The Red Shoes
The Snake Pit
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
I remember vaguely hearing about Blood Diamond when it came out. Specifically, I remember the trailer because of Leonardo DiCaprio saying in a South African accent that in the U.S. the phrase is “bling-bling” but where they are, the phrase is “bling-bang.” That seemed like such a weird line, so forced. It wasn’t a film that interested me tremendously, to be honest.
But we’re nearing Oscar time, and one of the questions that regularly pops up is a variation of “Who is the best actor/actress/director/etc. to never win an Oscar.” In the actor category, one name that won’t wait too long to be mentioned is Leonardo DiCaprio. So I figured it was time to watch a film that earned him another trip to the always a bridesmaid, never a bride party. (By the way, the correct answer for the greatest actor to never win an Oscar is Peter O’Toole, who missed on all eight of his nominations. Sorry, Leo fans.)
I’m not going to be nice to this film, so if it’s one that you like, I’ll suggest that you look elsewhere. I’m not going to apologize for disliking this film. It’s filled with the most repellent characters I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t imagine wanting to actually spend time around 90% of the people in this film. This isn’t a case of them having a particular bad habit or quirk—these are people who are almost designed to be as unpleasant as possible, and since this is a film from 1935, we’re guaranteed that these unpleasant people will wind up with a happy ending.
I really love my DVR, although I’ve found a problem with it. The blessing is that I can record things that are showing at 2:00 am or when I’m at work and watch them later. That’s also the problem—the watching them later part. I’ve got a nice collection of films just waiting for me to watch them, but other things always seem to take priority. Sometimes it’s another film that’s just shown up. Other times is that I’m not sure I want to subject myself to the subject matter at hand. Such is very much the case with Johnny Belinda.
Why? Well, Johnny Belinda has all of the elements of a film designed specifically to pull emotionally in pre-planned and obvious ways. The quick synopsis is this: a deaf girl becomes the project of a local doctor, who teaches her to read lips and speak in sign language. An evil member of the small community rapes and impregnates her, although everyone assumes the doctor is the father. Eventually, there is a confrontation with the real father. This is not the sort of thing I wanted to jump into with both feet, so it’s sat on my DVR for months.
My older daughter has been obsessed with Frozen since the first time she saw it a few weeks ago. Since today was a snow day all around, I decided it was time that I saw it, too. So we went to an afternoon matinee, my two girls and me. Aside from the three teenage girls who sat behind us and talked through the first 20 minutes or so, it was a completely pleasurable time in the theater.
I didn’t see Tangled, which most people said was a return to form for Disney. If it hadn’t been, Frozen would be, because it’s about as good as the classic Disney films that everyone loves. It’s also very smart, which is even better than it just being good. There are plenty of good children’s films that don’t do anything terribly new or exciting, but Frozen stores up a brilliant curve ball at the end. The conclusion is very different from what we’re led to expect, and that’s a slice of brilliance.
When the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was announced, there weren’t a lot of people who had high hopes for it. Oh, I knew I’d go see it, but I didn’t expect much. The only exception to this I know is my friend Doug, but he’s not an objective voice on this one. Doug will watch anything with wooden ships and/or pirates in it; he actually liked Cutthroat Island. And then the reviews started coming in. Gore Verbinski had done the unthinkable and created something far more than anyone thought possible: a genuinely good and entertaining film based on a theme park ride. Usually it goes the other way—movie first, theme park ride second.
We get a nice tease at the start when young Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley eventually) not only rescues a young boy named Will Turner (Orlando Bloom after the opening scene) from a ship that has been raided by pirates. Will is wearing a medallion that looks suspiciously like it should belong to pirates, and since the penalty for piracy is death, she hides it.
I’m a teacher and more specifically an English teacher, which means that I’m supposed to love Dead Poets Society. I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. There are plenty of things to like about it, of course, and there are a few important discoveries in this film, like the fact that Robin Williams can offer up a solid, restrained performance when under the direction of someone who keeps his manic persona under lock and key. But there are problems here, which we’ll no doubt get to as we proceed.
