The snow has returned to NYC and I’m back with the second half of Things to See in March. Again, check out the Film Guide for a full list of old movies playing in NYC, but here are some more highlights…
The most important film screening this month is obviously “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) at my beloved Nitehawk Cinema. It’s part of their “Lil’ Terrors” series, which also includes “Ghoulies” (1984) and “Critters” (1986).
“Gremlins 2” was a long time coming. Its predecessor was released to enormous success, but director Joe Dante apparently had no interest in making a sequel. After six years of cajoling from Warner Bros, and a promise that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted, he finally relented.
The end product certainly has the feeling of a film untouched by nervous studio executive hands. One doubts that the gremlins’ Busby Berkeley production number would have even been filmed if the studio had had any say. The unhinged madness is what makes this movie so special though.
That, and it features one of the best puppets ever built for the movies. I mean it. Any list of great puppets is incomplete without the Brain Gremlin.
On the surface he looks like any other of his kin, but both in the story and as a puppet, he has one major difference: his ability to speak intelligently. The next time you see this movie, and by all means go to the midnight screening at the Nitehawk, pay attention to his lip articulation. This puppet’s mouth achieves two things that lesser puppets often struggle with: variety of movement and speed. That is, he can move his lips and mouth in a seemingly endless combination of ways, much like a human mouth, and he can do so very quickly, which is crucial to realizing an intelligent, verbose character.
The result is a puppet that delivers a believable performance. I would argue it does so even better than a modern CGI character could because it has the added benefit of being on set, of interacting with the environment and the actors. Its physical reality enhances its believability. That’s not to say all puppets outperform CGI characters, but this one is sophisticated enough to do so.
This month you can see another classic sequel of the early 90s, “Batman Returns” (1992), playing at IFC Center. What a different world were the nineteen-nineties, when this was considered mainstream summer blockbuster superhero fare. It now seems more closely related to the Batman TV show from the 60s than to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Director Tim Burton delivered the humor and campiness from the 60s but painted them with darker tones. The result is a Batman movie that captures the moodiness of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, but is still a fun adventure instead of a loud, depressing ordeal.
My next three picks are all fun adventures too, so maybe I’m biased.
Sundays mornings at Film Forum always have a touch of whimsy, thanks to Film Forum Jr., their ongoing series of kid-friendly screenings. But don’t expect insipid saccharine “kid movies.” This series is for budding film lovers, not easily traumatized crybabies or their overly protective parents. Last year I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) here. Sure, an Indiana Jones adventure seems appropriate for little kids, but this is the one where God melted those Nazis’ faces.
This month at Film Forum Jr., little cinephiles will be treated to two fine examples of screenplay construction. Foremost is a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future” (1985). They may be a little weirded out by Lea Thompson accidentally trying to have sex with her son, but they’ll get over it. From its novel premise to classic characters and brisk pacing, this screenplay, by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, earned its place in many a Screenwriting 101 course.
“Chicken Run” (2000) is also playing at Film Forum Jr. this month. A more traditional kids movie in the sense that it’s animated, but one of the first things that happens is the (offscreen) beheading of a minor character. This isn’t notable for its gruesomeness; it provides a real sense of peril and a strong motivation for the main character. And a motivated main character, even if she’s a chicken, is the foundation of a strong screenplay.
And speaking of strongly motivated characters in peril, we trek to Queens for one of my favorite Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” (1959) at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s screening in their series Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences, and the lineage connecting Cary Grant’s suave ad man to John Hamm’s is clear. They’re in the same profession at the same time, both models of coolness under pressure, both love drinking in the daytime, and they’re both ensnared in webs of mistaken, or stolen, identity.
The surface differences between the two men illustrate the different tones of Mad Men and “North by Northwest.” Where Don Draper is severe and broody, Roger Thornhill is quippy and sarcastic. That’s because Hitchcock wasn’t making a serious drama. Although considered one of the greatest directors of all time, he never aimed to make “important” movies. He wanted to entertain. “North by Northwest” is funny, exciting, and sexy – everything you want from a night at the movies.
I always leave “North by Northwest” wanting to take a cross-country train ride and meet a mysterious blond while sipping martinis in the dining car. Then I remember that train rides are dull and the dining cars only serve food wrapped in plastic.
Ah, the magic of the movies.