Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Learnin'

Films: The Reader
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

In the past, I’ve taken a stand on what I think about Holocaust dramas. I get why they are made and I get why this is a period in history that needs to be continually brought up and discussed, but I find it harder and harder to get worked up these days after seeing so many of them. It’s an interesting moral position to be in. I don’t want to say that I don’t care, because that’s not the case. I just wonder how much real-world horror I can handle. So, naturally, it seems like every other movie still on my Oscar lists to watch is a Holocaust drama. Enter The Reader.

At the very least, The Reader gives us a story that, while it certainly involves the terrible events in Europe, does so only tangentially. In truth, we’re not even aware that this is a film that touches on this period in history until we are a good way through it. It starts more as a romance than anything else, although it might be the least romantic romance of the last ten years.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Getting Lost in a Part

Films: A Double Life
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I didn’t know anything about A Double Life going into it. What I discovered soon after starting is that I have a couple of very loose connections to it. First, it’s about an actor, and believe it or not, I did a little acting in college (a very little, mind you). Second, it concerns a stage performance of Othello. I have a degree in English literature, so I tend to sit up and take notice when we’ve got Shakespeare on tap. Even better, A Double Life is all about the crazy. Let me tell you from experience, a film about an actor also being about severe mental illness is not a stretch.

Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is an acclaimed stage actor who, as often seems to be the case with artists in general, isn’t satisfied with his life or his career. He has proposed to several people a stage production of Othello with him taking the title role. He’d like to put actress Brita (pronounced like Rita with a b and not the water filter) Kaurin (Signe Hasso) in the role of Desdemona. Brita is his ex-wife; the two are still very much in love with each other but can’t seem to live with each other. This is because Anthony tends to very much live the roles he takes. When he plays in comedies, life is good. When he plays in heavier fare, he becomes moody and difficult. Othello, then, bodes ill.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

For Art's Sake

Films: The Horse’s Mouth
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

Alec Guinness was one of the great cinematic chameleons. Paul Muni could play just about any role, but so could Guinness, who was equally comfortable in comedy or drama and left an indelible impression on millions of childhoods in science fiction. His performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest acting performances in cinematic history in my opinion. He plays a role as far from that in The Horse’s Mouth as possible in many ways. He also happened to pen the adapted (and nominated) screenplay.

Gulley Jimson (Guinness) is an eccentric and Bohemian artist who, as the film begins, has just been released from a month’s stint in prison after harassing one of his patrons via telephone. He’s greeted by Nosey (Mike Morgan), a young man with a stutter and the desire to be an artist himself. Gulley is alternately encouraging and cruel to the young boy. In fact, hoping to get away from him, he sends Nosey on an errand and steals the boy’s bike.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wednesday Horror: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

Films: X (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I do love good science fiction and I always have. I think we’re often guided by the things that are most formative to us. Both of my brothers loved science fiction and many of my earliest film loves were in this genre. There are, of course, plenty of truly great science fiction films with large budgets—the sort of summer tent pole films that are plenty popular. I love the ones from the ‘50s and ’60s, too. Of these, one of my favorites is X, more formally known as X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

The worst of science fiction takes a stupid premise and does what it can. The best of science fiction takes an interesting premise and offers a view of what might happen. With X, we’re more in the second category by way of the first. What would happen, the film asks, if a man could discover a way to see more than just the visible light spectrum? What horrors might await us with the ability to see below the surface?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Anytown, USA

Films: Our Town
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Our Town is based on a stage play, and it manages to do something that many films do not: it doesn’t specifically look like it was based on a stage play. That in and of itself is noteworthy. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Thornton Wilder. I don’t always like stage transfers to screen because they tend to look like someone staged the play and then filmed it. That’s definitely not the case here, and it works very much to the film’s credit.

