WOOSTER, Ohio — At Home in the Dark could be the title of a thrilling summer blockbuster, but it’s actually a book about blockbusters — and lesser known films — as reviewed by local critic Richard Figge, Emeritus Professor of German at The College of Wooster and an accomplished actor in his own right.
The collection, released last month by The Wooster Book Company, consists of 160 film reviews written by Figge during the past 20 years. Included are critiques of such well-known films as Six Degrees of Separation, Road to Perdition, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Hunger Games, Philadelphia, March of the Penguins, The Passion of the Christ, and Dead Man Walking, as well as hidden gems like Big Fish, The Concert, Side Effects, and The Adjustment Bureau. His reviews are arranged in more than a dozen categories, from “Thrillers” to “Romantic Comedies,” “Documentaries” to “Historical Films,” and just about everywhere in between. He even includes “A Couple I Got Wrong.” Most of the reviews are quick reads (2-4 pages) — perfect for perusing just before or just after watching the movie of your choice.
Figge’s observations are insightful yet succinct. In most cases, he provides a brief summary of the storyline and follows with comments on the production, the actors, and anything else that caught his fancy. In his review of Nobody’s Fool, for example, Figge describes Paul Newman as “so good and so sharp and so honest that it doesn't seem like acting at all.” In Lincoln, he commends Daniel Day-Lewis as having achieved “another brilliant performance in his portrayal,” adding “even the word ‘portrayal’ seems inadequate since he so completely inhabits the role.” In Margin Call, an independent film by College of Wooster graduate and former Figge advisee J.C. Chandor, he provides a context for Chandor’s passion for filmmaking. He’s even bold enough to critique some of the critics for their reviews, as in the case of The Bucket List, about which he says, “The reviewers I have read seem to have expected a film by Bergman or Antonioni. It isn’t. It’s a comedy by Rob Reiner, and it features charming performances by [Jack] Nicholson (not over the top in this one) and [Morgan] Freeman (as good as ever).
“These reviews derive from a lifelong love of movies,” says Figge in the introduction of the book. “My education in movies began [in 1949] in front of our 10-inch RCA television.” There, he would watch “Hollywood Matinee” at 2 p.m. weekdays on KSTP-TV while growing up in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
“We saw recent films in the theaters,” adds Figge. “The old films ran on television. It was there that I first saw Charlie Chaplin…and, best of all, Laurel and Hardy. Seeing their films for the first time was one of the most magical parts of childhood, and I joined their legions of life-long fans.” (Perhaps that explains Figge’s sharp wit and delightful sense of humor).
A 16mm Keystone Crank projector, given to Figge and his brother and sister by their beloved Aunt Marie Hartfield, followed by Figge’s own purchases of a Bell & Howell silent projector and later a Bell & Howell Filmosound projector led him to become a collector of classic films. He and several of his friends also dabbled in the art of movie making, producing a parody of Around the World in Eighty Days and a black-and-white version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart.
As a senior at Carleton College, Figge managed to secure a dream job for someone with his interests — selecting the weekend movies for the student co-op and writing a weekly column about film in the student newspaper.
“I have always felt at home in the dark of theaters, watching movies as a member of the audience,” he says. “Their experience of the film was part of my experience, hence my occasional notes on audience reactions [in the reviews].”
The clever title of Figge’s book also reflects a hint of irony, for his critiques are interesting and enlightening, and they promise not to leave readers “in the dark.”
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