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.
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Hypothetical Film Festival #5 – Presidents on Film

In honor of Honest Abe’s birthday I whipped up an eclectic list of great films in which presidents (both factual and fictional) are key characters in the stories.


Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, dir. John Ford)

Henry Fonda portrays a pre-presidential Lincoln in this John Ford classic. Ford chooses to focus on a fictionalized case from the future president’s days as a lawyer. During an Independence Day celebration a man is murdered and two brothers are blamed. Lincoln takes the case and fights against popular opinion to prove that these men are innocent. Along the way he impresses the young debutante Mary Todd and showcases his Solomon-like wisdom. The film is a highly fictionalized account and a mish-mash of events that occured years apart. It’s still a great film that showcases a kind of president who doesn’t feel the pressure to act before looking at the facts and using reason.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962, dir. John Frankenheimer)

This is the granddaddy of all political thrillers, directed by one of the most overlooked craftsmen in American cinema. During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are drugged and taken to a Communist Chinese lair where they are brainwashed. One of them, Raymond Shaw, is programmed to be a sleeper agent. Back in the States, Shaw’s mother (played by Angela Lansbury) has married a McCarthy-esque senator who is making a bid for the presidency. Secrets are revealed that slowly, but surely, connect Shaw’s experience in Korea with the political goings on in America. An amazing achievement that was originally pulled from release after the Kennedy assassination.


Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)

Classic. Simple as that. While the president isn’t THE main character is one of three played by the brilliant Peter Sellers. The highlight of his role as President Merkin Muffley comes when he must dial Russian Premier Kisov and let him know that he’s accidentally order the launch of a nuclear strike on Moscow. Muffley’s deadpan “my bad” tone raises the film into the comedic heavens. In addition, this is one of the sharpest satires ever made and it was very ballsy on Kubrick’s part to release a film about global nuclear destruction a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the height of the Cold War. This would be the equivalent of someone making a comedic film in 2003 about bumbling terrorists onboard an airplane.


The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)

Robert Redford stars in a film that encapsulates the disenfranchised feelings of many people towards politics in the 1970s. Redford plays Bill McKay, the son of a legendary California senator, who is lured into running as the Democratic candidate for the Senate against unopposed, popular Republican. Yes, there really isn’t a president in this one, BUT it so perfectly tells the story of a campaign in the modern American system it very well could be. McKay was happy working as a pro bono lawyer for low income communities, and only agrees to run because he is guaranteed he won’t win and it will give him an opportunity to have a larger platform for the liberal issues he finds important. However, McKay ends up being more popular than expected and he finds his values being whittled away.


Warm Springs (2005, dir. Joseph Sargent)

Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon star as the young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in this HBO original film. The picture tells the story of FDR as he was coming to terms with his debilitating polio (in 2003, a study was done that suggested he was actually suffering from Gullian-Barré syndrome). He travels to a well-known therapeutic hot springs in Georgia where he struggles more with his humility than with the disorder. So much attention is paid to details here with the entire film being made on location at the actual Warm Springs, as well as Branagh driving the same car that was modified for FDR. A great picture about a wonderful president at a dark time in his life.


Idiocracy (2006, dir. Mike Judge)

The most accurate prediction of the future in our country. We also get two presidents for the price of one: Terry Crews an an ex-pro wrestler prez and Luke Wilson as the dim-witted time traveler who wins the following election. If you haven’t seen this unfinished masterpiece from the creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, let me fill you in. Luke Wilson is the dumbest man in the modern Army, he’s put in a cryogenic capsule to test the technology, forgotten about for 500 years, and wakes up in a world where he is now the smartest man alive. He must tackle such issues as “why won’t the plants grow?” (Spoiler: They’re watering them with Gatorade). It’s not the smartest satire ever written, but damn its funny.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.

Film 2010 #27 – Wise Blood


Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston)
Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey

I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.

Spider-Man: The Reboot


It was recently announced that instead of Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire returning to the Spider-Man franchise for a fourth picture, Sony Pictures went with the idea of rebooting the series. This was seen as a possible response to Spider-Man 3‘s performance, though it made over $366k domestic. In reality, the decision was a business strategy. Raimi and Maguire could rightful claim a raise in salary based on the performance of the first three films, which would preclude that a fourth would net the studio another boatload of cash. Instead of having to raise salaries, Sony opted to go for a group of emerging actors and filmmakers to bank on, all of whom would naturally not have the big pay day Raimi and Maguire would deserve.

