Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Movie Meme for You and Me but mostly...Me

"Shut up and deal."

The ever-delightful Rachel at Girl With the White Parasol has grown ever-deservedly more popular, reaching the enviable 50-follower mark. She's been tremendously supportive of my own blog and I'm thrilled she's been getting more blogosphere love lately! To celebrate, she's started a  New Year's Movie Meme, which I'm...gonna do, basically.

And here it is!

1. What is your all-time favorite Grace Kelly costume?

I hate to be what's called on the fancy-pants internets a "sheep", since I'm sure many are going to pick this one, but you really can't beat the first number she wears in Rear Window.

Scan compliments of Doctor Macro

This Edith Head piece is not only my favorite Grace Kelly dress or favorite movie dress ever, but my favorite dress, period. I would wear that thing every which way: to the movies, a fancy restaurant, eating cheetos in bed....

And this is why I can't have nice things.

2. What classic film would you nominate for a remake?

I've expressed my disappointment in the 1967 version and speculated about what a '40s cast would have been like here, but I also wouldn't mind a modern take on Far From the Madding Crowd. Whether made at Merchant-Ivory or Miramax, whatever, if in the right hands it could be great (does Merchant-Ivory still make films? God, I suck at film buffing sometimes). So long as Colin Firth plays Boldwood, I'm down.

I really don't know who could play Bathsheba, though. I'm not seeing Gemma Arterton. I love Catherine Zeta-Jones, but you need someone more naive. Who's a striking brunette Brit in her early twenties who could do it these days?

3. Name your favorite femme fatale.

At first I was vacillating back and forth between Gene and Veronica, but Lauren Bacall's autobiography is basically what started me on the genre. So Baby gets it.

Again, compliments of Doctor Macro. I love this site. Love.

Although technically, does she really count as a "femme fatale?" I mean, she's got the smoky noir vibe down natch, but she's almost always revealed to be the palsy dame with a heart of gold. Still, you can't beat her style. And I will always refuse to believe she's about five years younger than I am in that picture.

4. Name the best movie with the word "heaven" in its title.

Even though I haven't seen it the whole way through yet (my life is riddled with half-finished books and movies, the fate that befalls those with attention spans of gnats), but I'll still give the nod to the forebodingly euphoric Heavenly Creatures from 1994.

Just in case Titanic makes you forget Kate Winslet can act, or Lord of the Rings makes you forget Peter Jackson can direct anything but blockbuster epics, see this. Disturbing, erotic, touching, beautiful, and terrifying.

Plus, it introduced me to Mario Lanza's "Donkey Serenade."

That's it, I'm watching the rest of this movie tonight. It's on Instant View, and there's no freaking excuse.

5. Describe the worst performance by a child actor that you’ve ever seen (since Laura gave me the idea).

Durr hee, kindly Rachel refers to my post, yup! The absolute worst? Well, I almost put Kenny from Gamera, but on reflection, that might have more to do with the awful Sandy Frank dubbing than anything else ("Gamera has a good haht!). And also, people don't mean to be obnoxious, it's just that they're all screwed up inside.

So I'll go instead with the twerpy, dimply, monstrous little shrub from the otherwise fascinating 1932 pre-code flick Three on a Match: Buster Phelps as Robert Kirkwood, Jr.

There's nothing that wasn't wretched about him: his constipated little voice screeching away, the urpy expressions, and if you're gonna cast Warren William in your movie, play up his stiff coldness, don't try to make him act like a loving father--not to this imp from hell. I saw this movie after reading FlickChick's apt write-up over at A Person in the Dark. She warned me of Phelps. Wise woman.

But hey, at least an evil Humphrey Bogart gets to menace him a little. Heh heh.

6. Who gets your vote for most tragic movie monster?

I've said it once, and I'll say it again: The Mummy. He's got the lost love, the tortured burying alive scene (which in the Hammer version involved getting his tongue cut out), and then walking around decaying and repulsive to the very vision of the woman he done got tortured for. If those aren't the makings of an epic blues song, what is?

"When you lose your lover you also lose your heart, and my dear, that's when your teardrops will start...."

Also very close in the running were both Andre Delambre and Seth Brundle from the two versions of The Fly now that I've see both, the ever bumbling, well-meaning Frankenstein Monster, and King Kong. 

Poor little guys. Just because they're different!

7. What is the one Western that you would recommend to anybody?

Gah! Westerns. Um. John Ford's 1960 Sergeant Rutledge, I guess. Not because it's a good movie (which it isn't), but Ford combines a lot of interesting elements that you might not expect from a Western: race issues, sexual obsession, a murder mystery, courtroom drama. None of those are particularly well done, what with Woody Strode's titular African-American sergeant used more as a silently suffering symbol than an active presence in the movie, and Billie Burke's tone-deaf comedic performance. But fascinating, nonetheless.

8. Who is your ideal movie-viewing partner?

Someone with my dad's infectious laugh and knowledge of movie trivia, my mom's empathy for characters, my squeamishness (so they don't make fun of me), and someone with a calming aura if scenes get too tense.

9. Has a film ever made you want to change your life? If so, what was the film?

Toni Morrison books have, but I don't know about any particular movies--maybe if I ever saw the film version of Morrison's Beloved, that'd be it.

(Okay, I might have secretly toyed with the secret idea of becoming an FBI agent after watching Silence of the Lambs when I was younger. But deep down, I knew I'd never be able to do a pull-up, much less shoot a maniac wearing women's skin in a pitch-black basement).

10. Think of one performer that you truly love. Now think of one scene/movie/performance of theirs that is too uncomfortable for you to watch.

When Groucho is forced to be genuinely kind to Kitty Carlisle in A Night at the Opera. You know the scene in her cabin where she's crying and he gives her the note from Allan Jones and she actually...hugs him? I plug my ears and turn away every time.

Speaking of which....

11. On the flip side, think of one really good scene/performance/movie from a performer that you truly loathe.  

The smarmy Allan Jones does a good job of disappearing into his beard and being funny with the rest of the lads when they arrive in America in A Night at the Opera, so bully for him, I guess

That one scene is almost enough to redeem that close-up of his face singing "Alone" on the dock. Granted, he's not as funny as Harpo with the glass of water. But he doesn't embarrass himself, I guess is what I'm saying.

12. And finally, since it will be New Year's soon, do you have any movie or blogging-related resolutions for 2012?

Just watch more movies. I've been crazy busy this year, and too exhausted to fully commit to watching all the flicks I should. And the more exposed I am to fabulous blogs such as Rachel's, I realize how far behind I am on a lot of classics.

I haven't seen National Velvet yet! What's wrong with me?!

P.S. I don't know how to change the font in blogger, so that's why when I copy and pasted Rachel's questions over, sometimes my font jumps to her style and then back to mine. Um, sorry for the disorientedness. Blame Blogger for confusing the weak-minded. Yeah, not my fault AT ALL.

P.P.S. Never mind. I totally figured it out. I'm on top of things.

P.P.P.S. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Fly, 1958

I sort of loved this movie. It had its flaws, but was overall unexpectedly touching, even heartbreaking. Directed by Kurt Neumann in 1958, the movie was a huge hit, and spawned sequels and the famous remake in 1986 directed by David Cronenberg.

