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Schultz reviews: 'Casablanca,' 'Dave,' 'Nashville,' 'October Sky' and 'The Rocketeer'

Schultz reviews: 'Casablanca,' 'Dave,' 'Nashville,' 'October Sky' and 'The Rocketeer'

Carl Schultz

What separates a motion picture classic from a routine, unexceptional movie?

Different people have different opinions, and even different definitions of the terms.  Many believe the distinction of classic movies is popularity, or financial success:  Since “Avatar” has earned more money at the box office than any other motion picture in history, it must be a classic...right?  Not necessarily.

Other people believe a movie becomes classic as the result of age, and that any motion picture released prior to, say, 1960--or even 1970, or 1980--must be a classic.  But by that definition, a lot of terrible movies have become classics just by still being available on DVD or Blu-ray a few decades after their original releases.  Again, that’s not necessarily true.  Has anyone taken a look at the 1971 megahit “Billy Jack” recently?

The truth is that we all determine our own classics, in movies as well as other forms of artistic expression such as painting, writing, or even cooking.  The great Duke Ellington once defined the difference between good music and bad music by saying, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

By Ellington’s measure, motion picture classics are of our own choosing, and part of a subjective list which is constantly being revised and updated.  If a movie comedy makes you laugh, it’s a good picture.  If a movie musical makes you sing along, or whistle a tune after the picture is over, chances are that others will enjoy it also.

But if a movie makes your heart sing with joy, or ache with sorrow, or swell with pride, or nearly burst with the pleasure of being alive--maybe even all of the above--chances are that you’ve discovered a motion picture classic.

In celebration of the Fourth of July, here are a handful of classic American motion pictures you might’ve missed over the years, or are worth another look today.  All of the movies illustrate a quality which sets the United States apart from all the other countries in the world--a quality we usually refer to as the American Spirit.  

Many people consider these movies classics, and think they’re a reason to celebrate.  Maybe you will, too.

“Casablanca”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 102 Minutes, Not Rated, Released November 26, 1942:

Possibly the most beloved classic movie of all time and a perennial staple of most critics’ lists of the best pictures ever made, nobody at the time of production expected much from “Casablanca.”  The movie was never considered to be anything more than a routine program picture from Warner Bros., little distinguished in quality from the other Humphrey Bogart movies “Across the Pacific,” which preceded it, or “Action in the North Atlantic,” which went into production immediately afterward.

But somehow “Casablanca” ended up becoming a snapshot capturing the mood of America during the time of its release in early 1943--the world-weary cynicism of a nation at war, tired and sore, bloody but not broken, resolved to see the struggle through until the end, no matter the eventual cost.

In the seventy-five-plus years since its release, “Casablanca” has not lost one bit of its power to entertain, fascinate, galvanize, and inspire its legions of loyal fans whose numbers seem to increase with each passing generation.  And the movie’s final twenty-minute scene--written just hours prior to filming, when the filmmakers were still stuck for an ending--is the stuff movie dreams are made of.

On the eve of the United States’ involvement in World War II, an amoral American expatriate Bogart) operating a saloon in French Morocco is surprised to encounter a former lover (Ingrid Bergman), now in the company of her European war hero husband (Paul Henreid).  As a result of their unexpected interaction, the American begins to find his cynicism tempered with an awakening sense of patriotism...and is soon faced with a decision which will irrevocably alter the course of all their lives.

Legends abound regarding the production of this genuinely inspiring picture, including the belief that the screenplay was written day by day as the picture was already in production--which is mostly true--as well as the notion that Humphrey Bogart was cast in the lead role only after Ronald Reagan turned the picture down...which is not.  

Hardly a major star at the time, the future US President most likely started the rumor of his involvement in the picture himself, as a means of boosting his professional profile and career trajectory.  The ruse was unsuccessful, and Reagan was never seriously considered for the “Casablanca” role...although it is true that Humphrey Bogart was cast only after actor George Raft declined to appear in the picture.  

