Saturday, December 31, 2016

End of Year Seven

My goal at the start of the year was the same as last year—watch 400 different movies. I didn’t get there. I’m at 366 at the time of this writing, an average of one movie per day, with a good chance of watching one or two more before midnight tonight. So, I didn’t quite get there, but it’s still a solid year’s watching.

So let’s get the announcements out of the way first. I will be recapping the 24 challenge movies I got this year. I won’t be doing a challenge list in 2017, though. The reason is simple—I won’t have the space for it on the blog. I’ve got about 250 Oscar movies still to watch to complete my lists (not including the new nominees that will be announced in a few weeks), which means a touch more than a year for those. But I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of Oscar Got It Wrong! posts to go. Starting in 2017, I’ll be doubling up on those. You’ll still see them on Fridays, but they’ll also appear on Mondays as well.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Days Like This

Film: As Good as It Gets
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I think everyone has an actor or two that rubs him or her the wrong way. For me, one of those is Helen Hunt. I don’t specifically dislike Helen Hunt; I just don’t understand the appeal of her. I’ve never been excited about a Helen Hunt role or watched a movie specifically for her. That might be why it’s taken me this long to get to As Good as It Gets, the film for which she won an Oscar. Whenever I see Helen Hunt, I wonder why they didn’t get someone else for the role.

As Good as It Gets is kind of an angry romance, or at least a romance involving a very angry man. Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a successful novelist but a very unsuccessful person. Melvin is a misogynist and a racist and is buried in many ways by his phobias and compulsive behaviors. The film is going to attempt to make use hate Melvin initially and then have us come to love him by the end of the film. It’ a role that Nicholson does well. He plays a good creep and he gets a lot of benefit of the doubt because of who he is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Divine Right

Film: The Man Who Would Be King
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I can’t claim to know a great deal about the works of Rudyard Kipling, which makes approaching a film like The Man Who Would Be King quite a bit like most of the adapted screenplays I come to. What I know about Kipling is that a lot of his stories take place in India and have a specifically British bent to them. That’s at least partly the case here. What makes this one interesting is that the filmed version actually includes Kipling as a character. Essentially, he’s a framing device, and the story we’re told is given to us as an actual story, something that we’re to take as truth.

As the film begins, we’re introduced to Kipling (Christopher Plummer) as he encounters a terrible apparition from his past. That man introduces himself as Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine), someone who Kipling met several years before. We get the heart of that meeting, which involves Peachy stealing Kipling’s watch and then discovering that Kipling is a fellow Mason, forcing him to return it. Based on that Masonic connection, Peachy asks Kipling to contact a man named Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and tell him that Peachy has headed south. Kipling does so.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Waltzing Matilda

Film: The Sundowners
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It’s entirely possible that I did The Sundowners a little bit of a disservice by watching it on a laptop instead of on a large television. This is a movie that trades at least in part on the big, sweeping panoramas and massive landscapes of the Australian outback. It’s similar in a lot of ways to a standard Western, although it’s a more modern story. Actually, I’m not precisely sure when the story takes place. I think (although I’m not sure) that it essentially takes place around the time the movie was made, despite the lifestyle of the people depicted.

The Sundowners concerns a family of, well, sundowners. The term refers to people in Australia who are more or less nomads, moving from place to place and taking jobs as they come to them. Specifically, the term means people whose home is wherever the sun goes down on a given day. This family is headed by Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum), who is the Australian equivalent of an itinerant cowboy. He frequently works as a sheep drover, moving large herds of sheep to market for shearing. He also often finds work as a shearer, but he doesn’t like that work so much because it means staying in one place for months at a time.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Fraud for Fun and Profit

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

When you think of classic screen duos, there are a lot that certainly come to mind. Limit your thoughts to comedy teams, and there are still a good number. One of those that will almost certainly be early on the list is the team of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who did 10 films together. Their first pair was The Fortune Cookie from 1966, the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who didn’t make a lot of missteps in terms of films he made or in casting decisions. If for no other reason, the first time these two cinematic greats appeared on screen together makes The Fortune Cookie notable.

