Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Raising Cain

Film: Raising Cain
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There was a glorious moment of time in the 1980s and early 1990s when it was a legitimate casting choice to have John Lithgow as a heavy. Movies like Ricochet and Cliffhanger had Lithgow playing a vicious, scowling bad guy, a psychopath or sociopath who reveled in the pain and degradation of others. Y’know, the guy from Third Rock from the Sun, the actor who has put out multiple CDs of children’s songs. Toward the end of that wonderful moment in history comes Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain, which has the lovable Lithgow playing a man who is truly malevolent.

Carter Nix (Lithgow) is a child psychologist who has taken a few years off from his practice to study the early development of his daughter (Amanda Pombo). But we learn quickly that there’s something really off about Carter. In the first 10 minutes of the film, Carter has blown some sort of dust into the eyes of a woman and chloroformed her so that he can kidnap her child. Oddly, Carter’s twin brother Cain (also Lithgow) shows up in the middle of nowhere to help him deal with the woman. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but Cain claims he will deal with the woman and take the child to their father, Dr. Nix (Lithgow again).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Now That's a Busy Day!

Film: Training Day
Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.

One of the greatest television shows ever made was Chapelle’s Show, and one of the greatest episodes of Chapelle’s Show was the one involving Wayne Brady. I didn’t realize until tonight that at least a part of that sequence is a direct reference to Training Day. This movie has been sitting in my collection for a long time. One of the truths of pursuing a giant list like I have been is that it’s easy to overlook watching a film I own because I know I can always watch it. It’s the ones where my access is potentially limited that often take precedence. Still, eventually you’ve got to get to all of ‘em, and Training Day wasn’t going to watch itself.

Training Day gives us a young cop named Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, nominated in a supporting role) attempting to join the narcotics squad. He’s going to be put to the test by highly-decorated narcotics officer Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). While Harris is highly decorated, he’s also known to be extremely dirty, and that’s going to be perhaps the biggest test for young Jake. As his day goes on, Jake is going to find himself forced to take narcotics—specifically PCP-laced marijuana, have guns pointed at him multiple times, get into a few fights, come close to death multiple times, and be involved in a variety of illegal activities.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Unbearable Length of this Movie

Film: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes I look at the list of movies I still have to watch for my Oscar categories and I figure it’s time to knock out the longest one. That spot has been occupied by The Unbearable Lightness of Being for months, so I figured it was time to remove it and move on. There’s something supremely satisfying in removing the longest remaining film. Sadly, in this case, it was about the only satisfying thing.

That’s a shame, too, because the cast is so good. The main characters are played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin, with smaller roles for Donald Moffat and Stellan Skarsgard. That should be enough to get this not just over the hump but into the realm of must-see. The issue is that The Unbearable Lightness of Being wants to tell a lot of stories. It wants to be a sexy, erotic drama and a domestic drama and a political drama all at the same time. Because of that, the film runs just under three hours. There’s no reason for it to be that long aside from some artistic decision. The word is that Kaufman presented a two-hour confusing version for the studio to force the three-hour version he wanted. It’s clever, but I have to wonder if it was really worth it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Familiar Territory

Film: The Breadwinner
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the latest internet machine.

I bought a Chromebook today because there are new restrictions that have been placed on my laptop. I suppose those restrictions are fair; the laptop I generally use is owned by where I work. But streaming sites in general have been made no-fly zones, as have some game-related sites that I like to go to. So I bought myself a Chromebook and christened it today with The Breadwinner, which has just shown up as a streaming option on NetFlix. It wasn’t a film that I was leaping at the chance to watch, but Best Animated Feature is the only one of the latest set of Oscar nominations I hadn’t hit yet.

The first thing that struck me here was that this felt very familiar. Then I realized that I had kind of already seen this before. Osama, released in 2003, is very much the same basic story as The Breadwinner. In both films, a young girl and her family are more less left without a man in the household in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. Since women are not allowed to leave their houses when not in the company of a man, this sets them up to slowly starve to death, unable to even set foot outside their home without the fear of immediate reprisal. In both cases, the daughter—still young enough to possibly pass for a boy—disguises herself in an attempt to find work and buy food. In the case of Osama, this goes tragically, terribly wrong. In the case of The Breadwinner, that’s much less the case.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Girlfriend in a Coma

Film: The Big Sick
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

The most interesting thing going into The Big Sick for me was Kumail Nanjiani, who I’d seen before here and there. I realized as well that I’d Zoe Kazan as well. I was less excited about her, though, because Zoe Kazan starred in and wrote Ruby Sparks, which I hated. Still, the demand of the list being what it is, I knew I had to watch it. Also, not wanting to end this with a bunch of 2017 movies, and having not many available at this point, it seemed like The Big Sick was a natural.

