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Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film print edition planned for future publication.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Tim Cook for Man of the Year

I did not fully appreciate the heroism of Apple’s principled stand against the state until I watched the full, extended interview with CEO Tim Cook (watch it here).

ABCNEWSlogoThough ABC News should have disclosed its parent company Disney’s historically close relationship with Apple and the interviewer’s questions are generally slanted toward Obama’s administration or uninformed and often hostile, with no regard for individual rights, the interview only underscores Mr. Cook’s outstanding communication skills. He’s unequivocal, he answers each question, raising the stakes here and there and challenging the interviewer. It’s apparent from the interview that Apple, its leadership and Mr. Cook, who persistently and powerfully emphasizes that Apple’s refusal to comply with the government’s order to make new software in violation of Apple’s and its customer’s rights is a stand on principle, has studied, examined and contemplated the deepest issues and context of the false dichotomy between national defense and individual liberty. Tim Cook concisely, slowly and fundamentally gives Apple’s position clarity. One may dispute a word choice or phrasing but I can’t recall another recent example of a businessman so prominently, bravely and historically refusing to be persecuted by the state.

Bravo to Tim Cook for standing up for individual rights—his company’s and his customer’s—and to Apple for earning its status as the greatest American business. Whatever the outcome in this climactic conflict between the inalienable rights of the individual and the ominous role of the American state (read my thoughts on “Apple vs. the State“), the fact is that, while presidential candidates rage against Big Business and fraudulently pose as rebels for positive reform, a big business in California led by one man honors the proud American practice—from the Boston Tea Party to Rosa Parks and Edward Snowden—of rebelling against the omnipotent state and fighting for one’s rights.

Statism in the Arts

The rise of statism in America continues to spread into the arts. Besides government-controlled or state-sponsored or favored subsidies, endowments and grants, or programs, from PBS and NPR to other funding, the influence of the government in art is pervasive and insidious. From hideous public projects to brilliant arts programming for television, its mark is everywhere, mixing the putrid with the inspired.

SXSWLogoThis week, statism infects the 30th annual South by Southwest arts conference and festival (SXSW®) in Texas, which describes itself as a “unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.” The March 11-19 event series in the Lone Star state capital promises “intellectual and creative intermingling among industry leaders” to learn about and trade in new ideas, arts and business.

Unfortunately, contradicting its premise and purpose, SXSW’s keynote speaker this year is the nation’s top government official: Barack Obama.

As with the improper appearances by Mrs. Obama and Joe Biden, the nation’s vice-president, at the Academy Awards, the increasing and insidious escalation of high-ranking government officials and their wives at private arts groups taints the activities. An arts event predicated on official government approval is a disturbing prospect and such a connection is insinuated or implied by these engagements. This is true in general. It was true when Ronald Reagan, a former union president, actor and Hollywood activist, was president of the United States and participated in the Oscars (and Reagan was a former Academy member). It is true now, too, more than ever, with the government imposing censorship, imposing control over every aspect of private life and actively violating individual rights, including the freedom of speech.

That the Texas festival would have as its keynote speaker a president who seeks to force an American business to violate its terms, contracts and rights and the rights of its customers is despicable (see “Apple Vs. the State“). That it would do so knowing that this president’s administration has unjustly blamed an artist for an act of war (Benghazi), sought to intimidate or initiate force against Americans including journalists for exercise of free speech, creating content and reporting facts (denouncing CNN and pressuring a preacher not to exercise his freedom of speech and burn the Koran) and incessantly seek to indiscriminately spy on all Americans (persecuting Edward Snowden for whistleblowing) is impossible to ignore, deny or evade. The people who run SXSW should disinvite President Obama, who opposes individual rights, and replace him with an individual who respects individual rights, including and especially the right to freedom of speech.

Otherwise, this festival is, like the presidential frontrunners for bigger, more controlling government (Clinton and Trump), a farce and a fraud.

Movie Review: Spotlight

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Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.

Movie Review: Truth

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Truth co-starring Cate Blanchett (Cinderella) and Robert Redford (Captain America, An Unfinished Life) is at best a cold, hard character film about today’s journalism. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to recall every detail or even the headline about the 2004 CBS News story by Dan Rather (portrayed here by Mr. Redford), with producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett), that brought Rather down. Part of Truth‘s point is that today’s shouting match, agenda-driven news business overemphasizes trivial details at the expense of solid, investigative reporting.

Asking questions, probing for closer scrutiny of those in power—demanding to know the truth—is the theme of this two-hour tale of a report about President Bush that came apart if not necessarily undone. The movie’s carried all the way by Blanchett as an intense and passionate but hard and myopic producer. Beginning and ending with the 2004 presidential election, an event in which journalism ought to matter the most, she wants the story of a National Guard scandal surrounding George W. Bush’s dubious service so bad she can smell it.

But there’s only a whiff. Truth concerns what it takes, with her “crack” team (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid), operating within the early 21st century’s toadying corporate news media that kiss up to government, to do the reporting and get the story just right. CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, depicted here as a sort of journalistic godfather, is on stand by to go live when Mapes and company have the goods. What happens as the story unravels, with Bruce Greenwood (Capote, Eight Below) as a top CBS suit and Stacy Keach as a key source, shows both the left-wing bias of modern news media—Mapes, Rather and team are guilty as charged—and the less apparent fact that the freedom of the press to be biased and pursue an angle, whatever its predisposition, is crucial in a free society.

If Truth doesn’t exactly dramatize why establishing whether Bush dodged the draft, obtained special favors through his powerful government family and influenced or controlled the press, it shows how it is likely. Especially when you realize watching a Bush press conference video clip that almost every jibe, dig and sneer at the media is part and parcel of today’s corrupt Obama administration, down to exact words about troops in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. Truth matters, writer-director James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) proposes in Truth, it matters very much, and even when pursued by the shrill and the pompous—as Blanchett constantly runs her hands through her mop of hair—on the left or the shrill and the pompous on the right, the people ought to take truth seriously. Truth shows how and why the people do not, chiefly through Blanchett as Mapes, a damaged woman with a reason to be hard-charging whatever her flaws. Rather, too, in this incarnation, though never as straight and concise as Harry Reasoner or Walter Cronkite, comes off as a simple Texan driven by curiosity above all who, it should be remembered, was disgraced by CBS News only to be hired by Mark Cuban, who is hardly part of the vast left-wing, or, for that matter, conservative, media conspiracy.

Think about what matters and stay true to the pursuit, Truth argues, in powerful family scenes which ought to remind today’s jaded audiences the high cost of being a journalist, blogger or truthseeker, and challenge everyone in power, though Truth abbreviates this as FEA (which I figured out well in advance and you probably will, too).

“Who the f— are you people?!?” A taxi driver asks as three broadcast journalists under fire climb in as the media frenzy turns on itself instead of on those running the government. Truth answers this question and reminds the audience what value such people are to the governed.