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.

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) (1929)

Die Buchse Der Pandora (AKA: Pandora’s Box) – 1929

Director – G. W. Pabst

Starring – Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz

There are a whole stable full of directors that you hear about, and see examples from during film school.  You get a bit of a buffet education as it concerns the history of film combined with a bit of the preferences and eccentricities of the person teaching the class. What you don’t get, is a real comprehensive view of any country or movement’s stable of talented directors or actors for any given time period.  Due to a lack of time, and with such a wealth of history packed into the 130 years or so that film has been around, there are bound to be more than a few important names and examples that fall through the cracks.

One such director was G. W. Pabst, a name I had heard on more than one occasion during one or two of my cinema history classes, but nothing that was ever explored in-depth.  As far as Pabst’s rather sizable list of credits, the name that comes up more than any of the others, time and again as one of his best is (surprise, surprise, that’s why I’m writing this review) Pandora’s Box.  So does the most popular film from one of Germany’s greatest directors of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s deserve more attention in the eyes of the world?  Absolutely, it does.

Pandora’s Box tells the story of the ingenue Lulu, a woman struggling to balance the expectations of the multiple men in her life, while each in turn blames her for all of their shortcomings and misfortunes.  Lulu, the object of each (and presumably every) man’s desire, simultaneously becomes the scapegoat and the solution for each.  It is implied, rather explicitly, that she is a courtesan.  An object to covet, to own, use, and discard as the situation demands.

To Schigolch, the man who turned her out (read: pimp), she is a source of income and security, a commodity to be spent.  To her current keeper, Dr. Schon, she is a trophy to be proudly kept and displayed.  To Alwa, Dr. Schon’s son, she is an innocent to be lusted after and saved.  Each man takes it upon himself to “rescue” Lulu through ineffectual half-measures, later blaming her for their own actions.  Where once she was considered a shining, golden conquest, now she is seen as a home-wrecker, and a burden.

While she doesn’t strictly do anything malicious or wrong per se, Lulu never really learns her lesson and manages to perpetuate the cycle through her own inaction.  She is more than willing to let these people come to her rescue and place her in these gilded cages.  Either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself against her “benefactors”, Lulu continues to spiral downwards into worse and worse situations culminating in selling herself, body and soul.

I have this impression of movies from this day and age as being simply sensational adventures to thrill audiences.  Pandora’s Box, with its contemplation of gender, sexuality, dominance, and castigation, is a different animal all together.  With this film, there is an intelligence and genuine desire to explore different points of view, a challenge to the audience to consider the inequalities facing woman, and illustrating the need for examination and change.  All of this, mind you was taking place in the aftermath of World War I, during the rise of the Nazi party, alongside the economical, and social chaos and turmoil that was Germany in 1929.

Louise Brooks, the American expatriate who plays Lulu, does an exceptional job in the role, embracing the it from her trademark bob-haircut, to her pouty doe-eyed expression.  Many were upset at the casting of an American in what was considered a role meant for a German, but fears were ultimately assuaged and critics were duly mollified upon seeing Brooks’ performance.  Truly, she made the role hers, and she has remained synonymous with the character of Lulu ever since.

Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz provide eye-catching support for Brooks, each turning in roles of a lifetime in their own rights.  Goetz, in particular reeks with a slimy, contestable charm as Lulu’s pimp/father-figure Schigolch, a man who doesn’t think twice about wringing all he can from his young meal-ticket.

The version of the film I saw was the newly remastered version put out by the always fantastic Criterion Collection.  This version was no exception to their rule of providing only the highest quality films, restoration, remastering, and packaging.  If you do get to see this film, I hope it is this version that you decide to watch.  Rent it if you must, and buy it if you can, as the film comes with the usual rogues gallery of special features and a whole book full of essays on the film to boot.

I know very little about the rest of G.W. Pabst’s work, but now I’d really like to know more.  So influential in the world of film was Pabst, that he even gets a shout out, and becomes more than a slight plot point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (a phenomenal film in its own right.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and GO SEE THAT SHIT!)  Needless to say, I will be hunting down more of this man’s work, eagerly hoping that Pandora’s Box wasn’t just a one shot wonder, or simply a fluke.  Highly recommended!!

The Producers (1968)

The Producers – 1968

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars

Everything is accelerating.  Things today move faster than they did before, and those things move incrementally faster than they did before that.  Information is always evolving, the delivery speed is increasing, it’s digested faster, and more than ever, what was once an original idea has been re-made, re-packaged, or re-told, so many times that the original now no longer seems all that original or groundbreaking.  Never is this more true than with film, and never more so than with comedy.  Unfortunately, for a film that is more than 40 years old, has been remade into both a movie as well as a stage play, this is most-definitely true for the Producers.

The Producers tells the story of a hack theater director, Max Bialystock (Mostel), and his sheepish accountant, Leo Bloom (Wilder), who attempt to raise lots of money to make a purposefully bad play, so that it bombs on opening night and they can write off (keep) the invested cash.  The pair work hard to shock, annoy, and anger their audience, but much to their, and everyone’s, surprise their play about a young and carefree Hitler and Eva Braun, is a rollicking success when it’s seen as comedic rather than serious.  So their grand scheme plan backfires, and they accidentally have one of the most successful opening nights ever.

