Thursday, July 31, 2014

Off Script: Marathon Man

Film: Marathon Man
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Every year, I make a list of suggestions of films that I think should be on the 1001 Movies list. The first time I did that, one of the movies I suggested was Marathon Man. I like ‘70s thrillers, and Marathon Man is one of the best. The surface complexity masks a very simple story, the villain is one of the best in movie history, and the violence is pretty brutal in places without this really going anywhere near horror territory. Put another way, it does a lot right without getting much wrong.

The success of the film, at least to me, is the difference between that surface complexity and the actual story at work. On the surface, we’ve got Nazi doctors, diamond smuggling, conspiracy, murder…it never seems to end. In reality, though, the story is really about one man’s paranoia spiraling out of control and resulting in about a dozen deaths.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Can't Go Left in General Pinochet's Cadillac

Film: Missing
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

You know you’ve made it as an official badass filmmaker when the United States government is forced to make a statement on the film once it is released. Additional street cred is available when your film is temporarily pulled from distribution because the filmmaker and its company are being sued by a former U.S. ambassador for defamation of character. Welcome to the world of Costa-Gavras’s Missing. While Missing never mentions Chile, it is quite obviously about the coup against Salvador Allende. Former ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis and others sued director Costa-Gavras, MCA, and Thomas Hauser, author of the book “The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice.” Missing wasn’t re-released on DVD until 2006, meaning that in a lot of ways, we’re lucky to be able to see it.

First, a short and extremely cursory history lesson. Salvador Allende was a democratically elected president of Chile. He also happened to be a Marxist, which immediately made him the enemy of the American government. In 1973, a military coup deposed and killed Allende, putting General Augusto Pinochet in his place, a military junta that ruled in Chile until 1990. Charles Horman was a real person, and he really did disappear in Chile during the Pinochet coup, and as the name of the book indicates, Horman disappeared only in the sense that he was taken and killed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Meals for One

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

I said recently that I’ve been getting a lot of films that are converted from stage dramas lately, and yesterday I got a film written by a stage author that could have easily been a stage play. That trend is continuing tonight with Separate Tables, a film nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, a play of the same name by Terrence Rattigan. This is an interesting film if only for its content; it’s surprisingly sexually charged for 1958, and most of this sexual charge is not of a positive nature.

The story is more or less a story of relationships and how those relationships interconnect at a hotel in Bournemouth. One of the features of this hotel is dining at separate tables, meaning that each of the guests dines alone or with a companion with whom he or she shares a room. At meal time at least, everyone is in his or her own little world. The entire story takes place in the hotel, which is really the main evidence that this comes from a stage play. The most we ever change scenes is room to room, or now and then to an outside porch.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I Looked Around to Find Her but She'd Gone

Film: The Goodbye Girl
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

There’s a huge failing at the heart of The Goodbye Girl. This is a film that tries very hard to be likable, cute, and funny and parts of it are. Parts of it, though, and some of the main pieces that are to be likable, cute, and funny are absolutely the opposite. It takes what could have been a really solid entry into the romantic comedy genre and drops it down a few significant pegs. That’s kind of a shame.

This is not, as it happens, the first time I’ve seen The Goodbye Girl. I remember it as a film that had some things I really liked about it and a few things that I was iffy on. This rewatch has skewed my opinion in both directions. The things I like about this film I like very much; the things I dislike, I dislike far more than I remembered and dislike them almost to the point of distraction.

Six Degrees of Separation Blogathon

I don't do a great number of blogathons, but when they fit into my posting schedule, I like to play along. This time, I was chosen by Jay Cluitt at Life vs. Film to participate in one that I have an interesting connection to. The Six Degrees of Separation Blogathon was started by Nostra at My Film Views. This is a fun one, so I'm happy to jump in with both feet. The idea here is pretty simple: connect one actor to another through six or fewer steps.

