I sometimes have difficulty separating an artist from their art, although I’ve been able to accomplish it several times. Would I be able to do so when the artist in question was a President of the United States whose art included not only films, but policies that transformed the Republican Party, the American economy, and the course of the Cold War? Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg has arrived to pose this question.
Whatever your feelings about Reagan’s politics, and mine are by no means completely positive, this new book affirms any belief in the influence of film on society. It is written by Mark Weinberg, who in 1981, when the book begins, was serving as an assistant press secretary at the White House. He was one of the few staff members invited along on the Reagans’ weekends at Camp David, where there is a movie theater. In the privacy of the Aspen Lodge, the First Family and their guests sat in comfy chairs as popcorn was served in baskets, and watched contemporary and classic movies on Friday and Saturday nights, in good times (landslide re-election) and in bad (assassination attempts).
The book is organized mostly chronologically, with one chapter per film, beginning with the first weekend trip of Reagan’s presidency in February of 1981 (the film was 9 to 5) all the way up to 1987, including September of 1985, when the chosen film was Ronald and Nancy’s only one together, Hellcats of the Navy, which was also the last feature in which either Reagan appeared. The connections between the films and the memories in each chapter can be tenuous but are nonetheless fascinating. Weinberg was in a unique position of truly unparalled access, enabling him to now deliver an assortment of anecdotes; he seems to have been both an employee and a friend of both the Reagans, with a closeness verging on that of family.
As a classic movie devotee, I’ve always wondered how two so different people as Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart — somehow he is never “James” — could maintain such a lasting and close friendship as theirs apparently was. I’d heard about the model airplane they built together, and the double dates. Yet Fonda was a New Deal Democrat who was married 5 times, had issues with his kids, and seemed to keep to himself; Stewart was a conservative Republican, got married once for life, had a decent relationship with his kids, and seemed to know everybody. The new double biography Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, by Scott Eyman, acclaimed author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, reconciles this conundrum, and in the process reveals that these two actors were more alike than I knew. Giveaway winner announced after the jump. Continue reading “Review: Hank and Jim and the 50-Year Friendship PLUS Giveaway”→
Happy birthday, Sophia Loren! Out September 26 from Running Press and TCM, Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style by Cindy De La Hoz is an image-laden coffee-table-style book about the woman Charlton Heston referred to as “the only honest-to-God international movie star.” The book starts with a brief biography of Loren, then goes into capsule summaries and nuggets of behind-the-scenes info for nearly all of her credited roles, with special emphasis on her Italian productions. This comprehensive listing of her films will likely spur further viewing for many readers.
Every year, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) throws a few surprises into their Summer Under The Stars (SUTS) programming. As you may know, SUTS means each day in August is dedicated to the films of a single brilliant star. Along with actors you might expect, such as Humphrey Bogart (Aug. 1) and Bette Davis (Aug. 14), TCM always includes a few surprising choices. For instance, I don’t know of any other cable channel that would run nearly 24 hours of silent films, but that’s exactly what happened on Ramon Novarro‘s day (August 8). If you missed Ben-Hur (1925) starring Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, you really should check it out.
The other somewhat unconventional and totally welcome choice in the SUTS mix this year is Catherine Deneuve (Monday, August 12). As I said on Jean Gabin day in 2011…big ups to TCM for running 24 hours of subtitles. (Actually, there is one English-language Deneuve film, The Hunger, showing at 4:15 a.m. on Tuesday, August 13. But still…it’s not something you see every day.)
Un flic is French for “a cop;” the film’s American title is less ambiguous: Dirty Money. Delon plays the title role, a brutal, not-so-clean police commissioner, who suspects that his friend, a nightclub owner (Crenna), is behind a series of bank robberies and drug deals. Cathy (Deneuve) is caught between them, sleeping with both and keeping both their secrets. Her model beauty and perfectly coiffed hair belie the anxiety in her nervous gestures and darting eyes. It’s a small part but a memorable one.
