SPIELBERG’S BRIDGE OF SPIES
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama set in the early 1960’s. The movie is crowded with stories that all crash into each other. Sadly, they never generate any real drama. How could the man who made Jaws come to give us movies that have about as much drama as an election for President in Russia.
The movie starts by showing us a guy painting a self portrait. Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, recently of Wolf Hall fame). is a very unlikely spy, seemingly a simple man engrossed in his work as a painter. When he is arrested, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance defense attorney, a ‘common man’ type who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children, is picked by the Bar Association to represent the suspected Russian spy. Out of the blue so to speak, we are told the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the pilot of a US spy plan shot down while over the USSR. Powers is taken prisoner by the Soviets.
Gee, I wonder how these dots are going to get connected?
Donavan insists on giving Abel the best defense he can. In the process, he becomes as hated a figure as Abel. The trial judge, the newspapers, his friends and even his family, all try to convince him that he only has to go through the motions of representing Abel and no one expects him to get Abel acquitted because we all know he’s guilty, right? Well, yes, we all do. The audience is shown from the start that Abel really is a spy so there is no suspense there. Abel’s trial turns into a ‘show trial’ in spite of Donavan’s efforts. Donavan’s only success comes when he convinces the trial judge to sentence Abel to 30 years instead of the electric chair.
And this is where the plot connects the Powers spy plane story – the CIA wants to exchange Abel for Powers. It asks Donavan to act as negotiator because the US government does not want to get involved directly in the negotiations. Donavan accepts and heads to Berlin.
Now the movie could have just told us these stories and it would be a straight cold war drama – but no, its hero Donavan isn’t going to just be a pawn for the CIA. So, enter a US student studying in Germany who is caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall on the day it is erected. It seems he is trying to save a girl he is in love with, or maybe it’s just a friend – it doesn’t matter because the student is just a plot device. He is arrested on charges of being a spy for a reason that will become clear.
Donavan, after a series of cat and mouse games with various agents of the Soviets secures the deal to release Powers, but he will not agree to it unless the student is also released. The CIA goes nuts – it wants Powers and doesn’t care about the student. Donavan won’t budge – he is a decent American and we all know that decent Americans are far better than their duly elected ghastly government. Pont made. Story of stupid American student understood – he is there to be rescued.
The screenplay was pieced together by more than one person – three or maybe two and a half - Joel and Ethan Coen were brought aboard to redo the original Matt Charman script. For this reason, the script is choppy and none of the characters is fully realized – except Donavan. What I hated about Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall was his stoical almost comatose attitude to everything that happened. In this movie, he is actually more deadpan, but his lack of concern about everything is used in the plot. On more than one tense occasion, Donavan asks his client if he is worried and Abel always answers, “Would it help?” It might help if Rylance moved an eyebrow once in awhile.
The movie is 2 hours and 20 minutes long and could have been brought in less than 2 hours. There are lots of Spielberg ‘mood shots’. The music is like listening to crème puffs oozing out their goo then exploding at the ‘dramatic’ points – John Williams was ill (probably indigestion listening to his own scores after Jaws) so Thomas Newman filled in as pastry conductor. There are a lot of appearances by fine actors (Alan Alda among them) who are given about as many lines as Rylance has facial expressions.
Keeping in character with Bridge of Spies, I am now going to do a flip and stitch in a new perspective – in spite of all the above, go see it. Tom Hanks is just so good at playing these kinds of roles that you shouldn’t miss it. Not the showy stuff of Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but the kind of roles that Henry Fonda gave us in 12 Angry Men and a host of other films. Another quietly fantastic Hanks’ performance is worth the price of admission.
Ron Shelton wrote and directed this movie about a minor league baseball team and its owner, a very liberated lady of means.
Leading off is everybody’s favorite liberated lady, Susan Sarandon, playing the club owner. Every spring, she selects one player on her team to go the distance with for the season. Opinionated, sexy, articulate and more sure of herself than Mike Scioscia with a line-up card in his hand, Sarandon as club owner Annie Savoy has the perfect name and the perfect part to show off her considerable comedic talents.
Batting second is Robert Wuhl playing an infielder who is bound to be a life-long minor leaguer. Wuhl is just fun to watch as the guy who is always a hit short of a star. When there is a too-long meeting at the mound between the pitcher and catcher, Wuhl runs out to put in his two cents – and hits a homer with his straight-faced advice.
Tim Robbins is batting third in this line-up while playing Evie Caleb ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh, a fire-balling pitcher whose incredible number of strikeouts is only excelled by his walks. He can lose a no-hitter. Robbins is at the start of his excellent career just as ‘Nuke” is.
Annie savoy picks Nuke as her season partner and it certainly helps their chemistry that they fell in love during the filming of this movie (Shelton became their first child’s godfather).
Kevin Costner bats clean-up and does most of the heavy lifting as Crash Davis, an aging catcher who has spent so many years in the minors that he is approaching the record for most home runs hit in the minor leagues. It’s not the title he wants. As he says, “I’m the player to be named later.”
