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The Singing Nun

The Singing Nun (8/24/15) TCM (1966 **) Directed by Henry Koster, starring Debbie Reynolds, Ricardo Montalban, Greer Garson, Katharine Ross and Ed Sullivan. When a nun lands a recording contract, then goes onto fame and glory, it makes it surprisingly hard to do the Lord’s work. Oh, the mid-1960s were a strange time. This is one of those films that everybody was aware of, most people had seen, but was really not a particularly good film. The screenplay (based on a true story — more on that in a minute) seemed to have been written in about a week, and the lighting throughout felt more suitable for a TV show than a feature film. Attempts to add contemporary relevance (“I’m going to have an abortion, sister!”) seemed completely discordant. And I didn’t even find the music to be particularly memorable! Though I’m not interested enough to do a lot of research, I’m understandably curious about whether or not this project was rushed into production based on the success of The Sound of Music, released the year before. Now I mentioned that The Singing Nun was based on a real person, a woman named Jeanne Deckers, who achieved fame in the early 1960s because of a French-language chart-topping song “Dominique.” Her story is actually quite tragic, and in 1985 she was no longer a nun and committed suicide, along with her female lover.

Men of Boys Town

Men of Boys Town (8/23/15) TCM (1941 ***) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson and Darryl Hickman as Flip. The dynamic duo of Father Flannegan and Whitey Marsh, along with their diminutive pal Pee Wee, take on the antiquated reform school system. I didn’t expect much from this sequel to the 1938 film, which I watched and reviewed back on 10/31/10, but it delivered emotionally. Of course your mileage may vary. Men of Boys Town falls into that category of films that are so old fashioned and simple in their construction and execution that most modern viewers would likely find them boring and/or quaint. (By the way, isn’t “quaint” one hell of a word?) The story contained a couple of weird logic problems, such as setting its fictional, demonized reform school 1,000 miles away; I lost count of how many times various characters traveled to and from that faraway place. My only guess is that was done so viewers at the time in Nebraska or Iowa wouldn’t think the corrupt institution was set in their home state.

Aquarius, Season 1

Aquarius, Season 1 (8/23/15) NBC (2015 **1/2) Created by John McNamara, starring David Duchovny, Emma Dumont, Grey Damon and Gethin Anthony as Charles Manson. 13 episodes, originally aired 5/28/15 – 8/22/15. A Los Angeles homicide detective’s life runs parallel with and sometimes crosses that of a young Charles Manson. When I watched the final episode, I felt a certain sense of betrayal. This show was presented as a miniseries, and so I had this expectation that over the course of 13 weeks it would tell a self-contained story. Yeah, I felt like a real sap, expecting a resolution which never came. Instead, it ended (and this isn’t really giving anything away) with multiple cliffhangers, none of which it turns out I care enough about to tune in come the fall, assuming the series has been picked up. My favorite part of the show was David Duchovny; I liked his character as a middle-aged WWII veteran cop struggling to be enlightened in spite of his own built-in generational limitations. I hadn’t watched him in Californication (2007-2014), but maybe I should remedy that. BecauseAquarius is a largely fictionalized drama based loosely on a period in Manson’s life, I spent a fair amount of my time wondering how much, if any, resemblance there was between the on-screen events and historical events. There was a shocking scene late in the season that I found particularly egregious: the fictional Manson dopes his mother with LSD, then presents her for “communal enjoyment.” Did anything even close to that really happen?

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (8/23/15) HBO (2014 ***) Directed by James Marsh, based on the book by Jane Hawking, starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones and David Thewlis. When cosmologist doctoral student Stephen Hawking is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and told he has two years to live, he gets married, then sets about describing the brief history of time. Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his lead performance in this film. He was certainly effective and managed to portray the physically-challenged physicist with compassion and nuance. However, I must admit that the film never reached me on an emotional level. And let’s face it, folks, I am not that hard to make cry. So why wasn’t I moved? What was missing? Much of the film centered on the strained marriage between Hawking and his wife, which wasn’t surprising, considering Jane Hawking wrote the book on which the film is based. Unfortunately, the resolution of that conflict may have been true to real-life events, but it still felt false dramatically. On another note, it’s an interesting coincidence that I watched The Theory of Everything the day after watching Contact (1997), given that the latter was based on a novel by another well-known astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, and both contained themes related to the never-ending conflict between science and religion.

