Friday, March 25, 2016

Bob Roberts

When Tim Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts was released in 1992 it was regarded as topical biting political satire, taking jabs at both Democrats and Republicans as well as the media that covers them. The film’s titular character was a hilariously creepy mash-up of Bob Dylan and Gordon Gekko, one that seemed like an extreme character carefully crafted by Robbins to comment on the political climate at the time. George Bush was on his way out of the Presidency making way for Bill Clinton and so Bob Roberts acted as kind of a transition between them.

In retrospect, Robbins was trying to warn us. It’s now 2016 and America is in danger of electing a real-life Bob Roberts in the form of billionaire tycoon Donald Trump. Both men are polarizing figures appealing to disenfranchised white people on a grass roots level that is as fascinating to watch as it is more than a little scary because they tap into an ugly xenophobic streak that lurks in the heart of the country. As a result, Robbins’ film has gradually morphed from mockumentary into documentary.

Bob Roberts chronicles the titular character’s run for Senate in Pennsylvania as documented by Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) and his British film crew. Born to hippie parents, Roberts (Robbins) rebelled as a teen and enrolled in military school, then went to Yale and from there earned a fortune on Wall Street. We get an indication early on of Roberts’ true colors when he clashes with a television talk show host (Lynne Thigpen) on a morning show over the 1960s, which he claims was a “dark stain on American history,” in regards to social protest and the counterculture. Afterwards, she is interviewed by Manchester and says of Roberts, “Here’s a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of the free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself,” which best sums up the aspiring politician.


Roberts is running against incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) who represents old school politics and is presented in the media as old and stuffy while the former is young and dynamic, appealing to people that are tired of business as usual politics, but this is merely a smoke screen to distract from the fact that he’s just as corrupt as any established politician. He applies the ruthlessness of Wall Street to politics, doing whatever it takes to get the votes needed to win. Paiste points out that Roberts is very good at “the politics of emotion,” and asks, “What’s behind it? I don’t see anybody home. But what I will say that once or twice during the course of our debate I detected a slight whiff of sulfur in the air.” Paiste represents the old guard who tried to make a difference in politics but lost their way and were mired in its byzantine procedures.

The late 1980s and early 1990s was very good to Tim Robbins with a breakout role in Bull Durham (1988) and then going onto being in three Robert Altman films, including The Player (1992), which earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. He wisely parlayed the buzz that surrounded him into writing, directing and starring in the low-budget Bob Roberts, which, along with the aforementioned The Player and his next Altman film Short Cuts (1993), saw the actor play a trifecta of unlikeable men abusing their positions of power. Not surprisingly, Bob Roberts is the juiciest role of the three as he gives himself the plum role of a neo-conservative folk singer cum businessman with aspirations to the Senate. Robbins portrays Roberts as a man that plays it close to the vest, revealing little about himself or what he truly believes in front of the cameras and is content to spout soundbite rhetoric. There is an icy, smiling façade that Roberts chillingly maintains throughout the film like a shark about to attack.

Ray Wise and Alan Rickman play Roberts’ campaign chairman and manager respectively with the former always upbeat and positive; grinning for the cameras while the latter is enigmatic and stern only to be later embroiled in an Oliver North/Contragate-type scandal. A young Jack Black pops up (in his feature film debut) as a particularly zealous fan of Roberts and the actor memorably conveys the scary devotion of the aspiring politician’s most rabid supporters.

Giancarlo Esposito plays John Alijah “Bugs” Raplin, a fast-talking, muckraking journalist who writes for underground publications and persistently attempts to get an interview with Roberts. His goal is to dig up evidence of the campaign chairman’s shady dealings and thereby implicating Roberts. Esposito does a fantastic job of treading a fine line of conspiracy theorist who is doing the kind of relentless legwork that mainstream publications used to do but that have by and large been co-opted by corporations. Bugs represents the film’s angry voice as he rails against the “dealmakers” that pass for politicians.

The amusing riffs on Roberts’ Dylan-esque musical career include album covers that rip-off the legendary folk singer’s and a music video for a song called “Wall Street Rap” that copies the famous one for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with female dancers in the background that references the supermodel band that appeared in Robert Palmer’s iconic video for “Addicted to Love.” One of the film’s highpoints are the songs that Roberts performs throughout. They are hilarious in their naked, ultra-conservative sloganeering with such song titles as “Times Are Changin’ Back”, “Retake America”, and “Drugs Stink.” The lyrics to these songs skewer conservatives’ hatred of anything the reeks of socialism as “Complain” demonstrates:

“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a car.
I spend all my money getting drunk in a bar.
I wanna be rich. I don’t have a brain.
Just give me a handout while I complain.”

