Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Light posting alert

I started this blog back in 2008, about the time that my mom was diagnosed with dementia after a series of TIAs, or mini-strokes. Having screwed up my own life, I wound up helping Dad take care of Mom until she went into the nursing home not long before she died in 2015. So after that it was just me and Dad, an arrangement that suited us both emotionally and financially.

Of course, Dad is getting up there in years and recently took a bad fall that resulted in a fractured hip. Since I'm the only one of the kids who lives in the area, I've had to deal with all the fallout of it. I haven't hade much time to watch movies, let alone the desire. I sat down last night to watch Gate of Hell, a Japanese film TCM ran during 31 Days of Oscar and got through about a half hour before I felt I was just too damn tired to keep watching.

I thought about taking a long break from posting, but there's the Thursday Movie Picks to keep me going and, I assume, things will settle down into some sort of routine. But who knows how long that will be?

Monday, May 16, 2022

Midnight (1939)

A search of the blog reveals that I've never blogged about the Claudette Colbert film Midnight before. It was on TCM not too long ago, so I recorded it in order that I could do a review of it, not having seen it in ages.

Colbert plays Eve Peabody, who at the start of the movie shows up in Paris on a train from Monte Carlo and Nice. She's asleep in third class when the train stops, and the railyard worker who checks to make certain all the passengers have gotten off has to roust her to get her off the train. She also doesn't have any luggage with her, just the very fine gown on her back. Eve, you see, is a chorus girl who likes to gamble, and lost everything she had in Monte Carlo, to the point that she had to pawn her belongings to get to Paris.

Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) is a Hungarian émigré living in Paris and working as a taxi driver. Eve sees him, and makes him an offer. He'll drive her around to all the nightclubs listed in the want ads as looking for singers, and if she gets a job, she'll pay him double the fare; otherwise, he'll have to eat the fare since she doesn't have any money. We get a montage of nighclub neon signs, as Eve finds herself unable to procure employment. But Tibor is already smitten with her, as he buys her dinner and offers her a place to crash for the night as he works the night shift.

Eve has other plans. She escapes to a hoity-toity classical music recital that's by invitation only. Well, she escapes to the outside of it, as she doesn't have an invitation, of course. So when she gets in line to enter, she presents her ticket from the pawn shop, since the guy handling admittance isn't checking the invitations so quickly. They check after everybody is in, and Stephanie, the woman running the concert (Hedda Hopper in a small role) spots the deception, asking if anybody is Eve Peabody, or knows her. The real Eve, of course, says nothing, but another man spots her trying to leave, and takes her into another room.

These are actually several people who would prefer to play bridge than listen to this classical music, among them Marcel, who brought Eve into the room; Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore); Georges' husband Helene (Mary Astor); and Helene's lover Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). George knows fully well that Helene and Jacques are lovers, but he's not going to grant his wife a divorce, instead looking for a way to break up the relationship. Meanwhile, Eve loses 4000 francs playing bridge, money she doesn't have. Eve, of course, hasn't told these people she's Eve Peabody; instead she claims to be the Baroness Czerny, taking Tibor's name.

Georges, however, does have many, and slips some into Eve's pocketbook. He even books a suite for her at the Ritz so that Jacques won't discover the deception. Of course, he's got a plan for her, and my synopsis giving a bit too much away, you might have figured it out, which is that Georges wants Eve to get Jacques to fall in love with her so that Georges will be able to get Helene back for himself. Eve accepts the offer, because she doesn't really have much choice.

Complicating things is that Tibor would like to find Eve. And he's got the power of thousands of Parisian taxicab drivers on his side, having put up a pool wherein everybody who antes up can get the whole pool by finding Eve. Eventually, he learns that Eve has gone to the Flammarion place out in the country for one of those weekend-long parties in a movie like Gosford Park. And when he goes out there, and finds that Eve is using his name....

