Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All the President's Men

1972 was a difficult year in America. The Vietnam War raged on, the economy was stalling and the country was at odds with itself. It was also a Presidential election year and the incumbent, Richard Nixon, did not want to vacate the White House just yet. We now know that Nixon and his minions spent millions of dollars on lies and dirty tricks to keep him in the Oval Office. We have also learned of Nixon's intense paranoia and how that paranoia seeped into the reelection campaign. We know these things because of 2 reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They spent thousands of hours working this story to expose a corrupt administration and bring some of them to justice. This film tells that amazing story.

All the President's Men is an exciting and compelling film about very boring actions. Woodward and Bernstein, or "Woodstein" as they would later be called, spent months uncovering small details about a burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. We now know that this burglary was orchestrated by the Nixon White House to "bug" the Democratic offices to gain information for the election. Even though Nixon had a huge lead in the polls and was running against a candidate that he chose, his fear would not let him relax. The dirty tricks, false press releases, smear campaigns and illegal break ins continued.

Phone calls, doors slammed in their faces and research in a library don't make for the most exciting cinema, but actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman along with Director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman make this a fascinating, fast-paced movie. The film is played like a detective novel. Hard-working reporters follow up leads in an effort to find the truth. Woodward even has a secret source, dubbed "Deep Throat", with whom he had clandestine meetings in the wee hours of the night in parking garages. By playing this like a 30s crime drama, perhaps starring Bogart and Cagney, we find tension through-out this excellent film.
The direction is tight, the script top-notch and the acting strong. Hal Holbrook, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards and Jack Warden all lend their considerable skills to the fine ensemble to add more depth and dimension to this historic detective work.

Jason Robards won the Best Supporting Actor for his fine work while William Goldman won for Best Screenplay. All the President's Men won 4 Oscars and was nominated for 4 others including Best Picture and Best Director. This is a fine film about an amazing piece of American history.

Filmed in 1976, directed by Alan J. Pakula, written by William Goldman from the book by Woodward and Bernstein, starring Robert Redford, Dusting Hoffman, Hal Holbrook, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards and Jack Warden. One important note: Robert Redford so believed in this project that he, personally, bought the movie rights to the book for $450,000. He wanted to insure that the film captured the diligence of the reporters and showed the historic nature of the events.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Under Our Skin

"There's no medicine for someone like you."

Can you imagine? Being so sick that you can't walk nor even control your actions. You go to see your doctor, then 5 more, then a dozen more and all of them say the same thing. "You're faking it. Go see a shrink. You have already been cured." The frustration and fear of Lyme's disease patients are palpable throughout this fine documentary. Lyme's Disease is named for a small town in Connecticut where the diligent work of a resident, who noticed all the illness in her neighborhood, forced doctors and researchers to investigate. We now know that ticks, primarily deer ticks, transmit this disease through biting humans. What I did not know is how devastating it can be if left untreated/undiagnosed.

Director Andy Abrahams Wilson does a terrific job of conveying these extremely difficult situations with this film. There is lots of footage of patients from around the country telling their very personal stories. They describe the horrors of the disease, the difficulty in getting diagnosed and treated and how they have to travel thousands of miles to find any doctor who is willing to help. Wilson also attempts to expose some of the hypocrisy of doctors and insurance companies as they fight to protect their own patents and income.

This movie is well-filmed, interestingly edited and compelling to the viewer. It also quite maddening! When you see doctors with God Complexes telling people who can't walk that "it's all in your head" or "you are a pretty girl. Can't you get attention some other way?" you may wish to strike something. But that shows the power of Wilson's work with Under Our Skin.

Take a long look at this film, just don't keep anything breakable nearby. It may not survive.

Filmed in 2008, directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson.

Friday, July 8, 2011

49th Parallel

Watch this classic adventure/propaganda film on TCM today!

Fabulous propaganda/adventure film! Filmed in 1941 and released before the U.S.A. entered World War 2, 49th Parallel tells the story of the crew of a German U-boat sunk off the coast of Canada. 6 members of the crew escape the sub and attempt to flee to neutral America. All the while Canadian authorities and citizens are hot on their trail. Eric Portman is strong as the leader of the Germans, while British stars like Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard portray the Canadians.

This film is a good adventure film. The German crew, on the run, attempt a harrowing journey across a hostile continent. They meet Eskimos in the north, French-Canadian trappers, local business men, hutterite farmers and a slew of officials as they traverse the second largest country on Earth. From the shores of Hudson Bay to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains the vast wilderness that is Canada is a major player in this fine thriller.

Also, this film is fantastic propaganda. Filmed by acclaimed British-born director Michael Powell, 49th Parallel tells this story to not only thrill the viewer, but to convince us of the strength of Democracy and the weakness of Fascism/Germany. All, but one, of the Germans are arrogant, Hitler-worshipping, group-thinking hate-mongers. They eventually kill the one member of the crew that feels any compassion/attraction to Canada and its peoples. On the other hand, all the Canadians are individuals, able to think, react and succeed on their own. One scene has the German crew amazed that the leader of a local religious community does not "punish" people who disagree with him. On several occasions the officer in charge of the German crew gives a passionate speech about the strengths of the Aryan/Nordic peoples and expects the local citizenry to join him in fighting the "weak" Canadian government. Much to his surprise, but not to ours, no one wants to join the Nazis. Canadians may complain about their government, but they sure don't want to be Nazis.

Director Powell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Emeric Pressburger do a fantastic job of using film and story to present a political view while still entertaining the audience. This film is terrific as an adventure thriller, but excels when looked at as propaganda. After viewing compare this movie with the films produced by the German film maker Leni Riefenstahl, particularly 'Triumph of the Will'. Her Nazi propaganda features lots of powerful music, marching soldiers and speeches by Hitler and Party leaders. Contrast that with 49th Parallel. No marching soldiers, just ordinary citizens. No bombastic score, just strong story-telling. No speeches by dictators, just speeches by the common person who loves their country and their freedom. If you ever want to explain the differences between Western democracy and Fascist dictatorships you can show these two films. No better statement could be made.

Filmed in 1941, directed by Michael Powell, written by Emeric Pressburger, starring Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns and Anton Walbrook.

Friday, July 1, 2011

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Today is director Sydney Pollack's birthday. Celebrate by watching this fantastic film!

Set during the Great Depression, this story of a dance marathon provides an existential reflection of life under immense pressure. The dancers represent all the difficulties and hopes of this dark period in American history. Jane Fonda plays a self-loathing woman bent on her own destruction. She somehow attracts the interest of Michael Sarazin with shocking results.

The despair of people during the Depression is ever present in the collection of dancers. The "contest" is a destructive attack on the physical and emotional endurance of all the participants. How each of them handle this pressure is the true tale told here.

Gig Young plays the caring and sleazy promoter of the dance marathon. He received an academy award for his attention-demanding performance. But it is the story of the dancers, led by Fonda and Sarazin, upon which the movie rests. The cast does a fabulous job. Desperate for the prizes the contestants battle for weeks against all odds. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? requires your attention through the last moment.

Director Sydney Pollack handles the adaptation of the Horace McCoy novel with a deft touch. The subject matter requires respect, but Pollack keeps the film from falling into the maudlin. The adaption of the script by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is bravely done. The novel is hardcore and so is the film.

Filmed in 1969, Directed by Sydney Pollack, Written by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarazin, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Susannah York and Bruce Dern.