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.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – 1992

Director – Baz Luhrmann

Starring – Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, and Bill Hunter

I hadn’t realized before sitting down and watching it, but seeing Strictly Ballroom pointed out just how I’d been missing Australia, not to mention Australian film.  There is a certain quality of the acting, the tone and the intonation.  The characters are at once relate-able and larger than life, and the initial cartoonish impression I had of Australian cinema turned out, I realized, to simply be a vehicle for a more universal set of truths.  In an effort to be funny, and make for a more compelling read, I have had the tendency to make jokes at the expense of, and be rather hard on some of the films that I’ve seen.  The caricatures of the people in those films seemed unrealistic or even laughable on a first viewing, but ultimately, once the stories were done and the reviews written, I continued to think about films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding.   Each stayed with me longer than I would have thought.  I have come to rather like Muriel’s Wedding, despite feeling a little indifferent to it when I wrote the initial review. Like each of those other films, Strictly Ballroom, is completely an Australian film, and just as before, it’s got me thinking.  Thinking about the film itself, and about going back to Australia.  Hopefully soon!

My wife in particular was excited about this film, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers around dance.  Though, the film isn’t really what I would call a dance film in the same way that something like Singing In The Rain is a dance film, it is instead to dance as Rocky was to boxing, an important plot point, but not necessarily the focus.

The story centers around Scott, the promising dancer who yearns to break out of the rigid formula required by the Pan-Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, and dance his own movies, from the heart.  Everyone from his partner, to the judges, to his family all try to warn him that he is being reckless with his chances of winning the competition and making something of himself.  It’s only, Fran, the mousy, seemingly inexperienced dancer in his class that sees otherwise, and encourages him to break free from the rules, and from everyone else’s expectations.

Scott and Fran both are both good enough characters, played well by actors Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice respectively, filling out the roles nicely with likable, engaging characters that the audience wants to root for, but it’s really the supporting characters that populate the world around them that make this movie such a joy.  Take Fran’s parents for example…at first her father seems like an angry, possibly abusive guy trying to commandeer his daughter’s future, but it turns out that he is a passionate dancer who truly doesn’t want to see his little girl waste her time with someone who doesn’t treat her as she deserves.  Her mother, likewise, is a rich breathing person who deeply loves her family.  You can tell at once that each of them, outside of the reality that this film covers, has lived a full life, each with their own experiences and trials.  This is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the actors as well.

Likewise, Scott’s parents harbor their own desires and regrets, as they strive and scrabble trying desperately to reach for past glories.  Scott’s dance coach, Les, as well as his rival Doug, are both great fun to watch as they blunder through the narrative, successfully wresting my attention away from our two leads.  Good as each of these secondary and tertiary characters might be, certainly the most watchable performance was turned in by Bill Hunter, as the detestable, corrupt, Ballroom Federation president, Barry Fife.  Chewing each bit of scenery that he’s given, Fife is sooooooooooo much fun to watch, that I almost wish the film were about him.

At first watch, this film, as well as a lot of other films that come out from down under, seem a little simple, a little cartoonish, or even more than a little over the top, but each film that I have had the good fortune of seeing, is saying more than what is on the surface.  Priscilla, as well as Muriel’s Wedding, have strong messages of acceptance, and Muriel in particular has more than a little to say about forgiveness (of yourself just as much as of anyone else.).

Similarly, Strictly Ballroom is more than what is evident on the surface.  It preaches passion for what you love, and acceptance of others, not despite, but because of what they are.  I really enjoyed this film, more even than watching it, I enjoyed thinking about it afterwards, which is really a sort of first for me.  I am looking forward to giving this film another viewing to see if I can glean anything further from it.  More than anything, though, this film makes me miss Australia.  It brought back memories of traveling along the coast of New South Wales, from Kiama back to Sydney (although I’m not sure I could tell you why it made me think of that…), and for that I loved it!

