Wednesday, November 20, 2019

On THE TALL TARGET (1951)

If you appreciate classic films and you're up for an energetic, suspenseful drama, I've got a recommendation. THE TALL TARGET does not get much talk in the classic film discussion, but that's no reflection on its quality. The film runs only about 1 hour and 15 minutes and it's not a big budget studio film. It is, however, full of good actors and it's the work of a good director, Anthony Mann. He gave audiences tough, tight westerns such as 1950's THE FURIES starring Barbara Stanwyck, BEND OF THE RIVER and THE NAKED SPUR, both starring James Stewart in the 1950s and the 1961 historical epic, EL CID, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. THE TALL TARGET uses a historical figure in its story. We go back to 1861. A New York City detective is on a train from New York to Baltimore. He's moving fast to ruin an on-board plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln before he reaches Baltimore to deliver a pre-Inauguration speech. Multi-talented Dick Powell stars as the detective.
This Anthony Mann drama is a lean cut of good meat. It rates a look today because of our political climate. Besides the race to foil a deadly plot, there's a theme of race running through THE TALL TARGET. Actor Jon Voight, a man who has posted videos on social media proclaiming his support for Trump, will be awarded a National Medal of the Arts. Voight has called Trump "the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln." In THE TALL TARGET, passengers are blunt with their feelings about Lincoln. One man says "If somebody puts a bullet into Lincoln, I'll be the first to shake his hand."
In one of those performances that makes you wonder why it took Hollywood a little over 50 years to give her an Oscar nomination, Ruby Dee delivers in a supporting role as a well-dressed slave maid. She's travelling with the pretty belle who's the first to tell anyone that she and Rachel, her maid, grew up together. That may very well be, but Rachel is still not free like the white lady is. Says Rachel, "Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with."  A pro-abolition reporter asks Rachel, "If you slaves were free, would you go back to Africa to live?" In that scene, featuring actress Florence Bates as the journalist, once senses the pro-abolitionist feels America instantly will become "post-racial" once Lincoln is sworn into office.

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated and, tragically, was assassinated in 1865 while in office. One gigantic irony in the script is the Dick Powell character. The detective's name is John Kennedy. America would be paralyzed with grief on November 22, 1963 upon getting the horrible news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed that day in Dallas, Texas. President Kennedy was the one U.S. President since Lincoln to be assassinated.

Here is a clip from THE TALL TARGET.

This 1951 thriller stars Dick Powell, Adolphe Menjou, Marshall Thompson, Will Geer, Florence Bates and screen newcomer Ruby Dee. It's available on Amazon.

More notes: In the 1930s, Dick Powell sang in major Warner Bros. musicals and introduced tunes that became standards in our Great American Songbook. See him and hear his excellent voice in 42nd STREET, GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933, FOOTLIGHT PARADE, HOLLYWOOD HOTEL and 20th Century Fox's ON THE AVENUE. In the 1940s, he reinvented himself as one of the best hardboiled private eyes in film noir. See him as Philip Marlowe in 1944's MURDER, MY SWEET.  In the 1950s, he acted in more film dramas, became a film director and a successful network TV producer. Ruby Dee, of film and Broadway, followed THE TALL TARGET with the Broadway and film version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961), GONE ARE THE DAYS!, BUCK AND THE PREACHER (1972, directed by Sidney Poitier), DO THE RIGHT THING and JUNGLE FEVER, both directed by Spike Lee. She got her one Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007).

