Sunday, July 29, 2018

Gunn's Golden Rules

Film: The Devil Wears Prada
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I am one of the least fashionable people I know, which makes a movie like The Devil Wears Prada a hard sell for me. I don’t care at all about fashion and never have. Oddly, I have a complete man-crush on Tim Gunn from Project Runway because I think he’s someone who belongs in that small but important pantheon of iconic people worth emulating, sort of Fred Rogers with bespoke suits (although he claims he doesn’t wear them). If you’ve never read Gunn’s book Gunn’s Golden Rules, I recommend it as much as I’ve recommended any book ever. Gunn is a wonderful writer, smart and compassionate, and he dishes with the best.

One of the best stories in the book is about Vogue editor Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs by her bodyguards because the likes of her does not ride in an elevator with mere mortals. Gunn goes on for several pages about the fact that people at Vogue live in a small bubble where the only thing that matters is fashion and their opinion on fashion and dealing with anything like the real world is not merely frowned on but not even considered. I bring this up because it is widely believed that Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly is based on Wintour. In fact, it’s so widely believed that notable people in the fashion world mainly refused to appear in the film as themselves for fear of encouraging her wrath.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Resident Evil

Films: Resident Evil
Format: HBO Go on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every now and then, the fact that I worked in the computer/video game industry from 1991 to 2003 becomes relevant on this blog. I was working in the industry when the Resident Evil games came out, and was still working (and starting to look at other options) in the industry when Resident Evil was released in movie theaters. I didn’t go see it, and I never played any of the games. In my own defense, by this point in my career, I only played what I was paid to play. Resident Evil could well have been something I wrote the book for, though; I did more than my share of first-person shooters.

Resident Evil was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who is clearly the least of the three most-known current director with that last name (Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson being the other two). While I admit that that is true, I still have a soft spot for Paul W.S. Anderson’s movies in a lot of cases. Mortal Kombat is better than it should be, Event Horizon is vastly underknown, and I am admittedly and strangely obsessed with Soldier. Because of this, I went into Resident Evil with some hopes and some curiosity. It was a mild connection to my past and I like the director in spite of himself and even feel sorry for him at times because he’s gotten unlucky with some films. Then again, he is married to Milla Jovovich, so I’m not going to feel too sorry for him.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Free Press

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

I feel like I’ve been slacking lately, and that’s not a hard conclusion to come to when you look at my posting history for this month. It’s not that I’m coming to the end of things; it’s more that I’ve been unbelievably busy for the last several weeks especially. I have a daughter who is a week away from moving. There have been some extended family issues I won’t go into here. And I’ve been screamingly busy at work. I know everyone says that, but where I teach, we’re given a specific number of classes we’re supposed to have every quarter. Right now, I have the equivalent of that plus two. This being the case, it’s taken me a week to finally sit down with The Post, the first movie I’ve watched nearly seven days.

I have to say that this isn’t the movie I expected, or at least not the story I expected. I knew this was about the Washington Post, and I thought it was about the Watergate break-in. I wondered about that, considering that we’ve already got All the President’s Men and certainly don’t need another version of the same story. Thankfully, The Post is about the time just before that, the moment that made the Post a national paper just before Woodward and Bernstein cemented it into place.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Lisa and the Devil

Films: Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

My main complaint about Italian horror, particularly films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, is that it is long on style and short on coherent narrative. That’s very much true of the films of Dario Argento, a bit less true of those of Mario Bava. Bava still has some coherence problems at times, but he’s very much capable of putting together a story that more or less holds together. I was hopeful heading into Lisa and the Devil (otherwise called Lisa e il Diavolo), and there’s kind of a story here, but mostly it’s a bunch of set up and then a great deal of killing and blood that looks like red paint.

Lisa (Elke Sommer) is vacationing in Spain when her tour takes her by a fresco that depicts the devil, who looks quite a bit like Telly Savalas. This is not coincidental, because Lisa wanders away from her tour group and into a shop where she encounters a man named Leandro, who is played by Telly Savalas. She flees and encounters a man who claims to know her and calls her Elena. The fights with him, and he falls down a set of stone steps to his apparent death.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Off Script: Don't Breathe

Film: Don’t Breathe
Format: DVD from Sandwich Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

I think there’s a fine line between what constitutes a horror movie and what gets called a thriller, at least in my mind. To me, “horror” as a genre implies some element of the supernatural or at least the unnatural. Thrillers are often horrific movies, but for me, they are based more in the real world. This is not a hard and fast rule. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for instance, is purely a horror movie despite having no supernatural element. With a movie like Don’t Breathe, we’re riding that line as well. My gut tells me this is more of a thriller than a horror movie, but there are certainly elements of horror here.

