Aug 29, 2013

Projecting Movies At Home Is Amazing!

Ever since I read Clara's post at Via Margutta 51 about her home movie projector, I knew I had to have one. The possibility of turning my living room into a movie theater was so exciting!

It took me a while to buy a projector, because there were so many options and I was trying to find a happy medium: not too cheap, but not overpriced either. I knew I wanted one that could provide a good image in daylight, but the models that seemed to offer that were so expensive. Some were over $1,000 dollars. Less than your typical big screen TV, but more than I wanted to pay to experiment.

Though there are plenty of projectors meant for movies and gaming, I found that the ratings were better for machines meant to be used in a professional capacity. They seemed to offer better images and durability.

I finally settled on a refurbished version of this model, because it got such great reviews for daylight play. It was less than $300 and came with an HDMI cord, which I later found was incredibly useful for connecting the projector to different things. I'll get to what those things are in a bit.

I love this projector so much! It has totally changed the way we watch everything, from movies and TV to online content. The model I got was a winner, and going with a refurbished model was definitely the way to go.

At first I connected the machine to my laptop and projected the image right on the wall. That worked okay at first, though the bumpy surface made everyone look like they had a horrible skin problem.

Eventually, I got a large piece of curtain backing material from a sewing store. It has a nice, smooth white surface and since it is meant to block light, the image doesn't penetrate the material. I plan to wrap it around a frame eventually, but for now, we just have a big 'ol piece of white cloth on our wall.

Finding a good place to put the projector was tricky, we didn't seem to have a table that was the right height and I didn't like using books to prop it up. We eventually got this cart from Ikea, which has been great, because I can keep DVDs and remotes in the drawer and other stuff on the shelves below.

Stuff like my Roku box. And my VHS/DVD player, which has a television tuner. Long story short, our old school TV is now in storage. Thanks to that HDMI cable, I can watch Netflix, Warner Archives Instant Play, Amazon Instant and Pub d Hub on my wall via Roku. We don't have cable, so the tuner works for the rare times we watch broadcast television.

As I like to show my kids clips from YouTube, I thought I ought to find a way to stream that through Roku, and my projector, as well. I got the Twonky Beam app on my phone, and it is amazing. It gives you the ability to stream nearly every YouTube video (in addition to Vimeo and clips from a bunch of other sources) through your Roku. So now I can watch just about anything I please with my projector.

We found a long cord to connect our stereo speakers to the projector, which is great, though the volume doesn't have a remote. I've also downloaded the Roku remote on my phone, so I don't have to point it directly at the box. I can operate it from anywhere in the room, in the house even.

It's difficult for me to express how much it has meant to me to watch movies this way at home. It isn't quite like the theater experience, but it does make watching so much more meaningful. I'm more engaged in the film and I'm catching details that I often miss on my laptop or old TV. It has made me feel more in love with the movies than I ever have before, and that is beautiful.

Aug 25, 2013

Quote of the Week

I was terrorized by the emotional requirements of being an actor. Acting is like letting your pants down; you're exposed.

-Paul Newman

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Aug 18, 2013

Aug 14, 2013

Book Review--Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire
Written by Roxane Orgill
Illustrated by St├ęphane Jorisch
Candlewick Press, 2007

I've been fascinated by the partnership of Fred and Adele Astaire ever since I reviewed the excellent biography The Astaires: Fred & Adele last year. One thing that tortures me about them is that none of their legendary performances were filmed. Not one! For this reason, I was especially charmed by the illustrations in Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire, a biography for young people, because they helped me to better imagine what this pair must have looked like in action.

Footwork follows the dancing Astaires from early tap lessons, through their decades-long stage career together, to Fred's leap from the footlights to screen stardom. It tells their story in an engaging fashion, capturing the facts, but with the artistry of a solid piece of fiction. We see the young dancing prodigies hoofing on the vaudeville stage and sharing the program with acts ranging from performing seals who stink like fish to dance geniuses like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. You get a vivid sense of the triumphs and struggles they encountered on their way to fame and fortune.

