June 28, 2010

#64: Network

"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS Television."

Back to 1976, which we've already visited in the form of All the President's Men, and which we'll soon see in Rocky and Taxi Driver. But for today: Network. The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and the director Sidney Lumet allegedly would not classify this dark intelligent thriller as a satire because, in their words, it was a reflection of what was really happening. In other words, take it seriously.

Company: just me again.

Cuisine: white wine and Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Doritos. A classy combination.

What begins as a joke between Howard Beale (Peter Finch, the first posthumous Oscar winner) and his boss, Max Schumacher (William Holden) about the news anchor featuring "suicides of the week" or "executions of the week" becomes a dark reality when Beale, facing his own termination in two weeks time, announces on the live news broadcast that he will blow his brains out on the air. At first, no one even notices, and a first-time viewer might even miss it, but once they and we notice, all hell breaks loose. Obviously we're coming into the story of Howard Beale at its tail end, as he's been the lead anchor on UBS for twenty-five years, and he's seen quite a bit. And he's being fired for bad ratings... but is it he or the world which has gone to shit? As it turns out, both.

Don't ever trust anyone with that much crazy on her face, especially not if it's Faye Dunaway.

Thanks to Diana Christenson, an unflailingly ambitious vice president in charge of programming for the network (Oscar winner Dunaway), the guys pulling Beale out of that chair slowly move to push him back into it, and eventually strap him to it. Christenson (ironically named for playing God with Beale) sees an opportunity for ratings, her life blood. "Americans are turning sullen," she says, because of "Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, the recession ... concept analysis says the American people want someone to articulate their rage. I want angry shows. I want counterculture. I want antiestablishment." While the folks running the show aren't necessarily happy with Beale's increasingly bleak and rampant diatribes being broadcast live, many can't disagree with him.

"He's saying that life is bullshit, and it IS. So what are you screaming about?"

Beale is sheltered from the media. Beale goes on the air and spouts his "insane" ramblings, as "a modern-day prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times." Beale goes missing. Beale stumbles in from the rain, and at a moment's notice, everyone in the studio, knowing how important it is for him to get back on the air, shoves him behind the desk with no makeup and no filter. What transpires is below.

Watch that and tell me you didn't get the shivers. Ooosh.

In the spirit of this blog, I don't want to spoil too much of what happens next, but suffice it to say, events escalate and crumble, and everything ends the only way it can, which may not be the way you thought it would at first, and yet it all seems terribly fitting.

Network is one of those rare films that transcends its subject matter to become about even more than what it's about. Roger Ebert once said, "A film is not about what it's about. It's about how it is about it." Every element of the film works, and it's even more amazing because it's an original screenplay: there was no test run of this story in book or stage form, and it wasn't based on true events (necessarily), so there was no marker of how audiences would react. But each actor delivers. Dunaway speaks so fast because she has to. She's a woman whose ultimate dream is "a 30 share and a 20 rating." Finch is given the task of making Howard Beale into a mad genius instead of a rambling maniac, and he achieves it somehow. Holden, Robert Duvall and company all do amazing work, including:

... Beatrice Straight, as Schumacher's wife, whose devastating performance at five minutes and 40 seconds is still the shortest to win an Oscar (and you can see why) ...

... and Ned Beatty (the fifth of the Oscar nominees from the cast ... fifth!), who only worked a day on the film for his role as Arthur Jensen, chairman of a company whose purchase of UBS has the power to change Beale's message. But as Jensen's corporate cosmology dictates, "there are no nations in the world, there is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT, and AT&T ..." His performance is nearly as brief as Straight's, and just as powerful.

"You're television incarnate. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death: all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds, instant replays ... you're madness, Diana, and everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure and pain and love."

God. No one writes like that anymore. Are we past the point where intelligent, even poetic dialogue like this is acceptable for our onscreen characters? Will we believe that someone actually talks like this in complete thoughts. Imagine Kristen Stewart mustering up all her might to blandly deliver this monologue. A shame. But we'll always have Network.

Ahh. A fine film. A fine, fine ending.

Next up: life is a Cabaret, ol' chum.

