spoiler-free, I promise

This will be a spoiler-free reaction to “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” although I may create a separate blog post to talk about the movie for those of us who’ve actually seen it.

I saw the movie this afternoon at the Capri Theater in Shelbyville. I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. It was everything the original “Star Wars” movies were that the prequels weren’t.

I loved the new characters – and the movie spends a lot of time setting up the new characters. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both terrific. But of course, I also loved what we saw of the original characters.

The movie has some fun parallels to the original 1977 movie, which was released as just “Star Wars” and is now known as “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Some critics (even some with generally positive reviews) have dismissed this as pandering or fan service, saying the new movie hews too close to the original. But I don’t think so. I thought it was all presented in fresh and unexpected new ways. I thought there was just enough homage but that things were well set up to go in new directions as we move forward. Unlike the prequels, in which the fates of Obi-Wan and Anakin were already known to us and loomed over everything, this movie opens up infinite storytelling possibilities.

Because of the way this one ended, I’m glad the next movie is due in the summer of 2017 – only a year and a half, and not the three years we had to wait between segments of the original trilogy. (Summer 2017 will also be the 40th anniversary of “A New Hope.”)

It’s a great movie. See it sooner rather than later, before someone really does spoil it for you.

broken record, I know

Turner Classic Movies: TCM keeps running an (excellent) interstitial with Laura Dern talking about her admiration for Barbara Stanwyck, but when it ends they use it to promote an upcoming showing of Meet John Doe. Fine, fine. It’s just that the Stanwyck movie I *really* want to see this time of year is Christmas in Connecticut.

I just checked, and TCM will be showing it 11 a.m. (Central) on Sunday, Dec. 13. Go ahead and set your DVRs now; I certainly have.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever takes my classic movie suggestions. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard back, “Hey, John, I watched Topkapi on your recommendation and loved it.” But I guess I’m enough of a narcissist to keep putting myself out there anyway. I’m relatively harmless, in any case.

Although I have blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” on multiple prior occasions, I guess I will go back and talk about it again. Narcissist, and all that. It was a bad day at work, and so I need to get my mind off things.

“Christmas In Connecticut,” despite its title, is really a straight romantic comedy which just happens to have a holiday setting. Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart – the ultimate cook and hostess, whose monthly column in “Smart Housekeeping” magazine is closely read by much of America. She vividly describes her idyllic life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and infant son, and includes her mouth-watering recipes.

There’s just one problem: It’s all a lie. She’s single, lives in a Manhattan apartment, and can’t cook. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall, whom you know from “Casablanca” and who is billed in some movies as “Cuddles” Sakall), and everything else comes from her imagination and her talent as a writer. Her immediate supervisor knows the truth, but the publisher of the magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet, speaking of “Casablanca”) does not – and would be horrified at the deception.

Yardley receives a letter about a war hero (Dennis Morgan), who has no family and nowhere to spend the holidays. Yardley summons Elizabeth Lane and tells her that she and her husband should invite Jefferson Jones to their Connecticut farm for the holidays – and that he, Yardley, would love to join them for Christmas dinner and sample some of Elizabeth Lane’s famous cooking. It would be patriotic! It would be good publicity for the magazine! It would be in the spirit of the holiday!

Elizabeth Lane, who has just bought a very expensive mink coat on credit, can’t afford to lose her job and can’t bring herself to stand up to the forceful Yardley and refuse his plan. So she has to come up with a farm, a husband and a baby, all on short notice.

If you know anything at all about romantic comedies, you know that once she has all of these things in place, she’ll begin falling head over heels in love with the veteran. Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

Seriously, this is just a fun, funny movie, with great performances all around.

There’s also a TV movie from the 1980s with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, directed by …. Arnold Schwarzenegger (because when you think “romantic comedy,” you immediately think “Arnold Schwarzenegger”). I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but there’s no way it could measure up to the original.

Why haven’t you set your DVR yet?

the sting

“The Sting” will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight. I love, love, love that movie. To me, it seems like such a part of popular culture that it might be beyond blogging about, but it occurs to me that some of my younger readers may not have gotten around to it yet.

Get around to it. Watch or DVR it tonight, or get it from Netflix or wherever. Just see it.

It’s a great showcase for its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, but it’s just as good from an ensemble standpoint – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar and on and on.

