Friday, March 27, 2015

Live from Baghdad

For many Generation Xers, one of the most enduring images from the early 1990s are ones of bombs falling on Baghdad captured via eerie night vision that rendered the experience through an unsettling monochromatic filter. This footage not only signaled the United States’ invasion of Iraq but it also put CNN on the map. Prior to 1990, they were a struggling 24-hour news network looking for a big story. They didn’t have the resources of the big three networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – but what they did have was plenty of ambition to burn. The HBO film Live from Baghdad (2002) chronicles the small but dedicated team of journalists that risked life and limb to get an exclusive scoop on one of the biggest news stories of the decade.

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City and it seemed like the U.S. would retaliate immediately with Baghdad the likely target. Veteran CNN producer Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) is hungry and looking for a story that will give the network a much-needed boost. He’s a bit of a maverick that had his car stoned on a previous assignment in Jerusalem. He meets with new network president Tom Johnson (Michael Murphy) and lays it all out: “People aren’t going to wait ‘til seven o’clock at night to find out whether we’re at war or not. They’re going to tune into CNN.” Another executive (Clark Gregg) argues that Wiener lacks the finesse for such a volatile situation.

Wiener’s got his work cut out for him – ABC and CBS are already in Baghdad and CNN has to own the story. Soon, he and his team are flying into Iraq: fellow producer Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter), correspondent Tom Murphy (Michael Cudlitz), cameraman Mark Biello (Joshua Leonard) and sound technician Judy Parker (Lili Taylor). Director Mick Jackson drops us right into the city for a full-on assault on the senses as we are bombarded with the noises and chaos of the place. The CNN team barely gets their bearings when they arrive at their hotel and see ABC and CBS leaving.


I like how Michael Keaton shows the savvy way Wiener knows how to grease the wheels when he bullshits and bribes his way into five rooms at a swanky hotel where he had no reservations and then has the balls to hire a young woman as their translator right on the spot all thanks to a nice fat bankroll of cash. Keaton handles the scene with the nonchalant, no-nonsense ease of someone who’s done this many times. The actor has held a long-time fascination with journalism, briefly flirting with the notion of pursuing it in college and being avid daily newspaper reader. This is also reflected in some of the acting choices he’s made over the years, playing a newspaper editor in Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994) and a speechwriter who mixes it up with journalists in Speechless (1994), and so it comes no surprise he would be drawn to a role like Wiener in Live from Baghdad.

Jackson does a nice job in these early scenes showing the dynamic of the CNN team while gradually ratcheting up the tension as he drops constant reminders that they are in a hostile environment. They work under trying conditions, soon discovering that they are under constant surveillance and have to work with primitive technological equipment as demonstrated rather amusingly in a scene where Wiener runs frantically from his technicians to CNN HQ on the phone in order to get their news story beamed on the air. Afterwards, the emotionally and physically exhausted Wiener and Formanek share a quiet drink at the hotel bar only to realize that they have to do it all over again the next day. Helena Bonham Carter portrays Formanek as a tough producer who can hold her own with the likes of Wiener but is also supportive, being there for him when an American oil worker they interviewed is reported missing, kidnapped soon after it airs on CNN. She keeps Wiener grounded and reminds him of why they are there.

One of Wiener’s early goals is to get a much-coveted interview with President Saddam Hussein and he uses every ounce of perseverance and tenacity at his disposal to see Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet), the Minister of Information. He’s a very intelligent man who sees through Wiener’s charms as they engage in a battle of wills that Keaton and David Suchet expertly pull off. These intellectual sparring sessions crackle with an intensity that sees Keaton externalize Wiener’s emotions while Suchet internalizes and underplays. These two men clearly respect each other with a friendship developing between them, but they are also at odds with one another.


Once Jackson takes us out of Baghdad to show Wiener and his crew covering a story in Kuwait, we get a better idea of the scope and scale of what’s happening. They touch down and see soldiers hauling away ill-gotten luxury items. They travel along a desolate stretch of road and pass burnt out car wrecks and jeeps still smoking with dead bodies littering the landscape. They soon become part of the story instead of reporting it and are even scooped by the BBC, which makes them look foolish.

Live from Baghdad shows clips of some of the most memorable moments leading up to the Persian Gulf War, like Hussein patting the head of a clearly scared little boy, a woman crying and claiming that Iraqi soldiers took babies out of incubators to die, and, of course, CNN’s interview with Hussein. Jackson wisely alleviates the often-unrelenting tension of these people in a country on the verge of war by showing them in brief moments of downtime, which allows them to be reflective and blow off steam. These scenes humanize Wiener and his crew so that we care about what happens to them when things really get hairy.

Live from Baghdad was mostly well-received by critics at the time. In his review for The New York Times, Ron Wertheimer wrote, “the interesting relationship here is between Wiener and Hadithi. Mr. Suchet offers a performance of steely restraint, managing to convey the humanity in a man who must be one tough customer to have reached this vital position.” The Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg wrote, “Although it tells its narrow story well, in a sense Live from Baghdad buries the lead. HBO’s movie about the heady 1991 success of its AOL Time Warner sister company ends at a point – just after the initial bombing – when the war’s bigger media story was just beginning.” In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Marc Bernardin wrote, “Not only does Live from Baghdad offer a masterful look at professionals trying to keep it together in a nation that’s falling apart, but it also manages a rare feat indeed: conveying the energizing fear that the correspondents, doing what they were born to do, must have felt as Iraq began to explode outside their hotel window.”


