Cooperstown or Bust! (an epic 2022 road trip)

May 19, 2022

Greetings fellow movie lovers! Today’s entry is no movie review. In fact, this much-too-long composition includes only a couple of minor movie blips. Instead, it’s a recap of the recent two-week, epic road trip vacation where Mary and I drove a total of 3713 miles through 18 states. For you mathematicians, statisticians, and data analysts, that’s 37.5% of the 48 continental states recognized by Rand McNally. I’ll admit this recap is over-the-top indulgent, however, it’s being written for two specific reasons. First, we want a travel journal-type remembrance of the trip, and secondly, we wouldn’t mind inspiring a few others to hit the road and experience some of the wonders (natural and otherwise) offered by our country.

Let’s start with a little background information. The initial onset of the pandemic (can you remember back that far?) squashed the trips we had planned, and only recently did we decide it’s time to try again. Our upcoming 40th anniversary was the motivation. Well that plus three years passing since our last vacation. Since I’m not personally ready to be one of the sardines compacted into a confined space on a commercial flight with 187 other passengers, we opted for the great American road trip, once so popular for family vacations (now considered a nightmare by many). Sure, the skyrocketing price of gas gave us pause, but protecting our sanity and the desire for temporary escape overrode the hesitancy that accompanied inflation and the increased carbon footprint associated with driving a non-electric vehicle that many miles. Another concern, to put it bluntly, was the overall uncertainty of the times … a war in Ukraine coupled with the most combative domestic political environment of my lifetime. Being spoiled, entitled Americans, we forged ahead.

So here is one way to know you married the right person. Mere weeks away from our anniversary, Mary determined our trip should center on a destination that has been a dream of mine ever since I sprinted home from school to watch the 1968 World Series between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers: Cooperstown. Whether or not you are a baseball fan, you likely know that this small village in central upstate New York (200 miles from Manhattan) houses the National Baseball Hall of Fame … and has done so since 1939. I figured there are two possible motivations for her to encourage this as a destination. Either she felt like this was the only way I would agree to a long driving trip, or she sincerely wanted to make sure this bucket list item was checked off before it was too late. Knowing her as I do, I’m going with “B”, while acknowledging “A” likely played a supporting role. Either way, how many wives not only encourage at trip to the Hall of Fame, but also want to come along?

We were determined to keep the agenda very loosie-goosy – no specific time or day to be any particular place. For a planner like yours truly, this was a bit challenging, yet an approach that was quickly embraced. All we knew for sure was that we were going to visit with old friends on the front end, tour the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and spend time with some other old friends on the return. By pacing this over two weeks, we hoped to minimize most extended drive times. And you know what?  It all worked out pretty darn well. Below is a synopsis of our daily shenanigans.

Monday, April 25, 2022

We expected to leave the Dallas area early Tuesday, kicking things off with our longest single drive day. Yes, this means that the loose plan we had was tossed before it ever started. Instead, we wrapped up worked meetings, and hit the road at 1:00pm on Monday. After picking up warm pecans from Buc-cees in Terrell (birthplace of Eric Marion Bishop and yours truly), we headed east on I-20 and drove approximately 365 miles through Louisiana and on to Vicksburg, Mississippi. This still ended up being our longest drive day, and sitting for so long motivated us to walk down the street from our Marriott Courtyard to the local McAlester’s for a dinner salad. This was a very uneventful first day, but it served the purpose of cutting about 5 hours off our expected Tuesday drive. We did drive through some beautiful areas of east Texas and Louisiana, and what became very evident was that we were going to have to share the interstate with A LOT of trucks. Given the ‘supply chain’ issues we hear so much about, we were taken aback by the sheer volume of 18-wheelers on the road. They couldn’t all be empty! Beginning mileage 52,255, Ending mileage 52,622

Tuesday April 26, 2022

Our hotel was just a couple of miles down the road from the Vicksburg National Military Park. We purchased a National Parks pass and watched an informative film in the Visitors Center. The film outlined the 47-day siege in 1863 that ultimately cost the south control of the Mississippi River. Driving through the park, we saw the bunkers and battlefields which are now hosting more than a thousand state memorials and markers commemorating the many who died here during the Civil War. Unfortunately, we were unable to see the USS Cairo, a restored US gunboat, as that section of the park is under construction. The park is now a serene reminder of a vicious battle fought by a divided country. We couldn’t help but wonder if such a travesty could happen again. A stroll through the gift shop gave the appearance that gray rebel caps were outselling blue Union caps at about a 12 to 1 rate. After the tour, we had lunch at the Klondyke Trading Post. Founded in 1896, it’s a former gas station converted to a rustic eatery catering to those who enjoy home-cooking in an especially non-fancy environment. Those joining us for lunch included construction workers, law enforcement, and locals (mostly for takeout). There was little doubt that we were the only tourists, as well as the only first-timers. Multi-colored metallic floor-to-ceiling ribbons served as the backdrop for a single-microphone on the corner stage. Since we couldn’t locate the schedule for upcoming performers, we finished our lunch and drove on to Birmingham, Alabama. Once there, we checked in to the historic downtown Tutwiler Hotel, which opened in 1914. We walked a couple miles to the newly renovated Uptown area, which includes a Convention Center and the shiny new University of Alabama Birmingham football stadium. Across the street are multiple restaurants and bars. We chose the Southern Café, which was a typical sports bar exhibiting none of the character we had experienced earlier that day at Klondyke. Beginning mileage 52,622, Ending mileage 52,905

Wednesday April 27, 2022

After a quick hotel breakfast, we walked down the street from The Tutwiler to the Birmingham Art Museum. Although admission is Free, we gladly made a donation. It seemed as if an inordinate number of new exhibits were in the midst of installation, and thereby inaccessible; however, there was still plenty of art to take in. The featured exhibit was the work of Manjari Sharma and her presentation of nine significant deities of the Hindu pantheon. The colors and images were quite vibrant and unlike what is typically on display in art museums. Other exhibits included Wedgwood, ancient Asian art, African art, and various eras of European art. As our culture cup runneth over, we headed back on the road – this time to Rome, Georgia. A happy reunion occurred at the Rome Mellow Mushroom, where (over pizza) we met up with my old college buddy, Lawrence, and his wife Colleen. Lawrence and I have been friends since 1978, and our history includes flag football for “Killer Toes” at the University of Texas, a shared love of oldies music, Sunday dinners ravaging the Sirloin Stockade salad bar, marathon tennis matches in the Texas summer heat, spending hours flipping through vinyl at Inner Sanctum, dodging tar balls on the Gulf shoreline, and many ‘philosophy of life’ conversations through the years. He is a renowned professor and academic writer and speaker, and we simply don’t see each other often enough. I am honored to be Godfather to their amazing son, Robert. The two couples chatted through dinner, trying to catch up on the important stuff, and then Lawrence and Colleen treated Mary and I to a driving tour of the stunningly beautiful Berry College campus, a school founded on Christian values in 1902 by Martha Berry. After the tour, we were invited back to the house for some wine, chocolate covered blueberries, and more fun conversation. Mary and I crashed for the night at a local hotel managed by Berry College.  Beginning mileage 52,905, Ending mileage 53,063

Thursday April 28, 2022

This was Day 4, and we finally turned north … you know, the general direction of Cooperstown. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, we waltzed across the Walnut Street Bridge, the world’s longest ‘walking bridge’ over the Tennessee River (and back). While in downtown Chattanooga, we had lunch at the Frothy Monkey, located in the restored Train Depot. This was our tribute to Glenn Miller: “Pardon me boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. The song was first heard in the 1941 film, SUN VALLEY SERENADE (but did not play for us over lunch). We drove on to Knoxville to spend the night and made our first misstep of the trip by choosing the local Mexican food restaurant with the best reviews. Rio Grande Mexican restaurant is not one we would recommend. Fortunately, the only ramification was disappointment. That’s not always the case with subpar Tex-Mex.  Beginning mileage 53,063, Ending mileage 53,270

Friday, April 29, 2022

We lollygagged this morning and were a bit slow departing Knoxville (fortunately unrelated to the previous evening’s dinner platter). We drove for a while just enjoying the scenery (other than the big rigs) and ended up enjoying exquisite cuisine at Mrs. Rowe’s Family Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, Virginia. It’s a family restaurant founded in 1947 that specializes in home-cooked meals and pies. Everything, including my Reuben sandwich was delicious, and I couldn’t help but top it off with what was likely the best coconut cream pie I’ve ever tasted. Mary’s lunch was a half-dozen vegetables, and although she was quite happy, this was a clear lunch victory for yours truly. What an incredible bit of luck we had finding this place. The food was so good we even put up with the grouchy 87-year-old woman complaining non-stop to her very patient 86-year-old friend at the table next to ours. A small price to pay for a scrumptious lunch! We finally rolled into Hagerstown, Pennsylvania at 6:00pm, and I’m embarrassed to say, we had wine (yes, just wine) for dinner at the local Red Robin. We simply didn’t want to taint the lunch served at Mrs. Rowe’s earlier in the day.  Beginning mileage 53,270, Ending mileage 53,725

