Monday, February 29, 2016

I Know What I LIke (in Your Wardrobe)

Film: Shadowlands
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Like many from several different generations, I grew up reading, among other things, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. I didn’t get a lot of the religious imagery when I was a kid, and then re-reading them as an adult, I kind of wonder how I missed it, since Lewis applied his symbolism not with a brush, but with a trowel. Still, it’s hard for me not to claim that the books were formative for me in many ways. Despite being a heathen these days, I still love them. This is despite the fact that it’s easy to forget that the actual battles are only a page or two long and the bulk of the books is actually British kids walking around a countryside hoping that they get someplace with sandwiches.

It’s also worth mentioning that most colleges have a rare books collection. For instance, my alma mater has, among other things, a collection of dime novels and the papers of H.P. Lovecraft, which is damn cool. Wheaton College, in the town where I grew up, has a C.S. Lewis collection and even has his wardrobe, which I’ve seen. So I admit that while I expected (and got) a decent slice of religion from Shadowlands, which is about Lewis’s marriage, I was also pretty interested.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Matt Damon Won't Stay Rescued

Film: The Martian
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s kind of a running Hollywood joke that Matt Damon gets left places and has to be rescued. That’s the central plot device of The Martian: Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars and needs to be rescued. That might be the basic plot here, but the truth is that The Martian is less about rescuing Matt Damon and more about how balls-out cool space is. If you aren’t awed by space, amazed by it, or humbled by it, you haven’t really looked at it.

So at an unspecified time in the near future, The Martian proposes that we have sent a manned mission to Mars. A crew of six is on the surface of the planet doing Mars-y, space-y stuff when a massive windstorm crops up and threatens their small base. In fact, the storm is so significant that it forces an abort of the mission. The crew scurries to their craft to escape when a piece of blowing debris impales the crew’s botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), puncturing his suit and is biomonitor, which makes everyone think he is dead. The ship blasts off with a crew of five, leaving Mark on the planet wounded, but still alive.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Road Trip

Film: The Trip to Bountiful
Format: DVD from Morris Area Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I don’t like the term “chick flick.” I think it’s kind of demeaning. That said, there are certainly movies that are produced with a female audience in mind. The Trip to Bountiful is not merely a film produced for women; it’s a film produced for older women. This isn’t a mom movie; it’s a grandma movie. Our main character is an older woman and the main villain in the story is her shrewish daughter-in-law. There’s no question that this was made for the over-60 set.

Our story begins in post-World War II Houston in the apartment of Ludie (John Heard) and Jessie Mae Watts (Carlin Glynn), an apartment they share with Ludie’s mother Carrie (Geraldine Page). Ludie has begun working again after an illness and Jessie Mae and Carrie are constantly on each other’s nerves. Actually, that’s not quite true. Jessie Mae seems to be constantly perturbed with her mother-in-law. She doesn’t like Carrie’s habit of singing hymns to herself, doesn’t like the fact that she “pouts,” and wishes Carrie wouldn’t run so much since Carrie has a heart condition. All Carrie wants is to return to the town where she grew up, a little place along the Gulf coast called Bountiful.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Film: The Trespasser
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: when I dip into the distant past on Oscar films, I’m never really sure what I’m going to get. In the case of The Trespasser, released in 1929 but eligible for the 1930 Oscars, I’m getting something that absolutely screams that it’s from the period just after the invention of talkies. Evidently, this was filmed originally as a silent movie and then rushed into talkie production when the world shifted to films with sound. It feels very much like that. The melodrama is so thick here that it appears to have been made with 50% tree sap. In its own way, it’s almost impressive just how many melodramatic notes it manages to hit.

Marion Donnell (Gloria Swanson, in her talkie debut) works as a stenographer for a lawyer, but as the movie begins, she is quitting her job. Why? Because she is eloping with Jack Merrick (Robert Ames), son of one of the most powerful men in Chicago. The two get married and spend a particularly blissful night together until the next morning when Jack’s father (William Holden, no not that one) shows up. Naturally he doesn’t approve of his son marrying a girl who actually has to work for a living and he’s convinced that Marion is a gold digger. He suggests an annulment followed by a change to introduce Marion to society. At least that’s what he tells his son. In reality, he’s going to do everything he can to destroy Marion, but she doesn’t give him the chance. She can’t convince Jack to walk out on the family money, so she walks out.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Off Script: The Descent

Film: The Descent
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Every movie viewer has holes in his or her viewing history. For me, the 1001 Movies list and then the various Oscar lists have been about closing as many of those holes as possible. It’s the same with the horror lists that I’m slowly getting through. Some of those gaps are more embarrassing than others. With horror films, The Descent has been a noticeable lacuna for the past decade. There’s a reason for this: despite my having owned a copy of the film for some time, I’ve been a little afraid to pop it into the player. I have claustrophobic tendencies, and watching people lost underground for an hour and a half put me on edge.

