Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

Moonstruck (1987)

Moonstruck

Moonstruck – 1987

Director – Norman Jewison

Starring – Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello, and Olympia Dukakis

Through the years there have been many messages, poems, and letters delivered through the medium of the motion pictures. Some are about strong women, some are about the enduring strength of an ideal, and some messages are just downright personal (love for an idea, a theme, or a people or demographic), but there is no more popular subject than community. Groups of people bound by something larger than each of the individuals, something definable and relatable.  Or in the case of Moonstruck, a community of people that works and lives in New York City.

The film, features a rather typical sort of love story.  A widowed woman, Loretta (Cher), is currently in a relationship that is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend isn’t ready to commit to more, but she comes to realize that maybe she is just settling for less to avoid loneliness.  She lives with her parents, and grandparents and spends all day entrenched in the lives of her loud, boisterous, Italian family.  All day long she listens to her mother, Rose, worry about whether or not her husband is cheating, her father just seems to want to be left alone, and she is caught in the middle.

When her boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello) proposes to her, she travels to the bakery where his long estranged brother works to invite him to the wedding.  Ronny (Nic Cage), is a fiery, passion filled man who is nursing a resentment over the girl that his brother stole long ago.  Naturally, this spirited and outspoken man intrigues Loretta, and she falls in love with him instantly.  Tortured by her guilt over the new-found love, and her betrayal of the man who proposed to her, she is forced to choose between the lie that she loves or the love that’s a lie.

The other, of the two, over-arching themes of this film seems to be lies, and though lies and community seem like disparate things, they end up being very closely intertwined.  Each character has a secret, or at the very least a social quirk that they are trying to repress, but due to close quarters of New York City there is always someone paying attention to what they are doing.  This sort of involuntary interaction with neighbors, family, and co-workers means that privacy is really an illusion.  These people then, for lack of anyone better equipped to deal with the situation, become the support system to either validate or discredit what they are doing.

Loretta is seen out on the town with Ronny by her father, who actually IS stepping out with another woman behind Rose’s back.  After watching the constant fighting and break-ups of a fellow lonely soul in the neighborhood restaurant, Rose is spotted by her father-in-law walking home with him after the two share a friendly, yet intimate dinner.  And everyone who surrounds Ronny at the bakery has been silently watching him grieve his failed relationship for years.  These people are all witnesses to lives, and hidden pains of one another.  They catch each other at their very worst, but at the same time represent to each other, a support system that is deeply important and personal.

Though she doesn’t approve of her father stepping out without her mother, Loretta is bound by the guilt brought on by her own infidelity.  They are locked in opposition with one another, yet they still end up helping each other work out a solution by the end of the film.  Perry (the unlucky-in-love, restaurant patron) and Rose can relate to each other’s feelings of loneliness, rejection, and the humiliation that is a natural part of relationships. And though their support is misconstrued by someone else, they are simply providing support for one another.  Finally, Ronny’s support system is his job, and he uses it as a way to give his life meaning until something else, something more rewarding (read: Loretta), comes along to snap him out of it.

Even though the film is a love story, we understand as an omnipotent, the all-seeing audience, that the support structure would be the same if it were a drama, or a slapstick comedy, or even a mystery.  The love story is the background, the paint on the house that is the story of the community.  More than anything this film emphasizes the ideal that communities are not only important, and necessary, but all around us.  They may get us into trouble sometimes, but more often than not, it is these important connections in our lives that inevitably get us out of trouble as well.

I realize that Moonstruck is just a fun little romantic comedy, but it does strive to describe and illustrate the connection that exists in its story.  Cher, Nicholas Cage, and Director, Norman Jewison, are well aware of this, and though it may not reach this ideal consistently throughout the film, the fact that it tries raises Moonstruck up far above the level of most.  Once again, I’m left wondering why something so glorious and wonderful as “Paper Moon” never made this list, as it features similar themes, and in my humble opinion is a far superior film.

