Friday, October 31, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Devil's Backbone

Film: The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo)
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The Devil’s Backbone is one of those rare movies that appears on all three of my horror movie lists. It’s also a film I’ve avoided reviewing for some time. The reason for that is simple: I love The Devil’s Backbone like it is one of my own children. From the first time I saw it, this film rocketed into my all-time top-5 and has stayed put. What the hell do I say about it more than it’s damn close to perfect and everybody should watch it? Glowing, effusive, ridiculously positive reviews aren’t that much fun to write or read, but that’s what we’re in for here. I love everything about this movie.

For those who have seen Pan’s Labyrinth but not this one, we’re in similar territory. Pan’s Labyrinth is, in many ways, the younger sister of this film. Change the girl to a boy and change the fantasy aspects to a ghost story and you’ve got the basic idea. We’re still in the Spanish Civil War and we’re still in a film where the story works as a metaphor for the war and the war works as a metaphor for the story.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1990

The Contenders:
Kevin Costner: Dances with Wolves (winner)
Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather Part III
Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas
Stephen Frears: The Grifters
Barbet Schroeder: Reversal of Fortune

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Brain Damage

Film: Brain Damage
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes, I just don’t know where to begin. With a film like Brain Damage, there are a lot of places I could go, but I have no idea if any of them are the right place to begin. Is this a horror movie? Yes. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it an attempt at a psychedelic freakout? Yeah, it’s that, too. Brain Damage manages to be funny, stupid, and incredibly offensive all at the same time. It honestly feels a bit like this film was created, at least in one part, to up the ante on the oral sex gag from Re-Animator. I’ll do my best to make sense of this film, but I’m not entirely sure it’s possible.

We begin with an older couple who seem pleasant enough despite the fact that the husband (Theo Barnes) has just brought back a large collection of brains from a butcher. His wife (Lucille Saint-Peter) places one of the raw brains on a plate with a sprig of parsley and walks into the bathroom and suddenly begins freaking out. Something, obviously the something that was soon to be snacking on brains, is missing. The couple panics and starts ransacking their apartment in search of whatever it is.

Ten Days of Terror!: Dead of Night

Film: Dead of Night
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

As a horror fan, I’d heard of Dead of Night before today, but had never had an opportunity to see it. Looking at films of this vintage, it’s easy to talk about influence, and Dead of Night certainly has had a great deal of influence on horror movies in general and on horror anthologies in particular that have followed it. For all of its cinematic heft, Dead of Night is probably the only horror movie to ever advance science, however temporarily. The story goes that Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi developed the Steady State idea of the universe as an alternative to the Big Bang model after seeing this film, and specifically due to the ultimate nature of the framing story presented here.

Like any anthology, we start with a framing story that pops in regularly between the stories of the film. There are five internal stories put together smartly—rising tension through the first three, a comedic spin on the fourth and then the hammer drop of scares in the fifth, only to wrap up the frame. Anthology films don’t always work because they don’t give their shorter tales enough room to breathe. Dead of Night solves this by putting most of its effort into both the frame and the fifth and scariest story. The first three tales are appetizers; the fourth is a palate cleanser, while the fifth and the frame are the main course.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Format: Internet video on laptop.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film I know only by reputation. For whatever reason, this film is incredibly difficult to find, but the sequel is surprisingly easy to locate. Anyway, when I found this online, I knew it was one I would watch right away. Part of this was from fear of the film vanishing and part because this was a film I very much wanted to see. I tend to like Vincent Price. Even if the movie is crap, Price is always worth watching.

Like plenty of horror movies of the era, The Abominable Dr. Phibes doesn’t waste lot of precious time with a convoluted plot. No, this is as simple as they come. Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) was allegedly killed in a car accident. No such luck, as it turns out. Instead he’s just incredibly disfigured. Phibes is powered by revenge, not for himself but for his dead wife. He is convinced that his wife was taken from him too soon by the incompetence of a cadre of doctors and a nurse. Now, working in the shadows, Phibes plans to enact his revenge by killing each of the doctors in turn, each on killed by a murder themed as reminiscent of one of the plagues of Egypt. Sort of—there are a few that are more tangential to the actual plagues.