Perfectly written, directed, and acted, “Casablanca” is one picture that truly has it all--adventure, drama, thrills, romance, intrigue, and even comedy.  You won’t believe that some of the lines made it past the censors of the era--in that respect, the movie seems refreshingly contemporary when viewed today.  Not a word, a gesture, or a glance is wasted in this genuine American classic, which actually gets better with each viewing.

During these troubled and turbulent times, play close attention to the dynamic between Bogart’s Rick and Dooley Wilson’s Sam. Despite their difference of race the two men are plainly equals, and close friends as well as partners--rare for a movie from that era.  Fun Fact:  Although Wilson’s voice is heard on the soundtrack performing “As Time Goes By” and other songs, his piano accompaniment is performed by a studio musician and dubbed in.

“Casablanca” won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Direction (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay (twins Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch).  In 1989, the picture was among the very first class of 25 motion pictures selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Available for viewing on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, and HBO Max, a DVD copy of “Casablanca,” loaded with extras, can also usually be found at WalMart for around five bucks.

“Dave”  Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released May 07, 1993:

Ivan Reitman, the filmmaker behind the “Ghostbusters” movies, collaborated with Gary Ross, the writer of 1988’s “Big,” on this sweet little comedy, which also contains a sobering subtext and a gently satirical edge.  

Dave is a sweet-natured, soft hearted Georgetown employment counselor who bears enough of a resemblance to the President of the United States that he earns extra money impersonating the Chief Executive at car lot openings.  Conscripted by the Secret Service to act as a decoy in drawing the attention of the press during the real president’s extramarital tryst, Dave quickly finds his duties and responsibilities expanding when the chief executive is disabled by a medical emergency.

Instructed and trained to impersonate the president until a transfer of power can be arranged, Dave begins to grow into the job.  And as he becomes more accustomed to his surroundings, he decides to do some real and lasting good while he has the opportunity...and all the president’s men are astonished to see the US leader’s popularity skyrocketing as a result.  But the White House Chief of Staff has a darker personal agenda.

Featuring cameo appearances as themselves by a dozen or so actual political and media luminaries of the era, “Dave” was a modest success at the box office during the time of its original release, and today is a cinema treasure ripe for rediscovery.  This is one non-sectarian picture Democrats and Republicans can reach across the aisle and enjoy together.

Starring Kevin Kline in the title role, with Sigourney Weaver as the stern and cynical but genuinely-caring First Lady, Ben Kingsley as the Harry Truman-like vice-president, Frank Langella as a chief-of-staff with totalitarian ambitions, and the wonderful Ving Rhames as a conflicted Secret Service agent, “Dave” is already a brilliant comedy before the last scene.  But the film’s final image provides perfect punctuation, and boosts the movie into the rarefied company of Frank Capra’s most beloved classics.

Rated PG-13 for mild language concerns and brief comic sexuality, “Dave” is available for viewing on Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play and is a staple of the cutout bins at WalMart, often paired on a double-sided DVD with 1995’s “The American President.”

“Nashville”   Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 160 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 11, 1975:

Director Robert Altman’s masterpiece, a portrait of the United States on the eve of its Bicentennial Anniversary celebration, “Nashville” is as vivid in its depiction of the American Spirit as any Norman Rockwell portrait...and often twice as heartbreaking.  

Originally embraced by the country music industry but just as quickly disowned because of its sometimes jaundiced viewpoint, “Nashville” is a free-form collage of a movie following no less than twenty-four main characters during the course of an eventful week in the country music capital, all somehow connected to each other and brought together by fate during the picture’s shattering climax.

The final half hour sequence of this nearly three-hour film classic retains its power even forty-five years after its original release...and possibly contains even greater impact in the present, during a time when it seems tragedy seems almost a way of live and our flag is lowered in sorrow more often than it flies high in pride.  Still, as “Nashville” shows, we always somehow manage to pick up the pieces and soldier forward through adversity and heartache.

Actresses Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin were nominated for Academy Awards for their beautiful performances in this picture, as was Altman for the film’s direction.  Actor Keith Carradine won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his song “I’m Easy,” which is performed on the picture’s soundtrack in no less than three distinctly different styles.  

In 1992, “Nashville” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.  The picture is available for viewing on Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Google Play.  A restored version of the picture, loaded with extras, has been released as part of the Criterion Collection.