The plot is simple. Television cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is working the sideline at a Cleveland Browns football game. Star punt returner Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) takes a punt up the sideline and is pushed out of bounds directly into poor Harry, who takes a tumble over the rolled up tarp behind him. A few minutes later, Harry is removed from the stadium via ambulance. Harry’s brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), and ambulance-chasing lawyer, sees this not as a tragedy or an accident, but as an opportunity. Moments after Harry is pulled out of x-ray, Willie is on the phone to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, stating that he’s planning a lawsuit against the stadium, the Browns, and ABC television for $1 million, which in 1966, was a hell of a lot of money.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ho, Ho, Ho!

I know that the Keepers of the List don’t pay attention to this site. Why the hell should they? But I do hope that every now and then one of them might wander here and see the suggestions I make on Christmas every year. I don’t ask for much. I want a mere input on 1% of the total each year. Is that too much to ask? Especially since the films I suggest I can justify?

As usual, there’s not any real order here. These are just the movies I think are worth considering for one reason or another.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Trial of the Century

Film: Miracle on 34th Street
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

Everyone, or almost everyone, has a favorite Christmas movie, at least in the U.S. where Christmas is pretty much universally celebrated. Gun to head, I’d cite Die Hard since it takes place at a Christmas party, but for Christmas-centric films, I’d go with A Christmas Story. It’s difficult to discount the singular joy of older holiday films, though. Of those, It’s a Wonderful Life is almost certainly the most commonly cited favorite, but there is a minority like me who prefer Miracle on 34th Street.

I find it difficult to believe that there are people unfamiliar with the basic story here, but just in case, I’ll offer a quick rundown. Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is the divorced mother of young Susan (Natalie Wood). Doris works for Macy’s, and among other things, is in charge of the Thanksgiving Day parade. The Santa Claus she has hired for the parade has turned up drunk, so she hires a replacement on the spot. The problem is that the replacement calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and truly believes himself to be Santa Claus. Despite this, he is immediately hired to be the Macy’s Santa Claus in the store.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Shades of Salo

Film: Quills
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I’ve had Quills sitting on my desk for more than two weeks. I’ve been telling myself that I need to get to it for a number of reasons and I just haven’t been able to pull the trigger on it. This is a film based loosely (very loosely, apparently) on the life of the Marquis de Sade, whose writings inspired Salo, which remains one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I’ve ever had. I think, based on that, I can be forgiven for some reticence.

The bulk of film takes place in Charenton, an insane asylum in which the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been imprisoned. Despite his imprisonment, de Sade has a spacious cell with a number of amenities. He continues to write a series of depraved stories dealing with sex and torture, smuggling them out by concealing them in his bed linens. The laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet) takes them from his linens to the gate, where they are passed on to an agent who has them published. Naturally, the salacious nature of the Marquis’s prose has a number of effects on the populace. The people can’t get enough, but the powers that be want him stopped. Specifically, Napoleon wants his writings burned and the man silenced. To that end, he appoints Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to oversee Charenton.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Black Phillip

Film: The Witch
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Has there been a resurgence in horror? It feels like there are suddenly good, new horror movies around that are getting good reviews not just from genre wonks and horror fanboys but from actual critics. One of those leading the way in that respect is The Witch (also called The Witch: A New-England Folktale, and sometimes written as The VVitch). There’s a lot here that works in terms of overall horror cred. I think there’s a small chance it might make next year’s 1001 Movies list. It hits a lot of those notes—it’s highly acclaimed in an underrepresented genre, it’s a period piece, and it’s heavy on the atmosphere instead of the gore. Finally, the critical acclaim is far above the typical audience rating. Fingers crossed that it makes it.

As mentioned, this is very much a period piece, taking place in the very early days of Puritan life in the Americas. At a plantation, a family of Puritans is sent into the wilderness because the father, William (Ralph Ineson), has been preaching a different interpretation of the gospels. Defiant, William leads his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (the awesomely-named Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) into the wilderness. The family sets up a farmstead, and soon there is a fifth child, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube). Everything seems to be going well for the family.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Off Script: Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assassino)

Film: Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L’Assassino)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Mario Bava more or less invented the slasher. Bay of Blood is typically thought of as the prototypical slasher film, Bava was starting to build up the style years before. That’s evidenced by 1964’s Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L’Assassino, which translates to “Six Women for the Murderess”), which is also one of the earliest films in the giallo style. This is all about the style and far less about the actual plot, which is also pretty common for films made by Mario Bava.

