Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Magnificent Yankee

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Oh boy. February on TCM is great because every film they show has some connection to the Oscars and many of them are ones that I have trouble locating. With the case of The Magnificent Yankee, there may well be a reason that I have trouble finding someone willing to carry a copy. I won’t say that this is a bad movie, but I will say to my last breath that it’s dull as dishwater.

The Magnificent Yankee is the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and more specifically, it’s the story of Holmes when he was a Supreme Court justice. Holmes (Louis Calhern, who created this role on stage) arrives in Washington as a new justice with his wife, Fanny (Ann Harding). He is sworn in, and he makes an arrangement with Harvard to take on a single promising student every year to work as his clerk. Since the Holmeses are without children, this parade of young men becomes, more or less, their children. Holmes certainly takes a father’s pride in the men who operate as his yearly secretaries.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Travels with My Aunt

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Who knew that there’s evidently a very small genre of films involving young men being whirlwinded around by eccentric old women? I’d have thought that Auntie Mame and perhaps Harold and Maude would have been the limit, but that’s before I knew anything about Travels with My Aunt. There’s a great deal of similarity between this film and those others in that we have a wildly eccentric older woman educating a younger, much more staid man. Travels with My Aunt throws in a lot more felonies to keep things interesting. From my perspective, it helps greatly that this is based on the work of Graham Greene as well, since he’s long been a favorite of mine.

We start at the funeral of the mother of Henry Pulling (Alec McCowan), a staid banker who cares for his flowers more than he cares for anything else in the world. At the funeral, he encounters his Aunt Augusta (Maggie Smith), whom he had thought dead. She is, however, very much alive and tells the suddenly shocked Henry that his mother was not, in fact, his mother. Augusta takes Henry home with her where he is introduced to her current lover, a fortune teller from Sierra Leone she calls Wordsworth (Lou Gossett, Jr.). Henry escapes when he can only to discover after a visit from the police that Wordsworth has stowed marijuana in his mother’s urn.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Mission

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Every now and again, someone gets it into his head that the world needs another religious epic, and for most of the Western world, this means something to inspire the Christian faithful. Thus we have The Mission from 1986, a film that additionally features the not inconsiderable talents of Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Robert De Niro. Make no mistake—while this isn’t a “greatest story ever told” sort of epic, this is a film about faith and its place in the human story. It depicts the church as something of an evil but faith as a virtue.

The film opens with a look at the world of the South America of the time. Spanish missionaries work to convert the native people of the Amazon. One such missionary attempts to convert the Guarani people who live high up in the forest above the waterfalls and is martyred for his trouble. His martyrdom comes in one of the opening shots; he is tied to a cross and tossed into the river to go over the falls. The Jesuits try again with Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who manages to entrance the Guarani with his oboe. Father Gabriel and his associate Father Fielding (Liam Neeson) build a mission in this high place.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Turning Point

Format: Internet video on laptop.

I might be surprising a number of people with this review. Musicals generally aren’t my thing, but The Turning Point isn’t a musical, but a dance film, and specifically a ballet film. I’m certain I’ve mentioned my tenuous ballet connection here before; it’s the one section of the Arts that I actually know something of thanks to my daughters. And while The Turning Point is a ballet movie, it’s also a drama. In fact, it’s kind of unfair to call it a ballet movie. It is one in the same way that Field of Dreams is a baseball movie. This is a film about relationships and people seen through the lens of a ballet company. It’s impossible to divorce the story from the dance, but this is in no manner a film about dancing.

I admit that I was mildly worried at the outset because of the presence of Shirley MacLaine, who tends to come off in many of her roles as completely neurotic. It’s unfair of me to prejudge in this way, but also virtually impossible for me not to. I’ve seen too many neurotic Shirley MacLaine performances to go into a film like this with my eyes closed. And, it’s about dancers, and she plays a former dancer/current dance teacher, and I can tell you from personal experience that dancers in general and ballet dancers in specific have their own patented brand of neurosis.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I have a B.A. in literature (I promise this is relevant), so I’ve studied more than my share of the classics. When it comes to poetry, I’m not sure that Robert Browning would land anywhere near my list of favorites. So much of his work is so obtuse; it almost always left (and still leaves) me confused. I much preferred his wife’s work. Elizabeth Barrett’s work was simple without being simplistic. It’s understandable and powerful because it is so understandable. So it came as something of a happy moment for me when, on their first meeting in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Browning (Fredric March) laments that almost everyone who reads his poetry finds it impenetrable. Damn right.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a sort of biopic but is more of a drama than anything else. Much of the film seems based at least vaguely on reality, although the darker moments that come near the end may not have been. I have no way to tell without doing more than the cursory research I’ve done. It’s an interesting extrapolation from what I could find about Elizabeth Barrett and her life before meeting Browning and their subsequent marriage.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Decision before Dawn