If Midnight suffers from one problem, it's one that's not of its own making, but of having been released in 1939. Old movie buffs tend to consider 1939 Hollywood's greatest year, and there are a lot of movies from that year that are better remembered than Midnight, with probably the most notable one for the purposes of this blog post being another Paris-set movie, Ninotchka. It's a bit of a shame, because Midnight is generally a fine movie, although at times the production values feel just slightly less glittering than Ninotchka.

But, in general, the actors all do quite well for themselves, including Monty Woolley as a judge in a divorce-court finale, and the script is excellent too. This later even though the screenwriters, the pair of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, apparently had some problems with Mitchell Leisen's direction -- not that I found anyhing notably wrong with it.

In short, Midnight is one of the underrated films of 1939, and if you haven't seen it, definitely do yourself a favor and watch it.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Desperately Seeking Susan

Another of the movies that showed up during one of the free preview weekends was Desperately Seeking Susan. It's got multiple airings coming up over the next week, starting with early tomorrow (May 16) at 4:45 AM on The Movie Channel (or three hours later if you only have the west coast feed).

Susan (pop singer Madonna) is a woman who travels the world, doing God only knows what, at least that's what her friends know. We obviously know because we get to see it. As far as they're concerned, she brings chaos wherever she goes. As the movie opens, she's in Atlantic City with some guy who's not her regular boyfriend. As she's leaving the hotel while he's asleep, she pilfers some money and a pair of earrings from his coat. The guy gets shot for his trouble by gangsters.

Meanwhile, because Susan is traveling the world, she and her more-or-less regular boyfriend, Jim (Robert Joy), a rock musician who travels a lot, have taken to taking out ads in the personals letting each other know when they'll be available for a meeting. Apparently, some people actually read the personals, and not just the ones looking for dates. One of those people is Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette). She's a housewife living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, together with her husband Gary (Mark Blum) who has made a fairly good living for himself and his wife out of selling hot tubs and bathroom spas. But she's bored, and has a sort of fantasy life wondering about those personals.

One day, Gary needs Roberta to go in to New York City on a business errand. At the same time, Roberta has read that this is the day that Susan and Jim are going to having one of their trysts, in New York's Battery Park. So Roberta decides that she's going to go to Battery Park and see what it's all about, following Susan after the two split up and even buying a jacket that Susan trades in at a vintage clothing store. Roberta finds that the jacket has a locker key, obviously not knowing that Susan has hidden something valuable in that locker. Instead, Roberta takes out a "Depserately Seeking Susan" ad, knowing that this will pique Susan's interest and get her to show up at Battery Park and get the key back.

But the meeting doesn't go as planned. The gangster who shot Susan's partner in Atlantic City and has been following Susan shows up, although of course neither of them knows who this guy is. Also, Susan has been unable to make the meeting because she can't pay her cab fare. Jim, meanwhile, has sent his best friend Dez (Aidan Quinn) to the meeting because Jim read about the guy from Susan's trip to Atlantic City getting killed. Sound complicated? Well, it's about to get more complicated. As the gangster chases Roberta, thinking this is Susan, she falls in hits her head, losing her bag in the process. As happens in the movies, she winds up with a case of amnesia and Dez thinks this is actually Susan.

This causes all sorts of problems on the way to a fairly madcap ending, with Roberta getting accused of prositution and the normally staid Gary smoking pot with Susan, and a parody of bad nightclub musicians mixed in. The plot of Desperately Seeking Susan is one that probably ought not be analyzed too much; instead, just sit back and have fun.

Rosanna Arquett and Aidan Quinn both do good jobs. More surprisingly, Madonna, who selected this as her first big role as she wanted to get into acting, is also a lot of fun as the woman who causes destruction everywhere she goes. There's also several of Madonna's early hits on the soundtrack, as the movie is firmly but fabulously in the 1980s. (Of course, with cell phones nowadays, a plot like this couldn't work at all.)

So just enjoy the ride. Desperately Seeking Susan is quite the enjoyable ride indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Across 110th Street

For the last several years, TCM has spent one night in late December running a night of movies featuring stars who died over the past year. This past December, one of those stars was Yaphet Kotto, who had died in March 2021. The movie they selected for him was Across 110th Street. Recently, I finally got around to watching it in order to do a review here.

