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Movie Challenge 2017

This is the post excerpt.

 

My husband and I share our one television house with six cats. We spend most nights, cuddling on the couch, watching one of our shows, or a favorite movie. We have some firm tv programming guidelines: no laugh-track (unless it is an old show that didn’t know better, like Maude), no reality tv (although we did enjoy Sorority Life in the early-aughts), heavy emphasis on teen dramas (probably more my influence than his), light on the medical shows (although we did enjoy the entire run of House) and not a lot of gore. But we are flexible. We love The Wire, The Americans, Orphan Black, anything by Joss Whedon. We also loved Dawson’s Creek, The Love Boat, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Family. We have diverse tastes.

2017: A Movie Odyssey
Pure Happiness: Discovering your husband has never seen Smokey and the Bandit and being able to introduce him to this classic!

My husband is a bridge player, and he frequently participates in online tournaments. While he is distracted by playing a game on his ipad, I will typically slip on an old, familiar episode of the finest television show ever created, Mystery Science Theater 3000. If I can’t find one that seems fresh enough for that night, I will most likely download a Rifftrax movie. I love movies that are considered “bad,” and will happily watch a silly B-grade movie (or F-grade, in some cases) while he plays bridge.

We do not have cable service in our house, but we do love our Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon combo. It covers most of what we need, and what we can’t find streaming, we can typically get at our local library.

We have a routine, is what I am getting at. I love movies made in the 1970’s, and my husband loves Busby Berkeley musicals. This works well, since I love all musicals, and he enjoys movies from my favorite era. We have spent our marriage catching each other up on the movies that we feel are the “best” and “most important.” It’s been wonderful, especially since I am convinced that when we got together, my husband (henceforth called “Brian,” as is his name, and it is going to get annoying to keep referring to him as if “husband” is his official title) had only actually seen a dozen movies in their entirety: Conan, the Barbarian, West Side Story, Big WednesdayApocalypse Now, The Godfather, Jesus Christ Superstar, and some oddball, art-house films that I was shocked to discover he was familiar with.

I, on the other hand, watched almost every movie that I could find. I suppose we are children of the 80’s, but my true love is anything with James Caan or Gene Hackman. My favorite movie of any era (and I think I can speak for Brian when I say it is his favorite, as well) is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Brilliant movie. I love every frame, every scene, every silence, and every look. There is no better film.

My other film passion is about as far away from the 70’s cinema I love as you can get: evangelical, Christian films. I collect them like trading cards. I love end-times thrillers, and also seeing how Christian filmmakers use mainstream actors to legitimize movies that can otherwise be rather difficult to swallow. I do my own “riffing” but they tend to stand rather hilariously on their own, with no help from me.

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So many Christian films!

Over the years, we have gone through huge phases. Months of Joan Crawford, silent films, curating every aerobics or roller disco themed movie, several years of obsessing over the most obscure musicals I could find, seeking out every film with scenes involving group therapy, or EST. All while watching our favorite shows, and returning to the best television from the 70’s and 80’s.

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One of my favorite boxes of VHS tapes

But as we step into 2017, or, more accurately, as we sit on the couch, covered with kitties, how will we spend our evenings? Will we just keep returning to comfortable classics, familiar films that require little of us? Or should we watch every new movie that comes out? Maybe we should watch only award winning films? It seemed that a theme was in order… something to guide our year of movie watching.

So, we have decided to watch a modified list of the “Top 100 Movies of All Time.” There are many “Best Of” lists, and so many ways to attack this list. I decided to print out a variety of lists to collate into our personalized guide. We started with the “AFI Top 100” list, both the 1998 version, and the updated 2007 list. Then we searched the “IMDB Top 100” list, followed by the “Time Out New York” list. Finally, just for fun, I printed the Top 100 Ranked movies from “Rotten Tomatoes,” having no idea of what metric they used to determine their list.