You don’t have to like baseball to like this movie but it helps. It’s most famous sequence is when Annie invite Nuke and Crash to her place for a ‘tryout’ and Crash answers Annie’s question about what he believes in with a famous speech –
Well, I believe in the soul... the cock...the pussy... the small of a woman's back... the hangin' curveball... high fiber... good scotch... that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap... I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Goodnight.
As Crash says Goodnight to Annie and Nuke, she runs after him and Crash rejects her offer to become her drone of the season with a great line, “I’m not interested in a woman who’s interested in that boy [Nuke].”
Bull Durham is a lot of fun. It is one of the three best baseball movies ever made – along with Major League and A League of Their Own.
Ron Shelton will be at the screening, probably to pitch the new musical based on this movie that opened in Atlanta in 2014. The NYT went all the way down there to give it a solid 2 out of 4 stars. Now, it may be headed to Broadway.
The last time baseball was the subject of a Broadway musical was Damn Yankees – but back then musicals were made into movies and not the other way around.
Writer/Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Kevin Costner; Susan Sarandon; Tim Robbins; Trey Wilson; Robert Wuhl
TCM FESTIVAL: SUNDAY, APRIL 29, 4-6PM AT EGYPTIAN THEATRE
TEN COMMANDMENTS (1:30-6:00 PM) CHINESE IMAX THEATRE
SILK STOCKINGS (3:30-5:45 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 1
HAMLET (1948) (3:45 – 6:15 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 6
A mobster who is going to rat on his fellow mobsters is being baby-sat by San Francisco cops. When things go wrong – we have a movie.
Steve McQueen plays Bullit, a detective with a sense of style worthy of a James Bond. McQueen started acting on TV in the early 50s and by !958 got his own series, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” His first big movie break came in 1960 when he was one of The Magnificent Seven. A couple of years after that, he played another memorable cog in another hit adventure movie, The Great Escape. Then came a series of good off-beat movies that were so-so hits: Soldier in the Rain (opposite Jackie Gleason), Love With A Proper Stranger (with Natalie Wood), Baby the Rain Must Fall (teamed with Lee Remick in a Henry Foote script), The Cincinnati Kid (heading a stellar cast including Karl Malden, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Ann Margaret and E.G. Robinson) and finally a certified Major Motion Picture – The Sand Pebbles, directed by Robert Wise with a $12 million budget and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The next year, 1968, McQueen hit the jackpot with two of his most iconic movies, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullit.
The very name of the movie, Bullit, conjures up a hard-nosed but sleek purveyor of death. McQueen is just as comfortable in the seat of his Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback as he is in the arms of Jacqueline Bisset, Bullit’s oh-so-hip girlfriend. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense but who cares? Robert Vaughn as a politician-on -he-make provides the rich-but-clueless push-back to McQueen’s street savvy rule-breaking-but-effective cop.
Of course, the highlight of the movie is the car chase (sorry Jacqueline). It’s not only McQueen vs. the bad guys, it’s Mustang vs. Charger, Ford vs Dodge, light vs dark! The chase begins in typical McQueen-cool fashion. The bad guys are chasing McQueen when, suddenly, they find that now McQueen is chasing them – for about 12 minutes. And yes, McQueen was driving, at least for some of the chase. It is not a spoiler to tell you that McQueen survives and the bad guys don’t.
But the movie ends on a bittersweet note. Bullit triumphs but there are no kudos, no medals, no citations – just another day with Jacqueline lying in bad asleep and Bullit washing his hands. But can the dirt of years of hauling away human garbage ever be washed off? Heavy man, heavy.
Writer: Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner from a novel by Robert Pike
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Steve McQueen, Jacquline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell (and watch for a cabbie played by Robert Duvall)
TCM FESTIVAL: SATURDAY APRIL 28, 11:45 AM TO 2 PM, TLC CHINESE THEATRE IMAX
OUTRAGE (11:30 AM– 1:00 PM) EGYPTIAN THEATRE
KRAMER V KRAMER (11:45 AM -1:30 PM)CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 1
THIS THING CALLED LOVE (11:30 AM TO 1:30 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 4
WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER (11:45 AM – 1:45 PM) CHINESE MULTIPLEX HOUSE 6
WINDJAMER (10 AM – 12:45 PM) ARCLIGHT CINERAMA DOME
The Days of Wine and Roses is the story of two adults who meet and marry. They live a kind of 1950's dream life with, at first blush, a harmless annoyance: he liked to drink but she has been brought up a teetotaler. She does like chocolate so he convinces her to drink Brandy Alexanders (cognac, crème de cacao, and cream). Both end up having addictive personalities and cannot stop drinking. Soon, he loses his job as a PR person and they begin a slow and painful descent into alcoholic hell with stops on the way for alienating friends and family, attempting to reform and arguing over who is to blame for what has happened.
