A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

It Happened One Night

September 18, 2011

It Happened One Night

When Amanda and I started to expand our collection to include more classic films as a counterweight to all the fluffy action and sci-fi we own this movie was one of the ones she specifically asked for. I’m not altogether sure why., though. I mean, I like the movie, and it’s a pleasant way to spend an evening, but I don’t know what it was that drew her to the film. After all, this is a romantic comedy – one of the more famous ones – and that’s not generally a genre of film that Amanda enjoys.

There’s no denying that it’s a great movie though. As we watched this I was struck by how influential the film is. It’s clearly one of the inspirations for the Shrek movie. Bugs Bunny creator Fritz Freleng based his cartoon rabbit on parts of this movie. And of course there’s the infamous story about how this movie single handedly destroyed undershirt sales in the thirties.

From the trivia on IMDB it would appear that this was a rather troubled production. Claudette Colbert certainly didn’t enjoy it even though she seems to have gotten a little bit too much into character and tried to run away from the Oscars the way her character tries to skip out on her father.

The plot of the film is astonishingly simple. A young heiress, fed up with being told what to do by her rich banker father, has gone and eloped with a playboy pilot, much to her father’s chagrin. When her father tries to confine her to their yacht in Miami she dives overboard determined to get back to New York. Of course her father immediately sends his detectives in search of her, so she is hounded at every turn on her journey.

Along the way she meets a brash, witty, fast-talking newspaper man who decides to escort her in exchange for the story. They but heads, bicker and generally get on each other’s nerves. Then they of course fall in love with each other because you can’t go on a road trip with somebody in a movie without falling in love with them. (See also Tommy Boy and Trains, Planes and Automobiles.)

It’s not the plot that really drives the movie, of course. It’s the charm. Director Frank Capra knew a little about how to portray a simple, down-to-Earth sort of America. He did it so well in It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This movie takes place in that America. I don’t know if this America honestly existed back in those days with it’s ma-and-pop auto camps, smiling police officers and singing bus passengers, but it looks like a fun place to live. Even the thief that Peter and Ellie meet on the road is a jocular fellow with a penchant for song.

More than that it’s the two leads that really sell the movie. It’s hard to believe, watching their performances, that they were not having a great time making the film. Clark Gable is all smooth talking charm as Peter Warne, but also manages to give his character a lot of heart. He’s clearly not as mercenary and cold as he would like to appear, and shows some real tenderness. As Ellie Claudette Colbert likewise is able to imbue her character with a real kind of vulnerability under all the spoiled and haughty airs. The two of them have real chemistry, and watching these two characters sparring and inevitably falling for one another is simply fun.

This movie is so disarmingly pleasant. Some of its nineteen-thirties attitudes seem somewhat dated today, what with the constant smoking and the casual way that Peter talks about Ellie deserving to be beaten by her new husband. He spanks her at one point to end a silly argument about piggy back rides which I suppose is in keeping with his assertion that she’s a poorly raised spoiled brat, but I wonder if it was as shocking then as it is now. Mostly however this movie is just about the witty repartee of these two people, and about how they come to find that they deserve each other. I’m glad we added it to our collection and I’m glad we watched it tonight.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

The Big Six

August 18, 2011

The Big Six

Back to the Broads today for more sailing and adventure for the children from Coot Club which we reviewed on Tuesday. After that movie, which felt like a vacation in itself, I was very much looking forward to spending more time in Arthur Ransome’s world full of young children having adventures and camping and sailing. This movie has all that, and the small-town British charm, and gorgeous scenery, but I actually found myself slightly disappointed. I didn’t enjoy this movie quite as much as the other one, and I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why.

Most of the same characters from Coot Club are back for this story. There’s Tom, of course. There’s Dick and Dot, on vacation again. Mostly, however, this is a story about the Death and Glory boys Pete, Bill and Joe. I think part of my problem is that I don’t find these boys as compelling as characters as the other Coots. For one thing, they’re very ill defined. They seem to live full time on their boat completely without adult supervision of any kind. (I had begun to wonder in fact if they were orphans, but then there is mention of telling their parents what they’ve been up to, so that’s not the case.) Now living without adult supervision is pretty much the entire point of the Arthur Ransome books, but most of the kids have to at least go home once in a while. (A common thread seems to be that girls in the Ransomeverse are under constant threat of having to wear dresses and gloves and behave themselves.) Pete, Joe and Bill however seem completely independent.

We get to see them fishing, shopping, cooking (poorly) and generally living their lives. They’ve even started their own business – working as a salvage company recovering boats in distress on the river. I think they’re meant to be like boys on a grand adventure living in a floating club house and being blissfully free of parents. What comes across for me, however is a strange sense of responsibility. They are like little adults – not so much like boys on vacation.