These songs flip the traditional protest song on its head so that it is the conservatives that rail against liberalism. With the possibility of these songs played straight and their lyrics taken out of their satirical context, it is easy to see why Robbins has never released the soundtrack. Can you imagine what Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would do with them? Robbins felt that they were “funny” and “entertaining,” but out of context: “I don’t trust the songs. And I personally don’t want to be driving in my car five years from now and hear that bile on the radio.”

Robbins’ film also critiques the media, in particular local news stations, which he satirizes by casting well-known actors like Helen Hunt, James Spader, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher among others in cameos as sycophantic newscasters blatantly sympathetic to Roberts. Gallagher, in particular, is funny as a more obvious suck-up who pathetically waves after Roberts even after the man has left the room. The film suggests that these vapid T.V. personalities hitch themselves to Roberts’ gravy train because they can sense that he will be the next big thing but are quick to turn on him at the first hint of a serious scandal.

Stylistically, Bob Roberts is reminiscent of the heavy metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) – at one point Roberts gets lost in an auditorium trying to find the stage – and the Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) – it adopts a similar cinema verite approach – with a dash of Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 (1988) for good measure. Robbins mixes them all together to create a funny and smart satire that takes aim at American politics and the media that covers it. The film also critiques the tactics of campaigning and how it consists mostly of ugly mudslinging, which, unfortunately, has only gotten worse. This makes Bob Roberts just as relevant today as it was back in 1992 – in fact, maybe even more so with the rise of Donald Trump and his fellow Republican nominees of which we can see more than a little of Roberts in the agenda and rhetoric of Cruz, Rubio, et al.

Watching Bob Roberts recently, and in light of Trump’s run for the Republican Party nomination, it is eerie how Robbins’ film anticipates things that actually have happened in real-life. Like the violence that has erupted at recent Trump rallies, we see a group of dissenters beaten up by security at one of Roberts’ rallies that masquerade as concerts. Much like some of Trump’s more enthusiastic supporters, we see Roberts’ fanatical supporters mix it up with the protesters outside a venue after a concert. Most interestingly, Roberts appears on Cutting Edge Live, a Saturday Night Live-type hip sketch comedy show, as its musical guest. Robbins’ long-time friend and fellow actor John Cusack makes a cameo appearance as the host who openly shows disdain for Roberts, which anticipated the protests of several Hispanic organizations against Trump hosting SNL in November 2015. Like Trump, Roberts uses bullying tactics and fascist imagery, which seemed extreme in 1992 but are commonplace now.


The origins for Bob Roberts came from Tim Robbins’ dismay at returning home to Greenwich Village after being away for eight years and finding that many artists and bohemian types had left only to be replaced by a lot of franchises. “I started thinking about what would happen if all of those businessmen picked up guitars.” Initially, he wrote Roberts as a businessman folk singer and over time his ambitions for the character grew until he had him entering politics. The impetus for the film was Robbins’ interest in “the Hollywoodization of Washington, in the complicity between the media and politics and entertainment and how politics is becoming about image and not substance.”

He began writing the screenplay in 1986 and in the same year tried out the character on a sketch he made for Saturday Night Live. Robbins then spent the next few years trying to get it made as a feature film but the political content scared off the studios in Hollywood and most potential financial backers. The few independent producers that showed interest wanted him to “make it a parody of satire, if you can believe that,” Robbins said. In retrospect, he realized that the script wasn’t ready until two years before actual filming took place. His increased clout as recognizable actor finally convinced Working Title Films, a small British independent film company, to provide the $4 million budget, which meant that all the actors, including the likes of Alan Rickman, worked for scale.

After Bob Roberts received a very positive reaction at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, Miramax and Paramount Studios picked it up for distribution and decided to release the film on Labor Day weekend to coincide with the upcoming election with a modest advertising campaign in cities they felt it would play well. Certain political reporters and media figures in New York, like ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and John McLaughlin, host of the T.V. political show The McLaughlin Group, were courted by the distributors at a special screening during the Democratic National Convention to generate favorable buzz. In addition, influential publications like Vanity Fair were shown an early cut of the film.

