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Pocket Money (1972)
It couldn't have been the easiest thing in the world to get two sharp-shooting superstar actors like Paul Newman and Lee Marvin to play characters who are a long way from being sharp shooters. But this is what happens in POCKET MONEY, a fairly obscure entry into each actor's filmography, but nevertheless frequently funny take on Western motifs set in the Arizona/Mexico border region of the early 1970s.
Based on the book "Jim Kane" by J.P.S. Brown, and scripted by future maverick director Terence Malick (DAYS OF HEAVEN), the film stars Newman as Jim Kane, a modern-day cowboy who seems to fancy himself as being good-natured (which he in fact is) but who is just as equally financially broke because he has proven to be not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. His own horses have had to be quarantined because of STD; and although his uncle offers him a good-paying job, he turns it down for working for an enormously shady cattle businessman, Bill Garrett (played by the inimitable Strother Martin). Marvin portrays his good friend Leonard, a con man with only slightly more street smarts than Newman to help him out. The result is a slice of modern-day sagebrush hilarity in which Newman and Marvin get themselves into a ton of trouble on both sides of the border.
While it was well known that Newman (for whose production company First Artists this film was made) and Marvin did not get along all that well on the set during the film's shooting (in Arizona and northern Mexico) in the spring and early summer of 1971, and while it isn't exactly a masterpiece, POCKET MONEY is fairly well directed by veteran journeyman Stuart Rosenberg, who directed Newman in one of the actor's best roles in the classic 1967 prison drama COOL HAND LUKE. Both Newman and Marvin were long known quantities in Westerns, with Marvin's credits including the evil titular character of John Ford' 1962 classic THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE; 1966's THE PROFESSIONALS; and 1970's MONTE WALSH, and Newman scoring with HUD, HOMBRE, and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID; and while that doesn't necessarily translate into either a great Western or a great sagebrush comedy, it also doesn't translate into an absolute disaster. Two things, however, do stand out with POCKET MONEY. The first big one is, naturally, Martin's hilariously shifty role (with his "Wait! Wait! Wait!" line) that he does better than anyone else, especially in the Western (as Marvin's sidekick in LIBERTY VALANCE, and one of the bounty hunters in director Sam Peckinpah's magisterial 1969 epic THE WILD BUNCH). The second, of course, is Marvin's Cadillac with the longhorns on the front, the new definition of the Iron Horse.
Featuring such folks as Wayne Rogers (who also appeared in COOL HAND LUKE as a prisoner, and here is Martin's sidekick), Matt Clark, Hector Elizondo, Gregory Sierra, and Kelly Jean Peters, POCKET MONEY won't be mistaken for Ford or Peckinpah, but by no means is it the disaster that some have made it out to be.
The Cowboys (1972)
The Duke Makes Men Out Of Boys
You could disagree with his hard assed "My country, right or wrong" political views, and his appeals to patriotism that were not backed up with the same military service that so many of his generation, inside and outside of the film business, did in World War II. But even the most liberal filmgoers can't dispute that John Wayne was a Hollywood presence of the highest order, from his breakthrough film role in the 1939 John Ford classic STAGECOACH, to his final one as J.B. Books in the 1976 film THE SHOOTIST. The Western was the place where he showed much of his mettle; and although such films of his in the genre became more routine and arguably creaky and old-fashioned when he involved his own Batjac Company, he could occasionally step beyond that for something more. Perhaps the greatest case in point came in 1972, when he and the comparatively young director Mark Rydell got together to do THE COWBOYS.
In this film, Wayne stars as Wil Andersen, a rancher who has to be able to deliver 1500 head of cattle to the town of Belle Fourche, a 400-mile ride across the Wyoming and Montana hinterlands. But all of his ranch hands have lit out for the California gold fields, and this puts him into a real bind. On the suggestion of his old friend Anse Petersen (Slim Pickens), although he initially scoffs at the notion, Wayne agrees to get a couple of dozen actual boys to help on this cattle drive. He also gets a hardened African-American cook (Roscoe Lee Browne, in a great role) to come along. But he does turn down a n'er-do-well named Asa Watts, or "Long Hair", a man with a criminal past played by none other than Bruce Dern...and therein hangs an infamous part of this early 1970s Western.
Despite his disciplinarian ways, Wayne eventually makes men out of these boys; and they become Cowboys on this ride. This comes very much in hand when the group is once more confronted by Dern and his gang of cattle rustlers who have been trailing Wayne's team from the very beginning. What happens in this confrontation is something that had never happened to any Wayne character before, and which will really show how much the Cowboys have learned from their mentor.
Rydell, who had directed the 1969 William Faulkner adaptation THE REIVERS, had originally wanted George C. Scott for the role of Wil Anderson, and was not sure he'd be able to get along with Wayne, whose politics went way far right from his. But being able to leave politics aside, the two got along quite well during filming; and it shows in Wayne's largely non-clichéd performance. Rydell also gets some solid work from the troop of young cowboys, including future stars Robert Carradine (son of John Carradine) and A. Martinez. Colleen Dewhurst also does a good turn as a madame who gets close to both Wayne and Browne. But even the ultra-iconic Wayne is nearly overshadowed by the savage villainy of Dern, whose penultimate scene with The Duke earned him a certain amount of infamy with the Duke's fan base that, even now in 2020, still hasn't quite relented yet (and which even affected the way his daughter Laura, who would eventually become a great actress all her own, played with her friends in her youth).
There is a certain amount of violence in THE COWBOYS that kind of belies this film's 'PG' rating (it's arguably a 'PG-13' by today's standards), making it, along with BIG JAKE, among the most violent of the Duke's films. But the way Rydell directs Wayne and the cast, plus the superb cinematography of Robert Surtees (BEN HUR), and an early Copland-influenced score by John Williams (this, along with his score for THE REIVERS, was what bought Williams to the attention of Steven Spielberg), help make THE COWBOYS one of the great films in Wayne's canon, not to mention one that is radically different from most of those that he had made before in the Western genre, or that he was indeed making around that particular time in his late years.
John Wayne may not have been the same man in the early 1970s that had had been over the previous thirty years, but THE COWBOYS clearly showed that he had a lot left to offer. As such, THE COWBOYS merits an '8' rating here.
"1917": An Extremely Honorable Look At The Horror That Was World War I
It was the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 that set off World War I. When all was said and done, four years and six and a half months later, on November 11, 1918, as many as fifteen million people, civilians and soldiers alike lay dead on the continent of Europe.
It remains one of the most misunderstood conflicts in human history's sadly long (and getting longer by the minute) series of wars. But it's a war that hasn't necessarily gotten as much attention from Hollywood as, say, World War II, Vietnam, or the wars America has fought since September 11, 2001. The best films about what Woodrow Wilson once called "The War To End All Wars" have been Lewis Milestone's 1930 classic ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and Stanley Kubrick's 1957 magnum opus PATHS OF GLORY. One can now add director Sam Mendes' "1917" to that rather short list.
In this movie, shot in one huge long flowing take lasting 119 minutes or so, young British actors Drew-Charles Chapman and George MacKay portray two British soldiers assigned to what could best be called a suicide mission. They have to deliver a message to a British force deep inside enemy territory to call off an attack against a supposedly retreating German battalion, which their commanders have labeled to be a deadly trap. Indeed, this deadly trap, if the Brits fall into it, will result in the loss of 1600 soldiers, including Chapman's own brother (Richard Madden). And in that time, a bond of brotherhood will develop between these two soldiers as they make their long trek across a wide swath of no-man's land, full of body-filled trenches, tripwires, German snipers, and all other manner of the horrors of war the likes of which humanity had never seen before.
Mendes, whose directing credits prior to "1917" included the 1999 Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY, 2002's ROAD TO PERDITION, and the 2012 James Bond offering SKYFALL, both directed and co-scripted "1917", inspired by the stories his grandfather told him about this brutal part of human history, a war that proved most devastating to Mendes' native England, not only in the numbers of Brits who were killed, but also in the manner in which more than a few of them died; this was the first known instance, and by no means the last, of chemical weapons being used in military conflict. And while Mendes' film does not feature any uses of chemical weaponry like mustard gas in its story, the director nevertheless shows a great deal of the brutality and inhumanity of this war, and how Chapman and MacKay keep their humanity about them in a situation in which bloody death is a constant thing. That he was able to do this in one long single take from start to finish is indeed an incredible achievement; it is a technical marvel. But Chapman's and MacKay's performances as the young soldiers offer up the importance of how innocence is always the first thing that gets destroyed in war, helping make "1917" a masterpiece that goes beyond just the "one-take" technical brilliance.
Mendes is particularly good in the opening section of the film, creating the long flowing shots in the trenches, ones that are, whether wittingly or not, a nod to what Kubrick had done with brilliance in PATHS OF GLORY; and the avant-garde score by Thomas Newman (AMERICAN BEAUTY; BRIDGE OF SPIES) captures both the horror and the humanity of the situation at hand. While Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, both great actors on their own, do have roles in here, the focus remains on Chapman and MacKay throughout, ensuring that "1917" does for World War I what both ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and PATHS OF GLORY had done before it: find a spark of decency in one of humanity's darkest times.
Dark Waters (2019)
Corporate Malfeasance That Borders On Corporate Homicide
In recent decades, particularly since the horror that erupted on 9/11, more than a few dramatic movies have dealt with real-life events and/or social issues in ways that are often so engaging that they supersede most Hollywood blockbusters. Some of the very best deal with the kind of rampant corporate malfeasance that goes on when there are few or no regulations in place to protect the people that these corporations have a tendency to harm with all-too-painful regularity. DARK WATERS is one of those films.
