Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Late for Thanksgiving

Film: Alice’s Restaurant
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Alice’s Restaurant is one of those movies I’ve put off for a while. I’ve had a copy sitting on my desk for almost a month and just haven’t gotten around to it. I think a part of it is that I was unsure of Arlo Guthrie being enough to carry an entire film. Guthrie, who may well be a decent songwriter and talent in the folk music world, is someone who, it seems to me, is famous because his father was Woody Guthrie. I’m not sure Arlo gets any press or fanfare without his dad opening the door for him.

This is a difficult movie to pin down as well. It’s at least partly autobiographical, as is Guthrie’s song of the same name. The film, since it covers only a small portion of Guthrie’s life, is more a memoir than an autobiography, though, and a great deal here is fictionalized. However, there’s no getting around the fact that this is Arlo Guthrie playing Arlo Guthrie, dealing with the illness and eventual death of his father and with a few other things as well. Sure, it’s a somewhat fictionalized and (mildly) sanitized version of Arlo, but he’s not playing a character. He’s basically playing himself.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Long Mile

Film: Dead Man Walking
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

The best opinion I’ve ever heard on capital punishment is one I can’t quote directly and can’t attribute to a specific person. Essentially, it goes something like this: “If it were my child that were killed, I’d be for the death penalty. If it were my child that had done the killing, I’d be against it.” When a movie shows up like Dead Man Walking, it brings up a lot of these questions. It puts me in a strange position. I’m not sure I really want to spend that much time thinking about capital punishment. It’s a hell of a movie with a number of tremendous performances and a great cast, but the issues are ones I’m not sure I really want to spend that much time thinking about. I realize that’s cowardly in a sense, but at least I admit it.

Dead Man Walking is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon). Sister Helen works with the poor, and is told that she has received a letter from a man named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) who has been on death row for six years. Poncelet claims that while he was a part of the crime that put him on death row—the rape and murder of two young people—he didn’t actually kill anyone. He’s out of his legal chances now and needs someone else to attempt to push for additional appeals. Sister Helen is his choice, and as a nun, she feels compelled to help him in any way she can.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Completed Once Again

Film: Son of Saul (Saul Fia)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the latest version of the 1001 Movies list came out, I’d seen seven of the new 10. It would seem, then, that finishing up would have been something I could pretty much handle in a weekend. And yet here we are, after Thanksgiving and close to the end of November, and I’m just putting the bow on the additions now. The reason for that is that I haven’t really wanted to watch Son of Saul (Saul Fia) that much. I’m not sure I can fully explain why, although I can try.

I understand on a rational level why there are so many films about the Holocaust. It’s the sort of thing that we need to remind ourselves happened. This is a part of history that needs to be constantly refreshed in the minds of the world, especially now that we are generations away from the actual events. But there’s also a limit, I think, to how much I want to spend in these events. I know a great deal of what happened. I understand, at least on an academic level, the horror of what happened. On an emotional level, I’m not sure how many more times I want to go through this wringer.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for YouTube

Film: Thunderbolt
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I’ve mentioned before the usefulness of YouTube when it comes to tracking down some obscure films. Thunderbolt is one that has appeared on my personal database as “unfindable” since about the time I started this project. I was extremely pleased, one might even say thankful, to find it on YouTube this morning. There’s something really interesting about pre-Code talkies, and Thunderbolt is one of the first.

Make no mistake here; this is absolutely a pre-Code crime drama that turns on the romance that is forced into it by the evident necessity of needing a romance in every film of the time. Because this is such an early talkie, a lot of the clichés that play into the genre certainly got part of their start here, at least in terms of the talkies.Thunderbold hits all the notes: unrepentant criminals, jailhouse confessions, a good girl gone bad, secret romance, and even a police captain who is trying really hard to sound like what Edward G. Robinson sounded like in his early talkies. Sure, there’s a lot of cliché here, but there’s a lot to like as well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Off Script: When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Film: When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Format: DVD from Morris Area Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

There are moments in movies that become iconic. Similarly, there are lines in films that stand the test of time and have a life well beyond the movie itself. For horror movies, lines like “The power of Christ compels you!” are the sorts of things that live on past the movie. There are few horror movie lines that approach that sort of iconic status as “We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.” That line, and the incredibly iconic scene that contains it, comes in the original 1979 version of When a Stranger Calls.

I’m not lying when I call the opening iconic. The first 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls is one of the most iconic movie openings in history and is also considered one of the scariest movie openings ever made. It’s so highly thought of that Wes Craven paid clear homage to it with the equally iconic first 12 minutes of Scream.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ding Dong Bell

Film: The Well
Format: Internet video on laptop.