It’s a period piece, set in the Great Depression, although Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“The Entertainer” was a top-40 hit at the time of the movie’s release) is actually based on music from the 1920s. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist. He and his partner/mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones!) are being pursued by a surly and mean-spirited police officer (Durning).

Hooker and Luther pull a con on a victim who later turns out to be a money-runner for a powerful Chicago New York crime lord, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot – but Lonnegan doesn’t like having his profits stolen, and sends enforcers after them, with tragic results.

Hooker wants revenge. He seeks out Luther’s old partner, a legendary but retired con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two of them put together an all-star team of con artists to bilk Lonnegan. But Durning’s cop character is still in hot pursuit of Hooker, and could ruin everything.

To say much more would be to spoil the plot. There are twists and turns galore, but the movie is so brilliantly-conceived that when you go back and watch it again, it all holds up. In fact, this movie almost demands that you watch it a second time, just to try to figure it all out.

It’s everything a movie should be – funny and exciting and happy and sad. If by some slim chance you’ve missed seeing it until now, please watch or tape it tonight.

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

I am Groot

Well, I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” today. I’d been mildly curious about this movie since seeing the first publicity for it many months ago, but sadly, “mildly curious” doesn’t get me to the theater that often. (The last movie I saw in the theater was “The Monuments Men,” and you probably have to go back a year or two before that.)

But several friends, and several reviewers, were so effusive about it last weekend, stressing how much fun it was, that I decided to go see it. I had the time and the money the same weekend, and I even walked to the theater, getting in my daily exercise. I was warned by the box office that they were having air conditioning problems upstairs, but I took the chance anyway. It wasn’t that bad, and they had ceiling fans running. Once the movie got started, I never had a chance to think about the temperature.

“Fun” is exactly the right word for this movie – the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages. Equal parts wise-cracking humor, breakneck action and eye-popping production design, this is the very definition of a popcorn movie. And it has a heart, to boot.

Except for the pre-credits prologue, which documents how young Peter Quill was abducted by aliens after running away from his mother’s deathbed in (IIRC) 1987, the movie is set far, far away from Earth.

I’m echoing several reviewers when I say this has the fun and humor of the initial Star Wars movies, without the ponderous self-seriousness of the prequels.  It also has the fast pace of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are times when it’s hard to follow certain nuances of the story, but it hardly seems to matter.

The two CGI characters – Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, a tree-like creature with a one-phrase vocabulary – work surprisingly well and you find yourself surprisingly invested in their fate. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are all terrific, as are all of the various supporting players. (Wish they’d given John C. Reilly more to do.)

One thing many reviewers have mentioned, and justifiably so, is the movie’s soundtrack – a soundtrack so wonderful, and so of my generation, that I immediately had to come home and buy it from Amazon. Young Peter Quill’s only possession when he’s abducted – his only link to home, and his mother – is a Sony Walkman with a mixtape his mother made for him. That becomes a plot point in the movie, and it includes some of my favorite songs. One reviewer referred to them as “80s songs,” I guess because the opening scene is supposed to be set in the mid 80s, but they’re mostly 70s songs – songs the mother would no doubt have listened to in the 1970s when she was an adolescent, songs she would have treasured and wanted to pass along.

Here’s the list from the soundtrack album, which should give you an idea:

1. Hooked on a Feeling, Blue Swede

2. Go All the Way, The Raspberries

3. Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum

4. Moonage Daydream, David Bowie

5. Fooled Around And Fell In Love, Elvin Bishop

6. I’m Not in Love, 10cc

7. I Want You Back, Jackson 5

8. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone

9. Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

10. Escape (The Piña Colada Song), Rupert Holmes

11. O-O-H Child, The Five Stairsteps

12. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Tammi Terrell

“Hooked on a Feeling” and “Fooled Around And Fell in Love” are among my all-time favorites, and I have great memories of most of the others as well. Yes, they’re sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek manner within the movie, but they’re still great songs – and the movie knows it. No wonder Peter Quill is so protective of that Walkman!

This is a Marvel Studios movie, so be sure not to leave the theater just because the end credits are rolling. Stay until after the credits and you’ll be rewarded. (Remember that Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both owned by Disney, and think back to 1986. That’s all I’m saying.)