As Iraq heads towards the January 15, 1991 deadline that the United Nations gave for them to withdraw from Kuwait or face military action, the CNN brings in veteran reporters Peter Arnett (Bruce McGill), John Holliman (John Carroll Lynch) and Bernard Shaw (Robert Wisdom) to interview Hussein and get word out that the U.S. are going to commence bombing imminently. While the other major networks, and most sane people, prepare to leave, Wiener decides to stay as does much of his crew. It’s not a decision that any of them take lightly and Jackson makes a point of showing them really considering their options.

However, the U.S. has other ideas and before anyone can leave, the bombardment of Baghdad begins and the sky is lit up as those iconic images people of my generation remember so well are recreated. CNN’s coverage during the Persian Gulf War was a game changer and showed that they could compete with the big boys and beat them at their own game. Wiener and his team put their lives on the line to record an important moment in history as it happened.


SOURCES


Tapley, Kristopher. “Michael Keaton’s Love of Journalism: The Paper, Live from Baghdad, Spotlight.” HitFix. January 27, 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Quiz Show

In a 1985 interview Robert Redford said of his film Downhill Racer (1969): “it represented what was happening in this country—the slow realization that you’ve been given a false legacy growing up as a kid. Namely, it wasn’t whether you won or lost but how you played the game. But that just wasn’t true. It was whether you won. People don’t remember who finished second. And you could get away with anything so long as you were winning.” As a profile on the man in Film Comment observed, Redford has been fascinated with “the American obsession with winning and capitalism’s inevitable exploitation of the winner.” This time, working behind the camera as director, he examined these ideas with Quiz Show (1994), an engrossing look at the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s.

Redford focuses on one show in particular, Twenty-One, and the rigged loss of the popular program’s reigning champion in favor of a more attractive and media-friendly contestant to help boost ratings of the NBC network and sales of the corporate sponsor Geritol. When rumors of the show being rigged surface, an investigation is launched and Redford tracks the ensuing fallout. In a rather ironic twist, charges in the press claimed that Quiz Show played fast and loose with the facts and this may have contributed to a lack of interest from mainstream moviegoers. More probably, audiences didn’t find the subject matter that interesting and did not want to watch a film that explored the darker side of America. It failed to make back its $28 million budget despite receiving numerous critical accolades and being nominated for several major awards. Quiz Show is a smart film that looks back at the past and anticipates the glut of reality shows that has since risen to prominence, often focusing on beautiful, wealthy “winners,” but in fact is just as fake as their fictional counterparts.

Redford spends the first six minutes of the film cutting between people all over America scrambling to get to their T.V.s and watch this week’s episode of Twenty-One, and a peek behind-the-scenes at how the show comes together just before it airs. In doing so, he establishes how popular the show was at the time and how the medium of television dominated people’s everyday lives. Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) is the returning champ, but the powers that be aren’t happy: the ratings are starting to slip because, despite his everyman quality, he’s not the most attractive guy and acts awkwardly in front of the cameras. Word comes down from on high that Stempel is finished and the show’s producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) is ordered to orchestrate his exit from the program.


His ideal replacement comes in the form of Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) who is the perfect package: handsome, wealthy and, oh yeah, smart. He comes from a privileged background being the son of famous poet and intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and novelist Dorothy Van Doren (Elizabeth Wilson). Redford foreshadows this fateful decision by cutting back and forth between the decision to get rid of Stempel with Van Doren watching the show and marveling at how well the champ does on it while his father dismisses it offhandedly. At the coaxing of his friends, Van Doren decides to try out for one of NBC’s game shows and is asked to go on Twenty-One where Enright pitches a scenario where they would give him the answers. This makes Van Doren uncomfortable and he agrees to be a competitor but only if it’s on the up and up.

Enright goes to Stempel and tells him to throw the next game, implying that he got as far as he did because it was rigged. He agrees and loses on a ridiculously easy question while Van Doren is given a question that had already been asked in Enright’s office. I like that Redford shows both men struggle with their respective dilemmas – Stempel is told to throw the game on a softball question because his approval rating has declined and Van Doren is given a question he was already told and answered and has to decide if he wants to remain honest or go for the money. The rest of Quiz Show plays out the ramifications of their respective decisions, which is further complicated when aspiring Congressional lawyer Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) investigates the rumors that quiz shows are fixed.

John Turturro demonstrates a refreshing lack of vanity by portraying Stempel as not terribly attractive – he has bad teeth, he sweats profusely on camera and has hints of a weasely voice – but he’s trying to support his family. Unfortunately, he’s doing it dishonestly by playing a game that is fixed. Turturro manages to make the abrasive Stempel sympathetic and unlikable. He’s a complex character that the actor brings vividly to life.


Fresh from his memorable role in Schindler’s List (1993), Ralph Fiennes shifts gears to play a very different person – an intellectual born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He initially wants to be honest, but is quickly seduced by fame and money. One suspects Charles is motivated by living up to his family’s lofty reputation. His parents are successful writers that exist in their own rarified atmosphere of intellectuals while he is a struggling writer and merely an instructor, not even a professor. Fiennes has a nice scene between Van Doren and his father. One can see the internal struggle play across his eyes as he comes close to telling his father what he’s doing but cannot and instead reminisces about simpler times. Charles wants to tell him and the secret is eating him up inside but he still can’t because he’s in too deep. It’s a quietly heartbreaking scene that Fiennes performs so well as does Paul Scofield who drops his character’s intellectual pretensions when he senses something is wrong with his son.

