Thursday, May 29, 2014

Can't Send No Postcards

Film: Letters from Iwo Jima
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I consider myself a fan of Ken Watanabe for the same reason that I’m a fan of people like Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and David Gulpilil: they all have gravitas. There is a presence that each of them (and many others) bring to every role they undertake. When Watanabe is on screen, I want to watch him. Letters from Iwo Jima may not be my favorite of his films (I have a soft spot for Tampopo), but it might be his most impressive role.

As the name of the film implies, this is a war film. What makes it particularly unusual is that despite its being directed by Clint Eastwood, most of the film is in Japanese. This is, after all, the Japanese side of the battle for Iwo Jima. The Japanese lost this battle, with both sides taking horrific casualties. That known going in, this was never going to be a fun romp in the park.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Doing Time

Film: Brubaker
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I imagine for a particular type of actor, playing the crusading hero is kind of fun. Personally, I’d rather play villains because they tend to get the best lines. But at a particular stage in a career, I guess a lot of actors want to look back at something they did that might have had more of an impact than just cackling madly and chewing scenery. Thus we get Robert Redford’s performance in Brubaker where he plays the role of a crusading prison warden.

We don’t know this initially, by the way. The film begins with Henry Brubaker (Redford) riding on a bus to Wakefield State Prison in an unknown (but likely Southern, based on accents) state. For all we know, he’s just one of the inmates. What he finds is a place rife with disturbing behaviors, terrible conditions, and a great deal of illegal activity from the higher-ups and many of the prisoners. The general population is given sub-standard food that is rife with maggots, sleep in terrible conditions, and are farmed out as slave labor for local businesses. The prisoners who act as trustees actually live pretty well. The food grown on the prison farm is sold off to businesses at a profit, and the food the prison buys for the inmates is also sold for a profit. When one of the death row inmates (played by Morgan Freeman in his first credited big screen role) threatens the life of another inmate (David Keith), Brubaker blows his cover and starts reforming the prison.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Matthew 6:28

Film: Lilies of the Field
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Apparently it’s nun week here at 1001plus. I’m not sure why this is, but I should probably track down The Nun’s Story while this particular iron is hot. I knew nothing about Lilies of the Field when it showed up from NetFlix, so imagine my surprise when I popped it into the spinner and it proved to be another film with a significant nun component. It also has a significant Sidney Poitier component, and that’s rarely a bad thing. Rather than being put out by the small convent, I decided to instead be happy that it wasn’t merely a Sidney Poitier film, but one for which he won an Oscar.

So let’s talk high concept for a moment here. At its heart, Lilies of the Field is a simple story. An itinerant handyman named Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) finds himself on the property of a small group of nuns. He offers to fix a fence he sees four of the sisters struggling with but is instead sent to fix the roof. Expecting to be paid, he’s instead given a meager dinner at the behest of Mother Maria (Lilia Skala). The next day, it’s more of the same. Homer eventually figures out that Maria wants him to build them a chapel. She also wants him to do virtually everything else for the nuns, including providing English lessons.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Heaven Knows Why I Watched

Film: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s something about war films from the middle of the last century that lend themselves to a religious message. In a way, it kind of makes sense. If we believed that we were in the right in the war, and I’d argue that we did have the moral high ground in World War II, it would make sense for us to assume that we had God on our side. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison takes this to some extremes, with Deborah Kerr substituting for God in this case. We’ve got an interesting proposition here, something that is part war story, part religious screed, part Robinson Crusoe. In some sense, it’s not sure what it wants to be, which makes it less than the sum of its parts.

We start simply enough. A lone marine who eventually claims to be named Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) washes up on the shore of what initially appears to be a deserted South Pacific island. A little investigation reveals what appears to be a small church. This is inhabited by Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), the only current inhabitant of the island. After their initial meeting, we learn a little of how the two have found themselves in this unique situation. For Allison’s part, he was disembarking from a sub when his ship started to draw fire. The sub captain essentially abandoned him and some other marines, leaving Allison to drift. Sister Angela’s story is a bit more convoluted.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Owner's Manual Not Included

Film: How to Train Your Dragon
Format: Streaming video from Amazon on rockin’ flatscreen.

Movies made for kids have a few basic formulas. The most common of this is a kid or small group of kids (or alternatively something kid-like) who are misfits from their society who then discover something important and through a variety of trials end up changing their society. Done well, you get Ratatouille. Done less well, you get A Bug’s Life. Really, the formula itself is set; the quality of the movie comes almost exclusively from how well the elements are created and meshed together. Tack on a good story and smart performances, and you might have something great. This is the formula for How to Train Your Dragon, meaning that the question that needs to be answered isn’t specifically how the story will turn out, but how good is the journey to that ending.