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s Wedding – 1994

Director – P.J. Hogan

Starring – Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, and Bill Hunter

When facing down a list as formidable as this one is, I find myself assuming that each film on it means something.  Whether it’s historically important, the swan song of a particular star or director, or maybe it simply broke all the records at the box office.  Apparently that isn’t always the case.  Muriel’s Wedding, while rather fun, and charming enough, manages to be none of these things and still it’s here.

The film tells the story of the wedding obsessed Muriel (a young Toni Collette, in her pre-Hollywood days), and her exodus from the family, friends, and town that seem to be working over time in order to keep her down.  Muriel lives in Porpoise Spit, a diaper-rash of a little town filled with the shallow, ignorant, and self obsessed people who exist (in one form or another) in all small towns.  Leading the charge of the obnoxious brigade is Muriel’s family, including her shiftless, unemployed siblings, the empty and ineffectual mother who barely exists, and the overbearing, loud-mouth of a father who worked so hard to drive and inspire these character flaws in his own family.

The most important thing in Muriel’s life is the bright, shining, future she imagines for herself (specifically the wedding part), never-mind the lack of any real interpersonal connection or the absence of any semblance of self-appreciation she may have for herself.  She simply wants this ideal so badly that she doesn’t care just how she gets there, by hook or by crook.

The story is fun, the acting is pretty good, and I really did want the best for Muriel (not to mention, her loud mouthed friend Rhonda, AKA: Brenda on Six Feet Under, AKA: Rachel Griffiths), but even given all that, it still wasn’t worthy of its placement on this list.  When you have a rather simple romantic comedy with a slight empowering wink at the end, that doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside films with the emotional weight and importance of films like Z, or the historical significance of a film like, Children of Paradise, or even the cleverness, and humor managed by the still rather thin, Meet the Parents

Perhaps it’s just one of those movies that doesn’t speak to me, or the place from which I came, or the time in which that place might have existed.  At the very least, I remember the film coming out in theaters, however I don’t really recall it making all that much of a splash even then.  The Australian revolution of film had a brief rekindling with the advent of the Crocodile Dundee franchise, but I’m afraid by the time Young Einstein came out in 1988, Mel Gibson had moved to the United States full-time, and everyone in the states stopped paying attention to what was happening down under.

There was the occasional gem that came out of Australia from those backwards years also known as the 90’s, but for every Peter Weir, Guy Pierce film, there were two Paul Hogan films (Yes I liked Crocodile Dundee when I was a kid, but give me a break, I was a kid, I thought Battleship was a fun board game too). I realize that 1000 movies is a lot to come up with, but I could rattle off a dozen or so just off the top of my head that didn’t make the cut, but were world’s better. Next thing you know, they’ll be letting a Transformers movie onto this list…Nice try, but better luck next time.  Instead how about trying Les Cage Aux Folles (a film I accidentally watched thinking that it was on this list), what would later be remade into The Birdcage.  Both that film and it’s remake are more deserving of recognition to be sure.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter – 1955

Director – Charles Laughton

Starring – Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, and Billy Chapin

There are not many other films that carry the respect and weight of expectation to the extent that The Night of the Hunter does.  In most cases this works as a benefit for most other films.  This way the film doesn’t have the possibility of letting you down if it fails to live up to those lofty expectations.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Night of the Hunter succeeds where a slightly lesser film, with lesser actors, might fail.

First and foremost, the film is remembered for the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell, a performance that oozes with anger and menace.  Mitchum plays Powell to the woman-hating, selfish, and sadistic nines, enjoying every minute of his own performance (which usually doesn’t work, but here, I’m having just as much fun as he is).  Powell roams the country-side of a beleaguered depression era America killing widows and stealing their money.  Even though he claims to be instructed to do it by God, I’m of the opinion his religious bent is simply his sheep’s clothing and the killing is actually his wolf’s nature.

The plot kicks in when Powell learns of hidden bank-robbery loot stolen by a soon to be executed inmate.  Seeing this as a sign from God to continue his “work”, he devises a plan to pay a visit to the inmate’s family and claim it, no matter the cost.

Powell descends upon the Harper family figuratively, and (visually) literally like a nightmare, wooing the widow, and charming the young daughter.  The inmate’s young boy, John Harper, played adequately by Billy Chapin, is left to stand up to this impending threat by himself with no help from anyone.

