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The Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Collection

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Who was Deanna Durbin? Chances are her name is not as familiar to you as, say, Judy Garland. Though Deanna and Judy started their careers in film at the same time, Deanna, after about 10 years as a major singing and acting star, suddenly called it quits in 1948 and went to France, where she married her third husband. But she left behind a number of light comedies and musicals featuring her classically-trained voice and spunky acting style. The Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Collection puts together a sampling of her work, with six titles released between 1936 and 1947. I didn’t view all the films here, but based on the three I did watch, I can heartily recommend the set.

A great place to start is Three Smart Girls, which was nominated for three Oscars in 1936. Durbin plays one of the “smart girls” of the title, who, along with her two sisters, have to rush from their Swiss chalet to New York in order to prevent their divorced, wealthy father from remarrying. As with numerous other ’30s comedies, the action is swift and the comedy sharp, and never is a bread line seen.

First Love, a retelling of the Cinderella story in a modern setting, has Durbin playing the poor girl against snobby rich relatives who only want her to stay in her room. Keeping its (not quite glass) slipper as part of the story, the movie is great fun, even if we do know how it’s going to end.  None other than the writer Graham Greene said it was “admirably directed, amusingly written, and acted with immense virtuosity…”

It Started with Eve hinges on the comedy of misunderstanding and deception: Robert Cummings, playing a dying tycoon’s son, can’t find his fiancée in the hotel where she’s staying with her mother and, in a panic because his father wants to meet her (and thinking that dad will be dead before morning) he plucks Durbin, the coat check girl, from the hotel and brings her instead. Of course dad likes Deanna—she sings great and is wonderfully down-to-earth—but Cummings isn’t so sure, and has to stay one step ahead of the deception in order to keep his fiancée in the dark and his father happy. As with the other two movies seen here, the world shown is one of penthouses and gilded mansions, butlers and soaring songs—all the things that continued to comfort a nation beaten down by a depression and getting ready for a world war.


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“To the Wonder”

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” released on DVD last year, is only the director’s sixth feature film since his first—“Badlands”—was released in the early 1970s. He is a director who obviously takes his time, and who is also notoriously shy of interviews, choosing instead to let his films—beautiful, mysterious, elliptical and spiritual—to speak for him. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that his second film, “Days of Heaven” (1978), is one of my favorites (I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve watched it), so I always approach a new film by him with a great deal of excitement, and, for the most part, I have not been let down by his subsequent work. (His previous, “The Tree of Life,” was stunning to some, baffling to others, but everyone had to agree it was original in its approach to its story.)

“To the Wonder,” like its predecessors, uses voice-over narration and beautiful imagery to tell the story of a man and woman in and out of love. It begins in Paris but soon shifts from that classic locale to Oklahoma (it was filmed in Bartelsville, but this is not mentioned in the film), where the landscape, though present-day, reminds one of “Days of Heaven” and “The Tree of Life” (Malick was born and raised in nearby Texas). What’s particularly fascinating about the storytelling here is that it defies the usual expectations about narrative. We’re used to characters being explained–by themselves or by other means– as a way of moving the story forward, but here we learn as much from (sometimes cryptic) visuals cues, voiceover, and snippets of dialogue as anything else. This can take some getting used to, but once the viewer understands this, the story does move forward. Another thing to understand is that increasingly, Malick has been more explicit about religion, which here takes the form, at least in the context of the film, of Christian faith, albeit one rooted less in creed than in mystery. This is shown most explicitly through Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest who, though only briefly involved with the main characters, plays a sort of counterpoint or complementary role to their search for human love, while he seeks to find God more fully in the faces of the poor around him. Finally, there is the ever-present use of natural and man-made imagery that Malick continues to revel in, and that serves to show us in sometimes unexpected places the beauty of the world around us.

“To the Wonder” will test the patience of some, and annoy others with what at least appears as pretentiousness; to this viewer, whatever problems there might be with the film, they are offset by the conviction that here we are confronted with a unique artistic sensibility in the world of contemporary filmmaking, a sensibility on good display in “To the Wonder.”

(This film is rated R.)


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Golden Globe Winners for 2014

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Golden Globe Awards were announced earlier this week and, since they come before the Oscars, can sometimes give a clue to what the latter might be awarding (though of course the voting is coming from a different group of people). Kent District Library does its best to put new movies on order so you can place holds before they are released, and a number of the award winners are currently available to hold.  The historical “Twelve Years a Slave” won best picture in the drama category. Cate Blanchett, starring in Woody Allen’s latest comedy-drama “Blue Jasmine” won best actress for a drama, while Matthew McConaughey won the male award for the same category for “Dallas Buyers Club.” “American Hustle” was awarded best picture in the comedy/musical category.  For best director overall, Alfonso Cuaron won for “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, while “Breaking Bad” was awarded best television series. For a complete listing of the winners — and what films they were competing against — go here.


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“Neighboring Sounds” of Fear and Suspicion

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Neighboring Sounds is a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, sometimes humorous  Brazilian film about things that are hidden, and about the fear the haves sometimes harbor about the have-nots (or have-less). Set in the sun-filled coastal  town of Recife, its cast of characters almost all inhabit a single building—a high-rise—that, like other high-rises in the city, is also near some much less-prosperous favelas (or shantytowns) that happen to supply some of the domestic help employed in said high-rises. On one level this is a movie about class and wealth differences in a modern South American setting, but the director, Kleber Mendonça Filho (directing his first fiction feature film), chooses a subtle, mysterious approach here—though it’s possible as an American there are parts that simply went under my radar. That said, the engine that moves the plot forward involves an increasing crime rate near the high-rise, and the consequent concern of its residents. Suddenly a man in a brown vest with a business card appears, offering some private security—a 7pm to 7am watch. Some people are more interested than others—one, a mother of two children, has as much interest in getting rid of a noisy dog than anything else, while the wealthy patriarch of the building and his son have a greater desire than ever to keep safe—especially when they suspect they have someone in their own family who is skirting the edge of the law.

