Category Archives: “The Screening Room”

Looking for a good movie or video? Check “The Screening Room” for suggestions including new gems and old nuggets alike.

JUNE SCREENING ROOM WITH DENNIS GREENE: SOME OVERLOOKED GEMS

Later this month (June 23rd), the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge will be showing Philippe Broca’s charming King of Hearts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release in 1968.   Many may remember its historic four or five-year run at the Central Square Cinema where I enjoyed it several times during the early 70’s. Though It was not an initial box office success, over the decades, the film acquired an avid group of loyal fans.

As I made plans to see this revival, I thought about other films which are often overlooked in those “best ever” lists, but which I watch again and again, and include among my favorites. How many of you can identify Charles Plumpick, Peachey Carnahan, Lewis Tater, Celest Talbert, Hub and Garth McCann and Miles Kendig? Not many I’ll wager. But around these characters, all but one of which is portrayed by an Academy award winning actor, have been constructed brilliant screen gems which are each worth a couple of hours of your time when you need a shot of enjoyment. So, here is my list.

Charles Plumpick is the kilt wearing Scottish pigeon handler attached to an English battalion fighting against the Germans in World War I. He is ordered to disarm a bomb in a small French town. By the time he arrives at the town, the townspeople have fled, and the inmates of an unlocked asylum have taken over. Plumpick, played by Alan Bates, falls for a beautiful tightrope walker (Genevive Bujold) and is chosen the town’s leader, the “king of hearts”.  Bates is the one non-Academy Award winner in the group, though he was nominated for his role in The Fixer.  The film begs the question, “Who is more crazy, the residents of the asylum or the men killing one another outside the town with guns and tanks? This is a French film in which the inmates speak French,the British soldiers speak English, and the German soldiers speak German, but there are subtitles for all.

Peachey Carnahan is one of the two principal characters in John Houston’s masterful film version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  This is the ultimate “buddy”movie which Houston sought to make for over twenty years.  During that time, he approached Clark Gable and Humphry Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and Robert Redford and Paul Newman to play the pair. Newman felt it should be English actors and suggested Michael Caine and Sean Connery. I can’t imagine anyone else in the roles.

Lewis Tater is a aspiring young writer who heads west to write about the frontier.  Hearts of the West is an obscure little film about the origin of the film industry and the rise of Hollywood. Jeff Bridges is endearing as the young Tater, and a supporting cast including Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith and Alan Arkin, make this film shine.

Celeste Talbert, a role perfect for Sally Field, is the star of a long running TV soap opera. The twists and turns in Soapdish are serpentine and hilarious. The cast of this rollicking comedy says all you need to know. Kevin Kline, Robert Downey, Jr., Elisabeth Shue, Whoopie Goldberg, Teri Hatcher, Cathy Moriarty, Gary Marshall, Kathy Najimy and Carrie Fisher. Enough said.

Hub and Garth McCann , played perfectly by Robert Duval and Michael Caine, are two cantankerous old brothers with an unbelievable back story and a rumored vast fortune. They become responsible for their shy 14 year old grand-nephew when he is left with them by the boy’s irresponsible and daft mother. There the fun starts, including the purchase of an aging circus lion who roams loose on their little farm. Secondhand Lions is a charming and uplifting romp. I admit to an urge to shed a few tears at the end, and so will you.

 Miles Kendig, the final name on my list, is my favorite. Kendig, played by the incomparable Walter Matthau, is an aging CIA field agent approaching retirement. After he completes a successful operation, Kendig’s right wing idiotic boss takes him out of the spy game and assigns him to the file room to end his career. Here is where the fun starts. Kendig shreds his own personnel file, goes on the run and informs his boss, and every major embassy in the world, that he is writing a memoir about the CIA’s “dirty tricks” and will circulate each chapter as it is completed. The chase begins, but Kendig is the best at this game. Again, the supporting cast of Hopscotch, including Glenda Jackson, Ned Beatty, Sam Waterston, Herbert Lom, as well as Matthau’s son and daughter-in-law, are well cast and the chase around the world is pure fun. I watch it every time I am down, and I root for the old guy against the bureaucratic bully. Better than a shrink

These are my favorite overlooked gems. If you believe I omitted others that deserve mention, and I’m sure I have, I’d love to hear from you.

