Sunday, 24 April 2011

Miller's Crossing

45. Miller's Crossing (1990)
Dir: Joel Coen


The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have undoubtedly made a sufficient mark in film history to be considered alongside the very greatest and most important directors who ever forged a big-screen image. Their debut, 'Blood Simple' (1984) was a crucial film in the early development and popularisation of the American independent film boom which thrived in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. The Coens have always been major figures, perhaps THE major figures, of the indie film world, not only as early influences but as writer-directors whose subsequent work has come to represent the very best, most inventive and enduring of this or any other cinematic category.

For me, the work of the Coen brothers opened up a whole new world of film appreciation. I was completely captivated by their distinctive sense of humour, their arresting, unique imagery and their knack for dialogue so memorable that it burns itself into your brain and tumbles from your mouth at a later date when you had no pre-planned intentions of quoting it. But it was their skillful ability to pay homage to and subvert recognised cinematic genres in equal measures which really seized me by the pants and threw me headlong into movie history. I started watching Coen brothers films in my early teens and from there my love of cinema grew into first a passion and then an obsession. My all-consuming desire to see and evaluate every film ever made anywhere by anyone was nurtured and facilitated by the reference points tha littered the Coens' catalogue and as I followed these celluloid breadcrumb trails I not only discovered hitherto unexplored delights but also found that my enjoyment of Coen brothers films was greatly enhanced by a growing ability to recognise and appreciate these references for myself without having to read about them first.

The Coens' effortless genre hopping has resulted in one of the most eclectic bodies of work ever and yet they are all unified by an instantly recognisable style which betrays their creator's presence. This contradictory nature has seen the directors shapeshift from one genre to another with each new film and yet allowed them to build and maintain a strong fanbase in thrall to their beloved, highly distinctive personal style. The Coen brothers take on the Gangster film emerged in a year dominated by films of that genre. Scorcese's 'Goodfellas' (1990), Coppola's 'Godfather Part III' (1990) and Abel Ferrara's 'King of New York' (1990) all inspired much buzz and discussion, both positive and negative. But while all this was going on, the elegant, intelligent and beautiful 'Miller's Crossing' somehow slipped through the cracks.

Although it was not a success at the time of release, 'Miller's Crossing' has come to be seen as one of the Coens' best, most mature films. Perhaps its commercial failure could be attributed to the acquired taste that is the Gangster genre but also to the fact that, this being only their third film, the Coens had not yet built up their loyal fanbase and the intentional chasm that seperated the tone of their previous two films, 'Blood Simple' and 'Raising Arizona' (1987), had left audiences completely unsure of what to expect next. The tone of 'Miller's Crossing' is an unusual one, both morbidly grim and vibrantly comedic, and this crucial complexity of mood certainly wouldn't have come across in promotional trailers. At an uninformed glance, 'Miller's Crossing' could well have looked like just another crusty period Gangster film. It was anything but.

Influenced by two Dashiell Hammett novels, 'The Glass Key' and 'Red Harvest' (the latter of which had also provided them with the title for 'Blood Simple'), 'Miller's Crossing' tells the complex story of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), right hand man of corrupt political boss Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney). When Leo refuses to allow gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for double-crossing him, it sparks a full-blown war in which Tom must carefully choose his allegiances. Complicating matters further are Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is conducting affairs with both Leo and Tom, not to mention the murdered Rug Daniels and Caspar's psychotic henchman Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman).

Armed for the first time with a relatively large budget, the Coens put it to good use, giving 'Miller's Crossing' an authentic and polished look and securing Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in pivotal roles. Byrne is hardly ever off-screen as we follow Tom from one camp to the other, never 100% sure of his real motives. It's a strong performance in a role that requires an ongoing stoicism and Byrne maintains this beautifully, allowing his co-stars to steal scenes as he quietly and calculatingly observes them. Finney doesn't fare quiet so well. He was brought in at the last minute when the Coens' original choice for the role of Leo, Trey Wilson (who played Nathan Arizona in their previous film) died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Although Finney is a fine actor, he seems to have a bad habit of getting himself miscast (other examples of this include 'Scrooge' (1970), 'Big Fish' (2003) and 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' (2007)) and he fails to completely convince as an Irish-American mobster. Fortunately, although his character is crucial to the story, Finney drops out of the film for a long stretch after its first half. And, if he doesn't quite nail it, he at least looks the part, scoring big in a wordless setpiece in which he singlehandedly takes on a barrage of would be assassins without even a moment's loss of dignity.

But it is the supporting roles that really bring 'Miller's Crossing' to life, populated as they are with soon-to-become-Coen-regulars getting their teeth into memorably hilarious characters. Jon Polito overacts appropriately as the hot-headed Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar, making him indelibly grotesque by way of involuntary ticks and grunts, as well as an overwhelming sense that he doesn't really know what he's doing. Other Coen regulars include Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi in tiny cameos but the film is stolen completely by the marvellous John Turturro. He embodies the oily, snickering bookie Bernie Bernbaum so completely that this loathsome creature, hated by almost everyone and only alive by virtue of a sister dating a mob boss, becomes the most memorable part of the whole film. It's a pitch perfect portrait of a man who can never achieve anything even akin to dignity or self-respect and opts instead to plumb the depths of snivelling smugness and self-serving amorality.