As for this version, I'll first focus on the things I liked, then look at--no, you can't make me say it, you can't oh stop please don't make me nuuhhhhhh--the flies in the ointment. I feel so dirty....

Things I loved:

Vincent Price as the doomed man-fly's brother, Francois Delambre. Similar to his role in The Last Man On Earth, Price for all his distinctly and charmingly supercilious tones and elegance plays an honest, desperate man with a believable warmth that grounds the movie. As much as I've always loved him, and given my predilection toward haughty sophisticates, I've never quite crushed on Vincent (possibly because he's been parodied ad nauseum), but this is the closest I've come to getting all infatuated with our dear Vince. There's something about these haughty sophisticates playing well against type that gets at me. It's very much why Gordon Zellaby in Village of the Damned remains my favorite George Sanders role.

Even if you're banking on a gimmick like a giant man-fly, your movie's ever only as likable as your characters. Which leads me to the next part of the movie I liked: the man-fly's wife Helene, played by the lovely and capable Patricia Owens.

Though brand me a skeptic if you must, I don't think she's a natural redhead.

What's a refreshing surprise, particularly for this genre, is that the majority of the screentime goes to Helene. We see the events through her eyes, her flashback. After an extended period in the present at the beginning of the movie, we witness what drove her to (durr, SPOILER) kill her husband with a gigantic metal press...dealy...thing (you know, that thing? It's metal and crushes things? You know, the thing!). 

Owens as Helene is not only likable, but sidesteps most of the usual tropes of the helpless heroine. Her lines are good and she has more sense than her husband the man-fly (okay, okay, his name is Andre and he's played by David Hedison who for some reason goes by Al Hedison in this). She's not afraid to frankly state she's nervous about her husband's new-fangled transporting invention, and that her darling might just be playing God a touch--though with the most benevolent intentions, of course. 

She's got a head on her shoulders and up until the end where she does that usual screaming and fainting business, she controls her emotions enough to try saving her husband, while still showing believable fear and franticness. 

What's especially moving about her character is another thing I loved about this movie: because Helene and Andre are established as a good, caring couple, without acting too sappy or trite, it makes his transformation and isolation in his lab all the more heartbreaking. I didn't expect to tear up at the end. But I did.

I was about undone at this scene, where he's losing his marbles to primitive fly instincts and scribbles furiously on the blackboard to his wife that he wants her to destroy him, but he can't resist one final message that I'm not ashamed to admit guts me:

Oh, man. And with his big ol' Dr. Strangelove fly-claw hidden away in his pocket so she doesn't have to see it...this shit is sad.

So, let's get our mind off it by nitpicking a few of the things that bugged me (this pun was unintentional and you can't prove otherwise don't judge me tools).

Remember how in my last post about child actors, I was all, "nothing's worse than watching an erudite, sophisticated man forced to succumb to the charms of a decidedly charmless child?" Yeah, well I got a huge dose of it here with Vincent Price acting the mushy uncle to little Charles Herbert's odious son of Mr. and Mrs. Man-Fly, Philippe. Luckily he's not in too many scenes, but he's far from endearing, and the ickiest wholesome lines are reserved for him. He basically ruins the ending of the movie, where he says, "Gee! I want to be an explorer just like my father!" Total cheesecake. Fitting for an Andy Hardy flick, not for scifi horror, thank you. However, it helps a little that when I looked up the plotline for the sequel, he does indeed follow his father's footsteps and becomes Man-Fly, Jr. Excellent.

Boy, I'm a bit of a curmudgeonly shit, aren't I? But the kid's just so blah. And the most American boy you could find, too, when the setting is in France.

Which leads to another thing that kind of got to me. The French setting. I mean, kudos, I guess, to sticking to author George Langelaan's original setting, but was it really necessary? I didn't notice the setting particularly effecting the events, which it doesn't have to, but it's still a little jarring. Because frankly, the kid's not the only one who seems so American--Owens, Hedison, and just the general vibe of the movie is very American.

And about that vibe: it's another thing that got to me. The whole direction and feel to the movie is very 1950s suburban Americana, and on one level it works in that the bland normality maybe hit home for Eisenhower American audiences that even nice, ordinary people like themselves can have terrible accidents like Andre. However, as much as I admired Owens' acting, the cheerful tone Neumann stuck to made her reactions at times unbelievable. Take that ending: she's been cleared of an insanity and murder charge, which is great and all, but as someone points out on the message board at IMDb, she's just so damn perky. The husband you adored is dead! You had to kill him! It was awful! You had to do it twice! His head! It was that of a fly's! You should be more traumatized, you doofus! I mean, thank you for not being a cringing damsel, but still! Show more of that emotional fragility from the really well done scene where you're trying to capture the fly with his head on it (seriously, that was a great sequence--very suspenseful and taut).

As for the big reveal where we see the fly head attached to the human body...well, let me put it this way. I've carped before about how there's too much CGI these days and not enough old-fashioned Jack Pierce makeup and so forth (probably haven't ranted too much about that here, but I have outloud in real life, where I also exist sometimes). But frankly, I wish I could take some of the improved special effects from today into the Way-Back Machine and improve the head, make it more realistic. I know I shouldn't demand too much from a low budget scifi film from the '50s, but I think they could have done better. The head really doesn't look like anything you couldn't get from a Halloween store, even back then. 

I feel like the scene where she first sees his feeler is creepier. And by "feeler" I mean his fly-tentacle-claw, not anything double-intendre-y, you creeps.

HOWEVER. They more than made up for that disappointing effect with the infamous "Help me! Heeeelllp meee" scene. True, the itty-bitty chipmunk voice was borderline ridiculous, but there's nothing not disturbing and traumatic about these images:


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Child actors that don't make me want to gauge my eyes out

My generous brother-in-law recently got the bright idea of splitting the cost of a really fancy HD TeeVee* with us and storing it at our house, an early Christmas present for all of us. So what's the first thing we watch with our magical new flatscreen, to take in the breathless realism of the images it can show us? The obvious thing to watch, of course: a Jurassic Park marathon!

I've only seen the first and second one on the TeeVee so far, and it's been years since I'd watched either one or the third movie. Some of my objective observations after all these years are: dinosaurs are great. I like dinosaurs, particularly the big ones that go "rawr". Laura Dern and Julianne Moore as the female leads in both films are so affable and bubbly I want to punch them. Sam Neill is hot. Despite the cuddly, contrite, Santa Claus vibe he gives off, John Hammond may just be cinema's greatest monster. You could almost forgive him his hubris in the first one because he acts a little sad and broken at the end, but then he jovially sends off four other people to Site B in the second movie, where one member gets torn in half by two T-Rexes. Does Hammond show any remorse for that? No. He just wears that damn shit-eating grin and monologues sappily about "life finding a way" at the end, reinstated as head of his company. Puh.

Other observations: Jeff Goldblum is very, very hot. Samuel L. Jackson is a badass no matter how paltry his role, or how awful his catchphrase "Hold onto your butt" is. He can smoke a damn cigarette in the office if he wants to, fuck you for throwing a shit-fit about it, it was only 1993. The T-Rexes remind me of my obsessive compulsive overweight German Shepherd mix. That searing glare the T-Rexes are famous for in the movies? Just like Milo when he's trying to get you to throw the toy throw the toy throw the toy.