Mark Ruffalo portrays Robert Billott, a Cincinnati-based attorney who is part of a law firm that represents dozens of multi-billion dollar corporations, the biggest not only in America but the world at large as well. But when he hears about a farmer in his own hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia who has lost nearly two hundred head of cows because they drank from toxically polluted water, he wades into the situation (albeit reluctantly at first) and discovers that one of the companies he has represented in his time, no less than DuPont, is the corporation whose dumping of their toxic waste is responsible for not having only killed livestock, but poisoning and/or severely deforming almost everybody there in Parkersburg, nearly seventy thousand in all. Combing through documents dating all the way back to the 1970s, he learns that some of this poisoning may be connected to a very well-known product, that DuPont created back in the early 1960s (everyone will know all too well what the name of that product is), and is in practically everything in every home in the United States, including pots and pans. The toll it took on him and his family, including the relationship with his wife (portrayed by Anne Hathaway) was almost too much for him (he ended up in the hospital for a time); but he kept on fighting for the people in his town, getting blood samples from everyone tested to be used as evidence of DuPont's corporate malfeasance, which virtually bordered on corporate homicide.
Based on Nathaniel Rich's article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2016, DARK WATERS is quite well directed by Todd Haynes (I'M NOT THERE; WONDERSTRUCK), and co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (LIONS FOR LAMBS; DEEPWATER HORIZON). Ruffalo, who portrayed one of the Boston Globe reporters in the much-acclaimed 2015 drama SPOTLIGHT, ably portrays Billott in a way that gives us a glimpse into his way of thinking that, just by having represented DuPont in his time, he himself may have been somewhat responsible for the years-long poisoning of his own hometown, even if only indirectly. The atmosphere conjured up by Haynes is not too dissimilar to what we saw in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, or THE POST, one that is decidedly sinister, shadowy and arguably corrupting. Tim Robbins, well known for his highly liberal political beliefs, does a good job of playing Ruffalo's partner in the firm, who is initially extremely reluctant to take his side but then does when the facts about DuPont become too big to ignore. Mare Winningham is also good as one of Parkersburg's many residents who have to face what the town's biggest employer has been doing to then for decades.
While it may seem all too common for movies to take what may seem like potshots at multi-billion dollar conglomerates, when they do the wrong thing (which seems to happen all too frequently, as it did with DuPont), then those wrongs have to have a light shone on them. This is what DARK WATERS does; and as a result, it was one of the best films released in 2019.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Sometimes, Nothin' Can Be A Real Cool Hand
There are some actors whose penchant for wanting to do challenging material is one of the most significant things that got them to where they were. Paul Newman was just such an actor. Known for his good looks, Newman, from the outset, wanted to be known even more, however, for being an actor who could stretch. This he did early and often, from the late 1950s onward, via such films as THE LONG HOT SUMMER, EXODUS, PARIS BLUES, THE HUSTLER, HUD, HARPER, and HOMBRE.
And then in 1967, there was COOL HAND LUKE, in which he played the ultimate non-conformist, in one of the cruelest places one can be: on a prison gang in the post-war South.
Newman is Lucas Jackson, who is arrested one night in a small Southern town for decapitating parking meters while under the influence. For this offense, he is sentenced to two years on a rough-and-tumble prison gang where there are rules, and if you break any, according to Carr The Floorwalker (Clifton James), you spend a night in "The Box"; and if you get "rabbit in your blood", you get a set of leg chains. Of course, Newman, not one to follow the rules, doesn't exactly comply; and after a few scrapes with the head prison gang leader Dragline (George Kennedy, in his Oscar-winning Supporting Actor role), he becomes a hero to Kennedy and the rest of the gang. But it also isn't too long before he gets the attention of the prison "bosses" (including Luke Askew, Morgan Woodward, Charles Tyner, and Robert Donner), and, of course, the inimitable Strother Martin as "The Captain" who, after Newman's first escape attempt, upbraids him with one of the great lines in Hollywood history: "What we've got here is...failure to communicate".
Filmed primarily on location, especially in the San Joaquin River delta area outside of Stockton, in central California, as a stand-in for the unnamed Southern locales, COOL HAND LUKE is ably directed by Stuart Rosenberg, a veteran TV director who made his big-screen directing bow here. He gets a marvelous performance by Newman, who had insisted that the screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson (based on Pearce's book) not be changed merely to fit him. Kennedy, a ubiquitous actor throughout his career, does an equally fine job as the initially combative Dragline who comes to respect Newman after beating him almost to a pulp in a prison yard fight. The prison gang is made up of great up-and-coming actors, many of whom got their big break here: Dennis Hooper; Harry Dean Stanton; Wayne Rogers; J.D. Cannon; and Ralph Waite. And no one can forget Martin, one of the great character actors of all time, in his role as The Captain, not just for that aforementioned famous line, but one that he says from the beginning: "I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean man".
Topped off by Conrad Hall's clever cinematography and a genuine Americana score by Lalo Schifrin, COOL HAND LUKE was clearly one of the touchstone films of the late 1960s, and a true masterpiece. And it is all due to Paul Newman, a whole slew of great actors, veterans and up-and-comers alike, and a tight period prison story that does about as great a job as any other film of this genre.
Newman says: "Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand." But in the "Hard Case" of COOL HAND LUKE, the hand here is a truly affirmative '10'.
Driven To Extremes
Trying to be the best at anything can frequently come at a price for anybody famished enough to want to go for it. This is especially true when we talk about fame here in the United States, where it seems Vince Lombardi's mantra "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" is something that is far too instilled in our culture. This is personified in the 2014 film WHIPLASH, the film that put its writer and director Damien Chazelle on the map in a big way.
Miles Teller portrays Andrew Neimann, an aspiring 19 year-old jazz drummer who has enrolled himself at New York's Shaffer Academy, where he comes to the attention of music instructor Terence Fletcher, portrayed by J.K. Simmons (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, and rightly so). To say that Simmons' teaching methods are unconventional would be a monumental understatement. Simmons' character Terence Fletcher is the musical conservatory equivalent of Lee Ermey's drill instructor in director Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam War classic FULL METAL JACKET, a man who is more than willing to push all of his students, but none more so than Teller, to their musical and even psychological extremes with a whole host of basically shouted scatological imprecations and more than a few choice four-letter words. Teller's own father (Paul Reiser), despite being proud of his son's dedication to the art of jazz drumming, fears for his son's own sanity under Simmons' near-psychotic dedication to the art of perfection, to the point where Teller's hands actually bleed onto the drum kit. Getting involved in a car crash (the same kind of incident that a previous student had while struggling to cope with Simmons' methodology, and which led him to hang himself), Teller finally goes to the authorities and finally gets Simmons 86ed from Shaffer...something that Simmons inevitably finds out about. But it is Teller who will have the last word.
Based to a large degree on the experiences Chazelle had had in his high school's band, which led him into filmmaking, WHIPLASH is an often-exhausting film to watch...and at times, deeply unsettling. Simmons, gets results by hurling the most demeaning insults imaginable at the students in general, and Teller in particular, because it is his belief that he can get the next Charlie Parker out of these guys, something that, by his own admission, he had never been able to do. To him, the two worst words any teacher can say to any student are "Good Job"; he'll accept nothing short of perfection, because to him Jazz is a dying musical genre in America. Chazelle, to his credit, even though he both wrote the screenplay and directed the film based on his short film of the same name, doesn't necessarily see perfection as a bad thing, but he doesn't exactly believe that Simmons' method of getting there is exactly a good thing either. Teller does a yeoman job of showing us how his character's dedication to perfection, having to somehow "please" a tyrant who is all but impossible to please even on the best of days, drives him almost to the brink of psychical exhaustion and even a psychological breakdown. It is not hard to put ourselves in Teller's shoes, because some of us have been in this position a time or two, with a character like Simmons here (and Ermey in FULL METAL JACKET).
But even with the experience of the first thirty minutes of Kubrick's great movie and Ermey's performance in there, the whole of WHIPLASH, with Simmons and Teller battling back and forth, is emotionally and psychologically draining, especially when compared to the carefree spirit of Chazelle's next film LA LA LAND, and the awe-inspiring FIRST MAN.
WHIPLASH is a extremely masterful character study. But be prepared for its emotional extremities
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Reviisting THE SHINING And The Overlook Hotel, Four Decades Later
With the dearth of really good horror films in the 21st century, it is instructive to look back at the 1980 Stanley Kubrick-directed masterpiece THE SHINING, based on the 1977 novel (the third one) by Stephen King. But much of the initial controversy over it was in how much Kubrick's film diverged from the novel; indeed, King went out of his way to all but disown the film that Kubrick made, only to see it be hugely remembered in the long run while the 1997 ABC-TV miniseries of the same name that he personally adapted and sanctioned has for all intents and purposes been forgotten. To settle the matter, however, in 2013, he published "Doctor Sleep", which was more or less a sequel to both his novel and Kubrick's film. And then in 2019, writer/director Mike Flanagan took up the torch and made out of King's sequel novel what will, with time, be regarded as one of the better horror films of the 21st century.