Saturday, April 30, 2022

We walked to the nearby Valley Mall Diner and had the single best breakfast of our trip. My ‘over-medium’ order for eggs actually came out over-medium. That NEVER happens! From the outside, this place was sterile like an old Blockbuster Video, but the service and food were top notch. And we didn’t even get booted out after a misfire of a squeezed lemon for tea hit our waitress in the face. After reflecting on how we had two outstanding meals in two days, we headed back on the road to Hershey, Pennsylvania where we took in the candy factory tour and gawked at the largest candy and gift shop we had ever seen. The tour is very efficient and informative, but likely not as popular with kids as the gift shop or the full amusement park (similar to Six Flags) next door. We made the decision not to load up on candy as gifts since we still had a week of driving and chocolate doesn’t tend to react well to the warm air of a parked car. Of course, upon our return home, the grandkids saw the Hershey/Reese’s bag and were kinda disappointed in their logo soccer ball and basketball, neither of which was edible nor contained sugar. At least the granddaughters were good with their Hershey’s Kisses birthstone necklaces. Almost made up for the lack of candy. After the tour, we continued on to Scranton, Pennsylvania to check out a few sites from “The Office” (which was mostly filmed in California). A late lunch at Cooper’s Seafood was definitely the right call. An octopus on the roof, a pirate at the door, and the place was jam packed with all types of memorabilia, plus offered Scranton’s best gift shop dedicated to Dunder Mifflin and “The Office.” The seafood was excellent and we spent an inordinate amount of time perusing the gift shop and laughing. It should also be noted that Cooper’s had the best restrooms we saw on the trip. Elvis pictures and music filled the ladies’ room, while The Beatles took over the men’s. It was 6:00pm when we arrived in Binghamton, New York – our final stay before Cooperstown.  Beginning mileage 53,725, Ending mileage 53,996

Sunday, May 1, 2022

It was but a short drive to Cooperstown and we arrived by 10:00am. Downtown is a picturesque throwback with many shops, cafes, and other small businesses. We parked by Doubleday Field, and a high school game was already underway. The walk was only a couple of blocks to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and we excitedly made our way in. Well, one of us was excited. Mary was kind enough to join me, and even showed interest in a few of the displays. For a lover of baseball, this truly felt like hallowed ground … the keeper of the game’s sacred history. It’s okay if you don’t understand, but for me, it was a dream come true – and I was thrilled to share the time with Mary. The key is to start on the second floor and work your way up, before finishing on the ground level where the iconic plaques are displayed in a single hall. Having studied the history of the game, the oldest items and details proved the most fascinating to me. There is even an explanation of how Cooperstown managed to land the HOF in the first place … a case study of marketing and self-interest. After a couple of hours, we took a break and had lunch at the Stagecoach Coffee House, a local café that specializes in organic meals and coffees. Since I’m no fan of coffee aroma, we grabbed a table on the patio and enjoyed our lunch in the picture-perfect weather. It was then back to the HOF for another 2-3 hours of walking, touring, and absorbing. This is likely the only place where you can see Babe Ruth’s bowling ball, or a collection of game hats from each of Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters. Seeing the old bats and gloves are a stark reminder of how fortunate today’s players are from an equipment standpoint. There were individual displays of many of the great players, as well as tributes to the Latin America influence and women in the game. There is even a ‘Baseball in Movies’ section! After going through all of the plaques, we did manage to nab a few items at the gift shop before heading to The White House Inn, our Bed and Breakfast spot for the night. Of course, after a dream-fulfilling day at the HOF, we needed to top it off with a tremendous dinner at Nicoletta’s, a long-standing Italian restaurant in the village. The wine was good and the food even better. It’s difficult to imagine a better day. Beginning mileage 53,996, Ending mileage 54,078

Monday, May 2, 2022

After a tasty breakfast at the Cooperstown White House, we headed toward Niagara Falls, which took us through Syracuse. We arrived at the park around 1:30pm and immediately noticed the drop in temperature and increase in wind. It was quite chilly as the heavy mist from the falls mixed in, and since we missed a boat departure by one minute, we spent 45 minutes trying to find a proper blend of enjoying the majestic sight of the Falls while trying to maintain a life-sustaining body temperature. Once aboard the Maid of the Mist (the tour boat on the U.S. side), the wind somehow managed to increase and the mist shifted to something akin to a brisk morning shower. All passengers are provided blue plastic ponchos (similar thickness to Saran Wrap), which does help with the wetness, but doesn’t do much for the wind. It’s a remarkable experience to ride in a boat so close to the Falls – feeling the immense power and hearing the roar. It’s a beautiful site and quite a wonder to take in. Afterwards (still shivering), we grabbed an early dinner at the Griffon Pub before heading to the Hyatt Place. The contrast is a bit startling between the beauty of the actual Falls and the depressed look of the town of Niagara Falls. Glancing across the river, it seems Canada has done a better job of creating an environment for tourists. That said, this is an experience everyone should consider at least once.  Beginning mileage 54,078, Ending mileage 54,340

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Back on the road this morning as we head south/southwest through Buffalo and towards Cleveland. It was only a week after our trip ended when the tragic shooting in the Buffalo supermarket occurred. Our mission on this day was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The HOF opened in 1995, and it has since morphed into something much broader than rock and roll. The inducted artists and music celebrated are quite diverse, and most people will find something to enjoy. To save time, we lunched at the HOF café, which is on the main floor, and then we headed to the lower level, which is where they suggest each visitor begin. The displays do a nice job of traveling through the early influences and influencers. We immediately notice that music is playing constantly … sometimes multiple songs are going at once, though the music for specific areas is easy to hear over the “main” system. It’s a beautiful and modern building, and listening stations with headsets are included so that everyone can hear the music of their favorite artists, discover new artists, or both. There is an entire section of the HOF devoted to Peter Jackson’s new documentary, THE BEATLES: GET BACK, that details the recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album. If you haven’t watched, I highly recommend. For music lovers, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an interesting tour featuring clothes, instruments, photographs, and videos of some of the true legends of the past 80+ years. Once we finished our tour, we drove just a few miles into the city so that we could take the tour for the house used in the classic A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). It’s surprising that this terrific little movie has spawned a tourist attraction that includes not just the house where Ralphie lived, but also the Bumpus house, a huge gift shop, and a museum with artifacts from the film. Additionally, both houses are available for overnight stays and are frequently booked. Ralphie’s “official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” is on display in the museum, and the gift shop is stocked with new models … in case you want to warn your kids not to shoot their eye out. The “Fra-Gi-Le” shipping case and the infamous lamp are on display, as is a bar of Lifebouy, should you happen to mutter … “Fuuudge”. We also saw the actual school blackboard with A++++ scrawled across. The movie has long been a holiday favorite, and it was enjoyable to experience this. After the tour, we continued south to Mansfield/Ontario to get a jump on the next day’s driving. Beginning mileage 54,340, Ending mileage 54,637

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Today’s drive took us through Columbus, Ohio and Cincinnati. We spent very little time in either on our way to Louisville. Yes, it was ‘Derby Week’ and we arrived in Louisville just a few days before the scheduled Kentucky Derby. We don’t gamble, follow horse racing, or wear elaborate hats, so our attention turned to the Louisville Slugger Factory and museum. For baseball fans, this is a very interesting place and a gem that shouldn’t be missed. A museum gallery features the bats used by some of the all-time greats like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron. It’s the factory tour that makes this a must-see as we got to walk through and witness firsthand where the bats are formed, including explanations of how wood is divided into two categories – that used for major league bats, and that used for the rest of us mere mortals. Now I understand why I was never able to hit like Stan Musial – his bats were made from better wood!  Still a family business, legend has it that the first bat was made by a young Bud Hillerich in 1884 for Pete Browning (nicknamed the Louisville Slugger). In 1916, the company name was changed to Hillerich & Bradsby, and many of us are familiar with seeing that company name on Louisville Slugger bats. Serving the country during WWI and WWII, the company made gun stocks for the troops, though they never stopped bat production. It was fascinating to learn that the old equipment used to form the bats has been out of production for decades, and has been re-purposed for one thing – making bats. The giant bat in front of the facility makes a unique landmark and photo opportunity, and the racks of bats in the shop are awaiting shipment to their final destination. It was in Louisville where we splurged for one of our few luxury hotel stays. The first Galt House opened in 1862, and the current location was part of the revitalization of Louisville’s waterfront district in 1972. It’s obviously a popular spot for Derby attendees and we were probably the only hotel guests not in town for the race. People watching while standing in line to check-in was about as entertaining as any stop on our trip. We headed to the Conservatory on the walkway between towers – it’s an all-glass lounge with nice views of downtown. As a tribute to the Kentucky Derby, Mary ordered a Mint Julep. You can imagine her disappointment and shock when the bartender explained they had not yet received their shipment of mint. My gardener wife got a kick out of this, describing mint as little more than a weed that grows uncontrollably. So, we settled on wine of such quality that one glass was sufficient. On the bright side, our view of the river from our room was simply spectacular – we could also see the Muhammad Ali Center next door. Beginning mileage 54,707, Ending mileage 54,922

