The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Run All Night

 

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2015

Vertigo Entertainment/Energy Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Produced by Roy Lee/ Michael Tadross/ Brooklyn Weaver

Written by Brad Ingelsby

Sunday rolls around and as usual I check out the results of Biff Bam Pop!’s box office predictions. On Friday they predict the box office numbers for whatever movies are opening that weekend and then Sunday they post the actual numbers. It’s always fun seeing what they got right and just as much fun seeing what they got wrong. They’ve also got a truckload of other fun stuff going on there that you should check out at your earliest opportunity (like, after you finish reading this review. Nudge nudge wink wink)

Anyway, they predicted that RUN ALL NIGHT, the newest Liam Neeson action movie would take in $14 million. It actually made $10. Which kinda surprised me as Liam Neeson has been a dependable action movie star since 2008’s “Taken” Yes, I know he’s been a badass in movies long before that in movies such as “Rob Roy” and “The Phantom Menace” but for the sake of this discussion let’s stick with contemporary action movies, okay?

Can it be that audiences are growing tired of Liam Neeson in action movies? Sure, he’s made a couple of stinkers. Most recently “Non-Stop” and “Taken 3” but he’s mostly delivered solid, entertaining B-level action movies that I appreciate as homages to Action Movies of the 1980s. And RUN ALL NIGHT (which I would have gone to see just for the title) is one of his better ones. Of his recent movies it’s not as good as “A Walk Among The Tombstones” but it steps all over “Taken 3”

Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) once a feared hitman working for Irish mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) is now considered a joke by the other members of Shawn’s gang. So deadly and dangerous was Jimmy back in the day that he was known as ‘The Gravedigger.’ Even though Jimmy hasn’t whacked anybody in years, NYPD Detective John Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio) is still looking to put him away. Jimmy almost wishes somebody would put him out of his misery. Consumed with guilt and despondent after the death of his wife, he’s drinking what’s left of his life away. Shawn looks after him, makes sure Jimmy has booze and walking around money. You get the impression in the movie’s early scenes they have together that Shawn maybe thinks that their positions could very easily have been reversed.

In a truly convoluted series of events that reminds me of Rule #19 of ‘Pixar’s 22 Rules For Phenomenal Storytelling.” Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) ends up dead, killed by Jimmy. Shawn promises that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) will die before Jimmy but Mike’s got his own problems as he’s wanted by the police for the murders of a cop and a pair of Albanian heroin dealers. Mike’s a working stiff with a wife and two daughters who wants nothing to do with any of this and wants to turn himself in but Jimmy asks for just one night to make everything right. It’s not easy convincing Mike as he absolutely hates his father and his life as a criminal. But he soon realizes that he’s now in a pool of sharks his father used to swim in with ease as he used to be the biggest shark of them all.

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Huh? Where’d all that come from you may well ask. I told you it was convoluted. But it’s a good convoluted. There’s a meaty plot at work in RUN ALL NIGHT and you have to pay attention in order to keep up with what’s going on. But I didn’t mind. This is an action movie that’s more concerned that you understand the relationships between the characters rather than how much real estate can be blown up or how many shootouts can be crammed in for no good reason at all. That’s not to say that there aren’t shoot-ups and explosions enough to satisfy any respectable action junkie. There is. But the movie really wants to say something about the relationship and obligations between fathers and sons and the lengths fathers will go through to redeem themselves for the sins they pass onto their sons.

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Weighty stuff, right? Well, don’t worry. It doesn’t get bogged down in all that for long. Thanks to an exceptionally strong supporting cast including Bruce McGill, who makes a definite presence in the movie despite the fact that I believe he has only two lines. And no, I’m not trying to be funny. Common is an assassin named Mr. Price and there’s a surprise cameo by an extremely well known actor that may well have you shaking your head, muttering; “Who the hell let him in this movie?”

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And at the center of the movie are the really excellent performances of Liam Neeson and Ed Harris. They’re terrific at playing a pair of criminals who have lived this life for a long time and know how their current situation has to play out. But they take no joy or pleasure in it. In fact, there’s a lot of grief and regret on both sides. But they know no other way to resolve this tragedy other than with more death. There’s a scene they have in a restaurant that may remind you of a similar scene between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in “Heat.”  No, I’m not saying it’s that good but there’s the same kind of vibe at work there. If you see the movie you’ll know what I’m talking about.

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So should you see RUN ALL NIGHT? If you felt burned by “Taken 3” by all means don’t let that stop you from seeing this one. It’s a solid crime thriller backed up with a firm story and performances that elevate the movie a few notches above what you might expect. Well worth your time and money.