But, it’s one I’ve been intending to watch for a long time, and tonight I finally got the chance and also finally worked up the nerve. It was my intent to watch this at the end of last year, and then again last month, but here I finally am. And really, The Descent is pretty much everything I was told it was. This is a brutally scary film, one that certainly uses the conventions of the jump scare and a little bit of gore to good effect, but like the best of horror films, it doesn’t rely on them. This is a smart film, and the fact that it’s smart is one of the main reasons it works as well as it does.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bad Religion

Film: The Crucible
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Say the name Arthur Miller and most people will jump to Death of a Salesman. I’ve seen a bunch of different versions of that play, and while it’s a good play, I’m more or less over it. The Crucible is one that I’d heard of and knew a little about, but it’s not one I had seen until today. The Crucible, like any good play, is about a lot more than it claims to be about. On the surface, this is a story about the Salem witch trials and the hysteria that surrounded the area during that time. In reality, it’s about HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist, so it works both as a story and as allegory.

So, obviously, we’re in Salem, Massachusetts several hundred years ago, and everyone’s a Puritan. That presents a problem in the opening scene, since a large number of young girls have run off to the forest to participate in some sort of magic ritual headed by a slave named Tituba (Charlayne Woodard). Most of the girls ask for spells to make young men of the town fall in love with them, but Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) kills a chicken, drinks its blood, and asks for the death of Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen). The girls are discovered by the town minister, Samuel Parris (Bruce Davidson), and two girls including his daughter become comatose.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

I MIssed the Music

Film: Anna and the King of Siam
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes, you take a small step backwards. This happened to me when I watched the 1937 version of A Star is Born. It’s a good film in its own right, but it can’t compete with the 1954 version, and that’s the one I saw first. The same has happened with Anna and the King of Siam. This is a story I know and have seen before because I’ve seen The King and I, which features the defining role for the great Yul Brynner. Anna and the King of Siam is a fine film on its own, but side by side it can’t measure up.

I think it’s likely that you know the story. Anna Owens (Irene Dunne, and this story is based on the life of Anna Leonowens) arrives in Siam in the 1860s. She has been given the task of teaching the many children of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison). There is a great deal of culture shock, and much of the film concerns this. Anna is extremely (in the word of the day) headstrong, and a stubborn woman does not go over well in the court of the King of Siam. This lesson cannot evidently be taught to Anna despite the frequent efforts of Mongkut’s Prime Minister (Lee J. Cobb).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Scrooge Goes to War

Film: The War against Mrs. Hadley
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Propaganda films take all forms. The traditional war propaganda film is the sort that follows a group of “our boys” as they battle with grit, pluck, and determination against the pure evil of the enemy forces. There are other types, of course. Since You Went Away and Mrs. Miniver show the other side of the war—the home front, the keeping of the stiff upper lip and dealing with privation. The War against Mrs. Hadley tells a much different version of the war fought at home.

What’s the angle? The War against Mrs. Hadley comes from the least gung-ho perspective possible. The first thing to know is what the title actually means. Until the movie actually began, I thought this was about a war against the titular Mrs. Hadley. It’s not. It’s about Stella Hadley’s (Fay Bainter) attitude toward the war. In her world, the impact of World War II is entirely personal. The war, you see, is against her because it means that things will change in her world. Suddenly, she’s not the focus of everyone’s attention and there are things that might happen that will mean she doesn’t get her way.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Film: Sounder
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

I don’t do a lot of blogathons. It’s not because I don’t have a desire to participate in them; instead it’s that the way this blog functions, they don’t normally fit into the sort of posts I do here. I’m pretty solidly focused on movie reviews and more specifically on Oscar movies and the occasional horror film. I don’t do perspectives on actors’ careers or focus on film movements or genres. When Wendell Ottley announced the Acting Black Blogathon some time ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d jump in or not. However, this was a blogathon that could potentially fit into what I do. But what do I know about the black experience? In a lot of ways, I’m the least “diverse” guy I know. I’m a middle-aged, heterosexual white guy. My experience has been the default experience shown in movies for years, and so there’s a bit of concern on my part that I might not have a great deal to say.

