A ritual watching of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a cynical, unpleasant weatherman who is sent out on assignment to cover Ground Hog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Inexplicably, he awakens the next day to find himself caught in some sort of time loop, forced to live February 2nd over and over again. Perhaps the most horrifying part of this: he wakes up every morning to Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe on the radio (shudders).
Connors goes from bewilderment to anger and despair; he commits suicide several times, only to wake up once again to another Groundhog Day. He eventually decides to find meaning and purpose in his endlessly reset life, becoming a better person in the process.
This week we watched the 1950 movie Harvey which stars James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister Veta Simmons. Elwood inherited the family fortune and his widowed sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae live with him. They are not grateful for his generosity, however, because they consider that his eccentric ways are hurting their social standing and Myrtle's chances of making a successful marriage. Elwood experienced some sort of psychic break a few years before when his mother died. After that, he made the acquaintance of a six foot tall white rabbit named Harvey who has become his best friend. Though no one else can see Harvey, Elwood introduces him to everyone he meets, buys train and theater tickets for him, and talks to him constantly. Elwood and his invisible pal spend most of their days sitting in a local bar ordering martinis, chatting with the other patrons, listening to their problems, and inviting random people- taxi drivers, workmen, etc.- home for dinner. This naturally frustrates his social-climbing sister and niece who decide that Elwood must be committed to a local mental institution and take steps to make this happen. Hijinks ensue. As those around him charge about stressed, angry, and litigious, Elwood wanders happily though life in an amiable daze, genial and generous. It makes you wonder who the crazy ones really are. "Well, I've wrestled with reality for thirty five years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it."
It's a bit late in the week, but we watched my favourite New Years movie last Sunday night: Bachelor Mother from 1939. This comedy with serious undertones stars Ginger Rogers, David Niven, and Charles Coburn and is a delightful romp which has aged extremely well. I won't say much more about the film since I reviewed it a couple of years ago (links below) which was the last time I watched it. New Years or not, it's a great movie. The scene below is when, after Polly leaves the baby at his house, David Merlin tracks her down at the dance competition she and a coworker have entered. Shenanigans ensue.
I attended Christmas concert #2 yesterday; it was less elaborate than the one I went to last Sunday, but the message was just as great.
Last night we watched White Christmas, the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
In it, Crosby and Kaye star as two entertainers who meet in the army during World War II and afterwards form a successful showbusiness partnership- Wallace & Davis. They meet the two singing/dancing Haynes sisters (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen); Phil Davis (Kaye) and V-E's character- Judy- get the bright idea to play matchmaker for Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Judy's older sister Betty. They all wind up at an inn in Vermont where the girls are booked to appear over Christmas, which turns out to be owned by Wallace & Davis' former army commander, General Waverly. The inn is in financial straits because there has been no snow all season, which means no skiing or other winter sports which generally bring tourists to the area. To help Waverly, Wallace decides to move their entire show there from New York in the hopes this will bring guests to the inn. Shenanigans ensue, misunderstandings abound, and romances blossom as Phil and Judy scheme to bring Bob and Betty together while putting on a slam-bang show.
After work yesterday, I went over to my sister's place because she was hosting a Halloween movie night. We ordered Chinese, handed out candy to trick-or-treaters, and watched The Village, M. Night Shyamalan's 2004 film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Adrien Brody. The movie isn't terrible by any means, but it's not great either and it was really when it was released that people began getting an uneasy feeling that something was going wrong with Shyamalan's work. The film's premise had possibilities, but the pacing is terrible, the story is rolled out in such a way that the plot twist- there's always a plot twist- is pretty obvious, and the movie doesn't so much come to an end as just stop suddenly. There's no real resolution/pay off. Worst of all, Shyamalan makes the bizarre choice to have the film's most compelling character- Lucius, played by Joaquin Phoenix- stabbed halfway through the film and spend the rest of the run time in a coma. We literally never hear from him again. Who the heck thought that was a good idea? On the other hand, there are some very good moments in The Village- all of them centering around Lucius, which makes it doubly unfortunate when he spends half of the film unconscious in bed.