Nothing will ever make me not like the first movie, and nothing will ever make me not ogle Goldblum in the second movie. However, the biggest observation I took away from both movies was how very, intensely much I hated the children. Hated. Did I look away when Samuel L. Jackson's arm fell on Laura Dern? No (I could also point out the veiled racism in a few of the first movie's scenes, but maybe that's for another post). Did I look away when that dude was ripped in half, or Peter Stormare (also pretty hot) almost got his lip ripped off by that Compy in the second? I kinda wanted to, but no. 

Did I look away when Lex and Tim cuddle up to Neill's composed, James Mason-of-the-Outdoors Dr. Grant up in that tree, or when Goldblum's Ian Malcolm tells his daughter she's his inspiration? Hell yes I did.

The child characters bring out contrived, forced emotions from the adult actors, making the audience feel uncomfortable on their behalf--particularly when they're as curmudgeonly and British as Grant or as coolly intellectual and snarky as Malcolm. But because their characters are so dry and intelligent, we're supposed to find it endearing that their soft spots end up being shrill, whiny, do-nothing-but-endanger-everyone children. But it's not endearing. It's sugary despair, is what it is.

Not only are the child characters poorly written as needy stereotypes, they're poorly acted for the most part, too. Some of the blame might lie with the director, since I'm sure Spielberg had his eye mostly on this new-fangled CGI business than concerning himself with getting good performances out of the kids. Hayley Mills lookalike Ariana Richards as Lex fares the best even if she is shrill and monotonous, probably coming across all right because she was in her teens at that point. But Joseph Mazzello as Tim and Vanessa Lee Chester as Kelly in the sequel are hopeless--particularly Chester, whose character wasn't even in the second book, and so feels shoved in and out of place. And going by our count, Tim should have died at least three times. Yeah, yeah, realistically all the characters should have died at various points, but Tim was freaking zapped by a high-voltage electric fence. (Is he an undead gremlin boy? That could explain a lot about his insipid personality).

But then again, this shuddering disapproval is my usual reaction to children in movies. It's not because I don't like children in general. In reality they just make me awkward and nervous--I can't relate to them at all, though I too like dinosaurs. It's just that if children are in movies, it's almost always so they can serve as symbols of innocence (barring the ghostly little creepers in straight-up horror movies). And symbols of innocence almost always come off as phony and saccharine, no matter in what medium or in what form. Not to mention, children generally don't act very well. 

HOWEVER. There are some that can. So to get in the holiday spirit or something (or whatever), here's a list of child actors that I actually admire.

Martin Stephens

Probably the best child actor I've ever seen, giving a lot of seasoned adults a run for their money. What's excellent about Village of the Damned and The Innocents is that both films exploit the problems people like me have with children-- not being able to relate to them, the inaccurate image of gleeful innocence the movies peddle of them--and make those qualities a terrifying cover of something far more sinister.

Particularly unsettling and preternaturally precocious is Stephens's performance as Miles in 1961's Innocents, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric horror films ever made, evocative of David Lynch's later works. It's a tour-de-force perfomance for the 12-year-old Stephens, an assured, confident display that subtly captures the corruption just simmering away beneath that bland, proper face.

Pamela Franklin

Admittedly I've only seen her as the second sibling Flora in The Innocents, and while she's not called upon to be as intense or nuanced as Stephens, hers is still a very delicate, unsettling performance in its own right. Who can forget her pert, pretty charm contrasted to her mesmerized stares into the distance and her haunting humming? Memorable.

Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly in Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

The most genuinely heartbreaking movie I've ever seen, with steady, unaffected performances from the young leads. The frank, touching, and at many times darkly comic tale concerns the somewhat morbid but still pure-intentioned coping methods of two children thrown together during the devastation of Germany's oncoming occupation of France during World War II--coping mechanisms that include swiping crosses from the church's graveyard to decorate their own graveyard for dead animals they find. 

Fossey is about as adorable a child can be without making you projectile vomit, her angelic mannerisms acceptable because of their artless quality. Poujouly, as the poor, rustic farm boy who takes her in, has the unsentimental gravity to complement her dreamy spaciness, yet his fierce love and protectiveness of her is apparent, and will tear you apart at the end. Fossey turned into a lovely adult with a reasonably active career, but frustratingly Poujouly, despite making many films after, never seems to have made a name for himself, and died ten years ago (oh man, on my birthday, that sucks).

The movie is on Netflix Instant View, so I highly recommend it if you have an account and can cope with your tears.

Bobb'e J. Thompson

I was forced against my will to go see 2008's Role Models at the theater, but was pleasantly surprised at its lack of meanheartedness. Thompson as the raunchy, volatile Ronnie was a lot of fun and had a great delivery. I'm pleased he also plays Tracy's oft-neglected son Tracy, Jr. on 30 Rock, another good showcase for an intelligent, unsentimental kid to strut his acting skills. Too bad his presence constantly thwarts Tracy's efforts to tell an amazing stripper story, and that little Tracy, Jr. might just be trying to Menendez his father in order to inherit that porn video game money.

Chloe Moretz

Shamefully I must admit the fact that I have as yet to see her in a whole movie, just having seen bits and parts of her scenes in Kickass and Let Me In. I do plan to see the much lauded Hugo sometime soon. But speaking of 30 Rock, the episode she was in last season was my first complete Moretz experience, and she did not disappoint. I was amazed to find out she really was only fourteen. She has a brilliant comic timing, and loads of presence. And she has good taste in projects, projects that will help propel her into adult success, since few movies she's done really have CHILDREN'S FILM written in big block letters all over them. I look forward to her interpretation of Carolyn in Dark Shadows, since if anyone can pull off a younger version of Carolyn, it should be Moretz.

This isn't a complete list, but it's sort of redundant to point out stellar kid actors like Dakota Fanning or Jodie Foster in her Taxi Driver days. Just wanted to remind myself that not all cinematic moppets are twee and dimply. They can also be murderous vampires, malicious aliens, or possibly possessed. So there continues to be hope for this world. A happy holiday season to us all!

P.S. I'm working a seasonal position at the mall that's heating up in a big way as Christmas is nearing, so that's why I haven't been very active lately, and I might not be again until after the holidays. I'll still try to update as much as I can and comment on the many delightful blogs I follow, but if you hear scarce word from me, have a safe and good time eating holiday food and all that jazz!

* "TeeVee" to be pronounced in this case like Tom Servo does here at 0:40.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Look at me, I'm not Frances Dee


Anyway, because of this I haven't been very active here as of late, and is also why I missed celebrating my blog's one year anniversary yesterday. So that explains the lack of pomp and fanfare you'd normally expect (I was planning elephants. Lots of 'em). But on a serious note, thank you to all the people who have supported this little corner of the interwebs! You know who you are! All a'yous.

So instead of blah-blahing about meself (I know, I'm disappointed too), here's a tribute to Frances Dee on what would have been her....102nd birthday? Really, calculator? Wow.