Now, this is a basic enough set-up, and if it were to continue to play out this way, it would have turned out to be a basic enough movie.  Good, but not great.  What makes this film truly shine is the fantastic American Gothic visuals provided by the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which, if you’ve read my review of that film, also had stunning visuals.

Each frame in the film could be viewed on its own and considered a piece of art strong enough to contend with any other frame.  The use of silhouettes in this film provides a menacing atmosphere that acting just wouldn’t be able to portray.  Combined with the charismatic performance of Mitchum, the cinematography goes great lengths to illustrate the surreal horror the characters are living.  Set pieces change dramatically from day to night, from home to prison.  Sanctuary to purgatory.  One of the most impacting images in the film, a scene that takes place underwater, could have been accomplished completely through suggestion, and very well could have removed the suspense that the film had worked so hard to build up by that point, but instead served to heighten the impending danger and further tilt our perception about what Powell was capable of.

Another scene that stood out visually (there were MANY), was a scene where the children are hiding in the cellar.  We break through the actual limits of what we could have seen by pushing past the fourth wall.  Powell, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, blocks the escape of the children in the cellar.  The children are all the way down at the other end of the screen from Mitchum, further illustrating the conflict between the characters, and what obstacles there are yet to overcome.

Charles Laughton, the actor famous for his roles in films like Spartacus, Captain Kidd, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes the directing reins in this film.  So disappointed by the reaction to the film after it’s release, Laughton afterwards vowed to never direct again.  It’s unfortunate that this turned out to be the case, because despite a few mediocre performances from the children, The Night of the Hunter was a very well constructed piece of art, worthy of its place on this list of 1001 greatest films of all time, and certainly the product of someone with vision and voice.

“Okay we get it, he’s a bad guy. Put down the fucking horns!” (on the musical score). – Ashley

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers – 1956

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood

In my review of the another John Ford, John Wayne, western on this list, I complained about the fact that the story seemed shallow, the characters didn’t seem invested in what was happening to them, and that Wayne couldn’t act.  Stagecoach was a blueprint for most of, if not all of the westerns that came after it, The Searchers included.  But where Stagecoach attempted and (in my humble opinion) didn’t succeed, The Searchers passes with flying colors.  Everything from the scenery, the plot, and the acting was leagues better in this film.  Apparently I spoke too soon.

The Searchers, despite the trip that drives the plot, is really about the relationship between two men.  One, played by the perfectly crotchety Wayne is a hardened soldier, Ethan Edwards, who after having fought for the south in the Civil war, has an intimate knowledge of the evil that men can do to each other.  The other, Jeffrey Hunter, plays the slightly naive Martin Pawley, the adopted, half Native American son of Ethan’s only family.  At first, Ethan both distrusts as well as dislikes Martin because of his nationality, but eventually the two men find themselves working together when most of the family gets brutally massacred by Comanche indians, and the women are taken hostage.

Edwards and Pawley set out on an epic journey to find the two lost women, and in the process reveal a good deal about themselves.  Their ride takes them from New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border.  They slog through the heat, rain and snow for 5 years looking for the elusive band of indians that are responsible for the massacre and kidnapping. 

The real revelation for me with this film, was Wayne’s acting.  He doesn’t just play a stereotype version of himself.  While Ethan is tough, and smart, he is also mean and wounded.  He’s been hurt before, by the Union, by Comanche indians, and he’s not about to let himself be hurt again.  Wayne plays him realistically, blemishes and all, flexing his acting muscle and in my eyes earning the notoriety that surrounds him.  Hunter’s Pawley is essentially the relief from Wayne’s gritty performance.  It balances the tone of the movie, keeping it moving forward on an even keel.  Hunter’s is not nearly as profound of a performance as Wayne’s, but it is exactly what is needed from his character.  The film both starts and ends with an image of Wayne in his element, and he is truly the character that changes the most.

