An October Film Review: Ed Wood (dir by Tim Burton)


From start to end, the 1994 film Ed Wood is a nearly perfect film.

Consider the opening sequence.  In glorious black-and-white, we are presented with a house sitting in the middle of a storm.  As Howard Shore’s melodramatic and spooky score plays in the background, the camera zooms towards the house.  A window flies open to reveal a coffin sitting in the middle of a dark room.  A man dressed in a tuxedo (played to snarky and eccentric perfection by Jeffrey Jones) sits up in the coffin.  Later, we learn that the man is an infamously inaccurate psychic named Criswell.  Criswell greets us and says that we are interested in the unknown.  “Can your heart handle the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr!?”

As streaks of lightning flash across the sky, the opening credits appear and disappear on the screen.  The camera zooms by tombstones featuring the names of the cast.  Cheap-looking flying saucers, dangling on string, fly through the night sky.  The camera even goes underwater, revealing a giant octopus…

It’s a brilliant opening, especially if you’re already a fan of Ed Wood’s.  If you’re familiar with Wood’sfilms, you know that Criswell’s appearance in the coffin is a reference to Orgy of the Dead and that his opening monologue was a tribute to his opening lines from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  If you’re already a fan of Ed Wood then you’ll immediately recognize the flying saucers.  You’ll look at that octopus and you’ll say, “Bride of the Monster!”

And if you’re not an Ed Wood fan, fear not.  The opening credits will pull you in, even if you don’t know the difference between Plan 9 and Plan 10.  Between the music and the gorgeous black-and-white, Ed Wood is irresistible from the start.

Those opening credits also announce that we’re about to see an extremely stylized biopic.  In the real world, Ed Wood was a screenwriter and director who spent most of his life on the fringes of Hollywood, occasionally working with reputable or, at the very least, well-known actors like Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi.  He directed a few TV shows.  He wrote several scripts and directed a handful of low-budget exploitation films.  He also wrote a lot of paperbacks, some of which were semi-pornographic.  Most famously, he was a cross-dresser, who served in the army in World War II and was wearing a bra under his uniform when he charged the beaches of Normandy.  Apparently, the stories of his love for angora were not exaggerated.  Sadly, Wood was also an alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 54.

Every fan of Ed Wood has seen this picture of him, taken when he first arrived in Hollywood and looked like he had the potential to be a dashing leading man:

What people are less familiar with is how Ed looked after spending two decades on the fringes of the film business:

My point is that the true story of Ed Wood was not necessarily a happy one.  However, one wouldn’t know that from watching the film based on his life.  As directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as being endlessly positive and enthusiastic.  When it comes to determination, nothing can stop the film’s Ed Wood.  It doesn’t matter what problems may arise during the shooting of any of his films, Wood finds a way to make it work.

A major star dies and leaves behind only a few minutes of usable footage?  Just bring in a stand-in.  The stand-in looks nothing like the star?  Just hide the guy’s face.

Wrestler Tor Johnson (played by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele), accidentally walks into a wall while trying to squeeze through a door?  Shrug it off by saying that it adds to the scene.  Point out that the character that Tor is playing would probably run into that wall on a regular basis.

Your fake octopus doesn’t work?  Just have the actors roll around in the water.

The establishment won’t take you seriously?  Then work outside the establishment, with a cast and crew of fellow outcasts.

You’re struggling to raise money for your film?  Ask the local Baptist church.  Ask a rich poultry rancher.  Promise a big star.  Promise to include a nuclear explosion.  Promise anything just to get the film made.