Ten Days of Terror!: Humanoids from the Deep

Film: Humanoids from the Deep (Monster)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Ah, Roger Corman brings such joy to the movie screen, doesn’t he? You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a film that Corman either directed or produced. You’re going to get some monsters, lots of nudity, and a running time under 90 minutes. With Humanoids from the Deep, also released under the title Monster, that’s what you’re getting. It’s Corman-style rapey sea creatures in a film that is either a highly-sexed version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon or a nudity-laden version of The Horror of Party Beach. There’s even social commentary, ham-handed as only Corman can do it.

Let’s keep this really simple. In Noyo, California, the main industry is salmon fishing, but the salmon are going away. A canning company called Canco (points for originality in the name) has plans to put a new facility into Noyo and also promises to increase the salmon catch dramatically. There are a few people in the town opposed to Canco, primarily Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), the local Indian guy and our unofficial stand-in for biological and ecological sanity. There’s a great deal of tension between Johnny Eagle and many of the drunk redneck locals, primarily Hank Slattery (Vic Goddam Morrow).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Innocents

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

As with any genre, there are various grades and styles of horror films. Many of them go for the straight gross out; they’re horror movies because they present something disgusting or horrible to see. In general, these are the horror movies that interest me the least. I don’t mind gore when it’s warranted, but disgusting things for the sake of showing people disgusting things doesn’t interest me. Others go for the scare, getting the audience to jump at shadows and maybe spend a night or two sleeping with the lights on. And then there are those that go for something deeper, something that makes us question our reality, to not jump at shadows, but to consider those shadows and what they might contain carefully. The Innocents is this sort of film.

The goal of a film like The Innocents isn’t to make us sleep with the light on, but to occupy our thoughts at odd moments. It’s not to make us too scared to close our eyes, but to force our eyes open with thoughts that come unbidden and unwanted. The Innocents, and I include films like The Haunting and The Others in this same category, aim for that existential horror that keeps us staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t go for the gross out or the boo, but seeks to dig deep into our psyches, to question the reality that we experience.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Film: The Serpent and the Rainbow
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Before I get into The Serpent and the Rainbow, I need to put on my pedantic shoes for a minute and clear up some terminology. Those things that we call zombies—risen from the grave, shambling, craving human flesh—are technically not zombies. I mean, I call them that, too, but if we’re going to be precise, those are ghouls. A zombie, in the strictest term, is a reanimated corpse, or something like it, created through the power of Vodou. When we call The Serpent and the Rainbow a zombie film, we’re talking about the more traditional style here: blowfish powder, chanting, people being ridden by a loa.

Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is a modern-day Indiana Jones, exploring the forgotten and forsaken parts of the world in search of various plants that may have medical properties that can be used by major pharmaceutical companies in developing new medicines. Early on, he is given a head trip by a shaman that, through the course of events, causes him to wander on his own through the Amazon rain forest back to civilization. After this adventure, he is contacted by a pharmaceutical executive who wants him to go to Haiti. There is some evidence, not incredibly convincing, mind you, that a man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts) died and was buried, but has recently been seen walking about. In short, Christophe is a zombie. The company has hopes that whatever caused him to be in this state may have use as an anesthetic. So off Dennis goes to Haiti.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Inferno

Film: Inferno
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria is not only thought of as the quintessential Italian horror film, it’s also surprisingly divisive. There are those (like me), who see it as one of the great visions of its decade within the genre and those who, not without reason, find it kind of silly. Inferno, Argento’s film from 1980, builds on much of the world created in Suspiria, and at the very least is its visual sister. In a real sense, Inferno is the middle film of a trilogy starting with Suspiria and concluding with The Mother of Tears, which Argento made within the last decade.