June 10, 2010

#65: The African Queen

I knew less about John Huston's 1951 romantic adventure The African Queen than I knew about maybe any other movie on the list so far. When I checked Netflix for what their ever-helpful but sometimes strange and misleading summary might say, I read the words "missionary," "pre-WWI" and "German gunboat" and thought I had a pretty good chance of being bored out of my mind. But the description credits the film with being a "a classic study in star charisma and pitch-perfect casting," so I had some hope. Turns out I didn't even need it.

Company: just me on a rainy June afternoon.

Cuisine: just had brunch at the Sunny Side Up Cafe, and now slurpin' on my sugar-free vanilla latte from Bob's Java Hut -- delicious!

As was already mentioned, the film opens on a missionary in German East Africa (what is now Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) in the first days of World War I, an event whose existence is news to the Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his missionary sister (Katharine Hepburn). They only find out about it because they're warned by Charlie Allnut (Oscar winner Humphrey Bogart), a mail-by-riverboat carrier with a deep affection for gin.

When the Germans show up and torch the village where the Sayers have lived, worked and worshiped for ten years, the survivors are understandably upset. (Can I just say: strange that this is the second film in a row where the Germans are the enemy?) But the elder, Reverend Sayer, is ... driven mad? Struck with trauma-induced dysentery? Really super sad about it? Anyway, he dies, and Rose is left alone in the village to wait for the mail carrier, her only contact with the outside world, who drifts by and notices the complete devastation. Well, it just won't do for her to stay there all alone. I guess her only option is to join him on the African Queen.

That she does, and what transpires is part buddy movie, part road movie, part romance/adventure/thriller. Did not see that coming. To exact her revenge on the Germans for taking her brother and her village, she convinces Charlie to navigate the dangerous river all the way to the lake at its end where the Germans' battleship Louisa is standing guard and blow the ship up using homemade (or, more precisely, boat-made) torpedoes. Charlie is initially hesitant but agrees, and then gives her the what-for when he gets drunk on gin and tells her what he really thinks of her plan. Little does he know...

... you don't cross Katharine Hepburn. What she says goes, unless you want all your gin dumped into the river. When he tells her that it's just his nature, she responds, most piously, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

What she discovers, with the help of Charlie and the forces of nature in sub-Saharan Africa, is that nature rises above her and takes her away with it. As they plunge down waterfalls of increasingly height and treachery, she grows more and more intoxicated by her own love for adventure, and consequently so do we. How can you not get behind someone like Katharine Hepburn? She's of course a fine actress, but no woman in Hollywood more keenly represented a spirit of adventure (usually reserved only for men) like she did. Add to that Humphrey Bogart's unending charm (he won his only Oscar for this) in a intellectual-vs.-Kanuck war of wits and it's a match made in movie heaven.

And of course, they just have to fall in love thanks to the adventure. These characters are both so alone, and now alone together, that naturally they'd long for a companion. What a beautiful credit to the film, too, that they have to come to this realization of romance and then sustain a sincere level of mutual love and respect without a sex scene. The arc of their love story is so clearly realized, largely because it's just the two of them vs. the world. No pesky subplots threaten to get in the way. It's Charlie and Rose vs. the Germans, Charlie and Rose vs. Nature, Charlie and Rose vs. the African Queen.

And when their faith is tested, Ms. Sayer gets down on her knees and prays for their souls to be joined in heaven. I can't possibly spoil any more of the plot, because I just didn't see it coming, and if I do you'll have so much less of a reason to Netflix this. Do it. Not kidding.

This was a film that hadn't been digitally remastered or committed to DVD until only a few months ago, and while I'm glad for the beautiful restoration of it, there's one serious scene in particular featuring an angry swarm of insects that is made laughable by the poor effects. Other than that, it's all quite stunning. The more I think about it, the more I think of The African Queen as the ultimate patriotic adventure in that our two heroes are entirely motivated by their love for their country. Their love for each other ultimately spins from that, which is just so cinematically satisfying.

I'm not sure the Germans are much at fault in the next film on the list, Network (one I LOVE), but I'm sure they didn't help.

June 6, 2010

#66: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Bumm ba-dum BAAAAA, bumm ba-DAAAAA!

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a brainchild of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the men who ruled the world circa 1981, after successes such as Jaws and Star Wars. While I would argue that the first film in the Indiana Jones franchise doesn't quite measure up to either of those landmarks, it still holds its own ... and probably didn't need that franchise extension in 2008. Blurg.