You’re struggling to maintain your artistic vision?  Just go down to a nearby bar and wait for Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) to show up.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best film.  It’s certainly one of the few Burton films that actually holds up after repeat viewings.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Wood and Burton shared a passionate love for the movies and that Burton related to Wood and his crew of misfits.  It’s an unabashedly affectionate film, with none of the condescension that can sometimes be found in Burton’s other film.  Burton celebrates not just the hopes and dreams of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and Criswell but also of all the other members of the Wood stock company, from Vampira (Lisa Marie) to Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), all the way down to Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Loretta King (Juliet Landau).  Though Ed Wood may center around the character of Wood and the actor who plays him, it’s a true ensemble piece.  Landau won the Oscar but really, the entire cast is brilliant.  Along with those already mentioned, Ed Wood features memorable performances from Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette (one playing Wood’s girlfriend and the other playing his future wife), G. D. Spradlin (as a minister who ends up producing one of Wood’s films), and Mike Starr (playing a producer who is definitely not a minister).

For me, Ed Wood is defined by a moment very early on in the film.  Wood watches some stock footage and talks about how he could make an entire movie out of it.  It would start with aliens arriving and “upsetting the buffaloes.”  The army is called in.  Deep delivers the line with such enthusiasm and with so much positive energy that it’s impossible not get caught up in Wood’s vision.  For a few seconds, you think to yourself, “Maybe that could be a good movie…”  Of course, you know it wouldn’t be.  But you want it to be because Ed wants it to be and Ed is just do damn likable.

As I said before, Ed Wood is a highly stylized film.  It focuses on the good parts of the Ed Wood story, like his friendship with Bela Lugosi and his refusal to hide the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who loves angora.  The bad parts of his story are left out and I’m glad that they were.  Ed Wood is a film that celebrates dreamers and it gives Wood the happy ending that he deserved.   The scenes of Plan 9 From Outer Space getting a raptorous reception may not have happened but can you prove that they didn’t?

I suppose now would be the time that most reviewers would reflect on the irony of one of the worst directors of all time being the subject of one of the best films ever made about the movies.  However, I’ll save that angle for whenever I get a chance to review The Disaster Artist.  Of course, I personally don’t think that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time.  He made low-budget movies but he did what he could with what he had available.  If anything, Ed Wood the film is quite correct to celebrate Ed Wood the director’s determination.  Glen or Glenda has moments of audacious surrealism.  Lugosi is surprisingly good in Bride of the Monster.  As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, what other film has a plot as unapologetically bizarre as the plot of Plan 9?  For a few thousand dollars, Wood made a sci-fi epic that it still watched today.  Does that sound like something the worst director of all time could do?

Needless to say, Ed Wood is not a horror film but it’s definitely an October film.  Much as how Christmas is the perfect time for It’s A Wonderful Life, Halloween is the perfect time for Ed Wood.

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Shattered Politics #58: City Hall (dir by Harold Becker)


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Interestingly enough, New York City may be the center of wealth and politics in the United States but being Mayor of New York rarely leads to any sort of greater office.  Though the Americans Elect people tried to unsuccessfully recruit Michael Bloomberg in 2012 and there’s a few deluded souls who seem to think that Bill de Blasio could run and win in 2016, only three NYC mayors have taken the plunge and actually run for President.  Of the three of them, DeWitt Clinton was the most successful.  He not only won the Federalist nomination but he came close to beating James Madison in the election of 1812.  However, both John V. Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani were forced to end their campaigns when their electoral success in New York failed to translate into votes outside of the Northeast.

And that’s the thing really.  Everyone in America knows that New York is an important city, perhaps the most important city in the United States.  And they resent the Hell out of it.  It’s kinda like how the rest of country hates my home state of Texas because they need our oil more than we need … well, whatever the Hell it is that the rest of the country brings to the table.

I mean, let’s face it.  There’s a lot of resentment out there.  And that resentment will probably keep anyone from going from Gracie Mansion to the White House.

That’s one of the problems that I had with the 1996 film City Hall.  In order for City Hall to work, you have to believe that Mayor John Pappas has a legitimate chance to not only be nominated for President but to win the election as well.  At the start of the film, we’re informed by Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack, speaking in one of the worst attempts at a Louisiana accent that I’ve ever heard) that Pappas is the greatest mayor that New York City has ever had.  I guess that might be true, even though we really don’t see any evidence of that fact.  (Pappas does get to deliver a few monologues about how much he loves New York but if love is all it took, I’d be a really kick ass Prime Minister of Canada.)  However, it’s because Mayor Pappas is such a product of New York City that he’d probably never be able to actually win a primary in Vermont and capture Iowa’s electoral votes.  That’s one reason why it’s difficult to buy Mayor Pappas as a future President.

