Friday, June 24, 2011

Quiz Show

Edward R. Murrow described television as an instrument that can teach and inspire but warned it must remain a free and independent enterprise. Television, he said, had become an "incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news," and "The sponsor of an hour's television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour." Murrow could have been describing what occurs in Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994), an account of the game show scandals of the 1950s.

Nerdy, Jewish, working class Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) is the reigning champion on the popular fifties game show "Twenty-One" when producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) order him to take a dive for handsome professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a prominent WASP family and famed author Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield). Herbie does so but is angry the producers back out of a promise to keep him on television, so he launches a legal campaign against the network. This draws the attention of Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Congressional lawyer who begins his own investigation and learns just how rigged these game shows are.

I can't be help but be reminded of a great line by Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog (another movie about media manipulation of the public): "Of course, there's a war. I'm watching it on television." The nation's perception of what is reality is shaped by that little box of wires in the living room (to paraphrase another Murrow quote).

Even in television's infancy, people had placed their entire, unwavering trust in TV. They really believed they were watching intellectual giants compete with knowledge, not knowing the contestants were being fed the answers to create the most dramatic programming. The more dramatic and entertaining, the more viewers, and the more viewers, the more advertising revenue. That false reality the game show creates is ultimately used to push the sales of Geritol, the corporate sponsor's health tonic. When ratings for a given contestant begin to slip, it's time for a fresh face.

The film also contains underlying personal drama in addition to its scathing portrayal of television. Van Doren initially resists accepting the answers but gradually gets drawn deeper into it to protect his image and reputation. The guilt he feels about lying to his millions of viewers eats at him, and his father, a model of integrity and intelligence, is always on his mind. Stempel, meanwhile, sacrifices his dignity, reputation, and respect to get what he believes his owed to him while Goodwin thinks he can take on television and expose it, only to brush up against its underlying strength and realize just how far-reaching it will be.

Quiz Show works on every level. From its attack television and commercialism to the fascinating figures at the center of it all, the movie is always compelling. It may be 17 years old and about something that happened almost 60 years ago, but it remains timely and relevant.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Player

If Hollywood is anything like it's depicted in Robert Altman's The Player (1992), then it's no wonder I lament the state of movies. In this story about a studio executive caught up in murder, blackmail, and professional insecurity, here is an institution not filled with Irving Thalbergs but petty, spoiled, narcissistic people who care nothing for their art or craft, only the box office gross, and will do anything to advance their own positions. This reflection of Tinseltown feels too close to reality.

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a big-time studio executive who's having a career crisis. Not only is he hounded constantly by desperate filmmakers looking to make their movies, his boss (Brion James) is losing confidence in him, a younger executive (Peter Gallagher) is looking to replace him, and he's receiving anonymous death threats via post cards from a writer he brushed off. He confronts a writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) he believes is behind the threats but accidentally kills him. Now, he's being followed by cops, including a bemused detective (Whoopi Goldberg), and to top it off, he falling in love with the dead writer's girlfriend (Greta Scacchi).

The Player has probably the largest cast of recognizable actors and cameos I've ever seen in movie. It could almost be game: count how many you recognize and find out at the end (everyone is listed in the credits). It's sometimes hard to determine who's playing a character and who's playing themselves. The result is this movie feels like it's really in Hollywood and not a movie representation of it. Everywhere you look, there's a star, and where there's a star, there's an ego to bruise and some sort of behind-the-scenes politicking. Everyone is out for themselves in Hollywood.

It's hard to classify The Player. It's a satire for sure, but it's not a laugh-out-loud hysterical farce. The humor comes from the dialogue (what Malcolm McDowell and Burt Reynolds say of Griffin, for example) and recognizing the true-to-life details (such as when we find out who's starring in the movie within a movie). There are some tense parts, but I wouldn't call it a drama or a thriller either. Somehow, Altman mixes all these narratives to make a movie that is a scathing indictment against Hollywood and the studios. This is an industry that shields a murderer, destroys careers and lives, and toys with people's emotions because those at the top can. It's a power trip.

