"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, September 28, 2009

Days of Heaven

In retrospect, Days of Heaven (1978) can be seen as a transitional film for its director, Terrence Malick, whose first film, Badlands (1973), was a fictionalized account of Charles Starkweather, a young man who went on a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend. Malick’s follow up to Days of Heaven was an adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel, The Thin Red Line (1998). While Badlands was a fairly straightforward film, Days of Heaven marked a significant evolution in Malick’s thematic preoccupations as he explored man’s relationship with the environment and the resulting effect. The filmmaker also examined the destructive relationships between people. This is all depicted in an observational style reminiscent of a documentary albeit with some of the most stunning cinematography ever put on film.

Like Badlands, Days of Heaven is narrated by a woman and, in this case, by a child named Linda (Linda Manz). Bill (Richard Gere) is a short-tempered steelworker who flees Chicago in 1917 with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda after accidentally killing his boss (Stuart Margolin). The factory is a hellish, noisy place and Bill and Abby lead a bleak, dirty existence. It’s no wonder that they set out for the west with its beautiful, expansive landscapes. In a voiceover narration, Linda says of them, “in fact, all three of us been goin’ places ... looking for things, searching for things ... goin’ on adventures.” This particular passage is the key to understanding what motivates and drives these three people, especially Bill. They lead a nomadic existence, going where the work and opportunity for adventure takes them. Linda’s narration tells us little about these three people and, instead, offers abstract ruminations about life, like when she says, “Sometimes I’d feel very old like my whole life’s over, like I’m not around no more.”
Bill and Abby are lovers but maintain a facade to the outside world that they are brother and sister because of the societal stigma of not being married. They travel by train to the Texas Panhandle where they work harvesting wheat for a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) who ends up falling in love with Abby. Bill’s tendency is to keep moving, to go where the work takes him while Abby wants stability. She reciprocates the farmer’s advances and Bill and Linda stay on after the seasonal workers leave. At first, everyone gets along but when Abby and the farmer get married, Bill becomes increasingly jealous and unhappy with their arrangement. Initially, the farmer is sick and diagnosed to die within a year but once he falls in love with Abby, his condition improves, which complicates matters.

The scenes where we see people harvesting wheat has an almost documentary feel to them as if we are watching archival footage of what it must’ve been like back then. The first third of the film is almost like a sociological study as we observe how these people work and live off the land, much like the natives we see at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Malick also shows what these people do in their spare time: playing blues music during the day and Cajun music at night while dancing around a bonfire. There are lingering shots of nature that convey the spectrum of its power, from locusts eating wheat to gorgeous shots of the landscape, as we see the characters playing golf on a grassy hill or a field of wheat blowing violently in the wind. Malick shows the gradual changing of the seasons and, in another shot, a massive thunderstorm dwarfing the land. Every shot is exquisitely composed so that every frame could be a work of art, a still life. For example, when the workers first arrive on the farmer’s land, Malick presents a stunning pastoral setting with golden wheat fields in the foreground and green pastures in the distance while the clouds in the sky take on a purplish hue. Days of Heaven allows you to get lost in its landscapes and in the atmosphere Malick creates.

Malick eschews any kind of traditional narrative in favor of an abstract tone poem. The film simply presents these characters’ lives and we are just observing it. To that end, there is a real naturalism to the performances of the actors. We see the characters working hard off the land as was the custom back then. We learn about them from their actions and how they behave. Bill, for example, is headstrong and quick-tempered as evident from how quickly he starts a fight with a fellow worker who insults him. Brooke Adams has a wonderful, earthy kind of beauty and you can see why the farmer is attracted to her character. Abby doesn’t give much away but how she feels is conveyed in Adams’ expressive eyes. Sam Shepard has a natural, western charm and charisma that is perfect for his character and which would be exploited in a much more iconic fashion in The Right Stuff (1983).

Producer Jacob Brackman introduced fellow producer Bert Schneider to Malick in 1975. On a trip to Cuba, Schneider and Malick began conversations that would lead to Days of Heaven. Malick had tried and failed to get Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino to star in the film. Schneider agreed to producer and he and Malick cast a young Richard Gere, playwright Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams. The CEO of Paramount Pictures Barry Diller wanted Schneider to produce films for him and agreed to finance Days of Heaven.
Malick admired cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ work in Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970) and wanted to collaborate with him on Days of Heaven. Alemendros was impressed with Malick’s knowledge of photography. They decided to model the film’s look after silent films which often used natural light. They also drew inspiration from painters like Johannes Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, as well as photo-reporters from the turn of the century.

Jack Fisk designed and built the mansion in the wheat fields and the smaller houses where the workers lived. The mansion was not a facade (as was normally the custom) but authentic inside and out with period colors including brown, mahogany and dark wood for the interiors. Patricia Norris designed and made the period costumes from used fabrics and old clothes in order to avoid the artificial look of studio-made costumes.