Melville is one of my favorite directors, he does crime pictures as well as anyone. His newsreel-style, on-location filmmaking was influential on Jean-Luc Godard (whose use of jump cuts was inspired by Melville). This was Melville’s last film, and like my favorite Le samouraï, Un flic may as well have been shot in the black and white of a film noir…cold desaturated colors, dark rooms, inky shadows. Thematically it’s as melancholy as any noir, and the line between the lawman and the criminal is as hazy as dusk in the Paris of Melville’s creation…this isn’t Woody Allen’s City of Lights. Part of it is unbelievable (you’ll know it when you see it), and I’m pretty sure Crenna was dubbed, but these are minor details in a suspenseful and enjoyable neo-noir.
UPDATE: No worries if you missed this on Deneuve day and you have Netflix. I searched the site on the off chance they would have Un flic on DVD, and lo and behold, not only do they have it, it’s also streaming. C’est super!
Early in the 2012 documentary Low and Clear, one of the two main characters, J.T. Van Zandt, remarks, “the biggest mistake about fishing is that it’s about catching fish.” It would have been easy for the filmmakers to make this mistake themselves…fortunately they do not. Though it’s ostensibly about a fly fishing trip taken by J.T. and his friend Alex “Xenie” Hall, Low and Clear doesn’t really have much to do with fly fishing. Its stunning visuals pull you into a quiet, leisurely-paced meditation on the nature of friendship…how do people become friends, can they stay friends as their lives change, and if so, how?
J.T. and Xenie are almost completely different in personality and lifestyle. Fly fishing and love and respect for nature are the things they have in common, and they even differ in their approaches to that. Short-tempered Xenie lives to fish and arranges his life around it, while mellow J.T. has a more balanced life, with a fiancée, a job and a house. They met when J.T. was working in a fly fishing store and Xenie was the local legend. Their relationship has developed from teacher-student to one of mutual respect and fierce competition. They both at times interpret the other’s choices as a judgement on their own, and though they are important influences on each other, J.T. describes their relationship now as “combative.”
This dynamic comes to the fore on their trip. As J.T. also stated early on, when people are fishing, “personalities come out and you can’t hide it.” Xenie sticks to his tried-and-true methods and routine, obsessively photographing every fish he catches, while J.T. has decided to use the time to learn some new techniques and isn’t getting even a nibble. Xenie gloats and tries to give advice as J.T. becomes more and more frustrated yet refuses to budge. It’s clear that, like any other friends who’ve drifted apart, they’ve become separated in a million different little ways.
There’s no fighting, gunplay, special effects, or explosions. No one gets marooned in the Canadian wilderness. It’s just two guys talking about themselves and each other, and gorgeous photography by the directors Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen. The Gulf Coast of Texas (J.T.’s home), Colorado (Xenie’s territory), and British Columbia (where they take their trip) never looked better. The film’s pace is slower than audiences are used to, but if you’re patient, you’ll get some food for thought on friendship and the meaning of life, and a reminder of the breathtaking beauty of the natural world.
Low and Clear is playing in the metro Detroit area on Tuesday, July 30 as part of Gathr’s preview series at the Maple Theater. You can win free series tickets by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and subject line “CMB.” Good luck!
After the series, the films will be available for Gathr’s Theatrical-On-Demand service, which allows moviegoers to request screenings of indie films at their local theater. For more information, visit the Gathr site.
This review contains spoilers. Just about every sentence is a spoiler!
I have to admit my expectations for Man of Steel were pretty high. And it did get pretty close. If I was giving out grades, it would get a B, maybe even a B+. But an over-reliance on explosions and effects for the IMAX/3D crowd unfortunately dilute the impact of an otherwise excellent movie.
Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. As I expected, Cavill expertly conveys the humility, goodness, and dry wit that work for this character. His American accent is perfect (and pretty neutral for Kansas…but this guy has worked all over the continent apparently). Let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt that he’s as handsome and almost incredibly fit as a Superman should be. Adams is convincing as a determined reporter who just can’t leave well enough alone. She isn’t sassy, just strong-willed. I liked that the character didn’t immediately go to pieces at her first sight of Superman…that’s not right for a hardboiled reporter, which is what Lois should be. These two have an easy chemistry that I’d like to have seen more of (more on that later).