Anyhow, things start to go bad for the Death and Glory boys when somebody begins un-mooring boats and setting them loose on the river at night. It always seems to happen wherever the boys are staying and very soon everybody on the river is convinced that it is the boys themselves behind this nefarious action. Even worse – there are thefts at local businesses that the boys get blamed for as well. So this movie is less an adventure and more of a mystery. Dick and Dot and Tom all have to find a way to exonerate the Death and Glory boys, so they form their own Scotland Yard. (Scotland Yard has their Big Five, says Dot, so they will be the Big Six.)

Dick and Dot do most of the detective work, really. It almost feels patronising at times that the two city kids spend so much time ordering the simple minded country kids around and lecturing them. Dick in particular seems particularly well suited to detective work since he seems obsessed with the meticulous inspection of minutia. And he owns a camera.

I can see what this movie is trying to do. It’s all about kids pretending to be detectives, in the same way that other Swallows and Amazons books involve pretending to be pirates or explorers. I just didn’t enjoy watching this as much as I enjoyed Coot Club. With the constant threat of being caught and framed for something they never did this movie ends up being less enjoyable than the other. Perhaps my issue is that in this movie just about everybody except for the Coots believes that the Death and Glory boys are up to no good. In the first movie you could get well behind hating the Hullabaloos and their loud and obnoxious ways, but in this movie there’s a sense that the whole river is against our heroes, which makes it less fun for them to gallivant around.

Still, there are some special treats in this film. For one thing there’s an old eel fisherman played by Patrick Troughton which means that since Tom’s father is played by Colin Baker there are two Doctors in this movie. (Indeed I would say I enjoyed it more than the Doctor Who story “The Two Doctors” which also starred these two actors.) And of course there’s sailing and birds and British countryside and lovely music. This is a pretty and enjoyable movie – I just didn’t like it quite as much as I like Coot Club. Oh, well.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Coot Club

August 16, 2011

Coot Club

We got this movie and its sequel used from the Library where Amanda works because they were getting rid of the remainder of their VHS collection since so few families these days have VCRs to play tapes and they were taking up more room in the library than could be justified. Amanda is an enormous fan of Arthur Ransome and the Swallows and Amazons series that this movie comes from. I’ll let her go into more detail about the appeal of the books even with modern day children and how often she recommends them to families in her library. Indeed I have to admit that I only ever read the first of the eleven books in the series (this movie is based on the fifth) but I completely understand the charm of these tales of British children having adventures while on holiday.

What’s so wonderful about these stories for children I think is that they’re about kids off on their own being independent and taking care of themselves. There is very little adult supervision while these groups are out sailing, spending the night in boats, getting into jams, pretending to be pirates and generally having a wonderful time. At the start of the first book this hands-off approach to parenting is explained in a scene where the father of one of the families, who is off with the merchant marines, sends a telegram to the mother giving permission for them to be on the lake alone. “Better drowned than duffers,” he says, “If not duffers – won’t drown.” What child wouldn’t want to be allowed to have adventures on their own by parents who trust them to take care of themselves?

This story involves a group altogether different from those I remember from the first book in the series, but the hijinks are largely the same. It’s summer holidays and Dick and Dot Callum have traveled out to the broads to stay on the little sailing yacht The Teasel with a friend of the family, Mrs. Barrable. There they meet several of the local children who have formed a birdwatching and preservation society calling themselves the Coot Club. There’s Tom Dudgeon, the eldest, the twin Farland girls who go by “Port” and “Starboard,” and three boys who apparently live on their own little boat the Death and Glory: Pete, Joe and Bill.

Things go somewhat awry for this group when they run afoul of the obnoxious, loud and inconsiderate crew of a rental ship who have come out from the city to drink and party. These awful “Hullabaloos” moor their yacht right beside a nest that the coot club have been watching, driving off the mother bird and threatening the eggs. Even when politely asked to move they refuse, leaving the Coot Club with little alternative. Tom unties the boat and sets it adrift on the river, nearly getting caught in the process, and the Hullabaloos swear vengeance. Even as Tom teaches the Callums how to sail and introduces them to the other children on the river the Hullabaloos start to hound him, chasing him upriver and down and doing everything in their power to spoil Dick and Dot’s vacation.

The untouched British countryside during a summer in the nineteen thirties seems like an absolutely idyllic place to vacation, Hullabaloos notwithstanding. Everybody knows everybody else. The local constable knows everybody by name and pays the Death and Glory boys to weed his garden. At one point when Tom and the Callums sail off without them the Farland twins catch up by hitching rides with a series of river going folk and nobody even bats an eye at the thought of two ten year old girls traveling alone on the river.

