Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kissing Cousins

Film: Cousin, Cousine
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

There’s something immediately icky about the premise of Cousin, Cousine on first blush. A pair of cousins meet at a family wedding and, essentially, become infatuated with each other. It’s far less that in actual practice. Yes, our two principle characters are cousins, but are related only through marriage. And, for the bulk of the film, that relationship is completely platonic. I admit I was a little leery of the film until it became evident that these two people aren’t directly related in any way.

Cousin, Cousine is a sex comedy in the main and right at home in the mid-1970s. Marthe (Marie-Christine Barrault) is the daughter of the woman getting married to Ludovic’s (Victor Lanaux) uncle. They meet at the reception, both having been abandoned by their spouses. As it happens, her husband Pascal (Guy Marchand) and his wife Karine (Marie-France Pisier) are off having sex with each other. And, as it happens, Pascal is quite the womanizer. When Pascal and Karine return to the reception, quite obviously having had an afternoon of each other’s naked company, they find Marthe and Ludovic dancing. Pascal immediately comes over jealous and breaks off all of his affairs, which number about half a dozen. He then admits this to Marthe, planning to be faithful from then on.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gotta Wonder How They'll Name the Sequel

Film: Big Hero 6
Format: Sycamore Theater.

We took the girls to see Big Hero 6 Friday night. The original plan was to hit the film on Thanksgiving, but the day got away from us. We spent the bulk of Friday cleaning and putting up Christmas decorations, and then figured we’d catch the film. I don’t go out to the movies that often, partly because I don’t always have the time and partly because I don’t like crowds of other people around me. But, now and then, it’s worth it to take the girls and have a little family time.

Big Hero 6 is a superhero origin story, although it takes us a long time to actually get to the superhero part. We start by being introduced to Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics expert who is competing in illegal robot fights (and winning). His older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is a student in robotics at the local university. Wanting to get Hiro on a more productive path, Tadashi takes his younger brother to his lab, introduces him to a number of people, and essentially gets his brother excited about the possibilities for cool new inventions that he and his friends are working on. In Tadashi’s case, the invention is Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflated robot that acts as a personal medical service.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

There's a Joke in this Title Somewhere...

Film: The Farmer’s Daughter
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I’m a sucker for Joseph Cotten. Put him in a movie and I’ll watch it pretty much every time. In my continuing quest to get the Best Actress nominations under control (stupid 1001 Movies List), I came across The Farmer’s Daughter knowing only that Loretta Young won the 1947 Best Actress Oscar for the role. What a happy surprise to discover that her costar was the great Joseph Cotten. The minute his name came up on the screen, my interest in what was to come increased dramatically.

The Farmer’s Daughter is a baby step away from being a Capra film; in fact, it’s not much of a stretch to call it “Miss Holstrom Goes to Washington.” Young Katrin “Katie” Holstrom (Loretta Young) is heading off to the city to enter nursing school, a trip she had to delay when her brothers went off to fight in the war. Rather than take the bus, she’s offered a ride from Adolph Petree (Rhys Williams) who has just finished painting the family barn. It’s evident that Petree wants more than Katie’s company on the drive, and he conspires to put her in some compromising situations, which she ignores. However, when he damages his vehicle, he forces her to pay for it, and pay for separate motel rooms that night. And then, of course, he ditches her the next morning.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Off Script: Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Film: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The unreliable narrator is one of the classic dodges in storytelling. Most of the time, the audience doesn’t know the narrator is unreliable until a good way into the story. It ends up being a shock moment that everything we have seen up to this point might be nothing more than a figment of someone’s imagination. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death does that one better by telling us straight up that the character we are following through the film is potentially as crazy as a shithouse rat.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) sits in a rowboat talking to herself. We then flash back to the last few days to see what has brought her to this state. We discover that she, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) have moved to a little island on the East Coast to help Jessica recuperate from her recent stay in a mental institution—we never learn why she was there.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Up Where We Belong

Film: An Officer and a Gentleman
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m sure a lot of people have a different takeaway from An Officer and a Gentleman than I do. Some might come away thinking that Richard Gere was a sexy beast in the early part of his career or that Debra Winger had a great start to her career. Some might even come away thinking that there’s something special about power ballads from the 1980s. For me, An Officer and a Gentleman is all about Lou Gossett Jr.