Ewam MacGregor stars as the adult Dan Torrance, almost four decades removed from the horrible events he and his mother experienced at the Overlook Hotel that resulted in his father going insane and eventually killing himself. After struggling for years with the same alcoholism and violent behavior that doomed his father's chances for succeeding, he finally finds meaning with his incredible but scary gift for "shining". Through an African-American teenager (Kyliegh Curran), he learns of a psychopathic cult known as The True Knot, whose members live off the "steam" of those like MacGregor and Curran who "shine". Indeed, several kids with that power have been abducted, and then either killed or possessed, by this cult and its deranged, witchy leader (Rebecca Ferguson). With a good friend (Cliff Curtis) from the New Hampshire hospice facility he works at, where his comforting of dying patients has earned him the name "Doctor Sleep", he and Curran track down the cult and manage to wipe out most of the cult in an isolated New Hampshire state park. But Ferguson somehow manages to get away, and thus remains a menace. In the end, MacGregor makes the only decision he possibly can to end the torment that he and Curran feel; and that is to confront Ferguson by returning to the scene of his former childhood trauma, the Overlook Hotel. And it is also at that now-condemned Overlook that he and Curran confront not only Ferguson, but also the demons and ghosts that still continue to haunt him.
Flanagan, who was responsible for two exceptional horror films of this era, 2013's OCULUS and 2016's BEFORE I WAKE, very cagily crosses both of King's interrelated novels and the many merits of Kubrick's movie into a very sinister and suspenseful mix of the supernatural and psychological. MacGregor impresses in the role of Dan Torrance, essayed in Kubrick's film by Danny Lloyd (who has a cameo role in DOCTOR SLEEP), and Curran is equally fine in her role. Ferguson is about as scary a villain, or villainess in her case, as there has been in any horror film. Although the use of post-1980s horror film shock cliché shots by Flanagan is sometimes a bit irritating, the shocks and suspense that were part-and-parcel of Kubrick's film otherwise still remain. There are, inevitably, some fairly hair-raising moments of blood and gore, and some slightly graphic sex, but this is hardly the kind of SAW/HOSTEL-type "torture porn" that King himself has rightly condemned in the horror genre, and is in fact much closer in tone to not only THE SHINING, but also similar films like POLTERGEIST and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
Equally significant to the impact of DOCTOR SLEEP are the brief uses of the "Dies Irae" theme that introduced Kubrick's original film, as well as the 1920s period music heard in the Gold Room sequences back in 1980. In the end, even if DOCTOR SLEEP is not quite on the level of its incredibly illustrious and disturbing predecessor, it is nevertheless about as worthy a horror film as Hollywood has had in decades; and like THE SHINING, it too is likely to achieve masterpiece status when all is said and done.
The Longest Day (1962)
Revisiting June 6, 1944
There are just some dates in history that will live forever. July 20, 1969 was one of those days, when Man set foot on the Moon for the first time. November 22, 1963 was another such day, when America lost its innocence as the result of John F. Kennedy being murdered.
Another important date in world history would be June 6, 1944. On that day, with the world still writhing in pain from a horrible war, an invasion force of three million soldiers from the U.S., England, and Canada stormed the beaches of France's Normandy coastline to start the freeing of Europe from Adolf Hitler's Nazi tyranny, which by that time had killed well over fifteen million people overall (six million of those for the specific reason of them being Jewish). The operation was known as "Operation Overlord"; and the date itself became known as D-Day. But for those millions who stormed those beaches, and the tens of thousands of them who were to lose their lives in this great cause, it was THE LONGEST DAY. And eighteen years later, in 1962, the combined talents of 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, writer Cornelius Ryan, and tons of others memorialized that day on the big screen in one of the greatest Hollywood epics ever made.
This nearly three-hour masterpiece doesn't just focus on the complexities of the D-Day landing itself; it also gives us a look at the men who had to fight it, and the Nazi commandants who were in charge of repelling the invasion (and who evidently slept at the switch, not thinking that such an invasion could ever be mounted). THE LONGEST DAY was the most expensive black-and-white movie ever made in Hollywood up to that point, at nearly $10 million; and in order to make this happen, Zanuck got practically every living actor in Hollywood, and some more from England, to participate. This meant that many of the actors were only on the screen for a short time; and it also meant that some were in roles that they arguably were a bit too old to be playing. Still, the presence of these actors and their star wattage made THE LONGEST DAY, among other things, The Biggest Deal. When you have a cast that includes John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Wagner, and Eddie Albert just for starters, then it definitely is a big deal.
Of course, it is tempting for people to compare this film's depiction of the D-Day landing to the way it was depicted in, but was the opening salvo to, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. But such comparisons, while inevitable, are not necessarily fair or accurate. What was shown in unflinchingly graphic detail by Steven Spielberg in his 1998 masterpiece could not be shown in pre-MPAA ratings Hollywood. One can't hold this against either Zanuck, or the three directors (Andrew Marton; Ken Annakin; Bernhard Wicki) who helped bring THE LONGEST DAY to the screen. In the end, THE LONGEST DAY still gives one a feel of the scope of the way the invasion took place, and some of the foibles that occurred on and prior to June 6, 1944. The fact is that D-Day, while an enormous success for the Allies in the end, wasn't perfect at its inception, which was certainly shown to be so in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and acknowledged here.
Still, the invasion was given its full measure of due here in THE LONGEST DAY; and that's why it remains indisputably one of the greatest films about the absolute last "Good War" in history.
She was born into a prosperous family of mixed Mexican and German heritage in the extreme heat of the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona in 1946. She left her home for Los Angeles at the end of 1964 to follow her dreams of being a singer. And from her official debut in 1967 to her final live concert in the fall of 2009, she became one of the most respected, loved, and appreciated figures in American popular music history. She is Linda Ronstadt. And although her already-lengthy career was abruptly ended by a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in 2013 that crippled her voice, she had already achieved far more than she ever dreamed possible, while still being modest and forever plagued with self-doubts about just how great a singer she truly was. This great life is laid out in the heartfelt documentary film LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE.
Bracketed by a visit she made in early 2019 to her family's ancestral home of Banamichi, a four-hour drive across the border into the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, THE SOUND OF MY VOICE charts all the myriad musical influences inside her family and through her love of the radio that sparked the desire in Linda to be a singer. She narrates a fair amount of the film in her own low-key, modest fashion as to what she encountered in her first few years in the music business, including her appreciation of The Doors as a band (but not their lead singer Jim Morrison); how she needed a band for a 1971 tour, resulting in the birth of the Eagles; and then the monstrous breakthrough she had at the mid-point of the 1970s with "You're No Good". Alongside dozens of clips of interviews that Linda gave over the decades, thee are also interviews with the many friends and colleagues she associated with, including long-time producers John Boylan and Peter Asher; singer-songwriters J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff, and Jackson Browne; record mogul David Geffen; Joe Smith, president of Elektra/Asylum records during Linda's peak years of the 70s and 80s; and music critics/friends Cameron Crowe (of JERRY MAGUIRE and ALMOST FAMOUS fame) and the L.A. Times' Robert Hillburn. All of them discuss the impact that Linda made on the music business and more than a few of their lives as well. And they also talk about how, after conquering the once male-dominated arenas of rock and pop, she branched out to explore other equally valid styles: opera ("The Pirates Of Penzance"); American pop standards (WHAT'S NEW?), the Mexican mariachi/ranchera music of her father's heritage (CANCIONES DE MI PADRE), and many others, all of which put a lot of terror into her handlers and her producers, who feared how such diversions would derail her career. Those were risks that she was willing to take at a time of safety-first in the record industry, though she did acknowledge that they were risks; but she also felt that playing in big arenas and stadiums, though they made her tons of money, were absolutely not conducive to good music making, either for her or her fans (and indeed they weren't).
Linda's career was not without political controversy; but most of that is shunted aside for her music (notably there is no mention of the 2004 firestorm she created be advocating Michael Moore's film FAHRENHEIT 9/11 onstage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and only a few minutes on her relationship with California governor Jerry Brown). However, there is a telling interview she gave to an Australian talk show host in 1983 with respect to her then-controversial decision to tour apartheid-ridden South Africa, and her astonishment as to how other aspects of her political beliefs (especially her disdain for nuclear power and then-president Reagan) could possibly be controversial. The great ride, of course, slowed down when her voice started faltering after the turn of the millennium, though the career-ending diagnosis wasn't made official until 2013. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freedman (THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK), however, don't dwell extraneously on this tragic aspect of Linda's life, only showing that it was there. And as Linda says near the end, she had a wonderful life, and she still intends to live out her life the way she had always done: with a lot of heart and stoicism.
While seemingly short at slightly under 100 minutes, LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE is an absolutely brilliant, uplifting pop music documentary on a woman who defied the historical sexism of the music business and became a shining light for future female artists to follow. Linda Ronstadt is an American treasure, and this movie officially seals that deal for all time.
Chasing the Moon (2019)
Since its first episode aired on October 4, 1988, PBS's "American Experience" has done a great deal to advance the cause of looking at our nation's history with a fresh perspective free from ideology and distortions. And in 2019, the series took a look at what is arguably the greatest technological achievement not only in American history, but really in the whole history of the human race: the race to the Moon, which the United States won on July 20, 1969.
First shown on PBS in the week before America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, CHASING THE MOON is a three-part look at how America in general, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in particular, marshaled the full measure of our technological and industrial might to achieve what, before World War II, was considered pure science fiction, the stuff of Jules Verne and Fritz Lang. Avoiding the use of "talking heads", but relying on the narratives of those involved in the building of the spacecrafts and launch vehicles, and those involved in taking them towards the Moon, writer-director Robert Stone does an extremely good job of taking us through the circumstances of the "Space Race". Part One takes us from the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, which scared the world in general, and America in particular, senseless, through President Kennedy's initially reluctant but later enthusiastic advocacy of manned space flight, to his assassination on November 22, 1963. Part Two carries us through the Gemini program and the beginnings of Apollo, to that horrible day of January 27, 1967, when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were asphyxiated in a flash fire on the launch pad in a pre-test of Apollo 1. And finally, Part Three takes from how Apollo was resurrected from that tragedy, to the trans-lunar flight of Apollo 8 in December 1968, and finally to the triumph on the Sea of Tranquility on the night of July 20, 1969.