Production began in the fall of 1976 in Alberta, Canada. The cast and crew found Malick to be cold and distant. He was having trouble getting decent performances out of his actors. Shepard had his own impressions of Malick, describing him as “one of those guys who has a great deal of difficulty having a conversation, but then every once in a while he’d go off on this extraordinary intellectual tangent.” Two weeks into principal photography and the footage that had been shot was not working so Malick decided to throw out the script, shoot a lot of film and work it out in the editing room.
According to Almendros, the film was not “rigidly prepared,” allowing for inspiration both in front of and behind the camera. Daily call sheets were not very detailed and the schedule changed to suit the weather. This upset some of the Hollywood crew members not used to working in such a spontaneous way. Almendros felt that most of the crew were used to a “glossy style of photography” and were frustrated because he didn’t give them much work. On a daily basis he asked them to turn off the lights they had prepared for him. Some crew members said that Alemendros and Malick didn’t know what they were doing. Some even quit the production but Malick encouraged and supported Almendros to use very little studio lighting, pushing this notion even further by taking away more lighting aids, leaving the image bare.

Due to union regulations, Almendros was not allowed to operate the camera himself and with Malick, he would plan out and rehearse the movements of the camera and the actors. He would stand near the main camera and give instructions to the camera operators. Almendros worked on Days of Heaven for 53 days but had to leave due to a prior commitment on Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977). The cinematographer hand-picked his replacement Haskell Wexler, who worked on the film for 19 days. The two men worked together for a week so that Wexler could familiarize himself with the film’s visual style.

The production was plagued with numerous problems. The harvesting machines constantly broke down, which resulted in shooting beginning late in the afternoon, allowing for only a few hours of daylight before it got too dark to go on. One day, two helicopters were scheduled to drop seeds and peanut shells that were supposed to simulate locusts on film. However, Malick decided to shoot period cars instead and he kept the helicopters on hold at great cost. Schneider claimed that Malick ran $800,000 over budget and this created a significant rift between them. They used thousands of live locusts for inserts and close-ups, captured by the Canadian Department of Agriculture. For the extreme long shots, the film was run backward and the actors walked in reverse so that the locusts appeared to be flying up.

Malick spent two years editing Days of Heaven because he was indecisive. After a year of editing, he called Shepard and asked him to come to Los Angeles to do some insert shots, including a series of close-ups done underneath a freeway underpass. Another insert included a shot of Richard Gere falling face first into a river which was shot in a big aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.
Days of Heaven received generally positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert wrote, “Days of Heaven is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made ... His tone is elegiac. He evokes the loneliness and beauty of the limitless Texas prairie.” In his review for The Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr wrote, "Terrence Malick's remarkably rich second feature is a story of human lives touched and passed over by the divine, told in a rush of stunning and precise imagery. Nestor Almendros’s cinematography is as sharp and vivid as Malick's narration is elliptical and enigmatic. The result is a film that hovers just beyond our grasp – mysterious, beautiful, and, very possibly, a masterpiece.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel also wrote that the film "truly tests a film critic's power of description ... Some critics have complained that the Days of Heaven story is too slight. I suppose it is, but, frankly, you don't think about it while the movie is playing.” Time magazine's Frank Rich wrote, "Days of Heaven is lush with brilliant images.” The periodical went on to name it one of the best films of 1978. However, in his review for The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote, "Days of Heaven never really makes up its mind what it wants to be. It ends up something between a Texas pastoral and Cavalleria Rusticana. Back of what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques.” Days of Heaven went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards and won for Best Cinematography. Malick won the Prix de la mise en scene (Best Director award) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.

If Badlands is tightly scripted, then Days of Heaven has a looser feel with more shots of the environment and voiceover narration that is sometimes naive and sometimes all-knowing. The emphasis on the environment and how it relates to the characters was a pre-occupation of some films in the 1970s, like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Along with Days of Heaven, they show the often harsh, unforgiving nature, with its raw, natural beauty, and how it affected the people who lived on it. Malick would expand on the themes examined in this film with even more skill and in more depth with The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005). The first two thirds of Days of Heaven has the meditative quality of Thin Red Line while the last third features the last vestiges of the lovers-on-the-run story from Badlands before he would move on to the ambitious scale of his next film.


Almendros, Nestor. A Man with a Camera. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1984.

Almereyda, Michael. “Flirting with Disaster.” Village Voice. April 13, 2004.

Biskind, Peter. “The Runaway Genius.” Vanity Fair.

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Simon & Schuster. 1998. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Game

NOTE: This post was inspired by Piper's two excellent posts on this film over at the Lazy Eye Theatre. Check 'em out here and here.

After the success of Seven (1995) expectations were high for David Fincher’s next film. He had risen from the ashes of the Alien 3 (1993) debacle and produced a critical and commercial hit when everyone least expected it. What would he do next? Never one to take the easy route, Fincher confounded critics and audiences alike with The Game (1997), a fascinating film that plays around with the conventions of the thriller genre like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. Critical reaction was fairly positive and the box office returns were decent but not as good as Seven’s. Even among fans of Fincher’s films, The Game is somewhat underappreciated but worth revisiting if only to explore the shadowy alleyways and nightmarish scenarios that torment its protagonist.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker who lives alone in his family’s palatial estate just outside of downtown San Francisco. He follows a daily routine that involves making business deals. Imagine an older, slightly more mellower Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) who somehow escaped imprisonment and moved to the west coast. Nicholas lives in a hermetically-sealed world as evident from the meticulously decorated, museum-like mansion he inhabits. He’s divorced and his parents are both dead, his mother recently and his father committed suicide when he was just a boy. Describing Nicholas as emotionally unavailable is an understatement to say the least.

