Tag Archives: movies

My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:

  1. My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
  2. I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
  3. I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
  4. I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
  5. I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
  6. Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
  7. I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
  8. I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
  9. Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
  10. I miss American Heritage magazine.
  11. I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
  12. I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
  13. My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
  14. Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
  15. Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
  16. I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
  17. My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
  18. I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
  19. Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
  20. Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
  21. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
  22. I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
  23. I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
  24. Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
  25. There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.

A nostalgic afternoon in Manhattan

Yet another photo of the split pea soup at the Cozy…4 stars! (photo: DY)

Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.

As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.

I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!

photo-595

The Strand was a mecca and refuge when I lived in NYC (photo: DY)

Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.

“Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway”

I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.

Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!

photo-592

A weekly staple of my NYC days (photo: DY)

When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.

The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.

photo-594

If you can figure this out, you can split the atom (photo: DY)

Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.

And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!

Who you gonna call?

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

It’s hard to believe that “Ghostbusters” is 32 years old as of this summer! And with the remake of the movie (and a new, female cast in the leads) scheduled for its theatrical release in July, several actors from the original are making the rounds of TV talk shows to indulge in some nostalgia and to promote the new arrival.

“Ghostbusters” is a great comedy, as one might expect of a flick featuring Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in their primes. I also count it among the wonderful New York movies. It made terrific use of the city, and there’s a line by Ernie Hudson at the end — no spoiler necessary — that captures it all: I love this town!!!

I remember the summer when “Ghostbusters” opened. I had finished my second year of law school at NYU, and I was working as a summer associate at one of the big law firms in Chicago. This was something of a test for me: To try out the corporate legal sector and to return to the Midwest. Well, as I’ve reminisced here previously, I felt like a fish out of water. The world of what is now called BigLaw wasn’t for me, and I badly missed New York. The city scenes in “Ghostbusters” made me pine ever more for the streets of Manhattan.

The theme music from “Ghostbusters” would become a hit single. I remember buying the movie soundtrack and playing it often on my cassette Walkman, which would serve as my “stereo system” until I finally cobbled together enough money to buy a nice boom box.

Oh gawd, once again my sense of time gets all distorted here. In the time machine that is my nostalgic brain, that summer remains a vivid memory. And yet there are stretches of my life from, say, 6 or 12 or 20 years past, that seem like epochs ago. Weird.

Server down + St. Pat’s Day = Playing hooky

Not to be seen alone, in my case, completely so!

Not to be seen alone, in my case, completely so!

It’s spring break week at my university, and I’ve been using the time to get caught up on a variety of writing projects and other commitments. Yesterday I intended to dive into edits of a couple of articles I’m working on, but the university server was down and I couldn’t access the files I needed. It was St. Patrick’s Day anyway, so I figured, why not take the afternoon off? And that I did.

It started with a matinee viewing of “The Witch,” a chilling film set in 1630s New England, some 60 years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Here’s how IMDB describes it:

William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. ‘The Witch’ is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey for an inescapable evil.

Pictured above are the father, William (Ralph Ineson), holding his oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The cast is excellent, with Taylor-Joy delivering an especially exceptional performance.

Please don’t be concerned that I was disturbing fellow movie goers by snapping that photo with my iPhone camera. You see, there was no one else in that theatre. (That’s a first for me.) Although “The Witch” has received strong reviews, it has been out for a while, and I guess St. Pat’s revelers were in no mood to watch a movie that might cause them to feel guilty about their earthly behaviors.

After the movie, I walked over to the nearby Brattle Book Shop, my favorite used bookstore in the Greater Boston area, and found a few affordable goodies, including a couple of gifts for friends. I visit the Brattle at least once a month, sometimes more often. When the weather is decent, their big draw is an array of outdoor book carts in their adjoining lot, containing thousands of wonderful bargains priced at $5, $3, and $1.

However, higher end collectors will also find plenty of treasures in their rare book room. Here’s a photo of an item they sold for a tidy sum. Nope, despite my love of anything Gershwin, I was not the buyer. (I’m opting to pay my mortgage this year instead.) But I did pick up a couple of songbooks with selections from that era for only five bucks a pop. Not a bad deal if I say so myself.

photo-368

 

Time travel: Boston by streetcar, early 1900s

Screenshot of New England Historical Society webpage

Screenshot of New England Historical Society webpage

If you have eight minutes to spare for a fun little historical video, go to this New England Historical Society page to view a streetcar ride in the heart of Boston during the early 1900s.

