Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Suffragette City

Films: The Bostonians
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Merchant/Ivory productions. Oh, I’m happy to admit that they are pretty and that they are well made. They just don’t interest me that much. Historical romances don’t really do a great deal for me in the best of situations (“Not always true!” I hear you say. “You loved Sense and Sensibility!”). It just seems that so many of the Merchant/Ivory movies are so timid, like everyone feels like touching another person will cause one of them to break. That being the case, I can’t say that I was too excited about The Bostonians.

The Bostonians is a weird sort of love triangle, one that today would almost certainly delve into the clear lesbianism of at least one of the characters, but that’s not what happens here. As the title suggests, we’ll be spending a great deal of our time in Boston, in this case about 10 years after the American Civil War. The apex of our love triangle is Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), the daughter of Dr. (Wesley Addy) and Mrs. Tarrant (Barbara Byrne). He is a “mesmeric healer” while Verena has discovered a talent for oratory and a penchant for speaking on women’s rights. In this role, she has earned a number of followers and a friend in the press in the person of Mr. Pardon (Wallace Shawn).

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Today's Headlines

Films: My Sister Eileen
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

So my several months from hell are finally coming to a close, and it feels like I might actually come close to finishing my Oscar lists by the end of this year. At this point, virtually everything I watch is the last thing I need to see for a given year. That’s the case with My Sister Eileen, a film that wasn’t always available on NetFlix and then was. It’s apparently playing on TCM this month, too. If I’d known, I probably would have requested something else.

This is a film that has a great deal in common with His Girl Friday. What I mean by that is that it stars Rosalind Russell and that she is (at least initially) a newspaper reporter. When the film starts, Ruth Sherwood (Russell) is finishing up the last bit on a drama review for the newspaper in Columbus, OH. As it happens, she hasn’t seen the play yet, but she gives a glowing review to the star, her kid sister Eileen (Janet Blair). The review talking about the new acting sensation Eileen Sherwood goes out that night. It’s too bad that Eileen gets bumped from the role. Due to the embarrassment, Ruth is fired and Eileen feels she can’t show her face in town. With nothing else to do, the sisters decide to try their luck in New York. They’re sent on their way by their grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson) and given $100 by their father (Grant Mitchell).

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

Films: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I don’t think that I’d be really capable of directing a movie. If I had to, I’d probably go for horror because it seems to me that horror is probably the go-to genre for a new director. Of all of the genres out there, thrillers are probably the hardest to do well. To make a really effective thriller, you have to do a lot of juggling of plot, character, what you show and what you hide, and a great deal more. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is one of those movies that seems like it has such an obvious premise that you can’t believe it wasn’t done a couple of hundred times already. While there are certainly elements of horror here, since this is pretty much entirely believable, in my world it falls more into the thriller category.

Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is pregnant with her second child and goes to a new OB/GYN for essentially a wellness check. The doctor (John de Lancie) gets a little more friendly with her than she would like and, freaking out, she confesses to her husband Michael (Matt McCoy) that she thinks he molested her. Eventually, she presses charges, and a collection of other women step up and make the same accusation. Months later, Dr. Mott is facing the loss of his medical license, fines, and possible prison. He commits suicide, leaving his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) with frozen assets and nowhere to go. Distraught, she faints and in the course of the trauma, loses her child and is forced to undergo an emergency hysterectomy. As she recovers, having lost everything, she sees Claire Bartel on the news and vows revenge.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Off Script: Nightbreed

Films: Nightbreed
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

There was a short period of time in my life when I was a comic book collector. I didn’t collect for too long, but my collection years included 1990. I remember a huge marketing campaign for Nightbreed that involved multipage inserts. I worked in the magazine industry for about five years, and I can tell you that those inserts don’t come cheap. I think there was a lot of effort to get the same sort of support for Nightbreed that existed for Hellraiser. In real ways, this wants to do the same thing.

See, here’s the reality of Nightbreed: it desperately wants to create a mythology. This is something that Hellraiser did, almost by accident. So much of Hellraiser is about bringing Uncle Frank back to life and the Cenobites don’t appear right away. Despite this, they became the central focus of the fandom of the film. Pinhead and his compatriots soon had a mythology surrounding them. Nightbreed, based on Clive Barker’s novella “Cabal,” really wanted to create the same sort of mythology around the creatures living in Midian. The problem is that there’s not enough time spend on that and far too many creatures to create much of anything.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Off Script: Jennifer's Body

Films: Jennifer’s Body
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

I went into Jennifer’s Body without a great deal of knowledge. I knew that it starred Megan Fox, best known for saying Michael Bay was just like Hitler and then working with him again. I didn’t know it also starred Amanda Seyfried, an actress of whom I’ve never been that fond. I also knew that this is a movie that has mixed reviews. I’ve seen more than one person list it as a guilty pleasure or suggest that by saying they like it they are putting themselves out on some limb or another.

Jennifer’s Body is a member of that large subset of horror movies that takes place in and around high school students. Most or many films of this stripe end up being slashers, and Jennifer’s Body is very much not a slasher. This is because in addition to being a high school horror movie, this is also one of that much rarer breed of film: a feminist horror film, or at least one that can easily be read has having a feminist storyline.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

(White) Power Play

Films: American History X
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

A movie like American History X reveals the tactical error I made regarding my account on Letterboxd. I decided when I started posting reviews there that I would click the “like” button for any movie I rated three stars and above. The reason that’s a problem with movies like American History X is that it’s a movie that deserves in many ways to be rated above three stars (out of five), but it’s also a movie I can’t claim to like. In fact I don’t like the movie at all, and there’s a reason that I haven’t rewatched it until now.