Once we had all of these lists in front of us, we began editing. Our challenge is to watch movies that we have not watched together. We threw out all of the movies that we have seen before, unless one of us only vaguely remembered it. In those cases, we put the movie on the list to be watched. These include Once Upon a Time in America, which Brian swears we watched together, but I am convinced was actually Avalon, and Taxi Driver, which I know without a doubt that we watched during a heavy Harvey Keitel period, but Brian doesn’t believe he has seen. Same story with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which we absolutely watched because I am obsessed with Sandy Dennis. Also, we spent several weeks watching every movie with George Segal that we could get our hands on, including some fine work with Elliot Gould. I am just saying, “Virginia Woolf?” Yes. We saw it. Fairly scary. But since Brian can’t remember it, it made the list. Obviously, we both watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in the theater when we were kids, but besides a feeling of being “emotionally manipulated,” Brian doesn’t have a lot of memories around watching it. So, that made the list.

Ultimately, after crossing out duplicates, removing favorites, and adding back in some that we most likely saw, but didn’t absorb, we ended up with a list of 121 movies to watch in the next 12 months. To avoid backing up on movies we aren’t as enthused about, I cut up the list, folded the papers, and put them in a jar. Our plan is to watch two movies per week from the list. If we choose a movie that is not available streaming, or already owned in our collection, we will borrow it from the library, making it our next movie, and choosing another one for that night. No avoiding. No procrastinating.

Looking at the list, you will undoubtedly see some gaping holes, movies that you feel must have been overlooked in our search. You might say, “The Wizard of Oz didn’t make the cut? No Annie Hall”? I assure you, we have seen the movies that seem like glaring oversights. That’s why they are not on our list.

So, without further ado, our 2017 Movie Challenge List!

All About Eve

We have this one in our movie jar, but since it was playing in the theaters as a special event, we decided to sneak it in before we get around to The Searchers and The Pianist. I am so glad we saw this on the big screen because it was gorgeous! This might be my first actual Bette Davis movie, and oh my! Such a fabulous movie! I must see everything Ms. Davis ever did, because she is incredible! Such fire, such venom, such wit! I am almost without words, so I will just leave this here…

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This movie presented in cooperation with “Booze and Cigarettes!” Enjoy some “Booze and Cigarettes” today!

The plot is told from many perspectives, and it is so juicy! I am going to assume that you haven’t seen it, and I don’t want to ruin any of the electric moments by over-explaining. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a star of the stage who longs to play meatier, more age-appropriate roles. She doesn’t appear old,  but she is more than aware that cramming her into 20 year old ingenue roles is becoming an embarrassment. I should mention, she has recently hit the advanced age of 40. Her boyfriend, and director, is 32.

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It occurs to me that referring to anyone having an affair with the fabulously vibrant Bette Davis as a “boyfriend” is a perfect example of why there needs to be a better word for adults who are having a sexual, committed relationship that does not include the words “boy” or “girl.” What an awful term to use in relation to Bette Davis.

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Marilyn Monroe had a small part in this film. She isn’t the devious Eve. She is a sexy, mostly untalented showgirl, trying to sleep her way into the world of acting. She was allowed to play much smarter about how things work than she often was in later roles.

A young woman enters the story, presented as the ultimate stage-door super-fan to Margo, after meeting Margo’s best friend, Karen. Karen is simply amazing. Her best friend is a heavy drinker with a venomous tongue, but she has known her long enough to see the softer side. Through this introduction, the young Eve ingratiates herself into the lives of Margo, and her friends.

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Eve is not as innocent as she initially appears, nor are her motives as pure. She has youth and beauty, but the movie leaves you guessing until the end if her sweetness can successfully snuff out the booze and cigarette soaked fire that Margo keeps so easily stoked in her relationships.

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Whew! Almost had a scene where there wasn’t at least one lit cigarette! That was a close one!

Everyone is brilliant, and witty. There are countless little clever comments that are meant to cut to the bone. I don’t really agree with the poster that this movie was “about women… and their men!” It felt much more to me a movie about comfortably aging, knowing who to trust, trusting your own judgement, and allowing people to see your weakness and fear as a source of great personal strength.

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It’s also about drinking vast quantities of booze, and leaving cigarettes all over the house in convenient, cunning little boxes. It’s about smoking while wearing white gloves, smoking in cars with all of the windows rolled up, smoking in airports, and smoking in dressing rooms. Smoking in bed. Smoking over dinner. Smoking over cocktails. Smoking on stairways. Smoking in meetings. Smoking on stage. Smoking whenever they were not in the process of swallowing booze.