I have to say I love this adaptation. The film perfectly captures that mood of adventure and the beauty of the countryside. The young actors playing the children genuinely seem to be having a grand time. There are long sequences which are nothing but peaceful sailing, the pleasant airy soundtrack by Paul Lewis, and shots of the birds along the river that the Coot Club so admire. Watching this, on a sweltering summer night after a long day at the bank, felt like a little vacation of its own. I could easily see this movie becoming standard summer viewing for me and Amanda like Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. It’s like a holiday just to watch it – it helps me to escape from the daily grind and imagine myself on an adventure with hardly a care in the world. What a wonderful feeling.

August 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the The Last Crusade

June 12, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is about this movie that misses the mark for me. I saw it in the theater on opening night with my high school AV crew, and although it was a great time, and far better than Temple of Doom, but I’ve never really felt that the movie lived up to the first one. It’s strange, because this movie is filled with great action, has clever and self depreciating references to the entire Indiana Jones mythos, and even has a couple fantastic and popular actors added to the franchise. So why does it not deliver? I have to think it’s because it’s so carefully engineered to be the perfect Indiana Jones movie. Every detail is carefully calculated to fit a particular pattern and it comes off feeling artificial and shallow to me.

The opening scene very clearly lays out just what kind of movie we’re going to be watching. We join a very young Indiana Jones as he and his scout troop explore in the wilderness of Utah. He and one of his friends come across a group of thieves ransacking a lost treasure and he feels compelled to intercede. In a fun series of short adventures we are shown where Indie got his fear of snakes, his whip and the distinctive scar on his chin. The whole opening act is played with a wink to the audience. It’s fun to watch, filled with humor and adventure, and it pokes fun at Indiana Jones while celebrating him, which is pretty much what the whole movie is about.

The main plot of the movie involves Indie being hired to recover the Holy Grail before the Nazis can. In just about every way it feels as though it’s trying almost too hard to replicate the first movie. Instead of snakes there are rats. The action chase scenes that are the bread and butter of a Jones film are plentiful and thrilling. There’s a boat chase, a motorcycle chase, an escape in a plane and of course the climactic fight between Indie on his horse and a giant German tank. There are still diabolical and implausible booby traps protecting the treasure of course. I can’t deny that it’s filled with everything that was lacking in the second movie – but it all feels so manufactured.

Where this movie shines is with the introduction of Sean Connery as Indie’s domineering father Henry Jones Sr., who has been obsessed with the grail all his life, somewhat to the consternation of his son, who feels that he’s been somewhat ignored. It’s the father/son interaction and the way that they discover each other that brings the most life to the film. Connery plays Henry as bookish and sheltered but wise and very clever as well. He’s somewhat out of place in Indiana’s world of constant adventure, but slowly comes to be a part of it as the film goes on. It’s these interactions, with Henry finding out what kind of life his son lives and getting caught up in it, that I enjoy most when I’m watching the movie.

At the same time there are expanded roles for a couple characters from the first movie. Indiana’s museum curator friend Marcus returns in a much expanded role as he comes along on the adventure. He’s played with an affable sort of cluelessnes by Denholm Elliott, who takes a role that was only in a couple minutes of the first movie and expands him into one of the primary comic relief characters in this movie. There’s also John Rhys-Davies reprising his role as Sallah, the Egyptian excavator who helps Indie out in his hunt for the Ark.

So this movie has everything. It has an origin story (starring the dashing young River Phoenix in the Indiana Jones role – how I regret that his career was cut so tragically short.) It has more action and adventure than the first two movies combined. It has Nazis and a lost religious relic. It has not one but three sidekicks, one of whom is Sean Frickin’ Connery for crissakes! It’s bigger and more impressive than Raiders of the Lost Ark in every possible way. And yet I still find myself slightly underwhelmed.

I’m guessing that the problem is not so much with the movie, although it IS very heavily over designed and carefully crafted to fit perfectly into the Indiana Jones mold, and is more related to my unreasonably high expectations. As I said in my review a couple days ago I have watched Raiders over and over again. I have memorised the entire film from beginning to end. It was so unique, and appeared at such a perfect time in my childhood, and it really was the perfect action adventure film. Any attempt to match up to that experience for me is going to feel cheap, derivative and pandering.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

June 11, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

This overblown mess of a movie was the first Indiana Jones film I saw in the theaters. I don’t recall if I had seen the first movie on VHS before I got around to seeing this, but I know for certain that I saw this in the movie theaters. My recollection is that I was disappointed and a little disgusted by the movie, which is a pretty much universal reaction from what I’ve seen.