The Producers just didn’t wow me.  I didn’t grow up with it like I did Spaceballs.  It wasn’t that rare diamond in the rough that I came to find later in life, such as Young Frankenstein, and it doesn’t have the reputation of comedy mainstay that Blazing Saddles has.  The shock value of trivializing Hitler and the Nazi’s is something that, today, is pretty commonplace, (when ever you need a good bad guy in a movie or a good punchline to a joke, Nazi’s are always a good fall back) so it didn’t seem all that outrageous, shocking, or hilarious to watch it in this film.

Now rationally, I realize that The Producers was, at least in part, responsible for this evolution of humor and it’s more than a little ironic that this influence is making me enjoy the film less, but it’s still hard to get through a movie where you’ve heard the jokes, or at the very least a variation on the jokes, time and time again.  There were a few instances where I was smiling, some where I snickered a little bit, but I don’t think I ever really laughed out loud, or even inwardly to myself.

The film’s real selling point was the outrageously brash humor.  What are these guys willing to say to get their play made.  What sort of illicit sexual favors are they going to promise to widows in order to bilk them out of money so they can finance this ruse.  Since I grew up with things like Eddie Murphey’s Delirious, Airplane!, This is Spinal Tap, and shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy, it’s pretty hard for a film to slap my face and rub my nose in shocking material, especially one from the 60’s.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but the battle is most definitely uphill for the film.

In terms of acting, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder are actually really good together.  Mostel plays as the boisterous and gregarious Bialystock and is a good counterpoint to Wilder’s very neurotic, Woody Allen-ish,  Bloom.  The undeniable chemistry of the pair builds from the first scene and each works so well off of the others performance.  This chemistry is actually the film’s saving grace in many instances,  where the film’s jokes fell flat, these two managed to hold my attention and keep engaging me.  One weak point in the film, was the annoyingly unaware of his surroundings character played by Kenneth Mars.  Mars plays a German expatriate  playwright, who writes the sappy romantic story of Adolph and Eva in complete seriousness.  His performance plays like a bigot with downs syndrome.  More than a bit heavy-handed, and annoying, and every time he was on screen I couldn’t wait for him to be off screen again.

When all is said and done, I realize its importance historically on this list, but I would have given it’s spot to a funnier movie (The Big Lebowski, Bad Santa or Hot Shots! anyone?), or even if you want to give the prize to Mel Brooks (and I realize this is my particular bias), why not History of the World Part 1, or the ever glorious Spaceballs?  The Producers had potential, but it was potential with a limited shelf life, and unfortunately it’s past it’s freshness date.  I realize my stance might not be popular, but really I’m just saying…It’s not terrible, it’s just not great either.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein – 1974

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Madeline Kahn

I grew up on Spaceballs.  Not only that, I co-grew up on History of the World, Part 1.  It would seem to be a no-brainer that anything Mel Brooks would do should appeal to my basest movie watching self, right?  Then, along came Blazing Saddles.  Everyone that I ever talked to about Blazing Saddles loved it.  It was the summit of comedy for a 10-year-old kid (not to mention a lot of 30 year olds that I know now), so why did I think it to be so, blah?  Was I wrong about Mel Brooks?  Are his other movies even funny?  Long story short, my so-so opinion of Blazing Saddles had managed to color my opinion of Brooks’ other films, such as Young Frankenstein, long before I ever even saw them.  It’s really too bad, because Young Frankenstein was a great piece of fond nostalgia.

The story is simple, it is essentially a campy, comedic, re-telling of the story of Frankenstein.  Gene Wilder plays the grandson of the famous Victor von Frankenstein, Frederick.  Embarrassed by the legacy his disgraced grandfather left behind, Frederick goes so far as to alter the pronunciation of his telltale last name to “Fronkunschteen”.  But after receiving the diary of his grandfather, he makes his way to the castle in which the original monster was created to put some of his theories to the test.

Along the way he picks up a sidekick, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor for obvious reasons) played by British comedian Marty Feldman, and a sexy lab assistant played by Teri Garr.  It is by this point the spoofs, and loving jabs begin to fly. Young Frankestein’s success is not so much because of how it points out the ridiculous nature of the original, but because of how lovingly it treats its source material.  In fact, most of the props and set pieces in the castle are actually props from the original 1931 Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder is perfect as the pseudo-serious mad scientist with Garr and Feldman both playing well comedically against his strait act.  Peter Boyle as the monster is able to combine the original humanity of the character, pioneered by Boris Karloff, and twist it just slightly to the bizarre side of things in order to make it funny.  His bit with the “lonely blind man” played by a young Gene Hackman is a particularly stand out moment. And finally, what Mel Brooks movie would be complete without the fantastic Madeline Kahn, as Frederick’s fiancée swept off her feet by the appropriately endowed monster.

Based on the films that I have seen thus far in my life, did Young Frankenstein cross any lines, or break down any borders for me?  No.  It did however, make me remember why it was that I enjoyed movies like that in my youth…they are fun.  I’m looking forward to giving Blazing Saddles another try.  Big thanks to my buddy Mike for recommending and lending this to me, good lookin’ out!

“Madeline Khan, the funniest ever!” – Ashley