Sad to say, this is also lesser than Suspiria for a number of reasons. Primary in this is that the plot is a lot more opaque than in the first film. Here, we appear to be introduced to people specifically so that Argento can have them killed off, admittedly in inventive ways some of the time. Still, there are multiple characters who exist here just long enough for us to get a name before someone stabs them or does something else nasty to them. More or less, Inferno is an excuse for Argento to kill off a bunch of people in a variety of inventive ways and to show us some gore without worrying too much about such niceties as a story that makes a lot of sense.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Howling

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

I like to think that at least on paper, werewolf movies have a lot of potential. I mean, you’ve got something that’s human but also not, it’s bestial and terrifying, it can kill horribly, and it has the power to infect the innocent with its evil. The problem is that most werewolf movies don’t really do much for me even though I really want to like them. The Howling, as it happens, is pretty well thought of in horror circles, even though it’s the second-best werewolf movie of 1981 (An American Werewolf in London came out the same year). And while there’s a lot going for The Howling, there are also some real problems with it that are two halves of the same coin. First, it looks its age (while American/London does not). Second, even if it didn’t, the effects don’t measure up to its werewolf cohort film.

We start with Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a television anchor who has been stalked by a creeper who authorities and the resident psychologist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) believe to be connected to a recent rash of killings. In an attempted sting, she agrees to meet the stalker in an adult bookstore, but technical difficulties cause problems with her transmitter and she loses the police detail. Long story short, the cops show up just as she’s about to be ravaged and the perp, who turns out to be named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), is gunned down.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: The Act of Killing

Film: The Act of Killing
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

The Act of Killing is not what would typically be thought of as a horror film because there is nothing supernatural on hand for us. Hell, it’s not even fiction. Because of this, because the horrors that we are seeing, while simulated and not truly real, are all the more terrible because these are reconstructions of what really happened. The idea of the film—mass killings and executions not from the perspective of the villains but from those who committed the acts of atrocity is unique in my experience, although there are certainly moments of this in a film like Shoah. This is a more than sobering experience. This is a true show of horror and terror, one that I think it is impossible to watch without being deeply affected and without walking away with a strong feeling of revulsion.

I’m going to do my best not to wax to philosophic when discussing this film, but that might be completely impossible. The Act of Killing is evidence that nothing we can create in fiction as a species, no horror we can concoct can match that which we are capable of in reality. “Man’s inhumanity to Man” doesn’t begin to cover it. And see, there I go waxing philosophic in the very paragraph where I said I would try not to. That these dangers are still real and these events still happen is evidenced by the number of people who worked on this film credited as “Anonymous,” afraid of reprisals even now, fifty years after the events depicted.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Omen

Film: The Omen
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

There’s a reason I avoided watching The Omen for as long as I have. It has nothing to do with being scared of it; after all, I don’t believe in a Satan or an Antichrist. No, the reason is that The Omen appears in “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” and I’ve learned to respect the opinions in that book. Of the films I’ve seen from it, apathy is the best of managed. I’ve outright hated a few of them. This didn’t bode well for The Omen. I’m not the sort of person who revels in bad film unless those films are being narrated by Joel/Mike and the bots.

This time, Harry Medved and Randy Lowell have let me and the rest of us down; The Omen does not belong in their book. This is a very solid thriller that is smart enough to merely hint at the supernatural despite its subject matter. That subject matter, as hinted at in the previous paragraph, is the birth of the Antichrist. So while there are obvious religious implications here, the film very much plays things straight. There are certainly aspects of the supernatural in evidence, but for the wholly skeptical (at least within the film), everything that happens can be written off as coincidence.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Maniac Cop 2

Film: Maniac Cop 2
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on various players.

Robert Z’Dar has a lot of face. I don’t state this as a problem, but merely a fact to be taken in. Seriously—go Google the man’s name and look at the images page. It’s like someone made a face out of clay and then stretched it in all dimensions before kilning it. He looks sort of like Eric Stoltz in Mask after Clearasil and his IMDB trademark is, in part, “enormous face.” I say this only because when you have a face roughly the size of a frozen turkey, you don’t tend to end up with the girl at the end of the film. You end up with a career in B-movies, and often as the monster. So it’s no surprise that with the film Maniac Cop 2, Robert Z’Dar is the title villain.

The film picks up where the first film left off, presumably; I haven’t seen the first film, so I don’t know much about its plot or what happens in it. But we see what looks like the closing scenes of the first film here. It ends with our maniac cop, Matt Cordell (Z’Dar) being forced off a pier in a burning car by two other cops, presumably drowning. I can’t be sure, but what I gather from this film is that Cordell was once a good cop who was set up to take a fall for his superiors, then killed in prison, then came back as a sort of revenant who started killing indiscriminately to take revenge on the men who framed him.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 2001

The Contenders:
Ron Howard: A Beautiful Mind (winner)
Ridley Scott: Black Hawk Down
Robert Altman: Gosford Park
Peter Jackson: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
David Lynch: Mulholland Drive

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Deranged

Film: Deranged
Format: DVD fromNetFlix on laptop.