But while it celebrates the triumphs and mourns the two tragedies (JFK's assassination; the Apollo 1 fire) that marked this whole section of our history, CHASING THE MOON doesn't ignore the fact that this was happening at a time of immense political, social, and structural upheaval, with the Civil Rights movement, and, unsurprisingly, the Vietnam War. There was considerable dissension among people of the worthiness of spending tens of billions of dollars on space during that time. But tens of billions more dollars were being spend on a foreign fiasco that resulted in 58,000 American soldiers and four million Vietnamese civilians paying the ultimate price, and America being severely divided from that point forward, while the achievement of Apollo 11, and the history of the American space pogrom as a whole, resulted in us learning just how small we are in the context of an immense universe. If anything, Apollo 11 humbled not only Americans and Russians alike, but also the entire world, into understanding what it means to be living on this planet.
At a time when the Damien Chazelle-directed 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic FIRST MAN and the brilliant Todd Douglas Miller documentary APOLLO 11 fueled renewed interest in what was seemingly one of the most overanalyzed events in the history of the world, CHASING THE MOON added to that, and did so in a way that PBS does best. That moment at 10:56 PM Eastern Time on the night of July 20, 1969, when Armstrong took that one small step for Man and one giant leap for Mankind, is an event to be cherished; and CHASING THE MOON furthers the notion that it is also an event that can never be forgotten.
The Final Days (1989)
THE FINAL DAYS: The Implosion Of Richard Nixon And (Maybe) The American Dream
While almost everyone in the Washington press corps at first thought of the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate hotel/office complex as a "third-rate burglary", reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post took up the story, which would soon rank with the JFK assassination, Vietnam, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as one of the most heartbreaking events in American history. Their discoveries of all the nasty goings-on in the administration of Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign led to the Watergate scandal, which was detailed in their memorable book "All The President's Men", and the classic 1976 film of the same name with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford that came soon after. Their follow-up book "The Final Days" took up their precise reporting with an in-depth look at the things that caused Nixon to lose his grip on power. That book became the basis of a superb made-for-TV political drama that aired on ABC-TV on October 29, 1989.
THE FINAL DAYS is a hard-hitting look inside both the administration and the very mind of Richard Nixon himself, portrayed by Lane Smith with equal amounts of sympathy and paranoia. Given this tendency by those on the Right to paint him as a victim and those on the Left to paint him as a monster, Smith wisely takes the middle ground in his portrayal of the 37th president, never falling to a caricature, a pitfall that is so easy to fall into. Through Richard Pearce's direction and Hugh Whitemore's screen adaptation of the Bernstein/Woodward book, we are privy to many of the familiar elements we have all read about and seen: the catastrophic knowledge that Nixon had all of his White House conversations taped; his flight to keep those tapes private; and the unconscionable paranoia that had festered inside of him since the Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s that led to his own destruction. As was the case with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, the fact that we know the eventual outcome of the proceedings hardly makes THE FINAL DAYS a merely good but predictable docudrama. What makes it a superb docudrama is in finding out how we go to that bleak conclusion of Nixon being forced to resign from office in August 1974 under the threat of impeachment by Congress, and conviction and removal by the Senate. Surrounding Smith's accurate performance of Nixon are such distinguished actors as Theodore Bikel (as Henry Kissinger), Susan Brown (as Pat Nixon), Richard Kiley (as Nixon's lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt), Gary Sinise (as Watergate investigator Richard Ben-Veniste), David Ogden Stiers (as Alexander Haig) and James B. Sikking (as Attorney General Elliot Richardson).
Unsurprisingly, given that the Watergate scandal was still as much an open wound on the American psyche as Vietnam, THE FINAL DAYS, when it first aired, was greeted with considerable outrage from the usual places on the Far Right. The real Richard Nixon, even with less than four and a half years left to live, was as livid about THE FINAL DAYS as he and his most rabid supporters had been about ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (which, after all, had been released a mere twenty months after his resignation). But the truth of the matter is that Nixon's actions as president in engaging in political sabotage, wiretapping, eavesdropping, conjuring up an Enemies List, and so forth, continue to have devastating consequences for the United States as a nation in general, and for our system of government in particular. His abuses of the powers of the office of the President, a product of long-standing anti-Commie paranoia and a win-at-all-costs, slash-and-burn mentality towards politics and his opponents, destroyed his own legacy; and all those qualities are ably embodied by Smith's performance here, as they would be by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's later 1995 political bio-pic NIXON.
Though it can be said that seeing THE FINAL DAYS, like both NIXON and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, is like seeing political suicide being re-enacted for the entire world to relive, what we are really watching is the stark difference between how we idealize ourselves and what it sometimes is in actuality, which is not always a pretty picture. Such a stark picture, in the end, is the legacy of THE FINAL DAYS; for like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, it is not only about a political scandal, it is also about those dark corners inside the American Dream. It is also not only about the downfall of Richard Nixon, but arguably a portent of things to come in the age of Donald Trump as well, which itself, has proven to be incredibly catastrophic.
La La Land (2016)
Once Upon A Time In (And Around) Los Angeles
There are various kinds of reality about Los Angeles and its surrounding environs. One is the decades-long reputation it has of making dreams come true. Another, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is the equally long reputation it has of destroying those dreams. And still another is one where every wacky thing that can happen to any part of the human race, good or bad, does indeed happen: televised high-speed car chases; firestorms fueled by Santa Ana winds; incredible urban flooding; earthquakes; ethnic gang murders; riots; entertainment scandals (especially the latter, because...well, there's Hollywood). But in 2016, a totally unusual film came out that tried (and in many ways succeeded) in restoring a fair amount, if not all, of the reputation that L.A. has of being a proud metropolis. That film was LA LA LAND, a film that became one of the highest grossing musicals in Hollywood history and won a staggering six Oscars.
Beginning with one of the most elaborate opening musical numbers ever staged for any film, done on location at the interchange of I-105 and I-110, the film charts an aspiring jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who finds his career going nowhere, forced as he is to find gigs in dingy bars and clubs in and around L.A., and being prodded by a friend (John Legend) to adjust to the changing times of the jazz genre. And then there is an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) who, in-between casting auditions that also go nowhere, is serving her time out as a barrista to the stars. No one would think that these two disparate souls with dreams that are either being stalled or going in reverse could possibly meet, let alone fall in love. But this being Los Angeles in general, and Hollywood specifically, it does indeed happen.
Of course, nothing ever happens without some kinks. Even as Gosling and Stone find themselves falling in love, they also see their careers finally starting to rise, which in turn leads to their budding romance undergoing as much strain as one of the region's many earthquake faults. Stone is initially not even remotely fond of the jazz music that Gosling parlays his trade in; and Gosling is himself cynical of the acting business and even the approach of Angelinos to life in general ("they worship everything, and they value NOTHING"). Still, in between these foibles and acts of dissolution and disillusionment, both Gosling and Stone engage in wily banter and some of the most incredible musical numbers seen in any Hollywood film (outside of animated movies) for decades, including the wish-fulfilling "City Of Stars".
Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed the 2014 Oscar-winning drama WHIPLASH, was taking a sizeable risk in making LA LA LAND. He clearly wanted to bring about in the late part of the second decade of the 21st century the same kinds of emotions that one felt in past musicals like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, WEST SIDE STORY, and CABARET, but with something wholly original. But even with more recent box office hits like CHICAGO and DREAMGIRLS, musicals are as expensive to pull off as almost any other kind of film except for comic-book CGI extravaganzas; and some of the biggest ones, even if in the distant past, have been tremendous box office disasters. What Chazelle had going for him here, fortunately, were two extremely appealing leads in Gosling and Stone, as well as supporting turns from Legend, a devotee of old-school R&B and jazz music, and J.K. Simmons (who plays Gosling's boss, and who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in WHIPLASH). And even more to the point, Los Angeles and its satellite cities and landmarks serve as supporting characters themselves: the Hermosa Beach pier; the Griffith Observatory; the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena; the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood; the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena; and the aforementioned I-105/I-110 interchange in South Los Angeles.
Although it is at times a bit emotionally distant, LA LA LAND is still an entirely original musical in which the world, or at least L.A. itself, is the stage and the characters and the region itself all play their parts. This is never the easiest thing to pull off; but Chazelle and company managed to do it, and do it like gangbusters.
Sky Line (2015)
A Stairway To The Stars (Or Something Very Close To It)
What of the concept of a space elevator? The idea has long been thought to be some kind of a fantastic theory.
But then leave it up to one of the great science fiction authors of all times, Arthur C. Clarke, to visualize just such a thing. Clarke talked about this in 1964, right about the time that he and director Stanley Kubrick began collaborating on what they would hope to the "the proverbial good science fiction film" (which, when it was released in 1968 in the form of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, turned out to be much more); but it was in 1979 that he put the theory into his novel "The Fountains Of Paradise"
In the 75-minute 2015 documentary SKY LINE, we witness groups of scientists wanting to put this long-held idea of building what is essentially a stairway to heaven, or more precisely an orbiting satellite or spaceport. If the idea seems exceptionally far-fetched, not to mention a far off project that will cost a gigantic amount of money, when thought about much more carefully, it actually seems to make sense. As the participants in this documentary, including Bradley Edwards, Tom Nugent, Michael Laine, and Jerome Pearson point out, rockets that have sent men, equipment, and satellites up into orbit since Sputnik in 1957 have been prone to failure (with catastrophic results, as in the 1986 Challenger tragedy), and the exhaust from thousands of rocket launches may be contributing, however small it might seem in retrospect, to the changes in our atmosphere that are causing global warming. But it is highly unlikely, unless this documentary is viewed, that anyone would know about all these scientists and entrepreneurs engaging in the race to build such a thing.
