Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Honest Abe

Film: Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

One of the nicknames for Illinois is The Land of Lincoln. Abe Lincoln wasn’t born in Illinois, of course, but he lived here for a long time, and for most people, he’s considered as someone from the state. In terms of presidential birthplaces, we get only Ronald Reagan. Still, you don’t live in Illinois as a schoolchild and not hear a lot about Lincoln. I’ve had Abe Lincoln in Illinois on the DVR for a long time; today seemed as good a day as any to watch it.

This is presented as a biography of some years in Lincoln’s life. Essentially it goes from his early days as an adult to the point where he was first elected president. We don’t get his childhood and we don’t get the Civil War. It’s more about the making of the man who would become president than it is about anything else. It’s also not a straight biography. Oh, I don’t doubt that the information included here isn’t mainly factual. It is a very forgiving look at the 16th president, though, which makes sense for 1940.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Secret Life

Film: A History of Violence
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t remember how I got my copy of A History of Violence. It was probably from a closing Blockbuster or something similar, though, which means I bought it for cheap because I didn’t own it and heard it was worth seeing. I’m also not sure why I’ve never gotten around to it before now. I think it’s because I often don’t look to my collection for this blog because I know I can watch those whenever I want, and I don’t know that I’ll always have access to other films. But I like David Cronenberg as a director and I like a lot of the cast, so I went into this with high hopes.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an average husband and father living in small town Indiana. Tom runs a local diner and helps his wife Edie (Maria Bello) take care of their kids Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Life seems pretty normal for them, despite Jack having a bully problem in high school. The family is generally happy and things are fine. That is until one day a couple of strangers walk into the diner. These men, Leland (Stephen McHattie) and Billy (Greg Bryk) intend to rob the diner, and based on the short scene at the start of the film, kill everyone inside. Little do they know that Tom Stall has some skills. He smashes one in the face with a coffee pot, comes up with the gun and shoots them both down despite being stabbed through the foot at one point.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Let's Play a Game

Film: Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella))
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m fairly certain that I’m not at the end of Holocaust stories, but watching Life is Beautiful (La vita e bella) puts me one step closer. This is one that I’ve seen before—I saw it in the theater when it was originally released, if I remember correctly. It’s not one that I looked forward to seeing again. I find this a difficult film to describe. This is purely a film about the Holocaust, and yet it’s also in many ways a comedy. Director and star Roberto Begnini created a film that doesn’t attempt to hide the horrors of that period in history and doesn’t make light of it, but does attempt to create a story of love and magic within that context. It’s almost impossible to explain.

The first part of the film has virtually nothing to do with the Holocaust except at the fringes. Instead, it’s essentially a screwball romance. In Italy in the 1930s, Guido Orefice (Begnini) arrives in an unnamed Italian city to work for his uncle’s restaurant and possibly open a bookstore. He and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bini Bustric) look for work. Most importantly for Guido, he has a chance meeting with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), and immediately falls in love with her. He arranges a series of meetings for the two of them, and before we know it, Guido and Dora are married and have a young son named Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Apt Pupil

Film: Apt Pupil
Format: DVD from Homer Township Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

Stephen King’s novella collection “Different Seasons” contains four stories, three of which have been turned into films. The first story is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which was turned into The Shawshank Redemption, a film that lives on IMDB’s top-250 in the top position with good reason. The second is called “The Body,” which was turned into Stand By Me, also on IMDB’s top-250. The third is Apt Pupil, clearly the least of the three and the only one to keep the name of the original story. However, that’s not saying a lot when the movies its being compared to are as highly regarded as they are. Additionally, one wonders about the fate of the fourth story, “The Sun Dog,” about a demonic creature trapped inside a Polaroid camera.