It’s his birthday and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Conrad (a refreshingly jovial Sean Penn) meets him for lunch where he gives his older sibling a present. It is a pre-paid invite for a company known as Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad tells Nicholas to call them because it will make his life “fun.” He is rather enigmatic about CRS, describing them as an “entertainment service” and that what they offer is a “profound life experience.” Nicholas is turning the same age as his father when he died and it is implied, via flashbacks, that his greatest fear is ending up like him so he decides to give CRS a try.
Nicholas goes through an extensive screening process with Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) so that whatever it is his experience is it will be tailored to his personality. Feingold describes it as a vacation, except that “you don’t go to it, it comes to you.” He goes on to drop tantalizing tidbits like, “we provide whatever’s lacking,” and “we’re like an experiential book-of-the-month club.” Among the battery of tests Nicholas undergoes, one bears a remarkable resemblance to the famous montage sequence in The Parallax View (1974).
One day, at the racquet club he frequents, Nicholas overhears two men talking about CRS. He meets them and they are intriguingly vague about their own experiences. The next day, a representative from the company calls to inform him that his application has been rejected. That night, Nicholas arrives to find a life-sized doll lying in his driveway with a key from CRS in its mouth. Later on, his television starts talking to him. His game has begun. Nicholas’ day begins as usual only now with the awareness that he’s playing the game and this causes him to look at everyone and everything differently. Strange things start to happen. He can’t open his briefcase during an important meeting. A waitress spills a tray of drinks all over him. A homeless man collapses in the street right in front of him.

At first, these incidents don’t seem like much but as the film progresses they take on a more ominous tone and become more dangerous. For example, Nicholas and Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), the waitress who spilled the drinks on him, take a homeless man to an emergency room that suddenly becomes deserted and the lights go out. The game also starts to take on a much grander scale. How can so many people be in on it? Are we to take everything literally or, like Nicholas, are we supposed to accept things as they are and take the ride? A certain sense of paranoia sets in and we are constantly guessing what is real and what isn’t. The deeper Nicholas goes into the game, the more nightmarish the scenarios become and the film escalates into full-on paranoid thriller mode.

The screenplay for The Game was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris in 1991 and was promptly put in turnaround at MGM while Fincher was making Alien 3. In 1992, director Jonathan Mostow was attached to the project with Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda cast in the lead roles. Principal photography was to start in February 1993. However, early in ’92 the project moved to Polygram and Mostow dropped out only to become an executive producer of the film. Producer Steve Golin bought the script from MGM and gave it to Fincher in the hopes that he would direct. According to the director, the film was about “loss of control. The purpose of The Game is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face and say ‘There, you’re still alive. It’s all right.’” He has mentioned that there are three primary influences on the film. Nicholas was a “fashionable, good-looking Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting.”

Fincher liked the various plot twists and turns in the script but brought in Andrew Kevin Walker, who had written Seven, to make Nicholas a more cynical character. They spent six weeks changing the tone and trying to make the story work. Fincher intended to make The Game before Seven but when Brad Pitt became available that project took priority. The success of Seven helped the producers of The Game get a larger budget than they had originally projected. They approached Michael Douglas to star in the film but he was hesitant, at first, because there were concerns about Polygram’s ability to distribute it what with the company being rather small in size. However, once he came on board, his presence helped get the film into production.
At the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Polygram announced that Jodie Foster (playing the role of Christine) would be starring in the film along with Douglas but Fincher was uncomfortable with putting a movie star of her stature in a supporting part. After talking to Foster, Fincher considered rewriting Conrad as Nicholas’ daughter so that she could play that role. However, she had a scheduling conflict with Contact (1997) and could not appear in The Game after all. However, she would go on to star in one of Fincher’s subsequent films, Panic Room (2002). Once Foster was out of the picture, the role of Conrad was offered to Jeff Bridges but he declined and Sean Penn was cast.

More revisions were made to the script. Originally, Nicholas kills Christine and then commits suicide but Fincher felt that it didn’t make sense. In 1996, Larry Gross and Walker were brought in to make further revisions to the script. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco despite studio pressure to shoot in Los Angeles which was cheaper. Fincher also considered Chicago and Seattle but the former had no mansions that were close by and the latter city did not have an adequate financial district. The script was written with ‘Frisco in mind and the director liked the financial district’s “old money, Wall Street vibe.” However, that area was very busy and hard to move around in. So, the filmmakers shot on weekends in order to have more control. The cast and crew endured a long, tough shoot that lasted 100 days with a lot of night shoots and locations.

Fincher utilized old stone buildings, small streets and the hills to represent the city’s class system pictorially. To convey the old money world, the director set many scenes in restaurants with hardwood paneling and a lot of red leather. Some of the locations used included Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and Filoli Gardens and Mansion in Woodside, San Mateo, which stood in for the Van Orton family home. Fincher masterfully transforms San Francisco into a shadowy labyrinth that Nicholas must navigate.