I said I have a connection to this, so it's time for a story. Years ago, I worked with a guy named Ted. One day, Ted returned from a vacation back home in Virginia. He said he'd met a guy in a bar who taught him a game where you connect actors to Kevin Bacon through six or fewer steps. About six months later, I was at work and my mom called me and told me to turn on the television. There was a group of guys on the Today Show explaining this book they'd just written about the Six Degrees of Bacon. I flipped on the television and Ted pointed to one of the guys, saying, "That's the guy I met in the bar." I don't claim to have invented this game, but I do claim to have known about it for about six months before almost everyone else.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Despite All My Rage, I'm Still Just a Rat in a Cage

Film: Mon Oncle d’Amerique
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

When a filmmaker does something truly different, it makes the job of a critic (or even someone who plays at criticism like me) much more difficult. On its surface, Mon Oncle d’Amerique is a film very much like any other. Three people have different stories that intersect in places and that are frequently affected by their past and their present. But the film is much more than that, because it is also something of a psychological study of the three people, that study being performed by Henri Laborit, who plays himself in the film as more or less a narrator and explainer of everything we see.

Essentially, the film is an exploration of Laborit’s ideas of how people function in society and what truly motivates us. In Laborit’s world, our higher brain functions exist essentially in service to those instincts that keep us alive. Those basic instincts are the need to survive, basic drives like sex, and the avoidance of pain. Frequently, our characters in the film are compared to rats in cages that elicit electric shock.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gay Paree

Film: Moulin Rouge (1952)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve been public about my dislike of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, so I’d be lying if I suggested that I was incredibly excited about seeing the version from 1952. Imagine my relief to discover that the one from a decade or so ago was not in fact a remake of the earlier film. Rather than being a romance that strongly mimicked Titanic, this film is almost a biopic of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. I won’t be lying when I tell you it felt like I’d dodged a bullet.

Anyway, we open at the eponymous Moulin Rouge, a nightclub/dancehall/disreputable bar in Paris. There’s dancing and singing and a lot of infighting between the dancers, especially La Goulue (Katherine Kath) and Aicha (Muriel Smith). We are also introduced to the club’s chanteuse Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and, of course, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec himself (Jose Ferrer). It’s not until the place closes that we really get a look at him, though. When he stands up, we discover that he is terribly short, like 4’6” short, and that this is primarily from a pair of seriously truncated legs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Do the Hustle

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

Slowly but surely I’m getting around to the most recent crop of Best Pictures. For today, this means one of the two pictures nominated for 10 awards. Sadly for American Hustle, it’s the film that came up 0-for-10 (Gravity was the other film with 10 nominations). For what it’s worth, Gangs of New York also went 0-for-10 and I love that movie, so I went into this with some expectations. It also got a lot of hype, so I had expectations on that end as well.

American Hustle is complicated as hell, probably too complicated for a full rundown on the plot, which means I’ll be talking more in generalities here. Why so complicated? Because it’s about a con, and a long con at that. There are a lot of players here and things quickly spin out of hand, which means that an accurate summation of events would be not only difficult but incredibly time consuming. So I’ll be hitting the high points rather than offering a complete blow-by-blow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Great Guns!

Film: The Guns of Navarone
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I’ve said before that I grew up on war movies. That’s true, but somehow I missed seeing The Guns of Navarone until tonight. I’m not sure how that happened, but it happens to be the case. I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this yet because it’s as pure a war movie as I’ve ever encountered and almost just as purely an action movie. Once it gets going, it doesn’t stop, but it’s not the constant combat of Black Hawk Down. In terms of classic war movies, though, it seems almost like the template.

Of course, it’s also just over 2 ½ hours long, which means there’s a hell of a lot to cover. I’m not going to go blow-by-blow, because this would end up being three times the length of my normal review. A little background would help, though. A group of British soldiers are trapped on an island in the Aegean Sea while Germany moves to bring Turkey into the war on the Axis side. Rescue of the men is impossible because a pair of radar-controlled guns present on the nearby island of Navarone. All attempts to knock out the guns have failed because they are located in a cave and protected on all sides. The Allies come up with a desperate plan.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rich People Problems

Film: Six Degrees of Separation
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I seem to have encountered a lot of films adapted from stage plays recently. That may just be my memory playing tricks on me. Anyway, Six Degrees of Separation is indeed adapted from a stage play, and Oscar nominee Stockard Channing played the role on stage before undertaking it on film. This is a difficult film for me for two primary reasons, both of which we’ll get to. It’s one where I kind of love the premise and hate the execution, which means the next few paragraphs should be interesting.