In many ways, Apt Pupil is one of King’s darkest and most disturbing stories. Much of that is because it deals with fascism overtly, but also because it’s entirely believable. There’s no supernatural here; there’s just evil. The high concept is that a straight-A high school student named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) becomes fascinated by his history class’s lessons on the Holocaust. He studies it on his own and discovers that his neighbor Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen) is actually Kurt Dussander, a notorious concentration camp leader currently wanted by the Israelis for war crimes. Rather than turning Dussander in, Todd starts visiting him every day after school to hear about the atrocities that he committed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Singin' in the Pain

Film: With a Song in My Heart
Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

Unlike when I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips a few days ago, I knew going into With a Song in My Heart that there would be a great deal of singing. This is, after all, the story of singer Jane Froman. Like many a film of this sort, we start at the end, with Jane being given an award for her tremendous courage. Courage? For a singer? Well, for that we’ll need to dive into the movie itself, won’t we?

Jane Froman (Susan Hayward) starts out life as a young woman studying singing and looking for a job on the radio. She manages to get an audition, but when she goes in, she encounters not the man she expected but Don Ross (David Wayne), who doesn’t tell her that he’s just failed an audition. She sings, the real manager for the station hears her and he hires her on the spot. Jane is a real talent (the singing in the film is voiced by the real Jane Froman, after all) and is soon skyrocketed into a real career. Don becomes her manager and lives on her coattails, working as a smaller warm-up act in many of her shows and managing her professional life. Eventually, the two decide to get married despite the fact that Jane doesn’t really love him. It’s more a marriage of convenience for her career than anything else.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Preemptive Strike

Film: Zootopia
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

Oscar nominations are going to be announced in a couple of days, and since there wasn’t anything I really felt like watching tonight, I figured I do a little pre-emptive viewing. I think it’s a good bet that Zootopia will earn a nomination. It’s a Disney film, for one thing, and it was pretty well reviewed. Now, it’s possible that the Academy won’t want to double up on Disney in this category and that the nomination will go to Moana instead. But hey, you rolls the dice and you takes your chance, right?

Zootopia is Disney’s take on racism through the lens of anthropomorphic animals and a plot straight out of film noir. We have a world where predator and prey animals have evolved into something like a human civilization and have the ability to live side by side without killing each other. Young rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has dreams of being a police officer, a job that is traditionally handled by predators and larger prey animals like water buffalo. In Zootopia, a city near where Judy grows up, having a rabbit police officer is quite a novelty—she’s the first. Her police chief, Bogo (Idris Elba) is unimpressed and sticks her on parking ticket duty.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

...And Mrs. Salsa, too

Film: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Was there a reason I decided to watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips tonight? Really, I felt like sitting down with Peter O’Toole, a man nominated for eight Oscars and who got a goose egg for his troubles. There are multiple times when I think O’Toole was rightfully nominated, but I have trouble understanding this particular nomination. I guess more than anything I was surprised to find this a musical. I probably shouldn’t have been since Petula Clark is his costar.

This does more or less follow the story of the original version of the film from 1939. Arthur Chipping (O’Toole) is a stuffy professor of Latin at an all-boys school near London. He’s not a favorite of the boys, who find him dull and officious. He actually agrees with them in general; he is officious and stuffy. He’d like the boys to like him, but he also doesn’t see any reason to change the way he is. We get a good sense of the sort of man he is as the film opens. His students have performed poorly on a test, so he keeps them after class to go over their work despite one of his boys being in a championship tennis match. The boy is forced to miss the match thanks to Chipping keeping him in his seat.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wait Until Silent

Film: Hush
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

When I look at a movie like Hush, there are a few ways I can take it. This is a straightforward slasher/thriller with an interesting twist in that the main character is deaf. On the other hand, this isn’t too different from Wait Until Dark aside from the idea that we’re dealing with someone deaf and not blind. Aside from the deafness, this is really a standard stalker/thriller in a lot of respects. Isolated woman, psychotic bad guy…you know the drill.

