Carreón Cinema Club: Olivia Newton-John

Carreón Cinema Club: Olivia Newton-John

For a specific generation, the sight of Sandy’s evolution as the quintessential “good girl” gone “bad” in the camptastic 1970s movie musical Grease, you’d think an opera diva hit a high note.

Olivia Newton-John in “Grease” (1977). Photo: Paramount Pictures

It rocked many of us to the core, seeing Olivia Newton-John wearing those skin-tight pants and the red Candie’s high-heeled mules, that ciggie forever burning her amazing self into our minds. Coupled with an equally sexy John Travolta as Danny Zuko, we all wished we could be one or the other — and in most cases — both.

Yet, when I think of Olivia Newton-John, my mind returns to my family’s legendary drives through the American southwest as we vacationed by car to visit Dad’s family in Mexico City. Dad most trusted co-pilots remained me and the car radio during those long-haul night drives through the lonely desert as the family slept. (I had to stay awake as I didn’t want to miss anything!)

Dad and I didn’t talk much as he didn’t want distractions as he drove fearlessly across some mind-numbing landscapes that I imagined contained all sorts of nefarious creatures. But we forged and shared an appreciation for the sounds of ONJ, an earnest voice keeping us company as AM stations played many of her iconic hits of that time. The warmth in her voice proved as seductive as a siren song as we made our way across the US southwest during those memorable trips. My love of ONJ began and grew with every new pop hit, her starring roles in Grease and, especially, Xanadu.

News of her passing at 73 makes for a bittersweet trip to a time I keep compartmentalized as an adult. I’m suddenly seven years old, 10, 13, and 14 at the same time, all ages marked by her music and movies, moments that resonate just as strongly today. I never was able to see her perform live. Yet, I join her legion of fans that will honestly and hopelessly proclaim their love and devotion for ONJ today and onwards because she will forever be true magic as an artist and human being.

Rest in power, Olivia.

Olivia Newton-John in 2020. Photograph: Brett Goldsmith/The Guardian

And Just Like That… I Am 55

And Just Like That… I Am 55

Today, I am officially 55 years old. That’s (still) the legal speed limit in some areas, but I’ve never been interested in sticking to it in terms of living my life. I had to get THERE, wherever THERE was at that moment. Now is an excellent time to think about HERE or where I am today.

I did attempt to stop and look around from time to time, but that just meant having to allow specific thoughts and realities to make themselves known in my head. Demons remain my chosen go-to passengers on this ride and for as long as I can remember. Food. Spending. Status. Validation. Funny, I rarely viewed love and companionship as priorities at the beginning for being too dangerous. Neither stayed very long on the passenger side when it did happen. The demons made sure of that, like damn sure.

Friendship and family remain my favored angels, and thank heavens for them. Otherwise, I would have intentionally hit the cosmic center divider a long time ago. It always seemed like a surefire way to shut those demons down for good. But they’re resilient little fuckers.

Emma Caulfield as vengeance demon Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Demons sound cute to me in a post-Buffy world, all latex, make-up, and effects. Fear is something, well, scarier. Fear exists as my twin because I LET that happen. I’ve known Fear as long as I’ve known myself. Every fall on the sidewalk, every perceived failure, the bullies I let get in my head and under my skin. These exterior forces which tormented me as a kid were NOTHING compared to what I’ve done to myself over the years as an adult.

But I’m still here and for good reasons.

Not to let the demons share my airtime but to shift focus away from them. Maybe even speed up the breaking up process already. Every minute I refuse to succumb to fear is a significant victory. Choosing not to sleep away the day is a cause for celebration. Cooking a healthy meal on my own and not consuming one designed to keep me sick is a source of jubilation. Trying to find ways to spend ALL of my hard-earned coin to make myself sound or look attractive is a thrill on par with a musical’s overture when the curtain rises.

These are not gifts but the tools to find a sense of balance, contentment, and especially hope. I possess them and more because I’ve learned to understand the importance of such devices. Yet, Fear still distracts me or, more often than not, kills the desire.

Not today.

From Stories of Cinema at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

As I look around and take in the view of 55, I see all that the demons, Fear, and that annoying cousin Depression seek to absorb and destroy. That cannot be without my help, at least. Do you know those first sparks cast to start a campfire? Writing this feels like that, trying not to let moisture or wind snuff out what can lead to something bright and warm. You fan the embers too much; you smother the flame.

From Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse at LACMA

Words, music, films, art, design, and photography are all selfless acts of courage. It still takes courage to be queer, to not be part of the mainstream, to be one’s true self today. To exist as a gay Latino remains an act of defiance, no longer allowing oneself to hide or blend in with the herd of scared masses. We know what Fear can do to an individual in their quest for betterment. We see the power of Fear in a group. Start one lie, and create a mob of terrified people to disavow truth, science, and logic.

Someone sent me a meme with the legend, “I picked a stupid time to be alive.” I laughed at loud. Then again, this is also a time NOT to be stupid. I’m not alone in recognizing how emotional paralysis stems from what we consume in terms of information, social media especially.

It would be easy to live out one’s life like a 21st-century Miss Havisham, hiding amongst souvenirs of a perceived better past. That’s not an option in a world determined to live on the defensive about everything. Why beat yourself up about where you’re supposed to be in this life?

At this moment, I am encouraged by being 55, albeit cautiously. I’m not sure what tomorrow will be like or the day after that. Will I have personal stumbles and moments of shrill assholeness? Probably. Whatever happens next is always up to us. Forward motion isn’t always about avoiding the past. We have to avoid being defined by it. When I find the courage and clarity to stop and admire the view again, I have the hope and excitement that what I see will be different, empowering, and still delightfully the same.

Now, about that one-man show I keep threatening to stage…

xJc

Carreón Cinema Club: “Lightyear”

Carreón Cinema Club: “Lightyear”

How much did I love “Lightyear?” Quite a bit.

In this era of instant, gleeful takedowns, social and mainstream media punishing this “Toy Story” spin-off for not reaching Pixar’s usual box office heights is the more significant disappointment in this narrative. “Lightyear” gifts viewers, especially adults, a chance to breathe and appreciate a thoughtful story. Armed with Chris Evans’s rich vocal performance, “Lightyear” deserves a look for its poignant story, beautiful visuals, and the element of surprise in terms of its characterizations.

Now that the film is being re-launched on Disney+ starting August 3, “Lightyear” may finally break through the pop culture barrier. Criticisms that the film is not linked strongly enough to the “Toy Story” universe are unfounded. The device that “Lightyear” is the film that ignited the toy line character is all you need to know, and it is enough. The rest is a loving tribute to space film odysseys, big and small. (Even James Cameron’s “Aliens” earns some prime real estate!) 

Photo: Pixar/Disney

However, one of the things I appreciated most about “Lightyear” is the humanity of its characters. Buzz’s rigidity, determination to right a terrible wrong, and stalwart loyalty to those around him make for such rich storytelling moments. Evans commands the screen, creating a Buzz that stands on his own. (And yes, he still hits a few notes that recall Tim Allen in the “Toy Story” franchise for purists.)