Let me say this right now. I hate everyone in this film. I hate them all. I hate the parents because they’re pretentious assholes and I hate their children for the spoiled, whiny assholes, snotty, bitchy, ungrateful piles of shit they are. I can’t imagine anyone liking these people at all. These aren’t movie rich people, these are the sorts of people who eat thousand dollar plates of food and complain that the china wasn’t shiny enough.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nick's Pick: Ink

Film: Ink
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

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

Nick has taken me to some unusual places in the past seven months as well as on our old podcast. Few are as strange as Ink, an indie film from 2009. Ink was made on the sort of budget that Michael Bay uses for a couple of days’ worth of Craft Services. There are times when that budget shows and many times where it looks as if writer/director Jamin Winans was well-funded. It leaves me with an interesting movie to discuss for the next several hundred words.

The plot…well, that’s kind of difficult because I’m not sure I fully understand it myself. I’ll do my best. Ink posits that there are creatures called Storytellers who give us our good dreams and there are evil creatures called Incubi who give us nightmares. There are also other spirits called Drifters that are neither one nor the other. One of these, named Ink, kidnaps a young girl and takes her to this other realm where these creatures live. In our world, young Emma (Quinn Hunchar) falls into a coma caused by some sort of undefined seizure.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

And There Goes Me Caring About It

Film: Here Comes the Navy
Format: TCM Watch on laptop.

The idea of a cursed production has probably been around for about as long as there have been productions of any sort of drama or comedy. Here Comes the Navy from 1934 is odd in that it was evidently cursed retroactively. There are two major vehicles from the U.S. Navy used in this film. One of them, the dirigible Macon, crashed in the Pacific the year after this film was made. The other was the USS Arizona, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor and still exists there as a monument to the men who died in that raid. It puts a very weird spin on a movie that is, essentially, a comedy, an unintended darkness that happened because reality crept in.

I knew nothing about this film going into it except that it was nominated for Best Picture. Turns out that a minute or two in I discover that it stars James Cagney. That’s generally a positive in my book; I like Cagney. It’s unfortunate that his name in this film is Chesty O’Conner, “Chesty” being short for Chester. Chesty is working construction on the docks near where the USS Arizona when he has a run-in with Biff Martin (Pat O’Brien), who is stationed on the ship. That night, at a party for the dockworkers, Chesty and Biff duke it out, and Biff wins the fight with a cheap shot. Adding insult to injury, Biff walks off with Gladys (Dorothy Tree), Chesty’s girl. The ultimate insult is that Chesty loses his job. With nothing better to do, he enlists in the Navy, hoping to be assigned to the Arizona. Because this is Hollywood, he is, and because this is Hollywood, his pal from basic, Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh), goes to the Arizona as well.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Immaculate Deception

Film: Agnes of God
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

A lot of general topics show up on the Oscar lists over and over again. For whatever reason, there is an awful lot of nuns on my lists. Perhaps there are people out there who find the very idea of nuns to be compelling. Perhaps it’s that nuns live such an unusual lifestyle that they are compelling by their very nature. Or perhaps it’s something else. With Agnes of God, it’s very much this something else. While based on a stage play, Agnes of God translates nicely to film in part because of its high concept.

So what is that high concept? Simple: a true innocent, a nun named Agnes (Meg Tilly) who has been raised virtually her entire life in a convent, gives birth to an unexplained child, not the least of that lack of explanation being that the mother is a nun. Just as problematic, the child is discovered dead shortly after the birth, with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. The court appoints a psychologist named Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) to unravel what happened. Dr. Livingston (and yes, there are a few “I presume” jokes) is both aided and thwarted by the efforts of Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft) who wants to both avoid further scandal and protect Sister Agnes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Film: Born on the Fourth of July
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again here—Tom Cruise can act. Admittedly, the typical go-to Tom Cruise role is more along the lines of Top Gun or the Mission: Impossible movies, but when he’s given a good role, the man knows what he’s doing. I’d love to see him play against type more often because when he does, he’s really, really good. Collateral and Rain Man are my Exhibit A and B most of the time, but I think I might start using Born on the Fourth of July from this point forward.