In 1949, a little girl named Kathy Fiscus fell down the narrow shaft of an abandoned well. The story became a national sensation and a national tragedy when she was pulled up dead from the shaft. Woody Allen made reference to this in the end of Radio Days and there’s a pretty solid connection with Ace in the Hole as well. But the clearest connection to the story is 1951’s The Well. The benefit for the viewers is that The Well only focuses a part of its time on the little girl who is trapped. The rest of the time is spent dealing with spiraling racial tensions in the town where the event occurs.

It’s also worth noting that The Well has the most misleading art I’ve ever seen for a movie. Take a moment and check out the IMDB page for this film. You’ll see a shirtless man clutching a woman who looks terrified. These events aren’t a part of this film, not even a little. You would expect, seeing that, a film about a dangerous femme fatale and a heist of gold bullion, not a film where a little girl falls into a well and a town explodes into racial violence.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Nick's Picks: Killer Joe

Film: Killer Joe
Format: Blu-Ray from Rock Island Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the eleventh in a series of twelve movies selected by Nick Jobe.

I tried to watch Killer Joe a couple of months ago. When I say that I tried to watch it, I mean that I actually watched about 20 minutes of it and stopped. This wasn’t because I couldn’t bear to get through it or anything like that. No, it was that I discovered that I’d located the R-rated version of the film when it’s the unrated version that I really wanted to see. I knew enough about the movie to know that if I was going to jump down into the sewer, I might as well go in head-first. There are times when the unrated version doesn’t really add that much to the experience, but I knew in my gut that this wasn’t going to be one of those times.

Killer Joe director William Friedkin is no stranger to pushing the envelope with his movies, of course. There are plenty of people who love what he did with The French Connection while I take a much more positive view on The Exorcist from the director’s chair. I’m also one of the only people I know who really likes the 2006 movie Bug, and a lot of what I like about it is the way that Friedkin told the story.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Praise Be

Film: Hallelujah
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Before the actual opening of Hallelujah on the version I received from NetFlix, there is a long disclaimer from Warner Bros. Essentially, it says that the film that is about to be displayed is filled with prejudice and stereotypes that were common when the film was made. That’s certainly true. The disclaimer goes on to say that the depictions in question were wrong when they were made and still wrong, but that it’s important to show the films unadulterated, as it were, because to do otherwise would be to essentially pretend that this part of history can be or should be ignored. It’s interesting, and having now seen Hallelujah, I get why they felt the disclaimer was necessary.

What makes Hallelujah historically interesting is that it was one of the first, if not the very first, major studio production with an all-black cast. Certainly every named character is black and every character who has anything to say is black. Within Our Gates came first, of course, but didn’t have the backing of a big studio. Hallelujah was evidently seen as such a risky proposition that director/producer King Vidor was forced to invest his own salary into the production. After all, in 1929, this would not necessarily seem to be the sort of movie that would attract Middle America…or even any of white America.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hero Worship

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

I’m almost certain that I’ve mentioned before that I consider myself a fan of author Graham Greene. Greene’s tight and intelligent screenplay is one of the things that makes The Third Man such an intense watch. A few years previous, the pair collaborated on The Fallen Idol a film that hits on a lot of the same themes and ideas that pervade the work of Greene in general. There is crime (kind of), misunderstanding, marital strife, infidelity, and high-ranking officials in ambassador-like positions. It’s got all the makings of a classic Greene tale, and with a director who knows how to do intrigue as well as anyone.

What makes The Fallen Idol particularly interesting is that a great deal of it comes from the perspective of an eight-year-old child, who happens to be the son of the ambassador in question. Young Phillippe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of the (evidently) French ambassador to England. Phillippe’s best friend is the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), who frequently spins wild tales to keep the boy entertained. The other relevant person in Phillippe’s life is Baines’s wife (Sonia Dresdel) who, if she were nicer, might qualify as shrewish. She seems to hate everything, most especially Phillippe and her husband.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Game, Set...

Film: Match Point
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I tend to like Woody Allen’s movies. I realize that I like some a lot and I like some a little, but in general, his movies really work for me. I go into a Woody Allen movie more or less expecting a certain thing or a certain set of things. If it’s an early comedy, I expect a lot of wacky stuff happening. If it’s a later comedy, I expect it to center a lot more on sex and various neuroses. If it’s a drama, I expect a much more serious look at those neuroses. And then there’s Match Point, which is a Woody Allen film in terms of the general story, but a very un-Woody Allen film in the way it develops.

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a former professional tennis player who has retired, realizing that he’ll never be one of the game’s greats. He takes a job at a London tennis club where he meets the wealthy Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). The two bond over a love of opera more than a mutual respect for the game of tennis. The friendship blossoms more when Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) develops more than a passing interest in Chris. Unfortunately for all involved, Chris also takes more than a passing interest in Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an American actress who happens to be engaged to Tom.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mother Dearest

Film: One True Thing
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I don’t always closely monitor my NetFlix queue, which is why movies like One True Thing show up unexpectedly. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Renee Zellweger. In fact, I’ve pretty studiously avoided her films for the last six years, knowing that I’d have to get there eventually. Make no mistake here—Meryl Streep was nominated for her role in this, so she’s the reason I watched, but this is Zellweger’s film. I didn’t even know she was in it. When I discovered that a few moments in, I braced myself for what was to come.

