Wednesday, February 15, 2017

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Week 3 of the 6 Week Film School at the Normal Theater

Strangers on a Train, the 1951 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a direct descendant of the first movie in the Normal Theater's Six Week Film School -- Shadow of a Doubt -- with the same rapid escalation of tension, the same kind of charmingly psychotic killer, and the same cruelty towards the women in its cast of characters.

What Strangers on a Train has that Shadow of a Doubt doesn't is a diabolically good hook. Strangers on a Train is what you might call "high concept" before that idea became popular. What it's about -- two strangers meeting on a train and one proposing they "exchange" murders so they can both get rid of inconvenient people without getting caught -- is right there in the title.

Yes, Guy and Bruno are strangers. And they meet on a train. What seems like an innocuous conversation turns creepy quickly, however, when Bruno, the affable psychopath, offers to kill Guy's greedy wife (she's pregnant, but not by him, and she won't divorce him), if Guy will knock off Bruno's annoying father. It's based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same title. Highsmith's Strangers has some significant differences, even if the basic idea -- the murder swap that Bruno proposes -- is the same. Highsmith makes it grimmer and more cynical, but I prefer Hitchcock's version, created by screenwriter Czenzi Ormonde from a treatment by Whitfield Cook after Hitchcock reportedly tossed out what famed mystery novelist Raymond Chandler had provided.

Highlights of the film include Farley Granger's performance as Guy, the handsome tennis star with decent impulses but some definite shades of gray, Robert Walker taking Bruno into unsavory territory and then some, a famous back-and-forth tennis match, more than one pair of eyeglasses, a distinctive lighter, and a dizzying carousel ride. If you're a fan of TV's Bewitched, you may also enjoy seeing Samantha's Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) as Bruno's indulgent mother.

Strangers on a Train is really, really good at ratcheting up suspense. That will be even more apparent on the big screen at the Normal Theater, offered free tonight at 7 pm as part of Professor Bill McBride's Six Week Film School. You'll find supporting materials and food for thought here on the Normal Theater website.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Six Week Film School Features Bergman and Grant in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS

Tonight is Week 2 of Bill McBride's Six Week Film School at the Normal Theater. Professor McBride hosted a Film Noir series last fall, but this time he's focusing on Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn't get any better for film students than Hitchcock, the master of suspense who was also a master of "the stylized language of cinema." You'll find Hitchcock movies on almost every film school syllabus because he employed so many different cinematic techniques to create suspense and keep his audience connected as well as recoiling. 

I'm sorry I'm a week late to talk about Shadow of a Doubt, the creepy "Merry Widow Murderer" movie that centers on a family in a small town and how young Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) unravels the mystery of her charming Uncle Charlie (the reason she got her name) and just why he's come to visit after so long. Joseph Cotten, a warm, appealing actor, creates a portrait of Uncle Charles that's all the more creepy because he seems like such a regular guy. Hitchcock casts evil into the midst of an apple-pie sort of town, with a Little Charlie/Big Charlie duality that makes all of us feel guilty.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman steam up the screen in Notorious.
Notorious, this week's Hitchcock, is one of his best, too, with another sympathetic villain in Claude Rains' Alexander Sebastian, who happens to be a rich Nazi hanging out in South America in 1946. The minute I said "Nazi" I'm sure you jumped back with "Sympathetic? A Nazi?" but it's Sebastian's love for Alicia Huberman, the "notorious" woman in the title, played by Ingrid Bergman at her most luminous, that makes him sympathetic even as it proves his undoing. Alicia is the daughter of another Nazi, one who's been uncovered and prosecuted in Florida before the movie starts. Dark and devilish spy Cary Grant (it's no coincidence his character's name is Devlin) puts Miss Huberman between a rock and a hard place (sexual innuendo intended) when he forces her to get close to Alexander Sebastian to infiltrate the gang of bad guys.

The sexual politics in the film are definitely dicey -- let's just say in today's world it could've been called "Slut Shaming" just as easily as "Notorious" -- and Devlin is a rat if ever there was one. Because of her father's crimes and her own reputation as a party girl, Alicia is a pawn in a game created by a whole lot of controlling, judgmental, cruel men. It doesn't matter to Devlin if he punches her or pimps her out or almost kills her. He's handsome. He's cynical. His important big-guy spy stuff is much more important than any woman. And, in fact, the notion that all the punishment Alicia gets may just be what she deserves to clean away the "spots" of her sexuality is definitely present.

