Friday, February 26, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Goyer's Superman, Kevin Smith fail, the new Nightmare trailer, and Damon as Bobby...

* So Kevin Smith directed Cop Out? Now I like Kevin Smith, and I think his “Evening with Kevin Smith” speeches on DVD are fascinating. He knows a lot about the world of the geek, and his Superman Returns bit is spot on. But what happened to the days of Chasing Amy and Dogma, when Smith surrounding his dick jokes with some clever dialogue and generally humorous situations. I see these trailers for Cop Out, and I don’t even know that Bruce Willis says anything; he just looks confusedly at Tracy Morgan. He’s not the only one.

* I caught a TV spot for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland the other day and I saw the Mad Hatter – Johnny Depp – in a sword fight. I am so close to abandoning this movie completely.

* The Crazies looks pretty entertaining.

* Matt Damon has signed on to do a Robert Kennedy biopic. I can see Damon as Bobby, and we all know he can nail the Boston accent. He will need to trim away some of his muscle.

* David Goyer is rumored for Superman. Goyer, the writer behind Chris Nolan’s Batman movies, might be a good fit to reboot the Man of Steel. There will be no Brandon Routh, nor will there be Nicolas Cage. But maybe Cage’s son, Kal El, can play Supes as a baby on Krypton. Makes sense.

* There are certain movies for certain people that are critic proof. For example, 85% of the critics can bash Transformers 2 and it makes infinity dollars. A movie that is critic proof to me personally is Brooklyn’s Finest, Antoine Fuqua’s new police drama starring Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, and Wesley Snipes. I don’t care if it gets the inevitable poor reviews – it’s already 0 for 3 in that department, mostly citing Gere’s job – I will go see it. Partly because Fuqua’s Training Day is quality, partly because Ethan Hawke is in it. Partly because it’s cool to see Wesley Snipes paying off his IRS debt in a movie other than Art of War 3.

* I saw The Blind Side again last weekend, and I really have no problem with Sandra Bullock winning the Award. Sure, the movie is sub-par, but without Bullock the movie is nothing. It’s like Joe Mauer winning the MVP playing for the Twins.

* Critic Rick Florino of the Artist Direct website calls Shutter Island “not only one of the best films of the decade, it’s also one of the best of Scorsese’s storied career.” Well, since the decade is two months old, ok. But let’s just tap the brakes, Mr. Florino. It is good, but one of his best? Maybe it’s the best of a lesser director, but not Marty.

* The trailer for the new Nightmare on Elm Street looks very solid. Nice style, nice mood, etc. But so did the trailer for the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And that’s the thing with these Michael Bay horror remakes. It’s as if they were created for the sole purpose of creating a kickass trailer and nothing more. That being said, the original Chainsaw Massacre is more sacred I think to the horror masses. I caught the last part of the original NOES the other night, and its pretty terrible all things considered.

* Music note: Jimi Henrix’s “new” album is just around the corner, a collection of well-known recordings coupled with some newly discovered tracks. The first single form the album (and also the album’s title) Valleys of Neptune is available, and it is vintage Hendrix. I love it. It makes Hendrix alive in my head, at least for a moment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Joel Schumacher's Falling Down

Joel Schumacher is pretty ridiculous for the most part. It’s been over a decade since he has made anything relevant, and even then his films were hit and miss. For every Lost Boys or A Time to Kill, there is a double shot of 8MM and Batman Forever. And Phone Booth, and The Phantom of the Opera. And The Number 23. And let us not forget Batman and Robin. That being said, in 1993 Schumacher directed Falling Down, a flawed but interesting character study about a man on the edge that, over the span of a hot Los Angeles afternoon, is given that push he needs.

Michael Douglas plays William Foster, and as the film opens we find Foster stuck in gridlock, sweating in the intense heat of the LA summertime inside his tiny hatchback. What is most notable from the get go about Foster is his appearance: a crisp, white, short-sleeve dress shirt and black tie, a tightly coiffed silver flattop, and a pair of vintage horn-rimmed glasses. Foster’s look has become somewhat iconic, but it also gives the audience a few not-so-subtle hints into his psyche. William is neat, rigid, clean, his tie is perfectly straight, his hair perfectly in place, his shirt neatly tucked. Willliam is uptight. And in the opening shots as we see the heat and the gridlock closing in on him, we can almost feel the horn-rimmed glasses squeezing into his temples.

It isn’t long before William escapes the confines of his car, abandoning it in the middle of traffic to endure the heat on foot, taking with him what appears to be his only possession: his briefcase. His first stop is a Korean grocery store in a sketchy part of town, where we see William’s anger that has been percolating just beneath his crisp white shirt explode over the price of a can of soda.

So goes the journey of William across the stereotyped landscape of Los Angeles. There are the Mexican thugs who hound him for his briefcase, and once William scares them away, they decide to retaliate with a drive by. As you can imagine, this ends poorly for the gangsters, and after their car crashes William ends up with their duffel bag full of machine guns.

Meanwhile, a second story is unfolding as Detective Prendergast, played with an almost dumb sweetness by Robert Duvall, is starting his last day on the job by helping a motorcycle cop move William’s abandoned car out of traffic. This ties Prendergast to William for the long haul – he notices an interesting specialty license plate that says “D-Fens” – and despite it being his final day on the job, the curiosity about the car, and the mounting clues and ties to William and the events happening around town set a narrowing course that will bring these two men together.

Prendergast is an interesting character. He is docile, sweet, planning on moving to the desert when he retires. But his wife, Amanda, played by Tuesday Weld, is a neurotic mess. They lost their child several years ago, an event that clearly has ruined her ability to hang on mentally. She calls him constantly, she is a nerve-frying mess, and she is all you need to understand Duvall’s docile nature.

We find out before long that William is “going home.” That is what he tells everyone. Home is a place along the beach where his wife, Beth (Barbara Hershey) and child live, and are not excited in the least to see him. So much so that Beth, paranoid after William calls her throughout his trek, hounds the local police and warns them that he is a dangerous man. The structure of Falling Down works in this way, with three corresponding narratives all funneling towards the same conclusion. But before they can, William must make his way across Los Angeles.

For a time, William’s confrontations, while violent, are not ultimately harmful. He beats up the Mexican gang members; they crash their own car. He loses it in a fast food restaurant where he orders breakfast three minutes too late, yet even though he pulls out a Tek-9 from his bag of weapons, he kills no one. The end result is comical instead of tragic. He is hassled by a bum for his briefcase, finally giving it up since the only thing in it to begin with is a sandwich and an apple. But everything about the story, about William’s arc as a character, changes once he goes into an Army Surplus store to buy a new pair of boots that will get him where he needs to go.

The storeowner recognizes William from the police reports on his scanner. His look, of course, is unique. The owner envies William because he thinks he is a vigilante, a warrior fighting against the ethnic groups of Los Angeles. See, this storeowner is a ruthless, psychotic Nazi, and we learn this once he takes William downstairs to show off his collection of Nazi memorabilia. Frederic Forrest, an actor most well known as ‘Chef’ from the boat in Apocalypse Now, plays the storeowner. You know… the one who runs into the tiger in the jungle. Once William and the storeowner are in his dungeon of Nazi doom, the entire tone of the picture shifts, and after William kills the storeowner, partly in self-defense, partly in maniacal rage, the arc of his character turns downward. He changes from his white shirt and tie into a black military shirt, a clear metaphor for the dark turn he has taken.

