White Heat (1949)

White Heat is one of the best crime dramas you’ll ever see. James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a sadistic, vicious thug who meets the textbook definition of the phrase “criminally insane.” Cagney gives a performance that no other actor could duplicate let alone exceed. If you are wondering why he didn’t get the Oscar for this film, I didn’t understand either but I believe it was because Hollywood didn’t nominate “gangster films” for Oscars until perhaps The Godfather.

Virginia Mayo gives a fine performance as Cody’s girl, as does Edmund O’Brien as an undercover federal policeman. But the other special performance in this film is given by Margaret Wycherly, who portrays Cody’s mother. You can see in her character one of the main reasons Cody grew up to become the monster he was. Her role is such a contrast to the warm and steadfast mother she played in Sergeant York. Wycherly deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance in White Heat in addition the one she received for Sergeant York.

White Heat was nominated for best writing; perhaps that was Hollywood’s discreet way of acknowledging Cagney and Wycherly’s performances and director Raoul Walsh.

I have seen this film many times and I am still amazed at how good it is.
Tags:

The Good Wife. Seasons 1-3 (2009-2012)

The Good Wife is a fascinating legal drama that centers on Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) return to her former profession as a litigator after 12 years spent at home raising her children. Her husband is the disgraced Cook County attorney, who is currently incarcerated due to a very public sex and corruption scandal.

The show chronicles Alicia’s struggles as she deals with a new job, her conflicted feelings toward her husband, and the pressure of raising her two children. It is such a smart and well-acted television show and definitely one of my favorites.

 
Tags:

Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season (2010)

The HBO series opens on New Year’s Eve, 1920, the moment Prohibition becomes the law of the land. Local politician Nucky Thompson runs Atlantic City and wants to control all of the liquor coming in off the shore and distributed across the country. The likes of Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and other real-life gangsters appear in Boardwalk Empire.

The sets, the costumes, and most particularly the soundtrack transport you to the early days of 1920s Atlantic City, where the magnetic Nucky Thompson pulls all the strings. Because the series was first shown on premium cable and portrays gangsters and prostitutes as many of the characters, this show does have graphic violence and nudity.

Want other gangster movies and TV shows? Check out our list.

The Descendants (2011) R

Basically we humans want life to be simple, but for Matt King (George Clooney) it has become anything but! With his wife Elizabeth on life support after a boating accident, his two daughters in need of his attention, and the responsibility of a family land trust, he finds himself in the most difficult of situations.

The Descendants, with the atmosphere of its Hawaiian setting (including the native music), was surprising, moving, and frequently very funny, but the best part is how well it all works.
Tags:

True Blood. Seasons 1 and 2 (2008-2009)

Vampires have always existed in the shadows of Bon Temps, Louisiana, but with the invention of the artificial blood product “True Blood,” vampires have come out into the open. Some residents welcome them, like heroine Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), but others need a little persuading.

As so often happens when vampires are around, other supernatural creatures make appearances as well. Be prepared for great characters, violence, gratuitous nudity, goofy humor, and a touching love story in seasons 1 and 2 of True Blood. Seasons 3 and 4 are also available on DVD. Based on the novels by Charlaine Harris.

Revenge: The Complete First Season (2011)

This new dark drama takes getting even to the next level. The show centers on the beautiful Emily Thorne who rents a beach house in the Hamptons for summer. It is revealed through flashbacks that Emily is not there to soak up the sun, but instead to exact revenge for the people responsible for her father’s wrongful imprisonment. Her cold and calculating plan ensures that everyone involved in the plot to frame will suffer, especially the powerful Grayson family. Revenge is a deliciously wicked show that shows how far someone will go for justice.
Tags:

Green Dolphin Street (1947)

This old Lana Turner and Van Heflin movie was worth a second peek. I vaguely remembered being entranced with it in grammar school. The plot, the settings, the costumes and the characters of Green Street Dolphin represent an old Hollywood, not necessarily realistic but very entertaining. Lana Turner as the brave, headstrong and sometimes nasty heroine, faces childbirth, earthquakes, tidal waves, and Maori uprisings with true grit.

