March Walk Of Shame – Reds (1981)

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33 years after its release, there is something strikingly wistful about Reds. A favorite at the Academy Awards the year it was nominated for a staggering 12 Oscars, it picked up a paltry three (Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography), losing its biggest prize to Chariots of Fire. In one way, it was a simple upset that is similar to other upsets we see every now and again. On the other hand, there was something greatly portentous about its loss. Reds failure to win the big prize signaled the beginning of the Reagan-era in Hollywood; after 1981, big movies took highly global subjects of astonishing importance and exchanged gloss for brains resulting in a decade of self-aggrandizing, mostly forgettable issue movies like Gandhi, the Last Emperor, and Amadeus (as my friend and I like to call them: “80’s Important”). But Reds, along with Ragtime, was one of the last of the New Hollywood epics. A big, bold, progressive movie with a mind-boggling cast of superstars and some of Vittorio Storaro’s best cinematography.

Reds tells the story of Jack Reed, an American journalist and progressive who, with his muse/soul mate/partner/wife Louise Bryant, witnesses the Russian Revolution and tries (and fails) to bring the same passion to the American laborers and labor unions. As the revolution’s foundational idealism fades into pragmatism and then, finally, into harsh realism, Reed comes to understand the flaws within himself and the mechanics of creating a utopia which almost certainly cannot ever really work, Politics and idealogical purity, in the end, end up being secondary to the individual.

Astonishingly enough, Reds is a wonderfully fun movie. Intercutting interviews with those who actually knew (or knew of) Jack Reed and/or Louise Bryant, the film feels like a warm, patchwork quilt folded over a wrought-iron bed frame. For a movie with heavy themes of serious gravity, Reds is not at all an arduous undertaking. In fact, it forces the viewer to understand the foundations of radical politics, framing each argument in real world terms. Everything from flawed capitalism, feminism, individualism, and even communism are examined both pro and con in pretty stark terms. As the movie closes in on its conclusion, the interviews take on a certain resonance; we feel that these very recognizable actors have become the historical characters with whom the interviewees interacted. It almost feels Doctrow-ian in reverse.

In retrospect, it’s amazing what Reds managed to accomplish when it was released. This was a film that was made after the horrific disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Say whatever you want about the merits of that film, it’s hard to dismiss what its failure did to Hollywood. Sure, Cimino wasn’t the only culprit as Scorsese, Altman, and Friedkin had made extremely expensive flops that created the cry for bean-counters to run Hollywood lest the shareholders flee en masse. But Reds was not only a critical hit but it was a financial one as well.

What makes all of this amazing is the timing of it all. With conservatism in America on the rise and with Reagan the newly-minted president, a three and a half hour period drama/romance about American Communists hardly seems like what folks were after. But, thanks to the star power of Warren Beatty and his amazing supporting cast, Reds was something of a transitional movie. The same people who lined up around the block to see it were the same ones who were 20 when the Godfather came out were now 31, still routinely seeing the Big Films with the New Hollywood casts and they were the same ones who would later line up to see stuff like Out of Africa and, finally, the Godfather Part III and the Two Jakes.

Warren Beatty, as a filmmaker, is quite underrated. He’s only made a few movies (Reds, Dick Tracy, and Bullworth; he co-directed Heaven Can Wait with Buck Henry) but all of them are fabulous. Here, he pulls off a mind-blowing historical epic that’s as beautifully shot as it is deeply felt. And it is here that I should admit that while Warren Beatty is the focus of Reds and he’s mighty good in it, this is most certainly Diane Keaton’s movie. Radiant and glowing at the beginning, dulled and broken by the end, Keaton traverses the emotional map throughout the movie and oftentimes does so within single scenes. Her scenes with Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill, also nominated for an Oscar) bring out a warmth in him that is rarely seen. She lost the Oscar to Katherine Hepburn whose turn in On Golden Pond was less a performance and more a heartfelt and beautiful “goodbye.” In a just world, Keaton would have won. But that’s neither here nor there.