Falling Down is a picture that is far from perfect. The characters William confronts along the way are drawn with a broad brush, rife with clichés and stereotypes. I feel like, however, they are drawn so stereotypically because their characters are not as important as what they represent. They are roadblocks for William, and they are sometimes a comic relief for the dumb fast food workers or the stingy Koren grocer we all run across from time to time. But Falling Down is not about those people, it is about William and his fragile mental state coming unraveled, and it is about Prendergast coming to understand, empathize, and fight for William. Even up to the last minute, when fighting for William is no longer an option.

Michael Douglas is spot on as William. Watching his character fall apart at the seams is a gradual process, as he goes from angry to angrier until he crosses a line and he cannot go back. This is a character study, not an examination of a decaying society. All the events are overdone in order to emphasize William’s anger with the world and with himself. Schumacher typically fails more than he succeeds in his career, but with Falling Down the marks he hits overshadow and marks he may miss along the way.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TUESDAY TOP TEN: Best Directors Working Today...

So many directors, so many great films, but by limiting the number of greats down to directors who are actively working today, it was a little easier. Not by much. Surely someone will be left off my list, a list that, as Spinal Tap would say, goes to eleven:

10a) Steven Spielberg – It’s seems like it's been a while since Spielberg put out a film, his last being the supremely suckass Indiana Jones 4 in 2008. Before that, though, it was the stellar period thriller Munich. Over his career, Spielberg has been criticized, and rightfully so, as manipulating films to give them happy Hollywood endings, techniques that made his earlier work like E.T. and Close Encounters so memorable. Only when he strays from that formula in pictures like Schindler’s List and Munich, does he truly flex his muscle as a director. Which means his is very up and down as far as consistency. He must also be credited as the father of the summer blockbuster, which is both bad and good depending on which summer flick we are talking about. Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, all staples in mainstream Hollywood summer success.

10) Clint Eastwood – Sure, the overwhelming love for Eastwood at the Academy Awards is too much for some, perhaps his Oscar statues some feel are undeserving, but there is no denying the run Eastwood is on in the twilight of his career. The fact that his best film, Mystic River, did not win best picture speaks volumes to the ones that did. Look all the way back to Unforgiven, a deconstructionist western where Eastwood perfected his minimalist style and simply told stories. Then, look at his second best picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, a heartbreaking story that has accumulated its retractors since 2004 but is still a human tale wound into a fable-like setting. Eastwood may be losing steam for now, missing a nomination for Invictus and missing the mark a bit with Gran Torino, but there is no getting past his prowess as a storyteller of great weight and hubris.

9) David Fincher – It’s a bit of a shame that Fincher’s first Oscar nomination came for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that, as time moves forward, will be considered one of his weaker pictures. Nevertheless, Fincher has come a long way, from the hurried, doomed direction of Alien 3, to the thrilling noir landscape of Se7en, to the cult phenomenon that is Fight Club, now into a more mature, patient realm of storytelling, reaching heights unseen in his previous works with the 2007 release of Zodiac. Clearly his most realized, detailed, mature picture, Zodiac is a great example of documented storytelling and foreboding, but released too early in the year for the short-term memory capacities of Academy voters.

8) Jason Reitman – Ten years down the road, there is no doubt that the son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman will be much further atop this list. Having only directed three films so far, he feels right at number eight for now. But those three films have gotten him four Oscar nominations. Reitman has an ability to take quirky slice-of-life films like Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, and make them something other than an avenue for indie writers to show their stuff. Amidst the humor and the cleverness, Reitman shows humanity where so many other small-budget directors feel they have to show off camera techniques and an epic indie-music score to gain favor. Reitman allows his abilities to be his spokesperson.

7) Ridley Scott – It’s easy to, from a distance, pigeonhole Scott as a director of epic fare, and there is no doubt that he is. But, Scott also does some smaller, effective pictures like the swinging con caper Matchstick Men, the international crime drama Black Rain, and a whole handful of solid mid-range epic dramas like American Gangster and White Squall. But Scott is also the mastermind behind such groundbreaking films as Blade Runner and Alien, two science fiction films that should be near the top of any self-respecting sci-fi list. Oh, and he can also manage to make a sweeping historical epic with the best of them, and with Robin Hood releasing this summer, for whatever conventions he recycles there will be no denying that it will be a big, bold entertainment.

6) Darren Aronofsky – Ask me to make this list in 2000 and I place Aronofsky square atop the list. Requiem for a Dream was the film I point to that made me consider cinema in a different way. It made me look at what movies could do to me mentally and emotionally in a way I never realized before. His follow-up, The Fountain, was a much maligned effort that suffered from budget restraints and studio cuts, fell flat in the theaters but is still a nice picture to examine for what it is. And he resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke in a brutally honest film, The Wrestler which, for all its flaws, shows a new direction for Aronofsky, and shows that he can flex his muscle as a storyteller without relying on camera tricks to do the part. But still, those camera tricks delivered a punch in Requiem that he has yet to come close to.

5) Christopher Nolan – Nolan is the master of mood, a wizard of creating heavy atmosphere and suspense in any field. He burst on to the scene with the mind-bending Memento, an effectively gimmicky suspense picture that readjusted narrative in a whole new way. But his career hit new heights with Batman Begins, where he managed to reinvent the Batman mythos, stripping away the bat nipples and sidekicks to give the Dark Knight his true darkness. In between making the best superhero movies of all time, Nolan manages to fit in smaller, truly effective psychological thrillers like the period magician piece The Prestige, or this summer’s Inception, which looks like a trippy adventure into Matrix territory. All of these smaller pictures are well and good, and quite excellent in and of themselves, but we all can agree that we are waiting both his third Batman film, as well as the reinvention of Superman that he is spearheading as a consultant.

4) The Coen Brothers – It is true that Joel Coen typically directs while Ethan writes and produces, but there is no separating these two eclectic talents as directors. The Coens can bounce around in between genres while still keeping some sense of their own signature. Those quirky characters in Raising Arizona can be seen in the background of No Country for Old Men, and the themes are never far apart. Perhaps their best film isn’t No Country, I would have to give that award to Fargo, but they deserve to be recognized for their body of work regardless of what the Oscar says at the bottom. And let us not forget The Big Lebowski, a cult classic the likes of which has never come along before or since, a film that, if the Academy Awards were on a ten-year delay, would have gotten a nomination for best picture.