And the way all the story lines are tied together in the end is impressive. On the surface, it appears to be a typical Hollywood, happy ending, but it's really skewering that type of ending. The way this film concludes, that's an unhappy ending.

Performances all around are solid. Robbins carries the film. He's a total scumbag, but he has a degree of likability. We hope he's developing a conscious. The script and direction are sharp. Few satires are this cynical or this on-target.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Secret of NIMH

The Secret of NIMH (1982) is a childhood favorite of many in my generation, but I had never seen it. I've heard good things about the animation and the film's darker themes, so those looking for a typical animated feature about cute, talking animals would do best to look elsewhere.

Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a widowed field mouse with four children, needs to move her family before the farmer's plow comes through, but her son Timmy has fallen ill and can't be moved. Unsure of what to do, she visits the Great Owl (John Carradine), who tells her to visit the rats in the rose bush and meet with their leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi). There, she finds an underground city of intelligent rats who are as intelligent as humans due to injections they received from scientists at a place known as NIMH and learns her husband Jonathan had a much deeper connection to the rats.

Directed by acclaimed animation filmmaker Don Bluth, The Secret of NIMH has an interesting back story. Bluth, along with co-writers John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, left Walt Disney Studios to make this movie and took with them several animators to create their own studio. The story goes they felt Disney animated movies had lost their charm since Walt Disney died and were skimping by on inferior efforts. The Secret of NIMH represents not only their attempt to restore the value of hand-drawn animation but also to try several new techniques to give the film an artistic level of detail. On that level, they succeed.

Someone who understands animation techniques and styles better than me can explain better, but the images in The Secret of NIMH are quite stunning. The backgrounds are lush and detailed, and the characters, while not hyper-realistic, feel alive and have vibrancy. They don't just stand around with their mouths moving. The color scheme incorporates dark and bright colors that on the most basic level are enjoyable just to look at.

The story is more mature than one would expect from a children's cartoon. There are no cutesy, forgettable songs here. Unlike Disney cliches, not only is the mother alive, she's also the hero of the piece. In a movie about lab rats, experiments, and magic, it's the mother protecting her children who displays the most bravery and determination.

I did have some issues. At 75 minutes, the film feels oddly truncated. It seems right when we're about to enter the third act, the climax occurs, and the movie ends. I also found some of the side characters more abrasive than charming. I particularly rolled my eyes more than I laughed at the antics of the clumsy crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), although I will admit he proves useful at times, so he's not a total distraction. I also wonder how scientific experiments contribute to the creation of magic, and the ending is a flat out deus ex machina.

Still, I admire the effort and ambition that went into The Secret of NIMH. This probably would have better for me to see when I was kid, but as an adult, I can say it works.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bronson

There were two reasons I watched Bronson (2008). First, Chopper currently is my most popular review, and this movie has a similar premise: a notorious convict living with the reputation he's developed (and both are based on a true story). Second, star Tom Hardy was announced a few months ago as Bane in the next Batman movie, and I wanted to see what he'd bring to that role playing a more realistic prisoner and tough guy.

Michael Peterson (Hardy) is the most notorious prisoner in Britain. Sentenced to seven years for an armed robbery, he winds up spending nearly 34 consecutive years in various penitentiaries, 30 of them in solitary confinement. He picks fights with guards and prisoners, takes hostages, and takes several beatings. During a brief time outside, he enters bareknuckle brawling, and at the suggestion of a promoter he met in prison, he adopts the moniker Charles Bronson.

That's probably as straightforward of a plot description I can give. The film alternates between different events in his life and Bronson narrating his story on stage with assorted face paint, costumes, and props. There is no indication who this audience is or where this stage, and the suggestion, I believe, is it's all in his head. Bronson is an unreliable narrator, and that explains the overall weirdness of the film. Director Nicholas Winding Refn relies on a number of frenetic cuts and intense closeups, reflecting the character's state of mind.

