Friday, September 30, 2011

Rosies of the North (1999)

Rosies of the North doesn't exactly soar above the heavens.

But it is a solid documentary about Canadian women who made airplanes during the Second World War.


As many as 3,000 women worked in the Canadian Car and Foundry factory in Fort William, now part of Thunder Bay, Ont.

The ladies manufactured Hurricane fighter planes and Hell Diver bombers.

"They [the planes] brought us together," one woman remarks near the start of the 48-minute documentary.

For many, the work marked their first jobs and, while not paid the same amount as their male counterparts, they earned good money. It was a definite step-up from a limited number of other available jobs, including cleaning homes.


Director Kelly Saxberg (Letters from Karelia, In Security) includes interviews with about two dozen people, many of them former female employees of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant.

The women, likely in their late 70s when they talked about their experiences for this National Film Board documentary, describe how they were treated, good and bad, by their male co-workers, on-the-job romances, and the importance the cash from their jobs meant for their families just coming out of the Great Depression.

England needed the fighters badly in 1940 when an invasion by Germany appeared imminent and dogfights filled the skies. British fighters were being destroyed as quickly as they were being built.


Rosies of the North introduces audiences to Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes. The Vancouver native, described by her niece as "an unconventional woman," was named the factory's chief aeronautical engineer at 33.

It's interesting to learn how she acted among workers, how she was depicted in the media, and what led to her being turfed from her job.

Given how much time Rosies of the North dedicates to MacGill, a file interview with her should have been included. Audiences don't even know if she was still alive or deceased when the documentary was filmed. Robert Lower's script grates at times. Narrator Martine Friesen has to deliver some pretty hackneyed lines.

A daughter of one of the workers describes how proud she is of her mother's work at the factory. To meet these women in Rosies of the North is a true pleasure.

RATING: 8/10

The film is not available at, but it can be purchased at

Monday, September 26, 2011

Libeled Lady (1936)

William Powell rocks.

He was a treat to watch in The Thin Man, reviewed earlier this year on this site.

Powell's a treat again in the comedy, Libeled Lady. This 1936 release from MGM earned an Academy Award nomination for best picture.


A New York newspaper is in serious trouble. The daily has gone front page, above the fold, big type with news of millionaire socialitie Connie Allenburg's dalliances in England.

It's a juicy piece on the rich single woman (Myrna Loy), but there's not an ounce of truth to the sordid tale.

Editor Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) ends up delaying his marriage, again, to Gladys (Jean Harlow) to deal with the crisis. He's not as broken up about it as Gladys. Haggerty has some commitment issues.


His paper has repeatedly locked horns with Allenburg's father. This is the perfect chance for the vengeful pops to torpedo his print adversary with a $5-million lawsuit. Haggerty knows if he doesn't come up with a good plan an obituary will soon be penned for his publication.

Enter his old adversary Bill Chandler (Powell), a troubleshooter with plenty of past experience with the paper. He needs some serious scratch to make good on a rather large tab at the Grand Plaza where he's staying.

Haggerty and Chandler agree on a plan. They'll snag Allenburg in a fabricated sticky situation with a married man. To move things along, Chandler marries Gladys. The justice of the peace is a little confused when the bride kisses Haggerty longer than her new husband.


Connie, well familiar with gold diggers, is initially very much suspicious with Chandler rubbing shoulders with her and her father. But as her apprehensions ease, Chandler finds himself falling in love with the woman who gets some less than great press.

Gladys, sick of Haggerty continually pushing back their nuptials, falls for Chandler's attentiveness and kind ways. When she learns he's putting the moves on Connie, she's determined to get her husband back.

Libeled Lady is great fun. There's some time between the really loud guffaws, but that's OK. Adding to this film's enjoyment is the twists and turns as characters learn about each other's actions and adjust their own behaviour.


A fishing scene with Chandler and father and daughter Allenburg is a hoot.
Chandler, who has billed himself as a fishing authority, has never held a reel in his life. There's some great slapstick comedy and a great story about the fish he tangles with.


This blogger, a full-time reporter with a daily paper, usually shakes his head in frustration when seeing how reporters are depicted in the movies. Here, most of the action at the paper rings true. Always fear trying to track down all the copies of an edition when a story makes print that shouldn't.