Rob Morrow is quite good as the lawyer that doggedly pounds the pavement and does the legwork, like seeking out former contestants, to uncover the truth behind NBC’s quiz shows. He is not just seeking the truth but also fulfilling an ambition to improve his lot in life, something he shares with Charles and Stempel. The actor has a nice scene where Goodwin confronts the head of Geritol (a nice cameo by filmmaker Martin Scorsese) and the businessman lays it out for the lawyer when he tells him, “The public has a very short memory but corporations, they never forget.” This nicely-written scene sums up rather well the corporate point-of-view and how it manages to steer clear of scandals that could ruin them. Morrow does a nice job of conveying Goodwin’s conflict of wanting to spare Van Doren the public embarrassment of testifying to a grand jury because he admires and even looks up to the man.

At their peak more than 50 million viewers watched quiz shows in the United States. Twenty-One was conceived and created by producer Dan Enright. It involved two contestants competing against each other in dual isolation booths. The goal was for each contestant to get 21 points by correctly answering questions that ranged from one to eleven points in value. Herbert Stempel first squared off against Charles Van Doren on November 28, 1956, and after three weeks of tie games, the latter defeated the former. Van Doren, in return, was defeated by Vivienne Nearing on March 11, 1957. In 1959, a grand jury investigation into quiz show fraud was completed in New York City but the findings were sealed prompting Richard Goodwin to conduct his own investigation for a congressional committee on legislative oversight.


In 1988, Goodwin published his book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties and one of the chapters focused on the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s. It drew interest from actor Richard Dreyfuss and his partner Judith James who approached Barry Levinson to direct. Paul Attanasio was brought on board to write the screenplay based on the chapter with the focus on the Twenty-One show. The script was then given to Robert Redford who had starred in Levinson’s film The Natural (1984). He had gotten his start in New York with early roles on T.V. during the late ‘50s and early 1960s and connected with the subject matter. He was even a quiz show contestant in 1959 on a show called Play Your Hunch.

When it came to casting Quiz Show, John Turturro was chosen early on. He had met Redford at the Sundance Institute and was the first choice to play Herb Stempel. The actor gained 22 pounds and had his hair cut like the man but was not interested in “doing a mimic of the character, but finding the overall qualities instead.” To prepare for the role, Rob Morrow met with Richard Goodwin and his wife at their home in Massachusetts. The actor said of the man, “He comes from a time when there was a general sense of hope that government could change the world for the better.”

Redford heard about Ralph Fiennes working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List and agreed to meet during filming to discuss the role of Charles Van Doren. Fiennes agreed to play the man but was unable to meet with Van Doren as he had become somewhat reclusive after the quiz show scandals. The actor studied kinescopes of the man’s appearances on Twenty-One. He found Van Doren to be a “very gifted actor. He had a quality of being slightly diffident yet charming.” The actor went straight from making Spielberg’s film into Quiz Show and he was thankful because it “rescued me from waiting until Schindler’s List came out, and everyone thinking ‘Uh-oh this is the actor who played that Nazi.’”


Quiz Show was in theaters for a few months before being pulled by the studio due to its poor performance. Once it received Oscar nominations, the film was placed back in theaters with a new T.V. campaign and print advertisements. At the time, some industry insiders suggested that the film didn’t do well because it was a period picture with no sex or that Fiennes was not enough of a box office draw or that the rather enigmatic poster Redford designed didn’t work.

Redford was upset by several articles that came out when Quiz Show was released claiming it distorted history. One of the more extreme examples came from the Los Angeles Daily News who quoted retired New York judge Joseph Stone, the man that led investigations into the scandal. He said, “This movie is filled with fabrications and distortions from beginning to end.” He argued that most of the film was complete fiction.

When asked how accurate his film was, Redford said that he used “dramatic license, to make either a moral point or an ethical point and move too far out of what could possibly have happened.” He did admit to compacting three years of quiz show scandals into one year and gave Goodwin a more important role in the film than he had in breaking the actual case. Furthermore, he said of the film’s failure to connect with an audience: “Either we don’t want to face our loss of innocence, because it’s asking us to admit we’ve lost one of our virtues. Or we don’t want to face it because we’re as shallow as people accuse us of being, and as spoiled.” Paul Attanasio said, “What we attempted to do was criticize the culture, and that’s never going to be terribly popular.” ABC correspondent and news analyst Jeff Greenfield summed it up best: “To tell today’s audience that powerful institutions and people lie is not compelling. It isn’t that we fear confronting our loss of innocence. It’s that it bores us.”


Quiz Show enjoyed positive notices from most of the major critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The screenplay, by former Washington Post film critic Paul Attanasio, is smart, subtle and ruthless. And it is careful to place blame where it belongs.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Redford, always a fine director of actors, elicits knowing, meticulous performances. One hallmark of this film’s high caliber is that its smaller performances are impeccable.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “As Charles Van Doren, the sleek Columbia English professor who succeeded Stempel as champion, Ralph Fiennes is an ambiguous light charmer, fascinating in his very opaqueness.” Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the film as Redford’s “best and richest directorial effort.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “So it is an especial triumph that Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio, turns that footnote of television history into a thoughtful, absorbing drama about moral ambiguity and the affability of evil.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Though Quiz Show is insightful in its larger, social observations, it doesn’t allow its cultural statements to dwarf its human dimensions. As dazzling as its staging of the congressional hearings and the show itself may be, the movie is at its best in its more intimate moments.”

Herb Stempel said of the film: “There was some poetic licence here and there, but I don’t begrudge the filmmakers for that … I think John Turturro was a little too hyper. I do sometimes get a little frenetic, but he was really, really frenetic.” Charles Van Doren also saw the film and said of it, “I understand that movies need to compress and conflate, but what bothered me most was the epilogue stating that I never taught again. I didn’t stop teaching, although it was a long time before I taught again in a college.”