So, in the end, Reds holds up both as a movie and as a testament to Hollywood in a certain place and time. It’s type of film was not long for the world. The Right Stuff, possibly the greatest of the American Epics of the 1980’s, was forged from a new metal and a new stone; a cast of mostly unknowns by guys who cut their teeth in the late seventies and early eighties and mostly had their lives and careers ahead of them. Reds was something of an eulogy of the New Hollywood that began in 1968 and was being corporatized in 1980. Just as John Reed witnessed a revolution which went bad almost as quickly as it ended, Warren Beatty witnessed a revolution that went bad 12 years later. All they could do was play their parts and document it from the inside.

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February Walk of Shame – North By Northwest (1959)

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Growing up, Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker whose presence was all around me yet I think I mostly associated him with the horror genre. Mind you, it was many years before I actually saw Psycho (and, in fact, I may have actually seen Psycho II in the theaters before I ever saw Psycho) and I didn’t see the Birds until well into my twenties. As a kid, the only Hitchcock movies I could say for certain that I saw were Frenzy (still one of my favorites) and Rear Window (ditto). But I owned a vinyl record of ghost stories that had Hitchcock’s visage on the album cover and I was fond of collecting those short story omnibuses that were culled from the Hitchcock digest they used to sell on the racks next to the Ellery Queen Magazines at the neighborhood Safeway.

I don’t know how North By Northwest came and went without ever being seen by me. I knew the crop-duster scene from stills in the movie books my parents bought me when I was a child and, at some point, I must have caught at least the beginning of it because the diagonal Saul Bass title sequence was as familiar as an old sweater when I finally sat down to watch it from top to tail.

And, full confession, I found North By Northwest so incredibly entertaining and wonderful, I watched it twice.

North By Northwest concerns itself with Roger Thornhill, high powered ad executive who is mistaken by for George Kaplan. Kidnapped by the mysterious Lester Townsend, the film begins as a simple “wrong man” plot formula Hitchcock was fond of utilizing. However, as everything unfolds, identities, allegiances, and motives always seem to be shifting until the movie’s famous climax atop Mount Rushmore.

The plot is simple while concurrently convoluted, romantic while crude, and snappy while relaxed. I don’t know of another Hitchcock movie that gives the audience as much information as it also withholds. And this has the grand mother of MacGuffins (the thing that drives all of the character motivations yet the audience could care less about); that everything boils down to a roll of microfilm hidden in a statue’s gullet is not only an afterthought, it barely registers. In short, North By Northwest has got to be one of the most spellbindingly deft and masterfully tricky thrillers ever made.

As I’ve grown older and absorbed more and more Hitchcock, I’ve grown to love the incredible fakery that coats his movies. Like a more adult-oriented Walt Disney, there’s something magical in Hitchcock’s ability to pull off phony chases full of back projection and under-cranked cameras yet render them gripping and believable. Hitchcock movies like Marnie and Family Plot get rapped for their creakiness and unbelievability. But there’s such a “movie-ness” to them and when Roger Thornhill has to escape his captors while drunk in a car chase it reminds me of something out of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We know Cary Grant isn’t going to perish but it’s thrilling all the same and we want to see how close Hitchcock puts him to that fate.

Likewise charming is Hitchcock’s massive and neat-as-a-pin sets and his ability to wind up the scene and let it play out. For certain, there’s an awful lot of suspension of disbelief that has to occur for his movies to work. This is true of his most ardent student, Brian DePalma, as well (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double are great examples of this). But, again, what made Hitchcock a master was his ability to sell it to the audience so well. Of course the hitmen show up at Kaplan’s room at JUST the right time. Of course there is a photographer present to get a shot of Thornhill with his hand on the knife in the back of a man. Of course Eve Kendall is walking through the hotel lobby the minute Thornhill shows up as he’s chasing down a lead. But everything is so amazingly sharp that it seems to matter very little that none of it is plausible in the slightest. I suppose one could say that the mark of a great filmmaker is not someone who can get you to react to things that are dangerously true to life but one who can get you to react to the most artificial things that can be dreamt up. As a matter of fact, watching this made me want to revisit Vertigo which, oddly, has never been one of my favorite Hitchcock movies for at least some of the reasons described above (of course, the other reason I’m not fond of it is that it’s basically populated by a bag of dicks; not one character is likable). Now that I’ve begun to accept and love some of the production quirks, perhaps there’s hope yet that I’ll see in it what everyone else seems to see.

