Saturday, April 26, 2014

Howards End

Year 6, Day 116 - 4/26/14 - Movie #1,713

BEFORE: I'm just a few days away from the Hitchcock chain, and I've now got a choice to make - do I stick with the plan and watch his crime/suspense films throughout May and early June, or should I watch Anthony Hopkins in "Thor: The Dark World" and transition to sci-fi and comic-book films from there?  Perhaps I should save all of the comic-book movies for July, right before Comic-Con, but if I do that, why not save Hitchcock for October?  I guess outside of "Psycho" and "The Birds" his films don't really read as "Halloween" to me, so that doesn't quite work.  But then, what will I watch when October rolls around, "World War Z" and maybe another zombie movie or two?  I've got to lay this all out on a calendar and see where things are going to land... 

In the meantime, Hopkins carries over from "Shadowlands".

THE PLOT:  A businessman thwarts his wife's bequest of an estate to another woman.

AFTER: Sure enough, I fell asleep about halfway through this one, and I had to keep waking myself up and rewinding to the last thing I remembered.  Eventually I was able to stay awake enough to finish it - which was good because I had a contractor coming to look at the leak in our roof today, so after a few naps during the film and then a few hours of real sleep, I was able to be awake in time. 

And this film is all about real estate - oh, sure, it seems like it's going to be about relationships in Edwardian London, but all of those people need to live somewhere, and over time it seems like everyone wants to live at Howards End, at one point or another.  I suppose you can say it's about class struggle - if you're doing a book report, Howards End represents England, and the debate symbolically rages over who's going to control England: the aristocracy, the middle class, or the working class?  The poor, of course, have no shot, so they're barely mentioned at all. 

The Wilcoxes are the "old money", and Howards End is like their summer home.  A brief romance between teenagers puts them in contact with the Schlegels, a pair of middle-class sisters and their brother.  Mrs. Wilcox and Mrs. Schlegel become fast friends, and the first hour of the film is a lot of their social engagements, tea parties and outings and such.  (this is the boring part...) 

Things get more interesting when Mrs. Wilcox takes ill, and leaves the property to Mrs. Schlegel, rather than her husband and children, who simply cannot make do by living in one of their many other houses, so they conspire to hide the amended will and keep Howards End.  Yet none of them ever get around to actually living there, instead they rent it out to...Mrs. Schlegel (that'll teach her, charge her rent for the property that's rightfully hers...).

Then bone-headed Mr. Wilcox does something even dumber - he marries Schlegel, so now by community property, she ends up owning half of the house that she should have inherited in the first place.  The Wilcoxes seem to be appallingly bad at keeping her out of this house.  Perhaps it was just meant to be.

There are plenty more twists along the way, I'm just mentioning the ones that happened to stick with me.  Secret romances, long-hidden affairs, some sort of insider trading (?), and an attempt to help out a few members of the working class that actually make their situation worse.  This is probably more entertaining if you're a member of the Republican Party who supports trickle-down economics, which allegedly work if you just give it enough time, and let the upper class hold on to the money in the meantime.

In that sense, the film is sort of similar to a British version of "Les Miserables", only set 100 years later.  The characters struggle to rise above their stations, but this proves to be quite difficult, as the rich keep getting richer and the poor just keep sinking lower.

Also starring Emma Thompson (last heard in "Brave"), Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "Dark Shadows"), Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "A Man For All Seasons"), Samuel West (last seen in "Hyde Park on Hudson"), Prunella Scales, James Wilby, Joseph Bennett, Jemma Redgrave, Nicola Duffett, with a cameo from Simon Callow (last seen in "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls").

RATING:  5 out of 10 umbrellas

Friday, April 25, 2014


Year 6, Day 115 - 4/25/14 - Movie #1,712

BEFORE: Moving from a biopic of a poet to one of an author - linking from "Sylvia", Gwyneth Paltrow was also in "Proof" with Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), and he's going to get me to the Hitchcock chain.  Wait, never mind that, an actor named Julian Firth carries over from "Sylvia", he's in this one too.