Lives up to the name ‘essential’

Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central, TCM will air “Metropolis” as this week’s episode of “The Essentials,” hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. TCM shows the latest restoration of the movie, released in 2010, and made possible by footage found in 2008 in Argentina. My brother and sister-in-law gave me this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

If you have never seen “Metropolis,” or if you’ve only seen the butchered print that existed before 2010, you really need to watch this, or set your VCR.

Even if you don’t like silent movies – and I have to admit, I rarely have the attention span to sit and watch a silent feature film here at home – this is the one to see. It laid the groundwork for so many other things, from “Star Trek” to “Blade Runner.”

The German expressionist classic, released in 1927, just a year or two before talkies became the norm, tells the story of a future civilization deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class lives in a beautiful city of art-deco skyscrapers and flying cars. (Many, many movie and TV art directors, for things like the Tim Burton-era “Batman” movies, have cited “Metropolis” as an influence on their futuristic urban landscapes.) The working class works underground.

Freder Fredersen is the privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the leader of this futuristic city. Maria is one of the workers, and has become the leader of a non-violent resistance movement, hoping for a “mediator” who can bring together the city’s two classes. When she breaks into the city’s pleasure gardens, Freder sees her and is smitten. He ventures into the subterranean world looking for her and is shocked at what he finds there.

Joh Fredersen, disturbed by his son’s newfound interest in the workers and worried because some workers have been found in possession of suspicious maps, turns to his old friend and bitter rival, a mad scientist named Rotwang, who has invented a lifelike android that can be used to disrupt the workers’ resistance movement. But Rotwang has his own priorities ….

Seriously, if you’ve enjoyed any modern science fiction movies or TV shows, you need to see this movie, which laid the groundwork for so many of them. These weren’t cliches in 1927 ….

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Have you ever stumbled across a movie in a style or genre in which you would normally have no interest whatsoever, but for some reason you start watching and you are sucked in?

That was me the first time I ran across “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). I’ve wanted to see it again ever since, and it will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight, as part of Catherine Deneuve day in “Summer Under The Stars.”

When I start describing this movie to you, your first impulse will be to ignore it completely. Please don’t — it may be that, like me, you’ll be drawn in. If nothing else, it’s a unique cinematic experience

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is not a traditional movie musical — it is, for all intents and purposes, an opera, or at least an operetta. All of the dialogue is sung — in French, with English subtitles. (No! Come back here!) The plot is right out of a soap opera. A young woman, who works in her mother’s umbrella shop in Cherbourg, France, falls in love with a young man. The young man is drafted, goes off to war and is incommunicado, and the woman then discovers that she’s pregnant. Her mother urges her into the arms of a successful, middle-aged man — much older than the girl, but he adores her, regardless of her condition. Will she marry the older man? Will the young man return?

The movie’s theme song, a melody which is returned to again and again, was given English lyrics and became a standard, “I Will Wait For You,” sung by Tony Bennett, among others. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you’ll recognize the tune when you hear it in the movie.

This is, in some ways, the least likely movie for me to ever be interested in, but somehow I got sucked into it.

Pirate Radio

I’m watching a retrospective of the 1960s music TV series “Hullabaloo” and the Kinks were performing “All Day & All Of The Night,” which immediately made me think of “Pirate Radio.”

I’m sure I must have blogged about this movie back when I first saw it, but this blog is nothing if not repetitious.

I’m sure I must have blogged about this movie back when I first saw it, but this blog is nothing if not repetitious.

The Kinks song opens the movie, providing the backdrop for some on-screen graphics explaining the movie’s premise. I suspect these onscreen graphics were added for the benefit of the American audience. The original British version of the movie had a different title, “The Boat That Rocked,” and was edited differently. I actually have a copy of the British version, given to me by a friend, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it. I’ll have to dig it out some time and check it out.

The movie is a fictional story inspired by a true-life situation. In the mid-1960s, when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who were in their prime, the BBC aired less than an hour a day of rock music on the radio in the UK. So entrepreneurs started unlicensed American-style rock radio stations, broadcasting from ships anchored in international waters. In real life there were several such stations, highly competitive with each other, but the movie (while at one point mentioning other stations) is plotted as if there’s only one, which it calls Radio Rock.

