Monday, March 19, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Diane Keaton stars in MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993), an entertaining comedic mystery cowritten and directed by Woody Allen.

I've never been a particular fan of Allen's -- and it's a given that with the passage of time, his offscreen life has seemed ever more questionable -- but a handful of his films have connected with me, such as MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011).

More important to me as a viewer, I always enjoy Diane Keaton, who made this film a few years after the delightful BABY BOOM (1987), and it was her presence in the lead of MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY which drew me to give it a try. Keaton is front and center in this tale of merry mayhem, backed by Allen, Alan Alda, and Anjelica Huston.

Keaton and Allen play Carol and Larry Lipton, New York empty nesters whose only son is away at college. Larry's a book editor; Carol's a homemaker and gourmet cook who's considering opening a small restaurant.

One evening Carol and Larry meet neighbors who live on the same floor in their apartment building, Paul and Lillian (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). The next evening Lillian suddenly dies...and almost immediately, for a variety of reasons, Carol suspects that Paul killed his wife.

Larry is baffled by Carol's insistence that their neighbor could be a murderer, though their recently divorced friend Ted (Alda) -- who incidentally has a little crush on Carol -- enthusiastically joins in with her concocting murder theories. Lillian was immediately cremated so there's no corpse for the coroner to investigate, but for a grieving husband Paul seems to be having far too good a time. Carol and Ted get a thrill out of "investigating" Paul, feeling that it's adding some excitement to their lives, even if it all turns out to be entirely innocent.

And then something crazy happens...Carol sees the supposedly "dead" woman go past her on a bus. Now everyone's interested, including Marcia (Huston), a writer Larry has set up with Ted, and after more unexpected events unfold, the foursome come up with a plan to trap Paul, since the police will never believe their wild story, given the lack of physical evidence.

The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman is pretty good, although the last act is too predictable. (Come on, why would Carol go into her apartment alone at that juncture, with the murderer knowing they're on to him?)

More importantly, the cast plays it in an enthused and engaging fashion. Carol is thrilled to have something so unexpected drop into her life and plays P.I. with enthusiasm, including going on stakeouts. A scene where the quartet of mid-lifers sit in a restaurant into the wee hours, putting together murder theories while bemused diners and waiters eavesdrop with puzzlement, is a gem.

It's a light and entertaining movie which never gets very scary, although there's one moment which provoked a pretty good gasp from me. I had a pleasant time watching it.

There's a nice selection of songs on the soundtrack, and evocative "New York in fall" location filming by Carlo Di Palma. The film runs a well-paced hour and 44 minutes.

Parental Advisory: MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY is rated PG for mild language and comic violence.

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY is available on DVD. I watched this version; it's a nice widescreen print, and the disc includes the trailer, which is in rougher shape.

The movie is also available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The minimal extras include an isolated music track and the trailer. I wish a commentary track had also been included, as the Twilight Time discs are beautiful but quite pricey.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Finian's Rainbow (1968) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Anyone looking for perfect St. Patrick's Day viewing need search no further than FINIAN'S RAINBOW (1968), available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

Fred Astaire starred in his first movie in half a dozen years when he played the title role of Finian McLonergan in this whimsical film, which was a very early directing credit for Francis Ford Coppola.

I first saw the film at an L.A. revival theater when I was about 16, and it's been a fond memory ever since. I collected lobby cards from the film, and I've enjoyed the LP on countless occasions in the years since I first saw it.

I watched the earlier DVD release when it came out, but it's easily been over a dozen years since I last saw the film. The plot, frankly, is even crazier than I had remembered. On the one hand there's a light and fluffy fairy tale about Finian, who has come to America from Ireland with a stolen pot of gold and a leprechaun (Tommy Steele) hot on his heels; on the other hand, there's an oddball thread about race relations and Finian's daughter Sharon (Petula Clark) accidentally turning a white senator (Keenan Wynn) into a black man.

It gets a bit dark, with threats to burn Sharon as a witch -- but with that juxtaposed with musical numbers and the leprechaun falling in love with the charming dancer "Susan the Silent" (Barbara Hancock), it's hard to take the heavier aspects of the story very seriously, and that's a good thing.

Oh, and did I mention there's a botanist (Al Freeman Jr.) trying to grow "mentholated tobacco"? Yeah, the plot is just a little bit odd.

