Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

























MIDNIGHT IN PARIS                       B                     
USA  Spain  (100 mi)  2011  d:  Woody Allen

What’s a Woody Allen movie without wall to wall jazz music, this time by Cole Porter and Sydney Bechet?  This aspect of his filmmaking since the 1980’s remains utterly unchangeable, as certain as there is film in the camera, which adds to a peculiar similarity in all his films.  Can you imagine Bergman or Kubrick repeatedly using the exact same style of music in their films, and for decades on end?  This would be preposterous, as cinema is about seeking new challenges, not treading over the same material.  Unfortunately, with Allen, for decades now he has continued to make sophisticated comedies about the bourgeois rich upper class, attempting to blend a myriad of different character development into this examination of cultural snobbery, but let’s face it, they all feel pretty much alike.  So lately, instead of writing new storylines, he’s shifted his locations from New York City, to London, and now Paris, where the city itself becomes the main character.  While Allen’s view of Paris is steeped in historical romanticism, even using time travel here as a device to go back more than a hundred years to visit the artists who thrived here, the present day characters he invents feel exactly the same, tired, empty, upper class snobs who are of no interest to anyone, least of all themselves.  And herein lies the problem with every single Woody Allen film in decades.  It doesn’t matter what the story is or who the casting director chooses, it’s still inhabited by pompous, empty-headed, overly pampered human beings who would not make very good company in our own homes, as we’d immediately grow tired of their self-centered, opinionated arrogance.  Get a life, for Christ’s sake. 

Allen was much better when he was writing about young lovers who were infatuated as much with the idea of love as each other, where the blossoming spirit of youth was infectious, where his humor was accompanied by a parade of personal anxieties about sex and commitment that were as revelatory as it was charming.  But in middle age, he has grown tired of the world around him, which barely interests him any more, surrounded by characters that hold little interest to movie audiences.  This, oddly enough, is the preface for his latest film, a rich and glamorous Hollywood couple, Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson as Inez and Gil, in Paris accompanying her boringly rich parents on a trip, each approaching the idea of Paris in separate ways.  While they are engaged to be married, their future is uncertain, as he’s tired of writing successful movie screenplays, as he believes the economic security of living in lavish comfort is preventing him from writing a more challenging novel, while she is just waiting for him to give up on his dreams and accept the fact that he’s a fabulously successful movie writer.  While in Paris, they are joined by a former college professor, Michael Sheen as Paul, who sees himself as an expert on French art history, where Inez relishes the idea of shopping to her heart’s content and visiting the sites with her own personal guide.  Gil, on the other hand, is bored by the pretentious arrogance of Paul, a smug, pseudo intellectual who belongs in a dark study somewhere drinking brandy and smoking a pipe.  So while Inez runs off to drink with Paul, who she continually finds impressive, Gil sets off on his own each night walking the streets of Paris, searching for something a little more intensely personal. 

Gil’s curiosity leads him into a treasure trove of his imagination, where an illuminated Paris of the 20’s mysteriously comes alive before his eyes, where he’s swept off his feet by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his manic wife Zelda, meeting a dour Hemingway who’s constantly talking about death and bravery, who introduces him to Picasso and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who’s willing to take a look at his latest manuscript.  Despite wearing modern era clothes and being somewhat befuddled at how he got there, Gil is immediately accepted into this inner circle of artists, including the shared mistress of both Picasso and Hemingway, Marion Cotillard as Adriana, someone who shares his fondness for the past.  With Adriana as his guide, so to speak, his tour of the iconic Parisian nightclubs of the 20’s has him sharing drinks at the same table as Salvador Dali, sensationally played by Adrien Brody, a man who invites Buñuel and Man Ray to his table only to revel in his personal obsession with himself and, of course, the recurring image of a rhinoceros.  Each night as he returns back to the hotel, Inez has little use for what she finds to be his monotonous adolescent excursions, continuing to re-live the fantasies of his youth, just wondering when he’ll wake up and become an adult.  This nod to yesteryear is cleverly handled, with all too brief appearances by some of the century’s greatest artists, where the present day era is suffocatingly boring in comparison, offering current traveling companions that simply reek of vanity and global indifference.  From start to finish, the sumptuous cinematography by Darius Khondji is glowingly luminous, where the opening montage of Paris is scintillating, capturing an unending landscape of mesmerizing Parisian allure.  While this does have a rapturous beauty as we glamorize the past in rhapsodic, dreamlike reverie, this is something of an idyllic, picture post card view of life, never really tackling any of the important issues of this or any other era, feeling instead like Allen is namedropping his way through art history.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Limey