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“WHY AREN’T WE SMOKING? There are four of us standing here, and not one of us is smoking! Someone get us a carton of Chesterfield’s and some matches! This is a cigarette emergency!”

 

The Hurt Locker

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False Advertising. So typical.

There was only one locker shown in this entire movie, and it was just sort of standing in the corner, not hurting anyone. We kept asking, “Is the locker hurt? Did the locker hurt someone? Is that the Hurt Locker?” Sadly, no answers came.

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A literal “hurt locker.” This was not the hurt locker from the movie, but I am trying to do recon on the title without actually researching the title. 

Apparently, this movie won all the awards in 2010. It was a huge hit. IMDB tells me that director Kathryn Bigelow was the first female to ever win the Academy Award for Best Director. It also won Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, among other awards.

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Ouch! That hurts! 

I am still trying to figure out why. Clearly, we are smack-dab in the middle of a big “America, HELL, YEAH!” point in our history. We rabidly celebrate any movie that shows us fighting against people with brown skin who may or may not be insurgents. We love seeing people who may be Islamic getting blown up. We love the big-dick-swinging, rah-rah John Wayne, American Hero, militarized invasion images. We eat that pro-war crap up! That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

Besides the lack of lockers being hurt, or lockers hurting others, there was so much wrong with this movie.

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Are you the hurt locker? You look hurt. At the very least, you look in need of some serious repairs. I would not feel safe keeping my lunch inside of this locker.

First, our “hero” is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal tech (EOD) who has no regard for his team. He took a lot of foolish chances in his job. His team considers fragging him during his first week on the job. That’s not a good performance review. The EOD (I didn’t know anything about him, didn’t care about him as a person, so I never bothered to learn his name) was either an adrenaline junkie, suicidal, or just overcompensating for being a crappy human by taking increasingly stupid risks. We are never given any information about his true motivations. He never shares this with the team who he puts in danger, over and over again. He doesn’t share it with his wife. We don’t know why he reenlists for more danger, other than choosing cereal is not exciting, and babies are boring as hell.

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Why would anyone want to hurt these lockers?

The two men the EOD works with fare little better. They are at least wise enough to be terrified of his unnecessary risk-taking. But these are three men who signed up, volunteered, to be part of this war, and we never get a single sliver of their motivation. How do they feel about the war they are fighting?

There was no plot, merely a countdown of days left on the mission. The characters do not develop any depth. There is no movement forward. Maybe that is the whole point? War is pointless, and drives men mad?

I am at a loss. I didn’t like this movie at all. I will definitely forget I ever saw it. I already feel like it might have just been a first-person shooter video game that I saw someone playing.

Again, there were no lockers. I can’t forgive this blatant lie.

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Yikes! So much hurt in this locker!

 

Dances with Wolves

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“I had never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps because the name itself had no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.”

I really love this movie. I saw it in the theater several times when it came out, and I am glad that Brian finally had to watch it with me. Whatever your thoughts about Kevin Costner’s acting ability, it’s incredible to see a movie about American Indians that portrays them as three dimensional characters, with the encroaching, genocidal whites invading their lands and destroying their culture, as the evil force we are/always have been.

Before I get to the movie itself, I have to say, I am not generally a fan of Westerns. I hate the idea that a “White Savior” is going to show up and save the day. In Western’s, white people are almost always portrayed as above the American Indian’s, looking down on their “simple” and “backward” ways. I hate movies clump all American Indians into one group, disregarding their vast experiences. So, I was primed to like a movie that showed the Westward-expanding whites as the murderous, destructive, evil force they have always been in the Native story of America.

So, Dances with Wolves. As the movie poster indicates, it won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And I believe they were well-earned. I read the book, which I also really enjoyed. It stayed fairly close to source material, but it was really amazing to see the vastness of this land and it’s people brought to life.

