Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not-So Brief Encounter

Film: Ryan’s Daughter
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’m going to do my best not to beat up on Ryan’s Daughter too much, but I gotta say that it’s a difficult temptation to resist. I consider myself a fan of David Lean in general in that I tend to like his films, even the really long ones. Ryan’s Daughter is going to be an exception, though. This is a movie that could have easily been told in the space of Brief Encounter that instead clocks in more at the length of Lawrence of Arabia. Including the intro and outro music as well as the entr’acte, Ryan’s Daughter runs just shy of 210 minutes, and this story could be told in 90 without too much difficulty.

That, more than anything, is the problem with the film. A film like the aforementioned Brief Encounter showed that Lean could tell a real story in a limited scope, since it runs just under 90 minutes. The nearly-four-hour Lawrence of Arabia demonstrates that Lean, when given the right material, could make a true epic that entertained for its entire length, incorporating the landscape as a character in and of itself. Ryan’s Daughter, on the other hand, is a story that is told in that grand epic style for which Lean became known despite being something much better told on the scale of a much smaller film, a problem Lean repeated about a decade and a half later with A Passage to India.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Calculus and Chilaquiles

Film: Stand and Deliver
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Years ago, before I was a teacher, I worked as a freelance writer and proofreader. It was a pretty cool job, but I wanted to do something more and different with my life. That’s relevant when today’s movie is Stand and Deliver. This is one of those “inspirational teacher” stories that says right in the beginning that it’s based on a true story. Fair enough. Good teacher, underprivileged kids and underserved community, Hollywood ending. Sometimes that’s what I need.

In this case, Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) is the teacher in question, who has given up his previous career to teach at the local high school. In this case, the local high school is one that is just about to lose its accreditation because of the failure of a great number of its students. Jaime is supposed to teach computers, but the school no longer has any computers and he’s instead turned into a math teacher.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oh, Jackie O

Film: Love Field
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Michelle Pfeiffer. When she’s good, she’s very good (a film like The Fabulous Baker Boys comes to mind), but most of the time, I find her kind of forgettable. I picked up a copy of Love Field some time ago, knowing that it would be a film I’d have to get to eventually, but not really thinking it was something I’d look forward to watching. Discovering that Dennis Haysbert is the costar worked in the film’s favor, though. I generally like Haysbert.

Love Field is about a Dallas housewife with the unlikely name of Lurene Hallett (Pfeiffer) and her obsession with Jackie Kennedy. On that fateful day in 1963, Lurene drives out to the airport to see the Kennedys arrive and misses her chance to speak to Jackie. Then, on the drive home, she finds out about Kennedy’s assassination. Having missed the chance to meet Jackie at the airport, Lurene decides to go to Kennedy’s funeral in Washington against the wishes of her husband Ray (Brian Kerwin).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Simon, Not So Pure

Film: Chapter Two
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve had Chapter Two sitting on my DVR for just over two years. There are a lot of reasons I didn’t want to pull the trigger on it. I’m not in love with the work of Neil Simon for starters. I also generally don’t think a great deal of Marsha Mason as an actress; I find her generally unappealing and frustrating. Still, I had to get through it eventually, and removing the oldest movie has at least a psychological benefit.

Here’s the other thing about Marsha Mason, though. I’ve now seen three of her Best Actress-nominated performances. In The Goodbye Girl, she plays an aging, unsuccessful actress in a Neil Simon romantic comedy. In Only When I Laugh, she plays a recovering alcoholic actress trying to reestablish her relationship with her daughter in a Neil Simon dramedy. Wedged between those two performances is this one, where she plays a relatively successful stage actress in a romantic dramedy penned by Neil Simon. Are you sensing a pattern here? I sure as hell am. I wonder if Marsha Mason can do anything aside from playing a stage actress in a script written by Neil Simon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Game

Film: The Game
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

The Game isn’t really a horror film at all despite my placing this as a part of watching horror movies on Wednesday. I’m kind of forced to label it thus, though, because it does appear on one of my horror lists. In reality, this is almost a pure psychological thriller, and it’s a pretty good one. This is something that more or less wants to sit the audience down and screw the viewers’ heads until the final credits roll. That’s pretty much it.

In this case, our main character/victim is Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy banker/investment manager type who has a very specific and regimented life. As the film starts, Nicholas is experiencing his 48th birthday. As it happens, he witnessed his father commit suicide on his 48th birthday, something that has haunted him since that day. His brother Conrad (Sean Penn) offers him a voucher for a game from a company called Consumer Recreation Services, telling him that the company changed his life completely.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Nothing Hurts Like Family

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

My original plan for the past few days was to watch The Savages last Saturday. I ended up watching The Unsinkable Molly Brown instead because, well, my Blu-ray play crapped out on me. Worse, it wouldn’t turn on or open up, and the disc for The Savages was stuck inside. So here’s what I learned: If this happens to you, unplug the player from the outlet for one minute. Plug it back in, and without turning it on, just hit the eject button. It should pop open. As it happened, my player was fine; it just needed to be reset. So, now that things are working again, I could finally get around to the movie I had planned for three days ago.