As is always the case with a Coen brothers film, the immaculate screenplay plays a big part in the success of 'Miller's Crossing'. Their scripts are well known for being rigidly adhered to, every intricacy of character and plot set down as they intend it to appear on screen. It is this attention to the tiniest details that make even their smallest characters so vivid and well-rounded. 'Fargo's Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) or 'The Big Lebowski's Jesus Quintana (John Turturro, in another exquisite characterisation) are examples of characters who are apparantly superfluous to the plot but enhance their respective films no end. This dedication to creating complex, rich characters is constantly apparent in 'Miller's Crossing'. Johnny Caspar, for instance, is obsessed with "ethics", even though his take on the subject is somewhat skewed. This subtle little trait is apparent in everything Caspar does and, while it gives us a good laugh whenever it comes up in the dialogue, it also plays quite an important role in where the story goes.

There's plenty of other unusual elements to distinguish 'Miller's Crossing'. The Gangster genre is generally known for its machismo, hoardes of men sleeping with a succession of women while trading homophobic insults and wielding Freud-bothering machine guns. But 'Miller's Crossing' makes a major plotpoint out of the well-known homosexuality of several of its main characters. Arguably, the whole film is a love story between Tom and Leo, the woman who divides them merely a distraction from the repressed emotions they hold for each other. While this is a debatable reading of the film, the gay plotline between several of the other characters is overt and results in no raised eyebrows or limp-wristed stereotypes. Likewise, the Gangster genre can have a tendency to take itself too seriously and 'Miller's Crossing' eschews this with its numerous comedic asides and even throwaway gags. One very striking example is the moment when a young boy steals the toupee of a murdered gangster, which leads Leo to speculate "They took his hair Tommy. Jesus, that's strange. Why would they do that?" The reply: "Maybe it was injuns."

'Miller's Crossing' is the Coens' first completely assured film and remains an important landmark in their progression as the best filmmakers working today. Remarkably, while suffering from writer's block as they struggled with the intricacies of this film's plot, the Coens took a three week break during which they wrote the even better 'Barton Fink' (1991), which became their next film (and still one of their finest). This unbelievable level of productivity is indicative of the Coen brothers at the peak of their powers which resulted in one of the most incredible runs of films in cinema history, interrupted only by an inexplicable two film dip in quality during the early 00s (with the feeble 'Intollerable Cruelty' (2003) and 'The Ladykillers' (2004)). Fortunately, this dip proved to be an anomaly and the Coen brothers continue to churn out superb, constantly surprising work to this day.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Dean Spanley

44. Dean Spanley (2008)
Dir: Toa Fraser


Released in 2008, 'Dean Spanley' is one of those remarkable films that defies rigid classification and has suffered commercially as a result. Although it was a rare example of a non-children's film to be given a 'U' certificate denoting that it is suitable for all ages, 'Dean Spanley's chances were perhaps hurt further by this, since a 'U' certificate often drives narrow-minded adult cinemagoers away on the assumption that this will be a trite family film of little interest to them. Anyone who fell into this trap sadly missed out on an original, intelligent, sweet, warm and beautifully written and acted piece of cinema.

But how do you sell 'Dean Spanley' to an audience in the space of a trailer? Its facets are so numerous that it would be difficult to know what elements to play up in the advertising campaign. It's a comedy for sure but it evolves into a much more dramatic work than its welcoming, brightly-coloured poster might lead you to expect. It has all the hallmarks in theme and style of a family film and yet its first rate screenplay by Alan Sharp (based on a novella by Lord Dunsany) is perhaps too eloquent and dialogue-heavy to hold the attention of most children. The story's main concept injects the narrative with a healthy dose of fantasy but it is not the variety of whizz-bang wizardry that will enthrall the under-tens. And while children may lose interest quickly because of the lengthy monologues and early 1900s period dialogue, snooty adults may be put off by the absurdist concept of the film and reject all its other considerable achievements on that basis alone.

'Dean Spanley', then, is not an easy sell. But it's a much easier film to enjoy than its apparent elusiveness would suggest. The ideal audience for this film would be adults who are still in touch with their sense of childlike wonder and are not averse to suspending disbelief in the name of a rollicking good yarn! 'Dean Spanley' was perhaps best described in its accompnying publicity as "an adult fairy tale" or, even more accurately, as "a surreal period comedic tale of canine reincarnation exploring the relationships between father and son and master and dog". If, by this point, your interest is piqued and you want to know more, the likelihood is that you'll love 'Dean Spanley' as much as I did. If you were irked by the phrases "fairy tale" or "canine reincarnation", you've probably stopped reading by now anyway! Which is a shame, because I think that 'Dean Spanley' is a film of sufficient wit, charm and emotional weight to surprise and win over many a cynic.

The plot goes roughly like this: Early 1990s Britain. Following the death of his younger brother in the Boer War and the subsequent death from grief of his mother, Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam) has fallen into a ritual of visiting his elderly father, Horatio (Peter O'Toole) every Thursday, despite the fact that the two are emotionally estranged and the visits are invariably trying. The eccentric, curmudgeonly Horatio flatly refuses to discuss his son's death, to which he has adopted an inappropriately flippant attitude, and instead prefers to wax lyrical about his former dog, Wag. Wag, he proclaims, was "one of the seven great dogs" but he ran away one day and never returned. Henslowe takes his reluctant father to a lecture on transmigration of souls where they meet a roguish "conveyancer" called Wrather (Bryan Brown) and local clergyman Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). Intrigued by the Dean's open-mindedness about reincarnation, Henslowe invites him over for drinks with the promise of a rare vintage of the Dean's favourite drink, Tokay wine. The wine, Henslowe discovers, leads the Dean into a dreamlike state in which he begins to recount at length his former experiences as a dog. With the help of Wrather, Henslowe sets about obtaining more of the elusive and expensive Tokay in order to learn more about the Dean's canine past.