If you think this suggests that there’s nothing supernatural going on in Don’t Breathe, you’d be correct. We start with three young thieves. These are Alex (Dylan Minnette), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Rocky (Jane Levy). Alex’s father owns a security company, which gives him information about their homes and security information. The three break into the house, shut down the alarm, and steal. To keep themselves out of trouble, they don’t steal money and they never steal more than $10,000-worth of goods. Break that number, and it becomes a felony offense. Once they are done, they set off the alarm and Money fences what they’ve stolen.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Films: Donnie Brasco
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

Like a lot of the movies that are still on my Oscar list, Donnie Brasco is one that I’ve almost watched a couple of times. These days, I seem to need to be in the mood for a mob movie, and Donnie Brasco is absolutely a mob movie. It’s also a movie that features Al Pacino playing an interesting combination of roles. On the one hand, Pacino made his name playing mob guys. On the other hand, his character here isn’t the boss. In fact, this is almost Pacino playing against type.

Low-level mobster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Pacino) is introduced to Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), a jewel thief. Lefty wants Donnie to serve as a middleman for a large diamond ring he received as a payment, which Donnie claims is a fake. Donnie gets Lefty something much closer to a real payment, and in gratitude, Lefty more or less brings Donnie into the Mafia, introducing him to several made men including Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Blob (1958)

Films: The Blob (1958)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

There are a great many charms to the original version of The Blob from the late 1950s. This starts right away with the bouncy theme song written by no less a luminary than Burt Bacharach. One of the great things about The Blob is that it comes from those halcyon days when aliens were often depicted as something utterly non-human before they idea of big-headed, big-eyed grey aliens became the norm. The Blob is pure pulp, and is also the catalyst for much of Steve McQueen’s career. Even if the movie sucked, it would be noteworthy for that.

In small town Pennsylvania, young Steve Andrews (McQueen) is out on a date with Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut). Jane thinks Steve is handing her a line as the two sit out in the middle of nowhere looking at the stars, but he claims he’s being honest—he’s never taken another girl here. Just then, a meteor flashes by and impacts close to them. They decide to see if they can find it. Meanwhile, at the site of the impact, a local backwoodsman (Olin Howland) investigates the meteorite and discovers something like an egg. It cracks open and the purplish goo inside attaches itself to his arm. Out on the road, Steve and Jane almost run the man down. Seeing he is in trouble, the put him in the car and drive him to the local doctor’s office.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Off Script: The Amityville Horror; Amityville II: The Possession

Film: The Amityville Horror; Amityville II: The Possession
Format: DVD from Stockton Township Public Library (Amityville) and Somonauk Public Library (Amityville II) through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There have probably been stories of haunted places for about as long as there have been stories in general. Tons and tons of horror stories and horror movies have dealt not with the idea of evil people or entities, but have instead dealt with the concept of evil places, places that are “born bad” to put it in the parlance of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. While there are many of these stories, probably the best known of the genre is The Amityville Horror, which takes a page out of the playbook from The Exorcist as well as The Haunting. In this case, we have a house that was not merely born bad but that is alleged to be literally possessed by Satan himself.

The film starts as the Lutz family movies into the house in question. They’ve gotten the house for a song because it was the site of a previous mass murder; the oldest son of the previous residents slew his parents and younger siblings, blaming it on voices that he heard from the house. It’s not long before the house itself starts to demonstrate that his claims of hearing voices might not just be looking for an insanity plea.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Open City, Closed Lives

Film: A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Because of my job, I’m often tempted to watch a movie while I’m working. I do it often to have some sort of background noise going on. There was a period of time when I watched either Aliens or Master and Commander just about every day for a month. I try not to do a great deal for this blog in this way, though, unless it’s a film I’ve already seen and know well. In the case of a film like A Special Day (or Una Giornata Particolare in the original Italian), that’s absolutely not the case. Since this is in Italian, watching means reading, and you can’t do that with partial attention.

A Special Day takes place on a very specific day in Italian history. On May 8, 1938, a little more than a year before the beginning of World War II, Adolf Hitler traveled to Rome to visit Mussolini. On this day, harried housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren) stays home to return the family apartment to order after the morning actions of her husband (John Vernon) and their six children have torn the place apart. In the course of her morning, the family pet, a mynah bird named Rosmunda, escapes from her cage and flies across the courtyard to just outside another apartment.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Wednesday Horror: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Format: DVD from Perue Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are some movies that I’m going to have a strange connection to. One of those is going to be any version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 1959 version no more than any other. The reason for this is my last dog. I have two Chihuahuas at the moment, but the dog I had before the current ones was a corgi mix named, well, Baskerville. I freely admit that I chose the name for her before we adopted her. I thought it was a great name for a dog. My mother objected, since Bassie was not a hound, but then again, Bass wasn’t her dog.

