Movie Review – Advise & Consent

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Advise & Consent (1962)
Written by Wendell Mayes
Directed by Otto Preminger

Advise and Consent (1962)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Shown: Charles Laughton

One morning the United States Senate wakes up to find the President has nominated Robert Leffingwell for Secretary of State. This is met with divisiveness in the President’s party which holds the majority in the Senate. The Majority Leader, Bob Munson is ready to vote yes to tow the party line to aid the President who has kept a terminal illness secret from the public and his party. Leffingwell is intended to preserve the President’s foreign policy legacy, something he shows no confidence in his vice president to carry out. Opposing Leffingwell is South Carolina Senator Seabright Cooley who appears to have a personal grudge against the nominee. In the same party but on a pro-demagogic peace wing is Senator Fred Van Ackerman who sees a chance to use the publicity around the hearings to boost his spotlight in the media. In the middle and attempting to navigate this complicated and controversial process is Senator Brigham Anderson, a junior member from Utah and, as his name suggests, very Mormon. Secrets are revealed, and the truth behind personal grudges and threats are more shocking than anticipated.

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Book Review – The Shadow Year

The Shadow Year (2008)
By Jeffrey Ford

shadow yearIt’s the mid-1960s on Long Island, New York, and an unnamed preteen narrator is beginning a year of his life he will never forget. This is his last year in elementary school and he, his brother Jim, and little sister Mary become embroiled in a mystery that no one else in their neighborhood seems to take note of it. It starts with the disappearance of a local boy and then rumors of a peeping tom carousing the backyards at night. The narrator spies a strange white car driven by a man dressed all in white whose presence seems to correlate with the prowler. Then his sister Mary, an odd one who allows her imaginary friends to speak through her, begins to show the possibility of clairvoyance, knowing where neighbors are at precise moments when she should not be able to. This shadow year will linger for our protagonist and what he learns will haunt him decades later.

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Movie Review – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966)
Written by Melvin Frank & Michael Pertwee
Based on the musical by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Richard Lester

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Pseudolus (Zero Mostel) is a slave in ancient Rome who enjoys gambling and disobeying his masters of the House of Senex. His son of his masters, Hero (Michael Crawford) is in love with a woman he has spied only from his bedroom window at the brothel next door. Pseudolus sees this as an opportunity to gain his freedom and makes this the reward if he is able to get Hero’s dream girl for him. What follows is a farce of class and society filtered through the lens of the satires of Roman playwright Plautus and the vaudeville schtick of Jewish comedians. The whole production is directed by English filmmaker Richard Lester who was hot off of The Beatles’ Help! and British sex farce The Knack…and How to Get It. All of this makes for some very wild cinema.

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Movie Review – West Side Story

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West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)

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It’s 1957 in the West Side of Manhattan and tensions are brewing between the white American gang The Jets and their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks. The local police aren’t much better than the gangs but make a weak effort to stop these young men from becoming violent. In the midst of the brewing gang war are Tony and Maria. Tony is a former member of the Jets and still friends with them while Maria is the little sister of The Sharks’ leader Bernardo. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, Conductor and Musician Leonard Bernstein, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents take the classic Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet and place it in this setting, contemporary to them at the time, to find connections between that iconic play and the violence they saw erupting from urban youth.

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Movie Review – Ouija: Origin of Evil

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016, dir. Mike Flanagan)

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It’s 1967, and Alice Zander works her spiritual medium con with help from her daughters, Lina and Doris. Since her husband died, Alice has struggled to make ends meet and manipulating grieving people eager to believe barely helping. Enter the Ouija board that young Doris quickly takes to, communicating with what she believes to be her father’s spirit. Well, as you can expect from a film like this, things get bad, and the entity using Doris becomes increasingly more malevolent as the plot progresses.

I’ve been watching director Mike Flanagan’s films since his 2011 debut Absentia and have always viewed his work as okay. It’s never risen to the top as my favorite horror, though he always has some interesting ideas in his scripts. Ouija is sadly the most generic of his films to date. It comes off as a Blumhouse styled horror film (Insidious, The Conjuring, etc.). And like those films, the horror is incredibly formulaic and predictable. If you have ever seen a horror film from the last decade, then you will be able to see the plot points coming miles away. As a result, Ouija commits the worst sin a horror film can: it’s not scary.

Stylistically it’s admirable that Flanagan attempted to make a pastiche of 1960s horror cinema. The title card, the warped soundtrack, the crackles in the audio track, the “burn marks” on the screen signaling reel changes in the projector room. However, the tone of the horror works in bold contrast to these stylistic flourishes. These are yawn-inducing jump scares that never make you jump. The evil entity becomes way too physically aggressive to be truly scary. I find the horror from Absentia to still linger with me because of its ambiguity and unpredictable nature. The same with the mirror in Oculus, the things it does are much more interesting and skin-crawling than just using invisible force to throw someone across a room.

The acting is fine with the main weight of the story being balanced between Elizabeth Reaser as Alice and Annalise Basso as Lina. They aren’t amazing, but I blame a lot of that on the weakness of the script. Henry Thomas pops up as a faithful Catholic priest who will be the inevitable Exorcist, another plot point you see coming as soon as he’s introduced. Doris is played by Lulu Wilson and does most of the villainous acting. She is painfully an “acting kid, ” and that is seen in the way she delivers her lines. After watching Dafne Keen in Logan show nuance and strength in her mainly silent performance, this is like looking at a Disney kid overemote. On top of that, the computer generated effects they use to make her monstrous end up being comically bad.