3) Quentin Tarantino – With these top three directors, each of their films could be considered true events. Tarantino undoubtedly has a style that defines him, but what is so amazing is his ability to transport that style into different genres. He can take his rich dialogue, his brutally violent outbursts, his creative narrative techniques, and his "cinema de cool" and place it into any genre, be it noir, crime-drama, Japanese and western revenge films, or World War II. But rather than create an entry into a genre, Tarantino deconstructs the genre he is working in, flipping convention on its head and ripening the storytelling that would otherwise be passable with some of the best dialogue ever written. I learned long ago to stop doubting whatever subject matter Tarantino is working on, regardless of how far fetched it may sound at the time. Tarantino had been accused as losing his way after the Grindhouse debacle of 2007, but anyone with the privilege to see Inglourious Basterds should know otherwise by now.

2) Paul Thomas Anderson –
Two things keep PTA from being atop my list. The first is his limited, although brilliant, portfolio. Second is, well, the undeniable power of the person in first place. It seems that Paul Thomas Anderson the director would not exist were it not for Paul Thomas Anderson the scribe. Four of his five pictures have been original screenplays, with the fifth, his masterpiece There Will Be Blood, working only slightly from Upton Sinclair’s Oil! So what is it about Anderson? His films are never really commercial successes because they are, to an extent, inaccessible for the general public. But to those who have the patience and forethought to consider his work, he writes some of the most compelling, subtly complex characters in film. Daniel Plainview, Dirk Diggler, the entire cast of his magnum opus Magnolia, Adam Sandler’s deeply melancholy Barry in Punch Drunk Love, these are flawed characters whose flaws take some time discovering. But once discovered, the characters are never fully understood the first time around, and every repeated viewing of any of PTA’s pictures delivers a new experience, a new understanding of the depth and magnitude of his genius as a visionary and a storyteller.

1) Martin Scorsese – This should be a surprise to no one. If you expected Michael Bay here, immediately unsubscribe to my site. Marty is a living legend, that rare commodity of understood artistic genius that the public is able to still watch reinvent and create from year to year. There has not been, nor will there ever be, a director as influential on the entire scope of popular culture, film or otherwise, as Martin Scorsese. He invented archetypes, he explored the revered gangster genre more fully than anyone before or after him, he utilized themes of guilt, loneliness, and redemption in all avenues of narrative, and he continues to make relevant pictures. Sure, Shutter Island may be, a few years down the road, seen as “minor Scorsese,” but I can guarantee you any other director working today, save for three or four on this list, would love to have a minor Scorsese film in their portfolio.

SHOUTOUTS to Alfonso Cuaron, the genius behind Children of Men, Ron Howard, whose tangents into Dan Brown mediocrity have hurt him recently, James Cameron, a game changing director who should try a human tale for a change, Kathryn Bigelow, the inconsistent master behind The Hurt Locker and Point Break, not to mention one of the best horror flicks of the last thirty years, Near Dark, Steven Soderbergh, who I truly hope is done with the Ocean’s films, and to Michael Mann, who is probably number twelve.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Last year, Sam Mendes’ quiet little film Away We Go was shuffled in and out of the side theaters and indie lots across the country without much fanfare. Surprising given the clout that comes along with the name Mendes. Something else it was also met with; mediocre reviews, spelling a small picture’s demise. I am convinced, however, after seeing Away We Go for my own eyes, that those critics out there who saw bad things in this film, or who criticized certain things that should be criticized in lesser films, missed the idea of the story, are too cynical, need a hug. Too bad they missed the big hug this picture was offering.

Away We Go tells the tale of Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph), a pari of unmarried thritysomethings expecting a child in three months. Burt sells insurance, Verona, well, it is never quite clear what she does, what is important from the get go about their life is that they are happy together. Burt is chipper. Optimistic, but never to the point of annoyance, simply to the point of blissful ignorance that is the trait we know Verona finds most attractive. Verona is quiet, contemplative, a bit uncomfortable in their bohemian life. They have a cardboard window, they don’t have heat, but they never bicker at one another.

The two plan to lean heavily on Burt’s parents, played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, but when Burt and Verona go to visit they get the news that his parents, perhaps the most selfish and self-centered cinema parents ever, are moving overseas a month before the baby is due. Struck with this bit of bad news, Burt and Verona decide to hit the road, where they bounce from place to place meeting up with family members and acquaintances from their past to see where the best place would be to raise their child.

First stop, Phoenix, followed closely by Tuscon. In Phoenix, Burt and Verona meet up with Verona’s old friend Lily (a wild-ass Allison Janney), a boozing, crass, poor excuse for a mother to two chubby kids. Her husband is Lowell, played by a mustachioed Jim Gaffigan, one of the more underrated stand-up acts going these days. Needless to say Lily and Lowell’s bizarre behavior and sallow attitudes cross Phoenix off the list of possible places to raise a kid. The next stop is in Tuscon, where they visit briefly with Verona’s sister, who is single and sane enough, but the pain of Verona losing her parents during college drives them away and to their next stop: Madison.

Madison is the most hysterical sequence in the picture. In Madison, B&V catch up with one of Burt’s old friends, Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has changed her name and become a New Age feminist with a pansy husband and a condescending attitude and a strange approach to breast feeding strollers. But I will say no more, the dinner at their home is gut busting. Gyllenhaal really shines here. Next stop: Montreal.

Montreal is the most effective portion of this episodic road film, and a place where the picture really pulled me in and opened things up on a different level. After leaving the hilarious madness in Madison, B&V arrive in Montreal at the home of their old college friends (now married), Tom and Munch (…I don’t know) Garnett. Tom is played by Chris Messina, most well known as Claire’s boyfriend in Six Feet Under. Munch is Melanie Lynskey, Matt Damon’s dopey wife in the Informant! Tom and Munch have adopted an eclectic group of children, and appear happy and content, but they are far from it, and you can guess why. At first, a house full of children of different ages and races seems like a set up for another bizarro comedy sketch, instead it serves as a precursor. The four adults hit the town and seem to be enjoying themselves, but when they go to an amateur night strip joint… thing… Tom opens up to Burt. They have created a false sense of happiness that Burt exposes. I won’t say any more, but the scene, as Munch dances melancholy to the beautiful Velvet Underground tune Oh! Sweet Nuthin,’ is one of the more touching, heartbreaking moments I have seen in the last decade. This scene alone set the stage for the final act of the film, and will stick with me for a long time.
The next morning, however, Burt and Verona hop on a plane for Miami, where Burt’s brother’s wife has left him and his daughter alone. All of these visits serve as a crash course for Burt and Verona, who realize they may only need each other to raise their child. And the final scene, haunting, beautiful, and serene, is not so much of an end as a beginning.

This is a film that affected me in ways most indie hipster films try to do but, more times than not, become caught up in their own cleverness that they become counterproductive. Sure, the characters in these visits are amazingly overwritten and cliché to the avenue of satire and purpose they are aimed at, but all for a reason. Some critics claim that Burt and Verona are snide and condescending to these people, but I wonder what film these people were watching. Burt and Verona serve mainly as a representation of the audience, observing the insanity and the sadness that consumes these bizarre and broken families, but they also have poignant moments throughout that sell them as a loving, unconventional couple. Krasinski, a master of befuddled looks and sneering sarcasm (anyone who has ever seen the American version of The Office knows what I mean) is delightful as Burt, and Maya Rudolph, a minor part of late-nineties SNL, really shows range that feels natural despite the fact that she never was given the opportunity to show herself as a real actress before this.

