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!

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Neco Z Alenky (AKA: Alice) (1988)

Neco Z Alenky (AKA: Alice) – 1988

Director – Jan Svankmajer

Starring – Kristyna Kohoutova

The story of Alice and her journey through wonderland is a dark and surreal one.  Animals talk, nothing is as it should be, and anger and fear are the emotions of choice.  As a kid, I was fascinated by the illustrations from the book.  They provided a very accurate portrayal of the sense of unease that I got from the story.  There was a danger mixed with the serene and a malice blended into the everyday.  This is a feeling that is perfectly recreated by the film Alice, stop-motion animated creatures made up of bones, rusty utensils, taxidermy and all.

It was just this last weekend that I ventured out to see the most recent re-make of the Alice in Wonderland, the one by Tim Burton, and I thought it appropriate that I should review this little known version.  While the newer film is the victim of re-writes, and computer-generated everything, this version, directed by cult animator Jan Svankmajer, stays faithful to the original text and feels like a flea market come to life.  The only live action actor (actress in this case) is Kristyna Kohoutova, as the curious and plucky Alice.  Every other inhabitant of Wonderland is created through the stop-motion animation technique, and is a patch work of animal bones, stuffed and mounted animals of every variety, and old, weathered household items stalking around with a sense of malicious purpose.

It’s odd that someone like Burton, who was so clearly inspired by, and borrowed from films like Alice, strayed so far from this successful cocktail in his own re-telling.  The fact that we can see the strings and the seams of each creation, manages to make it that much more dangerous and foreign to us.  There is danger around every corner for this young girl, yet she bravely plods onward without so much as a second thought.  The closest thing to a guide she has is the mangy looking white rabbit, who is continually leaking sawdust.   The Queen of Hearts, her court and her soldiers, are literally made up of a deck of cards, and when she shrinks, Alice turns from a live actress into a disturbing little china doll.  Wonderland itself is made up of a series of rooms, each more intriguing and bizarre than the last.

The one failing I would place on Alice, is the fact that while each of its characters is creepy, there is little to differentiate between them.  The March Hare and the Mad Hatter are just as off-putting and strange as the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, making the disturbing effect of watching them wear off a little too soon.  By the end it was a little too repetitive, and as a result I was drawn out of the movie.

As far as adaptations of this story goes, Alice is far better than the most recent version, but still remains third behind the imagination of the Disney animated version, and the beyond surreal TV version with Sammy Davis Jr. and, God help us, Carol Channing scaring the shit out of me by turning into a goat!  All in all, Alice is a very fun watch.

“Bitch need some chapstick!” – Ashley

Z (1969)

Z

Z – 1969

Director – Costa-Gavras

Starring – Yves Montand, Irene Pappas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant

Z, the French language film, based on a true story that happened in Greece, is by far the best movie that I have watched so far in this best of list.  I approached it with skepticism because of the lack of any stars that I was really familiar with (stupid of me I know), but I walked away in love with it.  I loved the meandering nature of the storytelling, not telling too much at any one point.  I loved the fact that the point of view switched a few times throughout the story, from the main character “The Deputy” played by Yves Montand to his wife played by Irene Pappas, to the determined Examining Magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant.  I loved that certain individualized details of the story (character names, country names, city names, etc…) were left intentionally vague in order not to date or limit the impact of the movie in other countries and when compared against other political situations.  I guess I just plain LOVED this movie.

 I was fortunate enough to see this film at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, from a restored print for the 40th anniversary re-release (I can only hope that there will be a corresponding DVD release too).  When it first started I found myself wondering what I had gotten into, the dense politically themed plot was barely given an introduction before characters were introduced and tension started to build.  The tension continued to build and shape itself for the rest of the movie until the end where, in the final reel, we were ultimately rewarded for our diligence.

The plot itself mirrors the assassination of a left wing politician in Greece, Grigoris Lambrakis, but it also borrows heavily from the intense political turmoil of the day from America’s involvement in Vietnam, the tension in French occupied Algeria, the civil rights movement, and the women’s liberation movement.  Z manages to ooze an immediacy that later thrillers of the 70s would put to good use.  Fear and paranoia run rampant in this film, but it never submits to apathy.  The spirit of the storytelling is one of hope, hard times and trouble too, but also hope for a better outcome. 

The switching of  POV serves to further involve the audience in the fully realized world that has been created, or rather, mirrored here.  We travel from hope of reform from a corrupt, bloated government body (the Deputy), to the pain and fear of that same government (the Deputy’s wife), to determination to do the right thing, and the confidence that justice will prevail (the Examining Magistrate).  By the end of the film we’ve been witness to a battle between the same good and evil forces that we see at work today it places like Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home here in America.  The director, Costa-Gavras’, decision to make elements of the story anonymous, at the same time makes it that much more personal.  By not pointing out one specific source of evil or good, we are allowed to fill in those blanks and relate the story to our own lives.

About a year ago now, I watched the movie “The Dancer Upstairs”, and was blown away.  It was an absolutely fantastic story about the hunt for a political revolutionary/terrorist in the capital city of an un-named country in South America.  While I still think that The Dancer Upstairs is an utterly fantastic film, Z utilizes the same storytelling techniques, increases the immediacy, provides a more universal examination of corruption, AND it did it 33 years earlier. (By the way, this is in no means meant to put down The Dancer Upstairs, it is simply meant to compliment Z.  Please go see both and enjoy them.)

Some of the strengths of this movie also, in some specific ways, work against it.  For instance, since it borrows so heavily from it’s tumultuous time period, it does seem a little dated.  The lack of political tools such as the internet, television and the radio as a means of expression facilitate some of the problems these protesters have to deal with.  If people could simply watch at home, or check it out on the internet later, maybe they wouldn’t have run into the rowdy group of anti-protesters that were trying to thwart them from the beginning.  Then again, maybe our ability to watch something else, or avoid issues all together is exactly why we are so apathetic, and un-engaged today.

If you were to take one thing away from this review of the movie Z, it is that you should definitely check it out.  Highly recommended!  This one will be hard to beat!