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, war films were my favorite genre of film. I watched other films, but war films were what I loved the best. Decision before Dawn is one that I missed until recently. This is another film where I enjoyed it while I was watching, but when it comes to the end and it’s time to write about it, I don’t know what to say.

On the surface, this is a pretty standard World War II picture pitting the Allied forces against the remnants of Germany toward the end of the fighting in Europe. Allied troops marching across the continent are still encountering resistance, of course, and are naturally doing everything they can to capture enemy troops and end the war as quickly as possible. One of those things they are doing is recruiting captured German soldiers to operate as spies behind enemy lines. It’s obvious that Germany will lose at this point, so ending the war as quickly as possible has become a priority.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1989

The Contenders:
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Dead Poets Society (winner)
Do the Right Thing
Sex, Lies and Videotape
When Harry Met Sally

The Hours

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

With a film like The Hours, I’m not sure where to start. I’m honestly lost for a good way to even start writing about this. Do I discuss the interwoven story that carefully builds up connections between three different women in three different times, each life being shaped by the lives that came before? Do I go with the incredibly performances? The magnificent screenplay that not only makes these stories easy to follow but also produces some of the most powerful and best female roles of the last 20 years? There are so many places I could go that I’m lost on where to start. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The Hours tells three stories at the same time. The first concerns author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she attempts to write her novel Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s. The second story takes place in the 1950s as a housewife named Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) deals with thoughts of suicide while reading Woolf’s novel. In the third story, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) has a day that mirrors that of the protagonist of Woolf’s novel as she plans a party for a friend and former lover who has been given a prestigious award.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lady for a Day

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Oh, boy. This is going to be interesting. Lady for a Day is a film that takes a hard turn. Unlike most films, this one takes that turn in the first half hour rather than at the end. There’s no real indication at the start of the film that this is going to turn into a screwball comedy, but that’s precisely where we end up going. Lady for a Day seems to have its heart in the right place, but how it gets there is completely backwards.

We start with Apple Annie (May Robson), a destitute and seedy apple peddler working the streets of New York. The vision we’re given of Annie is not a pleasant one. She spends a good deal of her time two-fisting a huge bottle of booze. She’s got two things going for her. First, she has an in with Dave the Dude (Warren William), a local gambler. The Dude is convinced that he only has luck if he buys one of Annie’s apples. The other thing she has going for her is her daughter Louise (Jean Parker). She hasn’t seen Louise in years since the girl was raised from infancy in a Spanish convent. When she’s not hawking apples, Annie writes letters to her daughter on stationery stolen from a classy hotel.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Passport to Pimlico

Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I imagine that when a screenwriter comes up with a truly original idea there is great excitement. Such must have been the case with Passport to Pimlico, a little Ealing comedy of such original idea that watching it unfold is a pure joy. The idea is absolutely one of its time and it doesn’t carry over as well 65 years later. Most viewers won’t really understand what it’s getting at without a little research. The research helped me, at least. It’s funny enough on its own, but the relevance to its time has been lost without attaching it to the history of its time.

