Friday, December 28, 2018

Five Film Favorites: Insider Looks at American Politics

by F.T. Rea

Today is Day Seven of the USA's third federal government shutdown of 2018. By the way, the longevity record for shutdowns also took in the holiday season, the 21 days of Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996.

While the particulars of such confrontations change over the years, the sort of politicians who absolutely must get their way -- come hell or high water -- until they can't, doesn’t change all that much from one generation to the next. So, even with Trump in the game, there's plenty of here-we-go-again in the way this current shutdown feels.

At least, so far.

Larger than life politicians, who ruthlessly exploit whoever and whatever they find along the way, make good characters for screenwriters to flesh out. This list of political films is about characters. It isn't about social causes or tides of history. No revolutions. No big wars. The films on this list are about charismatic politicians and the sort of people one generally finds surrounding them -- ambitious deal-makers and back-stabbers.

No documentaries this time, no biographies. All five films on the list are fiction ... perhaps thinly veiled, sometimes. What else these flicks have in common is their emphasis on their behind-the-scenes looks at the tactics of hardball politics. 
  • “All the King’s Men” (1949): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Robert Rossen. Cast: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek. Mercedes McCambridge. Note: Adapted from the novel with the same title, the story follows the phenomenal rise of Willie Stark, a populist campaigner fashioned after a real Depression Era politician -- Louisiana’s Huey P. Long (1893-1935). It is seen through the eyes of a political reporter who goes to work for Stark and eventually cringes as unchecked power overcomes and corrupts his boss.
  • “Bob Roberts” (1992): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal. Note: Affecting the style of a documentary, the story is set in 1990. The character of Bob Roberts, played by Robbins, first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986. The movie’s story is focused on the take-no-prisoners, kick-in-the-door quest of Roberts, a wealthy folk-singer/conservative politician, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
  • “The Candidate” (1972): Color. 110 minutes. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Cast: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvin Douglas, Allen Garfield. Note: A spin doctor talks the son of a popular governor into running for the U.S. Senate, to unseat a Republican incumbent. The original idea is he can say whatever he likes, because he has no chance to win ... or was it? When events change the odds, the temptation to compromise and tone down his message starts to build on the idealistic candidate.
  • "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold. Note: By what amounts to a fluke idealistic Jefferson Smith finds himself appointed to the U.S. Senate. Trouble is, he's not as malleable as those who arranged his appointment had thought he would be. When the political machine running the show in his state pulls the rug out from under him, Smith (Stewart) and Saunders (Arthur, at her best) get creative.  
  • “The Last Hurrah” (1958): B&W. 121 minutes. Directed by John Ford. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O‘Brien, Basil Rathbone. Note: With times a-changing, Democrat Frank Skeffington, a 72-year-old big city machine politician, runs for reelection as mayor. His opponent is an empty suit with a pleasant face who is an WWII vet. The effect of the new propaganda medium, television, is explored. In its time, this was seen as a story about a real Boston mayor -- James Michael Curley.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Five Film Favorites: Film Noir

by F.T. Rea

The characters were often damaged goods; usually someone had deliberately done them wrong. The lighting was dramatic -- lots of shadows and chiaroscuro. Cigarettes and handguns were ubiquitous. Liquor was consumed without ice or mixers. Payback was a bitch and happy endings were hard to come by.

That was film noir in its day, or maybe I should say night, since “film noir“ means black films.

We’re told the term "film noir" was first applied to cynical American crime dramas in 1946. A French critic, Nino Frank, used it in an article about films made during World War II that he saw as having something in common. These motion pictures hadn’t been seen in occupied France, because of the war. But the term itself didn’t become popular until years later.

If any of the major studios in Hollywood could be said to have specialized in making film noir movies it was probably RKO. In some part that was because RKO produced many of its well-crafted features of all types on B movie budgets. Clever art directors and cinematographers could hide a lot of money-saving compromises in frames filled with shadows. RKO was usually hurting for cash. 

The protagonists of film noir pictures were usually men with specific reasons to be bitter. Life had taught them to put faith in taking direct action to solve problems, rather than calling for help. They tended to be spontaneous anti-heroes. Film noir females were more self sufficient than the women in most American movies in the ’40s and ‘50s. Such worldly women used lots of makeup. They were just as focused on getting their way as were the fedora-wearing men.    

However, most Americans didn’t recognize these movies as being in a category with a special label until the film noir era was in the rearview mirror, style-wise. Thus, the titles on my list of favorites below weren’t promoted in their original release time as film noir, at least not in this country.

To me, it now seems the film noir era was a post-WWII phenomenon. It was influenced not only by the spooky German Expressionism of the 1920s, but also the gritty Italian Neorealism of the 1940s. Film noir was both a look and a focus on subject matter.

