Author Archive

“Four Daughters”: A Gem

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I wasn’t planning on writing a review of Four Daughters (1938), but after watching the DVD (I had seen the movie on VHS a long time ago), I changed my mind.  It’s simply too interesting to not write about it, even if in the brief format of this blog.

The star that most will recognize is Claude Rains, who plays Adam Lemp, a musician raising four very musical daughters in a small town somewhere in New York.  Also present is Aunt Etta in place of the girls’ mother, who is unexplainably missing. As the movie opens, a beautiful recital is going on at home, with father directing and playing the flute, looking like he just stepped out of Beethoven’s Vienna. Father doesn’t like “modern” music like jazz, and his daughters seem to (more or less) agree with this, but soon a dissonant note is heard over the classical kind, and it turns out to be the squeaking of the front gate—a wonderful motif, both aural and visual for the change that is soon to come to the house of the four daughters, where music and men will be mixing in unexpected ways. This change is most represented by the two composers who enter the family’s life, both of them lovers of that modern music that Adam so dislikes. The director, Michael Curtiz (remember Casablanca? He directed that too…) used the windows of the house as a way to show the daughters finding new men in their lives, coming through that gate in particular. But lest you think this is another purely sentimental old movie about romance, be warned: it’s not all sweetness and light. Before the film is over, there will be some dark notes struck as well, ones that I found curious given the Production Code then in force. Watch it and decide for yourself.

This was the first film for John Garfield, who, with his unshaved face and loose tie, looks like he stepped out of a movie made ten years later. Three of the four sisters were played by sisters in real life, and the one who wasn’t related fit in so well I couldn’t tell her apart. All are in great form, which explains why Four Daughters was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

 


Posted by:


“Intruder in the Dust” — A New DVD

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Before “To Kill a Mockingbird” there was “Intruder in the Dust,” a story similar in theme to the former movie starring Gregory Peck,  and, in my opinion, just as good a film about the deep South in the middle of the last century. Released by MGM in 1949, and based on a William Faulkner novel of the same name, this modest picture has no major stars in it—which is just fine. It was actually shot in and around Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and this gives the film a wonderfully authentic look that lends even more credibility to its themes of courage, prejudice and routine violence.

The story centers on a black man accused of the murder of a white man in a small unnamed southern town.  Young Chick Mallison (played by Claude Jarman, who also starred in The Yearling) who is white, was treated with kindness by the accused while out hunting in the recent past,  and decides to return the favor and goes hunting for clues. Encouraged by his uncle, a lawyer, and helped along the way by an elderly lady with a stubborn streak (and going behind his father’s back, who has gone off to Memphis for business), he does his best to see that justice is done.

In addition to the aforementioned on-site background, there is something just as powerful, and more disturbing, about the film, in its portrayal of the possible violence of a lynching taking place in the town. This is treated with such matter-of-factness it becomes even more chilling—witness the almost silent way that people come in droves to the lovely town square and wait near the old jail and hope for a view of what may or may not be a horrific event.  Faulkner, of course, knew all this first hand as a son of the South, and through the script, written by Ben Maddow, we see both the good and the bad of that time and place—its communal ties, its racial divides and the way people sometimes showed grace under the pressure of a turbulent history.

 


Posted by:


Le Havre: A New DVD

Monday, June 10th, 2013

With a small pile of movies on hand at home, the Le Havre DVD was low on my list—there were simply more interesting things to watch. But with all the others finally out of the way, I sat down and watched Le Havre. I’m glad I did. Named after the French port city on the English Channel, the film is a wry, sometimes funny and sometimes serious depiction of what happens when an aging shoeshine crosses paths with a young African boy who has smuggled himself (along with many others) out of his west African country.

Lest that sound like a possibly too-serious and preachy topic, don’t worry: the director, Aki Kaurismaki, wisely uses a light touch on a subject that could easily become maudlin. He gives us a wonderful cross-section of a neighborhood, where Marcel (the shoeshine), lives with his wife and struggles to make ends meet, sometimes running a tab too high, but clearly loved by the various small shopkeepers and bar owners who see him every day. When his wife becomes ill and he meets Idrissa, the refugee, his previously placid life is upset, but he handles it so well one wonders if he was in some sense long prepared for such an emergency. Without giving away too much, the surprises of grace are clearly apparent by the end of the film,  but they are shown so subtly that it was only on reflecting on it afterward that I was made fully aware of the director’s intentions—which means the movie is easily worth a second watch. (This movie is unrated and subtitled. It would get a PG-rating if it were an American movie.)