Even if you haven’t seen this, you can guess it’s going to be an unpleasant movie based just on the DVD case, which features Edward Norton with a swastika tattoo. So yes, this is going to be a movie that involves white supremacy, skinheads, and racism. It also comes saddled with Edward Furlong (who is now in his 40s!), who gained a reputation as the annoying kid in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and never really got much beyond that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Films: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

When I was doing the 1001 Movies list, one of the more unpleasant slogs was the epic serial Les Vampires. While the 10-part serial is considered incredibly influential, it suffers from all of the problems of silent films for a modern audience splayed out over the course of 400 minutes. But there were some ideas there; the audience just had to dig for them through something that was far too long and contained far too much filler. Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse if you prefer the German articles) is a distillation of the good ideas in Les Vampires placed in a single film.

Kind of. After all, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel to Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. We pick up about ten years after the original film with the title character (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) locked away in an insane asylum. Treated by Professor Baum (Oscar Beregi), Mabuse spends his days writing endlessly, creating new and diabolical criminal plans designed to unleash a massive crime wave around the world. It is Mabuse’s belief that what the world needs is a constant threat of terrible, senseless crime to keep people terrified and docile. In D&D terms, Mabuse is the epitome of chaotic evil.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Insert Quarter

Films: Ready Player One
Format: Blu-Ray from Cortland Community Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m going to make some people mad now, or at least disappoint them. Ready Player One is pop culture pornography designed to wow anyone who sees it into loving it for its veneer and flash and ignore the fact that underneath, it’s the same kind of male fantasy fulfillment that this sort of film tends to be.

I say this as someone who could not be more of the movie’s target audience. Ready Player One is obsessed with the 1980s; I graduated from high school in 1985. It is in many ways the same sort of standard power fantasy that this sort of science fiction that I grew up on uses over and over. I recognized almost everything in the movie, from a ton of the avatars to the face of the demon on the back of Aech’s truck. I’m so much the target for this movie that when I knew the first piece of information about the third challenge in the film, I knew exactly what the answer was. But we’ll get to that soon.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Voight-Kampff

Films: Blade Runner 2049
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I was initially interested to see Blade Runner 2049 as a continuation of a sort of the original film. The original film is set in 2019, so this would be the same universe thirty years on. The first film was one of those that became important and influential over time. The original theatrical release was pretty substandard and completely eclipsed by E.T. released in the same month. Now it’s a genuine classic and a film that is absolutely required viewing. The sequel could be the same. And then I got a look at the running time.

Seriously? 164 minutes? Even with the most generous credit sequence I could imagine, that’s a good 30 minutes longer than I expected.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Different Kind of Memento

Films: Betrayal
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

When Memento came out, a lot of the film world was taken with the idea that the story was told in reverse. The appropriately named Irreversible was told the same way, and again audiences wondered at the guts of telling a story this way. And here we have the little-known Betrayal from 1983. This movie is based on a Harold Pinter play of the same name and, as you’ve probably guessed, tells the story in reverse order.

So why is this forgotten as a film that tells the story this way? It might because while it is filled with the sort of pathos and drama that we expect from a Pinter play, it doesn’t have the same sort of gut punch of Memento or the pure horror of parts of Irreversible. Instead, it’s the story of an affair told from years after the affair has ended, moving backwards in time to the end of the affair, the reveal of the affair to one of the spouses, shared afternoons, and tentative beginnings. It’s an interesting way to tell the story and seems initially to be more than simply a narrative trick. It does, however, require the viewer to pay close attention. We know where the affair is going because we’re seeing it in reverse. We need to remember that frequently what we know is not known by all of the characters on the screen.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Off Script: Beetlejuice

Films: Beetlejuice
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Opinions on Tim Burton are varied to put it mildly. Burton absolutely has his fanboys and fangirls who will apologize for everything he does just has he has constant detractors who will downgrade all of his work. I find it easy to be done with Burton as a director. I can’t watch a lot of him, and for the most part, I like his less Burtonesque films (Big Fish, for instance) more than his more trademarked films. I like Sleepy Hollow more than a lot of people, but I think he genuinely never did better than Beetlejuice.

My guess is that for at least some of you reading this, I don’t have to actually justify that statement any more than I already have. Beetlejuice is the just about perfect confluence of Burton’s weird aesthetic, goofiness, and humor. It’s also beautifully cast from top to bottom. Frankly, Beetlejuice is a damn joy, and I’ll fight anyone who claims differently.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Manic Pixie Dream...Wait a Minute...

Films: Happy-Go-Lucky
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

I’ve not been nice in the past to the manic pixie dream girl stereotype in films. It’s one of those tropes that, on its surface appears to be progressive but is essentially just another way to service yet another white guy’s fantasies. A film like Happy-Go-Lucky puts the MPDG stereotype front and center in the person of our main character. Like plenty of the movies that are still on my slowly-dwindling list, there was a reason I’ve waited on this.

