Revisiting Love Story

One of Hollywood’s highest grossing films in history, Love Story (1970), is an astute character study. The screen version of Erich Segal’s bestselling novel of the same name is well made. Like another Seventies blockbuster, Rocky, it’s been lambasted for a single line. Yet Love Story is a romantic, if tragic, dramatization of pursuing the American Dream.

It’s a tale of two young lovers, Oliver and Jenny, played by Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. He’s an aristocratic, pre-law Harvard athlete — Oliver plays ice hockey — and she’s a musician studying at Radcliffe. At center is angry Oliver, who’s in conflict with his controlling father (Ray Milland), with Jenny as a kind of prize whom he comes to realize he truly loves. They’re both atheists.

Look for Tommy Lee Jones in a small role and John Marley as Jenny’s widowed Catholic father. Listen for Francis Lai’s Oscar-winning score, including the indelible main theme, and music by Bach and Mozart. Segal’s writing is good. But Love Story succeeds thanks to director Arthur Hiller, who depicts young love, especially O’Neal as a young lover, as serious. Hiller fully entices the audience.

For example, when Ray Milland as Oliver’s wealthy businessman father attends his son’s game only to see him spend time in a penalty box, Oliver apologizes to his father for having “to see [the team] lose”. His dad responds with a clarification which is also a key plot point: “I came to see you play.”

It’s one of several insightful scenes underscoring the complexity, depth and risk of love, romantic or otherwise. Oliver laments the “verbal volleyball” that jaded Jenny, whom he meets at Radcliffe’s library, engages. Soon, they’re kissing in the rain.

The college students also study and listen to music, read, spar, take an interest in each other’s goals and focus on themselves. Love Story portrays the attractive couple in playful, wintry games with O’Neal’s Oliver in a pale blue jacket. They tumble and make angels in the snow.

Playing on ice, in snow and with banter adds up as they discuss work, marriage and children. Hiller’s direction of setting, framing and transition — converging the sound of an airplane with the sound of a motor car — showcase the beauty of falling in love in Boston, Cambridge and, later, Manhattan.

Whether Oliver drives a roadster with the top down, the camera follows them in a single take to meet his parents or summertime kids applauding the couple fade into parents applauding law school grads, Love Story offers more than cutesy playacting.

Like Seventies megahits such as Rocky, Airport and Star Wars, Love Story embraces idealism. After someone takes a dig at making money, someone else retorts that “[w]hen you inherit [wealth], you can give all of [the] money back for reparations”. Oliver points out to his disapproving parents that lower middle class Jenny is “not some crazy hippie”. Jenny wants to know, understand and teach masters of music, play piano and visit Paris, even if she has to subsist on Skippy peanut butter. Oliver and Jenny are secular — and they celebrate Christmas.

That their pursuit of mutually earned, traded and shared happiness comes to a devastating conclusion just as their self-made life starts in New York exhibits Love Story’s theme that, in love, one can mine truth. Hiller even lingers on the Latin for the term. That Jenny acts to foster, gain and keep love for Oliver without sacrificing what she knows is his love for his father — Milland delivers a standout performance, particularly in the final scene — with courage and fortitude strengthens the love story.

Characters could be deeper. Certain scenes are too cute. Yet Love Story quietly, assuredly moves the audience as it depicts man coming full circle through the agony of lost love. Hiller punctuates life’s unfairness with empathy, not pity. A hospital visit includes a glimpse of a newborn baby at Christmastime. Other touches, too, give this tragic tale of two types of love between two East Coast winters poignancy, including a trash can on its side to suggest that a world’s been knocked over.

This is how love probably feels to the lover who is swept into wisdom after suffering great loss. If the phrase “love means never having to say you’re sorry” rings hollow, bland or false, Love Story, one of the top money-making movies of all time — the movie which made a new cliche and begins as it ends — prompts one to think about the sense in which the saying is true.