Born on the Fourth of July is the biography of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), an average American who signed up to fight in Vietnam and who happened to be literally born on July 4. We get a bit of Kovic’s youth in Massapequa, including the speech by a Marine recruiter (Tom Berenger). Tom and some of his friends, particularly Timmy (Frank Whaley) sign up and head off to the war, although not before we get to see Ron run through the rain, break into his prom and dance with Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), the girl he’s always been in love with.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nowhere to Run

Film: Black Hawk Down
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

When I was a lot younger and completely into war movies, there was a part of me that wondered what it would be like if the whole film was nothing but war. That, I figured, would be the coolest of all possible films. Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore because I’ve now seen Black Hawk Down. It takes some time for the film to get rolling into the action, but once it does, it’s pretty much shooting and explosions until the final credits. The actual shooting/war part of the film runs about 90 minutes, and it never lets up for more than a minute or two at a time.

Essentially, the film tells the story of the battle for Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. At that time, the country was torn apart by war and famine. The reason for the famine was that a presumptive warlord named Aidid controlled both Mogadishu and all of the incoming food. Keeping that food hostage and rationed allowed him to control the stomachs, and thus the people, of his entire country. A UN peacekeeping force went to the country and was eventually pulled back. Once that happened, Aidid declared war on the remaining UN forces and a war-torn country became ever worse.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hitchcock Goes to War

Film: Foreign Correspondent
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I didn’t realize before today that Foreign Correspondent was an Alfred Hitchcock film until the disc showed up. I’m certain that this is merely more evidence for the “You’re an idiot” crowd, but I’m okay with that. I’m not an encyclopedia. Anyway, Foreign Correspondent comes at an interesting point in Hitchcock’s career. In a lot of ways, it’s a throwback to films like Sabotage and The 39 Steps, yet has some similarities to a lot of his later films. This is something like a war film without really being one. When it was created, England and most of Europe were at war, but the U.S. (where Hitchcock had moved) was still neutral, a fact that will become part of a minor plot point at the end.

A newspaper editor (Harry Davenport) is unhappy with the quality of reporting he’s getting out of Europe as the continent slowly gears up for World War II. He decides that the best way to get the story is to stop relying on the “foreign correspondent” types and send over a solid writer more attuned to a crime beat. Enter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), who is sent off to Europe to find stories. He is also introduced to Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of a collective seeking peace on the continent. Because the name “Johnny Jones” doesn’t strike the editor as exotic or impressive enough, he christens his reporter Huntley Haverstock, which sounds like a name that comes equipped with a trust fund and a monocle.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Devil Went Up to New Hampshire

Film: The Devil and Daniel Webster
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t always understand the Academy. I understand exactly why Walter Huston was nominated for an acting award for The Devil and Daniel Webster. I’m just not sure why it was for Best Actor and not Best Supporting Actor. Huston is the heart and soul of this film without a doubt. He, and the music are the best reasons to spend your time with what would otherwise be a pretty trite morality play.

To get a grip on the story, take two parts Faust, one part A Christmas Carol, mix well, and cook at 350 for about 106 minutes. Seriously, this is about as close to high concept as you can get. A farmer who is experiencing a series of trials sells his soul to the devil for seven years of worldly success. At the end of those seven years, he begs American political legend Daniel Webster to come and argue his case and save his skin. That’s pretty much it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

You Don't Pick Your Parents

Film: I Never Sang for My Father
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Lots of people have a strained relationship with one or both parents. Because of this family stories are fertile ground for drama. I suspected from the title I Never Sang for My Father that we’d be heading in that direction here, and I wasn’t wrong. This film explores the relationship between father and son, primarily from the son’s perspective, and it does so beautifully.

Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) is a college professor whose wife has recently died. We find him in the airport waiting to great his parents on their return from Florida. We also learn virtually everything we need to know about their relationships when his parents get off the plane. Gene’s father Tom (Melvyn Douglas) is a man who is the very definition of self-made. He thinks highly of himself and a lot less of everyone else, including Gene. His mind is also starting to go a bit; moved forward to a more modern setting, and Tom Garrison would be in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Gene’s mother Margaret (Dorothy Stickney) is physically frail, having survived a heart attack, but mentally strong.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Et Cetera, et Cetera, et Cetera

Film: The King and I
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

While I’m not a massive fan of musicals, there are a few that are, more or less, required; you pretty much have to like them. I’d put The King and I into that category, or would have without question before today. It’s still a film that I have a great deal of respect for, but I can’t say that I’m as excited by it now as I may have been a couple of years ago since it had been years since I had seen it. Well, I’ve watched it again now, and it hasn’t aged quite as well as I could have hoped it would have.

