Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Off Script: Shallow Grave

Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

So yesterday I watched Marvin’s Room. Because of that, I decided that today I needed something with a bit more…guts. So, despite have recently put up a review of something from my horror lists, I felt like I needed something along those lines today. Thus it is that I watched Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle’s first full-length theatrical release. This is not a horror movie by any legitimate measure. What it is is a very violent neo-noir and one of the first films in the more modern breed of ultraviolent British crime films. Shallow Grave lacks the fun of a film like Snatch, opting instead for intrigue, mistrust, and pure evil.

The plot is ridiculously simple. Three roommates are looking for a fourth to share their apartment. The three are young professionals, all with decent careers and prospects. Alex Law (Ewan McGregor) works for an Edinburgh newspaper as a reporter. Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox) is a doctor. David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston) is a chartered accountant. The search for a new roommate is more of a chance for them to make fun of people and put them through a terrible interview process, but eventually they settle on Hugo (Keith Allen), who claims to be working on a novel.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Marvin's Room

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes I don’t get to make the decisions I want to. A case in point is my watching Marvin’s Room today. My reason for watching it, beyond the fact that it is on one of my Oscar lists, is that it vanishes from NetFlix streaming in a couple of days and NetFlix doesn’t have it on DVD. So it was pretty much now or never. I was heartened by the cast, which is top to bottom excellent. I was concerned about the plot based on the short synopsis. But, rather than let this slide into the “can’t find it” pile, I figured it made sense to knock it out.

So let’s talk about that cast for a moment. Diane Keaton was nominated for Best Actress here, making this one of a handful of times someone other than Meryl Streep was nominated. We also get Hume Cronyn, Leonardo DiCaprio the year before he did Titanic, Robert De Niro in a small role and Dan Hedaya in a smaller one. Seriously, this is a cast any first-time director would mortgage his soul to get.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Apollo 13

Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

It’s not something that comes up here that often, but I’m a complete space nerd. About a third of the reading I do for pleasure is space science—cosmology, the creation of the solar system, the history of the space program and the like. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind, and I can’t get enough of it. That creates a problem for me with a film like Apollo 13; I know what’s going to happen here. I’ve read the accounts and I know the history. I know who guys like Deke Slayton and Gene Kranz are without being introduced to them in the film. That being the case, there aren’t a ton of surprises for me here. Of course, that’s also true because I’ve seen this before, but it was true the first time I watched.

What that means in real terms for me as a viewer is that it had better be a damn good film for me to have a good opinion of it. Fortunately, it is. Just as critically, Apollo 13 is accurate except for minor details made for narrative purposes. The main events, and even the things that seem like cinematic foreshadowing are things that actually happened in the real mission. I always appreciate historical accuracy.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Verdict

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Consider Paul Newman for a moment. While Oscar wins and nominations aren’t specifically the best judge of anyone’s career (Hitchcock never won one for directing; Orson Welles only got nominations for Citizen Kane and nothing else), it’s a good place to start. Newman was nominated for nine acting Oscars, eight of which were for Best Actor. This ties him for sixth all time, behind Meryl Streep (18), Jack Nicholson (12), Katharine Hepburn (12), Laurence Olivier (10), and Bette Davis (10, and he’s tied with Spencer Tracy). It puts the man in very good company, and it means that any film for which he was nominated is one to be taken seriously. When his opposite number is James Mason, you sit up straight. And thus we have The Verdict.

Frank Galvin (Newman) is a down-and-out lawyer who has lost his last four cases, the only cases he’s had in the last three years. He’s reduced to attending funerals, lying about his connection with the deceased, and leaving his business card with the bereaved. He’s at the end of his emotional rope when he is reminded of a pending case. A young woman giving birth to her third child was given the wrong anesthetic and has since entered a persistent vegetative state. It’s the sort of case he needs to get back on his feet, because the hospital wants it to go away. They offer $210,000 to settle, which gives Frank an nice check for $70,000, covers the woman’s medical expenses in perpetuity, and gives the grieving sister some compensation. But Frank has spent that day that the hospital and has decided that this is a case that needs to go to trial, and he turns the offer down flat.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Off Script: Possession (1981)

Format: Internet video on laptop.

Is there a way to explain Possession? I think there is, and even a way that’s sort of satisfying, but this is in many ways a film that is more enjoyable if it’s left completely unexplained. It doesn’t start as a horror film, but it gets there pretty quickly, and even before it has anything in it that’s horror movie-ish, there’s a decent amount of blood and violence. Any attempt to analyze this film that takes the film at face value will collapse in on itself. I can’t help but think that writer/director Andrzej Zulawski wasn’t attempting to make a scary film, but one that was exorcising his own demons.