A ways into her marriage she discovers her husband had really meant to marry her sister. And there we are. What now?

Margaret (2011) R

Margaret is an amazing coming-of-age story and with the extended cut being three hours long, an endurance test as well. The investment of time will be rewarded by the well- acted, interestingly shot, quirky, and engaging story of Lisa (Anna Paquin), a high school student whose life is irrevocably changed in a few seconds during a search for a cowboy hat in Manhattan. None of Lisa’s family members, friends, and teachers emerges unscathed from her relentless efforts to make sense of her role in a tragedy.

For more on the movie's five-year journey from filming in 2006 to release in 2011, read articles from The New York Times Magazine and The Los Angeles Times. Also check out NPR's interview with director Kenneth Lonergan. TIME Magazine reviewed the film.
Tags:

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) PG-13

Kristin Scott Thomas gives an inspired performance in I've Loved You So Long, a French language film about a woman’s release from prison. The story of why she was in prison unfolds rather slowly throughout the film as she resumes her life and her relationship with her sister. The film is a modest, subtle character study and the value of most of it is in Thomas’ handling of the role.

Just a side note: I wondered about the title…it didn’t seem to fit. And found that the phrase doesn't translate very well (original title = Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) but is a line of a French folk song that two sisters played as a piano duet.

In French with English subtitles.

Water for Elephants (2011) PG-13

An interesting movie. I believe if you liked Moulin Rouge! (2001), you'll like Water for Elephants as well. It's also based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen.

Check out our Water for Elephants Reading Map for related books, movies, music, and more!

 
Tags:

Something the Lord Made (2004)

We take so much for granted these days. Heart surgery? In and out in three days. Fifty years ago the heart was the sacred cow of medicine. No one operated on the heart. In Something the Lord Made, we discover the dramatic true story of the evolution of heart surgery. There is not a dull moment as two men collaborate their efforts to save the life of a" blue baby." This groundbreaking operation is where research started.

There is a kicker, one of the men is an eminent white doctor, head of surgery at Johns Hopkins; his talented technician is a black man without any degree. There you have it. Two stories forever intertwined in a single struggle. Anyone who read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks would definitely appreciate this movie. It is a standalone winner in all ways.

Swing Shift (1984) PG

The stars of the film are the set dressings and costumes for the WWII drama Swing Shift. It was interesting to see the movie where Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell met and fell in love.

To see the reviews from the pros, check out Roger Ebert, The New York Times, and Empire Magazine.

 
Tags:

Like Dandelion Dust (2009) PG-13

Touching tearjerker about loving adoptive parents who fight to keep their son Joey when the birth parents want him back.  Like Dandelion Dust is a good movie exploring the love of family.

Based on the 2006 novel by Karen Kingsbury.
Tags:

Me & Orson Welles (2008) PG-13

It’s autumn 1937 and Orson Welles is about to open his famous production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. Seventeen-year-old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a high schooler from New Jersey, happens into a small role in the production which involves playing the ukulele.

In one week, he falls under the spell of the mercurial and mesmerizing Orson Welles (Christian McKay), falls in a love with an older woman (Claire Danes), and makes his Broadway debut. Efron is lovable as the irrepressible Richard and McKay re-creates the larger than life persona of Welles. The period music, costumes, and sets are irresistible in Me & Orson Welles.

The Duchess of Duke Street. Series 1 (1976)

The Duchess of Duke Street, a BBC production of Edwardian England, is plain old fun to watch. Gemma Jones, who plays the duchess, immediately engages us by her super strong performance of a servant girl who becomes a notorious chef who also catches the eye of the Prince of Wales.

Many times she is a victim of Victorian strictures, but meets these challenges head on with verve and style. The story is offbeat but keeps you thoroughly entertained. After watching season 1, I immediately looked for season 2.