That said, this was a film I’d been intending to watch for some time. The last few years have been pretty good for horror, and Hush got pretty good press and decent acclaim from other bloggers. Tonight just seemed like the right time to get to it, since I was relegated to the basement this evening without a working DVD player.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

I Enjoy Being a Girl

Film: The Danish Girl
Format: HBO on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m not sure why I recorded The Danish Girl off HBO. It’s not like the movie is hard to find, and with HBO Go, I can watch it whenever. But, I did record it, and since the DVR is constantly in danger of being overloaded, I figured I’d watch it today. I knew the basics of the film—it’s a somewhat fictionalized story of one of the first transsexuals to undergo gender reassignment. Fair enough, although I can’t say it’s a topic that particularly interests me.

Another problem is Eddie Redmayne, who does very little for me. I admit that he did a fine impression of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but Redmayne is a great example of the German expression “Backpfeifengesicht,” or a face that is asking to be slapped. There’s something about this man’s visage that makes my hand ball up into a fist. I’m not sure what it is.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

War Like an Egyptian

Film: Cleopatra (1934)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Who was Hollywood’s greatest Cleopatra? The role is almost always associated initially with Elizabeth Taylor thanks to the massive 1963 epic film. In some respects, the association of Taylor with the role has as much to do with the massive production and incredible amount of money spent as it does with the movie itself. The question I had for the 1934 version of Cleopatra is whether or not Claudette Colbert could do anything to make me forget Taylor playing the Queen of the Nile. I’ve always been a bigger fan of Taylor than Colbert for starters. Colbert was a good actress, but was often put in roles where she had to be all that is woman, something that I don’t think she was built for. And really, Cleopatra is that sort of a role.

Much like the later epic, Cleopatra in this earlier version is a combination of two of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Where the later epic essentially does both plays in all of their glory (and thus runs somewhat over four hours), this version is highly truncated, giving us the meeting between Cleo and Caesar, the assassination of Caesar, and the romance between Antony and Cleopatra in a relatively spare 101 minutes.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

White Guilt

Film: The Help
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Like it or not, The Help works in part because of white guilt. There’s not a good way around this. It’s the sort of movie that is designed to piss off white supremacists and to make liberal white people like it based specifically on the subject matter regardless of the quality of the movie itself. Well, as it happens, I am a liberal white person and in this case, the white guilt doesn’t work on me. That being the case, it’s a good thing that The Help is a damn fine movie in its own right.

This is a Civil Rights Era movie, and it takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, which means it’s not just going to be about the Civil Rights Era. Young Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss and returned home. She’s also secured herself a job at the local paper, taking over a weekly column concerning household hints. Skeeter’s goal is to write for a living, and she sees this as her foot in the door. While at her friend Elizabeth’s (Ahna O’Reilly) house, she asks if she might consult Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis).

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Wednesday Horror: [•REC]

Film: [•REC]
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Found footage is a hard sell for me. While I think it’s possible to tell a good story in the found footage style, I think a lot of times the style gets in the way of the story being told. With [•REC] (or [REC], [Rec] or simply REC) we have film that is doubly controversial. It’s found footage, something that doesn’t always work. It’s also a film that hits that zombie/non-zombie dividing line. Are we looking at a zombie apocalypse or is this a 28 Days Later-style infection?

Regardless, it’s not difficult to see where [•REC] takes its inspiration: zombie movies and zombie-inspired movies like the aforementioned 28 Days Later. It’s also clearly inspired by the sort of television magazine show that feature a reporter and camera operator going on location for local interest stories. That’s the case here, with our television presenter Angela Vidal (real-life television presenter Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) going on location to a local firehouse to see what a typical night is like for the firefighters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Springing a Leak

Film: Houseboat
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

I went into Houseboat with high hopes. I knew it was a goofy little rom-com, but it stars Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, so I had real hopes for it. In fact, I knew nothing more about it than it had Grant and Loren in it, and thus was almost certainly going to involve a romance. Grant did a few movies like Charade that were less comedic, but he also excelled in light comedy. So we’ve got a movie with one of the great light comic actors in film history paired with one of the great beauties of the era in a light romantic comedy. What the hell went wrong?