The story is almost high concept in its simplicity. A traditional British widow named Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her son Louis (Rex Thompson) agree to come to Siam in the 1860s to act as a tutor and teacher for the many children of the king, Mongkut (Yul Brynner). The film is very much a clash of cultures, as Anna learns to deal with the extremely non-British culture of Siam and Mongkut learns to appreciate a point of view very different from his own. And, since this is a musical, there’s a lot of singing and dancing involved. This is a more traditional musical in the sense that the songs are not so much performances, but instances of people publically singing their feelings.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rules for Dating

Film: Of Human Bondage
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve been married for close to 23 years, so I’d understand it someone dismissed any dating advice I might give. Because it has been a number of years since I’ve been in that part of the world, there’s only one dating rule I remember for heterosexual men. Pardon the crudity, but that rule is, “Never stick it in crazy,” and I can’t but imagine that there’s variations of this for women and for men of different proclivities than mine. I think it’s a rule to live by, although I’ll certainly let my wife give this particular bit of advice to my daughters when they need it. I bring this up because Of Human Bondage is a short film about a guy who spends the whole film attempting to, well, stick it in crazy.

Or course, since this is from 1934, it’s going to be pretty tame in a lot of respects. Timid Philip (Leslie Howard) is cursed with a club foot, which has made him something of an emotional pushover. After spending a few years in Paris attempting and failing to be a painter, he decides to return to London and pursue a medical degree. It is there that he meets Mildred (Bette Davis), a server at a local cafĂ©. Mildred is regularly terrible to Philip, which does not dissuade him from chasing after her. Mildred is regularly scornful of him and always non-committal. His infatuation with her causes him to fail his examinations. When he proposes marriage to her, she essentially laughs in his face and runs off to marry one of her wealthy customers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Sumimasen Deshita

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

Hollywood has certainly been backward at times on any number of topics. One of the trickiest its had to deal with is racism. What I find interesting is how often a film that was progressive for its time comes across as incredibly backward when viewed today. Take, for instance, Sayonara. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that it was a film that genuinely helped to normalize Japanese culture in the United States, or at least de-mystify and de-romanticize it. And it deals with interracial relationships in a very real way. But it also suffers from a prominent instance of yellowface and portrays Japanese women as an extremely harmful stereotype. In some ways, the fact that a film so progressive for its time is so backward today is a testament to how far we have come.

The film takes place in 1951 at the height of the Korean War. Ace pilot Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) has racked up a number of MiG kills and, surprisingly, is transferred to Japan. Gruver, we learn, is the son of a 4-star general and is also romantically involved with Emily Webster (Patricia Owens), the daughter of another general. The main reason he has been moved to a desk job in Japan is because Patricia’s parents are surprising him by bringing their daughter over in the hopes that the two will marry.

Monday, July 7, 2014

And a Little Bit of Soul

Film: Music of the Heart
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There were a number of surreal moments when I compiled the various lists I use for this Oscar project. There were moments of “That got a nomination?” all through the lists. None was so surprising or more interesting to me than discovering that horror icon Wes Craven had directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar-nominated performance in a movie about as far away from Craven’s roots as possible. I’ve said in the past that I think Craven is underrated and underappreciated as a director before. If nothing else, the man birthed four horror classics (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream). That he also directed Music of the Heart, a film about a violin teacher working with inner city kids, only adds to my thesis.

But, we take the good with the bad in this film. Meryl Streep is an obvious positive, as are the presences of Aiden Quinn, Cloris Leachman, and Angela Bassett. The downside is that it also contains Gloria Estefan, which means there will almost certainly be Gloria Estefan (with or without her Miami Sound Machine) providing the title track and more. I should probably try to look positively on this as well. At least it’s not Maria Carey. Evidently, getting Elizabeth Pena was too much to ask for.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

24 Carrot Gold

Film: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’ve loved Wallace & Gromit for years. More than a decade and a half ago, a friend gave my wife and me a copy of The Wrong Trousers for Christmas. There’s a lot to love with most of the Aardman films. First, the Claymation is fantastically good, using everything from the stop-motion catalog created by Ray Harryhausen and adding a number of impressive tricks of their own. Second, and just as important, Aardman films tend to be astonishingly clever, filled with jokes for the entire audience as well as references that only the adults will get. I’d seen Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit before tonight, but I was in a mood for it. My sister and I get together and watch horror movies every few months. Today, I had her watch Dog Soldiers, so I guess I’m in a lycanthropic mood.