BOLLI Matters writer of memoir, movies, and monsters Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.  (To say nothing of books and movies as well!)

 

FROM SUE’S “SMALL SCREEN”-ING ROOM: SOME GOOD SOAP…

SOME GOOD SOAP

by Sue Wurster

It’s that time of year again–when many of us retreat into our cocoons and pull out the remote.  And for me, when that time comes round, there is nothing more satisfying than a good, solid dose of Masterpiece Theatre style soap.   Ever since the debut of Upstairs, Downstairs  in this country,  I’ve been hooked on British television.

Last year, my binge of choice was Doc Martin followed by Call the Midwife.   I recently discovered Land Girls, which helped to ease my pain over the cancellation of Home Fires after only two seasons that ended on quite the cliffhanger…I guess we’ll never know why the show was cancelled or who ended up falling over the cliff’s edge…

Land Girls was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 70th year since the outbreak of World War II.  The three-season series  (15 episodes in all) follows four volunteer members of the Women’s Land Army who are working in the fields at the Hoxley family estate during the war.

Another gem set in a small rural community in England during the war is Home Fires.  The focus, in this case, is on the women who comprise the local Women’s Institute who devote their energies to various and sundry home front causes during the war.   The cast is led by the marvelous Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond, and the only disappointment in the two series is that there has not been a third…

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At the moment, I am completely addicted to the acclaimed Australian series,  A Place to Call Home.   Often referred to as “Downton Down Under,” the series is set in post WWII Australia and focuses on the central character of Sarah Adams who, after twenty years absence, has recently returned to the country to start a new life.  The wonderfully enigmatic Marta Dusseldorp fully embodies the role of the mysterious Sarah in this highly satisfying soap.

Interestingly, A Place to Call Home was originally slated to run for two seasons, and the last episode of the second wraps up the various plot lines quite nicely.  But when given the unexpected go-ahead for an additional season, that ending was revamped.  There’s something quite engaging about being able to see both.  Luckily, it went on to enjoy not only a third but fourth and fifth seasons as well (and they all consist of 10 or more episodes), so, as I’m currently in the middle of season three,  I’m in good shape for a while.

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Of course, I’ve often wondered just why it is that I so prefer British television to American, and I’ve decided that it has to do with focus.  To me, BBC storytelling seems to be driven by character rather than by situation–and for me, that seems to provide more “heart” to the mix.

These items are available on DVD.  Land Girls is available on Netflix, and Home Fires is on Amazon Prime Video.   A Place to Call Home is streaming on Acorn TV and Britbox.  (If you’re a BBC junkie like me, the latter two are well worth the price.)

BOLL Matters co-editor Sue Wurster

So, if you’ve got suggestions for me and my fellow BBC addicts, please share in the box below!

THE SCREENING ROOM: SHIRLEY MACLAINE

SHIRLEY MacLAINE:  STILL KICKIN’ IT!

A few days ago, I was browsing through “On Demand” and happened upon yet another “little” Shirley MacLaine movie.  I happen to love MacLaine and so, of course, went right for it.

Once again, we have Shirley in a good, even rather meaty, role for a woman “of a certain age.”  In this case, she’s playing Harriet Lauler, a former advertising executive, who is alone at this point in her life. In the opening sequences of the film, which cement not only Harriet’s very controlling and even domineering nature but her very solitary and lonely existence, MacLaine is at her finest.   In the last of these opening scenes, Harriet sits at her dining room table, her untouched dinner plate in front of her.   She spills a glass of wine and moves to mop up the liquid with the newspaper she has at hand.  It is at that point that she notes an obituary for a former acquaintance and is, somehow, spurred into action.   Striding into the office of the city’s newspaper editor, she announces that she wants the obituary writer to do her “last word”–which she must approve.  From there on out, the film takes a generally predictable path in which the lives of both Harriet and the young writer (Amanda Seyfried) are changed as a result of this unusual partnership.  And while the path may be a rather predictable one, and while the overall “message” is somewhat “cluttered,” MacLaine, as always, provides a stellar performance.