When most people discuss the pantheon of great stars from the '30s and '40s, they refer to the Harlows, Gables, Hepburns, Crawfords, Davises, Lombards, Coopers, Hayworths, etc. Compared to to the actors in this intimidating list, Dee is relatively obscure, despite her steady, active presence in many of those decades' most provoking films.

Part of the reason she's maybe not as well remembered as some of her contemporaries is that we have her unfortunate Good Girl image to contend with, due to roles like Meg in Little Women, Sally in Of Human Bondage (pictured above), and Amelia in Becky Sharp. She was a welcome, understated presence that complemented the powerhouse trio of Kate Heburn, Bette Davis, and Miriam Hopkins in those films. But unfortunately, "good girl" actors are often shrugged at and passed over these days when analyzing the hardboiled dames that were more popular in that era.

But really this label is an injustice to Dee. She could do so much more. In fact, her career was incredibly versatile for someone as under the radar as she. And she played versatility well, always natural, seldom (if ever) hamming it up. She was lascivious and intense as the masochistic heiress in Blood Money, a mostly forgotten 1932 thriller. She once corrected a friend who called her character a prostitute, saying, "I played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute."

She was a hysterical but sympathetic young fiancee to a man cowed by his mother in the freudian Silver Cord, which starred her future husband Joel McCrea. She played the grounded, thankless, and sane role of the Jane Eyre-esque nurse in the Val Lewton-produced cult classic I Walked With a Zombie (highly underrated flick). (Turns out George Sanders' brother was also dreamy). And she turned that good girl image right on its head by playing the prim lead in 1934's Finishing School. She starts out prudish and saintly, only to let loose, get pregnant, and--shock of all shocks--escapes punishment and marries her man! A rare treat for this time period, and she imbues her character with a realistic depth. No hand-wringing, thank God. This movie was also another example of her playing well opposite a feisty femme, this time Ginger Rogers. Dee's likable, laid-back vibe meshed well with a lot of the energetic fireball actresses of the '30s.

And let's not forget that Dee was a hauntingly beautiful woman. Her looks, combined with her quiet but still palpable talent, won her fans from a few perceptive critics, such as James Agee and Pauline Kael (lessee, have I mentioned her before?). Agee called Dee "one of the very few women in movies who really had a face...and always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent." And Kael singled out Dee's small but memorable turn as Frederic March's beloved wife in the underrated war drama So Ends Our Night. Kael recalled that a close-up of her face in one heartbreaking sequence was "so beautiful...that her image stays with one, like Garbo's at the end of Queen Christina."

Her face was long, oval, and delicately proportioned, with large deep eyes, wide, well-shaped lips, and a thin nose; maybe her ethereal looks were too aristocratically classic for people craving scrappy little blondes like Harlow and Lombard. Her beauty could be a handicap in other ways, too. For a while she was a front-runner for Melanie in Gone With The Wind, and you can tell from her other performances that she (like de Havilland) could have captured the sweetness of Melanie without becoming saccharine or saucer-eyed. However, in the end David O. Selznick decided that her beauty would have detracted even from the divinely gorgeous Vivien Leigh. And of course, because Leigh came along (not to mention several other fiery candidates) her dream of playing Scarlett came to naught, as well.

But despite career set-backs, unfair good girl stigmas, and slight overshadowing from a more famous spouse, Dee remains beloved in the hearts of a few but fervent film buffs. She has a lovely website at Remembering Frances Dee, with several heart-stoppingly beautiful stills and an interview or two with one of her sons.

Did I mention my favorite role of hers? That of Mirabel Miller in the absolutely forgotten comedy The Gay Deception, from 1935. Speaking of her versatility, Dee had the makings of a great screwball comedienne, to stand alongside Carole, Jean, Myrna, Irene, and the rest. She rises far above her material, which is somewhat too cute and tried, about a cheeky foreign prince (Francis Lederer) masquerading as a bellhop in New York, courting a poor naive girl (Dee) who decides to blow her lottery earnings at the fanciest hotel in the big city. Dee inhabits the role of Mirabel, making her a soft, adorable bundle of nerves and frantic hope. Her delivery is spaced out and delightful, her short mass of brown hair windblown as she skitters about at full speed on her wiry frame, burdened by furs and silks. Never has an actress used her big burning eyes to better use than Dee when reacting to Lederer's antics or planning her own.

Here's a scene that showcases Dee's gentle harebrained ability, which shines out from the otherwise mediocre script.

A lass worth remembering, I think.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What the world needs now is Buster, sweet Buster

My dad--who as always deserves mighty props for introducing Buster Keaton to me at a wee, impressionable age--recently posted this video on Twitter, with the following caption: "Sweet video of the greatest man of the 20th century. Sorry, Gandhi."

Oh god, that smile!

This video really gets to me because, as the maker of this video, theinnerlight87, says, "Many videos have been made documenting the stunts and acrobatic work of Buster Keaton - and rightly so - but we wanted to show Buster's expressive abilities, emotional depth, and prove the nickname "Stoneface" was not necessarily the most accurate." 

Contemporary music set to classic footage can often give one the crankies, but with Buster it's possible to get away with it, because to me he has such a--and boy will this sound cliched--timeless quality about him. Like theinnerlight points out, he's more expressive than people realize. But he's expressive in a more modern way than you'd expect, subtle and underplayed (no handwringing or wide open eyes, like the silent star stereotype). Take the scene at 1:20, for me the single funniest shot in The General. Unfortunately you don't get what he's reacting to in this video, either one of the cars exploding or going off the rails, I can't remember which. He's completely living up to his Stoneface image, except for the blinking eyes. No double-takes, no spit-takes. Brilliant.

But hey, his stunts were great, too. So here's another video compilation, this time emphasizing his acrobatics. It's set to an assortment of Radiohead songs. Pretty weird and random, but it becomes strangely touching as a tribute to Buster should be, even if it's highlighting his stunts instead of his acting:


Another example of why if the tune is right and the images right, meshing music from a later time doesn't jar when making a tribute to someone like Buster on YouTube.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pauline and Louise and Dorothy and Ronee

Pauline Kael is my favorite critic, and Louise Brooks is up there as my favorite silent actress. I know neither are perfect; hell, the more I read Brian Kellow's biography, I learn just how much Kael could be an imperfect critic and human being (though I get the feeling Kellow's outlook on Kael is slightly biased toward the negative, at least where Kael as a person is concerned--and as she'd attest for herself, her personality is very much tied to her reviews).

However, there's no denying the impact they've both had on my own novice take on film criticism. I regularly consult Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies and For Keeps looking for film recommendations or to help me ground my scattered musings about movies I've already seen. And the first time I read Brooks' Lulu in Hollywood, I about wigged out discovering how damnedly intelligent the femme Spock-haired flapper was, and the depths she could find in film and filmmaking that many professional critics either don't see or don't care to get into. Kael covers the sociology and rhythmic beat of movies, Brooks the insight into what went into them, having been there herself, knowing instinctively how it was done even after she left the scene. They both, to steal Kael's phrase, go "deeper" into movies than fellow critics following an already outlined school of thought. They both threw objectivity shamelessly out the window, bringing the full force of their personalities to their writing.

So how cool is it for me that it turns out Kael and Brooks were mutual fans of one another?