Redford does a nice job of showing the very different worlds that Van Doren and Stempel come from – the former eats at the nicest restaurants, buys himself an expensive sports car and visits his folks at their expansive home out in the country while the latter lives in the blue collar neighborhood of Queens trying hard to make ends meet. Redford makes a point of showing how important Stempel’s reign on Twenty-One is to his neighborhood where he’s treated like a big shot, but at home his wife (Johann Carlo) is not so thrilled with her husband’s newfound celebrity, unconvinced that they can get out from under her mother’s shadow (she supports them financially) and this causes considerable tension between them.


As Quiz Show begins, Stempel is a winner but this quickly changes when he is told to lose because he doesn’t fit the attractive public image that NBC wants to project to their viewers. Van Doren looks the part and is soon groomed for success while Stempel is relegated to the outside looking in. Van Doren may have a more attractive fa├žade than Stempel but he is just as dishonest. Meanwhile, the public is fed a lie and accepts it because they have no reason not to believe it. While Van Doren and Stempel are hardly unwitting dupes in the scandal, Redford makes a point of highlighting its architects – NBC executives and the corporate sponsor who are only interested in making money.

Quiz Show’s commercial failure, despite being critically-acclaimed, anticipated a similar trajectory by Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), which also criticized a powerful corporation – big tobacco – and was met with a media backlash that questioned its accuracy. Whether this impacted the public’s perception of both films is a matter of some debate, but one should remember that these films are not documentaries. Critics worried that people would see these films and perceive them as historical fact. However, in most cases, the film should only be the starting point for one to dig deeper and find out for themselves what actually happened. Fictional films take significant liberties and dramatic license to make something that will entertain and inform. In this respect, Quiz Show is a resounding success thanks to Attanasio’s insightful script and Redford’s assured direction that allows his talented cast of actors to breathe life into their fascinating characters and thereby painting a fascinating portrait of a time when the American Dream turned sour.


SOURCES

Auletta, Ken. “The $64,000 Question.” The New Yorker. September 14, 1994.

De Turenne, Veronique. “Inaccuracies In Redford’s Quiz Show Called Scandalous.” Los Angeles Daily News. October 9, 1994.

Needham, Dick. “Redford.” Ski. April 1985.

Quiz Show Production Notes. Hollywood Pictures. 1994.

“The Enigma of Quiz Show: No Crowds.” The New York Times. February 12, 1995.

Van Doren, Charles. “All the Answers.” The New Yorker. July 28, 2008.


Walker, Beverly. “Declaration of Independence.” Film Comment. March/April 2015.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Plain Clothes

Early on in her career, Martha Coolidge was destined to be a subversive alternative to John Hughes’ 1980s teen comedies with films like Valley Girl (1983) and Real Genius (1985) that championed outsider-type protagonists that refused to be part of the status quo, which most movies of its ilk ultimately embraced. Sadly, after the surprise commercial and critical success of Valley Girl, Coolidge’s films struggled to find an audience and she moved onto the emerging independent film scene with Rambling Rose (1991). Wedged between it and Real Genius is Plain Clothes (1988), a film that, in retrospect, was a transition between her ‘80s teen comedies and the more mature fare of her 1990s output. The film was given limited distribution, was poorly reviewed and went largely ignored, but is a fascinating mash-up of the high school comedy and murder mystery with an eclectic cast led by underappreciated character actor Arliss Howard.

One day, a teacher stumbles into his classroom and promptly dies from a knife wound to the back, uttering the words, “Easy grader.” Meanwhile, we meet Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard) and his partner Ed (Seymour Cassel) busting a couple of punks while the former is posing as a traveling ice cream man. Nick is tired of being assigned cases where children are involved because he can’t stand them, never having a regular childhood himself.

He gets a call that his younger brother Matt (Loren Dean) has been accused of killing the aforementioned teacher at his high school. Coolidge playfully undermines the seriousness of the situation by having Matt take a “hostage” at a kids’ fairy tale playground only for much of the cute equipment smashed by an overzealous SWAT team. After being suspended for punching out a fellow detective that was badmouthing Matt, Nick decides to go undercover as a student named Nick Springsteen (“Any relation, dude?” a student asks him. “Distant,” he replies) and find out who killed the teacher and framed his brother.


Nick’s first day at school is a mixture of culture shock and barely concealed contempt for the meathead jocks that give him a hard time in the halls. He also has to endure mind-numbingly boring classes with the only saving grace being now that he’s a reasonably intelligent adult he is more confident and savvy about the whole high school experience.

Ever since seeing him in Full Metal Jacket (1987), I’ve been a fan of Arliss Howard’s work and always look forward to the rare opportunity of seeing him in a starring role like Plain Clothes. Part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Howard react to the various students and teachers Nick encounters during his investigation. He walks through the school with a bemused expression affixed to his face as he comes from the perspective of already having experienced it. This is a problem because Nick can’t get any of the students to trust him until he loosens up and starts acting like them. Howard does a nice job of maintaining a tricky balancing act of portraying a frustrated police detective posing as a student while conducting an investigation to clear his brother. He also gets some nice moments to display his acting chops, like the scene where Nick reads a very suggestive e.e. cummings poem in class that gets the girls and the teacher (Suzy Amis) all hot and bothered. It’s an excellent reading that Howard delivers with a slightly mischievous glint in his eye.

Plain Clothes’ supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, populated by veteran character actors like Seymour Cassel as Nick’s reliable partner, Diane Ladd as the mean school secretary, and Robert Stack as the absent-minded principal. Max Perlich, Abe Vigoda and George Wendt show up in smaller roles, adding to the offbeat atmosphere of the film. If there is one minor flaw it is the growing attraction between Nick and his English teacher. There doesn’t seem like much chemistry between Howard and Suzy Amis despite their best efforts to generate some.