The Days of Wine and Roses began as a TV drama on the legendary Playhouse 90. Written by J.P. Miller, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, the live TV version is available on YouTube.
For the movie, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick were brought as was director Blake Edwards. Only Charles Bickford as her father was hired from the TV version.
In 1962 when the movie was released, alcoholism was rarely portrayed on the screen. Most famously, there was The Lost Weekend which was a Best Picture winner in 1945, also winning Best Director for Billy Wilder and Best Screenplay for Wilder and Charles Brackett. But that movie depicts an alcoholic falling off the wagon while Days shows us a couple who become alcoholics almost as part of their courtship and then marriage.
This movie is a serious but entertaining look at real people with real problems in a real world. The fact that Lemmon and Remick, two of the most likeable and talented actors of their time, are the couple who live out this nightmare make the movie all the more heartbreaking.
Take a look and see what movies can be.
Dunkirk by writer/director Chris Nolan is the story of how the British at the beginning of World War II were able to snatch a small victory from the jaws of an enormous defeat.
The Germans had deployed their new military tactic, the Blitzkrieg, to run over the low countries, then conquer France in less than three weeks. In doing so, it defeated the combined French and British armies. The remnants of those armies found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk, with the Germans on one side and the English Channel on the other. While England was less than fifty miles away, there were almost 400,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk and evacuating them would not be easy.
Hitler was convinced by Air Marshall Goering that the task of eliminating the troops on the beach was best left to the Luftwaffe and that the ground attack should be halted. After weeks of non-stop attacks, they could use the rest.
At that time, the British had the largest fleet in Europe, but getting the troops off the Dunkirk beaches was a tactical nightmare. Large ships became easy targets for German bombers, especially the terror-evoking dive bomber, the Stuka.
I saw Dunkirk at the Aero theatre in Santa Monica where the attraction was not only the large screen 70 mm presentation of the movie, but an after-movie talk with the writer-director, himself.
Dunkirk concentrates on three characters: a young British soldier’s attempts to avoid getting killed (designated in the movie with the title, The Land), a British pilot’s crossing the English Channel in a spitfire (the British fighter plane) to shot down German planes harassing the rescue attempt (The Air) and a 50-ish Englishman, played by Mark Rylance, who crosses the channel in his own small boat, the Moonstone, to pitch in (yeah, The Sea).
The movie is all about the special effects and the visuals. There is no attempt to give any of the characters, even the main ones, any kind of back story. Yes, we sympathize with them, but they are fighting Nazis so it isn’t that hard to guess where your sympathies will land.
Perhaps no incident portrays the lack of any serious story telling in the movie better than what happens to a teenage boy who makes the trip from England to Dunkirk on The Moonstone to lend a hand. Along the way, the Moonstone picks up a British sailor whose boat was sunk. He acts very strange and insists that the small boat turn around and go back to England since there was nothing that it could do at Dunkirk. Rylance ignores him and later tells his son that the man is obviously ‘shell-shocked.’ When this sailor tries to physically force Rylance to turn around the boat, he pushes the teenage boy down stairs and the boy hits his head which starts to bleed profusely. As they are caring for this young boy who appears to be in extremis, The boy says that all he ever really wanted is for his name to be in the local newspaper for doing something good. Need I tell you what happens when the boy dies and the Moonstone makes it back to England with a score of rescued soldiers?
And that is how the entire movie moves along, one plodding moment to another. Yes, some of the visuals are very good and so is the sound. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned most of the actors. In fact, in 45 minutes of talking about the making of the movie, neither did Nolan. The actors are irrelevant to his way of making movies. He did go on and on about how he wanted to make a movie to a certain beat or rhythm that would go like a bolero with all crescendos. Yeah, right.
The hook for this movie is that it is ‘unlike any other war movie.’ Not really. The idea of isolating a few stories in a battlefield of dramas is as old as All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Technically, it cannot hold a candle to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And as for portraying the reality of warfare, Kubrick’s The Paths of Glory is far superior.
So, why all the buzz about Dunkirk? It is fairly short for a ‘war epic’ coming in at 1hr, 46m. And it does have the kind of appeal that video games have. In fact, there were many moments that made me think that Nolan was more inspired by Call of Duty than Battleground. If that is your kind of thing – and Dunkirk’s box office of over $500 million is proof that there are a lot of people (my guess, mostly teenage males) who love this kind of mindless visual house of thrills – then go see it. Believe me, it’s a hell of a ride, if not much of a movie.
In the late 1920s, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a fast-paced play about a reluctant newspaper reporter and his ink-soaked editor. It was called, Front Page and it was a hit. In 1931, it was made into a movie with Pat O’Brien (Hildy) and Adolph Menjou (Walter). It lost something in the transition from stage to screen as so many plays did – and do (e.g. August: Osage County).