RATING: 8.5/10


Gladys: "Today's my wedding day."
Maid: "Again, Miss Gladys?"

Connie on Chandler: "If he's first class, I'll travel steerage."

Haggerty on Gladys being married to Chandler: "She may be his wife, but she's engaged to me."

Gladys, when frustrated with Haggerty: "Well, marry the newspaper and be the proud father of a lot of headlines."

FUN FACTS: Harlow and Powell were dating when Libeled Lady was filmed. Their relationship is described in Charles Francisco's Gentleman: The William Powell Story. She wanted to get married. He, after two failed marriages, was hesitant. Harlow died in 1937 at age 26. Francisco describes Powell giving the funeral director a single gardenia to put in Harlow's casket. "Good night, my dearest darling," his note read.

See if you can find Harlow as an extra in Libeled Lady. Director Jack Conway was short a woman in the background of a scene. Harlow donned a wig and went to work.

E.E. Clive, who appears as a fishing instructor, had roles in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

It's easy to get lost in The Asphalt Jungle.

I mean that in the best possible way.

Director John Huston's film noir from 1950 is a crackerjack crime drama with standout performances, beautiful cinematography and an engrossing story. There's very little actual physical violence, but boy is there plenty of tension in an environment where double crosses, corruption and greed are ever-present.

What makes this film even more enjoyable is knowing that so many of the principal cast were just starting their film careers. Kudos to the film's casting for finding so many great performances from up-and-coming actors.

Marilyn Monroe is played up prominently in marketing material even though she's only in a pair of scenes as Angela Phinlay, the drop-dead gorgeous mistress of lawyer gone bad Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). But she does fine as Emmerich's eye candy. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bus Stop and Some Like It Hot would follow before the decade ended.

The Asphalt Jungle was only Jean Hagen's fourth film role. She made her debut in another film classic, Adam's Rib, in 1949. Perhaps her most well-known role, Singin' in the Rain, would follow in 1952. Here, she's Doll Conovan, a young dame who can't shake her love for hood Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden).

James Whitmore, who just died in 2009, earned his fifth movie credit as Gus Minissi, a hunbacked restaurant owner only too happy to help out thugs in need of a little protection from pesky police.

Meanwhile, The Asphalt Jungle was one of the last roles for Dorothy Tree. She was Dracula's wife in Dracula (1931). Tree earned 49 credits before leaving Hollywood to work as a speech and voice coach at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, she's May Emmerich, bedridden wife of the said crooked, and cheating, lawyer.

Doc (Sam Jaffe) is a well-known criminal just sprung from prison. He doesn't waste time trying to go straight. Doc has a plan to rip off hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry from a safe. Emmerich offers him a generous deal to offload the valuable hot gems.

Doc assembles his caper team including Dix, a brute with a penchant for the ponies and Gus as the wheelman.

The heist, surprise, surprise, doesn't go through as planned. Stay tuned to see who crosses who before the credits roll. A preachy speech from the police commissioner greates, but that's a small beef for this well-made film.

RATING: 9.5/10

FUN FACTS: Marilyn Monroe's first film appearance was as a telephone operator in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947). Wow. John Huston's directorial debut was The Maltese Falcon (1941). Sterling Hayden appeared in another crime classic, The Godfather (1972).

Titanic: How It Really Sank (2009)

Take a very heavy anchor. To it, securely fasten every known copy of James Cameron's Titanic. Dump said anchor in the very deepest depths of the coldest, darkest ocean. Ignore for generations.

With that done, sit down with a much better, and far shorter, exploration of the Titanic's sinking in April 1912. More than 1,500 died.

This National Geographic documentary is much better, and far shorter, than Cameron's comic book film. The running time is listed as 50 minutes, but action ends at the 45-minute marker. The rushed last minute is a bit odd, but that's a minor complaint.

How It Really Sank is billed as a drama/documentary. It's an approach that left me a little uneasy at the program's start, but works well.

The documentary offers plenty of contributing factors, I counted nine, that resulted in the great ship's sinking during its maiden voyage.

Some, such as the choice of raw material for the ship's rivets, may already be known. Others, such as the actions of the Titanic's wireless operator in the hours leading up to its demise and the unexpected distance traveled by the iceberg the ship hit, may surprise.

Actors recreate testimony from an inquiry that followed the devestating maritime tragedy. There's also interviews with a forensic metallurgist, oceanographer, White Star Line historian and Millvina Dean, at the time, Titanic's last surviving passenger.

An interesting photo gallery includes about a half-dozen shots of the Titanic on the bottom of the ocean floor near Newfoundland.

RATING: 9/10

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams is a hit.

Oh, this dramatic fantasy from director Phil Alden Robinson (Rhinestone [VHS]) borders on schmaltzy at times.

This is a film where handshakes and knowing nods between men mean a lot. There's awkward talk between men about, you know, stuff like relationships and feelings.

And, yes, the plot largely centres on one of the biggest gimmicks of stories involving some sort of time travel -- the desire to right a past mistake.

Oh, and Field of Dreams isn't always subtle about advancing the plot.

But, for film-goers willing to suspend their disbelief, Field of Dreams does offer an intriguing story about following dreams, making amends and not being afraid to take risks.

"Until I heard the voice I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life," Kevin Costner's character notes in the film's introduction.

A solid cast steps up to the plate in this film including a young Gaby Hoffman (Uncle Buck), screen icon Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity) and early film appearances from Timothy Busfield (Sneakers) and Ray Liotta (Dominick and Eugene)

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is still hurting from terse words he directed at his father before leaving home at 17. His dad, a big fan of the Chicago White Sox, died before he could apologize.

Now a corn farmer in Iowa with a wife and daughter in Iowa, Kinsella begins to hear messages from a phantom voice. Each cryptic suggestion from said messenger, including "If you build it, he will come," and "Ease his pain" prompt Kinsella into action.

Neighbours stop and gawk by the side of the road when he starts plowing under a section of his corn field to build a baseball diamond. Kinsella feels compelled to meet up with reclusive famed writer Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Boston and take him to a Red Sox game. Why, he's not sure. They try to track down Dr. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham (Lancaster), who actually did play one inning for the New York Giants in 1905.

The messages lead to back to Kinsella's baseball field where members of the Chicago White Sox associated with the 1919 World Series scandal have come back to play. Remember what I said about suspending your disbelief? The farm's about to be foreclosed. Will Kinsella give up his baseball dream so he can keep his land?

It's neat to see a film offer a fantasy world that doesn't need to based on millions of dollars of special effects. Such an approach worked just fine in Frank Capra's magnificent It's a Wonderful Life. Here, a step back 20 years is done with a few changes, including an election poster on a street light, to a downtown street. Wonderful.

Costner does well in his everyman role during a string of hits when he was king of the leading men in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Field of Dreams does a good job of blending fantasy, sports and family in an efficient 105 minutes.

RATING: 7.5/10

ONE QUESTION: Anyone know what Kinsella says to Mann when he leaves their motel room? Even with the volume cranked up, I couldn't make out what Kevin Costner says.

FUN FACT: Field of Dreams was released after the death of actress Anne Seymour in December 1988. She appears as a newspaper publisher. Her career started in 1944. One of her early roles was in the political drama, All the King's Men.

Field of Dreams was the second-last film role for Lancaster.

My Grade 12 English teacher would be awfully disappointed if I didn't mention Field of Dreams was based on W.P. Kinsella's book, Shoeless Joe. The Canadian novel was required reading in his class.

A short, Field of Dreams 2: Lockout, about the NFL lockout, was released in 2011. Ray Liotta and Kevin Costner appeared.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Viewers may be tempted to walk the plank early on watching Mutiny on the Bounty.

Clark Gable, as Fletcher Christian, works too hard trying to be the nice guy on the British Royal Navy ship, HMS Bounty.

The idealism of Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is too much to bear.

But Capt. Bligh (Charles Laughton) anchors this 1935 effort from director Frank Lloyd (Blood on the Sun) right from the get-go.

"You do your duty and we may get along," Bligh advises his crew early in the voyage.
"But whatever happens, you'll do your duty."