Finally, there is is something striking about the daringness of North By Northwest. Released a scant four months after Rio Bravo, the movies are night and day when it comes to their attitudes about sex and sexuality. In fact, the frankness in North By Northwest is downright shocking at times. The running, open commentary about the sexual byproduct of Eva Marie Saint’s “work” is not something I expected from a movie released in 1959 nor was some of the rather naughty pillow talk that occurs on the train(“you’re a big girl in all the right places” and “I like your flavor” are, for lack of a better term, standouts). And while the opening credits could represent something of a sexual build with the great force of cascading movement only to, ahem, succumb to a case of coitus interruptus (represented by Hitchcock missing the bus), the final shot of a train barreling into a tunnel couldn’t be any more clear in the context in which it occurs.

I get it, Hitch, and I totally approve. Bravo.

January Walk of Shame – Rio Bravo (1959)

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For certain, there are films that, due to nostalgia and the way they’ve seeped into the grout of my mind, are given a wide latitude when it comes to their inherent flaws. I’m always reminded of this when I force myself to remember giant logistical and plot holes in movies such as Halloween and a Clockwork Orange when I cite them as far more sophisticated to whatever likeminded movie is being discussed. Perhaps Halloween’s myriad of logical missteps are just because the broader picture was so compelling that I thought it unnecessary to sweat the details such as the mysteriously slow police response time to the hardware store robbery (Michael Myers is wearing the mask that he stole at least six hours before the alarm is shown as blaring) and the fact that Donald Pleasance is standing next to the stolen car for hours before he realizes it.

Therein lies the danger of watching crowd-pleasers late in life; when cynicism, snark and irony have twisted your heart and soul even in the most minimal way. This is why I can almost guarantee you that a 40 year-old who sees John G. Avilden’s Rocky for the first time in 2014 will likely become the least popular guy in his movie club discussion circle. And this leads me to Rio Bravo, a movie I neglected to watch time after time throughout the years. I even resisted it in college when I took an undergraduate class that was specifically about the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. I suppose it’s a positive in that I didn’t dislike Rio Bravo and, in fact, liked many elements of it very much. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is a movie I would have loved had I just watched the damn thing between the ages of 18-24 which is exactly the same time I was moping around and extolling the brilliance of Bob Fosse’s cinematic output.

I should probably preface all of this by saying that, along with war pictures, big-budget musicals and romantic comedies, the American Western remains one of my least favorite genres. To be sure, there are exceptions. My time as a film student helped me love movies like Stagecoach and kind of appreciate the Searchers and Red River. I’ve also enjoyed off-kilter American westerns such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and, finally,  I remain a stalwart fan of every movie Sam Peckinpah made, western or “coked-up non-western”. But I remain blissfully ignorant of stuff like 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, the Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance and High Noon (which will be covered on this here blog in December). Like most of my least favorite genres, the American Western relies on such an idealized foundation that there doesn’t seem to be much to work with. As a sidenote, this is the direct opposite of the Italian Western (which is one of my favorite genres) which is just the American Western filtered through a drunken nightmare which is exactly what seems to give it more room to fudge and play with the archetypes and distort the broad strokes.