THE LIMEY                         A-                   
USA  (89 mi)  1999  d:  Steven Soderbergh

One of Soderbergh’s best films, if not the best, this is a taut thriller, a quirky character study that a decade later still dazzles with Soderbergh’s startlingly inventive edits and storytelling style, gorgeously shot by Edward Lachman, making some of the best uses of locations that exist on the west coast, including two of the most modern architecturally designed homes ever seen, one in Los Angeles, a glass home overlooking the city and the neighboring hills with a pool jutting out into thin air, and another wood chalet built on a cliff in a dense forest with giant windows and a deck overlooking the ocean at Big Sur.  In the film, both are owned by the same man, Peter Fonda as Terry Valentine, a filthy rich Los Angeles record producer who struck it rich in the 60’s by riding the counterculture wave, though throughout this film he has a surprise in store for him.  Given the fractured, somewhat experimental feel in the way this film unfolds, it remains modernistic even as it explores various genre styles, from a present day era take on Raymond Chandler’s dizzyingly corrupt portrait of the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, using a gem of a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, very concise and small scale at 89 minutes, to the brilliant casting, using two Oscar nominated actors whose characters play upon their earlier movie roles.  This uncanny device adds humor and a cleverly intriguing storyline element that wouldn’t otherwise be there.  Soderbergh interestingly acquired the rights to Ken Loach's 1967 film POOR COW starring Terrence Stamp as a young thief named Wilson, the same name used by his character in this film where he plays a thief some thirty years later.  Using flashbacks interspersed throughout of his images from the earlier film, also snapshot recollections of his young daughter, the director builds an interior landscape of the character’s introspection.  Apparently this same technique has been done earlier, using 1930’s movie clips of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), also a brief montage of a much younger John Wayne to contrast his character’s dying thoughts as an aging gunfighter in THE SHOOTIST (1976), but never was this device put to more imaginative use than this film. 

From the opening shot, an out of focus fade from black to a grizzled portrait of the hard-nosed face of the now aged Terrence Stamp, once a playboy from the 60’s notorious in the tabloids for having dated Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie, and Jean Shrimpton, now playing a British ex-con recently released from prison arriving at the Los Angeles airport on a personal mission, as he’s searching for the truth behind his young daughter’s recent death from a tragic late night car crash.  The first person he looks up is a surprised Luis Guzmán at his modest neighborhood home, who hooks up as his partner throughout the film, becoming his American source for information.  The introductory set pieces are uncannily good, surprisingly so, as Stamp’s brazen actions are a match for Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood as DIRTY HARRY (1971), only with a thick British accent which is completely unrecognizable to the Los Angeles underworld, where thoughts are seamlessly interjected into Wilson’s psyche and spoken words often continue offscreen while the action jumps ahead, using a layered technique overlapping on top of what’s seen onscreen.  This adds a degree of seriousness and intelligence to Stamp’s character, as it’s clear he’s thinking several moves ahead, like a chess player playing it all out in his head before he makes his move.  Stamp clearly relishes this role, as he couldn’t be more relaxed and comfortable as a lone man taking on the mob or hired thugs, a world where everyone else around him is continually uptight, especially the ex-stoner, aging 60’s icon Peter Fonda who as a super rich capitalist with a creepy yearning for borderline underage teenage girls leans more towards the paranoid personification of the Dennis Hopper character in EASY RIDER (1969), always afraid the cops are closing in on him, hiring muscle, Barry Newman from the counterculture road flick VANISHING POINT (1971), to keep them away — yet another character doing a variation on an earlier role.    