As for the unnecessary fury over the same-sex kiss involving his best friend and commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) and the character’s wife? Relax. It is part of something organic and integral to Buzz’s emotional journey. That people turned this thread into a “pearl-clutching” moment sanctimonious “outrage” is not only offensive but ignorant.

No, the true power of “Lightyear” is its view of a world its creators attempted to realize beyond the toy. That they chose to reflect today’s multi-culturalism, not a homogenized future, gave me a reason to smile. Imagine having films like “Lightyear” when many of us were growing up? Seeing ourselves in the entertainment we favor does speak and inspires volumes to a generation that champions this art form. 

Last thing: If you do not connect with Peter Sohn’s vivid performance as Sox, the robotic cat that functions as Buzz’s Watson to his Sherlock, you’re made of stone. 

Directed by Angus MacLane, and written by MacLane and Jason Headley, “Lightyear” stars Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Bill Hader, Uzo Aduba, Efren Ramirez, and James Brolin.

“Lightyear” is now showing in cinemas, premiering on Disney+ on August 3. 

Carreón Cinema Club: “It Could Be Worse” Edition

Carreón Cinema Club: “It Could Be Worse” Edition

At last, the Carreón Cinema Club returns, and it only took being placed in quarantine before a shoot in CDMX to make it happen. Sitting in my hotel room these last few days, the theme of “It Could Be Worse” began its slow development in my brain.

El Ángel de la Independencia in CDMX as shot by J. Carreon, 2022.

Viewing a large amount of negative content on TikTok and other social media platforms could only add fuel to this fire. The Troll Patrol turned yet another harmless place into a burn book about anything and anyone. Screaming heads dominate social media narratives, another variation of the pundits who ruined mainstream news with their constant diatribes of hate, anger, and “this is why it sucks” vitriol.

If TikTok stood as our only source of information, the unpleasantness and unhappiness of Generation Whine would manifest itself with an algorithm of “content” that wilts one’s ability to believe in hope if you look at it long enough. Couple it with the “woke” and “cancel” threads, and you’re soon freebasing kitten videos to preserve your humanity. Anyone with a phone could use this power for good, not let the alt-right scream at the world with their often libelous and ludicrous dis-content.

Yes, it can be worse unless we stop the flow of misinformation and the endless lunacy of Kamp Karen videos to find reasons to create and not hate. (And, for the record, having a smartphone makes you as much a journalist as a pundit makes you an “expert” on any topic if you’re snarky or loud enough.)

Thus, as I sat in wonderment in my aerie above Paseo de la Reforma in CDMX, I pushed aside thinking over how fucked up we’ve become as a society. Instead, I began to mull over the films that could illustrate just how bad things can get unless we all pull our asses out of our heads long enough to deal with the weapons of mass distraction threatening our ability to evolve positively. Ergo, behold the “It Can Be Worse” edition of the Carreón Cinema Club, starting with the end of the world as depicted by Peter Watkins’s seminal film, The War Game.

THE WAR GAME (1961)

Produced, Written, and Directed by Peter Watkins

Narrated by Michael Aspel and Peter Graham

Paul Freeman as Dr. René Belloq in the 1981 classic adventure “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Once Kate Bush started “trending” thanks to the thieving Cultural Belloqs at Netflix ruining a good thing in the name of marketing, the 1970s and 80s never felt so omnipresent as they do now. Wars, nuclear threats, insane dictators, inflation, the gas crisis, and other nightmares threatened lives on Elm Street, alright. We were ready for the unforgettable fire to descend upon us, a fear ignited and realized with intent by the Mad Max films, “The Day After” and “Threads.”

But then again, it wasn’t the first time art harnessed the abject horror of humanity, letting stupidity get its way with nuclear bombs. In 1964, the BBC engaged award-winning filmmaker Peter Watkins of “Culloden” fame, a documentary covering the 1746 Jacobite uprising, a narrative presented as a parallel to the ongoing Vietnam conflict. Based on its success, the network turned to Watkins anew to craft an episode for its “The Wednesday Play” series. The innovative filmmaker delivered The War Game, a withering pseudo-documentary film chronicling the effects of nuclear war on Great Britain. Watkins, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, presented his work to a gallery of executives reacting with apprehension and panic, which government leaders also felt. The War Game wasn’t just shelved but censored by today’s standards. It did earn a token theatrical release instead of airing on the network. The BBC stated publicly, “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however, be shown to invited audiences…”

A scene from Mick Jackson’s seminal 1984 nuclear war drama, “Threads.”

Following its presentation at the National Film Theatre in London and several leading international film festivals, The War Game would earn the 1967 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Curiously, the film remained an elusive relic until 1985, when it was televised by the BBC to a mass audience, honoring the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. This time, it would air before an encore presentation of another iconic and harrowing nuclear drama, Mick Jackson’s equally devastating and award-winning telefilm, “Threads,” first broadcast in 1984.

Viewing The War Game today, you will see what unsettled the BBC executives and politicians at that time. Unrelenting due to its brevity, the hour-long documentary spares no one’s feelings or sensibilities in its raw and accurate depiction of the human and environmental costs of a nuclear exchange. Shot with live news precision by Peter Bartlett and an uncredited Peter Suschitzky, viewing the catastrophic effects of detonating missiles in real-time in such a visceral manner gives you pause. People asphyxiate in the heat, their eyes melting, or their homes lit on fire by the proximity of the blasts. Watkins left much of the horror to the viewer’s imagination, using graphic descriptions in the voiceover versus graphic visual effects.

Shot on location in and around the towns of Kent, Watkins chose an ensemble cast of non-actors, adding a sobering layer of emotional power to the verité style of the film. What will make you want to shout are narration scenes recorded by Peter Graham, coupled with Michael Aspel reading the quotations from source materials from actual and fact-based government and religious sources. At times conflicting and surreal, the visual parallels further illustrate how unprepared Great Britain, politically and socially, will only make you wonder if we’ve progressed at all.

As the war in Ukraine rages on with surprising support for the MAGA-inflamed populace, The War Game takes on stronger resonance today, if that’s even possible. Yes, friends, it can be worse if we allow such hateful rhetoric to excuse away the evils that are not ready to leave us alone.

I purchased a VHS copy of The War Game years ago off Amazon to complete my legendary collection of nuclear war-themed movies. You can now buy the Blu-Ray version (coupled with “Culloden”). Also, check your local library or indie video store for the DVD of The War Game, and search YouTube and Vimeo for the full-length presentation.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)

Directed by Val Guest

Written by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest

Cast: Janet Munro, Leo McKern, and Edward Judd

1961 Theatrical Release Poster

Chances are you’ve already experienced the century-mark temperatures baking the nation. Still, think climate change is bullshit? Remember that when cities burn, infrastructures fail, and people die from the heat that’s not showing signs of abating. Yet, the topic of a burning planet is not a new one, either. I distinctly remember watching a telefilm called “Heatwave!” on ABC, chronicling a young couple’s desperate escape to the mountains from the growing heat of a big city. First broadcast in 1974, it was TV’s answer to the disaster movie trend. So, where is this leading? The award-winning 1961 sci-fi classic known as The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

While it’s more a cautionary tale about the perils of nuclear proliferation, it lists why we still argue about what we’ve done to overheat this planet. What happens in Guest’s film is tragic and mindblowing in science and fiction. Yet, hearing people bitching about the heat and the state/energy companies’ inability to keep the power grids from shutting down makes me want to make them force watch what could be worse.

True, the conceit of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the result of what happens to the planet’s orbit thanks to the US and USSR detonating giant bombs on the same day in both the North and South Poles. But when it starts to get hot, the planet reacts unexpectedly, leaving its citizens scrambling for any relief or survival.

What I love about the film is that it centers around how a group of Fleet Street reporters at the Daily Express break the story in the first place, as well as other believable human drama involving the principals, Edward Judd, Leo McKern, and Janet Munro. More, real news editor Arthur Robin Christiansen is prominently featured in the film, adding a nice layer of honesty to the film. The urgency of visuals illustrating water rationing, the burning of London landmarks, and other tragedies make the film a sobering viewing experience.

Edward Judd in “The Day the Earth Caught Fire.”

Far from being a quaint black and white film of the 1960s, Guest deploys an arsenal of effects and human emotion to give the film its resonance. Even the ending is unexpected by leaving the planet’s fate unresolved. Although, it is humorous that the original US release featured an augmented ending of the sound of ringing bells, indicating that science might have spared humankind from being BBQ’d. By the end, however, you’ll respect the sun’s power.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is available for rent and purchase on most major streaming platforms.

NUEVO ORDEN (“New Order”/2020)

Directed and Written by Michel Franco

Cast: Diego Boneta, Mónica Del Carmen, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Fernando Cuautle, Darío Yazbek, Eligio Meléndez

2020 Theatrical Release Poster

Much of the industrialized world faces a widening gap between its socio-economic classes, leading to erratic and alarming shifts in political ideologies with high consequences with each election. Mexico’s economic chasm is no different and gaining further volatility with the rise of American gentrification in its capital city and other parts of the country. The Mexican-French production Nuevo Orden sought to unleash an uncompromising “what if” scenario with wildly uneven but impactful results.

Following its award-winning premiere at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, earning the Grand Jury Prize, the arrival of Nuevo Orden during a pandemic seemed like outrageous misfortune. The appearance of its trailer, featuring images of POC taking over the white elite enclaves, earned a harsh backlash of racial stereotyping in its home country. Despite its acclaim from critics worldwide, citing the film as being powerful and timely, the film continues to earn negative colorism commentary in its post-release life.

Directed and written by Michel Franco, Nuevo Orden chronicles the lives of an upwardly mobile family impacted by the rise of the underprivileged in Mexico City. The effects of class warfare go from the micro to the macro as the invasion of the family’s wedding event is projected upon a canvas of a violent coup. What seemed to be an explosion of one’s group’s frustration with the status quo is painfully revealed to be the machinations of a government seeking to establish a military rule.

Designed to provoke and challenge the safe and paranoid sensibilities of viewers not paying attention to the current news cycle. Franco’s narrative hits individual buttons by focusing on the destruction of the privileged and entitled classes, leading to why hailed as necessary by many of its champions. Unfortunately, Franco loses control of his narrative with the revelation that the military is behind the coup, undermining the more important message of social divides. Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s groundbreaking “Parasite,” Franco cannot sustain the foreboding tension in this clash of economic classes to a gut-punching finish, despite its many bold attempts otherwise. Regardless, as speculative fiction, however, Nuevo Orden does successfully visualize a world of devastating change that could be possible given our current state of affairs in the US and worldwide. Yes, folks, it CAN get worse if we ignore the signs.

Nuevo Orden is now streaming on Kanopy.

Whatever happened to class, respect, civility, or just plain good manners

Whatever happened to class, respect, civility, or just plain good manners

What the hell is happening with Broadway audiences?? Is baiting theater legend Patti LuPone the source for new “Karen videos” aiming at creative dis-content infamy? What about Jesse Williams‘s nude scene in the play “Take Me Out” being shot and posted onto Twitter?! Why are we hellbent on ruining the once simple pleasure of enjoying live theater in such a callous, selfish way?

As our social mores continue their sad, rapid decline, I seriously thought live theater would be the last bastion of good taste and deportment. I guess I should have known the writing was on the wall the last time I attended a play on Broadway (“Burn This” in 2019) which was attended by more people in flip flops and shorts than I’ve ever seen. The recent events involving Ms. LuPone and Mr. Williams just adds more fuel to the pyre.

Live theater became a religion for me in 1983 when I took my first trip to NYC. The original productions of La Cage aux Folles and My One and Only, plus Nine and Doonesbury the Musical were my first Broadway musicals, a transformative experience to say the least. The audiences could not have been more respectful or well-heeled. I even wore a tie to each performance. Yet, reading the latest headlines of hooliganism on the Great White Way makes me ponder when it all went south.

Theater legend Patti LuPone (Photo: Twitter)

We’ve seen how the toxicity of hooliganism transforms sporting events into something both demeaning and dangerous. Yet, since talk shows such as “Jerry Springer” and “Ricki Lake” started rewarding bad behavior with a rabid television audience leering for more, are we that surprised as to what passes for “class” today? Screaming at people is an art form thanks to those reality shows involving “real housewives” and other scions of dysfunction. But the toxicity level hit its vertiginous peak with the rise of social media, allowing for the telebasura or TV Trash to be captured, crafted, and posted with incredible ease. Witnessing “Karens in the Wild” best sums up our complete breakdown of manners and civility in any public space, big or small. So much so, the Trumpian Era of politics ushered levels so base and classless behavior it succeeded in re-branding the Ugly American into a superbeing.

America’s “finest”: Lauren Boebert & Marjorie Taylor Greene in action. (Photo: NBC News)

How can any rational discourse, much less good manners, exist in a world where human hyenas fight for camera time on Fox News or the floor of the Capitol Building. More, this lack of boundaries and good taste is giving free license to people to use their mobile phones as weapons of mass distraction. As to their endgame, I can only imagine it is fuel their desperate need for views and followers to validate their self-worth while promoting their ravenous desire for attention and status.

How do we turn the tide? With the NY theater community still reeling from the creative and financial meltdown caused by the COVID pandemic, that several houses and productions are bouncing back is a veritable miracle. The venues are getting stricter by locking down mobile phones, extending the mask mandates, and other health-driven initiatives. But what about the audience itself? At what point do we engage a mandate for people to stop being for damn loathsome in public? This era of constant whining, lack of accountability, and good sense is not how we achieve greatness. With our hard-earned democracy in shambles while the MAGA-fueled right fiddles as Rome burns, maybe complaining about shitty audiences seems like a waste of time.

