At the Circus Blogathon: Stephen King’s It (1990)

The synoptic platitude of King’s work is that he finds “horror in the commonplace,” as has been reported ad nauseumStephen King’s It, features Pennywise, likely the horror genre’s most well-known clown, but it’s so much more than just that. Stephen King’s leviathan of a novel is a best to tackle in terms of adaptation. Even with as many devoted fans as the book has there is some controversy among Constant Readers about how necessary the first 200 pages or so are, this is where we get to learn of the last rash of killings in Derry and most importantly about the Lucky Seven, or The Losers’ Club. It being a book I’ve personally read twice tells you what I feel of its construction as a novel.

When dealing with a novel that has disagreements amongst fans about a large section you’re dealing with an unenviable adaptation task. One small example is the lack of time to establish minor characters. An example, one of the secondary villains , Henry Bowers, an acolyte of Pennywise, ends up in an asylum. The fact that he is now fearfully obedient of not just to Pennywise, but also an abusive orderly, is delicious irony, which due to lack of adequate screen time and inspiration is intimated in a ham-fisted way. Add to that the fact that it’s a network mini-series and the fact that Tommy Lee Wallace was perhaps hamstrung by the negative initial reaction to Halloween III and was creating a mini-series for Network TV that had to go for implication and expectation over exhibition and exposition.
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However, one thing that was incredibly well done was the casting of Pennywise (Tim Curry) and the pacing of his interjection into the narrative of this screen version.

It starts off quickly with a stinger wherein Pennywise’s return to the modern day is confirmed. The handling of the first kill is not unlike a scene from Fritz Lang’s M with a scream, cutaway, the involvement of a balloon, and no blood even in aftermath. It’s the furtherance into near-graphic violence with a “Standards and Practices” approach that makes this handling questionable, not to mention all the sublimated and/or omitted sexual tension of the story.

The one-two punch of Pennywise appearances in the first 13 minutes of this 180-minute film whets the appetite and allows the audience to settle in to learning about who these people are, what they went through together, how they are reuniting, and why. This separates it from the book inasmuch as it starts in the present and then goes back to the Georgie Denbrough murder which gets it started in the book. With Curry’s first extended appearance there is an unease in where and how he appears (out of nowhere and in a storm drain), not so much what he says, and then at the last second he bears his teeth and makes his approach and delivers the scare.

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There’s then a layoff and it’s not until 43 minutes in until Pennywise is heard from again, but not seen; as dead kids talk to Beverly through the pipes leading to her bathroom sink. Pennywise only speaks after her dad doesn’t notice the blood she sees all about the bathroom and is terrified by. Her father is just another blind adult. Making Pennywise a horror only kids can see and feel opens the door for a lot of the wondrous implication this story has in store.

Fifty minutes in comes the It version of the shower scene, which plays on a more common trauma for adolescent males, the post-gym class shower. Young Eddie (Adam Faraizl), who is domineered by his mother, tries to avoid it entirely. His coach at least makes him return and shower on his own. This opens the door for Pennywise to find him alone and frighten him. It also establishes a pattern of Pennywise using scare tactics specific to the kids. Here he refers to Eddie as “Wheezy” mocking his psychosomatic asthma and also “Girly-boy” referring to the homophobic bullying he’s prone to due to his size, lack of athleticism, and subservient nature.

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The lack of memory most the characters have of this summer in their childhood, now that they are adults is in many ways tied to place, and also dependent on the act of forgetting a perilous preternatural world as kids growing up tend to do. Only Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), who stays in Derry, remembers well, and becomes the custodian of the history of Pennywise’s generationally spaced appearances (i.e. disappearance of settlers, standpipe disaster, Easter Egg Hunt, etc.). Each of these characters walks out of important moments in their respective lives on the power of a promise and a nebulous memory, which speaks to the resonance of the trauma and bond they felt.

The specificity of Pennywise’s tailored horror reveals itself when he first appears to young  Richie Tozier (Seth Green). He is a werewolf at first and then shows the clown version of himself once he has Richie terrified. Pennywise is a polymorphic horror whose most ubiquitous version plays on coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, a fear I don’t share (save for in this tale) but is universally effective because it is a façade innocence that masks malevolence. While at first he may seem to be other things, a werewolf, a black dog, the Man in the Moon, Mrs. Kersh, Mr. Keene, a disembodied voice, a sign on a marquee, a logo on the back of playing cards, grotesqueries in fortune cookies, It’s true form, and many more. The heart of the fear of clowns is the fracture of a benign reality that reveals the true tenebrous nature of reality, which is at the core of this story. The reason for Pennywise’s cyclical repetitious feedings succeeding is that no one who ever peeked behind the veil is strong enough to hold the memory or bound to readdress the monster by a promise to dear friends. The selection of a clown here combines adult and childhood fears in a cipher both can relate to.

As a child Bill says he’s not sure he ever wants to grow up, not only is that a moment of a natural adolescent struggle against Peter Pan Syndrome, but it’s a subconscious realization being verbalized. He knows growing up and old means forgetting and unwillingness to engage in a fight he might not even believe in. Getting out of sight of Derry allows six of the seven to escape the thoughts for the most part, but one never does and it’s the only reason they ever line up for a rematch.

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The last person we see receive their phone call from Mike Hanlon as an adult is Stan Uris (Richard Masur). Stan, as a kid, by his very nature was the hardest to convince of Pennywise’s reality. When he hears the news from Mike it opens up the floodgates and he is overwhelmed. The mention of It fractures his cognitive dissonance. He commits suicide, leaving his one-word note written in blood: “It.” Perhaps the key to Pennywise’s effectiveness is that he can get in their heads when he’s not there; he’s psychological parasite.

Horror in beauty and innocence also recurs as a theme in the film, perhaps more simply joyful than a clown to any child would be a balloon. Yet this is one motif used to terrify the Lucky Seven on many occasions in both the past and present. Even with the characters well into adulthood and jaded, the same triggers that worked before work now and King’s choices are just as spot-on there like Beethoven’s Für Elise evocative of beauty and melancholy being a funeral march by proxy.

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The near-defeat comes in their almost abandoning the cause. And if one never felt unease or fear looking at a clown seeing its tainting might take you to that place, but having it be whatever can scare you, is perhaps the most clever device King has even used in attacking the hierarchy of fear.

Some of the keys to this adaptation are not what it managed to shoehorn in from the book but what it, through an audiovisual medium, was able to bring to life like never before. Pennywise’s voice and mannerisms, and the variable nature of them; the use of sound edit to blend personas, are among them. Ending the film with a Pennywise laugh and a circus theme on calliope may not have been the proper note to a rushed attempt at an emotional ending but it was a decision that could only occur on film and for that it’s appreciated. The ability to crosscut through time and use L-cuts gave aid to characters attempting to reconcile their past and present, and added emotional impact where needed. Rarely were they needed as reminders of valuable information. Likewise an artist’s rendering of Pennywise’s first appearance in town in the 1700s, that image coming to life and talking to the characters may be more vivid in a reader’s imagination but it takes on a life and accuracy of time period, as well as a crudeness of art, probably not inferred by most readers.

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Stephen King has tackled many horror tropes both common and uncommon alike throughout his prolific career, few resonate like his treatment of the clown. Even considering some of the limitations this film version had to contend with it’s highly memorable.

Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon: On the Topic of Human Sexuality

Pre-Amble

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Now, I know that sounds like a dissertation title. However, the approach I’m planning on is a bit freeform, personal, and as all encompassing as I can be with such a huge topic.