In addition, I’m glad the writers found a rather clever way out of the conceit of Lois not knowing who Superman is, one that both strengthens the Lois character and furthers the plot. The idea that Superman’s identity is a secret to Lois was never believable to me — she’s a brilliant reporter and she can’t figure it out right away? Plus it’s always annoyed me that she didn’t recognize him supposedly because of his glasses, probably because I wear glasses myself. I think I basically look the same with or without them!
The casting. I think it’s excellent, from Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Clark’s birth parents, to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as his adoptive ones, from Richard Schiff as the requisite scientist, to Christopher Meloni and the ever-reliable Harry Lennix as a military colonel and general respectively, it just works. Michael Shannon is an appropriately detestable Zod and parallel to Kal-El/Clark. And why didn’t it occur to anyone to cast Laurence Fishburne as a cranky newspaper editor before this? I really liked his take on Perry White. In addition, care was taken with the younger versions of Clark so that the actors playing the character at different ages actually look plausibly alike.
The structure of Superman’s back story. While the circumstances surrounding his birth kick the film off, much of Clark’s childhood is recounted in a series of flashbacks, which are triggered by seemingly ordinary occurrences in his life. While a couple of the people I saw this with were annoyed by it, I found it to be naturalistic and quite easy to follow.
Spot-on depiction of the severe ADD resulting from Superman’s powers. Sitting in a classroom at school, young Clark is bombarded with hundreds of stimuli, well-represented on film. Although I don’t have it nearly as bad, if you’ve ever wondered, that’s basically what it’s like.
The religious references. Superman is like Moses — a foundling, outcast from “normal” society — and he’s also like Jesus — Kal-El/Clark Kent was uniquely conceived, he is 33, he excels at turning the other cheek, and he sacrifices himself to save humanity. Also Jor-El (Crowe) becomes a computer-driven “ghost,” who believes Clark will be received as “a god.” All of this taps into elementary archetypes and helps to overcome the fact that we don’t really see enough motivation for Superman to save the people of Earth. Other than his parents, the only person who treats Clark with any shred of decency is a kid whose life he saves. So why should he bother? That’s why.
The not so good:
Cavill’s hair. I thought it was impossible to botch perfection but somehow they managed to goof up Henry’s look, at least part of the time. His hair style and color change from scene to scene and it became a distraction. This is very minor compared to…
Not enough interaction between the characters, and too much big multi-stage battle between Zod and Superman. The mass destruction of Metropolis goes on way too long, becoming tedious. This film has a handle on epic, particularly the flying scenes and big beautiful images, courtesy of director Zack Snyder and DP Amir Mokri. What interaction there is, worked well; I just wanted more of it. I wish there was a way to magically re-distribute some of the time spent on dismantling skyscrapers and put it into the characters’ relationships. It’s this unbalance that tips Man of Steel from excellent to pretty good.
It’s difficult not to feel bad for Don Johnston (Bill Murray), the protagonist in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005). Though he made a bunch of money a while back in something to do with computers and doesn’t need to work, he is almost completely alone, even when there are people around. We meet him as his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) is moving out of his dark, nearly empty, house. As she leaves, she sees his mail on the floor in the foyer, a pink envelope on the top of the stack. “Looks like you got a love letter from one of your other girlfriends,” she says, clearly disgusted. When Don opens the letter, he’s with his next-door neighbor and buddy Winston (Jeffrey Wright), and its contents are a shock.
Don reads that he has a son he doesn’t know about, born nearly 20 years before. This child is searching for Don and may find him. But who is the mother? The letter is unsigned, the postmark too faint to read, and apparently back in the day, Don lived up to the Don Juan characteristics implied in his name…there are quite a few women who could have written it. Amateur detective Winston begins a Sherlock-Holmes-style analysis of the stationery — it’s pink and flowery, and whoever wrote it used an old typewriter with a red ribbon. Don protests that the whole thing is a joke and he doesn’t want to know, but he is overwhelmingly lonely, and as Winston won’t let the mystery alone, Don is soon on a mission to revisit the possible moms. Trekking around the country to unspecified locations, he encounters his former girlfriends’ surprise, rage, indifference, and everything in between. Standouts along the way include Sharon Stone, Chloë Sevigny, the unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, and Alexis Dziena, as Stone’s character’s teenaged daughter, who has interesting fashion sense.
