Tuesday, April 26, 2016


    As TCMFF 2016 approaches, I've taken it upon myself to initiate some meticulously gauged scientific research. As you can see from the previous post, I've blocked out a schedule which, if I manage to get into everything I'm hoping to see, will allow me to consume 21 movies from Thursday evening to Sunday evening. 

    How is this possible? Well, only four of those 21 boasts running times over 100 minutes, and none of them reach a full two hours. The rest range from the lean and not-at-all-mean Horse Feathers, by one minute the shortest at 68 minutes, to the relatively robust 95 minutes of Band of Outsiders and The Endless Summer. 

    So the average run time of my TCMFF selections this year turns out to be 87 minutes, which is great news for my butt, my bladder and my gluttonous ambitions for this coming weekend. Wish me luck!  #TCMFF


Sunday, April 24, 2016


Pictured above: Me and my BFF Bruce Lundy at last year's TCMFF, silhouetted against the poolside atmosphere and tempting God's sense of humor before a screening of Earthquake (1974).

I live in Los Angeles, and my residency here means that a lot of great film programming-- revival screenings, advance looks at upcoming releases and vital, fascinating glimpses at unheralded, unexpected cinema from around the world—is available to me on a week-by-week basis. But I’ve never been to Cannes. Toronto, Tribeca, New York, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, SXSW, these festivals are all events that I have yet to be lucky enough to attend, and I can reasonably expect that it’s probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I never attended a film festival of any kind until I made my way to the outskirts of the Mojave Desert for the Lone Pine Film Festival in 2006, which was its own kind of grand adventure, even if it wasn’t exactly one for bumping shoulders with critics, stars and fanatics on the French Riviera.

But since 2010 there has been one film festival I have attended that I can call home, a place which has felt like just that for going on seven years now-- the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Those who were there with me for that event’s first year were extremely excited when it was announced that the festival would be back for seconds in 2011, and now, as the curtain is being readied to be pulled back on the seventh TCM gathering in Hollywood, it feels now like a grand tradition, certainly the best place to see a varied concentration of favorites, rarities, special appearances and unique programming from the history of Hollywood and international cinema, and all projected (in one format or another) on the big screen. It’s a long, intense, exhilarating and exhausting weekend that I’ve come to treasure, and every year I work hard not to take it for granted, even if getting up and hitting the early morning train for that final day in Hollywood seems like an activity my festival-weary bones would rather set aside in favor of about four or five hours extra sleep.

On TCMFF weekend, however, unless you can find a quiet corner of the lobby of the Chinese Theater multiplex where the majority of the screenings are held, sleep is something that gets shifted to a lower priority for the festival’s three days and four nights. And each year, for me the only challenge bigger than marshaling the stamina to make my way through the bounty of offerings available at TCMFF from 9:00 a.m. till about 2:00 a.m. each day is sitting down with the announced full schedule and figuring out what the hell to see and, just as important, what will have to be missed.

Fellow TCMFF fanatic and film preservationist Ariel Schudson has been one of my close TCMFF pals since year one, and on her blog, Archive-Type: Musings of a Passionate Preservationist, she has this year provided an excellent rundown of the entire TCMFF schedule, broken down by title, distributor, format of presentation and, of course, where and when each screening will take place. Ariel’s guide is a more focused, less-cumbersome, spread-sheet approach to the festival’s own sprawling schedule guide and would serve as a great resource for your own TCMFF planning. 

Her pie-chart breakdown of precisely what percentage of films shown at TCMFF 2016 will be presented in DCP, 35mm or other formats, might seem disconcerting to those would expect a classic film-oriented festival like TCMFF to be more heavily weighted toward celluloid. But the reality of the effort put into discovering lost treasures of cinema and the act of preserving them in 2016 involves both the original 35mm materials and the tools of 21st-technology, and given the sort of rare and lesser-known films that get seen in front of audiences at TCMFF and on the TCM cable network, which are then are made available for screening in other cities and venues, it makes more sense to be appreciative of their availability than to debate about whether or not the legacy of 35mm is somehow being bastardized in the process.

Though digital cinema packages make up about two-thirds of the 2016 festival’s offerings, there are, of course, several films being shown in 35mm this year at TCMFF that don't often get exposed to the light of a projector bulb. A chance to see rarities like Larry Peerce’s interracial romance One Potato, Two Potato (1964), starring Bernie Hamilton and Barbara Barrie (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this performance), or an unfamiliar pre-code picture like John Cromwell’s Double Harness (1933), or Roy Del Ruth’s highly regarded but rarely screened Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), is a chance that should not be passed up by those of us lucky enough to be in Hollywood for the festival this year.

Schudson, who this year will serve for a second time as a member of TCM’s network of social producers, a group dedicated to the proliferation of information and advancing the festival goals of enjoyment and education, would undoubtedly agree that focusing on these less familiar screenings, as well as special programs like Serge Bromberg’s collection of rediscovered Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy shorts, or this year’s presentations on the history of wide-screen formats and the 90th anniversary of the pioneering Vitaphone sound process, is what can make the TCMFF experience expand from mere nostalgia into a more enriching, essential experience for casual and more serious film buffs alike.