Then in 1940, Howard Hawkes had the inspired idea of giving the fighting reporters a license to fight – he married them. Since it was 1940, one of the roles went through a sex change and suddenly the movie came to life.
Cary Grant plays the ex-husband editor and Rosalind Russell is the reporter who left to get a divorce in Reno and returned with a fiancé, Ralph Bellamy. The dialogue is faster than a speeding bullet and you will have to see this movie more than once to catch even a small percentage of the repartee.
Roz visits Cary at his office at the newspaper to tell him that she is quitting the newspaper and reporting and will go to upstate New York to live with her new husband who doesn’t want her to work. Here is a sample of the sparring and remember that this is spoken at break-tongue speed and often overlapping:
Walter: What's the use of fighting, Hildy? I'll tell you what you do. You come back to work on the paper, and if we find we can't get along in a friendly fashion, we'll get married again.
Hildy: Oh Walter, you're wonderful - in a loathsome sort of way. Listen, Walter, you are no longer my husband and no longer my boss. And you're not going to be my boss.
Walter: All right, take it. Work for somebody else. That's the gratitude I get.
Hildy: Oh, I wish you'd stop hamming.
Walter: What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a school of journalism. I took a doll-faced hick.
Hildy: Well, you wouldn't take me if I hadn't been doll-faced...
Walter: Listen. I made a great reporter out of you, Hildy. But you won't be half as good on any other paper and you know it. We're a team. That's what we are. You need me and I need you, and the paper needs both of us.
Hildy: Sold American! Listen, Walter, the paper's gonna have to get along without me. So are you. It just didn't work out, Walter.
Walter: Well, it would have worked out if you'd been satisfied with just being editor and reporter - but not you! You had to marry me and spoil everything.
Hildy: I wasn't satisfied? I suppose I proposed to you?
Walter: And I still claim I was tight the night I proposed to you. If you had been a gentleman, you would have forgotten all about it. But not you.
[Hildy throws her pocketbook at the back of his head, but he ducks]
Walter: You're losing your eye. You used to be able to pitch better than that.
The plot is silly but moves along and keeps pace with the dialogue. The supporting cast is superb – convicted cop-killer John Qualen, corrupt Sheriff Gene Lockhart and more corrupt Mayor Clarence Kolb keep the pace at warp speed.
There are few movies that capture the marriage of journalism and politics as well as this one. Lies seem to be the common bond.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
Producer-Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Helen Mack (Molly Malloy), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson) Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Diamond Louie), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Baldwin) Billy Gilbert (Joe Pettibone)
Oceans 11 was a movie made by and with The Rat Pack, a group of Hollywood pals, most famously, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford who found the story and pitched it to Sinatra who liked it.
The movie was about a daring plan to rob all the major Las Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight. While the movie was being made, Sinatra and pals performed in the very casinos they were robbing in the movie. It was the first major cross-media marketing in show business.
Oceans 11 was a big hit. What held the plot together was more than the chemistry of its stars - it had a story. Danny Ocean headed a platoon of soldiers in WWII that was a great fighting unit, but, after the war, when they went their separate ways, they all flopped. Danny is an ever-losing gambler whose wife left him because he can't see a woman without making a pass. Dean Martin's character is a two-bit singer still playing the lounge. Davis works on a garbage truck. Lawford is a rich mama's boy, still dependent on her for financing his playboy lifestyle. The caper to rob the casinos is not just a chance to finally strike it rich, it's a chance to be a team one more time - to go back to being part of a something bigger than any of them could ever be alone. To fight the goof fight once more, but this time, victory pays. What causes their downfall (this was 1960, crime did not pay) are their individual faults. A woman Danny played around with then dropped takes revenge. Lawford's new 'stepfather' agrees to help the casino's owners get back their money and he tracks the heist to his new stepson and his friend, Ocean.
Great caper movies are all about characters and relationships, just like all great movies. Sure, there has to be some gimmick, some kind of raz-ma-taz to make us sit up and think - wow, cool. But it needs something more - it needs a reason for the heist.
One of the first caper movies was The Asphalt Jungle, a John Huston movie about a jewelry heist and a bunch of underworld characters who can never escape the flaws that have kept them losers for most of their lives. Rififi , The Killing, Topkapi, How To Steal a Million (the only rom-com caper film ever made), The Thomas Crown Affair, Seven Thieves, Thief, The Great Train Robbery (a period piece caper), The Sting (the only caper movie to win Best Picture) a pair of English caper-comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers and more recently, The Score. All have a common element - the caper is just the excuse for the characters to do something else, something that's more than just robbing money, something that's about soul.
In 2001, Warner Bros. dusted off the Oceans 11 script and developed a new franchise with George Clooney taking on the role of Danny Ocean. There have been three Oceans movies, all a little worse than their predecessor. The main problem is that they are all just about the caper. There is nothing that ties the group of thieves together other than their quest for bucks - kind of like the movies themselves. They all made a ton of money, so they were all successful. Right?