For those wishing to read a more detailed plot recap, I recommend the favorable review by Glenn Erickson. To my way of thinking, the story is merely an excuse for a great many marvelous songs and dances, with outstanding orchestrations and choral arrangements. (Choral specialist Ken Darby worked on the film.) The score includes tuneful melodies which it's almost impossible to get out of one's head, including "Look to the Rainbow," "Old Devil Moon," "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," and the great "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?"

Clark and Don Francks do a fine job carrying the lead vocals, along with Steele, who's a mite too manic as the leprechaun, but the lyrics he sings are so clever you have to forgive him. Hancock shines in her dances, and as for Astaire, watching him jumping down boxes in one dance sequence, it's hard to believe the man was nearly 70.

Like virtually every other '60s musical, it's a long one, but it moves along well. Little bits of the movie, especially the garish opening credits, seem unpleasantly "1960s" from a visual standpoint, but on the whole the film overcomes its crazier aspects to provide an engaging and entertaining 141 minutes of musical joy.

The movie was filmed by Philip Lathrop. According to IMDb, future cinematographer and director Carroll Ballard did uncredited second unit photography. Outdoor locations, including Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, are mixed with sound stage exteriors.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray has an outstanding widescreen picture which looks simply terrific. It's hard to imagine the film could look or sound any better than it does here.

As was the case with the original 2005 DVD release, this Blu-ray presents the film in its "roadshow" version with the Overture, Intermission and Exit Music intact. The Warner Archive Blu-ray also imports Francis Ford Coppola's onscreen introduction and commentary track from the DVD. Finally, the disc includes the trailer and a featurette on the movie's world premiere.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Tonight's Movie: The Last Hunt (1956) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Taylor gives a memorable performance as an evil man in THE LAST HUNT (1956), a Western available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

THE LAST HUNT was written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Milton Lott. It's the story of Charlie Gilson (Taylor), a Civil War veteran hunting buffalo for profit in 1880s South Dakota.

Charlie puts together a hunting crew consisting of Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger), Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), and a halfbreed, Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn). When their horses are stolen by Indians, an enraged Charlie tracks them down and kills them all, sparing only an Indian woman (Debra Paget) and her toddler son.

Charlie wants the woman to be his squaw, but while she will submit passively if she must in order to survive, she's clearly uninterested in his attentions. It's also not lost on Charlie that she and Sandy regularly exchange unspoken looks. Tensions between Charlie and Sandy only grow deeper as Charlie increasingly reveals himself to be unhinged, enjoying killing buffalo -- and humans -- for killing's sake.

Sandy and the woman ultimately escape the vengeful Charlie in the night, but an eventual showdown with Charlie seems inevitable.

This is a grim, gritty film which is almost shocking in what it puts onscreen in the mid '50s. The film begins with cards explaining that the movie was filmed during the annual thinning of buffalo herds by the U.S. government, but it's still disconcerting to have them killed for real onscreen.

The opening sequence, with Sandy and Charlie talking while Sandy walks around shooting downed but not dead buffalo is a bit jaw-dropping, to say the least. His shooting might have been staged but the buffalo were real so... While I can appreciate that the film wanted to accurately show the rough reality of frontier life of the time, that doesn't mean it's pleasant to watch.

The film is also unusually blunt for its era as far as the Taylor-Paget scenes. There's not a lot of dialogue, but it's not needed in order to convey that Taylor wants to make use of her, so to speak, and not just as an extra hand to work on buffalo hides. A scene with Granger upstairs in a saloon is also fairly bawdy for the mid '50s.

Taylor and Granger flip their good guy/bad guy roles of ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1953) a few years before. By all accounts Taylor was a true gentleman and consummate professional offscreen, but he is incredibly convincing here as an angry, disturbed, racist psychopath. (I could probably throw in a few more adjectives but I'll stop there!) He's chilling...which makes his last, spookily memorable scene perfect. Taylor has been so underrated over the years; in a just world a performance like this should have gained him an Oscar nomination.

I enjoy Granger in his MGM films a great deal, although his character here is somewhat ineffectual, which I suppose is how he ended up agreeing to work for a man like Charlie in the first place. I was surprised when he didn't immediately react more strongly when Charlie slapped the woman, though perhaps he showed wisdom in his patience, as any action on his part would have led to a deadly showdown. As it was, his mere promise to kill Charlie if he hit her again nearly provoked a fight. In the end, Sandy shows his compassion not only by helping the woman and child but also going to great effort to rescue a starving Indian tribe.