This movie has a couple of problems, but the biggest one is that it is too gruesome to really be fun. It still has some of the swashbucking adventure of the first movie, but it’s lost in a torrent of gross humor, a frightening cult that seems more in line with the Poltergeist movies than the first Indiana Jones movie, and a generally darker tone. In the first movie Indie was often outmatched, but in this one it goes beyond that – he spends most of the movie almost completely defeated. He staggers from one disaster to another and only at the very end gets a chance to fight back.

The movie starts out with a deal gone wrong in Shanghai. Indie is attempting to trade an artifact for a giant diamond with a crime boss named Lao Che. Lao poisons Indiana and offers the antidote only if Indie will return the diamond. So right from the beginning Jones is near death, at the mercy of his enemies. He doesn’t get the diamond back and only barely escapes with his life. He and his awesome sidekick Short Round fly away after a car chase through the streets of Shanghai, bringing along a singer named Willie from Lao’s club for no reason that is adequately explained by the movie.

I’d like to pause in my plot synopsis to rant a bit about the love interest for Indiana in this movie. Willie is my second biggest complaint about the film. She’s whiny, annoying, shrill and spends most of the movie either complaining or screaming. Indie’s girl in the first movie was Marion, who kicked a certain amount of ass. By contrast Willie complains about broken finger nails – she’s just poorly suited for adventuring and I don’t have any fun watching her.

When their plane crashes in India the three of them are asked by a village of poverty stricken peasants to go to Pankot Palace where an evil cult has stolen the villager’s sacred stone and all their children. After a dinner party filled with gruesome meals (which is what this movie tries to pass off as humor) and an encounter with a whole lot of insects and a room with your standard crushing spikes Indie discovers the titular Temple of Doom, where a Thuggee cult is performing human sacrifices and where all the children from the surrounding villages have been enslaved to dig up jewels in a mine and hunt for the remaining two mystical stones that the cult leader craves.

Indiana is captured, tortured with a voodoo doll, and brainwashed into becoming a cult member by being force fed nasty blood. Again, in keeping with the dark tone of the movie, Indiana is defeated from the get go. It’s not so much an adventure film as a sort of horror film, with a little adventure thrown in at the end with a fist fight on a conveyor belt and a big long mine-car chase scene. The cult sacrifice involves ripping a man’s still beating heart out of his chest and lowering him into a pit filled with lava. I suppose it’s intended to build tension for the later scene where Willie is set to be sacrificed, but it’s a bit much, really.

Luckily this movie does have one major saving grace. It has Short Round. Ke Huy Quan is the real hero of the movie, repeatedly pulling Indie’s bacon out of the fire. He’s also the source of most of the non gross-out humor in the movie. He’s charming and daring and indomitable – everything that Indiana was in the first movie. I wouldn’t say that he makes the whole movie worth watching, but he does a good job of salvaging what could otherwise have been an unwatchably depressing series of disasters for our supposed hero Indiana Jones.

Now that we’re done watching this movie I’m somewhat looking forward to tomorrow’s movie which was more of a return to form where Indiana Jones gets to be a hero again. Also – as with this movie – Indie’s sidekick is the best thing in tomorrow’s movie as well.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical

April 20, 2011

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical

I have been told that the number 420 has something to do with drug culture. It’s a reference I never picked up because I’m so frighteningly square. Anyhow – we bought this movie with the intention of watching it as our four hundred and twentieth movie. Then we realized that movie 420 is going to fall on Easter day, and we already had a movie set for that day, so we’re watching this today for April 20th. It still works.

We slightly overdosed on Reefer Madness back when we reviewed it because we watched it twice in one day. Once for our project and once for Rifftrax live. It was quite a lot of Reefer Madness to take in in a single evening, and it was a work day as I recall as well, which means that by the end I was completely burnt out. Even with the help of Mike, Kevin and Bill it was mighty hard to get through the movie a second time. All I’m saying here is that I wasn’t completely sure tonight if I was quite ready to endure this movie a third time, but I’m happy to report that in campy musical form it is far more tolerable.

The hook here is that we’re watching a concerned parent group being shown a film which is very similar to the original Reefer Madness. The plot and characters of this movie are very similar to those in the movie this musical is based on, but exaggerated for maximum comedic impact. Things which, in the original, are unintentionally hilarious, such as the fervor with which the narrator describes the horrifying potency of reefer, are here deliberately lampooned, and to great effect. We still have the story of innocent young teen Jimmy being sucked into a seedy underworld of drug use and debauchery. It still leads to a hit-and-run accident that kills an old man (although under slightly different circumstances than in the original) and it still involves him being framed for the accidental shooting of his high-school sweetheart. It still involves a very strange depiction of the effects of marijuana use which involves manic, crazed twitching and a lot of shouting and flaring tempers, starting right from the very first puff of the demon weed. (More addictive than the heroin.) It’s just played very broadly for laughs and involves a whole bunch of catchy songs.