I will limit myself somewhat as the nuance and intricacy of human sexuality this could be a much, much longer piece than it already is.

Introduction

The other day was National Coming Out Day. I didn’t post anything specifically about the day because as fate would have it I was actually doing quite a bit of other writing on that day. What I wanted to say on that day was probably more appropriate on a day like today then on the actual day.

A day such as that is not an appointment to be kept, to be either taken advantage of or passed over. It is a day of recognition, of noting those who have taken the step and come out; a day of sharing stories and support. When I was in the closet to the world I kept thinking some specific date or deadline would force my hand. It never did. I wasn’t ready until I was ready. So that was my message for the day: it’s not a compulsory day but rather a day that can be used to show those in struggle that it’s safer than they imagine to take that step.

Usually the blogathons I’ve signed up for have either been review-oriented or could be more academically approached. This one is different because it’s inherently personal, and the topic I selected made it impossible to stray from being candid. It’s about what you have taken away from seeing a movie. Frequently that thing may not even have been the intention the film has but no two people ever see the same film.

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Some of these films are LGBT films, some aren’t, but all make a singular point I didn’t take away from other films. Hopefully in underscoring many of these films I have a diverse cross-section. The pride flag is a rainbow for a reason: it’s all-inclusive and highlights differences. Too often underrepresented groups want the whole of their identity enveloped in a character or two, which is an impossible ask. We’re past the point of being merely stereotyped. Characters have to be themselves and not representative of all subsets and subcultures.

The Films

Where I Learned: A Little More About Myself Than I Wanted To

This Boy’s Life (1993)

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This Boy’s Life was a film I first saw on cable while in Brazil. I watched it with my uncle. It’s a captivating story of Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) living with an intolerable stepfather (Robert De Niro), finding his voice as a writer, and trying to make it out of a toxic home life.

I was a teenager when I saw it and not entirely self-aware. At some point in the film the character of Arthur (Jonah Blechman) is introduced. Being set in the 1950s with the kind of character DeNiro is the homophobia directed toward him is quite overt and something he just has to deal with. This was probably the first film wherein I was consciously smitten with a male star and I identified with Arthur’s plight all the more for it, but I was self-conscious about it. So when the famous scene where Arthur steals a kiss on Toby’s cheek while they’re singing comes about I felt defensive. I felt as if my facial expression was readable or else some of my thoughts were. I felt the need to say something to cover.

“I’d punch him!” I blurted out.

My uncle without hesitation said “You don’t have to do that. You just say ‘I’m not like that.’”

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I was still a while away from admitting I was like that even to myself much less out loud, but the film and scene are important for a number of reasons. In that scene you can actually look at it a few ways: there is of course the obvious viewing it as a romantic overture. However, they are close and having a good time. Arthur is wordlessly expressing his gratitude of having someone to sing with. By midcentury homophobic fears had sufficiently strangled men showing affection for one another in verbal ways much less physically was verboten. And in that second reading it’s almost more important, but the lack of judgment that Tobias shows at that moment is important in and of itself and it’s a hallmark of many of these films either in isolated scenes or as a whole.

Where I Learned About: Coming Out of the Closet

Ellen (TV 1997)

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Yes, it’s a TV show but there are plenty of movies on the list, calm down. This was the first coming out I was ever conscious of. It was probably where I became familiar with the phrase and its meaning. I already liked this show, so I was curious to see how it would go, especially since it was announced beforehand. I think it went brilliantly.

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The sad reality of TV especially on a sitcom, where constancy is prized, it was too big a change for the show and maybe for the country as a whole at the time. I’m glad to see where we, ABC, and the Walt Disney Company has come since then.

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Where I Learned: Bisexuality is Real, Lust Can Make You Crazy, And How To Love The Femme Fatale

Basic Instinct (1992)

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Firstly, I must apologize that it needed to be phrased as such. Sadly, there is a stigma that exists that there is no such thing as bisexuality. Everyone’s path to self-discovery is slightly different. Mine included a time when I identified myself as bisexual. Growing up tremendously quiet and withdrawn in certain social situations most of my deductions about my true identity was all based on the internal battle with no real experience to draw any definitive conclusions from. In that time I experienced that stigma first hand. No sooner had I identified myself as bisexual I got the “lecture” in an online conversation about needing to decide, and you “can’t have the best of both worlds.” It was a rude awakening. When it came time when I had to face if I could make real emotional and physical commitments one way or the other is when I learned the truth for sure, no one’s ultimatum was going to do it for me.

Having been someone who always accepted that a duality is not only possible but real suspension of disbelief was easy in this film. The hurdle I really had to get over, involved what I learned most about how lust, and the adrenaline rush that Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) feels is what makes his character so vulnerable.

Before I ever watched a long-running horror franchise in full I saw this, it may be the first villain I ever embraced, thanks in large part to Sharon Stone’s performance. She fully embraces the femme fatale role.

Where I Learned: About the True Toll of AIDS

And the Band Played On (1993)

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For the most part I never fell victim to any falsehoods about HIV or AIDS. Magic Johnson’s announcement coming in my formative years was quite helpful. However, the mysterious, terrifying, and most tragically inactive (from a Federal Government standpoint) I was too young to realize what was happening. This film enlightened me.

Where I Learned About: Persecution in a Bygone Era

Paragraph 175 (2000)

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In outlining a dogma of hatred there has to be a public enemy number one designated. In the Nazi regime that target was the Jewish people. The Nazis were by no means singleminded in whom they considered enemies of true Aryanism. Estimates of Romani, or Gypsies as the more commonly referred to, deaths range from 220,000 to 500,000. Marzahn was the first concentration camp used for Gypsies. Many then went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Rävensbruck.

The documentary Paragraph 175 takes its title from the German Criminal Code at the time that discussed prohibitions on homosexuality. Since the persecuted could be of either gender and of any race or creed there aren’t precise statistics. However, documentation of state-sanctioned ostracism, arrest, and murder of homosexuals in the Third Reich following the edicts of Paragraph 175 are documented.

Such as:

  • Banning of Gay organizations like the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft run by Magnus Hirschfeld
  • Banning scholarly writing on Homosexuality and sexuality in general.
  • There were 100,000 people arrested as homosexuals; 50,000 were sentenced.
  • Homosexuality in any form was outlawed, but as per usual in these historic incidents the brunt of the force of said policies fell upon gay men.
  • The Gestapo compiled a list of homosexuals and forced many to conform to the “German Norm”

Where I Learned About: More People See False Morality

Léolo (1992)

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

False morality is not an exclusively North American phenomenon, but we do have our own special brand. This was underscored in specificity as something other have noticed in this film where students never learned the English words for “those things” in class.

The topic comes up as Léo introduces us to their school’s guide to English; the omnipresent John and Mary. The schooling they were receiving was still very recitative and in this litany of body parts that the francophonic children learned there was a glaring absence: reproductive organs. Yet, Léo, and some of his other classmates had begun to discover these parts of their anatomy had other functions that were heretofore unknown to them.

So immediately Léo is complaining about the injustice of forced ignorance. In the guise of sheltering the children and preserving their fleeting innocence they are left to discover sex between “ignorance and horror,” as Léo says. And with no demystification from anyone elder in their life how else can this discovery occur. Surely, for some the repercussions of this will be minimal, but for others who knows how much of a negative impact this had on their development.

