Category: drama

Classic Noir Goodness: Call Northside 777

As much as I love classic movies, sometimes I fall into the same trap that I find my kids succumbing to. I’m looking for something to watch, I find something that might be interesting, and then I discover it’s old–black and white, even–and my initial feeling is one of disappointment. Why is that? I love old movies, but sometimes I have to fight the urge to dismiss something because “it’s going to be too slow” or “I’m not in the mood.”

Silly, Bryce.

Call Northside 777 has been in my Netflix queue for quite a while now. I don’t know how it ended up in it. I don’t know how a lot of the films that are in that queue end up there. Magic, I suppose. I see a film, it looks intriguing, I add it, I forget I added it. But one way or another, Northside was there, and I’ve been passing over it for quite a while, too. Some of that ingrained anti-classic prejudice rearing its ugly head.

But come on–Jimmy Stewart? Noir? Why in the world was I avoiding it?

The film’s a solid outing. Stewart is a hard-nosed reporter (with a heart of gold, naturally), who’s assigned to investigate an 11 year old cop killing case. It seems open and shut at first, but as he digs deeper, he begins to wonder if the person who was convicted actually did it. Also noteworthy for being based on a true story. Is it as psychologically complex as it would likely be if done today? Well, no. It definitely irons out the characters into much more of a “good guy/bad guy” sort of thing–although not as much as I thought it would.

Also particularly noteworthy is the way technology plays into the climax. I don’t want to give it away, but I watched it and wondered if audiences sixty years from now will be viewing some of our tech movies the same way I viewed this one.

In any case, it’s an 8/10 for me. Definitely worth your time. Give it a shot.

Why Do You People Like Depressing Movies?

I don’t like to whip out the “you people” phrase very often, but this is a self-selecting category (I believe)–and one that I’m most definitely not a part of. Denisa and I watched the Great Expectations mini-series (really just a three hour movie) the last couple of days, and while it’s far from the most depressing film I’ve seen (arguably not really depressing at all), it had plenty of depressing elements to it.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t watch it. There’s some solid performances in it–especially Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. The first and third episodes are extremely strong, although the second is a fair letdown. Definitely the weakest of the three. Still, it’s a 7.5/10 for me. And that’s even with my distaste of depressing movies.

But back to that topic. Tear jerkers. I completely, 100% do not understand their appeal. This is a conundrum that goes back to high school. I remember going on a date with my girlfriend to see Circle of Friends, a movie I have somehow managed to completely block from my memory, even if the date itself still is memorable. Memorable, because I can still remember looking over at my date toward the end of the movie to see her sitting there sobbing. And then I looked around the theater and saw another guy there with his date, and she was sobbing too. And that guy and I exchanged a look that said “Do you have any idea why in the world they’re enjoying this?”

And the answer was clear: no. No we did not. (Jaimey, do you happen to remember this movie? Care to offer me an explanation almost twenty years after the fact? I really should have just asked you at the time . . .)

If it’s a movie based on a true story–Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, to name two Spielberg samples–then I get the idea behind it. Present history as accurately as drama will allow. But what about made up dramas? I simply don’t get how watching (or reading) something that turns out to be nothing but a downer . . . can be entertaining.

It’s why I stopped watching Mad Men. The show was about awful people doing awful things to each other, and I never really saw any signs that things were ever going to get any better. I have enough awful in my life without inviting it in through the television screen. Is it because if you watch a movie about people who have worse lives than you do, suddenly your own life seems brighter in contrast?

I’m not trying to be pithy–I really would like to know.

Of course, I’m not sureĀ why I want to know. I have no real desire to change–to become the sort of person who likes depressing movies. But I’m usually all for understanding where other people are coming from, and this is one area that I could really use some pointers on. So please enlighten me.

An Historical Look at Rape: Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder just popped up for viewing on Netflix Instant, and it’s a movie I’ve long wanted to see but never got around to, so it didn’t take me long before we watched it. Jimmy Stewart. 7 Oscar nominations. It’s pretty much a must watch in Bryce’s universe, just for the context.

What did I think about it?

I’m not sure it entirely “works” as a movie in today’s age. As far as being an important film, I definitely still think it is. It was one of the first “courtroom dramas,” and it blazed new ground for that. Of course, we’ve had a lot of courtroom dramas since, and they’ve evolved quite nicely, which means that it’s hard for this one to compete against the later evolutions.

But it isn’t just that.

The thing that really kept getting in the way of me enjoying the movie was the way it treated women and–specifically–rape. The plot set up is simple: a man’s wife is raped. He goes and finds the rapist and shoots him dead. Jimmy Stewart is his lawyer. Where things get tricky is when you start looking at the people involved. The wife who is raped is a coy little minx, even the day after being supposedly raped. The husband is a cold heartless jerk, and it seems quite clear that he’s totally aware of what he did. He’s a controlling husband, and quite possibly abusive.

I actually liked the film for this. We as viewers aren’t entirely sure what happened. Did the wife really get raped, or was she actually caught by her husband and beaten for running around behind his back? As the movie progresses, our opinions change based on the information available to us.

That’s a good thing. Complexity, yay.

But there were areas where the movie completely lost me. The wife loses her panties over the course of the rape, and when that fact is brought up at trial, the entire courtroom bursts out laughing. Really? Nothing about that was remotely amusing. It was just a non-sequitur that the audience would find it funny. That’s the best example of it, but the idea behind it kept coming back again and again.