I’m going to start with my complaints because I really want to spend the bulk of this talking about just how much this film gets right. In the complaint department, I have only one real thing to talk about: the characters’ accents. How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a Viking village. Who decided that Vikings should sound like they’re from Scotland? If we’re looking for some cultural touchstone, they should sound closer to the Swedish Chef. I suppose that no one would take them seriously if they were running around saying, “Hingy dingy horsky dorp dorp dorp,” but that’s not an excuse to have them sound like a gang of Glaswegians. And beyond that, it’s the adults who sound like they should be wearing kilts; the kids all sound like they’re from Iowa.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Character Study

Film: Tender Mercies
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

After the last three reviews that I’ve posted, I have to say I wasn’t especially pleased when I cracked open the NetFlix envelope and found a movie called Tender Mercies. I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a film by its name, but sometimes it’s impossible not to. Hell, I was right about Terms of Endearment and Crimes of the Heart, after all. Knowing that I need to turn around NetFlix discs as quickly as possible just to keep up, I resigned myself to a week of films I didn’t like much and was pleasantly surprised by what I got from this one.

Tender Mercies isn’t really a film that has a plot running through it. Instead, it’s a character study, and it’s pretty effective one. Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a country singer who has more than reached the end of his career. Divorced from his wife, a singer, Mac has found himself nursing a hangover, broke, and abandoned in a motel in the middle of nowhere in Texas. To pay for his room, he agrees to help out the proprietor, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who runs the motel and gas station with her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard). After a few days, with his room paid off, he asks if he can stay. Rosa Lee agrees, offering him room, board, and the princely sum of $2 per hour.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Song that Almost Never Ends

Film: Interrupted Melody
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve never made it a secret that I’m not a fan of musicals in general. When that musical is actually opera, I cringe even more. So it’s no surprise that Interrupted Melody has been sitting on my DVR since mid-December. I haven’t wanted to watch it. In fact, I’ve honestly been dreading it. I tried to watch it a few months ago and didn’t get past the first few notes of operatic soprano belting before it was time to try something else. Little did I know that the opera would be the least egregious part of this film.

Interrupted Melody is the story of Marjorie Lawrence, a woman who went from the Australian outback to an internationally acclaimed diva. The high concept part of the film is that at the height of her career, Lawrence was stricken with polio, cutting her career short and spiraling her into a depression. This was the film that I expected, and I suppose that in some sense I got it, but it takes us some time to get there.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Old English

Film: Berkeley Square
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve been recording rare movies off Turner Classic movies for a number of months. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t allow me to watch those movies that often, which means my DVR is getting full. Since I did hace the opportunity tonight, I figured why not get one of those recorded rarities out of the way? Almost at random I selected Berkeley Square. I’m pleased with it in only the most perverse way Watching it now means I can delete it from the DVR and I never have to worry about it again.

We start in the year following the American Revolutionary War. Young Peter Standish (Leslie Howard) has traveled to England on a slow boat to encounter and then marry his cousin Kate Pettigrew (Valerie Taylor). The Pettigrews need the marriage because they’re socially rich and cash poor and Standish has a great deal of cash. Everything seems to be fine until the moment that Peter is to enter the Pettigrew home, and he seems to vanish for a bit.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Nick's Pick: The Room

Film: Nick’s Pick: The Room
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

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

I make my composition students do presentations on the last day of class. They hate it, but I think it’s good to give them the experience of speaking in front of a room. Also, it makes for an easy class for me. One piece of advice I give them is that those people who are truly terrified of speaking in front of a room should volunteer to go early and get it over with. After doing one-third of Nick’s choices, I had to wonder why I wasn’t taking my own advice. Of the movies Nick has selected for me, there are some I’m interested in seeing, some I have no opinion of, and one that I was actively dreading. Knowing that anticipation would just get worse if I didn’t do something about it, I put The Room at the top of my queue. And here we are.