While it seems quite soon to implement a reboot of the franchise (the first film was released in 2002), this is where we are. Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) has been officially signed to helm the new picture which will find Peter Parker a teen again and suffering the persecution of school bullies presumably. It sounds like whomever is picked for the titular role will actually be close to the character’s age which will be interesting to see. Maguire was 27 when he was cast in the first film so he was quite a bit older than the adolescent Parker. The current rumors circulating point to Logan Lerman, star of the upcoming Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Lerman is 18 so he’ll be the age equivalent of Parker and he’s not new to acting so he has some definite talent. Lerman has had major roles in The Patriot, The Butterfly Effect, 3:10 to Yuma, Gamer, and the WB drama Jack & Bobby. The fanboy side of me when it came to film died years ago so I see this an opportunity to see a different interpretation of the character, and honestly Spider-Man 3 was dreadful so another Raimi outing was not something I was looking forward to. My only demand is that J.K. Simmons be retained as J.Jonah Jameson, it was the role the man was born for.
I’m very intrigued about who the villain for the reboot will be. I personally think Doctor Octopus and Sandman was realized perfectly in comparison to their comic book personae, and I have always felt that Green Goblin never lived up to his comic book potential. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Goblin again and it could always be a case of a Heath Ledger/Joker surprise, wherein a new actor shows up and really gives us a version of the character that nails it. If they are looking at villains not yet on screen Kraven the Hunter might be an interesting pick. Mysterio is unused but I have never gotten why that character wasn’t killed off years ago. I have a feeling the franchise will probably use The Lizard or Electro. Both are the result of scientific accidents so they can be neatly threaded in with Parker’s origins.
While I hope they skip over it, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Parker get bitten by a radioactive spider and discovering his spider-like abilities. I do wonder if they will go organic webshooters or decide to emphasize Parker’s scientific prowess and have him build the wrist gauntlets. That said, I think a pretty tight plot would tie The Lizard aka Curt Conners origins to Parker’s. Both involve animal DNA melding with human and resulting in bizarre hybrids. Parker’s class could take a field trip to Conners’ lab or university lab and the accident could effect both men. Not sure what direction they will take the franchise in, but I am excited to see what new elements they bring to the character.

Film 2010 #25 – Thieves Like Us


Thieves Like Us (1974, dir. Robert Altman)

Starring Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt
Much like the rest of Robert Altman’s work, Thieves Like Us is a subversion of genre. The premise is that a trio of bank robbers, Bowie; Chickasaw; and T-Dub (Carradine, Schuck, and Remsen respectively) escape a Mississippi chain gang and go back to the old trade. They hole up with a gas station owner (Skerritt) and Keechie, his young daughter (Duvall) who becomes smitten with Bowie. As it is to be expected with men on the run, life become very complicated very quickly and the men must split up after a heist gone wrong. Bowie ends up in the care of Keechie; the two fall in love and decide to start a life together.
Altman loves creating a human universe that works in direct opposition to our expectations seeded by traditional cinema. The action in this film is incredibly muted and when violence does occur it is either off camera or intentionally unglamorous. Characters never undergo arcs and rarely behave as if they are somehow aware of the screenwriter’s intentions of them. These characters just exist and live their lives and Altman just happens to have a camera to record them. One way he achieves the sense of the mundane while stylistically flipping cinema on its head is by an absence of the standard film score. Instead, music is provided by the ever present radio of Depression-era America. For the most part, its standards of the day but in a few scenes the radio is used to underscore the action. As the men prepare to rob a bank a car radio plays the introduction of a true crime radio drama. In yet another scene as love blossoms between Bowie and Keechie, we can hear the a radio version of Romeo and Juliet.
Characters are never more intelligent than they would typically be in a comparably real situation. The three men never achieved much of an education and neither did Keechie so their dialogue reflects that. There’s very little conversation and what there is of it is intentionally inconsequential and uninteresting. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, where there’s meant to be a weight to the moment when authorities gun the pair down, a similar scene in the finale of this film has its drama emphasized but also a restraint is felt not to make it rise to any mythic proportion. The very final scene of the film also strips away any sense that Altman is making these men into heroes and ends up raising Keechie, who appears to be a dull girl, into the one character in the film with the strongest sense of honor and decency.

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.