The NetFlix disc I watched yesterday with Motel Hell on it happened to be a double-sided disc. The flipside was a rare 1974 horror film called Deranged (sometimes called Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile) that just happens to be on one of my horror lists. Lucky break, right? Without going into too much detail at the start here, let me just say that this is one of the most disturbing 82 minutes I’ve spent in front of a screen in a long time. This film is memorable in the same way that a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is memorable. That’s fitting, too, since this was released in the same year and is based even more strongly on the same source material. I mean it—this is one fucked up movie. It gets twisted early, and when it gets really twisted, it’s still got a half an hour to go.

We start by being introduced to Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson) who claims to be a journalist who covered the story that we are about to see, a story we are told is the unvarnished truth. Tom, acting as a narrator who frequently stands in the frame and talks directly to us introduces us to the Cobbs. Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) is the somewhat childlike son of Ma Cobb (Cosette Lee). Ezra’s father dies when Ezra is 10. Following this, he and his mother become increasingly dependent on each other. Eventually, Ma gets sick and Ezra takes care of her until she dies.

Ten Days of Terror!: Carnival of Souls

Film: Carnival of Souls
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are some stories that keep coming back. These iconic stories work when they are done well because they speak to something inside us or bring up the demons that we try to push back into the lizard part of our brain. Carnival of Souls is a film that taps into the same place as a story like “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or a movie like Jacob’s Ladder. If you’re familiar with either of those stories, where Carnival of Souls goes won’t be a surprise. With this particular story, though, it’s not about the destination but the journey.

I figured I was in for a rough ride (no pun intended) at the start of the film when we begin with a drag race featuring one car of men and one car of women. To suggest that this sequence was poorly filmed and edited is to be very generous. In addition to the “drag race” happening at a sedate pace, there’s no cohesion between the shots. Regardless of this, the drag race ends with the car of women going over the side of a bridge and landing upside down in a river.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ten Days of Terror!: Motel Hell

Film: Motel Hell
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’d never seen Motel Hell before today, but I remember seeing trailers for this when I was a kid. It was one that never really interested me that much at the time except for the morbid fascination I always kind of have with horror movies. But 1980 was a couple of years before I was interested in horror films. I’m actually a little surprised I haven’t seen it before now. Movies like this were the stock and trade of mom and pop video stores back when video stores were a thing.

So, while I hadn’t seen this before, I knew the basic story. The high concept version is that a farmer/motel owner traps unsuspecting guests and passersby, buries them up to their neck in his backyard, cuts their vocal chords so they can’t scream, and fattens them up. When they are ready, he digs them up, butchers them, and turns them into a variety of smoked meat products he sells to his guests he decides not to turn into jerky. The original tagline for them film was “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters.” You can just feel the ‘80s horror vibe washing off of it, can’t you?

Ten Days of Terror!: Necronomicon:The Book of the Dead

Film: Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead
Format: Internet video on laptop.

One problem with one of my horror lists is that it goes for the obscure. Actually, that’s sort of the point of that list—it’s worthwhile horror movies that most people have managed to miss. What this means is that some of these are a bitch to find, so when I locate one online, it’s generally a good thing, because that’s the only way I get to see it. With Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead (sometimes known as just Necronomicon), finding a copy online was exciting; this is a film I’ve been looking for since I added that list to my site.

I didn’t realize, but should have based on the name, that Necronomicon is an anthology. There’s naturally a framing story and three other shorts that combine into a film just a touch longer than 90 minutes. The framing story consists of H.P. Lovecraft (Jeffrey Combs, who is sporting a fake chin a la Bruce Campbell) entering an ancient library and sneaking off to a forbidden room to read through the Necronomicon. Each of the three stories all take place in more or less the present despite Lovecraft’s story being in the past. Evidently, this means that the stories in the book are either predestined or somehow prescient. Anyway, the framing story appears briefly between the stories as well and then comes up at the end to close the film.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bad Dog, No Biscuit

Film: Bulldog Drummond
Format: Internet video on rockin’ flatscreen.