Where I Learned About: Transitioning

Transamerica (2005)

Transamerica (2006, IFC Films)

Aside from learning not to expect true greatness to be recognized by the Academy, even when nominated; this film opened my eyes on the emotional toll a person will pay when undergoing gender reassignment. Before and after the fact there will be grieving over lost time, opportunity, reclaiming identity, striving for a new future while incorporating a difficult past.

Aside from Felicity Huffman’s brilliance there is so much to experience and feel in this film.

Where I Learned About: Differentiating Sexual Identity and Orientation

Prodigal Sons (2008)

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For those who like axioms this one stuck out to me as I was seeking to learn more about what the transgendered experience is like, when being asked about why it is some people who have gender reassignment have heterosexual relationship and some have homosexual relationships, one woman answers perfectly and made me understand the magnitude of that journey; to paraphrase what she said: look in a mirror and ask yourself does what you see match how you feel inside? Most people will say yes. Look around and who are you attracted to.

That’s it. That is the difference between sexual identity and orientation. I have not in my life ever felt that specific emotion when looking at myself in a mirror. I never felt torn against myself for the very skin I was living in. I felt isolated, conflicted emotionally, and at war with where my mind and eyes would wander, and with whom I sought to be closer with amorously and amicably, but not something that fundamental.

Wherein: I Re-Examined a Film with the Topic of Sexuality in Mind (and Found a Road Less Traveled)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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After being reminded of the fact that the character of Buffalo Bill was a controversial one in the LGBT community took offense to – on a doc about it and I believe The Celluloid Closet (below) does touch on it. There were angry protests and signs about how the film seemed to vilify a transgendered person. When watching it with this in mind, I came away unconvinced, and not just because of my axiom of needing to understand that one character does not a whole demographic represent.

Bill’s situation is exacerbated by two factors: he was not given the go-ahead for surgery in psych evaluations and he specifically has sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. Bill reacts violently and irrationally to the circumstances facing him. A vast majority won’t.

Looking at the film focusing merely on the aspect of sexuality there is no evidence, as it is played in this one film, that Clarice Starling is a heterosexual woman, aside from the assumption we’re societally conditioned to have that everyone is “straight unless proven gay.”

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To my mind this dubious, and nebulous nature of her sexual orientation is underscored by her subtle disregard for being objectified by men while jogging around the FBI’s training compound.
So if we’re viewing the film through a prism of presumed sexuality, and as I see it  there are heterosexuals, one lesbian, and one man longing for a sex-change. There are characters across the spectrum.

Where I Learned: Sometimes Film Theory Has To Go Away

Thelma and Louise (1991)

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Learning film theory can be dense and difficult to most. However, there is a value to it and learning to analyze in terms of interpretations that may not even even have been made by design. It can be the only to enjoy some filmmaking styles like certain New Wave films or works of magical realism. However, never is this subject harder to learn than when you just disagree with a theory.

I fully understand the visual cues and character roles and attitudes that lead those to argue that Thelma and Louise becomes a lesbian tale by proxy. The reason I don’t buy it is because I cringe at the notion that any movie that includes an “I don’t need no man” sentiment is promoting lesbianism (Frozen) or the very sexist attitude that treats lesbianism as a choice whereas being a gay man is a sentence.

Thelma and Louise is many things: flawlessly structured, brilliantly acted, a masterpiece, a tremendous feminist statement, up there with The Accused but it’s not a lesbian story. Not to me.

I fully get and support the notion that due to a lack of representation individuals in the LGBT community can cling to characters that were not designed to represent us, and that is a healthy and normal thing, one instance from my childhood that comes to mind is Flower in Bambi.flower

Ma Vie en Rose (1999)

Where I Learned: Being Comfortable Can Change How You See the World

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Cinematically speaking, in the opinions of most, children are seen as lower beings on the totem pole. Too often children are societal afterthoughts when decisions our leaders are making now are molding the very world they seek to inherit. So there can be a great amount of coddling and shielding in film and society. However, those with a sensitivity, understanding, and appreciation can make changes, insights and be of help.

Ma Vie en Rose tells a tale of a common childhood activity, cross-dressing, through the eyes of a character who takes it to an uncommon degree and finds more comfort and joy in it than most. Even with social norms varying from country-to-country, this film being set in France doesn’t change many of the reactions to this.

The beauty seen in the world through the eyes of its protagonist is a breath of fresh air and can be an eye-opener to many about acceptance as opposed to tolerance.

Where I Learned: About More Nuances of Sexuality and the False Equivalency Tranvestites Face

Dress to Kill (1999)

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For those who need simple axioms by which to live, and learn better whilst being entertained Eddie Izzard can be a great means of enlightenment. His discussion on “weirdo transvestites” and “executive transvestites” and him describing himself as a “male lesbian” are as insightful as they are funny.

Where I Learned: Stories of First Love Don’t Have to End in Tragedy or Heartbreak

North Sea Texas (2011)

Why I start with a book will soon make sense…

 

One of the defining books of my teenage years was The Bitterweed Path. It was among a select few books I read when I was visiting family in Brazil. My grandmother has accepted a trove of books in English that she had no use for as she reads solely in Portuguese and French.

It’s a wonderful tale of an unrequited, unfulfilled love at the turn of the 20th Century. It meant so much to me, in the edition I read, that I asked for it to be be specially bound like my Grandmother and aunt sometimes do. It was quite a chore for the bookbinder but still holds an honored place on my shelf. But not all stories need be like that to work.

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Here’s a perfect example. After I learned that much to my surprise North Sea Texas was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award I wrote the following:

However, what North Sea Texas strikes upon, and what makes it work so well and so important is that it’s an idealistic tale. It reminds me of a debate I and a professor had about the Indian film Fire in college. His criticism of the film was that the revelation of, and the familial objection to, a sexual abuse situation was unrealistic. My assertion was “Why should it be?” If you’re trying to make a point be it societal, political or otherwise, there are times when the best way to make it is to seek out an ideal and illustrate it, rather than just illustrating that the problem exists.

 

Where I Learned: It Has Gotten Better, Or Stereotypes Used to be Much Worse

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

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Yes, the picture is an outlier, a maverick.

While you can note issues that still exist you cannot understand how the present is better without looking to the past. Documentaries like this and Reel Injun do well to highlight the way in which marginalized populations have been treated onscreen through the ages. Outliers are as noteworthy as patterns and improvements can be noted across the board with improvements and continued, diversified representations appearing frequently.

Where I Learned: You Don’t Even Need to Say the Word “Gay”

In the Family (2011, In the Family)

On the film In the Family I wrote the following:

the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.

Where I Learned: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Billy Elliot (2000)

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The musical adaptation of Billy Elliot amplifies virtually all the emotion in the tale. Aside from the obvious that dancing or liking it does not determine one’s sexual orientation, this one selection closes the circle from the beginning of the post.

Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is not a poofter as the vernacular would state it. Despite the fact that Michael (Stuart Wells)  is not fully self-aware for a majority of the film, he is gay. Michael’s pain at losing his best friend when he goes off to the Royal Ballet School will be massive. There is no expunging it, it can scarcely be mitigated.

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Billy’s kiss on Michael’s cheek is not a pandering gesture by a character or in filmmaking terms. It’s a simple, beautiful act of friendship. One that on its own is tear-jerking but sets up the end of the film beautifully: Billy makes his professional debut. Of course, Michael is there. So glad are we that he is both happy and supporting his friend that the coincidence of his sitting next to Billy’s dad can be forgiven.