“The one thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the art of cinema, is that all movies should have Cher in them.” – Ashley

I’ve Seen It, and Now So Has She…

So in the ongoing process of reviewing the movies I had already seen when starting this, here are 25 more films from different years, genres, and nationalities.  Thanks to her going nuts on our movie collection in an attempt to catch up, all of these films were simultaneously reviewed by my lovely wife, Ashley, as well as by me.  Enjoy!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Though not as phenomenal as some of his work, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is one of the really good Hitchcock films.  Jimmy Stewart is always pretty likable, but it’s Doris Day who really steals the show for me.  The one thing that the original has over this remake is the ever-wonderful Peter Lorre.  I could watch that guy eat breakfast!

“Don’t F with Doris Day or she will sing you a song!” – Ashley

The Great Escape (1963)

Partly remembered for it’s fun story, and partly because of Steve McQueen, The Great Escape is also worthy of remembrance for being one of the last (as far as I could find anyway) really great, ensemble films.  The list of famous actors that make an appearance here is a pretty astounding one.  Everyone from the CEO of Jurassic Park, to Flint of “In Like Flint”, to the vigilante from “Death Wish”, and plenty more, make an appearance in this film.  Oh, and the story is pretty good too.

“This movie might be set in a prisoner of war camp, but I would liken it to the con or heist movie genres, so it was actually quite enjoyable.” – Ashley

La Battaglia Di Algeri (AKA: The Battle of Algiers) (1965)

The gritty and raw style of this film owes much to the cinema vérité camera work, and black and white film stock, which served to mimic news reel, or documentary style footage.  The cast of actors, or non-actors as they were, was chosen for their look, and the emotional heft they brought the subject matter, with the only “real” actor playing the leader of the French military force tasked with quieting the then French colony, Colonel Mathieu.  As a testament to its message, the film was banned in France for a number of years, before being re-edited and released later on.  As powerful and prescient today as it was when it was filmed, it speaks to our current situation with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the nature, and victims of terrorism.

“It’s a war movie!” (said with fake excitement) – Ashley

C’era Una Volta Il West  AKA Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Gorgeous!  This film is so lush, and beautiful that when I first saw it, it took my breath away.  Though I do love the Man With No Name trilogy, this film, in my humble opinion, is  absolutely Sergio Leone’s masterpiece!  Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and god help us all Claudia Cardinale.  If you haven’t seen this film, you are doing yourself a grand disservice!

“One of the best movies this list has introduced me to!” – Ashley

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I saw this film around two decades ago, and I liked it a lot.  I was amazed at how much I liked it really, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently with my wife for her first time, that I was blown away.  Dustin Hoffman is so, so very good, and unfortunately for him, John Voight was so incredible that he still hasn’t yet managed to attain such heights again.  Fred Neil’s “Everybody Talkin'” performed by Harry Nilsson, is such a perfect song to capture the wonder, and spontaneity of New York city, as well as the despair and fear that come when good fortune you’re riding flips upside down and smothers you instead.  One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

“Two hustlers find love.” – Ashley

Serpico (1973)

Though I’ve seen Serpico, I never fell in love with Serpico.  It’s a good film, that I, more than likely, should give another chance.  Known as one of the big tent poles of 1970s cinema, this film went a long way in defining the social, and political unrest of the urbanites of the time.

“Al Pacino grows a beard and takes down some corrupt cops.” – Ashley

Jaws (1975)

The godfather of the summer blockbuster is also an incredibly effective horror and suspense film.  This film comes from the young and hungry Steven Spielberg that helped make a lot of the movies that I grew up on, not the tired schmaltzy Spielberg that ruins every movie he makes now in the last 30 minutes (Don’t believe me?  Take, A.I., War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, and the all terrible Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.).  So basically, Jaws was good.

“The push-zoom in it is great, other then that, meh.” – Ashley

Network (1976)

Though Network has some pretty interesting things to say about the nature of television and the nature of fame and martyrdom, and is definitely considered to be another one of those “important” movies from the seventies, I didn’t like the film really at all.  I found all the characters to be pretty repellent  people, and not in the least compelling on any other level.