The sell here is that the murders that are committed, and there are a bunch of them, happen in the context of a fashion house. That might not sound interesting, but it does make for a very interesting visual style. Since Bava spent a good deal of his professional life as a director of photography/cinematographer, this isn’t too surprising. What this means for us is that we get beautiful women in high fashion being brutally slaughtered by a maniac wearing a faceless mask. So, if nothing else, this is a movie that doesn’t look like anything else out there.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Nick's Picks: Easy A

Film: Easy A
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

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

Teen comedies aren’t easy to do well. This is evidenced by the vast amount of teen comedies that are light on the comedy. Many of the best ones get help by more or less co-opting classic stories and putting a teen spin on them. Enter Easy A, a modern teenage version of “The Scarlet Letter” with the twist that the action that earns our heroine the metaphorical (and eventually literal) letter is entirely a fiction, a lie that went out of control. Hey, if you’re going to crib from someone, you may as well crib from a classic, right?

High schooler Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) finds herself in the position of school nobody…and immediately I take issue with Easy A. High school may be multiple decades in my past (my 30-year reunion is in the rearview mirror), but I remember enough of it. I remember enough to know that if Emma Stone was walking around in a high school, she’d have to have the equivalent of social rabies to be completely ignored. But hey, let’s ignore that for the time being. We have a movie to look at, and if that’s the biggest problem with it, well, we have a pretty good movie to look at.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

There and Back Again

Film: Brooklyn
Format: HBO on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I look at the movies that I still have left on my Oscars list, I see that I have a habit of leaving a Best Picture nominee or two from each year unwatched for some time. Evidently, that’s not going to be the case for 2015, as Brooklyn is the last one I have left. I’ve had this saved on the DVR for a cou

cple of months and have just now gotten around to it. There’s no particular reason other than the realization that my DVR is getting old and that I have a lot saved that I should watch before it goes legs-up and dies on my with all of those recordings unwatched.

I think my reticence for watching Brooklyn comes from not really being that interested in the story as it is depicted. Certainly there is a family connection of a sort here, one I’ve mentioned before. My grandmother came to the States from Denmark on her own when she was 16 (possibly 14; we’re not really sure) to a new country where she didn’t speak the language or really know a soul. In a sense, Brooklyn is less impressive than what my grandmother did. Our main character her is older and already speaks the language.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Better Late than Never

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

I realize that everyone who regularly reads this site almost certainly saw Deadpool when it was originally released earlier this year. Sometimes it takes me a few months to catch up. I don’t really enjoy going to the theater that much, and despite the fact that this is something I did want to see, I just didn’t get to it. I was actually surprised when I found it in the library. I tried to check out several movies and one of them was on reserve…and it wasn’t Deadpool. My wife loves Ryan Reynolds, so I figured she’d want to watch it, too.

Turns out I was both right and wrong about that. Less than 30 minutes in and Sue bailed on the movie, so I had to remove it from the Blu-ray player and finish it on the laptop. She wasn’t prepared (honestly, neither was I) for the level of violence. I can’t say it bothered me, but it did bother her quite a bit. Still, even knowing the basic story, I was expecting a lot more funny right off the bat and a lot less decapitation and brain splatter.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nest of Vipers

Film: Hedda
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Let’s be honest; I was never going to be a huge fan of Hedda in the best of circumstances. I do my best not to allow the various problems I might have with the version of a film to affect how I feel about it, but that might have been impossible with Hedda. This is one of those films I couldn’t find for the last few years, so when it turned up online, I jumped at it, if only to get it watched before it vanished. The version that is online is not quite in a condition worth watching. The film locks up frequently, and not too long into the running time, it becomes hopelessly out of sync. Eventually, the audio is running 30-40 seconds ahead of the video. Eventually, I treated it as sort of a radio play. But, as I say, even in the best of circumstances, I probably wasn’t going to like this much.

So, what are the strikes against Hedda going in? First, it’s an adaptation of a stage play, in this case, “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen. Second, it’s a drawing room drama, which means that there’s not much opportunity to separate the film from the stage play. Third, it stars Glenda Jackson, who has always left me cold for some reason, even when I’ve thought she was good in a particular movie. There’s something about her that’s like biting down on a piece of tinfoil for me. She always comes across to me as something of an ice queen. I’m not sure what it is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Red Knight