Thursday, May 5, 2022

This was mostly a driving day, and our highlight was stopping in downtown St Louis for lunch at Bally Sports Live! right next to Busch Stadium, where the St Louis Cardinals play. As a Texas Rangers fan, I still have nightmares caused by the Cardinals snatching a World Series victory away from my team in 2011. As a baseball fan, I tip my cap to their traditional uniforms and contributions to the sport. With Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock as franchise icons, respect has been earned. World Series banners hang outside right next to a giant World Series trophy (which makes for a nice photo op). Even the Cardinals’ “Live!” facility beats the Rangers’ “Live!” And adding to the insult was the Bally Sports sponsorship – the overly-greedy company behind my inability to watch most Rangers’ games on TV. We stayed the night in Fenton, Missouri. Beginning mileage 54,922, Ending mileage 55,221

Friday May 6, 2022

After making fun of the sheer number of Cracker Barrel billboards we passed on the trip, we broke down and had breakfast at one. It’s always nice to feel young again. Speaking of billboards, on the drive to our next destination (Springfield, Missouri), we couldn’t help but notice a couple dozen billboards advertising Uranus Fudge. Their slogan, “the best fudge comes from Uranus” was effective in keeping us speeding right past that exit. Knowing that our trip would not take us through Darwin, Minnesota for the world’s largest ball of twine, we were filled with excitement to see one of Springfield’s attractions: the world’s largest fork! Yep, it was a really big fork near the entrance to an office building. And yes, we took a selfie with the fork. We also stopped into the tourist center to get some background on the old Route 66 which once ran right through Springfield. They claim to be the birthplace of Route 66, but when you question that, they quickly admit that Chicago was actually the beginning. Regardless, the area offers some travel history of long-ago days, when Route 66 was a key throughfare for those traveling across the Midwest. We ate dinner at the “World Champion” BBQ spot called The Whole Hog. Plenty of trophies are on display touting their success in competitions, and since this is Missouri and not Texas, we went for the pork instead of the beef. The food was delicious (except for that mayo-based potato salad) and the accompaniment for our dinner was provided by the grizzled man holding court a couple of tables over. After proclaiming that most truck drivers are “extremely smart”, he dazzled those at his table with tales from the road, stopping periodically to mix in jokes that were, at best, politically incorrect, and often racist or sexist or both. The man had no filter. One final note regarding Springfield: as we drove through the downtown area, we were struck by the dozens of parked trailers at the events center. Upon closer inspection, Mary noticed that folks were setting up displays for the taxidermy festival. Stuffed animals were everywhere – only not the kind you typically gift a toddler. Sadly, we couldn’t find the time for The World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championship. Beginning mileage 55,221, Ending mileage 55,461

Saturday, May 7, 2022

A short drive took us to Bentonville, Arkansas … yes, the home of Wal-Mart. Five or six years have passed since our last trip to the area, and we were stunned at the growth and development that has occurred over that span. Having been away from home for two weeks, we were craving Torchy’s queso, and Rogers, a neighboring town to Bentonville and another booming area, has recently opened the largest Torchy’s we have seen. After our queso fix, we headed to Crystal Bridges Museum and Park, a truly inspiring and beautiful facility that is a pet project of Alice Walton, whose father, Sam, founded Wal-Mart. There is no admittance fee to tour the art museum or the grounds or the walking trails through nature. Some elements, like the tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright house, do have a fee, but one could spend many hours over many days enjoying the free sites. Some of the trails feature large scale sculptures, and the varieties of plants and trees and flowers seem endless. After a few hours of culture and nature, we headed to the hotel to prepare for the evening. We were so excited to see our friends Regan and Jeanne. It was the wedding of their youngest daughter that last brought us to Bentonville, and this time it was simply a reunion of the two couples who first took a Caribbean vacation together approximately 35 years prior. We met at their beautiful home for champagne and appetizers. Catching up on family developments was enlightening, and what stood out was how quickly we all fell back into a conversational comfort zone. Regan is perhaps the most upstanding man I’ve crossed paths with in my entire life, and I regret that we haven’t visited more often over the years. The four of us jumped in the car and took a backroads journey to make our dinner reservations at LakePoint Restaurant in Bella Vista. As the sun set, the view of Loch Lomond was lovely. There was a scary moment when a 58-year-old man sitting across the dining room passed out and crumbled to the floor. After being tended to, the man appeared to recover as he walked to the door with the paramedics. Our after dark drive back home was a bit slow as those pastoral roads became horror-movie settings with no streetlights for illumination. It was such a pleasure to catch up with old friends and good people. Beginning mileage 55,461, Ending mileage 55,626

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Captain’s log: our final leg home. Left Bentonville at 9:00am and drove south to Fort Smith, then took a hard right turn west into Oklahoma, before finally heading south towards DFW. Since we have friends from Oklahoma, I will not mention how the terrible conditions of the state’s highways never cease to amaze me. Eastern Oklahoma is a much prettier drive than what you might have experienced driving north or south on I-35 between Texas and Kansas. Rather than head directly to our house, we veered off towards our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant (Jhonny’s in St Paul) for one final moment of pleasure before admitting that our two-week adventure had reached the finish line.

The trip was long and quite an atypical vacation for us. Of course, the highlights were seeing old friends and touring the main sites. There were other pieces that generated much conversation. Many of the rural area we drove through were simply gorgeous. Towering trees, thick forests, rolling hills, and tended farms and ranches were all treats for these two city folks. Other things that stood out included what we thought was an abnormally high number of “God” billboards, rebel flags (mostly, but not only Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee), and gun-toters (and we are from Texas). Also abnormal was the fact that I went two weeks without watching a movie … something that hasn’t happened since a two-week grounding in junior high school. I couldn’t have asked for a better travel buddy (or life partner). Mary and I had fun, learned a few things, and cleared our minds so that we could be ready to go back to work possessing a bit more respect for this great country of ours – and it is great, even though each day seems to bring more questions and uncertainty. So the message we would like to leave you with is to consider taking a road trip at some point. It’s not as fast as an airplane, but you get a real taste for the countryside and the varying cultures within different regions. It’s quite a treat!

Total miles driven: 3713   Overall MPG: 26.2   Highest price gas: $5.149/gallon (premium)

The states we drove through on the trip: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas.


OSCARS 2022 recap

March 28, 2022

For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been working to punch up the Oscars broadcast in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Who knew that Will Smith would take that mission literally? We just thought announcing the wrong Best Picture winner at the 2017 ceremony was a low point in Oscar history, but Will Smith punching/slapping comedian Chris Rock across the face on stage after a joke directed as Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, has again lowered the bar for Oscar.

If most of us displayed a similar violent reaction to say, a fellow shopper in Kroger, we would at least spend the night in jail. And our assault would not have been broadcast across the globe! But of course, most of us aren’t Will Smith. We aren’t absurdly wealthy and famous and beloved, and we likely wouldn’t be minutes away from winning our first Oscar. So, Mr. Smith was not arrested. He was not even escorted out of the theater. In fact, he returned to his seat, yelling profanity at Mr. Rock, who handled this with exceptional grace. Smith remained seated front row center until his name was announced as an award winner. Well, there was a commercial break where he huddled with his publicist (What? You don’t have a publicist?), which allowed him to gather his thoughts before delivering his acceptance speech.

And what happened when he was announced as winner of the Best Actor award? Well, obviously the room gave him a standing ovation. Yep, the folks who frequently use their celebrity status to influence our political beliefs, stood there cheering the man who had just assaulted another man during the most prestigious event in their industry. Smith proceeded to tear up and give a speech that invoked God, his calling, love, and protection. He apologized to some, but not to the man he assaulted. Instead, he seemed to justify his violent outburst as if it was some acceptable form of protection of his wife. Although the band had ‘played off’ other winners who were deemed to have taken too much time, Smith’s speech rambled on with no music … the second time that evening he should have been escorted away. And when he was finally done, the room again gave him another standing ovation. We certainly won’t be surprised if we soon hear it explained that Will Smith is yet another celebrity struggling with “mental health” issues. What better way to gather sympathy after a vile act?  But then, I don’t have a publicist, so perhaps a better way does exist.

As a lifelong lover of movies, I’ve enjoyed watching the Oscars ceremony for what it once was, and should still be … a celebration of the industry and the art of making movies. Being that many fans of movies are mostly interested in the “big” categories, the decision was made this year to shift many categories to a pre-show event, and then air the replay of the winners from those categories during the main show. This promised a brisker pace and shorter run time. The result gave us a show that dragged with a run time 20 minutes longer than last year, and a show that disrespected many of the technicians and craftsmen who work behind the cameras, and the short films that are often the proving ground for rising visionary writers and directors. I believe the term for that is failure.