Movie Review: Dolittle (2020)

If, like me, you’re a fan of Robert Downey Jr., you may know that his choice of roles lacks ambition, challenge and imagination. Unfortunately, his newest movie, middling general fare for Universal Studios, is among his worst pictures.

It’s an incomprehensible, computer-generated jumble. The period piece, Dolittle, will do nothing to enhance the outstanding actor’s reputation. It’s a remake of a Sixties’ 20th Century Fox musical box office bomb starring Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley and Rex Harrison. The title refers to a character — created by author Hugh Lofting, apparently during World War One to entertain his children with a tale of the fictitious naturalist John Dolittle in Victorian England — a doctor that “talks to the animals“.

Robert Downey’s voice is muffled. His John Dolittle speaks in a barely audible stream with an accent best described as Mrs. Doubtfire by way of somewhere between Wales and Ireland. The Iron Man star looks haggard, frazzled and befuddled. He’s shot in a way that’s unbecoming. Downey mumbles and generally looks like he’d rather be deadpanning through another Marvel movie. But he’s only occasionally on screen.

Most of Dolittle, which features an onslaught of wisecracking animals in Victorian-era England that say such lines as “see ya, suckers!” and other vulgar modern vernacular, happens in two or three second fragments. Image-manipulated animals look fine, though a dog with eyeglasses looks completely unrealistic and not because the glasses look bad. At one point, a polar bear dives underwater and keeps yapping, having a conversation with diver Dolittle, whose medical degree is curiously left off the title. This type of arbitrary world-making pervades the non-musical, nonsensical Dolittle, which could’ve been fabulous fun.

Its theme about healing, grief recovery and health might’ve played well. But when a sassy-voiced squirrel says he feels as if he’s got a “front seat to Crazy Town” to no one in particular, I admit that I felt the same way. I turned to my guest. His eyes were closed.

Danny Elfman’s bombastic score thunders. There’s a scene with what amounts to a terrorist bombing, which didn’t seem to bother or stir kids in the audience. To peg Dolittle as fantasy is to be exceedingly kind, though a key plot point entails the thing everyone who watches HBO’s popular series says they find enjoyable about Game of Thrones.

The best part of Dolittle is an appealing actor named Harry Collett. The boy plays Tommy Stubbins with perfection. The innocent character, against his family’s hunting practices, loves animals. But he unintentionally brings harm to an animal, which he brings to the reclusive, grieving, misanthropic doctor. The dying animal’s literally left hanging with its life in the balance while Dolittle introduces an unnecessary character. This forewarns the deficiencies.

Downey deserves a stellar career from now on. The actor’s Sherlock Holmes was bad 10 years ago. Disney’s boring but profitable Marvel movies set him up for life. Dolittle is bad, too. The actor who wowed audiences with great performances in Chaplin, Less Than Zero and the woefully unknown and underrated Nineties gem Heart and Souls deserves better. Downey’s Iron Man entertained in the initial outing. But it is with sincere admiration that I wish for Robert Downey, Jr. better scripts, roles and movies than the atrocious Dolittle.

 

New Articles: Iran, ‘The Cotton Club’ and Ayn Rand

The new year started with a turn of foreign events, as I wrote last week. Capitalism Magazine’s editor and publisher, without whom this blog, site and many articles would not be possible, asked to reprint it. Read my commentary on the day America’s impeached president of the United States ordered a pre-emptive and proper retaliation against Islamic Iran, the first serious strike against this enemy of Western civilization, here.

Iran attacks America, November 1979

Since the strike that killed a general for Iran’s army of Islamic terrorist proxy gangs and regimented soldiers of Allah, Iran has attacked America and a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 innocents with missiles. The American president pledged this morning that, while showing restraint by declining to hit back for the moment, he will prevent the state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons. When his predecessor brokered a deal with Iran that returned billions of dollars which were withheld after Iran attacked America and seized our embassy, capturing 66 Americans as prisoners of war in Iran’s jihad (“holy war”) against the West, I called it Obama’s death pact. Horrifically, for the Americans and others, including 63 Canadians on board the Boeing 737 Iran shot down in Teheran, death or its imminent threat became real thanks to Obama’s Iran deal. Barack Obama continued U.S. selflessness in foreign policy which, for decades, appeased Iran.