The other reason is that Mayor Pappas is played by Al Pacino.  And we’re not talking about Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon Al Pacino here.  Instead, we’re talking about raspy voiced, constantly bellowing, thousand-yard state Al Pacino.  As played by Al Pancino, it takes only one look at Mayor Pappas to imagine thousands a middle American voters running in terror away from the voting booths.

(One gets the feeling that if a large group of police officers ever turned their back on Mayor Pappas, he would immediately start jumping up and down while yelling, “YOU ARE TURNIN’ YOUR BACKS ON DA MAYOR HERE!  WHAT DA FUCK IS GOIN’ ON WITH THIS SHIT HERE!?”)

That said, there’s another reason why Mayor Pappas may never be President.  There’s been a shooting.  An undercover cop and a drug dealer shot each other.  A little boy was hit by a stray bullet.  The little boy is black but, oddly enough, nobody in the film ever suggests that there was any sort of racial element involved.  Instead, Mayor Pappas goes to the boy’s funeral and is enthusiastically applauded by the entirely African-American congregation.

It turns out that the drug dealer is the nephew of a mafia don.  He should have been in prison at the time of the shooting but instead, he was given an early release by a seemingly incompetent judge (Martin Landau).  As Calhoun and a lawyer named Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda, giving a good performance in a generically written role) investigate how the dealer came to be released, they discover that local politician Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello) may have had something to do with it.  Calhoun also discovers that his idol, Mayor Pappas, may know more than he’s saying as well…

If you do happen to watch City Hall, be sure to compare Danny Aiello’s performance with Al Pacino’s.  Both Aiello and Pacino are playing larger-than-life characters.  And both Aiello and Pacino have a tendency to bellow and to play big.  But, whereas Pacino’s performance feels forced and oddly empty, Aiello’s performance feels totally natural.  You actually believe that Aiello could be elected to a citywide office whereas Pacino — or at least the version of Al Pacino that shows up for City Hall — seems like he’d have a hard time getting elected to a student council, much less Mayor of America’s largest city.

Anyway, City Hall is currently making the rounds on cable, which is how I saw it.  It had the potential to be an interesting look at urban politics but, ultimately, it just doesn’t work.  To a certain extent, I hate to be negative about any film that, like City Hall, has its heart in the right place but the movie just doesn’t work.

 

Shattered Politics #56: The American President (dir by Rob Reiner)


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Way back in October, around the same time that I first decided that I would do a series of reviews of political films and that I would call it Lisa Gets Preachy (subsequently changed to Shattered Politics), I noticed that the 1995 film The American President was scheduled to be shown on TVLand.

“Hey,” I said, “I’ve definitely got to watch and review that!”

So, I set the DVR and I recorded The American President.

And then, I just left it there.

You have to understand that it’s rare that I ever leave anything unwatched on my DVR.  Usually, within an hour of recording a program, I’ll be watching it.  I have even been known to go so far as to make out very long lists of everything that I have on the DVR, just so I can make check them off after I’ve watched.  As a general rule, I am way too obsessive compulsive to just leave anything sitting around.

But, for whatever reason, I could never work up any enthusiasm for the prospect of actually watching The American President.  I knew that, eventually, I would have to watch it so that I could review it.  Unlike those folks criticizing American Sniper on the basis of the film’s trailer, I never criticize or praise a film unless I’ve actually watched it.  But  I just couldn’t get excited about The American President.

Can you guess why?  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s two words.  The first starts with A.  The second starts with S.

If you guessed Aaron Sorkin, then you are correct!  Yes, I do know that Sorkin has a lot of admirers.  And, even more importantly, I know that it’s dangerous to cross some of those admirers.  (I can still remember Ryan Adams and Sasha Stone insanely blocking anyone who dared to criticize the underwritten female characters in Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.)