This is despite the fact that I’m a fan of Sally Hawkins, who is our MPDG. And to be truthful, I should have given this a go some time past. Hawkins deserves the benefit of the doubt, even when I’m not entirely sold on the premise.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

History Lesson

Films: Dawson City: Frozen Time
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on The New Portable.

I said the other day that I commented that I was initially worried about finding Dawson City: Frozen Time, but found it at my local library. I’m not, of course, entirely sure that this will be included in the next 1001 Movies book, but it is exactly the sort of movie that seems like it should be in the next edition. It’s considerably different than I thought it was going to be. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a true thing.

The story behind this is fascinating, and it’s the main reason to track this down. Nearly 100 years ago, Dawson City was a gold rush town in the Yukon. It was also the last stop on a film distribution cycle. What this meant was that movies would eventually show up in Dawson City 2-3 years after they were released. A new silent produced in 1917 might not show up until 1920 for the Dawson City residents. The fact that this was at the end of a distribution chain is important. Once the movies got to Dawson City, they stayed because it cost more to ship them back than they were worth. Keep this in mind.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Coming Soon

Every year around this time, there’s hints and rumors and guesses about what might be in the next edition of the 1001 Movies book. A couple of days ago, fellow 1001 blogger Adolysti dropped me an email linking me to a Facebook post that has what looks to be the additions to the upcoming book. While there are some odd additions (and it appears they’re pulling both Hell or High Water and Arrival, two criminal losses), this seems like a legitimate set of films.

So here’s what looks to be on the new list:
The Handmaiden (2016)
Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Lady Macbeth (2016)
Lady Bird (2017)
The Shape of Water (2017)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
mother! (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Get Out (2017)
Black Panther (2018)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Wednesday Horror: What We Do in the Shadows

Film: What We Do in the Shadows
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

(Just a short introductory note. You’ve may have noticed that my output here has been…less than normal for some time. That’s going to continue for probably another month, month and a half. Where I work, faculty is scheduled to have five “work units” per quarter. This is entirely manageable. This quarter—which runs through mid-September—I have had nine work units, or 180% the amount of work I’m supposed to. I’m not ignoring you. I’m just buried, and October can’t come fast enough. So for the next few weeks, most of what I'll be posting is reviews I've pre-written for situations like this one.)

I’m not entirely sure how to approach What We Do in the Shadows in that I’m not sure that there is a great deal to say about it. I realize this sounds initially like a bad thing, like this is a dull exercise in comedy that has misfired but the exact opposite is true. What We Do in the Shadows is just about pitch perfect. It’s funny throughout most of its running time and maintains a separation between the audience knowing it’s funny and the film itself knowing it’s funny.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Off Script: Cube

Films: Cube
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

I remember watching Cube for the first time. It’s an odd film in a lot of respects. It doesn’t have a great deal of plot, or really any plot at all. It has a situation rather than a story, and a gang of characters that try to survive through the story that we’re given. It is almost purely allegorical in one way of looking at it. It could have been penned by Samuel Beckett or Jean Paul Sartre, since it is a pure existential drama. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Like any good horror movie, Cube starts with something like a scare. A man named Alderson (Julian Richings) moves through cube-shaped rooms through square doors set in the middle of the walls. The rooms appear to be identical except for the color of the walls. After a few rooms, we hear a click and Alderson stops in his tracks. Moments later, he, well, is diced by some sort of razor wire grid that snaps down from the ceiling.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Off Script: Dracula

Films: Dracula
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

Back in the day, before people realized that they could dub movies, it wasn’t uncommon for studios to make multiple versions of the same film. Using a different director and a different cast and crew, the same film would be shot on the same location, but in a different language. A lot of these alternate versions are sadly lost. One thought lost for years but discovered in the ‘70s was the 1931 Spanish version of Dracula. Preformed on the same sets as the classic version starring Bela Lugosi, this version is arguably as good as the one everyone knows and is potentially even better.

Of course, it’s chic to talk down a classic and talk up a version that most people haven’t seen. There are a few points that the Spanish version of Dracula has going for it. The first is that this version was filmed at night on roughly the same schedule as the other Dracula. This means that the crew of this version got to see the dailies of the other film, allowing them to set up better lighting and camera angles in many cases. The same is true of our star, Carlos Villarias, who was the only member of the cast to see the dailies, allowing him to mimic Lugosi as much as possible. The other advantage is that this version is longer, giving the story a bit more space to breathe.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Toxic Fandom

Films: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Not going to the theater that often means that I don’t tend see the big movies when everyone else does. That being the case, I’m probably the last person who comes to this blog to see Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I didn’t really know what to expect. After all, this is the Star Wars movie that caused a small part of the fan base to so completely lose its collective shit that they demanded an immediate remake.

I need to talk about this, about the toxic fandom that seems to exist more and more. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s absolutely true. Toxic fandom has probably always existed; in the age of the internet, it simply has more of a platform. And here’s the thing—in a lot of respects, that toxic fandom looks a lot like a younger version of me. I don’t mean that I acted like they do when I was younger, but I fit the stereotype. I was (and still am a little) a huge Star Wars fan as a kid. I’m white and male, and I’m also a nerd. There but for the grace of social skills and being raised by non-shitty parents go I.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Dead Snow (Dod Sno)

Films: Dead Snow (Dod Sno)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Just when you thought that everything that could be done with the concept of zombies has been done, along comes Dead Snow (or Dod Sno if you prefer the Norwegian). This is going to be a straightforward zombie film with absolutely buckets of blood in places, but there is a twist. This time, the zombies are resurrected Nazis who froze to death in the mountains. I’m sure there are other Nazi zombie films out there, but none that have received this much acclaim.

