Friday, November 6, 2009

Backfilling: "Saturday Night Fever"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

The opening moments of Saturday Night Fever are about as iconic as they come: the Brooklyn Bridge, Travolta’s feet strutting down the sidewalk, the strains of “Stayin’ Alive.” This is one of those movies that you feel like you’ve seen, even if you haven’t; from clip reels to parodies to 70s retrospectives, John Badham’s rough-edged coming of age story has become so embedded in our collective pop culture subconscious that it is rather a surprise to discover how much more there is to it.

Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store employee who spends all week looking forward to Saturday night, when he and his buddies use the funds for their Friday paychecks to buy new shirts and hit the dance floor at their local disco. Tony itches to make his way across the bridge, into Manhattan, and decides that winning a big dance competition could fund that move, but he tosses away Annette (Donna Pescow), a good dancer who longs for him, in order to chase Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a trained dancer who puts on airs that draw Tony right in.

The film’s primary problem, from a storytelling standpoint, is that we don’t understand why he spurns Annette for Stephanie. It could just be that Pescow’s performance is so much more sympathetic than Gorney’s (“Why do you hate me so much?” Annette asks, “All I ever did was like you”), but it’s kind of an inexplicable choice—Annette is more likable, more interesting, and as cute. But then, that’s me trying to apply logic to the film’s troublesome, but presumably accurate, portrayal of the sexual politics of that time and place (“You gotta decide what you’re gonna be, nice girl or c***,” Tony tells Annette). I’m hoping that this also accounts for the picture’s stunningly casual tolerance of rape.

So, in many ways, Saturday Night Fever doesn’t really work on a narrative level—the central conflict is befuddling, you can see the climax (which is like something out of a silent melodrama) coming a mile away, and the last scene is nonsense, pure and simple, which Badham frames and shoots entirely at odds with the content of the dialogue (he seems to be capturing the ending he wants, rather than the ending he’s got).

But what it does work as is as an artifact, as cultural anthropology. The skill with which Badham marries the slick, shiny subject matter with the expectedly rough-hewn semi-documentary 70s aesthetic is kind of amazing. Travolta’s role became such a type that it’s easy to overlook what a skillful piece of acting it is—but he’s very, very good, and it’s easy to see how he became such a phenomenon, and stayed that way in spite of the quality of many of the performances that followed this one. And as much of a joke as disco became, the dancing here (and not just by Travolta, but by Gorney, by Pescow, and by that tremendous Puerto Rican couple at the end) is so good that it is somehow timeless. The sheer abandon with which Travolta commits his long, angular body to the choreography is something of a wonder to behold. When they dance, the movie is so alive that you begin to understand why you’ve already seen so much of it in other places.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Theaters: "Collapse"

There are moments, many of them, in Chris Smith’s new documentary Collapse when Michael Ruppert says something that causes an immediate, reflexive reaction in my head: That guy’s crazy. I had that response more than once during the film, particularly in the section when he gives his tips for surviving our societal collapse (don’t hoard food—hoard seeds). But there are also moments, as when he explains our current economy in plain English and summarizes it as “the whole economy is a pyramid scheme,” when I found myself nodding my head and thinking, That guy makes a lot of sense. It’s that kind of movie.

Smith could scarcely have selected a more intriguing subject for his film. Ruppert was a shining star on the LAPD, but his claims in the late 1970s that he was recruited by the CIA to run drugs brought that career to an end (he says that his fiancĂ© disappeared and “people started shooting at me”). In the subsequent years, he became a fierce crusader and investigative journalist (he did vital early reporting on the Pat Tillman story), as well as an author and lecturer; most relevant to this film, he predicted our current economic crisis clear back in 2005 (and there’s videotape to prove it).

The film is something of a hybrid of biography, film essay, and free-floating discourse. The structure is a touch convoluted in the opening scenes—Smith organizes Ruppert’s topics with bold chapter headlines (“OIL” “FOOD” “TRANSPORTATION” “ELECTRICITY”), but we’re not sure what it’s all adding up to. Are we getting a point by point list of everything that’s failing?

Some of Ruppert’s claims reek of outright paranoia (he says the FBI was attempting to sabotage him by burglarizing and vandalizing the offices of his investigative newsletter), but he is riveting to listen to—smart, theatrical (one wonders if he smokes simply for dramatic effect), and frequently quotable. Time after time, he’ll make some salient points, and then he’ll bust out something else that’s just batshit crazy. He may be frustrating, but he sure as hell isn’t boring.