The drama that takes place happens in the town of Grover’s Corners, NH. We’re introduced to the town by Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven), a local resident (maybe) or perhaps something like a guiding spirit over the town. It’s a little down just over the border from Connecticut and it seems to be pretty much normal in every way. People are born, live, get married, have kids, and die in the town, often never really travelling far from the confines or from the 3000 people or so who live in the immediate area.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Shirley Valentine's Patient Zero

Films: Summertime
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

When you think of David Lean, you probably think of epic films, but those films are from the end of his career. Lean’s last five films were epic in terms of length and most of them were epic in scope as well. Lean’s career contained smaller films, too; Brief Encounter stands out as a prime example, but the strength of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, and especially Lawrence of Arabia (and to a lesser extent Ryan’s Daughter) are what causes him to be remembered as a director of epics. Summertime is the last of his smaller, shorter movies, but with its exotic (for 1955) setting, it serves as a bridge between Lean’s earlier career and his later movies.

Summertime, based on a play called “The Time of the Cuckoo,” seems to have been tailor-made for Katherine Hepburn. Much like Lean is associated with epics, there is a particular kind of role that is easily associated with Hepburn. For a movie from then 1930s-1950s, any female character who has a strong independent streak, often living life on her own terms despite not being married (unusual for the time), Katherine Hepburn was your go-to. So, that’s exactly what we’re going to have here.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Who's Version is Better

Films: The Kids Are All Right
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve said before that I always do my best to go into every movie I watch with hope. I hope it’s good. I want to enjoy it. Some movies have a higher initial hurdle in that respect, admittedly, but there are plenty of films that clear it. Fried Green Tomatoes is a great example—I expected to be bored and ended up enjoying myself watching it. With The Kids Are All Right, the opposite happened. We have a good cast (a great cast in terms of the adults) and I’m not opposed to domestic dramas. I walked out the other side of this not wondering why it was so acclaimed but wondering if we as a society are really that easy. I don’t like bagging on a film that got this much positive attention, but I don’t get it.

Nicole “Nic” (Annette Benning) and Jules Allgood (Julianne Moore) are a married couple living around Los Angeles. Nic is an obstetrician while Jules has more or less been a housewife, raising the couple’s two children, both of whom were conceived through the same unknown sperm donor. Older child Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who is Nic’s biological daughter has just turned 18, meaning that she can now legally ask for information about that sperm donor. She’s not interested, but her 15-year-old brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), Jules’s biological son, desperately wants her to. She finally relents, and the pair discover that their biological father is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the owner of a local restaurant.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Off Script: Bedlam

Films: Bedlam
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

If you like horror movies at all, you have to at least respect the work of Boris Karloff. The man was a true master, and like many a horror icon, was evidently kind and sweet in real life. Karloff was typecast as a madman and a monster early in his career, a casting that was only enhanced by his gaunt features and creep-inducing voice. Sure, he made plenty of stinkers but I’m of a mind to suggest that he was never at fault for a movie being bad. With Bedlam, he’s one of the main attractions and with right. This is the sort of low-budget, not-very-scary creep show that Karloff was meant to bring to life.

Bedlam is set in the mid-18th century in London, in and around the neighborhood of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, typically called “Bedlam.” As the film opens, we see an inmate fall from a high window of the asylum to his death. A passing nobleman named Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his constant companion, actress Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) are riding past in a carriage and stop to see what the fuss was all about. It turns out that the dead man was an associate of Lord Mortimer, and the man had been paid for work that had not yet been completed. This angers Mortimer and he demands an audience with the asylum’s keeper, George Sims (Boris Karloff).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Midnight Meat Train

Films: The Midnight Meat Train
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

What can I tell you about The Midnight Meat Train that you can’t get from the title? No shock that this is going to be a horror title and that there’s going to be a good amount of blood in it. What may not be known from the title is that this is based on a Clive Barker story from “The Books of Blood.” I like quite a bit of that collection, and I’ve always thought that “In the Hills, the Cities” would make a dandy short film. Based on the stories in the collection, I suppose I’m not terribly shocked that this one was picked. Good, nasty title and potential for quality gore? How could you pass it up? Throw in Bradley Cooper’s first starring role, and you’ve got the makings of at least a cult film on your hands, right?

