Monday, March 30, 2009

Midsomer Murders: Blood Will Out

Tonight's film was just a television episode, one of many in a still-continuing series, Midsomer Murders, based on characters created by Caroline Graham. She initially wrote 5 books about Inspector Barnaby, at which time the television series began; since then only two more books have been published, but of course there have been many more television episodes. Blood Will Out was the final episode in the second season.

Interestingly for me, since I'd just watched Into the West a few days ago, was that the plot seemed to center around the arrival of a band of Travellers into one of the villages for which Inspector Barnaby is responsible. The villagers have varying reactions to the Travellers, but many of them believe (not necessarily wrongly) that thefts will increase. Of course there is a murder and a large number of red herrings before it is solved. In discussing murder mysteries I try not to include spoilers, so I won't say much more about that.

The continuing characters are engaging, with Inspector Barnaby's wife and daughter figuring fairly largely in each episode. In this one they have enlisted the help of his Sergeant, Gavin Troy, to keep him on a diet (it sounds like that Detox Diet that some people I know have been on recently). They, as well as Troy, provide some comic relief. In the books, Sgt. Troy is not quite as nice a character as he is in the television show, although in both cases he respects and admires Barnaby.

The scenery in Midsomer Murders is always so beautiful that it's hardly credible -- lovely villages, stately homes, ancient churches, sweeping meadows and lush woodlands. That's just one of the aspects that makes an episode from this series a nice break from more serious films.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

King of Hearts

This evening we watched King of Hearts (Le Roi de Coeur)(1966, US release 1967), starring Alan Bates and a lot of French actors. Although Wikipedia says that the French version was black and white and the color version was spoken in English (dubbed?), the version we saw was in color with subtitles except where Alan Bates and his comrades were speaking English.

It may seem surprising that I hadn't seen this film before, but I was quite impecunious in college and, looking at a list of films released in 1967, realized that the only one I'd seen at the time was Up the Down Staircase. Apparently it became a cult favorite in the US and ran for 5 years in Cambridge. The film is very 1967. First of all, I would say that it owes a lot to the Theatre of the Absurd.
The situation of a character who finds himself in an incomprehensible situation is a hallmark of this school of theater, and that is exactly what happens to Alan Bates as Charles Plumpick. Plumpick is a member of a Scots regiment in World War I, and his specialty is carrier pigeons (which in fact were used for communications in that war). Because he can speak French, he's assigned to defuse bombs that have been left behind in a French village by retreating German troops. In vain he protests that he knows nothing of munitions -- he has to go anyway. Arriving at the village, he is chased by German soldiers and hides in the local insane asylum; leaving there, he inadvertently leaves the door open. The inmates take over the town (which the usual inhabitants have evacuated) and crown Charles King of Hearts. He does manage to forestall the blowing up of the village.

Tragicomedy is said to be another hallmark of Theater of the Absurd, and it is definitely present in this film. While the general feel of the film is comedic, the body count is surprisingly high by the end of the film (although there is no mourning seen for those who die).

There are several themes in this movie that call back the prevailing mindset of 1967 (at least, of people who were going to movies in Cambridge, Mass.!) One of course is the feeling that the military is ipso facto ridiculous, foolish and incompetent. Yes, there are still people who believe this, but it was a much more prevalent attitude then. All the military men in King of Hearts, including Plumpick in his own way, fit this stereotype.

It seems to me that there was also a fascination with the mentally ill and specifically inhabitants of insane asylums (mental hospitals) around that time. During those years it seemed everyone was reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Dibs in Search of Self, and David and Lisa (also a movie, made in 1962). The big story in Massachusetts was Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies, shot in Bridgewater State Hospital, which the state successfully banned from public distribution until many years later. And another film that came out that year (which I plan to watch soon) was Marat/Sade (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), which was based on a play by Absurdist playwright Peter Weiss. The thesis of King of Hearts, that the insane are the truly sane and the "normal" people are the madmen, seems to fit into the Absurdist point of view.

Furthermore, the inmates and Alan Bates as well, delight in costuming themselves to play various roles (General, Bishop, prostitute, Duke and Duchess, acrobat, King, etc.) Of course 1967 was the year of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with the Beatles costumed on the cover; I recently read a book, David Lodge's Changing Places, set in 1969 where the "middle-aged" protagonist is bemused to find young men in Berkeley dressing as cowboys, Confederate soldiers, and so on. If I recall correctly, the use of costume to express oneself in everyday life was at its height in the latter part of the 1960s.