But what can I say?  As a writer, Aaron Sorkin bothers me.  And since Sorkin is such an overpraised and powerful voice, he’s that rare scriptwriter who can actually claim auteur status.  The Social Network, for instance, was not a David Fincher film.  It was an Aaron Sorkin film, through and through.

And, after having to deal with three seasons of the Newroom and countless Aaron Sorkin-penned op-eds about why nobody should be allowed to criticize Aaron Sorkin, I’ve reached the point where dealing with all of Aaron Sorkin’s signature quirks is a bit like listening to the drill while strapped into a dentist’s chair.  I am weary of pompous and egotistical male heroes who answer every question with a sermon.  I am tired to endless scenes of male bonding.  I have had enough with the quippy, quickly-delivered dialogue, all recited as characters walk down an endless hallways.  I have no more sympathy for Sorkin’s nostalgic idealism or his condescending, rich, white dude version of liberalism.

Most of all, I’m sick of people making excuses for an acclaimed, award-winning, highly-paid screenwriter who is apparently incapable of writing strong female characters.  I’m tired of pretending that it doesn’t matter that Aaron Sorkin is apparently incapable of viewing female characters as being anything other than potential love interests or silly distractions who need to be told to go stand in a corner while the menfolk solve all the problems of the world.

Fortunately, as a result of The Newsroom, quite a few critics are finally starting to admit what they always knew to be the truth.  Aaron Sorkin is not the messiah.  Instead, he’s a somewhat talented writer who doesn’t understand (or, in my opinion, particularly like) women.  At his best, he’s occasionally entertaining.  At his worst, he’s pompous, didactic, and preachy.

And, of course, Aaron Sorkin is the man who wrote The American President.

So, The American President just sat there until a few days ago when I sighed to myself and said, “Okay, let’s watch this thing.”  As I watched it, I promised myself that I would try to see past the fact that it was an Aaron Sorkin-penned film and just try to judge the film on its merits.

But here’s the thing.  It’s nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Sorkin from The American President.  If you didn’t know that Sorkin had written The American President, you’d guess it after hearing the first few lines of dialogue.  The film, itself, was directed by Rob Reiner but it’s not as if Reiner is the most interesting of directors.  (What’s odd is that Reiner’s first films — This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me — are all so quirky and interesting and are still so watchable decades after first being released that you have to wonder how Reiner eventually became the man who directed The Bucket List.)  In short, The American President is totally an Aaron Sorkin film.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a liberal Democrat who, as he prepares to run for a second term, has a 63% approval rating.  However, when Shepherd decides to push through a gun control bill, he finds that approval rating threatened.  And then, when he listens to environmental lobbyist Sydney Wade (Annette Bening) and tries to push through legislation to reduce carbon emissions, his approval rating is again threatened.  And then, to top it all off, he starts dating Sydney.  It turns out that Sydney has protested American policy in the past.  And, since this is an Aaron Sorkin film, everyone outside of the Northeast is scandalized that President Shepherd is having premarital sex in the White House.

And, to top it all off, there’s an evil Republican named Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) who wants to be President and is willing to use the President’s relationship with Sydney to further his own evil Republican ambitions.

But, ultimately, it’s not just those evil Republicans who make it difficult for Sydney and the President to have a relationship.  It’s also the fact that the President agrees to a watered down crime bill and that he does not hold up his end of the bargain when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

“You’ve lost my vote!” Sydney tells him.

But — fear not!  There’s still time for President Shepherd to give a speech that will be so good and so brilliant that it will, within a matter of minutes, totally change every aspect of American culture and save the day.  How do we know it’s a great speech?  Because it was written by Aaron Sorkin!