Enter Leon (Cooper), a photographer who wants to break into the art world. His goal is to photograph the dirty, gritty underside of the city. He meets with a gallery owner named Susan (Brooke Shields(!)) who tells him that while he’s got some talent, he seems to shy away from staying at a place long enough to get the real, meaningful shot that tells the whole story. That night he heads to the subway where he sees a woman being threatened by two thugs with knives. He stops them, and the woman gets on the train. The next day, he discovers that the woman has gone missing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Not Another Holocaust Movie

Film: The Man in the Glass Booth
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

I’ve said, ever since watching Son of Saul that it’s getting harder and harder to work me up over a story that concerns the Holocaust. There are, of course, millions of stories to tell about the Holocaust, but there are only so many one can take in one lifetime. Having seen Shoah and Night and Fog, it feels like I’ve hit my limit for how much inhumanity and true horror I can handle. The Man in the Glass Booth managed to do something I thought might be impossible. It presented a completely new Holocaust story.

We are presented with Arthur Goldman (Maximillian Schell), a wealthy Jewish industrialist living in New York. Goldman is highly eccentric and extremely paranoid, particularly about a blue Mercedes that he sees outside of his apartment again and again. He gives very strange commands to his servant Jack (Henry Brown) and his assistant Charlie (Lawrence Pressman). He is also surprisingly anti-Semitic. He is prone to saying completely outrageous things and shocking everyone around him.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Original Cast Away

Film: Robinson Crusoe (Adventures of Robinson Crusoe)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

Daniel Defoe’s book about Robinson Crusoe is one of those stories, much like Robin Hood, that pretty much everyone knows but that pretty much no one has read. I’m guilty of that myself, although I did once try to read Robin Hood. Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that someone would make the story into a movie. I’m a little surprised it took until 1954, and I’m equally surprised that the person in charge of it was Luis Bunuel. No matter. Robinson Crusoe, also known as Adventures of Robinson Crusoe awaits.

We learn right away that our hero, Robinson Crusoe (Dan O’Herlihy) has gone to see against the wishes of his father since, as a third son, he has few prospects. What we also learn is that our hero Robinson’s first gig away from home is on a slave ship hoping to transport captives from Brazil. We’re off to a rip-roaring, wholesome start for the whole family. A storm forces him to abandon ship and he swims for a nearby island. The next day, he discovers his ship floating and abandoned in a nearby cove. He swims out to it, collects supplies as well as the ship’s cat and dog, and returns back to his island laden down with food, firearms, and other supplies. Sadly, the ship soon sinks, meaning that everything he’s found is all he has, and aside from his pets, he’s now alone.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mistaken Identity

Film: General Della Rovere (Il General Della Rovere)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

I always find it interesting when a director appears as an actor in another director’s film. I don’t mean this in cases where someone has made a name for him or herself first as an actor, did some directing, and continued to act. No, I find it fascinating that someone who is known specifically as a director is cast as an actor by someone else. In the case of General Della Rovere (or Il Generale Della Rovere in the Italian), the director-turned-actor in question is the great Vittorio De Sica, one of the towering figures of the Italian neorealist style. The director in question is equally important neorealist Roberto Rossellini. That this is more or less just after the great neorealist period is of no importance.

Like many of the great neorealist films, General Della Rovere is without question a war film. It’s also sort of a prison film, at least for the second half of its running time. We begin by concerning ourselves with Vittorio Emanuele Bardone (De Sica), who is something of a hustler and a compulsive (and unlucky) gambler. Bardone is desperate for money, having gambled away everything he had. He already owes a great deal of money to a German officer in occupied Milan. Convinced that he has nothing else to lose, he attempts to sell a piece of fake jewelry with no success.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Public Enemy Number One

Film: Dillinger
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s something fascinating to me about early crime films. In truth, 1945’s Dillinger doesn’t really qualify as being that early, since it’s right in the heart of the noir era. It’s an interesting Oscar nomination, since it was produced by Monogram, considered one of the better poverty row movie studios, which is sort of like the best looking person at a school for the blind. Like many movies of the era, it’s almost ridiculously short, clocking in at a spare 70 minutes. To its great benefit, though, it packs those 70 minutes with as much as it can, which very much includes a lot that doesn’t really seem to have much to do with the real John Dillinger.