Today, rape is taken extremely seriously. Back in 1959 when the film was made? It’s pretty clear that it wasn’t. Murder, yes. Rape? It’s sort of shrugged off like a thing that just happens sometimes. Not a good thing by any stretch, but far from the worst thing.

Because of that treatment, I kept getting jarred out of the film. Not really the film’s fault–it’s a product of its time–but it makes it hard to become engrossed as a viewer. I actually think things like this are really helpful in some ways. They let us see how society has changed over time, and that’s interesting from an academic standpoint alone.

In the end, I still think I liked the movie. The complexity saved it. I’d give it a 7.5/10. Maybe an 8, because it’s got a score by Duke Ellington (and a cameo by him), and that alone is worth some extra credit. I recommend the movie, but I’d really like to hear from some other people who have watched it recently. Was I off base? Let me know in the comments.

John Adams: Miniseries Review

I know–right after my post praising the wonders of Netflix Instant, I have the nerve to write a review of a miniseries that isn’t available on Instant. What can I say? I’m a fickle beast. (Today’s normally scheduled Downton Abbey review post has been delayed due to the fact that my TV antenna is down while my roof is repaired. I’ll watch the episode tonight and be back tomorrow with my reaction–sorry for the delay!) But really, I just couldn’t *not* write a review of John Adams. It’s an adaptation of the book by David McCoullough (although from what I’ve read, they’ve altered some of the facts in the adaptation process–a disappointing tidbit, alas. It didn’t seem too egregious for the most part, though.)

It’s a seven part series that follows John Adams from his early days in the American Revolution up to his death much later. It was done by HBO, and has their characteristic attention to story and acting and production values. Better yet, it has none of the gratuitous violence, language, and sex. It’s TV PG for the most part–although there is a tar and feathering scene in the first episode where the man getting tarred gets all his clothes ripped from his body, and you’re well aware of that fact.

I liked the series for a number of reasons. First of all, it gave me a chance to think about the American Revolution. As with any “historical movie,” I take what I see with a healthy dose of salt. I realize that history does not play out in neatly made acts, and that it rarely has climaxes and denouements. I don’t accept anything I see as “true,” but rather as a way of looking at the past and thinking about it in new light. John Adams certainly didn’t let me down in this respect. The entire series is limited by the point of view of John and his wife Abigail. So you don’t cut away from their lives to go see events they didn’t see or experience. I thought this was a wonderful touch, and made the history that much more compelling. 9/11 didn’t all happen in New York City or at the Pentagon or in a field in Pennsylvania. It happened across the country and the world as each person experienced the fallout and the changes to their lives because of it.

Second, the series presents a rather comprehensive look at one family’s life, from its early days right up until its end. Spoiler alert–John Adams dies at the end. In this manner, the series was pretty brutal. Adams would have a great victory at the end of one episode, only to face more challenges and failures in the next. But again, I appreciated the series all the more for that. It’s not like anyone gets a “get out of trouble for life” card once they do something awesome. Seeing the choices people made, and the consequences those choices had for them decades later, was fascinating.

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney do superb jobs in their roles, and they should get credit for being able to act well even with awful decaying teeth. (Honestly. The show just seemed set on showing how bad of teeth everyone had back then. Kind of disgusting.) If you’re looking for a good overview of some of the politics that went into the Revolution, presented in dramatic form, you should check this series out. 8 out of 10 stars.

Thoughts on The West Wing’s Finale

It’s true. Denisa and I finally finished the entire series of The West Wing the other day, and I thought I’d take a minute to reflect back on the series as a whole. A lot of shows start strong and end with a whimper, or they take a while to find their way, and then kick it into high gear.

The West Wing is a show that started at full speed and provided an excellent example of the perfect way to end a series. Though there was a rough patch when Aaron Sorkin left after three seasons, they managed to find their way again, and it all fits together beautifully.

The show starts with a new president and staff just coming into the White House. It ends with that staff leaving the White House and a new one coming in. Thus, we have an ideal story arc. It wouldn’t have made sense for the show to continue on after that. Because if there’s one thing I learned watching this show, it’s that politics is stuck in a never ending cycle. Here’s a series that’s been off the air for seven years. The first episodes of the series are more than fourteen years old now. And yet strangely–disturbingly–they’re still dealing with the same debates, the same issues, the same crises today that President Bartlett and Co were dealing with back then.

So what would a new president–a continuation of the show–had to deal with? The same stuff. An endless retread. And unless you’re doing it from a Republican point of view, then I see little need for a retread. (And even a Republican POV change wouldn’t be enough to really warrant the show’s continued existence, although it might well be a formula for creating a new hit show. There’s a huge demographic out there that just can’t watch the West Wing because they can’t get over themselves long enough to stomach a Liberal POV as the show’s focusing lens. Talk about ripe for a remake . . .)

Really, the show just fits together so nicely. It manages to inform its viewers about the political process, delve into some of the weightier matters, focus on character growth and conflict, discuss history and trivia . . . it’s got it all. There’s a reason it won a slew of awards and is consistently listed among the top TV dramas of all time.

I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. I found it uplifting and inspiring at times–even when it occasionally overreached. All in all, the only thing that makes me sad is that it took me 14 years to find it.

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