In post-war London, a small neighborhood seems relatively ordinary with the common problems of the day; rationing is still going on, desired items are in short supply, and it’s too hot outside for anyone to think straight. A couple of unexploded bombs remain in the neighborhood and are scheduled for demolition. Some boys playing with a tractor tire lose control of it. It rolls down a hole and detonates one of the two bombs. Local merchant Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) slips into the hole and suffers a bump on the head. He’s certain that he sees something in the gloom, though.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nick's Picks: The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

Film: The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

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

Typically I do a summary of the films I review because I find that a convenient way to discuss many of the things that I’m most interested in talking about here. I like discussing aspects of plot and story and how these things work in the context of the film. With The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, I don’t have that luxury. Oh, I’m sure there’s a story here; I just don’t know what the hell that story is. There’s something about somebody betraying people and then hunting them down and a guy who escapes and becomes a monk. Or something. I don’t care. You don’t watch this movie for the scintillating wit of the dialogue or the intricacies of the storyline. You watch this because Gordon Liu kicks a significant amount of ass. I’ve watched this, and watched a couple of the fight sequences several times and I still don’t even know what an eight diagram pole fighter is. Again, I don’t care.

Still, even though I’m not sure I actually followed the story, some talk about it is probably a good idea. We have a family of spear fighters. These are the Yangs, who evidently don’t have names. The Yangs are the two parents, seven sons, and two daughters. Rather than having names, they have numbers. The second-oldest son, for instance, is Yang 2 or Second Brother. Anyway, the Yang males are sent to a battle which proves to be an ambush from barbarians who have devised a staff with a flexible end specifically to defeat their spear techniques. The Yang patriarch, Yangs 1-4 and Yang 7 all get capped. Yang 6 returns home, but is insane. Yang 5 (Gordon Liu) is lost and winds up at a monastery.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

One of these days, smart filmmakers will devise something other than rape to serve as a crisis for women in a story. Oh, I understand that this happens on occasion, but there are times when it feels like “rape” is one of the most frequently written words on this blog. There’s only so much of it I can take before I’ve have enough. And when the topic is rape, I get to “enough” pretty quickly. In the world of film, “creepy rapist” is an occupation. And when the director is Roman Polanski, as with Tess, “creepy rapist” takes on new meaning. For added weirdness, Polanski made the film and dedicated it to Sharon Tate, his murdered wife, who had wanted him to make the film with her in the lead role.

Tess is the nearly three-hour epic version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, set at the end of the 19th century and concerning the young and pretty Tess Durbyfield (Nastassja Kinski). Tess is the daughter of John Durbyfield, who discovers that he is descended from the d’Urbervilles, a noble family with lineage extending back to William the Conqueror. However, the d’Urbervilles are all but gone with the male line having vanished. Interested in both the potential monetary gain and prestige, he sends Tess off to a local family with the same last name in hopes of being accepted.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Constant Nymph

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are stories that change dramatically in how they are seen over time. What seems normal for one era becomes bizarre or even disturbing for another. Such is the case with The Constant Nymph, which goes the Lolita route a decade and a half before Kubrick’s Lolita and plays things straight, not a hint of comedy. This may well have been the poignant story of a young girl madly in love with an older man in 1948, but seen today, the love comes off more as obsession. For what it’s worth, the obsession does come off as realistic. A great deal of that is thanks to Joan Fontaine.

A composer named Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) has received unkind notices on his latest composition. He decides to get away for a bit and goes to visit his friend and fellow composer Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), who lives with his third or fourth wife and multiple daughters in a Swiss chalet. Dodd is a frequent guest and everyone knows and loves him. This is especially true of Tessa Sanger (Joan Fontaine), Albert’s 14-year-old daughter. Evidently unknown to everyone but obvious to anyone, Tessa is madly in love with Dodd, and it’s evident that the two have some level of spiritual connection. For Dodd, this is not romantic, but for Tessa, it is the stuff that romantic dreams are made of.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Secret of Kells

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes you find something that you really didn’t expect. Such was the case with The Secret of Kells for me. I’ve been trying to knock out animated films pretty regularly, since that’s an area where I have regularly been lax on this blog, and it just happened that this film is currently streaming. I expected pretty much standard animated fare. What I got instead was the sort of eye-opening film experience I had watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This is not a film that you watch for the story, although the story is very good. This is a film to experience for the gorgeous artwork.