Sounder is very much a “black experience” movie, taking place in the South during the Great Depression and concerning the trials of a dirt-poor black sharecropping family. We start with father Nathan Lee Morgan (an Oscar-nominated Paul Winfield) out hunting with oldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks). The raccoon they are hunting gets away despite their best efforts and the efforts of their dog, Sounder. It’s soon evident that this failure of hunting means no meat for the family for another day. So it’s a surprise when there’s meat cooking the next morning, and mother Rebecca Morgan (an also Oscar-nominated Cicely Tyson) asks no questions.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Nick's Picks: No Holds Barred

Film: No Holds Barred
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

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

With friends like Nick, who needs enemies? I kid, but there are times when I can’t help but think this. Nick has, I freely admit, introduced me to a number of movies I really like, and in fact a number of movies I have happily recommended to other people. And then, about once a year, he gives me something like No Holds Barred. There’s a part of me that understands exactly what this movie is and is supposed to be, and there’s a part of me that is completely flummoxed by it.

Let’s tear through the plot as quickly as possible. Back in 1989, when the WWE was still called the WWF, the mythical version on tap here has Rip Thomas (Terry “Hulk” Hogan) as its champion. Of course, in this world, wrestling is the biggest possible spectator sport in the world and Rip Thomas is the biggest star. This does not sit well with Brell (that-guy Kurt Fuller), who wants Rip to work for him. But Rip Thomas is a man of integrity, and he refuses to back out on a contract no matter how much he is offered.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

You Always Hate the Ones You Love

Film: Bloodbrothers
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I try very hard not to be judgmental about the movies that I review on this site. I genuinely try to give every movie a fair shot. I knew Bloodbrothers was going to be an issue within the first couple of minutes. Bloodbrothers is about a family of aggressively Italian Americans. For the record, I am not Italian. My wife’s family is not Italian either. Additionally, my dad was a white-collar guy and it was understood that all of his kids were going to go to college. There’s a lot here that I have trouble relating to. That’s not the issue here, though.

It’s not the blue collar, electrician jobs on construction sites, the battle between father and son when the son wants something more than working construction, or the Italian-American vibe of pretty much everyone in the film. It’s the over-emotional nature of everyone involved. Everything in Bloodbrothers screams of parody to me—people aren’t really like this, are they? Is this stereotype taken to the extreme, or are Italian families really so shouty all of the time about everything? It’s such an oppressive environment; I was constantly uncomfortable.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Rule of Law

Film: Talk of the Town
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Talk of the Town is a film that’s going to play with our expectations in the opening 10 minutes. This starts off like a film noir that will pit a dangerous criminal played by Cary Grant against a terribly vulnerable Jean Arthur. And while there’s drama aplenty here, it’s not long before a film that starts with arson, murder, and a prison break quickly becomes a dramatic romantic comedy with a love triangle. Believe me, I’m not complaining.

Here’s the set up: Fire! Burning buildings! Spinning headlines! A factory has burned down and it looks like arson. The foreman of the factory has been burned to a crisp with only an athletic medal he won for shotput left behind in the ashes. Factory owner Andrew Holmes (Charles Dingle) blames notorious organizer and rabble rouser Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), who is promptly arrested. In probably the least-dramatic escape in film history from the most minimum security prison, Dilg overpowers his guard and escapes, ending up at the rental home of Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), the woman he’s always had a crush on. His ankle hurt in his escape, Leopold has nowhere else to go. But Nora is prepping the house for a summer renter who arrives minutes after Leopold and a day early. The renter is Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Coleman), a law professor who is being considered for placement on the Supreme Court. Yes, that Supreme Court.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Daria: The Movie

Film: Ghost World
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

There are movies that we come to at the wrong point in our lives. I think Ghost World is that kind of movie for me. I thought I had seen this. It turns out I’d seen a couple of scenes from it without watching the whole thing. I liked those clips. Now, watching the entire thing at once, I find this to be a film that is less than the sum of its parts. I also think that if I had seen this 15 years ago when I was 15 years younger, I’d have related to it a lot more. I think I’m just too old for the damn thing.

