Thursday, August 31, 2017

Civil Rights are Human Rights

Films: Malcolm X
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

For a long time, I’ve said that my favorite Spike Lee movie is Do the Right Thing. I like the questions it raises, and I like even more the fact that rather than answering them, it just asks more questions. It’s a movie that creates conversation rather than trying to end one, and I respect the hell out of the decisions that Lee made with it. A number of people have told me that my opinion is based on the fact that I hadn’t yet seen Malcolm X. Well, now I have. I think I still like Do the Right Thing better, but I completely understand why I needed to see this.

As with any biopic, there are going to be things here that going to deviate from the truth. However, I also think that’s less of an issue with this film than it is with many others. Much of this comes from the fact that Lee came under a great deal of fire while filming from many people who were concerned that he would damage the story of Malcolm X in some way, or focus too much on negatives. Interestingly, this was exactly the same criticism that forced Norman Jewison off the project years earlier. So, while I’m certain there are some amalgamated characters and scenes created for dramatic purposes, I’m also pretty convinced that Lee stuck to the truth as much as he could.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Pin

Films: Pin
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There aren’t a lot of movies quite like Pin. Actually, that’s not quite true; there’s quite a bit of Psycho in Pin. It is a very unusual horror movie, though, one that doesn’t seem like it belongs in 1988. Aside from some very brief nudity, it’s close to bloodless. It seems very much like it belongs to an earlier time in film history, and yet it’s surprisingly progressive in certain ways.

At first blush, the Linden family seems completely normal. Dr. Linden (Terry O’Quinn) is a typical doctor. His wife (Bronwen Mantel) has a few issues, though. Specifically, she’s a germaphobe and a clean freak. The Lindens also have two children, Leon (played respectively by Jacob Tierney, Steven Bednarski, and eventually for most of the film by David Hewlett) and Ursula (played by Michelle Anderson, Katie Shingler, and finally by Cynthia Preston). The fifth member of the family is Pin (voiced by Jonathan Banks, "Pin" being short for "Pinocchio"), an anatomical dummy used by Dr. Linden in his practice. Dr. Linden, we soon learn, is accomplished as a ventriloquist, and speaks for Pin to the children.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Bear Market

Films: Margin Call
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I don’t pretend to understand financial markets. Watching the financial markets collapse a decade ago affected me less than it did a lot of other people because I don’t tend to play in markets, but it was scary nonetheless. For those of us who don’t work on Wall Street, the greatest frustration of the destruction of the housing market was probably the fact that virtually no one who caused the problem suffered any real consequences, or at least suffered the consequences that we thought they should have. Margin Call tells this story with the sort of cold dispassion that it seems to require.

Margin Call takes place over two consecutive days at an unnamed trading firm that seems to have been based on Lehman Brothers. The film starts with a huge percentage of the staff on one floor being let go. Included in that culling is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who works in risk management. Eric tells the people who are letting him go that he’s been working on something that he’d like to finish. They send him off anyway, and on his way out, he hands a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him to finish his work and to be careful.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Casting Decisions

Films: Othello (1965)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on rockin’ flatscreen.

When one looks at the 1965 version of Othello, there are a lot of places one can start. Kind of. In reality, there’s a single place to start, and that’s the fact that the title character is portrayed by Laurence Olivier. If you know anything about the play, you may well be aware of the problem. Olivier was about as white as I am. Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a black man. This means that this film is 159 minutes of blackface. Honestly, that’s not an easy thing to overcome mentally.

How did this come about? This version of Othello is a production of the National Theater Company, and evidently Olivier performed the role on stage. It still seems like a very strange choice, especially since there are other options for Olivier. When Kenneth Branagh filmed a version of this play in 1995, he got Laurence Fishburne to play the title role, while he took on the role of Iago. It’s a complete distraction. Olivier doesn’t look like anything other than a white man in black makeup. Even the color chosen for his skin doesn’t look natural.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Down with the Ship

Films: Titanic (1953)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When it comes to movies, Titanic typically means the 1997 James Cameron film. The 1953 film that covers the same ship sinking is pretty much forgotten these days despite its winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year. While this version doesn’t have the tremendous special effects of Cameron’s epic, it does have many of the same beats, and of course it also has a huge ship sinking in the northern Atlantic. It also does this in a spare 98 minutes, almost 100 fewer than Cameron’s film.

We’ll get to the ship sinking by the end of the movie, of course. Since we as the audience know that the ship is going down, it lends that same aura of tragedy and inevitability over everything else that happens. There’s one main drama aboard the ship and a few others that dip in now and then as minor distractions. That main drama concerns Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck), who has boarded the ship with her daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) and her young son Norman (Harper Carter). She meets a few friends as the ship boards who question why her husband is not traveling with them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Sixteenth Round

Film: The Hurricane
Format: Showtime on big ol’ television.