 


Posted by:


Three New Oldies on DVD

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

The Thief of BagdadInstead of doing a longer review of one movie, I thought I’d do a quick review of three new “old” releases of movies from long ago that have just made it to DVD. I’ll go from oldest to newest:

The Thief of Bagdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, is an epic silent film many people have probably not seen or even heard of, but that for its time was a major film in terms of its ambitious story, setting and effects, as well as its star. If you don’t mind silent films, and you want to sample the waters, this is a good film to start with (another might be Buster Keaton’s The General) — though be warned, it is two-and-a-half hours long. Set in long-ago Baghdad, it has all the elements of a great tale, complete with a hero’s test to win the hand of the princess. To round out your viewing pleasure, there is also the 1940 version.

Mammy (1930), an early talkie starring Al Jolson, appears to have been made to give the famous singer a vehicle to, well, sing.  Jolson stars as Al (another clue!), the star of a traveling minstrel show somewhere in America. Eventually, he is falsely accused of murder, but the real reason to watch the movie at all is to hear Jolson’s singing and see a minstrel show in early  Technicolor. (I note the latter as a historical artifact, not as something to really celebrate, though watching it with an historical mind would be a great way to start a discussion.)

Suez (1938), starring Tyrone Power and Loretta Young, is ostensibly about the building of that famous canal, but it’s as much about geopolitics as it is about construction, and in fact a good part of the movie is about Power’s character, Ferdinand de Lesseps, as he meets a pretty French tomboy in Egypt, survives the machinations of Napoleon III (and meets Victor Hugo in the process) and tries to convince Benjamin Disraeli to have England help finance the project. As with The Thief of Bagdad, the special effects here are, for their time, very impressive, and are one reason why the film is certainly worth a view.

 


Posted by:


“The Kid with a Bike”

Monday, April 8th, 2013

The Kid with a Bike -- PosterThe Kid with a Bike,” directed by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, is another volume on the shelf of their continuing attempt to realistically portray the lives of those on the fringes, those we might distantly know or hear about in the news, but whose full story is often obscured or dishonestly told. I have seen several other films by them, and they deal with serious matters involving the family.

In this newest work (2011; The Criterion Collection), a young boy is seeking some restoration of the family he once had. As the film opens, Cyril is in foster care and is desperately trying to establish contact with his father, who has moved to another town and expressed little interest in his own child. But this does not stop the boy from striking out on his own initiative to find him. Along the way, he (literally) runs into a young woman in a doctor’s office whose care for him in the near future may mean all the difference for young Cyril.

In the hands of some filmmakers, a story like this could easily slip into the maudlin and even manipulative kind of storytelling we find much of nowadays. But the Dardennes are different. This doesn’t mean they are out to tell a cruel or depressing naturalistic story about a lost child. Rather, they want to tell it straightforwardly so we can see more clearly the worth of human beings and the stories we encounter every day. This means the viewer may not always have his expectations met, especially when it comes to endings and the resolution of a story’s loose ends.  But pay attention, and you will find some beautiful and surprising moments of grace that are told so unpretentiously and quietly that the viewer just might miss them.

 


Posted by:


Tom Rademacher at KDL Plainfield Branch

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Tom Rademacher, author and Grand Rapids Press columnist, will be speaking at the Plainfield Township branch on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:30 PM. The cost for this event is $6.50 and will include a catered lunch. Prepayment is required by Monday, April 8. This event is sponsored by the Plainfield Friends of the Library. Registration is required; call 784-2007 for information on how to register. The Plainfield Township branch is located at 2650 5-Mile Rd. NE. Please join us for this fun and informative event!

 


Posted by:


“Two Sisters from Boston” now on DVD

Friday, March 1st, 2013

I’ve been fond of June Allyson’s acting ever since I saw her play Jo in “Little Women”(1949).  That movie was made by MGM, and Allyson made many other movies at that time for that famous studio. “Two Sisters from Boston” (released in 1946) is not exactly a musical—in the way, say “Singin’ in the Rain” is—but music certainly plays a big role in the film.  What makes it interesting is that it’s about two musical worlds in New York City circa 1900—that of the vaudeville theater and that of opera.