As in BROKEN ARROW (1950), Paget is once again a beautiful Indian woman. She's a quiet, nameless character but has a real spine, deliberately claiming the orphaned child as her own to prevent Charlie from killing him, as he clearly would like to be rid of the baby. (It's uncomfortably clear that Charlie would get rid of the tyke without compunction.) With few lines, Paget conveys a woman who has weathered considerable misery and is made of strong stuff. Her finding happiness with Sandy is the only light in a very dark film.

While I admired what the filmmakers accomplished and am glad I finally saw a key film in Taylor's career, that darkness makes it hard to call the film an enjoyable watch. Well-done and thought-provoking, yes; something I'm going to be anxious to watch again, no. Once was probably enough.

The Warner Archive DVD runs an hour and 44 minutes, which varies from IMDb's listed time of an hour and 48 minutes. The remastered widescreen Warner Archive print is beautiful, showing off Russell Harlan's fine CinemaScope photography. The movie was filmed in Eastmancolor on location in South Dakota. There are some obvious soundstage shots, mostly around the campfire, and some interiors including in MGM's well-used frontier general store, but much of the movie was shot outdoors and looks absolutely great.

The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Tonight's Movie: 7 Days in Entebbe (2018)

Earlier today I saw the new theatrical film 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018), a solid docudrama about the 1976 rescue of hijacked hostages by Israeli commandos.

I became interested in the film after seeing the trailer; I tend to like fact-based "tick-tock" dramas, such as PATRIOTS DAY (2016), about the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.

I was slightly concerned the film might be a little too tense or violent for me, which proved not to be the case; in fact, it could have stood some more tension, as I'll explain below. I ultimately felt the filmmakers' choices somewhat undercut their telling of one of the great rescue operations of all time, but all in all it was an interesting and worthwhile film.

The film dramatizes the incident in the summer of 1976 when Palestinian terrorists (played by actors including Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl) hijacked an Air France flight headed from Tel Aviv to Paris.

The pilots were forced to fly to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where they were "welcomed" by crazed Ugandan leader Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie of CINDERELLA).

During the following week the Israeli passengers were separated out and the other passengers were mostly let go. The hijackers demanded a prisoner release in exchange for the remaining 94 hostages and the flight crew, but Israel maintained its policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

Behind the scenes, Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and defense minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) debated whether to talk with the hijackers while simultaneously crafting a rescue plan. The hijackers agreed to extend their deadline to begin killing hostages when told that Israel would negotiate, which bought enough time for the rescue to be put into motion.

Since this is a well-known piece of history I don't think it's too spoiler-ish to say that the raid on the airport by 100 Israeli commandos was tremendously successful, rescuing most of the hostages, with one death among the Israeli commandos. The officer who died was, in fact, Yoni Netanyahu (Angel Bonanni), the older brother of Israel's current prime minister.

Other than Anozie and Pike, who was Jane in the 2005 PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, the actors were mostly unknown to me; all were competent and believable.

The most curious thing about the movie was the choice to frame the opening and closing sequences with a modern dance, in which the girlfriend (Zina Zinchenko) of one of the Israeli soldiers (Ben Schnetzer) is a key performer. The piece worked well enough at the start of the movie, being somewhat thought-provoking as to how its symbolism fit in with the rest of the story, but the cuts back and forth from the rescue operation to the dance completely decimated the urgency and excitement of the rescue scenes and made it harder to follow what was happening.

Fortunately we had watched the soldiers rehearsing so what was happening when they arrived at Entebbe Airport was clear enough, but when it came time for the soldiers to enter the old terminal building where the hostages were held, what was shown was quite abbreviated. In the movie's favor, there is no graphic violence, but the filmmakers' choices meant that the climax of the film was much less exciting and satisfying than it should have been.

That said, 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE was an absorbing hour and 46 minutes which also served as a refresher for me on an incident which happened when I was a child. I have only vague memories of it -- or it might be that what I'm actually remembering is the advertising for dramatizations which quickly followed in the late '70s. The best-known film is probably RAID ON ENTEBBE (1977) with Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, Peter Finch, Yaphet Kotto, and John Saxon.

