What Lisa Watched Last Night #110: Whitney (dir by Angela Bassett)


Last night, I watched the latest Lifetime biopic, Whitney.

Why Was I Watching It?

A movie about Whitney Cummings!?  How could I not watch…

Okay, okay — I knew, before I started watching, that it was a movie about Whitney Houston.  But I have to admit that my motives for watching were not exactly pure.  You see, after watching the Saved By The Bell movie, the Aaliyah movie, and the Brittany Murphy movie, I had every reason to believe that Whitney would be another unfortunate Lifetime biopic.  I was watching expecting the film to be a snarkfest, the type of thing that I could write a really sassy review about.

But — no.  Actually, it turned out to be pretty good.

What Was It About?

Whitney Houston (Yaya DaCosta) meets, falls in love with, and marries Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).  Many drugs are done and many songs are sung.

What Worked?

Whitney was probably a hundred times better than anyone was expecting.  Angela Bassett kept the story moving, Yaya DaCosta and Arlen Escarpeta both gave good performances as Whitney and Bobby respectively, and Deborah Cox — who provided Whitney’s singing voice — sounded great.  The final scene of Whitney singing while Bobby watched was surprisingly moving.

One thing that I did like was that Whitney did not indulge in any sort of tawdry or melodramatic speculation about Whitney’s death.  Even the film’s postscript stated that, even after her death, Whitney Houston continues to inspire new artists but it didn’t go into the details of her final days.  And why should it?  This film was about talent, music, and love.  It wasn’t about tabloid rumors.

What Did Not Work?

I’m sure some people were probably frustrated by the fact that Whitney did turn out to be a good, competently directed and acted film.  All the people who were watching specifically because they wanted to see an Aaliyah-style fiasco (and there were quite a few of them) were undoubtedly left disappointed.

And, of course, I’m sure some people really were hoping for a Whitney Cummings biopic…

On a more serious note, I did bother me a little that, though the movie was called Whitney, it actually seemed to be more about Bobby Brown than her.  Considering that the film basically presented Bobby as being a drug-free saint before he met Whitney and that it was followed by an hour-long interview with Bobby Brown, it was hard not to feel that Lifetime was basically presenting only one side of the story.

(Then again, Whitney Houston’s family refused to have anything to do with the movie so it’s possible nobody was around to present the other side.)

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

Well, unless I’m drunk and there’s a karaoke machine nearby, I can’t sing to save my life so I can’t really claim to be able to relate to Whitney’s talent.  However, I do have a weakness for guys who share my taste in movies.  For Whitney, it was Sparkle.  For me, it’s Suspiria.  So, I was able to watch that part of the movie and go, “Oh my God!  Just like me!”

Lessons Learned

Despite snarky rumors to the contrary, Lifetime can make good biopics.  (Of course, you and I already knew that, right?)

Shattered Politics #14: The Last Hurrah (dir by John Ford)


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Down here in Dallas, we have a county commissioner named John Wiley Price.  Even if you don’t live in Texas, you might have heard about him.  A few years ago, Price stormed out of a commissioners meeting while shouting, “All of you are white!  Go the Hell!”  It was a popular YouTube video for a while and attracted all of the usual type of comments that you see online.  It even made the national news.

Nobody down here in Dallas was surprised by Price’s outburst.  To us, that was just John Wiley being John Wiley.  For that matter, nobody was particularly surprised when it was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI.  Everyone always took it for granted that John Wiley Price was taking bribes and receiving kickbacks.  That’s just the way that things are done down here in Dallas, by politicians both white and black.  (Of course, most of the white politicians who do it don’t get publicly investigated by the FBI.)

Now, if you ask the majority of people in Dallas county what they think about John Wiley Price and they’ll probably say something negative.  I’ll admit that I would probably be among them.  But the thing is — John Wiley Price’s constituents love him.  John Wiley Price was first elected to the commissioner’s court before I was even born and, as long as he’s on the ballot, he will be reelected.  Even if Price is convicted on corruption charges, he will still be reelected.

