Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/24/15

Today is the day of the mayoral primary in Chicago. In my neighborhood, there are quite a few signs for Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (like the sign pictured above at the Francisco Brown Line stop). There are signs here and there for Alderman Bob Fioretti. I've even seen signs for businessman Willie Wilson.

How many signs have I seen for our current mayor, Rahm Emanuel? Exactly none. Know why? Because nobody really likes him. Will he get re-elected? Probably.

However, if he does not get more than 50% of the vote today, he'll have to participate in a runoff in April with the runner-up (probably Garcia).

So if you vote today, please do your city a favor: Vote for someone--anyone--but Rahm Emanuel. He may still get re-elected, he would have to work a lot harder to stay on this fifth floor of City Hall, rather than getting the office as a gift he most assuredly does not deserve.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Saturday, February 14, 2015

V-Day 2015

For those among you who celebrate February 14, have a lovely, warm Valentine's Day. For the rest of you (us?)...have a nice Saturday, all y'all.

Friday, February 13, 2015

V-Day Review: The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

The seaside cottage is old—used to be part of a much larger estate, but the house burned down ages ago. For a while, it was rented out to newlyweds for their honeymoons, but that tradition ended when the young husband of Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick) was killed in World War I. The desk calendar is still set to the day he died, nearly 30 years ago.

Some people believe the cottage is haunted by the spirits of all the young couples who stayed there and etched their names into the windows. Others, like Mrs. Minnett’s newly hired housekeeper, Laura (Dorothy McGuire) believe the cottage is enchanted—a magical place where miracles can happen.

And maybe, just maybe, Laura is right.

This is the setting for The Enchanted Cottage, a gentle fantasy that explores the healing powers of love.

Laura is a broken soul, shy and plain--“homely” is the word used by the nephew of John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), the blind concert pianist who lives nearby and is fascinated with the cottage, even though he can’t see it.

Laura is lonely, but not seriously searching for love. Rather, she wants to find “a place that, when I woke up in the morning, I’d be glad that it was another day, and when I went to sleep I’d know that it had meant something to have been awake.” It nonetheless stings when, while helping out at the local USO club, the many handsome men in uniform would rather stand around than ask her to dance. (One cad starts to ask, then reaches down as if he’d meant to tie his shoes.) Laura runs out of the club in tears. No one notices or cares.

Mrs. Minnett hired Laura when the cottage was to be rented to Oliver (Robert Young) and Beatrice (Hillary Brooke), who are about to be married. However, when Oliver is called to active service as a flyer in World War II, the wedding is postponed, though Mrs. Minnett keeps Laura on to help with chores.

Not long afterward, though, Oliver returns to the cottage…alone. He does not want to see or talk to anyone, not even Beatrice or his mother (Spring Byington). Oliver has been wounded—physically, yes (his right arm is immobile, and his face is badly scarred), but mentally and emotionally as well.

Oliver avoids human contact as much as possible, but slowly opens up to Hillgrove, who lost his sight in World War I, and to Laura, with whom he strikes up a friendship that soon becomes…well, not a romance, exactly, at least not at first. But the more time they spend together—especially in the cottage—the more they seem to grow, change, heal…and perhaps not just emotionally.

Director John Cromwell (a veteran of melodramas like Of Human Bondage and Made for Each Other) and screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen (previously a scripter of Val Lewton horror films) and Herman Mankiewicz (an Oscar winner for co-writing Citizen Kane) approach the material more as a fable than a traditional romance, and most of the characters seem to know they’re in a fable, especially Laura and Oliver.

Young may be best known now for his TV work—he won Emmys for both Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.--but in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was a leading man in many dramas, and he brings that wealth of experience to bear here, portraying Oliver as a man damaged more in spirit than in body. It’s McGuire’s Laura, though, who delivers most of The Enchanted Cottage’s emotional impact. It’s rare to see a character who longs not for romance, but for peace of mind and heart—and then, when she finds that peace, is unsure she can fully trust it.

Natwick, a member of John Ford’s stock company who enjoyed a lengthy career, provides the flinty Mrs. Minnett with an unmistakable twinkle that reveals the warm, hopeful heart beneath the hard, remote exterior. Marshall, in some ways, has the most interesting part: The narrator/observer who “sees” things clearly, even though he is blind. (It wasn’t much of a stretch for Marshall to play a wounded veteran who’d survived, even thrived, despite his injury—he lost his right leg in World War I.) And, as a pianist, he gets to “play” the lovely concerto composed by RKO’s busiest composer, Roy Webb, who received an Oscar nomination (the last of a total of seven in his career) for his work here.