Cinematographically, this film is miles beyond what we saw in Stagecoach.  One major element is the brilliant Technicolor that it was shot on.  The saturated blues and reds of the landscape mix and accentuate nicely with the passion of the character’s emotions.  Everything is bright, shocking, and powerful.  The vistas of Monument Valley have never looked as good as they did here (fully taking care of one of my complaints about Stagecoach), and the full range of climate, weather, and time of day was on display in this film.  Oppressive snow storms, rain, hot sun, and nighttime action are all on display here.  Our characters live in a hard scrabble, dangerous, yet beautiful environment, one that they must be wary of at all times. 

The aforementioned shot of Wayne that opens and closes the movie, is such a fantastic way to introduce the character at the start, and illustrate how he has changed by the end, it is by far my favorite part of the film.   Before I started it, I was more than expecting to see Stagecoach 2, but instead I got a thoughtful, elegant film with masterful performances by its actors, and subtle yet powerful guidance by its director.  The Searchers more than deserves to be on this list of best movies ever!

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas – 1984

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, and Nastassja Kinski

Director Wim Wenders’ (pronounced Vim Venders) other film on this list, Wings of Desire, made quite an impression on me.  It’s use and juxtaposition of color and black and white imagery to illustrate the perspectives of human beings and angels respectively was so masterfully used that I wasn’t really sure it could be topped.  Combined with the fact that Paris, Texas’ story wasn’t about something so grand and complex as the need for faith and guidance, I thought for sure it would be  a let down.  It turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

Paris, Texas tells the story of Travis, a man who has been wandering the southwestern United States and northern Mexico for the last four years.  When he stops at a farm in Texas, overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, he is brought to a doctor who promptly calls his brother, Walt, to collect him and pay his medical bills.  Once Travis is re-united with his brother he begins the long journey home, reconciling the last four years, reconnecting with his young son, and slowly putting his life back together piece by piece.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the lead role of Travis.  The audience learns about his past the same way his brother (played by Dean Stockwell) does, slowly, as Travis remembers it.  As his history unfolds, Travis eventually learns to trust again, and begins speaking more and more openly about why he vanished and where he’s been.  To tell more than just this basic plot skeleton would be to deny those who haven’t seen it the pleasure of discovering it on their own.  Needless to say, it is a fully realized story with characters that are completely fleshed out (and since it was filmed in the mid-eighties, they are also a bit naive).  I had one or more issues with the placement of responsibility at the end of the film, but by and large was completely won over by this film.

Almost more so than Wings of Desire, the visuals in Paris, Texas are so very arresting.  The world that these characters inhabit is so vivid and saturated with color.  The cinematographer, Robbie Müller, has also worked extensively with another director to come out of the surge of independent film in the late eighties and early nineties, Jim Jarmusch.  Based on his resume, it is no surprise that each scene seems like a living oil painting.  Shadow and color play together on-screen to create a palpable atmosphere, one which is as much a part of the developement of the narrative as the acting, directing, or writing.

Where Wings of Desire sought to use color as a sudden rush of emotion and passion (color does represent the human experience after all), Paris, Texas seeks to overpower your senses, so much so that by the end the real world was looking pretty drab and uninspiring (it doesn’t help that it’s winter in Chicago right now).  Texas, a pretty interesting place what with the diversity of landscape afforded to it by mother nature, has never looked so engaging or as strikingly beautiful.

Based on the two of his films that I’ve seen, Wenders has quite a knack for getting nuanced acting performances and matching them with striking visuals.  A quick review of his resume on IMDb has me wondering why he’s been so busy with films that I haven’t ever heard of.   With talent like his, I would have guessed that some of his films would have garnered more attention (despite the influx in popularity of superhero movies and TV remakes that have been so popular lately).  Unfortunately the latest film whose name I recognize is 2000’s Million Dollar Hotel, which I don’t think was received very warmly by critics or audiences.

Paris, Texas more than stands up as a film that has earned it’s place on this list, as has Wender’s other entry on the list, Wings of Desire.  Who knows, since everything seems to go in cycles, perhaps Wenders will even release a new film to the fanfare of his much celebrated classics (in a year when a Terrence Malick film is coming out, anything can happen.)