Quick thoughts on Fast Color

Fast Color

Several years ago, Jim and I happened, by almost pure chance, upon a strange and fascinating little science fiction film called Cold Souls, about a writer who puts his soul in cold storage (to better help himself get over writer’s block) and then has to try to retrieve it when it is accidentally sold. It was a wonderfully quirky science fiction film that, it seemed, few people had ever heard of; we spent the rest of the year urging all our friends to seek it out.

Here’s another one.

Last night, Jim and I watched a low-key but very well made science fiction film called Fast Color. Made in 2019, it had a very brief and limited run in a small number of theaters, but is now available on Amazon Prime, where it is well worth checking out.

Fast Color is a tale about a family of three — grandmother, mother, and young daughter — who live in an isolated community amid a drought-ridden US, and who, like all the women in their family, have inherited special abilities. Through the generations, they have tried to stay under the radar. Now, it has become harder to stay unnoticed — and harder to decide whether they should.

This isn’t a loud, action-packed superhero saga of derring-do by costumed superheroes. It doesn’t even have the weird quirks of Cold Souls or Being John Malkovich. What it has is a slowly developing story, wonderfully written characters portrayed by excellent actors, and a satisfying conclusion (although final scene leads a little too obviously into the series that is being planned for Amazon). There are some special effects, but the CGI serves the story rather than the story serving the CGI.

As Fast Color unfolds, we slowly learn who these strong-minded women are (including the young daughter, who has her own opinions on things), their separate backstories, and how they can clash and still remain a family. There is a wonderful scene in which, having disagreed vehemently the night before, the three storm silently through the kitchen and dining room making breakfast. They are furious with each other to the point of not talking, but they are still a family.

If you’re a Prime subscriber, think about putting this on your watch list.

Reading The Queen’s Gambit


I’ve just finished reading The Queen’s Gambit, the novel by Walter Tevis that is the basis for the marvelous Netflix series of the same name starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

First, if you haven’t seen the series, and if you subscribe to Netflix, watch it. It may be the best thing you watch this year.

That being said, I was completely astounded by the novel. Not so much by how well it’s written — I knew Tevis was a fine writer, and The Queen’s Gambit is every bit as good as I expected, if not more so. It was published in 1983, a year before Tevis died, when his skills were obviously still at their peak. But what really surprised me was how faithful the series is to the novel. Scene by scene, character by character, even line by spoken line, I found myself recognizing each scene from the series as I read through the novel.

There are, of course, a few differences, but they are so small as to be negligible. One of the male characters is slightly elevated in importance. The circumstances of how Beth was orphaned (this isn’t a spoiler; we find out she’s an orphan in the opening scenes) is very slightly tweaked. There are a few other small changes. But not many.

I have seen many other interpretations of novels by movies or TV makers, and many of them are wonderful. David Lean’s film of Great Expectations may leave out large swaths of Dickens’ novel, but it is a classic film in its own right. There have been several remakings of Little Women, three of which I really like — the 1933 version (because, well, Katherine Hepburn is Jo), the 1994 version (which was skillful and faithful), and the 2019 version (which I thought was a really original and wonderful re-interpretation). And there are, of course, many other novels, some much more recent, that have been suitably transferred to the screen.

But on the whole, The Queen’s Gambit has got to be the most faithful transference of a novel to a filmed drama that I can recall experiencing.

Part of the reason it works is due, of course, to the way Tevis structured his novel. It is written from the point of view of its protagonist, chess genius Beth Harmon, and the novel offers us, in clear, straightforward prose, her thoughts, her fascination with the game, and her impressions of everything that happens to her. Because she is intensely honest about herself — including her need to win and her reaction to her failures along the way — we can trust what we are told.

Scott Frank, who directed the Netflix production and co-wrote it with Allan Scott, also obviously trusted his material, and it shows. The writing and the acting is tight and masterful. Taylor-Joy is wonderful as Beth, as is the young actress Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a girl. The hardest thing for the director and cinematographer to try to reimagine, I would guess, would have been visually conveying Beth’s fascination with chess and her ability to think out the possible moves that she and her opponents might make. But it works — while they illustrate it in various ways, the most striking has Beth lying in bed watching as giant chess pieces goes through various plays across the ceiling.

