Anniversary Post

15 years ago on this day, I registered and I think it was far less bland then. I called it “the congenial website” because I liked the sound of that. It looked something like this:

Piddleville from back in the day.
Piddleville from back in the day.

Five year ago (when it was ten years old) I said this about it on :

Piddleville has had three lives. It began as the site of a fictional town, Piddleville, and included numerous fictional characters. That ran it’s course and it became a personal blog for a while. Then I began Writelife and decided it and Piddleville needed focus. So Writelife was more or less about writing and Piddleville became about movies. (I had been posting a lot about movies there already.)

You could say the current site is Piddleville 3.0.

There isn’t anything more to add to that except I still kind of miss that original version, my fictional town of Piddleville. :-)

Internet and social media movies

About three weeks ago I watched The Social Network. I have to watch it again soon because the first experience came as a surprise. It did nothing for me.

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A bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of Carole Lombard

As you may have noticed, I’ve been making some changes to Piddleville recently. It’s window dressing, essentially, although I did manage to get around to something I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

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The accidental film noir: I Wake Up Screaming

It’s Day 2 of For the Love of Film (Noir) — don’t forget to (or use the button on the right). Today I have a quickly scribbled, un-proofed, un-thought through look at the movie I watched last night. The studio considered calling it Hot Spot but, according to the DVD I have, the actors insisted on them using the original name, which is  …

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone

As I watched I Wake Up Screaming last night I had two thoughts running concurrently. First, this should not be a good movie. Second, somehow it manages to be a good movie. How does that happen?

I’m not sure. I think it lies partly in Betty Grable, whose performance is a level above the other main actors in the movie.

It’s also in the characterization of Ed Cornell, played by Laird Cregar, who seems a cross between Vincent Price (in the slightly effeminate voice and its cadence) and possibly a low rent version of George Sand. (I mean vocally, nothing else, and not much there either. But there seems to be something vaguely Sand-ish in the voice.)

Cregar’s Cornell is creepy, to say the least, and that makes the movie compelling. Though the film’s mystery may be obvious, it doesn’t matter. The creepiness keeps us fascinated in a “slowing down to view the accident” kind of way. Cregar’s character isn’t the only one that gives us the willies.

Elisha Cook Jr.’s Harry is equally troubling. Soft-spoken and gentle, his focus and attentiveness to Grable’s Jill Lynn leaves us feeling something isn’t right about him. He’s stalker material.

Much of what makes the movie watchable is in the script. The bad guys in this movie – and there are a lot of them – are not villains so much in the commitment of crimes regard, as in their psychology. In fact, most of them have stalker-like personalities or variants of it.

They are all focused in some way on Vicky Lynn, played by Carole Landis. They want to either possess her, use her, or both. And she, being ambitious, is happy to permit it as she uses them. Thus, in a sense, she invites what follows from it.

Into this morass of twisted personalities come Victor Mature as Frankie, a kind of nice if goofy sports promoter (who find himself accused of murder) and Vicky’s sister, Grable’s Jill Lynn.

Frankie and Jill are the normal ones (for lack of a better word) and also the ones who suffer the consequences of a world populated by twisted personalities.

Visually, the movie delivers the noir goods but that may be less an aesthetic decision as a kneejerk response to making a crime movie in the forties. Crime equals scenes of darkness and shadow, ergo scenes of darkness and shadow. I get the sense director H. Bruce Humberstone was a paint-by-numbers kind of director, though that may be unfair to him. But that is how it strikes me.

Still, by accident or design, the movie looks good as a noir. It has a low budget feel and some very nice shots, especially near the end where we see Mature looking down at Harry snoozing at the front desk.

Overall, then, I Wake Up Screaming strikes me as an accidental noir. It discovers a noir world in the script it brings to the screen and in the kind of kneejerk response of how it visually portrays that script.

Much of what happens on screen is highly melodramatic and it would be too much were it not for the material driving it, Laird’s unsettling Cornell, and Grable’s much better anchored performance as Jill. Victor Mature looks great as a noir character, especially in the interrogation scenes, but he is often well over-the-top. Also, for about two thirds of the movie, once outside the interrogation room (and often within it) he plays a goofy kind of guy without a care in the world. It’s deliberate, in part, as it’s an aspect of the character. But it just seems too much.

And having gone on with all these negative comments about the movie, I still have to say I liked it quite a bit. However, it feels to me it’s a good movie through dumb luck; a film noir by accident.

How do you make movies about nice people?

Having been the really big little movie of a year or so ago, Juno (2007) hardly needs another review and so, other than to say I liked it a lot and consider it one of the better movies of the last few years, I’m not going to review it.

But I’d like to muse a while on something Juno does that I think is very difficult to do and very uncommon. It’s a movie about nice people. In fact, to the best of my recollection, everyone in the movie is a nice person. How do you make a movie about a nice guy (or gal)? And how do you make one where every character is a nice person?

Bad guy roles are often the ones actors (and directors) like to get a hold of: it’s much more interesting and, I suspect, easier to play. There’s more to work with because there is more to explore, or so it seems. Not to take anything away from Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, but there are more ways into and more avenues to examine in a character like that as opposed to, for example, Victor Navorkski (Tom Hanks) in The Terminal.