It doesn’t look like this at first. In fact, the animation looks initially rather rudimentary and old, not at all like the three-dimensional work of modern animation. It’s disconcerting at first, and then the reality dawns: the animation is specifically designed to look like an ancient illuminated manuscript. Original story author and co-director Tomm Moore said that after seeing the culturally-inspired artwork of Mulan, he wanted to do something similar with Irish heritage and art. The result is a film that is uniquely gorgeous. To do this, he used a fictionalized account of a fictional version of the Book of Kells, and illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, something considered one of Ireland’s greatest cultural relics.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I like it when a movie doesn’t assume that I’m stupid. I like it even better when a film gives me a collection of characters that are smart. Watching dumb people in crisis doesn’t do anything for me. Watching smart people working out a problem is inherently more interesting. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a film that gives me a lot of what I’m looking for in that respect. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to make a film about racism in 1967; in fact, all three of Sidney Poitier’s films from that year have a touch of racism in the plot. I like In the Heat of the Night for the smart decision to make the racism a two-way street. I like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for its ability to identify racism where we don’t expect it.

This is a film that has, admittedly, aged poorly. What was a hot-button issue the year that I was born is something that is socially acceptable in all but the most backwards parts of this country and the civilized world. The racism we’re dealing with here is not the violence prevalent in so many films of this subject, but the much more nuanced topic of interracial relationships. In fact, that’s the whole plot. Here it is in a nutshell: lily-white Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) brings home John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) to meet her parents and tell them that they are engaged. And, of course, John Prentice is black.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The LEGO Movie

Format: Carmike Market Square 10.

So like everyone else this weekend, I packed up the kids and went to see The LEGO Movie. The movie itself is an absolute delight. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s smart, and it has one of the best endings I’ve come across in ages. The theater experience, though, was not a good one. The oman sitting next to my older daughter dropped her soft drink on Gail’s shoes. A number of parents were the type who don’t actually control their children as evidenced by the young child who spent the movie jumping up and down the stairs in the back. The adult man who sat behind me apparently thought that this was the funniest movie he ever saw, which caused me to miss probably 15% of the dialogue. I expected this, but that doesn’t make it less troubling.

Anyway, after an introduction that introduces us to the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and an artifact called The Kragle, we get to our main story. Our hero is Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt), who is completely average as a LEGO minifig. He works in construction, which in the LEGO world consists of putting together LEGO bricks according to a set of instructions. In fact, Emmet lives his entire life by a set of instructions in a desire to fit in completely. Did I mention that this is entirely in a LEGO world?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunrise at Campobello

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I seem to be watching a lot of biopics lately. That might be coincidence or it might be that a lot of biopics get nominated for various Oscars. In the case of Sunrise at Campobello, the Oscar it was nominated for is not obvious upon watching. If you’d asked me to guess the nomination, I’ve have picked Ralph Bellamy’s portrayal of FDR without hesitation. But, instead we get Greer Garson’s odd version of Eleanor Roosevelt as the nominated performance here.

Instead of looking at FDR’s presidency, Sunrise at Campobello looks instead at his illness. According to legend, Roosevelt suffered from a bout of polio that left him paralyzed, unusual because it happened well into his adult life. That’s the theory the film works with, too. The current belief is that it’s much more likely he suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome, since it has the same general symptoms, fits more closely with what he did experience, and is much more likely to occur in adults. Regardless, that’s what we’re dealing with here.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Captain Phillips

Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Say “pirate” and most people these days think of Captain Jack Sparrow. In their defense, that’s pretty much what we’ve been trained to think of, and I’m guilty of the same thing. In truth, modern pirates are much closer to how they are depicted in Captain Phillips. They are sweaty, desperate men who are looking to make money. I had mixed feelings going in to Captain Phillips. I often do going into films based on a true story, especially when I know how that story turned out. Some films are able to overcome that, but I’m always skeptical.

Captain Phillips is the story from a couple of years ago when a Maersk ship was attacked by a small group of Somali pirates and the captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) was taken hostage on the lifeboat. Because this is a fairly recent event, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Richard Phillips made it out alive. What that means for me is, since I know where we’re going to end up and the fate of the pirates, my opinion is going to be based on the performances and the direction more than anything else.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every now and then, it’s fun to be really surprised by an actor’s range. I went into Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet as someone comfortable with seeing Edward G. Robinson on the screen. When I think of Robinson, I think of a particular character type. Specifically, I think of a guy with a bit of a Napoleon complex, tougher than his size might indicate, and not willing to take crap from anyone. That’s who he played as a bad guy (Little Caesar) and it’s who he played as a good guy (Double Indemnity). So what a revelation to see him in a film like this one.