New Zealand director Toa Fraser has done a wonderful job of evoking a distinctly British atmosphere and a sense of the period but his major achievement is in keeping a film that is largely set in dining and drawing rooms so enthralling and visually attractive. The images are vibrant and colourful, occasionally punctuated by an unforgettable sight such as an indoor cricket pitch, and the atmosphere that Fraser creates combines that of a comforting Sunday afternoon entertainment with a sense of the otherworldly. Aiding Fraser in his strong direction is Alan Sharp's terrific screenplay, full of carefully deliniated characters and a seemingly endless supply of witty lines. It also builds, in the grand tradition, towards a gripping and heartwarming final act that will surely break down the defences of anyone who has written off the plot as poppycock.

As befits a film of such divergent stylistic qualities, 'Dean Spanley's cast are a varied set of actors whose unique styles marry together into something beautiful. Jeremy Northam is a strong anchoring presence as the story's straight-man and facilitator and graciously allows his co-stars to dominate their respective scenes. Not that Peter O'Toole gives him any choice! O'Toole snatches scenes all over the film with his scenery-chewing performance. Boorish, rude and loudly opinionated, O'Toole's character gives him the chance to have enormous fun while also hoarding most of the best lines. Despite the broadness of the performance, O'Toole's interpretation of the character is entirely fitting. This is a man who hides his true emotions beneath an act, so boisterous theatricality was surely the right way to go. In the climactic scenes we discover the hidden depths of the character and O'Toole's acting, by now reduced mostly to facial expressions, is phenomenal. At the eleventh hour, he gives us a glimpse of the fully-rounded character he has secretly been portraying all along.

The contrasting central performances of Northam and O'Toole find further contrast in the most original and best turn in the film. Sam Neill's performance as the titular Dean is a remarkable and remarkably strange piece of work which gives him the chance to act in the most unusual way. As Spanley, Neill is stuffy and slightly brusque but once he tastes the Tokay wine he is transformed. A good many actors and directors would have taken Spanley's regression to his dog days in a very silly direction, incorporating panting, scratching, growling and the like. But Neill does nothing of the sort. His occasional overt doggy gestures are limited to little sniffs here and there, while he skillfully builds an entirely believable dog character through reminiscent monologues and the subtle facial expressions and vocal interpretations of how an English-speaking dog might actually sound. The meat of Neill's role is his doggy speeches and this allows him to tap into a rich storytelling tradition. His performance here is akin to the best celebrity readings on legendary children's literature show 'Jackanory' (1965-present), full of warmth, wisdom and nostalgia. Neill's rich, comforting voice is the defining sound of the whole film but he maintains an edginess befitting a man who has been lulled into a false sense of security and may come out of his trance at any moment.

The small main cast is rounded out by Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt. Brown, a popular Australian star of the 80s and often spoken of in the same breath as Paul Hogan, is an actor of little range but he has been carefully chosen for this roguish role of a dodgy dealer which plays to his strengths. He's a bright, enjoyable presence and gives the film yet another distinct voice to play off the mannered English characters. Parfitt gives an excellent supporting performance as housekeeper Mrs. Brimley, an old-fashioned, tentaively affectionate woman with an indomintable spirit. The loss of her husband, whom she occasionally talks to as if he were still there, is a nicely judged counterpoint to the central losses that form much of the dramatic narrative.

'Dean Spanley' is a unique, captivating piece of filmmaking which utilises both the traditional characteristics of old-fashioned storytelling and the modern penchant for the quirky and unusual. Although its mix of styles make it a tough film to promote, those who are lucky enough to see it in its entirety will discover a deftly executed work in which seemingly incompatible elements blend seamlessly into a rich, entertaining whole. 'Dean Spanley' is an invitation to set aside our cynicism and embrace the child, and the dog, in all of us.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Milk

43. Milk (2008)
Dir: Gus Van Sant


In 2005, one of the most infamous Oscar controversies occured when Paul Haggis's limp 'Crash' (2004) beat clear favourite 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) to the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from the fact that 'Brokeback Mountain' was a prominently gay-themed film which lead to many critics suggesting homophobia played a significant part in its denial of the year's biggest award. This view was certainly not without evidence. Old-school assholes Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis lead a shockingly homophobic attack on the film, despite stating that they refused to watch it. Borgnine's argument against 'Brokeback Mountain' seemed to be based mainly on his perception that John Wayne would have hated it (as if that would have been a bad thing!) while across the country, Conservative pundits spouted the usual twaddle about undermining of family values. Shock-jocks and talk-show hosts tried their damndest to turn the film into a joke, with "hilarious" retitlings like 'Fudgepack Mountain'.

Although it thrust the homophobia of many crusty old Academy members into the spotlight, the 'Brokeback Mountain' furore was hardly unprecedented. Although the Oscars has often been portrayed as an open-minded liberal event, gay-themed films have always struggled to get the major recognition of the more coveted awards. For example, despite much acclaim and commercial success that made it one of the most talked about films of its year, 'Philadelphia' (1993) was not included in the 1993 nominees for Best Picture. When 'Brokeback Mountain' was snubbed, the voters also managed to ignore another critically acclaimed, gay-themed nominee, 'Capote' (2005) as they clamoured to honour the clumsily executed race-issues movie in a misguided attempt to soothe their wounded delusions of progressiveness.