Once Kael finally, finally gets her start in the '60s, when she was well into her forties, and releases her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Kellow mentions as almost an aside that, oh, all along Kael's been corresponding with Ms. Brooks after an attempt to get her to speak at Berkeley. So Kael sends Brooks a copy of her book. The reply? Brooks proclaims her "the best film critic since Agee." Moreover, she also gives Kael what I believe the very best compliment you could give a woman of intellect:

"Your picture on the dust cover made me think of Dorothy Parker when she was young in a moment of happiness."

I'd say I'm about halfway through Kellow's book now, and decided to celebrate by finally watching Nashville (1975). Kael's review of the film, similar to her review of Last Tango in Paris, could be viewed as either one of her biggest achievements or her biggest folly. Her detractors take issue with the fact she released the review before the finished product could be screened for other critics, giving her an unfair advantage, and before director Robert Altman had made the final edit, all because she was over-eager to promote her protege Altman. Others laud her for her fervent enthusiasm, her unabashed championing for an unconventional film, proof of how seriously she believed in her preferred artform. She calls Nashville "an orgy without don't get drunk on images, you're not overpowered--you get elated."

It's annoying as hell to parrot another critic when you're trying--even in your wee little blog--to write some criticism of the piece yourself, but I'm still trying to work out what I thought of Nashville, and how I feel it stacks up to Kael's epic review. I liked the movie, that much I know. But at least after my first viewing--keep in mind that unlike Kael, I often need to see a movie more than once, because I can't always trust my initial responses--the only time I felt that elation she wrote of was when Ronee Blakley was singing, smiling, and breaking down as the vulnerable, otherworldly Loretta Lynn figure Barbara Jean.

Blakley might be my new favorite film personality--and this was from 36 years ago. And I really don't know what else to call her besides a personality, since she's an actress, singer, songwriter, and screenwriter in this one movie alone. Her low, full voice, combined with those burning eyes and that ecstatic, tragic smile, brings a unique magic to the movie; a believable magic, that soothes everyone around her even in her weaker, uglier moments.

So why isn't she as well known as Garland or Streisand, other personalities whose voices and acting are equal in their emotional throttling? Because unlike Streisand's characters or Garland herself, Blakley doesn't hide Barbara Jean's vulnerability and tottering mind, she soaks in it. Kael writes that "she's radiant, yet so breakable that it's hard to believe she has the strength to perform." This is true of Garland's later performances, but we could try desperately to convince ourselves otherwise, because Garland was trying to convince us otherwise, but we don't have that safety net with Barbara Jean. Kael goes on to describe Blakley's posture as "tipping to one side like the Japanese ladies carved in ivory." She's unreal and ethereal, yet her voice is so boomingly alive that it might have unnerved audiences too much. Yet I frankly adore her all the more for it.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Seeing as the 28th was coincidentally both the Friday before Halloween and my 24th birthday, my generous sister took her husband, friend, and yours truly to Jazzbones, a nifty little nightclub that had a wonderful band doing a tribute to Thriller, the lead singer dressed as Mario from the Mario Brothers.

So, of course, there were costumes.

Remember awhile back when I was all, I'm going as this guy/gal?

Well, here you are:

"Oh, miiighty warrior of great fighting stock! Might I enquire to ask, what's up, Doc?"

As my sister says, just replace the dingy couch with a fat white horse, and it'd be perfect. Sadly, I decided at the last minute it would probably be abusive to dye my morbidly obese dog white, so I had to just go with the couch here.

Unfortunately, I had no noble Siegfried/Elmer Fudd to be my date, but I made do anyways. Here are some more shots, because I know you're dying to get the whole effect. Note that as awesome as my companions' costumes were (Sister as Amber Dempsey, Bro-in-Law as Dr. Nick Riviera, and Friend as Awesome Dead Chick), I'm unsure how comfortable they'd be with me plastering their pictures all over my blog, so I'll just crop to show my cross-dressing wabbit self:

I was right all along. Me as a blonde? Pretty terrifying.

This trippy shot of me at JB was taken after I inbibed in a little too much giggle juice, and decided it would be super sexy and Gildaish to pull off my Bugs glove with my teeth and hold it saucily over my head. Total win, right?

"Gahhhhh I'm a shuu...shu...shupershtarrrr!!!11!"

Sorry for the graininess and bluriness in a few of the pics, I hope that doesn't ruin your Halloween in any way, shape, or form. The costume components, so you can know for your own future Bugs/Brunhilde ensemble, are as follows: long gray/brown t-shirt, pink miniskirt, spangly gold bikini to serve as one's armor, pink eyeshadow, bunny slippers (that look like actual bunny feet), long, braidable blonde wig, viking helmet, and a kind father willing to make cardboard orange wings for you. Duct tape is also key. And at the end of the night? Nobody born after 1957 or who isn't a cartoon geek will know who the hell you are. And isn't that what Halloween is all about?

"Oh, Bwunhilde, you'we so wuvwey."
"Yes, I know it. I can't help it."

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Happy Last Day of October, starshines.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Re-Reading Dracula: Was Mina Murray Harker Always This Kickass?


Because I don't remember being as impressed by her in middle school, the first time I read Dracula. 

It's not that her character isn't problematic. She is, certainly. Mina is obviously a literary example of "The Cult of Domesticity," a campaign started by Queen Vee herself to make women feel special and empowered that they were so able to be protected and sheltered by the menfolk, while still finding time to do the darning. In the early sections with Lucy, Mina makes snide little remarks about the New Woman.

Some of the "New Women" writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the "New Woman" won't condescend in future to accept. She will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make of it too!
The copy I picked up at the library is apparently from the Young Adult section, and has some "Questions for Discussion" in the back. One of them is "How are Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra similar? How are they different? Can you see how they are friends? Do you relate to either one of them?"

Well, let's break this down. How are they similar? Well, in their sections together at least, they are the same character--virtuous, noble, beautiful, well-mannered, beloved, proper. How are they different? Lucy's rich, Mina's middle-class. Lucy doesn't work, Mina's a schoolteacher, thus she's probably a bit more educated. Oh, and Lucy sleepwalks.

All these are characteristics that differ only in the sense a brunette is different from a blonde; all surface.

So can I see how they are friends? Obviously, yes. They're the same person, after all. Do I relate to either of them? At this stage in the story, not very.

It's a sad, sorry road to go down to tear down female representations in this book; let's face it, save for Van Helsing, the male characters are all the same, too. Yes, even Quincey Morris, for all his American slang, is just like the others: virtuous, noble, brave. No one has a temper. No one cracks silly jokes. But you're missing the point attacking the story on this level, since it's all part of the allegory jazz Stoker was going for: virtue, though maybe not as exotic or enticing as the evil Dracula represents, wins every time and should win. Whether or not that makes you barf, it's how most stories end, even if they're not as black and white about it as Stoker.

Yet somehow, once Lucy dies and the characters team up to hunt down Count D, Mina is able to break through her revered angel role to take action that most heroines of her ilk would swoon at. She's still nauseatingly revered, but at least she earns it big-time. More than anything, she slowly reveals some god-damn depth.

