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.

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Body Heat (1981)

Body Heat – 1981

Director – Lawrence Kasdan

Starring – Willaim Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson, and Richard Crenna

My apologies for the lengthy delay in-between my last review and this one.  I’ve been doing quite a bit of travel for work to places such as the Ukraine, New York, Washington DC, and appropriately for this film Florida.  I’m back safe and sound, and am ready to jump back into writing about movies.

Body Heat, a steamy, dastardly, pot-boiler thriller, set during an oppressive heat wave in southern Florida, is actually a re-make of another film on the 1001 Best Movies List, Double Indemnity.  Being a re-make is something that I would normally frown upon, but in this case I had no idea going in that it was based on anything else, much less something so highly regarded in my opinion as the Billy Wilder classic about murder for profit.  If I had known about its origin before starting it, I very well could have given it negative marks right off the bat, which would be totally unfair and completely undeserved.  Body Heat, to the credit of its director, Lawrence Kasdan, doesn’t really try to re-invent Double Indemnity, but instead pays homage to it with smart writing, acting, and the inclusion of the element that would never have been able to be in the original…the raw sensuality.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a smarmy lawyer who is only just good enough at his job.  One day, in a particularly hot summer in his little town in Florida, he meets Kathleen Turner’s sultry Matty Walker.  Drawn instantly to the beautiful young woman, Racine finds himself getting drawn further and further into a shadowy path leading to the murder of her husband, played by Rambo’s Richard Crenna.  The deeper he gets, the more he loses control of the situation until finally it’s just a matter of time before the cops catch up with them or a bullet does.

William Hurt provides the structure for this film, without him the story wouldn’t have any form or direction.  The real magic, however, lies in Kathleen Turner’s performance as the wounded, conniving, insidious, sexual, and confident Matty Walker.  Turner keeps the audience guessing till the end as to which side of the conflict she’ll land on.  She truly is a wounded animal who’s scared, and trying to survive.  If there were only one reason to see this film, it would be Turner’s spot on performance, but I would have no problem recommending this film with any number of examples.

Building on the impressive reputation of the original film presented the challenge of allowing it to become its own entity without straying too much from what made it good in the first place.  The two elements present in this one not in the original are the oppressive heat, and the sensuality of the main characters.  The thrill for the Fred MacMurray character in the original was to see whether or not he could actually get away with it, not so much the allure of Barbara Stanwyck, or the draw of the money.  Racine is completely under the spell of Matty from the moment he meets her, a fact he learns a little too late.  Matty on the other hand isn’t simply lashing out at an unhappy marriage, or an unhappy life, instead she has her sights set on a goal for the entire duration of the film.

This film is completely worth a viewing, whether you’ve seen Double Indemnity or not (for that matter the same is true of Double Indemnity).  Lawrence Kasdan populates a completely believable world full of characters we simultaneously recognize and marvel at.  Body Heat is how re-makes should be done.

“You know how sometimes you wanna fuck someone so bad, that you gotta throw a muthafucking chair, through their muthafucking window?  Yeah, that’s this movie.” – Ashley

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man – 1980

Director – David Lynch

Starring – John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft

Slow, cruel, and beautifully filmed.  These are the main adjectives I would use to describe David Lynch’s, The Elephant Man.  Set during the Victorian era in London, The Elephant Man tells the real life story of John Merrick, a seriously deformed man led from one freak show to another.  Anthony Hopkins stars as Frederick Treves, a doctor who takes it upon himself to rescue Mr. Merrick from the actual freakshow that he is performing in, puts him up in his hospital, and attempts to teach him civilized behavior.  Treves parades Merrick around, using his notoriety to advance his own reputation, all the while claiming to help him.

When word gets around that the “Elephant Man” (called this partially due to his appearance, and partially because his mother was mauled to death by an elephant) has gained a certain popularity with the upper crust, the owner of the freakshow (Bytes) comes back to collect his “treasure”.  Treves and Bytes play a game of tug-of-war with Merrick, neither considering him or his feelings in the least.  In terms of characters, Merrick himself played with a certain amount of humanity and grace by John Hurt, is the only character who really has any redeeming characteristics.  Despite his huge prosthetic make-up appliances, Hurt manages to imbue Merrick with a certain subtlety.

On the brightside, the film looked beautiful.  Shot in silky black and white, each characters shadowy nature plays itself out visually on the backdrop of dreary, foggy London.  Each of the set pieces is crawls with life, some of it unsettling and horrible, and some of it approaching dignity.  As the movie goes on, the mood, as well as the visual tone of the film grows subtly and slowly brighter.

Of the Lynch films that I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that this is smack in the middle.  It doesn’t reach the fantastic weird heights of films like Mulholland Drive, or Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t quite fall to the un-intelligable depths of Lost Highway, or Inland Empire.  If you’ve seen any of David Lynch’s other films, you will see some similarities but he clearly grew and matured since finishing this film.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Elephant Man was one of his more critically successful films and has since allowed him to go on and become a unique independant voice, if only for that reason, this film deserves it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die.