Thursday, August 21, 2014

High Society Never Changes

Film: Auntie Mame
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Auntie Mame is a film I’ve seen before, so when I found it on a library shelf, I figured it was a painless choice. I’m still trying to watch longer films when I can, and Auntie Mame is a good length. What I forgot, since it’s been years since I had seen it, is that there are large swaths of this film that I don’t like very much. As it happens most of the things I dislike are specifically Mame herself.

We open as a man writes his will, suggesting that should he pass away, custody of his son will revert to his sister, Mame Dennis (Rosalind Russell), of who he evidently disapproves. Of course, he promptly dies and the boy, Patrick (Jan Handzlik) is promptly whisked off to Manhattan to live with his eccentric (to put it mildly) aunt. This is our introduction to the force of chaos theory that is Mame Dennis.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Go West, Young Man

Film: In Old Arizona
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m often of two minds when I watch a film from the very early days of Oscar. On the one hand, the majority of the films I’ve seen from this era are, at the very least, incredibly dated. Most of them are pretty wretched from a modern perspective in part because people were just figuring out how to do sound in the movies. I dread them a little bit because of this. On the other hand, if I’m going to see all of them, or at least as many as I can, knocking them out on a regular basis is important so I don’t end up with a bunch of them at the end. So when In Old Arizona showed up today, I was both pleased to knock out a film from the second Oscar ceremony, I was nervous about it as well.

I had every reason to be nervous about it. Aside from our lead actor, this is almost a farce with how overacted it is by every other character. What we have here is a basic love triangle complicated by the fact that one of the men is a wanted criminal and the other is a military officer charged with capturing said criminal. Stick it in the West at some vague time that could be after the Civil War or vaguely in the film’s present and we have a movie. Sorta.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Return to Sender

Film: The Letter (1940)
Format: TCM Watch on laptop.

It’s interesting to consider the 1940 version of The Letter a film noir even though it is a solid early example of the style. The reason it feels weird is that this is a remake of a film first made in 1929. I haven’t seen that version yet, so I don’t know how much it conforms. My guess is that it probably doesn’t much. This version, though, is very solidly a noir, having all of the main elements that the noir aficionado looks for. What makes it unusual is that in this case, the femme fatale isn’t the pursuit of the main character, but the main character herself.

The Letter has one of the better openings of a film I’ve seen in at least a year. We open on a quiet Malay night. The moon is high. Rubber drips from a tree into a waiting bucket. The plantation workers are preparing themselves for bed. A shot rings out. A man staggers out of a building onto a porch and stumbles. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) follows him out, watches him fall, and empties the gun into the body on the ground. I couldn’t help but think I was in for a treat after the first minute or two.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nick's Pick: My Neighbor Totoro

Film: Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)
Format: DVD from Byron Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the eighth in a series of monthly reviews suggested by Nick Jobe at YourFace.

Nick really hates it when people say that they don’t like anime. I get that. Anime isn’t a genre any more than foreign is a genre, no matter what NetFlix has to say about that. However, I find that most anime passes over me without making much of a favorable impression. Even the critically acclaimed stuff like Akira leaves me cold. Sure, I’ve liked a few, but I generally feel like I’m missing something culturally, like there should be something I’m getting that I just don’t. So it was not with a little trepidation that I put Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) in the spinner. I was also interested in it; I’ve heard good things.

That being said, Nick’s given me something of a poser with this film in terms of writing up a review. Why? Because Tonari no Totoro doesn’t have a vast amount of plot to deal with, and dealing with plot is sort of my thing. I’ll do my best, but I’m guessing this might run a little short. For the purposes of this review, I watched the Disney release of this film rather than the original Studio Ghibli or the original English release.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Ties that Bind (and Choke)

Film: Mrs. Parkington
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There is a particular weird little subgenre of film that attempts to encompass a person’s life. We typically start with the person at the end of his or her life and then experience the movie in a series of flashbacks. This is exactly the sort of film we get with Mrs. Parkington, which earned Greer Garson the fourth of her five consecutive Best Actress nominations. Of course, it wouldn’t be that interesting if the film were just a woman reminiscing about her life. No, we’re going to have a major conflict happening in the film’s present, and the flashbacks serve specifically as a way for us to understand the choice that Susie Parkington makes at the film’s close.

As the film opens, around Christmas, we are initially introduced to Susie Parkington’s family, and they are a miserable collection of people. None of them like each other, and it’s quickly evident that they only like their grand dame Susie Parkington because of her enormous wealth. In fact, the only decent people in the group aside from Susie are her great-granddaughter Jane (Frances Rafferty) and the new rancher husband of one of her descendants (Rod Cameron). The rest of them are exactly the stereotype of people raised on money and inherited entitlement, and every one of them is a swine, which becomes increasingly evident every time we flash back to the film’s present.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Smoke 'Em if You've Got 'Em

Film: The Insider
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s interesting to see the moment an actor’s career makes a change. For Russell Crowe, one could argue pretty successfully that that moment came in 1997 with L.A. Confidential. For my money, though, you need to go a couple of years further into the future and his role in The Insider. There was always a touch of dirt on his characters before this role, but here he plays a man who puts his life, his family, his career, and everything else on the line for principle. I think it’s a stronger argument to suggest that Hollywood started taking him seriously as an actor rather than just a leading man who sells tickets when he finally took a role that wasn’t playing an inherently sexy character.

And strangely, the whole time I watched this film it felt like a Ron Howard film in everything but the soundtrack. I’m not sure why I had to constantly remind myself that this was a film directed by Michael Mann, whom I typically love. I have no reason for this—it’s just the way it is.