Ghost World is a disaffected teen movie, a film where the characters see themselves as somehow set apart from their peers by virtue of knowing more or by not being absorbed by pop culture. In reality, it’s the story of one young woman who is merely self-obsessed in a way different than everyone around her. She’s convinced that she is special and different, and in truth, she’s really just different.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Off Script: The Sender

Film: The Sender
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Not long ago, Paramount released a bunch of video clips of their movies on YouTube. Even better, they released a couple of hundred movies (or so—I don’t know the exact number) full movies, free to the viewing public. If you’re someone who worries about things like film piracy and illegal downloads (and you should be), the Paramount Vault is a great find. It’s entirely above-board, ince the upload to YouTube are official. Among the many movies now available for free is The Sender.

The Sender is a weird little film. With a little more gore, it feels like it could easily have been made by David Cronenberg, since it has some of his trademark ideas of messing with the head of the audience. It’s also the first film role, or at least the first notable one, for classic character actor Željko Ivanek, who is almost unrecognizable because of his youth and a full head of hair.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Schoolhouse Rock

Film: Blackboard Jungle
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a weird little subgenre of dramas that take place in troubled schools. Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, To Sir with Love, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers…even pseudo action movies like The Substitute are based on this premise. The granddaddy of the genre is Blackboard Jungle, one of the first movies ever to have a rock soundtrack. It even beat classic Rebel Without a Cause by a good six months.

Blackboard Jungle also launched a few careers. This was the first film for Vic Morrow, who allegedly beat out Steve McQueen for the part. It was also an early film in Sidney Poitier’s career, a role he evidently got by beating Lou Gossett, Jr. The other new face in the crowd is a young actor named Jameel Farah, who eventually changed his name to Jamie Farr.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Picks from Chip: Stoker

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

This is the second in a series of twelve movies selected by Chip Lary.

Plenty of movies explore the idea of insanity and evil. It seems like a natural place for movies to go, at least in the genres of horror and thriller. Stoker is a film that is exploring that same idea and seems to also want to look into the possibility that not just insanity but evil may be genetically linked. It’s an intriguing idea, and in the case of Stoker, it’s an idea that is played out in a way reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her father (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident the day she turns 18. Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is naturally upset, but her level of anguish seems greatly tamped down by the sudden appearance of her late husband’s brother Charles (Matthew Goode). Charles claims to have been traveling around the world, mainly Europe for years, but upon his brother’s death has come to stay with the family.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Twice in One Week?

Film: Hail, Caesar!
Format: Market Square Cinemas.

I like the Coen Brothers’ movies. I’m not a complete fanboy—I haven’t seen everything they’ve done and I haven’t liked everything I’ve seen, but I’m always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. My wife wanted to see Hail, Caesar! and last night both of the kids were out, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to go. Aside from the annoying people behind us who decided to comment frequently during the movie, it was a good night out. The people behind us reminded me of why I don’t go to the theater that often, though despite having gone twice in the same week.

Hail, Caesar! takes place across slightly more than a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production at Capitol Pictures during the later years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Mannix is a man under a great deal of stress, which causes him to go to confession just about every day. However, what he’s confessing seems to be the sort of moral transgressions that could wait for a Sunday—lying to his wife about sneaking a cigarette or two, for instance. On this particular day, Eddie is dealing with some truly interesting problems.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

It's Real Life, Man

Film: American Splendor
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

As I look through the various lists of films on my different lists, there are a few movies I’ve kept back for when I needed them. American Splendor is one of those movies. I’ve seen this a couple of times before; it’s a film I know I like. I’ve felt lately like I’ve been in a cinematic rut, and having been really enjoying what I’m watching as much as I think I should. American Splendor felt like a good way to get out of that rut.