There’s an excellent soundtrack to this movie, including a classic scene set to the music of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” where Fonda in his convertible makes his getaway up the Pacific coast highway with his perfect looking teen hottie in tow, Amelia Heinle, looking a bit like a very young Denise Richards, spending a good deal of time in bathtub scenes, where in a rambling scattered thought he tries to describe for her what the 60’s were like, never really quite spitting it out.  Speaking of classic scenes, wiseass Nicky Kaat and his wacked out partner Joey Dellasandro, from the late 60’s Warhol films, are hired to take care of Wilson, whoever the hell he is, as he’s roaming the west coast like the second coming of the plague.  These lowlife hitmen are intensely amusing, providing twisted commentary and comic relief throughout, including the utterly tasteless joke:  “What is the smartest thing to come out of a woman's mouth?”  Answer.  “Einstein's cock.”  In due fashion there are more plot twists than turns in the road.  Leslie Ann Warren shows up as a friend of Wilson’s daughter, sharing recollections about the deceased, where they’re able to connect some of the missing pieces in his life, as he’s spent the last 8 years behind bars.  But he’s a man driven by a motive, as he’s sure Terry Valentine will answer his questions if put to him the right way.  Staking out a private residence in Big Sur, some of the most stunningly majestic land on earth, home of renowned meditative and psychological institutes, providing the expensive retreat for the stars, this is the unlikely scene for the final shootout.  For a gritty yet near abstract film that’s glued into a kind of stream of consciousness of the underworld, featuring a man who’s traveled halfway around the world to settle a score, where Wilson is always a step or two ahead of the other guys, laying out incomprehensible cockney chatter when need be, there’s a surprising amount of poignancy in Stamp’s character, beautifully underscored by a hauntingly quiet piano score by Cliff Martinez.  This is a small gem of a film that exists in a time capsule of cinema wonders.   

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls


















THE TOPP TWINS:  UNTOUCHABLE GIRLS                     B                     
New Zealand  (84 mi)  2009  d:  Leanne Pooley

There are some times [when] getting people to laugh, the whole crowd, that’s about the most political thing you can do.
—Jools Topp

Can a film be harmed by feeling too harmonious and upbeat?  Apparently not, as with barely an abrasive note to be seen anywhere in this loving portrait of twin sisters Jools and Lynda Topp, performing cowgirls who grew up on a dairy farm outside Auckland, touted as the country music loving, yodeling lesbians, they eventually become cultural institutions in New Zealand.  Their natural inclination for Vaudeville novelty acts as filtered through the Grand Ole Opry makes both of them something of a ham, each developing alter ego, comic side characters, but they couldn’t be more comfortable in front of an audience.  Perhaps the best footage in the entire film is shown early on when they sing on the streets as teenagers with Jools on the guitar busker style, where they are simply an adoring sister act with unstoppable energy and voices that blend marvelously together as one, where it’s hard to tell who sings what part, but as they stare into each others eyes as they sing, they couldn’t be more of a joy to watch.  It’s immediately obvious that they’re quite talented, especially for street musicians.  Realizing early on that they were both gay, with a brother who’s also gay, this was apparently quite natural for the two performers to be upfront and honest about it, never really having to come out of the closet, while it took their parents a little more time to process this surprising revelation. 

As American folk musicians identified with various causes and protest movements in the 60’s, the Topp twins identified with New Zealand’s social change in the 80’s, including the anti-Apartheid movement, the protection of Maori land rights, gay and lesbian civil rights, and the right to keep New Zealand nuclear free, all winning causes that they helped advance.  Even the former Member of Parliament, Fran Wilde, who introduced and passed the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Act that for the first time decriminalized homosexual behavior in New Zealand, gave credit to the Topps, indicating their wholesome cheerfulness and general likeability offset the charges that gays and lesbians deserved to remain on the fringe of society, where opposition member Norman Jones is seen in the film at a 1985 public meeting calling for gays to “Go back to the sewers where you came from…as far as I’m concerned, you can stay in the gutter,” suggesting further that anyone who would befriend homosexuals was subject to contracting AIDS.  Even the Topps acknowledged that the hate tactics at the time were so out of line that the public was infuriorated by the general tone of hostility.  The Topps, on the other hand, are like the lost Trapp Family singers from THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and revel in pastoral hillsides or pastures of healthy cows and horses, where they are at heart fairly mainstream farmgirls who have a special talent for singing and performing.