Hitchcock was often creepy about his female characters and the way he treats Alicia Huberman is no exception, even as she does show a certain agency as a sleuth and we are given some focus on her point of view. Bergman's big-screen persona and charisma function to give her character both sensuality and virtue, to make her seem like a real, three-dimensional human being, no mere victim or paper doll to be cut to size. We know she's good and honorable, no matter how notorious she is or how many smutty comments a roomful of American agents toss her way. In the end, the fact that she has been known to drink to excess and have sex, including with Devlin and Sebastian, makes her more sympathetic and attractive, not less.

It doesn't hurt that Cary Grant has his own big-screen persona and charisma working on all cylinders and the sparks Bergman and Grant create together make Notorious work really, really well.

The famous sweeping shot to a key in Bergman's hand, a huge coffee cup, smoke and mirrors, the use of light and shadow, off-kilter angles, flipping point-of-view, a staircase of doom, the MacGuffin in a wine cellar... And the sexual politics. All fodder for a ripping good discussion of Hitchcock as a cinematic artist.

Notorious will be screened tonight at 7 pm at the Normal Theater. The movies included in the Six Week Film School are offered free of charge, and the program includes a post-show discussion with Professor McBride. Click here for McBride's notes on the film, including links to some excellent reading material.

Next week: Strangers on a Train. After that, McBride's schedule includes Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

LA LA LAND Leads Oscar Nominations

The 2017 Oscar nominations were announced online this morning with a global event filmed in six different cities.

Moving the Academy away from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, seven actors of color were nominated this year, with Denzel Washington in the race for Best Actor for Fences and Loving's Ruth Negga earning a nomination as Best Actress. In supporting categories, actresses Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) were nominated along with actor Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). English-Indian actor Dev Patel is also in the Best Supporting Actor race for Lion, and Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins was nominated, only the third African-American in Oscar history in the Best Director category. Who are the others? John Singleton was nominated in 1991 for Boyz in the Hood, followed by Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. In 2014, England's Steve McQueen became the first black Brit to earn a Best Director Oscar nod. His film, 12 Years a Slave, won Best Picture that year, although Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity, making Cuarón the first Latin American man to win in that category.

La La Land and its whopping 14 nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic for the most ever -- shows that it doesn't hurt your Oscar chances to keep Hollywood and a reverence for old movies front and center in your film. That didn't help the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar, however, which took only one nomination, for its production design.

If there were any surprises on the list, it was probably that the Hollywood Powers That Be have apparently forgiven Mel Gibson for his many public transgressions, nominating him for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, while overlooking Amy Adams, considered a likely prospect for a Best Actress nod, Finding Dory, not one of the choices for Best Animated Feature, and Martin Scorsese and his film Silence, greeted with a whole lot of silence instead of nominations. Silence did earn a cinematography nod for Rodrigo Prieto.

At the moment, given all its nominations and the buzz going in, La La Land is certainly the front-runner for Best Picture. But it has engendered some controversy for its lily-white take on jazz as an art form as well as some unapologetic mansplaining, so the stunner that is Moonlight might just sneak in there by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around on February 26th. I hope so. Moonlight deserves it.

Here's a list of nominees in major categories:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Luke Davies, Lion
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
August Wilson, Fences

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water 

Greig Fraser, Lion
James Laxton, Moonlight
Rodrigo Prieto, Silence
Linus Sandgren, La La Land
Bradford Young, Arrival 

Land of Mine (Denmark)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
The Salesman (Iran)
Tanna (Australia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

For the complete list of nominations and more information about the February 26 Oscar ceremony, click here for the Academy Awards official site.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Means Fred and Ginger and HOLIDAY... Always.

I am bumping up two old pieces I wrote about what I watch on New Year's Eve. As it happens, neither is on my dial this year -- the closest thing is the mini-marathon at Turner Classic Movies with the three iterations of That's Entertainment plus That's Dancing from 7 pm to about 4 am Central time -- but that doesn't mean I can't do my own film fest right here at home.

