Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.Continue Reading
Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.
Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.Continue Reading
In Julian Schnabel’s intimate portrait of an artist, Jeffery Wright exploded on the film scene as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned international painter. The story is about his rise and fall amidst the New York elite, his friendship with Andy Warhol, and the women he loves.
After a successful painting career, Julian Schnabel (Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) made his feature debut as a writer-director in this tribute to the life of his friend. His screenplay is simple, but efficient and his direction is gentle and compassionate -- bringing out wonderful performances from a brilliantly cast group of actors. He also does a great job of incorporating the music to define the times and emotions of the moment.Continue Reading
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.
Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).Continue Reading
In The Bedroom
In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.Continue Reading
Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.
Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.Continue Reading
Lords of Dogtown
I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.
The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.Continue Reading
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
BOY MEETS GIRL Mild-mannered, sheepish, shy Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets his polar opposite in wild, weirdo, eccentric Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and romance ensues, again...Continue Reading
Written by American poet of the gutter, Charles Bukowski (based on his own experiences), Barfly is an urban fairy tale of two wanderers who are always in search of the next bottle. “Henry” (Rourke) is a writer who spends all his time drinking and fighting, occasionally fitting in some poems here and there. “Wanda” (Dunaway) is a boozer who lives off the generosity of various old men. Once these two meet, it is one of cinema’s most wonderfully strange love stories.
Bukowski’s script is very slice of life, but not the lives of most. With colorful characters and exceptionally quotable dialogue, the screenplay is on par with any of his works of poetry, novels or short stories.Continue Reading
When 24 Hour Party People came out, I overheard a lot of dour Raincoat types leaving the theater expressing their wish that whole film had been about Ian Curtis and not those awful acid house Blue Tuesdays or whatever was going on after Ian Curtis' death, at which point their lot zoned out 'til the credits. I thought of how awful that would be - a film about Joy Division. Biopics are always so suspect. Myth-making, made-for-cable garbage with chest-beating and hammy impressions instead of acting... you know, the kind of thing the Oscars are made of. Thankfully, Control is not like that.
Control is directed by Anton Corbijn, which I didn't know till the end. Whatever you think of the guys videos, he has an eye for arresting (if sometimes comically dour) imagery. He's also Dutch and therefore a natural fit for Joy Division’s world which is black and white and eternally wintery, even in the summer – like World War II movies.Continue Reading