Now, WB has gathered eight actresses to star in a #metoo Oceans movie - Oceans 8. I am certain that some genius at Warners came up with the number 8 as the rounded, sensual, feminine equivalent to the double penile 11. Oceans 8 stars eight actresses led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. The conceit is that Bullock is Danny Ocean's felonious sister. Her caper is to steal $150 million in diamonds from a Met Museum Ball during Fashion Week in New York. It will be released on June 7.
There is nothing to suspect from the trailer that Oceans 8's makers have understood the true nature of a great caper movie, but one can hope. What we do know is that if this movie is more successful than the distaff Ghostbusters was, then we will see an Oceans 18 (combine the casts for a movie that stars both men and women? What an idea!), Jane Bond (Gillian Anderson has been mentioned), Hilliary Potter, Missioness: Impossible and Spider Woman - wait, they made that one already and there will be no more female arachnid movies. But there will be more action and franchise movies led by actresses. Of course, that is a good thing. But what is not good is if the makers of these movies just substitute females for males and change nothing else. Men and women are different - there are no female mass murders and the senseless violence that seems to be attractive to most young males is not to most young females. So, please include more women in franchise movies, but make them from that feminine point of view and not just a rehash of the same senseless and unreal violence but with lipstick. Let’s really change movies, for the better.
I, Tonya (Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers) is a ground-breaking new film about the unstated class system in America.
I, Tonya is that rare movie that puts you, the audience, into the center of what the movie is about.
I, Tonya tells the story of what really happened when a world-class ice skater from the wrong side of the tracks had her main rival whacked, literally.
I, Tonya tries to do for film what Picasso did for art and William Faulkner did for the novel – to capture reality from more than one side, one point of view.
OK, this movie works on so many levels, every time I started to write this review, I kept changing it. So I decided to use all of them because that is what this movie is about: reality in all of its many dimensions.
The story is simple and one that many of you will remember. Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) was a great American ice skating champion who was the first woman to do a triple axel (three and a half rotations) during a competition. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) was a great American ice skating champion and in direct competition with Harding for the Ice Skating Champion of the 1994 Olympics. One day, coming from practice, Kerrigan is whacked in the knee by an unknown assailant.
What is not so simple is the world that Harding came from. Her mother (Allison Janney) is one of the great Dearest Mommy mothers ever portrayed in film. And she even hits Nancy with a hair brush. The more success Nancy has, the more her mother insists that it is because she pushed and slammed and even knifed Nancy to be the best.
When Nancy meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she is only 15 years old, but she desperately needs someone to love her and Jeff is it. Sadly, he, too, cannot keep his slaps and punches to himself and worse, he is not too bright. When Nancy tells her mother that she and Jeff are going to be married, her mother advises, “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”
Jeff has a friend who is even dumber than he is, Sean (Paul Walter Hauser). When Nancy gets a death threat just before the American championships, Sean suggests that they get back at Tonya’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, by doing the same to her. From such stupid, small ideas comes a scandal that made tabloid news seep into mainstream news so that today, one cannot tell one from the other. In 1994, Tonya became the second most recognized person in the world behind President Bill Clinton.
The story is told by the major characters in interview format that is interspliced with action scenes of what is being described. Director Gillespie keeps switching the format so that we are constantly being thrown from one person’s reality to another’s. By the time we get to ‘the incident’ (and Harding tells us, OK, that is what you are all here for), we are not certain who to believe and what really happened. What we are certain about is our complicity in the circus that surrounded the tragedy of Harding’s life. As she tells us, she was abused all of her life and (looking straight into the camera) “lastly by you.”
The acting is some of the best you will see this year. Robbie is incredible. The makeup, the spectacular skating of Harding and, especially, the parental and spousal violence are so real that they make us understand more than ever that the movies are now at a stage where they can create reality, any reality, that they want to create. What is real becomes just as nebulous as what is true.
I, Tonya is about class, both as in classy and as in class status. Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and her ‘class’ is not something she could hide any more than she could hide her ambition. As she continues to be the best female ice skater in America, but is never named the best by judges for the American Ice Skating Association, her frustration mounts until she finally confronts a judge in a parking lot who is visibly scared of her. He admits that her mediocre scores have nothing to do with her skating but rather they are because the Association does not want her to be the face of American Ice Skating.
In the irony to end all ironies, that is exactly what Tonya Harding becomes.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Mel Brooks wanted to make a movie about how two producers schemed to make a killing on a sure-flop musical entitled, Springtime for Hitler. The problem was that no one wanted to finance a movie titled, Springtime for Hitler.
After several years of begging, Sidney Glazier agreed to produce it and the money was put up by Joseph Levine, a producer with an international reputation. Like many movies that end up being classics, The Producers was made by people who ended up hating each other (well, except for Gene Wilder, of course). It was a very unhappy eight week shoot in NYC. Then came months of editing. Finally, it was released, sort of. It opened in a small theatre in suburban Philadelphia (Glazier's hometown) where I saw it. There were not a lot of people in the theatre and no one was laughing except for me and a friend who had seen it the night before and dragged me to it the next night.
