minority- I call my favorites are people I can’t get enough of. (On-screen. It has zilch to do with them as human beings, and please don’t tell me what they’re like in real life, because I do not want to know.)

It’s not unrelated to their talent and skill, not by any means, but it goes beyond that. There are equally-to-more talented and skilled actors out there. There aren’t a lot who are more attractive, but that’s not it either. I admire and appreciate many actors’ performances, not to mention good looks, without making a point of seeking out their work, and without watching my favorites- there’s that word again- among their films over and over and over again.

besotted: infatuated, obsessed, doting

That definitely comes closer to capturing it.

Helen’s all time favorite actors and actresses: the three guys already named, Toshiro Mifune, Francis Ng, Olivia de Havilland, John Garfield, Mary Pickford

Now when it comes to directors, I know my favorites by my compulsion to see every one of their films. There are individual films by other directors that I prize equally-to-more highly, but the favorites are those whose work most consistently moves, impresses, excites… pick your superlative of choice. I have to watch and re-watch every work, minor to masterpiece. Of course, I enjoy them; loving their movies is a “favorite” prerequisite. But I also aspire to a fuller understanding of the films themselves and the director’s artistry.

Helen’s all time favorite directors: Johnnie To, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford

How do you define movie favoritism? Who are some of your favorite actors and directors?



Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Films makes the case for Michael Mann’s Miami Vice as contemporary noir in this contribution to the film noir blogathon

Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema examines The Illusionist (2010) as “a film by” Jacques Tati

Review of Steven Spielberg’s film debut Duel at Only the Cinema

A top-50 film noir countdown continues at Wonders in the Dark



Footlight Parade is a musical featuring three set-piece numbers by Busby Berkeley. The big numbers play back to back through the film’s concluding half hour, with just a few bits and pieces of song and dance numbers leading up to the tripartite finale. It’s convenient to slap the “musical” label on the whole kit and caboodle however, since the first hour defies easy categorization. The short running time packs in a lot of plot and a lot of characters, and it all races by at the speed of Cagney. Meanwhile, “Warner Brothers pre-Code” gives the flavor of the proceedings.

Footlight Parade in Pictures

Jimmy Cagney is prologue impresario Chester Kent. A prologue is a short stage production that goes on between shows at a movie palace.

Chester’s working triple overtime cranking out new productions, his partners are cooking the books, and a mole in the organization is selling his ideas to a rival company.

Joan Blondell is Chester’s loyal secretary Nan. She’s madly in love with him, a fact to which he’s completely oblivious.

It will take him most of the picture to figure out what we can see from the start: they were made for each other. Among other reasons, she’s the only one who can keep up with him.

Gold-digger Vivian also has her eye on Chester. Nan doesn’t sympathize with Vivian’s worries over her financial future. As long as there are streets, she’ll always have a job.

A romantic subplot stars Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. It’s not quite their typical juvenile and ingenue roles. She’s a show business pro. He likes her, but she won’t accept him until he stops being a kept man.

A gallery of Warners’ character actors liven up the proceedings. Here, Frank McHugh shows off his cat-walk.

The mind-blowing Berkeley numbers showcase his prurient staging…

…and kaleidoscopic arrangements of scantily clad chorus girls.

However, the showstopper is the climactic “Shanghai Lil” number. Nobody puts it over quite like Cagney. Keeler follows along.

The number ends on a high note as Berkeley outdoes himself with this double-barreled patriotic flourish.

Note: Footlight Parade connects with The Big Lebowski (1998). Read the “Connections” series introduction post.




My personal yardstick for Oscar “rightness” is how much the nominations and awards (but especially the nominations) annoyed me. The annoyance factor was relatively low this year so I give the Academy a pass. How do you rate the Oscars for movie year 2011?

Who was overlooked in the nominations? Would you have voted differently? What were the highs and lows of the broadcast?


Free-Talking Series: Prior Post

29 responses to “Free-Talking on Cinema, Movies, and Film (March, 2011)

  1. I find that the Oscars this year was a reletively decent event. The show itself was boring and awful and James Franco was the worst (co) host so far, but the winners wee nicely sprea throughout so it was nice.
    The one and only problem that I had was with Inception NOT winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. As much as I love The King’s Speech, it wasn’t as unique and masterful film as Inception was, at it core concept and delivery of it. Aside form that, I mnaged to guess most of the winners correctly. :O)

    And I reaffirm my claim that the Coen’s True Grit remake was the elephant in the room; it was nothing more than a paperweight.