The story here is pure Hollywood. Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) is the unwanted son of a Navy man stationed in the Philippines with a mother who has committed suicide. Zack grows up with virtually no contact from his father (Robert Loggia) and graduates from college almost to spite the old man. And then to truly spite him, he signs up to be a Navy pilot, wanting something more than his father’s life on a ship punctuated with nights of sex with Filipino prostitutes.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Horse is a Horse, of Course of Course

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

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I’m mildly terrified of horses. That might be overstating it. I’m just more comfortable with horses the farther I am away from them. In the distance, horses are beautiful, but up close, they are large, strong, and have giant heads and big teeth. They’re a lot stronger than I am, so I don’t really trust them much. So I might be slightly biased against a film about a horse. But that’s what we’re in for with Seabiscuit. It’s worth noting, though, that the film gains points because of what they call the horse. Throughout, those who know the horse call him “Biscuit,” which happens to be what I’ve called one of my girls since she was barely old enough to walk.

While Seabiscuit is very much the story of a horse, it’s more the story of the three men most concerned with the horse: the owner, the trainer, and the jockey. It’s an underdog story that occurs during the Great Depression, which makes the story something of an allegory for the country at the time. The film starts by introducing us to the three men and their own struggles, leaving the horse out of it until we know the men.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Searching the Past

Film: Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that of all of the films on the latest 1001 Movies list, Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light) was the one I was most excited about seeing. I had never heard of this film before the 11th Edition was released, but as soon as I looked into it, I was interested. I’m a space geek, and a big chunk of this film is about astronomy and the telescopes in the Atacama Desert in Chile. I am convinced that no other science contains the potential for beauty like astronomy does. There’s a portion of this film that is also akin to archaeology, another interest of mine. Put two of my out-of-field academic interests in the same place, and you’ve got my attention.

But, of course, Nostalgia de la Luz is about so much more than just astronomy. Forty years ago, Chile was the site of one of the most brutal and terrible regime changes in modern history. Thousands of people were rounded up into concentration camps for political reasons and many of them were killed. It is the Atacama Desert that is key to both of these stories.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Good Queen Bess

Film: Elizabeth; Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Format: DVD from NetFlix (Elizabeth) and from Rockford Public Library (The Golden Age) on laptop.

There are some interesting and weird coincidences when you look at the Oscars in a given year. For instance, both The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Devil and Miss Jones were nominated in the same year. Similarly, two of the Best Picture nominees from 1998 involve Queen Elizabeth I as a character. Judy Dench won an Oscar for her portrayal in Shakespeare in Love and Cate Blanchett was nominated for the title role in Elizabeth. It’s one of those things that strikes me as odd.

Elizabeth, for a film that is essentially about 400-year-old political maneuverings, is surprisingly engaging. It’s also wildly historically inaccurate, evidently. I admit that my personal knowledge of various claimants to the English throne in the middle of the 16th century. I’m not going to go into the reality here; I’m going to instead stick with the film as it is presented to us. The situation at the start is that Mary I (Kathy Burke) sits on the throne but has no heir, leaving Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) as the next in line. The problem is that Mary is fiercely Catholic and demands that all of her subjects submit to the Catholic Church but Elizabeth is a Protestant, making her and anyone who supports her is a heretic.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pit Stop

Film: Cars
Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.

For a number of years, it was a given that whatever Pixar movie came out would be nominated for Best Animated Feature and had a better than average chance to win. The award has been handed out 13 times and Pixar has won seven of them from nine nominations. So the chances are good that if I’m reviewing a Pixar film, it’s a film that won an Oscar. That, however, is not the case with Cars, one of the two Pixar films to be nominated and not win.

Part of the reason for that may be that in a lot of ways, Cars tells a story that we already know; it just does it with animated cars. The story at the heart of this film is little more than Doc Hollywood with a racing theme slapped over it like a new coat of paint. Essentially, a hotshot is trying to get to California and gets sidetracked in a backwater, falls in love, and figures out what is really important to him. And in the end there’s dancing, songs, and smiles.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cat Perhaps, but Declawed

Film: Cat Ballou
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

If you put a six-shooter to my head and asked me to rank various genres based on how much I enjoy them, musicals and Westerns would both rank near the bottom and comedies (since so many really aren’t that funny) would probably not rank in the top half. With Cat Ballou, we have a comedy Western with significant musical breaks, which would put this on a list of films that shouldn’t particularly appeal to me. Fortunately, Cat Ballou is surprisingly fun because as goofy as it is, the whole thing works in its own strange way.