The Room was written, produced, and directed by its star, Tommy Wiseau. He evidently created a company (Wiseau Pictures) for this and had two logos made, because two different versions appear before the film. That right there is a small indication of the sort of competence and rational decision making that leads to films like The Room. I’d call this film Wiseau’s brainchild, but it’s much more his brain afterbirth. Anyway, I digress.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Original American Hustle(r)

Film: The People vs. Larry Flynt
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Once upon a time, I worked in the computer and video game industry. One of the magazines that was a competitor of mine was called Video Games and Computer Entertainment. That magazine was printed by LFP, short for Larry Flynt Publications. What this means is that for about five years, I was a direct competitor of one of Larry Flynt’s magazines. One of the editors at VG&CE was a guy named David Moskowitz. At trade shows, a lot of the magazine guys hung out together. Moskowitz and I traded stories about our bosses to see who worked for the crazier guy. He won most of those competitions, although not all of them. So at some level, I have a personal connection to The People vs. Larry Flynt.

As the title implies, this is the story of pornographer Larry Flynt, best known for publishing Hustler magazine. While there’s a lot here about the early years of Flynt’s career and the building of his empire, the bulk of the film is about his legal troubles and the case that eventually carried him to the Supreme Court. We start with Flynt as a child and immediately jump forward to his strip club in Ohio. Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and his brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelso) aren’t doing well financially. Looking for a new way to publicize their club, they create a newsletter/magazine which eventually becomes Hustler magazine. On the brink of financial ruin, Flynt purchases nude photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and suddenly his fortune is made.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Race Relations

Film: Mississippi Burning
Format: DVD from Yorkville Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I go back and forth on the term “Oscar bait.” There are times when I see the phrase as something just as derogatory as “chick flick” and other times when it feels completely warranted. A film like Mississippi Burning is very much a film made with Oscar in mind. It would be difficult for it not to be. This is a film all about the Civil Rights movement, based loosely on a true story, and featuring a trio of murdered civil rights workers in the deep, deep South. With a halfway decent script and the right performances, the nominations will follow.

It helps to have a hell of a cast. Mississippi Burning features a cast of people who were stars (or at least known) when the film was made and a handful of others who have gone on to pretty nice careers. The cast is the sort of thing a filmmaker would sell his or her soul for: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand for starters. Toss in Brad Dourif, Michael Rooker, Tobin Bell, Stephen Tobolowski, R. Lee Ermey, and that-guys Kevin Dunn, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and you have the sort of cast able to give those performances necessary to secure nominations.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Film: In Old Chicago
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve set up my NetFlix queue to be frontloaded with all of the “very long wait” films at the top. What this means is that I typically get one of those films because there are so many of them. That’s great, but it also means that what shows up on a given day is something of a crapshoot. I’m never sure what I’m going to get, and sometimes I get something that’s not really what I’m in the mood to watch. Such is the case with In Old Chicago, a bizarre little film that combines a lot of plots and a spurious legend.

What spurious legend? That’s not too difficult to figure out. The film takes place in Chicago in the 1870s and the main characters last name is O’Leary. Think there’s going to be a fire? Think it might get started by a cow kicking over a lantern? The shame of In Old Chicago is that it isn’t specifically about the Chicago fire, because that might have been more interesting and certainly would have been a hell of a lot less misogynistic.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Off Script: Phantasm

Film: Phantasm
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Everyone had holes in his or her viewing history. The main reason I started this blog was to fill in a bunch of those holes and to do so in a way where I couldn’t weasel out of watching something. That’s the reason for the horror lists, too. I caught up on a few biggies going through the 1001 Movies list, but there are some genre classics that didn’t make that list. It’s always good when I can knock one of those bona fide classics off the list. In this case, that classic I’d never seen is Phantasm.

Oh, I’d heard all about it, of course. The most famous parts of the film are the presence of a character called The Tall Man (played by the awesomely named Angus Scrimm) and the flying silver ball that kills whatever it strikes. What I didn’t know was just how weird this film really is. It’s the sort of film that doesn’t really make sense no matter how one looks at it. It just gets crazier and crazier as it continues. I should have realized this when I discovered it was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, who is the man behind The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep, and John Dies at the End.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Casey Jones

Film: The Train
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

The Train is the third war film I’ve watched in as many days. It occurred to me halfway through the film that in addition to watching three war films, I’ve hit three of the main branches of military service. Where The Sand Pebbles was a Navy film and Twelve O’Clock High concerned the Air Force, The Train is firmly rooted on the ground. It’s a film that is firmly involved with the French Resistance rather than any Army. It’s an unusual film in a lot of ways. It’s other difference from the two I’ve watched recently is that it focuses almost exclusively on action, giving us chases, air attacks, and explosions at a solid clip.