“I hated every character in this movie.” – Ashley

Airplane! (1980)

The absolute funniest movie that I had ever seen when I was ten years old, it turns out is best marketed towards the young and those who are young in the head.  It didn’t manage to hold onto its title when I recently re-watched it, but it was still really fun to watch.  Leslie Nielson easily steals the show with his trademark deadpan delivery, and square-jawed good looks.  I will always love it for the joy it brought me in my youth.

“Better then the parody movies done today but still not my favorite kind of comedy.” – Ashley

The King of Comedy (1983)

Robert De Niro’s selfish, celebrity-obsessed, Travis Bickle is in love with the idea of fame, so much so that fixates on it.  It is all he sees and all he desires.  At times, tense, at others comic, the film goes a fair way towards predicting the phenomenon of instant fame that shows like American Idol, and YouTube have come to inspire. “The King of Comedy”, just may be one of Scorsese’s lighter works, but one of Martin’s lesser works is often times better than someone else’s best.

“Robert De Niro being creepy.” – Ashley

The Terminator (1984)

I was raised on this film.  I have probably seen it upwards of 100 times.  It is incredible.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is bad.” – Ashley

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

This little flick is a fossil of another time, a time when the name Eddie Murphy meant you were going to see something that was actually funny.  Not solely for children, no fat suits or unnecessary makeup, but an actual, honest to God funny movie.  Murphy made a fair amount of them in his heyday, my only guess is that he just ran out of funny stuff to say, and now is only capable of making crap.  Too bad.

“Oh, I didn’t know Eddie Murphy use to be funny!” – Ashley

‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap (AKA: Project A, Part II) (1987)

I went through a big Hong Kong cinema phase in the mid to late 90s.  Films like A Better Tomorrow, My Lucky Stars, Full Contact, and Hardboiled filled my movie collection.  Some of my favorites were the films of Jackie Chan, including the Project A films.  Packed with action, impossible stunts, and lots of slapstick humor, these films are intensely rewarding, and loads of fun.  Though I like Project A, Part II a lot, I wouldn’t put it as my favorite of Chan’s films, that honor would go to the absolutely insane Drunken Master II.  The last half an hour of that film was just about the craziest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

“Jackie is a god.” – Ashley

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Another film that I suppose I should devote another viewing to.  Most people seem to love, A Fish Called Wanda, however I thought it wasn’t all that good.  Since it was written by John Cleese, I should by all rights love it, so I can only assume that I saw it at too young an age.

“A raunchy comedy from the 80’s that is actually still funny for a first time view.”      – Ashley

The Naked Gun (1988)

Another of my favorite films from when I was 10 years old.  Leslie Nielsen rode the slapstick gravy train for many years, culminating in The Naked Gun.  Though the films sequels turn out to be rather hokey and one-note, the original film still stands out as one of the best examples of this type of comedy.

“Not bad but just not my kind of comedy.” – Ashley

Die Hard (1988)

As an only child, I spent a lot of time watching movies.  Every Friday night I would have my Mom drive me to the local video emporium, where I would pick up the newest action movies, along with the grossest or most obscure comedies and horror films.  I remember renting Die Hard when if first came out of Video.  I put the VHS tape into the VCR, sat back and spent the next two hours and twelve minutes getting my mind blown!  Easily one of the best action movies ever, and the best Christmas movie by a long shot.  Absolutely deserves to be on this list.

“My husband looks like Bruce Willis, so I’m allowed say how much I like how little his shirt is on in this movie, right?” – Ashley

Total Recall (1990)

Far and away the best film that either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Paul Verhoeven ever had anything to do with, and both men made some goddamned awesome films!  Groundbreaking visual effects, a truly compelling science fiction story, and action for days.  I was lucky enough to see this film in the theater, where at the tender age of eleven, I fell in love.

“Amazing special effects makeup. I wish they still did makeup this way.” – Ashley

Terminator 2: Judgment Day  (1991)

Not as impacting to me as the original, but this was yet another fantastic film.  James Cameron at the peak of his career thus far (yes I am including the disappointing Avatar).