But take a good look around you and ask yourself, “What ever happened to class?”

We share and resend the motto memes of “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Unless we start making that happen now, I’m honestly hoping for an asteroid to take charge already and slam into this damaged planet.

Cue 1975’s classic showtune from Bob Fosse’s Chicago, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. It was cut from the 2002 Oscar-winning film version, but thankfully it was shot with Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones and included with the home entertainment special features as a deleted scene.

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition

Greetings, mi gente. Nice to see you all again. As we continue our slog through 2021, I found myself inspired by the idea of scandals and controversy. Sex, religion, racism, we seem not to be able to resolve any of our isms. Instead, we keep weaponizing them to devastating effect. At least we still have art to illuminate the darkest corners of our psyche to question and, hopefully, impact how we choose to view each other once we strip away the idea of “The Other.” That’s why I’m recommending this next group of film titles for the Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition.

Each movie listed here courted a wave of controversy when initially released. Audiences were either titillated, appalled, or couldn’t be bothered. Some of these films were not significant hits in their original years of release. More, they haven’t aged well or find themselves mired in more robust controversy in this era of political awakenings. Context is key when viewing these titles, which is why I think they are worthy of not being dismissed with nary a reason beyond, “It makes me uncomfortable” or “That’s wrong!” The Club is now in session.

SLANDER (1957)

Directed by Roy Rowland

Written by Jerome Weidman

Starring: Van Johnson, Ann Blyth

Streaming: TCM (until July 28)

DVD: Amazon

If you think TMZ is a media scourge, your delicate sensibilities couldn’t survive the likes of Confidential Magazine. Considered a “pioneer in scandal, gossip, and exposé journalism,” as labeled by Wikipedia, Confidential made its yellow-hued debut in 1952. At its most popular, the magazine earned a circulation of five million copies per issue, surpassing Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and other leading, respectable publications of the decade. Scandals would eventually topple this dreadful rag, but its audience’s voracious appetite for its “stories” about Hollywood’s leading players at their weakest and most vulnerable, true or not, were devoured with bloodlust.

You’ll only need to read between the lines when watching Slander, which chronicles the life of a kids’ TV Show star Scott Martin, portrayed by Van Johnson. When the fictional periodical “The Real Truth” wreaks awful havoc on his life after refusing to corroborate an incendiary story on a popular actress, the collateral damage is swift. Outed for being a felon at the age of 19, the resulting judgment on Martin by the public breaks up his marriage and torpedoes his career. Here’s a clip featuring the great Ann Blyth as Martin’s beleaguered wife Connie and Steve Cochran as “The Real Truth’s” self-righteous and arrogant editor H.R. Manley.

Subtlety is not director-for-hire Roy Rowland’s strongest suit, with the melodrama and rather cliched dialogue marooning most of the cast, save for Cochran, who excels as the film’s villain. Slander rarely rises above its TV movie treatment, but it makes its point like a sledgehammer when Martin’s young son is struck and killed by a passing car after being bullied by his classmates about his dad’s criminal past.

Slander’s bravado finish with Johnson’s “on the nose” plea to a voracious public to stop consuming “The Real Truth” seems too good to be true, and it is. Imagine anyone saying on Jimmy Kimmel or CNN to the public, “Now that they’ve seen the extent of its power to destroy the innocent and not-so-innocent, stop your intake of gossip and reality garbage.” People would switch it off or swipe it away.

Although the outcome for editor Manley is too fantastic to spoil, it’s almost worth the entire movie. Almost. As for how Slander fared in its day. Well, audiences seemed to have preferred the pages of Confidential, with Slander proving to be a box office bomb for MGM. Johnson himself would be at the center of a scandal when a tell-all book written by his son revealed he’d left his wife for another man. Only in Hollywood, kids, only in Hollywood.

CRUISING (1980)

Directed and written by William Friedkin

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen

Rent: Amazon Prime, Apple TV+

The scorched earth of the 1970s left plenty of burning embers to ignite the start of the 1980s. With gender and sexual equality, rising conservatism, and extreme violence impacting mainstream entertainment, it is no coincidence that two erotic thrillers would reach cinemas with a resounding wail of controversy upon release in 1980. And both dealt with the LGBTQ+ communities, an evolving and powerful voice determined to right the wrongs perpetrated in society.

While it possesses considerable artistic and thematic strengths, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill earned hackles for its depiction of cross-dressing. His turning a trans character into a vicious slasher movie trope offered little context or catharsis, only lurid violence. William Friedkin’s Cruising delivered that film year was something akin to a cultural firebomb, even before the production wrapped principal photography.

Within the confines of its standard-issue “serial killer on the loose in the big city” plot is an unflinching look at New York’s gay subcultures. Without question, the film is most urgent at night, where Al Pacino, as an undercover cop, roams the Leather/BDSM bars in the Meatpacking district in search of a murderer.

Thanks to Friedkin’s direction and Pacino’s controlled performance, Cruising rises above its cliched plot of crooked cops and an overburdened detective force bullied into solving the crimes before they ignite a political firestorm, just like in real life. The neighborhood where Cruising filmed did not take kindly to the project, with locals and activist groups disrupting production. Once finished, due to its candid depiction of gay sexuality, the MPAA demanded 40-minutes of cuts to reverse its original X-rating. The controversies endure with film historians and gay leaders lambasting Cruising’s linking violence with illicit sexuality, a gross judgment on queer life.

Seeking to counter the protests, Friedkin offered the following disclaimer at the film’s opening, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”

It did little to mollify the objections to the film, which remain justified. The equation of gay sex with isolation, brutality, and murder permeates the movie because it does little to understand any of the motivations involved with the crimes. Few positive images materialize, and even those meet destruction by the film’s end. More, Pacino’s character seems to establish a connection with his gay self, but it is merely hinted at and not explored further.

We can argue the artistic merits of Cruising, but you cannot deny that the cameras did not shy away from the black and blue aesthetic of leather and BDSM culture. The result is a fearless time capsule of a culture embraced by many practitioners of this form of sexual expression. The film may focus on a youthful Pacino and the ensemble cast. Still, the background is where subversion exists, depicting queer culture and sexuality, breathtakingly and unexpectedly.

So why champion the film at all?

It’s a film history lesson that retains its power to illuminate and inspire a more explicit, honest discussion on how not to relegate sex and sexuality into something negative. Again, how else can we begin to improve the future without looking at the past? Cancel culture vultures need not apply.

SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)

Directed by Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson

Screenplay by Dalton Raymond, Maurice Rapf, and Morton Grant

Starring: Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick, James Baskett, and Hattie McDaniel

Unavailable

Finally, let’s talk about the nadir of Disney’s sometimes color-blind and tone-deaf oeuvre, perhaps the one film that may never see the light again by an audience outside academia. Based on the equally controversial Uncle Remus stories compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, you can see what inspired Disney to turn these moral fables into a major film. Unfortunately, the Mouse House decided to keep their animated musical in Harris’s chosen dialect for African-Americans featured in his work. The sounds are shocking, even by today’s standards.