  2. Highlights were the acceptance speeches by the winners of make-up and original screenplay, the charming film student who couldn’t stand still for joy, and Helen Mirren who always manages to be the most elegant woman in the room.

    I wish the cinematography award had gone to a movie that used a camera instead of a computer.

    • @Miriam, the Cinematography and Visual Effects awards went to a movie that had almost no CGI in it. I’m not kidding, you need to check out the behind the scenes for Inception. There are many reason as to why I believe that Inception is still the best movie of 2010, followed by The Social Network and then The King’s Speech.

      You can see them here:

      • Thanks for the correction. It just looked like a movie done with CGI but I shouldn’t have assumed it. I thought the Academy was just throwing Inception a consolation award since it was so inexplicably shut out of real recognition. I don’t know that I would have voted for Inception as the Best Movie of the year but it was certainly in contention. Now I’m impressed with another aspect of the film.

  3. I didn’t watch the ceremonies, so I can’t speak to any details. For best movie, I liked True Grit, Black Swan (in a creeped out way), The King’s Speech, and The Social Network. Having said that, I figured Grit did not have a chance given the competition. Black Swan seemed too strange to have mass appeal among the academy. In the end, the Academy played it safe, they love their British aristocratic period pieces. But I would have voted for The Social Network. Well done I thought, and a closeup on a really important social movement.

  4. I’ve always maintained that the only reason to watch the Oscars is the excuse it provides to throw a party, and this year did nothing to change my opinion. Seconding Nir that Franco was an awful host; he actually projected a strong “I wish I was anywhere but here” vibe.

    They did manage to keep the broadcast to not much more than three hours, but they did it by taking out things people liked and leaving in things nobody likes. Seriously now, who wouldn’t rather listen to remarks by Eli Wallach, Kevin Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola- the year’s honorary Oscar recipients- than performances of four entirely forgettable songs?

    I saw nine of the best picture nominees this year (the odd man out was The Kids Are All Right, for those keeping score). The annoyance factor was low principally because all were respectable choices, in strong contrast to just about every other year, and even overlapped largely with my own “best of” list. Since I’m not an Academy voter I don’t have to pick a “winner,” which is good because I’d find it very difficult to choose among several of the titles.*

    While I would have chosen differently from the Academy in several categories (nothing new there), the only award I was really unhappy about was Alice in Wonderland for art direction- a reaction I freely admit is influenced by my hearty dislike for that movie on unrelated grounds.

    *Ken’s list plus Winter’s Bone is my top five

  5. Richard Winters

    I’m really glad Eli Wallach won an honorary Oscar. Who can forget his performance in ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. Besides, he should win an award simply for being married to the same woman, actress Anne Jackson, for a whopping 63 years, which in Hollywood is a gargantuan feat.

  6. updated March 5 with “Connections: Footlight Parade (1933)”

  7. Footlight Parade is an_amazing_movie that leaves me gasping for breath by the finish. I like your phrase “at the speed of Cagney”! He’s like a comet trailing the story and performers behind him. And the Shanghai Lil number is one of my most favorite movie scenes. They surely don’t make ’em like that anymore and probably couldn’t, but what an exhilarating movie experience it is!

    • The only criticism to be made of the Shanghai Lil number is that Cagney doesn’t dance more in it. I love the intro: The young man who’s supposed to perform in the number has gotten drunk trying to conquer a bad case of stage fright. Chester (Cagney) pulls him to the top of the stairs he’s supposed to walk down to make his entrance. They struggle and one of them falls down the stairs onto the stage. We don’t know which one has fallen because the camera is directed down through this part so that we see only a sprawled body, and not the man’s face. Then the man makes a quick, simple gesture with his hand and we know instantly that we’re looking at the inimitable Jimmy Cagney.

  8. post updated March 16 with “Defining Favorites”- who are yours?