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Check Out THE UNICORN

This new sitcom airs Thursday nights on CBS. I've watched every episode since it premiered and every single one has made me laugh. What hooked me into watching, first of all, was the title. I wanted to see why it's called THE UNICORN. Second, I'm a fan of its lead actor, Walton Goggins. If he'd been around in the 1950s and 60s, he would've been cast in just about every now-classic western from those decades. He would've been a gunslinger in SHANE, HIGH NOON, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and TRUE GRIT. He's got that kind of a face. It's a very cool character face with its teeth like extra large and super-white Chiclets.
You may have seen Walton Goggins on TV shows such as THE SHIELD, JUSTIFIED and SONS OF ANARCHY. Now he's a suburban widower dad raising girls and gingerly stepping into the area of dating again. He's doing this with the urging and help of married friends who do not want him to be lonely. THE UNICORN is a warm, smart and funny show. Wade, the widower, is a most huggable new sitcom dad. His daughters are refreshingly down-to-earth and not precocious. They're good kids. They loved their late mom a lot -- and so did their dad. That's evident. We never lose sight of the fact that all the action springs from a loneliness in the devoted dad. Wade is awkward. He's sincere. Wade's heart is still healing from grief while he works hard to be a responsible, attentive single dad. The wisdom of the show comes in the viewpoints we realize when Wade is brave when he starts conversation that could lead possibly to a date. This is another reason why I stayed with the show. Online dating is not easy. When I was emotionally ready, years after my partner passed away, I tried online dating. I tried on three different sites. I liken the experience to hitting myself in the head with a polo mallet -- it felt so good when I stopped. Yes, Wade is brave and he has a good support system.
The two married couples are fabulous friends and perfectly cast. I love the black couple played by Omar Miller and Maya Lynn Robinson. I wish they were my married friends -- and I wish I could date a sweet guy like Wade -- even though Michelle (Maya Lynn Robinson) revealed this honest observation to Wade: "I cringe when you dance."
By the way, Wade is called a "unicorn" because he's that rare creature roaming free that a woman would want. He's employed, atrractive and serious about commitment. It's a comfortable show that recognizes tender areas of the heart I've known. It's a show with characters that I feel I know, a show that makes me laugh. As usual, Goggins is good. What's wrong with a half-hour of gentle entertainment? THE UNICORN airs Thursday nights at 8:30 on CBS.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

On HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER

Let me tell you about a lunch experience I once had with a buddy in midtown Manhattan. He wanted to grab a bite and, because he was shopping that day, he suggested the cafe in a posh Manhattan department store. I just wanted a cheeseburger deluxe. Nothing fancy. I ordered what was advertised on the menu as a cheeseburger. It came on a fancy plate. The burger was not served on a bun. No. Instead, it was inside an English muffin. As for the fries, there were about six Julienne fries underneath a piece of Romaine lettuce. When I lifted up the lettuce with my fork, I felt like an American G.I. who'd just discovered a half dozen concentration camp survivors huddled together in a corner. That's how thin those fries were. Uptown where I lived for a while in Harlem, I could've gotten a cheeseburger the size of a back wheel on a kid's tricycle with fries cut on the thick side. Plus a bowl of cole slaw. And it would've been cheaper than that fancy alleged cheeseburger deluxe in the department store cafe. Which brings me to film critics and a review of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER.
I took film courses in college. I've done film reviews on local and network TV. My goal as a film critic, mainly, was to take a smart working class approach to the film in my reviews. I did not expect to win a Pulitzer or to be quoted in newspaper ads, but I did go after film critic work on TV enthusiastically because I never saw anyone who looked like me -- or our neighbors on the block in South Central Los Angeles -- do regular film reviews on local or network TV. Film critics on TV, be it Los Angeles or New York City, were mostly Caucasian males. Sometimes, the way they reviewed a film, made me think they were playing to an audience of follow Caucasians that would order a posh cheeseburger served on an English muffin.

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER is now on Netflix. It's an unsophisticated, fun comedy about an aging and clueless Mexican gigolo whose longtime sugar mama wife (older than he) downsizes him in favor of something younger. He leaves their Bel Air mansion and, out of economic desperation, winds up living with his wonderful estranged sister and her little boy, his nephew. Maximo's motto in his gigolo life has been "Once you lower your expectations, the sky's the limit." Maximo acts and occasionally dresses as if he's still a hot piece of man-candy in his 20s. Now in his 40s, he must learn how to act his age, how to be a better brother and how to be a good uncle. Eugenio Derbez plays Maximo. Derbez is a popular movie star in Mexico. The cast also includes Raquel Welch. Welch looks sensational and reminds moviegoers that she can do comedy. Linda Lavin, Renee Taylor and Kristin Bell are in the movie too with funny scenes. Salma Hayek stars as Maximo's sister, a single working mom.
When HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER opened theatrically, I heard a scholarly (and Caucasian) film critic review it on a Los Angeles NPR program. He was not mean in his short review. However, he did pretty much dismiss it as a goofy movie that probably would not do much at the box office. When I heard him say that, I thought to myself, "Dude. Are your sure about that? Do you realize how massively populated with Mexicans Southern California is? Mexicans who go to the movies?"