At the start of 1985, aspiring screenwriter Scott Frank was hired by Paramount Pictures and worked with Lindsay Doran, an executive at the studio, who taught him how to write screenplays. He wrote Plain Clothes over approximately two years. Martha Coolidge was originally hired to direct Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). She spent months developing the script and working on pre-production only to be fired four days before principal photography. Producer John Hughes gave the job to Howard Deutch, a friend of his and whom he had a falling out with prior to Coolidge being hired. They rekindled their friendship and he got the job. Ned Tanen, then president of Paramount, met with Coolidge and apologized, offering her the job to direct Plain Clothes. Coolidge said of Frank’s script that it was “more of a fun-lark-of-a-murder-mystery-comedy.”

What few critics that saw Plain Clothes were not kind to it. In her review for the Sun Sentinel, Candice Russell wrote, “Coolidge and screenwriter A. Scott Frank don’t know what to make of this veteran cast. Nobody’s funny, though attempts are made in that direction.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “A little more complicated than most, and a little less interesting, Plain Clothes tries to combine a police investigation story with the usual classroom and locker-room stuff. Less would not necessarily have been more, but it would have been shorter.”

What I like about Plain Clothes is that it has more on its mind than being simply a teen comedy by also incorporating an engaging murder mystery. Even the comedy aspects are well done, slyly subverting their conventions thanks to Howard’s knowing performance. He’s our audience surrogate, acknowledging the genre conventions with a wry look and deadpan sarcastic replies timed to perfection. For example, he doesn’t really look young enough to pass for a high school student – a potential stumbling block for the audience, but to the film’s credit it works hard to make you forget it.


The consummate professional, Coolidge’s direction doesn’t draw attention to itself, getting out of the way of the actors and letting them do their thing, especially Howard who does some of his best work. She would go on to make several more films before seguing into television, including such notable efforts like the highly acclaimed made for T.V. movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and episodes of Sex and the City. Plain Clothes remains an oddball film that never found an audience and will hopefully be rediscovered on home video.


SOURCES

“Back to the 80s: Interview with Director Martha Coolidge.” Kickin’ It Old School. January 31, 2011.

Dawson, Nick. “Scott Frank, The Lookout.” Filmmaker magazine. March 30, 2007.


Insdorf, Annette. “Women Film Directors Make a Strong Comeback.” The New York Times. April 24, 1988.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Chungking Express

"If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries." - Cop 223

Chungking Express (1994) is a film obsessed with time. Not only are its characters consciously aware of and thinking about time passing, but the film itself plays around with the slowing down and speeding up of time. The camera lingers on close-ups of clocks and on cans of food with expiration dates. In this film, not only do cans of food have expiration dates – so do relationships and people’s lives. Writer-director Wong Kar-Wai is acutely aware of how time features so prominently in relationships – as the old adage goes, timing is everything. The characters in Chungking Express never quite connect romantically with each other because their timing is never quite right. One person is looking for love while the other is not and by the time the other figures out what they want, it is too late.

Wong's hopelessly romantic notion of timing is apparent right from the start of the movie. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) accidentally jostles a woman (Brigitte Lin). Wong uses a freeze-frame to capture the first moment of contact and the cop says in a voiceover, "At the closest point, we're just 0.01 cm apart from each other. 57 hours later, I fall in love with this woman." Chungking Express is comprised of two intersecting stories. The first one focuses on the aforementioned police officer and his attempt to cope with the recent breakup with his girlfriend. He's obsessed with the time they had together and the time they now spend apart. He even buys thirty cans of pineapples that expire before May – his birthday and name of his ex-girlfriend – and proceeds to eat them. Anyone who's agonized over a failed relationship can immediately identify with his refusal to let go and to believe that there is a glimmer of hope that things will work out. Cop 223 observes, "Having a broken heart, I'd go jogging. Jogging evaporates water from my body. So I don't have any left for tears." Even though he hurts inside, he still goes on and still looks for love. He meets a mysterious woman dressed in a plain brown trenchcoat, sunglasses, and striking blond hair. She is actually a ruthless drug runner who has been betrayed by her partner and is on the run. It's an interesting blend of the traditional film noir subplot, complete with a femme fatale, mixed with a lovesick cop on the rebound right out of the romance genre.


Towards the end of the first story, the machinations of a crime thriller give way to a romantic drama, aspects of which had gradually appearing throughout. The cop and the woman meet at a bar. He’s finally accepted the fact that he and his girlfriend are quits while she is taking refuge, tired from being chased around by criminals that double-crossed her. These two lonely souls connect for a brief moment in time, hanging out in a hotel room much like the two people that become friends in Lost in Translation (2003). One can’t help but think that Sophia Coppola was more than a little influenced by Wong’s film. It’s fascinating to see the scene play out between these two contrasting personalities. The cop makes romantic gestures, which she initially rebuffs but eventually relents from sheer exhaustion. He watches over her while she gets some much needed sleep, even taking off her shoes and cleaning them before he goes in the morning. It’s a small but touching gesture.