Sam Mendes, a director sometimes maligned because of his distinct style that always reminds the viewers of American Beauty, steps outside of his usual and allows Away We Go to do its own thing. It may be crazy to think, but this might be the director’s finest achievement, and yes I do know the other films he has directed. He has always been able to use certain music to direct his scenes, and with a steady dose of Alexi Murdoch the music manages to carry Burt and Verona throughout their journey. What is so brilliant and so quietly magical about Away We Go is how it builds and builds on this zany, maniacally comedic road movie to a point of utter hysterics, only to get the audience into the groove. Once it has you, however, it really starts to look at the serious side of things, and the picture transforms right before your very eyes. Only you don’t realize the shift at first because you have become supremely invested in these people, so it is only when sadness hits do you realize how it has hit you.

Away We Go may not affect certain people in the same way. It is very much a film for those of us in our late twenties and early thirties, those of us whose family and friends are spread out over different parts of the country, but what it also manages to be is a transcendent film about love, parenting, and realization. Never snide, never smug, never sappy, always sound. It is a small movie, but small only in certain ways, and something everyone should see. This does for the 28-35 demographic what a film like Garden State does for people 20-26. This is a film about good people, happy people who don’t realize they’re happy, and other people who think they are happy but are filling a void with wine at the dog races, New Age ideals, or a collection of adopted children. I won’t soon forget this one.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island


Shutter Island - Leonardo Dicaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow (138 min.)

As U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, split the foggy seas of Boston Harbor on their way to Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese wastes no time setting mood with a foreboding, robust score and an almost unnatural seascape and ominous skies. Teddy and Chuck have been summoned to Shutter Island, to Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane where they are to investigate the disappearance of an inmate who murdered her three children and has mysteriously vanished with no real clue as to the where or the how. And the pieces are in place for Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s mind-bending period noir that overcomes a few stumbles along the way to wind up as a satisfying genre piece for a living legend and his latest screen muse.

Teddy, played with a scowling, driven paranoia by Leonardo Dicaprio, and Chuck, a genuinely soothing Mark Ruffalo, arrive via ferry to the island and are hustled away to meet with Dr. Cawley, the head psychiatrist at Ashecliffe. Cawley is played by Sir Ben Kingsley, a chameleon able to portray comfort, menace, safety and danger all in the twist of a lip or the gleam of his eye. Cawley’s partner is Dr. Naehring, a decidedly spooky Max Von Sydow, and from the beginning it is clear that the good Doctors are keeping something from Teddy and Chuck.

Like any good protagonist of noir, Teddy brings with him a hefty bit of mental baggage that includes the scars of World War II and the death of his wife (a minimal, but haunting and powerful performance from Michelle Williams) in an apparent fire at his apartment building. These corners of Teddy’s mind are shown in vivid dreams, vivid nightmares that captivate the screen. Once the visions begin to invade Teddy’s reality, and the dreams intensify and melt into the real world, Teddy fears he may have been manipulated by the shady staff, and the doctors, guards and orderlies who all appear to be in on a sinister plot.

Playing from several 50s paranoia pictures, B-movie entries, and pictures like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which he showed his cast beforehand), Scorsese tightens the screws while venturing into a new territory of nightmares, mental wards, and hallucinations. 1954, the time of communism, the time right after the Nazi atrocities of WWII, and in the midst of the A-bomb scares, is a perfect setting for a psychological thriller like Shutter Island, where the mind’s fears may begin to manipulate your reality. But the narrative, written for the screen by Laeta Kalogridis from the Dennis Lehane novel, stalls at times and grows heavy in the middle.

Early on, Scorsese employs his quick cuts and ever manic camera techniques to create dread, paranoia, and the idea that a surprise may be just around every corner. But when he goes away from this in order to focus on the words and reactions of his central characters, the story becomes heavy. Thankfully, however, the final act of the picture redeems the heavy midsection and the screws begin to tighten once again. Scorsese is flexing a bit of muscle here, showing he can dive into the supernatural, and his camera is so richly stained with colors and hues reminiscent of the time, images so pristine and realized, that I might dare say this is his most beautifully shot film since Raging Bull. But the beauty of the images can only carry the middle so far, where they really work are the beginning and the end.

The end is a twist for sure, and a satisfying one at that, anchored by Dicaprio’s ability to manipulate the audience while being manipulated from all around. Leo carries the picture and handles the material better than anyone else I could imagine taking the role. Kingsley is his usual excellent presence on the screen, and Ruffalo is quite effective in his curious role. You’re never quite sure where he fits in to the story.

While there may be a few bumps in the road, Shutter Island is elevated above any other genre piece of this type because of its director, a living legend, and his star, who has eschewed finally that boyish look to become a solid leading man. And the simplistic score is hearty and energetic. This is one that will need a second viewing for anyone who would want to take the twisting, turning horrors of Ashecliffe Hospital again.

Friday, February 19, 2010


* Martin Scorsese is tied to so many projects, it seems like too many. There is Sinatra, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a journey back to Kundun territory with the film Silence, a documentary on George Harrison, one on Elia Kazan, and the adaptation of the children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Of all these, the Sinatra picture is most intriguing to me.

* Other than the scene in the back of the Taxi, Marty appears in the background in Taxi Driver. When Travis watches Cybil Shepherd’s character walk past him on the street, the bearded Scorsese is resting against the street corner behind her.

* I love the cameos. Especially the clever ones, or the ones that are voice only. There he is as dispatcher in Bringing out the Dead, the film projectionist’s voice in The Aviator. There he is as a wealthy homeowner, dressed to the nineteenth-century nines, in Gangs of New York. It’s always this added bonus when you can see or hear his cameo, you feel like you’re in on something most aren’t.

* Every Scorsese film is an event. It’s been over three years, forty solid months, since The Departed was released.

* Trying to compare Scorsese and DeNiro with Scorsese and Dicaprio is a silly notion right now. But I wonder if, in ten or fifteen years, it will be what everyone does when they bring up Scorsese.

* I think his worst film is After Hours, and it’s still quite good at times. But still, it just feels like it’s from a different director. Sure, the camera work and the themes are there, but it doesn’t really fit into his body of work.

* I wish I knew 20% of what Scorsese knows about film and film history.

* This Taxi Driver remake bit with Lars Von Trier challenging Marty and DeNiro to revisit Travis Bickle is ridiculous. Utterly preposterous. It isn’t going to happen. I have know insight into this story, and I can tell you right now, it will never see the light of day.

* Marty has said, however, that he and DeNiro have been casually talking about a new project together. It’s been fifteen years since the two worked together (Casino) and, not coincidentally, fifteen years since DeNiro has been relevant.