This is one of those stories where the characters are desperately successful and desperately broken at the same time. Ellen Gulden, a Harvard graduate (yes, this is mentioned frequently), is working as a writer for a New York magazine. Her father George (William Hurt), is a former literary great, the winner of a National Book Award, and heading his department at the college where he teaches and claims to be working on another novel. Ellen’s brother Brian (Tom Everett Scott) is currently at Harvard and struggling with, amusingly enough, English literature. And then there’s Kate (Meryl Streep), the mother.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Picks from Chip: Ondine

Film: Ondine
Format: DVD from Peotone Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

This is the eleventh in a series of twelve movies selected by Chip Lary.

I try to go into movies as neutrally as possible. That said, there are times when you can’t help but have a preconceived notion. Ondine had two strikes against it before it even made it into the spinner. The first is that at the top of the box is Colin Farrell. I like Colin Farrell in In Bruges and that’s about it. He’s okay in Minority Report. Otherwise, I don’t have a lot of use for him. Second, the movie’s tagline is, “The truth is not what you know. It’s what you believe.” That’s the kind of bullshit that makes people think that the Earth is flat and only 6,000 years old. Screw that noise.

An Irish fisherman with the unlikely name of Syracuse (Farrell) is out on his boat one day. When he pulls up his net, he finds a young woman (Alicja Bachleda) inside. The woman claims to not remember her name or anything else and also says that she doesn’t want to be seen by anyone. Syracuse, nicknamed “Circus” from his drinking days, takes her to his late mother’s house, a place where she can live without anyone seeing her.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Please, Mr. Postman

Film: A Letter to Three Wives
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Since I’ve watched The Great Dictator, the biggest whole in my classic movie knowledge/viewing history is probably A Letter to Three Wives. Naturally, when I saw it on the schedule of one of the several movie channels I have available to me, I recorded it to knock it out. I literally knew nothing about this going in. I didn’t know who was in it, who directed it, or what the basic plot was about. Based on the title, I assumed it was a letter from a man to three former wives about something. Well, I was pretty wrong about that.

Instead, the letter in A Letter to Three Wives actually comes from another woman. In this case, the woman in question is named Addie Ross (an uncredited Celeste Holm), who never appears on camera but narrates the film. Addie, we learn, has just run off with the husband of one of three women in town. All of the women know Addie, who is more or less perfect in the eyes of everyone who knows her. Even more, all of the husbands know Addie as well, and all three revere her greatly. Finally, all three marriages have a particular tension, so the end result is very much in doubt.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

HMS Torrin

Film: In Which We Serve
Format: MGM HD Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

A propaganda film is its own thing. On the positive side, we can get a solid drama that has the additional elements of nationalism and patriotic pride. On the downside, you get something that is little more than jingoist bukkake. Propaganda films run the gamut. The bad ones generally aren’t worth the film stock they are on, while good ones can truly stand the test of time. The other day, I recorded one of my favorites on the DVR. In Which We Serve seems to have a lot going against it on paper, but it finds a way to make it all work.

In Which We Serve is one of those movies that more or less starts at an important moment and then spends most of the movie flashing back. What’s most interesting here is that the flashbacks all come from the perspectives of multiple characters. We’re told at the beginning that this is the story of a ship. In this case the ship is the HMS Torrin, a British destroyer. We begin with the Torrin firing on German transport vessels, and then coming under attack from bombers. It’s not long for the ship, and she’s hit by a bomb and begins sinking. The men fight back as long as they can until they are ordered to abandon ship. A group of men swim to a float and hang on for dear life.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Pure Colombian

Film: Maria Full of Grace
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m incredibly busy with work right now, so when Maria Full of Grace showed up from NetFlix, I was stressed. I don’t really have time for a subtitled film right now. However, if you don’t watch the NetFlix films you get, the account is pretty much a waste of money. So I worked as much as I could today to have the time I needed to watch this. Given that I put well over 100 grades in my gradebook today to make the time, I hoped it was worth it.

Good thing it is. Maria Full of Grace, for a film that takes place in bright sunlight, is a dark and disturbing tale about hope, fear, and the drug trade in Colombia. The Maria of the title is Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 17-year-old Colombian girl who works on a plantation stripping the thorns off roses. She also happens to be pregnant by her boyfriend, who offers to marry her when he finds out. Maria declines the offer, realizing that she doesn’t love him and he doesn’t love her. When her morning sickness gets in the way of her job, she quits, despite being one of the few people supporting her family, especially her unemployed, single-mother sister.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Not Fade Away?