I find that I can only watch the really old films on the Oscars list rarely. There’s a real necessity to, as much as possible, put oneself in the mindset of the time. This is particularly true in the case of early talkies. When the talkies started, silent films were already an established form and had grown and matured. The early talkies are in a real sense the very early childhood of the films we watch today. Because of this, the acting can be a real issue. Any drama in this early days is, more or less, melodrama even if that’s not intended. The over-the-top acting style makes that true. In the case of Bulldog Drummond, this is very true of everyone except the star.

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (Ronald Colman) is a retired British military officer, which has a whole series of connotations for the late 1920s. He tells his equally stereotypical friend Algy (Claud Allister) that he is bored. Wanting some excitement in his life, Bulldog takes out an ad in the newspaper asking anyone to send him something exciting and fun to do. Basically, he’s becoming a public, one-man version of the A-Team.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nick's Pick: Frailty

Film: Frailty
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

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

When we went through the list of films that Nick had given me, Frailty came up as the choice for October since it is a film with dark themes and strong horror elements. I’ve labelled this a horror movie, but I’m not sure it actually is one. It’s far closer to a thriller, but there’s enough horror here that I’m not really going to quibble over it. This also happens to be the first feature-length film directed by Bill Paxton, which makes it interesting in its own right.

Somewhere in East Texas, there is a suspected serial killer known as God’s Hand. There have been a number of disappearances but only a single body found. Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. He gets a break one rainy evening when a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) walks into his office and claims that not only is the God’s Hand killer dead, but that he knows who it was: it was his brother (Levi Kreis).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tupelo Honey

Film: Ulee’s Gold
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When Ulee’s Gold showed up in the mail, I can’t really say with any honesty that I was excited about it. This is, after all, a film about a widowed beekeeper in Florida. How interesting could it be, right? And, if it really were about beekeeping, it would be a very long two hours. Fortunately for all of us, Ulee’s Gold is about more than bees and about a hell of a lot more than a widowed beekeeper.

Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson (Peter Fonda) is that widowed beekeeper mentioned above. As the film opens, we learn almost organically that he is raising his two granddaughters, Casey (Jessica Biel) and Penny (Vanessa Zima). In the same way, we learn the reason that he has custody of his granddaughters. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for some sort of larceny or robbery. Jimmy’s wife Helen (Christine Dunford) is a junkie hanging around Orlando. The plot starts moving just as Ulee is getting ready to bring in his tupelo honey, the week or two of the year where he makes most of his money.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Headache

Film: Hello, Dolly!
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I knew this one was going to be rough. I was braced for it to be one of those musicals where all of the men are drips and the women are all “sassy,” and indeed that’s exactly what Hello, Dolly! is. Hello, Dolly! encapsulates everything I dislike about musicals in general and wraps them up in a package that runs for close to 150 minutes. I suspected this going in. You can fault me for all sorts of things, but you can’t accuse me of avoiding films like this one. I dive head first into shit like this all the time and do it consciously most of the time when I do it, although I am blindsided at times.

Ah, but wait. There’s a pedigree with this one that needs to be mentioned. The director of Hello, Dolly! is Gene Kelly. Even in a case where I’m fairly sure I’m going to dislike the plot and most of the characters and where I’m going to rapidly be overcome by Barbra Streisand’s sassiness, Gene Kelly’s not going to disappoint with the musical numbers. It’s at least going to be a spectacle, right?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Three's Not Always a Charm

Film: The Godfather Part III
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I can’t say it was with a great deal of relish that I decided on The Godfather Part III today. I’ve seen this one before. I’ve mentioned in the past that while I think the first two Godfather films deserve their reputation, I almost never feel like watching them. With the third installment, I’ve never really felt much desire to revisit it at all. But it is on the Oscars list, and like it or not, I had to get to it eventually. Going in, I remember thinking of this as the least of the three Godfather films, but also as being better than its reputation.