The film doesn't have much in the way of plot. We're essentially watching how this crazy guy behaves. The first line by Bronson (which is later shown as a front page headline) is how he always wanted to be famous. The more attention and notoriety he achieves for being violent and unpredictable, the more he allows the Bronson persona to swallow him up. By the end, there is no Michael Peterson, both his personality and future eliminated by his self-destruction. It's a stellar performance by Hardy, physical, intense, but strangely cockney and cheeky.

Even though we see pretty much all of the movie from Bronson's point of view, surprisingly we don't learn much about what makes him tick. The character is not a realized individual so much as he's the embodiment of aggression and attention-seeking. So while the movie as a whole is entertaining, I can't help but feel it could have been more insightful. It's not a timid movie; there's plenty of graphic violence. But overall, I didn't feel much a reaction toward Bronson because I don't think I understand him.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sorcerer

Sorcerer (1977) is director William Friedkin's followup to the one-two knockout punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist. A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (itself a masterpiece), the film tells the tale of how four different men come together in a South American country to transport unstable nitroglycerin more than 100 miles over harsh jungle terrain.

They are Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), a small-time American mobster hiding out after a robbery gone wrong; Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a Parisian escaping fraud charges; Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a mysterious hitman who's just completed a job; and Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian bomber. For the chance of a huge payoff and possibly leaving their squalid surroundings, they will haul their dangerous cargo through nearly impassible forests, over rickety bridges and steep cliffs, and past armed rebels to an American company's burning oil rig, knowing that at anytime the slightest bump could result in an explosion.

Both the original and this version are about death and fate. Chance brings these men together, and a random opportunity arrives for them to get out of the holes they've found themselves in, but at every turn, death hangs over them. It can come at anytime, and it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, eventually, death will claim you. These men demonstrated skill and cunning to get hired, but mostly luck gets them through their task.

Friedkin's version revels in the grueling physical details of the expedition: the sweat, mud, rain, and toil. As their journey continues, the men look more and more exhausted as their spirits and energy are sapped. When the men drive their trucks across a flooded, swaying bridge as the suspension ropes begin to snap, the planks crack under the wheels, and rain and water pound them, it feels palpable.

One of the big differences between the remake and the original is Friedkin's decision to show the backgrounds of the main characters. We witness Nilo killing a man, Kassem planting a bomb in Israel, Mazon realizing his company is collapsing, and Scanlon robbing a church and subsequently seeing his gang wiped out in a car crash. Clouzot deliberately left the histories of his quartet vague; all you know about them is they had the bad luck to end up in the same dead-end country. While Clouzot's story is more economical, Friedkin compensates because those backgrounds are fascinating, so even though the first 20 minutes or so is just showing what brings them together, it doesn't feel like filler.

Maybe I was spoiled by Clouzot's original, but I can't quite get behind Sorcerer. It's make with undeniable skill, and I imagine anyone watching this one without having seen The Wages of Fear will be thrilled, but that version was superior. I don't intend to decry Friedkin's version an unnecessary remake. It's well made, and several sequences are suspenseful, but in original, I felt uneasy the entire time, expecting an explosion. Here, the element of surprise had faded.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Funhouse

I always wonder why The Funhouse (1981) doesn't get more attention among horror circles. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame, the film on the surface appears to be a routine slasher - masked killer hunting down not-so innocent teenagers - but it's put together with much more craft and effort than so many other post-Halloween imitators, and there's intriguing subtext about family and the seedy underbelly of show business.

After swearing revenge on her annoying little brother for scaring her, Amy (Elzabeth Berridge) goes on a double date with Buzz (Cooper Huckabee) and their friends Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin) to a carnival. Amy lies to her parents about their destination; the last time the carnival was in town, some girls went missing, you see. The foursome have such a good time on all the rides and venues, they decide to spend the night inside the funhouse. But the funhouse becomes a nightmare when they witness a deformed carnie (Wayne Doba) kill a woman, and his father the barker (Kevin Conway) lets him loose to eliminate the teens.