Bob Roberts received mostly positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “I like its audacity, its freedom to say the obvious things about how our political process has been debased – but if it had been only about campaign tactics and techniques, I would have liked it more.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “There’s big imagination at work here. The movie sometimes overstates its case, but the music-making, success-oriented Bob represents an authentic American political tradition.”  The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Alan Rickman is magnificently malignant as Robbins’ crypto-fascist right-hand man; his face is a frenzy of twitching tics…Also on the money are the three neoconservative high schoolers who tail Bob everywhere, a collective psycho-glint in their eyes. But Candidate Bob takes the cake, his deer-in-the-headlights gaze trained on his own morning America.”

In his review for The Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Audacious, bracing, uncommonly timely, Bob Roberts would seem almost impossible to pull off. So it is every much to Robbins’ credit as a filmmaker that he manages to do so while rarely getting preachy and never neglecting the importance of movement and excitement in keeping an audience involved.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The functioning of media itself is Robbins’s true subject, and it’s exciting to see him appropriating some of the ideas of his mentor Robert Altman and giving them more bite than Altman ever has.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Despite its cleverness, the movie isn’t really very funny; it’s repetitive and a tad monotonous. And that failure, I think is tied to a certain smugness at its core.” When asked about the film in 2016, Robbins said, “What I was doing with that movie was [trying] to shed a light on some of the hypocrisies that exist in the American political system and the way the media covers politics, and unfortunately that is still relevant and that movie still works today.”

In retrospect, Bob Roberts anticipates what the Republican Party has become. In this respect, it is more than a bit spooky that we are now seeing a fictional character like Roberts being brought to life by actual people without a hint of irony or self-awareness. If Robbins’ film was intended as a warning then it went largely unheeded as history, albeit fictional, is repeating itself only instead of art imitating life, life is imitating art.


SOURCES

Bibbani, William. “Tim Robbins on A Perfect Day and Howard the Duck.” Crave Online. January 12, 2016.

Galbraith, Jane. “The Bob Thing: Bob Roberts Seeks ‘Smart, Hip’ Filmgoers Who’ll Vote with their Wallets.” Los Angeles Times. August 30, 1992.

Kloman, Harry. “Tim Robbins, Running Hard.” The New York Times. January 12, 1993.

Murphy, Ryan. “Tim Robbins is Hot – He’s Also Bothered in Bob Roberts, the Film Satire He Wrote, Directed and Stars In, the Actor-Activist Puts His Political Convictions on Display.” Philadelphia Inquirer. September 13, 1992.

Roberge, Chris. “Tim Robbins Campaigns for Bob Roberts and Political Change.” The Tech. September 25, 1992.


Turan, Kenneth. “A Calculated Crapshoot Pays Off for Tim Robbins.” Los Angeles Times. May 13, 1992.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Hunted

The Hunted (2003) is what happens when you take a generic action thriller and put it in the hands of a master filmmaker like William Friedkin. While it certainly doesn’t belong among the top tier of his films, the director takes a standard cat and mouse chase movie and strips it down to its most basic elements. He does something quite intriguing with this genre movie by downplaying the forgettable dialogue and cliché plotting in favor of visual storytelling.

After receiving a medal for assassinating a Serbian military commander in Kosovo, United States Army Sergeant First Class Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro) is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed while on his covert combat mission. He saw men, women and children massacred wholesale by Serbian soldiers and Friedkin immerses us in the chaos and madness of Albanian villagers being systematically decimated by utilizing horror genre tropes. He wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum for the first nine minutes of the movie in favor of letting nightmarish visuals do all the heavy lifting.

When he’s not rescuing a wounded wolf from dumbass hunters in the wilderness of British Columbia, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is an expert in military survival and combat training. The FBI comes calling because they need his wilderness savvy to track Hallam who has gone rogue since returning home and become the bogeyman of forests in Oregon, gutting two deer hunters with his combat knife. Bonham taught Hallam everything he knows and the FBI uses his familiarity with his former student to track him down. Aiding him in this endeavor is Assistant Special Agent in Charge Abby Durrell (Connie Nielson wasted in a largely forgettable role). Their initial confrontation is not just an exciting battle of wills but also of physicality as the student attempts to school his mentor. It becomes obvious that conventional law enforcement methods will not be good enough to catch and stop Hallam so Bonham goes it alone and Friedkin sets up the inevitable confrontation between the two men.