Bonus Features

A few titles, scenes, and moments that came to mind where words are a bit unnecessary; the images say it all. Enjoy!

Where I Learned: Cartoons Can Make You Feel Uncomfortable

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

 

Where I Learned: It’s Real Awkward When You Get What’s Going On in Some Performances at Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour and You’re There With Your Dad

Where I Learned: Some People Are Gay, and That’s OK

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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Where I Learned: Dancing Can Be Sexy 

Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)

Where I Learned: You Will Have To Come Out More Than Once Whether You Like It or Not. Thanks for Bearing With Me!

Coming Out (Part 2) by Troye Sivan

Dual Roles Blogathon: The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

Introduction

This is my contribution for the Dual Roles Blogathon.

Reception: Here and Elsewhere

Roger Ebert gave this film 3.5/4 stars. He provided great pull-quote material but not without a caveat:

“The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids.”

Clearly that sentiment was truncated for the DVD release. He is correct in that it is likely a more 1980s PG than a 2008 PG. However, it is quite good and has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rather high for a family fantasy.

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In 2008 this film was nominated for 10 BAM Awards (tied for the most) in large part due to its technical prowess of it, but it was also in my top 10 and thus a Best Picture nominee for that year. It won the award for Best Sound Editing.

The lead actor, Freddie Highmore of the dual roles, was nominated for Best Performance by a Child Actor as it was called then, and likely would have won were it not for Will Poulter’s stunning debut which did not require the affectation of dual roles. Highmore won the year before in a comparatively stronger performance in August Rush.

The Team

The film is an amalgamated adaptation of a number of books in the series. The team in front of and behind the camera is impressive. Director Mark Waters, just coming off his remake of Freaky Friday, which was a big hit in every sense; but the names behind the scenes of The Spiderwick Chronicles get bigger. James Horner provided the scoring, Michael Kahn, whom usually cuts Spielberg’s films was editor, and Caleb Deschanel, the noted multi-Oscar nominee, was the cinematographer. So the team was in place to deliver this story as well as possible.

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Flanking Highmore was Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker as his mother, Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda, David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick, and Nick Nolte as Mulgarath.
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Highmore has become better known in his early adulthood as Norman Bates on Bates Motel, which will have upcoming its 5th and final season. However, his transition from young actor to adult actor has been, albeit not well-publicized, fairly smooth and persistent.

in 2010, at age 18, he appeared in Toast, which earned a bit of notice on my site and at the BAM Awards. In 2011 he was in the lackluster The Art of Getting By and in 2013 Bates started up. This year he featured in a BBC mini-series called Close to the Enemy an indie called The Journey, and his most outstanding work on Bates Motel to date.

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Even becoming a working actor after being one of the biggest young stars of your day is quite a feat.

As for The Spiderwick Chronicles, dual roles is not something that young actors normally do for pragmatic reasons first and foremost. Young actors, due to union and legal regulations, work fewer hours on set. Minors also have schooling requirements if they’re not working a summer shoot. To put a young actor in two major roles is a logistical hardship more so than merely having a young lead or ensemble, which is the reason why you see so many “high school” shows populated by actors in their 20s and even 30s.

So there’s a tribute to Highmore in that they found him capable of playing these twins, rather than finding twins to play the roles, and also in making scheduling a bit more of a headache as a trade-off for a better end product.

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If you then consider that this is was Highmore working with his non-regional American dialect for a 3rd film and this time while playing two characters, it’s even more impressive. Clearly, when playing two characters, even when one if far more involved in the plot than the other, it’s still twice as much work and the actor has to work two characters through their arc while also differentiating their mannerisms, physicality, and demeanor.

This is established almost right away. Jared, the character who carries most of the action in this film, gets into a spat with his older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Highmore is intense and angry and seeking to engage her physically. Wanting help from his twin, Jared says:

“Simon, get her!”
“I’m a pacifist.”

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The response is a throwaway wherein Highmore makes no eye contact with his alter ego. This instantly makes an impression about how to set the twins apart. They are not the dress alike, inseparable brand. Jared is more the everyman, who is angrier about the move, and in general; Simon is more studious and uptight.
Jared is the doubter at first of anything magical going on, but is also more adventurous and finds the book, uses the dumbwaiter. His character is not only introduced in a fit or anger but it is intimated he had anger management issues in the past.

Simon doubts Jared’s story´at first. When he’s taken by ogres Jared’s on a journey whether he wants to be or not having started the ball rolling by reading the book and taking it outside of the protective circle around their house.

Among the other challenges present to Highmore in this film is that he has to interact with a CG counterpart on more than a few occasions. There is also a scene wherein Jared and Simon are fighting each other which required Highmore to play both sides of the fight opposite stand-ins and doubles, it’s a demanding piece of physicality that cuts well.

After Jared brings Simon back to safety, literally dragging him, his leg injury (prosthetic make-up time added to logistics to consider – time in the make-up chair is time on the clock for a young actor) makes him most useful at the house. This allows for fewer scenes where Highmore would have to shoot two sides if he went with them to try and fight Aunt Lucinda.

While we’re far removed from the silent film days where there were Hollywood legends of directors literally willing to traumatize young actors to get them to produce real tears on film, crying scenes are still very demanding on an actor of any age. Highmore as a youth had these scenes as one of his calling cards and in this film there is a point where each of his characters is pushed to tears. For Jared it’s when he learns the truth his father won’t tell him about their parents separation that their dad has been too chicken to say to him himself.

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Toward the end there are scenes where the two characters collaborate such as when Jared summons the Griffin and Simon settles him down. Simon is teary in the cage when captured and also toward the end I believe. Here is the former scene for an example of Highmore as his own scene partner:

Below is another example of his work, this time in a climactic scene. Please do not watch it if you’ve not yet seen the movie. Scroll past.

 

There was less fanfare for this film than say The Parent Trap, as that was Lohan’s breakout and a remake, but this film is not too well remembered, and it should be in part because Highmore shines throughout.

Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films, 1930-1960 by Laurence Raw

I originally got this book as a research volume, as such, I only read the entries that were strictly pertinent to the precise time I needed information on. The scope of this book was a bit larger, so I always knew I was likely to want to come back to it and finish it. Reading it as part of the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book was a no-brainer.

The first few items of note are how handy it is and how it is organized. It is, as described on the back cover, “a biographical dictionary,” so actors that fit the bill are indexed alphabetically and their films are discussed on an individual basis. In discussing films in the same genre there are many instances of repeated filmmakers (Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon to name to). However, actors listed frequently cross paths as well and if they are discussed in someone else’s entry and have one of their own it is denoted with capital letters. You can come back to it and have fun cross-referencing actors and titles with the help of the index. The filmography is also handy if you want to create a checklist of titles to see (like on Letterboxd for example).

Dracula's Daughter (1936, Universal)

Some of the most important aspects to note, without giving too much away, is that Raw thankfully takes all film seriously in his analysis and astutely encapsulates a performer’s type so they become more familiar sight unseen, and conversely, ring true for actors you know well. When some films discussed are B-Grade or lower you don’t want the film browbeaten on an academic level. Ideally in reading a film insights and information you may not have known should be disseminated in and interesting way – and it is.