We’re set in the late 1950s at an all-boys boarding school somewhere in the wilds of New England. We are quickly introduced to our young protagonists, a motley assortment of the progeny of the upper crust of Eisenhower’s America. Of primary importance are Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), who is bright and outgoing and suffers from a demanding and tyrannical father (Kurtwood Smith) and Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is ignored by his parents and living in the shadow of his graduated brother, which makes him shy and unsure of himself. Of secondary importance are the lovelorn Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) and the wannabee radical Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen). Rounding out the group are the suck-up Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the nerdy Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and the dorkish Gerard Pitts (James Waterston).
Really good stand-up comedy is hard, but it’s not that uncommon. Truly great stand-up, though, is rare and wonderful to behold. When you see a great comedian, someone who is really transcendent, it’s almost always someone who is pulling from a great storehouse of pain to make that comedy. Listen to Patton Oswalt talk about his depression. Listen to Tig Notaro talk about her breast cancer. Richard Pryor’s best material came from the worst episodes of his life. Bill Hicks dug into the bedrock of his soul to create routines that are still funny and still relevant 20 year after his death. And all of them owe a huge debt to Lenny Bruce.
Bob Fosse’s film Lenny is about the brilliant but troubled and doomed comic whose meteoric career made him a massive star and equally made him a victim of the times in which he lived and performed. Bruce’s arrests and various trials on obscenity charges are fascinating in no small part because they seem so tame by current standards. Certainly some of his work is still shocking and has incredible power, but the things for which he was dragged into court are heard nightly on cable television. Still, for the time, Bruce flouted the law whenever possible. It made him a legend, and also probably killed him in the end.
You just have to love Ken Russell. Even when his films aren’t that good, they’re fun as all hell. Additionally, once you’ve seen a Ken Russell film, you can spot one a mile off. I’ve seen four or five of them, although it’s been some time since I saw Gothic and I’m not sure I saw all of Mahler. Still, there are more than a few similarities between The Devils, Altered States, and today’s film, The Lair of the White Worm to suggest that Russell has a definable style, or at least an oeuvre.
The Lair of the White Worm is loosely based on the book by Bram Stoker of “Dracula” fame. As bizarre as Dracula is in places, it’s got nothing on this one, particularly filtered through Russell’s sensibilities. An archaeology student named Angus (Peter Capaldi when he was very young and blessed with a heady of playful curls) discovers an odd, giant skull on the property of a pair of sisters running a farm. Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) have kept the farm going despite having their parents go missing the year before. Meanwhile, the new Lord James D’Ampton (a very fresh-faced Hugh Grant) throws a party to commemorate his ancestor’s killing of a legendary dragon/wyrm/worm.
When I set up my NetFlix queue, I frontload it with all of the movies that have a long (or longer) wait time. This sometimes means that I end up with the film I had 30th on the queue, but sometimes it means that one of these rare films suddenly appears. Such was the case with Stage Door, a film that I fully expected would take months to finally show up on my doorstep. I went into this cold, knowing only that it was nominated for a couple of Oscars and that it starred Katherine Hepburn. What I discovered was something of an unexpected treat.
Most of our action takes place in a boarding house for young actresses in New York. All of the girls are struggling, most are between jobs, and all of them are particularly catty when the situation calls for it. There are a few of primary interest to us. First is Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), who would like to make it as a dancer. Jean has a particular animosity for Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), mostly because Linda is dating the evidently married producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). Also in the mix is the acid-tongued Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball), the aged Catherine (Constance Collier), and the talented but out of work Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), who is the tragic part of our lighthearted collection. Into this mixture comes Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn).
This is the first in a monthly series of reviews suggested by Nick Jobe at YourFace.