In short, I loved both the series and the novel. I saw the first before I read the second. I would be interested to know if the series holds up as well for those who are already familiar with the novel. I would suspect it does.

Thoughts on a film: Hotel Berlin

hotelberlinJust watched an interesting film called Hotel Berlin, which came out in 1945, just about the time the war was ending. It is interesting for a variety of reasons.

It is from a novel by Vicki Baum, a Jewish Austrian writer who came to the U.S. in 1932 when her novel Grand Hotel was being made into a Hollywood film, and then who (quite naturally, under the circumstances) chose to stay. The novel from which Hotel Berlin was taken was actually written as a follow-up to Grand Hotel, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature.

The two films do have several things in common. They all take place in the lobby and rooms of a large, high-class hotel in Berlin, and they all concern the intertwining lives of a variety of people staying in or working in the hotel. And all the stories, in the end, follow a theme: In the earlier Grand Hotel, which was written in 1929, it is how the lack of and pursuit of money affects people’s lives. In Hotel Berlin, it is about how people cope with the waning of the Nazi regime.

In TCM’s commentary on the film, it is noted that this is one of the few films made during the war where both the good and the bad people are all German — and where both the good and bad are painted in complex shades of gray. A German general who had been a loyal member of the Reich until he lost all faith in his leader, and who took part in a failed coup, tries to escape his fate when he is discovered. A leading actress, who was quite happy to enjoy fame and fortune during the regime, switches sides back and forth in an effort to survive. A woman who became a hotel prostitute when her Jewish fiance was killed gives up her security when his mother comes to her for help. An escaping member of the underground depends on the actress for help — and then finds out that she may have betrayed him. And none of these people are portrayed as either completely sympathetic or totally inhuman. For the era, that’s unusual.

On retrospect, this becomes an even more interesting film, both because of some of the things we now know, and because of current events. For example, a Jewish woman walks into the hotel (after removing her star), is recognized and is told to go back to her section; when the film was made, the extent of the death camps were not yet generally known (or it is possible that the Hollywood producers, many of whom were European immigrants, were still hoping that some of their relatives were alive somewhere).

At the end of the film, two Nazi officials in plain clothes stroll out of hotel on their way to the airport; they are going to fly to South America, where they want to plan the re-emergence of the Nazi party there and in North America.

The film ends with a quote from a speech Roosevelt made in October 1944 that “it will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding Nations.” And I can’t help but fear that, considering recent events, this statement may, now or in the future, apply to the United States people as well.

A story of two discounts

The last time I paid children’s rates for anything was when I was 16, and spending a tedious, uncomfortable hot summer afternoon at my grandmother’s while my parents took my younger brother to the doctor.

My grandmother lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not too far from Erasmus High School; she had moved there after my grandfather died some years earlier. There was nothing on television (and anyway, her apartment wasn’t air conditioned, so it was very uncomfortable), I knew nobody in the neighborhood, and I was bored in the restless way that teenagers can be.

I wandered the main shopping street, which was practically deserted — perhaps everyone was away at the beach, or perhaps it was a holiday of some sort, I don’t remember. Just remember the discomfort, the boredom, and finally the conviction that the only thing to do was find an air-conditioned movie theater and camp out there for a couple of hours.

I found it, and it was playing the latest horror film, Williard. I had no objection to seeing that — was sort of curious, actually — but I had exactly $1 in my pocket, enough for a half-price ticket, but not enough for an adult ticket.

So I went up to the box office, pushed my dollar bill through to the lady on the other side of the window and said, “One child’s ticket, please.”

She glared sternly at me from her throne in the booth. “How old are you?” she asked suspiciously.

I dropped my eyes and looked abashed.  “I’m almost 12,”  I muttered.  The woman stared at me for another moment and then gave me the ticket.

I really enjoyed that movie.

So on Monday, Jim and I decided we really needed a break and went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a hot, damp evening and the last few weeks had been really difficult.