* OSCAR QUICK HIT: With the implementation of 10 Best Picture nominees this year, voters are being asked to rank the movies from 1 to 10 rather than just pick a favorite. This means that while The Hurt Locker and Avatar trade blows between one and two, Inglourious Basterds could stack up third place votes and sneak in for the win. Not to mention it is picking up steam while industry members grow weary of the Avatar/Hurt Locker debate. This would make my year, as I think IB is the best of the bunch anyway.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Who's That Knocking at My Door

It was 1968 when Martin Scorsese released Who’s That Knocking at My Door, five years before Mean Streets. The picture – also titled I Call First depending on whom you talk to – is a raw introduction of Scorsese to the world, a strong debut film full of the signature themes and groundbreaking stylistic choices that would forever set Scorsese apart and above his peers. Marty throws everything at the screen, and uses this early film to flex his creative muscle before he begins sharpening the edges.

Who’s That stars longtime Scorsese collaborator and early on-screen doppelganger Harvey Keitel as J.R., an Italian-American living and breathing the New York streets and street corners. J.R. has his friends, he has his family, and he spends his days in and out of bars and scraping by, making a living. J.R. is traditional, he is deeply Catholic, and he is the earliest representation of a character Scorsese would deal with in one way or another in each of his pictures. Who’s That is not only the debut feature for Scorsese, but the introduction of the great Harvey Keitel to the world.

J.R. meets a young woman (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island Ferry one day whose name is never revealed. J.R. is smitten, and falls in love and wants to marry the girl for the chance of a better life beyond the city streets. But that is when he learns of her past, and learns from the streets that she was raped, his traditional Catholic beliefs cloud his judgment on the girl. He cannot marry this girl. This idea brings to light another Scorsese theme, that of the Madonna-whore complex that is explicitly tied to Catholic guilt and sin. This idea deals with men’s relationship with women: as a young virgin they are desirable and enviable and saintly, but once they are tarnished by sexual relations they become quite the opposite. Obviously, you can see the conundrum here, and it is something that Scorsese’s leads grapple with throughout his filmography.

While Who’s That Knocking at My Door is billed as Scorsese’s feature debut, and it is a feature-length film. However, it works as more of an exercise, an avenue for Scorsese to flesh out the ideas in his head and to showcase what was just around the corner in his career. It works as a starter kit for Mean Streets, and a platform from which all of his pictures would start. There is the innovative use of rock and roll on the soundtrack, Junior Walker singing Shotgun in the background as J.R. and his friends walk down the street, as well as Scorsese’s original use of slow motion. Prior to Scorsese, slo-mo was used primarily to emphasize dramatic moments, but Marty used it to emphasize a woman or a moment of great concentration and thought. Think about the scene where Travis Bickle first sees Cybil Shepherd’s character, or when Jake LaMotta jealously watches his young wife work a room, or when Jimmy Conway contemplates killing Maury to the tune of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. All of these shots in later films were first executed in Who’s That.

There are also some unusual sequences in the film uncharacteristic of Scorsese, but they were things he had to add in order to sell the picture. For instance, there is an extended dream sequence where J.R. is having sex with the girl, and there is an exploitative rape scene that was added so that Scorsese could sell the film as a sexploitation piece and pick up distribution rights.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door feels like a film student imitating Scorsese, as all of the themes and elements of Marty’s works are heightened and overdone to an extent, but it makes sense that 25 year-old Martin Scorsese would film things this way. This is less a film you should see first, and more a picture you should watch after taking in Scorsese’s more refined, extensive catalogue. Then, the movie itself will resonate more and will be infinitely more interesting to see such a raw young genius finding his way.


Trivia note: There is no question mark in the title because that is seen, industry wide, as bad luck.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Some memorable SCORSESE SCENES....

We all have those moments in our favorite films. "There was tht time when," or "it was the best part when"... And I know there have been plenty of those for me in Martin Scorsese movies. Some are goundbreaking, some introduce new ideas and avenues, others are just plain badass scenes that I love:


This early piece from Scorsese was also the beginning of a long lasting partnership with the great Robert DeNiro, here playing a low-life hood named Johnny Boy who, despite giving his friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a bad name with his unpaid gambling debts, makes an entrance to remember. This is also an example of Scorsese's unique use of rock and roll and slow motion to show concentration rather than action or drama:


This film is rife with memorable scenes, none other than this first one. Everyone remembers the first, most memorable line of all Scorsese pictures, but the second line that follows tell more about Travis Bickle. Scorsese's unblinking camera watches Bickle unravel in the isolated world he has created in his apartment, and the chilling score adds a brlliant bit of layering:

This next scene from Taxi Driver is one of the best director cameos, as Scorsese plays a maniacal, cuckolded man going to kill his cheating wife. The scene serves as a grim piece of mood-setting, an aside in the otherwise linear tale of Travis Bickle's own insanity. Beware, there are some offensive passages in Scorsese's dialogue:


Again, Scorsese's masterpiece is loaded to the brim with excellent individual scenes. The one that stands outmostto me is te first one up here, where Henry's gilfriend, Karen, calls him upset because their neighbor tried to take advantage of her. The brilliance of this scene is in its ferocity and the way in which it emphasizes what an everyman, someone not above the law, may want to do but would never be able to do. Warning, this is a violent one:

This second scene from Goodfellas, the "funny how" scene, is quite uneasy, and apparetly ad-libbed by Joe Pesci. It is effective in the way it shows this underworld can turn on a dime, and you can immediately change from friend to foe in the blink of an eye, even though it may be a joke:


Leonardo Dicaprio owns the role as Howard Hughes, and the following scene shows his mental state falling to pieces. The torturous way he is unable to handle his madness is shocking and sad, and one of the most memorable of the picture:


This introduction of Leonardo Dicaprio's character, Billy Costigan, into the world that will consume his life, is a fantastic stage setter, and one of the coolest, most aggressive uses of music:

And finally, what is a collection of some of Scorsese's greatest scenes without the best scene of his career?:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Trying to Rank Scorsese's Ten Best Films...

Trying to rank the ten best films of Martin Scorsese is like trying to decide between a brown recliner and a dark brown recliner. They are seemingly equal in so many ways, both extremely well made and comfortable, but one is a shade more appealing than another. Nevertheless, after rotating and realigning and adding and subtracted a film here and there – the bottom three were a struggle – I feel like this is my best personal representation of which of his films resonate with me the most…

10) The Aviator (2004) – Leonardo Dicaprio delivers one of his shiniest, most ambitious performances as the millionaire recluse Howard Hughes, a role that would have nabbed him his first ever Oscar had it not been for the fact that Jamie Foxx so resembled Ray Charles. And while the material may seem to be a departure for Scorsese, the central themes of isolation and the search for a connection are alive and well. Though it may sag heavy in the middle at times, the performances from both Dicaprio and Cate Blanchett (who won the Oscar here for Best Supporting Actress) as Katherine Hepburn are as crisp and powerful as the rich textures and deep hues of the lens.

9) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – One of Scorsese’s most controversial films, the most controversial to be exact, deals with the worldly surroundings of Jesus during his last days before his crucifixion. This dream-like interpretation of Christ and the temptations surrounding him drew the ire of the Catholic Church for its “humanization” of Jesus. However, I feel that by creating doubt and curiosity in Christ the person, while daring, was a welcome change to the way he had been represented to that point. Willem Dafoe does not try to hard to be the version of Jesus most people are familiar with, and the alteration to his persona is the most fascinating aspect of the narrative.