It’s a not-very-well-guarded secret that I spent 12 years of my life deep in the world of video games. I spent a lot of time playing a lot of games from 1991 to 2003. One of those games was Tetris. I remember when Super Tetris was released for the PC. I remember the different variations (Welltris, Wordtris, Hatris, Faces…tris…). I met and interviewed the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov. When Nick suggested that I watch this, I was really interested. I was a decent Tetris player, but not world class. Having now seen Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, I know that I’m nowhere near the class of the people shown here. I specialized in real-time military strategy and first-person shooters anyway.
The whole point of the film is the creation of a tournament to crown the world’s first Tetris world champion. Former video game champion Robin Mihara organized the tournament and sought out the best players of the game, including Thor Aackerlund, the first winner of the first Nintendo World Championship.
I tend to like the films Ernst Lubitsch, but there tend to be exceptions. The Smiling Lieutenant is one of those exceptions, although only a mild one. I went into this with the hopes of enjoying a Lubistch film the way I have in the past. I hoped for a surprise along the lines of Trouble in Paradise. That was probably too much to ask for, because not a lot of films are that good. The Smiling Lieutenant pissed me off for about half an hour and then got a lot better.
The plot is simple enough. Niki (Maurice Chevalier), a lieutenant in the Austrian royal guard meets Franzi (Claudette Colbert), the leader of an all-girl orchestra. The two are soon an item, playing chamber music together in the evening, a different kind of music overnight, and singing to each other over breakfast. One day, the king of a neighboring tiny country, King Adolf XV (George Barbier) is visiting with his daughter, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins). While they are on parade, Niki winks at Franzi, but Anna is convinced that he meant it specifically as an insult for her. Called on the carpet and unwilling to admit that he was playing visual footsie with his girlfriend, Niki says that the wink and smile were because of the incomparable beauty of the princess. And so, the naïve princess immediately falls for the dashing lieutenant and demands that he marry her. To prevent an international incident, he does, and that’s where the fun really starts among Niki, Franzi, and Anna.
I’d seen Eastern Promises before, and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it again. That’s not because it’s a bad movie; on the contrary, it’s a great film. It’s one of the best films of David Cronenberg’s career. No, the problem here is that it’s brutal and completely realistic. There are certain things that can happen in a film that bother me terribly. I can see blood and guts without any problem, but seeing someone get his or her throat cut really bothers me. Cronenberg, with his love of body horror, doesn’t just have people get their throats cut; he makes us really look at it. This is to say nothing of the brutal fight in the bathhouse. This is the definition of a hard watch.
Eastern Promises is almost a film noir, albeit an astonishingly brutal one. It starts simply and quickly devolves into something horrible but fascinating. A young girl is taken to the hospital because she is bleeding. It turns out she is both underage and pregnant and about to give birth. Complications in the birth kill her, but the baby survives, a Jane Doe at birth. All of this is watched by Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who works at the hospital. She finds a diary written in Russian on the girl’s body and takes it to her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) to have it translated. He balks after reading a few pages, since those few pages are filled with accounts of drugs, prostitution, and rape.
Music for Millions is a film I frankly can’t figure out. I mean, I kind of get it, but I also really don’t. There’s a plot here, although it’s a pretty sparse one. A great deal of this film exists specifically to give the audience a chance to hear some really good music played very well. Another chunk of the film exists specifically to allow Jimmy Durante the opportunity to be Jimmy Durante. The rest of it seems to be an advertisement for St. Christopher and Jesus.
Okay, I realize that from an atheist perspective that sort of thing is going to be annoying in the best of times, but in Music for Millions we’re essentially told that all you have to do to get what you want is pray really hard for it, and maybe give up something like ice cream as if you were having your own personal Lent. The bulk of this odious philosophy comes out of the mouth of the youthful Margaret O’Brien. O’Brien was disturbing as the pseudo-sociopathic Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis, but in this film I actually loathed her.