May appeasement end with military defense ordered and enacted by President Trump.

Thirty-five years after it debuted in theaters, I watched a notorious movie by director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart). Read my new review of a restored version of Mr. Coppola’s 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming for its 35th anniversary, here.

Though I never saw the original in either theatrical or home video release, I was not disappointed in The Cotton Club (encore edition). It isn’t perfect, as I write in the review. But its jazz and tap dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment.

The Harlem-themed epic has an unusual history. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie after a self-financed 1982 musical, One from the Heart, lost money. The Cotton Club was made and financed by a range of contentious principals, such as the late producer Robert Evans, and others, such as Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM, which Lionsgate purchased, acquiring its library years ago.

The nightclub, where in reality only Negroes were allowed to perform for an exclusively white audience, was a swank joint on Manhattan’s upper end. The film features a score by the late composer John Barry, leading performances by Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee (the 1976 original remade with Whitney Houston in Sparkle) and the late Gregory Hines. Also look for Mario Van Peebles, Gwen Verdon, James Remar, Maurice Hines, who appears in a home video segment with Mr. Coppola, Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227), Jennifer Grey, Nicolas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne and Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a club doorman. Music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is fabulous.

“This is the movie I meant you to see”, Mr. Coppola, referring to the additional 20 minutes, tells a New York audience in the Q&A feature in the bonus segments. The panel includes disclosures about lawsuits, attempts to steal the negative and a murder trial surrounding The Cotton Club, which debuted in the fall of 1984. Francis Ford Coppola also remembers reading and being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, with a black character and Maurice Hines recalling his late brother, Gregory, and their grandmother being an original Cotton Club showgirl.

Read the article

Finally, my editor informed me this morning that my article about Pittsburgh and its connection to Ayn Rand (1905-1982) for the winter edition of the print publication Pittsburgh Quarterly, is featured on the online version’s cover. Read about Rand, who revered the Industrial Revolution, and the city of bridges, steel and progress, here.

 

TV Review: Golden Globes 2020 (NBC)

The Golden Globes are an awards ceremony which are essentially and primarily a broadcast to promote Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) influence in Hollywood and to make money for HFPA and its designated broadcaster through advertising revenue. In other words, it’s meaningless except as a tool for promotionalism, offering no real value except as advertising for the industry of mass entertainment.

This isn’t saying much, especially now. I watched the awards broadcast this year for one reason: comedian Ricky Gervais. He hosted the show. This far left environmentalist is a passionate spokesman for his pet causes, such as his crusades against hunting, animal cruelty and for various laws aimed at controlling man’s life. But he’s also a biting satirist.

Gervais did not disappoint. The comedian launched into a scathing monologue against Hollywood, pointing out that the raging, pigtailed anti-child touted as a mascot for environmentalism is deprived of knowledge and explicitly naming Hollywood’s — and Silicon Valley’s — hypocrisy.

As Apple boss Tim Cook, a decent man who defied the Obama administration on principle and won, sat stoned-faced, Gervais skewered Apple and other technology companies for breaching while claiming superior business ethics. Above all, he was irreverent without being malicious. His humor was hilarious. I laughed out loud.

Why? Humor, like music, is complicated. One’s responses to humor are, I think, the byproduct of what lies deep inside one’s innermost premises, thoughts and psychology. That said, in this case, I think I laughed — and, apparently, so did many other Americans — because Hollywood deserves the criticism. That it was done with conscious, self-aware, self-mocking vulgarity unmasks the hubris of California’s preachy, leftist technology and entertainment celebrities.

