No Highway in the Sky (Henry Koster, 1951). This murky little thriller casts James Stewart as an American engineer working with Great Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment. He’s convinced that the design of the flagship Reindeer airliner is tragically flawed, causing the tail to fall off after a certain number of hours in flight. His worries comes to an head when he’s taking a transatlantic journey on the plane in question and discovers it’s nearing the fatal number of logged hours. It’s a fun premise, but the film unfortunately lacks either the ratcheted up suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller or the escalating mania of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Instead, it merely plods along, as if primarily invested in quelling any tension. It is fun to watch Stewart in the early scenes, as he plays his man of science with the pronounced social maladjustment of someone who has great trouble extricating himself from the whirring machinery of his own brain.
Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967). There are many actors in movie history who have attempted to play unwavering tough guy cool, and then there are those who simply stepped onto screen and embodied it. Lee Marvin was the latter. In this towering paragon of cinematic confidence, Marvin plays a criminal named Walker who was double-crossed by his partners at a big heist and was left for dead. After recovering, he goes out seeking his money. It’s a simple as that. Marvin strides into scene after scene and lays out his character’s ethos with simple declarative sentences that somehow resound like puffed up soliloquies. He’s a master of simple oneupsmanship. When a woman he’s just slept with momentarily stops his exit from the bedroom by asking if he can provide her last name, he betters her by responding “What’s my first name?” Boorman films it all with an unerring eye and nice passages of visual creativity that handily elevate it past the point of conventional exercise.
Reagan (Eugene Jarecki, 2011). Much as I may like to, there’s no denying Ronald Reagan’s enormous presence in modern politics. his sycophantic adherents plagued by selective memories have done everything but road trip to South Dakota to chisel away at Mount Rushmore until his beaming countenance is forever preserved in granite as one of the greatest Presidents in the nation’s history. Meanwhile the cruelest, most unthinking pieces of his rhetoric undergird current GOP dogma, even those the man himself backed away from before his second term reached the end. Given that, Reagan should be a great subject for a documentary. The problem is, as fascinating as he may be in some respects, he’s also elusive and unengaging enough that even his official biographer famously threw up his hands and wrote a weighty tome that was as much about his inability to figure out the man as anything else. The Teflon metaphor used to explain his ability to escape every scandal unscathed during his presidency can be equally applied to his legacy or any real attempts to comprehend him, so it’s undoubtedly folly to expect Eugene Jarecki to pull off anything groundbreaking in a documentary that runs well under two hours, especially one that endeavors to cover his life and career comprehensively. The film is largely a dispensary of plain facts, which earns Jarecki points for being evenhanded, but it also bypasses the sort of probing analysis that would have made for a richer film. By and large, praise and criticism is equally perfunctory, even superficial. The film has all the complexity of an ink blot and it has the same effect of being precisely what the viewer projects into it. To me, Grover Norquist comes across as a vile as a Tolkien villain and Arthur Laffer as grotesquely simple-minded. Results, however, may vary. Regardless, Jarecki’s film barely scratches the surface. Or maybe it just proves that the surface is miraculously unscratchable.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936). One of those grand populists fables which practically represent Frank Capra’s reason for being. Gary Cooper, the most charming oak tree ever to grace movie screens, plays Longfellow Deeds, a small town poet who unexpectedly comes into a fortune. He journeys to New York City where cynical forces from all angles do everything they can to exploit his naive faith in the inherent decency of his fellow man. Corny as it can be, there’s a sharpness to the film too. It may build up to its duly mandated happy ending, but there are some bleak moments in there, especially those that acknowledge the genuinely dire outlook many in the country had at the time. It probably slows down too much in its third act courtroom sequence, but that’s also where Capra wallows in his stolid American heroism. Who could deny him that?
Mother Wore Tights (Walter Lang, 1947). The desire to lament the current state of American moviemaking is, of course, wholly understandable, but its worth remembering that Hollywood has always employed opportunistic patchwork quilt approaches to plying the craft of its industry. Sometimes there was art to be made, but sometimes finding a thin plotline to hang a bunch of musical performances on was good enough, especially when one of the biggest stars of the day was available to fill the frames. This film about a family with parents who work the vaudeville circuit provides plenty of opportunities to wedge numbers and bits in amongst the bland familial drama, even finding a way for Señor Wences to show up and do his thing for several minutes. The greatest entertainment may come from counting all the different ways the film concocts to show off Grable’s famous gams.