So, did I like this movie? Maybe. I really had no idea what to expect from the synopsis on the envelope, and I can't recall what made me add it to my queue in the first place. I think I was expecting something more like, oh, Whisky Galore, and instead I got Theater of the Absurd. It did hold my interest until the end and I enjoyed Alan Bates's performance. I guess I'll give it three stars.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Planet Earth (Episodes 1-3)

Because we have only as much cable tv as is necessary to avoid climbing on the roof to install an antenna, and for various other reasons out of the past, I end up getting a lot of television from Netflix as well as what I think of as "real movies." Quite often these tend to be things that were once shown on BBC America or just the plain old BBC, and they usually have some trailers before the main feature. That's how I found out about Planet Earth,(2007) the $25 million dollar nature series narrated by David Attenborough. Over the past couple of days I've watched the first three episodes, "From Pole to Pole," "Mountains," and "Fresh Water."

I'm ambivalent about this series. I probably will continue watching it at intervals, but I can stand to wait a while for the next disc. (Note to self: check queue and make sure it doesn't come too soon.) The photography is amazing. The producers have made use of every kind of new photographic technology, aided by many kinds of transportation from helicopter to small river boat, to show scenes that few people would ever be able to see on their own. Animal, bird and fish migration scenes were some of my favorites (and the producers', too -- there was at least one in each episode, but they were spectacular so who can blame them). They roamed the world, and I saw places I'd never even heard of before as well as familiar scenes from new perspectives. And those grizzly bear cubs were some cunnin', as were the Ethiopian baboons, the Indian otters, and the pandas, both giant and red. So what's my complaint?

First the milder one -- I'd like to see a show like this one that concentrated more on the geology, hydrology and botany and less on the zoology. Not that some of the animal scenes weren't wonderful. To my mind, it is better to see a video of a snow leopard in its natural habitat, unaware even that it's being photographed, than to see one in a zoo. And because of the new technology, there were many animals that probably hadn't been so well photographed before. Still, there have been so very many animal shows; I feel the other aspects of Planet Earth have been neglected.

But my bigger objection is to the compulsion this, and other similar films, seems to feel to show the predator stalking, catching and eating its prey, several times in each episode. After watching the first one, which featured wild African dogs catching an impala and Canadian wolves with caribou, I hoped that episodes titled "Mountains" and "Fresh Water" would not need to include such scenes, but both did. It begins to seem almost like pornography -- we know these things occur and are necessary to the balance of nature, but is it really necessary for the camera to linger so long on them? For this reason also, I'd be very careful about showing these films to kids under 13 or so, and even parents of teenagers with sensitive spirits might want to warn them before they watch. I had to close my eyes a few times.

Each episode is followed by a short piece called "Planet Earth Diaries" about the technology used and the difficulties encountered in making that episode. These were quite interesting and I recommend watching them. The BBC has more information on its website, as well.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Into the West

Into the West (1992) is a family movie about two children and a horse, with beautiful Irish scenery, exciting chases, heartwarming family scenes, and some very funny bits as well. Gabriel Byrne plays an Irish widower with two boys. He is a Traveller or Tinker, part of a nomadic group which is similar in some ways to the Gypsies or Romany, but not the same. However, out of grief at the death of his wife, he has left that culture and he and the boys live in a housing project in Dublin, where he cobbles together a meagre living fixing cars. The boys' maternal grandfather arrives in his traditional caravan leading a beautiful white stallion and we see that the younger boy has "the gift" of calming horses. At his campfire, the grandfather tells the children the story of Oisin and the land of Tir nanOg; the boys name the horse Tir nanOg and attempt to keep it in their flat. Other residents complain and the horse is confiscated. When Byrne (Papa Reilly) goes to redeem it, he's told it's already been sold. The boys search for the horse and then see it on television -- it's now being used as a show jumper. They manage to retrieve it (of course this is perceived as stealing by the owner and police, but we have seen that the sale was illegal in the first place). Then the real adventure begins as the boys take off to "the West" on the horse with all the resources of the police and the rich "owner" after them. Papa Reilly also goes looking for them and enlists the help of his old Traveller community. There's a lot of excitement until the ending.