We start with a song performed by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole. These two appear regularly throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus to tell us what is going on and what has happened to connect the scene we just saw to the scene we’re about to see. What they tell us is that Catherine “Cat” Ballou (Jane Fonda) is about to be hanged for murdering a man. The rest of the film, then, is flashback until the final couple of minutes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nick's Pick: The Raid: Redemption

Film: The Raid: Redemption (The Raid)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

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

Of all the films that Nick picked for me this year, none was so gleefully anticipated by me as The Raid: Redemption. I waited as long as I could to watch it to give me something to keep striving to. Since next month’s film has a Christmas theme, it made sense to leave it for last, so The Raid waited until I could no longer hold back from watching it. I sort of knew that if I watched it in February (when I originally planned to), I’d have hit the highest point right off the bat and would be mildly let down the rest of the year.

Why? Well, based on reputation, The Raid: Redemption is the kick-assingest action film ever made. Having seen it, I can only say that it was definitely worth the wait. This is a film I’m certain I would have gotten to eventually, again based on its reputation. It’s a few minutes of set up and pretty much solid action from that point forward. In fact, in a lot of ways, I’d already seen The Raid because I’ve already seen Dredd, which is very much a science fiction remake of this film.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

G'Day, Mate

Film: Crocodile Dundee
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I own a copy of Crocodile Dundee, but it’s currently streaming on NetFlix. It was easier to just watch the stream than hook up the BluRay player and insert the disc and deal with all of that. I was in the mood for something light and simple today, something I knew and would be happy to watch. Crocodile Dundee fit the bill across the board. This is a little pastry of a story, light and fun and entertaining all the way through. It’s a film I know I like, and after the past week in the real world, I wanted something I knew that I liked.

Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) is a reporter for a New York paper currently on assignment in Australia. She’s prepared to come home, but she wants to track down one last story, that of a man named Michael J. Dundee, who was alleged to have had his legs bitten off by a crocodile and then crawled across 100 miles of outback to return home. Seeing a solid human interest angle, she contacts Dundee’s business partner, Wally Reilly (John Meillon) about arranging a meeting, which turns into a two-day outback safari.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Trouble in River City

Film: The Music Man
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I tend to be a little twitchy when a musical shows up from NetFlix because it means I have to turn it around quickly to continue to get anything like value from the account. And I’m not really in the mood for a musical that often. It’s also a time thing—classic musicals are all about the bang for the buck for the audience, which means we’re always going quite a bit over the two hour mark. That’s absolutely the case with The Music Man, so I was leery and more so because it’s a period piece, set about 100 years ago. However, this is one of those musicals that comes complete with a bunch of really good and well-known songs, so I had some hope.

The Music Man is the musical story of a conman whose particular con involves “creating” brass bands of young men in towns across the Midwest. Professor Harold Hill (Robert Preston) has been the curse of traveling salesman across the state of Illinois. Thanks to his scams, even reputable salesmen can’t get the time of day before people are threatening tar and feathering. Having exhausted Illinois, Hill moves into Iowa and River City, just over the Mississippi, where he plans to run the exact same scam again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fine China

Film: The Good Earth
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I’ve spoken of the acting prowess of the great Paul Muni before. He’s a forgotten actor these days, and it’s a damn shame. The man was, in addition to being a commensurate actor, a chameleon. This quality worked against him during his career because he was difficult to market. It works against him now, because he is frequently unrecognizable. In 1937, Muni had three movies released. One, The Life of Emile Zola, won Best Picture. Another, The Good Earth (the subject of this review), was nominated. It was a good year for Muni.

The Good Earth is an oddball of a film for 1937. It’s an epic, but it takes place in China, a world that would be completely alien to the majority of Americans. Once Muni was tagged to play Wang, the lead character of the film, the Hays Code required that any actress playing opposite him in the role of O-Lan, his wife, would need to be white as well. The role was filled by Luise Rainer, who became the first person to win back-to-back acting Oscars thanks to this role. It does feel like an odd film, though, especially these days with white actors in, for lack of a better word, yellowface. Some Chinese actors were used in other roles, but having white actors play foreign roles was hardly unusual for the time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Junk Mail

Film: The Letter (1929)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve watch this story before. In situations like this, I probably should see the original version first, but I watched the 1940 version of The Letter with Bette Davis a couple of months ago. I didn’t have a ton of time today, though, and this one is nice and short, so it fit into my schedule nicely. As it turns out, I’m pretty happy it’s a short one because I’m not sure I would have wanted to watch it for much longer. When I say I’ve seen this story before, I mean that precisely—this is a pared down version and the ending is different, but there’s not a lot different between the two versions. I’m going to spoil this one, but believe me, that’s no big loss.

Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels, who was the first ever posthumous Oscar nominee for this role) is the bored wife of a rubber baron in the South Pacific. While he spends his day dealing with all of the problems of owning a rubber plantation, she finds a man named Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall) to spend quality time with. Eventually, the two fall apart and Hammond takes a Chinese lover named Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei). Desperate one evening, Leslie sends a litter to Geoffrey and demands to see him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Off Script: House of Wax (1953)

Film: House of Wax
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a suspicion among some that NetFlix is attempting to move more and more people to streaming because the disc service is a cash loser, or at least not much of a cash cow. It does seem more and more that every month or so, films on my queue slip into longer and longer wait categories and one or two per month slide down into being no longer available. That’s not terribly surprising for certain films, but when the film is the 1953 House of Wax, the first horror role for Vincent Price, I start to get suspicious. This is not a film that should become unavailable on NetFlix, but it has. So when it showed up on Turner Classic Movies on Halloween, I recorded it.

House of Wax is one of those special movies that, like a lot of the great Vincent Price stuff, is like a roller coaster ride. It’s not really scary, but fun-scary. We know we’re not going to see anything too terrible or awful. It’s going to be pretty gothic and likely have something like torture scenes. There will be a couple of murders, and in the end the bad guys will be killed or detained and the good guys will come out on top.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Better than the Shroud of Turin

Film: The Robe
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of Biblical epics that appear on the Oscars lists. There was a time when anything set in that era could almost guarantee a nomination or two, it seems. In that respect, The Robe’s presence shouldn’t be too shocking. There are even a few Biblical epics I like unabashedly. I enjoy Ben-Hur, for instance, and The Ten Commandments is surprisingly entertaining, even for a heathen like me. It seems like there’s one every other year in the 1950s.

The Robe, though, is completely overwrought as a film. I put it on a par with a film like Quo Vadis, a few good performances, but a very odd depiction of Christianity. A film like The Robe seems to have been made in no small part as a way to play in to the idea of Christian persecution. While plenty of Christians don’t live a life of paranoia, there is a set of them who like to think of themselves as under the threat of constant oppression.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Yellow Journalism

Film: Five Star Final
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes I think it’s a shame that Edward G. Robinson made the movie Little Caesar. No matter how often I see him in something, my first thought when I know he’s going to be in something is of that character. It’s not fair to Robinson, who was a hell of a good actor and better than most of us remember. So, when a film like Five Star Final shows up, it’s unfair for me to think he’s going to be a gangster.

Then again, in Five Star Final, he plays something akin to a gangster. He plays Randall, the managing editor of a trashy New York City newspaper. Circulation is falling for the paper (slightly), and the owner Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) is concerned. His decision is to make the paper a paragon of moral virtue by essentially doing prurient stories about the terrible crimes and placing the angle on the moral failings of the people involved. To get things going, he decides to reopen a murder case from 20 years earlier. A stenographer named Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) killed her boss, who had gotten her pregnant and then refused to marry her.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

And Hello, Guacamole

Film: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Format: DVD from Mount Carroll Township Public Library on laptop.

I tend to pick movies more or less at random and according to availability these days. I did the same thing with the 1001 Movies list, not wanting to spend too much time in any one era or year. When I switched over to Oscar films, I was left with a number of years in which I had seen most of the relevant films and other years where I had seen only a couple. One of those years where I’ve seen most of the films on my Oscar lists is 1939, widely considered one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. It’s hard to argue that point, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips only adds to that year’s luster.

I seem to say the following a lot: this is actually a pretty simple story, a plot that isn’t really much of a plot. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is much more a character study and the story of a man’s life than it is an actual plotted tale. And really, that’s all it is. Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) begins the film as a newly hired Latin teacher at a British boarding school called Brookfield. We learn that Brookfield has a long and storied history, having been established at the end of the 15th century.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Butcher Holler

Film: Coal Miner’s Daughter
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I come to the penultimate Best Picture of the 1980s with some measure of trepidation. The actual story of Loretta Lynn, depicted here with some measure of accuracy, is almost legend. Loretta Lynn was a mother at 15 or so (the legend says 13) and a grandmother at 29. Knowing that, knowing that this was going to start with her being a child bride left me with a great feeling of unease. And, true to form, there’s a very strong child molestation vibe in the first half hour of this film that it’s difficult to get away from.