Timeline-wise that puts great movies like “M” (1931) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) in a category of movies that was a precursor to film noir. They are among the best dark-themed crime dramas that paved the way to film noir. But in a general sense, in my view both of them are too concerned with morality -- right and wrong -- to be seen in the same category with the best of the world-weary noirs.

Once society began absorbing the troops coming home from the war with their own damage, movies changed. Which means to make the cut this time the movie must have been released between 1946 and 1959. Naturally, it has to have been shot in black and white. Then again, although I’d like to restrict the list to American films only, what’s probably the best movie on my list, “The Third Man” (1949) -- made in England -- won’t permit it.
Without further ado, my five favorite film noir movies for today are:
  • “The Big Heat” (1953): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando. Note: Sgt. Dave Bannion (Ford) is an honest cop who is drawn into investigating the apparent suicide of a coworker. He eventually ends up battling the local crime syndicate. Marvin is at his evil best as the brutal enforcer for the syndicate's boss. Yes, this is the picture with the notorious scene that has Marvin's character slinging boiling coffee into his girlfriend’s (Grahame) pretty face ... just for grins.
  • In a Lonely Place (1950):  B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Art Smith. Note: WWII vet Dixon Steele is dealing with lingering issues from the war. Depression and rage dog him. Steele, played convincingly by Bogart, is a quick-witted screenwriter with a dark sense of humor. Trouble is -- his writing has suffered. Maybe he needs a muse? Then the same day he's connected to a murder he happens onto a new girlfriend -- enter Gloria Grahame, at her best. A writing mania ensues. 
  • "The Killing" (1956): B&W. 85 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook. Note: This lean story about a race track heist put Kubrick on the map (he was just 28 when it was released). Rather than the feel of a caper melodrama, the presentation feels sort of detached ... like a documentary with a narrator giving the viewer an inside look at the crime.  
  • "The Third Man" (1949): B&W. 104 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard. Note: Screenplay by Graham Greene. This elegant murder mystery is set in crumbling post-WWII Vienna. Or, is it a murder mystery? All the characters are working an angle, so the truth isn’t easy to grasp. The movie’s distinctive theme music was also a hit in its time. Maybe a perfect movie.
  • "Touch of Evil" (1958): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver. Note: This crime melodrama, set on both sides of the American/Mexican border, is so chock full of weird characters it feels like a cartoon. And, don’t be put off by Heston’s presence, the director uses his wooden, bad acting to a good purpose. For some critics and wags this movie marked the end of the film noir era.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Does Celebrity Still Rule?

The 20th century gave us mass media: magazines that featured stories aimed at a national readership; feature films and newsreels distributed coast-to-coast; radio and television networks; the Internet – all of which gave us entertainment and useful information. As a byproduct, the mass media also gave us celebrities. Not just the accomplished people who tend to earn fame, but also the narcissistic self-promoters we're accustomed to seeing, as they parade about trying to create gossip. 

The minting of those early batches of talented and not-so-talented celebrities in the first quarter of the 1900s quickly spawned celebrity-worshipers. I'm told print cartoonists were treated like little kings in Manhattan saloons in the 1920s. (Ah, those were the days.) Anyway, with celebrity-worshipers came baseball cards, movie magazines, fan clubs, celebrity endorsements, etc.  

Since we know lots of people want like hell to be worshiped by legions of groupies the 21st century has given us social media, so wannabe celebrities can beam their make-me-a-celebrity auditions to a potentially unlimited following. Meanwhile, they go on dreaming of being catapulted out of their mundane existence, onto the lofty perch of those who are worshiped. 

That's a whole lot of wannabe-ism. It's a lot of damn worshiping, too. Our sitting president saw both factors and thought he knew a bunch of chumps when he saw it. He was right. Also feeling emboldened by the nasty level of racism he sensed was growing, Trump threw his red MAGA cap into the ring. Then it seemed enough voters didn't want to vote for his opponent to make it possible to elect the celebrity whose star burned brighter.

So far, Trump the Compulsive Tweeter has cashed in on America's addiction to consuming folderol about celebrities better than any other politician. In polls he has seemed to consistently have about a third of voters on his side, no matter what he says or does. In fact, the more loutish he is, the more they seem to like him.

Question: Does his loyal base – the aforementioned chumps – actually agree with him, with all the lying, the cruelty and such?

Answer: Doesn't matter. As the ultimate celebrity, they worship Trump ... so far.

Looking ahead, with 2018 all but done, could celebrity worship have passed its zenith? Have we the people finally seen enough weaselly scamming in the White House to start wising up? Or, in 2020, do the Democrats need to nominate their best celebrity?