If the first story contains more stereotypical archetypes, the second and much more interesting story goes off into uncharted territory, like some sort of wonderful dream. We are introduced to Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whom his girlfriend has also dumped. He is much more accepting of it, much more logical. It's an attractive woman, Faye (Faye Wong) working at a deli that he frequents that is the hopeless romantic of this story. She's an obsessive type who listens to the song "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas over and over. It is not only her own personal soundtrack but also represents her dream of making enough money to go to California. She dances to the song at work, losing herself in its catchy rhythms. Her fixation on "California Dreamin'" is easily identifiable to anyone who's become so taken with a song that they have to listen to it over and over again. Wong reverses the roles in this story so that it's the woman who is pining after the man who doesn't even know she exists. This story really doesn't follow any kind of set plan. In some ways it feels very improvised as the cop and the woman keep missing each other. Again, timing plays a key factor in this potential relationship. The joy in this story is watching a relationship develop between them and anticipating the possibility of blossoming romance.

Chungking Express is a study in contrasts. In the first story, it is the cop that is the extrovert, the hopeless romantic while the woman is reserved and standoff-ish. In the second story, it is the woman that is the outgoing romantic while the cop is more reserved. This is also reflected in the actors that Wong cast in their respective parts. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a physical actor that externalizes his emotions, playing the cop as an affable hopeless romantic that manages to put a positive spin on everything. This is in sharp contrast to Brigitte Lin’s no-nonsense and ruthless criminal, not above kidnapping a man’s child in order to track down those who double-crossed her. While the cop is an open book and someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, the woman is an enigma, hiding behind a bulky trenchcoat and sunglasses – her armor against the outside world (“You never know if it’s going to rain or be sunny,” she says at one point). She looks like someone trying to dress like a femme fatale out of an old film noir.


In the first story, a character is obsessed with “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown while in the second story Faye is obsessed with “California Dreamin’”. When she isn’t spending her time listening to this song, she’s obsessing over the cop that frequents the fast-food counter where she works. His girlfriend (Valerie Chow) has just broken up with him and we are given a tantalizing glimpse into their relationship via flashback as they playfully make love to “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” by Dinah Washington, which tells us everything we need to know about their dynamic. It also shows the contrast between the two women – the cop’s ex-girlfriend’s theme music is slow jazz you might listen to on a lazy Sunday afternoon while Faye’s music is bouncy 1960s pop music symbolizing her energetic personality.

At first, the cop may seem reserved but he just expresses his emotions in a different way as evident in the scene where he deals with the breakup by consoling various objects in his apartment. He laments that a bar of soap has lost a lot of weight and tells the wet washcloth to stop crying. Tony Leung handles what could have been a silly scene very well by playing it sincerely. It is obvious that the cop is channeling feelings of loneliness through the things in his apartment and talking to them helps him process the fallout of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. He internalizes, expressing emotions through his eyes in a way that is fascinating to watch.

Despite this rapid-fire way of filmmaking, Chungking Express never looks like it was just thrown together. If anything, it has a very slick, polished look of someone who obviously knew what they were doing and what they wanted. The film has its own tempo with each story having its own unique rhythm. The first one feels very fast and immediate, while the second story adopts a leisurely pace. In this respect, the central characters and their personalities reflect the mood and pacing of the story. Both the cop and the drug runner of the first story lead very exciting, fast-paced lives and this is reflected in the blurred camera movements during moments of action.


Wong immerses us in the sights and sounds of Chungking Mansions, a noisy, chaotic multicultural place where people live and work practically on top of each other. It is here where the cop and the woman work. Exotic music plays over the soundtrack, going back and forth between Indian music and “Things in Life” by Jamaican reggae singer Dennis Brown. Conversely, the cop and woman of the second story adopt a very lackadaisical attitude towards everything and this is in turn demonstrated in the wandering narrative and pacing.

Originally, Wong envisioned Chungking Express consisting of two stories. The filmmaker remembers, "One would be located in Hong Kong and the other in Kowloon; the action of the first would happen in daylight, the other at night. And despite the difference, they are the same stories. After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasized in Ashes of Time (1994), I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems." Initially, Wong wanted to make these stories into a film but couldn't find a way to do it until he "had the idea to unite them in one screenplay. When I started to film, I didn't have it written completely. I filmed in chronological order. The first part happened during the night. I wrote the sequel of the story in one day! Thanks to a brief interruption for the New Year festivities, I had some more time to finish the rest of the script." He kept on writing and developed a third story. However, after filming the first two stories, he found that the film was getting too long so he used the third story as the basis for his next film, Fallen Angels (1995).

Chungking Express was made during a two-month break from the lengthy shooting schedule of his samurai epic, Ashes of Time, acquiring financing by promising backers that it would be a gangster movie. Wong had to stop production on that film to wait for equipment to redo the sound. "While I had nothing to do, I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts." He had specific locations in mind where he wanted to set the action of the film. Wong said in an interview, "One: Tsim Sha Tsui. I grew up in that area and I have a lot of feelings about it. It's an area where the Chinese literally brush shoulders with westerners, and is uniquely Hong Kong. Inside Chungking Mansions you can run into people of all races and nationalities: Chinese, white people, black people, Indian." This is the setting for much of the first story as Lin's character uses the crowded, labyrinthine building to evade the men who double-crossed her and plot revenge on her disloyal lover. Chungking Mansions is very famous with, as Wong observed, "its 200 lodgings, it is a mix of different cultures ... it is a legendary place where the relations between the people are very complicated. It has always fascinated and intrigued me. It is also a permanent hotspot for the cops in HK because of the illegal traffic that takes place there. That mass-populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the town herself."


The second half of the film was shot in Central, near a popular fast food shop called Midnight Express. "In this area, there are a lot of bars, a lot of foreign executives would hang out there after work," Wong remembers. The fast food shop is forever immortalized as the spot where Tony Leung and Faye Wong's characters met and became attracted to one another. Wong was also drawn to "the escalator from Central to the mid-levels. That interests me because no one has made a movie there. When we were scouting for locations we found the light there entirely appropriate." One of the iconic images from Chungking Express is Faye Wong traveling along the escalator, a warped reflection beside her. Wong created the title for the movie from the two prime locations from the two stories: Chungking Mansions and Midnight Express.