There were finer moments, including for the celebrities, most of whom laughed at the host’s jokes. They did laugh at themselves, though some of them didn’t appear to know whether this was appropriate, an unfortunate sign of suppressive or repressive times.

The best performing artists elegantly or smartly exercised the right to free speech. Stellan Skarsgård, who won an award for his outstanding performance in HBO’s Chernobyl, joked at his own expense in appreciation of a crew member’s ability. Comedienne Kate McKinnon came out as gay in a humorous display of appreciation for comedienne and TV hostess Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian who, in turn, expressed admiration for comedienne Carol Burnett, namesake for the award DeGeneres won.

DeGeneres appeared in a montage in which she was shown telling a post-9/11 audience: “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews”. The comedy succeeds in that clip because, as delivered, hers is a statement, not a question. This goes to what’s good about DeGeneres; her sense of irony.

DeGeneres was shown in various clips dancing through her life, which with her irony taps the essence of her appeal. It was fitting that she won the Carol Burnett Award — Carol Burnett sat with DeGeneres, demonstrating her grace and elegance as always — and she’s a testament to the power of mass media, especially television.

“Live your life with integrity,” DeGeneres told an audience of graduates in a clip, before sending up Hollywood pretentiousness herself in a humorous acceptance speech.

Integrity defines the night’s winner for lifetime achievement. Tom Hanks (SullyPhiladelphiaThe PostA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodBridge of Spies) displayed honesty during an emotional acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award. This was the best moment of the Golden Globes, which aired on NBC. I say this because Mr. Hanks, an impeccable actor of ability, took the opportunity to share his thoughts and insights on his own ability. This alone is a remarkable departure from the usual pandering, bootlicking, sniveling, smearing and ranting that emanates from Hollywood awards podiums.

An old white male — at a time when the old white male is under siege in Hollywood — had the audacity to reject the status quo and imply that today’s industry needs to do better, to be better, to strive to be the best. Hanks made a strong rejection of the Me, Too movement’s proposed codification of egalitarianism, the basis for feminism, multiculturalism and other offshoots of tribalism. He emphasized instead the singular pleasure of doing one’s work, of doing it right, of doing it on deadline (and, by implication, on budget) and of doing it for one’s own sake.

Tom Hanks made this radical breach of altruism and collectivism after a woman of ability, Charlize Theron, thanked the old white male. Theron thanked Mr. Hanks for choosing to be supportive, subtle, decent, kind and deft in hiring her for his movie (That Thing You Do!, innocuous and enjoyable fluff chiefly of value for its Americanism) early in her career.

Showing genuine emotion for his wife, children and family, following an exemplary reel of moments from his greatest performances, Tom Hanks accepted his winning the award for, as he put it, “showing up on time”, which he rightly called liberating — he told Hollywood that “you [should] do it for yourself” — and for his lifetime of achievement.

This, not momentary hilarity of satire by Ricky Gervais, who distinctly, notably, wisely and, to his credit, did not mock or joke after Tom Hanks spoke, displayed man at his best.

Other artists also shined. Quentin Tarantino, winning an award for his overrated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, plainly declared “I did it” rather than parrot the status quo of an artist acting as if he exists at the mercy of the lives of others. Tarantino also acknowledged writer Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man for All Seasons, providing the evening’s most intellectual moment of justice. Laura Dern (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), unfortunately beating Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) for an acting acknowledgment which Bates deserves, acknowledged the importance of the story — as against merely pictures and effects — to the movie for which she won, The Marriage Story.

Best Picture clips were ads, not scenes, and the Best Song award presentation— an actor singing to promote his upcoming appearance in a musical was granted more musical performance time than the nominated songs, which mostly went unheard — was awful. Even director Sam Mendes was shocked that he won an award for his movie, 1917, which does not qualify for serious consideration of a great, let alone best, movie. Michelle Williams, a talented actress, accepted an award with what amounts to an attack on the virtue of selfishness pushing more of the same collectivism. Unfortunately, she did this under the guise that she was defending rights, i.e., woman’s right to an abortion, which needs (and does not receive) a proper defense.