7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE was directed by Jose Padilha and filmed by Lula Carvalho.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for reasons including violence, thematic material, and brief strong language. I would add that the lives of children are directly threatened which would likely be difficult for young viewers to watch. The positives in the film include the bravery of the flight crew and the commandos who carried out the rescue.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honor of the holiday, here are a few posters for Irish-themed movies:

Reviews are available for most of the above titles: THE LUCK OF THE IRISH (1948), THREE CHEERS FOR THE IRISH (1940), TOP O' THE MORNING (1949), THE IRISH IN US (1935), SALLY AND SAINT ANNE (1952), MY WILD IRISH ROSE (1947), and THE QUIET MAN (1952).

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Previously: 2013 (Maureen O'Hara), 2014 (Angela Greene), 2015 (Actresses in Green), 2016 (Maureen O'Hara), and 2017 (More Actresses in Green).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Quick Preview of TCM in May

Turner Classic Movies has just posted a preview of the channel's May schedule.

Marlene Dietrich is the May Star of the Month. My records indicate it's been 16 years since Dietrich was Star of the Month, in January 2002.

Just under 20 of Dietrich's films will be shown on Thursday evenings beginning January 10th.

The first Thursday evening of the Month, January 3rd, will be a celebration of Robert Osborne, including his 20th anniversary tribute and PRIVATE SCREENINGS interview.

I'm especially excited that TCM will be doing something unique this May, running marathons of over 20 different movie series, including Lassie, Maisie, Dick Tracy, Perry Mason, Mexican Spitfire, Torchy Blane, Dr. Kildare, Nancy Drew, and even half a dozen Blondie films. (I can't recall Blondie films running on TCM before, can anyone else?) Some series will be shown in their entirety, while others will feature a representative sampling.

The Saturday morning programming will feature Dick Foran "B" Westerns and Tarzan movies. Noir Alley, now screening the same film twice per weekend, will include two of my all-time favorite film noir titles: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and CRIME WAVE (1954).

Having just reviewed it, it's great to see WARLOCK (1959) airing in early May; I hope anyone who's not seen it will give it a look!

May themes include the Arctic and Antarctica, Mother's Day, swashbucklers, fairy tales, and the annual Memorial Day weekend war movie marathon. Memorial Day weekend's Noir Alley selection is a film about a veteran, THE CLAY PIGEON (1949).

Actors receiving multi-movie salutes in May include Audrey Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, Anne Baxter, Robert Donat, Lon Chaney, Lesley-Anne Down, Joseph Cotten, Bob Hope, and Robert Montgomery.

I'll have much more on the May schedule right around April 30th or May 1st. (With the TCM Classic Film Festival ending on April 29th, May 1st may be more likely!)

In the meantime, Elizabeth Taylor is currently Star of the Month for March, with a centennial celebration for William Holden coming in April.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Warlock (1959)

WARLOCK (1959) is an excellent Western with an incredibly deep cast, produced and directed by Edward Dmytryk.

This was my first time to see WARLOCK, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It takes one of the classic Western plot lines, taming a town, in unexpected directions; interest is heightened by a number of ambiguous and unpredictable characters, and I appreciated that the story sometimes zigged when I thought it would zag.

The film has a meaty, thoughtful plot without being overly self-conscious about it; at the same time, while there's much to dig into and think about, I also liked the film's somewhat elliptical storytelling. Not everything is spelled out, and we're left to guess, to an extent, at past relationships or things left unsaid, and I think that's a good thing. The film runs a fairly lengthy 122 minutes, but it held my attention throughout.

Nasty rancher Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his cowhands regularly rustle cattle and shoot up the frontier mining town of Warlock. After McQuown's men drive a sheriff out of town, the citizens band together and hire town tamer Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). Blaisedell shows up in Warlock with his longtime friend and companion, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who sets up a faro game in the saloon to supplement Blaisedell's income.

Blaisedell promptly drives McQuown and some of his men out of the saloon, and cowhand Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) is so disgusted with the McQuown bunch that he leaves McQuown's employ and eventually becomes the town's official Deputy Sheriff. This somewhat pits Gannon against Blaisedell, as Gannon is an official government employee, while Blaisedell is the equivalent of a hired gun -- who incidentally makes four times Gannon's new salary.