We start with a young woman named Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) running for her life through a forest. Since this is a horror movie, it’s not too surprising that she’s dispatched quickly and we jump to the titles. Following this, we meet our main cast. There’s a car with four men and one with three women. We’ll be introduced to them all and herein lies really the only problem with Dead Snow. The characters are mildly differentiated by their various quirks, but there really isn’t much to distinguish them. The men are Erlend (Jeppe Beck Laursen), the movie nerd; Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen), the horny one; Martin (Vegar Hoel), the med student afraid of blood; and Vegard (Lasse Valdal), the other one. The three women are Hanna (Charlotte Frogner), the one with the dreadlocks; Chris (Jenny Skavlan), the blonde one; and Liv (Evy Kasseth Rosten), the other blonde one. Aside from Martin and Hanna being a couple, that’s pretty much it in terms of characterization.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Gunn's Golden Rules

Film: The Devil Wears Prada
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I am one of the least fashionable people I know, which makes a movie like The Devil Wears Prada a hard sell for me. I don’t care at all about fashion and never have. Oddly, I have a complete man-crush on Tim Gunn from Project Runway because I think he’s someone who belongs in that small but important pantheon of iconic people worth emulating, sort of Fred Rogers with bespoke suits (although he claims he doesn’t wear them). If you’ve never read Gunn’s book Gunn’s Golden Rules, I recommend it as much as I’ve recommended any book ever. Gunn is a wonderful writer, smart and compassionate, and he dishes with the best.

One of the best stories in the book is about Vogue editor Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs by her bodyguards because the likes of her does not ride in an elevator with mere mortals. Gunn goes on for several pages about the fact that people at Vogue live in a small bubble where the only thing that matters is fashion and their opinion on fashion and dealing with anything like the real world is not merely frowned on but not even considered. I bring this up because it is widely believed that Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly is based on Wintour. In fact, it’s so widely believed that notable people in the fashion world mainly refused to appear in the film as themselves for fear of encouraging her wrath.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Resident Evil

Films: Resident Evil
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every now and then, the fact that I worked in the computer/video game industry from 1991 to 2003 becomes relevant on this blog. I was working in the industry when the Resident Evil games came out, and was still working (and starting to look at other options) in the industry when Resident Evil was released in movie theaters. I didn’t go see it, and I never played any of the games. In my own defense, by this point in my career, I only played what I was paid to play. Resident Evil could well have been something I wrote the book for, though; I did more than my share of first-person shooters.

Resident Evil was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who is clearly the least of the three most-known current director with that last name (Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson being the other two). While I admit that that is true, I still have a soft spot for Paul W.S. Anderson’s movies in a lot of cases. Mortal Kombat is better than it should be, Event Horizon is vastly underknown, and I am admittedly and strangely obsessed with Soldier. Because of this, I went into Resident Evil with some hopes and some curiosity. It was a mild connection to my past and I like the director in spite of himself and even feel sorry for him at times because he’s gotten unlucky with some films. Then again, he is married to Milla Jovovich, so I’m not going to feel too sorry for him.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Free Press

Film: The Post
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I feel like I’ve been slacking lately, and that’s not a hard conclusion to come to when you look at my posting history for this month. It’s not that I’m coming to the end of things; it’s more that I’ve been unbelievably busy for the last several weeks especially. I have a daughter who is a week away from moving. There have been some extended family issues I won’t go into here. And I’ve been screamingly busy at work. I know everyone says that, but where I teach, we’re given a specific number of classes we’re supposed to have every quarter. Right now, I have the equivalent of that plus two. This being the case, it’s taken me a week to finally sit down with The Post, the first movie I’ve watched nearly seven days.

I have to say that this isn’t the movie I expected, or at least not the story I expected. I knew this was about the Washington Post, and I thought it was about the Watergate break-in. I wondered about that, considering that we’ve already got All the President’s Men and certainly don’t need another version of the same story. Thankfully, The Post is about the time just before that, the moment that made the Post a national paper just before Woodward and Bernstein cemented it into place.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Lisa and the Devil

Films: Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

My main complaint about Italian horror, particularly films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, is that it is long on style and short on coherent narrative. That’s very much true of the films of Dario Argento, a bit less true of those of Mario Bava. Bava still has some coherence problems at times, but he’s very much capable of putting together a story that more or less holds together. I was hopeful heading into Lisa and the Devil (otherwise called Lisa e il Diavolo), and there’s kind of a story here, but mostly it’s a bunch of set up and then a great deal of killing and blood that looks like red paint.

Lisa (Elke Sommer) is vacationing in Spain when her tour takes her by a fresco that depicts the devil, who looks quite a bit like Telly Savalas. This is not coincidental, because Lisa wanders away from her tour group and into a shop where she encounters a man named Leandro, who is played by Telly Savalas. She flees and encounters a man who claims to know her and calls her Elena. The fights with him, and he falls down a set of stone steps to his apparent death.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Off Script: Don't Breathe

Film: Don’t Breathe
Format: DVD from Sandwich Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I think there’s a fine line between what constitutes a horror movie and what gets called a thriller, at least in my mind. To me, “horror” as a genre implies some element of the supernatural or at least the unnatural. Thrillers are often horrific movies, but for me, they are based more in the real world. This is not a hard and fast rule. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, is purely a horror movie despite having no supernatural element. With a movie like Don’t Breathe, we’re riding that line as well. My gut tells me this is more of a thriller than a horror movie, but there are certainly elements of horror here.