The first chunk of the film is not a horror movie at all, as mentioned above. Instead, it’s a domestic drama. Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and son Bob (Michael Hogben) in Berlin after a secretive business trip. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Anna has not only been unfaithful to him for the last year with a local named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) but that she wants an end to the marriage.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lilo & Stitch

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

People talk about the Disney renaissance as starting with Tangled or with Frozen. Nobody mentions Lilo & Stitch despite its solid reviews, direct-to-video sequel and television series. This is a Disney film I missed, and if I’m honest about it, it’s one that I didn’t really relish watching tonight. I’ll put this as nicely as I can: I hate the art. I don’t mean that I dislike that it’s different than the traditional Disney style. I mean that I think it’s weird looking and kind of ugly. I find it vaguely disturbing that Lilo apparently doesn’t have teeth. Everyone is oddly blocky and bulbous. It bothers me on an aesthetic level. Regardless of whether I like the story or not, Lilo & Stitch starts with a large strike against it.

We start at a galactic council where a scientist named Jumba Jookiba (voiced by David Ogden Stiers using a thick Russian accent) is on trial for illegal genetic experimentation. He has created something he calls Experiment 626, which we’ll soon be calling Stitch (Chris Sanders). 626 has been designed to be wholly and completely destructive. The experiment is slated for marooning on an asteroid, but naturally escapes, steals a police cruiser and hyperspaces to Earth. He crash lands on Kauai. Jookiba and Earth “expert” Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) are sent to recover 626 so that he doesn’t destroy the planet, which has been labelled a wildlife preserve as a way to protect the galaxy’s endangered mosquito population.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sadie Thompson

Format: Internet video on laptop.

I don’t watch a great deal of silent film, and when I do, I tend to prefer comedies over dramas. When I decided to give Sadie Thompson a go, it was not without some reservation. Part of the reason I was doing this more out of obligation than desire is that silent dramas are so often heavy-handed when it comes to the meaning. Part of it was the knowledge that the original last reel of the film has been lost, meaning that what is there at the end is stills, with the best approximation of the story available. The chance to see Gloria Swanson as a young actress was a draw, though. I really only know Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, so seeing her at the height of her career got me interested.

Sadly, Sadie Thompson is pretty standard fare when it comes to silent dramas. Everything is played larger than life and people are their character traits to an extreme. We start with the arrival of a boat in Tutulia in the south Pacific. Our title character, played by a young Gloria Swanson, is a woman of questionable virtue headed for the island of Apia where she claims to have a job waiting. Also on board are the Davidsons (Lionel Barrymore and Blanche Friderici) who are renowned as reformers of the old school. In other words, they are religious zealots who want to save the pagan natives from their pagan-y ways.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

How in the hell did Chocolat fly under my radar for 14 years? Why did no one tell me of the joys of this film? I hold all of you reading this blog responsible for not telling me that Chocolat contains many of the sweet joys of Amelie with all of the beautiful food of Babette’s Feast. I’m upset with all of you.

Okay, I’m overselling that a bit. Chocolat isn’t the greatest film in the world and I might rank it with Babette’s Feast but nowhere close to Amelie. In truth, it’s not really that different from a lot of other films that you (likely) and I (definitely) have already seen. The plot boils down at its very basic to “outsider arrives in town to great controversy and scorn from those in charge and eventually gets everyone on his/her side.” In a very real sense, Chocolat is Footloose with a confectionary in the place of a high school dance. The two films coincide almost point for point. What Chocolat really is is that plot done about as well as it can be done, and about as well as it ever has been done. In other words, this is a gourmet version of a meal you’ve been eating your whole life.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Nick's Pick: 10 Items or Less

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

This is the fourth in a series of monthly reviews suggested by Nick Jobe at Your Face.

When Nick Jobe gave me my list of 12 films for this year, I have to admit that there was something about the name of 10 Items or Less that tweaked me. It wasn’t that there was a short-lived television show of the same name. No, it’s the fact that there’s a damn grammar error in the title. “Less” refers to quantities that can’t be counted; the correct word for countable items is “fewer.” So it’s less population, fewer people; less furniture, fewer chairs; less food, fewer hamburgers. “Less” is for mass nouns, “fewer” for countable nouns. Dammit, it’s not that hard.

Anyway, 10 Items or Less is a breezy, short little comedy that follows a tried and true formula of putting two very different people together and seeing what happens. An unnamed but well-known actor (Morgan Freeman) has gone for years without a movie. He’s been offered a role in an indie film and is considering taking it, but wants to do some research first. The director sends him off in a van with Packy (Jonah Hill), who is star-struck in the actor’s presence. Packy is virtually clueless in all things, and eventually drops the actor off at a grocery store in a much rougher part of Los Angeles.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Soldier's Story

Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I went into A Soldier’s Story blind. I watched it more or less because I found it at the library, which is essentially the reason I choose a lot of the films I do. I had no idea going in that this is in many ways a film I’d already seen. Admittedly, when I saw it last it was called In the Heat of the Night and I’ve seen something similar called A Few Good Men. But we’re not here to talk about either of those films.

A Soldier’s Story, like A Few Good Men is about a military criminal investigation. A sergeant has been murdered on a military base and a captain who is also a lawyer is sent down from Washington to investigate the crime. In the course of the investigation, he discovers roadblocks and obstruction at every turn. Like In the Heat of the Night, at its core, this is all about race, and it handles race with the sort of complexity it needs.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Apostle

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Today was “Ask an Atheist Day” according to the Secular Student Alliance. Based on the way this made my Facebook status blow up, there are evidently a ton of questions out there regarding a lack of faith, although in my case it’s more appropriate to say that there was one person with a laundry list of questions that never seemed to stop coming. I thought it would be appropriate to watch a film with a number of theological overtones and undertones today, which led me to The Apostle, which is currently streaming on NetFlix. This is a film I’d seen before, but it’s also been some time since I’ve rewatched something.

