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
Rachel Getting Married
So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinÃ©ma direct, rather than cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ©, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.
Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiancÃ©, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.Continue Reading
In 1981, with newly elected rah-rah American president Ronald Reagan taking office, an anti-Communist, anti-Soviet ardor was in full swing. So it was extra amazingly audacious that pretty-boy actor Warren Beatty was able to get his giant bio of Communist journalist John Reed made. Reed, the only American buried in Russia’s Kremlin, isn’t exactly a household name and Reds the movie, clocking in at an epic 194 minutes, wasn’t exactly a sure thing at the box-office (matter of fact, despite winning a bunch of awards, it was considered a financial disappointment in its day). Reds really is a tribute to the passion of Warren Beatty’s grand vision; he produced, directed, and co-wrote the screenplay with British playwright Trevor Griffiths (with uncredited contributions from Elaine May) and managed to put together an impressive cast to back him up (Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman, etc). Ironic: a rich movie star makes a big expensive movie (with corporate funds) about an anti-wealth guy. In the Doctor Zhivago tradition, Reds is one of those sweeping literate love stories which was shot for over a year in five different countries; but underneath that sweep it’s a very personal and intimate little movie.
After covering events in Russia, journalist John Reed (Beatty) returns to his home town of Portland to raise money for his ultra-left newspaper. There, he meets and has a fling with a married socialite named Louise Bryant (Keaton) and invites her back to New York's bohemian Greenwich Village where they both hang with many of the famous radicals of their day, like the outspoken anarchist Emma ...
Requiem for a Dream
Based on the novel by American writer Hubert Shelby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Requiem is about the struggle of vice in the existence of four people. Aronofsky writes a tight and interesting screen adaptation with a strange timelessness, keeping much of the slang used decades before. Look for a great cameo by Shelby as a sadistic white-trash prison guard.Continue Reading
Shortly after the release of Durston's cult classic, I Drink Your Blood, another movie was crafted with a rampant disease as the focal point. Seeing as how I Drink Your Blood was so ridiculously good and over the top, I imagined this to be similar in plot, but I was wrong. A young doctor named Calvin Crosse (Philip Michael Thomas) is released from prison, his crime being an illegal abortion he performed as a med-student in which the woman did not survive. Dr. Thor, his old professor, has called him to the city of Stanford in order get his help with a disease that might be affecting the town. While hitchhiking he meets Billy (Harlan Cary Poe), a handsome soldier who is returning from duty and grew up in Stanford. The two arrive and part, Billy being smothered by his family and Calvin being met with hostility from locals who don’t like newcomers, especially black ones.
Upon arriving at Dr. Thor's house, Calvin finds him dead and has nothing to go on except a tape recording left for him should the old man die before he arrived, and a note on his desk that reads "D-D?" Sheriff Whitehead (Peter Clune) moseys over to the house and meets Calvin, who becomes his mortal enemy at sight. Their issues are put on hold and Calvin gets to work trying to figure out why he was requested from his old friend. He is visited by a mysterious girl named D.D. (Josie Johnson) who was receiving help from the doctor and is distraught by the news of his death. She just so happens to be the daughter of the menacing sheriff and the new girlfriend of Billy, who turns out to be the only friend Cal has in the town.Continue Reading
Edward Bunker is probably one of the most criminally (no pun intended) neglected writers in American history. Best known for his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, the character wasn't a huge stretch for him. He worked as a career criminal from the time he was a teenager up through his forties. He also wrote a slew of books that depict convict life with searing realism--real ball-kickers of stories that remain thrillingly authentic today. In the late '70s he helped adapt his novel, No Beast So Fierce, for the screen, which resulted in this somewhat shockingly little-known film starring Dustin Hoffman. Why such little fan-fare for it? My guess is that it was just a bit too real at the time.
Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a convict freshly released from prison for armed robbery. He meets with his sociopath of a parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who reminds him that just one step out of line will earn a one-way trip behind bars again. Max insists he's ready to play it straight in a newly reformed life--and we believe him. He speaks earnestly, and a few minutes later in screen time he lands a job at a recycling plant, and even scores a date with a sweet-natured secretary (Theresa Russell). But it doesn't take long for his chances at a normal life to crumble; a meeting with a buddy from the old days (played brilliantly by a doe-eyed Gary Busey) sets off a heart-breakingly unfair chain of events. I'll only mention a few keywords that should drum up some interest for the last two-thirds of the movie: "shotguns," "Harry Dean Stanton," "jewelry store heist," and "freeway nudity."Continue Reading
If you like your ultra-violence with a pulse, you must see Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs—the tale of David and Amy Sumner, played with fervor by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Unlike Hoffman’s more well-known portrayals of a man with wisdom and/or humor, his performance in the film produces a chill and admiration that could rival with any cold-blooded killer onscreen. He plays a mathematician who, with his wife, decides to take up residency in her native village of rural England. A place that seems peaceful, yet is nothing but—occupied with Cornish thugs, rat-breeders, tyrants and more than one sexual deviant.
While trying to find relaxation and work on their marriage and his profession, the two find themselves in a vicious and animalistic race to restore peace, David’s masculinity, and to survive. After days of passive-aggressive plots, spiteful conversation, and violence against women, a local girl goes missing. The man suspected of her demise, Henry Niles (David Warner), the town metal-handicap, winds up in the Sumner’s custody one evening. While protecting him in his home, a war unfolds between Sumner and the village thugs, unleashing a competition of wit vs. experience that sends more than one man to their graves.Continue Reading
Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.
I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.Continue Reading
The Arrangement (1969)
Thanks to my co-worker Jackie for throwing this one my way after telling her how much I enjoy Richard Lester’s Petulia.
Here’s another success from jack-of-all-trades Elia Kazan. This time around he’s mining the tumult of the white-collar male psyche amidst 1960s america. This was a time when veteran and rookie American filmmakers were absorbing the groundbreaking editing and storytelling techniques of European behemoths like Bertolucci, Bunuel & Bergman, and regurgitating them into something wholly new. Something prime Americana. This particular example is a great meeting place for leaders of the old guard (Kazan, Douglas & Kerr) rubbing elbows with a dash of the then-newer crop (Dunaway). This vehicle ends up working as a social mixer for the classic styles of Kazan’s past and the fresh ideas coming in from across the Atlantic. The resulting product nests roughly between the realms of a classic melodrama and a surrealist psychological satire.Continue Reading
I’m a sucker for lavish recreations of Hollywood’s Golden Age and they don’t come much more spectacular than Martin Scorsese’s epic retelling of the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. The story and various legends of Howard Hughes could fill a couple of films. He was rich, by all accounts insane, and had an enormous influence on everything from aviation history to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system. His life was by turns both enviably glamorous and enormously tragic. The Aviator doesn’t try to completely deconstruct Hughes because I think Scorsese realizes that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the man that no one key event from his life or particular psychological tic will ever fully explain. Instead, Scorsese focuses on Hughes as a man of his moment, documenting his rise and just hinting at the fall to come.
The Aviator begins as Hughes (played by current Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanding both a film production unit and a group of stunt pilots for his one film as Director, Hell’s Angels. His obsessive style exasperates both his crew and the money men in charge of bankrolling his endeavor (though they work for Hughes). His painstaking attention to detail regardless of cost is virtually unheard of in Hollywood because as an independently wealthy director he is beholden to no one. He stretches the shoot for months waiting for clouds to appear. Finally, he scraps the at-long-last finished film because it wasn’t shot for sound and was finished just as silent films were on the wane. He reshoots the film because he can.Continue Reading