I can’t say that I was thrilled with the prospect, honestly. I try to be as neutral as possible for as many films as I can, but there are some things that simply are going to either get me excited or cause me to have some misgivings. In the case of The Savages, my misgivings are twofold. First, I’ve never been a huge fan of Laura Linney. I don’t dislike her in particular; I’ve just never had much of an opinion of her one way or the other. Second, ever since his untimely and senseless death, I’ve been at least a little depressed every time I see Philip Seymour Hoffman. We were supposed to get decades more great movies out of him, and he pissed that away on us. It still hurts.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


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

Since one of my degrees is in linguistics, I’ve been asked about Arrival pretty much since it came out. In fact, one of my professors was interviewed about just how closely the film would track attempting to learn an entirely alien language. It’s worth reading that interview, partly because it offers clearer insight on the science than I could offer and because Dr. Birner is awesome. Either go check it out now and come back, or go there as soon as you’re done here. Really.

Anyway, linguistics is front and center in Arrival. More specifically, as you’ve read or will read, Arrival is a big fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, specifically the idea of linguistic determinism. Allow me to get mildly professorial here for just a moment. The lighter, more acceptable (and much more potentially provable) version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the language that we speak affect the way that we communicate—that how we communicate with others is relative to the language that we speak. It makes a certain sense; it’s a hypothesis (linguistic relativity) that I think is at least partially true. The stronger version, and one that Arrival very much wants to put forth, is that our language determines how we see the world, which goes too far for what Sapir-Whorf can support.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Denver Hillbillies

Film: The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Don’t tell me that I don’t make sacrifices for this blog. My Blu-ray player has evidently gone the way of the dodo, which meant that I wasn’t able to watch the movie I had planned today. Instead, I’m stuck pulling something off the DVR. Normally, on a night when I’m alone in the house, it would be a chance to watch something that my family can’t see—films like Blue is the Warmest Color or Last House on the Left come to mind. In this case, I decided on one that I’d be embarrassed to be caught watching by my family for a different reason: The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I put up with some shit for you folks. Please acknowledge that.

Now, I’m not going to get all “I hate musicals” on you here, although that’s certainly a direction I could go. The Unsinkable Molly Brown is clearly a most musical-y musical with everyone on screen playing for the back row. But no, there are other reasons for me to dislike this film that are absolutely more legitimate, although the absolute feast that everyone makes of the scenery at all times does rank pretty high. The Unsinkable Molly Brown features one of the most unpleasant title characters I’ve run across in a long time, at least in terms of characters that I’m supposed to actually like and root for. What press agents and the like would call “spunk” in this case is something I’m more apt to call a painful need for attention.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Today's Special

Film: Fried Green Tomatoes
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Fried Green Tomatoes was a hard sell for me. It’s a movie I tried to watch some time ago and didn’t get past the first 20 minutes. It’s also one I’ve checked out of the library more than once but haven’t watched. Knowing it was due back to the library in a couple of days, I figured I’d grit my teeth and get on with it. I was not looking forward to it, but knew that I had to watch it at some point, and today seemed like a good enough day to get through it.

For what it’s worth, one thing I’m willing to do is admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong about Fried Green Tomatoes. I’m not precisely sure when it happened, but at some point in the watching, I realized that I was enjoying the story, and by the end, I realized I liked this quite a bit. It snuck up on me. I didn’t expect to enjoy myself, and ended up liking it pretty well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Film: Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve heard of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (which I’ll be calling Lemora from this point forward until the very end), but I knew nothing more than it was a vampire movie before watching it. It doesn’t start like a vampire horror movie, though. We have a man walking in on what is presumably his wife with another man and shooting them both down. He runs off and gets in an accident. Then, apparently we jump forward in time and are introduced to Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith). Lila is now the ward of a church run by an unnamed reverend (played by director Richard Blackburn). She’s known in the area for her singing voice, and she sings in the church regularly.

Out of nowhere, Lila gets a letter that tells her to come visit her father, who is ill and about to die. She runs away from the church and hops a bus to a town called Astaroth. On the way, the bus (of which she is the only passenger) gets attacked by creatures in a swamp leading to the town. The creatures are vampire-like, but also appear to be mindless. Lila is rescued from the creatures by a woman named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who takes Lila back to her house. Lila is left on her own for some time, but she eventually seems to catch the fancy of her new host.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day, Mom

Film: Sons and Lovers
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Author D.H. Lawrence is best known for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which gives the man a particular reputation. I’m not sure what I expected going into Sons and Lovers, but I think I expected something more explicit than what I got. Don’t get me wrong; Sons and Lovers is filled with a weird sexual tension, but it’s a tension that seems to be sublimated throughout, something that exists mostly under the surface. This is also one of the most Freudian movies I’ve seen in a long time. Oedipal stuff is frequently creepy, and that’s right in the wheelhouse of this one.