Will such a space elevator get rid of exhaust-spewing rockets entirely? Probably not; and by the admissions of everyone profiled here in SKY LINE, the actual reality of a space elevator is at least twenty years off, if not more so. I for one don't necessarily see it happening in my own lifetime, though I wouldn't discount it out of hand. But the possibility of a space elevator existing in the future is another way of stimulating not only the appreciation of the vast universe our planet occupies, but also an appreciation of how we can save our species from our own abuse of the environment before it's too late. Those can only be considered good things.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Brilliant Musical Comedy...When Landis Isn't Trying To Destroy Chicago, That Is
What do you get when you get two of the most famous alums from "Saturday Night Live", who concoct two blues musicians into their own musical act. Well, when we are talking about Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, you get The Blues Brothers. Their pairing was one of the great highlights of SNL's first several years on NBC, leading to a hit album. And then it led into a wildly successful, but also arguably wildly overblown, 1980 smash hit film.
Aykroyd and Belushi are, respectively, Ellwood and Jake Blues, a pair of Chicago-based blues musicians. Belushi is the one gets released from jail; and when the two of them get back together, they find out that the orphanage where they were raised is about to get shut down by the Windy City Archdiocese; and the only way they figure that the place can be preserved is to raise the $5,000 property tax owed by the Cook County assessor's office, and do it in an eleven-day span. They get a lot of help from some very famous people (Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, and dozens of others) in what Aykroyd always refers to as their "mission from God", but they also attract some exceptionally unwanted attention from a lot of crazy people, including a neo-Nazi nutcase (Henry Gibson), a deranged woman (Carrie Fisher), and what seems to be the whole Illinois law enforcement community. The result is a lot of fun in the various musical sequences, especially given the people involved.
That said, however, in the final half hour, as Aykroyd and Belushi make their 106-mile run into Chicago (with, of course, a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, in the middle of the night, and with both of them wearing sunglasses), THE BLUES BROTHERS becomes a wild destruction derby, in which the Windy City is for all intents and purposes trashed to hell and back, that is as ear-splitting (if not more so) as it is funny. Even by 21st century standards, this mayhem, concocted by director John Landis under the rather skewed idea that bigger is always better, especially as he had a (then) extravagant $30 million budget to fool around with, and still decades away from the CGI of, say, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, is still as overcooked as hell. Pile-ups of cop cars (seemingly hundreds), combined with explosions, the over-the-top death of Gibson (his Nazi car falls off a bridge 1,400 feet downward, like Slim Pickens riding the Bomb in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE), and the destruction of a shopping mall are only funny up to a point before they just become excuses for equating destruction with laughs; and this is something that Landis frequently misses the boat on (as did Steven Spielberg in his wildly overblown 1979 WW II comedy "1941"). However, during the final sequence of mayhem, Landis does stage quite the masterful car chase underneath Chicago's elevated train tracks that would seem to pay homage to the similar one involving Gene Hackman in the 1971 classic THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
Despite what may seem to be churlish criticisms on my part, I am not going to demote this film in any way. Clearly Aykroyd and Belushi (the latter on those days when he didn't have his face in the very white powder that would cut his life prematurely short) do a great job in their roles, in those moments where Landis' "bigger is better" directing style gets out of the way, along with Spielberg himself in the brief role of the Cook County assessor's office clerk at the end, and of course all the musical greats. Thus, despite Landis' penchant for overblown action and violent destruction, THE BLUES BROTHERS does remain one hugely entertaining musical comedy, both for its time and, arguably, for all time.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Still Stayin' Alive, More Than 40 Years Later
Where to begin??
Is it the polyester suits? Is it the disco mirror balls? Is it the Bee Gees? Is it the charisma of John Travolta?
Well, the answer to all four of these questions is YES.
More than four decades since it was unleashed onto a not-entirely-unsuspecting world at the end of 1977, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER remains one of the cultural touchstone movies of the late 1970s, admittedly dated in some places (sometimes a bit too painfully obvious), but timeless in far more ways than one. Its story of Travolta's working-class New York City tough Tony Manero getting onto the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club and showing his stuff to escape his oppressive family life, but seemingly unable to commit to either one of the two women (Donna Pescow; Karen Lynn Gorney) that he finds there, is a true microcosm, not only of the era in general but also of the much-reviled Disco craze in particular. Nik Cohn's story "Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night" provided a whole lot for screenwriter Norman Wexler to conjure up, and he had a lot of help from Travolta, who had first become a star on TV via the 1976 TV film THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE and the hit TV sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter", then on the big screen as Nancy Allen's toady boyfriend in Brian DePalma's 1976 horror classic CARRIE. He is also helped by the sure-footed (to use a well-turned phrase) direction of John Badham, who had had many credits for television but, prior to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, only one big screen credit (1976's THE BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS). Besides all the great dance sequences, there is also the famous scene of Travolta and his friends playing a dangerous game of chicken on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge while a horrified Pescow looks on, set to "Night On Disco Mountain", a discofied adaptation, by David Shire, of Modest Mussorgsky's terrifying 1867 symphonic tone poem "A Night On Bald Mountain".
Made for what nowadays seems like a ridiculously low budget of only $3 million, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was not only a huge box office hit, grossing something like close to a quarter of a billion dollars, but also unleashed a 2-LP soundtrack album that went on to spend twenty-six straight weeks atop Billboard's album chart and sell close to 40 million copies, making it one of the most successful album releases ever. That the film should have been as successful as it was is kind of amazing even now, considering how rough the street language in it was, making it unsuitable for unaccompanied minors and thus warranting the 'R' rating that it got. Even so, it's hard to forget the impact it had on popular culture, with a wall-to-wall soundtrack that included not only the Bee Gees, but Yvonne Elliman, MFSB, Ralph MacDonald, Tavares, KC and the Sunshine Band, and many more-a soundtrack that still keeps selling like crazy even to this day.
It is instructive to look back at this film, and realize that the craze it depicted was the subject of a lot of invective from the so-called "Disco Sucks!!" crowd, a bunch of disaffected rock and roll fans of the time who railed against Disco as a "threat" to their music, which, being a classic rock fan myself, I always found overblown. Rock music wasn't consumed by either the Disco craze or by this film and its soundtrack, far from it. Given that, and everything contained in it, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER remains a truly classic film, worthy of many viewings.
Nova: Eclipse Over America (2017)
Revisiting And Examining The Great American Solar Eclipse Of 2017
Of the many celestial events that we can ever experience, none fills us with quite as much awe, wonderment, and, sometimes, even terror, as that of a total solar eclipse, where the Moon, for a short few minutes, totally blocks out the Sun, allowing us to see, among other things, the solar prominences and flares that emanate from that stellar body ninety-three million miles away from us. On August 21, 2017, millions of Americans got that chance when, on a path that stretched southeast across the middle of America from Oregon to South Carolina, the Moon did indeed block out the Sun for periods of two to three minutes, plunging the cities and towns in that path into total darkness in the middle of the day.
ECLIPSE OVER AMERICA, an episode of PBS's landmark science series "Nova", looks into only at that great celestial event, but also the history of such eclipses and what scientists learned from this particular event. When the Sun is blocked during such eclipses, the only thing anyone sees of it, and which one can see only during such eclipses, is the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, which, most shockingly, is actually a hundred times hotter than the Sun's actual surface. We also manage to see the solar flares and magnetic storms generated from the Sun that can, and indeed on several occasions have, adversely affected power grids all over the world. And we learn how such solar eclipses can occur as they do: the Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon in size, and yet it is also 400 times further away from us than the Moon, allowing for eclipses, both partial and total, somewhere in the world on the average of every eighteen months, when Sun, Moon, and Earth are in perfect alignment. The one that Americans looked at in the late summer of 2017 was the first one that a sizeable amount of the population had seen since February 1979, making it arguably the most important singular scientific event of the 21st century to date.
We can thank PBS and their program "Nova" once more for showing us that there are forces in the Universe far greater than us. Certainly the Great American Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 is one such manifestation of those forces; and we learned a great deal about it from scientists and science buffs, professional and amateur, from all around our nation on that glorious day in world history.
First Man (2018)
Somewhat Cold And Detached, But More-Than-Worthy Look At Neil Armstrong
On July 20, 1969, the history of the human race changed forever when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the Moon, making "one small step for man...one giant leap for Mankind". What not too many people outside of the American space program may have known about, however, was the psychological strain that Armstrong's astronaut training and his ascension into immortality has on him and his family. This was detailed in the best-selling 2005 biography "First Man" by James Hansen, which received that year's American Astronautical Society's prize for Astronautical literature. And in 2018, that book was turned into an incredible historical drama on the same name.