*My sister has been binge-watching The X-Files on Netflix and decided to carve her pumpkin with the show's logo:
We had some of the younger set with us tonight, and watched the 1979 film The Black Stallion. It is, of course, adapted from Walter Farley's 1941 book of the same name. I loved that novel when I was a child and owned (well, own: I still have them) several books in the series. As you probably know, the plot of the novel involves the protagonist Alec Ramsay getting shipwrecked on a remote desert island with a wild stallion. Eventually rescued, he returns home, taking the horse with him. The black stallion is insanely fast and Alec dreams of racing him but is hampered by the fact that the horse is untrained and also has no official papers. He is aided and abetted by Henry Dailey, a retired jockey and trainer who helps him train the Black and uses his contacts to get him into a match race with the two fastest race horses in America.
The movie was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, and Teri Garr. I've seen it a couple of times before and like it: the cinematography is beautiful and so is the soundtrack. I do have some reservations about changes made to the plot, but that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the story told in the film, or the fine performances of some of the actors involved such as Rooney's (as Dailey) and Teri Garr (Alec's mother)... Mickey Rooney was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Henry Dailey. It seems like the studio bosses also had reservations; after completion the film was shelved for two years because they thought it was too "artsy" for a children's movie. This idea might have stemmed from the fact that for almost half an hour (while on the island) there is no dialogue in the film at all. Coppola had to use his clout to finally get the movie released. When The Black Stallion actually made it to theaters, it became a critical and financial success and won numerous awards.
The biggest problem I have with the movie is the fact that the writers of the screenplay changed Alec Ramsay from the sixteen or seventeen year old he is in the the book to an eleven year old boy. This isn't to say that Kelly Reno does a bad job; it's just really unbelievable that a boy as young as he is would be able to survive everything which happens during and after the shipwreck, would be strong enough to control a semi-wild horse on the track, and that he would be allowed to ride in any kind of horse race, even a match race. In fact Reno, who was a skilled rider and did most of the riding scenes himself, had to be replaced by a double during the race scenes because- being eleven- he wasn't strong enough to control the horse portraying the Black. It just seems an odd choice to make him so much younger when the age he is in the book is so much more believable. Also, in the film, Alec is travelling with his father who goes down with the ship. In the book, Alec is travelling home alone after spending the summer abroad with an uncle who is a missionary- again, something a seventeen year old could do, but not an eleven year old. In the book Alec's father is alive and well throughout. That being said, there's a lot to love about the movie and some scenes like the one of the ship sinking, and Alec and the Black becoming friends on the island are very effective.
Fun fact: in the room where Henry (Rooney) keeps all of his trophies and memorabilia from his racing days, there's a black & white photo of him on a horse which is actually from the 1944 film National Velvet in which Mickey Rooney also starred.
We didn't continue with Cranford last Sunday night due to an unfortunate mistake. We were holding movie night at a different location and my sister was bringing the DVDs, but she forgot the one we were watching last week was still in her DVD player and just brought the case. We ended up watching the 1998 movie Little Men which is, obviously, an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1871 novel of the same name. It picks up where Little Women left off, with Jo and her husband Prof. Bhaer opening a school on the estate she inherited from her Aunt Josephine. The film version concentrates-naturally enough- on the school's students, the "little men," especially two of them: Nat and Dan. I had seen this film once before ages ago but didn't remember a lot about it; it's... harmless. Mariel Hemingway stars as Jo and, while her acting is fine, the character bears little resemblance to the tomboyish Jo Marsh of Little Women. Chris Sarandon plays a rather stern Professor Bhaer and is believable enough if you can manage to not think of him as Prince Humperdinck. The kids are all predictably cute and nice, with even the rebellious one being well-intentioned despite his rough edges. The plot is predictable even if you haven't read the book, and the ending is super cheesy. Oh, and there's a really annoying- and unnecessary- narrator who cuts in every once in a while to explain things which are perfectly obvious. This is starting to sound a bit negative but it's really not a bad movie... just bit bland and forgettable. My favourite character is actually a pretty minor one: Silas Blake the crusty old handyman: "The last man who tried that on me is pushing up daisies at Gettysburg." I would have preferred to watch a movie about him.
The second episode of Cranford, though still humorous, is darker in tone than episode one. Preparations are underway for Lady Ludlow's annual garden party, and the Browns are visited by a friend- Major Gordon. As the episode progresses, we learn that several years before the Major was courting Jessie Brown, but she declined his offer of marriage because she had to care for her sister. It appears that he is back to attempt once more to win her hand. We see more of the impoverished Gregson family; Mrs. Gregson has had a baby and is too weak to produce enough milk for the child. Harry and his younger brother start sneaking out at night, stealing milk from Mrs. Forrester's beloved cow Bessie for the baby. One night, however, the younger brother accidentally leaves the gate unlatched and the cow wanders off. When Mrs. Forrester finds her Bessie is missing, she is inconsolable and a good deal of the townspeople turn out to help search for the beast.