This is because we don’t start with Loretta Lynn and we aren’t going to experience this in some sort of flashback. No, we start with young Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek), just shy of turning 14, living in a houseful of her brothers and sisters. It’s hardly a shock, based on the title, that her father Ted (Levon Helm) works in a coal mine while his wife Clary (Phyllis Boyens) raises the massive brood of children. She soon meets Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones).

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sister Christian

Film: Elmer Gantry
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I had interesting, mixed feelings about watching Elmer Gantry. I make no secret about my lack of religious beliefs; in fact, I pretty much mention them every time a movie with significant religious overtones or themes shows up on this blog. I have a fairly regular readership, so those of you that read this blog regularly are likely thinking, “Here we go again.” Yeah. Sorry about that. It’s worth bringing up for films like Elmer Gantry, because it’s entirely possible that this might be someone’s first visit here. My lack of belief and skepticism almost certainly colors anything I have to say about a film that treads this heavily onto the territory of religion. For what it’s worth, I prize intellectual honesty.

There’s a lot to like with Elmer Gantry, starting with our title character, played by Burt Lancaster. When we first meet him, Elmer Gantry is a charming rascal, the kind of guy who could sell freezers to Inuit. He’s quick with a drink and an off-color joke as long as it keeps the sales rolling in. But it’s a depressing life, moving from place to place, living in dirty hotel rooms and picking up women without their husbands knowing.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

World Party

Film: Ship of Fools
Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

The “Noah’s Ark” film has a long history in Hollywood. Films like Grand Hotel and Stagecoach are representative of the style. Ship of Fools, recipient of a whopping eight Oscar nominations and winner of two is exactly this sort of a film. It’s a sadly forgotten film for being one that had this much acclaim 50 years ago. This seems to happen pretty regularly with a lot of films. They get a great deal of acclaim in the moment but become less and less relevant for one reason or another. Ship of Fools is perhaps damaged by being a film not about World War II but the years half a dozen previous when the war was just a threat on the distant horizon.

Our ship contains quite the motley crew, as befits a Noah’s Ark film. We’re given a collection of personalities that would otherwise not be seen together in any other situation to see what happens when they are forced together. The ship is traveling from Veracruz to Bremerhaven in 1933, just at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power. Our collection of people include a group of Spanish dancers who have been hired as relatively uninspiring entertainment; an American couple (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley) who have relationship problems based on his failure as an artist; an aging divorcee (Vivien Leigh) who drinks too much and flirts with every man in an effort to claim to be younger than her actual age; a failed baseball player (Lee Marvin); a countess (Simone Signoret) being taken to prison, an anti-Jewish businessman (Jose Ferrer); a Jewish salesman (Heinz Ruhmann); a dwarf shunned by proper German society (Michael Dunn); a ship’s doctor with a heart condition (Oskar Werner); and a collection of 600 workers in steerage being sent back to Spain from Cuba. It’s quite a mix.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Cat Fancy

Film: Inside Llewyn Davis
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I fully expected to love Inside Llewyn Davis. The fact that I didn’t, that I merely appreciate it and think it’s a well-made movie, makes me feel like something of a bad film geek. Mostly this is because virtually everyone I know who has seen it and every review I have read subsequent my viewing has raved about the film. I admit it’s a well-made film. I like the soundtrack a lot. It strikes me, though, as just another version of A Serious Man, which in my “I’ve seen 11 of the 16 Coen Brothers films” world ranks on the bottom. From what I know of it, I’m guessing that I might well have the same opinion of Barton Fink when I finally get around to it.

By this I mean that there is a strong streak of Kafka running through this film as well as with A Serious Man. There is very much the sense, a sense that the film go to great lengths to provide, that everyone knows what the score is and what is going on with the exception of our main character. There is a great deal of similarity between those main characters. Each is the type who, when told he is responsible for something, takes responsibility for it, whether he should or not. There is a feeling that the world makes sense to everyone but the character with whom we are to empathize. That character lives in a world that cannot be understood, in part because everyone else seems to understand it so well that they find no need to explain it. In truth, Brazil does the same thing.