Then, it was released in New York. Most of the critics didn't get it - they criticized the movie for being about a musical based on the life of Hitler. One critic wondered if they were going to do a musical about cancer next. In spite of the mixed reviews, the movie made money in NYC but was, generally, a flop. The fact that the producers in the movie wanted to produce a sure fire disaster musical as part of their scheme to steal millions and that is why they produced a musical about Hitler was overlooked. A musical about Hitler? This was blasphemy!
Traditionally, movies are considered the creation of their directors, that is, since the French New Wave declared the director to be the guiding hand on all movies.
Gore Vidal once said that when he was in Hollywood in the 1950-early 60s, the people who made movies would have thought it hilarious that people believed movies were made , mostly, by directors. It was the producers who made movies.
As in all arts that deal with telling a story, it all begins with the writer. In the case of The Sea Wolf, that was Jack London. In 1904, he wrote The Sea Wolf and it was a bestseller, as were most things written by London. The book told the story of Wolf Larsen, a sea captain who was cruel, intelligent, cunning, violent and crazy. The plot is simple: Larsen's ship, The Ghost, rescues from a shipwreck a dandified writer, Humphrey van Weyden, who is subject to all kinds of cruelties aboard The Ghost. Eventually, van Weyden and another shipwreck victim, a young woman, escape from The Ghost and it is the skills they learned aboard The Ghost that keep them alive.
For the movie, the producers, Warner Bros., hired Robert Rossen to write the screenplay. Rossen re-wrote the story, keeping Larsen and van Weyden pretty much as they are in the book, but re-imagining one of the shipmates into a major character, Leach (John Garfield), and changing the one female in the story, Ruth Brewster (ida Lupino), into a wanted criminal. Instead of van Weyden falling for the girl, Rossen has Leach become her soul mate.
Strangers On a Train is one of the best Hitchcock movies - and best movies - ever made.
The plot is super simple: two men meet by accident on a train. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a famous tennis player and is recognized by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a aging ne'er do well. Bruno tells Guy about his father who is always complaining about the money that Bruno spends. Bruno reads the gossip columns so he knows that Guy wants to marry a Senator's daughter but his cheating wife won't give him a divorce. Bruno suggests that they 'swap' murders. That way, the police will never figure it out because there will be no motive.
Unbeknownst to Guy, Bruno thinks they have made a deal and kills Guy's wife. The scene in which he strangles her as seen through her broken eyeglasses which have fallen to the ground is every bit as chilling as a certain shower scene Hitchcock shot about a decade later.
Bruno then goes to Guy and expects him to reciprocate. Robert Walker should have won an Oscar just for the way he said, "Guy" as he calls on Haines so that he could give Guy the keys to his father's house and details on where his father's bedroom is.
When it becomes clear that Guy does not intend to murder Bruno's father, Bruno decides to plant a cigarette lighter that belongs to Guy at the murder scene of Guy's wife, framing Guy for the murder.
The cast is top notch from the two leads down to the two detectives (Robert Gist and John Douchette) who are tailing Haines to try to pin his wife's murder on him. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin is perfect.
But the BIG story of Strangers is that the screenplay is by Raymond Chandler, among others. There are many elements of Chandler's best work in this screenplay. The story is told almost exclusively from Haines' perspective, just as Chandler's Marlowe books are. His first screenplay was a gem, Double Indemnity. He did not like working for Hollywood because, as is still the case, the writer is just an employee of the studio and the studio or director or even the actor can make changes to the script. Chandler did not like anyone changing even a comma - so there were lots of conflicts. And there were also a few of the best film noir films ever made.
The Ten Commandments or Put Through Demille Again
The Ten Commandments is to movies like those paintings of dogs playing cards is to art - I mean, how do those dogs do it? And that is what we all ask whenever we see this movie: how did they do it?
Watching TTC at the Grauman Chinese Theater, on a big screen and with a few hundred other people, the special effects are really special, especially since this was all done 60+ years ago without any CGI. Yes, as one critic said 60+ years ago in his review of this movie, we are put through DeMille again, but oh what a DeMille!
Craig Barron, a visual effects Oscar winner and Ben Burtt, a sound effects Oscar winner, introduced the movie at the TCM 2018 Festival. They brought along some video to explain how DeMille and his team did it - from Pillars of Fire to the parting of the Red Sea. They emphasized that most of the special effects were done in layers, that is, there was more than one element of special effects involved in each special effects scene. For example, the parting of the Red Sea involved a triple matte plus three dimensional sets and special sounds. Even less gaudy effects were multidimensional. When Moses and his wife to be are at the base of Mount Sinai, the Mount is a matte scene but to add depth to it, the smoke surrounding the peak was real, made by special smoke machines.