Bessie is eventually found, having fallen into a pit of lime. They are able to rescue her, but the lime has burned off all of her hair. The ladies of the town, scandalized by the sight of the naked cow, make Bessie an outfit which resembles long johns to wear while her hair grows back. While this is going on, Major Gordon proposes to Jessie and she is about to accept him when he informs her that his regiment is being sent to India. Jessie tells him that she can't possibly leave her father alone and move so far away and, extremely upset, the Major leaves Cranford.
Mr. Gregson turns up again, just long enough to make a nuisance of himself. He's actually angry when he discovers that Harry, despite being unable to attend school, has taught himself to read a bit. Gregson sees this as a waste of time and a sign that Harry is getting above himself. Mr. Gregson should be punched in the throat. Harry slips out that night and wanders onto the Ludlow estate, getting into the greenhouse through a window. He doesn't take anything but sits down to rest and falls asleep, only to be caught by Edmund Carter. The estate manager, convinced Harry is up to no good, takes the boy to his office. After talking to him however, Carter finds him to be intelligent and well spoken despite his lack of formal schooling. He offers Harry work, helping to get ready for the garden party. After observing the boy's hard work, Carter offers him more permanent employment and to help him receive an education.
Meanwhile, Dr. Frank Harrison has been settling in to his new practice. Unfortunately, a local single lady, Caroline Tomkinson, is infatuated with the eligible young doctor and starts to be afflicted with sudden illnesses which require an examination by Harrison although he assures her that there's nothing wrong with her. Dr Harrison is actually smitten with Sophy Hutton, the daughter of the local rector. She seems a sweet girl, who takes care of her younger siblings because their mother is dead. Frank tries to spend time with Sophy at the garden party but is called away, first by Caroline Tomkinson who has become suddenly "ill". Then Mary Smith's stepmother, who has shown up for the party, decides to try to offload her unwanted stepdaughter and maneuvers Frank into taking Mary out on the lake in a boat. An embarrassed Mary apologizes to Frank and the two share a laugh over the situation and he confesses to her his attraction to Sophy. Sophy and her family end up leaving early because her brother Walter isn't feeling well.
Back at the party, the rumour flies around that the railway is going to be coming through Cranford. The ladies are aghast at the very thought of such a thing happening and rush to ask Captain Brown if he knows anything about it. To their shock, he not only confirms that the railway is coming but tells them that he has been employed by the company and will be traveling a good deal. The ladies are all indignant; Miss Deborah in particular feels betrayed and tells Captain Brown that their acquaintance is at an end. She storms off. Jessie is also furious with her father, but for another reason. He hadn't told her about his employment and so she turned down Major Gordon's offer of marriage, thinking that her father needed her.
When Deborah and Matty arrive home, Deborah is still in a rage and complaining of having a headache. She goes to her room, but then collapses on the floor. A panicked Matty sends for the doctor. At the same time, the Hutton family is also sending for the doctor because young Walter has become very ill with the croup and is struggling to breathe. Dr. Morgan goes to the Jenkyns' house while Dr. Harrison rushes to the Huttons. Sadly, there is nothing for Dr. Morgan to do when he arrives to examine Miss Deborah, other than break the news to Matty that her sister has died. Dr. Harrison works all night on Walter, doing everything in his power to lower the boy's temperature and clear his lungs. Unfortunately, Walter is just too far gone and also dies. His family is completely devastated and Sophy blames herself for not realizing earlier that Walter was so sick.
I am continuing to enjoy Cranford as we get to know the characters better. Though I was sad to see Miss Deborah go, because I quite enjoyed her crusty personality. It is, as I mentioned, a darker episode which makes you realize afresh just how much easier it was for people to die of relatively innocuous illnesses back then. And make you extremely grateful for modern medicine. I'm continuing to enjoy the eccentric Mrs. Forrester and many of the other characters and have become invested in the lives of several of them, such as Dr. Harrison and young Harry Gregson. The spectre of the Industrial Revolution is looming on the horizon in the form of the coming railway and Cranford briefly introduces the controversy caused by it in this episode. The ladies of Cranford are horrified by the thought of the noisy, dirty railroad putting a line through the town, considering it a smoke-spewing blight on the beautiful landscape. To the working class poor- or soldiers on half pay like Captain Brown- the railroad represents jobs and increased convenience in transporting goods to their markets. These people don't have the luxury of opposing progress on aesthetic or sentimental grounds. It will be interesting to see how this conflict plays out in the upcoming episodes.