The film’s pace is leisurely but quietly captivating, as Jarmusch uses suspense-style compositions to create understated tension. He takes the advice “show, don’t tell” and applies in a straightforward style. Murray gives a convincing, melancholy performance, with only hints of the goofball we know is there. Don never says, “I’m lonely,” but we see his life contrasted with Winston and his wife Mona’s. Each ex is a fairly well-sketched person, with her own believable personality — all they seem to have in common is that they were blonde. We get to judge for ourselves whether or not they are telling the truth about their lives — Jarmusch doesn’t weigh in. “Look for clues,” Winston urges Don, referring to the typewriter and the pink flowers that will reveal the mother’s identity, but what Don is really looking for is the meaning of his life.
Another part of Broken Flowers‘ charm is its remarkable soundtrack. Where you might expect anguished folk-rock or confessional ballads, Jarmusch and music editor Jay Rabinowitz provide an eclectic mix of upbeat, sunny-sounding tunes. There are multiple tracks from both Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke and British singer Holly Golightly, with and without the Greenhornes. What this all means for the moviegoer is an excellent if overlooked little gem of a film.
I talk about how much I love The Train all the time, I watch or DVR it every time it’s on, and I really want more people to see it, but I feel like I haven’t really said why. Its premise is deceptively simple: In the waning days of World War II, French railway inspector/Resistance member Labiche (Burt Lancaster) is ordered by Nazi-in-charge von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on the train. Von Waldheim has ruthless soldiers at his disposal, but Labiche’s Resistance friends, some of whom actually run the trains, are used to making sabotage seem normal. It’s an unpredictable, suspenseful chess match with French lives staked against the country’s soul.
Maybe it’s so good because it’s so real. How real? Lancaster did all his own stunts. He even did stunts for another actor. He was injured only once during filming but it had nothing to do with the movie: He sprained his knee while golfing. Director John Frankenheimer covered it by having Labiche get shot in the leg.
Lancaster was actually responsible for Frankenheimer’s presence on set. After the first day of filming, Lancaster didn’t think original director Arthur Penn was emphasizing action and suspense as much as necessary. The actor, who was also producing, had Penn fired and called on his Young Savages/Birdman of Alcatraz/Seven Days in May director, who was happy to help — provided his conditions were met: the film’s official title would be “John Frankenheimer’s The Train;” he would have final cut; and he would receive a Ferrari. The producers agreed to all of it. (Don’t feel too badly for Penn…he went on to make Bonnie and Clyde.)
In addition, when you see trains crashing or derailing, they’re very real, life-sized, often WWII-era, trains — Frankenheimer didn’t use miniatures. In one scene, the production was able to take advantage of the French government’s decision to scrap a railyard by “planting dynamite charges beneath the tracks….According to Newsweek, this brief sequence incorporated 140 separate explosions, 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline” [source].
I could write another whole blog post about the filming of these scenes:
and I haven’t even mentioned Jeanne Moreau’s cameo as an innkeeper who may or may not be collaborating with the Nazis, the crazy weather delays and their effect on the film, or the real-life true story that inspired the script — Rose Valland’s autobiographical Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945.*
Furthermore, the film can be enjoyed as both a straight-up action picture and as a philosophical exploration of art and war. It asks the questions, “How much does art matter, and is it worth dying for?” and suggests that one’s answer will vary based on class. The Train’s preoccupation with social status is understated, but it reminds me of another film with an ambivalent outlook on war, La Grande Illusion. For starters, both have working-class Frenchmen, Labiche and Jean Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal, and aristocratic Germans, von Waldheim and Erich von Stroheim’s Captain (later Major) von Rauffenstein, though their differences are far more prominent in Illusion.
So The Train won a ton of Oscars, right? Not at all. It received one Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen — which it lost, to Darling. Neither film is really all that well-known today, but I confess I have more affection for the somber World War II movie that could.
* Per IMDB, paintings from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris “were indeed loaded into a train for shipment to Germany during World War II, but fortunately, the elaborate deception seen in the movie was not really required. The train was merely routed onto a ring railway and circled around and around Paris until the Allies arrived.”