Without giving too much away, it’s important to note a couple things: one, “Neighboring Sounds” is not a traditional thriller in any sense of the word, though it does keep us tense and guessing at times, wondering what a scene might mean without being fully informed, even at the end. Second, the theme—and this is merely one possibility among others—is wrapped up in its structure, which is one of closed doors, fences, fears and the indestructibility of a traumatic past. A final note (unless you’re already familiar with the recent history of Brazil):  it’s important and helpful to know that around 1984, the military regime in Brazil ended its twenty year reign, leading to a more open and democratic era.  Keep this in mind as you get close to the end of the film.

Not rated, but is the equivalent of an R movie.


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“The Locket”: An Intriguing New DVD

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

I was going to review a couple movies for this new entry, but having seen “The Locket,” I decided there was more than enough to write about with this one movie. Not to be confused with another “Locket” of the same name, this 1946 noir thriller has one of the most deliciously complicated plot structures I have seen in a long time. For those familiar with this genre, you’ll know that flashbacks are not unusual as a means of storytelling (check out, for instance, “Out of the Past” or “Mildred Pierce,” movies made around the same time). But “The Locket” takes this device and raises it to new heights.

It begins with a wedding which is about to take place at the house of a wealthy family. We see the bride and groom, and just before the ceremony is to begin, a stranger summons the groom for a private conversation about the woman the latter is about to marry. The news from the stranger is not good—in fact, it’s downright disturbing.  Naturally, the groom is suspicious—who is this guy barging into my house?—but soon finds out that the stranger does know something about the bride. He tells his story, and thus begins the first of three flashbacks, each one inside the previous one, as if each story is a box with a smaller one inside it. This structure works in tandem with the psychological aspect of the film, in which the main character, Nancy (played by Lorraine Day), who had a traumatic experience as a child, is covering up this trauma and its aftereffects for the sake of her relationship with three different men. Robert Mitchum is outstanding as an artist who falls for Day, and it’s fascinating to watch his transformation from bohemian painter to someone who’ll hobnob with the wealthy in order to sell his work. Brian Aherne is also great as the somewhat haughty, but well-intentioned Dr. Blair. And of course Day carries the movie as the girl who lost her locket.

“The Locket” pulls us in by its deft use of flashback to keep us guessing about what will happen next, and in the same way, it ends without compromising what has been told up till then. The final scenes give us answers but also questions, questions that the viewer will have to provide for himself—a certain amount of open-endedness that I found immensely satisfying.  And while its psychological underpinnings are certainly speculative at best, it also presents us with a world of uncertainty, in which the narrators pass on a chain of information that the viewer must be willing to believe in order for the story to continue to be believed. Without getting too philosophical about it all (for more of that, see this article, for which I am indebted for the previous statement), I want to recommend “The Locket” for its rich visual look, its complex plotting involving a femme fatale, and its economy of storytelling that packs so much in a mere 86 minutes of film.


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It’s Classical Music Month!

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Since September is “Classical Music month,” I thought it’d be good to spread the news about some of the great classical CDs that are available through KDL, and do that by listing some of the pieces that have become my favorites over the years. I started listening to this music about 35 years ago, going to my hometown (and quite small) library to check out the classical LPs that intrigued me.  I’ve never really stopped listening either, though my tastes have broadened to include a number of other genres. The following recommendations are of course purely personal, and if you are a lover of classical music, feel free to add a comment about what you like that I may have left out.

No list could be complete without the works of J.S. Bach, and one of his most beloved and well-known are the Brandenburg Concertos, whose vitality and loveliness never die.  I don’t know how one could grow tired of these pieces, but if by chance you did, there are always Bach’s works for keyboard, including those insomniac-inspired pieces for solo piano known as the Goldberg Variations. So much variety in one piece! Moving ahead in time, we come to the many symphonies of Haydn, one of which, “Farewell,” has the musicians leaving one by one at the end of the piece—yes, the Master did have a sense of humor, though he was also sending a message. (You’ll have to look it up.)  Beethoven is probably the most well known of the composers on this list, and of all his symphonies, I’ve always loved the 6th the most. Also known as the Pastoral, its lyricism and emotion always get me. (You may recall its use in the Disney feature Fantasia.)  While we’re on symphonies (and the 19th century), Dvorak, who actually lived in the Midwest for part of his life, wrote a wonderful (and justly well-known) symphony inspired by the United States, its people and its music. Popularly known as “From the New World,” it is well worth seeking out.  Dvorak’s string quartets are also a must-listen. Heading to France, there’s Claude Debussy, whose series of piano pieces called simply “Images,” despite their “modern” sound, have delighted with their dreamy, poetic compositions.  Finally—and to show that classical is not dead—I wanted to mention Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.  Though written in 1976, this piece is not the dissonant, difficult work you might expect from that era. Instead, Gorecki gives us an incredibly moving work with some singing parts by the great Dawn Upshaw.

This is just a sampling, of course, of what’s out there, and if I had more space, I’d write about many more. And don’t forget to check out Freegal, available for KDL cardholders, that has a number of classical pieces available for downloading that might not be available on CD.


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“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.


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“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.


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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.)


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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.


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