Southern author Harris did not escape criticism with the original text, so why did Disney keep the same framing devices without contemplating the consequences? Several writers were part of the project, some recognizing and seeking to remedy the issues with the property, but the inherent problem remains. Despite its tuneful soundtrack and candy-hued visuals, the racial stereotyping depicted in the film is still difficult to accept today. The film industry, seeking a means to appease a justifiably angry NAACP, bestowed an honorary Oscar to actor James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film. While Baskett may have been the first black male actor to win an Academy Award, it is essential to note that he couldn’t attend the 1946 premiere in segregated Atlanta.

If it is so venal, why should Song of the South even be viewed again? Quite frankly, it exemplifies what cancel culture does to our collective past. This lobotomy or erasure of art representing our worst selves does not magically clear our name as a flawed species. We are missing a chance to educate ourselves on how to make things better.  What is missing in today’s “woke” discourse about art in the past is context. To understand where we want to go as a society, we must look back to see where we’ve been first. We need to give these examples their due and proper context as to WHY they are not images we need to repeat or reimagine.

It is your decision as to what you can accept in terms of the topics raised by the films. Have an open mind and question how these films can still fit in our worlds. Either way, I welcome your opinions. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy, mis amigos.

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!” Edition

The Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!” Edition

We can spend a whole lifetime debating why some films connect with an audience while others remain left out in the cold. Yet, many titles endure as favorites, good or bad, and often for surprisingly personal reasons. That’s the focus of this edition of the Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!”

When I started mulling over this episode’s topic, it was hard not to focus on just flops with cult followings. Every movie fan has a list of guilty pleasures, including box office monsters or monster flops. I’m notorious for not being able to differentiate between either. My good may be your bad, and vice versa. Besides, anyone who’s been on a set knows that it takes the same amount of effort to make a good film as it does a bad one. What kickstarted my engines to hit overdrive was a simple question: What is it about certain movies that straddle both lines of success and failure, the ones you wonder, “Was that the best they could do?” Those are the films that make you go Hmm. Depending on your tastes, any list can be chock full of surprises, but I’m only going to offer up three titles for now. Ready? Here we go!

FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — Directed by Adrian Lyne

I will never forget the eager audience at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, CA, the night Fatal Attraction opened in 1987. You could feel the anticipation growing as the lights went down, and the trailers started playing. Blood was in the air. We wanted to see a crazy Glenn Close in action. What makes this significant is that the group excitement was driven only by TV spots and word of mouth. Before reality shows, recap culture, and the vast network of trash-talking platforms overtook all media coverage. The audience took pleasure that night in ’87, gaping at director Adrian Lyne’s ability to present a chic, upper West Side veneer of gloss and privilege sullied by curly haired madness and one, crowd-pleasing gunshot at the bitter end. It was like the opera diva hit a high note; the applause was deafening.

Fatal Attraction was a zeitgeist hit, its vision of infidelity gone wrong, becoming the topic of opinion pieces and talk shows for weeks. Audiences couldn’t get enough, turning the film into a major hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide. The title itself became synonymous with unhinged exes. It even earned six Academy Awards nominations , including Best Picture. But was it that good? More, does it hold up in the post-lions and Christians era of social media, reality TV, and the MeToo era? Not even close. Ha.

Watching Fatal Attraction today is to be turned off by its carefully designed vision of white male privilege and entitlement. Nothing happens to Michael Douglas, the lawyer husband who cheats on his gorgeous and wholesome wife with a rather intense book editor played by Glenn Close. His so-called punishments effect his pride and ego. Okay, she boils the family’s rabbit, destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter from elementary school to ride a roller coaster, and sends him a cassette of a profane rant. He got laid twice and freaks over why the woman in question can’t take no for an answer for his being a selfish asshole. No, the dirty is done by and to the women, a showdown between the perfectly wavy-haired Madonna and the frizzy permed whore. Instead of nuance, they represent extremes, trading looks of betrayal or outrage. It was hailed as visionary to have wifey Anne Archer shoot Glenn Close in the final, come-back-from-the-dead-moment. But it wasn’t. It was just slasher film lite nonsense.

Movie writers made much ado about the famed original ending, where Glenn Close commits suicide to the celebrated aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The knife she used was one held by Douglas to threaten her in a previous scene. With his fingerprints still on the weapon, the police arrive at his home to arrest him, giving Close what appears to be the final word. Mama Archer is stupefied, with Douglas yells at her to call a lawyer. She runs into the house, goes into his artfully decorated man cave to make the call, only to stumble upon the cassette sent by Close. Archer plays it, rewinds one passage, hearing Close would just have to cut herself deeper, killing herself. With evidence of the suicide, not murder in hand, Archer bolts out of the room. We hear her saying to her daughter as she runs out, “Come on honey, we’re going to get Daddy.” Test audiences hated that Douglas was even punished a little, leading to a new ending, further underscoring the perils of a group vote in Hollywood. It did make a difference, though. Instead of earning a possible $15 million at the US box office, the film cashed out with nearly $160 million instead.

Fatal Attraction does hold a special place in history for being one of the trashiest films ever to be validated by Oscar nominations. It makes you go “Hmm” as to why so many people venerated the movie in its time. Close is a complex actor of incredible skill and depth, and you have to admire what she tries to do with the character. The idea of someone turning the tables on an unfaithful, arrogant partner is a good one. With violence perpetrated against women a major problem worldwide, seeing it done for entertainment purposes with a false ending of so-called female empowerment diminishes and trivializes what could have been a fascinating study of an age-old question. Why do people cheat? Instead, we get a passionate male fantasy dressed in white jersey and black leather, set in some gorgeous looking spaces in New York City. It’s fatal, alright.

Fatal Attraction is now streaming on Prime Video and Hulu.

CATS (2019) — Directed by Tom Hooper

Ah, what to say about Cats. The musical’s tag line was “Now and Forever.” The film version bears the legend, “What the Fuck Was That?” One of the most successful musicals ever produced, studios circled it for several decades. Besides its being a plotless show based on poems by T. S. Eliot, the underlying problem was how do you present it in a filmed medium. At one point, it looked like Cats would roam as an animated feature, which in hindsight, wouldn’t have been so terrible.

With musical films still doing surprisingly well at the box office, fans cheered when Universal announced that Cats the movie would be helmed by Tom Hooper. The man who shepherded the Oscar-winning hit adaptation of Les Misérables would now herd the kitties for the big screen. Its glittering cast led by James Corden, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Hudson, who’d sing the legendary “Memory” on screen, felt like this years-in-the-making version of Cats was on the right track. Then we saw the first trailer. Oooof. Derided and dissed, hated and hissed, Cats looked like a dog.