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is good.” – Ashley

JFK (1991)

As a devout fan of film, I have a constantly shifting set of films that revolve in and out as my favorites of all time.  Reed’s The Third Man,  Kurosawa’s High & Low, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, and of course Oliver Stone’s JFK.  This labyrinth of a film traces the known facts right along side the potential possibilities, watching the two dance with one another, seeing what happens.  Some of my favorite cinematography ever committed to celluloid juxtaposes the black and white of the accepted reality of the Warren Commission with as many points of view as there were watching that day on the grassy knoll.  Black and white, high and low, right and wrong, fact and fiction.  All blend together in this film, tied by the exceptional cast, character actors and famous faces alike.  The best you’ve ever seen Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Michael Rooker in any film.  This is one of those films that no matter what time it is, if I find it starting on TV, I will watch it all the way through.  I think I’ll go watch it right now.

“Was there anyone who didn’t want to kill Kennedy?” – Ashley

C’Est Arrive Pres De Chez Vous (AKA: Man Bites Dog) (1992)

This mockumentary about a vicious serial killer being followed by a documentary film crew attempts to find the line between documentation and complicity.  A dark film with some very subtle comic undertones, Man Bites Dog is more uncomfortable than it is successful.  It felt about 45 minutes too long, which would have shortened the film by about half.  Interesting, but ultimately not really very good.

“Oh this was suppose to be a comedy?” – Ashley

The Crying Game (1992)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, so my only real memory of it is that I managed to see it twice in one weekend, once with each of my parents who didn’t know what it was about…awkward.

“Despite knowing the spoiler twist for a couple decades now I found this a really interesting look at the fluidity of human sexuality.” – Ashley

Dead Man (1995)

Long, slow, and still.  Three things that describe the films of Jim Jarmusch.  Dead Man is all of those things, and it was great.  Not a film for every occasion, nor is it for everyone, but if you appreciate thoughtful introspective and occasionally spiritual films, this one may pique your interest.

“So fucking boring!” – Ashley

Fargo (1996)

Of all the Coen Brothers films to put on this list, both this film, and Raising Arizona are two of their most average.  They are certainly good films, not nearly as reprehensible as Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, or The Ladykillers, but also not even close to as good as Miller’s Crossing (my personal favorite Coen Brothers film), The Big Lebowski, or Barton Fink.  That being said, Fargo did open up the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities to a whole new crowd of viewers and introduced the masses to William H. Macy, and Peter Stormare, so in that respect, it was a good choice.  Otherwise, a real missed opportunity for this list of “best movies”.

“I love that the lead is a smart strong women. Really great movie too.” – Ashley

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Awful, over-hyped, manipulative, horror-porn along the likes of Hostel, and Hostel 2.

“Yeah, yeah we get it Jesus got his ass beat.” – Ashley

The Aviator (2004)

Even genius doesn’t shine all the time.  Yet another movie where the mega-talented Scorsese teams with the mega-mediocre DiCaprio, and turns in underwhelming results.  One of the greatest living cinematographers in the world said it best, describing The Aviator as a “handjob” for Hollywood, and while I don’t think it’s quite that, he certainly spends the entirety of this film writing an elaborate love letter.  Cate Blanchett was really wonderful as Kate Hepburn, if only DiCaprio could do some acting that isn’t just his usual approach of squinting and leaning forward into the camera.

“Leonardo is actually tolerable in this movie. Though he still can’t do an accent worth a shit.” – Ashley

So, there you have it.  Another 25 in the bag.  See you next time!

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man

Rain Man – 1988

Director – Barry Levinson

Starring – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and Valeria Golino

What is more awful, the imitation of the famous character, or the famous character, himself?  It’s not as easy a question as I was guessing that it would be.  With such well-defined mannerisms, speech patterns that inspire imitation, and the constant repetition that drives it into the brain of the collective public, a film like this one can easily become parody.  Before seeing this film, my only knowledge of it was of the imitation of Ray Babbit that just about everyone seems to know, regardless of having seen the film or not.  I had grown rather sick of these imitations and had developed the opinion that I didn’t like Rain Man because of it.  I felt that Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the aforementioned Babbit was hammy and over the top, and I wrote off Tom Cruise as having played himself…again.  All before having seen one frame of film.  I was wrong.

