Civil Rights, Film

A Good Movie

kings speechThe King’s Speech

In a year of generally lackluster output from Hollywood, there comes at the end of the year a truly exceptional film from – England.

With inspired performances from Colin Firth as the second prince and future king, George VI, and Geoffrey Rush as his Australian-born speech therapist, The King’s Speech provides a mostly historically accurate period piece look inside the British monarchy in the days leading up to World War II. The would-be king, called Bertie by his hard and cold family, has been a life-long stutterer. The thought of standing at a microphone and proclaiming is mostly unthinkable. Until, that is, having exhausted other avenues of professional help, he turns to a small-time actor turned speech therapist who helps unlock the mystery of the stutter.

The movie really works on several levels. It is a look at England in the run up to the war. The bit roles for three British prime ministers – Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill – are just right.

The film also, in a tight and believable way, provides insight into the still scandalous affair Bertie’s older brother, the eventual King Edward VIII, had with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward, who abdicated in 1936 for the “woman he loved,” is portrayed, as he was, as a selfish, boorish cad with apparent pro-fascist sympathies. Edward’s shocking decision to give up the throne made the not terribly well prepared Bertie the king.

The movie is also about the breakdown of class and social lines in the 1930’s that allowed a outwardly rather stuffy and shy member of the royal family to engage a long-term friendship with one of his subjects, an outgoing and very worldly man.

Maybe the best scene in the movie is when the King and Queen, played with perfection by the superb British actress Helena Bonham Carter, show up at the speech therapist’s flat. Its funny, insightful, clever and played just right.

Should you think nothing good is coming from the big screen these days, take heart – England rules with The King’s Speech. Here’s the trailer. Go see it.

Civil Rights, Film

I Am Love

i_am_love_posterHere’s a Movie for the Summer

Family, food, fabrics, footwear. Set it all in Milan in a fabulous villa – the Medicis would kill (maybe they did) for this place – and stir in an outstanding performance by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and you got yourself a summer feast. It’s called I Am Love and it is one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while.

Oh, I forgot to mention the love affairs, corporate intrigue and shocking death.

The Recchi family is wealthy – boy are they wealthy – and mother Emma (the Swinton role) is obviously the stabilizing glue in this group. Still Emma, even though she is the core of the family, seems strangely remote. It could be because she is a Russian-born transplant brought to one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, and married into a family with more money than good sense. She says at one point that when she came to Italy she ceased being Russian. Nonetheless, she’s made her peace, it seems, with her bloodless businessman of a husband and presides over the family household staff and fabulous dinners with elegance and grace. Until.

Until, that is, she falls completely, and with shocking speed, under the spell of her son’s close friend, an ambitious chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant. It’s hard to believe that a scene with a young cook showing an older woman how to use a torch to brown food could be, well, erotic, but you need to see it.

Before you can say “three minute egg” Emma has tossed her Ferragamo’s and shed her classy outfits to roll around in the grass with Antonio.

The New York Times review said: “By the end of this often soaringly beautiful melodrama, which closes with a funeral, Emma’s face will have crumpled into a ruin. But it will also be fully alive, having been granted, like Pygmalion’s statue, the breath of life.”

The film is in Italian and Russian and should further establish Tilda Swinton as a major, major talent. The love scenes and party scenes are pretty good and the food wasn’t bad, either.

Civil Rights, Film

Political Movies

The Best ManPolitics on the Big Screen

It’s been a while since Hollywood produced a really good political film. With the exception of Primary Colors and Frost/Nixon, I’m hard pressed to name another really good recent film with a political theme. I’ve got to go back to the 60’s to begin my “best of the best” list.

So, lets go to the movies and consider politics on the big screen.

Gore Vidal, to the extent he is remembered at all these days, is recalled as a relic of the 60’s thanks to his feuds with Norman Mailer, his lefty politics, etc. Vidal, a really fine writers, deserves much better, not least for his play – and screenplay – for one of the best political movies ever – The Best Man.