I can still remember the night that it was announced that John Wiley Price was on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.  All across his district, emergency meetings were held in churches and ministers stood behind the pulpit and, while the TV cameras rolled, they called upon everyone to pray for John Wiley Price.  In Price’s district, he’s known as “our man downtown,” the idea being that John Wiley Price is standing up to the rich and white Dallas establishment and, if he makes some money for himself in the process, so be it.  As long as he’s doing right for the people who elected him, who cares how he does it?

And, as much as we may want to judge the John Wiley Prices of the world, the fact that of the matter is that he’s a part of a long American political tradition.  That political tradition is also the driving force behind today’s final entry in Shattered Politics.

First released in 1958 and directed by John Ford, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), the mayor of an unnamed city in New England that’s obviously meant to be Boston.  Skeffington is the flamboyant head of a large and powerful (but, as the film makes clear, aging) Irish-American political machine.  He’s preparing to run for his fifth term for mayor, a campaign that he says will be his last.

Whether Frank Skeffington is a good mayor or not depends on who you ask.  The poor and the disenfranchised love him.  Skeffington, after all, is the son of Irish immigrants.  He was born poor.  His mother worked as a maid and was even fired by a member of the wealthy and influential Force family.  They know that Skeffington has had to cut corners and that he’s gone out of his way to reward his cronies but they also know that Skeffington is on their side.  Though the phrase is never used in the film, Skeffington is “their man downtown.”

Meanwhile, the wealthy and the upper class see Frank Skeffington as being a crook, a man who has run a corrupt administration and who uses class warfare to keep the city divided against itself and to make himself and his cronies rich.  Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) has thrown his considerable influence between Skeffington’s opponent, a wealthy but dull man named Kevin McCluskey.

Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is in an interesting position.  On the one hand, he is Skeffington’s nephew.  On the other hand, as a journalist, he works for Amos Force.  Skeffington invites Adam to follow and record his final campaign for posterity.

It’s interesting to compare The Last Hurrah to films like The Boss or All The King’s Men.  Whereas those two films came down squarely on the sides of the reformers, The Last Hurrah is firmly on the side of Frank Skeffington.  It presents Skeffington as being a sentimental figure, the type of old-fashioned, populist politician who won office by going out and meeting the people face-to-face and personally giving them a reason to vote for him.  As Skeffington himself points out, he’s the type of politician that will soon be made obsolete by television and modern campaigning.

And it’s impossible not to enjoy The Last Hurrah‘s refusal to pass judgment on its lead character.  It helps, of course, that Spencer Tracy plays Skeffington with a twinkle in his eye while all of his opponents are played by villainous and aristocratic character actors like John Carradine and Basil Rathbone.  Yes, the film says, Skeffington may have been corrupt but at least he wasn’t boring!

Finally, I enjoyed the film because all of the “good” guys were Irish Catholic and all of the bad guys most definitely were not.

So, with that last hurrah, we conclude Shattered Politics for today.  We’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start to get into the 1960s.

Sláinte!

Shattered Politics #13: The Fearmakers (dir by Jacques Tourneur)


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Did you know that 75% of people are sick of hearing the results of polls about what people think about other polls?  It’s true!

Me, I first got sick of polls back in 2012.  That was when, every day, everyone on twitter would be talking about the result of another political poll.  A poll would come out showing that Obama was ahead of Romney in the presidential election and all of my Republican friends would immediately start tweeting about why the poll could not be taken seriously.  Then 2014 came along and polls started to show that the majority of American citizens did not approve of the job Obama was doing.  And all of my Democrat friends would immediately start tweeting about why those polls could not be trusted.

As for me, I was always more concerned with what the polls said over on Rotten Tomatoes.  Really?I would think.  Only 35% of critics gave California Scheming a good review?  67% of moviegoers want to see the new Transformers film?