Rio Bravo is most definitely an archetypal American Western the parts of which are much better than the whole. It spins the yarn of Sherriff John T. Chance (John Wayne at his most John Wayne-iest), head lawman of the titular border town. In his employ is Walter Brennan as Walter Brennan… I mean, Stumpy, the crippled, toothless codger who nags everyone and speaks in adorable frontier witticisms. Also hanging around is Dean Martin as Dude, a man coming off what seems to be a years-long bender who was once Chance’s deputy before his life fell into a vat of alcohol. The setup: Oily, cold hearted Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) kills a man and is quickly taken to the hoosegow. As he is part of a family with pockets deep enough to hire every gunslinger in the territory, Chance and Company have their work cut out for them ensuring that Nathan Burdette (John Russell) doesn’t pull out all the stops to spring his brother Joe from jail before the Feds come and extradite him. Assisting Chance in his endeavor will be young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson), the saloon harlot and card sharp who, not surprisingly, has a heart of gold.

What works best about Rio Bravo is its setting. The film never leaves the confines of the main street of Rio Bravo and deals in minimal interiors (the jail, the saloon, the other saloon and the hotel). Like a space station, the town of Rio Bravo seems to exist in the middle of a vast nothingness and to travel one step outside of it means gambling with your life. Unlike the implausible settlement in the middle of nowhere at the beginning of John Ford’s the Searchers, Rio Bravo is a believable collection of Hollywood Western buildings and homes which also seems to occupy a real sense of place and time. The film’s classic Hollywood look helps keep things in check as the vibrant colors and impeccable framing reflect just what a visual filmmaker Howard Hawks was.

On an actual critical level, there were a few things about Rio Bravo that nagged at me. Despite his run on Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky Nelson seems little more than stunt casting. His performance is most definitely the weak link here. And regardless as to why he was inserted into the production, it seems too calculated by half and is mostly a distraction. He’s not terrible. In fact, he pulls off a couple of moments quite well. But he sticks out like a sore thumb and seems to exist only to have an inexplicable musical duet with Dean Martin during the latter part of the film’s saggy middle act (and that guitar he strums looks so ridiculously anachronistic, he might as well have been wearing a Nudie suit while playing it). Also, despite looking great and turning in a fine performance, Angie Dickinson’s entire part is unnecessary. She adds nothing, does nothing (except throw a flower pot) and grinds the movie to a halt when performing the tender moments with John Wayne. Whoever acquiesced to the insistence that the movie needed to have a love story as one of its many subplots should have slept on it and done everything in their power to resist it the following morning.

For me, the biggest revelation was Dean Martin. Relatively new to dramatic acting when the movie was made, Martin’s DT-plagued Dude is the most believable and has the most heartfelt character arc in the entire endeavor. In fact, I wish the movie would have been just about him. Dean displays some real acting lumber in all of his scenes and I bought every moment that was graced with his presence (except, of course, for the plot-stopping duet with Ricky Nelson which is probably the most tedious and dull musical number this side of “Beauty School Dropout”). By the end of Rio Bravo, I almost mourned the fact that, despite a couple of other well-received roles, Dean Martin didn’t go full speed ahead into dramatic acting and, instead, decided to hang back into the profitable, if limited, role of lovable drunk for the remainder of his career.

The rest of my issues with Rio Bravo are mostly personal and lack any real critical weight. First and foremost, I mostly dislike John Wayne. For a long time, I couldn’t be certain if I disliked him because of the way his image has been appropriated, his debatable skill as an actor or his steadfast adherence to backwards politics. In the end, it’s probably a combination of all three. I simply cannot separate the man from what I see on the screen because there’s not enough raw talent to differentiate the two. I feel like I’m constantly watching John Wayne, the man, stumble through set pieces tailor-made for him and his certain brand of machismo (and, in my defense, Wayne would take or turn down projects based on his politics… the Green Berets, anyone?). And, Rio Bravo, itself, was something of a political response to what Wayne felt was anti-American values in High Noon. Lest I be accused of being no better than those who stay away from Sean Penn or George Clooney due to their politics, I don’t feel the same way towards Jon Voight who has political views, like John Wayne, diametrically opposed to my own (and has espoused some truly loony things) but still manages to win me over with his performances because of his immense gifts as an actor. And this is also in contrast to someone like Vin Diesel who, while no great thespian, cuts a Wayne-esque presence in his movies that I enjoy and buy a lot quicker than those offered up by the Duke whose presence seemed more of a case of a reputation preceding it and less physically deserved. And whatever I can say for John Wayne, I can doubly say for Walter Brennan who I’ve seen in many a movie and can attest that he does not deserve to be on the same shortlist of actors who have won three competitive Oscars (the other two on the list are Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson). The only thing I can say that’s amazing about Walter Brennan is that he always seemed to look ancient, no matter what age he actually was when filming whatever project.