The element that makes this brief bio special is the way it explores the relationship between Fred and Adele. Before he was a movie star, Fred danced in the shadow of his wild and charismatic sister. He focused on constant rehearsals and fine-tuning the details in their act, while she received the loudest applause and acclaim. When gifts of flowers and puppies came over the footlights, he knew they were for his sister.

Footwork explores this aspect of the Astaires' relationship beautifully, acknowledging the different reception each sibling received and showing how they worked through it by focusing on their act. There's also a beautiful moment where Adele sees her brother performing on his own and admires his skill, acknowledging that he can succeed on his own. It's a great example of how influences from the outside world do not need to lead to sibling rivalry.

While Footwork is most appropriate for children, I enjoyed experiencing the Astaire team's biography this way. I would recommend it to anyone who is fond of the Astaires or curious about their story.

Thank you to Raquel Stecher of Candlewick Press for providing a review copy of the book.

Fred and Adele Dipping

Aug 11, 2013

Quote of the Week

Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

-Alfred Hitchcock

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Aug 7, 2013

Book Review--Tales of a Hollywood Housewife: A Memoir by the First Mrs. Lee Marvin

Tales of a Hollywood Housewife: A Memoir by the First Mrs. Lee Marvin
Betty Marvin, 2010

When I reviewed the marvelous Lee Marvin: Point Blank earlier this summer, I was especially charmed by the stories told about him by his first wife, Betty Marvin. She was the most important voice in the book, providing a clear-eyed, affectionately exasperated account of a man who had given her quite a ride.

Marvin had every right to be bitter, and she was, but she was also appreciative of the good aspects of their time together. I thought she was remarkably generous to her ex and I loved the way she expressed herself. She was tart, but loving. You don't often see one source providing so much more information in a biography, but I could understand why Epstein chose to favor her voice. No one could tell the story better than her.

That's why I leapt in joy (literally, but my laptop is okay now) when I learned that Betty had written her autobiography. I figured a whole book written by this fascinating woman had to be pretty good, whether or not she had writing chops. It ended up surpassing my expectations. Lee Marvin was an important part of Betty Marvin's life, but contrary to the title, there was a lot more to her life than being arm candy for a movie star.

Betty Marvin was born in Sedro-Wooly, Washington, abandoned by her parents (who also split) and raised by her grandparents. Her childhood was lonely, though the love of a doting aunt boosted her spirits.

Her father had drifted down to Los Angeles, where he led a turbulent, though luxurious life as a used car salesman and gambler. He lived it up with his bleached blonde wife, often scrambling to pay his debts. When Betty hit her teens, he promised to pay her tuition at UCLA. He was a bit surprised when she actually took him up on the offer, especially because she had graduated from high school at age sixteen, but he kept his word.

This started young Betty on a series of adventures worthy of a movie, though they probably wouldn't be convincing as fiction. It's a good thing she had a photo to go with most of her stories, because some of them are crazy.

Long before she met Lee Marvin, this determined young woman found herself having Thanksgiving with Bogie and Bacall (the latter being her roommate's cousin) and serving for a brief, bizarre period as nanny to Joan Crawford's four adopted children while she studied to be a vocalist. After their marriage had ended, she lived a free and perilous life which led her to beocming close buddies with Tab Hunter and cooking for Julia Child in her own kitchen. The woman could drum up plenty of action on her own, without a famous spouse.

That said, stories of the marriage, and their four children are the emotional heart of the story. In the early days, as is often the case, they were a loving, happy couple. Betty describes these years well; you can understand why she gave up her growing career for this struggling, but seductive actor. She gave birth to their son and three daughters, who only attracted the passing interest of their father, though he eventually built a shaky relationship with them. Marvin loved his wife, but as he became more addicted to alcohol, his behavior became erratic, abusive and often downright puzzling.