Now, I'm not saying that there is a complex conspiracy to prevent queer cinema from major recognition (I must admit I didn't really like 'Philadelphia' and, in the 'Brokeback Mountain'/'Capote' year, my vote would have gone to 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005)). But there is an undoubted discomfort amongst the Academy when it comes to following through on their initial nominations of these films. Flash forward three years to 2008 and the 81st Academy Awards ceremony. The year's big event movie and favourite to walk away with Best Picture is Danny Boyle's suprise hit 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008). However, 'Brokeback Mountain' had taught us that the sure-thing does not always live up to that title and this year there is a strong contender to snatch the prize waiting in the wings: Gus Van Sant's 'Milk' (2008), an exceptional biopic about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay...... And the award goes to 'Slumdog Millionaire'!

OK, I'll drop the cynicism now. 'Milk's loss to 'Slumdog Millionaire' was likely due to the huge impact of that film at the time and there was subsequently no controversy over the issue (the greater controversy that year being the Academy's refusal to nominate Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' (2008) for Best Picture, its rightful place taken by the creaky dirge 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (2008)). As a matter of personal opinion, however, I think 'Milk' was the more deserving candidate. While still a fine film, I consider 'Slumdog Millionaire' more of a superficial thrill that seems far better the first time round than it is on reflection. 'Milk' is a beautifully realised encapsulation of a true story that gets richer with every watch, unlike the flashy, music-themed biopics that became Oscar staples at around the same time.

'Milk' tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), America's first openly-gay elected public official. Beginning on his fortieth birthday when he is still a closeted businessman, the film follows Milk's move to an area in San Francisco which is rapidly evolving into a gay neighbourhood. The combination of opposition from homophobic residents and the strength that the support of people who share his sexuality gives him, Milk becomes a political activist. From here, the film follows Milk's many campaigns and his eventual success at being elected onto the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Here, he forges a complex, awkward working relationship with conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), a relationship that will ultimately lead to the assassination of both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Gus Van Sant is one of the most unusual directors of recent times. Although his output is frustratingly hit-and-miss, one can't help but applaud the diversity and originality of his work. His films range from excellent indie efforts ('Drugstore Cowboy' (1989)) and conventional but highly intelligent mainstream successess ('Good Will Hunting' (1997)) to ambitious but rather flat experiments in economy of plot ('Elephant' (2003), 'Last Days' (2005)) and even a downright awful remake ('Psycho' (1998)). Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, you can't fault Van Sant's dedication to diversity. As an openly gay man himself, 'Milk' was a project that had been very close to Van Sant's heart for a long time. Taking much influence from the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Times of Harvey Milk' (1984) (which he acknowledges in the credits of 'Milk'), Van Sant had been considering scripts for the project since the early 90s. Gay writer Dustin Lance Black's screenplay provided him with the perfect material to create one of his intermittent mainstream gems and, between them, the writer and director have such a keen understanding of the issues involved that 'Milk' could hardly have failed.

It's extremely fortunate that Van Sant opted to make 'Milk' a prestige project and not one of his oddball curiositys like 'Gerry' (2002). The subject is one that requires a mainstream appeal if it is to do anything but preach to the converted and 'Milk' has all the polish and coherence of the most accessible cinema. However, Van Sant is also able to incorporate his own unique and varied style into the film to elevate it far above the workmanlike. He deftly incorporates real news footage of the 60s and 70s to paint a vivid picture of the time and give increased insight into the major events in Harvey Milk's life. Rather than keep Milk's assassination as a cheap climactic secret, the film opens with California senator Dianne Feinstein's actual announcement of the double murder to the press. This sets up Dustin Lance Black's excellent conceit of having the film narrated by Harvey himself, tape recording a personal memoir to be played in the event of his assassination.

A very important part of 'Milk's success as a film rested on finding the right actor to play the pivotal role. Although political and social considerations play a strong part in the narrative, 'Milk' is ultimately very much Harvey Milk's own story, never leaving his side as we follow both his career and his personal life; his growth from a nervous, closeted forty year old to a vibrant, passionate activist and finally a man in a genuine position of power. Wisely, then, Van Sant went to one of the finest actors of his generation, Sean Penn. Penn, in his second Best Actor Oscar-winning performance, is exquisite. He is forceful and persistent in his scenes as a political force but, crucially, he taps into the constantly visible human side of Harvey Milk, never allowing any kind of public persona to overwhelm his personality. The scene in which he is assassinated is one of the most beautifully understated, effortlessly heart-rending bits of acting and staging I've ever seen. Seeing the gun intended for him, he whimpers "no" and involuntarily raises a futile hand in an attempt to protect himself. It highlights the human frailty and fear that belies Milk's remarkable drive and ambition to fight for what's right. Penn ensures we never forget that these uncertainties are present in the character, so this final moment is devastatingly realistic and effective.

The supporting cast is never less than good, if somewhat overshadowed by Penn's towering performance. This was always likely to be the case given the constant focus on 'Milk's titular character, however, and the rest of the cast do an admirable job. Josh Brolin gives a solid turn as the awkward, ever-more unstable Dan White and his drunken ramblings in one scene bag the film's biggest laugh. Emile Hirsch is a tad irritating and uneven as Harvey's bitchy young protege Cleve Jones but the other actors portraying Milk's gay entourage do a fine job, particularly Joseph Cross and, in the film's other standout performance, James Franco as the love of Harvey's life, Scott Smith. With a script written by a gay writer and with a gay director at the helm, 'Milk' also thankfully sidesteps the cinematic cliche of the shrieking queen, which the majority of straight directors would likely have included for a few cheap, questionable laughs.