Once you saw it, design-wise, Eve Stewart’s Cats is a dream to look at on-screen, filling it in a way John Napier’s original stage production set could not. The choreography earned comparisons, too. Fans found themselves divided over Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, a landmark blend of acrobatics and modern dance enhanced by feline movement, versus Hamilton‘s Andy Blankenbuehler’s edgier take. Yet, even with such glittering trappings, most audiences either stayed away or failed to enjoy the experience if they did go.

Whatever committee agreed to employ motion capture effects, projecting the cast’s faces onto feline bodies, doomed the film from the start. You can accept it in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but the sight of La Dench doing a leg extension stretch like a cat was too much to handle. That was a “Hmm” moment for the ages. Of course, it did trigger cheers from the “It’s so bad it’s good” crowd, who turned Cats into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century. Leave it to some folks to pull the one thread from this ball of wool to play with good fun.  

Some magic does exist in Hooper’s super-sized production. The appearance of Taylor Swift, late as it is, is welcome. Her natural gifts as a performer found the right space. The same applies to Jennifer Hudson, whose delivery of the classic “Memory” is one to remember. Francesca Hayward and Robert Fairchild also make good on delivering the dance elements with grace and excitement. But it ends there, at least for me.

In the end, Cats is for the curious only. However, I will never forget the sight of one little girl watching the film that Christmas week at a theater in Mexico City, where I saw the movie with my family. My siblings slept, but as I walked out to see why my mother hadn’t come back to her seat, I saw this child looking at the screen with a smile; you can see it was one of absolute wonder and joy. She loved the film. As for my mom, she was reading a magazine in the lobby.

Cats is now streaming on HBO Max.

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) — Directed by Gary Nelson

The unexpected success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for special effects-driven narratives that could transport audiences further than ever before. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie had droves of moviegoers believing a man could fly. And in 1979, Disney unveiled the dark space mysteries of The Black Hole.

Young listeners, believe it or not, a time existed where Disney was floundering in leading the cinematic charge. Even its fabled animation division was struggling for relevancy. Tastes were changing, and audiences no longer sought the family films that were the studio’s hallmark. Disney had been developing a space-themed adventure for the better part of the 1970s, which eventually became The Black Hole. Instead of delving into the heart of darkness in space, the studio opted to rehash its famed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wildly uneven results.

What makes you go “Hmm” over this film is when you ponder what could have been.

The famed imaginations of Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and their visual effects team dreamed up visceral images of the black hole phenomenon in space. Their matte paintings also added plenty of fire to some of the widescreen sequences. The entire enterprise should have broadened Disney’s reach outside of kid-centric fare to keep the brand alive. Instead, the film was an awkward blend of its former self and its future goals, with neither coming out ahead. For all its visual wonder in places, you could see how the marketing team wanted to commodify its leading robotic players. The tie-ins were plentiful, the robots were cute and menacing, but the film’s failure meant no one wanted The Black Hole merch for Christmas 1978.

None of its accomplished ensemble cast led by Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine could do anything with the by-the-numbers script. And its lofty desire to visualize the descent into the Heaven and Hell of the black hole was laughable, along with some other less than effective sequences. What could have helped was having a director with vision, not Gary Nelson, the man who brought forth Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers for the studio, as well as episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Patty Duke Show.

Science dictates that nothing can escape the pull of a black hole in space. Trust me. People avoided its force on Earth that Christmas season, bringing Disney a sizeable lump of coal. Despite its failure, Disney did not give up on creating more mature   fare, as exemplified by the original Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the notorious Watcher in the Woods in the early 80s. Still, a cult following has developed for The Black Hole, one that continues to grow. So much so, Disney is looking to revive the movie again. Given the studio’s revamped fortunes courtesy of Lucasfilm and Marvel, a black hole may be swirling our way sooner than later. In the meantime, witness the humble origins of a powerhouse genre.

The Black Hole is currently streaming on Disney+.

We could go on for a while longer discussing the films that make you go Hmm, but rest assured it will be back to ponder again. David Lynch’s baroque take on Frank Herbert’s Dune and the hateful, franchise killing sequel to Sex and the City both come to mind. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy out there, mi gente.

The Carreón Cinema Club: Journey to Italy (1954) and The Human Voice (1967)

The Carreón Cinema Club: Journey to Italy (1954) and The Human Voice (1967)

Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club. Get ready for a double feature of failing marriages and the importance of communication. But seriously, both films are remarkable for their emotional frankness and the artistry of the great Ingrid Bergman.

It is not a coincidence that I am focusing on another glamorous Swede after debuting the Club with Greta Garbo. The luminous Ingrid Bergman, a three-time Oscar winner, couldn’t avoid becoming a Hollywood legend thanks to such films as Notorious, Gaslight, and, of course, Casablanca. However, the discovery of her later works on the Kanopy and Prime Video channels revealed to me how she was one artist who didn’t shy from taking a chance on difficult material, especially at a time where public perception was actually against her.

After representing the perfect leading lady image in the 1940s, Bergman’s popularity took a severe hit in the early 1950s thanks to her relationship with Italian director Robert Rossellini. They had met while working on Stromboli in 1949, kindling a passionate affair. Both were married to other people. More, Bergman was also pregnant with her first child with the famed director. Deemed “scandalosa,” the actress stayed exiled in Europe for several years. Yet, that didn’t stop the duo from working together. Bergman’s collaborations with Rossellini were often compelling and nothing like her films that garnered her much success.

According to daughter, actress Isabella Rossellini said in a recent interview with Reuters, “She showed that women are independent, that women want to tell their own story, want to take the initiative, but sometimes they can’t because sometimes our social culture doesn’t allow women to break away from certain rules.”

Watching JOURNEY TO ITALY on Kanopy only reaffirms her daughter’s sentiments. Coupled with Rossellini’s stature as one of the most prominent members of the neo-realist movement in world cinema, Bergman flourished with portraying complex women who break the rules attached to traditional gender roles.

Much like Nicole Kidman today, Bergman had no problem stripping down the veneers of poise and gentility to reveal her truest self. Her emotional vulnerability resulted in a fascinating showcase in THE HUMAN VOICE, a one-hour televised adaptation of the famed and influential Jean Cocteau monologue. Speaking to an audience of one via telephone, Bergman captures all that can dismantle us when communication with a loved one becomes difficult and unbearable.

I love films that deal with unfiltered relationships and offer real psychology as to why we put ourselves through such trials, even when we face an absolute end. It makes for incredibly beautiful catharsis on film. That’s why Bergman leads this second entry of the Carreón Cinema Club. First up, JOURNEY TO ITALY.