The plot is almost high concept in its simplicity. Allied troops are rapidly approaching Paris in 1944. As the Allies advance, Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) concerns himself not with his troops or the retreat of materiel, but of the many art treasures looted from French museums. It is his intent to smuggle as many of these back to Berlin as he can, both for cultural reasons and because such paintings can effectively be used as currency in the waning days of the war. A museum curator learns of this plan and tells a local Resistance group headed by train engineer Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster). This particular group has been ground down over the course of the war and has only three members left. They decide that despite the monetary and cultural value of the artwork, they don’t have the manpower to stop it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bombs Away

Film: Twelve O’Clock High
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

So the goofy post titles are back. Final results were 13 in favor, 3 against, and 3 who didn’t care.

I appear to be on a war film kick lately. I’m not sure what appealed to me about Twelve O’Clock High today, but since it was streaming I figured I’d give it a go. This is much more of a standard war movie than yesterday’s film. As someone who grew up watching military films, it was not unlike slipping into an old pair of comfortable shoes. This is World War II all the way and air combat all the way. I felt right at home.

At least for the first couple of minutes, that is. We learn right away that while Twelve O’Clock High isn’t going to show us a lot of graphic violence, it’s not going to pull its punches with regard to the men flying bomber missions over Europe. We start with a short framing story. A man unknown to us discovers an old mug in an antique shop and buys it. He then travels out to an open field that used to be a World War II airbase. This takes us into the past and we see a group of bombers returning from a mission. Any illusions we may have had that this will be straight propaganda are blown out right away. The bomber group has been hit hard.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Sand Pebbles

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I have come to realize that a lot of the films I’ve been watching lately are extremely short. I do plan to watch everything on these lists, but watching too many short films leaves me in a position of only having the longest films left. When I did the 1001 List, I made it a point to watch a few of the longest films on the list I had left every month. It worked then and it should work now. With that in mind, it made sense to watch one of the longest films I could get hold of today in The Sand Pebbles, a very unusual war film and a very long one.

This is a very strange war film in that it takes place between World War I and II. In a real sense, it’s not an actual war film because there isn’t a great deal of war that happens with the main characters of the film. We start with machinist mate 1st class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) who is in Shanghai attempting to get to his new ship, an ancient gunboat called the San Pablo, nicknamed the Sand Pebble by the crew. The ship is an American presence in China, where a great deal of trouble is brewing. The country is torn apart by factions, predominantly the Nationalists and the communists. Holman finds his ship and discovers a few important points.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Off Script: Kwaidan

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin flatscreen.

The pedigree of the film Kwaidan (also called Kaidan and roughly translated as Ghost Stories) is unique to say the least. The four tales in this anthology come from collections of Japanese folk tales compiled by a man with the awesome name of Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was originally from the Ionian Islands, married a black woman (illegal in the 1870s), worked in New Orleans, and eventually emigrated Japan. Hearn is a big part of the reason Japan and the East were romanticized and made exotic at the time.

Anyway, Kwaidan is a collection of four stories. The film is a good 160 minutes long, though, so rather than feeling like a typical anthology, it feels much more like four short films, each roughly 40 minutes long (although the third story is longer and the last story is quite short). I’d love to say that the stories get better as they go along, but they’re uneven in that respect. In a lot of ways, the fourth story is the worst, and for me at least, the third was the most interesting.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


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

I don’t have a problem with cute. It’s just that I’m not under the impression that naivety equates with cute. That’s the central conceit of Lili. At some point, at least in my opinion, naivety plays like stupidity, and I can’t find that interesting at all. I admit there’s a fine line to walk here. If the goal was simply innocence, the filmmakers went far beyond that with our title character. I’m certain the world is full of people who look at the wide-eyed, lost lamb appearance of Leslie Caron and have their hearts melt. I’m not one of those people.

On top of this problem is the fact that a massive amount of this film deals with puppets. I don’t like puppets. I’m not scared of them or unnerved by them and I don’t actively hate them; I just don’t particularly like them. These puppets play into the singular naivety of our title character, too, because she talks to them and sings with them. It’s like Rain Man goes to the carnival. I want to be clear on this—it’s a childlike quality that is fine in children and obnoxious in anyone of a double-digit age. It’s not specifically stupidity or lack of education, but an apparent inability to consider others as separate entities. In the world of our character Lili (played by Leslie Caron), everyone is interested in what she is because she is interested in it. Everyone knows what she knows because she knows it. It’s like she missed that stage in development where we learn that other people have different perspectives and experiences that we do. Again, I find it difficult (to put it mildly) to find that endearing.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming

Format: Streaming video from Watch TCM on laptop.