THE PLOT:  C.S. Lewis, a world-renowned Christian theologian, writer and professor, leads a passionless life until he meets a spirited poet from the U.S.

AFTER:  I don't know if it's the fact that I work late on Thursday nights, but it's quite difficult for me to get through a whole film after midnight on that day - I tend to fall asleep and then I have to stay late after work on Friday to finish up.  This tends to be less of a problem if a film is quite exciting and holds my interest - which is my roundabout way of saying that this film was very boring.  Considering that I've got a couple of stuffy Merchant/Ivory films coming up this weekend, I fear this situation will repeat.

This one did sort of pick up a bit in the second hour, a secret marriage supplies some intrigue - to say that C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham had an unconventional relationship for its time is a bit of an understatement.  Some might have trouble reconciling how a prominent Christian theologian can have a secret marriage, but I think it's harder for some people to realize that for some people love, sex and marriage don't always occur in that exact order.

The other point made here is the difference between British people and American ones, and it's an emotional one.  Saying that Brits are tough nuts to crack who keep their emotions bottled up, while Americans are brash and more emotionally open seems like a set of stereotypes, but that doesn't mean that they're not also true.

This was also a great way to wrap up the week, bringing together theology with the author biopic, a dose of reality to counteract the heaven/hell motifs of "Elmer Gantry" and the past/future lives B.S. of "The Master" - the question of why God allows suffering is once again prominent at the end of this film, and not even someone strong in the Christian faith can really supply a valid answer.

Also starring Debra Winger (last seen in "Rachel Getting Married"), Edward Hardwicke (last seen in "Love Actually"), Julian Fellowes (last seen in "Tomorrow Never Dies"), James Frain (last seen in "Where the Heart Is"), Joseph Mazzello (last seen in "The Social Network"), John Wood (last seen in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (also last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger").

RATING:  5 out of 10 toasted tea cakes

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Year 6, Day 114 - 4/24/14 - Movie #1,711

BEFORE: Last night's cult leader character was also an author, so that leads me quite neatly into a few films about authors and poets.  Linking from "The Master", Philip Seymour Hoffman was also in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" with Gwyneth Paltrow (last seen in "Contagion"). 

THE PLOT:  Story of the relationship between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

AFTER: I'm ready to call this decade.  We've had the baby boomers, Generation X, the "me" generation was in there somewhere, and my life so far has spanned from hippies to hipsters, so forgive me if I feel like I've seen it all before and things are always coming full circle.  The trends I'm witnessing now are leading me toward declaring our modern times as the "Decade of Self-Indulgence".

What leads me to this conclusion, and how does one define self-indulgence anyway?  Hint: you can't spell "self-indulgence" without "selfie".  Umm, almost.  And I'm guilty too, writing every day about the experience I had watching a film, or cursing every time I have a delicious restaurant meal and I fail to take a picture of it for my Flickr page, or sending out a tweet to alert everyone that I've just accidentally stapled my thumb (true).  I realize I'm part of the problem, but the problem is bigger than me.

To learn where this all started, we have to look back through the mists of time.  Early art was anonymous - we don't know the names of anyone who made a cave painting, or made Greek pottery, or wrote the first drafts of the Bible.  Their work may live on, but they're lost.  The focus was on the work and the work alone, and future generations were left to wonder about the artists, what were they like?  What were their hopes, dreams?  What were they thinking about as they set brush to, cave?

Then we had the Renaissance, and in terms of art it seemed like maybe taking credit for one's work wasn't such a bad thing.  People needed to be held accountable after all, and if someone's art or poetry displeased the King or the Church, well, people would be saving a lot of time if they knew the heretic's name, that would make it a bit easier to track them down.  And eventually it became part of the process, to sign one's work - hey, if this novel is a success, maybe people might want to read another one from the same author, go figure! 

