Friday, January 28, 2011

Ronald Reagan -- Superstar?

Throughout the many hours of televised tributes to Ronald Reagan that aired in the wake of his passing back in 2004, I noticed a curious phenomenon: Hardly anyone on any network felt compelled to dwell on The Great Communicator's heyday as a Hollywood star.

Sure, there were fleeting excerpts from Reagan's more notorious cinematic misadventures – including, of course, Bedtime for Bonzo – and much informed discussion of the many ways his training as an actor enhanced his ability to convey equal measures of authority, affability and earnestness during his White House years. For the most part, however, pundits and acolytes alike seemed all too eager to blithely dismiss Reagan's entire movie career – a career, it should be noted, that spanned four decades, and included nearly 60 films – as undistinguished at best, vaguely embarrassing at worst.

Most commentators relied on recycling scraps of conventional wisdom: As an actor, Reagan was never anything more than a B-movie stalwart, or a typecast cowboy – or, perhaps most humiliatingly, a hero's best friend who never got the girl. Several years ago, film historian David Thomson described Reagan's 1966 entry into politics (as a California gubernatorial candidate) as “the greatest career move in the history of entertainment.” That judgment, originally intended as a not-so-veiled insult, has come to be widely accepted as an accurate, maybe even generous, appraisal.

Indeed, even now, as we approach the Feb. 6 celebration of the centennial of Reagan's birth, the conventional wisdom suggests that the conservative Republican icon turned to politics in the first place mainly because he had become unemployable in a profession where he had never, ever excelled.

But here's the thing: Any fair-minded observer who bothers to look at his resume – or, better still, actually looks at some of his movies – must admit that Reagan's cinematic oeuvre is far more impressive than his worst critics, and even many of his devoted admirers, might admit. To be sure, Reagan rarely rose above the level of journeyman actor – much like Don Ameche, Fred MacMurray and several other of his contemporaries, he was more of an engaging personality than a consummate artist. But his undeniable charisma and polished professionalism served him very well in starring and supporting roles. In short: He certainly was no worse, and quite often much better, than many of the notables routinely embraced as beloved Old Hollywood contract players.

Among his movies worth viewing on cable or video:

Dark Victory (1939) – As a chronically inebriated and genially self-deprecating playboy, Reagan evidences a light touch for comic relief during his half-hearted (and highly unsuccessful) courtship of a doomed Bette Davis in this glossy, guilty-pleasure soap opera. But be forewarned: Some viewers may be inconsolably upset by seeing the future leader of the free world as an amiable lush.

Knute Rockne, All American (1940) – Reagan is on camera for only 15 or so minutes in this romanticized tribute to the legendary Notre Dame football coach (played by Pat O'Brien). But he makes every moment count as George Gipp, the breezily self-assured gridiron great whose “Win one for the Gipper!” deathbed speech (yes, this is how Reagan earned that nickname) has been known to make grown men weep.

Kings Row (1942) – Often cited as Reagan's finest film, and his own personal favorite, it's a seamy tale of small-town hypocrisy that tested the limits of Production Code propriety. The future Commander in Chief is at his most compelling as Drake McHugh, a feckless rake whose legs are needlessly amputated by a sadistic surgeon. (The bad doctor wanted to keep Drake away from his lovestruck daughter.) Upon awakening after the operation, Reagan memorably wails an anguished lament: “Where's the rest of me?” The line became so closely associated with him, he eventually used it as the title of his 1965 autobiography.

Desperate Journey (1942) – As one of five Allied airmen shot down behind enemy lines during World War II, Reagan gets most of the best lines in Raoul Walsh's rousing adventure opus. He's at his best when his all-American hero confounds a German interrogator with tricky wordplay, then smacks the naughty Nazi into dreamland. Errol Flynn, the movie's nominal star, was not amused: He bitterly complained during production of Desperate Journey that he, not Reagan, should play the show-stopping scene. Producer Hal Wallis had to intervene on Reagan's behalf to keep Flynn from filching the funny business.

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) – During his heyday as host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson never tired of mocking his executive producer, Fred De Cordova, for having directed this silly slapstick comedy. Surprisingly enough, however, the movie doesn't quite live down to its reputation. And Reagan comes off as a genial good sport in the lead role of a college professor who tries to prove his nurture-versus-nature theories by raising a chimpanzee as human child. It should be noted, however, that the Gipper declined an offer to return for a 1952 sequel, Bonzo Goes to College, also directed by De Cordova.