Director Smith, whose previous films include American Movie and Home Movie, hasn’t ever been much of a stylist, an issue he attempts to rectify here. The trouble is, it’s not his own technique; not to put too fine a point on it, but Collapse is the best Errol Morris movie that Morris never made. From top to bottom (the straight-on interview with an unknown but fascinating subject, the use of educational and archival footage as illustrative B-roll, the Philip Glass-style music, the editing strategy of using sound bites cutting in and out of a black screen), it feels like a lost episode of Morris’ First Person. It’s a good, workable style, and Smith seems to revel in it (he enjoys the pleasure of a skillfully placed cut, a delicious piece of found footage, an interruption of the interview when Ruppert has “a wave of emotion” that he describes as “some serious fucking shit”). But it does feel like he’s using someone else’s distinctive playbook.

There are moments where we have to wonder how seriously Smith is taking this guy. Though he flashes on some criticisms, and occasionally asks a tough question, for the most part, he’s content to let Ruppert speak for himself—although he shies away from the most controversial element of Ruppert’s public persona, which is that he is a 9/11 “truther.” Smith dances us right up to that cliff (in Ruppert’s early discussions of “peak oil,” which ties in to his theory of why Cheney and a shadow government had foreknowledge and complicity in the attacks), but significantly, he won’t jump over. (I’m not making a judgment, one way or the other, about Ruppert’s views regarding 9/11, so calm down. I just find it very telling that Smith basically acts as though this portion of Ruppert’s personality doesn’t exist.) The film also doesn’t mention his recent troubles with a sexual harassment complaint from a former employee, which have presumably contributed to the financial difficulties mentioned in the final crawl.

But as it stands, Collapse is fascinating, troubling, and memorable (if somewhat derivative). Whatever his faults, Ruppert cuts quite a figure on screen; some of what he says is just implausible, and some of it is perhaps too plausible. To discount his words wholesale would be easy. And comforting.

"Collapse" opens November 6th in NYC at the Angelika Film Center and on VOD via FilmBuff on cable providers nationwide.

On DVD: "Food, Inc."

"The industry doesn’t want you to know about the food you’re eating," we’re told at the beginning of Food, Inc., “because if you knew, you might not wanna eat it.” That’s the general thesis of Robert Kenner’s sobering documentary, which explores the various manners in which the advertising fantasies of pastoral farming and agriculture cover for a food industry that has become unethical, over-engineered, and, in many cases, dangerous and deadly.

One of the earliest images of the film is one of its most subtly comic: Eric Schlosser, author of the vaunted-exposé -turned-mediocre-film Fast Food Nation, ordering a cheeseburger. He gives the viewer a terse but effective history of fast food in the United States, and how the demand for low-priced mass quantities of fast food fodder led to radical changes in how the business of providing food for Americans.

Some of it is genuinely shocking. Much time is spent on so-called chicken “growers”—the emphasis is on the final product and not the animal, since, as we’re told, “it’s not a chicken, it’s food.” We get a glimpse at the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which slam as many animals as possible into poorly-ventilated, pitch-dark facilities, where they can be fattened faster and more effectively by corn engineered for that express purpose. We see how farm subsidies have allowed massive utilization of corn as food for cows, and the unexpected consequences (such as e-coli outbreaks). And we hear the heartbreaking story of an activist whose son was killed by an e-coli-tainted hamburger.

Kenner’s muckracking doc takes viewers into several other dark and unfortunate corners of the industry. Hidden cameras go inside the largest slaughterhouse in the world, the Smithfield Hog Processing Plant (where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered per day), complete with chilling footage from the “killing floor.” Causes are examined for the flood of illegal immigrant workers into meat-packing plants, and the not-unreasonable question is asked: why is it that those workers continue to be arrested, but not the company management that actively recruits and hires them? The failure of food regulatory agencies is investigated, with a not-unpredictable outcome (guess what? They’re controlled by lobbyists and food-industry company men). The complex but shockingly unfair regulation of “seed sharing” is examined, as is the conundrum of poor families trying to eat on a budget, which leads them to McDonald’s dollar meals and other economically priced but toxic foodstuffs (“The biggest predictor of obesity is income level”).

The picture is well-organized into several individually titled chapters; the canvass is broad, but the segments are tight and the film never rambles. It’s focused, with scores of information imparted in a straight-forward, plain-spoken fashion (with the help of some inventive graphics). Some of it is pretty hard to watch (like the veterinary examination of a cow, or even the comparatively humane chicken slaughter), but it’s not a total downer—the move towards (and demand for) organic food is seen as a something of a cautiously optimistic ray of hope.

In a movie that seldom steps wrong, Food, Inc. does go irritatingly strident in its closing text, which offers a series of instructions for better, safer food living, somewhat in the manner of the closing credits of An Inconvenient Truth. But here it’s too much, too pushy; particularly in the sympathetic audiences that Food, Inc. is most likely to play to, we can figure this stuff out on our own, thank you very much. Until then, though, this is a compelling, intelligent documentary, full of alarming information and genuine passion.

"Food, Inc." hit DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 3rd.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Backfilling: "A Face in the Crowd"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Over the past couple of months, MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann has taken to referring to Fox News’ hyperbolic, hate-spewing serial misty-eye Glenn Beck as “Lonesome Rhodes” Beck. Younger viewers might not get the reference; he’s analogizing the demagogue to Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the primary character in Elia Kazan’s searing 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd. Watching the film now (as when watching Lumet and Chayefsky’s Network), it is impossible not to marvel at the screenplay’s prescience in predicting the rise of personalities like Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh (or, if you lean the other direction politically, Olbermann himself). “How’s it feel?” Rhodes is asked at one point. “Being able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people like this?”

Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is discovered in an Arkansas jail by radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who puts the folksy singer/jokester on the local airwaves. His later ruthlessness is glimpsed early, in the efficiency with which he dispenses of his “manager”; with Jeffries by his side, he ascends to local television and then to the national airwaves, where, though he continues to shake his head and shrug, “Aw, shucks, I’m just a country boy,” he becomes a more dangerous—and power-hungry—voice of an increasingly less common man.

Kazan’s direction is in line with the sweaty, atmospheric vibe of his Streetcar Named Desire, while managing to replicate the expert blend of high drama and high-falutin’ social commentary of their previous collaboration, On the Waterfront. As Rhodes, Andy Griffith is simply electrifying; now that he has worked his way into our collective comfort food conscious, after the folksy charm of Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, it packs a wallop to watch him in this kind of a roughneck role, oily and self-congratulatory and dark and power-hungry. Neal overacts a bit in the third act (which itself is a bit overlong and overheated), but a young Walter Matthau (and Jesus, Matthau even looked old when he was young) proves a wonderfully bitter underling.

“I’ll say one thing for him,” Matthau notes, late in the film. “He’s got the courage of his ignorance.” Indeed. Sometimes films that predict the future are way off (see: just about any film about future technology or civilization), but sometimes, an intelligent and clear-thinking screenwriter will hazard a guess as to where we could go in mass media, and absolutely nail it. As you watch A Face in the Crowd’s seemingly far-fetched television opinion show, “Lonesome Rhodes’s Cracker Barrel,” in which Rhodes and his buddy sit around, espousing jingoism as homespun wisdom and using that bully pulpit to push repurposed political candidates, I couldn’t help but think about how easily that show would fit in on Fox News.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On TV: "Poliwood"

Barry Levinson may very well have stumbled into a career renaissance, albeit in a slightly different career. He was one of the most consistently entertaining directors of the 1980s (his output that decade included Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, and Good Morning, Vietnam). Then something went awry in the 1990s; he started turning out clunkers like Toys and Jimmy Hollywood and the criminally overrated Bugsy, and his last honest-to-God great film was 1998’s Wag The Dog (and its greatness may have had more to do with its prescient timing and David Mamet’s brilliant script).

But now, Levinson has made PoliWood, a personal documentary that’s better than any narrative film he’s done since. (Levinson's recent ESPN documentary, The Band That Wouldn't Die, confirms his skill as a documentarian.) In fact, PoliWood reminded me, in many ways, of Sydney Pollack’s final directorial effort; his 2005 film Sketches of Frank Gehry was also a very personal doc that proved a vast improvement over workmanlike but forgettable pictures like Random Hearts and his Sabrina remake.

Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don’t include the customary “A Barry Levinson Film” but instead “A Barry Levinson Film Essay.” There’s something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles’ wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it; the connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling.

The film was inspired by Levinson’s work with the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan (but, come on, mostly liberal) organization of entertainer/activists. It’s loosely organized around the 2008 presidential campaign, as Levinson uses the group’s visits to the Democratic and Republic national conventions to examine the role that mass media plays in present-day politics, and if actors and other entertainers should take advantage of their celebrity to voice their opinions and raise awareness about their causes.

He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks. Those bits are among the film’s high points. In one, he talks about JFK’s 1959 TV Guide editorial on the danger of allowing television to influence political campaigns; Levinson then notes how Kennedy’s own campaign, and the subsequent Reagan administration, marked the beginning of the “television president.” In another, he makes an interesting comparison between the story of “Joe the Plumber” and the classic film Meet John Doe, which turns into an incredibly insightful (and bruising) analysis of Joe’s subsequent attempts to battle his own obsolescence.

The documentary footage is also well-cut and consistently interesting; it doesn’t hurt that the celebrities involved in the Creative Coalition are mostly well-spoken, thoughtful, attractive people like Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, Josh Lucas, Tim Daly, and Rachel Leigh Cook. Commentators like Lawrence O’Donnell, Tucker Carlson, and Eric Alterman add probing insights as well.