Benicio del Toro spends most of The Hunted looking haunted, opting to downplay his madness by conveying it in his eyes, which is good because the dialogue he is given is cliché and forgettable. While watching The Hunted I was reminded of that great line of dialogue that John Malkovich’s rogue government operative turned assassin says In the Line of Fire (1993), “And now they want to destroy me because we can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside now can we?” This certainly applies to Hallam as well who must be contained by his government handlers once he’s gone off the reservation as it were.

Friedkin and Del Toro do their best to try and humanize Hallam. He’s not a monstrous killing machine but a very damaged individual that has been so messed up by what he’s seen and done for his country. He imagines conspiracies around every corner thanks to all the covert work he’s done and can no longer switch it off. He’s become permanently stuck in killer mode. To this end, Friedkin shows him trying to reconnect with loved ones but he’s clearly passed the point of no return and not even appeals from his former mentor will persuade him from his path.

While Del Toro gets to play the spooky antagonist, Jones brings his trademark no-nonsense charisma to the role. It is a real treat to see a seasoned pro like him work his understated magic on a genre movie. I like that Friedkin shows Bonham combing through the forest, analyzing marks on the ground and on trees much like a police officer would scrutinize a crime scene. He is able to use his surroundings to find Hallam.

I also like how Bonham’s body language changes once he’s out of the wilderness – an environment he feels most comfortable in – and in the city. As he talks to Durrell in her office, Bonham anxiously fidgets with his hands, looking ill at ease and this is also reflected in his posture. He never says to Durrell that he feels uncomfortable – it is all conveyed visually. I also like that at certain moments when Bonham is pursuing Hallam we see fear on his face. He’s not just some invulnerable hero but someone prone to fear just like anyone else and that’s because he knows what Hallam is capable of because he trained him.

Visually, Friedkin keeps things interesting with a nicely orchestrated extended chase through the streets of Portland that starts in cars and ends on a cable car. It demonstrates Hallam’s uncanny ability to be elusive and blend into any environment as well as Bonham’s skill as a tracker, studying tiny details that most ignore in order to pursue him. This leads to the climactic battle and once again Friedkin dispenses with dialogue in favor of letting the visuals tell the story along with the help of two incredibly skilled actors that don’t need to rely on words but rather body language to express themselves.

In the late 1980s, William Friedkin read a few books about wilderness survival by and became friends with professional tracker Tom Brown Jr. who trained Special Forces and SEAL teams to survive harsh environments and kill without actually having killed anyone himself. At the time, Brown “had tremendous guilt about who was being killed and went through a tremendous guilt trip,” the filmmaker said in an interview. Friedkin found Brown so interesting that he wanted to make a film about him but felt that it would probably be a documentary. He actually started writing a screenplay but never felt it worked and shelved it.

Several years later, Friedkin read David and Peter Griffiths’ screenplay about a trained Delta Force-type assassin that becomes a serial killer. The director met with them and then had them meet Brown. They worked on a new draft and then Friedkin brought in another screenwriter to work with Brown. The director was interested in exploring a teacher-student relationship that would have “the seeds of an exciting conflict – especially if the pupil has been driven mad by the number of killings he had to do, and the teacher suffers from strong feelings of guilt because he instructs others to kill, even though he’s never killed anyone himself.”

Friedkin brought in Brown to train Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones and served a consultant on the movie. During the production he worked with the actors for two hours a day, three to four days a week, teaching them how to survive in the wilderness. Brown found that Jones didn’t need much training because he was already a hunter and “good in the outdoors,” while Del Toro was less experienced but a fast learner. Brown also brought in a knife specialist and another one in Sayoc Kali martial arts for an average of two hours a day, five days a week. Del Toro strove for authenticity with the scenes depicting hand-to-hand combat. “We wanted to keep it as real as possible, and although an actual fight between two guys with extraordinary knife skills could easily be over in seconds, ours is very real in terms of how we block and how we react.”