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Kevin Coster plays a Union Army lieutenant, John Dunbar, fresh from the battlefield. He requests a Western posting, wishing to “see the frontier, before it’s gone.” At his remote posting, he is watched, then cautiously met, and then brought into the lives of the Sioux tribe that has been observing him. He discovers a true love of the land, including the titular wolf who becomes his friend. The Sioux people teach Dunbar how to communicate, and they slowly begin learning about each other. Dunbar is aware of the need to stay true to “his” country, while realizing that the harmony, love, humor, and closeness he is developing with his new friends is where he truly belongs.

The first hour of the movie is told in many voice-overs, as John Dunbar writes in his journal. As he learns the ways of the Sioux people he comes to love, his life becomes less insular. As changes from an Army soldier to a Sioux husband, friend, and confidant, he learns their language, and leaves his solitary journey behind. But he knows what is coming. He knows the white men and their selfishness, their treachery, their lies and murderous ways. He and his new wife, a white woman who was taken in by the Sioux as a young child, realize they must leave their life behind to keep their Sioux family safe.

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Apparently, Neil Young provided a lot of these buffalo from his own ranch.

Truly, it is a beautiful movie. The buffalo hunting scene, actually, so many scenes, were just breathtaking. Even if you find Kevin Costner’s monotone voice distracting, watch this for Graham Greene’s portrayal of Kicking Bird, Rodney Grant as Wind in His Hair, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears. Beautiful acting. This was also the first time many of us had seen Mary McDonnel, and it was unusual to see such an untouched woman on screen. She is amazing, and I loved how she showed so many emotions, so close to the surface.

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I am sure there are countless essays about what is incorrect and wrong about Dances with Wolves. I am quite certain that as a white person with no personal lens to view the genocide of the Native people on their own land, I am mistaking many scenes in this scene as good and right when they are offensive and incorrect toward the people they are supposed to be representing. I can see that. Native activist, Russell Means, reports that the language was all wrong, written in the  Lakota  female-gendered dialect, with all the male actors using the incorrect language. The “White Savior” narrative criticism is totally valid. But it is really the only Western I have ever seen that shows different tribes with different values. It showed their daily life, carrying water, tending to hides,teaching their children, being married. No stony-faced Natives, intent on scalping any white intruder on their land. Well….there were a few, but it was well placed within the story.

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Near the end of the movie, Ten Bears, the Chief of this tribe, said to Dunbar, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances with Wolves.”

I think that Kevin Costner and this film deserved all of the accolades his movie received. He told a story that no one in Hollywood had ever tried to make. I doubt it could be made today. We have lost any desire to understand ourselves and the crimes perpetrated against non-whites. The crimes committed against the rightful owners of this land we call America reverberate today. There are no reparations we can make for the slaughter of an entire people. I see this movie as a small service to showing that although nearly all is lost, all is not forgotten.

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The titular scene. Literally Dancing with a Wolf.

 

Vertigo

 

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Ugh. I don’t get the appeal of Alfred Hitchcock. He seems to hate women, loves improbable set-ups, and lets his movies trail on a half an hour longer than they need to. I cannot believe that Vertigo made it onto any “Best Of” lists. It is beautiful to look at, very colorful, but sweet holy Moses, it is a long, boring slog through ridiculous coincidences, plans that would never come together, and misogyny run rampant.

There are spoilers ahead. This movie is 59 years old, so if you haven’t seen it yet, well…save yourself. Otherwise, here goes.

James Stewart stars in this one. His female costars are half his age, so never let them tell you that that age disparities in casting much older men with young women in Hollywood  is a new thing. He plays a police officer who had a near death experience, leading him to suffer from  acrophobia–fear of heights. Not vertigo, which is the spinning feeling when you are not actually moving. But why worry about this detail when there are endless driving scenes to film?

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This woman does not matter. She is the most interesting person in this whole affair, but her character means nothing, and is completely forgotten half way through the film. Pay no attention to this interesting scene. It is best if you just forget that there were moments that were worth following. Bras. They are fascinating. More fascinating than this entire freaking movie.