Just as the special effects have taken prominence in this review, so too in the movie. None of the characters is especially intriguing: Charlton Heston (Moses) is just your ordinary born-Jewish-but-left-in-a-basket-in-the-Nile River- to-be-found-by-Pharaoh's daughter-and-made-into-a-prince-of-Egypt. Yul Brynner (Rameses) is the put-out-actual-son-of Pharaoh-who-hates-his-pseudo-half-brother. Anne Baxter (Nefertiti) is the woman -in-the -middle.
I expect that it is difficult to act in a movie that is almost 4 hours long and you are expected to bring to life a story that is more than 3,000 years old. All those special effects making it vital that the actual human beings on the set perform their parts as well as can be expected while on the clock so to speak - these effects are intricately timed. Every. Word. Spoken. In. This. Movie. Is. Spoken. LIke. There. Is. A. Period. After. Each. Word. Really. Only Brynner is able to stitch together a character from these shopworn cliche-spouting metronomes passing for people.
As the plagues of god pile up, we are told that the Hebrew exodus from Egypt was the first birth of Freedom in the world. It seems Freedom needed a lot of help to get started and still needs help to get it over the twin humps of Facebook and Amazon - we know what you watch, what you think, what you talk to other people about, who your friends are, what you read and listen to, where you shop and what you buy, where you live, eat and sleep. Where's your messiah now?
TULLY, A MOVIE ABOUT BEING A MOM
No, this is not Sully, the movie about the pilot who landed the jet on the Hudson River. And after seeing the movie, I can tell you that they could have called this movie a lot of other things, so why they insisted on calling it Tully is not something you will find out in this review, although the name does have some significance to the movie, but if I told you what that is, it would be a spoiler.
Tully had its Hollywood premiere on April 18 in Los Angeles at the Regal Theatre. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) and starring Charlize Theron, Tully is the story of a woman, Marlo, who has just given birth to her third child, Mia, while trying to keep a semblance of the person she was for most of her life, a beautiful, funny and fun-seeking girl.
Something happened to Marlo after her second child, Jason, who developed or was born with serious mental problems. Marlo had depression after his birth and neither of them has fully recovered.
Marlo if is fed up. Her body is this machine that needs constant care just to keep working, ballooning up 50 pounds with another person inside it, then becoming a milk factory to feed and care for this crying, lovable, shitty, sucking baby that needs you 24/7. Tully does for motherhood what Saving Private Ryan did for soldiering – it took it out of the dream factory and put it into the real factory where things get down and dirty. It made war real as Tully makes motherhood real. Mothers gain weight while pregnant and most don't lose it. Breast-feeding babies is hard work and often hurts. And no matter how progressive we think our times are, women still have most of the household duties, including caring for the kids. When Marlo goes off for a night on the town, her husband instinctively says that she has never left the kids alone like that before. When he is reminded that he was home with them, he responds, 'oh, yeah, right.'
Her husband, Drew (in a fine performance by Ron Livingston), tries to help, but he has a job and spends all of his spare time fantasizing he is in charge as he zaps bad guys in video games. Her brother (Mark Duplass) has hit the jackpot in America, having the right job at the right time that makes him rich. As a present, he offers her a 'night nanny,' a caretaker who comes over at night to allow a mother to get some rest.
Enter "Tully", a 26-year-old stand in for Diablo Cody – she's smart, funny, caring, understanding, quirky – you saw Juno, right? Tully is Marlo's Savior (yes, capitol S because that is what she really is, grace from God). Tully takes over and suddenly, everything goes right for Marlo. She is once again becoming the woman who started this journey three kids, fifty pounds and one nervous breakdown ago. Tully is cleaning the house, making cupcakes for the kids to take to school and even joining Marlo in bed to help revive her husband's fast fading attraction for her. Wait, wait – she what? Yep, she does. Or maybe...
It all comes to a head when that night on the town with Tully turns into a near death experience. There is an accident and Marlo is almost killed. It is at this moment that the movie loses its way and decides to put on a glitzy sequined sexy gown to cover its gritty but honest overalls. Everything that happened to Marlo for the several weeks that this movie shows of her life is reduced to one shamefully lurid fact.
Of course, the movie probably got made because of that last-minute turn-around. It’s the kind of thing that has made huge hits of other, rather mundane and much less deserving movies. In fact, you can almost say that Tully has stolen an idea from a very successful movie of yesteryear. But hey, who remembers yesterday let alone yesteryear?
Go see Tully. It's 90 minutes of great acting, fine directing, good writing – and 4 minutes of thinking - oh no, I wish they had just let this movie be what it is, a fine movie about what it takes to be a mom. It’s a really good movie - until it isn’t.
And they should have waited to release it on – that's right, Mother's Day.