Company: David, fan; Kecia, purveyor of flan; Stephanie, sister and anthropologist; Tina, former roommate of Stephanie and hardcore enthusiast for all things fancy and fun

Cuisine: Doritos and Digiornos (what is this, high school?) and Mich Golden Light (oh... guess not)

Indiana Jones (played with leading man swagger by Harrison Ford, already 39 in this movie!) is a character around whom a movie is based, and the movie is based on those old serials of the 1930s and 40s. Spielberg and Lucas wanted to pay homage to those films and yet bring them into a modern technological era. They were on top of the world of special effects, and both knew how to excite an audience. Leave it to them to start the movie with what is arguably its most exciting scene, where Indiana leads a couple traitors into a cave in South America to find golden monkey head treasure, only to be chased out of there by a huge boulder and saved at the last minute from angry natives by bi-plane!

How very convenient, too, that Mr. Jones is Professor Jones, an archeology professor who provides the film with a vessel for every scientific explanation the plot requires. Which isn't much, truth be told: honestly, who cares? You don't watch a movie like this for the plot, do you? Even luckier is that whatever plot device having to do with the Lost Ark Indy and his buddies are looking for, the Nazis want it too -- which immediately makes the crusade infinitely more noble!

Look at those seedy eyes. Must be a Nazi.

Also ranking low on the priority list is fleshing out female characters (see also: most action movies ever, besides the Alien franchise). I've seen this movie several times and I still can't get the vital information about Marion Ravenwood to stick in my mind. I just know she gets trapped in a plane that's spinning in circles at one point, only to be dashingly rescued by Indy at the very last second. As we can see from this frame, she's got some piece of the puzzle, but the flame over her face may indicate that danger is near. Nazis burst in and demand information. Again, the dramatics! Luckily, Indy is never far away.


Seriously, though, a movie like this isn't in the business of subtlety. A successful movie like this one requires archetypes, carefully paced storytelling, magnificent production elements and good guys winning the day and the girl. Spielberg and Lucas both knew this, and it's clear from the uber-stylized score (thanks John Williams) and classy art direction that we trust that they knew this.

It also requires that the hero be alone for earth-shattering discoveries like this one.

And that he receives no help in dealing with one of the only elements of his personality that makes him at all comical: his petrifying fear of snakes. Again, we're lucky that Indiana Jones isn't a huge baby about it.

A side note about the score: my roommate told me to mention that she and our friend discovered in high school that the famous Raider's March theme is used to convey nearly every cinematic emotion in the film. Triumph, obviously, but also longing, regret, determination, etc. Check it out.

Awesome Nazi-consuming fire!

This hasn't been a very serious blog entry, but Raiders of the Lost Ark asks us not to think too hard about it, regardless of its historical subject matter. The film was aimed at twelve-year-old boys wetting themselves over the special effects ... and Karen Allen. Let's all revert to that state of mind, sit back and enjoy what two masters hath wrought.

Am I losing it? Has this blog lost all academic or intellectual stamina? Perhaps. We'll see. Only a third of the way there, chumps. Next up: Bogart and Hepburn, dahhling, in The African Queen.

June 1, 2010

#67: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Why are we better for seeing a film? What questions does it raise in us that challenges us to be better people? I asked this after seeing Unforgiven as a criticism, because I didn't find any reason there ... but do we need a reason? I ask the same question after seeing Mike Nichols' masterful adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I'm left again without an answer. Both films are full of vengeful, merciless people, and by the end, we're lefting wondering why we've peered in on these people's lives for two hours. What Woolf has that Eastwood's western lacks is a biting script and vivid characterizations.

Company: on my own. Can you imagine having no companion for George and Martha's night of fun and games? Nick and Honey have their troubles but ultimately it's best that they have each other.

Cuisine: a Diet Coke. Beach body.

What a dump.

The film opens on a middle-aged couple stumbling home from a late-night party. At first, at a distance, we hear laughter, but as they approach, the conversation fizzles and we get the sense that George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor) are tolerating each other's presence as they make their way home for the night. The lights flicker on in their home, and their faces are worth a million words: the party took its toll on both of them. The moon is out, whole, as though beckoning werewolves or some similar force of evil. An omen.

It's clear to us that their marriage is an unhappy one. When Martha reveals that she's invited guests over for a nightcap, George slumps onto the bed and complains that he just wants the night to end. Like a demon, Martha croaks "Poooor Georgie, Georgie Porgie Put-Upon Pie..."