Stewart’s character, Scottie, is recruited by an old college roommate to stalk his wife, who he believes is being possessed by the spirit of a long-dead woman. See? It’s ridiculous right off the bat. It might have been better to say, “Hey, my wife seems to be having dissociative episodes, and I am concerned about her safety. Can you help me out by trailing her to ensure she is okay?” Instead, he sets him up to follow his bride around San Francisco to determine if she is actually being possessed. Without ever having spoken to to Madeline, played by Kim Novak, Scottie falls in love and develops an obsession with her that goes way beyond what he is being paid for.

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It’s not “stalking” if you’re being paid for it!

 

So much driving around. Driving, driving, driving. Peering through car windows. More driving. Attempted suicide. Rescue. Obsession. Actual suicide. Inquest. Acquittal. Obsession. More driving.

Then, Scottie happens across a brunette who looks nothing like Madeline, but he becomes obsessed with her. Let me just say this: too much eyebrow filler is not a good thing. Yikes. His obsession with this new lady, Judy, becomes absolutely psychotic. He forces her to dress like the dead Madeline. He has her change her makeup so she looks like her. He makes her dye her hair, and style it like his dead obsession. Eventually, we get to the actual freaking plot: Judy is Madeline. We shift perspective from Scottie to a voice-over from Judy as she confesses, in a letter she never sends, to being paid by the recently possessed Madeline’s husband to facilitate a murder that looked like a suicide.

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Same woman. Ten times the eyebrows. 

Just ride that wave for a minute. It makes no sense, and she never gives him this information until the very end when he sees her wearing the dead woman’s necklace. Oops. It’s always something. Rule one of helping a rich man kill his wife: don’t get caught by the unfortunate witness to murder wearing the dead woman’s jewelry. It’ll get you every time. That’s just common sense.

More driving. Good thing gas was cheap because he puts on the miles. Returning to the scene of the murder/suicide, he basically forces Judy/Madeline to her actual death. It’s convoluted. It takes forever to get there. I think that the odds that he will get off for this crime are pretty small. After all, he made her change everything about herself so she could look like the woman whose unfortunate murder he witnessed/inadvertently participated in.

This movie gave me a headache. I do not like Alfred Hitchcock. We have four more movies to slog through this year that he made. I am dreading them. He hates women, and I feel like he thinks his audiences are the most idiotic people in the world. I want my time back. I want my future time back from when the four other movies get pulled from the jar. A movie being “pretty to look at” is simply not enough for me to put it in the win column.

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This bun is the star of the movie. It fights gravity and wins. 

 

Bringing Up Baby

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Warning: Slapstick ahead!

I love Cary Grant. He had a great talent for using verbal asides and double-takes to send home a joke. Truly, so funny. It doesn’t hurt that he was gorgeous, and seemed like he was having a ball on this one. I am trying to assess this movie without relying on how much I love Cary Grant, because there was a lot of other stuff going on that probably deserves equal attention. There is a leopard named “Baby” that needs to be transported, and a museum that needs funding to keep working on rebuilding a brontosaurus. There is a wealthy woman who takes whatever she wants, and a woman planning to enter a sexless marriage for no apparent reason. Clothes are accidentally ripped, and leopards get loose, and are mistaken for each other. A dog steals a bone and buries it. Look, there is a lot of nonsense going on to get us to the best scene, pictured below. Cary Grant in a fur lined bathrobe. The end.

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Cary Grant in a furry bathrobe. The best moment of the movie. 

Katherine Hepburn was good. I am never certain how I am supposed to feel about her dialect. She’s from Connecticut, but she definitely leaned hard into that  Transatlantic Accent that was so popular in the 1930s. I found it to be so fake and off-putting that I was distracted during the entire film. I understand that it was an affect meant to indicate fine breeding and European roots, but every time she spoke, it took me right out of the story. I think the main takeaway for me from Bringing Up Baby is that I want to research why this accent happened, and how it eventually died. I don’t think that is necessarily a ringing endorsement for a movie that makes it into every “Top 100 Films to See Before You Die” list, but that was what made an impression on me.

Overall, it was quite a silly story. I think that this is probably not the kind of movie that the husband and I are going to pursue after watching this one. If this is the best slapstick comedy ever made, I think I have had my fill. There’s only so many tripping over tree branches and mistaken identity jokes that I can handle in my comedy.