More than anything else, The Enchanted Cottage is a candle cutting through the dark shadows cast by loneliness and depression, regardless of the cause—one need not be “homely” or physically injured to feel what Laura and Oliver do--nor to be moved by their gradual journey toward the warmth of the light.

V-Day Countdown 2/13/15

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/13/15

Thursday, February 12, 2015

V-Day Review: My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Horror remakes can be tricky things, especially if the original—in this case, My Bloody Valentine, the holiday-themed mad-slasher film that took heartbreak to rather literal extremes—is revered as a genre classic (which it is, by some) and especially if it is dependent on withholding the identity of the killer until the end (which it does). How do you change it enough to make it fresh enough for modern audiences to give a damn while still retaining what drew fans to the film in the first place?

Producers and directors have, in the recent past, employed several successful tactics, such as tweaking the story a bit (Michael Myers wasn’t just eeeeeevil, he had reasons and stuff!), plugging in more recognizable names into the cast (Jessica Biel and R. Lee Ermey in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Elisha Cuthbert and Paris Hilton in House of Wax, etc.), upping the gore/body count (damn near every remake lately) and, when all else fails, show it in 3D (the piranhas/machetes/blood and guts come RIGHT! OUT! AT YOU!).

The remake of My Bloody Valentine employs all these tactics. Whether they make the remake better than (or at least as good as) the original is debatable.

The story this time around: The Pennsylvania town of Harmony is anything but harmonious when six miners are trapped, apparently due to the negligence/incompetence of the mine owner’s son, Tom (Jenson Ackles). When rescuers find the miners, all of them are dead except one: Harry Warden, who went crazy and killed the others with a pickaxe.

Harry is taken to the local hospital where he remains in a coma until Valentine’s Day, when he wakes up and, like most people who wake up from months-long comas, immediately starts killing everyone he can lay his hands on. He even goes back to the mine and takes out a bunch of teenagers celebrating the holiday there. Tom, his girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King) , best friend Axel (Kerr Smith) and Axel’s girl Irene (Betsy Rue) all survive, though the latter three take off, leaving Tom to dodge Harry’s pickaxe until Sheriff Burke (Tom Atkins) and his men show up and take Harry down, though the body, we’re told, is never found.

Flash forward 10 years. Tom returns to Harmony to sell off his late father’s mine, which makes him even less popular than he already was. Sarah, who manages a grocery store, is now married to Axel, who is now the sheriff. This does not prevent Axel from fucking Megan (Megan Boone), one of Sarah’s employees.

And Irene? She gets gruesomely murdered at a motel (along with the motel manager and a trucker) by…Harry Warden? Wait, isn’t he dead? Well, maybe—turns out Harry didn’t just vanish, but was shot to death by Sheriff Burke and buried in the woods…except that the unmarked grave is now empty.

So, is Harry Warden running around Harmony ripping hearts, or is someone else wearing the miner’s mask these days? Or does it even matter?

This remake loses much of what made the original My Bloody Valentine different from its early ‘80s contemporaries. The detailed mining-town setting has become the typical generic Anywhere, USA, and there’s little to no character development of victims before they’re slaughtered. (Hell, the body count of the original is vastly exceeded in the first five minutes). Worst of all? The movie barely refers to the holiday—it’s in the title, but that’s about all.

Ackles and Smith are nearly interchangeable, each taking turns looking suspicious or innocent. Only King really makes an impression—tough, resilient, and smart enough not to believe anyone when they say they’re not the killer. (King went on to star in two more mad-slasher remakes: Silent Night and Mother’s Day.)

And the 3D effects? They’re less than effective, with bad CGI tumbling out at the viewer at regular intervals, while slightly more subtle effects (like Kevin Tighe pointing a rifle barrel out at the audience) work better.

The budget may be larger and the actors better known, but this Valentine is more generic and (excuse the pun) more heartless than the original.

V-Day Countdown 2/12/15

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/12/15

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

V-Day Review: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967)

Different people like to give different gifts for Valentine's Day. Chocolates. Flowers. Colorful cards.

Al Capone? He gave bullets. Lots and lots of bullets.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is a mostly straightforward account of the gang wars in Chicago leading up to the title event on February 14, 1929, at a garage on the city's north side.

Prohibition is in full swing, but the various mobs in the Windy City fight over distribution of illegal booze. Capone (Jason Robards) controls most of the city's speakeasies, but rivals like George "Bugs" Moran (Ralph Meeker) are trying to take a bite or three out of that business with the help of ruthless enforcers like the Gusenberg brothers, Pete (George Segal) and Frank (David Canary), who go to Capone-run bars and force the proprietors into buying Moran liquor instead...or else.