Those familiar with Boston will recognize a fair number of buildings that remain intact (more or less) today, including the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, pictured above. With some unfortunate exceptions, mainly parts of the city where a myriad of “urban renewal” projects and other monstrosities (like the unsightly City Hall) supplanted fine old buildings, a lot of Boston’s vintage structures are still with us. Some happen to be of great historical significance.

As you watch the video, notice how the people are dressed. Perhaps reinforced by the grainy quality of the black & white video, they look very much the same. I was tempted to attribute this to Boston’s historic lack of fashion variety. But I think it has more to do with the fact that some 110 years ago, a lot fewer people expressed their individuality through choice of clothing, at least to the point where it would be noticeable on old film footage.

I love old films like this. They are typically raw, soundless, and absent any sense of story, but they’re the next best thing to being able to jump into a time machine for a quick walk through a city over a century ago.

***

Hat tip to Rosina-Maria Lucibello for this video.

 

 

On bucket lists, f***it lists, and the happily mundane

The title of the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” introduced a new phrase into our popular culture, referring to the making of wish lists, written down or simply in our heads, of must-do trips and activities before we die (hence, kick the bucket). The film itself starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two older men with dire medical diagnoses who decide to leave their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip around the world.

Especially among folks of a certain age (umm, 40s and older), “bucket list” creeps fairly often into conversations about making the most of our respective futures. It’s also an easy peasy invitation to daydreaming big.

But hold on a minute, maybe there’s more to a good life than checking off items on a bucket list! How about the benefits of offloading certain burdens and of pursuing everyday pleasures?

While some are making their bucket lists, others are working on their “f***it” lists, made up of those life matters worthy of jettisoning. As Huffington Post blogger Kathy Gottberg suggests, “we should be both willing and able to let go of anything that drags us down and holds us back from living a happy and content life.”

Furthermore, by choice or circumstance, most of us aren’t in a position to tackle a bucket list that includes a private jet at our beck and call. Not to worry, reports New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, citing research indicating that simple, pleasurable everyday experiences — “like a day in the library” — can bring us happiness comparable to taking that big trip.

I think I get it. While I have neither a bucket list nor a f***it list, I understand that adding items to the latter can be incredibly freeing. Some of life’s B.S. just isn’t worth carrying around! Also, while I still enjoy visits to cool places, I’m quite happy with stretches that don’t involve long plane flights and that allow time for leisure reading or some quality binge viewing.

In other words, thank goodness there are good ways to pursue happiness besides vagabonding around the world in a Lear jet. Besides, the jet lag would be horrific.

“Spotlight” is superb movie making

photo-236-2

Based on the strong reviews it’s getting, I expected to like “Spotlight,” the new movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation of the priest sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. But I didn’t anticipate regarding it as one of the best suspense dramas ever made about crusading reporters chasing a blockbuster story. By the time it ended, I had already concluded that “Spotlight” compares very favorably to “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie about the Washington Post‘s role in exposing the Watergate scandal. In fact, I think it’s the better of the two.

The movie’s title refers to the Globe‘s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga — Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly actually did a lot of the initial reportage on this matter —  it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to blow it wide open.

photo-237-2

The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding, and I anticipate that several of the lead actors will be prominent at Oscar time. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances.

The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in attempting its cover up.

Of course, I may be biased in my praise. After all, I’ve been living in Boston for some two decades, and I remember well the Globe‘s work in uncovering the priest scandal. That said, this is really, really good Hollywood moviemaking. “Spotlight” mixes superb drama with an authentic look & feel, and it ultimately it drives home a bigger lesson about powerful institutions run amok.

The finer things: Books, movies, coffee

As my friends will readily acknowledge, my spending priorities do not extend to matters of wardrobe, home and office design, and other things domestic. But in the Kingdom of Geekdom that is my world, books, movies, and coffee are more likely to separate cash from wallet. And on occasion, I will indulge in select higher end purchases in each of these three categories.

photo-223-2

Let’s start with books. Powered by my ability to rationalize virtually any book purchase (not much willpower there, folks), I have become fond of editions published by the Folio Society, a British entity that specializes in collector-quality volumes of fiction and non-fiction works that have stood the test of time and critical review. Folio Society books are beautifully designed and produced, with print quality that is very easy on these middle-aged eyes.

