Movie Review – Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole (1951)
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Directed by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was wildly prescient when it came to the worst of mankind. Long before 24-hour news cycles became a thing, Wilder was already foreseeing a time where a small incident could be exploited by the media into something more substantial. The forces of entertainment would find ways to prolong human suffering because it makes such a compelling narrative to the public. Wilder makes no bones about how he believes humans often succumb to their worst impulses and delivers a noir film that doesn’t need Los Angeles to give it atmosphere.

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Movie Review – Christine (2016)

Christine (2016, dir. Antonio Campos)

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The story of Christine Chubbuck is fated to end in tragedy. To most people, she’s known for the stories of a video of her suicide. During the early morning on 1974, while delivering the news, Christine produced a gun from beneath her desk and announced that “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She proceeded to pull the trigger and fire a bullet into her skull. Fourteen hours later she was pronounced dead at the age of 29. To the public who heard of this event the most looming question has always been, “Why?”

Antonio Campos’ dramatization of the last few months of Christine’s life begins in a way that might surprise someone who was only familiar with the story of her death. She is an energetic, passionate reporter struggling to tell positive human stories while up against a news media that is learning sensationalism corresponds to higher ratings. She isn’t willing to give up so easily and argue viciously with news director Mike. While she fights for principles on the news, Christine is also experiencing severe abdominal pains that she attributes to stress but seem to be something more serious.

Taking on the task of capturing who Christine was is actress Rebecca Hall. I’ve seen in some supporting roles in various films but never really felt very impressed. Apparently, she had just never been given an active enough role to show off her talents. Her absence from Best Actress nominations at any of the major awards is yet another sign that the mainstream awards are out of touch. It has been a very long time since I have seen a performance that so transformed an actor. Her voice, the way she moves, just watching her hands tense and grasp at objects, so encapsulates a real person. Christine’s pain is real, but even more surprising is her joy at producing stories about people. It’s hard not to get caught up in her passion as she takes the mundane and attempts to transform it into the remarkable.

Surrounding Hall’s central performance is a brilliant cast of supporting actors. Michael C. Hall plays George, the news station’s main anchor who shares the awkward flirtations of Christine. He could easily have been off as a pastiche of Ted Knight’s archetypal pompous newsman from Mary Tyler Moore, but a moment in the third act reveals a layer to the character I didn’t expect and changes the audience’s perception of him. The always great Maria Dizzia plays Jean, Christine’s best friend at the station and camerawoman. Jean sees Christine’s moments of breaking down and is deeply affected in the wake of her suicide. The final moments of the film choose to focus on Jean and they almost wordlessly convey the real emotions and reaction a friend would feel in the aftermath of such a tragic end. There is a numbness in her eyes and a deliberate effort to try and move past this. Tracy Letts plays the role of Mike, the film’s antagonist, who worries over the station’s dwindling ratings and aggressively pushes Christine to change her angle on the news. But even he is given brushstrokes of character development that reveal he does care about the station beyond just ratings.

The film gets across a sense of alienation that is suffocating. Christine continually spirals further down, never giving up her sensibilities that she can find a way out of her problems. But at every turn something gets in her way, kicking the legs out from underneath her. By the time the film reaches its climactic moment it feel heartbreakingly that there was no other way this could have ended. In the larger context of the news media, everything she represented was going down the drain. Throughout the picture news reports about Nixon and Watergate can be heard. Even the opening has Christine shooting footage for her reel, alone on the set, pretending to interview the president. She points out the idea that you can’t really be paranoid if people are actually out to get you. And for Christine, everyone did seem to unintentionally be out to get her.

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.

Film 2010 #21 – A Face in the Crowd


A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau
Sheriff Andy Taylor this ain’t. If you familiarity with the acting of Andy Griffith doesn’t expand much further than The Andy Griffith Show then prepare to be shocked by this picture. Released three years prior to the television series, the role Griffith plays is that of a scoundrel, liar, womanizer, emotionally abusive drunk. The character’s profession as a television personality delivering blues-based country music and humorous monologues about his upbringing in North Carolina is remarkably similar to how Griffith made his start in show business. However, the darker aspects of the character are believed to be inspired by television and radio personalities Arthur Godfrey (who fired an employee on air in 1953, revealing his controlling personality) and Uncle Don, a child TV personality who was caught calling his audience “little bastards” on air.
The story begins with Marcia Jeffries, the niece of a radio station owner in North Arkansas who hosts a series called “A Face in the Crowd”, whose focus is finding everyman figures with dynamic personalities. She comes across Larry Rhodes, a drifter picked up for public drunkenness. Larry is a very charismatic person who pulls people in and Marcia decided to make him a regular on the station, nicknaming him Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome rises up through a local television station in Memphis and is eventually picked by a national network in New York City. All the while, he reveals his true nature to Marcia as someone not truly as “salt of the earth” as he claims.
The film feels prophetic, but when its based on personalities and hosts of the past it reveals how cyclical the fame and media machine truly is. It is inevitable that parallels would be drawn between this film and Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and countless other politically driven svegalis who emphasize their simple roots and connection to the common man. Lonesome Rhodes is a sympathetic character at points in the film, but never an admirable one. The theatrical audience could easily be pulled in by Lonesome’s grin and “fuck you” to the Man take on his earlier career.
The film is a pretty standard cautionary tale and director Kazan knows how to use his camera to accentuate the madness that begins to overtake Lonesome. I absolutely loved a montage that shows how Lonesome’s national television series becomes a hit. It was the perfect example of how to use montage in an effective way that isn’t simply cheating on the part of a screenwriter. I also loved a sequence near the end where Lonesome is taking an elevator down to the limo waiting for him. The camera cuts between the elevator buttons lighting as he descends and simultaneous descent of his approval in the eyes of the public and his sponsors. Brilliant, classic piece of cinema.