With only seven days left of principal photography, Del Toro was injured while filming a fight scene with Jones. The actor broke a bone and dislocated seven others, which required surgery. Filming stopped for seven months. Friedkin took that time to look at the movie and find ways to improve it, which included asking Johnny Cash to write a song for it.

The Hunted received mostly mixed to negative reviews. In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “The stripped-down narrative is almost an apology for the ludicrous story – but it’s just not enough of one.” Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “There’d be more inclination to ponder the deeper psychological themes implied in this cat-and-mouse hunt if the movie weren’t so obviously turned on by the fetishism of the story.” The Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “The images of L.T. playing ‘wolf whisperer’ and Aaron slithering through the forest are absurd, but the director’s mad-hatter logic never wavers. You believe because Friedkin believes, at least until you realize none of it makes a bit of sense.” USA Today gave the movie one out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “You keep waiting for there to be more, but there never is – other than the fact that it all gets gorier and uglier.” Rolling Stone gave it two out of four stars and Peter Travers wrote, “William Friedkin directs the knife fights with French Connection relish, but the film is just a Rambo rehash.” Roger Ebert, however, gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “What makes the movie fresh is that it doesn’t stand back and regard its pursuit as an exercise, but stays very close to the characters and focuses on the actual physical reality of their experience.”

Ultimately, Bonham has to live with the guilt and regret that if he had read Hallam’s letters to him early on all of this bloodshed might’ve been avoided. This realization gives The Hunted an unexpectedly somber not to end on thereby defying the usual triumphant vibe that most thrillers of this ilk go out on by the end credits. This may explain why it wasn’t a commercial success, failing to make back its modest $55 budget. While it remains one of Friedkin’s minor works, it is nonetheless an entertaining and engaging effort.


SOURCES

Scott B. “An Interview with William Friedkin.” IGN. March 11, 2003.


The Hunted Production Notes. 2003.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is not only one of the most fascinating people of the 20th and 21st centuries but also one of the most influential. Co-founder of Apple Inc., his technological innovations have affected the very fabric of society. Just think about how omnipresent iTunes, iPads, iPods and iPhones are in our lives. He was a visionary with ambition to burn and a carefully crafted and distinctive public persona. It would seem only natural that his life would be ripe for cinematic treatment. Shortly after his death in 2011, Ashton Kutcher portrayed the man in a biopic entitled Jobs that performed modestly at the box office and was savaged by critics.

It only took a couple years for Hollywood to try again with Steve Jobs (2015), but this time with considerable pedigree in front of and behind the camera with Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) directing a screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and starring Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road). The film opened wide and failed to meet its lofty projections despite going up against weaker movies. How could a film with that much artistic power fail to connect with audiences? Post-mortems done after it was pulled from theaters after only two weeks felt that the studio should have released it gradually, letting word-of-mouth build, that Fassbender wasn’t enough of a mainstream draw, that Jobs fatigue had set in, and that the nature of the film was difficult to market.

The film’s structure eschews the traditional biopic formula of a cradle to grave telling by adopting a three-act format with each one taking place right before the launch of a key product. The first act thrusts us immediately into crisis mode as Jobs (Fassbender) and his team are about to launch the Apple Macintosh in 1984. He wants the computer to say, “Hello,” but engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) tells him that it can’t be fixed in time, much to his boss’ chagrin.


The stakes couldn’t be any higher for the fledgling company as Jobs points out that two days prior they ran an television advertisement during the Super Bowl that more people remembered than who won the actual game. “Look at their faces when they see what it is. They won’t know what they’re looking at or why they like it but they’ll know they want it.” This key line of dialogue spoken in the first act demonstrates one of the man’s key strengths – knowing what people wanted even before they did. He was able to do this because he was a master manipulator, both on a large scale, and on a personal level, like how he browbeats his staff to do the seemingly impossible.

For example, there is a scene where Jobs chastises Hertzfeld for being unable to fix the Mac before launch: “You didn’t have seconds you had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.” His employee responds without missing a beat, “Well, some day you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” Jobs lays into the man and threatens to humiliate him publicly. This scene is indicative of the kind of scintillating dialogue that Sorkin populates Steve Jobs with and the cast delivers it with blistering intensity.

The second act takes place four years later with Jobs launching the NeXT Computer, the crown jewel of his new company NeXT, which he founded after being fired by Apple when the Mac failed to sell. This act is less about the launch then it is about how Jobs was fired from Apple. His ego was out of control and his refusal to compromise was severely damaging the company. Through the rhythm of editing and the increasing tempo of music on the soundtrack, the film gradually builds to a crescendo as the hammer comes down on Jobs.