In that respect, Dillinger is more of a spiritual biography of John Dillinger than one based in fact. It would seem that only his name is accurate in terms of the people in his life. Some of the broad sweeps—early imprisonment and learning the craft of crime from other criminals while in prison—seem to be accurate as well, but it would seem that none of the details are the real thing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Film: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Format: IFC on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m generally a little leery of remakes. Sure, there are some that are good and a rare few that transcend the original version, but most of the time, they fall short. This seems to be especially true of horror movies on both ends of that spectrum. They tend to be either great (The Thing, The Fly) or horrible (The Wicker Man and a couple hundred more). So it was probably natural that I went into the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead with some trepidation. Toss in the fact that it was the directorial debut of costume fetishist Zack Snyder, and I was concerned.

The Dawn of the Dead remake is pretty short on plot. Essentially, the zombie holocaust happens and a group of people find themselves locked inside a shopping mall that they barricade to keep out the living dead. More people show up, people die of bites and come back and are killed again. Eventually, the people inside the mall decide that they need to get out and since one of them has access to a boat, they decide to go out into Lake Michigan to a more or less deserted island. There’s a breakout attempt in fortified shuttle busses through thousands of zombies. It’s all about the spectacle here as well as a couple of signature horror moments.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

With More Strings, He'd Have a Ukulele

Films: Kubo and the Two Strings
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

If you read this blog and live in the U.S., you almost certainly have a NetFlix streaming account. If that is the case, you should know now that Kubo and the Two Strings is now streaming and has been for a few days. Stop what you’re doing. Stop reading this. Go watch Kubo and the Two Strings. Do it now. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. This review will still be here when you’re done.

Back? Good. I’ve now seen two of the movies nominated for Best Animated Feature for last year, and I can tell you right now that Oscar did not get this pick right. I know this because I have seen the winner (Zootopia) and I have seen Kubo and the Two Strings, and the former barely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the latter, unless that sentence is, “Zootopia should never have won over Kubo and the Two Strings.” Seriously, who does Laika have to have sex with to win an Oscar? All four of their features have been nominated, three of them were deserving, and two either should have won or had a legitimate shot at winning, and yet the company is 0-4.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Oh, Those Little Rascals

Films: Skippy
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

A few years ago when I was starting to get into the short strokes on the 1001 Movies list, Chip Lary made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Send him a flashdrive, he said, and he’d fill it with movies that I couldn’t otherwise find. There’s no way I would have finished the full list without Chip’s assistance in finding those movies for me. Chip also included a few rarities and some hard-to-find Oscar movies. With my viewing of Skippy today, I’ve watched everything that Chip sent me for this blog. It’s a little sad, the end of an era.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when diving head-first into Skippy. Old movies, especially those from those first few years of sound, can be rough. When kids are the main characters, that problem can be compounded. Kids frequently can’t act, and back then, directors hadn’t really figured out how to get kids to act. Things are pretty amateurish much of the time. Since Skippy not only features kids but is focused on them as the main characters, that can mean some rough going.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Born on the Bayou

Films: Passion Fish
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There are plenty of movies on my Oscars lists that I watch specifically because they are on the lists. I wouldn’t normally watch something like Passion Fish, which screams “women’s movie” from the cover to the cast to the description. The cast is good, though. I like Mary McDonnell well enough, and I love Alfre Woodard, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and David Strathairn. I went into this with some reservations, but also with the hope that I’d like it.