Actually, I’m being too hard on the film and I’ll be the first admit that it’s because I’m personally not a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s.  But, to be honest, The American President is Aaron Sorkin-lite.  This film was written before the West Wing, before the Social Network, before that Studio Whatever show, and before The Newsroom.  In short, it was written before he became THE Aaron Sorkin and, as such, it’s actually a lot less preachy than some of his other work.  It’s true that, much like The Newsroom, The American President is definitely Sorkin’s fantasy of how things should work but at least you don’t have to deal with Jeff Daniels throwing stuff or Emily Mortimer not knowing how to properly forward an email.

Instead, it’s a film that will probably be enjoyed by those who share its politics.  (And, make no mistake, The American President is more interested in politics than it is in the love story between Andrew and Sydney.)  Michael Douglas does well in the role of the President.  Meanwhile, Annette Bening is so likable and natural as Sydney that it almost make up for the fact that she’s yet another Sorkin woman whose existence is largely defined by looking up to her man while inspiring him to do the right thing and forgiving him when he doesn’t.  Personally, I would have been happy if the film had ended with Sydney telling the President, “Thanks for finally doing the right thing but I have a life of my own to lead.”

But that wouldn’t be the Sorkin way.

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd

44 Days of Paranoia #13: Quiz Show (dir by Robert Redford)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at a film that I recently caught on cable — 1994’s Quiz Show.

Directed by Robert Redford and based on a true story, Quiz Show was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture but lost to Forrest Gump.  Among those of us who obsess over Oscar history, Quiz Show is often overshadowed by not only Forrest Gump but two of the other nominees as well, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.  When compared to Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show certainly feels old-fashioned.  At the same time, it’s not quite as much of a sentimental crowd-pleaser as Gump or Shawshank.  Perhaps for those reasons, Quiz Show never gets quite as much attention as some other films that have been nominated for best picture.  However, taking all of that into consideration, Quiz Show is still one of the best films of the 90s.

Quiz Show takes us back to the 1950s.  The most popular show on television is 21, a game show in which two contestants answer questions, win money, and try to be the first to score 21 points.  The American public believes that all of the questions asked on 21 are locked away in a bank vault until it’s time for the show.  What they don’t know is that the show’s producers have instead been rigging the show, giving the answers to contestants who they feel will be good for ratings.

When Quiz Show begins, nerdy Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) has been the champion for several weeks.  However, both the show’s producers and sponsors feel that the untelegenic Herbie has peaked.  Hence, the handsome and charismatic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is brought on the show and Herbie is ordered to lose to him.  Reluctantly, Herbie does so.

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Charles is initially reluctant to cheat but, as he continues to win, he finds himself becoming addicted to the fame.  Charles is the son of the prominent academic Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and his success on television finally gives him a chance to escape from his father’s shadow.  Indeed, the film’s subtle and nuanced portrait of Charles and Mark’s loving but competetive relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

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Herbie, however, is bitter over having to lose and has subsequently gambled away all of his winnings.  When 21′s producer (David Paymer) refuses to help Herbie get on another TV show, Herbie reacts by going to the New York County district attorney and publicly charging 21 as being fixed.  Though the grand jury dismisses Herbie as being obviously mentally unbalanced, his charges come to the attention of a congressional investigator, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow).

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Goodwin launches his own investigation into 21 and discovers that the show is fixed.  (As the ambitious Goodwin puts it, he wants to “put television on trial.”)  Along the way, he also meets and befriends Charles Van Doren and finds himself torn between his desire to expose the show and to protect Charles from the bad publicity.  Again, the film is to be applauded for the subtle way that it uses Goodwin’s investigation of both Charles and Herbie as a way to explore issues of both class resentment and class envy.  Goodwin may have come from the same ethnic background of Herbie but it quickly becomes obvious that Goodwin has more sympathy for the genteel (and very WASPy) world that produced Charles Van Doren.  When Goodwin tries to justify protecting Charles, his wife (played by Mira Sorvino) responds by calling him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews” and it’s hard not to feel that she has a point.