As the list of Oscar movies I still have to get through starts to wind down, I realize there are movies I’ve avoided for a bunch of different reasons. Length for a few, lack of interest for others. With The Hurricane, I’ve stayed away for a very different reason. I remember when the movie was released, and while I also remember that Denzel Washington’s performance was widely praised, What I also recall was that the biggest knock against the film was that it was economical with sticking with the actual facts.

So let’s look at the film first, then the history. The Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington), an up-and-coming middleweight boxer convicted of three murders in Patterson, NJ during the Civil Rights Era. Carter spent nearly 20 years in prison for crimes that both he and the film say he didn’t commit. The timeline of the film naturally goes back and forth. We’ll get some of Carter’s fights and some of his youth as well as a great deal of his time in prison.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Under the Shadow (Zir-e Saye)

Film: Under the Shadow (Zir-e Saye)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

How do you deal with a slow burn? For me, it’s something that has to be done carefully. Move too slowly and you lose your audience. Move too quickly, and, well, it’s not really a slow burn. Horror movies are really the best genre for a good slow burn. The trick is to give us an opening that sets up our real world and then, piece by piece removes that normality. Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film, does this surprisingly well.

Under the Shadow takes place during the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a former medical student who, because of her radical political activity years earlier, is prevented from returning to school. She lives with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Iraj, who is a doctor, is called to the front to treat wounded. Because Iraq has promised to bomb Tehran to the ground, he wants her to leave the city and go to his parents’ home. She refuses, claiming that she does not feel welcome there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Off Script: Rose Red

Film: Rose Red
Format: DVD from Bertolet Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes what you really want is a good haunted house story. The classic of the genre, of course, is The Haunting. Rose Red (sometimes called Stephen King’s Rose Red) is a reasonable facsimile, since it’s based in no small part on Shirley Jackson’s classic. It’s got some similarities to The Shining as well, although much more to the novel than the film. It is truly a classic haunted house,

It’s hard not to see this in a directly line from The Haunting through The Shining with a little bit of Carrie thrown in as well. The backstory on the house is that this is a fictional version of the Winchester Mystery House where the owner decided that she had to continue adding on and adding on to stay alive. This is definitely a case where the house was born bad. The body count claimed by the house clocks in at around a couple dozen, and this is with it being unlived in for years and completely abandoned for a few years beyond that.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sing, Sing a Song

Films: Florence Foster Jenkins
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I’m going to say something unpopular here: The Academy needs to end its love affair with Meryl Streep. Don’t get me wrong here. Meryl Streep is easily one of the greatest actors to every stand in front of a camera and likely the greatest living actor (especially now that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring, and honestly, maybe even if he stayed in acting). But seriously, it seems like we can’t have an Oscar ceremony without Meryl getting nominated for whatever movie she did last. This seems absolutely the case with Florence Foster Jenkins.

Some time ago, I came across the acronym “BOSUD” to describe one of the title characters of Melvin and Howard. The acronym stands for “biography of someone undeserving.” Our title character here seems to be similar in that respect. Essentially, Florence (Streep) is an eccentric (‘cause she’s super wealthy) woman in New York during World War II who is deeply involved in the music scene, especially with opera and the symphony.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

War, Baby

Films: A Farewell to Arms
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

This is another of those reviews where I feel I have to come clean at the start. I studied literature in college and have a BA in it. That means that I’ve read a bunch of classics including my share of the works of Ernest Hemingway. The truth of the matter is this: I think Hemingway was one of the finest craftsman of short stories the English language has ever seen, but I hate his novels. I hate them. I find his style to be oppressive when it goes on too long, and the man was incapable of writing a woman character who was anything other than a conduit for a man’s ego. This left me with scant hope for A Farewell to Arms.

And sure, I expected this to be grim. This also happens to be a case where my set against the source material could be slightly mollified because the movie diverges significantly from the book to the point where Hemingway himself evidently hated this film. But, it’s still Hemingway and it still manages to use a lot of his dialogue from the book. Worse, the characters are absolutely drawn from the novel, and that’s where I have the biggest problem with the story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Borrower

Films: The Borrower
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Strap in, folks. This is going to be interesting.