Like any TCMFF veteran, Schudson also knows well the cocktail of agony and ecstasy that is devising your festival plan of attack. And you definitely have to have a plan, because the reality, one that took some getting used to for me, is that you just can’t see it all. One look at that schedule will likely fill the average festival attendee with simultaneous rushes of excitement at the possibilities and disappointment over all the good stuff that is going to have to be shunted to the side. Each year I have been able to manage about 15 or 16 movies over the course of a Thursday through Sunday marathon. But this year, by careful positioning and weeding out of some of the more obvious lures, I have set myself up to see a record 21 movies, providing I don’t collapse from exhaustion sometime early Sunday afternoon.

And, oh, the movies I will have to pass up. Here’s just a sample of what I’m not going to being seeing at TCMFF 2016 this year:

Poolside screenings at the Hollywood Roosevelt of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), Batman (1966), with Adam West and Lee Meriwether in attendance, and Forbidden Planet (1956)...

 A 40th-anniversary screening of All the President’s Men (1976) with a discussion between reporter Carl Bernstein and the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer...

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1925) with an accompanying musical orchestral performance conducted by Richard Einhorn featuring the UC Berkeley Alumni Chorus...

Alec Baldwin speaking to Angela Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1964)...

Carl Reiner introducing Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a movie comedy that is about as perfect a fit for TCMFF as there ever has been...

D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), whose spectacular set was the inspiration for the giant courtyard at the Hollywood and Highland complex which plays host to the festival every year...

Elliot Gould introducing Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and M*A*S*H (1970)...

Movie historian and raconteur extraordinaire Michael Schlesinger introducing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)...

A rare Smell-o-Vision presentation of the Cinerama feature Holiday in Spain (1960; aka Scent of Mystery), directed by Jack Cardiff...

And Stacy Keach introducing John Huston’s Fat City (1972).

If you have any sense of the range of my movie tastes and obsessions, you can imagine that having to pass up any or all of this abundance would seem unthinkable to me. But as in past TCMFF years, which have been occasion to some of the single most rewarding film-going experiences of my life, I’m sticking with my strategy of seeking of the unfamiliar, the untested, the rare, or what might be in my case the first encounter with a venerated classic. 

Of the possible 21 movies that make my up my projected schedule (one which could be severely altered at any moment due to festival changes or my own failure to live up to my own fairly Olympian staminal expectations), there are only three that I have seen before. To my mind, that’s what makes prospects for year’s years TCMFF truly thrilling—the anticipation of the unknown.

I won’t be able to make it to Hollywood early enough this year to do much socializing and lubricating at the Club TCM bar before the commencement of the Thursday night programming, so I’ll have to pick up my credentials, get some cheap dinner and pack it straight on over to the Chinese multiplex, where I’ll be spending most of my time over the weekend. I scratched considering most of the programs at outlying venues like the Egyptian Theater, the Cinerama Dome or the Montalban Theater because the scheduling of screenings is fairly tight, and you have to give yourself ample time to get in line for the next screening once you leave the previous one. So I’m planning to do a lot of tight turnarounds to maximize my movie intake this weekend. If you want to find me, just scan the lobby of the multiplex. I’ll be there.

And when I get there, here’s what I’ll be seeing, tentatively speaking, of course:

The aforementioned One Potato, Two Potato (1964) which will be introduced by Cannes award-winning actress Barbara Barrie...

The rare Argentinian film noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956), directed by Fernando Ayala... 

Ida Lupino’s directorial debut, Never Fear (1949)... 

William Powell and Ann Harding in the saucy pre-Code comedy Double Harness (1934)...

Francis Ford Coppola introducing his 1974 masterpiece The Conversation (1974)...

Leslie Stevens’ Private Property (1960) starring Warren Oates and Corey Allen; this lost gem of American independent cinema fell out of circulation for years and its restoration is getting a world premiere screening here, just the sort of delight I’ve come to treasure most from TCMFF... 

William Dieterle’s rarely seen science fiction picture Six Hours to Live (1932), another world-premiere restoration...

Recently restored by the Film Noir Foundation, the Twilight Zone-esque Repeat Performance (1947), with Joan Leslie as a murderess who is granted a wish to live over the year that led to her heinous act... 

Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall’s notorious family-surrounded-by-real-(and real dangerous)-animals drama Roar (1981)... 

Lionel Barrymore as a small-town doctor in One Man's Journey (1933)... 

William Wyler’s second talkie, A House Divided (1931) starring Walter Houston and Helen Chandler... 

Perhaps the best of the popular movie series, Ronald Colman returns when Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), with Michael Schlesinger introducing...

Gina Lollobrigida will be at the big Chinese Theater in person to introduce the hit comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968), and I wouldn’t miss that. Jeez, Ann-Margret last year, Angie Dickinson in past years, now Gina Lollobrigida. I hold my fanboy breath in the hopes that maybe Claudia Cardinale will be next...

A 50th-anniversary screening of The Endless Summer (1966), with director Bruce Brown in attendance...

Another icon of European cinema, Anna Karina, will grace a screening of the restored Band of Outsiders (1964), directed by Jean-Luc Godard...