The twins topped off the decade with their 1989 Gypsy Caravan Tour, where they toured neighboring small towns while traveling in a small caravan on wheels pulled by a tractor, where at night in town halls they were met with swelling crowds, eventually leading to their own TV show where they introduced a variety of home grown characters, including cross-dressers performing comic skits.  While they are an odd choice to be the performers identified with a nation’s identity, their constantly upbeat, good natured humor apparently reflects that indomitable Kiwi spirit.  Their only apparent setback is when Jools develops breast cancer, forced on a heavy regimen of chemotherapy, losing most of her hair and energy for awhile, but never deterred.  There’s a beautiful anecdote about how when she returns home to her farm, the horses all came near her and helped nurse her back to good health by literally breathing life back into her.  Seen onstage years later after a successful recovery, she tells the story of how in her darkest hour she made her sister make one promise, that she’d sing her favorite song “My Pinto Pony and I” every day for the rest of her life.  Now that’s a song introduction guaranteed to bring the house down.  Still amazingly distinctive duet singers after 50 years, mostly the unflappable twins offer nostalgia-tinged music nowadays that has inspired them through the years.  While they’ve toured the world, they’ve never been interested in the limelight or fame, no limos, fancy hotels or major record contracts, preferring instead to remain committed to the authenticity of their natural roots, where they are right at home judging children’s sheep coloring contests at local county fairs.  While never getting introspective or delving that deeply into either sister, leaving out any hint that they were ever harassed, mistreated, or blacklisted, the film itself is more of a good will tour, an extension of home movies and concert footage, holding New Zealand’s box office record for a documentary. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead














BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD      B+      
USA  (117 mi)  2007  d:  Sidney Lumet

May you be in heaven half an hour... before the devil knows you're dead

With a career that was spawned in Yiddish theater at the age of 4, working on Broadway both as an actor and director (productions listed here: Sidney Lumet), later finding work in television dramas, moving to feature films 50 years ago with the actor accentuated court drama 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), Lumet was married at one point to Lena Horne’s daughter and several years ago was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy Awards (2005), and up to the age of 83 continued to make terrific ensemble works that feature the breakdown of moral order as seen from the highly personalized vantage point of the individual. 

A grim film that only grows grimmer, featuring ominous music from Carter Burwell that has a haunting funeral dirge feel, yet it’s a deliciously made heist gone wrong movie that tells the story through various character flashbacks revealing the circumstances that led up to the scene of the crime.  Written by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, using an overlapping time chronology, these sequence fragments are fraught with details and clues that connect the characters together in ways they don’t even know themselves, giving the audience unique insight into the unraveling events.  Something of a character study, events veer off the track from the opening nude scene where marital bliss turns sour, no explanation is offered, a dark omen that leads straight into the next sequence which is the heist itself, two back to back, in-your-face sequences that have an alarming level of intensity. 

Calmly and methodically, Lumet showcases the men who planned the heist, two brothers who couldn’t be more opposite, real estate banker Philip Seymour Hoffman whose drug-addicted pulse barely registers and Ethan Hawke, a squirmy, always over-anxious kind of guy who is behind in his child support payments and spends his time drowning his sorrows in a corner lounge.  Hoffman is so desperate for cash that he finds his mealy mouthed brother as just the right guy for the job, knocking off a tiny shopping mall jewelry store run by a lone, nearly blind, elderly employee.  Hawke balks at the offer, but he’s so desperate for cash that he soon changes his mind, leading to disastrous consequences.         