There’s something about Shirley MacLaine…her spirit, energy, and “grit”…that seems to prevail, regardless of the make or model of the vehicle she is steering.  She’s just that good.

She’s equally as good in two other fairly recent movies available on Netflix.  In Wild Oats (2016), she and fellow Oscar-winner Jessica Lange go on the trip of a lifetime when she receives an insurance check for $5 million instead of $50K and is persuaded to just…spend it.  The chemistry between these two consummate performers is delicious.

In Elsa & Fred (2014), the chemistry between MacLaine and Christopher Plummer is even more compelling.  MacLaine, in fact, is quite radiant in this gem.

And what’s coming up?  Apparently, a live-action version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid  (not connected with the Disney version) is in the works.   MacLaine plays an “eccentric” older woman  (of course) who apparently opens the story.

It’s so wonderful to see this feisty, quirky, indefatigable actress–one of our best–keep making movie after movie after movie.   It is partly due to the persistence of stars like her that “meaty” roles for women “of a certain age” are being written!

BOLL Matters editor Sue Wurster

As a drama teacher/director, speech coach, English and social studies teacher, Sue has been called “Wurster, the Wily Word Woman” by a host of former students.   At BOLLI, she continues to ply her wordy trade in her work with CAST (creative acting, storytelling and theatre) and the Writers Guild.

THE SCREENING ROOM: CONFESSIONS OF A BBC BINGE WATCHER

CONFESSIONS OF A BBC BINGE WATCHER:  CALL THE MIDWIFE

By Sue Wurster

Years ago, I was having lunch with actor friend John Newton at my local corner diner in NYC.  It was one of those places which tends to be stuffed with at least three too many tables, and on this particular occasion, every seat was filled.

John had just landed a role on the then popular soap opera, The Doctors, and was bemoaning his fate.  “I have to confess,” he said.  “I hate being a doctor.”  And when I asked why, he replied, “Well, I can never pronounce the diseases, and all of my patients die.”

There was a distinct gurgling sound from our right as a woman  struggled to down the gulp of coffee she had taken before John’s admission.  And there was an even clearer harrumph from our left. Glowering looks galore–and an elbow to John’s right ear as a tall, thin man in a three-piece suit maneuvered his way out.

I have to confess as well.  I have never liked medical shows.  I know, I know.  That makes me probably one of the only inveterate couch potatoes in the universe who did not get into the likes of Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, ER, or Gray’s Anatomy.  As a naturally squeamish being, I spent just way too much of their air-time with my hands over my eyes.  So, how on earth did I end up watching this season’s Call the Midwife on PBS?  I’m still not sure–but I think it may have been a simple case of mistiming.  I was headed for Masterpiece Theatre and got there an hour early.

However it happened, I was soon hooked, and I found myself looking forward to each new episode in a way I hadn’t looked forward since, oh, probably Downton Abbey.  And, upon the season’s close, I ended up hitting Netflix for more.  So, what makes this one work for a squeamish viewer (who still turns away during most of the actual birthing parts)?  The characters, the setting,  the writing…

So, if you have not partaken of this particular BBC gem, it’s well worth your time to do so.  Based upon the memoirs of nurse Jennifer Worth (who, sadly, died shortly before the first episode aired), this family drama is set in Post-WW2 London’s impoverished Poplar district.  Nurse Jenny Lee arrives at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent in the district, to take on a job as midwife.  A host of truly engaging and endearing characters, played by an outstanding cast, provides multi-layered interest and appeal.

Sister Monica Joan, for example–played by Judy Parfitt (Jewel in the Crown, Pride & Prejudice, Girl with a Pearl Earring to name just a few credits)–is a brilliant, and compassionate yet eccentric older sister beset with bouts of dementia.  The equally quirky Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne–played by actress/comedian Miranda Hart (perhaps best-known for her semi-autobiographical series, Miranda) –is a gawky, uncertain midwife who has just finished her training and finds her niche, leading her to defy the expectations of her aristocratic family.   Beyond the lives and loves of the inhabitants of Nonnatus House, we are immersed in Poplar of the late 1950s and 60s–with all of the social issues that such an environment hosts.