'Milk' unfurls its story with pace and vitality, remaining constantly engaging throughout. It hits all the right buttons to inspire anger at the injustices of prejudice and then rewards us with the thwarting of those who would use religion and so-called family values as a way to ensure that inequality goes on thriving. Harvey Milk's story is one that has long deserved to be told and Van Sant's film does a grand job of raising awareness of this great man and all he stood for. I'm sure that, eventually, a gay-themed film will win the Best Picture Oscar but it's a great shame that this extremely worthy contender didn't become the first film to clinch that honour.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Running on Empty

42. Running on Empty (1988)
Dir: Sidney Lumet


Very recently on this blog I wrote two seperate reviews singing the praises of Sidney Lumet and River Phoenix respectively. In the name of diversity, I should perhaps consider leaving a longer gap before reviewing 'Running on Empty', the film that brought this great director and great actor together for the first and only time. But having just seen it for the first time tonight, I fell in love with the film so completely that I feel it best to capture that thrill of discovering a new little gem while it is still coursing through me.

'Running on Empty' is a fantastic film from whatever angle you come at it. It is directed with trademark skill and subtlety by Lumet, it is flawlessly acted by a cast who all give what must rank among their best performances and it has one of the most beautifully written, delicately balanced and intelligently structured screenplays I've ever come across. 'Running on Empty' follows the story of Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch), left-wing radicals who bombed a napalm factory in the early 70s and accidentally blinded a janitor who was not supposed to be on the premises at the time. Forced to go on the run with their two year old child Danny in tow, the Popes have been evading the FBI for the last fifteen years, moving from town to town and changing their names with the help and financial support of an underground network. Danny (River Phoenix) and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry) have never known any other life and have become as adept as their parents at assuming new identities and starting again in a string of new homes. However, the talented Danny is reaching college age and his desire to further pursue his prodigious piano skills, as well as a blossoming relationship with his music teacher's daughter (Martha Plimpton), lead him to question where his life is going.

To say more about the plot of 'Running on Empty' would be to spoil the captivating way in which the it unfolds. But while it is undoubtedly a strong story, it is the way in which it is told and the warmth and believability of the characters which make it so special. The script was written by Naomi Foner, the mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and at the risk of repeating myself it's one of the finest scripts I've ever come across. The story on paper does not sound like much and, in fact, sounds like a potentially melodramatic, low-rent TV movie. But Foner does not take the story down any cliched routes and instead turns out a finely nuanced and extraordinarily thorough examination of a small handful of characters. Rather than make any one of them the lead, Foner flits between Danny, Arthur and Annie whenever their particular viewpoint is needed in the plot and, accordingly, the film changes in tone from family drama, coming of age teen romance, political drama and the story of an exceptional musical talent. This trajectory takes in an amazing amount of themes and is able to embrace all of them without being glib or rushed. I think this is perhaps the reason that 'Running on Empty' is not widely considered the classic it so obviously is. There is so much in this film that it is not easy to pigeonhole in one genre and the prospect of such complexity, even when it is achieved with such effortless and engaging simplicity, tends to make casual viewers uneasy. Conversely, most plot synopses of 'Running on Empty' (including my own inadequate attempt) make the film sound like just another sticky, sloppy teen film or emotionally manipulative weepie. It is far more than that but when it comes to the ever decreasing attention span of the film industry, a snappy synopsis is crucial.

Which is a shame, because 'Running on Empty' has enormous potential to please both the arthouse and commercial crowd. It is fiercely intelligent yet narratively engaging and suspenseful. And ultimately, I think it is one of the most genuinely moving films I've ever seen. Crucial in achieving this is the viewer developing a bond with the Pope family and, while their dialogue is beautifully written, this is largely down to Lumet's direction and the actors' performances. Say the words "family drama" to most people and they will immediately think of shrieking arguments, slapped faces and relationships in turmoil. There is none of this with the Pope family. They understand and respect each other completely and Lumet is careful to show this from the outset as the film opens with them acting as a well-oiled operation in order to leave their latest home and evade the FBI. There is the odd raised voice here and there but for the most part what we are shown is warmth, tenderness and love which is implicit and never overtly sentimentalised. In one of the film's most unashamedly joyous and touching scenes, we witness Annie's birthday party. Danny invites his new girlfriend Lorna and she is immediately accepted into the fold and initiated into the family rituals that surround celebrations. It culminates in a beautiful moment in which the whole family dance and sing together to James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain' (a song used to tremendous emotional effect at various parts of the film). Again, it sounds horrendously cheesy but it's actually utterly refreshing to see a rare moment on screen of a family just enjoying each other's company and having fun.

Lumet draws incredible performances out of virtually every single actor in his film. In the key roles of the family, every cast member is spot on. Even little Jonas Abry, who appears in the smaller role of little brother Harry, is astonshingly convincing. His goofy horseplay with his father at times feels like a genuine home movie moment captured completely spotaneously. Watch his acting in the scene in which he places an exaggeratedly large, fake safety pin through his nose for proof of this kid's talent. Christine Lahti is superbly sensitive and warm as mother Annie while Judd Hirsch almost steals the film as the conflicted, hot-headed but good-natured father Arthur, in whom the radical spirit clearly still burns bright but is kept shielded by his own guilt and fear of capture. But almost inevitably it is River Phoenix who impresses the most in what surely would have been one of many, many Oscar nominated performances had he lived to further grace the screen with his uniquely captivating presence. As Danny, Phoenix perfectly captures the mixture of shyness and self-assurance inherent in a teenage boy of above average intelligence. Most actors of Phoenix's age would have overplayed this part like crazy, accentuating the emotions to the point of embarrassment. But Phoenix was never one to overact or narcissistically hog the screen and instead he spends much of the film hiding nervously beneath his fringe, as befits a boy who has been hiding from the world his entire life.