Readers should be forewarned that the film is presented using two-column pages. Depending on proclivity this may slow the pace down some but isn’t much of an encumbrance since the book can be read straight through or piecemeal.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958, MGM)

While the eras encompassed in this book are a few, the presence of horror and sci-fi and its persistence in reflecting changing norms and mores and reflecting the times closely is a constant that allows for some persistent theming even if there isn’t a narrative per se. Fans of the genres, film history, and acting should look into picking up this book.

Royalty on Film Blogathon – The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Introduction

When I first read about the Royalty on Film Blogathon, one film jumped out at me immediately as the topic I should write about. Now, having selected The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Best Picture at the BAM Awards I have written about it. However, a specific piece on the royalty featured within this film, and the interesting narrative and philosophical devices they are employed in was something I couldn’t pass up.

Method

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The approach I wanted to take to this topic, because I love this story so, was to revisit the story in three different forms. Aside from a look at the film itself I also wanted to examine the two translations that any novel takes before reaching the big screen (novel to screenplay and screenplay to finished film). This is not a fanboy needing a talking down but rather a comparative analysis.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Its Royals

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Now, one thing all versions of this particular installment of The Chronicles are focused on, is the power struggle, in external terms, of the chosen monarchs of this land (the Pevensies) and the presumptive tyrant (the White Witch), as well as the one between the White Witch and the Godhead of Narnia (Aslan).

Jadis, The White Witch, Chatelain of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, Etc.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, Disney)

The bones both to the story and the arc of the White Witch’s persona are not only well established in the book but they are very well adhered to by the screenplay. She: hired Tumnus as a spy, talks to Edmund upon his arrival, harps on the Four Monarchs prophecy, per Lucy and others she has “no right to be queen,” levies constant threats in true authoritarian style, establishes the Secret Police, and seeks to consolidate her power at all costs.

The bits of detail in the book are left out of the film add a bit more depth but do not really rob the film of much: on occasion she is called Lilith, after “Adam’s first wife”; she is a Half-Jinn, Half-Giantess; and was the Emperor’s (akin to the Father in the Christian trinity) hangman.

Edmund Pevensie, King Edmund the Just

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, Disney)

One thing this particular filmed version of the story gets absolutely right beyond a shadow of a doubt is the complexity and conflict of Edmund’s chareacter. Oversimplification or piling on of him for his mistakes, as I witnessed in a stage version due to either the bastardized script or the unfaithful direction of the theatre company performing it; is not only a wrongful interpretation but angers me to no end.

In the novel we get insights like “Edmund did not like this arrangement at all but dared not disobey” and that “Deep down inside him he really knew that the white witch was bad and cruel.” However, simple visual literacy, as well as the adept personification by Skandar Keynes (which earned him a BAM Award Nomination as Best Actor also) make it quite clear that that doubt and conflict exist within him early on despite his regrettable decisions. In the book it’s stated in black and white he realizes he was lied to and regrets his decision. In the film there is less verbal fat and more visual fodder.

What the book includes for all the children are some of the things they either dreamed of before assuming the throne or did once they took it. Edmund dreamed of roads he’d build, a private cinema, giving the beavers lesser legal status, getting revenge, and building railways. It also describes his reign as one where he proves to be “great in council and judgment” and that he is “graver and quieter” than his siblings as he grows, no doubt influenced by these formative experiences upon coming to Narnia.

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Now, the films spend even less time with the children being actually crowned monarchs than the book does, however, what it does do to compensate for that fact is have loyalists refer to them as “King” or “Queen” or “Your Majesties” and also show where these Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve act worthy of the thrones they will possess that are their right.

Edmund later leads by example, feels pity for Tumnus who he lead to his slaughter, is condemned a traitor and is to be sacrificed for penance and never pleads for his life. His actions in battle are not only part of his redemption but Peter vouches for him. He is also spared of details of the deal the White Witch and Aslan struck. All of this is reflected in the film.

He comes a long way, the longest way of all, from the young naïf swayed merely by offers of endless Turkish Delight.
Aslan

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Being the deity of this world is frequently referred to as a king as well much in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is touted as the rightful king, and in an example of terrestrial kingliness he holds private council with both the White Witch and Edmund (after his rescue). The film wisely follows the books example of having these conversations occur off (screen/page). We are witness merely to the aftermath and it adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings. His willingness to act as a sacrifice and also to want to spare Susan and Lucy the sight of his death but willing to accept their company for the journey is in essence a service a king would provide his subjects.

Lucy, the Valiant and Susan, the Gentle

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The evidence in the screenplay of the children working into their roles as monarchs is evidenced on the page as well. In one of the earlier drafts when the film version was still referred to as The Hundred Year Winter, Peter is referred to as nodding in “kingly” fashion in a descriptive the precedes the coronation. On page 68 of the script there is use of “majesties” in plural.

This is needed in the film as in the book their coronation is toward the end (pp.193, per the omnibus pagination), as are honors bestowed upon their friends (p. 194). Lewis concludes that “They governed Narnia well and long and happy was their reign” and “All foul brood was stamped out.” Furthermore, they “…made good on laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down and saved young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged people who wanted to live and let live.”

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Over the years they earned their nicknames. In the films Aslan bestows the monikers at coronation. King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, Queen Lucy the Valiant. In the film, they had to earn the names along the course of the film such that Aslan could bestow them upon them. Also, having them be assigned territories of Narnia to take special care of to shutdown the nitpicker wondering why one kingdom needs four monarchs.

Peter’s nickname is best exemplified by his leadership leading up to and during the battle. Edmund’s name of Just is perhaps the most fitting for it is through being unjust himself to start that he starts to learn firsthand what is right and proper in given situations. Lucy’s valiance is on display from the start as she never wavers in her certitude that the quest to save Tumnus, and thus, Narnia, is right. Susan’s gentility is one you have to dig for. However, its her protectiveness of her siblings, wanting to see them out of harm’s way, her needing to be coaxed into battle, and trying to avoid the conflict if it an be avoided, is where it is seen most readily.

Escalation

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In the script, and then in the film, you can see how certain aspects become emphasized. In the film there is more emphasis on the battle, which is dealt with in post-mortem in the book. In the script the White Witch more convincingly sways Edmund here than in the book because the language is simplified and less on the head. Tilda’s interpretation of the White Witch then takes the character to the next level.

In the book there is no incidence of Edmund and Tumnus in cells next to one another. This triangulation wherein the White Witch plays Tumnus off Edmund, exagerrating “He traded you in for sweets,” truly allows for additional depth for all character involved: Tumnus suffers further, Edmund experiencing this and plotting his escape aid him redemption, and the Witch is further vilified in cinematic terms.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, Disney)

As they prepare for war, Edmund really comes full circle fully committing to a battle he knows he must participate in. The emphasis of screentime spent on their training adds good bonding time for the siblings.

Susan asks: “Edmund already nearly lost his life! What are we supposed to do?”
Edmund responds: “Whatever we can.”

Conclusion

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Yes, the White Witch through being the antagonist and the reigning monarch, justly or not, takes the led in this film. However, as magnetic and magnificent as Swinton is; he desires and actions are all highly logical and compelling. Having those who are prophesied to inherit a throne slowly travel from a feeling of unworthiness to a desire for and a deserving of that seat is a more compelling journey. Furthermore, the return of a God-king to a land and an ousting of the evil ruler is also compelling. There are few characters in said books that are commoners at the end, but those who bring us into the story, those we travel with are those who will assume the thrones and those we follow. Aslan’s showing favor to the Pevensies lends truth of being anointed by God to this mythic landscape and provides the perfect counterbalance in this story.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is nearly flawless tale, and a main reason for this is the unique looks at regality it affords us.