Marvin doesn't offer an explanation for her self-destructive husband's behavior, though she does acknowledge that his World War II experiences in the Marines and his parent's bitterly dysfunctional relationship had something to do with it. He treats his ex and children shabbily, and she acknowledges her bewilderment over his abandonment, but she also seems to understand she could not have gone on with him.

After her marriage to Lee, Betty makes a few poor financial decisions, takes risks, and eventually ends up homeless for a brief period. I kept wondering why she didn't find work as a secretary and get a roof over her head. She seemed so sharp, a survivor.

It took me a while to understand that Marvin craved an adventurous, rich life. Betty didn't wish to be homeless in her sixties, but she seemed able to live with the consequences of her actions. She became an artist, maintained a series of fascinating friendships and stayed as close to her kids as she could given the tensions in the family.

Though there are plenty of times Marvin feels sorry for herself, and for good reason, I love that she never gives in to self-pity. I think that's why the book works so well; she keeps the story moving forward, allowing time for reflection, but staying focused on the present. It's an interesting read, as good as if not better than any celebrity tell-all. I may need to read it again to soak up all the details.

You can buy Tales of a Hollywood Housewife: A Memoir by the First Mrs. Lee Marvin here. If you want to take a peek, extensive portions of the book are posted here.

If you're curious to learn more about Betty Marvin, check out her website. She's posted several photos of her artwork and other projects.

Aug 5, 2013

New Documentary: The Magic of Casting

Casting By (2012)
A film by Tom Donahue
HBO premiere August 5

More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting.
-Martin Scorsese

James Dean, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Jon Voight and Warren Beatty. If you like any of these actors, you can thank casting director Marion Dougherty for finding them. The HBO film Casting By, an entry in its weekly summer documentary series, pays tribute to this casting pioneer and to the exhilarating and demanding work of perfectly matching actor and role.

For over fifty years, Dougherty devoted herself to finding sharp talents. She had offices in an elegant, white Manhattan townhouse, where she only hired women for her staff. Successful casting directors like Amanda Mackay and Juliet Taylor credit her for not only building the industry, but starting and nurturing their own and many more careers in the field.

Marion Dougherty Associates had an unusual set-up, with aspiring screenwriters and actors living in the upstairs bedrooms and an elderly character actor bedding down in the basement. The place became a meeting place for young actors who enjoyed the friendly, domestic environment. Dougherty would literally find herself waist deep in headshots and young, hungry actors would resort to all kinds of tricks to get a moment with her.

This determined casting pioneer got her start in television, casting for Kraft Television Theatre, a show responsible for launching the careers of actors like Ann Francis and Jack Lemmon. After that success, she moved on to casting Naked City and Route 66, where she continued to draw fresh talents from the stage to the sidewalk. One of the most amusing parts of the documentary is watching clips of these young actors developing their chops on live television and heading for greatness. Christopher Walken sure was a cutie back in the day.

Dougherty believed in gut reaction when it came to looking for new talent. She followed her instincts, and often she saw things in people that they didn't see in themselves. I always thought casting directors simply filled the roles in a film and stepped away, but Dougherty fought hard for some of her choices, sometimes working for months to convince a director to cast a particular talent. She campaigned intensely to win Jon Voight the lead role in Midnight Cowboy (1969), a part that would make his career. The film three Academy Award nods for acting and won Best Picture, but Dougherty wasn't even included in the credits.

Despite lack of appreciation from the suits, and sometimes even directors in the industry, great casting directors are adored by actors, because they are among the few in the industry who truly believe in and fight for actors. Dougherty gave many second chances. If she saw that special spark in an actor, she wouldn't give up on them.

Glenn Close nearly fluffed her chance for fame by trying, and failing, to sound like Katharine Hepburn in an audition. Jon Voight gave an embarrassingly forced performance in his first television role. Jeff Bridges had a similarly humiliating experience in a dramatic scene that drew unwanted laughter from the audience. Thanks to support from Marion Dougherty, all three got their big breaks and brilliant careers.These are among many actors in Casting By who share their gratitude to the determined cast director for trusting her instincts and sticking with them.