The third act takes place in 1998 as Jobs has rejoined Apple as CEO and is about to launch the iMac in what becomes a personal and professional triumph for the man. This final segment also attempts to humanize Jobs a bit and shed more light on his personal relationships with co-workers and loved ones.

Michael Fassbender jumps full on into the role as he portrays a brilliant, arrogant man that expects to get his way, like when he tells an assistant that they must turn off the exit signs in the room where the product launch is to take place. When she informs him that the fire marshal will not allow this he replies, “You explained to the fire marshal that we’re in here changing the world,” to which she tells him, “I did. But unless we can also change the property of fire he doesn’t care.” Jobs comes back with a very Sorkian response: “If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits it’ll have been well worth it for those who survived. For those who don’t, less so but still pretty good.” Fassbender’s timing is on fire and this exchange is hilarious.

The film doesn’t shy away from Jobs’ less savory aspects, like his ugly confrontation with ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) who claims that he is the father of her daughter Lisa. He is cold and cruel to her and Fassbender is unafraid to go there. Jobs’ solution with his ex is to continually throw money at her until she goes away. While the actor doesn’t look like the real man he finds a way to convey the essence of him in a way that Kutcher didn’t. Of course, he had much better material to work with thanks to Sorkin’s exceptional screenplay.


Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple, and Jobs’ confidant, matches Fassbender beat for beat. She is the voice of reason (“Do you want to try being reasonable, just, you know, see what it feels like?”) that keeps him in check when his ego threatens to take over. She also acts as his therapist and his sounding board. The actress portrays Joanna as extremely patient and strong-willed – she has to be going up against someone like Jobs. Winslet utilizes a nicely understated Polish accent and disappears into the role with her customary passion. Joanna serves as the film’s anchor for she is the constant through-line in all three acts as Jobs’ most loyal ally.

In a rare dramatic turn, Seth Rogen portrays Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. He pops up briefly in the first act asking Jobs to acknowledge the people responsible for the Apple II, the company’s best-selling product at the time. He gets much more substantial screen-time in the second act when Woz confronts Jobs over his failings at Apple and the problems with the NeXT Computer. He tries to appeal to their long-time friendship and Rogen digs deep, demonstrating some terrific dramatic chops. He also deftly handles Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue and the technical computer jargon with ease.

For a film that is very dialogue-heavy, Danny Boyle covers a lot of ground with his restless camera, which conveys Jobs’ agile mind and his demanding nature. Finally, this energetic filmmaker gets to do Sorkin’s trademark walk and talk scenes and nails it. If there was ever a filmmaker born to do them it was Boyle. That being said, he tones down his trademark hyperactive kinetic energy in favor of a more poised approach. It is nice to see him change things up and let the actors and their dialogue have a greater emphasis. That’s not to say Steve Jobs is boring to look at – far from it – but he lets the actors provide the fireworks with their riveting performances.


It is a ballsy choice not to show the actual launches as that would be the traditional thing to do. The launches are well-documented – what happened before is not so widely known and ripe for dramatic interpretation. Steve Jobs is a fascinating portrait of a complex man. In many respects, it would make a good double bill with The Social Network (2010), also penned by Sorkin, as both films are about distant, megalomaniacal geniuses that made hugely influential advances in technology to feed their gigantic egos and in the process changed the world by affecting peoples’ daily lives.


It is easy to see why Steve Jobs wasn’t a commercial success. It doesn’t play by traditional biopic rules and features an unlikable protagonist. It eschews ingratiating itself for taking an unflinching look at a genius. The film sheds light on the man who was cruel to those around him. He was brilliant and didn’t care about what people thought of him and his inability or unwillingness to make personal connections ultimately makes him a tragic figure.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Wiseguy

Along with Hill Street Blues and possibly Crime Story, Wiseguy was one of the earliest attempts at creating multi-episode story arcs on American network television during the 1980s. Up until that point, conventional wisdom was to have stand-alone episodes – that way a show could easily be shown out of sequence once in syndication. Created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, Wiseguy featured high quality writing and a strong cast supported by an equally impressive roster of guest actors, many of whom went on to bigger things in cinema.