Two further performances cannot go unmentioned. I was unsure what to make of the news that 80s staple Martha Plimpton was in 'Running on Empty' as I've always found her a rather odd and occasionally over-forceful presence but here she excels herself. As the intelligent, quirky and bold Lorna, Plimpton totally convinces as Danny's kindred spirit and their romance develops with wonderful realism (it obviously helped that Plimpton and Phoenix were romantically attached in real life). In an interesting aside, it is this romantic subplot in which we find the only cliche in 'Running on Empty'. For a period during the 80s and 90s, it seemed every American teenage girl had a tree outside her window which allowed potential suitors to gain easy access to their rooms undetected by parents. Quite why parents continued to put their impressionable female offspring in rooms adjacent to these convenient natural ladders remains a mystery to this day. Needless to say, River Phoenix is able to take advantage of such a phenomenon in this film too. It's an endearing lapse into the familiar in a very unsusual script and, in a way, it is a charming inclusion, situating the film squarely in its era with a comforting concession to commercial expectation.

The other performance I wanted to highlight lasts for a matter of minutes but is one of the most moving in the entire film. It is the performance of Steven Hill as Donald Patterson. It's difficult to say more without spoiling the plot but you'll know the scene when it arrives. He's exquisite throughout his brief time on screen but watch what he does in the final few seconds of his scene. It completely knocked me out and was one of numerous occasions when I felt tears prickling at the bottom of my eyes. Lumet showed his skill at drawing remarkable performances out of what essentially amount to cameos with the treasurable performances he obtained from Beatrice Straight and Ned Beatty in 'Network' (1976). Steven Hill's work here ranks alongside those precious cinematic snippets.

By this point I feel I might be gushing but 'Running on Empty' is certainly a film that justifies it. Utterly engaging, uplifting, moving and constantly enjoyable, it's a movie that deserves wider recognition. Naomi Foner's towering screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and, despite some strong competition from 'Big' and 'Rain Man' (which won the award), I would certainly have picked it as my choice. I can enthusiastically recommend 'Running on Empty' to just about anyone, such is its broad appeal. As I stated at the beginning of this review, it's a wonderful film from whichever angle you come at it. So pick your angle and get stuck in!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Man

41. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Dir: Jack Arnold


The Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s is often looked back on with a smirk and a shrug. In the context of the huge, complex beast that Sci-Fi cinema has become, these early classics of the genre are generally considered a bit camp, their special effects dated and their chin-stroking dialogue laughable. But I love these films considerably more than the often dull, convoluted or self-consciously cool Sci-Fis of recent years. And I don't mean I love them in a patronising, ironic way either. These little B-Movies, usually no longer than 80 minutes in length, are crammed with so much invention, intelligence and excitement that only the laziest of viewers would write them off based on some out-of-era-context special effects and over-earnest acting.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is one of the finest examples of the genre while also epitomising everything that people so readily mock about these films. It has a sensationalist title, some over-dramatic acting, very dated special effects and an inherently silly concept. Ultimately, this is all part of its charm but it's important to not make the common mistake of thinking its charm solely stems from its limitations. Because 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' also boasts an intelligent, multi-layered script, thrilling action set-pieces and cheap but effective visual tricks which are a triumph of imagination over financial considerations.

In keeping with the 1950s fascination with things changing size, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' tells the story of Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who gets caught in a mysterious mist and subsequently finds himself gradually shrinking. At first his change in size is almost unnoticable but soon he is the size of a child and getting smaller every day. Scott's public humiliation at becoming a famous national curiosity and the detrimental effect this has on his marriage are all issues that have to be put on hold when he accidentally falls into the basement, where he must survive against hunger, loneliness and a giant eight-legged menace that lurks in the shadows.

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' manages to explore its concept from many angles in the space of its 81 minutes. The first two fifths of the film are an emotionally involving drama, as Scott attempts to fight off, and then come to terms with, his affliction. Famed Sci-Fi author Richard Matheson (who wrote many of the best episodes of 'The Twilight Zone' (1959-1964)) has written an extraordinary script which combats the audience's undeniable urge to laugh at its concept by drawing out the genuinely nightmarish nature of Scott's predicament. Matheson portrays the shrinking process as a sort of emasculation as Scott loses the ability to relate to or provide for his wife, ultimately forced to sell his story to the media in order to make some money. During these early stages of the film, Matheson examines the situation in which he has placed his characters from several standpoints. The film starts out as a medical drama reminiscent of Nicholas Ray's 'Bigger Than Life' (1956) but quickly becomes a domestic drama as Scott deals with the implications his shrinking has on his marriage. Economic problems are considered and Matheson even squeezes in a red-herring romantic subplot which is aborted after only a couple of scenes when more pressing issues come to light.

While it's almost impossible not to snigger a little at the sight of a man growing smaller (especially in the awkwardly staged scenes in which he talks to his wife but, due to the primitive effects, the actors pretty much look past each other), 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' sure doesn't acknowledge its potential ridiculousness. Everything is played dead straight and the result is a genuine empathy for the terrifyingly unstoppable situation Scott finds himself in. But Matheson's cleverly structured script is only setting up our emotional connection with this man in order to raise the stakes for the film's phenomenally entertaining final three fifths. At about the half-hour mark, Scott (now only inches tall and living in a doll's house) is chased by his own cat (played by Orangey the cat, a feline actor who also starred in 1955's Sci-Fi landmark 'This Island Earth') and, in evading the monstrous moggy, accidentally falls into the basement of his house. This is no longer just the basement to Scott, however. It is now a vast and frightening world which he must navigate with extreme caution.

It is in this latter part of the film that 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' really takes off. Although the battle with the cat features the most conspicuously dated effects in the movie, it triggers the lengthy basement sequence in which the effects are disarmingly convincing if you surrender to the world the filmmakers have created. Accompanied by an ongoing voiceover monologue, Scott's adventures in the basement resemble a desert island castaway story as he uses the resources available to him to survive. From hereon in, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' is virtually a one man film but the presence of director Jack Arnold is constantly apparent in the visual invention and thrilling pace. Scott tangles with mouse-traps that would previously have only given him a nasty nip but could now slice him in two. He must leap caverns that were formerly mere cracks and fight to the death against monsters that his old-self would likely have put paid to with a rolled up magazine. Arnold makes this diminutive universe come to life with the simplest of visual tricks. A gigantic, persistent raindrop, for instance, was brought to life by dropping water-filled condoms. The result is one of the film's most enduring images.

Jack Arnold was also responsible for the film's celebrated closing monologue, one of the most memorable and unexpected climaxes in Sci-Fi history. Without giving anything away, this final monologue pushes the film into the metaphysical and recasts the themes of Matheson's script in an even more intellectually-engaging light. It's an unforgettable denouement and it elevates further a film that has already achieved its own kind of greatness. As is the case with all the best 50s Sci-Fis, you go away from 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' with far more to think about than you would expect from a movie with such a title. It more than delivers on the action you would expect but Matheson and Arnold have admirably reached for something more and the result is a film with a dark tone and philosophical bent which may come as a surprise to viewers who would hastily write off this genre as camp, lightweight entertainment.

Friday, 8 April 2011

One to Avoid: Just Friends

Just Friends (2005)
Dir: Roger Kumble


Although most film buffs have their favourite and least favourite genres, I think it's very important never to write off any type of film in its entirety. Most people would agree but if there is one sub-genre many would make an exception for it would be the recent glut of hurried, recycled and completely shallow romantic comedies that generally promote and perpetuate a meat-headed, sexist, homophobic agenda while unsuccessfully ramming in fumbled attempts at emotional involvement at the last minute. Despite this damning assessment, I'm still unwilling to write off any genre completely and I've not seen enough of these films to begin sorting the wheat from the chaff, assuming the wheat is there at all. But to assume there is nothing worth discovering in this seemingly dark cinematic corner without occasionally watching films of this sub-genre would be snobbish and narrow-minded so every so often I let curiosity get the better of me. Sadly, I have yet to have my snooty preconceptions disproved.

My latest attempt to find a worthwhile film of this ilk has been perhaps my most disasterous foray into the sub-genre yet. Roger Kumble's 'Just Friends' is one of the nastiest, emptiest and most terribly acted and directed shambles I've ever had the misfortune to cringe through. Inexplicably, I've seen reviews from critics I respect who maintain that this stinker is a high watermark amongst its kind, citing great performances, impeccable comic timing and an intelligent script, none of which I saw any evidence of. But in truth I wasn't really looking for anything particularly intelligent, I was just hoping for a fun ride with some decent laughs and 'Just Friends' never pretended to be reaching for anything beyond that. Unfortunately, it never managed to reach anything resembling that either.

The story has promise. It begins with a flashback to 1995 (they have nostalgic flashbacks to 1995 now?! How old do I feel?) and the graduation party of best friends Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) and Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). The overweight Chris has decided to take this opportunity to declare his true feelings for his best friend by way of a heartfelt yearbook message but a mix up sees his message fall into the wrong hands and his subsequent humiliation is sufficient to drive him away from the town for a decade. In this decade, Chris loses weight and becomes a successful record producer who uses his power and newly-acquired good looks to sleep with a succession of beautiful women. Ordered to take up-and-coming pop star Samantha James (Anna Faris) to Paris, Chris finds himself forced to make an emergency landing en route and he finds himself in his old hometown where he must face his humiliating teenage years and his still considerable feelings for Jamie.

There are numerous comedic possibilities here, as well as room for considerable emotional weight. What we get instead is a series of the most awkward, unfunny set-pieces I have come across anywhere, all acted out by characters who are either completely unlikable or else so inconsistent in their personality traits that it's impossible to put your finger on who they are supposed to be. Chief offender is star Ryan Reynolds. Like a hideous moulding of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler but with any of the comedy potential squeezed out, Reynolds is a performer of no emotional depth who thinks eye-rolling and mugging equal superb comic timing. To be fair to Reynolds, the character he has to play is all over the place. Supposedly struggling with the battle between his formerly sweet nature and his current womanizing asshole persona, we actually glimpse none of the former in writing or performance. We're prodded to sympathise with Chris's renewed pursuit of Jamie but it's so completely devoid of any emotion and Reynolds is so hateful that all that is apparant is another in a long line of attempted conquests. The emotional reawakening and regression to teenage obsession are nowhere in sight.