Boy are the songs catchy, too! The narrator sings to a group of concerned parents about how weed will turn their children into ruffians and whores. Jimmy and Mary have a great Pollyanna number about how innocent and in love they are with each other – just like Romeo and Juliet. They haven’t read the end yet but they think the two must end up just swell. There’s a big dance number when Jimmy takes his first toke that involves jungle rhythms, scantily clad dancers, and a leering goat man. One big addition to the musical that I don’t remember from the original movie is a redemption story for Jimmy where he realizes the error of his ways and tries to straighten up and leave the dope behind, and it involves easily the biggest brain-worm of a song in the whole musical when he sings about being loved by Mary Lane. (So catchy is it that one of the parents watching the movie is humming the chorus during the next scene.)

I can see why this musical was so popular. Just like Little Shop of Horrors before it it takes a cheesy movie and thrives on that cheese. When you have a lounge-singer style Jesus singing to Jimmy about the superior high of god you’ve gone into a whole other world of parody – sort of like the “be a dentist” number in Little Shop. The music is catchy and the over-the-top performances are hilarious. The completely self-aware parody is well handled and the performances are fantastic. Best of all I did actually find myself laughing out loud a few times.

I’m glad we bought this, even if it was only as a stunt for the movie a day project. It’s a funny, well produced romp with a lot of great dance numbers and catchy songs. I had a thoroughly good time watching it, and I’ll probably be watching it again sometime – even on days that aren’t April 20th.

April 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Miller’s Crossing

April 6, 2011

Miller’s Crossing

It has been years and years since I saw this movie. My recollection is that I saw it at my grandparents’ house on premium cable back when cable was a new and revolutionary thing for me. I had seen Raising Arizona and I had seen the previews for this movie and I was curious to see what kind of gangland mobster movie the creators of that madcap comedy had cooked up. I would say this is the most linear and “normal” movie I can think of in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It’s got an insanely intricate plot with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s a twisted tale of double and triple crosses and if you don’t pay careful attention you’ll miss what’s going on.

Amanda has observed in the past when we watched Coen Brothers movies that they usually involve innocent people getting hurt. Even the comedies. This movie bucks that trend in that it doesn’t involve any innocent people. It’s a gritty tale of hardened gangsters at war in prohibition era Chicago and even the honest ones are cold hearted killers. Our protagonist (I hesitate to use the word “hero”) is the most duplicitous and heartless of them all.

Part of what makes this movie what it is is that we the audience are not given much help figuring out who all the characters are and what their various motivations are. We’re thrown right into things and have to quickly figure things out as they’re happening. I enjoy this sort of thing because I like having to figure a world out. Amanda was not feeling too sharp tonight (and I had the advantage of having had the day off) so early on we paused the movie to see if I could summarise just who was who and what was going on. Here is roughly what we figured out:

There are two mob bosses here. There’s the irritating and dangerously insecure Johnny Caspar. He is upset because the odds on a series of rigged fights he’s been betting on are going down. As soon as he places a bet somebody is leaking the fact that the fix is in and all kinds of other people are profiting from the hard work he has done rigging the fights. (Interestingly this same situation was involved in the opening for Lucky Number Sleven, but that’s an entirely different film.) At the start of the movie Johnny and his taciturn right hand man Eddie Dane have come to visit rival mob boss Leo because Johnny wants, in a show of fairness and to avoid a gang war, to warn Leo that Johnny intends to kill the bookie Bernie Bernbaum who he believes is responsible for the leak. Leo is unwilling to simply give up Bernie though. He says it’s because Bernie is paying him protection money, but Leo’s lieutenant Tom Regan knows the real reason. Leo has been spending a lot of time recently with Bernie’s sister Verna.

Now things get complicated. What Leo doesn’t know is that Tom is sleeping with Verna. Things get complicated, especially for Tom, because in order to protect Velma Leo has put a tail on her. That tail (a guy with a toupee called “The Rug”) gets shot in an alleyway and everything starts to go to hell. Leo assumes that Caspar had the tail killed. Tom thinks it was probably Verna, who like Tom himself is always playing the angles and does whatever she can to help herself and her brother. Leo sends the local police, who are in his pocket, on a raid of one of Caspar’s clubs and Caspar retaliates by sending a hit squad to kill Leo. It’s war.

There’s also some kind of love triangle going on between Dane, another bookie named Mink, and Bernie. Sort of the mirror of the one between Leo, Verna and Tom. Dane is protecting Mink from Caspar, and doesn’t know that Mink and Bernie are an item. Bernie is playing his own games – he’s just a guy who can’t resist using any advantage that comes in his direction, be it a tip about a fight or some kind of leverage he can use to improve his station.