But Folio Society editions are quite pricey when bought new, often ringing in at between $50 and $100 per volume and sometimes much higher. Consequently, I am judicious with purchases of new Folio books, usually waiting for sales when I will permit myself on occasional splurge, such as a stunning edition of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun. More frequently, I will scour used bookstores in person and online for copies in quality condition. Perhaps a silver lining of today’s retreat from hard-copy book reading is that fine quality used volumes can be had at bargain prices.

photo-219-2

Next, on to movies, where DVDs from the Criterion Collection catch my eye. Criterion editions are first-rate prints of acclaimed films, accompanied by lots of extras on the DVD and a booklet with original essays about the film. Pictured above is one of my favorite movies, “The Naked City” (1948), a classic crime story filmed on site in post-war New York. The Criterion edition is a beautifully restored print, capturing the city’s vistas in sharp, vivid black and white.

Relatively speaking, Criterion editions are not as expensive as Folio Society books, but they are priced at premium rates nonetheless. Here, too, patience and bargain sleuthing yield dividends. Barnes & Noble runs a half-price sale of Criterion Collection films once or twice a year, and poking around online will uncover pre-viewed copies at decent prices as well.

photo-221-2

Well kids, if we’re talking books and movies, then coffee can’t be far behind. I save money by usually making coffee at my home or office. Yet I must confess, my tastes are more expensive than Maxwell House or Folger’s. I often opt for a fair trade blend from my beloved City Feed & Supply store across the street, or maybe a good brand on sale at the local CVS.

And here’s the splurge: Recently, I used a gift card from GoCoffeeGo to try the house blend from Henry’s House of Coffee, a popular, long-time San Francisco coffee roaster. I must say that it is one of the best, most aromatic coffees I’ve ever had. This will have to be a periodic treat rather than a regular presence in my coffee rotation, but it’s so good that I’ll continue to make the occasional purchase!

Fighting Irish schmaltz: “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American”

When it comes to college football fandom, I’m not naturally rooted. My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, has a terrific mid-major basketball program, but for decades its football team has mostly struggled. My law school alma mater, New York University, doesn’t even have a football team, though it once was quite prominent in the sport during the 1920s and 1930s.

And so on Saturdays during the fall, I often fall back on my northwest Indiana origins, when I became a Notre Dame football fan. I may have no educational or faith connection to Notre Dame, but I can’t help it, I am drawn to its football team. (I fully understand that hating on the Fighting Irish is a time-honored football tradition in itself. Those who cannot bear to read this rest of this post are hereby given permission to click to something else.)

Two movies, “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American,” capture the mystique and mythology of Notre Dame football, augmented by forms of dramatic license inherent in most sports flicks. The Urban Dictionary defines “schmaltz” as “a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy.” Both films qualify for in that category. But that’s okay, I enjoy both of them, perhaps because of — not in spite of — their soggy stories.

Rudy” (1993) is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a scrappy, undersized blue-collar kid who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, set in the late 60s through mid-70s. The movie portrays his dogged determination in chasing that dream, fueled by numerous references to the storied traditions of the University and its football team. As befits your basic sports story, there are struggles to overcome along the way.

It is often quipped that “Rudy” is one of those sports movies that makes it okay for guys to cry. Personally, it doesn’t unleash the tear ducts for me, but it’s a heartwarming story nonetheless. Sean Astin makes for a likable, convincing Rudy, and the football scenes are decent. One might quarrel with some of the story twists inserted for cheap effect — the Notre Dame head coach at the time, Dan Devine, certainly has reason to be miffed at how he’s portrayed — but let’s remember that this is a Hollywood movie, not an art house film.

The movie also blows a kiss to Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions. A feature accompanying the DVD tells us that this was the first movie filmed on campus since (see below!) “Knute Rockne, All American.”

tt0032676

Knute Rockne All American” (1940) is a paean to Notre Dame head coach and player Knute Rockne, the most revered figure in Fighting Irish football history. Rockne entered Notre Dame as a student at the age of 22, wanting to play football. As a member of the 1913 Irish squad, he teamed up with quarterback Gus Dorais to form the first potent forward passing combination in the history of the game.

After graduation, Rockne stayed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach, eventually giving up a promising science career to become the school’s head coach. During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, he built America’s most successful college football program, leading the Irish to multiple national championships and becoming a national figure along the way.

If “Rudy” regards its main subject sentimentally, then “Knute Rockne All American” is an all out love letter to its protagonist, the University, and the sport of football. War clouds were hovering over America when the movie was filmed and released, and it appears to be no accident that it ties together football, faith, manhood, and patriotism as a thematic passage.

The movie stars Pat O’Brien as Rockne and a young Ronald Reagan as legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp.

 

Classic movie report: August 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.

Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)

Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.

The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).

MV5BODE2ODQ5MzYyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODc1Mjc1MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_

The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)

The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.

Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.

%d bloggers like this: