Saturday, October 29, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Good Night, And Good Luck

How It Rates: ****
Starring: George Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr.
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, heavy smoking

I remember reading Edward R. Murrow's "Wires And Lights In A Box" speech in jouralism school, his address to the Radio And Television News Directors Association where he noted, "if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." He spoke those words in 1958. About fifty years later we can reach those conclusions without the need for any kinescopes.

Murrow's words on the state of television open Good Night, And Good Luck, a compelling black-and-white drama recounting, in tightly wound tension, one of broadcast journalism's defining moments: Murrow's unmasking of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy as a demogague in red-scared America. I watched the landmark 1954 broadcast a couple of years ago at the Museum Of Radio And Television in Beverly Hills. For somebody who grew up on 60 Minutes,20/20 and Eyewitness News, it's hard at first to understand the ground Murrow broke. But television news, remember, was a medium in its infancy, where techniques of interviewing, storytelling and presentation were still in development. Murrow's approach placed film of the junior senator's own words against him and against the facts. That alone might have been enough. But the legendary newsman capped it with a commentary at the end, saying "we will not walk in fear," and "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." Those cable news commentary shows can only wish they had Murrow's power and pull.

David Strathairn mezmerized me as Murrow, right down to his four-pack-a-day chain smoking. Strathairn nails the cadence of the CBS newsman's words on and off the air. Even in everyday conversation, Murrow wastes no language. He talks little compared to his writers and producers, but every phrase rings with authority, honesty, and intelligence. Clooney is Fred Friendly, producer of Murrow's program See It Now and the middleman between the newscaster and CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Paley backs Murrow but only as much as the network's bottom line will allow. Paley's payback inflicted on Murrow is Person To Person, a softball celebrity interview program Murrow looks ashamed to be involved with.

Murrow's collission course with Sen. McCarthy begins with a story everybody else is overlooking: a soldier with eastern European heritage is suspected of Communist sympathies without any public evidence to back it up. Murrow looks at the story and realizes this isn't a time to be fair and balanced -- this is a time to expose what appears to be injustice. Give this story to O'Reilly and Nancy (Dis)grace and they'd shout about it for 30 minutes. Murrow let his facts do the talking. Friendly and Murrow soon find they must confront the axis of airbags -- McCarthy himself. The senator appears only through televison and film footage, which is more than enough to underscore his volatility and relentless disregard for the truth.

Good Night, And Good Luck does not try to present the personal side of Murrow, nor does it need to. We get some hints he is a man filled with anxieties, someone more adept at stringing together words than managing relationships. As a sidebar, the film cuts us in on the lives of Joe and Shirley Wershba, married producers who keep their vows secret to avoid CBS regulations. It's hard to tell what they're more afraid of -- being accused of treason or matrimony. Their scenes provide some lightening moments but thankfully don't dull the film's focus.

This is one of the few films, besides The China Syndrome and Broadcast News to treat television reporters with some modicum of respect, a refreshing alternative to the stock characters with stick mics and one-minute standups. It's sure to become required viewing for j-school classes, and when the DVD version hits shelves, please let it include Murrow's orginal McCarthy broadcast.

Not suprisingly, this sure-fire Oscar candidate on many fronts nearly didn't get made. George Clooney pitched it to Warner Brothers, who passed. Clooney and partner Steven Soderbergh got the $7 million in financing themselves and sold it back to Warner Independent Pictures. Shame on the studio head who didn't see the parallels between today and Murrow's time. Good Night, and Good Luck evokes deep thoughts about a nation challenged by the War On Terror, different from the Cold War of the 1950's, but all the same a tool of politicians. It is tempting to brush those parallels aside by saying it's a different kind of war, but really, how different is it on the battlefield of politics?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Reel To Reel:
North Country

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense depiction of sexual harrasment, rape, and language

If it weren't for a melodramatic, over-the-top courtroom sequence in the final moments of the picture, North Country would be a 4 out of 4. So feel free to snip that scene out of your head when you see it coming -- maybe get up and take a potty break. Believe me, you won't miss anything powerful or climactic.

I can safely tell you Josey Aimes, the miner mother played by Charlize Theron, is triumphant in a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit against a northern Minnesota taconite operation in the late 1980's. That real-life suit, settled out of court, forced companies to institute sexual harassment policies. The outcome of the picture is no mystery. The journey there is the picture's emotional core, and it is more riveting than any courtroom drama thrown in as devices to move the story forward.

As the film opens, Josey escapes a physically abusive boyfriend by coming home to an emotionally abusive father (Richard Jenkins) and her stand-by-your-man mother (Sissy Spacek). Her life to this point could be its own picture, with two children by two different men. Her daughter seems to be doing all right, but her teenage son has never met his father and hates his mother's guts relentlessly. Josey's father still hasn't forgiven her for fathering that son as a teenager out of wedlock.

An old friend and union rep Glory (McDormand) talks Jess into a fresh start by working at the mine, which hires women only because the Supreme Court said it had to. Some fresh start. Taconite is a low-grade iron ore, and the outnumbered women are treated lower than the grade of the ore. The place is oinking with so many male chauvenist pigs the lunch room should be filled with troughs. They are 40 and 50-year-old schoolyard bullies.

I won't detail the cruelties Josey and the other women suffer, only to say that they would never be tolerated in any workplace today. The men see it as fun. The women learn not to see it, to shut up, and take it. Only Josey won't. She is dumbfounded her union, the one that collects from her paycheck, the one supposed to be protecting workers, allows the abuse to continue. A plant supervisor is unforgettable as the farmer tending the swine. His northern-Minnesota accented "it's like this, dont-yer-know" mentality masks his own deep realization he is a victim too, powerless to stop the harassment. Eventually Josey enlists the help of a former hockey player turned lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who warns her own tawdry past will be put on trial.

The picture is a psychological horror film with one indignity piled on top of another, a sort of Passion Of The Christ for blue-collar women. Theron remixes the grittiness she won an Oscar for in Monster, and I don't buy USA Today's swipe she's too pretty to play this role. I think an Oscar more than qualifies. A lot of you will wonder how men can be so cruel to others and laugh at it. Believe me, they can. As this picture rolled into theaters, advertising guru Neil French resigned after telling an industry group women did not make it to the top because "they're crap." Wonder no more.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Keria Knightley, Lucy Liu
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic sex, language and violence

Domino could -- and should -- be used to teach film students the wonder of editing on an Avid, and the potential for going overboard with it. The picture is a two-hour rock video comprised of quick cuts, sped-up and slowed-down shots, grainy footage, CGI and just about anything that looks cool.

Cool it is. Cohesive it isn't. Watching Domino is like opening a novel to the middle, jumping back to the beginning, and then leaping forward to the end after you've spilled coffee on the pages. Flashback and fast-forward storytelling works if it underscores the drama (note The Godfather Part II) but here it adds needless complexity to a hybrid of caper film and shoot-'em-up.

Knightly plays the title character, the daughter of a wealthy British family. She is still smarting from the death of her father when she was a child. She simmers with resentment against her mother for uprooting her to Beverly Hills and a phony 90210 lifestyle. Yet she somehow becomes a model, only to dump it for a job more in tune with her rebel nature: bounty hunting. After all, she's been practicing with nunchuks as a girl. She teams up with Ed (Mickey Rourke), a grizzled pro; Choco (Edgar Ramirez), who knows English just fine but likes to speak Spanish only around women; and Alf (Rizwan Abbasi), an Afghan who could've been a suicide bomber in another life.

Domino revolves around a bounty hunting operation gone sideways. Millions of dollars disappears from the Stratosphere Casino in Vegas and Domino's team is sent to grab the crooks and return the loot. Why not call the police? Ahh, that's because things are a little complicated. The money, the crooks and the people associated with them aren't all they're cracked up to be, and hence the story takes as many loops and curves as the Catalina Highway up Mt. Lemmon. And to top it off, the bounty hunters are being followed by a reality-TV crew.

Domino narrates the story herself, as she recalls what went wrong for a police shrink (Liu). I had some sympathy for the title character, but a lot of it got tangled in the film's stylistic devices, including a coin flip to illustrate how life and death is a 50-50 chance for anybody. Given Domino's resourcefulness, I would think the odds would be more in her favor.