On paper, The Funhouse reads like a routine slasher, but Hooper subverts many expectations. The first scene plays out like a riff on the opening of Halloween and the shower scene in Psycho before being revealed it's not a killer stalking the girl, but her obnoxious little brother. Later scenes at the carnival - the freak show tent, the magician's act, etc. - are set up with an element of danger before being revealed to be harmless while other elements -the truck driver pulling a shotgun on the brother, the old crone in the bathroom, the fact all three barkers look identical (suggesting inbreeding)- are subtly unsettling. This carnival, despite the carelessness of the patrons and the fun they're having, seems a little askew. Then, the murder occurs, and all bets are off.

Beneath the facade of a traveling carnival, there hides a twisted family. The barker, something of an abusive alcoholic, berates his son and hits him one minute and is calmly apologizing and promising to take him fishing the next, so long as he do "one more bad thing" (murder the teens). He hints at having covered up other such incidents elsewhere and looks forward to his son taking care of him in his old age. He scolds his son for murdering "one of the family" and chides him for paying her $100 for sex ("I could of got you one of them tent girls for 15."). Meanwhile, the corpse of the barker's other infant son is the exhibit out front in the jar. The outward image of the carnival hides a legacy of murder, incest, abuse, and exploitation.

Of course, Amy's family has some issues. I wonder what Freud would say about her brother scaring her in the shower as he does. She lies to her parents about where she's going twice, and her threats to her brother come back to haunt her. Her brother sneaks off to carnival, but after getting caught by other carnies, their parents arrive to take him, oblivious to her screams for help when she spots them through a ventilation fan. Maybe her brother would have told them she was in there if she hadn't sworn so vile a retaliation.

So that's The Funhouse, a genuinely creepy slasher. It was filmed at a real carnival, creating an authentic and sleazy atmosphere. I should also commend the effects of makeup wiz Rick Baker (who's done everything from An American Werewolf in London to The Nutty Professor) and the cinematography of Andrew Lazlo, who did The Warriors and First Blood. There's more craft to this film than you'd expect.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Creepshow

When most people think of comics, they think of superheroes: Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the American way; Batman battling the Joker; and the X-Men showing off their fantastic and varied powers. Just as strong of a comic book legacy are the EC horror comics of the 1950s. Titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror incited a widespread panic and moral outrage due to their content: walking corpses, monsters, serial killers, all told through a droll and wicked sense of humor.

It is in this tradition director George Romero, writer Stephen King, and special effects makeup artist Tom Savini have made Creepshow (1982). An anthology horror movie, Creepshow consists of five macabre tales (plus a wraparound). Most play as morbid morality plays with despicable people getting their just desserts for their crimes. There is also a wonderful streak of dark humor and an underlying appreciation for the material's comic book influence.

In the wraparound, a young boy is punished by his douche bag of a father (Tom Atkins) for reading a horror comic. Father's Day an abusive father rises from the grave on the holiday, and he wants his cake. The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill the eponymous rube (Steven King) finds a weird green fuzz growing on his body after a meteorite lands in on his farm. Something to Tide You Over a rich man (Leslie Neilson) buries his wife and her lover (Ted Danson) up to their necks on the beach as the tide rolls in. The Crate a professor (Hal Holbrook) sees a chance get rid of his shrew of a wife (Adrienne Barbeau) when a colleague finds a blood-thirsty monster living under a staircase at the university. They're Creeping Up On You a reclusive, cruel, agoraphobic tycoon's (E.G. Marshall) apartment is invaded by a horde of cockroaches.

For those of you who want to see name actors die horribly in gruesome ways, this is the movie for you. Though none of those stories could sustain an entire film by themselves, they are filtered through with humor and style. Romero films much of the movie with comic book style transitions, titled angles, and bright, exaggerated colors and shadows. Sure, the humor is rather juvenile and obvious, but it's endearing. I think my favorite moment is when Holbrook fantasizes about killing Barbeau, blowing her brains out at an outdoor dinner party. Everyone, rather annoyed by her too, applaud politely, and Holbrook just coyly shrugs.