Journey to Italy (1954)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders

In JOURNEY TO ITALY, Bergman co-stars with George Sanders of All About Eve and Rebecca fame. As the film opens, the signs are evident that the moneyed duo of Kathryn and Alex Joyce may be facing the end of their marriage. Heading by car to Naples to unload an inherited villa, their trip starts as a vacation, a chance to reconnect. Instead, they find their conversations taxed by Alex’s sarcasm and Kathryn’s hair-trigger sentimentality. At constant odds for most of the trip, misunderstandings and jealousy sully the waters further, prompting Kathryn to ask for a divorce on impulse. Where the film takes a stunning turn, however, is when they visit the almost lunar landscape ruins of Pompeii. Seeing the discovered bodies of former lovers encased for eternity in ashes rattles Kathryn to the point that she begs Alex for them to leave. The impact is profound, one that delivers a final scene that is both powerful and unforgettable.

JOURNEY TO ITALY is no travelogue, although Rossellini’s composition of black and white shots is often beautiful and striking. No, the territory covered is all heart and mind. It is a fascinating journey to watch, even though not a lot happens for most of the film until the final act. The non-linear trajectory of the narrative, however, is what gives the story its forward motion. What captured my attention most was how urgent the emotions played throughout. Director Rossellini would tell the actors their dialogue before cameras started rolling, which sounds like a risky endeavor. Yet, Sanders, and especially Bergman, deliver such raw and unfiltered performances, you can only imagine how it felt like working without a net. The possibility erases any chance for overembellishment, never robbing the characters of their truth. They are living it out loud at that moment. That is why JOURNEY TO ITALY is such a wonderful experience to watch, one I hope you enjoy as well. It continues to be available on Kanopy. Take the journey. It is so worth it.

The Human Voice (1967)

Based on the play by Jean Cocteau

Adapted by Carl Wildman

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Cast: Ingrid Bergman

Jean Cocteau’s famed one-act play, has returned to court public attention this year thanks to Spain’s Oscar-winning auteur Pedro Almódovar. The toast of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, Almódovar took a giant creative leap with his adaptation, a short film no less, and in English! For the first time. Ay la leche! Starring the equally fearless Tilda Swinton, the threads of his passion for Cocteau’s have finally flourished. You can see how the story of a woman’s desperate phone call proved influential for his iconic 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As we await the US release of his adaptation of THE HUMAN VOICE, what a pleasant surprise to know we have access to Ingrid Bergman’s interpretation of the role to offer a study of contrasts.

Now streaming on Prime Video as part of its Broadway HD channel, THE HUMAN VOICE finished the one-season run of the ABC anthology series, ABC Stage 67. Bergman stars as an unnamed woman dealing with the emotional wreckage after her husband leaves her for another woman. We are allowed to hear what is probably be the last conversation between this couple, but only her voice. Representing her husband is the cold instrument known as a telephone, her literal lifeline as she makes a desperate attempt to stay connected in more ways than the unpredictable wire. We never hear from him, only seeing clues of his torn picture and a magazine feature image of his new love.

The premise is unadorned, offering an actor a bravura role that lasts just under an hour. Bergman takes full advantage. Chainsmoking and unable to keep her voice was quavering, she turns herself into a human rollercoaster of emotions, rising and falling throughout the often-painful conversation. Forget the part of her being famous; it is hard not to feel uncomfortable for eavesdropping before the famed actress hits specific notes that feel both personal and relatable as the conversation reaches its peak. The audio effects of a clock ticking, dial tones and silences on the other line are often intrusive and heartbreaking, punctuating the reality she’s not going to turn this situation around in her favor.

The look is all 60s television, abstract and theatrical. The camera work is not subtle, and the pauses for commercial breaks are annoying as transitions. Bergman feels a bit mannered at the start. Yet, it is a beautifully calibrated star turn by the end, offering a persona that is real and honest. Amazing what the human voice can do to us when we know it is close to being removed from our spheres of living.

You can see what several artists have taken on Cocteau’s play. Interestingly, Roberto Rossellini directed THE HUMAN VOICE in 1948 as part of a two-part Italian film titled L’Amore with Anna Magnani and Federico Fellini. It is now showing on HBO Max, which I will make a point to watch.

Thanks for reading this second installment of the Carreón Cinema Club, home of films with big feelings! Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel, as well as follow me on Instagram: @CarreonCinemaClub and Twitter: @CarreonClub. Lots more to share ahead. Keep on reading. Thanks for your attention, mi gente.

The Carreón Cinema Club: “Ninotchka” (1939)

It was essential to start the broadcast reviews from the Carreón Cinema Club with a comedy because we need a laugh.

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in a scene from the 1939 MGM comedy, “Ninotchka.”

I also wanted to showcase a film from the past that continues to inspire and engage audiences today. I ran through my favorite film eras, and the minute I thought, “1939,” I knew what I had to do.

What was so special about 1939, you ask? Not much, just that it was the year audiences witnessed future classics galore, including one of my favorite films ever, George Cukor’s “The Women.” And how about “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and, of course, the legendary and still controversial “Gone with the Wind?” Yes, it was a monumental year.  

I knew a museum piece would make your eyes glaze over. Nor did I want to pick a title that would encourage “cancel culture” discourse. The chosen film was one I saw, finally, for the first time thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Ergo, 1939’s leading romantic comedy, NINOTCHKA, kicks off the Carreón Cinema Club.

Starring the legendary Greta Garbo in her first real American comedy, NINOTCHKA remains a classic film thanks to its famed star, a winning ensemble cast, its peerless writing, and the deft directorial “touch” of Ernst Lubitsch.

Let’s take a look.

Written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and the soon to be legend himself Billy Wilder, NINOTCHKA is an elegantly rendered satire of clashing ideologies, including gender, sex, capitalism, and communism.

Garbo stars as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushov, an incredibly severe Russian envoy, itself a send-up of her previous dramatic personas on screen. Sent to Paris to retrieve the jewels of a deposed countess in exile, Ninotchka instead finds herself questioning her commitment to the Soviet cause thanks to the city’s charms and, mostly, the persuasive romantic attentions of the playboy Count Léon, portrayed by Melvyn Douglas.

I’d wanted to see this film for years but never got around to it until this summer. The lively banter between Garbo and Douglas, the absurd situations experienced with glee by a trio of other failed agents, and the biting visual commentary of life in the Soviet Union in that era is all spun into this delicious confection with substance.

What truly made me fall in love with this film was its famed scene between Ninotchka and the count in a Parisian blue-collar diner. Determined to make her crack a smile, Count Léon tells Ninotchka a slew of jokes, all of which land with a resounding thud. Her analytical mind keeps taking the piss out of his stories, frustrating him to the point of giving up. Then, it happens.

As the count beats a hasty retreat to his table, he trips on a chair and goes crashing down. The whole place erupts in laughter, including his steely Russian paramour. To witness the stunning Garbo bust a gut with delight is a huge turning point for the character. More, her glee is infectious for the viewer, too. I couldn’t stop laughing, rewinding the scene several times because it made me laugh out loud. To be frank, it just felt good. It’s ridiculous and human, all at the same time.