The Killers (1964) – In his final movie, a brutally hardboiled crime drama directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Reagan took his only walk on the wild side as Jack Browning, a seemingly respectable businessman who masterminds a mail-truck robbery, betrays his getaway driver (John Cassavetes), slaps around his shapely mistress (Angie Dickinson), and winds up perforated by a peeved hit man (Lee Marvin). Reagan hated playing a villain -- and didn't think much of the movie, either – which made it all the easier for him to leave showbiz for a political career. Still, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, or subversive, I strongly suspect he could have worked another 20 years as a character actor if he had continued to be so good as a bad guy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar fever -- catch it!

The King's Speech got crowned. But Robert Duvall got hosed. These and other observations in my report on today's announcement of Oscar nominations, over at Culture Map Houston.

Sun burned?

For the first time that I can remember, my doctor prescribed for me today a medication that came with this warning on the label: "AVOID SUN." Fortunately, it's been overcast and rainy here in H-Town. But what'll happen if I do go out in the daylight tomorrow? Will I suffer some unforeseen side effects....?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A pathetically shameless attempt to gravy train on someone else's accomplishment

I'm ridiculously proud to report that one of my former students -- Lucas Mireles -- is premiering a short this weekend at the Slamdance Film Festival!

You must remember this: Casablanca at Rice Media Center

Breathes there the man with soul so dead who never to himself has said, “Here's looking at you, kid”?

Casablanca, sixty-plus years young and doubtless immortal, is more than a classic movie, more than a paradigm of Old Hollywood artistry -- and much, much more than the sum of its Dream Factory machine-tooled parts. It is, to borrow a line from another popular Humphrey Bogart picture, the stuff that dreams are made of. And you can see it again, Sam, at 7 pm Friday and Saturday -- up on a big screen, the way God intended you to see it -- at the Rice Media Center.

Conceived in haste, produced in chaos and launched with more than a little last-minute trepidation, Casablanca has survived -- no, make that thrived -- for nearly seven decades, defying changing tastes and remaining forever fresh. It is the type of grand romantic gesture that moviemakers rarely attempt in this irony-obsessed age. And yet it is the very sort of intoxicating hokum that drew most of us to movies in the first place.

At once cynical and sincere, hard-boiled and softhearted, worldly wise and dreamily romantic, it is great, glossy fun of the kind that no medium other than cinema can deliver in such bountifully generous measure.

Inspired by an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and freely adapted by screenwriters who continued to write and rewrite during actual production, the wartime romance pivots on a device not unlike one of Alfred Hitchcock’s “McGuffins.” In all likelihood, neither the Third Reich nor Vichy France ever authorized those all-important exit visas that propel so much of the action. But, hey, who cares? If Peter Lorre says he stole them, Humphrey Bogart accepts them, and Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid are so desperate to obtain them, who are we to quibble?

As Rick Blaine, the sardonically evasive man of mystery who came to Casablanca “because of the waters,” Bogart is very much a man ahead of his time -- an existential hero long before existentialism was cool. Having survived the pain of lost love and lost causes, Rick insists he lives only for the moment as the apolitical operator of Rick’s Café Americain, the swankiest night spot in French Morocco. Sometimes, a woman makes the mistake of thinking she can break through Rick’s shell, only to be harshly disappointed. (“Where were you last night?” “That's so long ago, I don't remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”) Sometimes, a man makes the even bigger mistake of thinking he can count on Rick's help, only to be brutally rebuffed: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Bogart is great in the role of Rick, even better than Rick is in the role he has created for himself. Rick’s performance as a cynical, self-centered rogue is undermined by his capacity for nobility and self-sacrifice, which our hero rediscovers, much to his great and grateful surprise, like someone finding valuables in the pocket of an old suit.

Blame it on Ilsa, the lost love who chooses to visit Rick’s Café Americain out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world. She’s not alone: Ilsa walks in on the arm of fugitive freedom fighter Victor Lazlo, her courageous (though somewhat stiff-backed) husband. Anxious to leave Casablanca before an imperious Nazi officer (Conrad Veidt) can contrive a reason for the local cops to arrest them, the couple seeks the stolen exit visas that everybody, even the local prefect of police, knows Rick has managed to obtain. But Rick – who was abruptly abandoned by Ilsa years earlier -- isn’t especially eager to help the woman he believes betrayed him. It requires some impassioned entreaties from Ilsa, along with some none-too-subtle guilt-tripping on the part of Victor, to make Rick realize that problems of star-crossed lovers “don’t amount to a hill of beans” in a war-torn world.