I do try to give each movie I watch a fair shot, but I had literally no real hopes for The Borrower. The fact that it was directed by John McNaugton as the film following Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did not fill me with hope. There were several reasons for this. First, this movie has not managed to show up on the They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They list of 1000 best-reviewed horror movies. That puts it as less than a lot of really shitty movies. Second, the top-billed actor is Rae Dawn Chong. Not even the potential awesomeness of having Antonio Fargas in the cast can counteract that.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Proud Mary

Films: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Format: DVD from Lena Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I’m not sure where to start with What’s Love Got to Do with It? except to say that I’m a fan of Tina Turner despite not really being a huge fan of her music. I like her attitude; I think she’s bad-ass and I don’t think I need to love her music to think that. I’ve been trying to get this movie from NetFlix for some time, but it’s always on a very long wait, so I finally broke down and ordered it from a library. I didn’t want to see this specifically because it’s more or less Tina Turner’s biography (although Turner herself claims it’s not really close to factual) but because it stars both Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and I really like both of them.

So, as I just said, this is essentially the biography of Tina Turner, but highly fictionalized. From what I understand, it covers the broad strokes without getting much right in the way of detail. I think I’m okay with that, although I often object to a complete rewrite of history, but it does present an interesting problem with the film. The fact that Ike Turner (Fishburne) was an abusive asshole and Tina (Bassett) had to fight for her right to perform independently and keep her own name is pretty well known. Because of that, it’s the details that are of interest here, and evidently the details aren’t close to the reality.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lord of the Dance

Films: Billy Elliot
Format: DVD from Somonauk Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I’ve almost certainly mentioned on this blog before that both of my daughters are dancers. When you tell someone that your daughter does ballet, they tend to assume that your daughter is about six and can do a clumsy plie while wearing a little tutu. My older daughter is 19 and graduated with a four-year degree in dance performance at 18. My younger daughter is 14 and spent last summer at the Joffrey in Chicago. I’m not fucking around when I say that they are serious dancers, and neither are they. Because of this, I’m not really sure I can be objective about Billy Elliot.

This is a story you’ve seen even if you haven’t seen this version of it. Our title character, Billy (Jamie Bell) is about 11 and lives in coal mining country in England. His mother has died unexpectedly, leaving him to be raised by his father Jackie (Gary Lewis) and his aggressive brother Tony (Jamie Draven), both of whom are miners and both of whom are on strike. He also lives with his grandmother (Jean Heywood), who is suffering from either Alzheimer’s or dementia. Money is tight, but Billy’s dad scrapes together 50p for Billy to take boxing lessons once per week.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Films: Moana
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s not often that a studio gets two films nominated for Best Animated Feature in the same year. I think that is generally because it’s hard for a studio to release two animated features in the same year. In the case of 2016 and Disney, though, both Zootopia and Moana were released and both were nominated for Best Animated Feature. I watched Zootopia months ago and enjoyed it well enough. Moana made it to NetFlix streaming, which meant I knew its time was coming.

Here’s the thing. The basic story of Zootopia is that racism is bad. Admittedly, that’s not like a staggering revelation, but the entire story is based on the idea that racism is destructive. It’s a fine message even if the movie misses a great deal of the actual problems with racism as experienced in the real world. Moana is an adventure tale about a young girl going to sea to save the island of her people and to connect with the wandering explorers of her people’s past. And Moana is a better argument against racism than Zootopia despite having not a damn thing to do with it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The World is Full of Angry Young Men

Films: This Sporting Life
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Sometimes, you can see a progression of a particular type of movie across the years. In the case of This Sporting Life, there is a line that starts in a movie like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, goes directly through this, and ends at Raging Bull. It’s almost impossible to watch This Sporting Life and not see the influence both on Scorsese and on De Niro’s portrayal of Jake La Motta. Sure, the sport in this case is rugby rather than boxing, but the personalities are similar in a lot of ways.

Frank Machin (Richard Harris) is a coal miner in Yorkshire who picks a fight with some local rugby players one night at a bar. This aggressiveness is a prized commodity on the rugby pitch, and he’s recruited by the local team. Frank soon becomes a rising star on the rugby team, changing his lifestyle at least in terms of available money if not in his actual surroundings.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Blade

Films: Blade
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I remember when it was first announced that Ant Man was going to be turned into a movie, allegedly with Edgar Wright directing. I’ve since seen Ant Man and it was okay, but hardly the movie it could have been, since it was tied into the Marvel Comics Universe. The reason for my initial excitement was that Marvel had previously made a few movies based on properties that they really didn’t care much about. One of those was Blade.