Secondly, again, is my dislike for the American Western. So steeped in broad “good and evil” tales and corny macho sentiments like they were Silver Age comic books, the American Western has so few elements to mix and match to create something compelling. How many cowhands, young guns, weary sheriffs, misunderstood floozies, drunks, stereotypical minorities and dusty townscapes can you disassemble and reassemble into something that’s fresh? And there was my major issue with Rio Bravo; there was absolutely nothing surprising in it for me. I watched it lazily unfurl its unjustifiable 140 minute running time, dealing with one overdone trope after the other, knowing full well there were fistfuls of movie that could have just been cut or rewritten and tightened up (John Carpenter, a massive fan of Rio Bravo, could arguably have done Hawks one better by boiling the major points of the plot down to exploitation film levels for his incredible and enormously entertaining Assault on Precinct 13). Sure, Leigh Brackett’s script is very Hawksian and the characters definitely have both Brackett and Hawks’s stamp all over them but I sometimes felt many of them would have worked better in another movie altogether. As good as the (mostly) wordless opening sequence is, the final eight minutes of the movie, occurring after the climactic showdown, simply drag while tidying up the myriad subplots that, as stated, would have been better suited somewhere else.

And, again, none of this should make it sound as if I disliked Rio Bravo. I liked it despite my misgivings about it. Howard Hawks was a master filmmaker and it’s easy to see why Rio Bravo is considered an example of his greatness. Despite its length, many subplots and casting decisions, the movie was heavily enjoyable and I was never bored. Much of it made me smile and the chemistry between the males worked surprisingly well. However, at its heart, Rio Bravo is a story of redemption; a story about a drunk who regains face at a time of crisis. Sadly, due to the powers that be that dictated such things, its strongest element is relegated to the backseat so John Wayne and Angie Dickinson can kiss and have an uninteresting cinematic romance.

Get a room, you two. And an editor.

The TWELVE by @patrickcrain73

I’ve been watching movies a LOOOOOONG time. I can remember the days before VHS when you had to plot out your movie-watching schedule with a terrible copy of the TV guide that was published in your Sunday paper, guided mostly by titles in populist movie books my parents bought for me. I watched a lot of movies then but, when home video became a real live thing, I ate up movies like they were slathered in refried beans, wrapped in a flour tortilla, melted with cheese and served up at Taco Bell (which, now that it’s been uttered, will become an actual product; Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Movieito).

Over the years, I’ve attempted to fill in the gaps regarding the movies I’m regularly castigated for not seeing but, for one reason or another, I haven’t ever found the time nor have I really had the inspiration to watch the twelve movies I’m committing to this blog. So, with great shame, here is the list of movies I’ve never seen but will now finally watch and, while doing so, will share with you via live Tweeting and this here nifty infrawebs page.

1. Rio Bravo (January)

2. North By Northwest (February)

3. Reds (March)

4. Match Point (April)

5. Coming Home (May)

6. Real Genius (June)

7. The Apartment (July)

8. Gone With the Wind (August)

9. Tootsie (September)

10. Sunset Boulevard (October)

11. Shampoo (November)

12. High Noon (December)

Let the shames begin…