Alas, the stars of Casablanca are no longer with us. And yet they linger -- eternal in our memories, alive and well on film and home video. Ingrid Bergman remains radiant enough to melt the hardest of hearts, to reignite the worst burnt-out case. Paul Henreid still is the most eloquently persuasive and passionately debonair of rabble-rousers. Peter Lorre is the sleaziest -- and most fatally ambitious -- of sneak thieves. Conrad Veidt is the most repellently self-assured Nazi. Sydney Greenstreet is the most grandiloquent black marketer. Dooley Wilson – as Sam, the star performer at Rick’s Café Americain – plays the dreamiest theme (“As Time Goes By”) ever composed for movie romance. Better still, he plays it again and again.

Best of all, there is Claude Rains, stealing every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor as the cheerfully corrupt Captain Renault, the Vichy-suave prefect of police. Just try to keep a straight face when this shameless hypocrite claims to be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn there is gambling in the back room at Rick’s.

To be sure, some of the dialogue hasn't dated especially well (“Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?”). But even at its most melodramatic, Casablanca elicits smiles of pleasure, not giggles of disbelief or laughs of derision. Directed with consummate professionalism by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz – who had more than 60 Hollywood productions to his credit before tackling this one -- it is a movie with the courage of its corniness, the strength of its shameless contrivance, the power of its pulp-fiction redemption. They don't make them like this anymore. And even when they try, they lack certain key ingredients, such as Bogart and Bergman. And, just as important, an audience willing to suspend all disbelief for two hours of larger-than-life, bigger-than-self heroism. As time goes by, Casablanca just gets better and better.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Golden Globes: Snark-o-Palooza

Now this is how you kick off an awards show!

And this is how you give an award at an awards show!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

R.I.P.: Susannah York (1939-2011)

As a hormonally inflamed adolescent during the 1960s, I harbored considerable lust in my heart (and other vital organs) for British actress Susannah York as she appeared as a sprightly, sexy and altogether scrumptious presence in movies as diverse as Tom Jones, Sebastian, Duffy – and Kaleidoscope, the cheeky 1966 comic-thriller in which she played the vivacious romantic interest for an audacious gambler (Warren Beatty) who breaks into a card-printing plant to mark the cards and thereby ensure his winning streak at various European casinos.

Well into the ‘70s, as she shared a bubble bath with Roger Moore in Gold (1974), became Elliott Gould’s partner in crime in The Silent Partner (1978), and ultimately served as the hypotenuse of a romantic triangle with Michael Caine and Elizabeth Taylor in X, Y and Z (1972), she continued to impress as a slow-simmering hottie, sassy and sensual but, when she needed to be, endearingly vulnerable.

But, trust me, she was not just another pretty face. In 1969, York – who passed away Saturday at age 72 – earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress with her devastatingly potent performance as a Jean Harlow wanna-be in Sydney Pollack’s metaphorical Depression Era dance-marathon drama, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She richly deserved the Best Actress prize she received at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for Images, Robert Altman’s engrossing psychological thriller about a troubled housewife who may or may not be threatened by men from her past.

And, of course, if you’re a comic-book fan of a certain age, you’ll surely have fond memories of York as Lara, the Krypton-born mother of the Man of Steel in Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980).

On the other hand: I would be remiss if I did not admit to remembering Susannah York best for a role that, as far as I can tell, isn’t getting much mention in the first wave of her obituaries. You see, way back in the fall of 1968, during my senior year of high school, I dated a slightly “older” woman – 19 to my 16 – who was bisexual with a pronounced preference. How pronounced? Well, let me put it like this: After she asked me to take her not once, not twice, but three times to see Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George – in which York played an elfin beauty who bares her bountiful breasts while being seduced by the conniving rival (Coral Browne) of York’s brazenly butch lover (Beryl Reid) – I kinda-sorta figured that I didn’t have a chance of scoring with this particular switch-hitter.

Funnily enough, York seemed richly amused when I told her about my York-lusting ex-girlfriend during an interview a few years later. And that emboldened me to ask: In the wake of The Killing of Sister George – a movie graphic enough to get an X rating back in the day – did she receive many admiring letters from other women who enjoyed her, ahem, revealing performance?

“Quite a few,” York replied with just a trace of a naughty smile. “Quite a few.”

Yeah, I bet she did.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Justin Bieber wants you to sing for him!

For all you Justin Bieber fans out there -- and you know who you are, so don't try to be coy about it -- there are good times to be had and, maybe, a prize to be won this weekend at the Houston Galleria. To promote the upcoming release of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never -- a 3-D biopic/performance film opening Feb. 11 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere --  Paramount Pictures is sponsoring a singing contest to determine who is H-Town's biggest Bieber fan.