Capone is tired of rivals like "Bugs" muscling in on his territory and trying to bump him off. (One attempt shown on-screen features several hundred bullets fired into a restaurant where "Scarface Al" is eating; remarkably, not one of the bullets found its mark.) And boy, would Al like to return the favor.

So he and his lieutenants plan and plot and maneuver to remove Moran from the picture in a most permanent way with what Al describes as "a great big red Valentine!"

Roger Corman, best known for producing and directing cheap drive-in fare in the fifties and not-as-cheap Poe adaptations in the sixties, made his first big-studio, big-budget movie with The St. Valentine's Day Massacre--and, in the process, made what may be his best overall effort.

Working at a major studio (20th Century Fox) allows Corman to drawer name stars like Robards, whose Capone is a ticking bomb whose detonation is truly frightening, and Meeker, who also excels as Moran, a man who talks big to hide just how afraid he is of Capone. And Segal, a rising star who typically played nice guys, uses his natural charm to very effectively project menace.

Still, Corman keeps a tight reign on the budget (Massacre was shot entirely on studio sets, rather than on location in Chicago) and fills out the cast with familiar faces, many from earlier Corman efforts: Dick Miller, John Agar, Leo Gordon, Bruce Dern, Joseph Campenella, Jonathan Haze, Harold J. Stone, Alex Rocco, Richard Bakalyan (with the flattest nose in cinema history), even Jack Nicholson in a bit part.

Corman also exerts tight control on Howard Browne's adaptation of his teleplay, taking his cast of characters (all based on real people) through their paces efficiently and with little comic relief. (Pete has a brawl with his girlfriend that walks right up to the border of slapstick--she even his him over the head with a radio--and Frank gets money swiped from his roll by a blowsy hooker.)

Corman's "just-the-facts" approach, complete with voiceover narration (by veteran voice actor Paul Frees, who can be heard in damn near every Rankin & Bass holiday special) serves this true story well. It doesn't need dramatic or comedic embellishment.

Bullets--lots and lots of bullets--are more than dramatic enough.

V-Day Countdown 2/11/15

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/11/15

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On the Way to Work This Morning 2/10/15

V-Day Review: Murphy's Romance (1985)

Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) is new to Eunice, Arizona--just moved there with her young son, Jake (Corey Haim), from Modesto, California, and set up home in a rundown, rat-infested farmhouse just outside of town.

Emma's trying to start a horse-boarding business, so she walks around town, putting flyers on windshields until she comes across something peculiar: an antique auto, perfectly preserved, with bumper stickers reading "NO NUKES" and "RE-FOREST AMERICA" inside the windshield.

Emma sticks one of her flyers under the wiper and, suddenly, hears a male voice off-screen. "Lady," the voice says, "you're covering up my causes." Emma asks if she can put the flyer in his window. He wants to see the flyer before agreeing to do so. She walks over and hands it to the man--tall, dark hair, older but not yet elderly, wearing a pharmacist's smock. He regards the piece of paper seriously, glances up at Emma, and nods: "I'm for free enterprise. Put it up."

The man is Murphy Jones (James Garner), who runs an old-fashioned pharmacy, soda fountain and all, and has lived in Eunice all his life. (When asked if he likes the town, he replies, quite sensibly, "Well, I must have, or I wouldn'ta stayed.")

Murphy leads a simple life--takes care of his antique car (looks just like it did in the showroom in Gary, Indiana, in 1927), plays fiddle in a band on the weekends, won't tell anyone how old he is and knows everybody's business but minds his own. Unless someone chooses to mess with him. Bad choice: "When I'm pushed, I shove."

They run into each other regularly and regard one another quietly--first, with curiosity, later with appreciation, finally with interest.

It's those quiet moments where Field and Garner let their eyes do the acting that make Murphy's Romance such a special comedy. No "cute meet." No slapstick. No misunderstandings that lead to complications. Just silent, mature regard.

If Murphy's Romance is about anything aside from, well, romance, it's maturity. Murphy certainly has it, along as the calm that often attends it. Emma aspires to that maturity, that calm, but she's made bad choices in the past--none worse than her ex, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), who shows up out of nowhere.

You can see why Emma fell for the guy: He's handsome, charming, has a nice singing voice and looks good with his shirt off. He's also allergic to hard labor, steals from Emma when (he thinks) she's not looking and cheats at cards, even when only playing for matchsticks. Bobby Jack doesn't have moments of quiet regard--and no discernable maturity.

Even Jake is more grown up than his father. When Emma laments their poverty, Jake walks around town looking for a job--something Bobby Jack would never consider doing. "You sure have had a short childhood," Emma notes.