First, my take on Swing Time, one of the classic Fred-and-Ginger pics that I like to watch every New Year's Eve. This was written in 2010, when Swing Time was the only Fred-and-Ginger I could find airing that night. Left to my own devices (and DVDs) I will probably watch three or four from my collection, maybe starting with Flying Down to Rio (1933) and ending with Shall We Dance (1937).

After that, some notes on why I love Holiday, a movie that is my idea of perfection. And, yes, I also own a copy of that. One cannot depend upon the vagaries of television programmers when planning one's New Year's Eve.

Anybody who knows me knows I love Fred Astaire movies. I don't know if it's in my gene pool (my mom was also a fan) or a learned thing (my mom and I watched a lot of his movies together) but... Whatever the reason, I'm glad I have this thing for Fred Astaire.

Back in the 70s, one of the Chicago TV stations used to run Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers marathons on New Year's Eve. I remember several times telling my date I had to be home by midnight so I didn't miss Top Hat or Shall We Dance or The Gay Divorcee. They don't seem to be doing that anymore, but to me, Fred & Ginger need to be dancing on New Year's Eve or it isn't New Year's Eve.

...Swing Time is not actually my favorite among the Fred movies (I don't like second banana Victor Moore, I don't like the silly forced laughing bit, I don't really like Fred wearing a bowler hat, and parts of the plot are very silly, especially the one involving whether formal trousers need cuffs) but it does have its charms (the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score, some gorgeous dances, and dances used beautifully to advance the plot).

Although "The Way You Look Tonight" has become somewhat overexposed in a whole lot of movies and TV shows, it's still a lovely song, and it's quite appealing when Fred (as Lucky Garnett, dancing gambling man) sings it to Ginger (as Penny Carroll, a dance instructor), even if her hair is covered in shampoo and bubbles. Mr. Astaire always had a way with the sincere songs, and his delivery is as sweet and charming as it gets on "The Way You Look Tonight." Breathless charm, indeed.

"Never Gonna Dance" is also a classic for good reason; it gets a big, swoony production number involving sweeping Art Deco staircases and it involves all kinds of angst and heartache because of its place in the plot. There are all kinds of backstories on this dance that say they filmed endless takes into the wee hours and Ginger was bleeding into her shoes and all sorts of things... Whether you believe them or not, it's still a moving and lovely piece of dance and romance on film.

But my favorite number is "Pick Yourself Up," a sprightly piece where Lucky pretends to be a bad dancer who improves amazingly quickly in order to save Penny's job. They dance all around a dance studio under the disapproving eye of Eric Blore, an adorable supporting player you'll see throughout the Astaire/Rogers flicks, so that's one reason to enjoy it. Number 2: Ginger got a flippy black dress that makes her look as cute as she ever looked. And number 3: I absolutely love the little lifts back and forth over a tiny fence around the dance floor. They both look like they're having a great time, and when Fred pops out the real Astaire dance moves, there is a joy of performance that just zings off the screen. I'm smiling just thinking about it.

Holiday (the 1938 film based on a Philip Barry play, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, not the more recent thing with Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe THE favorite.

I've been asked more than once why I like Holiday so well or why I like it better than The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, better-known Grant/Hepburn collaborations. The answer is partly grounded in the fact that I got attached to Holiday when I was ten or eleven, and you really don't know why you like things at that age. You just do. But there's more to it than that.

I like Cary Grant, of course. He's at his most fetching here, as Johnny Case, man of the people, who came from nothing and worked really hard at some vague financial job that has made him a nice amount of money, so now he wants nothing more than to take his money and take a holiday around the world. It's sort of an anti-capitalist philosophy. Or maybe "capitalism that knows when enough is enough and then wants to have some fun." I like that refreshing attitude. Cary is also not terribly serious in this movie; he does acrobatic tricks, he messes up his hair, and he lets himself get kicked in the bootie to show he hasn't turned stuffy or puffed-up. But he still looks really good in a tux.