Athletes in Film Blogathon: Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

Introduction

When first learning of the Athletes in Films Blogathon, there were some obvious choices I could make. However, having just written about Space Jam, and not holding in it in as high esteem as some in my generation and younger, the only clear choice left for me was to write about Amazing Grace and Chuck yet again. Though having written on it extensively as part of a larger piece, I didn’t focus too much on the professional athlete involved in a key role. Therefore, I will do so here.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

This is a film in which:

A little league player named Chuck refuses to ever pitch again until nuclear weapons are disarmed. Basketball star “Amazing Grace” Smith follows the boy’s example, and starts a trend.

The athlete in question in this film is:

…played by Alex English who was a player for the Denver Nuggets at the time this film was produced. We see him playing, hit a three-point shot and give his famous three fingers in the air gesture, after the game his agent/best friend, Lynn (Jaime Lee Curtis) reads him an article about Chuck and the wheels start spinning.

With the memory of his wife and daughter gnawing at his mind, Amazing decides to quit basketball and do like Chuck did, an official protest has begun. At one point someone asks Amazing “Do you really think you’re going to bring an end to nuclear weapons?” Amazing turns to him and says “I don’t know but wouldn’t it be nice.” This soon starts a snowball effect and so many athletes join the cause that professional sports are crippled and the movement spreads worldwide.

Alex English Celtics

English (pictured) played a preseason game with the Boston Celtics that was used as his game footage for the film. Having an active player play an exhibition with a team he was not contracted by is an impressive feat that Columbia/Tri-Star and the production team pulled off with the NBA’s cooperation.

The notion of athletes as activists does have quite a few precedents in sports. Here are some examples:

  • Muhammad Ali refuses induction in Vietnam.
  • “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Michael Jordan on his sociopolitical neutrality as a public speaker.
  • 1980s a decade of sports as politics: consecutive Summer Olympic boycotts.
  • First Post-9/11 games in New York.
  • “I can’t breathe” shirts in NFL.
  • Athletes for Trump.

Alex English

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This film marked Alex English’s debut as an actor. Later he went on to play Mayor Wade on Midnight Caller, then the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Eddie. The following year (1997) he was in The Definite Maybe as “The Premiere.” It was his first big screen role as a non-athlete and his second time playing some sort of leader. Despite an intermittent, free of too-much fanfare acting career, he did develop a second type aside from the most obvious one based on his first career. His most recent role was in Lumera, which was the feature film debut of his son writer/director Alexander English, Jr. who sure enough got bit by the bug during dad’s forays into the entertainment industry.

Critical Reception

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

With regards the reaction to the movie, it was critically panned. Variety noted that “Amazing Grace and Chuck is destined to go down in history as the camp classic of the anti-nuke genre. As amazingly bad as it is audacious, film will live forever in the hearts of connoisseurs of Hollywood’s most memorably outrageous moments.”

Prescient words as one of my viewings of this film was an unexpected premiere on TCM not too long ago, and Warner Archive recently rescued this film and has made it available on DVD at long last I could move on from my recorded off TV version.

However, not all the reviews were as harsh as Variety‘s. Janet Maslin of The New York Times at least had gentle praise for the performers stating that “Mr. Zuehlke, who is so precocious and somber, and Mr. English, who is nothing if not sincere…” which he most certainly is. Director Mike Newell chose English well. Newell has had tremendous results from young actors in his charge. A professional athlete like a child has less craft than an experienced, trained actor — so much falls to the director to cast well, finding the right persona, and coaxing as much natural response as his trust engenders from his actor.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

If limiting the casting options for Amazing Grace to contemporary basketball players of the late-‘80s English stands out as the obvious pick: as Michael Jordan would later show in Space Jam he was a bit stiff performance-wise and a bit too cool in persona to pull it off. Charles Barkley would be more suited in a comedy and would not bring the necessary gravitas to the film. Magic Johnson was too Hollywood to not be a distraction in this role. English fits.

Newell went on to imply that the audaciousness — and the Amazing Grace quote — are the very point of the film that must be taken into account when appraising its virtues and contrasting them to its deficits:

“I hope this film will leave audiences energized and with a great surge of hope. I hope it will be a reminder that the individual can make a difference and that humanity is capable of following its best instincts.”

Conclusion

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987, TriStar Pictures)

In my initial piece I concluded by saying:

This is a film that is idealist and dares to dream. It takes the fears of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and combines them with the hope of Glasnost and presented us with a fantasy. The poster for this film should tell you it’s a fantasy. And it’s one that only could have come out of the 80s, this film literally drips 80s. In the 1990s, and especially in the present, disarmament was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. It’s a great film about one person can make a difference and a film with a message.

This paired with Newell’s notion of the certitude I have that English was likely the best possible choice from a shallow talent pool of professional basketball acting talent. A humility, Grace (to match the fictional nickname), believable idealism, and the ability to quietly inspire followers was a necessity for this concept to have a chance and its what Alex English could bring to the table naturally.

O Canada Blogathon: Pit Pony (1997)

Introduction

This is my second contribution to the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings.
Synopsis

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Pit Pony (1997)

Glace Bay, Nova Scotia Canada, 1901. Willie MacLean is a 10-year-old boy with a love for horses and liking to school to cape the difficult times his family has. Willie’s stern, but benevolent father is a coal miner in a local mine along with his older brother John. But when Willie’s father is injured and John is killed in an accident at the mine, Willie is forced to step into his brother’s shoes to support his older sister Nellie, and two younger sisters until their father recovers. Willie soon finds work at the mine lonely (aka: the pit) and unfriendly in which he forms a bond with a pit pony horse in order to make it though each day.

Background

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I wrote about this property for my Cinematic Trip Around Canada:

Pit Pony is one of those properties that you come across by chance. I first became familiar with it due to the television series that expanded upon the story, which bounced around several different US broadcasters. It’s one of the few shows I’ve seen in its entirety on multiple occasions. It reaffirms my belief that, although rarely implemented, the half-hour drama, especially when shot single-camera, is the most effective TV format. You have in this series palpable drama, romance, all in a turn of the century mining town so there’s a Dickensian struggle to is also.

Eventually, the TV show lead me to seek out the novel upon which it was based, and also the feature film that kickstarted the series. The film is essentially very faithful to the book and the series picks up from there spinning out new tales. In some ways the film isn’t as cinematic as the show is at its best. However, the emotional truth is there owing mostly to the fact that is shares many of the same actors. The various incarnations of the story but mainly the series is why Nova Scotia is near the top of my list of places to go; those vistas need to be seen in person.

On the subject of the book, I enjoyed it a great deal and may share it with my own child.

Movie/Show Ties and Differences

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There are far more similarities in the film and TV series than there are differences. From the top Cochran Productions to the cast featuring a young Ellen Page (credited as Ellen Philpotts-Page), to Heather Conkie writing the script to Eric Till directing, then helming five episodes. The most notable differences are Ben Rose-Davis as Willie, not Alex Wrathell. Gabriel Hogan as Ned Hall, not Shaun Smyth.