Yeah, it’s going to be one of those movies, one that is ultimately disappointing because of a great deal of potential and a story that never takes the bat off its shoulder. Tom Winters (Grant) works for the U.S. State Department. He returns from Europe because of the sudden death of his estranged wife. As it happens, Tom has also been estranged from his three children, David (Paul Peterson), Elizabeth (Mimi Gibson), and Robert (Charles Herbert). Tom’s in-laws want to take the kids. Of particular interest in this arrangement is Tom’s sister-in-law Carolyn (Martha Hyer), whose own marriage is on the rocks. Tom, however, decides that it’s better for him to take charge of the children despite not having seen them for years. And yes, wackiness ensues.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Pie with Legs

Film: National Velvet
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Sometimes you can see a star in the making. National Velvet is that way. This wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s first movie; it wasn’t even her first movie with an animal. But it is a case where I don’t know that anyone expected that this would be a star turn for the young actress. She’s billed third on the film after Mickey Rooney and Donald Crisp despite clearly being the star of the film.

National Velvet is an interesting coming-of-age film in a couple of respects. Typically, and as I’ve said multiple times in the past, coming-of-age stories for boys are about death and for girls are about sex. In this case, it’s neither of the above. There’s not any death here and our main character is far too young for sex to be involved. This is a good thing, and noteworthy, really. It’s a little bit surprising, and I’m all for that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Day of the Dead

Film: Day of the Dead
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’m put into a strange situation with Day of the Dead. When the third installment of George Romero’s zombie series came out, it was very poorly received in general. Those critics who don’t typically like horror films didn’t like it because it’s a horror film. Horror fans didn’t like it very much either because it’s a huge step backward in terms of gore. Dawn of the Dead was incredibly bloody while Day of the Dead is much lesser on the general gore scale.

In the years after its release, Day of the Dead has been re-evaluated a number of times and has slowly risen in the estimation of horror fans. Once over the disappointment of a huge curtailment in the gore factor, viewers started to look at what was really here and saw the story beneath the lack of gore and saw the commentary that Romero was making. Over and over Day of the Dead was brought up as a movie that was severely underrated (Halloween III is the other one that is frequently mentioned). Now it’s to the point that Day of the Dead may actually be overrated. It’s good, but it’s definitely the weakest of Romero’s original trilogy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sending the Wrong Message

Film: Something’s Gotta Give
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I knew less than 20 minutes in that I was going to absolutely hate Something’s Gotta Give, and I was right. The way this blog works is that I watch the whole thing even when I hate it. I sat through all of Vinyl and I watched Salo to the credits. It can’t be worse than those, right?

Okay, of course it’s not, but I’m serious that I knew right away that Something’s Gotta Give was going to suck and suck really hard. It’s a shame, too, because there are a few moments that are actually quite sweet, and it’s not often in my nature to dislike Diane Keaton. It’s frustrating because there could be a good story here, but it’s lost in so many things that it absolutely does wrong.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Have a Conversation, Dammit!

Film: Street Angel
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the Oscars first started, there were some different rules covering aspects of the ceremony. Janet Gaynor was one of the beneficiaries of those different rules. The first set of Best Actress nominees listed five performances; three of them were Janet Gaynor’s, essentially guaranteeing that she would win. She did, of course. One of those three performances for which she won was Street Angel, a straight-up melodrama concerning a good girl forced into bad decisions by circumstance. Yes, it’s drippy as hell, and of Gaynor’s three nominated performances (the others being Seventh Heaven and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), it’s clearly the one in service of the weakest story.

Like most melodramas, Street Angel is an essentially simple story. Young Angela (Gaynor) is poor and living in Naples with her sick mother. Desperate for her mother to get treatment, Angela decides that her only recourse is to obtain the money for her mother’s treatment illegally. This starts with a rather sad attempt at prostitution and when that fails, an attempt to simply steal the necessary money.