Did I mention that Cary Grant is gorgeous? Especially with his smart “I am a zoologist” glasses.

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Sexiest actor ever?

Anatomy of a Murder

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This is the first movie we have watched that don’t feel equipped to write about the next day. I suppose I should start by saying that I loved the soundtrack. Duke Ellington won a Grammy for the album, and it was well deserved. For someone who generally feels anxiety while listening to jazz music, this is high praise. I mention the music right off the top because it was a constant presence in the film, and at times, it seemed a bit too light for the subject matter. But hearing Jimmy Stewart play piano by himself, and also sharing the bench with Ellington, was pretty amazing.

The cast was 90% dynamite. Jimmy Stewart was great. It was a bit startling to hear him talk in such a frank manner (for the time) about rape and sex, since I kept expecting him to say something corny about “The Old Building and Loan.” He was in top form, and man alive, I definitely plan to expand my experience with him. Ben Gazara has always been amazing. He was so unlikeable in this movie, and it really set up a lifetime of playing tough guys with low impulse control. George C. Scott had some electric courtroom moments. Stewart’s best friend and co-counsel, an alcoholic lawyer whose career had hit the skids, was played by an actor named Arthur O’Connell. Their relationship was pure joy to behold. You can tell they truly enjoyed playing with each other, and their shared scenes were incredibly fun to watch.

I could not look away from the kittenish Lee Remick. I never would have thought to compare her sexiness with Ann Margaret, but she certainly had “it.” Her portrayal of the “imperfect” rape victim should be shown in classes today to show how our society expects all rape victims to look and behave. She went to a bar alone. She wasn’t wearing a girdle, so she was intentionally jiggling her person about. She swished her hips. Her hair was loose, and flowing. She was barefoot, and wasn’t wearing nylons. She allowed the bartender to drive her home. After being punched in the face, she didn’t scream out for help while she was being raped. She had to convince her husband that she had truly been raped by volunteering to swear on a rosary. She didn’t call the police after she made her way home. In the days after she was raped, she wasn’t hysterically crying in a ball on the floor. She didn’t stop being a person who enjoyed being attractive. She continued to express her sensuality and flirtatiousness. In other words, she was not considered someone who could have been “legitimately raped.” In 1959, and in 2017, we still expect rape survivors to act in a definied manner that allows us to feel that they are contrite for whatever role they played in “allowing” their rape. We still use how much they had to drink, how much they flirted, what they were wearing, as reasons to discount their stories. In short, nothing has changed.

The rape was the trigger for the murder, and the movie really focuses on the level of awareness the husband had in killing his wife’s rapist. There is a lot of back and forth about “irrisistable impulse” and “temporary insanity.” And then, of course, there is the fact that the husband was a brute, himself, and didn’t really have control on any given day over the jealousy he felt about the attention his beautiful wife received.

There was a lot of courtroom language that seemed ridiculously dated, in particular, the scene with the entire gallery tittering wildly over the word “panties.” Absolutely ridiculous. But the movie also used a lot of reproductive words that were shocking to hear in a movie at that time, and would probably still shock your average Kansas farmer today. It definitely pushed some boundaries, and for a courtroom movie that seemed to have wildly innapropriate behavior by the prosecution and the defense, to hear them peppering their questioning with actual physical descriptions of the crime at hand brought the movie back to some level of realism.

I liked Anatomy of a Murder. I liked the actors, and the score. I liked that it showed the  way that the legal system deals with crimes against women. I liked that it portrayed a woman who had a sense of herself that didn’t diminish after she was beaten and raped. She was still in control of her own life. I am just not sure that I loved the movie. I wanted to. James Stewart was certainly fantastic. I may have to revisit it later in my life to see how I feel about it. This is the worst review I have written, but I did genuinely like the film. It just left me with some unanswered feelings that I am not ready to address.

Oh, almost forgot this detail: Principal McGee from Grease, Eve Arden, was Stewart’s long-suffering, unpaid secretary. I never thought of her as being in any other movie. I know that is silly because the gorgeous Joan Blondell was also in Grease. But seeing Arden in a different setting than a musical was a bit discombobulating. Her voice is very distinctive.

