Author Archive

“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.


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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.)


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The New Health Care Law and You

Monday, February 4th, 2013


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 or calling 647-3939.

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“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!


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“Three Wicked Melodramas…”

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

The Man in Grey” is one movie of a three-movie set recently issued by the Criterion Collection as part of its Eclipse series. That series has been a boon lately for those of us interested in discovering wonderful and often long-forgotten directors. Criterion, which is known for its high-end restorations of a variety of films, has made the decision to issue Eclipse DVDs in inexpensive editions that make them easier to buy for institutions or individuals.

James Mason, with his smoldering acting style and tendency to play mysterious characters, has a heyday here. (He also has a role in one other movie in the set, The Wicked Lady.) He plays Lord Rohan, a nasty aristocrat in Regency-era England who marries young and naïve Clarissa strictly to produce an heir. The heir is produced and the two live separate lives, which produces further melodrama, as Clarissa meets a dashing “strolling player” and is reunited with a friend from school who appears to be on her side. But is she? A sort of historical film noir, “The Man in Grey” will appeal to fans of old movies, to fans of James Mason, and probably anyone who likes a romping good tale of intrigue and menace.

What was particularly pleasing about the structure of the movie is that it begins and ends in contemporary (i.e. 1943) wartime London, in which the effects of Lady Rohan are being sold at auction. We learn the story behind those artifacts, and then return to the auction house for the closing minutes of the film. This scene, with its subtle and clever commentary on the past and the present, adds a lovely dimension to the story. It’s worth the wait.

(This film is not rated, though it has at least one disturbing violent scene.)


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Book Sale at the Plainfield Branch

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The Plainfield Friends of the Library will be having a sale of gift-quality used books Saturday, December 1 and Sunday, December 2. The Saturday sale will be from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM and Sunday from 1:00–4:00 PM.  Books in this sale will be individually priced. Come over and find some great holiday deals for all the book lovers in your life! Also, be sure to check the ongoing sale in the library that our Friends maintain on a permanent basis.


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Stanwyck: “No Man of Her Own”

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

No Man of Her Own” (1950) is a complex film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck that’s just been released on DVD. It must have been considered somewhat daring for its time, given that the start of the film features a young woman (Stanwyck) who is pregnant and unmarried.

In the typically more elliptical fashion of the time—an approach that also makes it more enjoyable to watch, in my opinion—it’s never stated explicitly what has happened, but is rather shown through the dress she wears, her desperate pleas, and the one-way ticket her former boyfriend has just given her. As with many noirs, we are given access to the story through a long flashback—we know that serious trouble is at hand, but must be shown how the couple in front of us got to their present dilemma. The flashback takes us to Stanwyck’s anguished situation and her subsequent train journey, during which a young married couple who are also expecting take pity on her, not knowing her full story. I won’t give away the rest of the story here, but let’s just say that things get very complicated for Miss Stanwyck very quickly. She and her baby must hide behind a cover that will inevitably be exposed, but to whom and how and why is a lot of the fun (if that’s the right word).

In addition to the plot, I also enjoyed the settings–the way it went from big city to train car to small, Midwestern, snow-bound town with a lovely old family mansion that becomes the centerpiece for this wonderful gem from the tail-end of Hollywood’s Golden Era.


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1812 and All That

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

I think we can safely say that watching any movie about historical events or people must be taken with a grain of salt in terms of its details. It simply goes with the territory that artistic license will be involved in spicing up a story in order to keep a large audience interested.

This was probably even more true in the studio era when The Buccaneer (1938), directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, was made.  The story concerns the War of 1812 (as we mark its 200th anniversary) and the work that Jean Lafitte, “privateer” (aka pirate), did in helping the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans. In its general outline, the film is factual—see the entry for Lafitte in The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812—but beyond that, one must simply acknowledge that, on top of presenting an exciting and complicated historical event, DeMille wanted to give us a rousing good tale of pirates, war, integrity and romance. 