To ramp up the tension, Hoffman is married to Marisa Tomei, but she’s sleeping with Hawke, a dangerous double-edged sword that only begins to describe the kind of troubled world we’re entering.  Through extremely deliberate direction, we’re smack dab in the middle of a family crisis where events are literally spiraling out of control, where the bonds between them were broken long ago, and this incident is only intensifying the severity of the rifts.  It’s hard to believe that the most likable character in the film is a barely alive, creepy looking jewelry fence with criminal ties who relishes his opportunity to gain revenge through his understanding of the seedy world around him:  “The world is an evil place.  Some people make money from it, and some are destroyed by it.”  With almost Shakespearean aplomb, Lumet leads his players to their inevitable fates, accentuating the sense of their isolated journeys along the way.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Verdict

















THE VERDICT                                                           A-                   
USA  (129 mi)  1982  d:  Sidney Lumet

The weak have gotta have something to fight for.  Ain’t that the truth?   

The court doesn’t exist to give them justice.  The court exists to give them a chance at justice.    

You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true." And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims... and we become victims. We become... we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You are the law. Not some book... not the lawyers... not the, a marble statue... or the trappings of the court. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are... they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, "Act as if ye had faith... and faith will be given to you." If... if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.

—Frank Galvin (Paul Newman)

Once more, getting right into the teeth of the story, the film opens in a portrait of despair, with a man having bourbon and half-eaten doughnuts or a raw egg in his beer in a bar for breakfast before he attempts to solicit his attorney services through the obituary section by attending funerals—an ambulance chaser, a pathetic sight handing out his card, especially when seen through the darkened lens of Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography, making it painfully difficult to watch, especially as time wears on.  Set in the brown somber tones of old leather and wood, the audience bears witness to a thoroughly defeated man, humbled and humiliated into a crushing defeat at the hands of the world, groveling on his hands and knees, only seeing a blur through a dim alcoholic haze.  This describes Frank Galvin, Paul Newman in perhaps his best role during his distinguished and mature years, a guy just getting by, barely even a part of the world anymore, hanging on by a thread at the fringe.  Described as a lawyer with only three cases in four years, he’s a sorry sight, a demoralized man engulfed in a cloud of self pity.  This is a rather extraordinary set up, and the film takes its time revealing the full extent of his fall from grace.  Using a brilliant screenplay by David Mamet, adapted from a novel by Barry Reed, the old world Bostonian setting gives the film an intriguing historical reference point, a place where freedom was fought for and won, against heavy odds.  The interior architecture is richly detailed and textured, from the interior of a bar to the space inside the law offices or a courtroom.  Lumet’s virtuosity in filming architectural landscapes is as renowned and brilliantly conceived as his craftsmanship in creating interior landscapes.  The granite steps leading into the courthouse serve a noble purpose, offering a distinctive element that represents the corridors of justice and power, where at times the two can become intertwined and inseparable, a place rarely even visited by the little guy.  In Mamet’s eyes, the hallowed halls of justice serve the rich and powerful who can afford to pay for justice, while the rest are excluded in nearly every respect.  Before these pillars of the court, Frank Galvin has joined the ranks of the excluded.   

Jack Warden plays Mickey, Frank’s only friend left in the world, a bit gruff around the edges but a straight shooter, loyal and earnest, a guy who keeps throwing business Frank’s way during his drought, including a case coming up that has possibilities, one Frank isn’t the least bit prepared for, causing Mickey to walk out on him in disgust.  But his luck changes when he meets a girl in a bar, Laura, a very serious looking Charlotte Rampling.  In fact, the whole tone of the film shifts, becoming more animated and hopeful, where between bedroom affairs and dinner Frank spits out all this optimistic legalese that suggests the idealism of the law, not a perfect system, but one that at least offers the chance of justice.  Here love and justice feel intertwined, as Laura’s presence seems to have resuscitated an otherwise extinct species.  Pleading with Mickey to help him on the case, Frank’s life feels revitalized until he visits a young woman on life support that is the subject of his case, a girl in a coma since she was improperly anesthetized for a routine surgical procedure, the sight of which seems to both deflate and regalvanize his sinking spirits.  Since that act took place in a Catholic hospital, the Bishop himself meets with Frank and offers him a cash settlement of $210,000 to make amends, an amount he’s all too eager to accept, but has a change of heart, knowing the truth of what happened would be covered up forever, where the rich, once more, pay to have their dirty work remain hidden from view.  The obvious discrepancy between the two law firms is impossible not to notice, one is a staff of two men, while the other has literally dozens of people at the disposal of the lead attorney representing the Catholic Church, the smug, always overconfident picture of self-centered arrogance, James Mason as Ed Concannon, in another one of Mason’s slimy roles, playing a man the audience loves to hate.  But he’s used to winning and he’s used to having his way.  Unraveling slowly, the picture behind the scenes exposing just how he maintains that success rate is alarming to say the least. 