The Great Escape (Was it, though? Really?)

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With a poster like this, you just know it’s going to be escapey.

I never saw this one before, but based on the poster, I had a good idea of what I was in for. What I didn’t expect was the jaunty Stripes/Private Benjamin music to be played throughout a movie about a group of British, Australian, and American fliers escaping from a Nazi prison camp. The first few minutes of the movie, as the men are being driven to summer camp the Nazi camp, convinced me that I was about to see a lighthearted, “Springtime for Hitler” type of deal.

And I was not far off. The tone of the movie was entirely too light. If you haven’t seen it, the movie was about soldiers that absolutely did not seem concerned for the cause for the war they were fighting, or express interest in the atrocities that were taking place 370 kilometers away at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They talked in a general way about the Nazis, but the Commandant of Stalag Luft III seemed to be an affable fellow, and didn’t instill any fear of reprisals for the endless escape attempts. The men always had plenty of food, clothing, wood to burn,  and the most extreme punishment that we see doled out to the escapees is 20 days in a warm, but boring, room. Multiple escape attempts received a slap on the wrist, and an exasperated eye roll. There seemed to be some sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that the soldiers were required to attempt escape, and the guards were required to bring them back, no worse for the wear. Until the end, but even then, they didn’t all get killed by the Nazis. Some of them came back, totally unscathed.

I have a real issue with a movie about World War II that makes it seem so not-traumatic. I expect that movies about The Holocaust should impress upon the audience that this was a horrific, scarring, unforgivably cruel experience for everyone who was touched by it. The Great Escape shows the soldiers being held at this camp acting, for the most part, relaxed and not at all bothered by what they have witnessed. I get that they were fliers, and not ground fighters who had to look in the eyes of the people they killed, or to smell the death all around them, but they were just so clean and untouched by the war.

As with Argo, this movie was based on actual events. Also, as with Argo, the American participation in the actual events is hugely overstated. I get it. This is an American war film, so we have to be the heroes. Factually, this was a huge error. But we had all these hunky guys, so we had to be the stars. Steve McQueen insisted on bulking up his part, and added some ridiculous motorcycle jumps during his escape to ensure that the “America…HELL, YEAH!” quality was truly played at maximum volume.

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WHY? Why was this necessary?

The movie had a stellar cast, but no character development. Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Richard Attenborough… none of their performances made me want to stand up and cheer. The could/should have trimmed an hour out of the movie, made a few tidy editorial cuts to pace it out more evenly so that the only interesting parts weren’t clustered in the last hour. If you think I mean that the movie showed the relentless boredom of prison-work life, and the grueling day in/day out tedium of being a prisoner of war, I don’t. I mean that it was boring. The entire digging, escaping, recapture, plotting, escaping, digging, escaping, recapture was redundant and drug out to the point where I honestly stopped caring about who was going to be alive at the end of the movie.

I do have to point out that two actors in this movie were brilliant, totally engaging, and made this whole exercise worthwhile for me: James Garner and Donald Pleasence. It was so delightful to see these two masters work together to create a real human camaraderie that jumped off the screen. Their characters had a depth and a warmth that was lacking in every other character. Their motivations made sense, if only that they wanted to help each other. Donald Pleasence was so often cast as a villain, so it was great  to see him play a kind and gentle spirit, suffering silently with increasing myopic blindness. James Garner, well, he could have just made Polaroid commercials for the rest of his life, and I still would have thought he was incredible. Their affection seemed the most real part of the entire movie. Hooray for two great actors making a good meal out of otherwise lousy potluck!

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The true stars of the film: James Garner and Donald Pleasence

Overall, I think I would have been better off just watching three hours of “Hogan’s Heroes.” At least that show knew that it was a comedy about German Nazi prison camps. It wasn’t trying to be whatever The Great Escape was attempting. The music would have made sense. Overall, I give the whole escape a solid “Meh.” Not “a pretty good escape.” Definitely not a “great escape.” More of a “Well, that escape certainly happened multiple times.”