The title refers to Manhattan's 110th Street, seen in New York City at the time as the dividing line between Harlem to the north and the more fashionable neighborhoods bordering Central Park to the south. It's also a fairly stark racial dividing line with blacks in Harlem and whites to the south. If there's one thing they have in common, however, it's a segment of the population engaging in organized crime. As we see in the opening, a white (specifically Italian-American) gangster is riding in his Cadillac toward an apartment in Harlem, where he and his partners are set to collect money from the numbers games. However, a couple of cops knock on the apartment door to inform the man about his parked car. Of course, they're not really cops, but rival crooks, who decide that they're going to bump off all these gangsters and take the money, totaling a good $300K, for themselves!

Unsurprisingly, pretty much nobody is happy with seven people having been murdered in one go, never mind if they were criminals. Nick D'Salvio (Tony Franciosa) is the head of the Italian-American mafia that was going to be getting this money, and as you can guess, he wants it back. But being a criminal, he can't quite rely on the police since they won't just give him that money should they recover it. Meanwhile, the black gangs are led by Doc Johnson (Richard Ward), who is no dummy, as we'll learn later. He owns a livery company which is really a front for the crime business.

And then there are the police. Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto) is a young detective who was called in to the murder scene and basically put in charge of it while the other cops come and go. And then showing up is Capt. Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a much older cop approaching retirement but without all that much to live on, as again we'll learn later. He outranks Lt. Pope, and of course he's white, so he naturally believes he should be in charge of the crime scene, having no qualms about telling Pope this.

Meanwhile, we have the two crooks dressed as cops, Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin) and Joe Logart (Ed Bernard). They've gotten into crime in no small part because they see no other economic opportunity for themselves, especially considering one of them was already a criminal who'd never get a good job. They use Henry Jackson (Antonio Fargas) as their getaway driver, and it's Jackson who screws up first, mostly by being much too flamboyant and drawing attention to himself. D'Salvio and his men find Jackson first, and then the search is on for the other two.

Across 110th Street is a gritty, unrelentingly violent movie that was greatly helped by its use of location shooting. The lighting has a consistent blue-white glow, and is often rather dim, as befits the locations. Most of the locations, including the police precincts, are also quite shabby; the movie was made in 1972 which I refer to here as the era from just before Gerald Ford told the city to drop dead. The racial tensions add to a portrait of a city falling apart.

Reading a bit about Across 110th Street suggests there was a surprising number of poor reviews from contemporary critics. Part of that seems to be because of the violence in the movie, while another reason given is that the movie isn't really breaking any new ground. That may well be true, but what the movie does it actually does quite well. It fits in with any of the other crime movies from the first half of the 70s and holds its own, thanks to the good performances and verisimilitude. It's definitely more than worth a watch.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Strange Justice (1932)

Unfortunately, I've got a lot of movies on my DVR that aren't on DVD, and even not on streaming. I've recently done a few posts on films that seem to be on streaming services somewhere or other although the DVD is out of print, but I generally prefer to do posts on movies that readers have the chance to watch for themselves. But because of all those movies taking up space on the DVR, I'm going to have to start doing the odd post here and there on old films that don't currently seem to be available anywhere. (However, as I mentioned when the old Filmstruck service shut down, I don't understand why Warner Home Video or whatever corporate entity runs the old Warner Archive now can't take all those movies from the library Ted Turner bought and make them a streaming service, since the Warner Archive selections have to have been digitized for putting on DVD or Blu-ray.) In any case, today's post is one of those movies, Strange Justice.

Kearney (Richard Bennett) is a lawyer in New York who meets a friend, banker Henry Judson (Reginald Denny), at a club where Rose (Marian Abbott) is the hat-check girl. Rose has a boyfriend named Wally (Norman Foster) who recently got out of prison and is trying to reform his life and go straight. Meanwhile, Henry seems to like Rose, so she tries to see if he wouldn't be willing to give Wally a job as a chauffeur. Indeed, Wally does get that job, but they don't all live happily ever after.