If you think this suggests that there’s nothing supernatural going on in Don’t Breathe, you’d be correct. We start with three young thieves. These are Alex (Dylan Minnette), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Rocky (Jane Levy). Alex’s father owns a security company, which gives him information about their homes and security information. The three break into the house, shut down the alarm, and steal. To keep themselves out of trouble, they don’t steal money and they never steal more than $10,000-worth of goods. Break that number, and it becomes a felony offense. Once they are done, they set off the alarm and Money fences what they’ve stolen.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fuhgedaboudit

Films: Donnie Brasco
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

Like a lot of the movies that are still on my Oscar list, Donnie Brasco is one that I’ve almost watched a couple of times. These days, I seem to need to be in the mood for a mob movie, and Donnie Brasco is absolutely a mob movie. It’s also a movie that features Al Pacino playing an interesting combination of roles. On the one hand, Pacino made his name playing mob guys. On the other hand, his character here isn’t the boss. In fact, this is almost Pacino playing against type.

Low-level mobster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Pacino) is introduced to Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a jewel thief. Lefty wants Donnie to serve as a middleman for a large diamond ring he received as a payment, which Donnie claims is a fake. Donnie gets Lefty something much closer to a real payment, and in gratitude, Lefty more or less brings Donnie into the Mafia, introducing him to several made men including Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Blob (1958)

Films: The Blob (1958)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

There are a great many charms to the original version of The Blob from the late 1950s. This starts right away with the bouncy theme song written by no less a luminary than Burt Bacharach. One of the great things about The Blob is that it comes from those halcyon days when aliens were often depicted as something utterly non-human before they idea of big-headed, big-eyed grey aliens became the norm. The Blob is pure pulp, and is also the catalyst for much of Steve McQueen’s career. Even if the movie sucked, it would be noteworthy for that.

In small town Pennsylvania, young Steve Andrews (McQueen) is out on a date with Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut). Jane thinks Steve is handing her a line as the two sit out in the middle of nowhere looking at the stars, but he claims he’s being honest—he’s never taken another girl here. Just then, a meteor flashes by and impacts close to them. They decide to see if they can find it. Meanwhile, at the site of the impact, a local backwoodsman (Olin Howland) investigates the meteorite and discovers something like an egg. It cracks open and the purplish goo inside attaches itself to his arm. Out on the road, Steve and Jane almost run the man down. Seeing he is in trouble, the put him in the car and drive him to the local doctor’s office.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Off Script: The Amityville Horror; Amityville II: The Possession

Film: The Amityville Horror; Amityville II: The Possession
Format: DVD from Stockton Township Public Library (Amityville) and Somonauk Public Library (Amityville II) through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There have probably been stories of haunted places for about as long as there have been stories in general. Tons and tons of horror stories and horror movies have dealt not with the idea of evil people or entities, but have instead dealt with the concept of evil places, places that are “born bad” to put it in the parlance of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. While there are many of these stories, probably the best known of the genre is The Amityville Horror, which takes a page out of the playbook from The Exorcist as well as The Haunting. In this case, we have a house that was not merely born bad but that is alleged to be literally possessed by Satan himself.

The film starts as the Lutz family movies into the house in question. They’ve gotten the house for a song because it was the site of a previous mass murder; the oldest son of the previous residents slew his parents and younger siblings, blaming it on voices that he heard from the house. It’s not long before the house itself starts to demonstrate that his claims of hearing voices might not just be looking for an insanity plea.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Open City, Closed Lives

Film: A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Because of my job, I’m often tempted to watch a movie while I’m working. I do it often to have some sort of background noise going on. There was a period of time when I watched either Aliens or Master and Commander just about every day for a month. I try not to do a great deal for this blog in this way, though, unless it’s a film I’ve already seen and know well. In the case of a film like A Special Day (or Una Giornata Particolare in the original Italian), that’s absolutely not the case. Since this is in Italian, watching means reading, and you can’t do that with partial attention.

A Special Day takes place on a very specific day in Italian history. On May 8, 1938, a little more than a year before the beginning of World War II, Adolf Hitler traveled to Rome to visit Mussolini. On this day, harried housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren) stays home to return the family apartment to order after the morning actions of her husband (John Vernon) and their six children have torn the place apart. In the course of her morning, the family pet, a mynah bird named Rosmunda, escapes from her cage and flies across the courtyard to just outside another apartment.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Format: DVD from Perue Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are some movies that I’m going to have a strange connection to. One of those is going to be any version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 1959 version no more than any other. The reason for this is my last dog. I have two Chihuahuas at the moment, but the dog I had before the current ones was a corgi mix named, well, Baskerville. I freely admit that I chose the name for her before we adopted her. I thought it was a great name for a dog. My mother objected, since Bassie was not a hound, but then again, Bass wasn’t her dog.