Inspired by the improvisational feel of the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, Wong worked fast and furious on the film with his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. The director remembers, "We filmed like madmen! I told him, we didn't need to pay much attention on lighting (except in the apartment), since it was filmed as a road movie, without any definite location. We didn't have the time to install or use everything; I wanted it to be filmed like a documentary, camera in hands. And Doyle accepted the challenge; to film very fast, while still producing a movie of high quality." Wong infamously shot thousands of feet of footage that went unused, including two weeks of film shot in Brigitte Lin’s home about a subplot that never made the final cut. In addition, he filmed Chungking Express in sequence, writing each scene the night before or on the morning of the day it was to be shot.

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was so taken with Chungking Express that he pressured Miramax to buy the American rights, which he released under his vanity label Rolling Thunder. This allowed Wong’s film to be exposed to American audiences and critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “This is the kind of movie you’ll relate to if you love film itself, rather than its surface aspects such as story and stars. It’s not a movie for casual audiences, and it may not reveal all its secrets the first time through, but it announces Wong Kar-Wai, its Hong Kong-based director, as a filmmaker in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “While its slender, two-tiered plot links love affairs that happen largely by accident, the film’s real interest seems to lie in raffish affectation.” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Wong’s singular frenetic visual style and his special feeling for lonely romantics may remind you of certain French New Wave directors, but this movie isn’t a trip down memory lane; it’s a vibrant commentary on young love today, packed with punch and personality.” In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington wrote, “Like Rohmer, Wong plays the youthful spontaneity of his lovers against the tight, repetitive structure of the plots. And, like Rohmer, he’s a champ at showing the exquisite torture of unrequited, frustrated or sublimated desire.”


First and foremost, Chungking Express is about relationships in an urban environment. The Hong Kong that we see in Wong's film is a densely populated, multi-national environment that influences the characters. He said, "I think a lot of city people have a lot of emotions but sometimes they can't find the people to express them to. That's something the characters in the film share. Tony talks to a bar of soap; Faye steals into Tony's home and gets satisfaction from arranging other people's stuff; and Takeshi has his cans of pineapples. They all project their emotions on certain objects."

Chungking Express is a hangout film as we spend time with these characters at work and during their spare time as they obsess over love lost or the possibility of love. For all of its stylish camerawork, Wong’s film is ultimately about human behavior. One of the joys in watching this film is seeing how these characters interact with one another. How they act and react to what each other says and does. The film holds a hypnotic spell over the viewer as they get sucked into these characters' lives and begin to care about them. As one character observes, "But for some dreams, you'd never wake up." And that's the feeling one gets from this film. You never want it to end.


SOURCES

Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Harvard University Press. 2000.

Ngai, Jimmy. “A Dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai: Cutting Between Time and Two Cities.” Wong Kar-Wai by Jean-Marc Lalanne, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas & Jimmy Ngai. Dis Voir. 1997.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Punisher (1989)

Comic book character the Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974. He played an antagonistic role and was a hit with readers, going on to team up with Spider-Man, Captain America and others during the 1970s and early 1980s with a notable run on Daredevil during Frank Miller’s tenure. It wasn’t, however, until the 1986 miniseries Circle of Blood! that he was the protagonist of his own book. Writer Steven Grant fleshed out the character, setting up his tragic backstory: Frank Castle was a Vietnam War veteran who spent a day with his family only for them to accidentally stumble across a mob hit. Castle’s wife and two children were killed while he was seriously wounded. After several months, Castle resurfaces as the Punisher and wages a one-man war against crime.

A character like the Punisher would seem ripe for cinematic treatment, especially during the ‘80s when action movies ruled the box office and movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone often played one-man army characters. In 1989, New World Pictures made the straight to video movie The Punisher starring then up and coming action movie star Dolph Lundgren. The movie is notable for not featuring the character’s trademark “skull” on his outfit and for bearing merely a passing resemblance to the source material, but I’ve always been intrigued by Lundgren’s performance.

When Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall) is released from prison, acquitted for killing Frank Castle and his family, he arrives home with his goons only to be greeted by the Punisher who picks off his henchmen one-by-one, not unlike the opening action sequence in Leon: The Professional (1994). The Punisher kills Moretti and appears to die when the mobster’s mansion blows up. Detective Jake Berkowitz (Lou Gossett, Jr.) heads up the task force dedicated to stopping the Punisher but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the vigilante killing off criminals. He’s more interested in proving that ex-cop Castle is the Punisher and reluctantly teams up with detective Samantha Leary (Nancy Everhard) to prove it.


Meanwhile, mob boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) returns home with a master plan to consolidate crime in the city and eliminate the Punisher as well. However, Japanese gangster the Yakuza led by Lady Tanaka (an inspired looney performance by Kim Miyori) challenge Franco by intercepting a large shipment of heroin in a skirmish that the Punisher breaks up.

For my money, Dolph Lundgren is my favorite Punisher. He’s a big guy with an imposing physique reminiscent of Mike Zeck’s rendition in Circle of Blood! The actor handles the fight sequences very well, doing many of his own stunts, which adds to his credibility in the role. On the acting front, I like Lundgren’s take, playing the Punisher as a ruthless vigilante doling out vengeance on criminals. He adopts a haggard, sickly pale look like the man hasn’t slept for weeks and is surviving on determination and sheer will power, driven by his obsession to kill all criminals. Lundgren’s got a deep voice with just a hint of drawl as he sometimes drags out words – perhaps due to exhaustion.