It is, of course, the continuing story of the Corleone family, and more specifically the continuing saga of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who took over the family business at the end of the first movie. The main thrust of the film, at least at the beginning, is Michael’s attempt to recover his reputation from years as the head of a large and powerful Mafia family. As much as he can, Michael has gone straight, but he still has deep ties to the family, having turned over his criminal interests to a man named Joey Zasa (Joe Mantenga).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Wizard of Odd

Film: Howl’s Moving Castle
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I don’t typically love the look of anime. It frequently delves into the oppressively cute, and there’s a part of me that objects to this almost as a gut-level reaction. This tends not to be the case with the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whose work tends to be of surpassing beauty and evidently limitless imagination. Howl’s Moving Castle is evidently not based on an original story by Miyazaki, but the artwork is purely from his fervent and fertile imagination. As with all of the others of his films that I’ve seen, Howl’s Movie Castle is a film of surpassing beauty.

I went into Howl’s Moving Castle completely cold, knowing only that it’s a Miyazaki film and that my kids like it. I had hopes, though, because I’ve at least liked every other Miyazaki film that I’ve seen to this point. That implies pretty heavily that I didn’t like Howl’s Moving Castle, I know. I did like quite a bit of it, but of the four Miyazaki films I’ve seen now, I think it’s my least favorite.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nun so Unworthy...

Film: Come to the Stable
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I really should have known from the picture on the cover of the DVD case that Come to the Stable was going to be a rough ride. There are plenty of movies involving nuns that I like. That’s a good thing because there are a surprising number of nun-filled movies on my Oscar list. But there’s something about this picture that screams that Come to the Stable is going to be filled with a particular religious cheese, the kind that expects us to believe that miracles happens strictly from wishing really hard that something was so and that even the most hardened heart can be swayed by the application of earnest prayer.

And yes, that’s exactly what we’re signing up for here. One wintery night, two nuns arrive in the town of (of course) Bethlehem somewhere in New England. These are the Chicago-born turned French nun Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and the awesomely named Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm). They have come to Bethlehem by virtue of a series of events. During World War II, the sisters worked at a children’s hospital that fell in the path of a military battle. Through the awesome power of prayer (hereafter referred to in this review as the “Poweraprayer”) the hospital was spared shelling and the children who could not be evacuated survived. Because it was the Americans who spared the hospital, the two sisters have come to build a hospital in America.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Legionnaire's Disease

Film: Morocco
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

There are plenty of conceits in older films that one learns to deal with, with enough of the films watched. One learns, for instance, that comedy tends toward the physical (which is fine) and that drama tends to mean melodrama. Directors and the talent hadn’t yet learned the art of being subtle with anything. The farther away we get from the silent era, the less this becomes a problem. I can deal with most of these conceits. The one I’ve never really been able to handle is the idea that many a director and moviegoer in the 1930s thought Marlene Dietrich could sing. She couldn’t, and so any film that involves multiple Marlene Dietrich torch songs is alternately comedic and painful for me. That’s what we’re signing up for with Morocco; Dietrich plays a vaudeville singer.

So strap in, because we’re getting a pair of Dietrich numbers before the first thirty minutes are up. We travel by map to exotic Morocco, where Amy Jolly (Dietrich) has arrived in Morocco to perform at a local club for the wealthy residents as well as the common troops of the local Foreign Legion regiment. She is accosted off the boat by a man named La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), but Amy Jolly is far too jaded to be interested in some fancy boy who tries to pick her up at the docks. As it happens, as Amy arrives, the legionnaires also return, one of those being a man named Tom Brown (Gary Cooper).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hide and Seek World Champion

Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Format: Starz on rockin’ flatscreen

I do love having a DVR. Every now and then when I scan through what’s coming on a few channels, I find something worth recording. A couple of months ago during a free preview weekend of Starz, Zero Dark Thirty was playing, so I recorded it. Tonight I finally had the chance to watch it. Put simply, this is not the movie I thought it was going to be. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just a thing.

On the surface at least, Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the pursuit of, location of, and ultimate death of Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for planning the 9/11 hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For a great many Americans, I can imagine that Zero Dark Thirty represents something akin to closure. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before this story made it to the big screen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Great White Hunter

Film: King Solomon’s Mines
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m going to do my best not to sound like a complete idiot by the end of this paragraph, but you might need to cut me a little slack. See, in the movie King Solomon’s Mines, things happen constantly, but nothing happens in this movie. Oh, there’s guys getting trampled by elephants, and people attacked by snakes, natives speaking Swahili, a missing guy, and even a quest for a lost diamond mine, but nothing freaking happens. I have never been this bored watching an action movie in my life.