There are a lot of things I could say about the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, some of which would be positive. It’s easy to have a character who is ultra-smart and can deduce anything when you know exactly what you want him to know. Doyle also believed firmly in hoaxes like the Cottingley Fairies, so I find it a little difficult to take him that seriously. That said, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a pretty cool story, and one of the only Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve actually read.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Italy is for Lovers

Film: Call My by Your Name
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Earlier today, I spotted a tweet from fellow blogger Wendell Ottley commenting that he’d just watched Call Me by Your Name and wasn’t really feeling the love for it. I was about halfway through at the moment (almost exactly), and I get exactly where he’s coming from. This might annoy any number of people who seem to think that this is one of the great films of last year, but, like Wendell said in his tweet, I’m just not feeling it. It’s certainly well-made and it’s pretty enough, but I don’t feel like there’s a great deal here to get excited about.

I should say, though, that there are some things that I appreciate about the film. One is that it breaks a particular “rule” of coming-of-age films. I’ve railed against the fact that this sort of film is almost always about death for young men and sex for young women. Well, this is clearly a coming-of-age film and it’s about a young man and sex. The difference here might well be that instead of coming to terms with his mortality, our main character instead needs to come to terms with his bisexuality or homosexuality. The film isn’t entirely clear on that, which isn’t a fault of the film. <-!!more-->

Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is 17 and lives with his parents in Northern Italy. Elio is something of a musical prodigy, and he spends his summers reading and studying music. This year, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, has invited Oliver (Armie Hammer) to come spend the summer. Oliver is a graduate student, and the experience will be valuable for him in his studies and will also help the professor in his work. This is evidently a relatively common occurrence; the professor’s wife Annella (Amira Casar) seems used to the idea that her orchard will play host every summer by a student.

Elio and Oliver initially seem to have little in common. Elio is intense and studious while Oliver is much more laid back and relaxed. At this point, Elio has a local girlfriend named Marzia (Esther Garrel) while Oliver seems to be attracted to another local girl.

Despite this, and despite the fact that Elio and Marzia eventually do have their relationship become a sexual one, there is a certain attraction between Elio and Oliver, and while we focus much more on Elio, that attraction appears to be mutual. Eventually, the two act on this mutual attraction despite what seems to be some initial misgivings on Oliver’s part. The two eventually become close, and as Oliver’s time in Italy nears its close, the two spend a few days together before he leaves. There is a coda after this that I won’t spoil—if you’d heard anything about this film, you knew at least 100 minutes of its 132-minute running time.

Here’s the thing: Call Me by Your Name is a pretty film and I won’t argue about how well made it is. It’s pretty and nicely made, and I like the cast in general. That said, I don’t love the characters that much, and that’s the main problem I have with Call Me by Your Name. Elio comes off as a bit of a drudge, and someone who thinks a great deal of himself. I get that he speaks a few languages and I get that he’s talented musically, but he’s pretty smug about it. Oliver seems like a nice enough guy, but it’s also hard for me to get beyond the pederast-y feel of the film. If Elio were named Elia, the idea of her having a sexual relationship with a 24-year-old graduate student while still in the equivalent of high school would be the sort of thing to make the film notorious. Having the relationship be a homosexual one doesn’t suddenly make me approve of the fact that Oliver is having sex with a minor.

And that’s the other main problem I have with this film. It’s the same problem I had with The Kids are All Right. At its heart, this isn’t a particularly unique story. In fact, it’s a story that we’ve all seen a bunch of times. Take out the sex and the gender, and this isn’t really that different from Roman Holiday in a lot of respects. And here’s the thing—the fact that Oliver and Elio are either gay or, more likely, bisexual doesn’t make me like them. A standard story doesn’t become a special one just because it has a gay storyline.

What this means is that while I didn’t dislike Call Me by Your Name, I also didn’t see it as being anything unique or special. It’s a love story that happens to also involve a relationship that was much more taboo at the time (the film takes place in the ‘80s) and, thanks to the ages of the characters, at least borders on being abusive. I get why people like it. I don’t get why they love it.

Why to watch Call My by Your Name: A surprisingly tender romance.
Why not to watch: Just because they’re gay doesn’t make me like them.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Off Script: The Most Dangerous Game

Film: The Most Dangerous Game
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there was a time when you couldn’t get through too much schooling without encountering the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” at some point. Much like Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” which I was assigned to read by at least five different teachers and professors, I read Richard Connell’s story multiple times in multiple English classes. Since the story is such a simple and basic one (and that’s not a knock on its quality), it was natural for it to be adapted as a film, and natural for it to show up not too long after the story’s original publication. Connell got the story published in 1924; the movie version of The Most Dangerous Game showed up in 1932.

My guess is that you know the basics, and while the names have changed a little in terms of the characters (as well as some changes in gender), this is a pretty solid adaptation of the original story. Big game hunter, author, and adventurer Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is sailing with companions off the coast of South America when the ship, thanks to nefariously-meddled with channel lights, is wrecked. Several die in the crash and a few others are dragged off by sharks, but Bob makes it to a nearby island where he discovers a large house inhabited by a number of mute men and a Russian count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Bob is greeted and given a room and also introduced to two other guests, the brother/sister pair of Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray).

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Silver Linings Checkbook

Film: Joy
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

I’m getting close to the end of the Oscar movies on my various lists, which means that, more and more, I’m watching movies that I’ve avoided for one reason or another. Well, that’s kind of true. In some cases, I have more or less actively avoided the movie in question. In some cases, I haven’t been able to find them. In the case of Joy, it’s definitely the first issue. I’m pretty burned out on Jennifer Lawrence right now, so I haven’t really wanted to dive into this one.