For something that could have easily delved into the realm of the predictable, layered with melodrama, and schlock that I feared so much, Rain Man keeps a remarkably level-headed assessment of Hoffman’s mentally challenged Ray and his hot-headed brother, Charlie played in a remarkably subtle way by Cruise.  Immediately my impression of the film shot up as the characters turned out to be not only grounded in reality, but more importantly, utterly believable and even likable as well.

Driven mostly by his anger, and to a lesser degree by his fear, Charlie Babbitt,tries to fill the hole inside himself with things and with money.  Constantly he is reminding himself of what the world owes him, and it is with this attitude that he greets the news of his estranged fathers death.  Not willing to deal with how this makes him feel, or his own sense of loss, Charlie looks simply at what was left to him, and feels he is owed more.  He is not a terrible or a bad person, he is just so filled with anger, it’s all he can feel anymore.

The majority of his father’s money, it turns out, has been left to a brother, that Charlie never knew he had.  Ray Babbitt, the new-found brother, immediately becomes a target for Charlie’s anger, despite the fact that he’s unable to understand, let alone deal with either the anger or the blame.  Charlie is left with the choice of leaving with nothing, or leaving with Ray, hoping to get a sort of paltry ransom from the executor of his father’s estate, and the rest of the film deals with the two brothers learning to find value in one another.

While the union isn’t ideal for either of them at first, the two brothers eventually get to know each other, and in time come to trust each other too. As I mentioned before, Tom Cruise, wasn’t yet the Tom Cruise we know today.  The 1988 version could actually play more than one character, each one with subtlety and definition, too.  Watching Babbitt stretch and grow, first straining against then breaking through the confines of his anger, was one of the most rewarding experiences thus far in this endeavor.  Combined with the muted performance that Dustin Hoffman turns in, Rain Man showed itself to be the real deal.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen during this little endeavor, Rain Man was surprisingly good.  What could easily have fallen back into the gimmick of method acting or even a plain, stale buddy movie, really blossomed into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Well worth it.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, TheThief, HisWife & HerLover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – 1989

Director – Peter Greenaway

Starring – Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, and Michael Gambon

By far, the most dramatic visual statement a film can make is the use of color.  The use of color in a film, any film, immediately sets for the audience and then maintains the tone of the story throughout the rest of the film.  Amongst all of the important elements of filmmaking, plot, acting, directing, art direction, editing, etc., the choice of how to present your film’s color scheme is arguably the most immediate and subjective choice you can make.  A very washed out color palette says something completely different from say a very saturated one, or even a monochromatic one.  From the first frame the audience is instantly on board and facing the direction you’ve pointed them.

Despite all the nastiness, pain and anger this film has on display, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is such a lush and visually sumptuous exercise in color use, that a critique or review could be written solely on its use and impact alone (although I’ll try to touch on other stuff too).  Peter Greenaway, angry with the political climate in Britain loaded this film with vitriol aimed at the Thatcher government that was in power during the making of this film in the 80s.  Thanks to my limited knowledge of 1980’s England, the not so subtle symbolism and rather heavy-handed commentary on the state of his home nation was all but completely over my head.  Thankfully, however, that didn’t take away from the overall message of the film, nor on the long-lasting aftertaste it left in my brain.

To start with, I should mention that the entire film is shot in the confines of or immediately outside of a fancy french restaurant, each area of which is dressed in its own specific color.  The exterior of the restaurant is blue, the kitchen green, the dining room red, and the ladies room is white.  Not only that, but each of the character’s clothes change to match the setting when they go from one to the next. (ie: as a character moves from the kitchen to the dining room, their clothes change from green to red, etc…) Not only does this stay constant, but each color is indicative of the character who dominates that setting.  The blazing, angry gangster holds court in the dining room.  The ladies room represents a sanctuary for the adulterous couple.  The kitchen is the realm of the cook, and the outside represents the real world.  There is one exception, however.  Michael, the rather nebbish man who captures the eye of the gangster’s wife, is always clad in a rather drab brown color.  He is the exception to the color rule, he is his own constant.