A digitally restored 3D performance of the Ivan Tors-produced Gog (1954), which hasn’t been seen in good shape for years. This promises to be one of the festival’s most visually gorgeous attractions, and it’s showing at midnight... 

Allison Anders introducing TCMFF favorite Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous All That Heaven Allows (1955)... 

The recent announcement, as had previously been promised, that Burt Reynolds would not be able to attend this year’s festival in front of The Longest Yard (1974) introduces the possibility that I may pass on Robert Aldrich’s great, raucous comedy and instead take in Edward L. Cahn’s little-seen Universal western Law and Order (1932), starring Walter Huston and Harry Carey, and the world premiere restoration of one of my favorite movies, the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932)...

The second of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, and probably the best, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)... 

And my festival capper, which I’ve never seen projected in any fashion, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

In addition to this ridiculous bounty, on the final day of TCMFF five slots are given over to the rescheduling of popular selections from the past three days, a second chance for festivalgoers to catch the usually lesser-known or rare titles that have experienced sell-out screenings. So depending on how blown up my plans to see some of the lower-profile treats on Friday and Saturday end up being, those “to be determined” slots could become, and have been in past years, key to a fulfilling conclusion to the weekend’s diving for cinematic treasure. Downloading the festival’s handy smartphone app is a great way to keep up on what’s coming up in those Sunday slots, as well as any other breaking news coming out of the festival, but you can always do what I do and corral one of the friendly TCMFF volunteers, some of whom have been around the festival as long as I have—I remember your faces!—and get the information from them the old-fashioned way.

So here we go. The 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival commences this Thursday, April 28 and wraps up on Sunday, May 1. If you’re going to be there, you’re one of the truly lucky ones, like me, who will get to spend three days and four nights wall-to-wall enthralled by just a sliver of the rich history of the movies, American and international. This is one weekend out of every year that I appreciate beyond measure, and I thank my editor, Ed Gonzalez at Slant Magazine, for making it possible for me to attend. I will report back. 


Friday, April 22, 2016


I don’t know if The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the big, loud (except when its twin villainesses get all whispery with evil portent) prequel/sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman that nobody was clamoring for, will end up being the year’s worst movie. But in my book this by-the-numbers CGI-encrusted wreck certainly stands a good chance of being the year’s most interminably, heart-hardeningly, brain-softeningly boring movie, and maybe its most cynical one too.

(I know I hope I don’t actually have to see a worse movie in 2016-- Odie Henderson makes an excellent case that Nina might be the one, but I will force myself to take his word for it and avoid that picture like a plague of brown pancake makeup.)

The problem here isn’t just that we’ve seen this sort of paper-thin good-vs.-evil, love triumphing over hate template thousands of times by now. (I can’t even call it a story, nor will I attempt to capsulize it.) Nor is it simply that such a bland by-the-numbers project, a sequel to a movie millions worldwide paid to see but nobody really liked, has had $115 million pumped into it by a major studio desperate to chase what they think the public wants. 

No, the most depressing thing about The Huntsman: Winter’s War is how emblematic it is of the ways in which these big-budget “spectaculars” have smothered even the possibility of individuality, of uniqueness, of the hope for some genuine surprise or storytelling juice. What room is there for individuality when the numbers seem to suggest to suits the world over that people just want to see a Lord of the Rings-Game of Thrones hodgepodge directed as inhumanly as possible, so resembling past triumphs and flops that what audiences are really responding to (if they respond at all) isn’t anything actually on screen but instead the vague echoes of pleasure which remind them of something they already saw once or twice before, something now being obscured in the dark pits of memory by this latest new, bright, flashy contraption. (Here’s an idea: Isn’t it about time for that Willow remake?!)

The game has calcified to such a degree that it’s actually a bad thing if one of these cash-grubbers feels like a movie made with a distinctly human perspective. Despite its visual dynamism, Speed Racer was created by people who infused their artificial world with actual poetry, and its reward was a humiliating critical and box-office death. Something depressing sinks in while watching a monstrosity like The Huntsman: Winter's War-- for all their technological inventiveness, the standard 21st-century studio blockbusters so resemble one another in form and feel and sound and sensibility that it absolutely does not matter any longer whose names are in the credits, from director on down.

The man who admits responsibility for shepherding The Huntsman: Winter’s War is one Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Ever heard of him? No? Who cares? He was the visual effects supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman, and his only other credit as a director is a short called Carrot vs. Ninja. And if The Huntsman: Winter’s War sadly proves anything, it’s that experienced visual effects supervisors are precisely who the studios want in the director’s chair, because whether or not a director has experience, the overwhelming pile-up of on-screen evidence suggests that interest in or ability with actors, or any sort of overriding directorial vision, was never a stringent requirement. Remarkably, Emily Blunt registers some real emotion as the betrayed, then enraged Queen Freya—how this happened is a mystery now surely being investigated by underpaid studio flunkies. But everyone else in the cast might as well be as computer-generated as the standard-issue post-Peter Jackson goblins which try so hard to frighten our heroes with their loud sounds and big teeth, the same ones Charlize Theron apparently tries to imitate in her attempt to be the scariest queen of them all.

Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the movie this week in Time, is right—the gowns Theron and Blunt wear, designed by Colleen Atwood, are the only reasons to set eyes on this movie. But they are hardly reasons enough, especially if, as you would in Los Angeles or New York City, you're paying upwards of $15-20 a ticket. Yes, the craftsmen still do their thing, and do it well, but the reality is that movies like The Huntsman: Winter’s War, ostensible paeans to the magical power of love and camaraderie over the forces of supernatural tyranny, prove that tyranny can be corporeal and corporate too, and that the machines are as close as they’ve ever been to fully taking over.


Saturday, April 16, 2016


A lot of water, legal and otherwise, has passed under the bridge since Paul Reubens last donned the signature crisply tailored gray suit and red bow tie of his indisputably great comic creation, Pee-wee Herman, for a feature-length comedy. His previous Pee-wee feature, Big Top Pee-wee, debuted during the summer of 1988, 28 years ago, and that picture was hardly anyone’s idea of a worthy follow-up to the delirious and hilarious Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)-- it certainly wasn’t one I held too dear. When I saw PWBA the night it opened, I was actually admonished by fellow audience members and even the management of a Medford, Oregon movie theater for my hysterics. But though I approached the Big Top three years later with much eagerness, I left it feeling that Pee-wee had somehow ended up getting twisted into a formula that traded that gray suit in for something more akin to a straitjacket. (Continued visits to the Emmy-winning Pee-wee’s Playhouse helped prove that Big Top amounted not to a trend but instead merely a misguided anomaly.)

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out in August of 1985, Reubens was riding the crest of his exuberantly weird (some said off-putting) appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and his Groundlings-rooted stage show, The Pee-wee Herman Show, which ran at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles for five months in 1980 and gained cultural traction as an HBO special. But Pee-wee was hardly yet a household word. So when the strains of Danny Elfman’s buoyant, circus-inflected score helped introduce us to this curious man-child with the trademark half-swallowed “heh-heh” chuckle, the charmingly infantile behavior and the arsenal of well-worn rejoinders (“I know you are, but what am I?!”) which were suddenly funny again yet sounded strangely reassuring coming out of his mouth, we were primed by familiarity with the Pee-wee persona but also ambushed by the subversive energy supplied by Reubens and the movie. And as it happened, the match of Pee-wee’s impish, slightly perverse, but ultimately charming persona with first-time feature director Tim Burton’s sweet-tempered, macabre inventiveness was one composed of all the most elusive and fortuitous elements that every once in a while result in a very special sort of movie nirvana.

Now, after a long Pee-wee-less drought, Reubens and his alter ego are back, and despite the extreme proximity of the titles and the similarity of the advertising, the all-new Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (now streaming on Netflix), like Big Top Pee-wee before it, turns out to be no Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. First question: How could it be? The appeal of the character is no longer grounded in collective surprise at Reubens’ commitment to the world of Pee-wee, but instead in nostalgia, and not just for the candy-colored perspective of children (and children’s television) but for our memories of Pee-wee himself.

The second question is, does it have to be as good as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? And the answer, happily enough, is no, because even absent Tim Burton’s visual conjurings, and even though Big Holiday sticks close to the template devised by Reubens and cowriters Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol in the first film, the new movie finds its own vein of weirdly-inflected sweetness. Though it may be more conventionally realized, unlike Big Top this new holiday delivers the laughs and continually reminds you, in the most satisfying ways, why Pee-wee Herman was always somebody worth spending time with.

One of the hurdles Pee-wee’s Big Holiday has to clear right away is the fact that, yes, 28 years has passed since we last saw Pee-wee, and even though the character may be an ageless man-child, Paul Reubens, like the rest of us, is not. (Ageless, that is.) Some expert, innovative and not all that uncommon movie magic provided the digital retouching necessary to smooth over the 63-year-old actor into a reasonable facsimile of his Pee-wee prime, and the result admittedly requires a couple of minutes to adjust to. Coincidentally, that’s just about as long as it takes to be charmed anew by the character’s mere presence, as he launches himself through a delightfully Rube Goldbergian routine which propels him to work every day, slinging hash at a diner where everybody in the romantically retro town of Fairville comes for breakfast every morning, where everybody knows Pee-wee’s (and everyone else’s) name.

Pee-wee has been feeling dissatisfied with life of late— the other members of his rock combo, a clean-cut, letterman-jacketed bunch known as the Renegades (Oh, the life Pee-wee lives that we only get incidental peeks at!), are letting the responsibilities of nighttime bowling leagues and late shifts at the grocery store break up the band, and the resulting frustration has Pee-wee feeling the itch to break out of his small-town routine and “live a little.” Enter, on a motorcycle, actor Joe Manganiello, who stops into the diner for a milk shake, forms an immediate and unshakable bond with our hero and suggests that Pee-wee can dust off the hometown blues and get to the work of taking some chances, something Pee-wee, whose entire existence seems preserved in a time capsule filled with days past that never quite existed in the first place, has been till now hesitant to do.    