The problem is that, at the bank, Judson is embezzling money! And he's just been found out by another guy at the bank, Waters (Irving Pichel), who decides that that the thing to do about an embezzling colleague is to blackmail the co-worker. Nice people, aren't they? Meanwhile, Wally nearly jeopardizes his job when he spots Judson putting the moves on Rose, and thinks that perhaps the think to do is to slug his boss. In another odd twist, Judson basically says "Oh well" and wishes Wally and Rose happiness in their marriage.

But there's still that embezzlement going on. Waters and Judson come up with a scheme in which Judson will fake his own death and make it look as though Wally killed him through reckless driving, and have Wally caught with some of the embezzled money that he can't quite explain how he got, or at least not with any corroborating witnesses. This being a 1930s movie, it sends Wally not only back to prison, but to death row. However, since he's not guilty of anything more than being a dope, we will eventually get a happy ending.

Strange Justice is decidedly a B movie, from RKO, who didn't have as good B movies as Warner Bros., nor as polished as MGM. Still, Strange Justice is an interesting little effort from the pre-code era.

I can see, however, how it never made its way to DVD. Nobody would have thought there was much potential for it to sell in the pre-MOD days, and even once the Warner Archive started, there were a lot of other movies that would be more deserving of a MOD release. There's also no real star here to build a box set around (even if I think I saw a Universal Reginald Denny set once), so those old four-movie sets that Warner Home Video were putting out wouldn't do, either.

In fact, Strange Justice is the sort of movie that would be great for a streaming service, even one of the ad-supported services like TubiTV. But then, I don't know much of anything about the economics of the ad-supported streaming services.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Thursday Movie Picks #409: Related actors with the same relationship in both real life and the movie

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is one that sounds more complicated when trying to write it down than it is when actually picking the movies. Each of this week's three movies are supposed to have people who are members of the same family in real life, and in the movie they have that same family relationship. Now, there are several cases of real-life husbands and wives playing a married couple in a movie, but I've already used The Guardsman (Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) before, as well as The Clock (James Gleason and his wife Lucille). In the end, I only used one husband-and-wife combo:

Room for One More (1952). Cary Grant was on Wife #3, Betsy Drake, and they star together in this movie. Betsy plays a woman who is willing to take in stray dogs, and even foster children, without consulting her husband (obviously played by Cary Grant). Two of the kids are particularly difficult cases, although this is the sort of movie you just know is going to have a happy ending.

In the Goold Old Summertime (1949). OK, I'm cheating a bit on this one. The movie is a remake of The Shop Around the Corner, with Judy Garland playing the shop girl who has a pen pal she falls in love with, not realizing that the pen pal is Van Johnson, her co-worker with whom she decidedly does not get along. At the end of the movie, Judy's character is seen carrying her daughter in her arms, and that daughter is played by one Liza Minnelli in her first screen appearance.

Five of a Kind (1938). The Dionne quintuplets were born to a French-Canadian couple in Ontario in 1934, and were the first surviving set of quintuplets. As the Dionnes already had a bunch of kids, and would go on to have a couple more(!), the province of Ontario decided to step in and make them wards of the state and turning them into a tourist attraction, which included putting them in a couple of Hollywood movies, here playing a group of quints called the Wyatts. The plot involves their heroic doctor (Jean Hersholt), and the two reporters (Claire Trevor and Cesar Romero) who find out about the quints and try to get the scoop. Of some interest is that the then-new technology of television is used to display the "live" footage of the quints to an audience watching in a theater.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Chickadee of size

Not certain what to do a post on, I noticed that on my Mae West box set I had one movie left that I hadn't done a post on, My Little Chickadee. So I put that in the DVD player and watched it to do a post on here.

Mae West plays Flower Belle Lee, who at the beginning of the movie is riding a stagecoach somewhere in the Old West with the other passengers including one Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton), who seems slightly more pleasant than the character Hamilton played the previous year in The Wizard of Oz, if only because she doesn't have green make-up and isn't actively trying to kill a little girl and her dog. Anyhow, a Masked Bandit waylays the coach, forcing everybody to get and taking the gold. The Bandit absconds with Flower Belle, because who wouldn't abscond with such a voluptuous lady? And it's not as if you'd abscond with Mrs. Gideon.

