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 cinema direct, rather than cinema verite, 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 fiance, 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 Emm...
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
Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
The print journalist drama is a bona fide subgenre; the most popular films like All The President's Men or, more recently, Spotlight are about the crusading journalist overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the truth. Often more interesting is the cynical side of the coin, about the corruption of truth, but those films don’t usually connect with the public or award-givers as easily. The best of the genre would be a couple of masterpieces -- Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and to some extent Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane -- but one film that went under the radar upon release and holds up very well is Shattered Glass. The 2003 docudrama was written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a manipulative young reporter for the respected, 100-year-old highbrow magazine New Republic. When it appears that one of his stories was fabricated, an investigation by the editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) leads to the embarrassing revelation that actually at least twenty-seven articles he wrote were completely made up.
Glass is the kind of passive aggressive guy who continually says "I’m sorry” or worse, asks his colleagues “Are you mad at me?,” putting them in the position to make him feel better, even when he’s wrong. He seems to have a knack for finding interesting characters and angles to political and cultural stories, and though he cozies up to anyone who could help his career, he’s especially cuddly to the women he works with (in an asexual way). But as a journalist he’s respected as a real wunderkind, apparently traveling the country finding witnesses to his colorful and offbeat pieces. When the beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is fired for trying to overly defend his staff from management, he is replaced by the less lovable Lane. Glass writes an entertaining piece about a computer hacker convention that catches the admiring eye of the editor for Forbes Digital online magazine. He passes it to a writer, and here is where the Woodward and Bernstein of the story emerge. A pair of tech writers (Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson) start to investigate Glass’ sources and find nothing but holes. While Glass can not account for all his shoddy note-taking, Lane becomes the only one who can take on the popular writer, as his colleagues, especially writer Caitlin Avey (indie darling Chloë Sevigny) have fallen under his spell.Continue Reading
Southside with You
Maybe the best thing to emerge out of the Armageddon that is our current state of politics is an exciting new budding movie subgenre: the Barack Obama dramas. (Remember kids, it only takes two films for an official subgenre to be declared). First up is the wonderful Southside with You, which chronicles one night in Chicago in 1989. As far as modern romance goes it's an important night, even if it’s just platonic at first. It’s the would-be first date between twenty-eight-year-old law firm summer intern Barack, on a break from Harvard Law, and his supervisor, law firm associate Michelle Robinson, then twenty-five (who, of course, would one day become superstar first lady Michelle Obama). And then rounding out the Obama origin story is another film: a Netflix original called Barry, which follows the young future president while attending graduate school at Columbia in New York. Both films give sneak peeks as to what would make our future hero tick.
The smooth-talking, street-smart and cigarette-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) had in mind a date; the much more serious and seemingly ambitious Michelle (Tika Sumpter) supposedly thought they were just going to a community meeting. Instead, Barack first leads Michelle on a stroll down Michigan Avenue and a stop at the Chicago Institute of Arts, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the work of black artist Ernie Barnes and his iconic piece The Sugar Shack (familiar to pop culture nerds from being featured in the credits to television's Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ’76 album, I Want You). But Barack really gets to impress when they get to the meeting, where black neighbors are disappointed the city has turned down their request for a community center. Barack woos the crowd with his speech-giving magic. Interestingly, instead of going for the usual and obvious us-vs-them take, he asks the crowd to think about the city’s point of view and what the two views have in common (shades of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, that really put him on the map nationally). Here Michelle has two evolutionary moments -- and the film really is through her eyes -- first, she sees the political gifts that Barack has and secondly, after years at Princeton, Harvard and working corporate law, she realizes how out-of-touch she has become with the daily problems of the poor. Barack inspires her to get involved.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
Straight Outta Compton
The music biography has been a popular source of material for movies going back to the creation of the talkies. Even forgetting all the classical composers, the music of the last one hundred years--from jazz to rock and everything in between--seems to continually stir the imagination of filmmakers. And why not? The music bio is a tried and true genre that usually follows the same rags to riches formula and all the excesses that comes with it. From the Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa Stories through Lady Sings The Blues, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sid and Nancy, La Bamba, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Selena, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Control, and of course Ray and Walk The Line, all these films offer different levels of entertainment value. And you can be sure many more are on their way as the greats of the 1960s and '70s continue to reach super-icon status and death.
The last major popular music genre to explode on to the scene has been rap or hip-hop. Though less than forty years old, it has already gotten its share of bios, mixing the “sorta fictional” with the more traditional “lets put on a show” type of music film (Krush Groove, 8 Mile, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Notorious and the lost & forgotten Run-D.M.C. flick Tougher Than Leather). But with Straight Outta Compton, the still young rap-bio has finally gotten its first nearly-great movie. It’s the mostly true story of a fairly diverse group of teens from the tough streets of Compton who came together to form N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). They had a quick and controversial rise and an even quicker implosion, but their impact is still felt today. They weren’t The Beatles of rap. They were more like The Sex Pistols, a band who came on later in the game and only briefly, but whose energy and rage helped make everything before them sound overly safe and instantly dated.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