The thief of the title refers to Albert Spica, mercilessly and ravenously played to the hilt by Michael Gambon.  Spica is a gangster of the most reprehensible variety, used to getting his way through intimidation, anger, and violence.  Spica dominates and controls (or tries to) everyone around him.  While I doubt very much that Thatcher and her cronies went so far as to actually spread shit on her enemies, taking what was theirs, and leaving them bloodied and broken, he apparently represents her, and her government.

His much abused, much put-upon wife Georgina, played somehow still gracefully by Helen Mirren, stands for the trampled citizenry of Britannia.  Her dutiful acceptance and depressing outlook on this relationship is indicative of most abusive relationships whether they’re between two people or on a much larger, country-sized scale.  This subservient behavior that typifies Georgina from the beginning of the film, is immediately thrown off track when she connects with a quiet, lonely soul who represents everything that her gangster is not.  To Georgina, Michael represents safety, happiness (or at the very least less sadness), and something more than simple survival.  The first half of this romance is purely visual, as it transcends the boundaries represented by the different rooms and their colors.  It is fully halfway into the film before we even hear Michael utter his first word.  As I mentioned before, his is the only characters’ color scheme that never changes.  He wears a consistently brown colored suit throughout the film, which helps exemplify the inherent stability, and staid nature of his character.

The cook, of the film’s title, acts as an overseer.  Not so much an omnipotent god as an observer.  He is privy to more information than everyone else in the film, but unlike a simple observer, he does tend to meddle a bit.  Since he has a rather strong dislike, with good reason, for the brash, un-refined gangster that has hijacked his restaurant, he helps to facilitate, and even protect the blossoming love between Georgina and Michael.  Where as Michael has limited to no ability to stand up to Spica, the Cook is at times outright defiant.  He is more than willing to poke this dangerous man’s ego with a stick, because the thing he loves most (his restaurant) has already been taken from him, and he has little left to lose, save his dignity.

The film is certainly bit heavy handed, however, I don’t think it would have had the same impact or effect if it had been treated otherwise.  Large bold strokes are required here to convey the hurt, the anger, and the sadness of this film.  It was said by another essayist that the nudity of the film isn’t so much revealing as it is exposing.  This couldn’t be more true.  The numerous sexual encounters between Georgina and Michael are equally about opening up, showing off flaws, and fear of trust, as they are about intimacy, arousal, and lust.  The glamour and sensuality of it isn’t gone really, but juxtaposed with the violence and inhumanity demonstrated by Gambon’s Spica, it has a much more comforting effect.  It makes them, and us, feel safe and connected, and what a wonderful way to use sex in a film.

With everything it has to say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover really needs to be watched more than once to glean all you can from it.  Despite the difference in tone and message, and despite the rather disparate nature of the films I’m about to compare it to, there is a definite connection between this film and something like the Three Color Trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge), by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (especially Amelie), and to a much different yet no less important extent, some of the films of Paul Schrader, especially Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters for it’s use of color, Affliction for it’s use of tone and message, and Auto Focus for it’s mixing of both of these things.  This film is defintely worthy of your attention.  I was certainly glad I gave it mine.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy – 1989

Director – Gus Van Sant

Starring – Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and James LeGros

There are a few basic steps that each and every narrative film must go through to ensure that the audience can relate to, continue to watch and enjoy the film in question.  Step one: Develop compelling characters.  We as the audience need a trustworthy, reliable vehicle through which we can experience the story.  Step 2: Craft an interesting tale.  Fashion a story that has a message about something the audience either already knows something about, or would be interested to learn about.  And step 3: Tie the whole thing together and make it fun (or in the absence of fun, make it important).

