“Paddy Chayefsky’s Network,” reads the opening credits of the 1976 drama, an almost unheard of possessive for an original screenplay and in this quite appropriate. The elder statesman of live TV drama pours all of his bile over the dirty little business of television into this incredibly entertaining screed. Yet the scathing satire of TV news as just another three-ring circus played for ratings by bottom-line corporate overlords is so caricatured that it likely would have sunk into self-parody but for the direction of Sidney Lumet, perhaps the perfect director for such material.
Faye Dunaway gets star billing as the ruthlessly ambitious programming executive inspired by the on-air breakdown of news anchorman Finch to fold news into the entertainment programming umbrella and William Holden plays the old-school news executive as appalled by the changes as he is fascinated with the ferocious Dunaway, who doesn’t differentiate between shop talk and pillow talk.
Lumet watches the news turn into a prime-time variety show like a documentarian with the story of a lifetime. Its a veritable sideshow with fortune tellers, scandal-mongers and the ringmaster anchorman (Peter Finch) as the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves playing for applause from his live audience. But behind the scenes, Lumet plays out the business dealings as a more realist (if flamboyant) piece of corporate theater, viewing the bitter farce through the lens of modern America and in the process saves Chayefsky from sinking under his own pretentions. Well mostly. The rarified dialogue is more theater than seventies cinema, too precious and pointed to give any human dimension to the corporate gamesmanship and ethical collisions. Dunaway’s insistence on discussing relationships as if it were a scripted serial makes its point the first time around. By the third go-round, it’s simply tired.
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Ride With The Devil (Director’s Cut) (Criterion) is Ang Lee and James Schamus’ reconstruction of their preferred cut of their 1999 Civil War drama, which they cut to under two hours and fifteen minutes to meet their contractually obligated running time for its theatrical release. This newly-prepared cut runs about 14 minutes longer. I hadn’t seen the film since its theatrical release so I can’t pass judgment on a preferred version (let alone explicate the differences), but I was gripped by the film in this reviewing in ways I did not expect. Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and adapted by longtime Lee collaborator and producer James Schamus, the film is set in the divided state of Missouri, where neighbor really did fight neighbor and sides were chosen more out of social identity than political allegiance. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) consider themselves Southern men and, when the “war of Northern aggression” hits the Jack Bull farm and becomes personal, they join the Bushwhackers and joins a brutal guerilla war between private militias conducting a war of terrorism, a fight that, in this film, culminates with the Lawrence Massacre, one of the great atrocities of the Civil War.
Riding with Jewel and Skeet Ulrich
Bucolic scenes of men at rest in beautiful wild landscapes and families gathered over meals in manors and homesteads are shattered by battles fought with a brutality driven by something close to vengeance: it becomes personal to every man with a family touched by the war. There’s no romanticizing the fight or the values on the line here, and even those men who proclaim that it’s not about slavery but states rights aren’t about to let those damned abolitionists tell them that they can’t have slaves. But behind the rallying cries is a portrait of young men in war facing the reality of battle and seeing the brutality of their kind of war, fought outside the bounds of the army and driven by various levels of anger, vengeance or (in the case of the sneering son of the South played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) pure sadism. At the risk of sounding as if I’m reducing the complex portrait to a cliché, it is a coming of age film of sorts, but for Jake it’s not just becoming a man, a husband and a father. It’s about bonding with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and, trusting him with his life in ways he could never have predicted, seeing him as a human being with everything at stake in the war. That Daniel fights on the side of the South is one of the great contradictions that complicates and enriches the portrait. Identity and loyalty are ultimately defined by personal connections rather than social assumptions, political belief or even national status, and personal experience is the forge that shapes the evolution of Jake’s identity through the war.
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It’s the annual “31 Days of Oscar” at Turner Classic Movies this month, with Oscar winners and nominees screening in the days leading up to the 2010 Academy Awards. On Friday, February 26, it’s Serpico and I wrote a feature on the film for the TCM website.
Al Pacino as Frank Serpico: a counter-culture character in a conformist world
The real-life Frank Serpico made headlines as the scandals broke and, as an independent commission delved into the scope of the corruption, he was almost killed on the job under suspicious circumstances. Peter Maas put his story into a non-fiction bestseller, which Martin Bregman optioned as his first feature as a producer. Previous films about police corruption tended to frame the issue in terms of bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel. This was very different, yet Bregman was more interested in the man and his experience than a story of corruption and investigation, and the episodic script follows Serpico as he is bounced from one precinct to another and becomes more alienated, frustrated and desperate. He found a collaborator on the same wavelength in Sidney Lumet, a TV-trained director with a reputation for strong performances, literary adaptations and, in films like The Pawnbroker (1964), creating a sense of street realism. The New York-born Lumet shot most of Serpico on the streets and in standing buildings rather than sets wherever possible, and he brought a distinctive sense of place with his choice of locations and his documentary-style approach to shooting. While that became a hallmark of seventies police dramas and crime thrillers to follow, it was still quite new at the time. Along with The French Connection (1971), Serpico was one of the films that brought this new realism to the screen portrait of American cops with its realistic portraits of procedure and systemic failure and flawed, human characters behind the badges.
See the complete feature here.
Juno was the indie success story of 2007. In most years, that would make it an underdog hit, the Little Miss Sunshine in the company of Hollywood muscle. This year, it made it the biggest box-office success in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that Juno was in any way snubbed at the Oscars. It was the featherweight favorite in a heavyweight competition and picked up an Award for Diablo Cody’s original screenplay, a playfully clever creation filled with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. It’s also a delightful, alive little film, where the quirks are built on a bedrock of characters filled with heart and soul.
Ellen Page is impetuous and funny as the smart-mouthed high school goofball who finds herself pregnant after the experimental seduction of her hopelessly smitten best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), then finds an adoptive yuppie couple for her baby in the Penny Saver: tightly wound professional Jennifer Garner and easygoing musician Jason Bateman. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney co-star as her sardonic but unconditionally supportive pop and stepmom, potential caricatures that the performers fill with warmth and protectiveness behind resigned exasperation, and Olivia Thirlby is a discovery as Juno’s spirited best friend.
The DVD features commentary by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary, gag reel, and 22 minutes of screen test among its supplements. The “Two Disc Special Edition” also includes a collection of featurettes.
It’s the lead feature in the New Releases section of my MSN DVD column. You can find the complete DVD review here, and my theatrical review at the Seattle P-I here.
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