In the early 20th Century in a small mining town, young Paul Morel (Dean Stockwell) finds himself out of place. Interested in art and literature, he doesn’t seem to fit in with his father Walter (Trevor Howard) or his brother Arthur (Sean Barrett), both of whom work in the mines. Paul’s talent for art has made him a favorite of his mother Gertrude (Wendy Hiller). Well, that, and as the youngest of her three sons, he’s the one that she has found the easiest to manipulate. Paul is definitely and completely under the thumb of his mother, who disapproves of pretty much everyone who isn’t Paul. This is especially true of Paul’s attachment to local girl Miriam Leivers (Heather Sears).

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sting Lite

Film: Paper Moon
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve done a couple of Oscar wrap-ups for 1973 categories, and in both cases, I’ve been told that I should really watch Paper Moon. Well, I’ve finally rectified that omission in my viewing history, and those who recommended it were correct. It’s a lot of fun. It’s interesting that this came out in the same year as The Sting. Both are movies that take place in the 1930s and both are essentially about con artists. The main difference is that The Sting is about an elaborate long con while Paper Moon is about a series of short cons, and also about a relationship that at least mirrors that of a father and a daughter.

A man with the unlikely and obviously fake name of Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) arrives late at a funeral for a woman he knew in the Biblical sense. There are only a couple of mourners, who think that Moze might be the father of the woman’s surviving daughter, Addie (Tatum O’Neal). Regardless, they ask him to take the girl to her aunt, who happens to be her last surviving relative. Eventually, Moze agrees, seeing this as a way to make a few quick dollars. On their way out of town, Moze blackmails the man who killed Addie’s mother in a car accident for $200, about half of which he spends on his car. He then buys the girl a train ticket to her aunt’s home town.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cowboy Noir

Film: Hell or High Water
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I came to Hell or High Water knowing only the name of the film and the picture on the front of the case. That picture shows Jeff Bridges as a lawman, Chris Pine looking angry and Ben Foster wearing a pair of kick-ass shades and packing a very large weapon. Crime movie? Modern Western? Yes to both. In the watching, it feels very much like a newer version of No Country for Old Men mixed with a classic Western and a large helping of film noir. It’s one of those combinations that is either going to work perfectly almost in spite of itself or end up as a train wreck.

Fortunately, it’s the first possibility. Hell or High Water is a modern Western and a modern crime film that, perhaps specifically because of the setting, feels almost like it could have featured Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. In fact, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is nearing retirement when a string of bank robberies in his area comes to his attention. The bank robbers are brash and very smart. They’ve been hitting branches of a specific bank, going only when the bank is just opening for business to avoid crowds, and taking only the unwrapped money from the drawers so that the bills can’t be traced and there will be no dye packs in the money.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Film: Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o Soldate)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t always do a good job of monitoring my NetFlix account. I had Ballad of a Soldier (or Ballada o Soldate in Americanized Russian) already DVRed, and I’m having a stressful week at work, so a subtitled film, no matter how short that I already had access to probably wasn’t the best choice to have show up. I’m a slave to the queue, though, and figured that stress or no, I should probably watch it.

This is one of those movies that shows up in nomination lists years after its actual release. Ballad of a Soldier was produced and released in Russia in 1959, but didn’t manage to swing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay until 1961. Honestly, it probably worked in this film’s favor—the 1959 list of nominates included The 400 Blows, so it might have filled the quota for non-English films.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Leopard Man

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

I’ve not been shy on this blog about my love of Jacques Tourneur and especially the work he did with the great Val Lewton. As pure horror movies, they don’t work based on what the world thinks of as horror movies now, but that’s okay. Their work was low budget by definition, and so the scares and thrills had to be done with movie cleverness, with shadows and sounds rather than leaping monsters and gore. It’s great stuff when it works, and every one of their movies (at least the ones that I’ve seen) have at least a few places where that creepy vibe comes out and works like a charm. The Leopard Man is no exception.

It all starts innocently enough. Singer Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) is stuck in New Mexico with her manager Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) and is having trouble getting the locals to appreciate her act. The main problem she’s having is that she doesn’t have the immediate sex appeal of castanet-wielding dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Jerry comes up with the brilliant idea of having Kiki walk into the club with a black leopard on a leash during Clo-Clo’s act. She does, and Clo-Clo reacts by startling the panther and causing it to run off.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Drawn Butter

Film: The Lobster
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on rockin’ flatscreen.