Mina is incredibly intelligent and crafty. Who comes up with the idea to hypnotize her once Dracula does that voodoo he does so well on her, the hypnotic sessions thus enabling everyone to know where he's headed? Not Van Helsing. She does. She takes that very trauma and victimization Dracula wielded on her and turns the tables on him. That's frankly badass.

And who knows the train schedules by heart, so they can beat Dracula to his final destination? Mina. Yeah, she memorized it originally so she could faithfully trail her man, but she uses that knowledge for a higher purpose once the fight commences. Who organizes all the notes and transcribes everything into one fluid report? Muh-Muh-Mina. And who joins the gang in toting a gun and pointing it at the Count's purveyors at the end, standing in the bitter cold, Dracula's mark on her forehead? Wilhelmina.

That's all pretty revolutionary for a female character in 1897. So what happened to her character once women's rights got more into gear in the 20th and 21st century? No guns, no organizing search parties. She becomes instead Dracula's romantic interest, his mistress. What the hell?

Dammit, Coppola! And everyone else!

Frankly, I'd rather see her priggish and uptight, and remain that way. That may play right into her role as the Angel of the House, but at least she doesn't also become Angel of the House and Poster Child for Undead Erotica. In other words, modern interpretations such as Coppola's make her a victim not only of Dracula, but of the Madonna/Whore complex. This isn't sexual liberation here, since many times she's still hypnotized and manipulated by Dracula's power.

Stoker's Mina is far more effective, because she shows sympathy for Dracula without lusting for him. After displaying her wicked intelligence and hot secretarial skills, she then turns around and makes what I find a genuinely moving speech to the men, regardless of the Little Eva Syndrome that surrounds her character.

I know that you must fight. That you must destroy even as you destroyed the false Lucy so that the true Lucy might live hereafter. But it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he, too, is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him, too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.
And at the bloody end, as she's poised with gun pointed at the gypsies, as she watches her husband brutally destroy Dracula:

I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in [Dracula's] face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there before.

To me, that impartial empathy for the Count speaks worlds more about her character, and makes her far more endearing, than any romance with him would have. And believe me, this is coming from someone who usually eats shit like that up. Yet this empathy never weakens her resolve, either.

Just as much as the shotgun and the leadership skills, I think her ability to understand there's a trapped soul within Dracula is Mina's most shocking and refreshing trait in this genre. Someone as deliberately malicious as Dracula is not supposed to earn any sympathy--not from a late Victorian audience, and certainly not from the leading lady. A well-meaning Quasimodo, yes; not a lecherous Claude Frollo. As for contemporary audiences, we've disappointedly proven that though we're more accepting of that kind of sympathy now, the lady can only feel it if she's also sexually attracted to the villain in question.

Mina's not a perfect representation of a female with stamina and brains, not by a long-shot. She still considers herself subservient to the strong menfolk for defending her, and her everyday interactions aren't what you'd call dynamic. But frankly--and hopefully this isn't equatable to turning a blind eye to racism in early Hollywood--she's the best you could ask for at the turn of the twentieth century, so far as literature of this type goes (remember, even the feminist Ann Veronica of H.G. Wells' book by the same name isn't all that much better).

So, graphic novelphiles, should I read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I love the idea of Mina leading the League, especially if it's mostly by her wits instead of any superpower. However, I find it too much an easy way out having Jonathan dump her and all that; in the original novel, he's completely devoted to her. Still, props to Alan Moore for recognizing Mina's potential. Plus, y'know, Invisible Man and Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde. That's cool, right?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bride, 1985

We all know what major holiday is coming up in a few days, don't we? That's right, New Zealand's Labor Day!! So I encourage everyone to cuddle up on the 24th and watch both seasons of Flight of the Conchords in celebration.

Aside from that, Halloween's also almost here, so here's a review of The Bride, starring Sting and Jennifer Beals.

Given my profile picture and the fact I've written about it a few times, you probably won't have a difficult time inferring that I really, really like 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein. I was young when I first saw it, I'm guessing around the time I entered middle school, if not a little before. Like any wistful kid not paying attention in math, I'd concoct all sorts of kickass sequels in my mind, where the Bride isn't actually dead, and would win moodily handsome Colin Clive's heart away from stuffy old Elizabeth, after Eliza Doolittle sessions where Bridie learns the ways of civilization, only to conquer the sexist mores of the day, and whatnot. Oh, and she'd stick it to the Monster for trying to kill her, but not be too mean to him, since, hey, he's the Monster and everyone loves the Monster.

Sadly, this Sting-starring version takes my muddled sixth grade delusions of feminist grandeur and actually makes a pretty weak movie out of them.

The Bride's billed as a "remake" of the 1935 movie, but really it is a sequel, following what would happen if Frankenstein had escaped with his female creation, and if the Monster had escaped, too (unbeknownst to Frankenstein or anyone else). A promising premise, but totally ruined by the script and the performances. Sting's fairly monotone, and although it's nice to see a shout-out to Peter Cushing's evil, randy take on the character, Sting's final attack on Eva (what he so deems Jennifer Beals' Bride) smacks of a bodice-ripper, harlequin romance mentality that annoys rather than scares. 

Jennifer Beals, though quite beautiful, with about the most stunning dark peepers I ever did see, isn't what you'd call a master thespian, either. With Women's Lit heavy lines like, "You didn't create me! You didn't create me!" and "Not even if you murder me and raise me up a thousand times, you cannot have me," she comes across whiny and petulant rather that strong and mature. The movie begins with her creation (with wasted cameos from Quentin Crisp as a Praetorius figure and Timothy Spall as a Dwight Frye-esque assistant), and these scenes sadly have Beals' best moments when she first wakes up, disoriented and confused.

Luckily she doesn't try imitating Elsa Lanchester's chilling and superb sharp, birdlike gestures and expressions. Instead, Beals is softer, more tenderly afraid, and you really get a sense of her vulnerability as those big sad eyes take in lightning for the first time and the strange people around her. She's touching where Lanchester was stylish and memorable, and while Lanchester's performance is certainly better for a horror/camp film, and thus I like it better, Beals still does well here. However, there are more than enough cringe-worthy moments for both she and Sting to prove their amateurish acting chops, such as the memorably awful "I eat chicken!" scene where Frankenstein teaches Eva how to talk. 

Fortunately and unfortunately, whatever ham-handed feminist message could have been derived is pushed to the sidelines for the part the movie really cares about: the friendship between the Monster (played by Clancy Brown, called "Viktor" in the movie, just like the original Frankenstein of the novel--whatever symbolism that has is beyond my patience to figure out) and the dwarf he saves from a crowd of bullying children, Rinaldo (David Rappaport). The two team up and become a success as a trapeze act in a traveling circus (??).

Rappaport is a charming actor, and these scenes aren't poorly done, but the tone is totally off from what you'd want in a Frankenstein movie, no matter how "peace, love, and understanding" the message is. For one thing: too cutesy. For another, they take the whole "Monster is just a misunderstood gentle giant" trope way, way too far. This only works if there's something about the Monster in his carriage and looks that are genuinely menacing and unique; that way, the contrast between his outward appearance of monstrous power and his inner character of childlike naivete is more surprising and poignant.