The film follows Armstrong, portrayed by Ryan Gosling (who had starred in the Oscar-winning 2016 film LA LA LAND), during his first years as part of NASA's astronaut corps, as America races not only to catch up with the dreaded Soviet Union in putting human beings into space (after the humiliations of seeing the Soviets beat them with a pair of Sputnik satellites and Yuri Gagarin) but also to meet President John F. Kennedy's stated goal of launching a man to the Moon and bringing him safely back to the Earth before the end of the 1960s. The race to the Moon means he has to be quite psychologically detached from almost all considerations, including what would otherwise pass for a "normal" relationship with his wife (Claire Foy), and still have it in the back of his mind that his chosen line of work puts him and others in NASA's manned space lineup in extreme danger during these missions. This is borne out when his flight on Gemini 8 in the spring of 1966 goes almost fatally awry, followed by the loss of his three fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) and Ed White (Jason Clarke) in the horrible Apollo 1 flash fire on the launch pad on January 27, 1967. And then there is, of course, the media asking questions whether such risks are worth expending billions of dollars on (even as billions more are at the same time being spent in Vietnam on a war that is increasingly splitting the country apart). And in the final days before Gosling makes that trip to Kennedy Space Center to embark on Apollo 11, he has a confrontation with Foy about the possibility that he won't be coming back. The family strain is exceptionally palpable by this time. Nevertheless, the mission happens; and the rest, as they say, is history.
While the Apollo 11 flight is likely the most examined case of human technological might in history, FIRST MAN, due to the combination of director Damien Chazelle (who directed LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH) and screenwriter Josh Singer (who co-wrote the screenplays for SPOTLIGHT and THE POST), makes for a hugely interesting film. What is strikingly unusual about the film is the fact that much of what is done is played out in a low-key and arguably cold, detached way. Such an approach, in an age where overemphatic acting and hyperbolic action scenes remain the rage in Hollywood, was one thing that seemed to turn off many viewers to this movie, even though it worked quite well for director Stanley Kubrick and his 1968 sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which FIRST MAN pays homage to. But anyone who read Hansen's book will know that such detached behavior among the astronaut corps was part-and-parcel for that time. Like Kubrick, Chazelle also knows a thing or two about how to make real the incredible silence one finds in space. And while some "uber-patriots" severely slammed FIRST MAN for never showing the U.S. flag being planted by Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, the truth of the matter was that the Apollo 11 mission wasn't just strictly an American endeavor, but the ultimate Human endeavor as well.
Justin Hurwitz, who provided the Oscar-winning score for LA LA LAND, provides another great music score (with the occasional "2001" references); and FIRST MAN rightly won an Oscar for its realistic special effects work. Gosling's portrayal of Armstrong is also spot-on, regardless of how detached one might say he is, as are Foy, Kyle Chandler, and Ciaran Hinds. And even if the approach it takes might turn off those who want a lot more of heat, sound, and fury, FIRST MAN should rank up there with films like APOLLO 13 and THE RIGHT STUFF in terms of depicting not only America but all of humanity itself at its absolute best.
Apollo 11 (2019)
A Triumphant Return To Those Nine Days In July 1969
For all the foibles and wars and acts of wanton cruelty against our fellow human beings, our abilities to bring out the best in the human spirit must never be forgotten. This was on display during the month of July 1969, when the world was in an eight-day grip of Mankind's greatest and most frightening endeavor: to set foot on another celestial body, namely the Moon. The tremendous saga of Apollo 11, which culminated with the first steps on the Moon on the evening of July 20th, was the culmination of what President John F. Kennedy had started back in May 1961, of sending a man to the Moon and then bringing him back safely home to Earth. And while that endeavor was fraught with extreme dangers the likes of which human beings had never had to face before (as borne out by the tragic Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad in January 1967), ultimately it paid off when Neil Armstrong's famous words "That's one small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind" came from the barren gray surface of the Moon. And in 2019, the 50th anniversary year of that achievement, director Todd Douglas Miller and CNN Films gave us what most likely will end up being the definitive film of those eight days, a documentary simply titled APOLLO 11.
Done without any narration or interviews, APOLLO 11 goes about studying the subject matter in the most straightforward way possible. Miller and his team restored footage from the NASA archives from that heady period in which the world, even (with a certain amount of grudging admiration) our Cold War foe Russia, witnessed an event that forever changed the way we look at ourselves, our own planet Earth, and the universe at large. The film actually shows some things that many might not have been aware of until this film: how a leaky hydrogen valve on the launch pad caused a momentary concern in the early morning hours of July 16th, the day of the launch, plus what seemed to be an all-too-rapid descent of the lunar module "Eagle" onto the lunar surface inside the Sea of Tranquility. The drama of the entire saga, which puts a lot of Hollywood sound-and-fury blockbusters to shame, is enhanced by the use of wisely placed narrative titles, countdown clocks, and additional little CGI simulations of what the audience is witnessing, including the command/service module (CSM) separation, the maneuvers for lunar landing, the insertion of Apollo 11 into is return trajectory to Earth, and the process of splashdown, which is the most hair-raising part of any manned space flight besides the launch itself.
It is probably far too easy to dismiss this film's use of old footage, given how spoiled we have become with CGI spectacle since the 1990s. But the reality of the situation, plus the fact that the treasure trove of footage that Miller and his team worked on to restore and assemble it into a 93-minute whole, really demand it, whether it is seen in the traditional 35-millimeter big screen format or in IMAX. In recent times, we have had films like GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, and FIRST MAN (the 2018 dramatization of Neil Armstrong's path towards the Sea of Tranquility) re-affirm what the beauty and inherent dangers of what human beings in the void of space are about. The 1995 blockbuster APOLLO 13, the dramatization of the 1970 lunar flight that almost had a truly tragic outcome, was equally effective, as was 1983's THE RIGHT STUFF. And in 1968, the year before Apollo 11, we had director Stanley Kubrick's awe-inspiring 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. As there should be little, if any, questioning of the validity of these movies to have inspired us through the combination of the human spirit and special effects technology, it is even more important to consider APOLLO 11 as a truly magnificent piece of historic reality told in truly unvarnished fashion, but not embellished in a way that turns the whole thing into a hokey example of bombastic, chest-thumping American brand pf patriotism that diminishes the achievement and turns people off
What is just as remarkable is that, in contrast to what certainly could have been a dramatic use of John Williams motifs or a slather of synthesizers, Matt Morton's avant-garde electronic score for the most part utilizes Moog synthesizers of the period of the late 1960s, so as not to draw too much attention to itself, and thus draw it away from the subject matter. But what it does do is accentuate the inherent drama and even the terror of being in the pitch-black void. All of this, spiced with the period commentary of Cronkite and fellow space buff (and ABC News correspondent) Jules Bergman, helps to make APOLLO 11 a film that will at the very least to re-appreciate this tremendous enterprise that we undertook back then, and might even move the viewer to tears. It is a rare film, documentary or otherwise, that can do it honestly, but APOLLO 11 does this, and then some.
Re-Opening HEAVEN'S GATE
It may seem hard to believe that in a country that loves the movies as much as America does, a film studio could possibly ever cease to exist. But the truth of the matter is that there isn't one single studio that hasn't teetered on the brink of extinction at some point during the history of the motion picture art form. And one studio, United Artists, did indeed go belly-up as the result of the cataclysmic failure of a single film, namely Michael Cimino's 1980 opus HEAVEN'S GATE. This was the subject of the 2004 made-for-TV documentary FINAL CUT: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF 'HEAVEN'S GATE', a fascinating, and rather tragic look, at how the good intentions of two young executives, Steven Bach and David Field, were demolished by the exacting perfectionism and ego of a director who seemed to have let success go to his head.
FINAL CUT, which is partly based on Bach's book of the same name, takes a look at the growth of United Artists from its beginnings in 1919 as the result of four big Hollywood names (D.W. Griffith; Mary Pickford; Charlie Chaplin; Douglas Fairbanks) to a Hollywood powerhouse that lasted until 1978, when its parent company Transamerica had gotten into a fight with the studio's top executives, and Bach and Field took over. We learn how the two men, who had at best minimal experience at the business end of film, took a look at what Cimino had accomplished with his 1978 Vietnam War opus THE DEER HUNTER (winner of five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director), and how they let him make whatever film he wanted. That film, HEAVEN'S GATE, was an epic Western film based on the notorious Johnson County War in late 1880s Wyoming in which cattle barons clashed with European immigrants, resulting in a bloodbath of staggering proportions.
What follows all of those things is a Hollywood tragedy of even more epic proportions.
Cimino, flush with the success of THE DEER HUNTER, had prepared the screenplay for what he called JOHNSON COUNTY WAR back in the early 1970s, while he worked on the screenplays for MAGNUM FORCE and SILENT RUNNING; and apparently, he told Bach and Field that he could make it for the relatively average cost (of the time) of $7.5 million. But by the time the dust had settled, the cost of what became HEAVEN'S GATE had soared to $44 million, and it had gone a whopping four months over schedule. And Cimino's rampant perfectionism is laid out quite well by co-stars Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson, as well as actor Brad Dourif (who portrays one of the European immigrants in the film) and legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. In the end, however, bad publicity in the press, a lot of it caused by Cimino closing the set off to outsiders, not to mention reports of animal abuse and filmed takes numbering in the fifties at times, was what doomed both HEAVEN'S GATE and United Artists itself.
FINAL CUT, narrated by Willem Dafoe, paints a fairly even-handed depiction of what went on with both how United Aritsts mishandled HEAVEN'S GATE and how Cimino mismanaged his own oversized ego. I have seen the final three-and-a-half hour cut of the film; and while I think it is easy to condemn this film as a bloated mess, something that is still being paraded about by film critics and pundits alike, it is really not that cut-and-dried. As FINAL CUT demonstrates, yes, HEAVEN'S GATE is quite excessive at times, and extremely slow, as if Cimino was trying to make a Western version of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and GONE WITH THE WIND, forgetting recent masterpieces like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and THE WILD BUNCH, which were true Western epics, but got there without even trying. But as FINAL CUT also demonstrates, the film's reputation as "the film that destroyed a studio", and arguably destroyed the Western genre, is not all that there is to it, and that it still has quite a lot to recommend. Even Bach, whose patience was tested during this entire time by Cimino, says that so many of the critical blasts against HEAVEN'S GATE never focused on what the film was about as a film, only the bad press behind it.