Author James Morrow wrote a book called “City of Truth” in which the characters are unable to lie. Every conversation is brutally frank and honest because even the smallest lie has been conditioned out of people. The main character of the book must learn to lie in order to save his seriously ill son. I thought that The Invention of Lying was the closest approximation to that story in the world of film, and it probably is. However, I would not be surprised if the writers of The Lobster were familiar with that book, since the conversations that happen in this film are about as close to Morrow’s book as I’ve ever seen.

The Lobster, much like Being John Malkovich or Jasper Fforde’s “Grey” series, trades on its inherent weirdness. This is a film that is really all about premise more than it is about anything else. If you can buy into the obviously allegorical premise, the movie is an interesting one, but there will be a percentage of the population that simply can’t get past the incredibly strange premise that we’re given.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Westeros, North Carolina

Film: Cold Mountain
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m not sure what compelled me to watch Cold Mountain today. It might be that it was one of the longest movies still on my list of films and it was available. It might be that I’m not a fan of Renee Zellweger and there are still too many of her movies I have yet to see. Maybe I’m just a masochist. Cold Mountain isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it’s very well made. But it’s one of those movies where nothing good happens to anyone and everything is terribly tragic. It’s like Game of Thrones, American Civil War edition.

It’s also very oddly cast. Don’t get me wrong here; the cast is an excellent one. It’s just a strange one for a film that takes place during the American Civil War. It stars Brit Jude Law romancing Australian Nicole Kidman and features major roles from Irishman Brendan Gleeson and Brit Ray Winstone. There are also small roles for Canadian Donald Sutherland and Irishman Cillian Murphy. All of them but Murphy play Southerners; Murphy plays a Yank.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hard to Shoot 'Em Like That

Film: Broken Arrow (1950)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I always forget that James Stewart was a legitimate Western star. He did enough of them, and enough of them were pretty good that I probably shouldn’t forget that so easily. Westerns are a big genre, of course, and there are enough of them that anyone can find a few that fit with their other film sensibilities. That said, Westerns have trouble getting the natives right. Early films painted them (often literally painting white actors) as savages who only existed to be threatening and get shot. Many a later Western (see Dances with Wolves, for instance) paint them as noble savages who were callously abused and slaughtered. The truth, as with many things, probably lies somewhere in between. Broken Arrow is interesting in that regard, because that’s the course it tries to set for itself.

Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is out panning for gold in Apache territory when he discovers a young boy who has been wounded. Tom nurses him back to health, and after a few days, the boy is healthy enough to return to his home. At this time, Tom and the boy are set upon by Apache, but Tom is spared because of his kindness and because he did not take part in the attack that wounded the boy in the first place.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reckless Endangerment

Film: The Accused
Format: Starz on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve complained in the last few weeks about the number of Holocaust movies I’ve watched and of being a bit burned out on them. That’s sort of an unpleasant thing to admit, because I’m also of the opinion that movies about that are the sort that we should keep front and center. I’m about to say the same thing about another genre of film. I wonder about how often rape is used as a plot device. There are plenty of times when it’s simply an unpleasant part of the film that is there to motivate someone or move the action along. In the case of a movie like The Accused, it’s the entire point of the film. This is a movie that starts with the rape and spends the rest of the movie revisiting it.

Yes, this is going to be as unpleasant as it sounds like it’s going to be. While the film starts with the rape, it really starts with the aftermath, with victim Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), clothes torn, running out of the bar where the rape happened. It’s not until the end of the movie where we actually see the events in question. According to the trivia page on IMDB, the filming of the rape sequence caused one of the male actors to vomit, and Jodie Foster herself claims to have no memory of it despite frequent rehearsals.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Pontypool

Film: Pontypool
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

I’m pretty sure it was Nick Jobe who alerted me to the joy that is Pontypool. This is an odd little horror movie that is far better than the acclaim it’s gotten in the wider world. Mention Pontypool to almost anyone, and they look at you like you’re an idiot. This is a case where the knowledge of the film in the film viewing community is directly correlated to the name of the film. The name of the film doesn’t conjure up any particular image, which means it relies on marketing to get the word out. It’s possible for a film like this to become better known—look at Cloverfield, which has the same issue. But Pontypool is all but unknown, cursed by a non-evocative name and a lack of budget.

Like many good horror movies, the idea that drives Pontypool is a good one and a simple one to understand. This is a riff on zombies in the same way that 28 Days Later played with the basic concept by giving us monsters that aren’t truly undead ghouls but have a great deal of similarity to them. This is also an infection film, but—and this is where Pontypool gets interesting—it’s more or less a case of infection of the meme in the way it was originally meant when the term was coined. People don’t get infected physically; they get infected mentally through language.