Bobby Jack's arrival complicates the budding romance between Emma and Murphy--and drags the movie away from its most interesting material, to the point where the title ceases to make much sense. The movie may be called Murphy's Romance, but it's clearly Emma's story. She's the first character we meet and the one we spend the most time with. There's a stretch there where we don't see Murphy at all.

That's a shame, since Garner is at the top of his game here, making his character as comfortable as a well-worn saddle. (There are even a couple of amusing nods to Garner's first TV character, Bret Maverick: He plays poker--and catches Bobby Jack dealing from the bottom of the deck--and instructs Jake on how to wear a cowboy hat, shoving his own hat back on his head, just like Bret would have.)

It takes a lot of effort to make something look that effortless, though, which may explain why Garner only received one Oscar nomination--for Murphy's Romance.

Murphy's late absence from his own romance would be more of a problem if Emma weren't played by Field, someone just as capable of exuding natural, comfortable charm. She and Garner have great chemistry. So do she and Kerwin, who makes Bobby Jack likable in spite of being such an obvious cad.

Hell, Garner and Kerwin have great chemistry, too--Bobby Jack may lack maturity, but he doesn't lack self-confidence, and neither does Murphy. They can go head to head without (literally) butting heads.

Throw in sure-handed direction by Martin Ritt and subtlely gorgeous cinematography by William Fraker (also nominated for an Oscar for his work here), and you get a movie that recognizes that passion can burn slow--and it's not how fast the fire builds, but how warm it makes you feel.

Murphy's Romance builds and warms.

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/10/15

Yet another party to which I was not invited.

V-Day Countdown 2/10/15

Monday, February 9, 2015

More Dibs

Even though we're now more than a week past the fifth largest snowstorm in Chicago history, people are still tossing random shit out into the parking spots they dug out last week. People are weird--and so is there random shit.

V-Day Review: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

In the tiny mining village of Valentine Bluffs, they haven’t held a dance on February 14 in years—not since the cave-in that killed a bunch of miners, pushed the lone survivor, Harry Warden, past the brink of sanity, and drove him to return a year later to murder the two supervisors responsible for the tragedy.

But now, two decades later, Valentine Bluffs is holding a dance again—and somebody dressed up as a miner starts tearing out hearts all over again.

Has the mad killer returned to town? Or has someone else donned on the gas mask and lifted the pickaxe again?

If so, who could it be? Is it T.J. (Paul Kelman), who moved away to California (presumably to become an actor), only to fail miserably and return to toil in the coal mine back home? Or Axel (Neil Affleck), the new, surly boyfriend of Sarah (lori Hallier), T.J.’s ex? Or affable Hollis (Keith Knight), the burly peacemaker and voice of reason? Or the police chief (Don Francks) or the mayor (Larry Reynolds), both of whom were around for Harry Warden’s original killing spree?

Sounds like the typical setup for yet another holiday-themed mad slasher film, doesn’t it? Well, in many ways it is, especially after those wacky “kids” (who, thankfully, are young adults instead of the usual dumbass teenagers) decide to hold their own dance--where else?--at the mine itself, where the body count rapidly rises.

What sets My Bloody Valentine apart from the average slasher flick, then or now, is the detailed setting--the film was shot in a real coal mining community in Nova Scotia, a rare case of a Canadian town actually playing a Canadian town rather than subbing for an American location --and the patience with which director George Mihalka and screenwriter James Beaird develop most of the characters before killing them off in gruesome ways.

(Some of the murders were so gruesome, in fact, that the film was censored, with anywhere from three to nine minutes of gore removed. A 2009 special edition DVD restored some, if not all, of the excised footage.)

It also doesn’t hurt that the miner outfit, with its gas mask, grimy jumpsuit and battered hardhat, is effectively creepy and does a fair job of hiding the identity of the killer--at least until enough victims have been perforated, boiled or otherwise mangled that the process of elimination becomes much easier.

Like so many other ’80s slasher films, though, the conclusion of My Bloody Valentine leaves open the possibility for a sequel--one which failed to materialize. However, also like so many other ’80s slasher films, there was a remake, serving up still more mayhem from the murderer in the miner’s mask, only in a much more explicit manner than the original ever could.

Every Picture Tells a Story 2/9/15

V-Day Countdown 2/9/15

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Dawn of the Dibs

Ever since Snowmageddon 2015 hit this past Sunday, dibs--the dubious Chicago "tradition" of saving dug-out parking spots with whatever random shit happened to be lying about--have been popping up all over the city.

Here are a few examples from around my neighborhood.