FINAL CUT is not necessarily a plea or an apologia for a director whose excessive perfectionism helped destroy a genre and a studio. But it also makes the case for a reassessment of HEAVEN'S GATE, which, although heavily flawed in ways that can't be repaired, nevertheless has moments of unquestionable power. On that account, it is by far one of the best films about films there is out there.
Command and Control (2016)
The Horrible History Of Safety With Our Nuclear Arsenal
As a nation, we would all like to think that our country's nuclear weapons program is as safe as it could be-or at least that's the illusion our military leaders have wanted us to believe since nuclear weapons were first developed in 1945. But we would be wrong.
COMMAND AND CONTROL, a 2016 episode of the ongoing PBS program "The American Experience", shows us why. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Eric Schlosser (who appears as one of the interviewees), the film details one particular nuclear weapons incident that most people in American don't remember or don't realize actually happened. It was an incident at a missile silo outside of Damascus, Arkansas on September 18, 1980, in which one of the technicians working on a Titan II missile accidentally dropped one of his tools down into the silo...and on its way down, the tool punctured the fuel tank of that missile, allowing the fuel to escape and, not long after that, causing the silo to explode and sending the warhead on the missile out into a nearby ditch. One of the men involved in containing the incident was killed in the blast; and for the longest time, it was blamed strictly on the human error of the technician inside the silo. But the truth is, accidents involving our nuclear deterrent were much more frequent than the military or civilian leaders were ever willing to admit to us. Not only were the Titan II missiles in question considered virtual antiques of our nuclear arsenal by 1980, but there were as many as a thousand accidents involving both the Titans and other missile classes, several of which almost led to the leakage of radioactive materials, once in 1961 in North Carolina, and then five years later in 1966 in Spain. This is vital information that the American public never knew about...at least not until Schlosser's book and this subsequent PBS documentary film.
Director Robert Kenner does a great deal at laying out in disturbing and chilling detail the lead-up and the immediate aftermath of the Damascus Incident, an incident that, had that warhead exploded inside the silo, could have killed or nuked everyone and everything within a 70-mile radius of the place. Former defense secretary Harold Brown is interviewed about how even he wasn't fully aware of how dangerous the situation was, given that the incident happened under his watch (during the last months of Jimmy Carter's presidency), as well as the men involved in the silo: Jeffrey Plumb; Allan Childers; Greg Devlin; James Sandaker; and others, along with the actual residents, media representatives, and law enforcement officials whose very existence was threatened by what was going horrifyingly wrong at that silo; former U.S. senator from Arkansas David Pryor, and film footage of folks like then-governor of Arkansas (and future U.S. president) Bill Clinton. There is real fear in the eyes and words of the men involved at Ground Zero in Damascus over what they saw there, and the reality that the Strategic Air Command (known as SAC, whose motto was always "Peace Is Our Profession") wanted to act as if it was only human error that was involved.
But the truth is much more frightening. Nuclear power, because of its own dangers and because of the fallibility of the human race, will always be inherently dangerous. Nuclear weapons are especially vulnerable in this regard. COMMAND AND CONTROL gives the lie to the notion that everything's okay in this arena. It definitely isn't.
The Andean Saga: Arguably The Greatest Survival Story Of The 20th Century
There's probably no greater a 20th century survival story than what became known as the Miracle Of The Andes. It began on October 13, 1972, when a Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying forty passengers and a crew of five went off course and crashed in the Andes. It came to an end on December 22, 1972, when two of the survivors of the crash hiked thirty-seven miles out of the Andes and west into Chile. Out of the forty passengers, many of whom were members of a Uruguayan rugby crew traveling to Chile to play a match, only sixteen people made it out alive. And in those 72 days, those involved had to make arguably the most horrifying decision imaginable in order to survive. This is the story told by the History Channel's 2010 documentary film I AM ALIVE: SURVIVING THE ANDES PLANE CRASH.
Combining a staged recreation of the events along with interviews from the two men, Fernando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, who made the long trek from the crash site into Chile, plus several other survivors, I AM ALIVE also reveals, though interviews with aeronautical and mountain climbing veterans, aspects of the crash and the subsequent ordeal that were not necessarily known by the public at large, or even the survivors, at the time. For one, the aircraft that was being used to charter the rugby team, the Fairchild, had a very poor safety record at the time. For another, the pilots misjudged their position in flying over the Andes, making a right turn northward toward Santiago well before they would have actually totally crossed the range. The survivors themselves had believed, from the dying words of the pilot, that they had passed the town of Curico in Chile, which meant that the Andes had been breached. But in truth, the fuselage that they had to spend two months surviving in lay on a glacier just within the Argentinean side of the range, between the Tinguiririca Volcano in Chile (fifteen miles to the southwest) and Cerro Sosneado (20 miles due east), at an elevation of 11,700 feet. Because the roof of the Fairchild was white, even the planes that spent seven days flying right over where the fuselage lay could never have seen it, buried as it was in tens of feet of snow. They were given up for dead after the seventh day. And when the survivors ran out of normal food in or near the tenth day of the ordeal, they had to make that terrible decision that defined this tragic saga: to eat the remains of their dead friends in order not only to survive, but to allow Parrado and Canessa the strength to surmount the Andes and get help.
The Andean saga, which was told quite well on the big screen via the 1993 film ALIVE (based on the 1974 book of the same name by English writer Piers Paul Read, who is one of those interviews here), is given further resonance by showing the viewer the stark bareness of the mountain landscape, and the immense dangers they faced, including the avalanche that hit the fuselage seventeen days into the ordeal and snuffed out the lives of eight who survived the initial crash. Each of the sixteen survivors had to endure the kind of psychological horror and trauma that few human beings have ever experienced or are ever likely to experience; and, in the case of Parrado, that included losing his mother and younger sister. But the will not only to survive but to just plain live was what drove Parrado and Canessa to do what they did to save their fourteen companions, and that is the big achievement of the Andean saga.
Those that died during the ordeal, either from what they suffered in the initial crash or the avalanche itself are not glossed over in favor of the "heroes", but are remembered with dignity; and the much-talked-about aspect of cannibalism (or anthropophagy) is handled in a matter-of-fact way far removed from the gruesome sensationalism of SURVIVE!, that infamously horrible 1976 Mexican exploitation film of the incident. I AM ALIVE is probably the definitive documentary of this terrible saga that ultimately becomes a triumph of the human will and a memorial to those lost; and in the end, this is the aspect one should get from watching it.
Raid on Entebbe (1976)
RAID ON ENEBBE: May Seem Dated. But It Remains Quite Timely
The saga of Air France Flight 139, a flight that began its journey in Tel Aviv, Israel and was bound for Paris when Palestinian-affiliated terrorists hijacked it and its passengers and sent it to Uganda, riveted the entire world during the early summer of 1976. The lightning raid that the Israel Defense Force conducted to free the plane and its passengers at Entebbe, under the nose of Uganda's infamous military dictator Idi Amin, on July 4th turned that saga into the stuff of legend. Many books had been written about the Entebbe operation (referred to in Israeli circles as "Operation Thunderbolt"); and it would become the basis for several movies, including the 1977 Israeli-made film OPERATION THUNDERBOLT, and, in 2018, 7 DAYS AT ENTEBBE. But the telling of the story to the masses began within mere months of its completion here in the U.S. via two made-for-TV movies. VICTORY AT ENTEBBE was the first of them. The second was RAID ON ENTEBBE.
Like VICTORY AT ENTEBBE, RAID ON ENTEBBE was not only made quite fast, and on a modest budget even for a made-for-TV endeavor, but done with a fairly sizeable cast of solid actors, and with a fair amount of fidelity to the events as most people knew them at that time (the film aired on January 9, 1977, just six months after the saga concluded). Peter Finch, who was to win a posthumous Best Actor Oscar for his famous "I'm mad as hell" role of Howard Beale in NETWORK, got a posthumous Emmy nomination (and rightly so) here for his portrayal of Israeli prime minister Itzhak Rabin, who had the ultimate responsibility to approve Operation Thunderbolt, while Charles Bronson portrays Dam Shomron, the IDF Brigadier General who commanded the raid. Horst Buchholz, who co-starred with Bronson in the 1960 Western mega-classic THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, ably portrays Wilfred Boese, one of the two Palestinian-aligned German terrorists who took over the Air France jet; and Yaphet Kotto makes a very imposing portrayal of the infamous (and murderous) Idi Amin, who gave the terrorists safe haven and the Israeli government a migraine headache that couldn't be solved any other way than with the raid. The all-star cast includes such stars as Martin Balsam, Jack Warden. John Saxon, Robert Loggia, Sylvia Sidney, Stephen Macht, James Woods, and Eddie Constantine.
The film's depiction of the goings-on in Israel and Uganda, while not much terribly different from VICTORY AT ENTEBBE, nevertheless also hew very closely to what we knew then about the whole saga. This is due to the concise screenplay by Barry Beckerman and the tension-filled direction of Irvin Kershner, who had directed films like 1967's THE FLIM-FLAM MAN and 1970's LOVING, and later directed 1978's THE EYES OF LAURA MARS and 1980's THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The fine, done-on-the-fly music score is by David Shire, who had already done fine work on THE CONVERSATION, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE-TWO-THREE, and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. All of this results in a very solid made-for-TV movie of one of the most intense pre-9/11 terrorist events in history.