As for the actual awards, the surprises were few, but the history was inspiring. CODA’s Troy Kutsur became the first deaf man to win an acting award (Marlee Matlin had won Best Actress for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, 1986). Ariana DeBose became the first openly gay woman of color to win an acting award, and she did so in the same WEST SIDE STORY role that won the award for Rita Moreno in the 1961 version … and 90-year-old Ms. Moreno was on hand to see this happen. Jessica Chastain won her first Best Actress Oscar (THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE), and in doing so, became the 7th person from the cast of THE HELP (2011) to win an Oscar. Mr. Kutcher, Ms. DeBose, and Ms. Chastain all gave gracious and appreciative speeches.

Should we call CODA’s Best Picture win a surprise? Probably not. It had picked up significant momentum over the past few weeks. The film’s win, along with Kotsur’s win and Sian Heder’s Adapted Screenplay Oscar was an inspiring triumph for the Deaf community. It’s also a counterargument to all those who claim only artsy stuff ever wins – CODA is a heart-warming and entertaining movie with a terrific family story. It was also a rare Best Picture win for a film whose director (Ms. Heder) was not nominated.

Perhaps the real surprise of the evening was THE POWER OF THE DOG. Despite leading the pack with 12 nominations, the only victory on the evening was for its director Jane Campion. She became the first woman to win the award twice, and this also meant that THE POWER OF THE DOG was the first film to win Best Director and no other awards since THE GRADUATE (1968). WEST SIDE STORY and BELFAST were two other heavily nominated films that managed but one win, although this was Kenneth Branagh’s first Oscar, likely long overdue. And speaking of overdue, songwriter Diane Warren’s 13th nomination again left her with no Oscar. History was missed as Lin-Manuel Miranda remained an Oscar short of EGOT when his ENCANTO song didn’t win, and Ari Wegner missed out on becoming the first woman to win Best Cinematographer. DUNE was the big winner of the night with 6 Oscars, but only cinematographer Greig Fraser’s award was presented live on the main show.

In an attempt to honor the history of cinema, some “Tributes” were included, and yet they all came off a bit awkward. In celebration of 60 years of James Bond, the presenters were … snowboarder Shaun White, skateboarder Tony Hawk, and surfer Kelly Slater. Huh? Their uncomfortable banter was followed by a poorly edited montage of the many Bond films. For the 50th anniversary of THE GODFATHER, director Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro marched out on stage; however, only Coppola spoke. And if that’s not strange enough, Mr. DeNiro did not appear in the first film, though he won an Oscar for THE GODFATHER: PART II. Finally, there was the 28th anniversary of PULP FICTION. Who celebrates year 28? Uma Thurman and John Travolta danced a bit, while Samuel L Jackson carried out a gag with the mystery briefcase. Happy 28th everyone!

One new feature this year involved the Academy’s attempt to tie-in with a social media contest where ‘real fans’ could vote for the “Fan Favorite” and the “Best Moment”. To no one’s surprise – except maybe the Academy’s – Zack Snyder’s fandom flooded the voting to the point where the Fan Favorite was his zombie movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD, while the Best Moment was Flash Speed Force in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Another segment that deserves mentioning (or forgetting) was “In Memoriam” where the stage performers were the focus rather than the recently deceased legends who actually helped build the industry.

Four of the five nominated songs were performed (no Van Morrison). Beyonce performing “Be Alive” from the streets of Compton was quite something, as was the NOT-nominated “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from ENCANTO – which featured Megan Thee Stallion shifting it from kids’ song to adult themed. You might ask why a song not nominated was performed, and the answer is as simple as Disney owns ABC, the network broadcasting the ceremony.

After a few shows with no host, this year’s show featured three talented women: Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall. Each landed a good line or two, while each had a gag that fell flat (or worse). Schumer’s Spider-Man bit was awkward, but nowhere nearly as cringe-worthy as Ms. Hall’s horny bit as she dragged handsome men onstage for some poorly constructed backstage COVID testing. Somehow the industry’s reaction to Harvey Weinstein and years of inappropriate behavior from men was to have a woman publicly harass men. The fallout would be unfathomable if the script were flipped and a man did that to the women. A dear friend made an excellent point when he noted how different the reaction to Will Smith’s stunt might have been if Ricky Gervais had been hosting. Fashion discussion is typically off-limits for me since I’m a jeans and t-shirt guy, but Timothy Chalamet going shirtless under his sparkly jacket seemed inappropriate … well, until Will Smith redefined that word.

On the bright side for the Academy (and they are probably still in shock), the early ratings show 15.4 million viewers, which is a 56% percent jump over last year. It’s quite impressive considering the vast majority of movie watching occurred via streaming the last two years, as movie theaters are just now starting to see an uptick in attendance. Questlove (for his documentary SUMMER OF SOUL) gave the evening’s most emotional speech, while Billie Eilish (songwriter for NO TIME TO DIE) flashed unbridled joy. Those two and the sight of a roomful of people in formal attire standing and waving their hands as applause for Troy and CODA made for the kind of heart-warming moments we’ve seen from the Oscars over the years, and would have made the night a success if those same people had not stood and applauded for Will Smith … twice.

Sir Anthony Hopkins, showing the wisdom of age, said it best: “Let’s have peace and love and quiet.”


BEST OF 2021

January 5, 2022

My BEST OF 2021, including my personal TOP 10 … and a whole lot more … is now live!

Just click HERE


Ray Peterson interviewed ‘yours truly’ (2021)

October 16, 2021

Ray Peterson is a Canadian writer, blogger, music expert, dedicated reader, and lover of cinema. He recently interviewed me about my movie watching passion/addiction. His questions forced me to slow down and think through many aspects of why I enjoy watching and writing about movies.

LINK TO THE INTERVIEW

If you’d like to contact Ray:

https://mewe.com/i/john_raymondpeterson

Twitter: @Pete_Ray


FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) Revisited

June 5, 2021

***This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it (SPOILERS included) – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved, and its impact or influence.

Greetings again from the darkness. “Entertaining” isn’t the usual description we think of for movies set during the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese-United States joint effort for TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) probably did the best cinematic job re-creating the actual attack, and then there is whatever Michael Bay attempted to accomplish with his much-maligned PEARL HARBOR (2001). Each of those movies won an Oscar – Best Visual Effects for the former and Best Sound Editing for the latter, though neither could come close to the eight Oscars (on 13 nominations), the star power, or the entertainment value of Columbia Pictures’ 1953 classic FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

The film won the Best Picture Oscar over ROMAN HOLIDAY, JULIUS CAESAR, SHANE, and THE ROBE, and director Fred Zinnemann won the Best Director Oscar over Billy Wilder (STALAG 17), George Stevens (SHANE), William Wyler (ROMAN HOLIDAY), and Charles Walters (LILI). Mr. Zinnemann’s career resulted in 4 Oscars (including A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), and along the way he also picked up nominations for directing the classic HIGH NOON (1952) and JULIA (1977), plus the musical OKLAHOMA! (1955). He was married to his wife Renee for 60 years, and had the good fortune of directing the feature film debuts of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep.

Daniel Taradash won the Oscar for adapting James Jones’ 1952 novel for the screen. Mr. Taradash, a Harvard Law School graduate, also wrote the screenplays for PICNIC (1955) and MORITURI (1965), and later served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1970-73. Novelist James Jones served in WWII and was present when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His novel “The Thin Red Line” was later turned into a 1998 film starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, and directed by Terrence Malick.

The first image most think of when this film is mentioned is the iconic kiss on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, as the ocean waves crash around them. Most war movies don’t have a smooch as their most memorable moment, though to be fair, until the bombing, this film is mostly about the daily lives of those living on and around Hickam Field in Hawaii in the days leading up to December 7, 1941.

Let’s dive into the overwhelming star power that’s on display for two hours. Montgomery Clift stars as Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a brooding and sensitive soldier who quickly gains the reputation as being hard-headed. Prewitt is a top-notch boxer and bugler who refuses to do either, focusing instead on being the best soldier he can be. Monty had a remarkable, yet all too brief career. He scored four Oscar nominations even though he only made 18 films. His early career was spent on stage leading to an intensity that he never lost while acting, and is even apparent in his film debut with John Wayne in John Ford’s RED RIVER (1948). A horrible car crash in 1956 required facial reconstruction surgery, and it’s said that his friend Elizabeth Taylor saved his life at the scene. His long time struggles with alcohol and drugs, as well as the pressure of keeping his homosexuality hidden, took a toll on his health. In 1961, Monty turned in a brief yet staggeringly effective performance in JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. Clift would be dead less than 5 years later at age 45.