The 1964 movie has a superb cast – Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy (who won an Academy Award). Order it up on Netflix and revel in the black and white, 1960’s atmosphere of a vicious campaign for the White House. See if you can match up the characters with the real politicos of the time. JFK, Truman and Stevenson, according to some, were Vidal’s inspiration. It is a very good film and good political theater featuring a cameo from the great ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. If Vidal did nothing else in his long, literary life (and he did) this screen play would stand alone as a worthy piece of work, worthy of a great writing career. One of my all-time favorite movies, and a great play, too.

Other favorite “political” movies:

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939. Capra had the misfortune to make his great political film in the same year with Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Still the story of naive, freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith endures. True story, members of the Senate hated – absolutely loathed – Capra’s film. Majority Leader Alben Barkley went to the premier in Washington, D.C, left in a huff and condemned the movie the next day as an outrage. Senators didn’t behave like that, Barkley fumed, and Capra had dishonored the U.S. Senate. Then, as now, the Senators didn’t get it. The public loved Capra’s film. The filibuster scene, Jimmy Stewart in a sweat trying to uphold the honor of the world’s great deliberative body, is a classic of American cinema.

  • Seven Days in May. The John Frankenheimer film, also from 1964, is a classic story of ambition, honor and respect for the American tradition of civilian control of the military. Kirk Douglas is superb as the Marine colonel who helps thwart a military coup. The authors, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, reportedly got the idea for their novel after interviewing Air Force Gen. Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. JFK read the book and thought it not all that unthinkable that the kind of military coup depicted in the film could occur in the USA. Great film, cautionary tale

  • In 1957, Andy Griffith – yes, that Andy Griffith – starred in a terrific movie – A Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazin directed the film as an early cautionary tale about the incredible power of television as a source of personal power and political propaganda. The film has a great cast, including the wonderful Lee Remick in her debut role. As a post-McCarthy piece of Hollywood magic, this is a a great film.

  • And, number five – so many to chose from – Judgment at Nuremburg, All the President’s Men, Michael Collins, Citizen Kane, but I have to pick All the Kings Men, the original version from 1949 with Broderick Crawford. A not-so-fictionalize account of the career of Huey P. Long, the film was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. It won the Best Picture of 1950 and awards for the top actors, too. A great story about political power and the good, and not so good, it can accomplish.

So many films, so little time. If you love politics and the great American story, any of these will be worth a couple of hours. I’m betting you’ll still be thinking and talking about them days after the credits fade. See you at the movies.


Civil Rights, Film

The Last Picture Show

dorisFalling for Doris…

As a kid growing up in small town South Dakota, I enjoyed one great perk that has stuck with me all these years. My uncle owned the only movie theater in town – the Harney Theater. As a result, I got to attend every movie – every movie – for nothing. I had to pay for the popcorn and soda. The relatives had to eat, after all, but the movies were free.

This is the period when I fell for Doris. Over the course of several years, I think I must have seen all of the Doris Day – Rock Hudson movies at least three times. I confess, I loved her in Pajama Game and, while the Academy Award winning song – Que Sera, Sera – will now be stuck in my head all day, I thought the Man Who Knew Too Much was pretty darn good stuff.

First run movies came to Custer, South Dakota, but only after they had run first everywhere else.

I remember seeing The Longest Day with its fabulous cast and I went from that great film about D-Day to a life-long fascination with the Allied invasion of France in 1944. I saw To Kill a Mockingbird and don’t think I ever missed Gregory Peck in anything else he ever did. Peter O’Toole became T.E. Lawrence for me and Middle East history – at least post World War I history – has never been the same since Lawrence of Arabia.

All these movie memories came rushing back yesterday when I read the New York Times piece about small town theaters in North Dakota and elsewhere that are being revived by volunteers. One of the volunteers, Babe Belzer is 74 and it sounds like she is addicted to movies.

“If you can get a whole living room of kids watching a movie for three bucks, what a deal,” Belzer said. “But at the theater,” she continued, “the phone doesn’t ring, it’s not time to change the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and there isn’t anyone at your door. It’s kind of the heart and soul of our town.” I get it.