We drove over to the Sheepshead Bay Cinema, parked, had some rather good fried fish in the small fish restaurant across the way from the theatre, and then walked in. There was only one other couple on line — Mondays seem to be really slow — and when we asked for the tickets (Imax, 3-D, and yes, air-conditioning), the kid on the other side of the plexiglass window stared at us and asked,  “Senior discount?”

We shook our heads, but then Jim asked,  “How old do you have to be for senior discount?”

“Sixty, ” the kid said.

We looked at each other. “Yes,” Jim said.  “Senior discount.”

I really enjoyed that movie.

Thoughts on a film: Five Star Final (1931)

Five_Star_Final_film_posterNewspapers and reporters were a very popular trope in early talking pictures. And no wonder — not only did the stories usually involve the same sex, crime and scandals that real newspapers (and their readers) thrived on, but many early film writers started out as journalists.

One of the top examples of the genre, of course, was His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Five Star Final, made nine years earlier, is just as cynical but is less forgiving of its reporters and more stark about the consequences of their actions.

The story

This pre-code film, starring Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper editor who goes against his own ethics in order to raise his paper’s circulation, is based on the play of the same name written by Louis Weitzenkorn, a former newspaperman. Asked by his publisher to put more scandals in the paper, editor Joseph Randall unearths a 20-year-old murder case where a woman named Nancy Vorhees shot her unfaithful husband and was acquitted, although it was widely admitted she did it, partially because she was pregnant at the time.

He assigns an unscrupulous reporter to pretend to be a clergyman; the reporter visits the family and finds out that the woman is now happily remarried, and her 20-year-old daughter Jenny (who knows nothing of her mother’s past) is about to be married to the son of a well-off factory owner.

Nancy Vorhees (now Taylor) and her husband realize that the “clergyman” was a fake, and desperately try to get the story quashed, terrified that their daughter’s impending marriage will be stopped by her fiance’s snobbish parents.

The end (highlight following paragraph to view)

Nancy Vorhees tries repeatedly to call the publisher of the newspaper to stop the story; she finally talks to Randall, who has his secretary hang up on her. She calls again, and he tells her that nothing will stop the story. Distraught, Nancy commits suicide by taking poison; when her husband comes home and finds her body in the bathroom, he prevents his daughter and her fiance from finding out and then, when they leave, takes the poison as well. When the suicide is discovered and sensationalized in the papers, the fiance’s parents order him to desert Jenny, but he refuses, and when Jenny finds a gun and takes it to the newspaper office, intending to kill the editor and publisher, he stops her. Disgusted by his own actions, Randall quits the newspaper, followed by his secretary.

How it’s pre-code

Only in the cynicism and frank talk of its reporters and editors about the sex and scandals that they are covering.

T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)

None to speak of. There is some frank language about the various populations that the readership is made up of; one reporter discusses a contest for the best cabbie in which the pre-arranged winners will be “an Irishman, a Jew and a Wop.” And Randall talks about how the readership up in Harlem diminished “when we stopped printing Jack Johnson’s love confessions.”

My verdict

While the storyline here is pretty predictable, and the dialogue sometimes cliche’d, this one is worth watching just for the performances of the actors. Edward G. Robinson is wonderful as the cynical but conflicted editor, and Aline McMahon shines as the secretary who tries to bring him back to his better self. Boris Karloff is a bit over the top as a sleazy reporter, but Francis Starr as the tortured Nancy Vorhees is very fine, and Marian Marsh as Jenny is impressive in the scene where she confronts the newspapermen.

This isn’t something that is easy to find, but if you do come across it, Five Star Final is worth checking out. (Apparently, it was remade in 1936 as Two Against the World with Humphrey Bogart in the Edward G. Robinson role, but set in a radio station rather than a newspaper.)

Thoughts on a film: The Little Giant (1933)

The LIttle GiantThe Little Giant is a just-under-the-wire pre-code film that I’d often heard about, but never actually seen. I had assumed that it was one of those earnest, violent mobster films, but it’s actually a light comedy — and not a bad one, all told.

The story

Bugsy Ahearne is the head of gang of mobsters who has been running a lucrative illegal beer running operation during Prohibition. (He’s known as the Beer Baron of Chicago.) He’s not a bad guy, signalled by the facts that his gang is very loyal to him and that he dealt only in beer and not harder liquors.