Joe is having a big birthday party in New York City in five days, to which he suggests Pee-wee attend. But rather than strapping his new pal on the back of the bike, Joe wants Pee-wee to make it there on his own, a better opportunity for stretching those wings and taking those chances, to say nothing of getting Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s road trip structure firmly in place. That voyage itself is a more conventional wrinkle on the epic journey Pee-wee undertook in pursuit of his stolen bike in PWBA, which was inspired in part by, of all things, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. But no matter—it gets our boy moving forward and into the various entanglements, exhilarations and other hijinks that make up this exuberant highway vacation.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is basically a string of episodes that finds Pee-wee running up against all manner of oddball Americana on his way to that Manhattan party, some of which work better than others, most of which rely more on Reubens’ inventiveness than on solid punchlines to get to the laughs. At one point Pee-wee is plopped down in the middle of an epic “farmer’s daughter” scenario which, disappointingly, avoids the inevitable and ends up fizzling out. And Reuben’s reunion with PWBA costar Diane Salinger (one of many blink-and-you-missed-it appearances by Pee-wee veterans) doesn’t result in much either. Salinger was the wistful waitress in the 1985 movie who sat with Pee-wee in the mouth of a giant T. rex mockup, staring at the stars and dreaming out loud of possible futures. Here she returns as a Katherine Hepburn-inflected Amelia Earhart stand-in, a charming and welcome presence as far as she is allowed to go. Unfortunately, she functions largely just to get Pee-wee from point C to point D along his journey, the “D” in this case standing for drenched in raging river rapids. (Spoiler alert: he survives.)

But the occasional fizzle is more than balanced out by the movie’s screwy spirit of optimism, which is, of course, completely a by-product of Reubens’ commitment to and connection with his audience, and some set pieces that work like the Pee-wee gangbusters of old. His antagonistic encounter with a trio of busty Russ Meyer-inspired bank robbers straight out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is good for a load of big laughs and conceptual chuckles, and the actresses sculpted into pneumatic approximation of Meyer’s cartoony pulchritudinous ideals turn out to be perfectly pitched shrews with hearts of gold. (Their ringleader, Jessica Pohly, might make you think Tura Satana is alive and very well, and Alia Shawkat, as a switchblade-wielding tigress poured into a cashmere sweater who shares our hero’s name, won my heart as easily as she does Pee-wee’s.) The circumstances that have these super vixens stealing his car, then showing up later to snarl at and complicate life further for our hero, comprise a classic case of how, in the Reubens/Pee-wee universe, turning over a nasty rock often reveals a happy surprise of humanity underneath.

And I got the biggest laughs I’ve had over a movie in a long time when one of the Amish folks who end up giving Pee-wee a lift in their horse-drawn buggy stumbles over an unfamiliar F-word and asks him what he does for “fu-un.” At which point Pee-wee pulls a balloon out of his pocket and resurrects one of his goofiest routines, the dizzy-headed inflation of said balloon followed by a hilariously extended squeak-fest (with deliriously silly facial accompaniment) as the air escapes. If you watch the linked clip, notice how the Amish characters milling about in the background behind Pee-wee slowly disappear, only to reappear as the bit’s sublime visual punch line, a moment that in the hands of numerous other sardonically inclined comics might have had a nastier, or at least more predictably ironic inflection, but which here plays out as pure Pee-wee-inspired cheer. That’s the way to freshen up a familiar bit.

But probably the cheer-cheer-cheeriest element of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is Pee-wee’s awed, newly minted friendship with Manganiello which, like Pee-wee’s friendship with the Russ Meyerettes or the Amish, trucks not in ironic barriers or red flags blaring “Obvious, Barely Concealed Subtext!” No, Joe and Pee-wee straight-up bond over their mutual love for a good milk shake and, even better, a root beer barrel chaser (“Only the best candy in the world! It really is!”), and the result is one of the funniest and sweetest, not to mention least self-conscious male-bonding episodes in the history of comedy. Joe, the cool, self-regarding, image-conscious actor, is disarmed immediately when Pee-wee doesn’t seem to know who he is. (Pee-wee butchers his last name in high Herman fashion.) And Reuben’s response to Joe’s listing of his credits is pure bliss-- “Certainly you’ve heard of True Blood.” “Uh-uh.” “Magic Mike?” “(chuckles) You’d think so, but no.” Added bonus: my own enjoyment of the scene was enhanced by the fact that before this movie I didn’t know who Joe Manganiello was either!

The two performers are the most unlikely combination of pals, but that’s what makes the joke expand into something more, something resembling the inexplicable essence of true friendship, and that neither of them winks at the audience or does anything to undermine its foundations seems, in this age where no eyebrow seems to go unarched, something approaching nobility. It all comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion when Pee-wee finally arrives in Manhattan but ends up late to Joe’s party (I won’t spoil why), and Joe puts off all his other guests and hides out in the bedroom of his luxury penthouse, distraught that his pal Pee-wee didn’t show up.

But don’t worry, kids-- neither Reubens nor Pee-wee would ever stand for sending you out of the theater, or in this case your Netflix queue, with anything less than a smile on your face, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, as uneven as the holiday journey sometimes is, has barrels full of smiles (root beer barrels!) at the ready. Paul Reubens may have had to have his face digitally tightened up to remind us of the Pee-wee of old (rather than an old Pee-wee), but the unreserved good news is that in 2016 Pee-wee’s high, garrulously anarchic spirit remains gloriously intact and ready to inspire laughter once again, no CGI required.