Cannell got the idea for the show after reading about the United States government’s deep cover program. He spent the next four or five years pitching it to the television networks but none them were interested until finally CBS agreed to make it. One of the striking elements of the show was its authenticity regarding the criminal underworld it examined in every episode. Cannell claimed that he never relied on technical advisors but rather he had “always been good at writing underworld characters. I have a friend who has a lot of friends who have been, how shall I put it – incarcerated.”

Wiseguy was a crime show that ran on American television from 1987 to 1990 and featured the exploits of Vincent “Vinnie” Terranova (Ken Wahl), an undercover agent working for the Organized Crime Bureau (OCB), a division of the FBI. His job was to infiltrate criminal organizations, gather evidence, destroy them from within, and bring those guilty to justice. The show does a fantastic job of maintaining a certain level of tension once Vinnie goes undercover as he is constantly in danger, especially dealing with unpredictable people like many of the criminals he encounters. Fortunately, he excels at thinking on his feet.

The first season featured two of the show’s most memorable arcs. Upon being released from prison (to establish his criminal credentials), Vinnie is assigned to infiltrate the Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey) organization after his brother Dave killed Vinnie’s training agent who had previously been investigating the crime family. Vinnie gradually works his way up and manages to gain Sonny’s confidence. Ray Sharkey is incredible as the unpredictable crime boss that constantly keeps Vinnie on his toes. He’s understandably cagey as deals get busted and henchmen are killed.

Vinnie answers to Frank McPike (played with wonderfully sarcastic dry wit by Jonathan Banks) and he is the one that assigns Vinnie his cases and supplies him with crucial information. Vinnie’s other contact is Lifeguard (Jim Byrnes), whom he contacts on a regular basis with updates on the case under the guise of Uncle Mike, in case the phone is being tapped. One of the things that is so good about Wiseguy is that it takes the time to show how being so deep undercover takes its toll on Vinnie. He comes so close to death on a regular basis and has to be a hell of an actor because his life depends on it.

The first season’s second story arc, and arguably the best one of the show’s entire run, saw Vinnie go after the multi-billionaire international arms dealer Mel Profitt (Kevin Spacey). In the process, Vinnie uncovers a crime syndicate in a whole other league than anything he’s experienced before. His way into this particular organization is through assassin Roger Loccoco (William Russ), who works for Profitt. Vinnie does a good job of establishing his cover – a Jersey triggerman who maybe small-time but knows enough about firearms to pique Roger’s interest. Their first encounter is a memorable one, crackling with tough-guy-speak as these two Alpha Males sniff each other out. Vinnie meets Mel’s beautiful sister Susan (Joan Severance) through Roger and she in turn introduces him to Mel.


I like how this story arc takes the time to give us a nice snapshot of the friction that exists between the CIA and the FBI. There’s an interesting scene where McPike butts heads with a local FBI officer and a CIA agent. Jonathan Banks shines in this scene with his trademark dry wit. At one point, the CIA agent verifies that McPike is who he says he is and without missing a beat he replies, “Most of my life. I was Batman in the third grade but that seems to have passed.” According to the actor, McPike was originally written as a “big, red-headed guy, strong and a lot more straightforward and burly.” He brought a dry, sarcastic wit to the role and the writers ran with it. The creator of Breaking Bad had to have been a fan of Wiseguy as the casting of Banks on that show contains echoes of his work in this earlier crime drama.

Not surprisingly, the one to watch is a young Kevin Spacey as the crazy, power-hungry Mel. His first appearance is a memorable one as he rants and rages about someone trying to poison his food. All the money and power he’s acquired has made him extremely paranoid. In another memorable bit, Mel interrupts a wedding of his Argentinian drug connection because he doesn’t trust the man’s soon-to-be wife. It is an audacious move and Spacey pulls it off with charm and conviction. Mel is a larger than life criminal mastermind seemingly coming apart at the seams and yet manages to just keep it together enough to run his vast empire – thanks to Susan and a regular shot of heroin. Spacey does a fantastic job giving depth to this first class nutjob, knowing when to chew up the scenery and when to pull it back.