With his trademark atmospheric cinematography (courtesy of Harris Savides, who would collaborate with Fincher on Zodiac), Fincher presents the city as a gradually threatening place where danger lurks at every corner so that what was once familiar has become very strange. This was the first time that Harris Savides had been the cinematographer on one of Fincher’s films. In the 1990s, they had worked together on music videos and commercials. For the visual look of Nicholas’ wealthy lifestyle, they wanted a “rich and supple” feel and took references from films like The Godfather (1972) and Being There (1979), which featured visually appealing locations with ominous intentions lurking under the surface. According to Fincher, once Nicholas leaves his protective world, he and Savides would let fluorescents, neon signs and other lights in the background be overexposed to let “things get a bit wilder out in the real world.” For The Game, the director employed a Technicolor printing process known as ENR which lent a smoother look to the night sequences. For him, the challenge was how much deception the audience could take and “will they go for 45 minutes of red herrings?” To this end, he tried to stage scenes as simply as possible, using a single camera because “with multiple cameras, you run the risk of boring people with coverage.”
Michael Douglas is no stranger to playing icy, business types and initially Nicholas is clearly a riff on his Gekko character only this one is more receptive to changing his life. After all, he has no choice. Douglas does a good job of gradually showing how Nicholas changes from a repressed individual to someone who appreciates life thanks to being thrown into several life-threatening situations. It’s only once he’s been chased by vicious dogs, dropped into a dumpster and almost drowned that he begins to appreciate life. However, as the game continues to escalate, he gradually unravels which puts his mental and physical limits to the test. Nicholas has to hit rock bottom, to be torn down completely, before he can change into a better person.

Sean Penn brings a playful vibe to his first scene in the film and it contrasts well off of Douglas’ repressed character. Penn also bring a welcome levity, like when Conrad tells Nicholas that he remembers being at the restaurant they meet at many years ago. Nicholas says that he took him and Conrad corrects him: “No, I used to buy crystal meth off the maitre’d.” The two men banter back and forth as only siblings can. Conrad is the polar opposite of his brother. He speaks his mind and has a snarky sense of humor. However, this is flipped on its head when Conrad appears for the second time while Nicholas is in the midst of the game. This time, Penn brings a frantic intensity as he rants and raves about being hounded by CRS. Conrad has been reduced to a paranoid mess and gets into messy confrontation with his brother as their dysfunctional relationship reaches the boiling point.

Deborah Kara Unger’s test reel was a two-minute sex scene from David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Douglas remembers that he thought it was a joke. When he and Fincher met her in person they were impressed with her abilities. Christine is a rather enigmatic character. She starts off with an antagonistic relationship with Nicholas but she appears to become his ally after being drawn into the game along with him. However, like Conrad, and pretty much everyone Nicholas meets, appears can and are deceiving. The strikingly beautiful Unger imbues her character with a sarcastic common sense that plays well off of Douglas’ privileged businessman. She is quite good in The Game and it’s a shame that she didn’t do more high profile films after this one.

Fincher does an excellent job orchestrating the various nightmare scenarios that Nicholas experiences, chief among them a white-knuckle taxi cab ride that ends up with him trapped in the car as it goes speeding into the San Francisco Bay. As the car descends into deeper water, a frantic Nicholas desperately tries to find a way out. This sequence was shot near the Embarcadero with the water tank elements for Nicholas’ near-drowning done on a soundstage at Sony Pictures studio. Douglas’s close-ups were filmed on a soundstage that contained a large tank of water. The actor was in a small compartment designed to resemble the backseat of a taxi with three cameras capturing the action.

The Game  received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four and praised Douglas as "the right actor for the role. He can play smart, he can play cold, and he can play angry. He is also subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Fincher, like Michael Douglas in the film's leading role, does show real finesse in playing to the paranoia of these times.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, "Fincher's style is so handsomely oppressive, and Douglas' befuddlement is so cagey, that for a while the film recalls smarter excursions into heroic paranoia (The Parallax View, Total Recall).”
The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, "It’s formulaic, yet edgy. It’s predictable, yet full of surprises. How far you get through this tall tale of a thriller before you give up and howl is a matter of personal taste. But there’s much pleasure in Fincher’s intricate color schemes, his rich sense of decor, his ability to sustain suspense over long periods of time and his sense of humor.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Emotionally, there's not much at stake in The Game — can Nicholas Van Orton be saved?! — but Douglas is the perfect actor to occupy the center of a crazed Rube Goldberg thriller. The movie has the wit to be playful about its own manipulations, even as it exploits them for maximum pulp impact.” However, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers felt that “Fincher's effort to cover up the plot holes is all the more noticeable for being strained ... The Game has a sunny, redemptive side that ill suits Fincher and ill serves audiences that share his former affinity for loose ends hauntingly left untied.” Fincher defended his film’s apparent jumps in logic by saying, “you have to embrace the movie for what it is, and what it is is a really strange trip.”