In the case of Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant cherry picks from the list of steps, taking elements that he likes and leaving the rest.  While it does have characters, they aren’t very compelling.  In fact they are all rather shallow and unlikable, each a little smarmier than the last.  As far as story goes, it is of the long, agonizing, downward spiral variety.  Not super compelling, really, just a little boring to watch.  As for the last step, that was actually sort of a success.  These, selfish, venal characters were married very well with the uncomfortable depressing story, unfortunately the fun and importance WAS left out.

To bring everyone up to speed, here is a brief breakdown of the story.  Bob, Diane, Rick and Nadine are a group of junkies and opportunists out to commit small-scale robbery of drugstores (hence the name) in order to steal the controlled medication from the pharmacy counter.  When they aren’t faking seizures and or breaking and entering all in the name of getting high, they’re getting wasted, antagonizing the cops and belittling each other and their drug addled stoner neighbor (which ends up being important later on in the story).  After one of them accidentally overdoses, the three remaining addicts hole up in a haze of pot, heroin and dilaudid, and try to figure out how to ditch the body and avoid the police.

Like some of his other films (Elephant, Gerry, and To Die For spring to mind), Gus Van Sant seems to gravitate towards subject matter without a light at the end of the tunnel.  But where Elephant was an examination of the country’s reaction to the Columbine school shooting, and To Die For was an interesting, well acted, noir story at its best (I never saw Gerry), Drugstore Cowboy lacks any real redeeming quality.  Matt Dillon’s Bob spends so much of the movie as a paranoid, shitty human being, that I found it hard to give a shit about his so called “redemption” and thought it seemed rather tacked on and false.

Heather Graham as Nadine was the most sympathetic of all the characters, and only really because I felt sorry for her.  Where as the others seemed reap what they had sewn, Nadine seemed decidedly innocent and tragic.  Matt Dillon, and the rest of the major players did a fine job acting, and in truth they were probably fairly accurate to how these people would be in real life, I simply took no pleasure in watching them.

As far as direction, I far prefer the rather optimistic Gus Van Sant who surfaces every now and again to direct the occasional Oscar bait like Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester.  These films are far less confrontational, but they also balance the director’s inherent malaise a little better with the occasional sweetness and intelligence that we all know he’s capable of.

Now I realize I’m being a little overly harsh on this film.  It simply wasn’t my cup of tea.  In terms of its structure, and artistry, the film stands up fine, but the subject matter and the characterizations really left something to be desired for me.  I know it’s not fair to pre-judge a film, but I have a feeling that I will have an equally hard time with My Own Private Idaho which I will also have to watch as it is one of the 1001 on this list.  But I’ll do my best to give it a fair shake, and who knows…maybe I’ll be surprised.

If you’re looking for a dark movie revolving around drug addiction, and poor choices, I don’t know that you can get any better than Requiem for a Dream.  Strangely enough, the highs and lows are far deeper than those of Drugstore Cowboy, and the ending is just as (if not more) bleak and depressing.  Still the craftsmanship, architecture and immersion of Requiem left me feeling strangely satisfied, like I had really just seen something vital and important, something with a very strong warning message about the dependence and co-dependence of drug addiction, not to mention the inter-personal relationships of the people involved.

“Terrible people doing terrible things in a terrible movie.” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London – 1981

Director – John Landis

Starring – David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne

(Guest Review by Mike Petrik)

Warning! Spoilers lie within!  But, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re silly and should stop whatever nonsense you are doing now and go watch it.  It’s on Netflix, so, no excuse.

John Landis wrote “An American Werewolf in London” at the tender age of 19.  I’ll say that again. He wrote this film when he was 19 years old.  That’s just insane.  Not only is this one of the best horror comedies in history, I’d place it as one of the best films of all time.  What did I accomplish when I was 19? I was in college. I lived at my parents house. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I never went out on weekends. I never wrote a screenplay. Basically, what I accomplished when I was 19 was watching “An American Werewolf in London” again.  He didn’t actually follow through with making the film until much later in life after the success of Animal House, but still, 19.