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While I greatly enjoyed Quiz Show, I do have to say that, on one major point, the film fails.  Try as he might, director Redford never convinces us that a rigged game show is really as big of a crime as he seems to be believe it to be.  Perhaps in the 1950s, people were still innocent enough to be shocked at the idea of television reality being fake but for cynical contemporary viewers, it’s hard not to feel that the “scandal” was more about Richard Goodwin’s ambition and less about any sort of ethical or legal issue.  Towards the end of the film, one character suggests that television will never be truly honest unless the government steps in to regulate it.  “What?” I yelled back at the TV.

Seriously, it seemed like a bit of an overreaction.

As I watched Quiz Show, I found it hard not to think about the reality shows that I love.  For instance, I know that The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are largely staged.  I know that the previous season of Big Brother was largely set up so that Amanda could win.  (And, believe me, if Amanda hadn’t sabotaged her chances by turning out to be a mentally unstable racist bully, she would have won and she would probably would have been invited back for the next all-stars season.)  I know that shows like Storage Wars and Dance Moms are “unscripted” in name only.  I know that reality shows aren’t real but my attitude can basically be summed up in two words: “who cares?”  Perhaps I would be more outraged if I lived in the 50s which, to judge from both Quiz Show and a host of other movies, was apparently a much more innocent time.

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That said, I really enjoyed Quiz Show.  A lot of that is because I’m a history nerd and, therefore, I have a weakness for obsessively detailed period pieces.  But even beyond that, Quiz Show is a well-made, entertaining film that features three excellent lead performances and several strong supporting turns.  If you love to watch great actors playing great roles then Quiz Show is the film for you.  Rob Morrow lays his Boston accent on a bit thick but otherwise, he does a good job of suggesting both Goodwin’s ambition and the insecurities that lead him to desire Charles’s friendship even as he tries to expose him as a fraud.  John Turturro brings an odd — if manic — dignity to Herbie Stempel while Johann Carlo is well-cast as his wife.  Best of all, Ralph Fiennes makes Charles Van Doren into a sad, frustrating, and ultimately sympathetic character while Paul Scofield is the epitome of both paternal disappointment and love as his father.  The film is full of great supporting turns as well, with David Paymer and Hank Azaria perfectly cast as the show’s producers and Christopher McDonald playing the show’s host with the same smarmy charm that he brought to a similar role in the far different Requiem For A Dream.  Perhaps best of all, Martin Scorsese shows up as the owner of Geritol and gets to bark, “Queens is not New York!”

Even if Robert Redford doesn’t quite convince us that the quiz show scandal was as big a deal as he obviously believes it to be, Quiz Show is still an uncommonly intelligent film and one that deserves to rediscovered.

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Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading

Film Review: Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi)


There are exactly two things that keep Sam Raimi’s otherwise entertaining 2009 horror romp Drag Me To Hell from being a classic.

The first is that, about halfway through the movie, Alison Lohman murders her pet kitten.  Admittedly, Lohman’s character is trying to thwart a gypsy curse at the time and the action does show just how terrified she’s become.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a cute kitten and quite frankly, I’m getting sick of seeing cats being killed in horror films.  There’s something truly hypocritical about how far most filmmakers are willing to go to assure an audience that a dog has somehow survived the end of the world while cats are continually killed on-screen without a second thought.

Am I saying that the film would have been better is Lohman had murdered a cute puppy instead?  Yes, I am.  At least that would have been unexpected.  That would have let the audience know that all the rules no longer applied.  Quite frankly, whenever you see a cat in a horror film, you know that cat is going to end up either pinned to a door or hanging in the closet.  Dogs, however, always make it to the end.

I imagine this is because there’s more “dog people” than “cat people” in the world.  People — especially men of a certain age — just love dogs and I’ve never really understood why.  I guess there’s a charm to a loud, smelly, slobbering beast eating its own fecal matter that I’ve never been able to pick up on.

The second thing that keeps Drag Me To Hell from reaching classic status is the fact that Bruce Campbell is nowhere to be found, making this the 1st Raimi film not to feature Bruce in at least a cameo.  Regardless of how well-made or entertaining the movie may have been, I sat through the entire thing waiting for Bruce to show up and, when he didn’t, it was hard not to feel as if perhaps an era in filmmaking had come to an end.