The story turns on several plot twists, where the meticulous nature of what lawyers do to prepare for a case is like a police procedural, as they have to contact potential witnesses who may have moved or changed their names, or chosen not to have anything to do with the case, or any number of reasons why they don’t wish to be contacted by an attorney desperate to put them on the stand.  When Galvin’s lead witness disappears in the dead of night, now off in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Caribbean, one realizes the immoral tactics he’s up against.  When his most convincing evidence disappears in an instant, his hopes dashed like a falling house of cards, Galvin panics when failure once more most assuredly comes knocking on his door.  Only at this point in the film does the camera finally move into the courtroom, the construction of which resembles Akira Kurosawa holding off the epic battle scenes in SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) until after the 3-hour mark.  Lumet’s decision similarly holds the tension in reserve while he goes to great lengths to carefully construct a more humane portrait of his main characters, so by the time they enter the scene of battle, the players are familiar and the audience is well aware of the stakes.   Red-haired, Irish accented Lindsay Crouse is positively exquisite in her small but remarkably potent role as a last second witness.  From the moment Galvin finds her, she’s a game changer, and one of the most eloquent pleas he makes in the entire film is humbly asking for her help.  This of course leads to the real drama in the courtroom, which reaches a climax in the quietest moment in the film when Frank makes perhaps the best closing argument in all of cinema, quoting the gospel, “Act as if ye had faith.”  This paramount moment answers all the swirling doubts and the burdens carried on the backs of so many fatigued and overloaded Sidney Lumet characters.  While many believe the quote is from Galatians or St. Paul, it’s actually from Mamet, answering that trembling, anxiety-ridden, alcoholic panic attack seen earlier in the film, slamming the bathroom door, shutting the world out, barely able to breathe, pulling himself together finally when it matters the most, recovering the lost vestiges of his long sought after soul.     

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Network
















NETWORK           A-                   
USA  (121 mi)  1976  d:  Sidney Lumet

We’ll wipe that fucking Disney right off the air.                 
—Max Schumaker (William Holden)                    

That Mao Tse-Tung Hour is turning into one big pain in the ass.  
—Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway)

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”
—Howard Beale (Peter Finch)

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
—Arthur Jensen, corporate owner of the Network (Ned Beatty)

Paddy Chayefsky is the story of this movie, as this film lives and breathes every word he’s written in what is arguably one of the greatest screenplays in movie history (See Tim Dirks’ web evaluation here:  http://www.filmsite.org/101greatestscreenplays4.html), although Billy Wilder was no slouch.  Always smart and cleverly inventive, this is a cynically demented yet highly entertaining bleak apocalyptic vision that reveals how the television industry is destroying the human race.  This scathingly dark satire on the far-reaching global effects of television is brilliantly prophetic, as true today as it was when it was written, perhaps even more so because so much of what seemed like hare-brained economic hypotheses at the time are more in evidence today.  In short, this is a film about wacko sidewalk preachers who for generations have stood on soapboxes in the rain and cold, perhaps with a cheap microphone, passing out pamphlets, trying to scream the apocalyptic truths from the mountaintops, usually assured that no one would listen, until someone invented the perfect platform along with a voicebox called television.  Somehow, while the whole world watches, what passes for the truth in the world is what happens to be seen on TV, historic moments like the assassination and funeral service of President Kennedy, the subsequent murder of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald captured on live TV, brutally violent photographic accounts bringing the war in Vietnam home to people’s living rooms along with the mounting demonstrations and protests against the war, the street clashes at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago which turned into a police riot, effectively ruining any Democrats chance of winning the Presidency, or live feeds of the first man on the moon, which many today still believe was concocted in a back room television studio somewhere.  This was the TV generation raised to see and hear the daily reports of history unravel on the 5 o’clock news as reported by the network confidant Walter Cronkite, who was as wise and likeable as a friendly grandfather sharing the world’s pain with each passing day, perhaps making it a little easier to bear.  This is the unseen and untold backdrop to NETWORK, which is simply one’s familiarity with television. 