American Splendor is based on the comic books written by Harvey Pekar about his own life as an average guy working a dead-end job as a VA hospital file clerk in Cleveland. And that’s really it. It’s just the life of an average man dealing with his life. What makes American Splendor interesting is not so much the stories that we’re told (they’re real life, after all, except for the fact that Harvey Pekar’s real life is also a comic series), but the style in which those stories are told. American Splendor mixes the comic world with the real world and also mixes the real world with the film world. There are layers upon layers of reality and non-reality here, and it all blends into something perfectly coherent.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Number 28

Film: Wilson
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

When I was about eight years old, my father taught me a memory trick and had me memorize the American presidents in order. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, Carter was president at the time (he’s 39th). Woodrow Wilson, the subject of the film Wilson was the 28th president. He was the man in charge when the U.S. fought to stay out of World War I and then was in office when we entered the war. Wilson is thankfully not a full-life biography of the man. It covers the end of his tenure at Princeton, his governorship of New Jersey, and then his eight years in office.

And, I hate to say it, but that’s really it. Wilson (Alexander Knox) is tapped by local Democratic machine politicians to run for governor after a failed attempt to democratize certain aspects of Princeton. Wilson is immediately accused of being just another part of the machine, but he manages to get elected almost because he seems to stand against party politics. And, for a wonder, the man is one of those rare people who can’t be bought. As governor, he stands up against the corrupt politics, and it’s not too long before he’s being considered for a run for the presidency.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lawyering Up

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

Courtroom drama is its own special thing. I tend to like courtroom dramas, or at least I’m predisposed to give them the benefit of the doubt. With The Client, we’ve got an hour of getting to the courtroom and then the courtroom, and just as soon as we’re in the courtroom, we’re out of it again. I suppose that makes The Client more of a legal thriller than a courtroom drama. We’ve also got mob hitmen, a dead lawyer, and a truly surprising cast. The Client is based on a novel by John Grisham, which means we’re in for high drama and lawyers being both villains and heroes. So let’s jump in with both feet, shall we?

Young Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) and his younger brother Ricky (David Speck) are out in a forest outside of Memphis killing off a summer afternoon smoking cigarettes Mark stole out of the purse of his mother (Mary-Louise Parker). Not too long after they arrive, a mob lawyer named Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz) shows up with the intent to kill himself by running a hose from his tailpipe into his car. Mark removes the hose, and when he tries to do this a second time, Romey catches him and drags him into the car. While Mark does manage to get out, he also manages to leave a number of traces of himself inside the Cadillac. He also learns the location of the body of Louisiana Senator Boyd Boyette, missing for about a month.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Déjà Vu

Film: Algiers
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes you watch a remake knowing it’s a remake. Sometimes, that sneaks up on you. In the case of Algiers, I discovered this was a remake a few moments after the credits. I had no idea going in that I’d already seen this, but once the text crawl started, I knew I was covering familiar territory. Algiers is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Pepe le Moko from the year previous. Evidently, producer Walter Wanger bought not only the rights to Pepe le Moko but also as many prints as he could to prevent it from being competition for his production of Algiers. Fortunately, he didn’t buy up all of the copies of Pepe le Moko, since it is a superior film in virtually every regard. In fact, the only things we get from Algiers is that it’s evidently the source of cartoon character Pepe le Pew and was Hedy Lamarr’s American film debut.

Don’t get it mixed up here: Algiers is a virtually shot-for-shot remake of Pepe le Moko. The character names are the same, the plot is the same, even the music is reused from the original film. The only changes are the cast, the fact that it was shot in English, and the ending. Even that change isn’t so much a change in what happens but a change in how it comes about. Apparently, director John Cromwell would screen a piece of the film for the cast and then instruct them to duplicate what they’d seen as much as they could. This might be the most unnecessary film until the shot-for-shot Vince Vaughn/Anne Heche remake of Psycho.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Swing, Baby!

Film: The Glenn Miller Story
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

One of the problems I tend to have with movies made in the earlier days of film is that actors frequently played a lot younger than their real ages. With movies that take place over a long period of time, it becomes less and less of an issue as the film progresses, but it makes things a little harder to take. With The Glenn Miller Story, this is a problem that does go away eventually, but when we start out, our “a couple of years out of college” stars are 46 (James Stewart), 37 (June Allyson), and 39 (Henry Morgan). It’s a little rough to take.

No shock what this is about—we’re dealing with the important years in the life of bandleader Glenn Miller (Stewart), from his early days in 1929 to his death over the English Channel in 1944. Much of the early part of the film concerns Miller finding a way to translate the sound in his head to the page and then finding a way to put together a band to make that sound come to life. This is going to be mostly a warts-free biography and I think that’s okay.