Throughout the movie we follow Tom. He’s the one guy who seems most of the time to know what’s going on. He understands the crooked minds of the people around him and isn’t above manipulating them if he can. I would not exactly say that he is a sympathetic character. He’s just a smart guy trying to stay afloat in a world of double dealings and violence. He’s not particularly nice to Verna, although he does seem to have some qualms about killing her brother. About the only good thing that can be said about him is that he steadfastly refuses to accept anybody else’s help settling his massive gambling debts. (He’s not particularly good at picking horses it would appear.)

This movie’s problem is that it doesn’t really have anybody to root for. Tom is the protagonist, but he’s a slimy bastard a lot of the time. His friend Leo is a good enough guy for a crime boss, and you do kind of feel bad when they have a falling out over Verna, but he’s not the focus of the movie. The bloodthirsty and unstoppable Dane is probably the most honest and straight shooting character in the film, but he’s a brutal bastard who can only afford to be honest because he can beat the hell out of everybody around him. Verna herself is hard to figure. Maybe Tom is right and she’s just playing the angles, and it is certainly hard to figure out why she stays with Tom when he’s such a bastard to her, but maybe she actually cares about him. Her brother Bernie, the source of all the problems, seems like a nice enough guy at first, but ultimately is proven to be perhaps the most manipulative and heartless character in the whole film. So although I enjoy going along for the ride here and I like all the twists and turns I don’t find myself very heavily invested in how things turn out.

It’s too bad I can’t care more about the movie too, because it is a very polished and well put together film. It doesn’t have a very Coen Brothers feel to it most of the time (except for one fairly strange scene near the end of the movie.) It doesn’t rely on cool camera tricks or brilliant writing, although it has examples of both. The shot of a hat blowing through the woods behind the opening title is brilliant, and must have been hell for the focus puller operating the camera as the hat drifts further and further into the distance. Mink’s speech to Tom in Leo’s club is a great example of Coen Brothers dialog combined with one of their favorite actors (Steve Buscemi.) Indeed the entire cast is fantastic, from other Coen Brothers favorites like John Turturro to the desperate but always completely cool portrayal of Tom by Gabriel Byrne.

I really wish I could like this movie more. It’s gorgeously shot, well acted, and well written. It’s a cool and convoluted plot and I love seeing characters with conflicting interests thrown together like this. I just don’t really care about any of these people, which decreases the impact of the movie for me. If I want a hard boiled noir detective story created by the Coen Brothers I’m much more likely to turn to No Country for Old Men. Or Blood Simple. Or The Big Lebowski for that matter.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 398 – The Natural

The Natural – April 2nd, 2011

I’m going to say this up front so there’s no beating around the bush: I don’t enjoy baseball as a game. I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but well, I don’t watch it and I haven’t ever really felt a desire to. It’s slow and I don’t find it particularly engrossing, the same way other people would probably find my favorite video games boring. Different tastes for different folks. So when I watch a movie that has baseball as its foundation, well, it’s got to have something to draw me in other than the game. Oddly enough, a few months back Andy (who also does not watch baseball or particularly enjoy it) decided we should get some baseball movies. So we got this, which I had never seen, and three others that I had. I could have dealt without this one.

I know, I’m a horrible person for saying so. I mean, this is a classic, right? The score is iconic, as are more than a few shots and moments in the movie. It’s Robert Redford and Barry Levinson! How can I not be entranced by this movie! But I’m not. It’s not bad. I didn’t dislike it. But it just didn’t capture me. Even looking at it from an allegorical perspective, pulling in meaning from the talk about Homer and making connections with mythology as well as Arthurian legend didn’t really do it for me. I mean, I like those things, but the allegory here is using baseball as its vehicle. The appeal of allegory is to present one story in the guise of another. What would be the point if the guise wasn’t as interesting as the original? It’s not like we’re talking religious stories that need to be communicated in a time of censorship here.

It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, to be honest. Set in 1939, it’s the story of the meteoric rise of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs. We get a little backstory, seeing how he grew up being taught how to play by his father. We watch him make his own bat. We see him head to the city to play ball and meet up with a mysterious woman who later shoots him for no reason that the movie sees fit to explain (it’s hinted that she was responsible for a string of athlete shootings but the movie doesn’t bother to elaborate). And then we pick back up with him in his 30s, over the hill and starting out as a rookie with the down-on-their-luck Knights. Everyone thinks he’s just a benchwarmer, sent in to ruin the team even more thanks to some shady dealings with the majority shareholder, the sinister Judge. But of course he’s not. He’s amazing. He’s downright magical.