The deputy sheriff job also puts Gannon at odds with his own brother (Frank Gorshin), who remains determined to drive Blaisedell out of town.

Meanwhile Lily (Dorothy Malone) shows up in Warlock with a chip on her shoulder, eager to settle an old score with Blaisedell and Morgan; as it happens, she also falls in love with Gannon. Blaisedell, for his part, considers marrying Jessie (Dolores Michaels), but can a man who's known nothing but being a hired gun settle down?

The story goes deep into the characters. Gannon once participated in a very bad thing when he worked for McQuown, and his new job might be a means of redemption; Widmark believably sells his character's gradual transformation. Morgan, on the other hand, initially seems to be a loyal friend to Blaisedell but ultimately shows himself to be weirdly obsessed with making sure Blaisedell is "top gun." For his part, Blaisedell seems quietly tormented by all the killing he's had to do, even though he's always done it "by the rules," and his final shootout threatens to send him over the emotional brink.

Among the supporting cast, DeForest Kelley is of note as a cowhand who's a bad dude with his own code of honor, which comes into play during a terrific gunfight sequence. In that same sequence we see that the town of Warlock is ready to grow up, just as some of the characters have done.

It was great to see Tom Drake in this, very believable as the main villain, 15 years past playing the "Boy Next Door" in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944). The supporting cast is incredibly deep; beyond the actors I've already mentioned, the cast includes Wallace Ford, Richard Arlen, Regis Toomey, Whit Bissell, Don Beddoe, Ann Doran, L.Q. Jones, Don "Red" Barry, and Hugh Sanders.

WARLOCK was filmed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald, with location shooting in Moab, Utah.

I appreciated Leigh Harline's unobtrusive scoring, given that the bombast of Elmer Bernstein's music interfered with my enjoyment of Fonda's previous Western, THE TIN STAR (1957). I also found THE TIN STAR somewhat emotionally manipulative, and that feeling was missing here. WARLOCK was simply a well-done, substantive Western filled with interesting characters. I recommend it.

WARLOCK was released on DVD in 2005; more recently it was reissued by Fox Cinema Archives. It's also been released on VHS.

A side note: As it happens, Dorothy Malone passed away this past January just a few days after director Dmytryk's widow, Jean Porter. My joint tribute to the two actresses may be found here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Stingaree (1934) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix star in RKO's STINGAREE (1934), available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on March 20th.

STINGAREE, released in the waning days of the Pre-Code era, is a hybrid musical-adventure film. Its style would soon more fully flower in the MGM films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, beginning with NAUGHTY MARIETTA (1935), released less than a year after STINGAREE.

STINGAREE is a bit of an oddball film, with its main asset being its appealing lead players, reunited three years after costarring in the Oscar-winning CIMARRON (1931). Dix and Dunne, plus Dunne's singing and the energetic direction of William A. Wellman, combine to put the movie over and make it a pleasant watch. While not among the best films of either actor or the director, at the same time it's worth a look.

Dunne plays Hilda, the orphan maid to a wealthy couple, the Clarksons (Henry Stephenson and Mary Boland), on a sheep farm in Australia.

British musical impresario Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle) is visiting the area, and Mrs. Clarkson, who has delusions she can sing, arranges an audition. She also plans for Hilda, who possesses actual musical talent along with beauty, to stay far, far away from Sir Julian.

Stingaree (Dix), a dashing Robin Hood-esque type, kidnaps Sir Julian, with plans to impersonate him and rob the Clarksons. He doesn't count on meeting Hilda before Mrs. Clarkson has time to send her away, and he falls head over heels for her. It seems that Stingaree is also a music lover, and he's determined that Hilda will have her big break, even if he goes to prison as a result.

The couple are separated for an extended period of time, which drags on a bit too long, then builds to a rather silly ending which led me to wonder what on earth would happen to them next!  Although I would have tightened up the second half of the film, it's only 77 minutes so I can't complain too much about the length.

As one can tell from that abbreviated description, the film is somewhat goofy, with a music-loving bandit as the leading man! I think it would have helped if Dix were also a singer, in the style of the MacDonald-Eddy films. The personable Dix otherwise sells the role, however, and Dunne is so lovely as the Cinderella-esque Hilda that it's not at all hard to believe he'd do anything for her.

