All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President’s Men – 1976

Director – Alan J. Pakula

Starring – Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Hal Holbrook and Jason Robards

As far as politically charged thrillers go, the 70’s was full of them. Covering topics as influential and wide-ranging as Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and of course corruption in government. While inspired by real events, the majority of these stories seem to be firmly rooted in the realm of fiction, however the dramatized re-telling of the Watergate scandal investigation is a rather shocking view into the reality of the political climate in the era of Richard Nixon…and it is all the more fantastic because of it.

Director, Alan Pakula had a string of successful thrillers in the 70’s in addition to All the President’s Men, including Klute, and the Parallax View starring Donald Sutherland and Warren Beatty respectively.  The famous journalists at the heart of this story, Woodward and Bernstein, are played fantastically by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively. Redford, who was initially just a producer on the film, chose Dustin Hoffman to balance the film’s star power when it became clear that he would be acting in it. As a result, the plot isn’t so much bogged down by the star power, but propelled by it. Hoffman, and especially Redford are at the top of their games. It is especially apparent with Redford, who as far as I can tell, used to be quite a charismatic and attractive fellow.

Aside from it’s two headline stars, the film is populated with a plethora of talented character actors as well.  Jason Robards plays the crochety editor of the Washington Post, Hal Holbrook plays “Deep Throat” the secret informant who led Woodward and Bernstein in the right direction, and we are even treated to a young Meridith Baxter, best known as being Alex P. Keaton’s mom in Family Ties, in a minor but memorable role.  Though these actors and actresses weren’t the box office draws that the two leading actors were, their parts are no less captivating and enthralling to watch (Robards especially).

For those not up to date on their political history, the film begins with a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. While briefly hot news, the story quickly got bogged down in mis-information, and cover-ups. Most news organizations dropped the story in favor of concentrating on the nomination of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Woodward and Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, never let the story drop. Both continued to chase leads, dig up information, and famously, follow the money, despite the risk to their careers. The result was one of the most wide-ranging political conspiracies of our times, which in good part, led to the disenfranchisement of the American people and the resignation of an American president.

As with many thrillers in the 70’s, All the President’s Men relies heavily on pacing to build tension and establish the stakes of the story, which it manages to do fantastically well.  Many times throughout the film, there are shots that last multiple minutes, slowly zooming in, or remaining static as the actors move around the screen.  This allows the gravity in the story to seep into the audience.  Often times the tension is broken through the mixture of elements, such as through sound, juxtaposition in the composition of a the next shot or scene, or through the editing.  During a long zooming shot of characters interacting, a phone may suddenly ring, a car horn may sound, or a typewriter may suddenly start clacking away. 

The use of metaphor in the film is a powerful one that fits perfectly with the message of the film, words are weapons, and they can be just as powerful in the right hands as they can be in the wrong ones.  This ideal is driven home, most notably, in the end scene in which a television is playing actual footage of a twenty-one gun salute for Nixon’s re-nomination while in the back ground there is a layer of busy typewriter sound.  Woodward and Bernstein are hard at work even while it seems that the wrong side has won.

This film bears a similarity to another film that I’ve reviewed already, Costa-Gavras’ mind-blowing, Z.  Both deal with the triumph of right over wrong, and honesty over corruption, and both are masterful in every sense of the word.  All the President’s Men was an absolute treat to watch, and will more than likely find its way into my DVD collection (if not my Blu-Ray collection).  Highly, highly recommended!

The Exorcist (1973)

TheExorcist

The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting.  Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)

FastTimesAtRidgemontHigh

Fast Times at Ridgemont High – 1981

Director – Amy Heckerling

Starring – Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, and Phoebe Cates

So now we start getting into some of the movies that could be considered fluff.  Potentially not worthy of being on the list of 1001 movies that you MUST see, but possibly being on the list of 1001 movies you might think about checking out sometime if you aren’t busy.  Does that mean it’s bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean that this space could have been better used for something else (like the Big Lebowski or The Blues Brothers for example?) in the comedy genre? Yup.

This isn’t at all an indictment of The Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but as it didn’t really do anything particularly revolutionary for film as a whole (aside from including a lot of young and up-and-coming actors and actresses), it more than likely was pulled from a hat with a list of movies meant to pad out the numbers to 1001.

That aside, Fast Times was a very fun movie.  I particularly liked Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Each reminded me of people that I went to high school with, but not in a sappy or sentimental way.  Everyone knows, or knew a Judge Reinhold.  Everyone saw the Phoebe Cates character walking down the hall.  And everyone was friends with or dated a girl like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character.  These characters make the movie relatable for people, at least for someone who grew up in the relatively safe suburbs, like me.

Unfortunately I don’t have a whole lot of analyzing to do for this film.  It was great fun to watch, but I haven’t really thought about it too much since.  Some quick things to say about the film…It did strike me that there was an awful lot of nudity from a character that was supposed to be 14 years old, and the subject of abortion was dealt with in a pretty straight forward and un-dramatized way.  So much so, that I have to imagine that it would have sparked some controversy on it’s initial release (it certainly would today at any rate).   Next, I think I can appreciate Sean Penn in this movie more than anything else that I’ve seen him in (that is of course without seeing Milk yet).   Lastly I have to say that there is a similar thread going through all of the movies that Cameron Crowe has had a hand in (aside from the dominance of music), each one seems like a close relative of the others, different, but only by a little.

So…watch it, enjoy it, but don’t expect too much.