Brown, however, does not look threatening in the least, just like a big, tall, lumbering dude, so his scenes with Rinaldo have more of a Lenny and George vibe than something out of a horror film. That very well could have been the filmmaker's intention, but it just doesn't work. For one thing, it's insulting to people with real disabilities. The director basically explains away the Monster--the Frankenstein Monster, mind you-- as a developmentally slow individual, so the secret message is, "and that's why he's so scary. But just look deep down inside, and he's a real cuddle-bug, totally non-threatening and dog-like! Look, it's so touchingly amusing he cares so much about Rinaldo that he's cast in their circus routine as the mother to Rinaldo's baby!" True, the scenes in the circus aren't supposed to be PC, as we're supposed to feel superior to the gawking crowd. However, at the same time we're expected to laugh right along with that  audience at the hi-jinx of the crafty Rinaldo and the infantilized Viktor, and at what strange companions they make. Icky.

Plus, the rough street life Viktor leads and his affection for Rinaldo make Eva's plight pretty paltry in comparison. After all, she's pretty, intelligent, and rich under the guidance of Frankenstein, a well-to-do Victorian/1700s (who knows) girl who feels vaguely stifled by a patriarchal society. That isn't nearly as sympathetic as a reviled, gentle, slow man trying to make ends meet with his equally reviled and gentle (though lovably sassy!) companion in a circus (where Rinaldo meets a sad fate for ridiculously non-sensical reasons.)

And like Viktor, Eva's character is muted, watered down from an unearthly creation to that aforementioned stifled, intelligent, Victorian lady stereotype. There are admittedly a few nice call-backs to her beginnings as a creature with primitive instincts; at her first party, she growls and roars in terror at a cat, telling Frankenstein later, "You never told me about cats! I thought it was a tiny lion." That's probably the best line.

Viktor and Rinaldo's scenes might have passed for an after school special about understanding people who are different, so I found myself much preferring the comparatively few scenes about the titular bride, shoddy as they may be. They're the only ones that try for that old-school horror feel, even if they're not expertly done outside some good eerie lighting; lightning storms and Sting staring blankly--er, intensely--at his obsession Eva while she sleeps replace an honest building of mood and suspense. Still, at least they're trying for something similar to the original franchise's ambience; Rinaldo and Viktor's scenes are condescending and trite without any bite. 

The rest of the cast is wasted, too. Cary Elwes is markedly uncharming (poor Westley!) as a cocky suitor of Eva's, and Geraldine Page of all awesome people has a bit part as Frankenstein's housekeeper. And why kill off Quentin Crisp? Just so Frankenstein could be alone in his secret? That's not a wholly bad idea, actually. But then there's the inexplicable weird presence of Frankenstein's one friend Clerval (Anthony Higgins), who only serves as exposition for the audience, as Sting murmurs uninterested mad scientist-babble to him about his plans for Eva. Turns out this Frankenstein's not quite as cold-hearted and evil as Curshing's Dr. F, since this one begins with the noble, if not paradoxical, intention of creating a woman with a will and intellect as free-spirited and equal to any man's of that period.

So at what point does he start to lust over Eva and become possessive of her instead? Because it seems like the majority of screentime is spent on Viktor and Rinaldo, we never have enough character development in the Bride scenes, so we never understand Frankenstein's mood swings and violent actions. Perhaps it's because Rappaport is such a natural, warm actor that director Franc Roddam shifted more focus on him once he realized how dull Sting and Beals were. However, that only works to weaken the premise, since the movie is still called The Bride, not Viktor and Rinaldo's Feel-Good Self-Esteem Power Hour.

The ending is rushed and confused, with a sappy montage running over the credits. Rinaldo's image is superimposed over the screen, as his voice-over repeats his words from earlier in the film, reminding us that dreams are worth pursuing. Garrrgrrrrh. 

The movie's watchable, if for nothing more than the typical mid-'80s costumes and make-up; check out Eva's ballgown and perm. But it's not much else. Outside of Rappaport, no performance has any--no, I refuse to say "sting". Uhhhh...spark! No spark, so theres's nothing to lift the limp script into high camp. Everything's too sedate and gentle, when even the gawky sixth grader in me knows that's wrong. The Bride and the Monster deserve a tale much more exciting and gruesome than "safe". 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 30 Rock Episodes, ranked in order of appearance because I can't decide which ones are better than others

Ho, hum. Another Thursday, another night without 30 Rock. All because someone (Tina Fey) is apparently more responsible and caring than her TV counterpart, and would rather look after her relatively newborn baby. And they say children are our future. A future without Liz Lemon sleep eating cigarettes is no future I want to be a part of.

Anyways, here's my list of my completely subjective top ten 30 Rock episodes, to tide we viewers over until the real thing comes back...IN FLIPPING JANUARY. WHYYY?

1. "Tracy Does Conan," S1E7

30 Rock had the whole hilariously offbeat thang going from the start, but its manic, hysterical edge gelled for the first time in this episode. Tracy does Conan, but first has to come down from "bugging out" on pills prescribed for him by one Dr. Leo Spaceman. Yes, this episode definitely would have garnered a place on the list by one fact alone: Dr. Spaceman's first episode.

"My, I'm certainly opening up to you, young lady!"

But the rest of the episode more than earns its place here, too. Tracy's antics reach comic heights of heaven, the best moment a relatively quiet one in this farce: Grizz gently rocks a shirtless Tracy back and forth in his arms as Liz talks on the phone with the deliciously smarmy and snake-oily Spaceman.

Scratch that, here's the best moment:

Conan is a great actor in this, by the way, very natural. I love the quick interplay between him and Liz, calling back to a few episodes previous where Liz implied a past romance between them. "Let's not do this, Elizabeth." And the ending is a classic, too, when Tracy's finally pushed onstage to tape the show. "Pants on! Pants on!" It really subverts the old comic trope that, hey, everything will work out in the end. Pff, who do you think Liz is, Gidget?

"AAAGH! Past Pete has come to kill Future Pete!"

2. "Episode 210," S2E10

Sometimes one scene is enough to earn an episode a place of honor on some creepy fanatical blog list. Here we have two scenes, each Liz-centric. First, her review with the co-op board, where she's bucking for her dream studio. It plays as a blind date from hell, with Liz dooming herself with each awkward word she says and with each questionable moment from her credit history revealed, until the board members can only stare at her in shock and pity.

"I love your apartment. Love!"
"Umm...there's...something coming out of your nose."

Then, continuing the date motif, you have a dejected Liz in her apartment at night, calling and leaving messages for the board over and over again with increasing pathetic loathing, and increasing drunkenness.

"I'm fine, because I know who I am. I feel sorry for you, co-op board."

We also have Kenneth's addiction to coffee. At first it didn't work for me. "Hopped up Kenneth" doesn't turn out as funny as everyday cheerful immortal Kenneth, but it soon evolved into the wonderfully weird "Midnight Train to Georgia" musical number. Who doesn't want to hear Edie Falco harmonize with Alec Baldwin?

"And I don't know why I lied, I guess I'm just nervous. But no, I did not read The Lovely Bones."

3. "MILF Island," S2E11

There's such a wonderful 12 Angry Men vibe in this episode, with all the writers sweating and cramped in Jack's waiting room, turning suspicious about who insulted Jack to a tabloid writer. None is more on the witch hunt than righteous Liz Lemon, until we find out....