With summer winding down and schedules returning to normal, we're getting back into the habit of gathering to watch a movie on Sunday nights. Last Sunday we watched the first episode of the 2007 BBC series Cranford. This is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 novel by the same name, though it apparently also draws a bit from three of her other works: The Last Generation In England, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison's Confessions. I've read several of Gaskell's books- North and South, Wives and Daughters, and Mary Barton- but have never read Cranford or the other books mentioned above so am watching the series with only a vague notion of what it's about. I did give a copy of the book to one of my sisters along with the DVDs of Cranford last Christmas (this is what we're watching) so she has a better idea of what's going on than I. So far, Cranford doesn't seem to have much of a plot; it's more of a series of vignettes involving various members of the town of Cranford. This is an observation not a criticism, because these vignettes are interesting and often quite humorous. My sister says that the book is like this and is related mostly in a series of letters to one of the main characters- Miss Mary Smith- who is a frequent visitor to the town. The BBC series however does not employ letters to tell its story and, instead of Mary occasionally visiting, she moves to Cranford at the beginning of Episode I.
Mary Smith is from Manchester and she comes to Cranford in the summer of 1842 to stay with friends of her late mother: the two spinster sisters Deborah and Matty Jenkyns. Soon afterwards, new neighbours move in next door- Captain Brown and his two daughters. The very prim and correct Deborah is a bit put off by the Captain due to his blunt habits of speech. He frankly admits that they've moved to Cranford because it's a fairly inexpensive place to live and he doesn't have much money. Deborah considers this discussion of personal finances to be crass and vulgar. They don't meet Brown's eldest daughter because she is bedridden and extremely ill, but take an interest in the younger daughter Jessie, who spends most of her time caring for her sister. Later in the episode, the ill Miss Brown dies while Captain Brown is away, and the women rally around to help Jessie- especially Deborah, proving that her bark is worse than her bite.
Another incident which sets the town gossips aflutter is the arrival of the young (and single) new doctor Frank Harrison. He has come to assist his uncle, Doctor Morgan- the town's current physician- with his practice. Morgan worries that the townspeople, set in their ways, won't accept his young nephew as a doctor, but Frank wins them over with his first case. Local handyman Jem Hearne has suffered a compound fracture while doing some work for the Jenkyns. Dr. Morgan is planning to amputate the arm, which will mean financial destitution for Hearne who will no longer be able to do carpentry. Dr. Harrison intervenes, proposing to perform a new surgery, setting the bone and stitching the arm closed. The problem is, it needs to be done right away before infection sets in, it's night, and Harrison needs a lot of light to see what he's doing. He goes to the local store hoping to buy out all their candles but is told that they are sold out until the next shipment arrives. Getting wind of this, the ladies of Cranford spring into action, gathering up all the candles that they can find in town and bringing them to the doctor. This allows Harrison to operate without waiting until daylight, saving Jem's arm.
In another story line, we meet local aristocrat Lady Ludlow, whose husband and most of her children are dead. Her one remaining son, whom she idolizes, lives abroad spending the estate's money and never bothering to come home. She makes excuses for him, but it's obvious that he's a selfish wastrel. Her estate is managed by the competent and conscientious Edmund Carter. At the other end of the social spectrum we meet the impoverished Gregson family; Gregson seems to be a deadbeat, his wife struggling to take care of their kids and make ends meet. Their eldest son Harry tries to help his mother but is too young to do much.
Among the other residents of the town, we meet the somewhat eccentric widow Mrs. Forrester. In this episode, her cat swallows a valuable length of lace trim which requires the prompt use of a laxative and a Wellington boot to, um, retrieve the lace.