UPDATE: This post wouldn’t really be complete without Frankenheimer’s TCM tribute to Lancaster. The director talks about The Train, including the one-take scene Jack Deth referenced in his comment, here.
Recently tagged “most underappreciated film of 2012” by the Los Angeles Times, Bernie (2012) is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who befriended and eventually murdered an elderly woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), in Carthage, Texas.
In real life, Tiede befriended Nugent in 1990, shot her in 1996, was convicted in 1998, and is serving a life sentence. The case deeply divided the townspeople of Carthage. Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney played by Matthew McConaughey in the film, told a local paper in 1998, “This town is split up.” Nugent’s son, Dr. Ron Nugent, maintains that Tiede drove her family away and that her side of the story has never been told. On the other hand, there is a blog, Free Bernie Tiede, which allows Bernie to communicate with his supporters, and in August 2012, the Dallas Morning News reported that, after seeing the film, an Austin attorney has taken an interest in Tiede’s case.
But Bernie isn’t really about all that. It’s actually a character study, the kind Hollywood doesn’t really produce all that much any more, and, in this world of big-budget special effects showcases, something as narrow in scope and as perfectly executed as Bernie is a welcome refreshment.
In the film, Bernie is much beloved by all of Carthage for his affable personality and tireless involvement in many civic and church activities. A mortician by trade, it is his habit to check up on the town’s widows, and someone as unpleasant as Mrs. Nugent, recently bereaved, needs a friend. The two soon become inseparable, but Mrs. Nugent is also more and more possessive of and verbally abusive toward Bernie, who can’t deal with any kind of negativity or drama. One night he snaps and shoots her. He then hides her body and continues as if she’s still alive…just very very sick. Having been given power of attorney, Bernie also spends her money, but only to help other people.
When Marjorie’s body is found, the music on the movie’s soundtrack is the only real indication of sadness. Nobody, including her family, really missed her spiteful ways, only her money. No one in town can quite believe Bernie capable of murder, anyway; a few even hassle the district attorney to “leave poor Bernie alone.”
Reality and fiction meld in this genre-defying film. Bernie is a seamless mix of documentary-style interviews with actual Carthage townsfolk interspersed with re-enactments and scenes from Bernie’s point of view, which use actors. It’s pretty clear whose side director Richard Linklater is on, but the story and its implications are only part of this film’s pull. The casting is perfect. Black excels as Bernie, making the character relatable and the oddity of the plot believable. MacLaine makes the most of her smaller role, displaying a steely-eyed malice and hinting at the grief behind the jealousy. However, the citizens of Carthage steal the show — they are a charming, funny bunch whose loyalty to Bernie is as endearing as it is stubborn.
The thing about Argo is that we already know how it ends. In 1980, CIA operative Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) managed to “ex-filtrate” the six Americans who escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s house when Iranian revolutionaries took over the US embassy in Tehran. But I forgot all about that, and judging from the reactions of others in the audience, so did everyone else. This film immerses you in suspense.
As I noted in one of my past posts, I liked the trailer for Argo, maybe because it reminded a bit of The Town, one of my favorite heist pictures ever, also directed by Affleck. The director doesn’t disappoint, ratcheting the tension up exponentially. It could have been a bit too tense, but Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio break the mood with some very funny moments at Hollywood’s expense. The lighter, satirical scenes with John Goodman and Alan Arkin in the movie capital do more than just relieve almost unbearable stress. These scenes – actually the whole movie – are a meditation on the nature of espionage, movies, and storytelling. It begins with a brief history of Iran and the causes of the 1980 revolution. Instead of the usual text on a blank background, or a newsreel-style montage, Argo‘s introduction is a series of animated story boards. Then, of course, there are the fake identities and backstories the diplomats take on to pull off their own rescue. If they can act convincingly enough, they’ll live. At the risk of saying too much, this film shows that the key to being a good spy and the key to making a good movie are one and the same — having the ability to tell to a good story.
PS: I highly recommend reading this excellent Entertainment Weekly interview with Affleck and Mendez if you haven’t already. Among other things, I found out that the Argo story is just one chapter in the CIA agent’s fascinating life. Hoping Hollywood will call on him again.