The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably. I won’t say that’s a bad thing, because it’s using some well known tropes and that just means it’s been put together by people who know how to build a story. But it does mean that I felt very little in the way of tension. As soon as Roy meets femme fatale Memo? I knew he’d start striking out. As soon as his old sweetheart, Iris, showed up to give him moral support from the stands? I knew he’d start doing better. When she said she had a son? Come on. Did anyone need a reveal there? From the moment we meet the Judge in his darkened room it’s a sure thing that someone’s going to either try and take Roy out (again) or get him to throw a game. This is not a movie full of unexpected twists and turns. It tells you everything that’s going on, plain as day.

Fortunately, it’s well acted and well shot. Visually, it’s a lovely movie. And I did enjoy Robert Redford’s performance. He gets the vast majority of screen time. I wish I could say more about the women in the movie, but they’re all fairly one-dimensional, which I found thoroughly disappointing. I would have liked a little more than a villain in black, a sweetheart in white and a temptress who flips back and forth and I would have liked some more well-developed parts for Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger. I also would have liked things to move a little faster. As it is, the movie plays out much in the way I’ve always seen baseball itself. A whole lot of standing around, punctuated by some actual playing every so often. It felt like this movie took hours and hours and hours to play out. Sure, there were moments I enjoyed and I appreciated the cinematography and the acting and definitely the score. But overall it just didn’t speak to me.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Natural

April 2, 2011

The Natural

For the start of the baseball season we’ve decided to watch some baseball movies. Amanda and I are not sports fans. We never watch sports games or root for any of the local sports teams. We do, however, own a few Baseball movies. I’m not altogether sure why. I suppose it’s just a simple game, and it has a certain charm to it. There’s a fun, corny, American joy to a good baseball movie. This, here, is the corniest, simplest, most quintessentially American of all baseball movies. From the slow-motion scenes of young Roy Hobbs catching baseballs in an undulating field of wheat to Randy Newman’s iconic score this movie lets you know just exactly what it is.

Amanda had never seen this movie before tonight and she wasn’t really into it tonight. The movie is too slow for her. On the other hand, there are so many infamous moments in this film – maybe after tonight she’ll get some of the references to this film in pop culture, from the Simpsons to the constant use of the score in previews to this very day.

I’ll agree with Amanda that the movie is slow. Nor is it particularly subtle. Barry Levinson directs the movie with all the gentle subtlety of a sledgehammer. It features things like having the evil Judge ensconced in his dark office or Glenn Close as Iris standing in a crowd with her translucent white hat basked in soft light. This is a simple movie about good and evil that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Roy Hobbs is The Natural. He’s a simple farm boy who in his youth was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He could have been the greatest baseball player of all time, but a serial killer shot him way back when and he was unable to play ball. For years. Until one day he shows up in the bullpen of a struggling major league team. He’s over the hill at this point. A mid-thirty year old rookie that everybody, including the crooked scout who sent him up to the big leagues, thinks is a joke.

Of course when he finally gets up to bat it becomes clear that he is not a joke. He is a born ball player who lives only for the game. He’s an upright fellow who just wants to play ball, and he finds himself embroiled in an epic clash between good and evil. On the side of good there’s that kind-hearted codger who I know best as Noah from the second Ewok movie but everybody else knows from Cocoon or from the old Quaker Oats commercials. Wilford Brimley is Pops, the fairly ineffectual but completely affable manager of the New York Knights. His right hand man, Red, played by Richard Farnsworth, explains to Roy that Pops has put his heart and soul into the game, but he’s had to sell a controlling share of the Knights to a sinister man known only as the Judge. There’s a way out though. If the Knights win the pennant (which is some kind of base ball thing I guess) then Pops gets his shares back and the Judge is out. So of course the Judge is doing everything in his power to ruin the Knights. He is paying players left and right to throw games. He has a crooked newspaper man who digs up dirt for blackmail. He’s in cahoots with a nasty bookie (played with mad-eyed flare by an un-credited Darren McGavin.) There’s even a social-climbing femme fatal who has a bit of a crush on Roy but is trying to seduce him into losing.

To combat all the temptations thrown in Roy’s way there is his long-lost childhood girlfriend Iris, played in constant soft focus and awash in white light by Glenn Close, who simply by her presence inspires him to reach for his boyhood dreams of baseball superstardom. Sadly she doesn’t have much to do besides look wistful, but she’s very good at it.

It’s a simple fairy story about temptation, good versus evil, and striving against odds to achieve your dreams. It has a mytical, legendary feel to it, which is why I don’t particularly mind that it is so blatant in its direction or so over-the-top in its rousing conclusion. Robert Redford, who was fifty-one years old when the movie came out, plays Roy with both a world weary sense of fatality and a youthful wistfulness. His craggy visage clearly shows a character with a tortured past, but here he is re-discovering his true purpose in life and accepting his destiny.