Sure, it's innocent enough - and at some point someone wrote the first dedication to their muse(s) on a frontispiece, and that began a long, slow slide into self-indulgence, which eventually expresses itself in all things Kardashian.  And we find ourselves asking "Who are you wearing?" on Oscar night, rather than asking "Do you even deserve to BE here?"  Oscar speeches are another great example - time was when they actually consisted of names of people who helped that person in their craft, but now we get to learn all about that fact that Matthew McConnaughey is always trying to be a better man, 10 years from now.  (Please don't misinterpret - if his performance in "Dallas Buyers Club" is half as good as I think it is, he totally deserves that award.  But that speech was self-indulgent city from start to finish.) 

Perhaps there's a fine line between taking credit and over-self-indulging, but I know it when I see it.  The sports columnist who uses newspaper space to send out birthday greetings to his family members.  The news staff who devote network time to congratulating a staffer who just had a baby.  Baby-makers in general, who somehow feel their spawn deserve to be in the credits of a major motion-picture, just for being born.  (I had to go to FILM SCHOOL and work my ass off to get my name on the screen.)   The Marvel Comics assistant editor who feels the need to write a half-page personal statement about what an honor it's been, being able to bring you the last 7 issues of "Deadpool".  (There are exceptions, like when uber-creator Peter David had a stroke, I felt it was completely acceptable to update the readers of "X-Factor" about his condition.)

For the most part, all of this leads me to scream at the TV set (or comic book) the following:  IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU!  And yet, somehow it's become about everyone who's responsible, in some small way, for bringing us our daily infotainment, and to me it's quite sad and annoying.  Here's a simple rule to follow if you're working in the medium of TV news, or TV in general: get out of the way of your own story.  I don't want to hear about Al Roker's lap-band surgery or Katie Couric's colonoscopy or Hoda Kotb's adopting a pet.  Get out and FIND the stories, people, and don't become them.  You can't be both the reporter AND the subject.

Think about Walter Cronkite - did he spend any time at all making a personal statement about how honored, truly honored he was to bring people the nightly news?  Hell, no, because he was busy doing his job, and telling us that the President of the U.S. has just been shot!  I admit, on the opposite end of the spectrum was Andy Rooney, who was nothing BUT self-indulgent on his "60 Minutes" reports - some nights he'd just show the audience weird gifts he got in the mail from fans that he had no use for.  But since he was a cranky old man who didn't seem like he enjoyed his job one bit, he got a pass.  Plus he was a war veteran, and he earned the right to annoy people.

The comic book that got me hooked on the medium was called "Secret Wars", and it was a 12-issue series starring nearly every important Marvel hero and villain, battling on an alien planet.  All thriller, no filler.  We didn't care who this Jim Shooter guy was, or how honored he was to be writing this epic series, because they needed every damn page to tell this incredible story.  If they made this story today, there would be a 3-page explanation about the roundtable editors' meeting that was held to flesh out the story, a peek at the rough character sketches for the Beyonder, and a photo of the editor's daughter, who just started karate classes. 

How does this relate to Sylvia Plath, besides the fact that in this film she was played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the poster child for self-indulgence?  (NOTE: if you write a combination cook-book, beauty book and photo essay on your own bowel movements, you might be a wee bit self-indulgent.  Watch out, Gwyneth, Cameron Diaz is coming on strong with HER nutrition/exercise/fashion/mental health book...)

I've never read anything written by Sylvia Plath - up until now, all I knew was that if you date a girl who had her books on the shelf, you should probably end the relationship as soon as possible.  But what I learned from the film was that she was a decent poet, was married to a better poet, broke up with that man, and became an amazing poet.  OK, one must suffer for one's art, I get that.  But the implication is that you can't be successful UNTIL you suffer, because only then will you have something to write about, and the drive to do it well out of spite. 