The film starts by introducing us to the legendary Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger), safari guide extraordinaire, great white hunter, able to shoot…whatever the hell Sean Connery said he could shoot in that crappy League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. Anyway, while on safari, one of Quartermain’s guides gets gored by an elephant. Tired of the racket, Allan decides to hang ‘em up and quit the safari business. After all, he’s got a wife who died and a seven-year-old son back in England. Why stay in Africa?

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Film: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Format: DVD from Western District Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Think of the spy genre, and you probably think of James Bond or Jason Bourne. Perhaps the Mission: Impossible movies are more your speed. Regardless, when it comes to subgenres, spy films tend to fall firmly in the larger category of action movies. If you don’t get a little witty banter, some explosions and at least one quality death, it feels like a rip off. That was the big complaint for many about a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: compared with the rest of the genre and compared with expectations, it’s just a film where men sit in rooms and think at each other really hard. Well, that’s more the speed of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as well. It’s not a coincidence that it comes originally from the pen of the same author, John Le Carre.

TSWCIFTC is a Cold War film both in terms of when it was made and in terms of the era it depicts. Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is in charge of the West Germany section of “The Circus,” the intelligence gathering organization of Le Carre’s spy world. When yet another of his spies is killed crossing over from East Germany into West, Leamas is recalled to London. He’s offered a desk job, but doesn’t want it, preferring to stay out “in the cold” as a field operative. And so he’s given another task, this time to entrap the East German agent who has been the cause of so many deaths of his own men.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Drunk and Disorderly

Film: Arthur
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I was extremely worried with the first ten minutes of Arthur. I don’t typically find drunkenness funny. More than that, I really don’t find drunks who find themselves funny to be that amusing, and that pegs our title character in a nutshell. “Strap in,” I thought. “This is going to be a rough one.”

Fortunately, Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) is sober for the next half hour. The first ten minutes establishes Arthur as a drunken playboy who seems to live on scotch and pick up prostitutes more or less at random. And then it’s suddenly the next morning and Arthur is mildly hungover and while we still have to deal with his drinking, but he’s not sloppy drunk and giggling at his own jokes, at least for a while. This is also where we get an introduction to Hobson (John Gielgud), Arthur’s smart-assed butler, manservant, and possibly his only friend in the world. It’s obvious right away that Arthur is a man-child who has no responsibilities. He’s also incredibly lonely.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Darkness at Noon

Film: Suddenly, Last Summer
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I will admit that when I grabbed Suddenly, Last Summer off the shelf at the library a couple of days ago, I did so only because I’m behind on Best Actress nominations. The 1001 Movies list is limited in Best Actress nominations it includes, which means a lot of catching up for me. As it happens, Suddenly, Last Summer is the only film I had remaining with two Best Actress nominations. So I grabbed it. With that title, I had no idea what to expect. I most certainly didn’t expect the darkest couple of hours I’ve experienced watching a movie in a very long time.

And I do mean dark. While the topic of homosexuality wouldn’t be considered that taboo in this day and age, in 1959 it was still a very touchy topic. In the 1937 the film takes place in, it was even more taboo. But we don’t stop at homosexuality with Suddenly, Last Summer. No, we’re going to delve deep into insanity, lobotomies, family evils, hidden crimes, and much darker subjects of which I will not speak here. Oh, this is a merry-go-round of evil and darkness, power, corruption, and deep family secrets. I had no idea what I was getting into here, but I can’t for a moment say I’m upset that I dove in.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Fair Guttersnipe

Film: Pygmalion
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to put the “very long wait” films at the top of my NetFlix queue. Because NetFlix is NetFlix, my full list has something north of 50 films that fall into that category. When I see the opportunity to knock one of those films off without having to wait for NetFlix, it’s difficult to resist the opportunity. And, well, Pygmalion was available on Hulu+ thanks to Hulu having nabbed the streaming rights for the Criterion Collection. So it’s one less “very long wait” film for me.