I have kids, so I also remember when The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron was a current show on Nickelodeon. What I didn’t realize was that unlike most Nickelodeon shows that start with the show and build up to a movie, the theatrical release of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius predated the television show. It was originally intended as a pilot, but was so well received that a theatrical release happened instead, which then led to the show running for three seasons.
There’s a distinctive visual style to Jimmy Neutron. It’s three-dimensional, but strangely bulbous. There’s an intentional retro vibe to things (the hometown of the characters is called Retroville, after all), sort of a modern paisley. Our hero is the title character, Jimmy Neutron (voiced by the awesomely named Debi Derryberry), identified by his creators as one-third Albert Einstein, one-third Bart Simpson, one-third Jim Carrey. However, since Jimmy is also an inventor, it would seem he’s one-third Nikola Tesla, too. Yes, that’s four thirds. Jimmy’s head and soft-serve ice cream-style hairdo are big enough to handle that.
When “Best Animated Feature” turned out to be the new category, I was happy for a few reasons. First, it was the smallest category, which meant a smaller collection of films added to my already huge number. That’s a good thing. The other reason is that I often like animated movies, provided they don’t get too sappy. One of the ones I was most interested in seeing was Disney’s Treasure Planet. One reason for this is simple: I’d heard a lot of good things about it despite its tanking at the box office. The second reason is a bit more complicated.
I have a friend named Doug. Doug has several passions. Two of those passions are his enduring love of science fiction and his equally enduring love of swashbucklers and pirates. Doug loves the concept of swashbuckling in space, and I’m sure he’s not the only one. Actually, I think It’s a pretty cool concept, too. And that’s the idea behind Treasure Planet. This is a science fiction version of Treasure Island, down to the characters and the costumes, but it takes place in a bizarre future. It’s Firefly for the pirate crowd in that sense. The space ships are actually sailing ships using solar sails, but rigged and designed to look like 18th Century wooden ships. It sounds bizarre, but it’s a great combination. There’s that reckless sense of adventure combined with real exploration. How could I not want to see this? And how come Doug doesn’t wear a Treasure Planet shirt every day of his life?
When you watch movies based on a list, you’re apt to run into ones that strike you the wrong way. The Devil’s Holiday is one such film. The premise is a pretty standard one, and I’m used to the acting style of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s that this didn’t bother me too much. There’s just something about this film that hits me wrong. By the time I got to the end, I knew exactly what the problem was, but I was catching hints of my issues almost immediately.
In a city—it may be mentioned which one specifically and New York is always a good default—a young woman named Hallie (Nancy Carroll) works as something a baby step away from being a prostitute in addition to her duties as a manicurist. Basically, she’s a freelance escort called in by various salesmen looking to close large deals, and she makes her living by getting a small piece of the commission on these sales. When a rube named David Stone (Phillips Holmes) shows up, Hallie is called in to soften him up to make a big deal go through. Hallie is excited because she’ll get 3% of the take, which will (she hopes) propel her on to her dream of living in Paris.
This is not going to be easy. How the West Was Won is a film that not only spans a massive amount of time, a good 40-50 years, and has one of those casts that starts on a Tuesday and ends on Friday. Lots of folks are given top billing for a few minutes work here but nonetheless, there are so many stars and future stars involved in the cast of this that it would take a full paragraph or two to name them all. Just as interestingly, many of them are not immediately recognizable, but can be identified by their voices. Henry Fonda in particular doesn’t look anything like himself, but there’s no mistaking that voice. Ditto for John Wayne, who makes a several minute appearance as William Tecumseh Sherman. Spencer Tracy narrates the film, and his voice is just as immediately recognizable.
We begin with the Westward quest of the Prescott family, heading to the wild country of Ohio. Led by patriarch Zebulon (Karl Malden) have little but their own gumption for the trip, and they encounter a series of problems. One of those problems turns out instead to be a friend named Linus Rawlings (James Stewart). There is a mutual attraction between Linus and Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), but Linus is a mountain man. When he saves the family from being bushwhacked, that attraction grows. It’s not until a serious accident kills off Zeb and his wife that Eve makes a choice to stay on that spot, and Linus agrees to stay with her.