8) Casino (1995) – Sometimes this has been given the playful tagline of “Goodfellas goes to Vegas,” and I feel like most of that falls at the feet of Joe Pesci, who plays just another version of his Tommy DeVito character from Goodfellas, a fiery, hard-headed troublemaker who lets his temper get in the way of his better judgment. That is a valid observation, however, looking at the rest of the picture, the story is something totally unique. Here, DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein is a smooth Jewish gambling pro who allows a manic, drug-addicted woman, Ginger (a fantastic Sharon Stone), to lead to his undoing. Surrounding the story of Sam and Ginger is a kinetic, energized examination into the world of seventies Vegas, where the mob had control of the casinos and lost it under the weight of greed and crime. And the landscape of the film is stained with unforgettable colors and a vivacious late-seventies style that is like no other gangster picture.

7) Gangs of New York (2002) – Scorsese had been working on this story for nearly two decades before finally releasing this version, a sprawling American epic about the birth of his hometown, New York City. While there are factual errors here – most of which were done on purpose –a few wild editing choices, and a revenge plot at the center that serves little more than forward motion, the expansive arc and ambition are so rich in every small detail, from the look of the five points, to every stitch of period clothing. Gangs is so fully realized that it is hard to deny the passion Scorsese spilled into this story. It is also Marty’s first collaboration with Leonardo Dicaprio, who services the plot as Amsterdam, the young man after his father’s killer. And Daniel Day Lewis gives a stirring performance as the racist, villainous Bill the Butcher, only to be overlooked these days thanks in part to his own performance five years later in There Will Be Blood.

6) The Age of Innocence (1993) – Many would site Gangs of New York as Scorsese’s only work with Daniel Day Lewis, however, Age of Innocence was their first collaboration some nine years prior. While an Edith Wharton Victorian novel adaptation satirizing and examining New York high society in the 19th Century may seem like a huge departure for Scorsese, he manages to uncover the themes of isolation and the need for acceptance that are at the very core of The Age of Innocence. He makes it his film. Day-Lewis stars as Newland Archer, an engaged aristocrat who falls in love with his fiancé’s cousin. Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer play the fiancé and cousin, respectively, and the novel from Wharton allows Scorsese to show off his abilities in a new genre and a new setting, while remaining true to the root themes that carry the core of all of his pictures.

5) Mean Streets (1973) – Often sited as his first major motion picture (although that isn’t entirely the case, as Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door? was some six years earlier), Mean Streets was also his first teaming with a young Robert DeNiro, who plays the rough-and-tumble gangster Johnny Boy. The narrative is somewhat autobiographical, as it tells the story of some low-brow hoods scraping through the underworld of New York City, getting in and out of scrums and in and out of relationships with women. Harvey Keitel plays a sort of representation of Scorsese, a man struggling with his place in this crime world, as well as his relationships with women, developing the Madonna-whore complex that most Scorsese protagonists deal with at some point. Mean Streets, aside from being a ferocious and realistic portrayal of lowly New York hoods, also carries a pop soundtrack unmatched before it, including songs from The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes.

4) The Departed (2006) – This is where the waters of this list become muddy, as these top four – depending on who you talk to – would all have merits that place them at number one. Right after its release and subsequent Best Picture win (not to mention the first long-deserving Best Director statue for Scorsese), there was a bit of backlash against The Departed, some claiming that it wasn’t as good as people were saying, others claiming the source material, the Korean crime-drama Infernal Affairs, was simply better. However, now that it has had a few years to marinate, and we have had a few years to separate ourselves a bit, it is clear that The Departed is not only one of the better American crime epics of all time, but an American epic firmly set in a time where identity and discomfort in our own skin is more prevalent than it has been since the 70s. Dicaprio and Matt Damon deliver such fascinating roles that mirror each other as two men turned literally inside out, and Jack Nicholson anchors the film with a third lead that is delightfully zany. With Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg supporting the leads with conviction, and a whole mess of palpable tension, this thriller spins like a top from beginning to its scorched-earth end.

3) Raging Bull (1980) – Again, what is often considered to be the best film of the 80s may very well deserve its place as number one, but not on my list, and for no real reason other than the fact that the top two have resonated in my life more. Nevertheless, Scorsese’s mis-categorized sports movie is really a character study that centers on Jake LaMotta, a self-destructive human consumed by jealousy, catholic guilt, and isolation. He just happens to be a boxer. But the boxing ring in this movie is nothing like the ring in Rocky. This is not a stage for an underdog to steal the spotlight; rather it is a confessional, a place where LaMotta can go to expunge himself of the guilt, the envy, the jealousy and the hatred that destroy his relationships with his young wife (Cathy Moriarty) and his brother (Joe Pesci). Told in stark black and white – Scorsese claimed to do this so the amount of blood spilled in the ring would not unsettle some viewers – Scorsese counters the crisp lenses of the everyday with staging and sound in the boxing scenes that make the ring itself appear as a circle of personal hell for LaMotta. He even used animal noises for background crowd noise. Beautiful and tragic, bold and awe-inspiring, and bookmarked by an old, overweight (production paused while DeNiro gained fifty extra pounds), washed-up LaMotta, Raging Bull is operatic in scale, but human in feel.

2) Taxi Driver (1976) –
What a deeply odd, deeply disturbing, completely affecting film this is. Although DeNiro had already won a Best Supporting Actor statue for his part in Godfather, Part II, his portrayal of the lonely, isolated, confused, and gradually insane Travis Bickle is the role that would forever define his career. And rightfully so. Though Peter Finch deservedly won the Oscar over DeNiro for his role in Network, the idea, the lasting stain on the human psyche that Travis Bickle leaves on everyone who watches Taxi Driver transcends film. Travis is a lonely war veteran, cruising the scummy streets of New York, voicing his disdain on society through poetic inner monologues. He goes on a date with a young political volunteer (Cybil Shepherd), but is so completely withdrawn from societal norms that he thinks taking her to a porno flick is acceptable first-date material. He talks up a politician, first sounding admirable, then crazy all in one cab ride. He falls deeper and deeper into isolation before arming himself to the teeth and taking the initiative to “save” a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her life, regardless of whether or not she wanted or needed saving. The chilling score, the way the camera lingers on Bickle as a ticking time bomb in his apartment alone, the smoke rising from the streets, all create a mood unmatched.

1) Goodfellas (1990) – Masterpiece is a word often thrown around without much regard or validation. But somehow, Martin Scorsese has created three pictures that would be, standing alone, the masterpiece of any one director’s career. But above both Raging Bull and Taxi Driver sits Goodfellas, the cinematic version of a fireworks display, full of energy, rage, violence, history, and the themes and ideas of sin and redemption that Scorsese examines in each of his films. Ray Liotta plays real-life gangster Henry Hill, who serves as the pictures guide, telling his own story of his rise and fall through the ranks of the mob in the latter part of the twentieth century. The way this picture moves, the way it so deftly changes from smooth, silken colors and sounds as Henry is enjoying the good life of a gangster, to frantic, sporadic paranoia as he falls into drug addiction, is the work of a master who understands narrative more clearly than anyone ever has. Joe Pesci gives a memorable, violent, destructive performance as Tommy DeVito, making DeNiro’s fantastic performance as Jimmy Conway almost feel like an afterthought. And that is perhaps saying more about the perfection of this film than anything else.