The Game is more than a cinematic jigsaw puzzle. It is also about a man coming to grips with his past, a son finally dealing with the death of his father – something that has haunted him his whole life. It has been said that the film is a modern re-telling of the Scrooge story – a mean, rich man learns the value of life by being shown how precious it is. The Game is ultimately a tale of redemption with a surprisingly satisfying emotional payoff at the film’s conclusion.


Hochman, David. “Game Boy.” Entertainment Weekly. September 19, 1997.

Hochman, David. “Unger Strikes.” Entertainment Weekly. October 3, 1997.

Swallow, James. The Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. 2003.

Friday, September 18, 2009

DVD of the Week: Homicide: Criterion Collection

Homicide (1991) is a rather odd entry in the cop film genre as it features a Jewish police detective forced to come to terms with his own faith – albeit filtered through David Mamet’s uncompromising view of the world. It is not an easy film to pin down which may explain why it’s not as celebrated as other Mamet films like House of Games (1987) or The Spanish Prisoner (1997) but it deserves to be ranked right up there with his best efforts. For years, Homicide has largely been available on VHS and now, thanks to the nice folks at the Criterion Collection, it is finally available on DVD.

The film begins with an explosive situation. The FBI raids an apartment of a known drug dealer but in the ensuing chaos, one of the suspects – an African American (Ving Rhames) – escapes. The mayor is facing all kinds of heat about the nature of the case and it’s up to the police to track down the fugitive. Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is a hostage negotiator who uses his powers of persuasion to convince the fugitive’s mother to cooperate. At a briefing, Bobby gets into it with a city official who is a blunt, tough-talking type a la Alec Baldwin’s ballbuster in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Things get heated and the man calls Bobby a “kike,” which really sticks in his craw because he’s never thought about his religious heritage much.

While en route to apprehend a known associate of the fugitive, Bobby and his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) come across a homicide. The owner of a convenience store has been murdered. Intriguingly, the old woman was Jewish and her store was located in a predominantly African American neighborhood. A couple of local kids claim that she was killed for a fortune she had stashed in her basement. Despite his protestations, Bobby is put on the case and is told that the deceased woman’s son has a lot of pull downtown. He specifically requested that Bobby be put in charge of the investigation. The woman’s family is quite affluent and very devout in their faith. They feel persecuted and that this murder is just another example of the continued discrimination against their race. The more time Bobby spends on this case and gets to know the Klein family, the more in touch he gets with his own heritage.

Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy are very believable as tough talking cops. They’ve got the lingo and the swagger down cold. They are experts at delivering Mamet’s stylized dialogue. But this is Mantegna’s show and he is excellent as a man who is ignorant of his own tradition. He is forced to confront it head on. The case gets its hooks into him and he discovers that there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Homicide takes an unflinching look at racism, from the casual epithets that the cops throw around to the feelings of persecution that the Klein family feels. Not many American films have the courage to address this topic with such frankness but Mamet has never been known to be timid about any topic. The film is also an engrossing mystery and a character study as Bobby gets in touch with his faith and begins to question his own identity. He is faced with a troubling conflict: where do his loyalties lie – with the Jews or with the cops? Mamet doesn’t give us any easy answers but there never are when it comes to complex issues like race and religion.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. The actor mentions that he hung out with homicide detectives and said that they saw the worst aspects of humanity. Mamet points out that many of the actors playing cops worked with him during his early days in Chicago theatre. Macy says that this was his first major role in a film and talks about how his style of acting changed when he met Mamet. The filmmaker talks about the origins of the project and how it started as a book but after hanging out with his cousin – a New York City cop – it gradually turned into a screenplay. These guys banter back and forth like the old friends that they are on this highly enjoyable track.

“Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing” features five Mamet regulars talking about their experiences with the filmmaker and their work on Homicide. Joe Mantegna says that many Mamet protagonists pursue excellence and that this was his take on Bobby Gold. He also describes Mamet’s dialogue as hyper-real. Steve Goldstein describes Mamet as a generous director and talks about the filmmaker’s take on acting. Ricky Jay says that he feels most comfortable with Mamet’s dialogue and tells a story about how he struggled with a scene in Homicide. J.J. Johnston and Jack Wallace point out that Mamet writes for specific actors and tailors to their personality. They also talk about how they met and first worked for Mamet.

“Gag Reel” is an amusing collection of blown lines and actors goofing around on set.

Finally, there are four T.V. spots.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd (2006) had been a long-gestating project for screenwriter Eric Roth. But then again pitching an epic biopic about the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency with a large cast of characters and a complex plot must have been a tough sell for studios interested in making crowd-pleasing blockbusters and not overly long films about people talking. Originally, Francis Ford Coppola and a score of other filmmakers were going to direct this film at various points with Leonardo DiCaprio starring. Both men dropped out for various reasons with Robert De Niro stepping up to take over directorial duties and Matt Damon as his leading man. The result is an ambitious film that spans three continents and covers the years 1939 to 1961. Critics and audiences were put off by the film’s slow, deliberate pacing and distant approach to the characters but missed the boat on a brilliant film that examines the formative years of the CIA.