Turner Classic Movies has a service that allows people with particular satellite or cable packages to watch a collection of movies online or on a smart phone. I thought I’d check it out. There aren’t a ton of films on my lists available at the moment, but it’s always good to check out a new service. One of the films available for a few more days is The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, which is a “very long wait” film on NetFlix. It seemed like a good choice.

It’s a good bet with a title like this one that we’re not going to be spending a lot of time dealing with heavy drama. We’re not. This is a farce, and it was made in a time when people knew how to make farces, particularly when it came to international conflict. This is from a couple of years after Dr. Strangelove and a few years before Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, after all.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Three Smart Girls

Format: DVD from Netflix on laptop.

I’ve had a couple of objections to films recently, so it’s mildly refreshing when I find one like Three Smart Girls that more or less demonstrates the other side of those rants. I complained, for instance, about people playing roles much younger than the actor’s actual age. In this film, Deanna Durbin plays a 14-year-old, but she was 14 or 15 when the film was shot. That works. I’ve complained about melodrama. Three Smart Girls has a large dose of melodrama in it, but it’s also a comedy, so it plays that for laughs. I find this still a difficult film to love, but it does enough right that it’s able to at least go down easily.

The biggest issue is that, once again from a film in the height of the Depression, it’s a rich white people problems film. Actually, it’s a precursor to The Parent Trap in a lot of ways. Three girls, Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny (Deanna Durbin in her major debut), discover that their estranged father is about to be remarried. Their father has been estranged from the family for 10 years, meaning that none of the girls really know him that well and Penny barely remembers him. Nevertheless, since “Mummy” (Nella Walker) has carried a torch for 10 years, they determine to break up the impending nuptials and get their parents back together. Did I mention that the three girls live on their father’s money in Switzerland? Or that said father, Judson Craig (Charles Winninger) is a multi-millionaire banker?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Their Own Desire

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When one looks at the earliest films in Oscar’s arsenal, one is apt to find films in which the plot seems to simply be bizarre by modern standards. Their Own Desire is a case in point. This is a weird little film, and I stress the word “little” because the running time barely scrapes past an hour. In a way, it reminds me of a film like Dodsworth in that it is an ultimate white people problems film, or at least a rich people problems film. Seriously, the thing starts with a polo match, and the players in the game are our main characters. I’ve not only never played polo, I don’t know anyone who has.

Anyway, Lucia “Lally” Marlett (Norma Shearer) has the sort of life that most people in 1929, pre- or post-crash would have loved to have. She and her family play polo and have more money than they can spend. Tragically, sadness has crept into the Marlett home. Lally’s father Henry (Lewis Stone) has been carrying on a year-long affair with a woman known to us only as Mrs. Cheever (Helene Millard). Lally discovers this as her parents have decided on a divorce. After a heated argument with her father, Lally heads off to summer with her mother (Belle Bennett).

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Kitty Foyle

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

There’s a weird sense of the archaic with Kitty Foyle. The first five minutes give us a “history” of women in the white collar workforce. The implication offered is unflattering to say the least. According to the opening, before women got themselves all that equality like the right to vote, men would happily give up their seats in a trolley car for a woman. Afterwards, well, let ‘em stand. These scenes are interspersed with text that appears as if it has been carefully cross-stitched. It would be offensive if it weren’t so goofy.

Anyway, we soon meet our heroine, the eponymous Kitty Foyle (Ginger Rogers), a white collar worker in an office of same. Released from the workday at 5:30, the women head off into the night looking for dates, because remember, this is 1940. What women want is not a job but a man, and Kitty is no different. The man in question for her is Mark (James Craig), a doctor who postpones their dinner to conduct an emergency baby delivery. While Kitty holds the newborn babe and Mark cleans himself up, he asks her to marry him and she says yes.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Member of the Wedding

Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There are times when I’m surprised that a given film has a history of coming from the stage. Then there are films like The Member of the Wedding that display their stage background like a badge. Part of that in this case is the way it is staged and filmed. The lion’s share, though is the way that it’s acted, particularly in the case of Julie Harris.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of this, I have a rant I need to get off my chest first. I realize that Julie Harris played this role on the Broadway stage but it doesn’t change the fact that she was 27 years old playing the role of a 12-year-old girl. Now, Julie Harris does look quite a bit younger than her 27 years here, but 12? Brandon De Wilde was 10 and playing 7, but that’s quite a bit different. Now, it’s possible that someone could argue that the role of Frankie Addams required someone of more emotional depth than a typical child could play, but I still don’t buy it.