We also learn how truly terrible it was to be Sylvia Plath's downstairs neighbor.  Yeah, that kind of makes sense.  I picture her time in England as more of a Monty Python sketch, with Terry Jones dressed up as a old woman, bemoaning the fact that water's dripping into her apartment again, saying, "Eh, what, that stupid Sylvia Plath's trying to drown herself again!  That's the third time this week!"  and then Graham Chapman in a suit would put down his pipe and say, "Right, well, I'll go and put a stop to THAT!"

Again, please don't get me wrong, depression is a real problem, and suicide should never be seen as the answer or celebrated in any way.  Because once you clear out the silly notions of heaven and past/future lives, what if, as this film suggests, you die and find out there's just "fuck all"?  You can't take it back.  But give it up for Sylvia Plath, who tried to kill herself several times in self-indulgent manners, and at some point, it just becomes all about following through.  Today I know how my wife felt when we saw "Les Miserables" and she yelled at Anne Hathaway's character to "Hurry up and die already!"

Also starring Daniel Craig (last seen in "Cowboys & Aliens"), Blythe Danner (last seen in "Husbands and Wives"), Jared Harris (last seen in "Lincoln"), Michael Gambon (last seen in "Open Range")

RATING:  4 out of 10 Shakespeare quotes

UPDATE: After going to print, I gave my first listen today to the new album from the band Boston.  This is always an eagerly anticipated event, I even re-listened to their first 3 albums in preparation.  But while we're on the topic of self-indulgent, the "new" album has 11 tracks, 3 of which also appeared on their previous CD in 2002, which was titled "Corporate America", and railed against SUVs and commercialism, while promoting PETA and the vegetarian lifestyle.

Speaking of self-indulgent - what songs can possibly be so great that a band needs to release them twice, while still charging fans full price?  OK, so they're re-arrangements, but we still deserve an entire album of new music.  And while I'm glad you're living a healthy lifestyle, Tom Scholz, I don't want to hear you preach about it, I just want to hear some good music.

This is another example of a guy who needs to get out of his own way as an artist - he's notorious for working on Boston albums for a long time before releasing them, but I say he should have waited longer, maybe until he had a full album of new music.  Get over yourself and get back in the studio.  The album fell off the charts after just three weeks - could it have done better with some more new songs?

(The tie-in here is that Boston vocalist Brad Delp, like Sylvia Plath, committed suicide - but he did it by setting up two barbecue grills in his bathroom.  Forget the vegetarian angle, where's the message in the liner notes about suicide prevention, or at least a message informing people not to grill burgers while taking a bath?  Don't do it, kids.)

While I'm glad that bands like Boston (and Styx, and REO, and Chicago) are still touring, there seems to be a law of diminishing returns, and this ties in also with thoughts on the creative process.  Listen to Boston's first two albums - seriously, every damn song is a hit.  All thriller, no filler.   I enjoy "Third Stage" quite a lot as well, because it plays out like a sci-fi movie in my head.  Album 4, "Walk On" had some high points, but album #5, "Corporate America" showcases the band's decline into self-indulgent territory.  It's sad, but sometimes a band should quit while they're ahead and not tarnish their own image.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Master

Year 6, Day 113 - 4/23/14 - Movie #1,710

BEFORE: I'm finally making progress on the watchlist again, now that I've dealt with the influx of movies I received when the cable company added the EPIX channels.  That was a rich vein of material, but now I'm back to adding a film to the list every other day, instead of every day.  The list has already gone from 200 films down to 197 in the past week, and I was stuck at 200 for at least a month.   Hey, progress is progress. 

Linking from "Martha Marcy May Marlene", Elizabeth Olsen was also in a film called "Oldboy" with Rami Malek, who appears in tonight's film. Other linkings were possible, but that one's the most elegant. 