I’m delighted to say that The Big Sick is difficult to classify. It’s not really a dramedy and it’s not a rom-com even though it has all of these elements. It’s a slice of life story about the real Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gardner—how they met, fell apart, and came back together, mostly because of a near-fatal illness that struck Emily.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Off Script: The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Film: The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

Christmas money is a wonderful thing. Give me a $50 gift card and a used DVD store and I’m a happy man. I’m even happier when I locate a two-disc set of something like The Satanic Rites of Dracula for a good price (I got And Now the Screaming Starts! and a few others, too). I’m of the opinion that you can’t have enough Hammer horror, Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee in one’s personal collection, so I snapped it up.

I can’t say I’m having buyer’s remorse, but it is certainly one of the oddest films in my collection. Yes, it’s a vampire film as the name would suggest, but this is not one of those Hammer films that tries to get all gothic on things. It takes place in the time it was filmed, so it’s a modern Dracula with modern henchmen and modern detectives working a case. Oh, there are certainly some acknowledgments of the source material beyond Dracula being the main foil and being played by Christopher Lee. After all, you can’t have a Dracula film starring Lee without putting Peter Cushing on the cast list as Van Helsing, can you?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pearl

Film: The Rose
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There are a few important things I need to say before I delve too far into The Rose. The first is that I am an unabashed fan of Bette Midler as a human being; I think she’s aces. The second is that I’m not a huge fan of Bette Midler as a performer. Her style on stage as a singer doesn’t do a lot for me. Third, since that this is more or less an unofficial biopic of Janis Joplin, I should come clean on the fact that I genuinely dislike Janis Joplin as a singer. This means there are going to be some pain points for me here—we’ve got someone I don’t love as a performer acting as someone I don’t like as a performer, and she performs a lot.

So, yeah, this is an unofficial Janis Joplin biopic, which is clear pretty quickly. In fact, the only reason it’s not an official biopic is that Joplin’s family wouldn’t allow it. This is how the name of this movie went from Pearl to The Rose in the first place. And, unlike a true biopic, The Rose covers a very short period of time, a period that is awash in bad behavior, drugs, and alcohol.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Off Script: The Thing from Another World

Film: The Thing from Another World
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I have a huge soft spot for science fiction from the 1950s. There’s something wonderfully na├»ve and goofy about it, a charm that really doesn’t exist in any other combination of time and genre in film history. Science fiction from these years contain the promise of galactic exploration and the danger of alien civilizations, often tinged with hints of Cold War politics. There’s nothing quite like them. When The Thing from Another World popped up on TCM, I jumped at the chance to record it and rewatch it.

The biggest issue with The Thing from Another World is something that isn’t its fault. The film was reimagined in 1982 by John Carpenter, and Carpenter’s version is just about perfect. Unless you’re already a fan, it’s hard to get really excited about a version of the story that isn’t as good as the one you’ve already seen. Still, it’s sometimes nice to see where it comes from, and in this case, The Thing from Another World paved some ground that Carpenter later used to his own great advantage.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1965

The Contenders:

William Wyler: The Collector
John Schlesinger: Darling
David Lean: Doctor Zhivago
Robert Wise: The Sound of Music (winner)
Hiroshi Teshigahara: Woman in the Dunes

Highland Flung

Film: The Hasty Heart
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ televison.

There are plenty of times I go into a movie without knowing a great deal about it. With The Hasty Heart, I didn’t even realize that this was a film with a military angle to the story. In fact, there’s not so much a military angle to the story as this is a very strange military story from front to back. In that respect it reminds me a bit of Tunes of Glory, except that this one is weirder in almost every regard.