RAID ON ENTEBBE gets a high recommendation, and a '10' rating.
The Mule (2018)
Eastwood In A Very Vulnerable Place: A Drug Runner
Although he has had this reputation as a hard-assed political right-winger, and an image either as "The Man With No Name" or Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood, as both an actor and a director, has also shown a penchant for taking on challenging material. If anyone looks at what he has done as a director especially, whether it is only in that capacity or simultaneously as an actor, that ability to be challenged and succeed is particularly evident, beginning with 1971's PLAY MISTY FOR ME, and continuing with a huge filmography that includes HGIH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, UNFORGIVEN, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, AMERICAN SNIPER, and SULLY, to name just a few. And at the end of 2018, he really flexed himself on both sides of the camera with THE MULE.
Eastwood's second film of 2018 as a director (after THE 15:17 TO PARIS), THE MULE is based on a true story written by Sam Dolnick of the New York Times . Eastwood portrays Earl Stone, a Korean war veteran who, in his pursuit of horticulture, has failed his own family as a father and a husband, missing important weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. And unfortunately, his life is about to take a dark, nightmarish turn as, being strapped for cash, he takes on the job of a "mule", or drug-runner, for a sinister Mexican drug cartel kingpin (Andy Garcia), Garcia's "crew", such as it is, operates out of a garage in El Paso, just a few miles from the Mexican border, and they force him to transport their sinister "product" through the heartland of the U.S. to Chicago, and to do so as to not to attract any unwanted attention from the DEA. Paralleling this, two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper; Michael Pena) are tracking the activities of Garcia's cartel; but it is only late in the game that the DEA, and Cooper in particular, realize that Eastwood (referred to as "Tata" by Garcia's employees) is the one being forced to run those drugs, to the tune of a couple of hundred kilograms per month on average. In the meantime, Eastwood tries to patch things up with his family, particularly with his dying ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), all the while being watched and then hunted by the cartel and the DEA.
Nick Schenk, who wrote the screenplay for Eastwood's 2008 acting/directing hit GRAN TORINO, handles the screenwriting chores here; and while there are quite a few ethnic slurs and a certain amount of misogyny, THE MULE in general is a deeply humanistic film about a totally inhumane situation in which Eastwood has to do the one thing that his most hard-edged fans sometimes have had a difficult time accepting, which is to show a lot of vulnerability. Frequently, his character has guns pointed at him, as opposed to the other way around; and he can't do a whole lot about that except to follow orders, even though he knows he'll be going to jail for life (at the age of 90) if he's caught. Cooper (who was the star of AMERICAN SNIPER) does an extremely credible performance as the DEA agent, as does Pena as his partner. The film also features solid supporting turns from Laurence Fishburne, Alison Eastwood (Clint's real-life daughter), Richard Herd, and Loren Dean.
One must go after Eastwood's films, regardless of what capacity he serves in, because he is not going to be around forever. And while many might find THE MULE to be a touch offensive, ethnically speaking (which it is, but it befits the situation), even with that said, it is another notch in Eastwood's belt, both in terms of his acting and his directing.
Easy Rider (1969)
EASY RIDER: Dated In Places, But Still Quite Relevant Today
It's a well-known fact that EASY RIDER is a touchstone film of late 1960s Hollywood, one in which the youth market overtook the old Hollywood studio system and, even if they didn't destroy it, they changed it in such a way that it could never go back again.
There is only a small need to revisit the plot: these two guys on Harleys, producer/co-writer Peter Fonda and co-writer and director Dennis Hopper, take a ride across the country to find the heart and soul of America, all the while fueling their journey with plenty of grass and powder, but what they find is disillusionment and a whole hell of a lot of distrust...especially once they get into that part of America known as the Bible Belt, where people who look like them are looked upon with disdain. All of this is fueled by a radical 1960a soundtrack that includes FM rock standards by Steppenwolf ("Born To Be Wild"; "The Pusher"); Fraternity Of Man ("Don't Bogart That Joint"), Jimi Hendrix ("If 6 Was 9"), and the Byrds ("Wasn't Born To Follow"), among others.
But while all this is evident, it should be noted that EASY RIDER, which was made for a mere $400,000, not only put Fonda and Hopper in the realm of 1960s anti-heroes, as well as actors, it also helped establish the careers of at least two soon-to-be Hollywood acting heavyweights. Karen Black is one of those; she plays one of the prostitutes that Hopper and Fonda meet in New Orleans. The other one, of course, is the great inebriated small-town lawyer George Hansen, portrayed by none other than Jack Nicholson. Indeed, even if much of the rest of the film is clearly still stuck in its 1969 time warp, Nicholson's performance remains timeless, with his incredible eccentricities, Southern-fried drawl, and crazy philosophy, But it is really in the fireside scene where he lectures both Fonda and Hopper about the nature of what they represent to those in Red State America, who view "longhairs" like them as Commies, not "true" Americans; and that their idea of freedom is not what Hopper and Fonda view it as. As Nicholson tells them: "They're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom; but they see a free individual it's gonna scare 'em."
As of this date, almost half a century has passed since this landmark film hit screens during the long, hot summer of 1969, and, though a lot of EASY RIDER is very dated (hear how many times Hopper utters "Man!" throughout the film, plus a lot of weird psychedelic scenes), a lot of it remains relevant because, sadly, very little about America has necessarily changed for the better; and indeed, a lot has gotten noticeably worse since. Besides both Black and Nicholson, Fonda and Hopper got some of their close circle of Hollywood friends like Warren Finnerty, Luke Askew, Toni Basil (she later had a #1 pop hit with "Mickey" in 1982), and Robert Walker, to appear here, along with the innovative cinematography of Lazslo Kovacs.
All in all, EASY RIDER, despite its datedness, remains a must-see movie to understand what America was like as the 1960s came to a close, and what changes have been wrought since then.
Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Even More Extreme Than FAHRENHEIT 9/11
If one thought that the 2000 presidential election, which somehow "anointed" George W. Bush to the presidency over Al Gore (via a Supreme Court decision in the Florida vote count), was a travesty, then the 2016 election, which gave the carnival barker racist real estate mogul Donald Trump the presidency over Hillary Clinton by winning the popular vote in four key swing states and capturing those states' Electoral College votes may have been the death knell for democracy in America. And nobody seemed more adept at connecting the dots of the rise of the autocratic Trump than political filmmaker and renegade Michael Moore. After all, it is Moore who, since 1989, has cut a strip or two off of corporate America through films like ROGER & ME, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, SICKO, and CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY. He of course also famously cut Bush II a new one in his infamous 2004 smash hit documentary FAHRENHEIT 9/11. But now, in 2018, he has clearly outdone himself with that film's companion piece, FAHRENHEIT 11/9.
Referring to the date of November 9, 2016, when the Associated Press (probably much to their surprise) declared Trump the winner of the election, at 2:29 AM, FAHRENHEIT 11/9 carefully, and with a fair amount of righteous rage, dissects the ways in which the misogyny, bigotry, and racism that are Donald Trump not only became normalized by the press and the GOP, but by the Democratic Party being very complacent and so self-assured about Clinton's chances against Trump, and the fact that as many as one hundred million people failed to show up at the polls on November 8th, 2016 to stop Trump permanently. Moore is unsparing in his parsing out the blame all over the political spectrum, including the "establishment" Democrats, including even President Obama, who, however unwittingly, permitted the rise of Trump. Moore also focuses, as he has done before, on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, which since 2014 has been beset by a water crisis in which thousands of its residents have been poisoned by lead contamination in their water supply, and how the corporate malfeasance of Michigan's GOP governor Rick Snyder not only led to that, but even the deaths of some of those residents through them contracting Legionnaire's Disease.
But amidst all the horrors that Trump has unleashed on America since his coming down the escalator of his Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, almost as a publicity stunt to one-up NBC for paying Gwen Stefani of "The Voice" more than he got for "hosting" "The Apprentice", Moore also shows us the many ways that resistance movements have popped up against his presidency, and in what would seem to be the most unlikely places, including mass teachers' strikes in "red" states like West Virginia and Arizona, and, most prominently, the anti-NRA protests of the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who saw seventeen of their fellow students and teachers cut down in an all-too-common mass shooting on February 14, 2018. To take things a step further, Moore also focuses on young, progressive-leaning candidates of the Bernie Sanders variety trying to take the Democratic Party back from corporate so-called "centrists", including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the seat for her congressional district in the Bronx during the summer of 2018.
A lot of his rage, however, as well as that of a lot of Americans, is channeled in FAHRENHEIT 11/9 via Trump himself, who, even with his mango-haired buffoonery, shows himself to be an absolute master manipulator of what seems to pass for The Truth in this second decade of the 21st century. The parallels between Trump's toxic rise in our time and that of Adolf Hitler in 1930s Germany are shown by Moore through old German newsreel and film footage, and they are eerily, tragically, and depressingly prescient. Trump, like Hitler before him, makes his followers believe everything bad about the world and makes them dismiss negative stories about him as "Fake News", proceeding to unleash their xenophobia, racism, and sexism on those they don't agree with. In the end, after the films' running time of 128 minutes has elapsed, one comes out feeling like they have been run over by a steamroller, even more so than in FAHRENHEIT 9/11.
But Moore, a traditionally non-partisan (though liberal-leaning) populist, in the end says that we as Americans do not have to take the toxic garbage that Trump and his minions spew out. He urges us to get up off of our couches and get active, not just voting but (like Ocasio-Cortez) running for office to change a broken political system that allowed Trump to take charge in the first place. That is an extremely positive thing to take away from the psychological horror and rage that is FAHRENHEIT 11/9.