October 18, 2015

tab hunter Greetings again from the darkness. “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” That line was famously bellowed by James Cagney in the 1949 film WHITE HEAT, and it reasonably could have been shouted behind closed doors, a few years later, by Tab Hunter. Of course, that wouldn’t have been the only thing Mr. Hunter was keeping behind those doors.  In his 2005 autobiography, he came out publically as a gay man. Director Jeffrey Schwarz takes that book, and puts a very forthcoming Mr. Hunter in front of the camera, to deliver a fascinating, entertaining and educational glimpse at what it was like to be a movie and musical superstar at a time when being a gay man was not just a social taboo, but actually considered a mental illness.

Normally, “talking head” documentaries quickly become tiresome, but now in his 80’s, Mr. Hunter remains an engaging and delightful man, and he is so sincere and upfront in telling his stories, that we couldn’t possibly turn away. In addition, director Schwarz drops in interviews from those who were there. These include: Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Robert Wagner (filling in his for his deceased wife Natalie Wood), John Waters, George Takei, and Robert Osborne. Each recall moments from real life, with the studio publicity romances (Reynolds, Stevens, Wood) providing the touch of melancholy that brings focus to the matter at hand.

Another entertaining touch added by Schwarz is his use of actual dialogue snippets from Hunter’s films to deliver punch to a point – sometimes comedic, sometimes more serious. Never succumbing to the career retrospective approach, the film does offer significant film clips, photographs and recollections of Hunter’s unique career that found him #1 at the Box Office, as well as #1 on the Pop Music Charts (his recording of “Young Love” knocked Elvis off the top of the charts).

The film could also serve as a historical documenting of the Hollywood Studio system, as Hunter’s success with Warner Brothers was never to be duplicated once he gained his contractual release (through buyout). We do go through the career re-birth brought about by Hunter’s work in the John Waters offbeat classic Polyster, where the former matinee idol finds himself making out on screen with Divine, the 300 pound transvestite who was a fixture in Waters’ films. Surprisingly, it’s Hunter’s fearless approach to the material that makes it click.

But beyond the Hollywood insight, the film is most effectively the story of a man who, because of his era, had to be one person in public and another behind the closed doors. Hunter describes this as “being rewarded for pretending to be someone you aren’t”. He speaks frankly about his relationship with Anthony Perkins, as well as a couple of other serious relationships. We also learn about his childhood, when he had an abusive father and was close to his older brother, who later died in Vietnam. Hunter speaks of being “lost as a kid”. Beyond the Hollywood years, it’s fascinating to hear Hunter speak of his time on the Dinner Theatre circuit, where he put up with the travel and drudgery so that he could pay the bills and care for his sick mother. We also learn that in addition to his staggering good looks, his on screen appeal, and his musical talent, Hunter was also a world class figure skater and competitive equestrian horse jumper. Yep, Tab Hunter is pretty much the guy we would all despise … if he just wasn’t so darned nice and likeable!

watch the trailer:



July 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I view Tom Hanks as one of the all-time giants among movie actors. He is true Hollywood royalty. When I heard he was producing, directing, co-writing and starring in a new film (his first directorial outing since That Thing You Do), I assumed it was his first step in becoming the new Clint Eastwood. Sadly, Mr. Hanks broke the number rule of movie-making: have a point to make or a story to tell. What we get is a time warp when mainstream movies could be successful just by putting nice people on screen.

 And nice people is what we get. Tom Hanks plays the ultimate nice guy as Larry Crowne. Crowne is the type who attracts nice people and makes them even nicer. Even when he loses his job, we never doubt that this nice guy will land on his feet and even be better off eventually. Oh no you don’t … stop trying to guess the ending! Other nice people are … EVERY STUDENT in the speech class taught by Julia Roberts, the L.A. scooter club that recruits Crowne, the Marine owner of a diner who hires Crowne, the lottery-winning neighbors of Crowne and the dean of students at the community college. The nicest one of all is Talia, played delightfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the awful “Undercovers” show that lasted less than one season).

The closest thing to a bad guy is Roberts’ husband played by Bryan
Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). His fault? He is a bit lazy (after writing two
books) and he likes to look at swimsuit models on the internet. Sure,
when the movie starts, Ms. Roberts character is at her lowest. She
clearly drinks too much to mask her misery, though it’s never obvious
just why she is so miserable.

But this is not a movie about conflict or tension or anything not nice
… even though it begins with a nice guy getting laid off from his
job. The story and screenplay are co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos.
You will remember her as the creative force behind the gem My Big Fat
Greek Wedding. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere close to the level
of that one (conflict with Greek traditions).

 If Mr. Hanks’ goal is to become an important filmmaker in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra, he will need to study the films that have made him rich and famous. Or at least study the best screwball comedies or rom-coms. A good story must have CONFLICT! There needs to be something that creates interest for the viewer. Even children’s books give us something – a mean raccoon, a wicked witch.  Simple, bland, generic, nice, likable and swell can all play a part … but they can’t be EVERY part! My two favorite things about the film are George Takei and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mr. Takei (of “Star Trek” fame) provides some of the few laughs in the film as a very meticulous Economics professor. His voice and mannerisms inspire us to smile and ultimately laugh outloud. Gugu is just terrific as the idealistic free-spirit who transforms Crowne and lights up her every scene. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

 As you might expect, supporting actors lined up to work with Hanks and Julia. Among those not mentioned above are Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji B. Henson (Crowne’s neighbors), Wilmer Valderrama (Gugu’s boyfriend), Rita Wilson (the mortgage officer), Pam Grier (professor), Grace Gummel (Meryl Streep’s daughter as the ‘pasta’ speech student), and it’s always nice to see Bob Stephenson on screen. He is one of the more underutilized deadpan comedic talents around.

There is little doubt that this film will find an audience. An audience
that demands little from a movie. There is nothing wrong with two hours
of back-slapping and giddy smiling … as long as you get a story to go
along with it.  The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s like looking at a family photo album.  Everyone is smiling.  Everyone looks happy.  But nothing is really happening.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe thinking and movie watching should remain separate activities OR you simply want to see a lot of nice people onscreen for two hours

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe filmmakers owe us something and shouldn’t cash in on their reputation … even if their name is Tom Hanks.