The film begins in 1961 with the bungled CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba with one of the organization’s founding members Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) learning that there is a traitor in its midst, someone close to him. The film proceeds to flash back to 1939 when he was a student at Yale University. He is initiated into a secret society known as the Skull and Bones, populated by fellow privileged young men, all from families of money and influence. Wilson is approached by a representative from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Alec Baldwin) and asked to spy on his poetry professor (Michael Gambon) whom they suspect heads up an organization sympathetic to the Nazis.

Wilson is successful and the teacher is forced to resign. This gains him access to many powerful people and opens doors to a whole other world – the ground floor to the creation of a foreign intelligence organization. It is made perfectly clear to him that it will be made up predominantly of WASPs like himself. He is also aggressively pursued by Margaret Ann Russell (Angelina Jolie), the sister of one of his classmates. She becomes pregnant and he marries her because it is expected of him and “the right thing to do.”
Wilson’s lack of personality and emotional detachment make him an ideal spy because he gives nothing away to the point where he almost doesn’t exist. Wilson internalizes everything because it is his job to keep secrets. Matt Damon gives a finely nuanced, tightly-controlled performance that is a marvel of economy. There is a stillness to the way he carries himself in this film that is in sharp contrast to the Bourne films where he plays a character that is constantly in motion. Amidst his emotionless facade exists glimmers of humanity, most notably in the form of a deaf girl named Laura (Tammy Blanchard) whom he loves but must give up once he learns that Margaret is pregnant. His time spent with Laura is one of rare moments where he shows any kind of humanity. It’s the one time in his life when he’s truly happy.

This brief relationship is the key, I think, to unlocking the character of Wilson. The end of his relationship with Laura and his marriage of convenience to Margaret symbolizes Wilson’s willingness to put his personal happiness aside for what he perceives as for the good of the country by consuming himself in service. There is a crucial moment of decision for his character: stay in the safe confines of academia with the woman he loves or marry into privilege and serve his country in the capacity of an emerging foreign intelligence service. At one point, Damon gives a look back Laura that suggests a tragic end to a life with someone who would have made him truly happy for a loveless marriage that sends him up the social and economic ladder.

The Good Shepherd originally started with screenwriter Eric Roth in 1994 when he was looking for a project after finishing his adaptation of Forrest Gump (1994). He read Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and became intrigued with the people who built the CIA. Roth talked to Francis Ford Coppola about adapting Mailer’s book because the filmmaker had optioned the rights to it with Columbia Pictures agreeing to finance the project. Roth liked the book but found the story too elaborate and he decided to do his own research (reading all about the CIA and meeting with 40 agents) including writing his own version that chronicled the organization’s creation and ended with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Coppola decided not to do the film, claiming that he did not understand the characters due to their lack of emotion. What intrigued Roth about the early days of the CIA were the morals of the people who started the organization and what they were willing to sacrifice.

Roth asked Michael Mann to direct and, while they ended up working together on The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001), the filmmaker did get involved in The Good Shepherd. Roth eventually got Wayne Wang involved but when the studio changed hands, he was out. Philip Kaufman was also attached at one point but he too didn’t last long either. Robert De Niro first became involved with the project in 1999. Retired CIA agent Milton Bearden, who ran operations in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, served as a technical adviser on the film. He had worked with De Niro on Meet the Parents (2000) to help him with his character who was a retired CIA agent. He agreed to take De Niro through Afghanistan to the northwest frontier of Pakistan and into Moscow for a guided tour of intelligence gathering.
John Frankenheimer was going to direct with De Niro starring. The veteran director died in 2002 and the actor stuck with The Good Shepherd because he had already put so much work into it. To keep the project going De Niro agreed to a deal that would see him either direct or star in Roth’s version if the screenwriter wrote a sequel to the years De Niro had been researching, from the Bay of Pigs to 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall. Post-9/11 conditions made the material more relevant and a studio more willing to back the film. The Good Shepherd moved to Universal Pictures with producer Graham King agreeing to help finance it. He had a deal with Leonardo DiCaprio, who expressed interest in playing Wilson.

De Niro planned to shoot the film in early 2005 but scheduling conflicts with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) forced DiCaprio to drop out of the film. De Niro approached Matt Damon who was also making The Departed but he would be done earlier than his co-star and De Niro would only have to wait six months to do the film with him. However, Damon was scheduled to star in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009) right after The Departed but a quick phone call to the director and he agreed to delay filming in order to give Damon the opportunity to make De Niro’s film. However, when DiCaprio left so did King and his money. In June 2005, James Robinson and Morgan Creek Productions agreed to produce The Good Shepherd with De Niro’s Tribeca Films and a new deal was set up at Universal Pictures for them to distribute the final product. The budget was reduced to $90 million which meant that most of the principals, Damon included, took a significant cut in their normal salaries.