I watched HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER last night on Netflix. It had me laughing in the first five minutes. It starts like a sentimental Lifetime TV or Disney movie about the simple, poor Mexican family with the loving papa who works long hours. We see papa, mama, the little boy and the little girl. Then we see how the little boy grew up to become the Mexican version of AMERICAN GIGOLO. Maximo has devolved from being a hot lover to being a hot mess as he pursues one more possible sugar mama.

Click onto this link to see a trailer for the 2017 release:

https://youtu.be/QqArNgzBfoQ.

True, HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER is lowbrow. But there's heart to it that the critic on the radio show never mentioned. Raphael Alejandro, the kid actor who played the bookworm nephew, is absolutely adorable. He's so natural. So perfectly awkward and charming. I loved watching how the relationship between the shy nephew and the errant uncle grew into a tender family bond.
After a day of impeachment-related news and battling polar temperatures outside, I was in the mood for some easy laughs, likeable characters and a beer. HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER sure was fun. As for the film critic's comment that it probably would not do much at the box office, here's some news: It cost about $13 million to make. It raked in $62 million at the box office.



Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Sweetness of FORREST GUMP

Last weekend on CBS SUNDAY MORNING, there was a fine feature to honor Veterans Day. In the feature, two actors were interviewed. First, there was Gary Sinise. He played Lieutenant Dan, the amputee and Vietnam War vet, in 1994's FORREST GUMP starring Tom Hanks and Sally Field. Sinise got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. The actor never served but many of his relatives did and, for years, he has tirelessly devoted himself to volunteer work on behalf of veterans. The other person interviewed is a veteran. He served in one of our 21st Century conflicts. He'd like to act again. He acted with Sally Field when he was a kid. He played little Forrest Gump, the boy with the Southern accent who was told to "Run, Forrest! Run!" Michael Conner Humphreys served in Iraq. He's now 34. Hanks studied Humphrey's accent to use in his performance as the grown Gump.
This post is about set decoration and art design in the movie.
I'm a longtime fan of Tom Hanks. I have been since his ABC TV days in drag on the sitcom, BOSOM BUDDIES back in the early 80s. I'd read the Winston Groom novel, FORREST GUMP, within a weekend. Politically incorrect? Yes, it is. A bit rude and racy? It's that too. And damn funny. FORREST GUMP, the 1986 novel, is like something Mark Twain would've written if he'd smoked pot instead of cigars. Before the movie opened, there was hot buzz on it. A publicist for a rival film company gave me this tip: "If you get invited to a screening of FORREST GUMP, go. It's really good."

Well, I did want to see it because of Tom Hanks. I especially wanted to see how Hanks would pull off being a big musclehunk idiot savant who was terrific on the football field and once said, "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates." Could Hanks pull off playing a John Cena-type? Had he lifted weights to prepare for the role?
Forrest had a selfish and whiny mother and a girlfriend who did not limit her generous sexual favors to just him. His many misadventures in life ranged from the sports field to outer space to making a sci-fi movie with a cranky Raquel Welch. The characters played by Sally Field and Robin Wright -- and even Mr. Hanks himself -- in the Robert Zemeckis film had been sweetened from the original source material.

For the film version, screenwriter Eric Roth removed the book's apple vinegar tartness and replaced it with four cups of sugar. Forrest Gump on film was not the big beefcake idiot savant of the novel. His famous quote in the novel was changed for the screenplay to "Life is like a box chocolates...."

You know the rest.

Part of this clip was played in the CBS SUNDAY MORNING piece. I noticed something in the scene I'd never noticed before when I watched the movie.

Watch the clip again. Forrest says that now-famous movie line. Doesn't it look like he and the lady on the bench are seated on top of a giant Hershey bar? That whole "box of chocolates" philosophy is reflected in the set decoration. I had never noticed that until last weekend on CBS SUNDAY MORNING.

The CBS SUNDAY MORNING feature, "How two FORREST GUMP actors served their country," can be seen if you look for it here  cbsnews.com.