And then there's Kate. The plot of Holiday treats her far better than The Philadelphia Story where everybody keeps telling her that she's too perfect, she's an ice queen, she's judgmental, she needs to change while the male philanderers (her father) and alcoholics (her ex) are just fine the way they are. That always struck me as sexist and unpleasant and not very nice. Here, she's trying to do the right thing and find her own way, stuck in a pretentious, wealthy family she doesn't like much and at the same time desperately attracted to the man her sister has brought home as a fiance. As Linda Seton, Ms. Hepburn is as lively and vivacious as ever, plus she's warm and funny and nobody is blaming her for anything.

I also like the supporting cast, with Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as an amusing pair of Johnny's friends who like Linda far better than her prissy sister and Lew Ayres as Linda's unhappy brother. Plus Binnie Barnes and Henry Daniell are hilarious as snooty relatives that Linda calls the Witch and Dopey.

There are serious issues here, and yet it's all treated lightly and sweetly, with enough romance ("Happy New Year, Johnny" and the almost kiss is my favorite) and funny stuff (with everybody doing gymnastic stunts and Punch and Judy in the old playroom) to keep the story moving. George Cukor's direction is dandy, with the emphasis on just how attractive Grant and Hepburn are. It's also really cool to see what the privileged set lived like in 1938. Special ties, special church, special parties... And that Manhattan mansion is pretty swell.

Holiday ... [is] part of a Cary Grant box set. I plan to watch it on New Year's Eve, since that's the holiday I like the best in the movie. I should also note that the title Holiday does not refer to Christmas or New Year's, but to Johnny's plan to take a long holiday, a vacation, now that he's made the money he wants.

When it's Cary Grant playing Johnny, it's hard not to support his holiday. It's hard not to try to book a cabin on that ship and go right along with him. As Linda says, "If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

Right there with you, sister.

And that, my friends, is what I'll be doing New Year's Eve!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Logo, HBO and TCM Celebrate Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

In the midst of a two-day Logo marathon to remember Debbie Reynolds, who passed away December 28, just one day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, HBO has also announced plans to move up the schedule on a documentary called Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.  Although it was originally scheduled for sometime later in 2017, Bright Lights has been moved to Sunday January 7 in the wake of the tragic loss of both Hollywood legends. HBO was already set to repeat Wishful Drinking, a 2010 feature based on Fisher's "hilarious and honest one-woman show"on New Year's Day.

Starting at 4 pm Central time today, Logo will show episodes of Will & Grace that featured Reynolds as Grace's mother, plus at 11 pm Central they will be airing a RuPaul's Drag Race episode with Reynolds as guest judge. At midnight, it's time for an episode of Roseanne written by Carrie Fisher that showcased Reynolds as Roseanne's mother-in-law, with a pair of Golden Girls episodes where Reynolds showed up as a possible new roommate after that. The Golden Girls two-partner will run again at 5:30 am, followed by all twelve Will & Graces starting at 6:30. Logo finishes up its tribute New Year's Day with the movie Sister Act, which Fisher co-wrote, shown at 4 pm and 10 pm.

Look for Wishful Drinking at 8 pm Central time January 1 on HBO, with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds at 7 pm Central time January 7. Bright Lights premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and you can read a lot more about it here.

Later in January, Turner Classic Movies will devote a whole day of programming to Reynolds, who was a particularly good friend of the network. With TCM, Reynolds shared a passion for the preservation of classic movies and memorabilia. They offer a bio that serves as a tribute here along with the list of films scheduled for January 27.

Those movies include It Started With A Kiss (1959), Bundle Of Joy (1956), How The West Was Won (1963), The Tender Trap (1955), Hit The Deck (1955), I Love Melvin (1953), Singin’ In The Rain (1952), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Mating Game (1959), The Catered Affair (1956), The Singing Nun (1965), and How Sweet It Is! (1968).

Thursday, December 29, 2016


I think my first trip to New York City happened in the summer of 1983. That means I wasn't there in time to see the vividly theatrical, eight-and-a-half-hour, two-night adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby that playwright David Edgar, directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird and a cast of 42 actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company had created together, first for performance at the Aldwych Theater in London and then at the Plymouth on Broadway.

There was a long period during my formative years when Nicholas Nickleby was my favorite book. Of all books. I have no idea why it caught my imagination at a time when my peers were clinging to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, but there you are. My fondness for Nicholas Nickleby in book form meant that I was well aware of the RSC project, even as it never occurred to me that I could actually see it on stage.