To design the production, the filmmakers brought in Jeannine Oppewall (who did amazing work recreating 1950s Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential). She did an incredible amount of research for the film that ended up filling 10-12 six-inch thick, three-ring binders. The film was shot in New York City, the Adirondack Mountains, Washington, D.C., London, and the Dominican Republic. The interiors of the CIA were built in the Brooklyn Armory, a large edifice built in 1901 for the United States Calvary. It is currently home to the U.S. Army and the National Guard. Oppewall visited the CIA’s headquarters in D.C. and did additional research and worked with Bearden to create sets for the CIA’s office, Technical Room and Communications Room. Her team tracked down the right set dressings and also found authentic teletype machines, reel-to-reel tape recorders and radios used in the CIA during that time. Bearden made sure that the filmmakers got the historical aspects correct but understood that it had to be fictionalized to a certain degree as they weren’t making a documentary.
The Good Shepherd immerses us in plenty of spy jargon, double crosses and covert operations while everyone speaks in cryptic, veiled threats. The higher up Wilson climbs, the more careful he has to be about the people he can trust. At one point, early on in his career, Wilson is given some advice: “The mental facility to detect conspiracies and betrayal are the same qualities most likely to corrode national judgment. Everything that seems clear is bent and everything that seems bent is clear. Trapped in reflections you must learn to recognize when a lie masquerades as the truth. Then deal with it efficiently, dispassionately.” As a result, he becomes increasingly paranoid and rightly so as he is privy to so many of the government’s dirty secrets while also harboring a few of his own. The film also makes it pretty clear who holds much of the power in the United States and this is beautifully underlined in a scene where Wilson meets with a powerful mafia figure (Joe Pesci) who asks him what kind of legacy does he have in the country to which Wilson replies, “We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”

Robert De Niro does a fine job with an ambitious screenplay that covers a lot of ground and a lot of characters. Close attention has to be paid to everything that is said because The Good Shepherd refuses to spell things out. It also isn’t a flashy James Bond film. De Niro said, “I like it when things happen for a reason. So I want to downplay the violence, depict in a muted way.” The film is ultimately about the dangerous nature of secrets and how they cannot only hurt a country but an individual as well. The film shows how these secrets take their toll on the country (i.e. the Bay of Pigs fiasco) and on the individual. Wilson is something of a tragic figure: a man who wanted a simple life but instead opted for one in service of his country, acting as one of its keeper of dark secrets. Along the way he lost his humanity, condemned to spend his days living in the shadows.

The Good Shepherd received mostly mixed to positive reviews from mainstream critics. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, "The Good Shepherd is an origin story about the C.I.A., and for the filmmakers that story boils down to fathers who fail their sons, a suspect metaphor that here becomes all too ploddingly literal." However, she did like De Niro's direction: "Among the film’s most striking visual tropes is the image of Wilson simply going to work in the capital alongside other similarly dressed men, a spectral army clutching briefcases and silently marching to uncertain victory." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan praised Matt Damon's performance: "Damon, in his second major role of the year (after The Departed) once again demonstrates his ability to convey emotional reserves, to animate a character from the inside out and create a man we can sense has more of an interior life than he is willing to let on." Time magazine’s Richard Corliss also had praise for the actor: "Damon is terrific in the role – all-knowing, never overtly expressing a feeling. Indeed, so is everyone else in this intricate, understated but ultimately devastating account of how secrets, when they are left to fester, can become an illness, dangerous to those who keep them, more so to nations that base their policies on them."
In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Still, no previous American film has ventured into this still largely unknown territory with such authority and emotional detachment. For this reason alone, The Good Shepherd is must-see viewing.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "What makes the story work so powerfully is his focus on a multidimensional individual — Wilson — thereby creating a stirring personal tale about the inner workings of the clandestine government agency.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen had a mixed reaction to the film. "For the film's mesmerizing first 50 minutes I thought De Niro might pull off The Godfather of spy movies ... Still, even if the movie's vast reach exceeds its grasp, it's a spellbinding history lesson.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers felt that it was “tough to slog through a movie that has no pulse.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw gave the film two out of five stars and criticized Damon's performance: "And why is Damon allowed to act in such a callow, boring way? As ever, he looks like he is playing Robin to some imaginary Batman at his side, like Jimmy Stewart and his invisible rabbit. His nasal, unobtrusive voice makes every line sound the same."

The Good Shepherd is eerily relevant to our post-9/11 climate with the CIA running covert prisons and reportedly torturing terrorists; the National Security Agency conducting wiretaps without warrants; and columnist Robert D. Novak’s July 2003 article revealing of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative after an administration source reportedly gave her name. All of these incidents made the material in the film more relevant. The Good Shepherd refuses to simplify its themes or resort to the frenetic style of editing that is in vogue in Hollywood and instead takes its time and immerses the viewer in a fascinating, shadowy world. This is a film that invites repeat viewings because it is rich with so many characters and intricate plot details.

For further reading, check out this link at the CIA's website which examines the historical accuracy. Not surprisingly, they don't find it too accurate.

Here's another fascinating article that takes a look at Dr. Timothy Leary's association with the CIA and their use of LSD as a truth serum of sorts.

Here is also an excellent review of the film over at Ferdy on Films, etc.


The Good Shepherd Production Notes. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Horn, John. “Intelligence Design.” Los Angeles Times. November 5, 2006.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Robert De Niro in The Director’s Chair.” Time. December 3, 2006.

Stax. “Good Shepherd Seeks Flock.” IGN. June 4, 2004.

Stax. “Good Shepherd Gets Fleeced.” IGN. November 12, 2004.