Joy is the story of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a divorced mother of two living in a unique situation. Frustrated with her life and more or less coming apart at the seams, Joy invents a self-wringing mop and becomes a sensation on home shopping channels. The movie is a biography and so I assume that at least some (or even most) is based on reality. But it also very much feels like a reunion for a lot of people in Silver Linings Playbook, a feeling that is very much enhanced based on the relationships in the film.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Blue is the Drippiest Color

Film: The Blue Veil
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

For a number of years, I’ve been under the opinion that there are some movies on the Oscar lists that I simply will not get. That still bothers me a little, but I’ve more or less learned to live with it as well as I can. That said, when one of those movies shows up, I tend to be interested. That’s what happened with The Blue Veil. This is a film that relies heavily on as much heartstring pulling as it can muster, which means we’ll be doing a deep dive into melodrama.

Louise “LouLou” Mason (Wyman, although the real star might be her makeup artist) is in the maternity ward as the film starts, but this is not a happy occasion as it turns out. We find out that in addition to already being widowed. LouLou’s child dies a few days after he is born, leaving her now completely alone. She takes a job as something akin to a nanny for Frederick K. Begley (Charles Laughton), whose wife died in childbirth. What started as a 2-week appointment is soon full time and long term.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

By My Age, They Tend Toward Bitter.

Film: Sweet Bird of Youth
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

I have, in a sense, painted myself into a corner with the length of the reviews that I write. While there are a couple that are relatively short, I feel like if I don’t at least cross the 700-750 word mark that I’m selling the movie short. With a movie like Sweet Bird of Youth, that’s kind of a problem because I don’t have a great deal to say about it. This isn’t to imply that the movie is a bad one. It’s not at all, but it feels like I don’t have a lot to say about yet another movie based on a Tennessee Williams play. What can I say here that I haven’t said about A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, or Suddenly, Last Summer?

And yet, I feel the need to soldier on. Once this gets going, there’s no surprise that this is based on something penned by Williams. We’ve got all of the trademarks of a Williams narrative—booze and drugs, sex, illicit relationships, threats, messed up families, and Southern gentility. And, of course, there’s going to be a sense of terrible events that have happened or will happen, secret shame, and immorality. Makes you want to watch it, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Opera

Film: Opera
Format: DVD from NetFlix on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

So I think it’s something I can say now officially—I don’t like Italian horror. It’s something I’ve struggled with in the past. There are a few gialli that I like, but even those have issues with not being that coherent all of the time. Films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for instance, are interesting and have some good parts, but even those are movies that I’m not convinced I want to watch again any time soon. Even the really celebrated ones like Suspiria are ones I like for reasons beyond the disjointed plot. So Opera, another Argento film, is one that has gotten a great deal of praise. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best.

Now that I’ve seen it, I have a new hypothesis about a lot of Italian horror films. I don’t think the plot comes first. I think instead that the director or the screenwriter gets an idea or two for particular scenes that would look really interesting. For Suspiria, for instance, the first death scene, the barbed wire room, and the blocks of primary colors were probably the initial thoughts. For Blood and Black Lace, it was probably the fashion, and shots like the model being drowned. For Opera, it’s probably the ravens and the needles. Once those visuals have been thought of, the director/screenwriter tries to figure out a way to connect all of those different scenes into a narrative. Typically, this is done with…varying results of coherence.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Project Runway

Film: Phantom Thread
Format: Blu-Ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

With Phantom Thread, there is really a single story to be told. Star of the film and three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis went on record as saying that this would be his last film and that he will be retiring from acting. That is reason enough to watch the film. Day-Lewis is, I think I can say without much fear of contradiction, the most accomplished male actor of his generation. I have no idea who will step up to replace him, but for the last 30 years or so—since his break-out performance in My Left Foot (but really since a few years before that), Day-Lewis has always been worth watching. And yet despite this, I can’t say that I was really excited about this despite being a one-time fan of Project Runway and a constant booster of the wonderful Tim Gunn.

Phantom Thread is something of a love triangle, kind of. It’s a little more complicated than that, really. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a respected dress designer in London about a decade after World War II. His business is thriving for his upscale clients and at least some of this comes from the constant assistance of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, who was nominated in a supporting role). It’s soon evident that Reynolds has something like a recurrent series of infatuations with women; early in the film, we see him more or less get rid of one live-in girlfriend when she no longer inspires him. Shortly after this, he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress. She becomes his new infatuation and his new favorite dress-up doll. Soon enough, Alma has moved into Woodcock House and functions as muse and model for Reynolds.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Film: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

While I love a good horror movie, I can’t admit that I’ve been a huge fan of slashers. The truth is that most slashers seem kind of pointless to me. There’s a guy, there are victims. The guy kills them in a variety of ways. There’s just not a great deal there beyond that visceral slice-n-dice, and I’m not that interested. I don’t mind gore, but I prefer it be there for a good reason. If it’s just there to fill up space, I don’t really care that much. That makes Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon an interesting choice for me.