Prewitt’s only real buddy in the film is Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, in a role that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor over Eddie Albert (ROMAN HOLIDAY), Robert Strauss (STALAG 17), and two actors from SHANE, Jack Palance and Brandon De Wilde. At this point, Sinatra’s singing career was in a downturn, and it’s rumored that the “horse head” scene in THE GODFATHER was influenced by Sinatra’s mob connections getting him cast in this film. Of course, Sinatra went on to become one of the all-time great entertainers. Sinatra’s Maggio is a friendly guy who gets labeled “Tough Monkey” by the film’s most obnoxious and intimidating bully, and his dying scene is terrific and leads to his friend Prewitt’s heart-breaking rendition of “Taps”.

Monty went head-to-head in the Best Actor category with Burt Lancaster, although the Oscar went to William Holden for STALAG 17. Richard Burton (THE ROBE) and Marlon Brando (JULIUS CAESAR) were the other two nominees in the category. In a prolific career that spanned six decades, Lancaster would go on to three more nominations, winning for ELMER GANTRY (1961). Baseball fans recall Lancaster in one of his last roles as “Moonlight” Graham in FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), and he also played Wyatt Earp in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), while famously turning down the role in BEN-HUR that ultimately went to Charlton Heston. Lancaster was at the center of one of my favorite “offbeat” movies, THE SWIMMER (1968), and having worked in a circus when he was younger, he performed many of his own stunts in TRAPEZE (1956). A 1991 stroke robbed Lancaster of his distinctive voice, and he passed away in 1994 at age 80. His son, Bill Lancaster, wrote the screenplay to BAD NEWS BEARS (1976), based on his own experiences being coached by Burt. In this film, Burt portrayed Sgt Milton Warden, a model of military efficiency, who has a soft spot for Monty’s Prewitt and all the rigors he’s being put through.

Burt’s Sgt Warden also happens to be having an affair with the base commander’s wife, Karen Holmes, played by Deborah Kerr. This affair leads to that iconic sandy beach kiss mentioned previously. She received one of her six Oscar nominations for this film, but lost to Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY. The other nominees were Ava Gardner (MOGAMBO), Lesli Caron (LILI), and Maggie McNamara (THE MOON IS BLUE). Ms. Kerr was presented an Honorary Oscar in 1994, and is best remembered for starring in THE KING AND I (1956) opposite Yul Brenner (her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), starring opposite Cary Grant in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and as the nun in BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Her picture is frequently visible on her husband’s desk at the base, and she so vexes the stoic Sgt Warden that Burt gets the film’s best line: “I’ve never been so miserable in my entire life since I met you.”

Donna Reed won the Best Supporting Actress (in her only nomination) for playing Prewitt’s love interest, Lorene/Alma, a hostess at The New Congress Club. The other nominees were Grace Kelly (MOGAMBO), Thelma Ritter (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, a film noir gem), Geraldine Page (HONDO), and Marjorie Rambeau (TORCH SONG). Ms. Reed had her own hit TV series, “The Donna Reed Show” that ran from 1958-66, and of course, she will live forever in cinematic infamy thanks to her performance as the beloved Mary in the Christmas classic, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Her final acting gig was taking over for an ailing Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie in the hit TV series “Dallas”. Sadly, after one season, Ms. Reed passed away due to pancreatic cancer at age 64. In the film, she plays perfectly off of Montgomery Clift’s sensitive Prewitt, and despite her attraction to him, she holds firm to a “proper plan” for her life.

Now any respectable movie lover would be in awe with a cast that includes Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed. But this is no ordinary movie, and neither is the supporting cast. Philip Ober stars as Captain Dana Holmes, the base commander and husband to Kerr’s Karen, and the one putting a bit too much emphasis on getting Prewitt back in the boxing ring. You’ll recall Mr. Ober as Lester Townsend in Hitchcock’s classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). He was also married to Vivian Vance (Ethel in “I Love Lucy”) for 18 years. George Reeves is in a handful of scenes as one of the soldiers. Mr. Reeves played the Man of Steel in more than 100 episodes of the 1950’s series “Adventures of Superman”. This was the film that was supposed to make him a movie star, but many of his scenes got cut. The most memorable of the supporting cast is “Fatso”, the annoying and sadistic Sergeant of the Guard, played with gusto by Ernest Borgnine (Oscar winner for MARTY, 1956). It’s the violent action of Fatso that leads Prewitt to seek revenge for his friend Maggio. Jack Warden plays Cpl Buckley, and Warden is another actor whose career spanned six decades. He was seemingly everywhere in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and was nominated for two Oscars in movies starring Warren Beatty. Mickey Shaunessey plays Sgt Leva, and you’ll recall him as Hunk in Elvis’ third movie, JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). Other familiar faces include Claude Akins in his film debut, Joseph Sargent (the director of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, 1974, and JAWS: THE REVENGE, 1987), Mary Carver (“Simon and Simon”), Willis Bouchey, Harry Belaver, Barbara Morrison, and Alvin Sargent (Oscar winning screenwriter of JULIA and ORDINARY PEOPLE). Supposedly, there is even a cameo from James Jones, the author of the novel on which this film is based, though I’ve never been able to spot him.

If you’ve seen this film, you already know it is much more than a stream of terrific and well respected actors. It’s a story of romance, self-determination, military machismo and brotherhood, friendship, and a historic and tragic attack on America … complete with the initial chaos that morning. There are some terrific scenes – like the first time Lancaster and Kerr meet at her house. There are some terrific lines – like when Prewitt says, “A man should be what he could be”. There are some subtle touches – like the wall calendar (Dec 6) next to Lancaster, or the “Pearl Harbor” street sign. Comedic effects are infused through the energy of Sinatra, and there is even a nice bit of trivia, as a large wicker chair reappears years later in “The Addams Family”.

From a technical aspect, the film is also quite an accomplishment. Renowned cinematographer Burnet Guffey won the Oscar, and he also won for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), plus he had three other nominations. He was the DP on Nicholas Ray’s superb film noir A LONELY PLACE (1950), a personal favorite of Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (and me). Film Editor William A Lyon won an Oscar for this film and PICNIC (1955), and edited more than 100 films during a 35 year career. John P Livadary won one of his 3 Oscars (plus numerous technical achievement awards) for Best Sound, and this was one of 5 Oscar nominations in a 7 year span for composer George Duning.

Late in the film, Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter-guitarist Merle Travis appears and sings his song, “Re-enlistment Blues”. Travis also wrote “Sixteen Tons”, which became a number one hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. In 1979, a 3-part TV mini-series “From Here to Eternity” was directed by Buzz Kulik (BRIAN’S SONG, 1971) and featured a cast with Natalie Wood, William Devane, Kim Basinger, Peter Boyle, and even an appearance by Andy Griffith. If nothing else, the mini-series proved just how strong James Jones’ characters and story were.

Over the years some have complained about having the attack on Pearl Harbor as the backdrop for a movie, rather than the centerpiece. However, it’s the human aspect that makes the attack so meaningful and powerful. Even though we as viewers feel the impending doom throughout the film, by the time the attack occurs, we know these folks and it becomes an attack on our country and our friends … which is exactly what it was. Director Zinnemann and the talented cast made certain that we were involved, not just along for the ride. The film is a true classic and it holds up well almost 70 years later.

WATCH THE TRAILER


SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


SXSW 2021 Day 2

March 18, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 2

 This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 2 for me included two documentaries, two thrillers, and two dramas. Here’s a recap:

 

WeWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 MILLION UNICORN (documentary)

 It’s quite possible that many scams originally begin with someone’s good intentions. However it’s just as likely, and maybe even more so, that many scams begin with only the intention of raking in millions or billions for the founder. The dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg is simply too enticing for some. Filmmaker Jed Rothstein profiles the rise and fall of WeWork, or more accurately, its charismatic commander, Adam Neumann.

Offering a nice overview for those unfamiliar, the film uses multiple clips of Neumann speaking so that we get a real feel for how so many fell under his spell. Neumann was an immigrant from Israel, and certainly bought into the ideal of living the American Dream. Labeled a visionary, and always full of ideas, Neumann co-founded WeWork with Miguel McKelvey. They were known affectionately as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, respectively, due to McKelvey’s focus on operations and infrastructure and Neumann’s ability as a salesman and the (and hair) of the company.

The idea of co-working space was not new, but it had never been pitched or marketed the way that Neumann did. He appealed to the rebellious nature of millennials, who couldn’t picture themselves in the traditional corporate office environment of the establishment. Neumann capitalized on their FOMO, and rammed home the message of “Do what you love.” He preached to the choir with his promise of the next revolution being the “We revolution.”

Journalists from Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal are interviewed, as are former We staff members and clients. Mr. Rothstein does a nice job of tracking the progression of the company via graphics showing valuation each year beginning with a few million in 2012 through a peak of $47 billion in 2018. He also explores how, within a 6 week period, the company went from that peak to near bankrupt.

A business model based on “community” with the goal of changing the way people work and live, turns out to be smoke and mirrors if legitimate business practices aren’t followed. That’s not to say his communal approach doesn’t work, but as so often happens, greed and the lust for power, create the downfall. Rothstein points out that the company’s own S-1 filed prior to the planned IPO was the red flag that had previously gone undetected.

