Film 2010 #28 – King of New York


King of New York (1990, dir. Abel Ferrara)

Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi
When I was a child, I noticed a bleak tone in many films and the music of the era. I think of Nirvana and other grunge artists and films like Terminator 2. It felt like there was a darkness over all these things. Now, many years older I look back and realize that it was in part a response to the downturn of the self-indulgent 70s and greedy 80s. This is why Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is such a excellent culmination of this sense of burning out after decades of success.
The story opens with the release of Frank White (Walken), a crime boss who has finished serving his term in prison (We’re told he’s been gone for years, but never given an exact number). Frank’s lieutenants on the outside begin a systematic execution of rival bosses as a signal that Frank has returned. Frank’s new outlook on life has him redirecting his criminal enterprise into helping keep a hospital for low income families open, an admirable goal indeed. However, Roy Bishop (Argo), the cop who took him down originally is keeping an eye on Frank. Both men, Frank and Roy, have metaphorical children, young soldiers who were raised in their service and owe everything to their “fathers”. And both sets of children are the victims of their fathers’ legacies in the end.
Walken plays things in his trademark bizarre way. Frank never approaches anything remotely human, he is forever emotionally distanced from everyone around him. His devotion to saving the failing hospital is admirable but he has no strong reaction when he own men are gunned down around him. On the flip-side, Roy is shattered when his “boys” are gunned down. It’s regret that separates these two men, Frank stance summed up nicely in the line, “I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.” Frank is able to justify his actions because he is so distanced from them, he assuages any guilt by taking up a cause in the community like the local hospital.
The film is much more about style than substance though. The soundtrack and visuals are all meticulously crafted to generate a very specific tone. The picture never feels like it could take place in reality until the final sequence. For the majority of the pic, Frank and his crew’s actions are incredibly over the top, specifically a shoot out in Chinatown where every single person on the street seems to have access to an automatic assault rifle. What this picture does best is create palpable tone, from the opening frames you have no doubt about the type of world you are entering and get a feeling for the bleak, hopeless finale its heading toward.

Film 2010 #24 – The Late Shift


The Late Shift (1996, dir. Betty Thomas)
Starring Kathy Bates, John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams, Rich Little

While the Leno/Conan scuffle has been making headlines for the last month, it serves only as a reminder of NBC’s consistent inability to manage its late night talent. The well-known fight between Leno and Letterman for The Tonight Show inspired similar headlines, a book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, and an HBO film based on the book. The film is basically in exercise in the failure to have your cake and eat it too.
The problem stemmed from NBC’s selfish business sense to not let go of Jay Leno, a very popular young comic at the time. He has huge popularity as the guest host of The Tonight Show and as a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman. In their infinite wisdom and through the coercion of Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick (more on her in a minute), NBC signed a behind closed doors deal to give Leno The Tonight Show. They just happened to never tell Johnny Carson or Letterman that until it was too late. When the news is finally announced, Letterman is heartbroken but keeps his eye singularly on somehow getting his dream job back. Months go by and his management gets him out of his contract and into a new spot at CBS and the rest is history.
While the film is in theory about Leno and Letterman I would argue is is just as much about Helen Kushnick (Bates) as well. While the idea of pushing Letterman out of spot he truly earned is pretty low, the tenacity of Kushnick in an industry where the majority of power players are men is admirable. For a woman who had just managed comedians for most of her career to come in and bully the NBC executives into giving her client the number one property in late night television is an amazing accomplishment. She was given executive producer-ship and her downfall came in threatening guests that if they appeared on any other talk shows they would be banned from hers.
Early on there is a scene where Helen is telling off someone over the phone whom is unwilling to attend an AIDS benefit she is organizing. Her tongue lashing on the man (Kushnick was famous for her profane mouth) is brutal, and later in the film it is mentioned that her son died from an AIDs-infected blood transfusion. This bit of backstory reveals how intensely Helen’s convictions informed her personality. Helen is eventually forced out by the NBC execs and Leno folds very easily when he realizes his place as host would be taken if he defends her.
The film is no directorial masterpiece. Betty Thomas is a Second City alum with some tv acting and directing experience who went on to direct theatrical films such as Dr. Doolite, 28 Days, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and arguably her best work The Brady Bunch Movie. The cinematography is very much of the made-for-tv quality but the film makes for an interesting historical artifact and would probably spark an interest in reading Carter’s book.