THE PLOT:  A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

AFTER:  All in all, this seems like a "better" film than last night's film about cults - in that it's put together much more sensibly, all of the scenes are in the proper order, and so on.  But the topic is still a tough one to get a handle on, and I'm not sure why that is.  It almost feels like the director is sort of dancing around the subject matter, and not addressing the specifics of something, aka Scientology.  They fall just short of naming the Master "L. Schmon Schmubbard" or doing anything like that, and whether that's done out of fear or shrewd marketing, who can say?

I didn't really understand the specifics of the cult, if it was a cult, rather than just a loose group of people who believe a bunch of wacky stuff.  The whole sequence where the lead character was made to walk from the window to the wall, and back again, and again, and again - I just didn't understand the point of the exercise, what was he supposed to learn from this, was this just a ritual or some kind of test, and if so, what exactly was being tested?  His ability to follow directions?  Was this just to break him down with the repetition of a task, to determine how many times he would follow orders?  Was this to determine his breaking point?  TELL ME WHAT WAS GOING ON!

I've had to do a fair amount of work here to determine the "why" of certain scenes, because the film itself ended up being so damned oblique about everything.  Perhaps when you deal with such odd topics as subtle mind control, behavior modification, question and answer sessions (called "processing"), it's hard to get a handle on anything close to cause and effect.  Perhaps it's just the contrast between the two lead characters - one is crude, wild and untamed, and the other is well-read, refined and in control, but he's also a complete fraud. 

There's an obvious contrast between the two, which doesn't really explain why they are drawn to each other, or perhaps fascinated by each other.  The title seems to suggest that one is the dominant master and the other is more subservient - which all seems to fit, but still it seems like they have very little in common except for their love of homemade alcoholic concoctions. 

A couple of plot problems seem to result from the possibility that what we are seeing on the screen is not actually taking place, except for in the mind of one character, and this is confusing to say the least.  More could have been done to make a distinction between a real event taking place, and an imagined one, otherwise as an audience member I'm inclined to believe that everything I'm seeing is equally real. 

Also confusing was The Master's constant asking of the lead character "How did we first meet?"  Umm, it happened just a few scenes ago, did he forget?  Did too much alcohol drive this fact from his mind?  Ah, wait, I get it, he was talking about when they first met in a previous life - this was pretty hard to get a grasp on for a while. 

That's another thing, I don't really get the whole "past lives" thing either - it's just another way of looking at the world that keeps us from realizing that we're mortal, right?  Motivated by the fear of death, if we believe that we'll go from body to body over the course of history, then dying's not so bad, it's just like moving to a new house.  I don't really have a problem with people "remembering" their past lives, because this film not only shows that happening, but also offers up a possible explanation for it.  (I wonder, do people undergoing past-life regressions ever end up fighting over which one of them was really Napoleon?) 

My problem is that there's not one lick of scientific evidence that suggests this is even possible, and involves nothing more than putting someone in a dream-state or something similar to hypnosis.  True, there is the law of conservation that states that energy cannot be destroyed, but who says that a soul counts as energy?  And where does it GO when it's in-between bodies?  And if this is the process, then who's in charge of determining where I go next, and how do I get there?  It's an interesting idea, but it's still junk science and even worse math.  There are probably more people alive now than there ever were in ancient history, so where did all the extra souls come from? 

And despite one's best intentions, you can't just say the universe works a particular way, and then expect it to cooperate with your wishful thinking.  I might as just well say that when the universe finishes expanding, and reaches maximum volume, that it will start contracting, and time will start to run backwards, and everything that has happened will happen again in reverse (but we won't notice because our perceptions will be going backwards too) and people will all rise up from their graves and live life again in reverse, and end up as small babies climbing back into their mothers' wombs. 

Hey, I just invented a new religion!

Also starring Joaquin Phoenix (last seen in "8MM"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Amy Adams (last seen in "Trouble With the Curve"), Laura Dern (last seen in "Wild at Heart"), Jesse Plemons, Jillian Bell.