Director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Scott) borrows many techniques from his 2004 film Man On Fire, including the use of floating subtitles to highlight key words and phrases. But that film had restraint. Here, the MTV factor takes over when it didn't need to, as if the story of a model turned bounty hunter needed to amped up more.

It didn't. Domino is based (sort of, the film says) on the real-life Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. Domino died earlier this year at 35 of an apparent overdose. Make up your own sick jokes about whether it was sensory overload after viewing parts of this film.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Reel To Reel:
A History Of Violence

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic and intense violence, graphic sexuality, language (nearly an NC-17)

A History Of Violence is the best film I've seen this year. It is film noir in color. It is Greek tragedy in midwestern America. It is Hitchcock in blue jeans and pick-up trucks.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) is a small-town diner owner, a quiet man with a loving wife and two kids, a gentle soul living the red-state life of family values. But then two hoodlums with a sizable track record pick the wrong diner to stick up. Like a beast unchained, Stall foils the robbery in a bloody outburst.

Suddenly Tom is a hero. Reporters flood the town. Everyone's talking except Stall, a man who doesn't want to be thought of as a hero. And there may be a good reason why. Three mob tough guys show up in town. They're looking for somebody named Joey, an old whacker from the past. They think Tom's him. Tom says he's not that man, and most of us would believe that. But one thing still sticks out among the strangers in the black sedan -- how did Tom kill the two hoods in that robbery so efficiently? I'll stop here, because the suspense of this movie rests on whether Tom is really some closet gangster or simply the wrong man in the right town.

Director David Cronenberg paces the movie in brooding stretches interspersed with fits of rage, graphic and uncensored leaving little to the imagination, which only underscore the brutality. Tom certainly is good with a gun, but he comes off as no action hero. Here is a man trapped with another component of his personality which pops out like the Incredible Hulk without the green muscles or stretch pants. And without giving anything away, the film's final scene is a classic.

(Side note: when is Hollywood going to get beyond the stereotype scenes of TV reporters saying something to the effect of "I'm standing at the house of so-and-so..." and then going up to somebody, live on tape, and asking, "How do you feel?" I challenge screenwriters to spend a day with a real TV news crew -- and I don't mean those folks in L.A. -- and get a feel for how the job really works.)

Reel To Reel:
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Voices Of Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Tracey Ullman
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Some scary moments, but probably should be rated "G-7."

Preconceived Notions: Tim Burton unleashes another Nightmare Before Christmas
The Bottom Line: Witty and dark-humored family flick.

Corpse Bride is old-school: stop-motion puppets in the age of CGI, although everything is so smoothly rendered and minutely detailed I had to keep reminding myself most of this came from dozens of hands and not some rendering farm.

That being said, Corpse Bride is a TV Halloween special blown up into a feature film, one running long on imagination. Again, Tim Burton taps Johnny Depp as his principal player, casting his voice (and his puppet likeness) as Victor, a bumbling 19th century groom who's about to be married off to Victoria (Watson). The match is made more for money than for love, with Victoria's snooty parents sorely in need of cash and Victor's family having it as burgeoning fish merchants.

A disasterous rehearsal has Victor running off into the woods, trying to sort out his feelings. He unwittingly places his wedding ring on a what appears to be a tree stump. Only it's the hand of... da-da-DA!... the Corpse Bride (Bonham-Carter), a half-flesh, half-bone victim of a murderous suitor. Victor ends up in a mysterious land of the dead, obviously taking cues from Mexico's Day of the Dead, where singing and dancing skeletons show more life than the people in Victor's world. Now Victor's got a real problem: he's married to a dead woman and still engaged to a live one. But who's his one true love?

Corpse Bride's strength is its nuances. It's more love story than creepshow, underscored by one sequence featuring Victor and the Bride playing piano together where the music tells the story better than any dialogue could. Nuance is enough of a challenge in a live-action film.

Composer Danny Elfman (another Burton company player) offers a perfectly-matched score, but unlike this summer's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, I think Corpse Bride could've worked better without musical numbers by the cast... save that Wagner piano piece that's the most memorable part of the film.