Film: Morning Glory
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

It’s undoubtable that Katherine Hepburn was one of the greatest actresses in film history. I find myself in the odd position of liking the latter part of her career much more than the earlier part. There’s something manic about her early performances that rubs me the wrong way. In Morning Glory, Hepburn is on screen for about 65 of the film’s 74 minute running time. I think she’s talking about 60 of those minutes. I understand that a great many people find this performance charming; she did win her first Oscar for this role, after all. But I have to say that for probably 56 minutes of the 60 she’s talking, I wanted her to shut the hell up. I’m evidently in the minority on this.

It may also simply be the plot that annoys me here. Morning Glory is the story of a young actress who calls herself Eva Lovelace (Hepburn) from a small town in Vermont where she has achieved some measure of success on the amateur stage. She arrives in New York determined to make it on Broadway, evidently by talking non-stop to everyone she comes in contact with. She’s decided that the best way to break into the business is to show up at the office of Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), a major Broadway producer.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Off Script: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Film: I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Format: Starz Encore on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I was a kid, I Spit on Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) was one of those movies you heard about because your older brother had seen it. Kind of like Faces of Death in that respect. That’s really what I knew about this going in. It was something my brother Tom had seen at some sort of midnight movie somewhere and talked about with his friends. I picked up what I knew about it through osmosis more than anything else.

So what did I know? I Spit on Your Grave is about a woman who is gang raped and, once she recovers, who takes bloody, nasty revenge on her rapists. And guess what? That’s pretty much the whole movie. The first half leads up to the rape and contains the disturbingly long rape sequence. The second half is the revenge of our heroine, who exacts it with an increasing brutality as the film winds to a sudden and abrupt conclusion.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rebel with a Cause

Film: Viva Zapata!
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Whitewashing has been a problem with Hollywood movies for a very long time. It still goes on, of course. You don’t need to look further than the casting of British Tilda Swinton as an ancient Tibetan in Doctor Strange to see it. It somehow seems more egregious in older cases, though, where entire collections of people were replaced by white actors in various cosmetics. And it wasn’t just whitewashing. Ricardo Montalban was cast as Japanese at least once. With Viva Zapata!, the crime seems to reach a new height. The title Mexican folk hero is played by Marlon Brando, while the elder brother was played by Anthony Quinn, who was Mexican. Revenge may be sweet, though; Quinn won a Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.

Emiliano Zapata (Brando) begins the film as a simple farmer, who goes with a group of fellow farmers to see long-time Mexican president Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope) about a land claim. He and his fellow farmers have been kicked off their traditional land by wealthy farmers who have planted sugar cane in their cornfields. Diaz, notoriously corrupt, passes off the farmers’ claims, saying that fixing the problem will take time. The farmers, however, don’t have time—without corn, they won’t be able to eat. Diaz even tries to bribe Zapata with a decent tract of land, but Zapata rejects the offer. Soon enough, Zapata and his brother Eufemio (Quinn) are openly rebelling against the Mexican government.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Off Script: Child's Play

Film: Child’s Play
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I like horror movies, so it was natural that eventually I’d get around to a review of Child’s Play. Since it’s on one of my horror lists, and since I’m still coming down from all the horror movies of the last couple of weeks, it seemed like a good opportunity to knock this one out. What came as a surprise to me when I started watching this was that I’d never actually seen the whole thing. I’ve seen large chunks of the film but never the whole thing from front to back. Who knew?

Anyway, even if like me you haven’t actually seen the whole film, you almost certainly know the basics of the premise. There’s a Teddy Ruxpin-like doll named Chucky who is actually alive somehow and is also a psychotic killer. Fun premise. There’s always something interesting about the corruption of innocence in a horror movie, and making a child’s toy horrifically evil is certainly doing that. Like any good horror movie, there are plenty of places where we need to suspend disbelief, but the premise actually carries us through the entire movie pretty solidly.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Before the Music Died

Film: The Buddy Holly Story
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Gary Busey wasn’t certifiably (and entertainingly) insane. The Buddy Holly Story is evidence that the man was possessed of a real talent. I wasn’t sure what to expect here beyond hearing the music of Buddy Holly. Honestly, that was kind of enough to get me interested. I’m not a Holly fanboy, but it’s hard to deny that there’s something really infectious about the man’s sound.

We start in Lubbock, Texas where Charles “Buddy” Holley (Gary Busey) and his band, drummer Jesse (Don Stroud) and upright bassist Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) are playing a gig at a roller rink that is also being broadcast on local radio. After playing standard slow country songs, the trio breaks into some rock numbers. The reaction is mixed. The kids who are roller skating love it, but the parents react badly. The next day, after a fiery sermon from the local minister about the evils of this new music, Buddy’s parents ask him what he plans to do with his life now that he’s a year out of high school.