But because of this, and because the Bandit shows up again at the home where Flower Belle is staying, she's run out of town, the other townsfolk thinking she might be a woman of ill-repute and in cahoots with the Bandit. So she makes her way by train to Greasewood City, in the hopes of starting a new life. Waiting along the tracks to get a ride to Greasewood City is one Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields).

The train is waylaid by Indians, with Flower Belle and Twillie saving the day. Also, Flower Belle sees a large stash of cash in Twillie's carpet bag. So she marries him in the hope of having a rich husband and one who's respectable, while Twillie is willing to marry Flower Belle because, again, she's voluptuous, and he hopes he can score with her. This, even though Flower Belle is pretty open about it being a marriage of convenience (especially once she finds out that the cash isn't legitimate).

In Greasewood, two men vie for Flower Belle's attention. One is the newspaper publisher Wayne Carter (Dick Foran), while the other, Badger (Joseph Calleia), is clearly the sort of guy westerns portray as the "owner" of the town, also responsible for permitting the vice if not owning it outright. Badger has been selecting the sheriffs on the basis of who is too incompetent to be sheriff, much like Tom Destry from Universal's release the previous year Destry Rides Again. Badger sees Twillie, and it's obvious that he'd make a suitable sheriff, at least in terms of what Badger wants. There's still a Masked Bandit out there, and it should be pretty obvious who it will be once the mask is removed, but we've got a little ways to get there yet.

My Little Chickadee is an odd little movie. W.C. Fields and Mae West were both sui generis, and pairing their different styles together is something that has the potential to go badly wrong. Mostly, it doesn't go wrong, but it doesn't hit the high notes it could considering the caliber of the two leads. The big thing is that large parts of it feel more like Fields sketches, and other sections feel like West sketches, with the perfunctory plot being bolted on. It also definitely doesn't help how much the Production Code neutered West.

So My Little Chickadee is an interesting curiosity, but it's certainly not the best movie in either Fields' or West's career.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

[gets up during the soliloquy to see Vivien Leigh]

It wasn't all that long ago that the 1953 version of Julius Caesar showed up on TCM and, as I had it on my DVR, I watched it to do a post here. I've got another Shakespeare adaptation that TCM ran during 31 Days of Oscar, and now it's on again about two months later: the 1948 version of Hamlet, tomorrow (May 11) at 10:30 AM.

This is the Laurence Olivier version of the movie, and as you can guess, he plays Hamlet and even directs himself. I assume most people already know the plot of Shakespeare's play. Hamlet was the crown prince of Denmark, son of the king, but while he was studying in what is now Germany, his father died and his uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney) not only took the crown, but married Hamlet's mom Gertrude (Eileen Herlie)! Ballsy. However, something that looks like it could be the ghost of Hamlet's father has been walking the castle parapet at night. Hamlet, having returned home, is the only one who can hear the ghost, and it tells him that yes, this is the ghost of his father the former king and that Claudius killed him, so you Hamlet must avenge my death!

Meanwhile, advising Claudius is Polonius (Felix Aylmer), who has two kids. Laertes, his son, is sent off to France, while Ophelia (Jean Simmons) is in love with Hamlet, and the feeling is mutual. But to make certain that Stepdad doesn't suspect him, Hamlet feigns insanity until he can find out for real whether or not Claudius killed his own brother in order to usurp the throne. Hamlet concludes that yes, it did happen, but he still can't bring himself to kill Stepdad because, as Olivier tells us in an opening monologue, this is a play about a man who can't make up his own mind.