Monday, February 15, 2010


So you want to make your own Martin Scorsese from scratch? Well, just follow this easy little recipe and in no time you could have your own personal bushy-browed Italian genius at your side…

1 PART ASTHMA, for knowledge. As a child, Scorsese was plagued by terrible asthma, so much so that he could never really play outside or enjoy sports with his fellow classmates. This was a blessing in disguise, however, as rather than spend those summer days playing in the water of the fire hydrant, Marty was catching double and triple features at the local cinema day after day, soaking in the knowledge that, these days, makes him America’s most revered cinema historian. This knowledge of film carries throughout every one if his features.

3 PARTS CATHOLIC GUILT, for drive. Scorsese’s early life, and even as he grew into an older man, was centered on his strong Catholic background. Catholicism is in every film he has ever made, in one way or another, from The Last Temptation of Christ to Taxi Driver. The approaches to women, to guilt, and to salvation are ideas Scorsese works cathartically through every one of his pictures.

2 PARTS ISOLATION, for the lead. The characters at the center of Marty’s pictures are all suffering from a sense of isolation, be it Max Cady in Cape Fear, or even Nick Nolte’s crooked lawyer in the same film. From top to bottom, when you find the focus of a Scorsese film, there you will find a character looking to make a connection.

2 PARTS ROCK AND ROLL, for mood. Before Junior Walker sang Shotgun in Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door?, before Jumpin’ Jack Flash introduced Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, rock and roll was not used as the soundtrack in movies. Marty changed the use of music in film to interpret mood and place forever.

1 PART EITHER ROBERT DENIRO OR LEONARDO DICAPRIO, for collaboration. Sure, Marty has made pictures without one of the two in the lead roles, but when you think of his films, the first handful (at least) of pictures that come to mind are ones in which either of these two powerful screen presences are in the lead roles. While he may use DeNiro or Dicaprio primarily in the leads, the stability in the primary role allows him to bring in any number of great actors and actresses in supporting roles.

Schoonmaker is perhaps the most well known editor in Hollywood, mostly because she has worked with Scorsese on every one of his films since Raging Bull, winning the Academy Award three times, for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed. Without Schoonmaker in the editing room alongside Marty, some of those most memorable montages and sequences in films like The Departed, Goodfellas, The Aviator, and the dynamite boxing scenes in Raging Bull, may not have carried the same sort of resonance throughout the years.

***Combine ingredients, bake at 350 for an hour, and serve warm with ONE BEST DIRECTOR OSCAR for best results. If you prefer, you could add two additional Oscars to make your at-home Marty the way it should be made. Enjoy…

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wolfman


The Wolfman - Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving (100 min.)

The 1941 version of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot had, among other things, a character arc for Chaney. He arrives as a breezy American astrology sudent, is bitten, becomes the werewolf, and falls into darkness. He becomes tortured. In the 2010 version, Benicio Del Toro’s version of Lawrence Talbot begins the same way he ends, and this flatness carries across Joe Johnston’s remake of the ’41 classic.

This time around Lawrence is an American actor who, at the beginning of the picture, abandons his time playing Hamlet on the stage to come back to Blackmoor, England at the behest of his brother’s fiancé (Emily Blunt, forgettable here). It seems that his brother has been brutally murdered by a beast, and once Lawrence sees this carnage he is determined to find out who or what may have done it. This time around, rather than coming to visit his cheery British father at a respected English mansion on the countryside, Sir John Talbot is played strangely, and with decided quirkiness by a bearded Anthony Hopkins, and Talbot hall is dark, littered with dead leaves, and in serious need of a dusting. This alteration to the original story is, again, part of the problem.

Lawrence visits the gypsy camp searching for answers and in a gory massacre (this is the norm) he is bitten by the suspected beast. You know what this means, and apparently so do the villagers who try and capture him, but Sir John will not allow it, and Lawrence transforms into the werewolf and wreaks havoc. In the classic, Chaney’s werewolf only killed two or three people the entire time, in well staged, stalker-like murders in the mysterious forest. These murders caused a panic in town, and rightfully so. This time around, the spooky woods are represented well, only instead of one poignant murder, this wolf man slices and dices like Jason Vorhees, decapitating villagers, disemboweling, and ripping away arms and legs until the effect becomes so dull you almost can’t wait until Talbot transforms back into human form.

One interesting update is when Talbot is captured and taken to a mental institution, where in 1891 mental disease like lycanthropy (the belief you are a werewolf) is treated with electro-shock therapy and dips into giant boxes of ice water. This addition works, but it is short-lived, and it’s not long before the wolfman is ripping faceless bodies to shreds again.

There is one other huge, massive alteration to the original story, and it deals with the identity of the initial monster that attacks Lawrence, and the alteration changes the entire narrative for the worst simply to set up a ridiculous showdown in the end. But the whole tone of the story is off. There is nowhere for these characters to go; they begin the story dark, brooding, morose. And after Talbot is cursed, he has nowhere to go and his character is less interesting because of it. And Hopkins, good lord Hopkins… he snarls and mopes and walks in and out of scenes like he is entering from a different movie. There is also Hugo Weaving, who plays a detective in town from Scotland Yard, and I am certain he cannot do much detective work as manicuring his strange beard must take most of his day.

The production values of The Wolfman would not suggest a film that has gone through such turmoil, and Rick Baker’s monster is a good homage to the original Chaney makeup while still updating the look to be menacing. But, again, ripping countless limbs away, pulling stomachs out of exposed midsections, and decapitating people with one swoop of the claw is nowhere near as effective as a single murder in the darkness. The power of suggestion is what this film needs, because while all of the gothic and psychological elements of the story suggest suspense and general tension and terror, Johnston insists on taking the werewolf to Camp Crystal Lake instead.

The Wolfman is a missed opportunity from a less-than-visionary director. There are too many plot hang ups and factual errors from otherwise talented scribes Andrew Kevin Walker (the master behind Se7en) and David Self (he actually wrote Road to Perdition. Hard to believe that now) to get into – things like a sign etched in stone reading “Blackmoor, 16 Miles.” Miles, huh? I am pretty sure they use the metric system in gothic-ol’ England. Perhaps this was intentionally to dumb things down for American audiences. I know the violence was enhanced for that very reason.


Friday, February 12, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Wolfman angst, Anthony Hopkins' spareness, and a Robert Altman ripoff

* Scanning the tomatometer for The Wolfman… it is everything I feared it would be. The Dracula remake gets Francis Ford Copolla. The most recent version of Frankenstein (although it is pretty mediocre) gets to have Kenneth Branagh behind the camera. The Wolfman, perhaps the most interesting – to me anyway – of the Universal monsters gets journeyman replacement director Joe Johnston, the spare behind Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. Unfair.

* So, Avatar, you get ousted by Dear John the week the Oscar nominations come out? Dear John?! I can tell you I didn’t see it coming. Apparently I underestimated the spell Nicolas Sparks has cast on teenage girls.