There are some interesting Pre-Code indicators scattered throughout the film, most notably when Stingaree kidnaps Hilda, followed by a passionate love scene which fades to black. Boland and Tearle also have some amusing dialogue which would not have been heard in a movie of the Production Code era.

There were numerous contributors to the script, which was based on a series of stories by E.W. Hornung. The movie was filmed by James Van Trees. The supporting cast includes Andy Devine, Una O'Connor, Reginald Owen, and Billy Bevan.

The disc includes a commentary track by William Wellman Jr. which I plan to listen to later this week. I've had the good fortune to hear Mr. Wellman speak in person on numerous occasions and know him to be extremely well-informed about his father's life and career, which he wrote about in WILD BILL WELLMAN: HOLLYWOOD REBEL. Based on that his commentary track is sure to be of interest.

Trailers for four Wellman films available from Kino Lorber complete the extras.

The picture on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is slightly soft, as is common with films of the early '30s, but it looks very good, without major scratches or defects. The sound is also quite strong, showing off Dunne's singing to good effect.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for making this lesser-known film available in such a nice presentation.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Book Review: Movie Nights With the Reagans: A Memoir

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS: A MEMOIR is a new book by Mark Weinberg. It was published just over a week ago, on February 27th.

My attention was immediately captured by the publisher's description: "Former special advisor and press secretary to President Ronald Reagan shares an intimate, behind-the-scenes look inside the Reagan presidency -- told through the movies they watched together every week at Camp David."

The subject matter is a wonderful mashup of my love for movies -- including a fondness for Ronald Reagan the actor -- and my admiration of Ronald Reagan the President. The book provides a great opportunity to "peek behind the curtain" to the Reagans' weekends at Camp David, including their reactions to a variety of movies.

The Reagans saw 363 movies in their eight years in the White House, with the last the author saw with them being CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA (1954), in which Reagan starred with Barbara Stanwyck. The book focuses on a much smaller number of significant titles; each of the book's 17 chapters is themed around a film, with the date the Reagans viewed it heading each chapter. Other films are referenced more briefly throughout the course of the book.

Most of the chapters were inspired by films released during the Reagan Presidency; I saw the vast majority of the '80s films discussed in the book when they were first released, which made the book particularly enjoyable for me.

Films in which Reagan starred, KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN (1940) and BEDTIME FOR BONZO (1951), along with the Reagans' costarring HELLCATS OF THE NAVY (1957), receive their own chapters as well.

The film discussed in each chapter also provides a theme for addressing varied aspects of the Reagan years, often showing the interesting ways that politics and popular culture interwine. For instance, the RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) chapter leads to a discussion of President Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and to his plans for a missile shield defense system (SDI) being nicknamed "Star Wars." Both the "evil empire" speech and plans for SDI predated RETURN OF THE JEDI, yet they became mixed up with STAR WARS terms of the same era, thanks in part to the existence of two previous STAR WARS films.

Further along the lines of the melding of history and pop culture, it was fun to be reminded that President Reagan quoted BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) in his 1986 State of the Union address.

For a President always concerned with the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear war, WARGAMES (1983) made an impression and was even cited by him during a talk with Congressmen on the dangers of an inadvertent launch. The book notes that "life imitated art" just months later when the Soviet Union's early warning system malfunctioned.

The British film CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) leads to a description of the Reagans' friendship with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, while a chapter inspired by OH GOD! BOOK II (1980) -- one of the few films discussed I've not seen -- prompts a short discussion on President Reagan's religious faith. That chapter also contains brief yet moving memories from the Reagans' goddaughter Tessa Taylor, daughter of the President's close friend Robert Taylor, as well as the Reagans' happy memories of actor George Burns.

I especially enjoyed the KNUTE ROCKNE chapter, with stories of how Pat O'Brien helped Reagan win his role in the film, as well as O'Brien's kindness to Reagan's father. I loved reading how honored Reagan felt working with Pat O'Brien, who grows further in my estimation as I see his films and learn more about him.

The author makes no secret of his admiration and appreciation for his former boss, and as a Reagan admirer myself, that made the book all the more enjoyable. It's a fast-paced and engaging read which I recommend.

MOVIE NIGHTS WITH THE REAGANS was published by Simon & Schuster. It's 261 pages, including the index. There are 2 inserts of glossy candid photos. The book is attractively designed, with a beautiful cover.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy of this book.