Blade isn’t a great movie. It might honestly not even be a good movie, and it’s certainly a case where the first sequel was better than the original film. What it is, though, is a really fun and entertaining movie. Blade is only marginally a horror movie in that there are a couple of gory moments and the main antagonists are vampires. What it really is is an action movie where Wesley Snipes gets to kill a shit-ton of vampires with a variety of weapons. Oh, there’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t work in the movie and a lot of things that defy all sorts of logic. But it’s hard not to be entertained by martial arts battles with swords and general ass-kicking.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

First and Ten

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

I should probably start this by stating that I’ve never been entirely sure of the talents of Sandra Bullock. I don’t dislike her, but I think she makes a lot of bad choices. She makes some damn good ones, too; Gravity comes to mind as being not only outside of what seems like her wheelhouse but one in which she excelled. So I’ve backburnered The Blind Side for some time now, knowing that I’d get to it eventually. Well, it’s eventually.

Chances are good that you know the story already. This is a classic rags-to-riches tale with a dash of either Great Expectations or Pygmalion thrown in for good measure. That it’s based on a true story gives it some street cred and that it involves America’s actual pastime of football means that it’s got the sort of mass appeal that makes movies a hit. It’s also the movie that earned Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar, a hurdle I’ll jump over sometime in the future.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Happy Endings Only in Songs

Film: Pennies from Heaven
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When you think of musicals in general, you think of happy and fluffy. At least I do. Sure, there are some that go against that trend: West Side Story, Oklahoma, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but most of them shoot for the happy ending and pure entertainment from start to finish. That’s what I was expecting with Pennies from Heaven. It’s not at all what I got, though. In fact, Pennies from Heaven is tonally very close to a film like The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a sheet music salesman around Chicago during the Great Depression. Sales aren’t good and worse for him, his wife Joan (Jessica Harper) is frigid and unaffectionate. Arthur would like to own a store that sells records, but Joan will not loan him the money she’s inherited from her father. In fact, she won’t even let him borrow from the bank using that money as collateral. This is Arthur’s reality, but in his head, everything in his world is perfect, just like the lyrics of the songs he sells.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Let's Go for a Walk

Film: Wild
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are a few movies in my Oscar list that I’ve come close to watching several times and have just never gotten to. Wild is one of those movies; I’ve checked it out of the library on several occasions and always returned it unwatched. In fact, that almost happened this time, too. I had to renew this to avoid either paying a fine or having to check it out again in the future.

It’s also worth noting that my immediate association to this film was not the expected Into the Wild, but with my internet buddy Kevin, who once thought to walk across the U.S. and made it through the state of Washington before being sidelined by medical issues. The difference is that Kevin wasn’t walking as some sort of redemption for having his life devolve into meaningless sex and heroin.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Fright Night (1985)

Film: Fright Night (1985)
Format: DVD from Peru Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

While it’s probably not the first one, Fright Night from 1985 is the first time I can remember watching a vampire film where the idea that vampires actually exist and everyone knows they don’t is considered a significant part of the plot. Like I said, I’m sure there are others and earlier ones, but I think this is the first film I saw where that was important. There’s a lot to like in Fright Night, and when it showed up through interlibrary loan, I was excited to watch it again, since it’s been years.

The story is pretty simple when it comes to vampire films. A young man named Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a relatively normal high school kid who has a girlfriend named Amy (Amanda Bearse) and a fascination with old horror movies, particularly those shown on late night television by former horror actor-turned-local crappy movie host/Vincent Price stand-in Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell). Someone new moves in next door to the Brewsters, and even on that first night Charley gets a sense that there’s something odd going on. While Amy is prepared to offer sex, Charley is busy watching his new neighbors, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) and his “roommate” Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) move a coffin into the basement.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mr. Belvedere

Film: Sitting Pretty
Format: On Demand on big ol’ television.

From 1985 to 1990, there was a sitcom called Mr. Belvedere that featured a cultured English gentleman acting as a live-in nanny/servant for a typical American family. It ran for six seasons and is one of many television shows that featured a male caretaker of children. It, however, had a much better place from which to start, since the show was based on Sitting Pretty and its two sequels. Sitting Pretty features a typical American family in desperate need of a maid/nanny who, through a few miscommunications, end up hiring Lynn Belvedere (Clifton Webb) to take care of their children and help around the house.

That miscommunication is wrapped up in Belvedere’s first name. Harry (Robert Young) and Tacey King (Maureen O’Hara) are desperate for help with their three rambunctious boys and large dog when their current maid walks out. Tacey places an ad that is answered by Lynn Belvedere, who she assumes is a woman. When Lynn Belvedere arrives, wackiness ensues. Harry is keen to get rid of the man immediately, but Belvedere proves his competence quite quickly and within a day, the three children are quiet, polite, and well-behaved.