The truth is that I like this movie quite a bit. The reason is that this is the best send-up of the slasher genre since Scream, and it’s better in a few respects. Scream, brilliant as it is, is really a self-conscious slasher. It’s a movie that plays with genre conventions while clearly being a part of the genre. Don’t get me wrong; I love Scream and I love what Wes Craven did with it. The genius of Behind the Mask is that it takes the next logical step, presenting the behind the scenes look at the life of a supernatural killer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Dickens of a Story

Film: David Copperfield
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

My mother is a big fan of the work of Charles Dickens. I’m not; I think it’s evident when you read Dickens that he was paid by the word. I don’t appreciate his wild coincidences and I tend to hate the ridiculous names of his characters. To that end, I’ve delayed the watching of David Copperfield until now. It wasn’t so much fear as an assumed dislike. I don’t like the author in general, so I likely won’t like a movie based on one of his overwritten novels.

That’s not quite the case. There are a number of things that are really going for David Copperfield. However, it is the case in the sense that the story isn’t really one of the things going for the movie. David Copperfield is less a plot-driven tale than it is a sort of biography of the title character, taking him from his birth to the approach of his second marriage.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Obligatory Shocking Blue Reference

Film: Venus
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of the things I take a stand on is the May/December romance situation that Hollywood seems to love. That situation is taken to an extreme with Venus, which presents us with a couple consisting of a 74-year-old Peter O’Toole and a 24-year-old Jodie Whittaker. On the surface, it’s unconscionable.

But, and this is important, Venus is a smarter film than that. The romance that we’re going to get here is far more theoretical than actual. There are still moments that come across as genuinely creepy, especially since O’Toole is playing older than his actual age. But, for the most part, there’s a sort of sweetness here because the romance isn’t really serious and, thanks to medical conditions, something that can’t be taken to fruition.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Off Script: The Creeping Flesh

Film: The Creeping Flesh
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s hard not to love Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee films from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. They’re campy and silly and loaded with cheese, and our two heroes always play things so seriously. It takes a certain kind of actor to be able to say ridiculous lines and work with ridiculous props without becoming ridiculous himself. These two could do it. They elevate the material they are given to work with. In the case of a film like The Creeping Flesh, that ability to elevate the material is going to be important.

This is a typical early-mid 1970s British horror film in a lot of respects. We’re going to jump back in time to the late Victorian period where so much Brit horror seems to be centered. There’s something very interesting about those just post-industrial years where, with a little bit of tweaking, we could have all been living in a steampunk future. Anyway, The Creeping Flesh is right there at the crossroads of the early stages of modern technology and the end of more barbaric eras of medicine and mental health care.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Mummy (1999)

Film: The Mummy (1999)
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

Brace yourself, folks; I’m going to get effusive here for a few minutes. I really, really like The Mummy from 1999 and I’m not ashamed of who might know it. I like how adorably gorgeous Rachel Weisz is before she got all serious and Oscar-contender-y. I love Brendan Fraser’s Doc Savage-style heroics. I love John Hannah’s smarmy charm and Kevin J. O’Connor’s weasely joy. I love just how much of a badass Arnold Vosloo is and Omid Djalili’s pitch-perfect comic relief. I love the quiet heroism of Oded Fehr and every single curmudgeonly moment of Erick Avari. The Mummy does exactly what it wants to do: it entertains from its opening moments to the close and does it just about as well as you could ever hope. If you haven’t seen this, your life is much less for it.

So yeah, I’ve just put the review up front because I’m not going to beat around the bush here. There are a lot of things I could say about The Mummy and why it shouldn’t be taken that seriously. None of that matters. The highest praise that I can give this movie is almost shocking—it reminds me of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has the same feel of grand adventure and of supernatural danger. It has the same, wonderful sense of constant adventure and the sort of story that could have easily been serialized in 10-minute segments with a cliffhanger at the end of each one. It would not feel out of place in that sort of environment.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

My Wild Irish Rows

Film: The Field
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

I think it’s easy to think of Richard Harris as his last roles. Specifically, I’m thinking of him as Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films and as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator. In all of these cases, Harris was staggeringly old and frail, a man who looked like he could be blown away with a stiff breeze. He was a far cry from the man he was in the 1960s in films like This Sporting Life. So where was he going to be in 1990 in The Field? Would he be the physical specimen of his early years or would he be the wizened man who could be snapped like a twig?

It’s a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B. Harris looks like an old man, far older than the 60 years he actually was. But once you see him move and talk, he behaves like a man half his age. This is a vibrant performance in the body of an older man, and because of it, it’s interesting. It’s also interesting in that it is Harris’s second of two nominations. His first came in 1963 and this one came a full 27 years later. Is that the biggest gap between nominations? Probably not, but it’s got to rank pretty high.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Off Script: American Mary

Film: American Mary
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I am a fan of the horror genre and have been for decades, but there are things that bother me. Eye stuff bothers me a lot, for instance. I’m also really bothered by surgical stuff. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but it definitely is the case. Seeing someone go through surgery will get me to leave the room. Because of this reason, I wasn’t really looking forward to American Mary, which is about both surgery and extreme voluntary body modification, which also tends to freak me out a bit.

Regardless of that, I made it through the film, and while there were a couple of spots I found very difficult to watch, for the most part, I enjoyed it. There is a part of the film that I found ridiculously dumb, though, and I promise we’ll get there before we’re done with this review. A film that has this much going for it that so spectacularly shits the bed at one point is not going to escape my review unscathed.