Monday, November 11, 2019

Adam Beach in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS

His powerful, heartbreaking performance in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is the one that moved me the most. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is the 2006 film directed by Clint Eastwood that tells the story of the six men who raised the American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. This battle was a turning point in World War 2. The Associated Press photo taken of the event shot to fame in our modern American history. Movie history was made in the casting and performance of actor Adam Beach as one of the flag-raising heroes. It's November 11th, Veterans Day, the perfect day to watch that fine film displaying Adam Beach's excellent work.
Adam Beach grew up on a reservation. He's a Native American. In FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, he plays Ira Hayes, the real-life Native American G.I. Hayes was a troubled soul who had a hard life after having been thrust into the national spotlight as a hero. His life and hard times were perfect material to inspire a script -- which it did. He was played onscreen twice. Both times by white actors. The most well-known portrayal of veteran Ira Hayes was done by Tony Curtis in the 1961 biopic, THE OUTSIDER. Before that, Hayes was played by Lee Marvin in a 1960 television production. I think you'll be moved by Beach's performance in the Eastwood film.
 Here's a trailer for FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS.

I first noticed Adam Beach in the totally entertaining 1998 indie road comedy/drama called SMOKE SIGNALS. A young Indian guy, a book nerd from the reservation, is a natural-born storyteller. But is anyone paying attention to his stories? He's on a road trip with friends, a trip that will teach him more about his history. Beach plays the macho and handsome Victor. When I was a regular on GOOD DAY NEW YORK on WNYW/Channel 5, I had the great privilege to interview Chris Eyre, the director of SMOKE SIGNALS, on our show. Telling him in person on live TV what a fan I am of his movie was a big thrill. The screenplay was by Sherman Alexie, based on his book. Dig it. It's a film about Native Americans, directed and written by Native Americans with Native American actors in the cast. I loved telling our morning show audience about SMOKE SIGNALS.

Adam Beach is a graduate of LAW& ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT. He was a cast member for a couple of years. If he looked familiar, that could be it.

November 11th is Veterans Day -- and Adam Beach's birthday. Happy Birthday to him and heartfelt gratitude to all men and women who served.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Scorsese & Minnelli

Director Martin Scorsese seems destined to be invited to the Oscars again as a nominee thanks to his new saga, THE IRISHMAN. It stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. The reviews have been like critics throwing roses at Scorsese's feet. All the reviews I read added that the film is so good and moves so energetically that you don't feel its 3 1/2 hour running time at all. I want to give you a Martin Scorsese-directed music break right now. Marty, which I've never called him, directed Best Actress Oscar winner Liza Minnelli in two musical projects. There was THE ACT which premiered on Broadway in 1977. THE ACT had a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and costumes by Halston. Scorsese directed Liza Minnelli to a Best Actress Tony win for her performance as a fading film star making a comeback as a Las Vegas singer.
In her act, she recalls her chaotic romantic and professional life.
Here's Minnelli singing one of my favorite songs from the score -- the smooth "It's the Strangest Thing."

Liza Minnelli won her Oscar for 1972's CABARET directed by Bob Fosse. Her next big movie musical drama was 1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK directed by Martin Scorsese with new songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Liza's leading man was Robert De Niro. As usual, when Scorsese had the film in the editing room to ready it for release, his motto was not "to make a long story short." I saw this movie the day it opened. I love Liza Minnelli. She'd never looked so glamorous before in a film. Her singing was in peak form.
I have seen NEW YORK, NEW YORK several times since first it opened and I still feel that it could've worked very well coming in at 2 hours instead of its 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Also, with its central story of two talented performers in love yet in conflict because the man gets jealous of the woman's success, Scorsese didn't control the reins on the masculine anger. As you can guess, De Niro's character is the one with the anger issues. The U.S.A. is celebrating the end of World War 2. He's a sax player in need of work now. She's a classy vocalist. They work together. They fall in love. They get married. Then it becomes RAGING BULL STRIKES UP THE BAND AND SLAPS HIS WIFE LIKE SHE'S A BASS FIDDLE. Scorsese seemed out to give us the co-dependent, troubled romanticism of Michael Curtiz's MY DREAM IS YOURS starring Doris Day, Powell & Pressburger's THE RED SHOES and Cukor's 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN with Judy Garland and James Mason -- all films with musical numbers. He could've succeeded. But De Niro's character cheats on his sweet wife, he has an explosive temper and he's physically abusive to her when she's about nine months pregnant. To me, Scorsese needed to pull back on those elements and the excessive ad libbing.

Nevertheless, I totally dig what Scorsese did with Liza's musical numbers. After singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) finally breaks away from her abusive marriage, she finds her own new voice as a woman and as a singer when she records "But The World Goes 'Round."

Francine is a hit on the Billboard charts as a solo vocalist. Soon, Hollywood calls and she transitions into movie star. Near the end of the story, Francine is doing a live engagement. It's the early 1950s and she's a star playing the swanky nightspot where she and her ex-husband first met in 1945. She introduces a song to the packed audience "New York, New York."