With names like the Dakota, the Lyric and the Roxie, the picture palace does help make a town and a small town doesn’t seem so small or isolated when a new, big movie shows up on a Saturday night.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see every nook of the ol’ Harney Theater in Custer. I held hands with my first girl friend there. I loved it when the theater manager unwrapped and unrolled the movie posters that came every week. I think I can even remember that smell – the mohair seats, the butter (or whatever it was) on the popcorn, the cool darkness and the bright screen. Those memories seem a good deal more authentic than the local metroplex.

The Harney made me a movie fan and perhaps these memories contribute to the fact that I still like the movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s the best. And, much to my darling wife’s amazement, I do still love Doris. She seems authentic, too.

Tomorrow…while I’m on a roll, some of my all-time favorite films with political themes.

Civil Rights, Film

Crying Time

Hopper“Now boys, don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry!”

When I heard that the great character actor Dennis Hopper had died – I think his character was to always play some version of himself – I immediately thought of his role in Hoosiers, the 1986 film about Indiana high school basketball.

Hopper, the town drunk, was Gene Hackman’s assistant coach for the fictional Hickory Huskies. The climax of the movie, of course, is the tiny town’s triumph in the state championship over the big school from South Bend.

Hoosiers is the best basketball movie ever and one of the best sports films ever made. I admit that I always tear up when Hackman leads his small town team into the cavernous Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis where they will soon play for the state championship. It’s one of the great scenes in sports filmdom when the coach has his players measure the foul line and the distance from the floor to the rim. He was making the point that the dimensions in the huge, big city arena were just the same as in the dinky little gym back home.

Hopper had a lot of famous roles, of course, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, among them, but Hoosiers was as good as anything he ever did.

Angleo Pizzo wrote and directed the movie and told Indianapolis Star columnist Kyle Neddenriep that Hopper’s role was central to the movie and the actor on his own came up with the line about not getting “caught watchin’ the paint dry.”

“(Hopper) had an interesting way of rehearsing and memorizing lines — he didn’t,” Pizzo said. “We’d written something else completely, which I don’t remember exactly. If you watch the first take, all of the players are laughing because they’d never heard that before in rehearsal. We liked it so much — even though we weren’t sure what it meant — that we left it in.”

It strikes me as a good line for any basketball player and for life. Hopper was saying, “don’t get caught standing around – move!”

Dennis Hopper died after a long struggle with prostate cancer – a good reminder to get that PSA checked – and he was buried today in Taos, New Mexico.

Hoosiers was on Turner Classic Movies last night. It is a classic.

Airport Security, Civil Rights, Eisenhower, Film

Up In The Air

TSAThree Sensible Alternatives…Call Them TSA

I don’t fly, thank the Lord, as much as George Clooney’s character in the funny and engaging new film Up In The Air. Clooney’s road warrior – his name is Ryan Bingham in the movie – is on the quest to reach 10,000,000 miles in the air and earn even more special perks – the platinum ID card and visit with the Chief Pilot, for instance – that go with such numbers. The traveling Bingham brags that he spent only 42 days at home last year.


I’m no Ryan Bingham, but I traveled on average once every other week during 2009. In my world, that is good enough to get special treatment – well, early boarding – on Horizon Airlines. You gotta start somewhere.


Any frequent traveler will identify with the scene in Up In The Air where Clooney is explaining the travel ropes to a young novice. Don’t over pack. Never check luggage. Wear slip on shoes. Never get in the TSA line behind a couple with children or where the swarthy looking young men will be targets for “additional screening.”


All this movie truth seems particularly relevant in light of the latest breakdown in air security that allowed a would be bomber to board a Northwest Airlines flight in Europe and come close to causing havoc on a fully loaded airplane approaching Detroit. Now the all to familiar, post-terror incident cycle unrolls once again. Bring on the political outrage. Cue Dick Cheney. Order up an investigation. This just in: air security doesn’t work very well.