Kathryn Grayson, who was also an MGM player at that time, plays a young lady from a very proper Boston family who moves to New York and ends up singing in the less than glamorous world of vaudeville (her stage name is “High ‘C’ Susie”), while hoping to make it in the world of opera. The venue where she works is presided over by the always animated Jimmy Durante, who has taken Grayson under his wing. When Alyson arrives in New York with the family in tow, things become dicey as Grayson schemes her way into an appearance at the opera so her family doesn’t find out where she’s really working. Meanwhile, the opera director’s son, played by another MGM player, Peter Lawford, has eyes for Alyson.

Shot in black and white, I liked how this movie showed that in the “low” places like vaudeville,  good people could be found, and that in the “high” venue of the opera the scheming and philandering were just as present as anywhere else. With egos all around, it’s up to the two sisters to find their way with some dignity intact. Great music, great sets, and a lively story add to why I found this a delightful film.

 


Posted by:


Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret”

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Kenneth Lonergan, who has written a number of plays, has only directed two films, and the newest, Margaret, had its start about seven years ago but has only recently been released on DVD. The package that KDL owns actually includes two versions—the theatrical version on Blu-Ray and the director’s cut (which is a half-hour longer, at 186 minutes) on regular DVD.  I gave in to watching the director’s cut after hearing it praised by a critic on the radio, not really knowing much about it other than what was on the back of the box.

I can’t say this is a film everyone would like, even if it was less than three hours long (which in itself is a challenge). Lisa, the central character (played by Anna Paquin), is a New York City teenager who early on in the film becomes party to a horrific accident involving a bus and a woman she doesn’t know. She is at a tender age, but by the end of the film most would not call her an innocent, and not even a likable person. For the accident changes her, and drives her to exonerate herself, seek some kind of justice for the dead woman, and act out in ways that could only be called dangerous.

But to say that’s a summation of the plot wouldn’t be fair, since by the end the viewer realizes there is a sort of operatic, sweeping canvas being presented that involves not only Lisa but her mother, her father (who lives in California), the dead woman’s friend and perhaps even the culture at large. Sound confusing? Hopefully not, but it should be noted that the film itself has a rather tortured history, and the director had a very hard time deciding on a final cut that was satisfying to both him and his producers. This is important to remember when watching this fascinating, troubling and memorable film.  (The theatrical version is rated R; the director’s cut is unrated but would certainly garner an R rating as well.)

 


Posted by:


The New Health Care Law and You

Monday, February 4th, 2013

doctorface

This program has been CANCELLED due to weather conditions.

The Plainfield branch will host a free presentation on Tuesday, February 19 at 6:30 PM for anyone interested in learning about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The information will be presented by Lisa Ross, consumer outreach coordinator for the state of Michigan. You must register before attending this free event. Please stop by the Plainfield branch to sign up, or you can contact the library by e-mailing dstracke@kdl.org or calling 647-3939.


Posted by:


“My Son John”: A Cold War Tale

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

My Son JohnMy Son John” is very much a product of its time (1952). Its subject?  A young man (played by Robert Walker) goes to work in Washington and comes home to visit his small-town, religious parents with some new, disturbing ideas that make his parents suspicious.

If you know your history, you’ll recall that a certain Wisconsin Senator was at this time engaged in a hunt for those holding Communist party sympathies and/or membership inside the federal government. He became very zealous about this, and was eventually stopped in his pursuit. This movie was made at the height of McCarthy’s efforts, and it may elicit both laughs and serious thought. It’s only natural, in my opinion, that movies from another era, especially when they are trying to convey serious ideas, may sometimes come off as corny or obvious.

On the other hand, this viewer looked at other aspects of the movie, and found much to take pleasure in. To begin with, there’s the acting of Dean Jagger and Helen Hayes as the parents—they seem to have achieved a wonderful naturalness in their interactions, all done with the backdrop of location shooting in Virginia (as opposed to the more common studio-bound tendency of that time).  Second, though the movie takes a very obvious stand in its politics, it also shows Jagger’s character as a bit of a hothead, and over-sensitive in his reactions to his son.  And speaking of the son, Robert Walker (you might remember him from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) does a marvelous job as a sort of prodigal who wastes no time showing his condescension toward those who love him. Finally, the movie works as a window into the thinking of the time, a time when both real and imagined enemies were lurking about, when the country was trying to forget a brutal World War II and yet having to send its children off to Korea for more bloodshed and sacrifice.  Altogether, well worth watching!

 


Posted by: