Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

The best original musical in years. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an unbelievably energetic and poignant tragicomedy exploring the life of one of the United States’ most celebrated and hated, admired and demonized presidents, Andrew Jackson.

Part history book, part vaudeville, and a whole lot of minstrel show, the musical plays through Jackson’s life through retrospect (a loving Tea Party-type fawning over her hero), as it is happening (the discussion of then-political issues like tariffs, a national bank), and thrust into the contemporary political scene (“I promise you transparency and open collaboration”).

The entire show is wildly entertaining and often very funny, featuring the best original score this side of Next to Normal. What is so important about this show, however, is how unbelievably daring it is. It presents the life of one of the most contentious figures in American history with unblinking honesty, but without any resentment or regret. His actions, both good and bad, are presented to us and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.

In the stirring closing ballad “Second Nature,” the singer explores the changes in America from Jackson’s presidency through now; are we better off by what Jackson did? How do we as a country grapple with our terrible past? Are these actions justifiable, given what we have today?

The show shows a very mature restraint; it does not exist to preach at us. No entertainment should. Rather, it forces us to explore ourselves and our history. Jackson faced that with the Native American population. His decisions on that issue are certainly controversial; but he did what he felt he had to given America’s history and the existing borders and political situation he was born into. He, and every individual, deserves at least that much credit.

War Horse (2011)

I can’t believe I waited almost a year to see this. I was unexpectedly surprised and very satisfied with Spielberg’s latest film (his best sinceCatch Me If You Can a decade ago), based on the critically-acclaimed play of the same name.

It has a charming enough beginning and premise: a young man takes in an injured horse and trains him to plow, hoping to raise enough money to save his family’s farm. As World War I breaks out, however, the family is forced to sell the horse and the movie truly begins.

While I expected a standard narrative, the film functioned in a much more interesting way: the horse passed between different parties, British and German soldiers, a young French girl, and others throughout the course of the war. I won’t give any spoilers but the ending is incredibly moving and satisfying.

The movie seems to drag on during the second hour (clocks in at almost 150 minutes), but the payoff is well worth it. The wide variety of characters are able to come together in a believable scenario, illustrating how much the horse and the war has changed all of them.

It is in this last ten minutes or so that the film truly blew me away; the characters gave incredibly stirring speeches, evoking themes of sacrifice, loss, and redemption.

In addition to the wonderful emotional power of this film, it is also very well shot and produced. The stunning imagery is often reminiscent ofGone With the Wind, of characters in desperate situations silhouetted against a fiery orange sky. Their identities aren’t what matters; it is the extraordinary circumstances they face and how they meet those circumstances that make this a genuinely heartfelt and inspirational work.

Picnic (1955)

The 1950s present a very unique crossroads in the American perception of youth. The whole conception of teen-agers and adolescents as their own distinctive demographic was still fairly fresh (a product of the post-World War II era), a tension highlighted by the shifting culture of film and art during that time. The classical era of Hollywood was starting to fade away and grittier, arguably more realistic film was moving in.

It is hard to imagine films like Picnic and Rebel Without a Cause being about the same species, let alone the same demographic and being released in the very same year. Rebel kicked off the new wave of adolescence in film as a tortured, disturbed perspective on American life, while Picnic was with the older school of thought, of classical beauty and imagery.

While more romantic (and hopelessly idealistic), Picnic is just that: an absolutely beautiful movie. Much like East of Eden (another small-town, youth epic from 1955), Picnic is the story of a young hero trying to win over the girl and the approval of his fellow countrymen. Like most classical teen films, there is plenty of melodrama, but the film is shot in an almost transcendental manner. We are given sweeping shots of the young couple, silhouetted against the Kansas City twilight sky. They could be anybody, anywhere, at any time.

Picnic seems less concerned with the action of its primary characters than it is to raise fundamental questions. (Honestly, not that much happens in this movie.) Instead, it provokes questions of fate, how much control we have in our own lives, and lost opportunities. In one of the more tragic storylines, one couple puts off pursuing marriage for years and years, only to eventually follow through but for the wrong reasons. At what point do our dreams become facades? How much can (or should) we change for the people we love?

For any classical Hollywood film (let alone a youth-oriented one), these are very heavy questions to ask. Particularly in the post-war era, this film reflects the growing cynicism and sense of regret that became later associated with counterculture and other reactive youth culture (like Rebel).

In addition to a solid story, the film also gives us a wonderful ensemble cast, led by the miscast (but still fantastic, as always) William Holden and the stunning Kim Novak in a spellbinding love story. This is a very important, and often forgotten, epic youth film ripe with nostalgia and passion.

The Innocents (1961)

The scariest horror film I’ve seen in some time. It follows all of the elements of your typical Gothic horror feature (spooky old house, creepy kids). What makes this one so striking, however, is that in this movie, things go bump in the night, day, and everything in-between. We never get a moment of rest.

From the very first scene, the exposition detailing the film’s premise (an uncle’s niece and nephew need a new governess in his house in the country), we can immediately tell something is wrong. The dialogue is all rather twisted (co-written by Truman Capote), and the plot goes in a disturbing, semi-incestuous direction.

Additionally, all of the scares are well-thought out and built up. No cheap “jump” moments in this classical horror movie. We don’t even get many close-ups of the scary action (so to speak) going on, which almost makes it scarier; it makes the events that much more objective, making it that much more plausible that you could also be watching it live, but from slightly afar.

Beyond simply the solid storytelling, we also get some stellar performances, especially from the two children. (And I usually hate kid actors, so that’s saying something!) The film is also shot beautifully and rather strangely; as seen above, we often get shots with characters in the foreground and background, both in focus. This is a fairly uncommon technique, rooted in medieval artwork, giving the film an additional layer of other-worldliness. Which, for a house full of spooks and spirits, fits perfectly.

While it is a bit of a slow build-up, this is a wonderfully effective and genuinely creepy horror movie. The ending was so shakingly haunting that I actually re-watched the last half hour or so. This is not as good as some other classic horror from this era (one could make countless comparisons to The Haunting, which came a few years later) but this certainly helped set the stage for a newer, smarter style of horror.