The actors are all game and know they're playing caricatures. Nielson and Marshall are appropriately diabolical, Holbrook is perfectly passive-aggressive, Barbeau personifies evil bitch, and King is hysterical, overacting like crazy. All the characters commit sins that are visited upon them in cosmic, ironic means. The punishments fit the crimes. If you take nothing else away from the film, you at least learn what it takes to not be a despicable human being.

Is Creepshow tacky, in bad taste, and not very ambitious considering the pedigree behind it? Of course, but as the tagline says, it's the most fun you'll have being scared.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Straightforward yet complex. Gritty yet stylized. Uncompromising yet highly polished. These are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Essentially an urban, contemporary transplant of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, the film is a classic siege thriller, an early classic from filmmaker who would go on to have many.

A lot is going on one day in the Los Angeles ghetto. A police officer (Austin Stoker) on his first day of the job, a hardened convict (Darwin Jostin) on a bus taking him to death row, a nervous suburban man (Martin West) driving with his moppet daughter (Kim Richards), a no-nonsense secretary (Laurie Zimmer), a police official (Charles Cyphers) overseeing the transfer of the transfer of the convict, and others end up at a police station during its final night of operations. Outside, a vicious youth gang known as Street Thunder and armed with assault weapons lays siege to the building, determined to avenge fallen members and kill anyone they find.

One of the joys of Assault on Precinct 13 is seeing how all the different plot threads come together. The characters aren't particularly deep. We don't learn much about where they come from, but they're well drawn and compelling. Bishop, the rookie cop, is the calm, rational center who takes charge. Napolean Wilson, the convict, is the prototype Carpenter anti-hero: anti-authority, honorable, tough, an outsider with a dry sense of wit and sense of self preservation. Without Wilson, there'd be no Snake Pliskin or John Nada. Also of note is Leigh, the secretary. She doesn't need a man to look out for her. Despite taking a bullet to the arm, she grabs a gun and mounts a defense against the gang onslaught.

The film is a little rough around the edges. Some of the dialogue, character actions, and editing don't ring entirely true, but the film doesn't feel like the low-budget effort it is. The action is suitably tense, exciting, and well cut. Carpenter makes the most of his locations, giving the film a dark, almost film-noir like atmosphere. His pulsing, simple score works wonders.

Assault on Precinct 13 just works. Like all the different storylines, everything just comes together. It's a limited, direct film, but it's assembled with confidence and professionalism. It's a quintessential Carpenter movie.

Red River

For years, I avoided John Wayne. I always thought his brand of Western to be outdated, jingoistic, and hopelessly cornball. Fortunately, I've come around. Sure, Wayne often played the same type of character, but I never appreciated how iconic that character was and the different ways he could be used. And when that character is paired with a great director such as John Ford, the results are more often than not memorable.

Such is the case in director Howard Hawk's 1948 Western, Red River. The story of a brutal cattle drive from Texas to Missouri shortly after the Civil War, Red River can be considered the definitive Western of Classical Hollywood: majestic, epic, sweeping and yet personal, about such themes as manhood, leadership, family, and ambition. Had the ending not been such a letdown, Red River would have been damn near flawless.

After spending over a decade building his cattle empire, Texas rancher Thomas Dunson (Wayne) faces bankruptcy when the price of beef plummets. With his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), Dunson devises a plan to lead 9000 head of cattle to Missouri where the price remains strong. The size and scope of such a drive has never succeeded before. Not only are the logistics a nightmare, the trail is littered with dangerous terrain, harsh weather, Indian attack parties, and bands of brigands. As the drive grows increasingly dangerous and harsh, Dunson grows more tyrannical, driving his men into exhaustion and despair. Garth remains loyal, but when the possibility of a shorter, safer route appears, he begins questioning his commitment to his adoptive father.