There are a lot of things I could say about the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, some of which would be positive. It’s easy to have a character who is ultra-smart and can deduce anything when you know exactly what you want him to know. Doyle also believed firmly in hoaxes like the Cottingley Fairies, so I find it a little difficult to take him that seriously. That said, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a pretty cool story, and one of the only Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve actually read.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Italy is for Lovers

Film: Call My by Your Name
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Earlier today, I spotted a tweet from fellow blogger Wendell Ottley commenting that he’d just watched Call Me by Your Name and wasn’t really feeling the love for it. I was about halfway through at the moment (almost exactly), and I get exactly where he’s coming from. This might annoy any number of people who seem to think that this is one of the great films of last year, but, like Wendell said in his tweet, I’m just not feeling it. It’s certainly well-made and it’s pretty enough, but I don’t feel like there’s a great deal here to get excited about.

I should say, though, that there are some things that I appreciate about the film. One is that it breaks a particular “rule” of coming-of-age films. I’ve railed against the fact that this sort of film is almost always about death for young men and sex for young women. Well, this is clearly a coming-of-age film and it’s about a young man and sex. The difference here might well be that instead of coming to terms with his mortality, our main character instead needs to come to terms with his bisexuality or homosexuality. The film isn’t entirely clear on that, which isn’t a fault of the film. <-!!more-->

Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is 17 and lives with his parents in Northern Italy. Elio is something of a musical prodigy, and he spends his summers reading and studying music. This year, his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor, has invited Oliver (Armie Hammer) to come spend the summer. Oliver is a graduate student, and the experience will be valuable for him in his studies and will also help the professor in his work. This is evidently a relatively common occurrence; the professor’s wife Annella (Amira Casar) seems used to the idea that her orchard will play host every summer by a student.

Elio and Oliver initially seem to have little in common. Elio is intense and studious while Oliver is much more laid back and relaxed. At this point, Elio has a local girlfriend named Marzia (Esther Garrel) while Oliver seems to be attracted to another local girl.

Despite this, and despite the fact that Elio and Marzia eventually do have their relationship become a sexual one, there is a certain attraction between Elio and Oliver, and while we focus much more on Elio, that attraction appears to be mutual. Eventually, the two act on this mutual attraction despite what seems to be some initial misgivings on Oliver’s part. The two eventually become close, and as Oliver’s time in Italy nears its close, the two spend a few days together before he leaves. There is a coda after this that I won’t spoil—if you’d heard anything about this film, you knew at least 100 minutes of its 132-minute running time.

Here’s the thing: Call Me by Your Name is a pretty film and I won’t argue about how well made it is. It’s pretty and nicely made, and I like the cast in general. That said, I don’t love the characters that much, and that’s the main problem I have with Call Me by Your Name. Elio comes off as a bit of a drudge, and someone who thinks a great deal of himself. I get that he speaks a few languages and I get that he’s talented musically, but he’s pretty smug about it. Oliver seems like a nice enough guy, but it’s also hard for me to get beyond the pederast-y feel of the film. If Elio were named Elia, the idea of her having a sexual relationship with a 24-year-old graduate student while still in the equivalent of high school would be the sort of thing to make the film notorious. Having the relationship be a homosexual one doesn’t suddenly make me approve of the fact that Oliver is having sex with a minor.

And that’s the other main problem I have with this film. It’s the same problem I had with The Kids are All Right. At its heart, this isn’t a particularly unique story. In fact, it’s a story that we’ve all seen a bunch of times. Take out the sex and the gender, and this isn’t really that different from Roman Holiday in a lot of respects. And here’s the thing—the fact that Oliver and Elio are either gay or, more likely, bisexual doesn’t make me like them. A standard story doesn’t become a special one just because it has a gay storyline.

What this means is that while I didn’t dislike Call Me by Your Name, I also didn’t see it as being anything unique or special. It’s a love story that happens to also involve a relationship that was much more taboo at the time (the film takes place in the ‘80s) and, thanks to the ages of the characters, at least borders on being abusive. I get why people like it. I don’t get why they love it.

Why to watch Call My by Your Name: A surprisingly tender romance.
Why not to watch: Just because they’re gay doesn’t make me like them.