* Thinking about Anthony Hopkins, it seems like he has been given a lifetime pass since 1991. What else has this guy done to make him so respected and untouchable as an actor? Not Instinct, Alexander, Red Dragon, Hannibal, Meet Joe Black, Freejack, Heart in Atlantis… This guy has been in some stinkers. He might be the most overrated actor out there. Maybe it’s his British accent that gives him a pass.

* It seems weird to me that Glenn Close has never won an Oscar. It also seems weird to me that I just randomly thought of Glenn Close.

* So who’s going to see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief? Second question, who the hell knows what Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is even about? What a completely ridiculous title.

* Yesterday, I read the Esquire article about Roger Ebert, who has lost the ability to speak because cancer has eroded the lower half of his face. It is a tragic, heartbreaking story. No matter what you thought or think of Roger Ebert as a film critic, the story will get to you. I appreciate him on another level entirely now.

* The new collaborative date movie Valentine’s Day feels to me like some sort of Hollywood film student rip off of a Robert Altman film, only without any sense of place, interesting dialogue, or point. And without Robert Altman. Meaning it will be number one at the box office this weekend.

* Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing Clint Mansel’s breathtaking score from Requiem for a Dream tricked up and stuck onto a commercial or another movie. Most of the time it is tweaked enough to make it sound motivating or inspirational, when its original purpose was sadness and despair. Ridiculous.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


It’s time to look back at one of cinema’s 70s classics, a movie that is both dated in look and timeless in theme, the perfect blend of resonance and place. That film is Sidney Lumet’s Network, one of the most fascinatingly written, all around well-acted movies you will ever watch – as evidenced by the unmatched five acting nominations and three wins in 1976 – and a satire of American society set in 1976 that has so much to do with our current times that it seems almost prophetical.

The story, written by renowned stage and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, tells of the inner workings of UBS, a fictional network in line with NBC, CBS, and ABC. UBS is the stepchild of the big four, a floundering network without a hit show and with an annual deficit that just may spell its doom, much to the chagrin of Frank Hackett, the network president played with tightly-wound intensity by Robert Duvall. William Holden plays Max Schumacher, the head of the news division that is the biggest portion of the network’s debt. Schumacher naturally draws the ire of Frank who has decided to marginalize the news division without consulting Max first. This decision arrives of course before Howard Beale, the nighttime news anchor who will change the fate of the network, begins his run.

Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a widowded, lonely man, the UBS version of Walter Cronchite. As the film opens, Max is firing Howard – his best friend – due to the slumping ratings. The two share a drunken night together and discuss the ratings boost that would occur if Howard were to kill himself on the air. Howard takes the notion seriously and the next evening, as he announces his final two weeks on the air, he also announces “I’m going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today.” In one of the more subtly humorous moments, nobody in the tech room even notices what Howard says, only when someone rushes in to tell them what just happened do they even perk up.

Naturally, Frank and the network brass go into spin control and try to excuse Howard’s words by blaming them on personal and work stress via an announcement the next night. But Howard convinces them that he will make the announcement himself. That next evening, Howard explains himself in one of the more poignant, honest monologues in a film rife with truths from the mouth of Howard Beale:

“Good evening. Today is Wednesday, September the 24th, and this is my last broadcast. Yesterday I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, I'll tell you what happened: I just ran out of bullshit. … I really don't know any other way to say it other than I just ran out of bullshit. Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living. And if we can't think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit. We don't know why we're going through all this pointless pain, humiliation, decays, so there better be someone somewhere who does know. That's the God bullshit…if there's anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me: That man is full of bullshit. I don't have anything going for me. I haven't got any kids. And I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don't have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.”

Naturally, the network flies into spin control once again, trying to figure out how to get Howard off the air. Enter Diana Christensen, the network programmer played with almost unbearable energy and determination by Faye Dunaway. Diana smells a hit, especially after looking at the ratings increase, and she convinces the heads of the network to let Beale continue his own editorial. When that doesn’t work out, and ratings begin to tumble, the decision to can Howard arises once again. But it is then when Beale begins to have his true breakdown.

Max, fearing for the mental health of his friend, takes Howard into his home, but it may be too late. Howard disappears in the middle of the night, muttering and wild eyed, only to resurface at the network ready for his show, rain soaked, in his pajamas, and wearing a trench coat. The following rant, one of the more famous monologues in film history, transcends the walls of the newsroom and could be firmly placed in any narrative from 2009. The similarities are eerie:

This tirade spawns Howard’s own nightly show. He is "the mad prophet of the airways," being exploited by Diana, Frank, and the execs more concerned with a 30 share and a top program than the health of Howard, who typically seizes and faints during his nightly show, a show where he spouts truths about the world, and speaks – he thinks – through the voice of God. The nightly show is a circus sideshow that can be seen as a prediction of the depravity and no-holds barred direction of television in our current times.

While Howard continues to inspire the world, Max begins an affair with Diana who is the other most fascinating character of the picture. Diana lives and breathes her work, she is a career woman, a driven female who passes the other women at the network at their secretary seats on the way to her corner office. She is not a good lover, and she makes no bones about it, and she delivers the monologue of her life as it is happening around her. She considers the relationship of her and Max to be a weekly drama series, and as Max leaves his wife to be with her they are both acutely aware of the path they are taking, one that will lead them apart and lead Max back into the arms of his wife.

Nominated for ten academy awards, and winning four, Network was unjustly usurped in the Best Picture category by Rocky, a film that gained an unstoppable amount of forward momentum at the time. Peter Finch won Best Actor, but died of a heart attack a month before the nominations were even announced, making him the first to win a posthumous statue (the second coming only a year ago with Heath Ledger). Finch is dynamite, as his nightly rants toe the line between prophet and madman, between anger and humor, a line so definite which makes Finch's ability to float along said line nothing short of amazing. Faye Dunaway won a much-deserved Oscar for her role as Diana, and Beatrice Straight won a supporting award for her ten-minute role as Max’s wife. Dunaway’s win also created one of the more famous Oscar photographs, as the next morning her husband snapped this shot of her lounging by the pool:

Network is obviously trapped by the look, the feel, and the attitude of network television in 1976. These days, network television is steadily losing ground to the cable networks that weren’t around 24 years ago, and the dated stage decorations and wood grain is obsolete. But what is amazing about the picture is how, if the set decoration and history of television were to get an update, the themes and monologues would fit in perfectly with today. Networks will go to any length imaginable to get ratings, and they will take any measure to correct their mistakes – look no further than NBC these days if you don’t believe me.

Sidney Lumet is, amazingly, one of the more underrated directors in history, and his run of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network in the 70s is staggering. Lumet allows us to watch people speak, and Chayefsky’s screenplay makes this quite a fascinating experience. The satire and the wit crawl beneath the surface. Each character has their moment to speak, and they speak with elegance and fire that never seems unnatural or rehearsed, rather always sporadic and real. Network is a joy to behold, and a timeless classic that speaks to our world just as much to the world of 1976, a place so far away, yet so near to our lives now.