A pretty standard trope of the crime drama is the innocent witness. Have something bad happen, put someone completely unconnected in the area, and drama just happens. How do you twist things up? In the case of Witness, you make the innocent observer of the brutal crime as innocent as possible. In this case, our titular witness is a young Amish boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas). That little twist is enough to have garnered Witness eight Oscar nominations.
For what it’s worth, though, it really is an interesting premise. On his first trip to a big city, the young Amish boy and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) are waiting in a train station when Samuel wanders off to the bathroom. It is there he sees a man assaulted and killed by two other men. The responding police officer is a man named John Book (Harrison Ford), who stashes his technologically backward witness and his mother at the house of his sister. The next day, he helps the boy look through mug shots with no success. During a lull, the boy wanders around the police station and finds the culprit he saw. The problem is that the murderer he saw is a police officer named McFee (Danny Glover).
When looking through the full list of films that I have in the Oscar categories I’m following, I’ve found a number that are difficult to locate, making this enterprise similar in many ways to the 1001 Movies List. My secret weapon is Turner Classic Movies. I’ve been finding multiple difficult to locate films every month on Turner and my DVR is my new best friend. When Love Letters cropped up on Turner, I knew I had to record it, and since there are a bunch of films I want to see in February, I’m being diligent in watching and erasing films from the DVR when I can. I can’t say I was thrilled about Love Letters going in, but it was watch it now or watch it later.
This is a very strange movie. It’s essentially two slices of romantic bread with a creamy mystery filling. We start during World War II. Roger Morland (Robert Sully) has met a young woman named Victoria on leave. Unable to compose a convincing letter himself, he enlists the aid of fellow soldier Allen Quinton (Joseph Cotten) to write the letters for him. Quinton, already virtually engaged Helen Wentworth (Anita Louise), pours his heart into these romantic letters, calling Victoria a “pin-up girl of the soul.” He’s disturbed by what he considers Roger’s callous attitude toward the poor girl, so when Roger is returned to England and eventually marries the girl, Allen is visibly upset.
This is going to be rough. I’ve reviewed films that feel plotless before, but here is a case where I have a film that literally has no plot. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is pretty much literally what the name says it is. This is vaudeville show presented on celluloid. It’s presented as if it were a show on a stage, complete with scripted gags and skits between musical numbers. A couple of these still work but most are horribly dated. There’s no behind-the-scenes romance, no villain. There’s just two hours of variety acts with a couple of camera tricks tossed in for fun, or possibly to prove that this was indeed on film and not live.
What’s more, the bulk of the acts here are people who may well have been famous in 1929, but whose fame has not managed to carry into the modern era. There are a couple who are still well-known enough to be interesting here, but the bulk of the singers and dancers have been lost to the ages. Joan Crawford, who belts out a song of dubious quality and then dances pretty well is an exception. Jack Benny, who acts as something like a master of ceremonies is another. Laurel and Hardy put in an appearance with a failed and mildly comic magic act and Buster Keaton does a slightly more comic dance routine. Beyond these, though, most of the names involved in this are not ones that roll trippingly off the tongue of most dedicated film viewers—even classic lovers.
Like many people, I’m deeply upset by the now long-standing trend of American remakes of foreign films, particularly horror films. Such is the case with Kairo (Pulse), originally made in Japan in 2001 and shoddily remade about half a decade later in the U.S. I certainly understand the desire to put one’s own stamp on a good story, but I find this insta-remake trend bothersome. In almost every case, the remake is far less than the original. Even when the remake is good, the original is usually better. In the case of Kairo, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that M. Night Shyamalan cribbed from it when making The Happening, too, meaning that this has not one, but one and a half crappy remakes.