Oh my God, I thought, those numbers have to be so fake…

Because, let’s face it.  The only time that we believe a poll is when we agree with it.  Otherwise, we assume that they’re either the result of subtle manipulation, selective interpretation, or just completely and totally untrue.

Believe it or not, this suspicion is not a new phenomena.  I’ve always felt that you can learn a lot about history by watching the movies.  That doesn’t mean that movies are historically accurate.  One need only read my review of Magnificent Doll to see that.  However, movies do reflect the culture and concerns of the time in which they were made.

For instance, The Fearmakers was made in 1958 and it shows that not only has polling been around for a while but so has the fear of being manipulated by a fraudulent poll.

In The Fearmakers, Dana Andrews plays Alan Eaton.  Before the start of the Korean War, Alan owned one of the best and most respected polling firms in Washington D.C.  However, while serving in the army during the war, Alan was captured and held prisoner by the Chinese.  After years of being tortured and perhaps brainwashed, Alan is finally released.

He returns to an America that is far different from the country that he left.  For instance, while on a flight to Washington, D.C., he finds himself sitting next to a shifty scientist (Oliver Blake) who tries to convince Alan to support a group that believes in nuclear disarmament.  Even worse, once the plane lands, Alan discovers that he’s been forced out of his polling firm and that his partner has died under mysterious circumstances.

The firm’s new owner, the outwardly friendly, inwardly cold-hearted Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran), offers to hire Alan as a special consultant.  Alan is at first resistant but then he has a meeting with his old friend, Senator Walder (Roy Gordon).  Walder explains that he suspects that Alan’s old polling firm has been infiltrated by outside forces and that it might be using its polling to try to push communist propaganda on the American people.  Alan agrees to work for Jim and to help track down any and all subversives….

The Fearmakers is better than it sounds.  Beyond the fact that the story remains relevant in our poll-driven times, it was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who directed several atmospheric and intelligent horror films in the 30s and 40s.  He brings a similar atmosphere of doom to The Fearmakers.  Perhaps the film’s best scenes are the ones where Tourneur just focuses his camera on Andrews’s face while Alan struggles to understand the country to which he has returned.  As played by Andrews, Alan is troubled and hardly your typical hero.  You’re never quite sure how much of the film’s danger is real and how much of it is just the result of Alan’s own paranoia.

I first saw The Fearmakers on Netflix.  The next time you’ve got 84 minutes to kill, check it out.

Shattered Politics #12: The Boss (dir by Byron Haskin)


The Boss

After you’ve watched The Phenix City Story, why not go over to Netflix and watch another obscure but hard-hitting B-movie, The Boss?

First released in 1956, The Boss came out a year after The Phenix City Story but they both serve as good companion pieces to each other.  Whereas The Phenix City Story shows what it’s like to live in a city dominated by corruption and crime, The Boss shows how a city could get that way in the first place.

The Boss opens in 1919, in an unanmed midwestern city.  (A title card informs us that the city is a “middle class city.”)  World War I has ended and the returning soldiers are marching in a parade throughout the city.  Leading the march is Capt. Matt Brady (John Payne), a humorless war hero.  Marching behind him are a group of soldiers who all seem to hate his guts, even after Bob Herrick (William Bishop) attempts to defend him.  It appears that Matt was a strict officer during the war and Bob was the only one of his men who didn’t hate him.  Of course, a lot of that is because Bob was a childhood friend of Matt’s.  They both grew up in the city together.  To be exact, their home was in the third ward.  As Bob explains, the Brady family rules the third ward.

Matt’s older brother, Tim (Roy Roberts), is the 3rd ward’s alderman.  After the parade ends, Tim explains that he expects Matt to follow in the family business.  However, Matt doesn’t want anything to do with politics.  Instead, he just wants to marry Elsie (Doe Avedon) and live a normal life.  In fact, Matt says, he’s got a date with Elsie that night.