The Hasty Heart earns some big points right away for placing itself in the most obscure and least-known corner of World War II: Burma. We’re also going to be not in combat for the most part, but in a makeshift British hospital. The war ends right at the start of the movie, a fact that is going to set up the premise for the rest of the film.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Predator

Film: Predator
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I’m often a little nervous going into a movie that was important to me in my past. If you grew up roughly when I did, you knew Predator when it was new. You loved it for Jesse Ventura and Arnold saying, “Get to the choppah!.” The predator itself was cool and the effects were like nothing anyone had seen before. It wasn’t Citizen Kane, but it was crazy and had cool effects and lots of explosions and paramilitary garb. It was absolutely the sort of movie you grabbed for a weekend from the local video rental place.

But when a movie like this is 30+ years old, whether or not it really holds up is a real question. There are plenty of movies from this era that do, of course. Ghostbusters is still funny, for instance. But not all of them do. I rewatched Stripes a couple of years ago and spent most of the running time waiting for it to be funny at all let alone as funny as I remembered it. So what about Predator? Does it still pass muster more than 30 years on?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Off Script: Goodnight, Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh)

Film: Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I remember seeing the trailer for Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh in the original German). I was on vacation with my family in North Carolina, still having to do a little work, and it popped up somewhere on social media. The trailer makes it look like the greatest horror movie ever created. Trailers have that power, of course, and once again, what I got was substantially less than the trailer seemed to offer. Don’t take that as my saying that Goodnight Mommy isn’t worth a look. It is, but it’s not the second coming of horror film.

A woman (Susanne Wuest) returns to her isolated home after cosmetic surgery, her face completely bandaged. At home are her twin sons, Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz). Immediately, things are strange. The woman only seems to interact with Elias, telling them that they know why she won’t talk to Lukas. She is also extremely angry about things, losing her temper quickly. Additionally, she demands that the house be kept quiet with the blinds drawn while she recuperates.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Withdrawal Symptoms

Films: Dunkirk
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It’s that time of year once again. The Oscar nominations have happened and, as I posted a few weeks ago, there are a bunch more movies on my lists. Dunkirk is one of the more heavily nominated films, even if it’s not hugely represented in my pet categories. It’s hardly a shock that it garnered a bunch of technical nominations and the tremendous Hans Zimmer score was almost certainly a lock for a nomination. It’s also worth noting that as of this writing, Christopher Nolan is the smart-money bet for winning Best Director. It’s also worth noting that despite Nolan’s storied and critically-acclaimed career, this is his first nomination.

Anyone with even a little bit of World War II knowledge will be able to guess quickly that Dunkirk is the story of the mass exodus/retreat by the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. Having been pushed back literally to the coast by the Wehrmacht, the British and French troops stood waiting to be evacuated while the German military squeezed ever tighter. It remains one of the more curious military decisions that the German army allowed so much of the BEF to successfully get back to Britain.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Not the Paper Chase Guy

Films: The Great McGinty
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Every now and then one encounters a movie where the story of its creation is as or more interesting than the story the film wants to tell. Rocky almost didn’t get made because Stallone insisted that he be allowed to star in it. Children of Paradise was made in Nazi-occupied Paris with a significantly Jewish crew. And Preston Sturges sold the script of The Great McGinty to Paramount for $10 with the condition that he be allowed to direct. Considering that this won the 1940 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, I’d say that Paramount got its money’s worth.

We start in a bar in some unnamed third-world country where a man named Tommy (Louis Jean Heydt) is lamenting the fact that a single moment of weakness in an ethical life has led him to this bar to avoid jail and extradition. His career as a bank employee was ruined by a sudden moment of embezzlement. While he is comforted by the bar’s dancing girl (Steffi Duna), he is told a story by the bartender. That bartender claims to be Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy), a former bum turned mayor of a major city, then governor, then criminal, then escaped convict. In his case, he’s ended up tending bar in the dive because of a single moment of honesty in a life of corruption. The bulk of the film will be McGinty’s flashback.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Out of Iowa

Films: The Bridges of Madison County
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Sometimes, a filmmaker takes an odd turn in his or her career. Wes Craven made Music of the Heart, after all, and Clint Eastwood made The Bridges of Madison County. Those have more in common than being different from their directors’ respective normal genres. Both of them feature an Oscar-nominated performance from Meryl Streep. Given just how many times Streep has been nominated, though, that’s something that apparently can be said of a definable percentage of films.