Just a quick head-up: For those of you in the Los Angeles area, next weekend, April 22-24, marks the occasion for the second annual Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, playing at the newly refurbished Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. This festival, a labor of love project from athlete-actress Melanie Wise and writer-producers Sean Newcombe and Zack Baldwin, highlights the cinematic contributions of women in movies, in the stunt field as well as actresses in the realm of action cinema, and also highlights real-life women who have made significant, pioneering contributions to the furthering of women in sports and other traditionally male-dominated arenas.

Wise, an actress, athlete, aspiring filmmaker and one of the founding members of Artemis Motion Pictures, the group behind the festival, remembers her days auditioning for countless roles in TV and movies that amounted essentially to helpless women in peril. But being six feet tall herself, often towering over the people making the casting decisions, she often found herself losing out on jobs because she was taller than her lead actors. On one audition for the Nash Bridges TV series, she found herself in an imaginative quandary which led to an epiphany of sorts. “I can’t sell this,” she said about pretending to be in quaking fear of the bad guy, and set out upon focusing on methods, including making her own films, to impress upon disbelieving producers that women in strong action roles would be something audiences would flock to see.

She says she and her partners hit upon the idea of a female-oriented action film festival as a way to make just such an impression, and to give actresses who have been essential in making credible inroads into what has typically been seen a male-centric endeavor their due spotlight. “These are women who have skipped way past the confines of the roles we typically see them in,” Wise says, recognizing that for many females, actresses as well as viewers, broadening that scope can be an eye-opening experience. “Women can have a very narrow view of themselves and the possibilities they see open for themselves,” noting that when seeing women in roles traditionally assumed suitable only for men, they may see new dimensions and lifestyles they’ll find appealing. “Their whole worldview can change,” Wise notes, not without a glint of hope in her voice.

Thusly, the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival hopes to introduce to an audience already familiar with the great leading ladies of physical filmmaking to some of the long and fascinating history behind their favorite stars, but also to get that audience a peek into what might be just ahead in terms of the international talent that will be cresting the next wave of female action films. And in this second go-round the AWIAFF has lined up some impressive talent to grace their red carpet ceremonies Friday, April 22, including appearances by Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, Spy and the upcoming female-centric Ghostbusters reboot, actress Yancy Butler (Kick-ass, Hard Target, Lake Placid), and an impressive lineup of top-tier stuntwomen including Jessie Graff (Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Dayna Grant (Mad Max: Fury Road, Ash vs. Evil Dead),  Heidi Moneymaker (Captain America: Civil War, Hail, Caesar!) and Zoe Bell, pictured above in Death Proof.

The Artemis Women in Action Film Festival is a great time honoring women in all aspect of the movies, and I hope you can join me for some of the many great programs and panels that will be available. (For a full rundown of the schedule, click here.) I’ll be there Friday night with my daughters, and throughout the weekend as well-- for the second year in a row I’m a festival judge. But don’t think that will prevent me from falling at the feet of Zoe Bell in worshipful reverence. Despite what James Brown would have had you believe, Artemis proves that it’s no longer just a man’s world.

(And here’s my piece on last year's inaugural AWIAFF.)


Sunday, April 10, 2016


The icon-establishing performances Marilyn Monroe gave in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) are ones for the ages, touchstone works that endure because of the undeniable comic energy and desperation that sparked them from within even as the ravenous public became ever more enraptured by the surface of Monroe’s seductive image of beauty and glamour. Several generations now probably know her only from these films, or perhaps 1955’s The Seven-Year Itch, a more famous probably for the skirt-swirling pose it generated than anything in the movie itself, one of director Wilder’s sourest pictures, or her final completed film, The Misfits (1961), directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller and costarring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

But in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) she delivers a powerful dramatic performance as Nell, a psychologically devastated, delusional, perhaps psychotic young woman apparently on the run from an abusive past who begins to unravel during a babysitting job at a New York hotel. I’d be willing to guess that anyone who thinks Marilyn Monroe can be defined as an actress by the enduring iconography and influence she inspired, or by the grim circumstances of her absorption into a Hollywood system she hated and the sad death that resulted, will be shocked by the nuanced, detailed, emotionally authentic work she does in this movie. In retrospect, and with the benefit of 60-some years’ hindsight and exposure to her most popular work, as well the Myth of Marilyn as analyzed by Norman Mailer and countless others, her Nell seems to exist also on another plane, certainly at a crossroads where, given a left turn instead of a right, pursuit of opportunities for similarly intuitive and expressive roles might have led, well, God knows where—somewhere other than where she and her legend ended up, certainly, and possibly greater acclaim for her talent than her looks. It’s a pointless game of “what if?”, or course, but she’s so marvelous in Don’t Bother to Knock that at some point the audience is almost helpless to resist playing it, imagining the roles we might be without and well as the marvels that might have been.