Inherent Conflicts

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Within the framework of this tale there are a lot of inherent conflicts built in. Conflicts that can be examined in further detail and can fluctuate in importance. This is one of the strongest indicators of how strong it could be (and was) as a TV series. Among these struggles are:

  • Carving out a living in a mining town where the company controls your fate.
  • The clash of working class and educated.
  • Management vs. labor; strikes (here Ned’s past haunts him).
  • Coming-of-age.
  • The threat of disease, namely consumption.
  • The tug of an important industry that is unsafe.
  • Fear, best illustrated by the fact that the Ocean Deeps mines actually extend out under the Atlantic.
  • Rebelling against the family business.

Even the love interest subplot well folded in, as to get something he wants (driving lessons from Ned and a new position) Willie must put in a good word for Ned with Nellie.

Themes

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Just as the conflicts in the narrative are varied so are some of the themes ever present in this story and stories like it. The film seeks to free both a boy and a horse from the mine, so much so that the title could just as easily refer to boy or horse. There are losses of family members to deal with, and the ever-present danger. The earth is quite literally a player as the miners go deep beneath the ground being symbolically interred, and as Ned states; he wants to work above the ground not beneath it. The boy and his horse, as well as the threats to the horse are commonplace but combined with all these other factors and permutations it stands out as a unique layer.

Ending

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This is the only part of this piece where I may have to warn you away with a spoiler alert. They’re vague but there. For the brave you may read on.

Many elements work in the climax’s favor:

  • It’s thought to be bad luck for a woman to be seen at mine, then Nellie comes to talk to Ned this occurs right before the climactic events.
  • A shot of rats running, which was foreshadowed as a sign of impeding trouble.
  • A growing flame, foreshadowed as how miners detected leaks; the alert whistle rings through town and silences every one.
  • Ned heroically goes after Willie.
  • Willie attempts to rescue his bully, Simon, and his horse, Gem.

The realizaton that nearly all is well is dramatically rendered also. The rescue scene is cutaway from so we wait with those worried, then there are shots of entrance pulley and rope; the survivors are in the last coal car that surfaces.

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The mine collapse claims Willie’s horse, Gem, but one of the surprises, and an uplifting bittersweet note is that Gem, who was pregnant, delivered a foal. Whereas working the mine was the only way he could be with Gem as the horse was property of the mine, this foal was given to Willie as a gift/reward for his valor in rescuing Simon.

Further uplifting the conclusion is the return to health of Willie’s dad (not unlike in Flipper) there will be a change in the characters between the movie and the film, but this one is at least explained in the writing of the show). Lastly, and most importantly, it’s out of the mine and back to school for Willie, as his dad arranged to get him out while he finished his recovery at home.

The film ends on a gorgeous silhouette shot at magic hour. The 4:3 cinematography is good but the show, likely endowed with a bigger budget, had far more consistently brilliant imagery. At the very end are two title cards that drive home how commonplace the practice of employing minors in the mines was. In 1923 boys were no longer allowed in the pits. It is estimated that around 100,000 had worked in them in Canada to that point.

Conclusion

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It’s not just a primal gut reaction to the thought of working in subterranean climes, or the simpler, harder times that make something like Pit Pony a success. Even the film, as quickly and broadly as it paints its many conflicts and relationships, pulls on the heartstrings. The sense of place is evidenced not just by how lovingly Glace Bay is portrayed but also by the common ancestry (Scotland) many characters share that grounds it. It’s a provincial portrait, a subcultural one, a loving one, but like most specific tales there’s a universality within it that transcends borders and time periods.

Some stories in many versions are ones you cling to because they mean a great deal to you and they’re well known. Others you may cling to more tightly because they’re not as universally known and they seem to call out and speak to you in a unique and special way. Pit Pony is one of those stories I consider myself fortunate to have encountered. I know I’m not alone in admiring it, but I also know there aren’t throngs who know it, nor is it yet classic. However, that just makes me want to hold it more dear and share it with those who would hear.

O Canada! Blogathon – Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy

Introduction

This is a post that is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. I will have another contribution to it soon!

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy

This is one of those films that I’ve written about some in the past but never dedicated and entire post to it. So here it comes, and I discuss the plot in some detail, and if that matters to you even in a comedy, consider this your spoiler alert.

This is a film that in the retroactive days was added to the BAM Awards roster of nominees in 1996 for Best Original Screenplay.

I discussed it when I decided to take a Cinematic Trip Around Canada on Canada Day:

“I have said previously how underrated and amazing I think The Kids in The Hall: Brain Candy is. While it too falls into the vague category and does make a lot of commentary apropos of ‘90s America, it’s still The Kids in the Hall, in my head (where it’s 72 degrees all the time) this movie is in Canada.”

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And this is true, within the framework of the narrative the film never explicitly states where its set. However, having the Queen of England (Scott Thompson’s version) make a cameo approving the drug is the only time that the film being set in Canada is hinted at. It is definitely shot there as the cities of Toronto and Mississauga are both thanked in the end credits.

Later, I went on to lament that this attempt at the end of the run of their show fell on its face and didn’t spawn other Kids in the Hall (KITH) films:

Why this film received such a cold shoulder and is largely overlooked is beyond me. The Kids in the Hall probably could’ve made a slew of films with a colon and their troupe’s effort following it in the title. They could’ve become the 90s incarnation of Monty Python. This film is hugely overlooked and vastly underrated. The franchise here is not the Brain Candy concept but rather the troupe’s brand of comedy transposed onto the big screen. Perhaps in the economically affluent, blasé, Generation X 90s a droll, snide stab at pharmaceutical companies and anti-depressants was not the way to go but it is hilarious. If you haven’t yet checked out their one and only feature length film to date please do. They still do shows and have appearances in Canada and each member does individual projects but perhaps the harsher times will reawaken the need for KITH as a unit.

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Lastly, while still on a high from The Avengers (the first one, obviously) I imagined other properties who could benefit from a similar build-up in phases. KITH was one of them:

I preface this choice by saying I adore Brain Candy, I know I’m in a minority when I say that but I do. However, that’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see a Kids in the Hall film where they play say 995 out of 1000 characters and bring in many of their famous characters. One needs to only see the rendition of a film not unlike Kiss of the Spider Woman that Bruno Puntz Jones (David Foley) and Francesca Fiore (Scott Thompson) do to know how cinematic they can be and how easily they can pull it off.

The film expectedly and boldly uses the kids as a number of characters each:

Dave Foley as Marv / Psychiatrist / New guy / Raymond Hurdicure;

Bruce McCulloch as Alice / Cisco / Grivo / Worm pill scientist / Cop #2 / Cancer boy / White-trash man;

Kevin McDonald as Dr. Chris Cooper / Doreen / Chris’ dad / Lacey;

Mark McKinney as Simon / Don Roritor / Cabbie / Gunther / Cop #1 / Nina Bedford / Melanie / Drill sergeant / White-trash woman;

and Scott Thompson as Baxter / Mrs. Hurdicure / Wally Terzinsky / Malek / Big Stummies scientist / The Queen / Raj / Clemptor.

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I’ve completed the Megaset of the entire series since watching this film last (just to make sure I’d seen them all) and, thus, the characters from the show making an appearance are more noticeable now. They are the Cops, White-Trash Man and White-Trash Woman, The Queen, and Cancer Boy, and we’ll get to him more later. All the other characters listed above were creations made for the film, some are variations on types the Kids already played some were entirely new.

As per usual with the show as well all five kids are rarely in the same scene, on the odd occasion some of them even play against themselves. However, what makes this film work is far more than the KITH being up to their usual tricks.