Film: The Fisher King
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

In a lot of ways, Terry Gilliam is the Orson Welles of today. I like Gilliam a lot and have liked his work since I was a kid. I loved Monty Python (even named a dog after the show), and I remember my mother saying that she thought the show was funny, but hated the animation. I loved the animation, which was all Gilliam’s work. One of Gilliam’s most famous projects is the one about Don Quixote that he never completed. There’s a touch of synchronicity in this, as Terry Gilliam is himself a fairly quixotic guy. He’s tilted at the windmills of studios for most of his career and a lot of his films have a large fantasy element to them. Like Welles, Gilliam’s quixotic nature is at least partially self-inflicted. The Fisher King is heavily influenced by Arthurian legend, which makes it something of a return—a far less comedic one—to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a popular talk radio personality loosely modeled on Howard Stern. He’s rude to his callers, but funny. One day, just has he’s about to break into acting on a sitcom, an off-hand remark to a caller causes a tragedy. The caller takes Jack’s comments about a war against Yuppies literally and takes a shotgun into a nightclub and kills seven people before turning the gun on himself. It destroys Jack completely. Three years later, Jack and his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) are living over the video store she owns and Jack is frequently drunk and just as frequently unable to deal with people.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Off Script: Dementia 13

Film: Dementia 13
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Roger Corman might be known for low-budget schlock, but you have to hand it to the man: he was if nothing else a great judge of directorial talent. Among his protégés is the great Francis Ford Coppola, a man who in many ways defined American film in the 1970s. Corman gave Coppola his start, and a large part of that start came in the film Dementia 13. Coppola punched out a short script over three days and filmed using the same sets and actors as another of Corman’s films provided he could do things on the cheap and work around Corman’s shooting schedule.

The result of those constraints gives us a film that shows a good deal of ambition but also shows all of the strings and gaps of needing to work on the quick with actors involved in another film. Personally, I find it interesting to see the work of a director best known for feats of cinematic brilliance like The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation making a film that hints on the supernatural and involving an axe murderer and a woman swimming in her lingerie. There’s something wonderfully lurid about it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Picks from Chip: Another Earth

Film: Another Earth
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the twelfth in a series of twelve films selected by Chip Lary.

In the best science fiction stories, the science fiction is used as a backdrop for the characters. There are some exceptions to that, of course, but a great deal of the best science fiction is an exploration of humanity, not aliens and laser guns. Films like Gattaca and The Man from Earth demonstrate that we don’t need to have expensive special effects or weird technology to make an interesting film. Another Earth, Chip’s final pick for me this year, promises to be a film in that vein, where the premise relies heavily on ideas of science fiction, but the story is about the characters more than anything.

In fact, aside from The Man from Earth (one of Chip’s selections for me last year), this might be the least science fiction-y science fiction film I’ve ever seen. The departure from the real world is literally in the background for a great deal of the movie, and while it more or less starts the story and drives an undercurrent of the plot, this is a film that could just about be told with no changes if the science fiction elements were removed completely.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Off Script: Popcorn

Film: Popcorn
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

The traditional horror movie puts a group of people in a specific location with someone or something that wants to kill them. Often, the thing that is trying to kill them is what makes the movie different. Every now and then you get something like Popcorn that really tries to do something interesting with the premise. Popcorn is all about the premise, because what follows the premise is pretty standard slasher fare.

We start with Maggie (Jill Schoelen), a film student at a college that has a fledgling film school that frequently gets the monetary short end of the stick from the rest of the school. Maggie has been plagued with strange dreams that she is taking notes on in the hopes of turning it into a film. At school that day, the film professor Mr. Davis (Tony Roberts) and a student named Toby (Tom Villard) have come up with a plan to raise funds for the department. They’re going to stage a triple horror feature at a theater a few weeks away from demolition. The idea specifically is to select films that were marketed with gimmicks (one involves electrified seats as in The Tingler). The work gets easier thanks to Dr. Mnesyne (Ray Walston), who had a long career in theater and a huge collection of old timey props to use to decorate the theater.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Off Script: La Horde (The Horde)

Film: La Horde (The Horde)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook

While it’s not entirely true that if you’ve seen one zombie movie you’ve seen them all, there is a kernel of truth in that assessment. Most of them start with the beginning of the infection where the main characters slowly figure out what’s going on. A few of these people will be bitten at some point to give us the convention that a bite leads to the victim turning into a zombie. A couple of zombies early on will soon turn into a mass of them, and victims toward the end of the film will not be merely bitten but completely devoured. There are a few films that attempt to do something new with the genre. More frequently, there are films like La Horde (The Horde) that offer a different starting premise and follow the same traditional path.