However, before Matt can go on that date, he ends up getting attacked and beaten up by some of the soldiers from the parade.  He’s late for his date and when Elsie refuses to forgive him, Matt ends up going out and getting drunk.  After getting into a few more fights, he meets an insecure woman named Lorry (Gloria McGhee) and announces that they’re getting married whether she wants to or not.

The next morning, Matt wakes up to discover that he now has a wife, Elsie never wants to see him again, and that Tim has dropped dead of a heart attack.  Bruised and hungover, Matt suddenly finds himself forced to take over the family business.

The film jumps forward a few years.  Matt is now the most powerful man in the city.  He decides who get elected to which office and, with the help of the Mafia, he’s made a lot of money for himself.  Bob, meanwhile, has married Elsie and is now Matt’s attorney and unofficial second-in-command.  Meanwhile, Lorry lives in a huge mansion that she never leaves.

It took me a while to get into The Boss.  In fact, I nearly stopped watching after the first twenty minutes because it didn’t ever seem like there would be a moment when Matt would be anything other than surly, drunk, and bruised.  But then, once Tim drops dead, the movie becomes a bit more interesting.  If you remember John Payne for anything, it’s probably for being the nice but kind of boring lawyer from the original Miracle on 34th Street.  So, it’s interesting to see him here, playing a crude and perpetually angry man who always seems to be on the verge of punching someone out.  He gives a good performance and occasionally you even feel a little sorry for Matt.  For everything he does wrong, he’s still essentially the same guy who wanted to marry a school teacher and live out in the suburbs.

Of course, I’m a history nerd so my favorite scenes in The Boss were the ones that dealt with real moments from history, like the scene where Matt panics when he hears about the 1929 Stock Market crash.  Even better, though, is a brief sequence that takes place at a political convention.  Though no names are uttered and the party is never specifically identified, it’s obvious that Matt is meant to be at the 1932 Democratic Convention and the candidate that is asking for Matt’s support is obviously meant to Franklin Roosevelt.  When Roosevelt is nominated without Matt’s support, Matt can only bitterly observe that he wishes he was from Chicago because then he could own a President.

Would a movie made today have the guts to say such a thing about FDR?  I doubt it.

The Boss is currently available on Netflix.  If you’re into politics and history (and maybe even political history), be sure to watch it before it goes away.

Shattered Politics #11: The Phenix City Story (dir by Phil Karlson)


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If A Man Called Peter was the epitome of a stereotypical 1950s film, The Phenix City Story is the exact opposite.  Like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story was released in 1955.  And like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story is based on a true story.  However, beyond that, A Man Called Peter and The Phenix City Story might as well have been taking place on different planets.

And, in many ways, they were.  The Phenix City Story not only takes place in Phenix City, Alabama but it was filmed there as well and featured a few actual citizens in the cast.  Not only was The Phenix City Story telling a true story but the story was being told by some of the same people who actually lived through it.  That makes The Phenix City Story brutally realistic, with brutal being the key word.

And, just in case we have any doubt about the film’s authenticity, it actually opens with a 15 minute documentary in which Clete Roberts (who was an actual news reporter) interviews several citizens of the town.  All of them, speaking in thick Alabama accents and nervously eyeing the camera, assure us that what we are about to see is true.  Quite a few of them also tells us that they still live in fear of losing their lives as a result of everything that happened.

What’s amazing is that, once the actual film does get started, it manages to live up to all of that build up.  The Phenix City Story is a shocking film that remains powerful even 60 years after it was initially released.

As the film opens, we’re informed that Phenix City, Alabama is home to some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the state.  From his club, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) runs a shadowy organization that not only controls Phenix City but the entire state of Alabama as well.  The police ignore his crimes.  The majority of the town’s citizens are too scared to stand up to him.  When a returning veteran of the Korean War, John Patterson (Richard Kiley), tries to stand up to Tanner, the result is even more violence.  A young black girl is kidnapped and murdered, her body tossed on John’s front lawn as a warning.  John’s best friend is killed but Tanner uses his influence to have the death ruled accidental.