The Kids in the Hall

Firstly, they found in this story of those developing a revolutionary anti-depressant and those who may or may not need to use it a way to tell a unified story and still keep a sketchy-feel to it. Therefore, it’s the perfect transitional project from one medium to another. Since then I met someone who happened to work on the film and they told me how frustrating it was to have to incessantly run off copies of new script pages due to frequent rewrites. I can see how this could be frustrating and how this could happen. You craft a sketch and if it works great, that character may recur, if it fails you can move on and hope it’s forgotten. Film, for those used to getting a reaction from a live audience is a tough medium, and this perfectionism is nothing less than I’d expect from these five.

The film works because in large part there are memorable, hilarious moments in all the various prongs this story tackles. However, as silly as it can be it is a moderately-positioned send up over-medication; the fine-line between wanting to be happy all the time and depression. It takes a hard, skeptical look at the pharmaceutical industry, as one of key plot points is that they are pushing for the drug to go non-prescription, that in the light of the comas the drug is inducing. It’s set up to go there as budget cuts in research pressure the lead character Chris, played by Kevin McDonald, to state the drug is ready when they clearly need to do more testing on it. His becoming a rock star for inventing the drug and the eventual, final coup of critique wherein the coma victims are venerated like deities.

Flashbacks and memory are two great motifs that can be uniquely used in film, if not unique to the medium itself. I usually respond very well to both and the film uses both prominently and perfectly as the drug seeks to have the depressed subject “lock on to their happiest memory chemically.” It’s a great set-up that makes for some hilarious (and depressing) happiest memories.

Some of the memorable moments in Brain Candy include but are not limited to:

“I’m Gay!”

“Happiness Pie”

I remember watching this with my uncle in Brazil and he cracked up at this part. Sadly, we’re not yet living in a world that will shot “Who cares?” at such an announcement.

“You are gay!”

“This urine is great!”

“A Pill That Gives Worms to Ex-Girlfriends”

“I wanna talk about drugs…”

The film tanking is actually unsurprising considering this article. As they were set to reunite for live shows (one of which I saw!) Bruce confirmed Paramount wanted Cancer Boy cut from the film, they wouldn’t budge, and Paramount retaliated by cutting their advertising budget, and many screens for the film vanished. Sadly, I get the reaction on both sides. The Cancer Boy scene is one I laugh at while shaking my head and saying “That’s so messed up,” but I still laugh. I get Paramount wanting it cut but am not sure I get them cutting off their nose to spite their face. The article also features a video Siskel and Ebert battling over the film, as per usual, I’m with Gene.

I also love some of the more hidden jokes in the film like Drug Variety magazine, cameos by Brendan Fraser, Adam Reid of You Can’t Do That On Television (“Chris Cooper signed my scar!”) and some others like Missus Hurdicure’s tea never stops falling or “Ne allez-vous pas au media,” and Don Roritor being essentially another rendition of Lorne Michaels.

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996, Paramount Pictures)

The three month time leap the film takes is risky but allows it to be a rise-to-and-fall-from-fame story as well for Cooper’s character and underlines how humanity often doesn’t listen to advice that’s given to us in out own best interest. The hidden coma victims, then the spin of comatose living communities is genius and fitting. As is when Roritor tries to certify Chris as being clinically depressed, thus, forcing him to take his own medication. Another gamble was that the film features a stinger, which was a bit more unusual in the mid-to-late ‘90s than it is now.

The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy may not have been a hit even if Paramount dedicated more resources to it, maybe it was always destined to have a cult status because The Kids in the Hall aren’t for everyone. And that’s OK. If there’s one mistake this Canadian troupe never made it’s that of pandering. They do material they believe in and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, there are plenty of other safer, more boring acts out there. Always daring and avant guard, I’m grateful for this film maybe more so than the series as I’ve enjoyed it several times over.

I now leave you with some thoughts Dave Foley shares regarding the differences between the US and Canada. Per the set-up most of the Canadian facts are fabricated, as it’s KITH most are hilarious and it ends perfectly and with a point as Brain Candy does. It’s a great sketch and this is a great film by my favorite troupe.

Backstage Blogathon: Our Gang Follies of 1936 (1935)

Our Gang Follies of 1936

When considering the Backstage Blogathon, as to whether or not to participate in the first place, there was very little to consider. As it comes to wanting to choose topics that allow me a more personal approach than most this theme does well.

Being the Backstage Blogathon it allows me to talk about my relationship with one of the performing arts. In this case, it is the theatre. This history is one with deep infatuations and long absences.

My first exposure to theatre really was in grade school, where, as most children have been, I was involved in two school plays. First, there was a version of Peter Pan, where despite my willingness and desire to be Pan, the older, predicted actor was chosen. Later, I was in something called The Wishing Well. Though I have since found cast pictures I have not as of yet tracked down which play this is and who exactly is the playwright.

wishingwellcast

These sojourns in grade school were the only ones until after I was in college where by chance I got involved in a community theatre, and over the course of four years did sort of a self-run education in theatrical arts where I eventually wrote and directed some plays of varying lengths

My stage work may be one of the next projects I tackle in my aims to self-publish a great number of my works. More about these shows can be read here and even seen in part here.

This more or less brings us to the present and my selecting Our Gang Follies of 1936 as my title for this blogathon. It was the second time, where I signed up for one of Movies Silently’s great blogathon’s and saw something on the wishlist worth nabbing. In this insistance one motivation was the opportunity to see another title off the Little Rascals box set, while jumping chronologically and also scratching off one curiosity.

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The curiosity being that I got to put to bed any misconstrued notion I still carried with me from childhood over what follies were in this sense. My first exposure to the phrase as a child were the NFL football follies – so, I knew of it as a euphemism for a mistake. When ads for revivals of the Ziegfeld Follies and the like came around I was confused. Eventually, I got it by osmosis but onky recently confirmed it’s merely another way to describe a theatrical revue.

So, on to the version by Hal Roach’s Rascals…

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MGM’s series of short subjects were, of course, popular for years. These 2-3 reel comedies were later repackaged for television where their longevity was prolonged. This was one of the series of shorts I seem to remember getting some exposure to on Saturday mornings via TCM. That was some time ago and more recently I’ve been wading my way through a large, yet not complete as it claims, box set.

This particular short is later down the line than I’d gotten, and thus, the first of Gus Meins’ directed shorts that I was privy to viewing. In brief, the short deals with the Gang, starting with Spanky as the barker, seeking to gather an audience to watch “6 Acts of Swell Actin’”.

The cast is large and wholly made up of kids. The tale is musical, yet more more enjoyable than most could expect.

Some of the acts include: tap-dancing bellhops, Alfalfa singing “She’ll be comin’ Around the Mountain”, hula girls, a kickline, a trio of singing sisters, Darla singing (sounding better than she has any right to. Voices as young as hers, especially for girls, are usually quite piercing even when in tune), a skeleton dance that hearkens back to silent film days, and the oft-delayed Flory-Dory Sixtett number.

As a side note this was my first time watching the actual Buckwheat in a short. My first exposure to him was Eddie Murphy’s version.

The gags in this short, unlike some of their shorts, are varied and plentiful: there is a monkey shoeshining, cross-dressing, animal hiding in a bodice, things go wrong and it’s live, hiding in hay, running skull, gunshots at boots, and animated eyes.

It’s no wonder there was a sequel was a sequel to this short a few years later. This version is well done and allows great variety in scenes, different talents to be displayed and many jokes.