RATING: 4 out of 10 manuscripts

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Year 6, Day 112 - 4/22/14 - Movie #1,709

BEFORE: Crap, direct linking doesn't seem to be possible tonight, for the first time in ages - but Shirley Jones from "Elmer Gantry" was also in "Grandma's Boy" with Shirley Knight, who was also in "Our Idiot Brother" with Hugh Dancy, so there's that.

THE PLOT:  Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.

AFTER: This film is another of those where the scenes are all out of order - in this case, they toggle between the past, which is "Marcy May's" life in the cult, and her life afterwards, when she returns to being Martha and crashes at her sister's vacation house.  I understand why this is done, because slowly revealing the details of her experience creates suspense, but my problem with it, as you might expect, is that if the scenes all played out in linear fashion, the first half with the cult would be very painful to watch, and the second half, the recovery, would be as boring as dirt.

Toggling back and forth between the two timelines also creates some connections between them, like seeing her sexual experiences in the cult might explain why she felt it was OK to crawl into bed with her sister and brother-in-law.  Then again, you could probably put any two sets of scenes together and make some connections between them.  I'm open to the possibility that Martha is slowly remembering her time in the cult, and we're seeing it as she's becoming aware of it, but this doesn't really hold water.  Even though she can't talk about it, she must be aware that something bad happened, or she never would have tried to escape in the first place.

As others have pointed out, there is no real dogma in the cult, we're not sure what they stand for (or against) except for group sex and gardening.  So it's possible that Martha was just on a freaky farm commune - or are there atheist cults?  The leader, while dynamic, never offers up anything close to religion or devil-worship, he just enforces control over his followers.

The other problem is that the movie doesn't really end, it just sort of stops.  Again, one can say that this heightens suspense, because we don't find out if Martha gets completely free, or if she gets pulled back into the cult when they track her down, or because she can't navigate society without it.  One can also say that being ambiguous in this sense is also a narrative cop-out of the highest order.

It's tough to talk about, but I was raised in a cult of sorts.  I was born into it, so I didn't know any other way to live until I was about 17.  The cult functioned according to a set of arcane rules, and its members were expected to give over portions of their salary to the cult, which used the money to fund its vast network of secret property and staff.

The cult used strange tactics to try and control my behavior - first they told me that there was a special "enforcer" who lived far away, but could see my actions and judge them, and then he would come and break into my house once a year and supply me and the other cult members with everything we wanted or needed, but if he disapproved of my actions, I would not be rewarded at all.  Eventually I realized that this enforcer did not even exist, and this was just a scare tactic of the cult.

Then they tried to tell me that the leader of the cult lived up in the sky, and could also see my actions and judge them, so this was another blatant attempt to control my behavior, according to the cult's rules.  This time they raised the stakes: if I lived according to the rules, then when I died I wouldn't really die, but instead I'd be whisked away to a magic land where everyone I ever knew who died now lived, and there was no sickness or disease or poverty, and everyone was also happy.  But if I didn't live according to the cult rules, then I'd be sent to another magic land where I would be burned and tortured for all eternity.

I was made to participate in weekly rituals, where everyone stood and knelt at the same time, and repeated the same phrases, over and over.  Over time I could feel my mind slipping, the habitual nature of the process resulted in a mild form of brainwashing, and any time I raised questions about what the cult believed or how it worked, I was told it was a "mystery".  This seemed to satisfy most members of the cult, but I struggled to retain some independent thought. 

Part of the ritual involved eating food and drink which the cult members believed could be turned into the flesh and blood of their leader, just by someone waving his hands over them and reciting some magic words.  Other religious groups perform similar services, but for them this process is largely symbolic - but in this sect, its members actually believe that the bread and wine actually turns into the actual flesh of their lord, who died years ago but somehow came back to life.  So, zombie flesh.