This is an unusual film in a lot of respects. Clint Eastwood has demonstrated that he is a capable director over and over again. While some of his films are not the macho cop dramas or westerns that one might think based on his filmography, a lot of his movies have a violent element to them and many play on that end of the moral scale. Mystic River, for instance, isn’t a film that has a lot of happy or satisfying endings for anyone involved. With The Bridges of Madison County, though, we’re in very new territory. This is a straight romance without a great deal else around it. It’s slow and almost meditative, even peaceful. I don’t want to imply that Eastwood’s skill set doesn’t include movies on the softer edge thematically, but his romantic moments don’t tend to be the main focus of his films.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Wednesday Horror: It Follows

Films: It Follows
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Horror movies tend to reflect the fears of the time in many ways. There’s been a resurgence in horror movies over the last few years with some that have not just been critically acclaimed by people who love the genre but by a more general audience as well. Such is the case with It Follows, a film that dives deep into ideas about sex in the modern world. It’s kind of a coming of age story with a very macabre and nasty twist. It’s sex that’s going to condemn our characters and it’s sex that conceivably is going to save them as well.

The film opens with Annie (Bailey Spry) who suddenly dashes out of her house, ignoring offers of help. We later see her on a beach tearfully calling her parents and telling them that she loves them. Cut to the next morning and the film’s one gore shot of Annie’s brutally mangled body lying on the sand. It’s a good starting point.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Young (Cough) Love

Films: Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Strap in, folks; it’s going to be one of those reviews again. I knew that as soon the disc showed up in the mail today. The 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t at the top of my queue, but it was close to the top, and that meant there was a decent chance that it would be the one that showed up. And, well, here we are. I knew I’d have to get to it sooner or later and I suppose at this point I’ve put it off about as long as I could.

So why my reticence? This had a couple of things going against it right from the start. First, it’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps my least favorite of Shakespeare’s well-known plays. Oh, sure, I enjoyed it well enough when it was done with zombies as Warm Bodies, but generally speaking, it’s not a story I like. Even West Side Story and its glorious color and choreography are merely a beautifully-realized version of a story I dislike. The second hurdle is nearly as big: Leslie Howard. I’ve liked Leslie Howard exactly once (Pygmalion), and tolerated him a couple of times. Otherwise, I find him to be about as interesting as dry toast.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

...It Still Looks Like Surrender

Films: White Banners
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I’ve learned a few things in doing this blog based on large lists of films. One of the things you learn quickly is that when you locate a film that’s been difficult to find, the best thing to do is watch it as quickly as you can. Frequent commenter Joel posted a link to White Banners the other day, and while I had plans to start my 2017 Oscar films today, I knew that I’d have to change those plans. It turns out that the same website has a couple other difficult-to-find films, so I’ll likely be hitting those soon enough.

Before I jump into the movie, it’s worth talking about a little bit of Oscar history here. It’s not often that you encounter a movie that changed the way that Oscars are nominated and voted on, but White Banners is such a movie. Fay Bainter was nominated for Best Actress for this role, and was simultaneously nominated for Supporting Actress for Jezebel, which she won. I’m not entirely sure how the rules were changed—I’m going off what IMDB tells me here on Bainter’s trivia page (if you know, please—use the comments below). It’s also worth noting that it was Bainter who handed Hattie McDaniel her Oscar the next year.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Blinded by the Light

Films: Bright Victory
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

Sometimes Turner Classic Movies comes through. Bright Victory is one of those movies I haven’t been able to find since I started the Oscar lists. There are a few movies that I’m having trouble finding, some of which I know I’ll never properly locate. Those films that are missing, have rights issues, or exist only in a single archive somewhere will likely be forever lost to me as well. But then there are movies like Bright Victory that simply seem to be missing and forgotten. I can’t see a reason that this should have been so difficult to find, and yet here it is, the start of my fifth year focusing on Oscar films, and it’s the first I’ve been able to see it.

It’s a shame, too, because Bright Victory has its moments. It’s notable not because it’s about a disabled soldier, nor is it specifically notable because it has a through-line about racism. No, this is the only time in Arthur Kennedy’s illustrious but sadly overlooked film career where he was nominated for Best Actor. He chalked up another four nominations in supporting roles (no wins for any of them), but as a man relegated to support roles more often than not, he rarely got the chance to shine as the lead. In this case, he got that chance, and shine he damn well did.