In a purely cinematic sense, when it comes to this film you need to ask yourself one question: How do you approach a film that contains the single greatest performance of one the greatest actors of his generation? Robert Duvall is one of the great actors of his or any generation. I feel I can say that without much debate. And The Apostle is his greatest piece of acting. This is a guy with a half dozen Oscar nominations and a statute, a man who held his own with John Wayne and Marlon Brando, and in a career that has spanned decades, he was never better than in the just-over two hours of The Apostle. Disagree if you like, but you’re wrong.

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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Working Girl

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

You know how you can tell when a movie is from the seventies by looking at the wardrobes of the people in it? By the same token, you can tell that Working Girl is straight out of the 1980s. It’s not the wardrobe specifically, but the hair. Working Girl features the most ‘80s hair in film history. It’s difficult to fault the film for that, but it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that, for example, Joan Cusak is a good six inches taller with the hairdo. Come to think of it, it’s difficult to ignore her three-toned eye shadow as well.

So how to explain Working Girl? Working Girl is what Wall Street would be if you swapped genders and made it a rom-com. Sort of. Actually, that’s very much selling the film short, because Working Girl is smarter than that. Still, in addition to the big ‘80s hair and shoulder pads and garish eye makeup, this is a film that is heavily mired in the 1980s corporate environment of acquisitions, mergers, and corporate raiding. It’s going too far to call it a quintessential ‘80s film, but it’s certainly one worth pointing at as a solid way to define the decade.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Cat in Paris (Une Vie de Chat)

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There are times when I wonder what the hell the Academy is thinking. Why nominate a film like A Cat in Paris for Best Animated Feature? Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t at all a case of a film not being good, but of a film that genuinely had about as much of a chance of winning that award as I did. What small readership I enjoy is pretty film-literate. My guess is that most haven’t seen this film and that a large portion haven’t heard of it. Was the nomination there to give a little publicity to a film that otherwise wouldn’t get it? I guess I can get behind that.

The most noteworthy aspect of the film is the art style. This seems to be a theme with me and animated films of late. The art is unlike anything I’ve seen in a film recently, although it bears some surface resemblance to The Secret of Kells. That surface resemblance is little more than it’s being 2D and hand drawn, though. In effect, this is impressionism seen through the lens of Keith Haring with the Squigglevision of Dr. Katz thrown in for good measure. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but ultimately rather attractive.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Format: DVD from Cordova District Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

In a particular way, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bears a similarity to The Adventures of Robin Hood in that it’s a story that almost everyone has some vague familiarity with but that almost no one has actually read. “Jekyll and Hyde” is a reference understood by almost everyone almost inherently. There are dozens upon dozens of adaptations of the story if you include spoofs, re-imaginings, and reworkings like The Nutty Professor, which was itself remade. I’ll admit I haven’t read the story, either.

Anyway, the version in question here is the 1931/1932 version (typically it’s considered a 1931 release, but IMDB lists its release date as January 3, 1932). This version is particularly noteworthy since it’s one of those rare instances where a film firmly in the horror genre not only received an Oscar nomination, but won.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Serious Man

Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I like the Coen Brothers pretty much without exception. Note the words “pretty much” in that first sentence. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of the Coen films, although I am in double digits with their filmography, and I’ve liked or loved all of them. Until now. There’s something about A Serious Man that simply rubs me the wrong way. I realize that I’m in the minority on this—there are a number of people who consider this one of their best if not their absolute best. For me, who has seen 10 of their 16 films, A Serious Man comes firmly in 10th place.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a pretty ordinary guy on the surface, but a seething cauldron of angst underneath. His marriage is falling apart, his kids have no respect for him, his application for tenure is under review and not looking good, a student tries to bribe him, his brother sleeps on his couch, and his neighbor is constantly encroaching on his lawn. Everything starts to fall apart at exactly the same time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Erin Brockovich

Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I think it’s kind of easy to dislike Julia Roberts sometimes. I mean, I think it’s easy to believe that she gets a lot of acting jobs because of her looks. While that may or may not be true (and probably is), it’s easy to forget that she can actually act. A film like Erin Brockovich, for which she won an Oscar, is a case in point. A more cynical viewer might well comment that she won for Brockovich’s characteristically foul mouth or because her cleavage is on display in virtually every scene. Again, that may or may not be true, but regardless, this is a good performance.

The film is the sort of biopic that’s been in vogue for quite some time. Rather than looking at a person’s entire life, the film instead focuses on the seminal moment of that life, the thing that truly defines it. We start with Brockovich (Julia Roberts) looking for work and being on the receiving end of a bad car accident. She hires Ed Masry (Albert Finney) to defend her. She loses the case primarily because of her own outburst on the stand. Desperate and unable to find work, she shows up in Masry’s office and demands a job. Feeling sorry for her, he complies, but offers no benefits.