I’m not going to go too heavily into a rundown of the story here, since this is absolutely the source material for My Fair Lady, which everyone should have seen (and if you haven’t, shame on you). This is not merely the same basic story, it’s a pared down version of the exact same story. Pygmalion is much tighter and shorter, though. In addition to everything that was added through musical numbers, My Fair Lady adds a number of scenes, almost doubling the rather trim 98 minutes of its non-musical original version. Much of this is done through montage, which is used effectively here as a way to indicate all of Eliza’s training without having to sit through her learning how to pronounce all of the vowels correctly.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Two Hours would Overstay the Welcome

Film: One Hour with You
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Films like One Hour with You are infuriating to me. On the one hand, it’s a difficult film to dislike. It’s charming and comes complete with the delicate and mildly naughty touch of the great Ernst Lubitsch with some uncredited assistance from the great George Cukor. On the other hand, the people in this film need to all be stood in a long line and slapped repeatedly. I have trouble with fluff pieces like this one because while there’s nothing specifically unpleasant about them, there’s also a constant low-grade irritation for me.

Since One Hour with You is a musical romantic comedy, we can guess from the start that we’ll be getting a happy ending by the time this short little nothing winds up. More than that, we can guess within the first couple of minutes that our main couple is going to experience a series of misunderstandings that would be easily resolved with a couple of words. Really, it’s more or less the chance to look at a couple of pretty people and hear a couple of peppy songs. That’s it. And, since it’s Maurice Chevalier, which means a lot of fourth wall breaks where he speaks directly to the audience.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Film: Blue Sky
Format: DVD from New Lenox Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I seem to be saying what I’m about to say a lot lately: the movie I watched for this review has no idea what it wants to be. Blue Sky is one half domestic drama and one half military thriller, resulting in a complete muddle of a film that has a couple of grand performances at the center. But grand performances in the service of what? I have no idea. Blue Sky, which was shelved for four years after wrapping because of Orion’s money problems, is a mess of a film. It tries to be something for everyone and ends up being something for no one.

Major Hank Marshall (Tommy Lee Jones) is one of the players in the American nuclear testing program in the 1950s. His job, more or less, is to monitor radiation, and he has slowly come to the realization that above-ground testing is an increasing issue. This, and the fact that his wife Carly (Jessica Lange) is a “free spirit” who does things like sunbathe topless within sight of the base, much to the enjoyment of the men. After her last display, Hank is transferred to Alabama to start over again. We get the feeling, particularly from the comments of the Marshalls’ daughters Alex (Amy Locane) and Becky (Anna Klemp), that this is not the first time Hank has been transferred because of Carly’s inappropriate behavior.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

All the World's a Stage

Film: The Dresser
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s not rare for a film to get multiple acting nominations, but it is rare for a film to get two nominations for the same award. It happens now and again, of course, but it’s pretty unusual. The Dresser is one such film, and I’d be hard-pressed to suggest that the Academy was wrong for nominating both Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The film itself is a small one, a little story, but the performances of those two actors are truly grand in the greatest sense.

The plot is almost a nothing. A great Shakespearean actor referred to only as Sir (Albert Finney) is attended at all of his performances by Norman (Tom Courtenay), his dresser. Norman, after years of essentially being Sir’s servant, knows every mood of the man and every possible whim. The troupe has fallen on hard times because of World War II—all of the best young actors are off fighting in the war.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Still Waiting for Godot

Film: Edward, My Son
Format: Streaming video from TCM Watch on laptop.

Typically, when a rare film shows up on Turner Classic, I DVR it so I can watch it at my leisure. I was aware that Edward, My Son played a day or so ago, but I completely spaced on setting up the recorder, which meant I had to get it online within the week. So, rather than risk not being able to see it at all, I watched it today. I’m not sure if that was the right call. I realize that my goal is to see all of these films on this Oscar list, but it’s ones like Edward, My Son that make me question the wisdom of that decision.

The film starts with Spencer Tracy walking out and introducing himself as Lord Arnold Boult. In the world of the film, we’re supposed to have heard of him because he’s incredibly wealthy, and tells us he likely owns the theater he imagines us sitting in. He also tells us about his son, Edward. It’s sad for Boult that we never got to meet Edward but we can’t because Edward, his son, is dead. And before you can say “doodly-doodly-doop” we’re back in the past.