I think "MILF" is also a  good showcase for just how stone-cold bitchy Liz is when cornered. Like when Kenneth takes the fall:

"What do you have to say to Kenneth, Lemon?"
"...You disgust me."

4. "Succession," S2E13

"Succession" has to be one of the most beautifully structured episodes in the history of ever. First, there's the underlying Amadeus theme--who else but the good folks at 30 Rock would think to link the searing, jealous complexity of Salieri and Mozart with Tracy's genius for creating porn video games, and Frank seething that Tracy was able to surmount the uncanny valley paradox?

Then you have appearances from Rip Torn, Will Arnett, and Dr. Spaceman's greatest entrance ever, as seen in the picture above: gratuitous cloak billowing behind him while Mozart swells in the background, as he stops at the candy machine. One of his best lines, too, when Torn fails to revive:

"Hello, 911? Diabetes repair, I guess." Shrug.

And then here's Liz, falling sway to the possiblity of CEO-dom, going, "Hey, nerds. Guess who has two thumbs, speaks limited French, and hasn't cried once today? This moi."

5. "Sandwich Day," S2E14

The best scenes are again Liz-centric.

And we mustn't forget the climactic scene at the airport, where her desire to make things right with Floyd conflicts with her desire to not abandon the delicious teamster's sandwich Jenna, Kenneth, Frank, Tracy, and Lutz won for her in a hilariously depraved drinking contest. I'd post the video of Liz's ultimate decision, but it's better seen with the whole episode's events behind it...and I can't find it on YouTube.

"I can do it! I can have it all!"

6. "Believe in the Stars," S3E2

Oprah in one of the best celebrity TV guest stints ever, mostly due to how a drugged up Liz reacts to her ("I'ma call you back. I'm snitting nexta Borpo"), and Liz's horrified realization at the end about who this Oprah really was. Fey talked about working with Oprah in her autobiography Bossy Pants (hilarious, go get it). This was around the time of the big Fey-as-Palin boom, where she was running back and forth to SNL's set and 30 Rock's fake airplane set, all the while planning her daughter's birthday party. Oprah--Oprah, mind you--was all, "Really? You're doing all that?" If the episode hadn't aired two seasons earlier, I'd have pegged the hectic pace of Tracy Does Conan deriving inspiration from the backstage shenanigans Fey experienced here.

Speaking of Tracy, this episode has possibly the best Tracy-Jenna subplot yet: their horrifyingly un-PC decision to masquerade as the other's race and gender.

"God, this is worse than the time you wore shorts to work!"

7. "Gavin Volure," S3E4

This episode doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, what with Steve Martin in an appearance to rival--possibly surpass--Oprah's. Martin brings his A-game to the corrupt fake agoraphobe of the title, returning to his roots as a gigantically spaced-out, pompous asshole. No Father of the Bride, Cheaper By the Dozen crapola here. His climactic scene is one of the best of the series:

"I've lost everything! I've lost my money! I've lost Liz! That...paint is drying weird!"
"Gavin Volure! Everyone wanted to be Gavin Volure! Well, Gavin Volure is going to juuuump!"

Tracy again gets another great subplot, a happily unsentimental journey through his paranoia that his young sons are going to kill him for his vast wealth.

"Daddy's home! Don't Menendez me!"
"And I want you to know, that if anything ever happens to me, you and your brother are going to jail."

8. "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001," S4E7

If forced at gunpoint to decide which episode I'd put in the number one slot based on my preference alone, I'd first stand agog at just how far blog-followers are willing to go for an accurate idea of the blogger's taste, and then I'd choose this episode.

There's plenty of brilliance here (Will Arnett returns! Dr. Spaceman!), but again, it boils down to a key scene: Liz, after having her confidence burst into itty-bitty bits by a nervous, competitive Jack, tries to shoot the promos for her upcoming talk show. It goes disastrously, with Pete desperately throwing suggestions at her that she then turns into grotesque charades of human movements, like a malfunctioning sassy robot.

"Wave your hand! Wave like a human being!"
"Blow us a kiss! With your hand!"
"Give us some cleavage. No, no. Never mind." The way Scott Adsit and Alec Baldwin move back at the same time here is ingenious timing. Has there ever been a more courageous comedienne than Tina Fey, willing to let men react to her that way?

Oh, man, and then there's Liz standing behind the HD camera. Yup, no other braver comedienne. Same with Adsit, Baldwin, and McBrayer--or should I say, shirtless old man, young Alec Baldwin, and muppet?

That whole scene made me laugh harder than I think I ever have at any time, maybe tied only with Allie Brosh's Cake post at Hyperbole and a Half.

Gollum, mouth-crying Liz Lemon is pretty swell, too. Almost made me think twice about getting surgery on my own eyes.

9. "Verna," S4E12

I hate to keep going for episodes where it's just the one scene that sticks out, but come on. Any moment where Liz thinks she is triumphant and then has her dreams quickly deflated is a golden moment. She and Frank, temporary roomies, have sworn to kick their vices: Frank his cigarettes, Liz her junk food. Although Liz has been suffering, Frank seems easygoing as always, and so Liz leaves out his old carton of cigarettes and sets up a camera during the night. Noticing that two cigarettes are missing, Liz brings in the tape to show all the writers, little realizing she suffers from a "little understood parasomnia disorder."

(Pssst, over here at Hulu:

Jan Hooks does a wonderful, uncomfortably raunchy job as the titular Verna, Jenna's trashy mother, but really, can anything or anyone in an episode top a Lemon-Amorous Mail Lady duet of "Don't Go To Bed With a Frown in Your Pocket?"

Oh, and my new personal slogan: "You didn't believe in me. But I believed in myself. Just like the last scene of all movies."

10. "Queen of Jordan," S5E17

I've never seen a more apt send-up of anything--including politics, romances, war dramas--than 30 Rock's go at reality television here. Filmed as an episode of Angie Jordan's reality show Queen of Jordan, they get all the cliches, while still staying true--somehow--to 30 Rock's tone. I attribute this to the actors, who by now are so comfortable with their characters they seem, well, just like themselves even when the structure, music, and direction is totally different.

And I love that the writer (billed as "Tracey Wigfield" in quotes) remembers the insane details Angie outlined in "Mrs. Donaghy" quite a few epsiodes back when the concept for Queen of Jordan was born, featuring white divorced lady (Randi), Angie's meth addicted nephew, and of course, D'Fwan.

"....D'Fwan forgot his catchphrase."

Baldwin also has some of his finest moments, as he more and more deeply publicly humiliates himself with a series of accidents and mis-quotes.

"That was the chair, because I only pass gas once a year for an hour atop a mountain in Switzerland."

I also get a kick out of Liz getting billed as "Another Person." And Pete? "Powerless, bald."


So, there they are. You're welcome. Which ones was I a fool, a heartless fool, to leave out? There are so, so many.

"I'm a star, I'm on top, somebody bring me some haaaaaam!"

(By the way, you should probably strike while the internet is hot on the Youtube and Hulu clips. We all know how eager both sites are to take stuff down that people like).