Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Gender Politics

Film: The Contender
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

On days when the weather is bad and I have to go to work, I tend to drive west on Highway 38 until I hit the town of Rochelle, IL. Rochelle is a town of about 10,000 people, a pretty standard Midwestern town in a lot of ways. It also happens to be the home town of Joan Allen, who I almost always enjoy in films. Joan Allen and I share an alma mater, too. This and a couple of dollars will get me a cheeseburger somewhere. Still, there are times when I wonder if my appreciation of Joan Allen is at all because of the fact that I could get to her childhood home in less than 20 minutes. And then I see a film like The Contender and realize that I like Joan Allen in front of the camera because Joan Allen is damn good in front of the camera.

< The Contender is a political thriller, a film of high power, intrigue, and politics at the highest level. What that means more or less is that this film is going to get lurid quickly and stay lurid for most of its running time. That means sex, double standards, glass ceilings, criminal accusations, and plots and plans within plans. This is a surprisingly gripping film for having what is essentially an incredibly simple plot.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Dream

Film: Death of a Salseman (1951)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Certain stories become legendary. In American theater, there are few more well-known and respected stories than Death of a Salesman. The story is on of a man crushed by the weight of his life and the extent of his own failures. Needless to say, this is not a happy story. In a lot of ways, Death of a Salesman depicts the opposite of the American Dream. This is the tale of a man who wanted nothing more than that dream but was ground down by life, but missed opportunity, by his own bad decisions, and by his own blindness to the realities around him.

Willy Loman (Fredric March) is the salesman in question. Now in his 60s, Willy is still a traveling salesman. He comes from a world where a smile and a firm handshake were all that were needed to seal a deal. Back when he started his life on the road, sales were made because of personal connections. But the world has changed and left Willy behind. Older and no wiser, his drooping sales have put him back on full commission.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Skirting the Hays Code

Film: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

You’ve got to hand it to Preston Sturges. Once you realize exactly what the plot of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is and exactly when this film was made, it’s staggering that it made it past the Hays Code at all. Seriously, it would be mildly shocking today, but in 1944, it was positively scandalous.

First, it’s immediately evident that this is not going to be merely a comedy but a screwball comedy when we learn the names of our principle characters. Marx Brothers movies and plenty of screwball comedies give us character names that are far beyond the pale. Look at a film like Ball of Fire, with Professor Bertram Potts and Sugarpuss O’Shea. Well, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek gives those names a run for their money. Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a patriotic young woman who wants nothing more than to see the troops off to Europe. This is strongly protested by her father, local policeman Edmund Kockenlocker (William Demarest) and her wannabe boyfriend Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken). Norval has been classified as 4-F because of his nerves and his high blood pressure, both of which are caused by his fear of being classified as 4-F.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Service with a Smile

Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I realize that not everyone likes Wes Anderson. I don’t think he’s an acquired taste. I think he’s either a director that you like or that you don’t. I tend to like him, although I find that a little Wes Anderson goes a long way. It had been awhile since I watched a Wes Anderson film, so when I saw that The Grand Budapest Hotel was available from NetFlix, I put it at the top of the queue. Even if I hadn’t heard almost entirely good things about it, it was a film I was looking forward to seeing.

In many ways, it’s the least Wes Anderson film I’ve seen him do. Oh, the people involved still have that unique Wes Anderson-style OCD and a series of oddities and quirks, but there’s considerably less of that here than in most of his films. I’ll go so far as to say that of the Anderson films I’ve seen (not all but most), this is the one most likely to be enjoyed by people who don’t typically like Wes Anderson.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Oskar Bait

Film: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’d like to say that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the movie most likely to be forgotten as a Best Picture nominee, or the one that will seen as most unworthy of a nomination from 2011, but I’m not sure either claim would stick. After all, both Hugo and War Horse were Best Picture nominees from the same year. To my knowledge, though, it’s the only film in the Internet age to have a negative Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score (46 on both sites) to be nominated for Best Picture. Make of that what you will, but I have to say that I agree with Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a post-9/11 film. Admittedly, everything that was produced after September 11, 2001 is a post-9/11 film, but in this case, it’s relevant to the day in question. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a kid who lives in New York. Oskar’s particular quirks are never officially diagnosed for us. He’s right in that middle space between Asperger’s stereotype and home-schooled kid stereotype. Anyway, he has a close relationship with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks). Thomas likes to propose strange questions and quests for Oskar that force the boy to talk to people, something he allegedly has a problem doing. Much of their conversation revolves around a mythical sixth borough of New York.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wild Montana

Film: A River Runs Through It
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I have never understood the allure of fishing. I don’t like the taste of freshwater fish that much for starters, and it seems like such a waste of a day. I’d rather do almost anything else than sit in a boat or stand in a river like a goober hoping that a fish will be dumb enough to bite on a lure. A great deal of A River Runs Through It is spent watching people fly fish in rivers in Montana. I suspected as much going in, but figured since it was disappearing from Instant Watch, I should try to knock it out.

And I’m not kidding about the fly fishing. We’re told in the opening moments of the film that the father of our main characters was both a Presbyterian minister and a dedicated fly fisherman, and that in their house both fishing and church were considered sacraments. The father, Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt) runs a tight household filled with discipline and order. The two boys (played as youths by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Vann Gravage) are home schooled, an education that consists almost exclusively of reading and writing with afternoons spent on their own, frequently fishing.