Contact

Contact (8/22/15) HBO (1997 ***) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and William Fichtner. When young astrophysicist isn’t busy boning rugged-looking men of the cloth, she spends every waking minute listening for extra-terrestrial voices. I hadn’t watched this film since it was originally released. I remember being fairly disappointed by it, actually, having expected much more from Robert Zemeckis, the director behind Back to the Future (1985) and Best Picture winner Forrest Gump (1994). My expectations were clearly higher than they should have been. It’s interesting that this film shares something in common with another film I watched lately, one that also stars Matthew McConaughey: Interstellar (2014). Both films begin on fairly grounded reality, then progress into a second act related to the execution of a large-scale space project / mission, before reaching a dramatic climax that is (no spoilers here) somewhat abstract in nature. I gotta say that McConaughey’s acting chops had improved substantially in the interim.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg (8/22/15) TCM (1961 ***1/2) Directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann, starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and William Shatner. In 1948, A Maine judge is asked to travel to Germany and head a tribunal determining the fate of German judges who, under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, passed judgment on those brought before them. As my wife and her mother tour Germany, my Nazi atrocities film festival series concludes. At a certain point during this courtroom drama, the prosecuting attorney shows film footage taken during the liberation of one of the concentration camps. Unfortunately, I don’t have the historical context to know the impact that footage had on audiences in 1961. Nearly two decades had lapsed since the defeat of the German army, and I know that some of the footage had been seen before. It’s undoubtedly an unfair comparison, but I’m reminded of the Zapruder footage shown during Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991).

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (8/22/15) HBO (2001 ***1/4) Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards and William Hurt. The parents of a young boy in a coma open their home — and possibly their hearts — to an incredible simulation of a scientist’s dead son. I remember seeing this film when it was first released, and my takeaway at the time was that it started out feeling like one of Spielberg’s best films… but then it took a turn and became something very disappointing. Nearly 15 years later, I can see it with somewhat fresh eyes and lowered expectations. The film divides itself into three distinct parts, the latter two of which are separated by… let’s just say a significant time span. Each of those parts has its own tone, and the jarring shift between the first and second parts was by design. I also appreciate more that Spielberg undertook one hell of a risk by taking up the deceased Stanley Kubrick’s final film and seeing it through to completion. Finally, I would like to give a shout-out to my former PDI co-workers who worked on the effects for A.I. (I did not.) Somewhere in our cupboard I still have a commemorative souvenir glass from the project.

Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List (8/21/15) TMC (1993 ****) Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the book by Thomas Keneally, starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz. A German industrialist and profiteer rubs elbows with the director of a concentration camp and manages to save more than a thousand Jews from Hitler’s “final solution.” It’s hard to believe more than twenty years have passed since this film was released, a film that would go on to win Best Picture and Best Director awards. It truly is an amazing film and one that is worthy of the awards it won. At the time, it was seen as somewhat of a departure for Spielberg, one that couldn’t be any more different from the other film he directed that was released in 1993, Jurassic Park. Still, it has many moments that feel absolutely Spielbergian. And yes, even in the most dire circumstances, there were moments of humor. Highly recommended.

One Day in Auschwitz

One Day in Auschwitz (8/20/15) TMC (2015 ***1/2) Directed by Steve Purcell, narrated by Kelsey Grammer, featuring interviews with and/or footage of Kitty Hart-Moxon, Michael Berenbaum, Walter Feiden and others. Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon takes two 17 year olds with her to visit WWII’s most infamous concentration camp. This documentary was aired on TMC immediately following Schindler’s List (1993). The concept was fairly simple: A survivor of Auschwitz taking two girls, who were the same age she was while in the camp, on a guided tour of her horrific experiences, some seventy years prior. Almost immediately I was struck by how surprisingly upbeat Hart-Moxon was. I guess it makes sense: Who’s more likely to be “full of life” than a survivor? Though it doesn’t contain a lot of theatricality, I saw this documentary as something appropriate for showing in schools, though it does contain a couple of PG-rated words. The underlying messages of the film were twofold: (1) Mankind has a terrible capacity for inhumanity — if this happened once, it can happen again; and (2) the secret of surviving was luck combined with being willing to do whatever it took to survive.

True Detective, Season 2

True Detective, Season 2 (8/19/15) HBO (2015 ***) Created by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Kelly Reilly. 8 episodes, originally aired 6/21/15 – 8/9/15. Three police officers with several tons of psychological baggage between them team up with a mob boss on the rocks to solve a bizarre murder. In other words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Vinci, California.” I was generally aware that this season was critically lambasted for various reasons, and so I scrambled to watch the series shortly after it had aired while doing my best to avoid spoilers. When I first heard Vince Vaughn had been cast in the second season I wondered if it indicated a significant tonal shift. But no, the dark tone of the first season carried into the second, unrelated storyline, and I personally found Vaughn’s intense, often bloody, performance to be my favorite part of the show. As for the critics, I still haven’t gone back to see what their main beefs were, though Entertainment Weekly referred to the season as “crappy.” Maybe the ultimate problem was one of variety: All the main characters were tortured souls, and for different reasons, but taken as a whole it seemed like the same repetitive chord being played on the piano.