Though Dougherty is the focus of Casting By, one interviewee calls her "the goddess of casting," it also pays tribute to this lesser known, and apparently deeply unappreciated aspect of the entertainment industry. It dips into the overall world of casting, with fascinating stories about the lengths professionals, like the also legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster, would go to to fill an important role.

Stalmaster was the first casting director to earn single title card credit on a film, for his work in Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Director Norman Jewison felt the attention was well-deserved, other directors interviewed underplay the importance of the profession. Taylor Hackford actually seemed threatened, almost angry, that a casting director would get credit for finding an actor. He felt as director that he should get full credit, despite the fact that he might only have made the final decision and did not put in the work to find the performer.

There were moments like the Hackford interview which had me hopping mad. Who knew that the profession of casting could inspire such passion? And if Dougherty didn't get proper respect at the top of her industry, it must be brutal for those in the lower rungs of the profession. I am now convinced that there should be an Academy Award for casting. Finding the right actor for the role is where the magic begins.

Interviews with over fifty actors, directors, film historians and other experts give Casting By a rich diversity of perspectives. The actors in particular told fantastic stories, and I had a big smile on my face many times. It made me appreciate acting more, the fun of it, and the little touches that go into it. As brutal as it can be, I understand why all of these people adore what they do.

I loved this lively, entertaining and sometimes devastating film. It introduced me to a pocket of creativity in an industry that so often seems more about the business than the show. I'll never take casting directors for granted again.

Casting By debuts tonight on HBO, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT
Other HBO playdates on August 8, 11, 14, 17, 20 and 24
Playing on HBO2 August 7, 26 and 31

Thank you to HBO for providing a copy of the film for review.

Aug 4, 2013

Quote of the Week

...nothing is desperately important and the joy of life is just looking at it.

-Alec Guiness

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Aug 1, 2013

The Latest "New Pulp" Adventure from Stephen Jared: The Elephants of Shanghai

The Elephants of Shanghai
Stephen Jared
Solstice Publishing, 2013

Actor/writer Stephen Jared has long been a friend of Classic Movies. His fiction debut, the rousing adventure story Jack and the Jungle Lion, was one of the first books I reviewed for the blog. Stephen has also distinguished himself here by writing the most popular guest post in the blog's history, a touching essay about Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks' relationship written for my Pickford blogathon in 2012. Check it out.

Though I enjoyed Stephen's second novel, the detective story Ten-a-Week Steale, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that he didn't follow up with a sequel to Jungle Lion. I loved the characters in that book: the dashing movie star Jack Hunter, strong-willed animal trainer Maxine (known as Max), her wards nephew Tyler and niece Lindy, orphaned following the death of her sister, and the alcoholic, but cuddly pilot Clancy. They were familiar types, and their story was hardly anything new either, but Jared made them so lively I felt like I was watching a classic action movie. It was a fun, lively read.

It turns out freshening up familiar character types and story lines is a genre, new pulp, and Jared has got it down. He's got a knack for snappy dialogue and exciting action scenes.

I can't exactly review the new book, because there is a quote from yours truly on the book jacket. But I did truly enjoy the sequel. While Jack and the Jungle Lion was set in 1937 in the South American jungle, The Elephants of Shanghai shoots forward to 1942. Jack, feeling useless as a movie star, sets out on his own to help the war effort. Of course he gets himself into trouble and some familiar faces return to bail him out.

The story is a bit darker this time, though there are plenty of light moments. There's also more character development, and we get to know Jack, Max and Clancy better. You don't see much of the kids this time. Hopefully they'll play a larger role in the next book?

The Elephants of Shanghai is another great Jared adventure. I'm looking forward to the next one. You can buy the book here--it's quite the steal on Kindle. As a bonus, Jack and the Jungle Lion comes bundled with the sequel. You don't need to read it to follow the action in Elephants, but it is so much fun, why not check it out anyway? I enjoyed reading it again.

Thank you to Stephen Jared for sending me a copy of the book.