The cast of the film is impeccable, all with worthy resumé’s of note, with 3 actors winning Academy Awards that year, a distinction it shares with only one other film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), with a storyline that features a Billy Wilder-like SUNSET BLVD. (1950) narrator, perhaps in tribute.  The focus is on aging news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a fellow of Edward R. Murrow in the glory days of television, but now a man whose ratings have fallen leaving the network no choice but to fire him.  Going out in style, he uses his last network appearance to announce his suicide on the air, suggesting that would jettison the ratings before railing against the hypocrisy in the world, like any good soapbox preacher, building up a healthy sense of righteous indignation on the air before signing off.  Behind the scenes, the television personnel are quick to pull the plug with that old standard cop out:  “Please stand by, as we are experiencing technical difficulties.”  William Holden as Max Schumacher is Beale’s best friend and the head of the News Division, who keeps Beale on the air for as long as possible, as every element of his crying anguish rings with truth, perhaps thinking it’s about time some of the network heads heard it head on.  However, in typical corporate fashion, heads will have to roll for this disastrous display of televising live an unconscionable moment.  Enter Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, a corporate climber with a near delirious addiction to good ratings, the life blood of the television industry, a behind-the-scenes Lady Macbeth wringing her hands with gleeful delight as someone gladly willing to step on her own grandmother in the pursuit of her own success.   Dunaway truly steals the movie with her manic joy at the chance to receive astounding ratings by broadcasting the mad ramblings of a lunatic on the air prophesizing his own gloom and doom, now himself the lead story on all the other networks and a front page news item, building a following of adoring fans who find every word he says filled with the unpredictable thrill of live television, staying tuned, wondering what craziness he’ll do next.   Diana’s mad hopes are realized as Beale becomes an overnight sensation, lighting up the airwaves with his mad rant “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” urging viewers to yell out their windows to spew their pent-up rage, becoming a modern day Messiah.   

Once more, Lumet has created a film with his pulse on the nation’s woes, like his previous work Dog Day Afternoon (1975), where one character carries upon his back the public outrage over unending racial strife, poverty, financial woes, urban blight, a crumbling government, a President resigning in disgrace, which subsequent President Gerald Ford just sweeps under the rug as if it never happened.  Like Al Pacino’s Sonny, Howard Beale bears the weight of the world’s ills on his shoulders.  His outrage and anger are a metaphor for the growing helplessness of those who see the world veering out of control, where even the right to vote can be ignored by as many as half the nation’s discouraged eligible voters.  But Beale is only part of the story, as this film does an excellent job stripping the veneer behind corporate excess, where behind the curtain in closed door suites are well financed billionaires pulling the levers of control not only of their giant tax-evading corporations, but also the nation’s newspapers, radio broadcasts and television airwaves, exerting a major political influence on their editorial content, shaping the view of the audience by manipulating them as they see fit.  In fact, this film itself is much like a giant full-length editorial, filled with plenty of screaming people who rant and rave over the deception of the truth through a neverending charade of lies and deceit.  The dialogue in this film is so rich with an excoriating venom of disgust over the outrageous hypocrisy of human deviousness, filled with a neverending stream of monologues that are not just devastating, but a screenplay that is overwhelming ambitious in scope, using a take no prisoners attitude while at the same time being presciently accurate, seeing the shape of the future before it happens.  Thirty or forty years later, the world very much resembles this demented vision of poorly vented outrage with steadily weakened, feeble-minded human beings who have lost all sense of power and individualism in the world except the right to vent their anger in a futile wrath of unending bitterness and disgust.  Whether this dark and scathing work is a cinema masterpiece is another story and still open to question, where the ALPHAVILLE (1965) like love story in the middle feels strangely out of place and has an eerily developing theatrical science fiction feel to it.  Despite being a work of fiction, this movie still plays like a documentary exposé filled with the bitter truths of living in today’s everchanging world.