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.
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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.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Matewan


Matewan (1987, dir. John Sayles)

Starring Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Will Oldham

Continuing my look at the work of John Sayles, we move to this historical drama set amidst the conflict between miners and the coal company in 1920. The miners of the Stone Mountain Coal Company in West Virginia walked out of the mines and off the job after the company cuts their pay when rumors of a union begin. The miners call in Joe Kenehan (Cooper), a well-known union organizer who encourages non-violent resistance. Kenehan is in fact a fictional creation of Sayles, first appearing in his 1977 novel Union Dues. The character has been held up as a cherished symbol and even has a union devoted to health care workers in Washington state named for him. Kenehan lodges in the home of Elma (McDonnell), a miner’s widow and mother to a young preacher (Oldham). Kenehan is forced to try and temper the striking workers as the company brings in Italian immigrant and African-American replacements.
The concept of “union” is deeply emphasized throughout the film. The native striking miners attack the replacements when they are brought in and it takes Kenehan’s convincing for them to realize that workers are all united against the management. As a foil to Kenehan, we have Sheriff Sid Hatfield (Strathairn) who at first appears to be an antagonist but is later revealed to truly be working for the citizens. When the Company sends men to repossess the mattress and furniture of striking miners’ families, Hatfield steps in and unflinchingly threatens the thugs.
The film serves as a prelude to the larger war between workers and the coal companies that followed in the 1920s. While not widely reported or truly documented in most history books, thousands of workers took up arms against the legalized slavery being forced on them by companies across the Southeast. One incredibly telling scene comes early on, as the African-American miners are introduced to the company story and informed that from their pay they will have all equipment or clothing used in the mine deducted, their room and board deducted, their trip in a cattle car by rail deducted, and will be paid in company scrip, not cash. For most people working above minimum wage it’s hard to imagine being held in such a tight choke hold by an employer.
Sayles is a strong filmmaker, he’s no Kubrick, overly stylistic visual flourishes are not his forte. Instead, he is comfortable letting characters slowly reveal themselves and to allow quiet moments to linger in his work. It’s a style of filmmaking that doesn’t explode out at the viewer, but feels more long-lasting than a flash in the pan special effects picture.
Next up in Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns

Film 2010 #22 – Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy (2008, dir. Henrik Ruben Genz)

It’s a common plot device in literature of all kinds to tell the story of the outsider in the tight-knit community. The plot of this Danish film could easily be dropped down into the middle of any Midwestern agricultural based small town. We have a disgraced police officer, Robert, punished by being moved from Copenhagen to a small outpost in South Jutland. Once there he meets Ingerlise, a young wife and mother whose husband, Jørgen beats her daily. Robert is tries to keep things professional but is slowly but surely seduced beyond his duties as an officer of the law. Things progress until Robert finds his hands stained with blood and his destiny now tightly grasped in the hands of the townspeople who dislike having outsiders interfere in village business.
Landscape is a vitally important element of the film. The small town is surrounded by dismal bogs and we’re told in the opening voice over of how cows are swallowed up in a matter of minutes. One particular town legend tells of a cow who surface in the spring and birthed a two-headed calf (one cow, one human) and the cow was hidden away after women began having stillbirths. This story is a metaphor for the politics of the town. Horrible things may happen but they townsfolk hide them away so that they don’t contaminate the rest of the populace. The bog itself both metaphorically and literally swallows up the town secrets. A half sunken truck peers ominously above the water but it is never explained, the circumstances of its arrival there hidden away decades ago.
It would be easy to cast Robert as the hero against the townspeople and for the first 45 mins of the film it appears that will be so. But as the circumstances of the officer’s placement in the wilderness are revealed it becomes obvious that Robert hides as much as the citizenry around him. As these past indiscretions are uncovered, Robert becomes assimilated more and more into the workings of the town. When he first responds to a juvenile shoplifter and is told by the store manager the old marshal would hit the boy and that would teach the lesson, Robert is appalled and says he would never hit a child. Later in the film, when the second shoplifting incident occurs, Robert doesn’t hesitate for a second to strike the child down.
This is a very complex crime film about unspoken social contracts. As quirky and eerie as the town appears and as dark as Robert’s actions become, they are fundamentally no different than a community where a father who abuses his family goes unreported or where a young woman refrains from reporting a rape out of fear of how her social standing will be effected. Director Genz tells a very universal story in a clever and dynamic way.

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.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.


Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.