Then the two other Put-Upon Pies show up. I love that the first time we see Nick (George Segal), a young professor at the college (where George is a senior professor and Martha is the president's daughter) and his wife, Honey (Oscar winner Sandy Dennis), they look right at us, not knowing what they're in for, but as if Nichols is saying, "Here's the before picture."

What follows is "an evening of fun and games," as the poster taglines advertise. Games, yes. Fun? No. George and Martha emerge respectively in our eyes as a long-suffering, painfully mediocre history professor and a shrill, seething and bitter shrew, both intent in their own way on torturing the other. They sling barbs at each other with the verocity of tigers, even when they're whispering, even when they're laughing and having a good time. Luckily for us, since both of them are educated, insightful and witty, great lines like "I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you" and "We're not arguing; we're exercising" are commonplace. Thanks, E-Albs!

It would be enough to see Martha and George tear each other apart, but the presence of guests suggests a theatricality, even a sensational and crude burlesque of misery. I found myself siding with George early on, marking Martha as the vicious one and George as the downtrodden target, but he has a mean streak in him too (possibly developed as a defense mechanism) as he makes clear by ripping into Nick the first time they're alone. Nick and Honey really could escape at any time, but they choose to stay, mostly out of social nicety... but nothing good can come of it -- I kept thinking, "Get out! The door is open! For God's sake!" They stay, and they're never the same.

I read that Burton and Taylor were married at the time this was filmed, so their chemistry is certainly there. I also read that she couldn't shake Martha out of her system for many months after finishing her work on the film. I can't imagine it would be easy to get rid of that woman.

The play's script remained virtually unchanged for the big screen, which is all for the best -- what improvements would need to be made? Many plays have been adapted unsuccessfully for the screen, and sometimes you can blame it on the director or the actors. Here, the director is adept at letting the actors do their work, the actors are doing the work, and they're all aided by such a strong script with such cinematic vibrance it can barely be contained on the screen.

The play is of course a masterpiece, but this is a movie blog. The film adaptation (I've never seen the play staged, and just missed what local critics called a definitive staging at a professional theater less than a mile from my apartment: blurg) was Mike Nichols' big-screen debut, which is amazing to think about given the breadth of his career as we know it. Here, he manages to stay mostly out of the actors' way and yet zoom in tight on them, never letting them fall away or letting the pace of this quick-witted story get away from him. When all four characters are doing something completely different (see: this scene at the bar) he manages to keep them all in cinematic focus. Brilliant.

I would fail as a movie lover if I failed to mention what a fantastic performance Elizabeth Taylor gives here. Uta Hagen originally played Martha on Broadway (and wouldn't it be great to have her committed to celluloid?), and Albee reportedly wanted Bette Davis to play her (and wouldn't it be great to hear her mock her own line "What a dump"?), but something tells me Davis may have been too old school an actress for this role. Albee's script was groundbreaking and his characters so nuanced, and Taylor (although thought by many in Hollywood to be far too young for the role, at only 38) brings such detail to the frumpy, hateful housewife Martha that you can't help but melt with her as she collapses at the climax of the film. Yes, she's huge, her characterization is wild and mannered -- but the character asks for it all along the way. It's a shame she's mostly known for her marriages and her star power; hopefully she'll ultimately be remembered for performances like this one.

The party's over.

Each of the party guests is left stunned, in their own world. Albee's only complaint about the film initially was that he didn't like Nichols' use of overhead shots like this one (I suppose he would have been dealing purely with one angle, the audience's point of view from their theater seats), but I love how isolated each of the characters looks here, none on the same plane, physically or mentally. Each one exhausted by the night's events, each one doomed to be infected with distrust.

I also love knowing this trivia, that this film was what really changed it all for Jack Valenti and the MPAA (a topic I researched heavily for a college project). The profanity and sexual implication in the film was revolutionary for 1966, and forced Valenti to rethink the way movies were screened and rated for the public. Maybe that could be my next blog project: the ratings system, why it works, why it doesn't. Although after This Film is Not Yet Rated, I don't know that I would have that much left to add. We'll see.

Well done, Albee. Everyone. Next up: Harrison Ford dons the fedora for Raiders of the Lost Ark.