“Nashville” is rated R for adult themes, language concerns, violence, and brief nudity.

“October Sky”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 107 Minutes, Rated PG, Released February 19, 1999:

Director Joe Johnston might well be the most unappreciated and underrated filmmaker in Hollywood.  A visual effects supervisor on such blockbuster hits as the original “Star Wars” trilogy and the first three “Indiana Jones” pictures, Johnston graduated to film directing in 1988 with Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”  

Despite a filmmaking career that’s included such hits as “Jumanji” in 1995 and “Captain America: The First Avenger” in 2011, Johnston has never quite managed to become a household name like his contemporaries and colleagues Steven Spielberg and George Lucas...although for a while the director seemed to have an almost exclusive lock on genuine, authentic Americana.

“October Sky” is the fact-based story of Homer Hickam, Jr., a high school student in a failing rural West Virginia coal mining town in 1957.  Inspired by the recent launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite and the sight of the spacecraft streaking nightly across the October skies, young Homer develops an intense interest in the science of rocketry.

Despite the disapproval of his stern coal company executive father, Homer is determined to pursue his interest in rocketry all the way through college and beyond.  And with a little community support and the encouragement of a sympathetic teacher, he’s determined to drag his friends along with him too.

A financial disappointment at the time of its original release in 1999, “October Sky” was a favorite of critics and has become something of a cult favorite over the years, a quiet classic of Americana still celebrated in the regions where the events actually occurred.  The picture also provided a breakthrough role for a perfectly-cast Jake Gyllenhaal in the film’s central role after years of film appearances in child parts (such as the role of Billy Crystal’s son in the megahit 1991 comedy “City Slickers”).

Gyllenhaal’s gentle, empathetic performance as Homer is matched by stellar turns from a cast of reliable character actors, including Chris Cooper as his skeptical father and the wonderful Laura Dern as a conscientious teacher.  “October Sky” is a movie that’ll make you proud that America is still a land of opportunity, where a young person’s dreams can literally reach the stars.

The PG-rated “October Sky” is available for viewing on YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Sling TV, Starz Kids, and Google Play.

“The Rocketeer”   Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures, 108 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 21, 1991:

In 1938 Hollywood, a young stunt pilot finds a stolen jetpack, the prototype of a top secret weapon being developed for the US military by aviation pioneer and eccentric gazillionaire Howard Hughes.  

Pursued by the FBI, members of organized crime, and German spies, the young man dons a stylized helmet to disguise his identity, and uses the jetpack to propel himself into the skies to both defend America against Nazi conquest and win the hand of his sweetheart, an aspiring actress who’s also being courted by a swashbuckling Hollywood star.

Another classic of Americana from filmmaker Joe Johnston, based on the popular 1980s comic book character created by artist Dave Stevens, “The Rocketeer” should’ve been a blockbuster hit along the lines of the similar “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  But although the picture was planned by the imagineers at the Walt Disney studios to be the first in a series of “Rocketeer” adventures, the picture never caught on at the box office...although the premise was revived for a computer-animated Disney Channel series in 2019.

With earnest and sincere early performances by a wholesome Bill Campbell in the title role and the heartbreakingly lovely Jennifer Connelly as his sweetheart, the picture’s best line of dialogue actually belongs to a stolid and humorless Paul Sorvino as racketeer Eddie Valentine:  “I might not turn an honest buck, but I’m 100% American...and I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”  Old pro Alan Arkin and then-James Bond icon Timothy Dalton also contribute richly entertaining appearances in supporting roles.

Of particular interest for film buffs (Dalton is essentially playing the 1930s Warner Bros. icon Errol Flynn, and “Tiny Ron” Taylor is disguised by makeup wizard Rick Baker to resemble the hulking 1940s B-movie heavy Rondo Hatton), “The Rocketeer” is ideal Fourth of July family viewing.  With a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo and a beautiful Aaron Copland-like music score by James Horner, this wonderful picture captures the naive optimism of pre-World War II America, when anything seemed possible and the sky was literally the limit.  

Rated PG for some mild violence and sexuality, “The Rocketeer” is available for viewing on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Vudu.

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