Finally, John and a group of other reformers convince John’s father — Albert Patterson (John McIntire) — to run for Attorney General.  Albert runs on a reform platform and exposes both the corruption of Phenix City and how Tanner’s power extends through the rest of the state as well.  When Albert wins the Democratic primary, he’s gunned down in the street and it’s up to John to avenge his death…

To say that The Phenix City Story is intense would be an understatement.  As directed by Phil Karlson, there’s not a single frame of The Phenix City Story that’s not full of menace and danger.  The stark black-and-white cinematography is full of shadows and the camera moves almost frantically from scene to scene, occasionally catching glimpses of dark figures committing acts of violence and cars speeding away from who knows what outage.  It’s a dark film but, ultimately, it’s also a hopeful one.  It suggests that evil will triumph when good men do nothing but that sometimes you can depend on good men — like Albert and John Patterson — to actually step up.

The Phenix City Story shows up on TCM occasionally and you should keep an eye out for it.  It’s one of the best B-movies ever made.

Shattered Politics #10: A Man Called Peter (dir by Henry Koster)


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Occasionally, I’ll see a film like Crime of Passion or Bigger Than Life and I’ll say, “Wow, that’s really subversive for a movie that came out in the 1950s!”

And it’s true.  We tend to think of the 1950s as being a time when conformity ruled all.  It was a time of innocence and chastity, when cinema heroes all wanted to have a house in the suburbs and loving couples slept in separate beds and nobody ever questioned anything.  Of course, the truth of the matter is that there were a lot of films released in the 50s that challenge that perception.

And then again, there were also films like 1955’s A Man Called Peter.

A Man Called Peter is a biopic about Peter Marshall (played by Richard Todd), a Scottish immigrant who came to the United States, became a Presbyterian minister, and then eventually became the Chaplain of the United States Senate.  (That means that he would open each session of the Senate with a prayer and occasionally provide spiritual counsel to the senators.)  I recently watched it on Netflix, specifically because I thought it might be appropriate for this series of political reviews.

And it is, but just barely.

It actually takes the film a while to get to the part where Peter Marshall becomes the Senate Chaplain.  First, we watch him as a boy in Scotland, trying to stow away on a boat heading for America.  Then, several years later, he’s out walking on a foggy night.  He trips over a tree root and, as he lies on the ground, he announces that God has told him to 1) pursue a career as a minister and 2) to do so in America.  (I have to admit that I was raised Catholic so I have no idea whether he was having a typical Presbyterian spiritual experience or not.  But the film certainly takes it seriously.)

Peter ends up in America where he ministers to a church in Atlanta, marries Catherine (Jean Peters), and then eventually ends up at a church in Washington, D.C.  When he eventually is asked to serve as Chaplain of the Senate, both he and the film go out of their way to avoid taking any definite position on any issue.  Instead, Peter gives prayers that encourage the senators to put partisan bickering aside and work together to make the United States the best country in the world.

Having now watched all 120 minutes of A Man Called Peter, I can safely that this is a film that epitomizes everything that we always assume to be true about the 1950s.  From the film’s view of marriage to religion to politics, A Man Called Peter is perhaps one of the most stereotypically 1950s  movies ever made.  This is such a 1950s movie that it’s even filmed in CinemaScope!

(And speaking of CinemaScope, A Man Called Peter looks great but it’s perhaps one of the least intimate biopics that I’ve ever seen.  You can see every inch of the surrounding landscape but the human beings get lost.)

For me, the film’s most 1955 moment comes when Catherine first discovers that her husband has been reassigned to Washington, D.C.  She and Peter are on their honeymoon when they get a telegram telling them that their new home in Washington is ready.  Catherine is shocked.  Peter says that he didn’t want to interrupt their honeymoon by telling her that they’re not going home to Atlanta.  Instead, they’re going to an entirely new city and an entirely new life.  (In other words, Peter has decided to say goodbye to Catherine’s family and friends.)

“Aren’t you pleased?” Peter asks her.