It’s 1933, FDR has just won the election, and Prohibition is about to end. Bugsy decides that the ride is over and he’s pulling out while he’s still got a large bankroll.

Now that he has to go straight, Bugsy wants legitimacy; he dreams of hanging out with the upper crust. He and his best buddy Al Daniels go off to Santa Barbara, California. After some unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the high life, he falls in love with Polly Cass, whose family has made its money by swindling people into investing in their fake bond business, and who accepts his marriage proposal so that Bugsy will invest in her family’s business, after which she intends to call it off.

In order to impress her, he buys a huge estate, formerly owned by the down-to-earth (but very pretty) Ruth, whose father was swindled out of his fortune by the Cass family.

The end (highlight following paragraph to view)

When the Cass family finds out who Bugsy really is, they haughtily break off the engagement. Rush tells Bugsy what the Cass family did to her father. Bugsy calls in his mob, they force the members of the board of directors of the company (all of whom are in on the swindle) to cough up enough money to pay back those they’ve swindled, and Bugsy realizes he really loves Ruth.

How it’s pre-code

Not much overt sex here, but on the other hand, sex before marriage is not terribly shocking either. Bugs makes it clear that while he’s never proposed marriage, he’s had a number of lady friends for whom marriage wasn’t an issue; when he says goodbye to the last of them, she is portrayed as being a good sport and generally nice person.

There’s also a somewhat startling drug reference: One of the gangsters says of a modern painting that he hadn’t seen anything like that “since I stopped using cocaine.”

T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)

Bugs is upset that he’s been bamboozled by the upper-crust family and refers to them as “fags.”

My verdict

This was a pleasant-enough comedy and I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not a film that I’d necessary go back to. The filmmakers are so intent on making Bugs likable to the audience that you don’t believe for a moment that he spent years as the head of a bootlegging gang (even if they were only dealing in beer). The humor is gentle and the story enjoyable; the moral, as in many early Depression-era films, is that good sense and morality trumps wealth (even if you have to beat somebody up to do it).

I also thought that the whole plot reveals some fairly wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers: That when Prohibition ended, the organized crime syndicates that it engendered would disappear as well. Unfortunately, as we all know, the mobs simply moved on to bigger – and worse — things.

In honor of St. Crispin’s Day: 4 versions of Shakespeare’s speech

Today is St. Crispin’s Day — not a day that I would usually celebrate, being neither Christian nor English. But I do love my Shakespeare, and one thing I really enjoy is how the same speech can be interpreted in a variety of ways by different actors. So here, in honor of the day, are four different interpretations of the well-known St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V — all interpreted differently depending on the actor, the director, and what was going on at the time the scene was filmed.

1944 with Laurence Olivier

1989 with Kenneth Branaugh

1997 with Mark Rylance (at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre)

2012 with Tom Hiddleston (only a portion of the speech)

Watching Gravity: Science fiction, Oscars & other discussions

One of the first things my friends and I argued after we saw the new film Gravity last night was whether or not it qualified as science fiction (and therefore should be up for a Hugo or Nebula award). Is it a thriller/adventure tale that takes place in space using today’s science but with no futuristic or speculative elements (well, mostly; apparently there are some things that really aren’t quite scientifically accurate, but hey! It’s a movie!)?

Or is it “science” fiction in the purest sense — fiction derived from current knowledge of science — and therefore absolutely admissible?

We never actually came to any conclusions — except that, whatever we decided, it was going to be nominated for a variety of awards, including both the Hugos and the Nebulas. We also debated what it’s chances were at being nominated and/or winning various Academy Awards (Best Actress? Best Supporting Actor? Special effects?)  which led in turn to a discussion about who would be nominated for 12 Years a Slave, a movie that we haven’t seen yet but fully intend to.

My point? Only that Gravity is a great film with two really good characters (I don’t know if Gravity’s Ryan Stone will replace Aliens‘ Ellen Ripley in my private pantheon of great science fiction film heroines, but she comes pretty close), fantastic special effects, and the kind of story that keeps you talking for hours after you’ve seen it.