Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Golden Pond

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

One of the necessities of my regular Friday feature is that I have to have a completed Oscar category ready to go. I’ve got enough for some weeks into the future, but I’m mildly panicked about running out, which means that I try to complete a category (or two) every week. Because of this, my NetFlix queue is pretty top-heavy with films that are the last one I haven’t watched or rewatched for a given category. It means that sometimes a film shows up that I’m not really excited about seeing. Such was definitely the case with On Golden Pond. I mean, my favorite genres are horror and science fiction. Do I really want to spend close to two hours watching a couple of old people get older?

There are a few hidden perks in this film even if it does spend a great deal of its time trying to force the audience to reach for their hankies. The primary pleasure of On Golden Pond is watching Henry Fonda act like a cantankerous son of a bitch to all and sundry. Much of the reason this works is because it’s Henry Fonda. Much like Once Upon a Time in the West trades on Fonda being a bad guy after a career of playing an everyman, On Golden Pond makes him mean and spiteful after a career of playing the guy you’d love to live next door to.

The Master

Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve been told that The Master is at least in part based on the Church of Scientology. Having now seen it, that interpretation makes a great deal of sense. Of course, the film is much more than that, bearing a certain similarity to a film like There Will Be Blood in some senses. Still, it’s hard to avoid the comparison between the film’s fictional pseudo-cult of The Cause and Scientology, and I can’t imagine that it’s not done with a certain gleeful intent.

That said, this is a difficult film for me to judge in many ways. It’s a difficult film to “enjoy” for what it is, but is simultaneously a film that it is impossible not to respect for what it sets out to do. It would be tempting, when tackling something like Scientology even obliquely to make the film an exposé of the methods of the cult, but that’s not what The Master does, at least not obviously. Instead, it follows the fictional movement of the film through someone who may or may not be an adherent and who has his own horde of demons to quell as he goes through life.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Norma Rae

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Movies frequently have a “moment” in them that is the absolute heart of the film. In Norma Rae, that moment comes (as is usual) right near the end. It’s the moment pictured above, when our title character Norma Rae (Sally Field) stands up on a table in the middle of a factory with a hand-lettered sign reading “union” in all capitals. While this isn’t the moral heart of the drama, it is absolutely the central moment of a woman driven to the brink.

The film takes place in a small southern town where almost everyone works in the local cotton mill. One of those workers is the aforementioned Norma Rae, who lives with her parents and her two children. The child of her first father died shortly after the child was born; it’s never really mentioned, but it’s implied that they were married. Her younger child is the result of a one-night stand with someone else in town. Norma makes minimum wage, and her father (Pat Hingle) makes a bit more, but they still live at or below the poverty line.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gosford Park

Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Ah, Robert Altman, you complete son of a bitch! I’m almost always conflicted on the films of Altman. I can see the craftsmanship here. It’s impossible to deny that the man knew what he was doing behind the camera. But his films also have so many characters to pay attention to, so many lives to become embroiled in and to keep separate. Gosford Park has a cast of dozens, and many of them are intended to be important to us in the course of the film. This is not a situation with a couple of key characters with a cast of one-dimensional background players. No, we’re supposed to know who everyone is, even after a short introduction. It’s a short-term Downton Abbey, and evidently, there’s a quiz at the end.

That’s the biggest issue with virtually all of Altman, at least in my opinion. With Gosford Park, we not only have a house full of minor nobility and rich people, we also have all of their servants, and one thing we’re supposed to keep in mind is who works for whom. On the surface, Gosford Park is a murder mystery of the old school, Agatha Christie sort, despite the lack of a convincing Hercule Poirot character. But that’s just on the surface.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Ah, the women’s prison movie. Typically, these films are on the bottom end of the class spectrum and feature gratuitous nudity and violence—watch Machete Maidens Unleashed! for a nice round up of at least part of the genre. In the case of Caged, though, what we have is something more along the lines of an exposé about women’s prisons. In that sense, it’s like The Snake Pit or I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. There’s no gratuitous sexiness here, no lingering shower scenes or forced lesbian romps with the prison guards. No, Caged is meant to be sobering.

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is 19, pregnant, a widow, and headed to prison as an accessory in the botched robbery that killed her husband. Poor Marie is painfully naïve and as innocent as a newborn lamb. She’s completely unprepared for the reality of prison, and in fact is unprepared for her own pregnancy. A kindly superintendent named Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is sympathetic to Marie’s plight and promises her a job working in the prison laundry, since that will be physically easier. Sadly for her, Marie is placed in the ward belonging to prison matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who is both on the take from the wealthier prisoners and a sadist.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There are times, and this is one of them, where a summary won’t handle it. I can’t begin to explain Tommy. Ken Russell’s films are pretty fubar in the best of times, but Tommy makes movies like Altered States, The Devils, and Gothic look like Sunday brunch. This is an acid trip with a psilocybin chaser, and is very much a film that I can only imagine would be a far different and perhaps more meaningful experience if watched in a completely altered state. It also helps if you like the music of The Who.

Tommy is a rock opera in every way. It’s based on the concept album by The Who (the rock part) and has no real spoken dialogue (the opera part). It starts out pretty normal, except for the music and singing. Captain Walker (Robert Powell) and his wife Nora (Ann-Margret) spend an idyllic day together before he heads off to fly bombers in World War II. He’s reported lost, and not long after, she has a baby that she names Tommy. Fast forward a couple of years and Nora meets Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed). The two are eventually married and life is good. And then Captain Walker returns. Shocked that his wife is remarried, a fight breaks out and Frank kills Captain Walker by beating him over the head with a lamp. Tommy witnesses all of this. Terrified, Frank and Nora tell the boy that he didn’t see or hear anything and will never talk of it. This immediately turns Tommy into a psychosomatic Helen Keller, unable to see, hear, or speak.