Passion Fish starts with an inciting incident that we don’t see. Soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane is struck by a car while getting out of a taxi and is paralyzed. After gritter her way through some physical therapy and with nowhere else to go, she returns to her family home in bayou country in Louisiana. Angry and bitter, May-Alice begins drinking heavily and entertaining herself more or less by driving away all of her nurses.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Films: Pride of the Marines
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I like John Garfield, and I think it’s one of the real tragedies of classic Hollywood that he died so young. Had Garfield lived even into his 40s, we’d be talking about someone who won at least one and probably multiple Oscars. He was versatile and always compelling on screen. I didn’t know that Pride of the Marines was one of his films, so I was immediately interested when I discovered this fact.

It’s also worth noting that the genre of men returning home from war is one that crops up immediately after we finish fighting a war. The classic of the genre from the World War II era is The Best Years of Our Lives, but Pride of the Marines may well be the first. It was released a couple of weeks before VJ Day, meaning that this was a movie that concerns the plight of wounded men returning home from battle while the war was still going on.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Cronos

Films: Cronos
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

The school I work for has an extensive online library that recently has included a film library. If only this had shown up a few years ago! Still, better late than never, right? There’s plenty of interesting films in the Kanopy library, including Guillermo del Toro’s first film, Cronos. This is an auspicious debut. While it’s unpolished in certain ways, it also shows a lot of the themes that del Toro will hit on for pretty much his entire career. One of his main themes is that for del Toro, the worst monsters are always human. Sure, there are monsters in his films, but many of them are just doing what they are more or less programmed to do. While they can be terrible and frightening, they are no more evil than a shark or a hungry lion. People are always capable of the greatest good and the worst evil.

Cronos is something like a vampire story. It’s very different from the traditional vampire tale, though. This isn’t a grand Gothic romance. In fact, it’s far closer to a tragedy, where the people we are going to be following are caught up in events that they have no control over, and that will change them terribly through no fault of their own. We start with a little bit of voice over that tells us of a 16th-century alchemist who wanted to extend his life. He created a device he labelled the Cronos device. He disappears, only to be discovered in 1937 in the collapse of an old building, his heart pierced by a piece of the debris.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Really Dangerous Liaisons

Films: Elle
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I have to wonder what is in the water. In Elle, Isabelle Huppert believably plays a woman in her mid-40s. She’s actually in her mid-60s. When I discovered this, the first thing I did was wonder about the woman who plays her mother. It’s one of those fun little Hollywood games—finding places where a pair playing parent and child are actually very close in age. That’s not the case here. Judith Magre was 90 when Elle was made, and she can easily pass for early/mid-70s. I started to wonder if everyone in the film was actually 20 years older than his or her role.

Before I get into the actual film, I feel like this is more I need to say about Isabelle Huppert. She is just about unique in the list of actresses I have seen in multiple movies. I think she is always worth watching, at least in the films I have seen her in, and never like the characters she plays. I love her in this, in Amour, The Piano Teacher, Story of Women, and I dislike each of those characters. In I Heart Huckabees, she’s perhaps the closest to being something like likable, except that may just be in comparison with everyone else, since just about everyone in that film is terrible as a person. And yet I like Isabelle Huppert every time I see her.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Off Script: Mad Love

Films: Mad Love
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

In a sense, Peter Lorre is proof that there is a bias in Hollywood. Lorre looks like what you would get if you could turn a pug into a human being. If a woman looked like Peter Lorre, she’d never have a chance at a serious career in Hollywood. Lorre, though, had a fantastic career and even was placed in roles where he played characters with romantic intentions. Of course, in most cases like that, Lorre played a character like he did in Mad Love, where he is completely insane and his love is not merely unrequited but shunned completely.

For a film that runs a mere 68 minutes, Mad Love has a great deal going on. I’ll go through this quickly so try to keep up. Doctor Gogol (Peter Lorre) is a doctor specializing in transplantations and other similar surgeries. He happens to be the greatest such surgeon in the world and works to restore the limbs of children and save the lives of the people of Paris. He’s also obsessed with an actress named Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), who performs nightly in a sort of Grand Guignol drama in which she is tortured. Gogol is madly in love with Yvonne and is unaware that she is already married to a man named Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), a concert pianist.