NINOTCHKA goes beyond the time capsule because it’s a perfect mix of all that we want in romance and comedy, with something for the brain, too. The film’s commentary on the Soviet Union takes up much of the final act, which speaks volumes for what Americans thought of the “Red Menace” before entering World War II. It’s not a pretty picture of communist life, dry and drab, but strangely warm at the same time. It is striking when watched through the prism of 2020, given how much anger American society felt for years. While Russia is still a hot button today, it has evolved into something more dangerous and polarizing. Nevertheless, you will gain an appreciation for how the film juggles spoof with sophisticated humor. Lubitsch was a master for a reason and worth investigating further once you’ve enjoyed NINOTCHKA.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo’s 4th bid), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay, NINOTCHKA would be shut out by the “Gone with the Wind” juggernaut. (Believe it or not, director Ernst Lubitsch didn’t warrant a nomination at all. And for all her cinematic might and acclaim, Garbo never won an Oscar ever.)

The glamourous fizz of NINOTCHKA reached further potency thanks to MGM’s legendary promotions and publicity team. Best slogan? “Garbo Laughs!” spotlighting her switch from drama to comedy. Runner up? “Don’t Pronounce It – See It!”

In the end, it was a bittersweet achievement for Garbo as the film was her penultimate effort. While she had worked with Douglas before in 1932, MGM was quick to pair them up again for another comedy, George Cukor’s 1941 effort “Two-Faced Woman.” Unfairly roasted by critics, Garbo found herself labeled “box office poison.” She would not return to the screen again. Instead, one of the cinema’s most enduring faces chose to stop acting at the age of 36, hiding from public view for the rest of her life.

The legacy of NINOTCHKA endures, however. Famed composer Cole Porter would set the story to music with the 1955 Broadway musical “Silk Stockings,” itself made into a film in 1957 by MGM with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse playing the leads. Still, the original remains the finest interpretation, one meant to be rediscovered and appreciated.

While the film is not streaming for free now, keep an eye out for it on TCM as it frequently appears on the channel. You can also rent the movie on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu for a nominal price. Better yet, check out the DVD collections at your local public library or visit the wonderfully eclectic collections at Vidiots in Los Angeles or Vidéothèque in South Pasadena.

Thanks for watching this first edition of the Carreón Cinema Club! Subscribe! Follow me on Instagram (@CarreonCinemaClub) and Twitter (@CarreonClub) for more content!

Keep on watching, mi gente!

The Carreón Cinema Club: “The Little Prince” (1974)

The Carreón Cinema Club: “The Little Prince” (1974)

Amazing how Hollywood dared to take on the task of adapting “kidult” tales in the 1970s, finding indifference at the box office in the process.

George Cukor took on “The Blue Bird,” an American-Russian venture that had its wings cut by critics in 1978. Producer David L. Wolper brought forth an imaginative take on Roald Dahl’s iconic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which found fame after its initial release in 1971. Or, how about Sidney Lumet’s gorgeously designed vision of Oz as an urban fantasia in “The Wiz,” that landed with a thud in 1978 when the Broadway smash was transformed into big budget lesson in EST? Somewhere in the middle, you will find Stanley Donen’s 1974 musical film THE LITTLE PRINCE.

Written by Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, THE LITTLE PRINCE endures as one of the most treasured books of the 20th century. A delicate fable of a young boy who lives alone on asteroid B-612, its fantastic vision has inspired various adaptations, from ballet to opera and, especially, film. An animated version was eschewed theatrical release and streamed on Netflix in 2016. However, it is the live-action musical version directed by Donen continues to orbit in some film circles.

Panned by critics during its release, THE LITTLE PRINCE is a real cinematic oddity. Featuring the last film score of the legendary duo Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Lowe (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”), Donen dared to craft an abstract, yet sweeping vision of the original novella with to erratic effect. Starring Richard Kiley as a pilot who encounters the Little Prince (newcomer Steven Warren) after his plane goes down in the desert. As the little boy who has fallen to earth, the two forge a friendship while the pilot attempts to repair his plane. He relegates the grown-up with tales of his space journeys, venturing to other planetoids, seeking answers about the meaning of life, love, war, and the pursuit of knowledge.

No one he meets seems to think he’s old enough to understand the answers, that he’s only a child. It isn’t until he meets a fox (Gene Wilder) that seeks to be tamed and a perfidious snake (the amazing Bob Fosse) that he starts to understand the truth about life and death. Before the Little Prince dies, he shares his knowledge with the pilot, bringing the man’s journey full circle. The pilot, realizing the boy was just a figment of his imagination, takes off anew, hearing the sound of the Little Prince’s laughter as gazes into the starry night.

Despite its luscious score, THE LITTLE PRINCE’s musical numbers fall curiously flat.  Despite the efforts of such stage luminaries as Kiley (“Man of La Mancha”), dancer Donna McKechnie (“A Chorus Line”), and Clive Revill (“Oliver”), all working hard to make it work, the narrative sections are a lot more compelling. More, little Steven Warner’s performance is oddly wistful and distracting thanks to the Phyllis Diller wig plunked on his head. Worse, Warner at times feels swamped by the production, beautifully shot on location in Tunisia.  Yet, moments occur when the film fires all cylinders, where Donen’s skill to capture motion and music feel beautifully realized. The highlight is Bob Fosse’s rendition of “A Snake in the Grass,” featuring his sinuous choreography. It is a mesmerizing piece of artistry, one that deserves a chance to be relished. (Word is this section hugely influenced the late Michael Jackson, best evidenced by his performance in “Billie Jean.”)

British child actor Steven Warner with American dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse (1927 – 1987) on the set of the film ‘The Little Prince’ in Tunisia, 1974. They play the parts of The Little Prince and The Snake respectively. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

To be honest, viewing the film with a 2020 context will raise a few eyebrows, which is why it is important to leave any cancel culture sensibilities out of the mix. Yes it is flawed, but THE LITTLE PRINCE is fascinating in its attempt to bring Golden Age into the evolving universe of the 1970s. Lerner & Lowe did not have in common with the studio, opting out of the recording sessions. Donen would not reach the apex of his career that brought us “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Funny Face,” and “Charade.” The 1970s proved unkind to the director, marred by such high-profile failures as “Lucky Lady” with Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds in 1975 and the notorious sci-fi thriller “Saturn 3” with Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in 1980. You have to credit Donen for wanting to keep relevant as the industry changed with incredible speed.

Despite its hitting a few harsh chords, the message at its poignant end is one for the ages. We have a choice in how we see the world; that choice ultimately defines us. Sometimes it does take a child to lead us to that part of ourselves before we trade our innocence for weary experience. Its simplicity struck me as a fitting grace note, especially with what we witness on the daily of late. While THE LITTLE PRINCE may have struggled to unleash the imagination of its source material, it remains proof that even those films deemed failures can still offer something for an audience willing to appreciate its joys.

THE LITTLE PRINCE is now streaming on The Criterion Channel through October 31st.