I found myself quite enjoying this first episode of Cranford. As mentioned, there's no plot to speak of: we just sort of meander from one scene to the next, but these scenes are interesting and enjoyable. The focus of Cranford seems to be the women of the town; there are men, but they are more satellite characters, orbiting around the ladies and their concerns. As this is a BBC production, Cranford is a veritable "who's who" of British actors, from those you recognize at once such as Judi Dench, Julia Sawalha, and Imelda Staunton, to many more who look vaguely familiar and you eventually place as having been in some period drama or another. All in all, I had a good time watching episode one of Cranford and am looking forward to the next installment.
Gosford Park (2001) is the type of movie which is seldom made these days: a murder mystery set in the past, with a large ensemble cast, a clever plot and witty dialogue. And it had- gasp- an original screenplay. This was written by Julian Fellowes, who is also Baron Fellowes of West Stafford and so familiar with life in swanky English country homes. Robert Altman, determined that the film be as authentic as possible, also hired a former butler, cook, and house maid who had all been employed on estates during the time period. They were on set throughout production, making sure that the acting serving staff behaved properly in their roles. Incidentally, Julian Fellowes also wrote Downton Abbey which was originally intended to be a spin off from Gosford Park, but eventually ended up being set a couple of decades earlier. As mentioned, Gosford Park has a huge cast, many of the actors being academy award winners and/ or nominees. But the film also had a relatively small budget- 19.8 million in total- so it was clear that no one could get paid their accustomed salary. Altman offered the 17 first tier actors the same fee, and the 24 secondary actors a lesser but also equal payment. Considering the size of the cast and the budgetary restraints, this couldn't have worked out to a huge amount of money for anyone, but the actors all signed up eagerly to work on the project, no doubt recognizing its quality. And Gosford Park is very good, reminding me variously of an Agatha Christie mystery, Clue, Upstairs Downstairs, and Remains Of The Day.
One of the main themes of the film- besides murder- is, of course, class. At Gosford Park, we have the aristocratic class represented by the McCordles and most of their guests. The servants downstairs are obviously working class, and then we have a few people hovering awkwardly between Middle and Upper Class. One of these is Sir William himself, who was a factory owner who bought his way into a peerage and then married into the upper class. The same can be said of Mabel Nesbitt, daughter of a factory owner whom the execrable Freddie married for her money- which he promptly squandered. They are allowed into the ranks of the upper class, but are never really accepted as part of it.
Ivor Novello also falls into this category; he's a matinee star and Sir William's cousin and so acceptable as a guest at the Park, but he's also expected to 'sing for his supper', so to speak. Unlike the rest of the party, he's expected to make himself useful. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mabel frequently seeks him out; though he's famous, his background is not unlike her own and, instead of the judgement she receives from the other guests- and her own husband- Novello offers understanding and unspoken sympathy.
Incidentally, Ivor Novello is the only character in the movie who was a real person. He was both an actor and a composer; among other things, he wrote the W.W. I hit Keep The Home Fires Burning. Played by Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park, the songs he sings are actual ones by Novello: What A Duke Should Be, And Her Mother Came Too, I Can Give You The Starlight, and The Land Of Might-Have-Been. Jeremy Northam sang all of the songs himself (quite well) and they were played by his brother Christopher who is a classically trained pianist.
The above stairs/ below stairs reactions to Novello's performance underline the differences between the classes. Most of the other guests are blase, ignoring his singing or rolling their eyes about it. The exception is Mabel who is obviously delighted, highlighting the fact that she's not of the aristocratic, ennui-ridden class. Likewise, the servants gather a close as they dare to listen to Novello, crouching on stairs and hiding behind doors in the dark. Performances by a star of the silver screen are a rare and special treat for them and they have no desire to feign indifference.
Morris Weissman is also an odd man out; he's American and the director of Charlie Chan films, and so a vulgar curiosity to his fellow house guests. He is treated with polite- and sometimes impolite- indifference by the other guests, and receives a delightfully barbed put down from Lady Constance. He is less bothered by these snubs than other victims (ie. Mabel, or Anthony Meredith) of them are, probably because he cares less; he's there on business and has no need to curry favour.
It is fascinating to see that the servants below stairs have a hierarchy which mirrors that of the aristocrats above stairs and is just as rigidly enforced. The visiting servants are called by their employers' names instead of their own, and seating at the servants dinner table is arranged by the relative prominence of said employers. As one unfortunate ladies maid finds out when she's sharply reprimanded by Mr. Jennings for sitting above Mary, who is maid to a Countess. OK, having now discussed the upstairs/ downstairs denizens separately, in my next post I'll consider the interactions between the two groups... as well as a few other things.