Starting at 12 noon Sunday, would-be warblers can sign up at the Galleria's Ann Taylor Court to take part in the sing-off. From 1 to 4 pm, the first 50 registrants will have a chance to perform one of three Bieber hits -- "Never Say Never," "Baby" or "U Smile" -- to have a chance to win a trip for four to the Los Angeles premiere of Bieber's debut big-screen effort.

But wait, there's more:  The top five national contestants -- yes, you guessed it, they're doing this sing-off thing in other cities as well -- will be featured on Justin Bieber’s website. And Bieber fans will vote for the top winner, who will get to meet the phenomenally popular young pop star in person at the Los Angeles premiere. Cowabunga.

And if you want to study the master a bit before you try to sing his songs:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Food for thought from The Sterile Cuckoo

Dialogue that has stuck in my head for 42 years:

You know what the trouble is? Trouble is that probably all the good things in life take place in no more than a minute. I mean all added up, I bet you at the end of seventy years, should you live so long, you can sit down, you can figure the whole thing out:

You spent nineteen years sleepin’, you spent five years goin’ to the bathroom, you spent thirty-five years doin’ some kinda work you absolutely hated, spent seven thousand eight hundred and fifty-three minutes blinkin’ your eyes.

And added to that, you got that one minute of good things. Then one day you wonder whether your minute’s up.

Liza Minnelli as Pookie Adams in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Monday, January 10, 2011

R.I.P.: Peter Yates (1928-2011)

Sometimes all it takes is one film to ensure a filmmaker a fair shot at immortality.

Peter Yates, the British producer/director who passed away this past weekend at age 82, earned four Oscar nominations over the course of a career that spanned five decades. Even if you don't recognize his name, it's possible you've enjoyed some of his movies: The Hot Rock (1972), a lightly likable caper comedy starring Robert Redford, George Segal and Ron Leibman, scripted by William Godlman from a novel by Donald E. Westlake; The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), a memorably earthy and gritty Boston crime drama -- starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle -- that has influenced Bean Town films noir as diverse as Monument Ave. and The Town; The Deep (1977), the guilty-pleasure treasure-hunter adventure best remembered for Nick Nolte's early-career studliness, Robert Shaw's trademark orneriness, and Jacqueline Bisset's spectacular appearance in a wet T-shirt; The Dresser (1983), the affectionately detailed backstage dramedy that showcased deliciously hammy turns by Albert Finney and Tom Courtney; and Breaking Away (1979) and Suspect (1987), two disparate dramas with standout performances by H-Town's very own Dennis Quaid.

But the title that looms largest on Yates' resume is Bullitt, the 1968 thriller in which Steve McQueen established the gold standard for sub-zero-cool maverick cops, and a thrillingly sustained car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco set the bar for high-speed, slam-bang action sequences. The latter is so indelibly exciting that it's easy to overlook or forget Yates' subtler storytelling touches: Bullitt is so obsessed with his job that little else in his life really matters --  note how he casually stocks up on frozen dinners without bothering to see precisely what he's purchasing -- and such a self-assured professional that he doesn't need to draw his gun until the movie's final minutes. Even if Yates had never made another movie, he'd still merit at least a footnote in pop-culture history for this one.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Big news about Tiny Furniture

Tiny Furniture -- the smartly observed, seriously funny indie dramedy I've been telling you about since I caught it last spring at SXSW -- will be screened Friday through Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And I'll be on hand to introduce the opening night screening at 7 p.m. Friday. But wait, there's more: You can read my interview with Lena Dunham, the film's lovely and talented writer/director/star, here.

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: That was the year that was

To begin with my standard disclaimer: This may be my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2010 – but it’s not necessary a rundown of the year’s 10 Best Movies. Because, quite frankly, I haven’t seen every single movie released in the US during the past 12 months. But it most certainly is a list of my favorite films to open in U.S. theaters in 2010.

(To be sure, a few haven’t opened in Houston – yet – but trust me, they’ve opened in theaters somewhere in this great land of ours.)

These are, of course, purely arbitrary and totally subjective choices. And I’ll freely admit that, a decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2010 releases that impressed me most. And best.

Inception. Christopher Nolan’s eye-popping, brain-teasing dazzler is an oxymoronic marvel -- a profound popcorn flick. At once intellectually stimulating, emotionally stirring and technically astounding, it is the sort of ambitious and audacious masterwork that results only when a true visionary somehow manages to earn carte blanche to dream big and spend large within the Hollywood commercial mainstream.