As a young writer, Landis had learned about a narrative technique called juxtaposition, or contrast in storytelling.  That is two opposing ideas put right next to each other to emphasize their impact.  And boy oh boy did he cram as much contrast into “An American Werewolf in London” as possible.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  Some may see it as a crutch, but the entire structure of the film relies on this device.  And he’s not the only one that utilizes juxtaposition.  To clarify, take another look at Ed’s recently reviewed William Friedkin classic “The Exorcist.”  Good vs. Evil.  Light vs. Dark.  Quiet vs. Loud. Ascending vs. Descending.  Hurricane Billy goes a’crazy with the contrasts.  Another good example is Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  Everyone remembers the very creepy house where Leatherface and family live.  Filled with human skin lamps, and couches made out of human bones.  But the outside of the house is a big white country farmhouse on a beautiful summer day.  Which made venturing into the house that much more shocking.  Imagine if the exterior of the house had been a spooky haunted house with clanging shutters, thunder and lighting, and skeletons rattling.  By the time we get inside, the shock of meeting Leatherface wouldn’t have been as jarring.  But because of the contrast, seeing Leatherface slam that metal door is still the best part of the film.  I think you get the idea.  So, lets see how Landis uses contrast to his advantage.

The whole story structure itself uses contrasts.  A love story vs. a werewolf story.  A boy meeting a young nurse and falling in love, while at the same time struggling with the reality that he is a lycanthrope and is responsible for the death of several people and must kill himself or they are cursed to walk in limbo as the undead for eternity.  What’s genius about this is how the two stories run parallel to each other and how they tie together.  One can’t exist without the other, but they are booth doomed.  Brilliant.

The transformation scene.  Arguably one of the best, if not the best, werewolf transformations ever put on film.  That’s Rick Baker for you.  Anyways, not only is it shocking because it’s done in bright harsh light in a small London flat, but because of the contrast of the scene before it.  Our main character David is pacing around the apartment to that super upbeat and bouncy song, Bad Moon Rising.  He is looks in the fridge a few times, watches tv, reads a book, and even gets locked out of the apartment.  It’s really funny, then suddenly, bam!  Screaming, writhing pain.

My favorite part of the film comes in the form of a nightmare.  Our main character David is still in the hospital, unaware yet that he is a werewolf.  The changes his body is going through are causing very vivid and disturbing nightmares.  How does Landis approach the nightmares?  Why, with contrasts, of course!  David is at home with his family.  He is at the dining room table doing homework, while his Mom cleans up supper, and his younger siblings are watching the Muppet Show.  A beautiful suburban family evening.  Then, bam!  In through the front door storms nazi monsters, firing machine guns and cutting throats.  Setting the house on fire.  David wakes up from the dream and says exactly what everyone in the audience says; “Holy shit.”

I can go on and on.  The humor of his friend Jack, opposite the fact that he is a rotting undead corpse.  Silly bumbling London police opposite the insane climax of a massive car pile up in Piccadilly Circus.  The polite gentlemen in the subway tunnels as he is attacked by a werewolf.  Again, Landis wrote this when he was 19.  Not bad for a kid who can’t legally drink yet.

Moving on from narrative writing techniques, the number one thing people love about this movie is the special effects.  This was done in the days before computers, which makes it all that much more impressive.  All done in camera, and mostly in bright lights, Rick Bakers werewolf makeup is something many consider to be his masterpiece of his career.  Rivaled only by Rob Bottin’s work in 1982’s The Thing, I would agree that this is some of the best monster makeup ever put on film.  Seeing a rotting Jack corpse at a young age made a huge impact on me, and most likely contributed to my lifelong horror obsession.  Thanks, Rick Baker!

An American Werewolf in London has some all around amazing performances, most notably Griffin Dunne as Jack and David Naughton as our lead David.  If the writing and special effects had fallen flat, these two probably could have successfully carried the movie.  But, that not being the case, their hilarious performances were only the icing on the delicious horror comedy cake.

I’d say that’s about enough of me drooling over this film.  It’s a great little flick for the Halloween season, so perfect timing for me to tell you it’s on Netflix.  Go watch it. Thanks!