  9. My favourie living actors are Gary Oldman, Kirk Douglas, Sam Rockwell, Ryan Gosling, Kang-ho Song (The Good, the Bad, the Weird/The Host), and Min-sik Choi (Old Boy, I Saw the Devil), Giulietta Masina. From the deceased (and my all time faves) Richard Burton, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, Toshiro Mifune, Lana Turner, Giulietta Masina, and Barbara Stanwyck.
    Directors: Akira Kurosawa/Yasujiro Ozu (it’s a tie for the greatest director of all time), Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton (yes, a double post!), Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean Pierre Melville, Jacques Tati, Anthony Mann, and Chan-wook Park.

    • Keaton was a genius.

      Your list is wide-ranging and eclectic, as expected. Helps explain why we get along so well. :D

      • One way I like to like at it is through the various countries. Then I pick and choose who are my faves from those countries, which greatly narrows the list. Then I see who’s left and I notice the differences at the end. So I select the best filmmakers of all time from Japan, Italy, Sweden, Russia, America, South Korea, France, etc and then I write who’s left. Then I separate who’s actually the best from whose films I simply enjoy.
        At the end I can admit that Akira Kurosawa, tied with Ozu are the greatest filmmakers of all time but my personal favourite filmmaker is Andrei Tarkovsky. His films are deep, tough, gorgeous, philosophical, and will last forever.

  10. post updated 3/21/2011 with trailer of the month: “Red Cliff”

  11. post updated 3/28/2011 (month in review)

  12. I don’t go into movies expecting them to be bad. I just expect them to be OK. In general, the ones that I see satisfy my minimal expectations, and often leave me pleasantly surprised. Of course, I do not see nearly the volume that you do.

    • As I was adding “Sucker Punch” to the “by star rating” index, it suddenly hit me that all of the 0 star, all of the 1/2 star, and nearly all of the 1 star reviews on Commentary Track are… by me. (I don’t know why that hadn’t sunk in before, given that I created that index, but there you go.) Writing the regular month in review post right after probably wasn’t the best idea.

      I don’t think I’ve quite sunk to the level of despair of expecting everything I see to be bad, but I have reached the point that I expect everything I see to fail to realize its full potential, and usually by a good distance. That’s a degree of cynicism that does not suit my personality.

  13. I totally understand your concern. But do not despair, there are always those bright spots that pop up from time to time. I share your thoughts about failed potential. With all the advances in technology, accumulated expertise, and plot possibilities to choose from, it’s sad when the industry pushes out seriously compromised (in my opinion) products. This especially bugs me when it’s the treatment of some iconic novel, or original idea with great potential. Avatar, I’m lookin at you!

    • I always place a medium to low expectation for every movie that I’m about to watch, from the contemporary cinema. That way I either dislike something or simply dismiss it. And if it’s good, I feel great! :O)

      I watched last night Hobo With a Shotgun and ended up loving it. It was the good kind of mind-numbing, over the top violence, co-existing with terrible one liners, and neat lighting. It pretended that it was a film from the 1980s that had a “vision of the future” and the violence and gore were so over the top that their being over the top was over the top. :O)
      And Rutger Hauer was terrific in it.

      See? I had low expectations and came out loving it. But the theatre’s audio was far too loud and it was shot with a terrific ammount of close-ups…

      • There is much to be said for low expectations. ^_^ Avoiding spoilers helps too, I find.

        • I’d stopped watching trailers and reading others’ reviews altogether. But I do read Ebert’s reviews after I’d watched those specific films that he’d written about. And not having watched TV for years helps me to avoid trailers, also. :O)

  14. Helen,

    I visited here after seeing your comment on Judy’s MovieClassics blog. I really like how you approached FOOTLIGHT PARADE. And I love your expression “at the speed of Cagney.” Brilliant. One tiny correction: the picture you’ve identified as Vivian isn’t. Vivian is played by Claire Dodd. This screen shot captures Chester’s ex Cynthia, played by Renee Whitney who had bit parts in a few other Cagney films. Thanks for posting about this classic powerhouse backstage musical.

    • Thanks for stopping by, and also for pointing out the mistake. I must have been paying too much attention to Cagney in those scenes. ^_^ I’ll get that fixed here soon.

      • I watched Footlight Parade just last week, for the first time, and loved every single minute of it. And Cagney is, easily the fastest actor ever. Walking speed, talking speed, comebacks, back and forths, etc he’s the fastest ever. Even faster than the two leads in His Girl Friday put together!


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