This is as much a psychological study of Neumann as it is a business case study. Every time Neumann bristled at being called a “real estate company”, we should have known. With his cash infusion from Japan’s SoftBank still not leading to traditional profitability, we should have known. When his bizarre actress wife, Rebekah, became more involved with decisions and publicity, we should have known. Hindsight is crystal clear, and by the end, we realize Neumann has more in common with the notorious Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos than with Steve Jobs. The Jesus Complex seems obvious, but as humans we want so much to believe the words of an idealist … especially a cool one. There is a lot to unpack in this documentary, and it’s worth it – even if it helps us learn our lesson yet again.

 

HERE BEFORE (drama/thriller)

 Grief can be the most powerful and dangerous emotion we experience as humans. Anger and joy come and go, but real grief seeps into our marrow and becomes part of our being. Writer-director Stacey Gregg wisely tackles the topic with the assistance of the always excellent Andrea Riseborough (a resume loaded with strong projects) as Laura, a mother who begins to believe that her deceased daughter Josie has been reincarnated as the new neighbors’ daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan).

Ms. Gregg expertly builds tension and doubt through the film’s first half, and throws a terrific curve ball in the final act … one I kick myself and applaud the filmmaker for not seeing it coming. There is an awkwardness between the two families forced together by a shared dwelling wall. That awkwardness only builds as Laura continually oversteps boundaries when it comes to Megan, who seems to know entirely too many details when it comes to Josie’s death.

Megan’s parents, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), are from a different socio-economic class than their neighbors, and the uncomfortable connection extends to Laura’s husband, Brendon (Jonjo O’Neill) and son, Tadhg (Lewis McAkie). Whether it’s in the front yard, at school, or the grocery story, each time these families cross paths leaves us with weird vibes and feeling more confused. Is something supernatural at play here?

The cinematography from Chloe Thomson is superb, and composer Adam Janota Bzowski is pitch perfect is giving us just enough at the right moments. Set in Belfast, this is a gripping thriller with terrific performances throughout. Stacey Gregg makes it look all too easy with her first feature film.

 

LANGUAGE LESSONS (drama)

 The use of video chats as a plot device might have been a bit more adventurous 18 months ago, but oddly, the pandemic and our familiarity with this type of communication (out of necessity) actually works to strengthen this interesting film. It’s the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Morales, who co-wrote the script with Mark Duplass, and the two co-star as the only characters we see on screen.

Ms. Morales plays Carino, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher hired by Adam’s (Duplass) husband Will (an unseen DeSean Terry). An awkward first lesson – Lesson #1 of 100 in the package – includes Adam’s morning routine of hot/cold dips in the pool and spa in the backyard of his luxurious home. Director Morales labels the lessons throughout, and no, we thankfully don’t see all 100. After a personal tragedy occurs, the teacher-student dynamic shifts and becomes more therapy before settling into a strange friendship.

Between lessons, Adam and Carino exchange many personal messages, many littered with entirely too many “I’m sorry” lines in an attempt to avoid overstepping boundaries. Adam is forthcoming with his personal feelings, while Carino bounces between trying to stay professional and wanting to bond. It’s clear she is hiding details of her personal life, while rarely discouraging Adam from over-sharing. The frequent personal messages reveal more about each character than the scheduled meetings, but combined they work very well.

The charisma of Duplass and especially Morales allow us to care very much about this relationship. They are both charming, and Morales has the most fun in the drunk birthday song scene. She is to be commended for taking such a simple structure and creating an interesting movie that proves people need connection – whether in person, through masks, or via Zoom.

 

THE FALLOUT (drama)

 Megan Park is an established actress with some memorable roles (WHAT IF, 2013), and although she has directed some short films, this is her first feature film as writer-director. Her subject matter revolves around a school shooting and how it impacts students in so many ways. Rather than creating a project focusing on gun control, Ms. Park instead takes on the various emotions that occur after such a horrific event.

Vada (Jenna Ortega, young Jane in “Jane the Virgin”) is a 16 year old high school student who is in the restroom when gunfire is heard. We don’t see the shooter, and instead director Park sticks with Vada and Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) as they hide in the stall, terrified of what’s happening. Mia is the school beauty, and one that Vada and her best friend Will (Nick Ropp) would typically make fun of behind her back. While in the stall, a bloody Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them.

The three students form an unlikely bond after the shooting, as Will finds a new mission in life as an activist and spokesperson. Vada’s parents are played by a skittish Julie Bowen and the always dependable John Ortiz. Vada and Mia both struggle with their emotions, and start to depend on each other. Quinton has serious fallout to deal with, though he and Vada get closer as well. Though she is unable to talk to her parents or deal with her younger sister, Vada does see a therapist played by Shailene Woodley.

It’s painful to see anyone have to deal with such a horrific event, but it’s so much worse when it’s kids who simply aren’t mature enough or experienced enough to handle such a burden. Wine, sex, and pot all make up the attempts at self-healing by the students, and the film doesn’t shy away from the difficulties they face in returning to school – or returning to anything resembling normalcy after attending memorial services for numerous classmates. Filmmaker Park allows us to experience Vada’s slow recovery, and then throws in a gut-punch of an ending that is likely to stun many. A terrific performance from Ms. Ortega and strong filmmaking from Ms. Park makes this one stick with us.

 

TOM PETTY SOMEWHERE YOU FEEL FREE (documentary)

 Adria Petty, daughter of the late rock legend, Tom Petty, discovered a stash of 16mm film shot by photographer Martyn Akins between 1993 and 1995. The footage chronicles Petty’s recording of his 1994 triple platinum album, “Wildflowers” – the album he considered his best and most personal. The found footage, along with insight and perspective from many who were there, allows us to understand why he felt that way.

Mary Wharton directed multiple episodes of “VH1 Legends”, and her expertise with musicians elevates this to must-see for any Tom Petty fan … or even any songwriter who wants to witness the crafting of songs, and the crafting of a sound. See, this was Petty’s first time to work with famed rap producer and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin. Adria explains what was happening in her father’s personal life during this time, and how he wanted something new and different from his work with The Heartbreakers – although most of them worked on this album as well.

In addition to the 27 year old footage, Ms. Wharton includes current day interviews with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and producer Rubin. Campbell seems mostly bored with the interviews, but Tench spills all his memories. It’s really Rubin who brings the most insight and perspective to what Petty was trying to do. The changing of drummers from Stan Lynch to Steve Ferrone is discussed, and we hear Petty explain that he still wants to sing with bassist Howie Epstein. So the songs may sound different, and have special meaning to Petty, many of the musicians are those he was most familiar and comfortable with.

We see rehearsals, recordings, sound checks, and live performances. There are also rare clips of Petty at home. Ms. Wharton provides a unique opportunity to watch an artist at work and how the pieces are assembled to create a masterpiece album that is as strong today as it was on its first release. Tom Petty died in 2017, but lives on in his music, and now in the footage of his musical process.

 

OFFSEASON (horror)

 Horror director and writer Mickey Keating adds to his oeuvre with a creative twist on the genre that mixes zombies, the depths of hell, and a powerful monster. Using title cards to take us through six chapters and an Epilogue, Mr. Keating has us experience the events through the eyes of Marie Aldrich (played by Jocelin Donahue). However, it’s Marie’s mother Ava, played by the always interesting Melora Walters (whose career dates back to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989), whom we see and hear from first. She appears near death as she explains that she’s accepted that there is no way to run away from nightmares … they always find you.

Marie receives a letter informing her that her mother’s grave has been desecrated and it’s an urgent matter that must be handled promptly and without fanfare (do people usually go to the press on such matters?). Marie and her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg) head to the island where Mom is buried. It’s a creepy place that shuts down for the winter. Marie’s mother had told her stories of the island and “The Man from the Sea”, and how the island residents sold their soul to the sea monster in order to survive the harsh conditions. Reluctantly, the Bridge Man (Richard Brake) allows them to cross the bridge onto the island.

Things immediately seem weird and off-center. Marie finds her mother’s damaged grave, but the caretaker is nowhere to be found. Under a time crunch, Marie and George make some bad decisions … of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie without bad decisions! Not to give away any of the fun, but suffice to say the island is cursed, just as Marie’s mom had warned.

Keating creates some nice visuals, and has terrific placement of The Vogues’ “Turn Around, Look at Me”. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice is that Marie runs and runs. She runs a lot. I’m hoping Ms. Donahue agreed to the extra miles before arriving on set. There are enough chills here to keep us engaged, and Keating deserves credit for an original story within a genre that frequently re-treads.


SXSW 2021 Day One

March 16, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 1

This year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival is being held completely online, and of course a virtual festival lacks the oh-so-enjoyable elements of long lines, rude people, bad weather, and rushed fast food. Sure the excitement and energy of an audience is missing, but at least there is no hotel expense!