Our heroes are Wallace (Peter Sallis), a cheese-loving inventor and in this film pest-control specialist and his dog Gromit, who never makes a noise. As with the Wallace & Gromit shorts, it’s soon evident that Wallace’s inventions are (pardon the pun) hare-brained and that Gromit is both the real brains of the operation and the only one with any common sense. In this film, our heroes are running a pest control business (called Anti-Pesto) that specializes in the humane control and capture of vegetable stealing rabbits. This is important, as the town’s main yearly event, a vegetable growing competition, is in danger due to a surge in the rabbit population.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mazel Tov!

Film: Hester Street
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Hester Street starts life as a silent film with people dancing. One of those people is Yankl (Steven Keats), who goes by the name Jake. Jake is a Jewish immigrant to New York. He works essentially in a sweatshop making clothing, and frequently carrying on with a woman named Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh). The film has gone on for some time when we discover that in fact Jake is a married man, with a wife and child still in the old country.

It’s not until the film is a good 20 minutes in that we discover Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane), who arrives at Ellis Island with their son (Paul Freedman). It slowly comes to light that there are two major conflicts here. The first is that Jake has lived a life as something like a playboy for a long time and with Gitl, he finds his extracurricular activities greatly reduced. The other, and far more significant problem according to Jake is that Gitl seems unable to assimilate into American society. Part of that comes from Gitl, who is unable to let go of many of the traditions of the old country and her difficulty in learning English. A bigger problem is that he doesn’t let her leave the apartment.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jesus Wept

Film: The Bells of St. Mary’s
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I had hopes for The Bells of St. Mary’s. I really did. I enjoyed Going My Way a lot more than I thought I would and more than I remembered from my childhood. A big part of that was the likable presence of Bing Crosby in a role that suited his personality and cinematic presence. I guess a sequel wasn’t completely out of bounds. The problem is that with any sequel, there’s a need to capture the magic of the first film, and The Bells of St. Mary’s tries, but fails.

The only constant from the first film is Father Chuck O’Malley (Crosby), who has evidently maintained his role in the church as a priest sent to problem areas to set churches and parishes aright. In this case, the parish belongs to St. Mary’s and comes with a school. Of course, the parish is in trouble. In this case the school is old and starting to fall down a bit. The sisters, led by their unaccountably young and gorgeous Mother Superior Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) were forced to sell off a nearby plot of land to pay for some of the repairs. The buyer, a businessman named Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) has put up a massive office building on the spot. His dream is to have the school condemned so that he can put in a parking lot. The sisters, and they are legion, are spending their time in prayer that Bogardus will donate his finished building to St. Mary’s to use as a new school.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mermaid Avenue

Film: Bound for Glory
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When you think of innovation in film, particularly technical innovations, movies like The Matrix spring to mind. The 1976 biopic Bound for Glory about the life of Woody Guthrie isn’t necessarily one that comes trippingly off the tongue. Be that as it man, Bound for Glory is the first film to use a steadicam. So, like it or not, this is a film that changed the way films are made, and it’s no mistake that it won an Oscar for cinematography.

It’s also an interesting film for its star, David Carradine, who hadn’t had any parts of note outside of Kung Fu and Death Race 2000 before this film. I’m guessing it would have been extremely easy to write off Carradine as someone incapable of a serious film in 1976. And yet here he is, playing Woody Guthrie and doing a far more than serviceable job of it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ides of March

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

Shakespeare on film is always interesting to me. When it’s done well, there are few things I like watching more, depending on my mood. When it’s not done well, though, it’s terrible. There are multiple versions of Shakespeare that I genuinely like on film, and a few that are bad enough to appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and at least one that has, matter of fact). So when I put in the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, I admit to a little bit of nerves. The cast helps, though. I had faith in most of the cast. The most interesting casting here is Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.

And it is interesting casting. Brando had become someone to watch two years before with A Streetcar Named Desire, but there were doubts that he could actually pull off a truly great role that didn’t require him to basically mumble a lot and be a brute. As a role, Marc Antony is a man of true nobility and a gifted orator, which would be ridiculous in the wrong hands. So while Streetcar made the man a star, it could well be said that Julius Caesar made him an actor. That’s not hyperbole when you consider that this was the third of four consecutive nominations for Marlon Brando.