La Horde starts from the premise of The Raid: Redemption. A cop has been killed by a drug lord and now four cops are going for some revenge. This is a completely unofficial raid bent solely on the idea of vengeance. The drug lord, Adewale Markudi (Eriq Ebouaney), his brother Bola (Doudou Masta), goon Jimenez (Aurelien Recoing), and a few others have holed up in a mostly-abandoned and condemned building.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Propaganda, Comrade

Film: The North Star (Armored Attack)
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

I’ve been hitting a lot of internet-available films lately. There are days when it’s easier to watch something in this format than a more typical one. There is a more serious reason, though. Slightly more than one-third of the movies I have left to watch on my various Oscar lists at this moment are ones I don’t own and that aren’t available through NetFlix. That number is a little better if I include libraries that I can use, but there are still a lot of movies that need to be watched in a different way—more than 25%. Thus, The North Star (often shown under the name (Armored Attack) was on the docket for today.

Since this is a war film from 1943, it should come as no surprise that The North Star is a propaganda film. What makes it particularly interesting is that this is an American production, but concerns Ukrainian peasants, not American troops. The movie skirts the idea of being pro-communist, but it’s certainly pro-Russian. Evidently, The North Star was cited as a premiere example of the sort of thing HUAC wanted to root out of Hollywood. In fact, it’s why the film was released under the different title. As Armored Attack, The North Star has all references to Russian and Ukrainian peasantry removed.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Devil's Island

Film: Condemned
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There’s a simplicity to early talkies that is attractive. While movies weren’t new, sound in movies was, and that meant that so much focus was put on that new innovation that plots were often simple, east-to-follow, and entertaining because of it. A single complication, typically associated with a romance, and you’ve got enough for something close to 90 minutes. Sure, they often tended toward melodrama and also had acting that was geared toward the back of the theater, but when they’re done well, there’s a particular charm to them. Condemned, which I found on YouTube today, is one of these movies, and it’s a pretty darn good one.

As mentioned in the paragraph above, the plot here is almost painfully simple. We start by witnessing prisoners being transferred to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony in Guyana. We’re then introduced to our main players. We have the warden, Jean Vidal (Dudley Digges), who is constantly upset with his wife, Madame Vidal (Ann Harding, and no, we don’t get a first name for her). His main problem is that he is ashamed that, as the wife of a prison warden, she demeans herself by doing all of the work around the house and won’t let him conscript a convict to act as combination butler/housemaid.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Head, Body, Head

Film: The Fighter
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I often like Mark Wahlberg in movies, but with the exception of Boogie Nights, I like him in supporting roles like The Departed so much better than when he is the focus of the film. I do always go into movies with as clean of a slate as I can, though, attempting to give every movie a fair shake and always wanting to like what I’m watching. So when The Fighter showed up, a movie starring Wahlberg, I heaved a sigh and dived in, hoping that Wahlberg might rise to the level of his best roles. Thankfully, he does, and he’s got a tremendous supporting cast to help him over the line.

The Fighter is the mostly-autobiographical story of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother, boxer Dickie (spelled “Dicky” in the film) Eklund (Christian Bale). This is both a standard boxing story and a very different one in some ways. We’ll get a lot of the boxing tropes that have been around since boxing movies, but there’s also a great deal of social commentary going on here. While the tropes certainly exist in the movie, it’s worth noting that a great deal of this is based on the real life and experiences of Ward and Eklund.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Man Needs a Maid

Film: Diary of a Mad Housewife
Format: Internet video on laptop.

IMDB lists Diary of a Mad Housewife as both a comedy and a drama. Having watched it, if it qualifies as a comedy, it is only as the blackest sort. This movie is absolutely oppressive. Seriously, I’ve seen Holocaust documentaries that were less unrelenting. What we’re going to see is what we see in the opening couple of minutes as the housewife in question, Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress) is run ragged with doorbells, phones, the dog, and just about everything else in rapid succession.

This is likely going to be a short review because there isn’t a great deal here to talk about. This is, at least the version that I saw, two hours of seeing a woman deal with being trapped in a life that she chose and that turned into something far different than she wanted or expected. Everyone in her life treats here with an astonishing amount of contempt. Not anger, not frustration, but pure contempt. She tries her best to deal with it, but everywhere she goes and everyone she meets treats her exactly the same way.