Stax. “Damon Makes a Good Movie.” IGN. November 30, 2004.

Stax. “Jolie Turns Good Girl.” IGN. January 28, 2005.

Stax. “The Good Shepherd Begins.” IGN. August 18, 2005.

Friday, September 11, 2009

DVD of the Week: United 93: 2-Disc Limited Edition

On September 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked by teams of terrorists and used as missiles to strike twice in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane never reached its intended target and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. United 93 (2006) dramatizes the events leading up to and speculates on what happened on this fourth plane before it lost control and crashed into the ground killing everyone on board.

The inevitable question a film like United 93 raised at the time of its release was, it is still too soon for a film like this to be made? And if you do make a commercial film about 9/11 what kind of approach do you take that doesn’t exploit such a sensitive event and do a disservice to the people who died tragically on that horrible day? What about the families of the people who died? How would they feel about a movie dramatizing what happened to their loved ones?

And so it was with much trepidation when United 93 was announced but some of the concerns were put to rest when it was revealed that Paul Greengrass would be writing and directing the movie. He had previously directed the powerful Bloody Sunday (2002), a gut-wrenching docudrama of the Derry massacre in Ireland on January 30, 1972. If anyone could keep true to the facts and not pander to sappy sentimentalism or flag-waving patriotism it would be Greengrass.

United 93 begins with the hijackers, showing them praying in their hotel room and getting ready for their mission. We see them enter the airport and mingle with hundreds of other travelers just like on any other day. There is a certain amount of dread as we see the flight crew and passengers board the plane, overhearing their trivial conversations with the knowledge that they only have a few hours left to live. With that knowledge it makes the film that much harder to watch.

The first half of United 93 shows how the air traffic controllers in New York (and other cities) dealt with the events that occurred on 9/11. We see the systems in place to deal with crisises but nothing on this level and communication begins to break down. The question you find yourself asking is why didn’t they ground all flights after the first hijacking was identified? United Flight 93 might not have taken off or, at the very least, turned around shortly after take off. Of course, this is easy to say in hindsight and it is a credit to these men and women that they were able to piece together the various hijackings as fast as they did. They come across as very professional and competent considering the incredible amount of stress and pressure they were under dealing with the chaos of events on that day.

The second half of the film depicts the actual hijacking of United Flight 93 in real time. We see one of the terrorists assemble a bomb in one of the plane’s washrooms while the others are apprehensively biding their time until they’re ready to make their move. The tension during these scenes is almost unbearable even though we know what’s going to happen next. What does happen is extremely upsetting as the terrorists start killing some of the flight crew in a brutal, savage way that is messy and horrific. This atmosphere never lets up from that point on as we watch the poor passengers calling loved ones, seeing their sweaty, scared faces and making desperate plans to attack the terrorists and take back control of the cockpit.

What makes this film work so well is that it was made outside of the Hollywood studio system and this allowed Greengrass to cast unknown actors, character actors and even actual people who were witness to what happened that day. By doing this we aren’t distracted from what is going on in the film like an easily identifiable movie star would. Another element that stands out is the use of hand-held cameras to give a sense of immediacy commonly associated with cinema verite. It also gives a documentary feel early on when we see the plane being boarded and all the work done to get it ready. It is this kind of attention to detail that gives United 93 a certain level of authenticity.

United 93 is a film you don’t watch, you endure. It is very upsetting to watch (as it should) but is an important film nonetheless because it shows, with unflinching honesty, what might have happened on that plane based on phone conversations from passengers before they died. United 93 is an important film because we must not forget what happened on 9/11 and what these people went through and the sacrifices they made. This film is a fitting tribute to them.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director Paul Greengrass. He mentions that the film originally had a different opening that took place in Afghanistan with a meeting between Osama Bin Laden and the man who planned 9/11. Greengrass has a tendency to speak slowly and ponderously but is very articulate when he explains his intentions for a given scene or talks about the events of that day. He points out that several of the air traffic controllers in the movie are the actual people who were working on 9/11. Greengrass tends to spend a little too much time talking about “the systems” that were in place on that day and how they broke down (in terms of communication) because what was happening was so unimaginable. He gets a little pretentious at times but does speak knowledgeably about the film.

United 93: The Families and the Film” focuses on the families of the people who died on United Flight 93. Greengrass felt that it was the right time to make a film about what happened on that plane and went to the families to ask if it was okay with them. Several of them are interviewed and talk about their thoughts on the film and how they feel about their loved ones being depicted by actors. To that end, we see some of the cast meeting with the family members of the person they portrayed in the film and it is obviously an emotional moment for all involved.

“Memorial Pages” provides brief biographical sketches and moving tributes to each flight crew member and passenger on United Flight 93. This is a great idea and a fitting tribute to these people, amply illustrating how each and every one of them were unique and memorable with their own distinctive lives.

Finally, on the 2-disc Limited Edition, there is an additional extra – “Chasing Planes – Witnesses to 9/11,” a documentary about the men and women who tracked all the planes on that day and how they dealt with the crisis as it was unfolding. There are interviews with many of the air traffic controllers working that day some of whom played themselves in the movie.