My only qualification for comment on any of this is travel experience. I observe. I wish TSA would, too. So, at the risk of getting placed on the dreaded list that causes my wife, Pat – she does look like a terrorist – to get “additional screening” whenever she travels, I offer up Three Sensible Alternatives. My own little TSA.
Screen for the most obvious threat. I know, I know, no racial profiling. I’m a card carrying member of the ACLU, but lets be clear: the terrorist threat against the United States of America is overwhelmingly centered in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Young men from these places tend to be the operatives. When a traveler matching this profile attempts to fly into the USA, maybe they should automatically get additional screening, including a very detailed personal interview. This is the Israeli model. It is not racial profiling. It is managing against the most obvious, demonstrated, repeated threat. A sensible alternative would be to concentrate more and more resources on the most obvious threats and spend less and less time at SeaTac Airport frisking the 89 year old woman in a wheel chair.


Observe behavior and ask questions. I have done my own little survey on this point. You can try it yourself. You know the drill. Present your photo ID and boarding pass at the TSA checkpoint and start observing how often the agent actually compares your ID to your face. I’d say it has happened to me about one time in 50 in the last year. The agents appear to be trained to make sure the name on the ID matches the name on the boarding pass. That’s good, as far as it goes. A sensible alternative would be to train them to actually look at the passengers and assess what they see. Same goes with the little clear plastic bags of toilet items that now must come out of your carry on luggage. Does anyone ever really look at what is in those bags? Not in my experience. My point is this: our security system will never get better until we train the screeners to be more aware of what and who may pose a threat. To do better, humans must be able to observe critically and ask probing questions. Well-trained police officers do this all the time. They question and observe. As a nation, we have long lacked “human intelligence” capabilities. In other words, our system assumes that observing and questioning is beyond the boundary of acceptable airport security. I think it is the key to a better system.


Finally, use the best technology. We know full body scanners work. Use them. Spend what is needed to get the TSA database to interact with the State Department’s list of foreign nationals holding American visas. Why haven’t we done this? Beats me. Must be politics. Or perhaps we could just outsource our security to the Israelis…or the Canadians. With a valid US passport in hand, clearing security in Ottawa for a return to the USA earlier this year was a professional and thorough process. Lots of questions. Lots of observing. Lots of technology. Gotta love the Canadians.


I wonder what the response will be to the latest terror threat? The shoe bomber caused us to remove our shoes. The next threat produced those little zip lock bags for toilet items. Considering the most recent would-be bomber was reportedly carrying explosives in his underwear, I can see where this is going. No more boxer shorts on international flights.


Now, I’m moving over to the line for additional screening. And, go see Up In The Air. Clooney is great.
Civil Rights, Film


fantastic mr foxHe Really is – Quote, Unquote – Fantastic

OK, I was dubious. An old style animated feature length film of the children’s book by Roald Dahl. How special can that be?

Trust me – it’s special. With George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray bringing the fuzzy puppets to life, you find that you’re inhabiting a very special world somewhere between the human and the animal. Mr. Fox wears a necktie to work, writes a column for a newspaper, but lives in a hole (and after trading up, in a tree) eats like an animal and, well, hunts chickens like a fox.

This is a rare movie where the trailer actually does justice to the film. For insight into how the movie was made, check out Terry Gross’ – am I over using this word – fantastic NPR interview with director Wes Anderson.

The color, smart dialogue, the music – all are really good. The movie may even serve to resurrect the fading – to say the least – fame of the 1960’s group The Bobby Fuller Four.

The kids will love the animals. The rest of us will identify with references to real estate deals, unheeded advice from lawyers, anxious teenagers and a character in mid-life crisis who just happens to be a fox.

I thought it was fantastic.

Civil Rights, Film

Dame Helen

Can’t Wait For This Film

Is there a better actress in the world than Helen Mirren? OK, maybe Meryl Streep, but it would be a close contest…or a tie.

Ever since Mirren seemed to inhabit the role of the hard living, chain smoking, hard luck British Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the superb Masterpiece Theatre series on PBS, she has been better and better in each succeeding television or film role. Now she is poised to open in Boise director Michael Hoffman’s new film – The Last Station – about the life of Leo Tolstoy. Dame Helen plays Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia.

She won the best actress award at the recent Rome film festival for her role in Hoffman’s new film and the Daily Telegraph has an interview on Mirren’s return to her family roots in Russia.

The film opens in January next year. I’m sure the film will be great, but Helen Mirren, well – she’s just the best.