Granted, it helps early on the cruel Bligh still wants a man to be whipped for striking an officer even though he's dead. Now, that's sending a message.

The film, winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1936, is based on the true story of a mutiny on the British ship in April 1789.

Bottom line, Bligh was an extremely talented seaman, but also an especially cruel leader who routinely had his men beaten for small infractions. For sailors on a two-year voyage from England to Tahiti, this doesn't sit well, especially with those forced into service by press gangs.

Christian, as first lieutenant, urges Bligh to ease up on the harsh physical treatment of his crew and give him time to ease in the new crew members.

"He doesn't punish for discipline," Christian says.
"He likes to see men crawl."

Caught in-between these two men is Byam. His background is with the aristocracy, but he also becomes good friends with Christian.

The first lieutenant finally reaches a breaking point with Bligh's behaviour and takes over the ship. The captain, and his loyalists, are set adrift. The HMS Bounty heads back to Tahiti where the locals are friendly, the food plentiful and the atmosphere much more relaxed.

Fearing cannibals on nearby islands, Bligh charts a course for the Dutch East Indies. That's 3,500 miles in a rowboat with little food and water. How those seamen managed to make their journey is almost as riveting a story as the mutiny itself.

Gable, who doesn't even try a British accent, is riveting during his explosions of fury against Bligh. He even clenches his fists at one point. Great stuff.

Tone's character, so filled with gosh-golly enthusiasm at the start, ends the film with a great speech in court.

Laughton is strong throughout this 132-minute drama. He is driven to succeed. He is driven to find Christian after the mutiny, even if he loses his own ship.

Two more film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty followed. Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard headed up a 1962 effort. The Bounty, released in 1982, starred Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins with support from Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: About 50 people now live on Pitcairn Island. Web surfers can sign up for a monthly newsletter at http:/ The island is about 1,400 miles southeast of Tahiti.

Three neat facts from Internet Movie Database:

1. Movita, who appeared as love interest Tehani, is the last living survivor of the film's cast. She turns 94 on Dec. 4, 2011. Tehani appeared in 14 episodes of Knots Landing!
Mutiny on the Bounty extras included David Niven and James Cagney.

2. Director of editing, Margaret Booth, is the oldest Academy Award nominee to die. She was 104 when she died in 2002. She also worked on Ben-Hur

3. Mutiny on the Bounty is the only film with three actors (Laughton, Gable, Tone) nominated for best actor.

Tone appeared in The Twilight Zone episode, The Silence, in 1961.

A BEEF: Why do Warner Brothers go out of their way to make Mutiny on the Bounty appear to be a color film? Stills on the back cover of the DVD are in colour. This viewer is fine with black and white films. Yes, there's a small note at the bottom noting it's a black and white release. Is Warner Brothers afraid viewers won't buy or rent this film if it's not in colour. Embrace black and white releases, movie-goers!

Seasme Street Count It Higher (2005)

Count on Sesame Street: Count It Higher for fun.

Welcome a new school year with this great collection of music videos which originally aired on Sesame Street in the 1970s and 1980s.


Seven songs are featured in this 30-minute collection hosted by, who else, The Count.

Younger viewers can dig counting from one to 12 and learning about words beginning with "z" while adults are able to get down and groove to parodies of songs from The Beatles, ZZ Top and Bill Haley and the Comets.

The Fab Four get two terrific tributes in this collection. Letter B is based on, yes, Let It Be. Beatles fans might scratch their heads a little bit at this takeoff. The Muppet band is decked out in matching green jackets and white shirts a la early Beatles. Go figure.

Here's a great line from lyricist Christopher Cerf:

"When I find I can't remember what comes after A and before C, my mother always whispers Letter B."


Twist and Shout started with the Isley Brothers, but it was also a standout track from the Fab Four's debut disc. Here, with Count It Higher, with much encouragement, band members manage to count to 10. Hurray!

For lots of fun, and to sharpen numeracy skills, Honk Around the Clock (1982) offers about a half-dozen colorful Honkers squeezing their noses, to make honking sounds, while bopping around a big clock. This could be the most musical fun with The Muppets since Mahna Mahna (1968).

Creativity is always a big selling point with Sesame Street and The Muppets. The highlight for great minds conceiving of a memorable idea in this collection is The Ten Commandments of Health. The 1978 effort is based on The Ten Commandments of Love from Harvey and the Moonglows (1958).

This doo wop song is set in a hospital operating room. IV bottles are used for bells. The patient has a deep bass voice who repeats lyrics, just like The Ink Spots. This is great fun.


Kermit the Frog scored a big solo hit with It's Not Easy Being Green. His plea for self-acceptance continues with Do-Op Hop.

"I don't know how to fly, high up in the sky" he says.
"A frog is what I am. I'm as happy as a clam."

Kermit can also hop, which he does with great enthusiasm in this video from 1984.

Count It Higher highlights the talents of folks like Christopher Cerf, Sara Durkee and Norman Stiles who have created songs that teach and offer lots of laughs.

The Muppet Wiki offers neat background on these tracks.

My only beef: How about some commentary from Cerf, who has his hands on most of these tracks. How does he decide on the songs he chooses? How do musicians react when they are tapped to perform these songs? Would such an effort be considered a career highlight? What does a parodist like Weird Al Yankovic make of these tunes?

RATING: 8/10

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Project Grizzly (1996)

Sink your teeth into this Canadian documentary.

Project Grizzly generously offers what Hollywood too often doesn't in a sea of reboots, remakes and sequels.

This National Film Board documentary presents an original story with a lead character who'll stick in your brain for a very long time.

Troy Hurtubise survives an encounter with a grizzly he dubs Old Man.

Rather than resolve to stay miles away from the bush and a big bear's territory, the North Bay, Ont., resident decides to design a bear-proof suit.

This isn't just a weekend whim.

Hurtubise's project spans years, tens of thousands of dollars and continually updated suits. There's footage of him being hurled down the Niagara Escarpment and being plowed into by a pickup truck doing 30 miles an hour. To mimic the swipe of a grizzly bear's paw, an elevated 300 to 400 pound log smashes into Hurtubise and his suit. "I feel great," he says after getting whacked. The suit bears the brunt of baseball bats, gunshots and bows.

This slim, 72-minute documentary from Canada builds up to an excursion to the Rockies so Hurtubise can test the suit in an up-close encounter with a real big bruin.

Project Grizzly works for plenty of reasons.

Hurtubise is a fascinating character. He graduated from community college as a natural resource technologist, but couldn't find work in his field (pardon the pun). Instead, he owns a scrapyard.

He's big on martial arts, wears a buckskin jacket and extols the virtues of carrying very large knives into the bush. Yes, they can be used to ward off a bear but Hurtubise also suggests he is concerned about "the two-legged animals" he might find in the bush.

"You got a lot of wackos out there," he says. "I swear by my knives."

I'm not sure if that's supposed to be comforting or disturbing.

There's a couple of neat scenes with Hurtubise and his mother. She recalls his fascination with
being in really dangerous circumstances as a youngster. Plenty of kids have built plenty of faux volcanoes to replicate an eruption. Hurtubise did too except he used gasoline and started a fire in his bedroom. This is a guy who acknowledges his greatest fear is being average. He drams of becoming "a little Jacques Cousteau" and travel the world with his suit and research team.

Hurtubise notes matter-of-factly the worst thing that could happen to him in another one-on-one with a grizzly is he could die. Why, yes Troy, you could get mauled to death if the suit fails.

A Vietnam veteran who's part of Hurtubise's posse recounts a game bored G.I.s played to get the adrenaline flowing. Pull the pin of a hand grenade and run. Hurtubise isn't the only one who goes to extremes to get his kicks.

He finds his bear in the snowy Rockies, but you'll have to watch the film to see what happens.

Project Grizzly offers more fun than watching bears at your local dump.

RATING: 8 out of 10

FUN FACTS: Wyeth Clarkson, assistant picture editor, went on to direct SK8 life. Director Peter Lynch has also helmed A Whale of a Tale and Cyberman. Troy Hurtubise and his suit were featured on Ripley's Believe It or Not. Project Grizzly was nominated for a Genie (Canada's equivalent of the Academy Awards) for best feature length documentary.