I was fairly sure that cannibalism was wrong in most instances, but apparently there is an exception made for zombie flesh of magic men.  (The cult members also believed their dead leader had supernatural powers, like healing people and multiplying food...)  This is something I could not reconcile - if you believe the process creates real zombie flesh, then why in the world would you want to eat that?  

It gets worse - the cult tells its members who they can marry, and then forces people to raise their children within the cult as well.  Birth control is frowned upon, and any woman who gets pregnant is expected to carry the child to full term and also raise it within the cult.  Why?  More cult members, that's why.  People who don't follow these rules are asked to leave the cult, so when I got divorced years ago, which is also against the rules, I took the opportunity to get myself free. 

Seriously, if you thought that down the street from you people were gathering together to chant ritually and eat the zombified flesh of their dead lord, you'd call the cops, right? 

Also starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes (last seen in "Lincoln"), Sarah Paulson (last seen in "New Year's Eve"), Brady Corbett.

RATING: 2 out of 10 phone calls

Monday, April 21, 2014

Elmer Gantry

Year 6, Day 111 - 4/21/14 - Movie #1,708

BEFORE: A question that I'm occasionally asked - do I take requests/suggestions for what movies to watch?  No, for the most part, but tonight is a rare exception, recommended by my friend Amy - and it only took me about three years to work it into the schedule!  OK, so maybe each friend gets to make one recommendation. (Andy, "The Stunt Man" is on the list, and I'm working my way towards it...)  

Another question I'm occasionally asked - do I accept advertising?  Absolutely not, I would never lower myself to cheap promotional tactics - I only mentioned the name of some notable BBQ restaurants the other day because I really, really believe in them and I was careful to NOT mention the name of the restaurant that had an unsatisfying collection of combination plates.  I pimped for HBO's "True Detective" because we were so caught up in the storyline that watching it became part of our routine, and it changed our lives. 

Now, if I were to accept advertising, I'd tell you to check out "Fargo", Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX.  But that would be a really weaselly thing for me to do, so I won't.  But, I picked up a new show, it looks like - if this goes well, maybe this summer I can try to catch up on one of the shows I've been missing out on, like "Mad Men" or "Lost".

Linking from "The Scapegoat", Bette Davis was also in "All About Eve" with Hugh Marlowe.

THE PLOT:  A fast-talking traveling salesman with a charming, loquacious manner convinces a sincere evangelist that he can be an effective preacher for her cause.

AFTER:  Of course, a day after Easter, I hit the film about a preacher.  I think I've made my views on religion sort of clear before, so if I transition from the crime films, specifically a pair of films about deception, to a film about religion, well, make of that what you will.   This film does draw a distinction between church-based services and evangelical tent-based meetings, but to me it's all part of the same racket. 

And a racket it is - Elmer Gantry is a shyster salesman, and that's a background that serves him well when he transitions into being the warm-up act for a well-known lady preacher.  He hustles his way into her inner circle, always looking for an angle, ready with a joke (or a passage from the Bible) and a hearty laugh to help sell his point.  Does it really matter in the end whether you're selling vacuum cleaners or salvation?  The principles are the same, it turns out.  "I use this product myself..." is just as effective as "I'm a sinner, just like you..."

I was raised Catholic, but always had a bunch of unanswered questions where religion is concerned - "If God is everywhere, then why do I have to go church?"  "If God knows everything, then why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?"  "If God loves us and wants us to be saved, then why did he put us on a planet surrounded by hungry animals and natural disasters?"  I became an altar boy in the 5th grade, and maybe it's because I saw behind the curtain, so to speak - but a few years later I started acting in stage plays, and I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the Church service and a theater production.  How do I know the priest isn't just putting on an act, reading lines and telling everyone what they want to hear?

I fell out of touch with the Catholic Church when I went to college, but then sort of fell in with a Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn when I got married the first time.  But to get the marriage sanctioned by the Catholic diocese, I had to take a pre-cana class, and answer questions about how I intended to raise my (theoretical) children.  In order to get the diocese's approval, I had to tell them I would raise children as Catholics, even if that wasn't true.  So, the priest was subtly encouraging me to lie, and I always thought there was a commandment against doing that.  If I had any doubts about turning my back on the church, that sealed the deal - and then when I got divorced, I knew I wasn't welcome back as a Catholic, and that was just fine with me.