So I have a fascination with movies that feature “nice guys” – at least, those where I think the movies, and particularly the roles, work. For example and comparison, look at one of the nice guy roles in a movie like The Core (2003), Bruce Greenwood as Cmdr. Robert Iverson. It’s about as colourless and bland as you could imagine. Yet with few, if any, opportunities, Greenwood makes him one of the more interesting and compelling characters in the movie. No, it’s not a huge role – the character is a minor one.

Now look at the thankless role Bill Pullman has as President of the United States in Independence Day (1996). In that case, the role is equally bland, there is just as little to work with and what ends up on screen is bland. In both cases the “nice guy” is supposed to be interesting because he’s heroic – and that’s just about all. Yet Greenwood manages, somehow, to find some shading to make his character a bit more than cardboard.

In most movies, nice guy heroes are pretty one dimensional. What goes on around them is what engages, if it engages at all, and often what surrounds them and grabs us is the bad guy, or at least the troubled character. Heroes are often, in these cases, “troubled” – they have some character flaw because, well, they’re darned boring otherwise (see Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard.

How, then, do movies like Juno or The Terminal manage to make good stories that feature nice people?

For one thing, they are romantic comedies. In those movies, while there may be a “bad guy” kind of character – a spouse, significant other, a boss etc. – the movie’s drama isn’t the conflict with “the bad guy” but situational, between two nice people. We want the conflict resolved so the two of them can get together.

But it seems to me that when a movie that features nice people works best it is almost always ensemble work. Yes, one or two characters are the focus, but the movie is hugely dependent on the characters surrounding them – almost always other nice people. (Think of those classic Hollywood movies like The Philadelphia Story or My Man Godfrey or Sabrina.)

As much as Ellen Page as Juno is the focus of Juno, and as good as her performance is, the movie is nothing without the ensemble – Paulie, Juno’s parents, the adopting couple, Juno’s friends. And they all share in common, with Juno, “niceness” and (for lack of a better word), quirkiness.

While we refer to it as quirkiness, however, is it really? I suppose so but, in the movies that work, it’s also character – there are reasons for the quirky behaviour. I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere not having distinct characteristics without being a blank slate.

Everyone we know has characteristics like this. Usually, the closer we are to someone – a friend, a family member – the more aware we are of their unique characteristics. It’s often what we love about them (and what we find annoying, at the same time). In movies, however, they are sometimes emphasized, or at least focused upon, because they lend themselves to humour and more importantly to character.

In a movie like The Station Agent (2003), it’s a small ensemble – just three, really. But that’s what makes the movie work – three nice people and each distinguished by their unique characteristics.

In a certain sense, you could say the successful portrayal of niceness is always (as far as I know) communal. While there are characters that are the film’s focus, it’s the community that supports them and the community – the ensemble – we’re drawn to, and this communal aspect is something romantic comedies do very, very well.

And it’s all so nice.

A fashionable accent and some reviews

I decided to try a background – just because. It does make the site a bit less plain jane, but I’ve always liked plain jane (minimalist, or close too). So there is a good chance my mind will change in a week or so if  tire of it. Or find it annoying. In the meantime …

I added or updated a few reviews on Piddleville. They are:

You may want to visit them. You may even want to leave a comment telling me I’ve no business writing reviews, that I’m an ass without a clue.

It wouldn’t be the first time! :-)

Marilyn Monroe: the River and the Itch

Picture of Marilyn MonroeSome decisions don’t work as well as you would like. In fact, they can work against your intentions.

For a variety of reasons I’ve had difficulty lately getting back into my movie watching routine which used to be almost a movie a night. The reviews I’ve written account for only a small number of the movies I’ve actually watched. I had the best intentions but I never did write about a great movie, The Contender (2000). Or do that review of all three Bourne movies.

I tried to kickstart things last night by watching The Seven Year Itch (1955). Bad idea.

I was hoping to watch something fabulous to reinvigorate my movie watching habit. It didn’t work out that way. My choice was poorly made. A bad decision. Although, there is the possibility it worked in an “end around” kind of way. Maybe it will kickstart things by focusing me on finding something fabulous. God knows, I know they are there. I think I’ll try again tonight. If you’ve any suggestions on what to watch, feel free to pass them along in the comments. In the meantime …

I did post a few reviews, including one I wrote this morning on the above mentioned movie. Those reviews are:

A couple of notes … if you’re not aware, you may be interested to know The Seven Year Itch was directed by Billy Wilder, script by George Axelrod and Wilder. And River of No Return stars Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum.

Had a few problems at Piddleville

Just a brief update, now that I can update. I haven’t been able to get into the administration panel for my blog for some time now, and I haven’t had time to hunt down the problem and fix it. So there have been no updates in a very long time.

For what it’s worh … I use WordPress and the problem appears to be with plugins, but I don’t know which one. After updating to WordPress 2.7.1 I haven’t been able to access the admin area. I just kept getting an error message, something wrong with “taxonomy.php on line 202.”

I finally went in another way and went back to WordPress 2.7 and will stay there until I figure out which plugin is causing the problem.

And that’s why there have been no updates! Believe it or not, I have been watching movies in the meantime!  :-)

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