Since the major Shakespeare plays all have well-known plots, there's more to discuss than just the plot when talking about an adaptation. The first thing is what gets removed. Shakespeare's plays being so well-known, and having a lot of fans, taking stuff out to simplify things for a movie audience is likely to cause problems. Imagine if somebody tried to do Hamlet without the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, or Romeo and Juliet without Juliet on the balcony. But the play itself would run a good four hours if nothing is edited. As it is, Olivier edited it down to a little over two and a half hours in part by getting rid of Fortinbras on one hand, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the other. Also, if Olivier delivered the "The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" line, I must have missed it. So some purists may not like the edits.

Then there's always the chance you'll get actors who are good in normal movies, but not necessarily up for the difficult early 17th century Shakespearean dialogue. I mentioned this in the earliest days of the blog when I discussed Warner Bros.' 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which makes the inspired choice of putting the studio's comic actors into Bottom's acting troupe. Whether you think James Cagney does well with the material is a different question. (I happen to think he does OK, although the British stars are more natural.) And let's not talk about Edna May Oliver and Andy Devine at the beginning of the MGM adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

However, Olivier is unsurprisingly quite good himself, and mostly gets good performances out of the others. Sydney and Herlie are, I think more of stage actors than movie actors as I didn't really recognize them from anything else. Simmons was at the beginning of her career, and I read some reviewers who think she's a weak point here, but I didn't notice that. Terence Morgan as Laertes, is a particular standout in a good way among the supporting cast. And watch for Peter Cushing and Anthony Quayle in small roles.

Then there's the staging. Olivier had made Henry V in Technicolor, but reverts to black and white here, which actually suits the material well with the brooding shadows of the ghost among other things benefiting.

Some people might want a complete presentation of a Shakespeare play, but if you've never actually seen a production of Hamlet before, the Laurence Olivier version isn't a bad place to start.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Another movie sitting on my DVR was the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Roberta, so I recently watched it to do a post on here. Interestingly enough, even though the pairing of Rogers and Astaire had become successful already, and they had starred together in The Gay Divorcee, they're not the stars here.

That honor goes to Irene Dunne, and to a lesser extent Randolph Scott, even though he gets biling below the other three. But the movie starts off with Fred, here playing a man named Huck Haines, leader of a band called the Wabash Indianans. They've made their way to Le Havre, the port that serves Paris, because they've been booked by the owners of one of the nightclubs. However, that owner (character actor Luis Alberni) that he was going to be getting Indians (as in feather and all the other stereotypes), not Indianians, so he cancels the contract on the spot.

Huck's friend John Kent (Randolph Scott) was going to go to Paris anyway to see his aunt Minnie, who goes by the pseudonym Robert (Helen Westley) because she runs a fashion house in Paris that apparently would be more successful under the Robert name than under the Minnie brand. Working for Roberta is Stephanie (Irene Dunne), who also does the designs and likely has an option to buy the business should Roberta retire. Unsurprisingly in a movie like this, John falls in love with Stephanie, even though he has an old flame Sophie (Claire Dodd) who is going to be coming over to Paris to join the fun.

I haven't mentioned Ginger Rogers yet. At one of the nightclubs John and Roberta are trying to get Huck and his band a gig at, one of the singers is the Russian émigrée Countess Schwarenka (Rogers). Except, Huck knows that's an act because he knows the alleged countess, real name Lizzie, from back in the States. The two wind up having a relationship a lot like the one that James Cagney and Joan Blondell had in their movies over at Warner Bros., and not one complicated by misunderstandings.

Those misunderstandings are for John and Stephanie. Sadly for all involved, Roberta suddenly drops dead; without a will, the fashion house goes to the nearest relative, which happens to be John. This even though he knows nothing about fashion design or this sort of business. Sophie, having heard about the inheritance, shows up, and it's up to Huck to make certain that John ends up with the right woman.

Among the interesting things here is that Fred and Ginger (and decidedly more so Ginger) are not the stars of the show, although they certainly get some dance numbers. And Randolph Scott gets the girl rather than playing the second banana in all those other romantic comedies.