Click onto the link to see the number:

https://youtu.be/ge7NiJuSpac.

Both of those songs from Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK were eligible for an Oscar nomination. Neither song was nominated. The Oscar winner for Best Song of 1977 was "You Light Up My Life" from the forgettable movie of the same name.




Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Great James Earl Jones

It's a political drama and a story about race in America. The production was based on a best-selling novel by Irving Wallace. My dad had a paperback copy of the book at home when I was a kid. In the production, with a screenplay by Rod Serling, an elder statesman of a senator in 1970s Washington, DC speaks with casual and frank racism. He says "...the White House doesn't seem near white enough for me tonight." That is a line from the 1972 made-for-TV production, THE MAN, based on the novel of the same name and starring James Earl Jones as America's first black president. To me, James Earl Jones gave one of his most compelling performances in this 90-minute feature that aired on ABC TV. What a magnificent actor.
After he'd dazzled Broadway audiences with his performance as the boxer in THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, he recreated his role in the 20th Century Fox film adaptation.
For that, Mr. Jones became to the second black man in history to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. The first was Sidney Poitier. In 1970's THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, Jones radiated in intense vibe of athletic and racial power. The boxer was his own man. Here's a clip.

The first black actor to be nominated for an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in the Best Supporting Actress category for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. She won. From Hattie to Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge and Rita Moreno to Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Rosie Perez and Angela Bassett to Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx to Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe and the late Ruby Dee -- those are all actors/actresses of color with one solo Oscar nomination to their credit. James Earl Jones is also on that list with one Oscar nomination.

James Earl Jones followed THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970) with ABC TV's network presentation of THE MAN (1972) and followed that with CLAUDINE (1974), the urban family life story that brought Diahann Carroll her Best Actress Oscar nomination. After CLAUDINE, from 1974 to 1976, most of his on-camera work was in TV performances.

When you see his performance in THE MAN, you may feel as I did -- that James Earl Jones should've been getting the same amount of good big screen opportunities in the 1970s that Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson did after their first Oscar nominations.

THE MAN should have been a highly promoted big screen Paramount release. But Hollywood has long been cocooned in the notion that black stories don't sell. And THE MAN was a story in which an African American male becomes president, black newsmakers have meetings with him in the White House, there are black journalists in the press room and a member of the new First Family is a university graduate student in philosophy. The upscale, strong modern roles for black actors in THE MAN probably made many heads on white Hollywood movie executives explode like those on the evil Martians hearing Slim Whitman sing in MARS ATTACKS!

The late Janet MacLachlan played a schoolteacher in 1972's SOUNDER, a Depression-era story set down South about a poor black family. That same year, on network TV, she played the graduate school/activist daughter of America's first black president. Like her widower father who was a college professor in New Hampshire, she can hold her own in an intellectual debate.

With the current climate of the USA, aspects of this 1972 TV film will feel achingly relevant today. Remember how people thought the election of President Barack Obama meant that America had become instantly "post-racial"? Watch THE MAN. An accident claims the lives of the President and the Speaker of the House. Douglass Dilman (James Earl Jones) becomes next in line to assume the powers of the Commander-in-Chief. One white cabinet member is jealous. At home, he's verbally castrated by his racist Washington society wife. Then there's the senator who plans to "...strike a blow on behalf of White Supremacy." All the while, unassuming and erudite Douglass Dilman must steady himself under the heavy weight of his newly-placed crown. Jones translates the overwhelming weight of his new position with a tremble of Dilman's hand as he tries to pour himself a drink. It's a compact, effective, brilliant example of the actor's artistry. Dilman's daughter realizes his inner conflict. "I can't be what everyone wants me to be," he says.

James Earl Jones is surrounded by a group of top Hollywood veterans in the cast -- Burgess Meredith, Lew Ayres, Martin Balsam, William Windom and Barbara Rush. Comedian Jack Benny is in the opening scenes as host of the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

I saw THE MAN on TV when I was in high school and I was moved. I watched it recently. Again I say, "James Earl Jones. What a magnificent actor." If you want to see THE MAN, which runs 90 minutes, click onto this link:

https://youtu.be/TeINMIJaaXA.




On THE TALL TARGET (1951)

If you appreciate classic films and you're up for an energetic, suspenseful drama, I've got a recommendation. THE TALL TARGET does...