Nell takes her first tentative steps through the lobby doors of the McKinley Hotel just as airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) fails in a last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship with the hotel’s sultry lounge singer, Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, in her movie debut), who has had enough of his cynical attitude, his lack of “an understanding heart,” and his resistance to commit to something more serious (i.e. marriage) than superficial fun. Jed sulks in his room upstairs, Lyn’s voice haunting him through the hotel’s in-house radio system, and eventually notices the visage of Nell in another room across the hotel courtyard, dancing by herself. He’s caught Nell in a strange reverie— while surreptitiously trying on the clothes and jewelry of the woman whose child she’s caring for, Nell is swept away in a fantasy of someone else’s life, though at this point we have only a clue as to past abuses, neglect and emotional distress, some of which eerily echo the ones from Monroe’s actual childhood.

On the rebound and intrigued, Jed uses a hotel map to determine her room number, calls her and arranges for a visit. Once he arrives, the two strike up a predictable romantic attraction until their would-be tryst is interrupted by Nell’s young charge. Unnerved by the appearance of the young girl and the realization that Nell who she’s said she is, Jed moves from “on the make” to “on the defensive” as Nell’s delusional insecurity and possible psychotic nature begins to emerge. As he witnesses this young woman unraveling before his eyes, he refuses to take advantage of her strangely desperate willingness to sleep with him. Instead, Jed develops a surprising sympathy for Nell, the first emergence of the understanding heart longed for by Lyn. Then, as Nell seems to slip in and out of recognizing who he is, sometimes replacing Jed in her mind with the memory of a pilot boyfriend killed in World War II, an equally unexpected and urgent sense emerges of just how dangerous Nell really is, to herself, to him, and finally to the little girl who won’t stay asleep in the next room.

Monroe and Widmark are an especially compelling pairing. Perhaps because of the hard-nosed nature of the majority of his roles, Widmark is hardly ever given enough credit for the degree to which he demonstrates sensitivity to the needs and the nature of the actors with whom he frequently shares tight spaces and situations, but to not recognize that quality here, in his work with Monroe, and how it elevates their scenes together, as well as the whole of the movie, would seem particularly perverse. In other pictures he’s been a memorable fighter and even a fascinating lover, but the way he resists being both in the presence of Nell’s crumbling, self-defensive psychological fracturing is the crux of Don’t Bother to Knock’s unexpected sympathy for its seismically disturbed female protagonist.

And that sympathy would seem hollow without the map of misunderstanding and desperation provided by Monroe, in her widened eyes, disbelieving of the hints of reality and overwhelming self-defensive fantasies playing out behind them; in her carriage, at once unsure, unstable and preemptively defeated; and in the tender music of her voice, which masks the depths of her delusion, flattening out, becoming deeper, colder as she assumes power over the girl, the shadows of an awful, victimized past threatening to manifest themselves again, this time with Nell dispensing the pain. If she’d never acted again after Don’t Bother to Knock, if our memories of her weren’t so awash in images of “Marilyn,” I think we’d probably remember Monroe’s Nell with much more respect and admiration. Instead, after 60-some years of impersonation and appropriation of her image for every possible commercial purpose, this remarkable piece of acting has survived as a mere footnote, an echoing indicator of what Marilyn Monroe might have done on screen if she’d been able to respond with more resilience to the soul-grinding Hollywood machinery, if she’d been left alone simply to act.

Don’t Bother to Knock is a must-see for Monroe, and for Widmark, but this crisp, tight, visually inventive picture, which clocks in at a trim 76 minutes, is filled with notable and familiar talent on both sides of the camera. As mentioned earlier, it marks the screen debut of Anne Bancroft and serves as a reminder of her astonishing beauty and aplomb, which she possessed from the start and refined over the course of a 50-year career in movies and TV. But a close eye will reveal plenty of familiar faces roaming about the halls and the lobby of the fictional McKinley Hotel.

Noir vet Elisha Cook Jr. appears as Nell’s doting but impatient Uncle Eddie, an elevator operator who gets Nell, who’s only just arrived in town from Oregon, the babysitting job and who hopes (vainly, as it turns out) to turn her child care into a profitable side business. And the great character actor Willis Bouchey plays the bartender who lends a sympathetic ear to tales of Lyn’s romantic woes. Film fans will recognize Bouchey from pictures like Pickup on South Street (1953), The Big Heat (1953), The Violent Men (1954), Them!(1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), No Name on the Bullet (1959), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962), alongside seemingly countless appearances on television throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Don’t Bother to Knock was only this prolific actor’s second credited screen appearance.

Veteran stage and screen performer Verna Felton plays the crotchety and meddling Mrs. Ballew, whose incessant nosiness put her and her husband in the middle of the tense situation surrounding Nell and Jed. Felton had performed on stage since the age of six and in her adult years often played bombastic, mean-spirited matrons, of which Mrs. Ballew was a prime example. But she also did a lot of voice work in Disney classics such as 1950’s Cinderella (she was the Fairy Godmother), 1951’s Alice in Wonderland (the Queen of Hearts) and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. Her film career was somewhat oddly bookended by her vocal performances as matronly elephants, early on as Dumbo’s mother and then, in her final screen work, as the voice of another mama pachyderm in The Jungle Book (1967). Felton starts off Don’t Bother to Knock by railing against the deficiencies of the McKinley Hotel to a very patient, very familiar looking hotel clerk played by one Olan Soule, veteran of over 250 film and TV appearances, usually as, yes, a desk clerk, reporter, judge, detective or some other low-level bureaucrat. If you don’t recognize Soule from such movies and TV shows as Dragnet, This Island Earth (1955), -30- (1959), North by Northwest (1959), Wanted: Dead or Alive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Batman, Petticoat Junction, My Three Sons and The Towering Inferno (1974), among many others, you probably  haven’t been playing close enough attention.

The father of the young girl left to Nell’s care is Jim Backus, known as the ineffectual father tearing James Dean apart in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but of course even more for his two defining roles, the snooty, moneyed but ultimately good-hearted Thurston Howell III, one of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, and the voice of the indefatigably crotchety, visually impaired Mr. Magoo. Veteran character actress Lurene Tuttle appeared briefly in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) before taking on the role of the mother who discovers firsthand the nightmare through which Nell has put her child. Tuttle appeared prolifically on television from the ‘50s into the ‘80s, and she’s known to film buffs for appearances in Niagara (1953; again with Monroe), The Fortune Cookie (1966) and director Lynne Littman’s 1983 nuclear holocaust drama Testament. But she will be recognizable to most for her appearance as the doting wife to John McIntyre’s Sheriff Chambers in Psycho-- “I helped Norman pick out the dress (his mother) was buried in—periwinkle blue.”

The talent behind the scenes on Don’t Bother to Knock turned out to be equally impressive. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash already had Golden Boy (1939), Knock on Any Door (1949) and Rancho Notorious (1952) to his credit when he adapted, with lean intelligence, mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong’s novel for this 20th Century Fox production. Taradash’s very next project, From Here to Eternity (1953), would win him the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, one of eight Oscars that classic picture would take home. He would go on to write the screenplays for Picnic (1955), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Morituri (1965) and Hawaii (1966).

Director of Photography Lucien Ballard’s first jobs were on Morocco (1930) and The Devil is a Woman (1935) for Josef von Sternberg in the early ‘30s. Ballard worked his way through a boatload of shorts and B-movies, often uncredited, until his first job as co-director of photography (with J. Peverell Marley) on Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water in 1941. He soon embarked on a full-fledged career as a lead cinematographer, shooting films like Orchestra Wives (1942), John Brahm’s shoestring spectacular The Undying Monster (1942) and Robert Wise’s The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), all before providing the creative photographic realization of Don’t Bother to Knock, one of 30 pictures he lensed in the decade of the ’50s alone. (Others included Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing and Budd Boetticher’s Buchanan Rides Alone in 1958.) But Ballard is best and most reverently remembered for his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah, realizing the brutal beauty of the director’s vision in such pictures as Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), The Getaway (1972), Junior Bonner (1972) and, perhaps most memorably, The Wild Bunch (1969).

By the time Roy Ward Baker made Don’t Bother to Knock, he’d already kicked off his directing career with a stunning debut—The October Man (1947) starring John Mills as a man who suffers a head injury in a bus crash and becomes chief suspect in a brutal murder case. That triumph was followed by dramatic efforts such as Operation Disaster (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950) and The House in the Square (1951; aka I’ll Never Forget You).  Don’t Bother to Knock was the first feature he directed in America and demonstrated anew the skill and virtuosity Baker had already displayed in The October Man, and it was quickly followed by the delirious brilliant 3D western Inferno (1953), starring Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan.  In 1958 he directed not the first, but certainly the best-regarded account of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember, which some fans of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic are willing to admit outdoes even that film for sheer effectiveness. Baker soon returned to Britain where he directed several episodes of UK TV shows such as The Baron, The Saint and The Avengers. But he may be most well-known to genre fans for the elegance, tension and purple passion he delivered as the director of such Hammer studio classics as Quatermass and the Pit (1967; known in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth), Moon Zero Two (1969), Scars of Dracula (1970), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and, most memorably, The Vampire Lovers (1970). Baker was also the go-to director for several horror anthology films for Amicus Films in the ‘70s, including Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and And Now the Screaming Starts (1973).

If you’ve already seen Don’t Bother to Knock, by this point you need no convincing. Nevertheless, I invite you to read writer Sheila O'Malley's assessment of the film and Monroe’s performance. Sheila’s essay, written in 2010, is a brilliant, perceptive, sympathetic piece of analysis that far outshines any attempt I’ve made here to dig into what Monroe does in this relatively neglected entry in her filmography, and it’s a worthy appreciation of the movie itself. And if you haven’t seen Don’t Bother to Knock yet, bookmark Sheila’s piece and save it until you have— the movie is currently streaming in high-definition on Netflix and is available on DVD and streaming through Amazon. I highly recommend you seek this treasure out soon and avail yourself of the surprises it holds, not the least of which is the evidence of Marilyn Monroe’s emotionally resonant acting talent, her very own understanding heart. In the face of decades of cultural assumption to the contrary, that amounts in my mind to a major cinematic rediscovery, as well as an opportunity to contemplate with some solemnity the missed opportunities down a road not traveled.