Get Low. With meticulously variegated measures of sly humor, homespun grace and affecting poignancy, this beautifully crafted and robustly entertaining dramedy casts a well-nigh irresistible spell while spinning a Depression Era folk tale from the Tennessee backwoods. Robert Duvall gives one of his finest performances – yes, even by Robert Duvall standards – as he compellingly underplays the larger-than-life lead role of Felix Bush, a notorious hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral party. And he’s backed by uniformly excellent supporting players -- including Bill Murray, in an Oscar-worthy turn as a small-town funeral home director who wants to make Felix’s dream come true.

The Secret in Their Eyes. And speaking of Oscar-worthiness: Juan José Campanella’s gripping drama of obsession, retribution and redemption – winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – is the year’s smartest and most exciting crime drama, meaning that this Argentine import easily could enthrall both passionate admirers of Dostoyevsky and faithful viewers of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. No kidding.

The Social Network. There will be those who’ll tell you that the lion’s share of the credit for this fleet, flashy and fiercely funny drama about the founding of Facebook should be given to director David Fincher. And then there’ll be those who will insist that the ruthlessly clever and relentlessly insightful script by Aaron Sorkin could have been directed by almost anyone, even Uwe Boll, and an instant-classic would have been the result. Such arguments are altogether appropriate for a movie that takes more than a few pages from Rashomon while seeking elusive truths. But take this to the bank: Everyone on either side of the cameras is at the top of his or her game here. Which is why it’s so easy – and yes, so much fun – to connect to this Network.

Love and Other Drugs. Maybe you were not impressed by the sincerity and sensuality of this smart, sexy and sensationally well-acted comedy-drama about two self-absorbed libertines – superbly played by Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal – who find themselves, much to their wary amazement, increasingly bound by a love that transcends any physical or emotional impediment. But, frankly, I would not want to spend a lot of time with you, much less share a drink with you. And I strongly suspect that if you knew I found myself moist-eyed while sitting through the closing credits, you’d feel the very same way about me.

The Fighter. I wish there were some way I could avoid the obvious wordplay, but: It’s a knockout. Seriously. And yet, while there’s no way to dispute that Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are bona fide Oscar contenders, attention should also be paid to Mark Wahlberg, playing a up-and-coming boxer who must somehow embrace and transcend his humble, hardscrabble origins.

Tiny Furniture. Winner of the top Narrative Feature prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, Tiny Furniture is a sharply observed and precisely detailed indie dramedy that should strike a responsive chord in anyone who remembers – or is experiencing – that post-college period in life when you’re impatiently eager to invent yourself, yet reflexively hesitant to get started. Written and directed by newcomer Lena Dunham, who also plays the lead role, it is intimate and semi-autobiographical – and yet, at the same time, easily accessible because of its universal verities. Check it out for yourself during its Jan. 7-9 Houston premiere at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Company Men. Time Magazine critic Richard Corliss suggested – only half-jokingly – that some movie critics fervently embraced this edgy yet compassionate drama about proud men laid low by corporate downsizing “perhaps because they belong to a job sector that's also suffered severe downsizing in the past few years.” And hell, yeah, I’ll cop to that – up to a point. (Remember: You’re reading something by someone who hasn’t been a full-time film critic since The Houston Post closed in 1995.) But Company Men – which opened in New York and Los Angeles for Oscar consideration in late 2010, but won’t make it to Houston until later this month – also earns a place of honor on this list because it’s one of the very few contemporary movies that directly addresses – intelligently, insightfully and, though it may sound odd to describe it thusly, entertainingly – the way we live now. This is a movie by, about, and for grown-ups. And it showcases career-highpoint performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Chris Copper and Kevin Costner.

Monsters. If John Cassavetes had ever made a sci-fi thriller about ginormous extraterrestrial invaders, it probably would have looked and sounded a lot like Gareth Edwards’ impudently offbeat indie. In the not-so-distant future, two plucky protagonists must journey through what is essentially a war zone – a no-human’s-land between Mexico and Texas – where the worst sort of illegal aliens are dominant.

True Grit. A funny thing happened on my way to Joel and Ethan Coen’s darkly idiosyncratic yet unabashedly crowd-pleasing adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel: I took a second look at the 1969 film version – the one directed by Henry Hathaway, showcasing John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance – and found it was much, much better (and more faithful to Portis’ book) than I remembered it. So please don’t mistake me for some revisionist whippersnapper when I say that the Coen’s remake is not merely a considerable improvement – it is, hands down, the best Western to reach the megaplexes since Clint Eastwood unleashed his Oscar-winning Unforgiven.

Runners-up: The King’s Speech, Solitary Man, The Kids are All Right, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Toy Story 3, Kick-Ass, Unstoppable, Winter’s Bone, Casino Jack, Fair Game.