Running time: 94 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A Focus Features release of a Bron Studios, Right of Way Films, Denver and Delilah Productions prod. Producers: Diablo Cody, A.J. Dix, Helen Estabrook, Aaron L. Gilbert, Beth Kono, Mason Novick, Jason Reitman, Charlize Theron. Executive producers: Jason Blumenfeld, Jason Cloth, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Ron McLeod, Andrew Pollack, Paul Tennyson, Stan Thomas, Dale Wells.
CREW: Director: Jason Reitman. Screenplay: Diablo Cody. Camera (color, widescreen): Eric Steelberg. Editors: Stefan Grube.
WITH: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan.
The story Martin Scorsese tells in The Wolf of Wall Street is classic Americana: a social climber, Jordan Belfort, strikes it rich by taking H. L. Mencken’s advice, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
Belfort gets rich by selling penny stocks to people who don’t know any better, then gets ever richer by selling them to people who should know better, but as they say on Wall Street, "You can't make money investing in what you should."
And making money is the name of the game and it's the only game ion town. Here's to you, unscrupulous scumbags!
Wolf is all about excess. Cocaine by the pound snorted, quaaludes by the carton popped, prostitutes by the score banged, Cristal by the case spilled, money in the millions squandered, and scenes of indescribable decadence are all part of the Scorsese palate in creating Wolf. And it’s almost three hours long.
Shortly after it was released, the daughter of one of the con men depicted in the movie wrote an open letter to Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, telling them what scum they are for making a movie that praises the lifestyle of people who have destroyed lives with no more thought than killing a bug. She tells them that she is officially turning over to them the shame she has felt for years at being this guy’s daughter.
Actually Scorsese and his writer, Terence Winter, just depict — and not necessarily praise — the lives of these lowlifes; but showing lowlifes getting extremely rich while defrauding people and living the life of the rich and fatuous is as close to praise as you can get in this country.
Who's the hero?
The problem of portraying evil without making it look appealing dates back to the the birth of western literature. No less a writer than John Milton struggled with the problem in his magnum opus, Paradise Lost. All the critics agree that the most interesting character in Milton’s tale of good versus evil is, well, evil, as personified by the mother of all evildoers, the devil himself, Lucifer. Everybody prefers Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll.
The history of the movies is studded with blockbuster hits about bad guys whose lives are full of violence, greed, addiction, and that fourth horseman of modern depravity, casual sex. The problem is that from Valentino’s Sheik — he kidnaps the woman he wants — to Jordan Belfort, movies make heroes of the bad guys they portray.
And no matter how hard a filmmaker tries to show us how bad a guy is, audiences love them.
Take The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola shows the transformation of Michael Corleone from a WWII hero who wants nothing to do with the family business of crime and punishment to the most ruthless mafia don in America. I saw the movie shortly after it came out at the long-gone Fox movie palace on 16th and Market in Philadelphia. The culminating scene in the movie is a now-classic montage: Michael acts as the godfather to his nephew (whose father he soon will have garroted), renouncing the devil. This scene is cut together with scenes where Michael’s henchmen murder his rivals. As each mafia don was brutally wiped out, a cheer went up in the theater. The audience was applauding Michael’s bloody triumph.
Why, I wondered, was everyone applauding this murdering conniver?
The answer is simple — people love to watch bad guys be bad. Maybe it’s because it provides an easy answer to why so many of us perceive our own lives as failed. If I had been willing to [murder, cheat, betray, steal], I would be rich and successful too. Of course, in the old Hollywood, all these bad guys ended up like their template, Lucifer, in hell. But finally Hollywood came to the conclusion that the American people can take the truth: greed is good.
What sets Wolf apart from the other classics that celebrate the bullies is the fact that Wolf is not a very good movie. For three hours, we watch a super-salesman hump, snort, cheat, hustle, and deceive his way to the top of the FBI Wall Street hit list. (By the way, the FBI’s history of prosecuting Wall Street elites proves that its Wall Street hit list is a very short list, and you have to be really, really bad to get on it). In the end, the Wolf loses all the money he stole from others and ends up selling himself as a self-help guru. As the daughter who turned over her shame says, these guys always land on their feet.
Where do you draw the line?
So is a filmmaker or writer or artist promoting the evil he or she portrays?
Not necessarily, but how much sex do you need to show before you fall into the porno well? Is it just the fact that you’re not showing the actor’s penis that makes such depictions art and not porn? There is such a thing as violence porn. How about financial porn? In Wolf, greed is not only good, it’s the reason for living.
So what is Scorsese trying to tell us? Our country has gone berserk by letting guys like this get away with financial butchery? Is this an “only in America” tale? Maybe. If so, Wolf fails because the idea that this movie is an indictment of the system is nowhere to be found in the movie itself. In the end, we have one more movie that is about all that the people who made it claim to hate.
At least at the end of The Godfather Michael is forced to lie to the one person in the world he loves, his wife. And by doing that, he destroys the one thing he claims to care about, his family. Jordan Belfort cares about no one and nothing. Even when he loses his family, his friends, and his money, he couldn’t care less.
Frankly, neither could I.