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is a film that barely made it past the Hays Code, since it’s about the creation of the vaccine to cure syphilis. According to the Code, making a venereal disease one of the main plot points of a film was a big no-no. It took some convincing to allow the film to be made, and it was a bit of a tap dance that involved saying that the syphilis part was only a minor aspect of the actual plot. It’s not the whole film, but it is pretty much the entire third act.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


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

I like Frank Langella. I liked him early in his career when he was playing in B-level Dracula films, and I like him now that his career has had something of character actor resurgence. There’s a quality to Langella that reminds me somewhat of my father. My dad is a decent guy, but he can be intimidating at times. There are moments with him that feel like a job interview. I get that sort of sense from Langella, that he is somewhat physically imposing, that there would be a sense of always being aware of being in his presence.

While I like a lot of Langella’s work and a lot of his films (Dave, The Ninth Gate, Good Night and Good Luck), I think Frost/Nixon is his best work. He looks nothing like Richard Nixon, and he does get some of the quality of his voice, but what he really gets is the man’s presence. There is a sense that we’re seeing something like the spirit of the man if not the man himself. Frost/Nixon takes on the story of the unique interviews of Richard Nixon after his presidency by British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen).

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Bad Seed

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the topic of creepy movie killers comes up, Rhoda Penmark belongs in the top five. Rhoda is a sociopath, willing to kill anyone for any slight or any other reason she can imagine. She hides her murderous intent behind an overly sweet manner that causes others to find her completely innocent. What makes her special? Two things. First, unlike many a movie serial killer, Rhoda Penmark is eight. Second, unlike many a movie underaged killer, Rhoda Penmark has no touch of the supernatural about her. There’s no vampirism or demonic possession here. She’s just a genuinely evil little girl behind her blond pigtails. And that’s what makes The Bad Seed so interesting.

That paragraph above, in addition to being something like a character study of Rhoda, is also pretty close to a plot summary. We’re introduced to Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) as she says goodbye to her military father, who has been sent off to Washington. Initially, we are given to thinking that Rhoda is very much the perfect child, a little too perfect, perhaps. We learn about the taps she has put on her shoes, her piano lessons, and more. And then, the subject of the penmanship award at school comes up, an award that Rhoda lost to another child. Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) and the family’s landlord and neighbor Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) don’t consider the award a big deal, but it’s evident that Rhoda is terribly troubled by not winning.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I woke up this morning, I had no plans to watch Capote. The reported death of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier today forced my hand, though. His death is a damn tragedy and a waste of a tremendous talent. What better way to honor one of the great actors of this generation than to watch the film that earned him his Best Actor Oscar? And so, Capote, a film that I was planning on holding back and saving for a day when I needed a film I knew I really liked.

Like many a biopic, Capote doesn’t cover the full life of Truman Capote but instead focuses on what became the most significant event of his life: the investigation and writing of In Cold Blood, the first non-fiction novel. In Cold Blood is the story of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas on a night in November in 1959. I’ve read In Cold Blood. It’s a hell of a book, the sort of thing that anyone interested in really excellent writing should read. What Capote suggests is that the creation of the book was far more than simple.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Lost Horizon

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I wasn’t too keen on Lost Horizon showing up at my door. On the 1001 Movies list, four of the entries were also included in the “50 Worst Films of All Time” book that my brother Tom had, and I at least disliked all of them and hated several. I was under the impression that Lost Horizon was a part of that book, too. It is, but it’s the version from 1973, not this one. Let me tell you, that was a significant relief on my part. I’m hoping to be done with anything that was in Medved’s book.

So this is not that film. In this one, a group of Westerners are attempting to leave China on the eve of the Japanese invasion. Of particular interest is Robert “Bob” Conway (Ronald Colman), who has worked for the British Foreign Office for years. His brother George (John Howard) is convinced that he is about to be named the new Foreign Minister. Why else would the British have assigned a ship to him, awaiting his arrival in Shanghai? Eventually, the brothers climb aboard a final plane with three other potential refugees. These are a paleontologist named Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) , a mystery man named Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and a sickly woman named Gloria (Isabel Jewell). They discover mid-way through their flight to Shanghai that they have, in fact, been shanghaied and are instead heading in the wrong direction.