Kairo, like many a good horror film, has a simple, albeit strange, premise. In Tokyo (and eventually we’re told in the world at large), people are shutting down mentally, physically, and emotionally, and then suddenly disappearing. This all appears to be connected with a number of electronic media and devices. We start with Michi (Kumiko Aso), who works at a plant sales company. One of her co-workers has been missing for some time, so she goes to check on him. She finds him and a computer disk he has been working on. While she hunts for the right disk, her coworker calmly goes to another room and hangs himself.
So NetFlix finally came through with getting me a copy of Driving Miss Daisy, the final Best Picture winner I hadn’t yet seen or reviewed. I was happy to finally have it in my possession. On the other hand, it would be a lie to suggest that I was genuinely looking forward to watching it. There are Best Pictures and there are Best Pictures, and I knew from the trailer that this wasn’t going to be Driving Miss Daisy at Dangerous Speeds.
We open with the titular Miss Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) losing control of her car and miraculously managing to get away without injury. Based on her declining skills, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) decides that she needs someone to drive her. The person he chooses is Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman). Miss Daisy is none too pleased about having a chauffeur and equally upset with the choice being Hoke; despite her frequent protestations that she isn’t prejudiced, she certainly holds some views that are not far from in keeping with the 1940s Georgia society she lives in.
Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see dead people. He can also talk to them. Since he’s the only person around who can do that, it’s no surprise that he is constantly bullied and harassed at school. It’s a little more of a shock that he’s bullied at home by his father (Jeff Garlin) and his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). His mother (Leslie Mann) is more sympathetic but still doesn’t much understand him, which makes his real support network the ghost of his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch).
The monthly feature is one I’m looking forward to quite a bit. Nick over at Your Face and I used to podcast together, at least until he moved to Korea for a year. Nick is also the first person I know of to create a watch list based on films selected by other people. We chose films for each other all the time, but Nick has been incredibly dedicated to filling gaps in his film knowledge based on the selections of others. In the past couple of years, I’ve selected 14 films for Nick to watch beyond the podcast. So it’s time for him to return the favor. He’s picked a dozen for me, one per month. On the third Monday of every month, I will post a review of one of Nick’s picks.
So I had these fantastic plans. I was going to watch Driving Miss Daisy tonight, and then tomorrow I was going to post a complete list of the Best Picture winners ranked from worst to first. However, the disc I got from NetFlix today was cracked down the middle, meaning I still haven’t watched Driving Miss Daisy. So, hooray for the backup plan—my DVR and the movies I’ve recorded from Turner Classic Movies. And when I’m this disappointed, a Barbara Stanwyck movie is sweet, sweet balm. So, Ball of Fire (also called The Professor and the Burlesque Queen) it is.
Ball of Fire is a screwball comedy of the old school in that it paints very broad characters who can’t really and don’t really exist in the real world, puts them in crazy situations, and seeks not to educate but to entertain. I like some screwballs and dislike some others, but since this one features Barbara Stanwyck playing a burlesque singer, I’m predisposed to like it. I can take or leave the Gary Cooper connection.
Often, the strangest premise makes for the most interesting film. That’s certainly the case with The Boys from Brazil, which has a premise that jumps into the bizarre with both feet. I genuinely question how far I should go into spoiler territory here, but without an actual discussion of the plot, I’m not sure how much I can really say about it. The NetFlix summary comes close to spoiler territory, so I guess the best option is to simply assume that the rest of this should be considered under a spoiler tag, or at least everything beyond the jump.
When I suggest that The Boys from Brazil works from a bizarre starting point, the most non-spoiler way I can explain that is by saying “South American Nazis.” What makes this one special when compared to the more lurid films of this nature is the cast. Check the cast list of this on IMDB; the first three names you’ll see are Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, and James Mason. Granted, since this was from 1978, all three men are in the twilight of their careers, but that’s some significant star power. Toss in Denholm Elliott, Bruno Ganz, and Lilli Palmer, and bizarre story or not, this is a film to pay attention to.