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.
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.
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.
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
A.D. (dir. Ben Hibbon) – the sad part about this film is it hasn’t been made yet. This teaser trailer was produced to help promote the film and see if a major studio would pick it up. An adult-oriented animated zombie film with the this stylized look would be awesome.
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.
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.