Frederic March plays Lafitte, and he’s surrounded by a whole bevy of colorful characters, real and imagined, from Dolly Madison saving George Washington’s portrait from British destruction, to Akim Tamiroff as the perfect pirate, to Walter Brennan as one of Andrew Jackson’s coon-skin capped fighters, to Hugh Sothern as the future President Jackson in all his earthiness and bravery.  While some of the more unpleasant pirating activities are taken out, the movie still makes clear that Lafitte, despite the offer of amnesty he receives from the Americans, has some unsavory things from his past that must be dealt with. This leads to a very satisfying conclusion of an already thrilling tale.


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Woody Allen: A Documentary

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

When Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was released last year, there were some critics who wondered if the long-time director/writer would ever be able to repeat the huge successes he’d had in the late 1970s with such great films as Annie Hall and Manhattan.  But he proved them wrong, and the film went on to make (as of this writing) over 56 million dollars in ticket sales — his highest grossing film ever.

That’s just one of the interesting points made in the new film, Woody Allen: A Documentary, a very long (195 minutes) and very interesting take on one of the most productive director/screenwriters this country has ever produced. (The only comparable person would be Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, who is, of course, one of Allen’s heroes.) The film takes us back to the very beginning, where we learn that Allen, at the age of 17 and writing jokes for others, was already making more money than his parents. Amazingly, by the end of the 1960s he was offered a director’s position simply on the merits of his writing, and took off from there. 

While the film can’t possibly cover every movie Allen has made, there is much that is covered, and the information comes from a variety of sources — to start with, Allen himself, who appears in new footage and older interviews, but also Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts,  Martin Scorsese, and numerous stars who have appeared in different productions, such as Mira Sorvino, John Cusack and Owen Wilson.  Regarding Allen’s personal life — that is, the scandal involving Allen and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter (whom he eventually married), this too is dealt with, though not with the sort of breast-beating many might like to see.  And, not surprisingly, Mia Farrow does not appear in the film, except for being in clips from Allen’s movies.

Overall, I found the documentary a fascinating gem — particularly when Allen shares with viewers some of his work habits. For one, he still uses an old manual typewriter he bought sometime in the 1950s, and he keeps a drawer full of paper scraps with ideas for stories that he saves and then goes through for inspiration.  This and many other details make this film worth your time. If you’d like, let me know what your favorite Woody Allen film is, and why.


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Beatty, Malden and Lansbury!

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

All Fall Down (1962) is yet another great movie the late director John Frankenheimer made in the first half of the 1960s (some of the others are The Train, Seven Days in May and the fantastic Manchurian Candidate). 

Unlike some works from this period though, this is a family drama starring the likes of Warren Beatty, Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury–there’s no politics here, no train wrecks, and no assassinations; rather, we watch the slow unraveling and awakening of a family that worships its eldest son—a prodigal whom they believe to be some kind of saint. Beatty plays the son, a wanderer and womanizer worshiped by his younger brother Clint (Brandon de Wilde) who still lives with his parents (Malden and Lansbury) in Cleveland.  As the film begins, de Wilde has tracked down Beatty in less than auspicious circumstances in Florida—and here we can see some of the frankness of the 1960s cropping up—but he refuses to face the facts. The story is complicated even more when Echo, played by Eva Marie Saint, arrives from Toledo for a visit to the family, and de Wilde falls hard for her, even though she, in her older, patronizing way, doesn’t take him very seriously. 

What’s partly interesting about this film from a different era is how non-conformist Beatty’s family is in the era of Leave it to Beaver: Clint decides not to finish high school, and his parents barely raise an eyebrow; Malden invites a group of homeless men in for a nightcap on Christmas Eve, and the family seemingly has no jobs to support their old and rambling house, while Clint hides around corners and writes down all the arguments his parents have. 

The denial and frustrated love must come to a head, of course, before the film is over, and it is up to each viewer to decide if the ending is a satisfying one or not. Whatever your opinion, you’ll have to admit that there is a certain catharsis by the end of this drama, and with actors of this stature, it’s certainly worth giving the film a try.

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