Day 1 for me included four documentaries and one narrative. Here’s a recap:

 

HYSTERICAL (documentary)

 Stand-up comedy is certainly one of the toughest ways to make a living in the entertainment world. As if making others laugh isn’t difficult enough, convincing someone to give you mic time on stage takes a minor miracle when first starting out. Documentarian Andrea Blaugrund Nevins goes one step further as she focuses on the trials and tribulations facing female stand-up comedians. And she does so in a way that allows us to feel the struggle.

No matter your age, if you are reading this, then there were successful and funny female comedians working when you were growing up. Ms. Nevins includes clips of Moms Mabley from 1948, as well as Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and other legends. But this documentary is about so much more than great jokes. We are privy to the personal stories behind the stage acts of many of the women working stand-up today. These women are honest and raw in recounting their journeys, and they are fascinating and informative.

Souls are bared, and no topic is off limits. Confidence, anger, self-doubt, childhood issues, and the desire for attention and acknowledgment are discussed. In what has traditionally been “a man’s world”, we are told that once onstage, “There is no one telling us what to do.” The dark side is also present. Pay discrepancies between the genders is well documented. We hear multiple stories of being subjected to inappropriate behavior, groping, and even assault. Included is the 2019 clip of Kelly Bachman rocking the room while Harvey Weinstein was present. On top of that, there is competition amongst the women due to the belief that there is only room for so many. Yet, despite this, a camaraderie exists among these brave women to prove the power of laughter. Terrific work from Ms. Nevins.

 

DEAR MR. BRODY (documentary)

 Filmmaker Keith Maitland is responsible for one of the best made and most interesting documentaries of all-time. His TOWER (2016) was a favorite on the festival run, as well as its numerous TV showings. The body count on his latest is reduced, and it plays like psychoanalysis of a young man who captured the nation’s attention for one brief moment in time.

If the title doesn’t ring a bell, you likely were either too young or not born when, in 1970, the heir to an Oleo Margarine fortune made headlines everywhere. Michael James Brody, Jr announced that he was going to give away his millions to anyone who asked. He even gave out his home address and phone number in Scarsdale, New York. The announcement even got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing a song … which led to a recording contract.

At the time, Brody was 21 years old and married to Renee, who was kind enough to sit for interviews with Mr. Maitland for the film. Her (reluctant) insight paints a picture of a man who believed in “Peace” over “Money”, and started with the best intentions of helping people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the cracks to show in Brody’s mission. His pronouncements of gift-giving had his wealth fluctuating from $25 million to $50 million, and even into the billions at times. His demeanor shifted drastically, sometimes within the same day.

The letters flowed in. And kept coming. We hear from authors, friends of Brody, and researchers. Producer Melissa Robyn Glassman located 12 boxes of unopened letters that movie Producer Edward Pressman had in storage from a movie project that never materialized. We also hear from Brody’s and Renee’s son Jamey, who not only collects items from the family “Good Luck” Margarine brand, but also has 40-50 boxes of unopened letters addressed to his dad … Dear Mr. Brody.

It’s those letters that provide the heart and soul of the story, the movie, and this moment in history. Maitland and Melissa track down some of the original letter writers, as well as some of the surviving family members. As they read the words from decades ago, emotions take over and instantly, we are observing an intimate memory. We may be intruding, but these are raw human emotions on display.

Brody’s mental state at the time is also discussed. Drugs clearly played a part in his behavior – specifically PCP, and this led to interest from the editor of “High Times” magazine. It also led to Brody being hospitalized for a time, and ultimately to tragedy. History is filled with odd characters, and Michael James Brody, Jr certainly had his Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of Fame’, but the real story here is that of those who wrote the letters of need/want more than 50 years ago.

**NOTE: it’s not surprising that Brody’s house at 31 Paddington Road in Scarsdale was long ago razed and replaced with a mansion more suitable to the area.

 

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR (documentary)

 Whether it’s navigating the stairs on all fours, getting a boost up to the saddle of her beloved horse, or showing off her glittery turbans and walking canes, the showmanship of actress Selma Blair seems ever-present despite the severe effects of her Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Documentarian Rachel Fleit films the daily challenges faced by Ms. Blair as she comes to grips with the disease and its impact on her career, her life, and her ability to raise her son.

You likely recognize Selma Blair from her most popular movies, CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) and LEGALLY BLONDE (2001). She admits to viewing herself as a supporting actor, rather than a star, but with 80 screen credits over 25 years, she’s certainly worked consistently. But here we see her daily physical and emotional struggles, though her sense of humor is present except for the darkest moments. Cracking wise about Kim Kardashian or Norma Desmond (SUNSET BLVD), and never hesitating to ensure her cane serves the dual purpose of fashion accessory, Ms. Blair keeps us constantly guessing as to whether she is serving up raw emotions or her best performance in the moment.

We can easily forgive her if a bit of her good humor is an act. It seems clear the film is designed to be a “gift” to her young son Arthur, should her life be cut short. Early on, we witness an MS episode when the stimulus gets to be too much. Her physical contortions and impaired speech are difficult to watch, but necessary for us to fully understand the brutality of the disease.

Half of the film is dedicated to her decision to seek stem cell treatment. The process is long and arduous, and we are spared much of the worst that she experiences. Still, it’s a weeks-long cycle followed by a two year recovery, with no guarantee of improvement. In fact, no miracle cure or recovery occurs, and Ms. Blair initially seems shocked that she has two years of recovery ahead. It’s difficult to believe she had not previously been informed.

Selma Blair’s slogan, “We have so much time to be dead”, is a terrific message and she’s to be commended and respected for opening up her challenges to the camera. It’s hopeful that her willingness to do so will help others, while also educating those unfamiliar with this disease. Mommy issues and extra drama aside, this film is quite something to experience.

 

THE END OF US (drama)

 Co-writers and co-directors Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner serve up one of the first COVID-19 relationship movies. It’s the kind of indie movie that plays well at festivals, but also one that nails what so many have experienced over the past year … well hopefully sans the break-up.

Ali Vingiano is Leah and Ben Coleman is Nick. They have been in a four year relationship that ends abruptly when Leah gets fed up with carrying an unbalanced load in regards to grown-up things like rent, food, and insurance. See, while Nick dreams of writing a screenplay and getting acting jobs (while taking few auditions), Leah is the grounded one who holds a real paying job. It’s easy for us to understand when Leah says ‘enough’.

The wrinkle here is that the break-up occurs in the early days of the pandemic. Knowledge is scarce and deaths are mounting. Businesses are closing and a stay-at-home order is issued in California, forcing this newly separated couple to … well … not be separated. Nick sleeps on the couch, but the two are together more now than … well … when they were together. Tension and stress is as prevalent as Zoom meetings.

It’s an unusual situation, and both Leah and Nick have friends they confide in, but moving on is pretty difficult when the proximity is closer than ever before. Petty emotions come into play, as do real ones. Apologies and quasi-apologies are rampant, but we see both change and grow despite the challenges. The lead actors are solid and the script is fresh and spot on. There are some uncomfortable moments, but relatability is the key here. Nice work from those involved.

 

DEMI LOVATO: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL (documentary)

 Opening Night Headliner at SXSW is a place of honor, and this year’s selection was the docuseries from Michael D Ratner (TV docuseries “Justin Bieber: Seasons”) highlighting Demi Lovato’s personal challenges, of which there are many. The 4-part series was shown straight-through with only chapter slides showing where each new episode begins. Initial scenes show Lovato during her 2018 tour, which was originally the purpose of a documentary. Filming ended abruptly when she overdosed on drugs and nearly died.

In 2020, Ms. Lovato had a new story to tell, and her personal struggles became the focus of the documentary. She promised transparency and honesty, and by all indications, she delivered. Very few celebrities have ever revealed so many personal challenges. By the end of the finale, we’ve heard about her addictions, the physical-emotional-sexual abuse she’s endured, her eating disorder, bi-polar diagnosis, depression, self-harm, and body issues. We also learn of her frequent lies to friends, family, and associates.

Not only does Lovato sit for many interviews, we also hear from her mother, sisters, friends, choreographer, Security Director, Business Manager, and former personal assistant. That’s right. One of the things that stands out most here is privilege. The former Disney child star and now global pop star has a support team and resources that most can only dream of. She went to rehab at one of the most exclusive facilities in the world, and after a near-death drug overdose, her famous new manager agrees to sign her, even after a relapse shortly after her rehab stint. Obviously addiction is something many struggle with, but it’s quite eye-opening to see the care wealth can attain.

One of the most interesting things to come from this is in the final episode where Lovato admits that “moderation” is her personal approach to dealing with addiction. Despite input from Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and Will Ferrell, Lovato believes she is better off with moderate alcohol consumption and pot smoking than stone cold sobriety. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure … her voice remains a true gift. Her “comeback” performance at the 2020 Grammy Awards and her singing of the National Anthem at the 2020 Super Bowl are unmistakable in proof of talent. However, we can’t help but wonder how the personal admissions will be received by the youngsters who look up to Demi Lovato.