Rated R

114 Minutes

Game Change

2012

HBO Films

Directed by Jay Roach

Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goeztman

Screenplay by Danny Strong

Based on “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Anytime and every time I watch a movie that is based on incidents that actually happened or that starts off with the words; ‘This Is A True Story’ I immediately start thinking of bovine excrement.  Because for me, unless somebody was right there with a camera at the moment that it happened, you’re not accurately documenting events as they actually happened.  And even then, documentaries can be edited to reflect the attitudes, prejudices and politics of the filmmaker (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore) But even that’s all right with me.  We’re human beings and I don’t think that any of us can be truly and completely objective about anything that we passionately care about.  And that includes politics.  A subject that in the past decade has polarized this country in a way none of us have ever been seen before and probably never dreamed could happen.

My point being that I can’t take movies based on true events  entirely seriously.  They’re made long after the fact when people have had time to analyze, scrutinize, discuss and dissect what happened and why.  Factor in that everything everybody remembers or doesn’t remember is flavored by their emotional, mental and even physical condition before and after adds up to too much of a gap for me to accept everything presented in a movie based on true events in good faith.  But that was before we entered the age of YouTube, CNN, TMZ and two dozen 24-hour news channels.  This is pointed out by McCain Campaign Chairman Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) early on in GAME CHANGE and he’s right on point.  The 2008 Presidential Election was without a doubt the most compelling and important election in American history as it was the election that saw an African-American man elected President of The United States.   It was played out in public in a way that elections never had been before thanks to the communication and social media that now dominates and in so many ways infects our society.

And it also gave us Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska who was picked by Senator John McCain’s staff to be his running mate.  Both are still with us and if GAME CHANGE teaches us anything is that even if Sarah Palin didn’t become Vice President of The United States, she still won.  Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) is losing the race and he knows it.  In desperation he calls up genius political strategist Steve Schmidt and begs him to come on board his team and save his campaign.  Schmidt’s plan is to find a running mate who can compete with the rock star popularity and megawatt charisma of Barack Obama.  Campaign Manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) thinks he’s got just the thing: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who appears to have all the qualities they need and more.

She’s a married mother of five, everybody loves her, she’s accessible, she’s extraordinarily popular and it certainly doesn’t hurt that even after having five kids she’s gorgeous and looks wonderful on camera.  The problem is that she is woefully unprepared for the job.   She’s devastating in public appearances where she demonstrates a rock star personality equal to Barack Obama’s.  She’s spectacular when giving a speech.  But in horrendous one-on-one interviews with the press it’s as obvious as a slap upside the head that she doesn’t know a thing about domestic and foreign policy.  She’s ignorant of basic government practices and information that fifth graders know.  She can’t even name a single newspaper even though she claims to read “a lot of them every day” She makes statements that are blatantly untrue. And it soon becomes clear to Schmidt, Davis, McCain speechwriter Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) and Senior Advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) that they’ve been given the mother of sow’s ears and they have absolutely no idea of how to turn it into a silk purse.

I wish that HBO had went ahead and made a whole mini-series based on the book as it deals with a whole lot more than just the McCain/Palin campaign which actually is only one section of the book.  But that’s a small quibble.  Taken purely as drama, GAME CHANGE is worth seeing just for the really strong cast that sells the story.  Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson and Ron Livingston are all great here.  And as Sarah Palin, Julianne Moore looks and sounds so much like her that it’s downright scary.  And while it would be easy for the movie to give us the Tina Fey version of Sarah Palin, the movie is remarkably fair in its depiction of her.  We see the opportunistic Sarah Palin who suddenly found herself thrust onto the world stage and promptly milked it for all it was worth.   But we also see the frightened and very much out of her league Sarah Palin who starts out as a goldfish among sharks but quickly learns how to be a barracuda.  I also liked how the movie showed the many times when John McCain was urged by his staff to run a dirty, mud-slinging campaign and refused.  As played by Ed Harris he comes across as a man of dignity and honor.

It wouldn’t take much for GAME CHANGE to have been pushed into a full-blown political satire as it comes awful close at times.  And through the use of today’s technology which enables the actors to be flawlessly inserted by digital black magic into archival footage, the line between fact and fiction is erased far too well, if you ask me.  Well worth your time to watch if you have HBO.  And if you don’t, be sure to look for it on DVD or Netflix.

120 minutes.  

There’s no rating for GAME CHANGE.  While there is no sex or violence in the movie, be advised that the f-bomb is dropped numerous times.