However, despite these two issues, Drag Me To Hell is probably one of the best horror movies to have been released in the past few years.  If nothing else, it proves that, even after directing three Spiderman films, Raimi is still a B-movie director at heart and a brilliant one at that.

In Drag Me To Hell, Alison Lohman plays Christine, a young bank loan officer who, attempting to impress her boss and win a promotion, refuses to give a loan to a decrepit old gypsy woman (played, wonderfully, by Lorna Raver as the type of grotesque character who could only appear in a Raimi film).  The gypsy woman responds by promptly dying but before doing so, she puts a curse on Christine.  In three days, Christine will be dragged to Hell.

What makes this is so effective is that Raimi, as opposed to a less adventurous director, sets the film up to suggest that perhaps Christine deserves to be dragged to Hell.  As disgusting as the old woman is, she clearly doesn’t deserve to be treated as badly as she is by Christine and Christine herself (even before she kills that poor kitten) is a bit of a fake, a former “fat girl” who, when she lets her guard down, reverts back to a country hick accent that she’s obviously spent a lot of time trying to lose. 

Lohman does an excellent job in the lead role, giving a likeable performance as an unlikeable character.  Speaking as a former country girl who still occasionally feels a twinge of shame when I hear myself say “git” instead of “get,” one of my pet peeves is when an actor or actress trots out an unconvincing, patronizing attempt at a rural accent.  However, Lohman captures the accent perfectly and, unlike most actors who try to play country, never allows her performance to just be about doing dialect.  Instead, both she and Raimi show how Christine’s insecurities lead to her actions without ever suggesting that they excuse them.

Though absence of Bruce Campbell is painfully obvious, Raimi still surrounds Lohman with a very strong supporting cast who all bring just the right amount of B-movie seriousness to their roles.  As Raver’s daughter, Bojana Novakovic appears in one the film’s best scenes in which she tauntingly explains the cure to Lohman.  Dileep Rao (who would be wasted later that year in Avatar) steals almost every scene he’s in as a friendly psychic who tries to help Lohman.  Lohman’s boyfriend is played by Justin Long (of the “I’m a Mac” fame) and he’s perfect as a somewhat nerdy guy who, quite frankly, seems like he might be a little bit too nice for his own good.  Plus, the film’s final scene proves that Long can shed a tear with the best of them.  Bruce Campbell would have been ideally cast as Lohman’s boss but, in Campbell’s absence, David Paymer fills the role well enough.

When Drag Me To Hell was first released in 2009, the majority of reviews described it as being an entertaining throwback to the old school horror films of the 50s and 60s.  And, in many ways, this is a totally correct assessment.  What wasn’t often mentioned was that Drag Me To Hell is one of the very few Hollywood horror films to capture the chaotic spirit of H.P. Lovecraft.  Countless filmmakers have attempted to bring Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to the screen and they’ve failed because they could never translate to the screen Lovecraft’s theme of mankind as a bunch of powerless pawns, existing and dying at the whims of a bunch of “demons” whose motivations could never be understood or questioned.  Though Drag Me To Hell is not based on Lovecraft’s work, it perfectly captures the feeling of helplessness in the face of metaphysical chaos that runs through Lovecraft’s best stories.  As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that Christine isn’t going to be dragged to Hell so much because of the gypsy curse as much as just because the movie’s demon has decided to drag her to Hell.  It’s this theme (and the way that Raimi relentlessly develops it) that takes Drag Me To Hell to a whole other level and which makes its final scene so powerful and effective.

When first released, Drag Me To Hell’s special effects were criticized by some and it is true that the film’s demon, when he does show up, is an obvious CGI creation but who cares?  If anything, the obvious fakeness of the demon adds to the film’s exploitation charm (though the demon is probably another role that Bruce Campbell could have done wonders with).  If you want perfect CGI devoid of subtext or originality, Avatar’s out on DVD.  Me, I’ll take Drag Me To Hell any day.