Ouija: Origin of Evil seems to be getting praised due to its juxtaposition with the first film in the franchise. I’ve successfully avoided the first picture due to the incredibly negative buzz it’s received. I assume it must be catastrophically bad if this sequel is being considered a magnificent film in comparison. Origin of Evil is not the worst film you could watch, but there are many other you would be better spending your time on.

Director in Focus: Werner Herzog – Signs of Life

Signs of Life (1968)

Before we jump into this first film, some background on Werner Herzog. Werner Stipetic was born in Munich in 1942 in a house that was destroyed by Allied bombing a couple years later. The family migrated to the Alps, where the father left the family, causing 12 year old Werner to take his grandmother’s last name, Herzog. Herzog showed a rebellious streak early on, when asked to sing in front of his class and refused. Till he was 18, as an act of defiance, he never sang, listened to music, or learned to play a single instrument. At the age of 14, Herzog encountered a simple encyclopedia entry on film making that infused the desire in him to create. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School in act he defends as a necessity for him to continue living. Herzog has been married three times, something you would expect based on his volatile personality. One more interesting note about the director, during a 2006 interview with BBC critic Mark Kermode, Herzog was shot by an unknown person with an air rifle. He seemed to brush it off and attempted to continue with the interview, despite Kermode freaking out over the incident.

Signs of Life is a war film without war, instead the soldiers are driven to madness through sheer boredom. Set on Crete during World War II, the film finds Strosek and two fellow German officers put in charge of a munitions depot nestled in ancient ruins. The main character here is the most blank canvas, while his compatriots, Becker and Maynard have more fully fleshed personalities. Strosek has ended up engaged to local Greek girl, Nora in a relationship that seems founded in their mutual lack of anything interesting to do. The film is narrated in a stoic, travelogue style that tempers the picture up until its last twenty minutes when Strosek becomes completely unhinged.

Signs of Life is cited as an inspiration for Kubrick’s The Shining, however I saw a lot of similarities with Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. Both films are of the same era and place their characters in a lifeless, desolate landscape where they are psychologically pushed to extremes. As we’ll see with the majority of Herzog’s work, he is incredibly interested in the psyche of men who have a break with reality and the role nature plays in that. Strosek is positioned against his desert setting as minuscule, he is insignificant, hence his position defending a post that is no danger of being attacked. Signs of Life is about humanity’s innate need to believe they are useful. When we feel that our society has no use for us it will inevitable cause a break from the social expectations and mores.

Up next: Even Dwarfs Started Small

Shadows in the Cave: The World of Henry Orient



The World of Henry Orient (1964, dir. George Roy Hill)
Starring Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley

When I see George Roy Hill’s name I think of The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I never expected this small, delightful film. This is one of those pictures where New York City is a player along with the actors. There’s that sort of innocent magic about the city as seen through the eyes of our adolescent protagonists. And despite Peter Sellers receiving top billing, this is most definitely not his film. While I love Sellers, I would have hated for his character overshadow the performances of the two young women in the leads. He works perfectly as the awkwardly charismatic pianist paranoid over the two young girls he believes are stalking him. And as life imitates art, Sellers was actually dealing with a real life stalker during the filming of Henry Orient.

Marian (Spaeth) meets Val (Walker) one morning on the first day of school at St. Mary’s. The two hit it off splendidly and Marian quickly learns of Val’s highly imaginative nature and penchant to go on adventures in the city. During an excursion in Central Park, they happen across a man and woman in the throes of passion. The man spies them and they run off. Later the same day, they run into the man again and eventually learn this is Henry Orient (Sellers), a well known avant garde pianist. Val becomes obsessed with him and dreams that she will eventually woo the befuddled man. From Henry’s perspective these two little girls are harbingers of doom and possibly spies for the husband of the woman he is seeing. The film perfectly balances the comedic misunderstandings and the coming of age story that centers around Val. Her parents (Lansbury and Bosley) come into town and we immediately see that Val’s mother exhibits a strong coldness around her.

The film lives and dies on the performances of the two female leads, and thankfully they picked two great unknown actress for the roles. There’s some interesting elements, particularly in the third act that feel very much of the time, but I’d like to think director Hill was going against the grain up until that point in the film. The girls are very much kids, while parents pressure them to socialize with boys, they really have no interest. They would rather play and, when Val does develop a “crush” on Henry, its never done with any seriousness. Its simply a continuation of the imagined world she and Marian have invented. You can tell Hill actually cares about these two and shows them as three dimensional, intelligent young women, not yet bogged down by the seriousness of the adults. Its reflected in how scenes featuring adults in the movie are never as interesting as the ones with the kids.

It’s interesting to note that rather than casting “superstars”, Hill opted to go with two unknowns and Sellers who was famous, but not as much as other comedic actors. Originally, it looked like the three roles would go to Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, and Dick Van Dyke, and while they are all great actors, the film would not feel as special. The movie evoked such strong emotions of happiness from me, reminding me of the way it feels when summer starts to turn to fall and how intimate and safe the worlds you imagine as a youth can feel. The film has been retold with a contemporary slant in Ghost World (the film moreso than the comic book) and a poster for Henry Orient even pops up in that picture. The film’s greatest feat is balancing adult themes and ideas while never diminishing the sense of joy and play. A great picture that deserves to be known by a larger audience.