This movie is iconic. Sure it’s slow. Sure it’s corny. Sure it drives its message home with brutal force. But, oh that score, and oh those visuals. Sometimes you need a simple tale like this. It was a pleasure to watch it again tonight.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s a Wonderful Life

December 24, 2010

It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m probably not going to be able to be able to say anything new about this movie. It’s one of the most beloved of all Christmas stories, and with good reason. It’s kind of funny – I didn’t see the whole movie for most of my youth. I saw bits of it here and there over the years. It’s always being broadcast during the Christmas season. There are clips from this movie in two of the other movies we’ve reviewed for these twelve days of Christmas. But during this time of year there’s always so much else going on. There’s shopping and wrapping and cooking and such. So what with one thing or another I never managed to see this whole movie until I was about thirteen years old. (Heck, even tonight we have it playing in the background during a family dinner on Christmas Eve and there’s boisterous laughter and barking dogs and all kinds of distractions, so I’m maybe catching three words in ten.) I finally saw the whole movie in July one night when I has insomnia and it was on late one night on channel 38. It started at around one in the morning and with ads it lasted until four AM. Of course I loved every minute of it.

This is a movie to be savored. Oh, sure, everybody knows the story of this movie. It’s so familiar that it’s cliche. George Baily Is a small town guy who is foiled in his every attempt to escape and live his own life. Instead he stays home, takes over his father’s business, marries a girl who had a crush on him in high-school, fathers an enormous family and is generally an all around nice guy when he isn’t preoccupied with feeling all sorry for himself. This movie is inspired by one particular bout of extreme self pity when George actually becomes convinced that people would be better off if he weren’t around and just then his guardian angel shows up and shows him just how awful things would be for everybody he has ever known if he hadn’t been there.

It is couched in terms of this being a sort of Christmas miracle, what with Clarence the angel and such, but I view it more as speculative sci-fi. It’s a story about alternate universes and the many ways that one person’s life intersects with and influences the lives of many others. To that end the movie spends a lot of time introducing you to George Bailey and to his friends, loves, frustrations and dreams. Indeed it takes an hour and forty minutes for the film to reach the crucial turning point that is the crux of the movie. It’s not wasted time either – the many episodes in Georges life that are shown all act to help us fall in love with him, fall in love with his quaint home town, and learn to see the pattern in his life.

In many ways this is a simple movie. George’s home of Bedford Falls is a Norman Rockwell vision of simple American perfection (except for the evil Scrooge figure Mr. Potter.) There’s a formulaic repeated theme to every stage of George’s life with him being ready to set out on some grand adventure when some new disaster befalls his town or his father’s altruistic but never profitable savings and loan business which pulls him back in. Time and again he must put the welfare of the people of Bedford Falls ahead of his own until the inevitable moment when disaster strikes and he has that one particularly bad day. It is not a subtle movie. But it is wonderfully moving and touching nonetheless.

The fact that this movie works at all is mostly due to Jimmy Stewart. His oft lampooned stutter and passionate speeches drive the movie. He has that perfect everyman feel to him, as has often been pointed out. George Baily is the hero for every man who works his whole life and has nothing to show for it (except the love of his peers.) On the other side of the coin there’s Lionel Barrymore’s thoroughly loathsome Mr. Potter, who is the perfect foil for George’s enthusiasm and self sacrificing nature. Lionel’s sneer and squint convey so much about how utterly miserable his character is – and how miserable he wants everybody else to be.

We watched this tonight with Amanda’s brother and parents and all of them at various points did James Stewart impressions, and all of them were completely loving the movie. We were watching an old VHS copy of a colorized version of the film (the first thing we did was turn the color on the TV all the way down so we could watch it in proper black and white.) Amanda’s mother pointed out how brilliant Stewart is in the scene when George has his complete breakdown in front of his family. He has this haunted, haggard look that carries so much power after seeing him overcome every obstacle up until then in the movie. From there he gets to portray that great manic desperation of his fall from grace and his befuddlement when shown the horrifying nightmare world that would exist were it not for his influence. And the equally manic joy with which he greets everything that he once felt held him down is of course completely wonderful and uplifting.

It leaves me overwhelmed with joy and sobbing as always (somewhat embarrassing when hanging out with your in-laws.) I didn’t particularly want to be writing a lengthy review tonight of all nights, but this movie is to wonderful a tale to simply shrug off. I want all the world to know how much I truly love this movie. And all that I have to say in the end is “Merry Christmas, you old movie-a-day blog!”

December 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment