Doodad Kind of Town

Taking Off…
June 25, 2008, 8:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Not that I’ve been in the blogosphere that much lately, but now I’m really going to be gone. For two weeks anyway.

I leave tomorrow at the crack of dawn for China.

I’ll be back on July 7, at which time I plan to take up my movie-blogging mantle with renewed dedication.

Till then, be well – and be sure to check out the Bizarro Blogathon at Lazy Eye Theatre.

Happy Father’s Day!!!
June 15, 2008, 3:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Just a quick post to send a “Happy Father’s Day” greeting to all the dads out there, particularly those among my fellow movie bloggers. Hope you’re having a wonderful day.

I’d also like to acknowledge my wonderful dad today, first and foremost because he is a great, supportive, loving Dad. But, this being a movie blog, it’s also fitting to note that it was my father who instilled in me his own love of movies.

When I was little, my Dad and I would watch Laurel and Hardy comedies together on TV. Sunday afternoons were spent tuned into “Family Classics” on Chicago’s WGN station, where I was introduced to everyone from Shirley Temple (in “Heidi” and “Wee Willie Winkie”) to Charles Laughton (“The Canterville Ghost,” “Mutiny on the Bounty”) to Spencer Tracy (“Captains Courageous,” “Boy’s Town”) and numerous others. On Friday nights, he and my brother and I would stay up watching old horror flicks like “Dracula” and “Bride of Frankenstein” on WGN’s “Creature Features.” He made TV screenings of movies ranging from “Ben Hur” to “The Great Race” into major family events.

I also believe it was my father who took me to my first foreign film. My memory is a teeny bit cloudy on this point, but I do recall him taking me to see Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” on Easter Sunday when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Pasolini or his Marxist slant on Jesus at the time; all I could have told you was that the film was different from other Jesus movies I’d seen on TV in that: 1) it was in Black and White; 2) Mary didn’t look anything like the Mary statues I’d seen in church; and 3) it was a little boring. (It still blows my mind that this movie made it to my local, small-town theatre at all.)

Dad is a die-hard Peter Sellers fan, and throughout my childhood and adolescence, whenever a new Sellers movie came out, he’d take the whole family to the nearest “city” (Lafayette, Indiana) on opening weekend. We’d typically go to the all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry at Wag’s Restaurant, then on to the evening show of “Return of the Pink Panther” or “Pink Panther Strikes Again” or whatever was debuting at the time. There were more family TV viewings of Sellers classics like “The Party,” “A Shot in the Dark” and “The World of Henry Orient” – as well as lesser lights such as “After the Fox.” When I showed him the HBO film “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” I think he was genuinely dismayed to see his favorite actor portrayed as such a selfish, cold-hearted prick.

Whenever I visit my parents, Dad will inevitably greet me with “Hey, have you ever seen…” and go on to describe some movie he’s discovered or rediscovered on TV lately, often pulling out a VHS tape he’s made so I can see it for myself. He took great amusement introducing me to “Gone are the Days!,” featuring a very young Alan Alda as a Deep South dimwit with an over-the-top hillbilly accent, as well the spectacle of Buddy Hackett in the redneck drama “God’s Little Acre.” He also introduced me to the World War II weepies “The Hasty Heart” (with Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal befriending terminally ill Scottish soldier Richard Todd) and “Bright Victory” (starring Arthur Kennedy as a blinded veteran returning to his proper, racist Southern hometown and finding it no longer feels like home.) Very good movies, both.

I haven’t been inside a movie theatre with my dad in years – he says movies today are “garbage” and who am I to argue with him? Our most recent shared movie experience was watching a DVD of “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” on Christmas Eve. Not a great cinematic event, but my parents were the ones who introduced to Rowan Atkinson’s original TV series on PBS and it seemed fitting to bring the latest Mr. Bean flick home for them.

Here’s to my movie-loving Dad!!! Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, and all the great and less-than-great movies you introduced to me. I have wonderful memories of it all.

Where am I? What have I been Watching???
June 13, 2008, 12:34 am
Filed under: Blogging to China

I never meant to be gone this long. Honest.

And I really don’t want to write another post about how stressed and overworked I’ve been, although that’s the reason I’ve made very few appearances in the blogosphere as late.

So here’s are a few notes on what I’ve been watching in my (limited) spare time. I hope there will be more to come shortly.

As previously mentioned, I have a trip to China coming up soon. (In fact, two weeks from right now, I’ll be soaring somewhere over the north Pacific, hopefully sound asleep, on my way to Beijing.) Like any good cinephile, I’ve been preparing for my trip by rewatching the movies that made me want to travel to China in the first place.

“The Last Emperor” is certainly one of those. I first saw it in the spring of 1988 in a Tampa, Florida movie theatre. I was vacationing with friends in nearby St. Petersburg when a day of rainstorms pre-empted our beach plans, so we headed to a movie theatre to see the film which had just won the Oscar for Best Picture. Besides the boatload of awards it received, “The Last Emperor” is also famed for being the first film ever made inside the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace compound in Beijing. I was awed by the film when I first saw it, and vowed that one day I would visit the Forbidden City myself.

Rewatching “The Last Emperor” for the first time in twenty years, I was a little less awed. Not that it wasn’t a really good movie, but – to borrow a phrase coined by Rachel at Rachel’s Reel Reviews about “Amadeus” – it was “a masterpiece by the numbers.” I mean, it’s the kind of movie that practically hands itself an Oscar: stately, impeccably acted, filled with historical events and Big Important Themes, beautiful to look at, and with a soaring musical score that swells up on cue at key dramatic moments. It impressed me, it informed me, and it made me a little more excited about going to China. But it didn’t move me too deeply. Need I say that the disk I didn’t watch – the 3-and-3/4-hour, made-for-European-TV version – is still sitting in its unopened Netflix envelope. I just don’t have the heart to tackle this epic story again.

“Savage Grace” (currently available through IFC in Theaters) deals with themes of adultery, incest and murder . But for all that, it’s a strangely chilly, bloodless affair. It’s too dispassionate to be a cautionary tale and too removed from its characters to generate our sympathy.

It is, however, a true story, and that gives one pause. Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly Bakeland, a former actress who married the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune (played by Stephen Dillane). Dillane is a cold and cruel husband, stubbornly resistant to his wife’s flirtation and manipulative charms. So when a son comes along, Barbara focuses all her emotional neediness and longing on him. Eventually that son (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) becomes more of a husband to Barbara than his father was.

This is the kind of movie where civilized, articulate characters repeatedly enact a sort of emotional violence upon one another; their words are cutting and vicious, even if their behavior is otherwise impeccable. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t “All About Eve.” Eventually the verbal violence escalates into a shocking act of physical violence. Actually what’s shocking about that climactic scene isn’t the act itself so much as the incredibly deadpan way it’s portrayed. And that’s pretty much characteristic of the film as a whole. Moore and Dillane are supremely dysfunctional as both spouses and parents, but director Tom Kalin stages their scenes with no indication that we should either scorn or pity them. He simply observes their bad behavior without comment.

And that isn’t a particularly effective way of handling the material. There’s a startling scene late in the film which depicts an act of incest between mother and son at excruciating length. But that scene wasn’t one-tenth as powerful or shocking to me as was Angela Lansbury planting her sudden, impassioned kiss on Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate.” “Savage Grace” could have benefitted from a similarly judicious hand with its sensationalitic elements.

Moore is usually skilled at playing women whose inner turmoil lurks just beneath a veneer of civilized charm (think “Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” even “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”), but even she seems at sea here. I never got a clear handle on what drove Barbara or where she went wrong, and I don’t think Moore did either. In fact, none of the characters seem to have an inner life to speak of, nor a clearly discernible motive for their actions.

I suppose a movie doesn’t always have to have a point, but it should have a point of view. “Savage Grace” suffers for the lack of one.