I might've wished there was a way to get to London in 1980 or New York in 1981, but I was in law school, I'd never been to either place, I'd never seen a Broadway show, and that kind of jaunt was simply out of my realm of possibility. But then something called the Mobile Showcase Theatre came to my rescue, showing a filmed performance of the RSC's Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby as a four-night event on my local PBS station. 

That filmed Nicholas Nickleby starred Roger Rees as Nicholas, offering energy, integrity and depth as the young man trying to keep his own sense of goodness and kindness together even as he faces cruelty and meanness in the world. David Threlfall, Emily Richard, Edward Petherbridge, Alun Armstrong, Suzanne Bertish, Lila Kaye, Lucy Gutteridge, Bob Peck, Christopher Ravenscroft, John McEnery and John Woodvine are just some of the actors surrounding Rees in this amazing company. As an ensemble, they create an array of sharply realized characters and dramatic pieces that fit together beautifully. I will never forget characters like Newman Noggs and Peg Sliderskew or the way the company slams doors in Ralph Nickleby's face. Rees may have provided the emotional center and the overall arc, but it's the company together that turns Nicholas Nickleby into something special.

I had a VCR by 1982 but I screwed up when I tried to tape all of this Nicholas Nickleby, which was originally shown in four parts over four nights. When PBS began selling a set of nine one-hour VHS tapes of the whole thing, I snapped them up, even though they are not what I really wanted, which was the four-night Mobile Showcase I remember. But the subsequent four-DVD set for Nicholas Nickleby is notorious for being shoddily put together, with such poor decision-making that they split one scene over separate discs.

BroadwayHD has now announced that the full Nicholas Nickleby, split into nine parts like the A&E VHS set, is streaming on its site. Click here for information on signing up for an account so you can sit back and watch it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Screen Actors Guild: The TV Nominations

In addition to awards for performances on film, the Screen Actors Guild also honors performances on television. This year, they have chosen to recognize something old (The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family) as well as something new (The Crown, Stranger Things, Westworld) and a total of four individual performances from the major networks. Those four are Anthony Anderson (Blackish), Ty Burrell (Modern Family) and Felicity Huffman (American Crime) who appeared in ABC shows and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) from NBC. Everybody else can be found in shows aired on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, FX, USA Network or Showtime. And mostly Netflix.

Counting all the nominations (including ensembles and stunts), Netflix leads the pack with 17, followed by HBO with 13, ABC with 5, FX with 3, and Amazon, AMC, CBS, PBS, NBC, Showtime and USA with one nomination each.

Actor Sterling K. Brown is nominated both for his series work on This Is Us and the People v. O.J. miniseries, meaning he has more by himself than all the networks in the singleton category. In addition to her nomination for Grace and Frankie, Lily Tomlin has been chosen to receive SAG's lifetime achievement award.

Here's the complete list of nominations for Screen Actors Guild television awards:

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Modern Family
Orange Is the New Black

The Crown (Netflix)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Westworld (HBO)

Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie (Netflix)
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep (HBO)
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie (Netflix)

Anthony Anderson, Blackish (ABC)
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Ty Burrell, Modern Family (ABC)
William H. Macy, Shameless (Showtime)
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent (Amazon)

Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (Netflix)
Claire Foy, The Crown (Netflix)
Thandie Newton, Westworld (HBO)
Winona Ryder, Stranger Things (Netflix)
Robin Wright, House of Cards (Netflix)

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us (NBC)
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (HBO)
John Lithgow, The Crown (Netflix)
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot (USA)
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards (Netflix)

Bryce Dallas Howard, Black Mirror (Netflix)
Felicity Huffman, American Crime (ABC)
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (HBO)
Sarah Paulson, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Kerry Washington, Confirmation (HBO)

Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Sterling K. Brown, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Bryan Cranston, All the Way (HBO)
John Turturro, The Night Of (HBO)
Courtney B. Vance, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Daredevil (Netflix)
Luke Cage (Netflix)
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Westworld (HBO)

The Screen Actors Guild Awards will air on January 29 on TBS and TNT.