Unfortunately, the villains are a generic lot and fans rightly criticized the missed opportunity of not using one of the Punisher’s signature baddies, like Jigsaw or the Kingpin. It’s not that the choice of Italian mobsters and the Yakuza are a bad one per se; it’s just that the actors playing them are so colorless. Most surprisingly, Jeroen Krabbe is wasted as the mob boss who appears early on with the promise of some deliciously low-key villainy only to disappear for most of the movie until the last third, just in time for the exciting climax.


A lot of fans griped about the missing skull on the Punisher’s outfit in the movie, but it is pretty obvious why they didn’t include it. Having a big white skull emblazoned on his chest would’ve made him a big target and the filmmakers wisely opted for all-black attire that looks cool in its own right. I do like the choice of making the Punisher’s base of operations in the city sewers, its network of tunnels allowing him to evade detection while also providing the opportunity to pop up in key spots and then disappear before the police can arrest him.

At times, The Punisher resembles a slightly expensive made-for-television movie thanks to New World’s trademark low budget and supporting cast playing laughably bad, anonymous gangsters. The cheap look of the movie actually works in its favor, giving it an appropriately seedy vibe. The action sequences are fairly well done in a no frills, meat and potatoes kind of way with Lundgren looking cool as he takes out countless bad guys. The movie does redeem itself in these moments, especially with an impressively staged finale as Franco and the Punisher stage an all-out assault on the Yakuza headquarters, which allows Lundgren to cut loose and really show off some excellent action chops.

In the mid to late 1980s, New World Pictures tried to develop movies based on Marvel characters without really understanding them. Boaz Yakin was a 21-year-old New York University graduate who contacted the company and set up a meeting with an executive. He pitched a Punisher movie and realized that the executive “didn’t know what the fuck the Punisher was.” Yakin wrote the script in ten days, “basically off my own ideas,” including “a sort of Frank Miller Punisher from the Daredevil comics sort of mixed with that first series, the Mike Zeck series.”


Director Mark Goldblatt claimed that the script had “many problems” and he rewrote it with producer Mark Kamen, but Yakin claims that they did not change that much. He fought against the changes made to his script and was fired by the producers for being “uncooperative.” For example, in his original draft, Yakin had the Punisher spray-paint the skull onto his t-shirt. This notion was rejected and changed to having him spray-paint the skull on a Kevlar vest before the climactic battle. Kamen rejected this as being “too comic-booky,” according to Yakin.

Kamen wanted to have authentic looking fight scenes and was drawn to Dolph Lundgren’s “sheer physicality” and the way he looked in Rocky IV (1985) and approached him for the title role. Lundgren was initially hesitant about doing the movie because he thought it was the “same action-oriented films that I had been doing to this point.” He read the script and felt that the story was good, there were some humorous moments and “many scenes of real dramatic potential,” and decided to do it. He also liked the idea of “playing a character who really doesn’t care about anything except getting revenge,” and having a clear reason for why he is the Punisher.

To prepare for the physical demands of the role, Lundgren stopped weightlifting and concentrated on martial arts and running, dropping 25 pounds. He said, “Frank Castle is a guy who has been living in the sewers for five years. He could not look too healthy and be believable.” To get into the character’s headspace, Lundgren stayed by himself and walked around talking to himself and no one else. He continued to do this during filming, which scared some people. It didn’t hurt that he worked 12-hour days for three months, which helped him “stay insane.” In addition, the script was written in a way that “called for me to have an intense, yet detached attitude.”


Lundgren claimed to have performed 95% of his own stunts, mostly out of boredom and a short temper. For example, in a scene where the Punisher falls off of a 40-foot building, his stunt double was supposed to do it, but the actor was angry about something and decided to do it himself, instantly regretting the decision once he got up there. Further authenticity was achieved by having trained fighters do their own stunts as opposed to training the stuntmen to fight as is usually done. To this end, for Lady Tanaka’s bodyguards, Lundgren brought in two fighters from his old karate school in Tokyo. The two men didn’t understand that they were making a movie and thought they had to fight for real. They had a Japanese code of honor where if they didn’t perform well enough it would reflect badly on them. To perform well meant beating Lundgren up “so I had to fight for real at times. The upside was that the fight scenes looked very violent,” the actor said on his official website.

As an adaptation of the comic book, The Punisher is a failure. It’s a by-the-numbers action movie with occasional flourishes of style, a poorly-written script, and Sydney, Australia doing a bad job of standing in for a generic big American city. Most disappointingly, it squanders a solid performance by Lundgren who looks the part and manages to capture the spirit of the character in a way that Thomas Jane in The Punisher (2004) and Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone (2008) did not. That being said, out of the three movies, the 1989 version is the least faithful and badly made, the 2004 reboot is the most faithful, drawing upon several issues of the comic book, and the 2008 incarnation is the most violent with a memorable bad guy from the source material in Jigsaw. There are elements in all three movies that if combined would probably make the definitive Punisher movie, but for now we’ll have to see what Marvel Studios does with the character now that they have regained the rights to him.



SOURCES

“Dolph Lundgren Brings Comics’ Most Popular Hero to the Screen.” Inside Karate. August 1989.

Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. HarperCollins. 2012.

Shapiro, Marc. “The Punisher Film Journal Entries.” Comics Scene. Summer 1989.

Topel, Fred. “Action-Packed: Boaz Yakin on Safe and Batman Beyond.” Crave Online. April 23, 2012.


Yakin, Boaz. “Boaz Yakin on The Punisher.” Comics Scene.