Cheerfully, Catherine replies, “Well, who wouldn’t be?”

Ah, the 50s.

Shattered Politics #9: State of the Union (dir by Frank Capra)


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“Politicians have remained professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs!” — State of the Union (1948)

Does anyone remember the Americans Elect fiasco of 2012?

Americans Elect was an organization set up by a bunch of businesspeople, attorneys, and out-of-office politicians.  Their stated goal was to challenge the political establishment, shake up the two-party system, and elect a president.  The idea was that the party would hold a nationwide primary.  Any registered U.S. voter could go online and cast their vote on what they thought should be in the party’s platform and who they thought should be the Americans Elect presidential candidate.  Whoever won this nationwide primary would be required to 1) run on the platform and 2) pick a vice presidential candidate from the opposite party.

And all would be right with the world, right?

Right.

Anyway, I did register as an American Elect delegate, just because I was curious to see who was getting votes in the nationwide primary and who wasn’t.  (And yes, I did cast a vote.  I voted for Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia.)  Looking over the site, I saw that all of the usual suspects were getting votes — Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, and even Barack Obama.  None of the big vote getters were exactly nonpartisan or independent figures.  With the possible exception of Ron Paul, all of them were members of the very establishment that Americans Elect was claiming to challenge.

Anyway, Americans Elect ended up nominating no one for President and, as we all know, the 2012 election came down to choosing between two candidates who both received money from the same millionaires and, in the end, the status quo was upheld.

To be honest, everyone should have realized that Americans Elect was a sham as soon as the New York Times printed a column praising the effort.  Any truly independent political organization would never be praised by the New York Times.  Instead, like most so-called independent political organizations, Americans Elect was just a case of certain members of the establishment slumming.

So, the lesson of American Elect would seem to be that any attempt to run outside of the mainstream will, in the end, simply lead you back to the mainstream.  That was an expensive lesson for all of the volunteers who devoted their time to getting Americans Elect on the ballot in 28 states.  It was a lesson that they could have learned much more easily by watching the 1948 film, State of the Union.

In State of the Union, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) wants to make her lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), President of the United States.  Grant is a no-nonsense, plain-spoken businessman who is quick to explain that he loves and cares about his country but that he hates partisan politics.  (In many ways, it’s impossible not to compare Grant to … well, to just about every single wealthy businessman who has ever run for public office while claiming to essentially be nonpolitical.  The big difference is that Grant actually means it.)  However, by subtly appealing to both his ego and his patriotism, Kay convinces Grant to run.  With the help of sleazy Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) and the sardonic Spike McManus (Van Johnson), Kay uses her money and her newspapers to turn Grant into a viable candidate.

The only problem is that Grant is separated from his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) and, since this movie was made in the 1940s, everyone knows that Grant has to be seen as being a family man if he’s going to be elected.  For the election, Mary and Grant pretend to be happily married.

As the primary season continues, Grant finds himself being more and more manipulated by Kay and Jim.  Eventually, Grant is forced to make a decision between his campaign and his integrity…

Following Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe, State of the Union was the third part of director Frank Capra’s political trilogy.  Based on a play (which, itself, was supposedly inspired by the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie), State of the Union never quite escapes its stage-bound origins.  Add to that, the film was probably a bit more shocking when it was first released in 1948.  In 2015, we’re used to idea of politicians being controlled by money.  But, in 1948, audiences were perhaps a little bit more innocent.

But, that said, State of the Union is still an entertaining film.  Needless to say, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have a wonderful chemistry together and Hepburn gets a great drunk scene.  (Hepburn had such an aristocratic presence that it’s always fun to watch her do comedy.)  Angela Lansbury also does well, playing a character who could very well grow up to be the role she played in The Manchurian Candidate.

67 years after it was first released, State of the Union remains an entertaining film that makes some good and still relevant points.  In 2016, when you’re tempted to get involved with the latest version of Americans Elect, watch State of the Union instead.