And then there's the music. Roberta was based on a stage show with songs by Jerome Kern, including a tune that's gone on to become a standard, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". The bad news is that the script has Irene Dunne's character sing it, and her Jeanette MacDonald-like voice is, I think, entirely wrong for the song. That may, of course, be because like a lot of younger people, I would have heard the Platters' 1950s version on one of the oldies stations my parents would have listened to before seeing the movie. Other songs in the movie have also become standards, such as "Lovely to Look At".

Roberta, being stuck squarely in the 1930s, may not be for everybody, and certainly younger viewers are most likely not to appreciate something seemingly old-fashioned. But for anybody who likes the 1930s style of musical, Roberta should be right up your alley, and definitely worth a watch.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Triple indemnity

Another of the more recent movies -- well this one "only" about two dozen years old -- that I had the chance to record during one of the free preview weekends was A Simple Plan. It's going to be on the Cinemax family of channels multiple times over the next couple of weeks, starting with tomorrow (May 9) at 12:24 PM on Cinemax (and three hours later if you only have the west coast feed).

In a small town in central Minnesota, it's the festive season between Christmas and New Years. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) works for the local feed mill, keeping the books. It's not exactly the most remunerative job, but it pays the bills and has enabled him to have a wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) and support a baby on the way, at least with the help of Sarah's job as the town librarian. Unfortunately, the rest of his life isn't the greatest, as his now-deceased parents lost the family farm, and his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) has some sort of learning disability that has left him working odd jobs and being mostly dependent on welfare.

Worse for Jacob is that he's gotten in with the wrong crowd, at least in that his best friend is the town drunk, Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe), who is basically living -- if you can call it that -- as the kept husband of his wife. Jacob and Lou stop by Hank's house and pick him up for a joyride in Jacob's beat-up pick-up truck.

While on that joyride, they see what looks like a fox having caught a hen from the henhouse running off into the woods. So they get out and chase after it. What they find instead is an airplane that crashed fairly recently, or at least recently enough that it's not completely buried in snow. Inside the plane, they find a dead pilot -- and a bag containing cash. Lots of cash, bundled together in groups of $100 bills with each bundle being $10,000. Ultimately, on counting out the money, they discover it comes to $4.4 million.

Hank's first thought is a sensible one: notify the authorities, because certainly someone is going to be looking for the plane, as well as the missing money. Jacob isn't so certain, and Lou is even more adamant about not doing that, because, frankly, he needs the money. Now, of course, there's the question of what everybody is going to think if these three guys suddenly show up with a bunch of money. But as it seems fairly obvious that Lou and Jacob would come back for the money anyway, Hank agrees that they'll keep the money at his house for safekeeping, at least until the spring when the snow melts and the plane will be found. If anybody wonders about the missing cash, he can burn it at that point.

That's big mistake number 1, as Lou is going to get insanely jealous over the course of the winter, seeing as after all he really needs the money while Hank and his wife have to this point able to make a pleasant if modest life for themselves. Lou will probably be able to convince Jacob to take his side, as Jacob could use the cash to get the family farm back, which is what Jacob would most like to do. Mistake number 2 involves Hank telling Sarah, although to be fair, Sarah probably would have found out from Jacob anyway. Sarah winds up being just as jealous and desirous of the money as Jacob and Lou.

Worse, her ideas to Hank as to what to do always seem to turn out to be the wrong ones. When she suggests Hank put some of the money back so there will be less suspicion once the plane is found -- after all, who would pass over a half million dollars in a downed plane? -- Hank and Jacob are spotted about to head out to the plane and Jacob causes a farmer's death. So now they'll all be up for murder. And it's only going to get worse before the story ends.

A Simple Plan is a well-enough made movie, telling a good morality tale about the dangers of greed and dishonesty. Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as Jacob, and earned an Oscar nomination. Bridget Fonda is pretty good tooonce she starts getting jealous herself. Briscoe has the unenviable task of playing the least sympathetic character, and Paxton is good as the moral center of the film. I did, however, find one thing that seemed to be a gaping plot hole regarding the feds getting involved in the search for the plane, although I won't give that away.

Despite that flaw, A Simple Plan is certainly a movie worth watching if you haven't seen it before.