For his satire, Ricky Gervais is the host of the moment. But the best part of the Golden Globes, heralding egoism, implied if not made explicit by Tom Hanks, came from Elton John, accepting an award for the first time with Bernie Taupin for a song they co-wrote. Elton’s exuberance, enthusiasm and title and meaning of his memoir, Me, and his movie (2019’s best), Rocketman show that art exalts life. Elton spoke, appeared and expressed himself with a style of his own. True to themes of his movie, book and life, he did so for his own sake, neither excoriating nor appeasing, placating or seeking for the approval of others.

That Elton John was acknowledged and recognized for his ability, and that he welcomed the recognition without pleading for altruism or collectivism, happy to bask in his own glory — this, not satire as such — is the mark of progress. This, man’s pride in his own ability, is what is worth celebrating. This is what we ought to strive to regard as golden and make universal.

 

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Cotton Club’ Showcases the Jazz Age

Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) revised his 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, for its 35th anniversary. The result, which I am unable to compare to the original, because I never saw it in either theatrical or home video release, is spectacular.

This doesn’t mean that The Cotton Club (encore edition) is perfect. It isn’t. But The Cotton Club (encore edition) is gorgeous. Song and dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment. Besides Taylor Hackford’s anti-Communist thriller, White Nights, I can’t think of another movie in the past 50 years with tap dancing as integral to a coherent story.

To borrow the film’s slightly sordid Harlem style, every major character in this gangster-themed musical either wants a piece of ass or a piece of the action. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie, which was made and financed by very contentious principals, such as the late Robert Evans, and micro-studios, such as the defunct Orion Pictures, after his self-financed 1982 musical debacle, One from the Heart.

The Cotton Club centers on Harlem’s famed nightclub of the same name, which, in reality, if not here, featured exclusively Negro artists singing and dancing for exclusively white audiences. The plot encompasses the period from the Twenties Prohibition era, when black market alcohol sales flourished for better and for worse, arguably for worse, through the Depression. With three main actors, Gregory Hines (White Nights), Diane Lane (A Little Romance) and Richard Gere (An Officer and a Gentleman), the story unfolds at upper Manhattan’s swank jazz club.

The Cotton Club’s reputation for being a disjointed hybrid of jazz extravaganza and mob movie is undeserved, judging by Francis Ford Coppola’s restoration. The truth is that it’s a relatively seamless stitching of twin tales of two sets of brothers — one white brethren, one black brethren — with emphasis on two of the men’s love for two different women. The central men (Hines and Gere), whose loves and endeavors climax at the club, are artists; one tap dances, one plays an instrument.

That’s the gist of The Cotton Club. Much of it is earnest. Most of it is well done. Parts are not. The remainder is split between upper mediocre and lower mediocre. The latter includes Lane’s flat performance.

Mr. Coppola, whose movies valiantly attempt to portray epic stories, really puts on a show. Whatever this movie’s history, which I deliberately averted knowing about in advance for the purpose of writing this review, The Cotton Club is a labor of love for American jazz, tap dancing and Harlem subculture and show business. Like his peers, fellow blockbusting directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, he tends to lay on too much movie for its own good.

The Cotton Club (encore edition) is another example. Besides corrupt police, gang wars, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as gangsters who are also best friends, Lane as a vacuous mob groupie and Gere as the smooth and hard cornet player drafted as a mob lackey who pursues her, there’s more. Plot points include a bombing, grisly murder — as blood drips from a chandelier — man slapping woman during a dance, confessions of a gigolo and racism at the Cotton Club.

All of this happens to music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, among others. By the time someone tags “Jazz” as an explanation of wild ways, it adds up, despite wooden lines and acting.