Anyway, back to the film.  What's amazing to me is that this film predates the scandals of the 1980's that involved evangelists, (or "televangelists") like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and so on.  Though it's set in a fictional Midwestern city named "Zenith", I think the film was amazingly prescient, and predicted real-world events that would take place just a few decades later.  When Gantry's connection to a prostitute named Lulu comes to light, it's a scandal - but he told people all along he was a sinner!  Why were they so surprised when confirmation of that fact came to light? 

Also starring Burt Lancaster (last seen in "Birdman of Alcatraz"), Jean Simmons (last seen in "Divorce American Style"), Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones, Patti Page, Edward Andrews, with a cameo from Max Showalter (last seen in "Sex and the Single Girl")

RATING: 6 out of 10 Gideon bibles

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Scapegoat (1959)

Year 6, Day 110 - 4/20/14 - Movie #1,707

BEFORE:  It's hard to program for Easter, once you've already watched films like "Hop".  My mind worked in a more biblical fashion, based on the original meaning of the word "scapegoat".  Back in ancient times, the Hebrews would strand a goat out in the desert as a ceremonial part of the Day of Atonement, symbolically carrying the sins of the community with it.

Easter itself doesn't carry much weight with me, since I've removed myself (mostly) from the trappings of religion.  All that's left is a big meal and some kick-ass candy, like marshmallow eggs and chocolate bunnies filled with peanut butter.  We went into the liquor store the other night after dinner, and I was looking to pick up some more pre-made pina coladas, but I guess that's not in season yet. "Monday," the guy said, but that's what he always says when he's out of something.  Instead he pointed out that there was still some pre-made bottled eggnog left from Christmas, and I figured, why not?  Easter eggs, Easter eggnog, right?  Christmas has so much going for it with food and drink - rum punches, mulled cider, etc. - it can afford to give up one of its alcoholic beverages and not even miss it.  So I propose we move eggnog from a Christmas drink to an Easter drink.  You can add some food coloring and make it pink or light blue or something if you want to be festive.

Linking from "The Postman Always Rings Twice", John Garfield was also in the 1943 film "Thank Your Lucky Stars" with Bette Davis (last seen in "All About Eve")

 THE PLOT:  A French count schemes to kill his wife and implicate a mild-mannered English schoolteacher whom he resembles.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (Movie #803)

AFTER: This film is based on a book by Daphne Du Maurier (we'll see more of her work in the upcoming Hitchcock chain...) and is predicated on the same belief as "The Prince and the Pauper", namely that if there are enough people in the world at one time, it's possible for someone to have an unrelated nearly-identical twin.  But here the resulting switcheroo is used by one of the doubles (the rich one) to create an alibi for himself so that he can pull off the perfect murder (which was also the goal last night in "The Postman Always Rings Twice"). 

The lead character here, John Barratt, is an unmarried university French teacher, who takes his vacations in Paris, where he encounters his doppelganger in a pub - where Barratt has no family, the Count has "too much", along with a fortune and a failing family business.  Oh, and a mistress he forgets to tell Barratt about. 

Barratt protests at first after the switch is made (a lot of alcohol and some sort of drug is involved) but he soon goes along with the charade, either because the Count's life is more fascinating, or perhaps returning to his own would be too boring, but soon develops an affinity for the people in the Count's family, or perhaps he feels he can help them all somehow, by being the man that the Count usually isn't.

Someone apparently remade this film in 2012 - I know some people are against black and white films, no matter what. 

Also starring Alec Guinness, Peter Bull, Nicole Maurey, Irene Worth, Pamela Brown

RATING: 4 out of 10 glass blowers