 


OUT OF THE PAST (1947) revisited

February 7, 2021

***** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are a few films that provide the perfect example of Film Noir, and this one from director Jacques Tourneur is unquestionably one of them. Tourneur is also known for CAT PEOPLE (1942) and he’s the son of prolific French director, Maurice Tourneur. Daniel Mainwaring, under his pen name Geoffrey Homes, adapted the screenplay from his own novel, “Build My Gallows High”.

Jeff is the owner of a small town gas station, and although relatively new to the town, he’s made a few local friends – in particular Ann, with whom he has a pretty serious, though not altogether honest, relationship. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Jeff’s mysterious past catches up with him, and this happens pretty early in the story. He’s called back to the big city by one of the henchmen for mobster Whit, who wants Jeff to track down Whit’s mistress, Kathie, who absconded with $40,000. It’s an offer Jeff can’t refuse, and soon enough he’s in Acapulco entranced by the “dame” he’s paid to track down. What follows is a slew of twists and turns, double-crosses, dangerous close calls, and yes, yet another “dame” that can’t be trusted.

The noir hijinks are a blast to watch, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary cast. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, and his dry, laconic approach allows him to walk that line between being an anti-hero and a good guy that we root for. Whit is played exceeding well by not-yet-a-star Kirk Douglas, whose pent-up energy and fast-talking nature are the perfect dueling partner for Mitchum. While the screen presence of Mitchum and Douglas can’t be denied, it’s Jane Greer who steals nearly every scene she’s in playing Kathie. Duplicitous is not a strong enough word for the character of Kathie. Ann is played beautifully by Virginia Huston, and Rhonda Fleming comes into the story as Meta Carson about halfway through, competing with Kathie for the title of least trustworthy woman you’ll likely come across. Other supporting performances come from Paul Valentine as Whit’s henchman Joe, Richard Webb as Ann’s protective and jealous suitor Jim, Steve Brodie as Fisher, and Dickie Moore as Jeff’s trusty employee known only as The Kid.

Director Tourneau was a master of creating atmosphere, and his career took him through many types of projects, formats, and genres: Short films, westerns, horror, adventure, war, mystery, and crime. The last few years of his career were spent directing TV movies and series. He passed away in 1977 at age 73, leaving behind two movies, OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE that would be selected for the National Film Registry. Writer Daniel Mainwaring also passed in 1977 (age 74), and though he began as a journalist-turned-novelist, his greatest success was as a screenwriter. In addition to this film, he also wrote another noir classic, THE BIG STEAL (1949), in which director Don Siegel reunited Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), also directed by Siegel.

 Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are both considered giants of Hollywood past. Mitchum is viewed as the consummate tough guy, and his characters often stood out due to the air of indifference in his acting style. He was only nominated for one Oscar in his career, but the memorable roles are many – including westerns, romance, and crime thrillers. Mitchum’s “bad boy” persona was only enhanced by his serving jail time for a marijuana offense in 1949, however in real life, he was married to his wife Dorothy for 57 years (although his extramarital affairs were well known). He also had some success as a singer-songwriter, and on screen, he is remembered for two of the best ever screen villains from CAPE FEAR (1962) and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). Fans of TOMBSTONE (1993) recognize Mitchum’s voice as the narrator, and his final screen appearance was in 1997, the same year he died at age 79.

Kirk Douglas was nominated for 3 Oscars, and very few actors were more proficient at stealing a scene, and even fewer duplicated his long-lasting screen presence. He was a showy performer who was hardly known when cast in OUT OF THE PAST, the movie that vaulted him towards stardom. His most iconic roles include Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE (1956), Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), and in two Stanley Kubrick films, PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960). Douglas is often given credit for virtually ending Hollywood’s “Blacklist” by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write for SPARTACUS. Douglas worked frequently in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and made eight films with Burt Lancaster, another industry legend. A stroke in 1996 made speaking very difficult for him, but therapy allowed him to get back on stage and on screen. In the early 1960s, Douglas starred on stage in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and he held on to the screen rights until his son, actor-producer Michael Douglas, turned it into a 1975 box office hit starring Jack Nicholson. Kirk Douglas was married to his second wife, Anne, for 65 years until his death in 2020 at age 103.

 Jane Greer was only 22 when she filmed OUT OF THE PAST, yet she had the aura to make us believe her Kathie could turn any man inside-out. She won beauty pageants as a baby, and sang with orchestras as a teenager, but the movie camera and big screen took her to a new level. As her career was just starting, she got caught in the infamous web of Howard Hughes, and only a quickie marriage to singer Rudy Vallee allowed her to escape. Her two best known films are this one and THE BIG STEAL two years later, in which she again co-starred with Mitchum. In 1984, she appeared in Taylor Hackford’s remake of OUT OF THE PAST, entitled AGAINST ALL ODDS. In the film, she plays Rachel Ward’s mother. After her second divorce in 1963, she had a long-term relationship with actor Frank London. They both passed away in 2001. She was 76.

Rhonda Fleming was in her mid-20s during filming, and had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945). Her career spanned more than 40 films, including Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), and John Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). She worked with most every leading man of the era, including four films with Ronald Reagan. As a gifted singer, she performed in  Broadway musicals and was featured in her own concerts. Fleming spent most of the 1960’s and 1970’s doing TV work. She was married 6 times, and died in 2020 at age 97.  The third female star in the film was Virginia Huston as Jeff’s small town girlfriend. Ms. Huston’s acting career lasted less than a decade, and she also appeared in FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) with Joan Crawford, and as Jane opposite Lex Barker in TARZAN’S PERIL (1951). She passed away from cancer at age 55 in 1981.

Paul Valentine, who plays Whit’s smirking henchman Joe, also had a fairly limited career, although like Ms. Greer, he also appeared in the remake AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984. It was one of his last screen appearances. Richard Webb, Anne’s intense and jealous protector Jim, was a hard-working character actor from the 1940s through the 1970s, and he authored some books on psychic phenomena. Dickie Moore plays the deaf-mute “Kid”, Jeff’s confidant, and was the epitome of a child star. Beginning at age 18 months, Moore appeared in 52 movies by age 10. If you are ever in a trivia contest and the question comes up about Shirley Temple’s first on screen kiss – you’ll rack up the points if you answer ‘Dickie Moore’. He appeared in five Best Picture nominees, but his acting career was over by age 30. While researching his book on child stars, he met actress Jane Powell. They had been married for 27 years at the time of his death in 2015.

The film stands the test of time and is right there with THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and any others considered classic Film Noir. In fact, Humphrey Bogart was originally offered the role of Jeff, and while we can imagine him in the role, Mitchum was terrific in making it his own. No one has ever said, “Baby, I don’t care” any better, and it is also the name of Mitchum’s 2001 biography written by Lee Server. In addition to the great cast, Tourneur makes creative use of lighting and camera angles throughout, and all of that adds up to a fun movie-watching experience in spite of some of the confusion on how the story progresses. It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys classic movies or wants to experience a young actress stealing a film right out from under two screen legends.

*NOTE: I previously wrote about this movie in 2011, but I felt the urge to dig a bit deeper after re-watching it recently.

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (1929-2021)

February 5, 2021

 It was announced today that legendary actor Christopher Plummer passed away at age 91. Thanks to his more than 200 screen credits covering 8 decades, and especially for his role as Captain Von Trapp in the long-time family favorite, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), Plummer was one of the most recognized, most respected, and most beloved actors of our time.

Plummer was a three-time Oscar nominee: as Tolstoy in THE LAST STATION (2009); as J Paul Getty in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017), and as a terminally ill man who surprises his family by taking a younger male lover in BEGINNERS (2010). It’s his terrific performance in that last movie that won him his only Oscar as he became the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar. The “legendary” status I mentioned early stems not just from his work on the big screen. Plummer is renowned for his stage work, and was a two-time Tony winner, and he also won two Emmy’s for his TV performances.  Although he was nominated for a Grammy, the EGOT eluded him.

There are too many memorable performances to list, but it’s amazing that 73 of his acting credits came after he turned 70 years old.  In fact, one of his final appearances was in the excellent 2019 whodunit, KNIVES OUT.  Plummer released his autobiography, “In Spite of Myself” in 2008, and he was the great-grandson of former Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.

He was married for 53 years to his third wife, British dancer-actress Elaine Taylor, and among his surviving family is his daughter, Emmy-winning actress Amanda Plummer, who was so memorable in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION.  Even if he hadn’t been such a talented stage and screen actor, Mr. Plummer likely could have had a nice career as a voice actor … such a smooth, sophisticated baritone.

May Captain Von Trapp “Bloom and Grow Forever”

In THE SOUND OF MUSIC, his singing voice was dubbed by singer Bill Lee, but here is a recording of Plummer’s actual voice singing EDELWEISS. Personally, I would have stuck with Plummer’s version for realism, but I’ll admit, Lee’s version brings a tear to my eye every time.