And the writing, of course, is top-notch.  From the voice-over narration of “older Jenny” (provided by Vanessa Redgrave, which may, in itself, have been what pulled me in) to the ensuing dialogue, the language is both rich and real.   When dealing with the complex issues that accompany poverty and the altering of social structures and values in changing times, there is no cloying or preaching note.

It’s a wonderful ride, this series–well worth a good binge!

BOLL Matters editor Sue Wurster

A confirmed snow day couch potato, Sue has an affinity for the British approach to both film and TV.  

 

 

MARCH SCREENING ROOM: Another Gem

A TIMELY CONFECTION

from Sue Wurster

What better way to spend a snow day than cruising through Netflix for a nice movie?  Today, I found one of those little British gems that is still making me smile.

In Dough, Jonathan Pryce plays Net Dayan of “Dayan & Son,” a struggling Jewish bakery that has been in his family for generations. His days are proscribed.  His routine is intact.  Alas, his own son chose a career as a lawyer over the business, and, now, he’s being pressured to sell out to a grocery chain with a store next door that has actually poached his baking assistant.

The woman who cleans for Dayan is a Muslim woman from Darfur whose son Ayyash has been making some unfortunate choices.  She asks her boss to take the boy on as his assistant, which the baker decides to do “on a trial basis.”

Add to this mix the ever charming Pauline Collins as a lonely widow, and you have the ingredients for a satisfying confection.

Enjoy!

BOLL Matters editor Sue Wurster

 

A confirmed snow day couch potato, Sue has an affinity for the British approach to both film and TV.  

 

 

JUNE SCREENING ROOM: “GREAT DAMES”

“GREAT DAMES”

by Sue Wurster

When it comes to movies and videos, my taste tends to run to all things British, and in this first installment of our monthly “Screening Room” feature, I thought I’d share a few gems starring my favorite British “Great Dames” Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith.

You may not have run across Dame Judi in the 2014 British made-for-television gem, ESIO TROT.  Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Dench plays a sweet widow living in an apartment house for mature residents.   Her new upstairs neighbor, Mr. Hoppy (Dustin Hoffman), soon notices the lovely lady as he waters the lush plants in his terrace garden.  This is a sweet, warm romance well worth searching out.

ESIO TROT

It can actually be seen online by clicking here.

In 2012, Dame Judi made a very short TV movie called FRIEND REQUEST PENDING in which she and a friend spend an afternoon exploring the world of social media networking.  A wonderful piece about love and lifelong friendship.

FRIEND REQUEST

Dame Joan Plowright in MRS. PALFRY AT THE CLAREMONT is a 2005 gem.   Essentially abandoned by her family after moving her into the Claremont Hotel, Mrs. Palfry ends up enjoying a wonderful friendship with a young writer.

MRS P

And for anyone who loves a good comic mystery, WIDOWS PEAK is not to be missed.  The lovely young Edwina (Natasha Richardson) moves into Widows Peak, where a surprising number of residents fit that description, and stirs up the social scene.  Great fun!

WIDOWS

And then, there’s dear Dame Maggie.  Ah…Maggie–she just keeps going!  Her most recent venture, THE LADY IN THE VAN is the true story of playwright Alan Bennett’s relationship with an eccentric homeless woman who parked her van temporarily in his driveway…and remained there for fifteen years.  Beautifully done.

the-lady-in-the-van

And if you didn’t catch this 2003 HBO Made-for-TV movie, give MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA a try.  After a terrorist bomb is detonated on a train in Italy,  Mrs. Delahunty, a rather eccentric romance novelist, opens her villa to three stranded survivors.

UMBRIA

One of my favorites includes all three of my cinematic idols–so, if you haven’t seen TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, it’s a must.  And if you have, it may be time for another visit.   It’s a lush, semi-autobiographical Zeffirelli production about a young boy being brought up by a group of British woman during (and after) World War II.

TEA 3

Lily Tomlin (a different sort of dame altogether) is in this one as well, and I recently saw GRANDMA on “On Demand.”  Lily plays a poet who hasn’t written since losing her partner.   When her pregnant teenage granddaughter appears on her doorstep, she is quick to rise to the occasion to help her.

GRANDMA

Share YOUR favorites in an upcoming “Screening Room” feature!