This film reminded me strongly of The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), which was based on a children's book called The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. (A book published in 1959 which will now set you back a cool $300 or more.) Given how long it takes to make a movie, as well as the many differences between the films, I don't think John Sayles was necessarily influenced by the earlier film; but they do have some similar themes and if you like one, you'll probably enjoy the other. I would probably not show either of these to children younger than 8 or 9, partly because of some minimal violence and profanity, but mostly because the Irish accents might make it hard for younger kids to understand. Both films make excellent use of Celtic myths, and Into the West, in particular, offers good opportunities for family discussions about prejudice as everyone seems to be able to recognize the Reillys as Travellers and there are many instances where they suffer for it. Highly recommended!

America's Sweethearts

It's funny that America's Sweethearts should be the first movie I post on, since it's not really representative of what I usually watch. Before I get to it, I should mention one more thing about my Netflix queue, which is that I very rarely rearrange it. The films are usually on the queue in the order in which I added them. Very occasionally I'll put something on and shoot it to the top; and when I add a multi-part tv series, I will do some rearranging so that I have some "real movies" in between episodes. But otherwise the chips fall where they may.  If Netflix had a "shuffle" feature I might make use of that, but with such a long queue it's just too tedious to move things one at a time. So, anyway, sometimes films come along and I don't even remember why I added them.

America's Sweethearts (2001) is a romantic comedy featuring Billy Crystal as a studio PR man, John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a former star couple who have broken up, thus endangering their careers as "America's Sweethearts," and Julia Roberts as Zeta-Jones's sister and personal assistant. Hank Azaria plays the Spanish actor who has supplanted Cusack in Zeta-Jones's affections. I like John Cusack, who has the same kind of goofy charm as Nicolas Cage, and Hank Azaria's performance was very funny.  I tend to enjoy Billy Crystal too, as his fast-talking, one-liner-full persona reminds me of lots of New Jersey and Long Island guys I went to college with. Julia Roberts, I think, maybe really is America's sweetheart with that big grin. In this film, they had to have flashbacks of her in a fat suit and glasses to explain why John Cusack wasn't with her from the beginning, since her character was both more beautiful and a better human being than her "sister," Zeta-Jones.

I gave this movie three stars out of five. It was an enjoyable way to spend a little less than two hours, and besides the performances mentioned above, the subplot of the eccentric director and his film was a nice send-up of Hollywood pretension. But, it's also the kind of movie I created this blog for, in that a year from now I may not otherwise remember that I've already seen it.

Bravely Starting a New Blog

I've been keeping track of the books I read for a few years now, and more recently have been posting reviews of them to Goodreads and, where appropriate, the DorothyL mystery list. I've been wishing for a way to do the same with movies. The vast majority of films I see come from Netflix, which does keep a list of the items rented; there's also a review feature but it's only available to other customers. I looked into Flixster, but I don't care for its interface and general Facebookishness. So I decided the only way was to have a blog solely for my film reviews, and if no one else reads it that's fine too. I will link the films to IMDb, but to keep things simple, I won't link actors or directors unless I decide to discuss them in a general way, since IMDb has its own excellent linking system.

Right now my Netflix queue is at something like 497 (did you know there's a limit of 500?). We are on the 4-at-a-time plan, but Onkel Hankie Pants is allowed his own queue. (He gets one to my three, partly because he's often out at night to play rehearsals.)  Sometimes I watch his films, sometimes not, and vice versa.  I was amazed to read a few months ago in the New York Times Magazine that Netflix has actually offered a large prize to programmers who can help them get people to make their queues longer!  I have no trouble finding things I want to see. Although some are old television episodes I missed, the backlist of films I haven't seen is huge, for various reasons.  I also look at the New Releases section every so often to see what I can find.  I recently started working on reading the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read, and the article noted those books which had been filmed. Since I generally prefer seeing the film before I read the book (otherwise I tend to be disappointed in the film), this helped me add a large number of films to my queue. And since my daughter Sisterfilms is a film student, she often recommends classic films for me to see.  I usually don't watch movies during the daytime at home, since I need time for reading, walking the dog, doing laundry, cooking etc. And I only watch television for special events like elections, the Olympics, state funerals, and such.

Anyway, I'll try to post each time I see a film or even old television episode. If anyone's reading, feel free to comment and/or recommend a film for me.