Red River works on two equally strong levels. The first is the cattle drive itself. Harrowing, adventurous, exciting, and grim, it's never short of compelling. Everyone remembers the scene when all the cowboys inaugurate the drive, crying "Yee-Haw!" and riding off. I don't know how many cows and steers were used during filming, but they fill the screen and feel like thousands. We also have shootouts with Indians, stampedes, battles with the elements, and attempted mutinies.

The second level is the psychological duel between Dunson and Garth, the father's stubborn pride about how everything must be done his way and the son's determination to prove himself and be accepted as a man. They meet in the film's prologue, Garth a teenager and survivor of an Indian massacre that also killed the woman Dunson loved. He provides the cow Dunson uses to begin the ranch. Even then, the film begins building up to when the relationship of these two - despite the affection that grows between them - is going to erupt in violence; Garth warns Dunson to never try to take his gun from him. When Garth seizes the cattle drive and leaves the mad Dunson alone in the wilderness, we believe Dunson when he says, "You should have let 'em kill me, 'cause I'm gonna kill you." For someone like me who's always seen Wayne play the good guy, the moral complexity of his role is a revelation. From there, the film builds to that final showdown.

Sadly, while the cattle drive is resolved in a satisfactory manner, the climax between Dunson and Garth is a letdown. All this time we've been waiting to see these two go out at and find out who the better man is only for the conflict to be resolved in a cheap, almost sitcom manner. It starts out strong with Dunson trying to goad Garth to draw his gun, but the resolution is so disappointing.

While the destination may not be stellar, the journey is exciting. Red River has probably the best performance I've ever seen out of John Wayne, an intense father-son drama and a gripping adventure. Definitely a classic of the genre.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lemmy

For the uninitiated, Lemmy Kilmister is something of a legend and cult icon. Equal parts rocker and outlaw, the gravelly-voiced front man of the heavy metal band Motorhead has defied trends and time to keep performing for more than 30 years while never compromising who he is, the group's intense, in-your-face sound or his own drug and alcohol use. Reported to have bedded 1200 women, he's beloved by fans, respected by his peers, and not showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon. Lemmy's less a man and more of a force of nature.

I've always been curious about Lemmy. I love his music and think he epitomizes rock n roll coolness, but I have always wondered what lies behind that image. On stage, he projects raw ferocity, but in interviews I've seen, he's decidedly low-key and quiet. When I heard about the documentary Lemmy (2010) directed Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, I was excited because I thought it would provide more insight into the man behind the music.

Unfortunately, as one IMDB user said, this documentary is less of a complete portrait of the man and more of a snapshot of his prestige in the rock community. If you're not already a fan of Lemmy and Motorhead, this film probably won't do much to convince you otherwise.

The structure to the film is sort of like a day in the life of Lemmy. We see him in his LA apartment, relaxing at his favorite hangouts, working behind-the-scenes or in the studios, meeting and greeting fans and colleagues, and sit-down interviews with not just the man himself but also his band mates, fellow rockers and other assorted folks.

The list of people who show up to sing Lemmy's praises is quite extensive: Ozzy Osbourne, Slash, Joan Jett, Dee Snider, Dave Grohl, Scott Ian, Alice Cooper, Dave Ellefson, Ice-T, Duff McKagan, Triple H, and more. They describe him as a man who lives life on his own terms, doesn't care what others think about him, and doesn't succumb to trends and fads. By being true to himself, they say, he's been able to last.

Non-fans will be surprised to learn that for a band considered a contemporary of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and a forerunner to the likes Metallica and Slayer, Lemmy's musical idols are Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Music fans will also appreciate the demonstration of what makes Lemmy's bass playing unique; essentially, he plays bass as if it was rhythm guitar.

But we rarely go beyond the music and the image. People talk about what a legend and a great guy Lemmy is, and we see him go about his business and talk about his career, but the filmmakers keep most of the personal material at arm's length. There are interviews with Lemmy and his son, as well as an explanation about the one woman he might have loved, but the things that make Lemmy tick are never really explored. I appreciate more what Lemmy's done for music and his fans, but I don't believe I understand him any better.