William Russ is excellent as the ultra-confident amoral hitman who has a habit of referring to Vinnie, and everybody else he encounters, as “Buckwheat.” The actor brings a dangerous, unpredictable vibe to his character, which keeps Vinnie and us on edge early on. Russ had all kinds of memorable roles over the years, most notably in The Right Stuff (1983) and the T.V. show Crime Story. Joan Severance is quite alluring as the seductive femme fatale and she has good chemistry with Ken Wahl. As Susan tells Vinnie early on, “Most people are intrigued by my brother and me. I know a lot about intrigue. I intrigue everyone.” Susan is more than just a potentially dangerous love interest for Vinnie as the show hints at an incestuous relationship with her brother Mel. She plays well off of Spacey and it reminded me of what a shame that her career went down the rabbit hole of direct-to-video erotic thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


At the end of season one, burnt-out from a grueling undercover assignment, Vinnie threatens to resign. Frank puts him on a six-month extended leave of absence instead. Vinnie decides to return home to Brooklyn in an attempt to clear his head and enjoy some semblance of a regular life. Meanwhile, Frank gets promoted and his superiors put pressure on him to bring Vinnie back to work.

After a short story arc that saw Vinnie deal with a small group of white supremacists trying to take over his neighborhood, Wiseguy settled into its next memorable storyline. Eli Sternberg (Jerry Lewis) and his son David (Ron Silver) are clothing manufacturers struggling to reach a deadline on an order and need a lot of money fast. Eli makes a deal with Enrico Pinzolo (Stanley Tucci), a local businessman/loan shark who controls the garment industry via trucking. Unhappy with what his father has done, David asks the OCB for their help and in doing so help them bring down Pinzolo. Comedian Jerry Lewis holds his own and shows off his dramatic chops against solid character actors like Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. It’s great to see these guys bounce off each other and sink their teeth in this excellent material.

Season three begins with Vinnie’s stepfather and Mafioso boss shot and gravely wounded in a mob hit. When another don is hit, Vinnie teams up with the head of a rival family (Robert Davi) to find out who from one of the other families ordered these hits. Robert Davi, who’s appeared in a lot of crappy films and T.V. shows, gets a meaty role to demonstrate what an underrated talent he is by eloquently delivering substantial monologues and playing an honorable tough guy.


After Ken Wahl had a dispute with the show’s producers and left the show before the start of the fourth season, his character was written out and replaced with the much less interesting Michael Santana (Steven Bauer), a United States attorney based in Miami. When his case against a powerful leader of a drug cartel falls apart due to a flawed arrest warrant based on information illegally beaten out of an informant, Santana is disbarred. McPike seeks him out in order to help find Vinnie who has run afoul of the same cartel. While Steven Bauer is a fine actor, it was hard to empathize with his character like you could with Vinnie whom viewers had grown attached to over three seasons. The ratings declined and Wiseguy was canceled after this season.

Ken Wahl does a great job over the course of the show balancing Vinnie’s tough guy act when he goes undercover and showing how staying under so long affects his emotional and mental stability while also wreaking havoc on his personal life – what’s left of it anyway. With every story arc, Vinnie is our entry point into a new criminal enterprise and part of the enjoyment of the show comes from watching how he’s going to infiltrate the criminal organization and not blow his cover. Sometimes his dilemma isn’t whether he’ll get caught or not but rather will he be tempted by the lure of power and money that surrounds him?

The show’s producers approached Wahl for role of Vinnie Terranova. The actor claimed that he decided to do Wiseguy because “I wasn’t offered any films and I’ve got to make a living.” At the time of the show, he seemed blasé in his approach to the character in interviews, saying, “I’m winging it with this character and as long as they like what I’m doing, I’ve got my job.”


Wiseguy plugs in the tried and true tropes of ‘80s crime shows with gun fights and car chases but they almost seem like an afterthought, something to appease mainstream audiences. The real fireworks are between Vinnie and the colorful criminals he encounters, like Sonny and Mel. Wiseguy broke the mold for crime dramas. Watching these episodes again reminds one of just how good it was back in the day and how it paved the way for crime shows like The Sopranos and The Wire among others.


SOURCES

Baker, Kathryn. “Wiseguy Could Take Off in New Time Period.” Associated Press. December 30, 1987.

Davis, Ivor. “Crime Heavies Give Thumbs Up to the Wiseguy.” Globe and Mail. October 3, 1987.


Knutzen, Eirik. “Up Against the Wahl.” Toronto Star. November 28, 1987.