This is thanks to Francis Coppola’s commitment to depicting jazz as an appealing, if subversive, cultural achievement. With painted eyelids, shadowed faces during lovemaking in the rain and magnetic tap dancing — including scenes with a Nicholas brothers-like duo and an old preacher breaking into routine — The Cotton Club’s production values elevate the spectacle. If the plot lacks, and it does, the show dazzles.

The tap dancing Negro, portrayed with zest and eminence by the late Gregory Hines, falls in love with an interracial torch singer (Lonette McKee) who’s “passing” as white. If you can imagine the indelible “Stormy Weather” as deft punctuation, you get a sense of the dual plot lines and love at stake. Mr. Coppola’s apparently restored the film to a movie in which black characters get their due.

The Cotton Club packs action without piling on: imaginative numbers, an erotic dance and early turns by Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a rising and realistic black thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227) as a sassy songstress, Jennifer Grey and Nicolas Cage as impetuous newlyweds, a portrayal of Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher”, a kiss between curtains and the sudden firing of a handgun.

With Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a doorman, an antebellum-era decorative motif, Hines tap dancing in crisp white tails in a lone spotlight, Gere strolling under a mob movie poster and a sensational  Grand Central Station fantasy, featuring Gwen Verdon tap dancing with a Negro child, The Cotton Club (encore edition) converges at the 20th Century Limited in an absorbing final assimilation of all previous rhythm, mayhem, shenanigans, toe-tapping and revelry.

Capped by classic Hollywood transitional titles and an Andy Warhol darling as the semi-glorified thug Lucky Luciano, with John Barry (Born Free) as composer, Henry LeTang, who also dances, as tap choreographer and James Remar as the monstrous villain, The Cotton Club’s excesses ultimately align with Francis Ford Coppola’s bloodstained romanticism to pull off a uniquely American show of jazz.

Movie Review: 1917

At the beginning of 1917, the World War One movie by writer and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), one British soldier is covered. One is not. This type of visual sets up 1917′s many stylized pictures that signal plot points to come. Most of 1917 is similarly structured, relatively predictable and visually, not conceptually, driven.

Indeed, there’s no historical context. The audience barely learns that the Germans are at war with the British, let alone that what was called the Great War irrevocably altered history, including the arts, as Ayn Rand observed in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). It is somehow fitting that this sensory-oriented, perpetually-driven film, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, only strives to immerse the audience in a selective depiction of war.

It’s a whole, not halfway, immersion. The British soldier characters played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman accept an assignment to save 1,600 Brits from enemy entrapment starting with a charge down the Western front’s winding trenches. The best line in the thrilling 1917, “we should think about this”, is the movie’s only effort to make the audience think about war; the rest of 1917 is more of a horror movie than an epic war movie.

Perhaps this is as it should be, though even the most horrifying great war films, such as Sergeant York (1941) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), both of which 1917 draws heavily from, go to tremendous efforts to dramatize and contextualize in detail war and the men who fought it. With Thomas Newman’s (Thank You for Your Service, Little Children, Bridge of Spies) electronic musical score, cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Goldfinch, 1984, Blade Runner 2049) and silhouettes, light and scenes of men running, Mendes fills 1917 with multitudes of arresting sounds and pictures to hold interest.

The cast, too, including Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Mark Strong (Robin Hood) and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse), deliver fine performances, particularly MacKay in the lead as the knowing soldier in search of an elusive and faraway band of British soldiers.

Yet the upshot is that 1917 lacks emotional, if not visceral, power. Surely, there are symbolic moments, such as a running soldier against the charge of his comrades, desperately trying to halt the push in an impossible task. This is the perfect metaphor for the Great War, which one of America’s worst presidents, Woodrow Wilson, championed, sending countless Americans to be sacrificed.

That the audience never learns the cause of war, this war’s or any war’s, and sees only some of the carefully selected effects for the sake of horror, goes to 1917′s anti-war message. Such a message may emerge in any honest war movie. In 1917, a historic year for at least a few major reasons, gripping human peril, spectacular images and ominous music mask what at root is a cliched and oddly hollow message that war is bad.