What’s surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don’t require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, handlers must “create the character” of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it’s no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.—and between the negative connotations of both cultures.

Late in the film, the cameras follow Levinson to a “focus group with celebrities” that he has organized with the help of Fox News’ Frank Luntz (who gained a bit of notoriety for his “independent” focus groups during the campaign, but never mind that). He and several other coalition members sit down with a group of regular folks, and for a while, it is tough and uncomfortable to watch—they let these actors have it with both barrels. And the actors listen, but then they all start to talk and listen to each other, to have an honest debate and an attempt to find some ground. It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that we could hope for in a culture this polarized, and Levinson’s thought-provoking and entertaining documentary is a valuable part of that kind of conversation.

"PoliWood" is playing all month on Showtime.

Today's New DVDs- 11/3/09

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009): Tony Scott's reimagining of the classic 1974 New York action picture can't hold a candle to the original, but taken on its own terms, for its own time, it delivers some decent thrills and tension.

The Answer Man: A charming, if slight, romantic comedy/drama by, and about, grown-ups (with some other, bigger, less interesting stuff thrown in).

North by Northwest (Blu-ray): Hitchcock's almost-best movie (sorry, I'm partial to Rear Window) gets the Blu-ray and deluxe anniversary DVD treatment.

G.I. Joe- The Rise of Cobra: Nope, still not seeing it.

Love Actually (Blu-ray): As I wrote in a short film that you'll get to see very soon: "It's like the Casino of bad chick flicks--it's like three hours long, and everybody in it deserves to get whacked."

Also out this week: Will Ferrell's George W. Bush show, the Chris Columbus abortion I Love You Beth Cooper, Aliens in the Attic for all you Kevin Nealon fans (as if such a thing exists), the complete series of The Shield (yet another show I'm ashamed to have never seen), and the documentary Food, Inc. (review forthcoming).

Monday, November 2, 2009

On DVD: "The Answer Man"

John Hindman’s The Answer Man is a film of small pleasures that mostly outweigh its larger problems. In its broad strokes (and particularly in its closing passages) it wants badly to be about Big Themes, to weigh in on the nature of God and spirituality and kindness and the human condition. It’s overreaching. What it does well, thanks to some smart writing and the considerable charm of its leading actors, is function as a serviceable romantic comedy for grown-ups. Contrary to what the movie believes, that is enough to warrant our attention.

Jeff Daniels stars as Arlen Faber, author a book called Me and God that, in the words of one character, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” But Faber is apparently the J.D. Salinger of spiritual self-help gurus; in the twenty years following the book’s publication, he has disappeared from public sight, living a bitter, grouchy hermit’s life in Philadelphia. One day, he throws out his back and ends up crawling into the office of his friendly neighborhood chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham); she works him over for two solid hours, and when the session is over, he’s stunned to find that not only does he feel great, but his chiropractor is a knockout (it is Lauren Graham, after all).

The wealthy but disconnected curmudgeon attempting to cultivate a relationship with the sunny, charming single mom is a serviceable enough construct (hell, it worked for As Good As It Gets), but Hindman’s structure is somewhat discombobulated by a third character. Lou Taylor Pucci plays the owner of the neighborhood used book store, a newly rehabilitated alcoholic with money and family issues whose interactions with both Faber and Elizabeth help usher in the inevitable third-act crises. But his plotline feels shoehorned and peripheral, pulling our attention away from the primary focus of Daniels and Graham.

The Answer Man sports a solid cast full of talented people, though most (like the dryly funny Kat Dennings and the always-beguiling Olivia Tirlby) are underused. Nora Dunn has some nice moments, though, and the world would be a better place if it had more movies with Tony Hale of Arrested Development in supporting roles (“Be careful,” Hale warns of Faber. “Maybe he wrote Me and God, but he did not read it”).

But the leads more than pull their weight. Daniels proves, as he did in The Squid and the Whale, that there are few actors who can do churlish, impatient intelligence so skillfully. His chemistry with Graham is sharp; this is her most fully realized role since the end of Gilmore Girls, and she’s just plain lovable. The character’s tics and doubts lend some dimension (and pathos), and she’s able to exhibit her crackerjack comic timing.

The tone doesn’t really aim for full-on comedy or hardcore drama; it’s amusing, with more smiles and chuckles than big laughs, and occasionally sentimental without pushing too hard. Some scenes (like Faber’s visit with a schoolteacher) go for the easy payoff, but are thoughtful and impassioned enough to play anyway. However, the last twenty minutes is a little forced, as if Hindman felt obligated to make more of the story than was there. The Answer Man is best at being a smart romantic comedy/drama about people with problems and baggage who aren’t just overgrown teenagers. That’s cause for celebration, even when the film, as a whole, is less than perfect.

"The Answer Man" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 3rd.