Our viewpoint character is Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s been expelled from school and whose mother (Emma Thompson!) has managed to find for him a job working for Radio Rock. Bill Nighy plays the station manager, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is absolutely wonderful, plays the station’s most popular DJ, The Count. Nick Frost is another of the DJs, as is Rhys Darby, who played the manager on “Flight of the Concords.” All of them live and work together on the ship – imagine “WKRP” if everyone spent 24 hours a day together at the radio station.

At one point, the station brings back one of its quite popular former DJs, Gavin, played by Rhys Ifans, setting up a rivalry between Gavin and The Count.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh, wearing a moustache that makes him look like Mr. Drysdale on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” plays a blue-nosed  government official who is obsessed with shutting down unlicensed offshore radio.

Having worked in radio during my high school years and for a year after college, I’m a sucker for stories about the golden age of radio, before automation, nationwide chains and programming consultants took all the fun out of it. “Pirate Radio” is more fun than plot, but that’s OK. It’s partly a coming-of-age story for Carl, who begins to suspect that his mother may have had a hidden agenda in sending him to the ship. There’s profanity (including a guilty-pleasure scene where Hoffman’s character baits Nighy’s character by testing the limits of what he can get away with saying on the air) and some sex (once a month, the ship’s all-male-and-one-lesbian crew gets to bring guests on board). So it’s not a movie to watch when the kids are around. But I could not resist the energy and good spirits of the proceedings, and the ensemble cast is extremely funny, with Nighy, Hoffman and Ifans all just perfect in their roles. Branagh isn’t given much to do; his character is a one-note villain. (No, Branagh and Thompson don’t share any scenes, which would have been kind of awkward.)

The movie’s ending is a wee bit too literal, but I forgave it instantly.

I happened to watch this movie on an airplane, on the way to Africa for one of my mission trips. I still have never figured out why it wasn’t more popular; I thought it was really enjoyable.

Jazz doesn’t resolve

There are some books I read, and get very excited about, but they don’t necessarily stick with me.

“Blue Like Jazz” has stuck with me. After reading it, I suggested it as curriculum for the Sunday School class I was attending at the time. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be to it – it’s quite frank, and even includes a little bit of profanity – but I think it was well-received, despite my lack of abilities as a teacher.

The book, published with the subtitle “Nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” is a memoir – not a linear sort of memoir, but something more poetic – by Donald Miller, focused on his experiences at Reed College in Oregon. Reed is one of the most intellectual universities in the nation, and also one of the most hostile towards religion. Miller went into that environment as a Christian, but also as someone troubled by the fundamentalist version of Christianity in which he was raised. He ends up finding a circle of friends, who are at various stages in their approach to Christianity. They end up recognizing their own failures and shortcomings, and the ways in which they hinder dicsussion about faith with the already-hostile student body at Reed.

The first thing I read from the book was an excerpt published in “Christianity Today” in which Don and his friends participate in the school’s over-the-top festival of debauchery, Ren Fayre by building a confession booth – and doing something quite different with it than anyone would have expected.

It’s a beautifully-written book, and one that stays with you for some time.

I was a little skeptical – and in some ways, I still am – when I heard it was going to be turned into a movie. The movie is being directed by Steve Taylor, who in an earlier life (when I was at college) was one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He later went on to found the crossover band Chagall Guevara before becoming a record company executive, responsible for making Sixpence None The Richer a success.

Along the way, he directed music videos, both his own and for Sixpence. And eventually, he wanted to try his hand at a feature film.

I still have never seen Steve’s first movie, “The Second Chance,” even though I was present for the filming of one scene. I gather, from some things I’ve heard, that it was a little more mundane than I would have expected from Taylor, who delighted in the sharp and satirical as a recording artist.

But when I heard Steve was trying to film “Blue Like Jazz,” I was intrigued. The film was about to go into production when it suffered budget troubles, and a widely-publicized Kickstarter campaign raised more than enough to finish it, and demonstrated just how much the book had meant to so many. I should have given something myself, but money was tight at the time and I really didn’t have it to spare. Actually, that last sentence sounds a lot like an argument Donald has with his pastor in a chapter late in the book.

Well, the money was raised, the movie was completed, and there’s now a teaser trailer:

I think it looks promising, although there are a couple of line readings in the trailer that are a little clunky. I really, really don’t want this to be a typical “Christian movie.” I really, really want this to convey the complexity and nuance that make the book so wonderful.