Amy Smart's turn as Jamie Palamino is just completely bland. In common with many such films, the female love interest is underwritten and becomes merely a prop rather than a character. Smart is suitably flavourless but again, to be fair to her, it would be impossible to make this character interesting. The other main role goes to Anna Faris as the borderline insane pop princess Samantha James, whose obsession with Chris proves to be a major obstacle in his pursuit of Jamie. Many people maintain that Faris's over the top performance is the film's saving grace but really it amounts to little more than a lot of shouting and flailing around. At the very least, her character is a recognisable type (believe it or not, I've encountered self-obsessed psychotics who are even worse than Samantha James in real life) but once again the potential is scuppered by the writing, which doesn't seem quite sure how to use her and sidelines the character in a series of increasingly unfunny set-pieces with Chris's little brother Mike (a seriously awful Chris Marquette, in another wonkily written role).

I've said a lot about how dreadful the writing is but special mention must also go to Kumble's embarrassingly useless direction. Now, we're not expecting 'Citizen Kane' here. I'm not after interesting camera angles or deep-focus photography. All I want in a film like this is for the jokes to be well staged and the emotional element to be competently brought out. Guess what?! Kumble does neither. Instead, he seems determined to rush through the film at top speed, never pausing to let us appreciate (if that's the right word) one joke before ushering in three more over the top of it. The best example of this is probably the film's final punchline, which Kumble steps on more spectacularly than any in the film. This joke comes off the back of the most dreadful final romantic speech I've ever heard. You all know the set-up, a threatened relationship is saved by a soppily eloquent climactic declaration of love which sweeps all other doubts aside. Well, I can't really do justice to this one without reproducing it in its entirety. I'm sorry!

"Because I want to take you on a date. And I don't care if it's in the day, or at night, or whenever, as long as it's a real date. And I wanna tell you how beautiful I think you are. Inside and out. And I wanna have babies with you, and I wanna marry you, and I love you Jamie. I always have."

Now, this dialogue is bad enough on its own but without any emotional build-up it's disasterous. Reynolds and Smart are simply moved from scene to scene like pawns, enacting the requisite moments in the romantic comedy template at the times they are supposed to occur but with no logical progression at all. The moments when this groundwork should have been laid are instead eaten up by a superfluous subplot involving another former nerd turned stud, Dusty (Chris Klein), turning up and trying to woo Jamie away from Chris. It's wasted time in an already cluttered film and Klein struggles to bring anything new to the unsurprisingly duplicitous role we've seen a thousand times before.

A terrible movie is one thing but 'Just Friends' really pissed me off with the casual homophobia that seems to turn up in most of these films and perpetuates the "it's ok so long as it doesn't happen anywhere near me" attitude to homosexuality that is quietly as destructive as blunt bigotry. There's homophobic teasing between Chris and his little brother throughout but, in this respect, 'Just Friends' is on safe ground because the context is the childishness of sibling jibes and the target of the joke is clearly the idiots spouting the slurs. The film hits much shakier ground in a scene which follows a night Chris and Jamie spend sleeping in a bed together in which Chris fails to make a move. Jamie and a girlfriend discuss why this was. "Maybe he just wants to be friends", Jamie suggests. "Maybe he's gaaaay!" drawls her friend, at which point the scene ends, as if this possibility is an uproarious punchline. This gay-as-punchline phenomenon appears again and again. It was a particular staple of sitcom 'Friends' (1994-2004), where the mere mention of the word "gay" invariably lead to whoops of delight from the audience. However, 'Just Friends' takes it one step further into the outright hateful. There is a scene in which Chris decides Jamie must want a sensitive guy and so he resolves to take her to the cinema to see the film 'The Notebook' (2004). The film is roundly mocked (as if 'Just Friends' has earned the right to mock any other film) as being for "pussies" and Chris finds himself in the awkward position of a date with Jamie to which both his mother and Chris Klein's Dusty tag along. As the other three sit enraptured by the film, Chris hisses "This is so gay". At this point, the camera focuses on two men kissing in the row in front. Ryan Reynolds responds to this with a look that says "Get me out of this circus!" It's a horrible, horrible moment and as it unfolded before me I decided that, yes, this was one of the worst films I had ever seen.

Reviews like this one often get responses along these lines: "Dude, quit analysing! This is 'Just Friends', it's not supposed to be deep. Just enjoy it for what it is." While I agree that films like this are not trying to be anything deep and should be taken at face value, that doesn't mean they are beyond criticism. Even in the shallowest of genres there are good and bad films and 'Just Friends' drops the ball more severely than any romantic comedy I have ever seen. Adam 'Tex' Davis's abominable script was really beyond saving but someone seems to have picked the exact right director and cast to ruin it even more. I hated everything about this piece of shit. If you're looking for a praiseworthy film of this sub-genre, this is not the one. If you're looking for something to bore, confuse and infuriate you with its ineptitude and bigotry, rent 'Just Friends'
today!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Dogfight

40. Dogfight (1991)
Dir: Nancy Savoca


Sometimes, for no discernible reason, great films slip through the cracks into almost total oblivion. Many eventually pick up strong cult followings but some remain deeply buried, waiting to delight the lucky few who unearth them. Nancy Savoca's 'Dogfight' is one of the latter. Despite good reviews and strong commercial potential, 'Dogfight' suffered from an inexplicable lack of distribution. In America it was given a theatrical run by only two cinemas in the whole country while in Europe the film went straight to video. Only the premature death of its star River Phoenix and the subsequent rejuvenation of interest in all his screen work has saved this film from totally vanishing.

'Dogfight' is set in 1963 and follows a group of Marines on twenty-four hour leave on the night before they ship out for Vietnam (and also, unbeknowst to them, the night before President Kennedy is assassinated). They plan to spend the evening attending what they refer to as a "dogfight", a cruel Marine ritual in which they compete to bring the ugliest date for a cash prize. While scouting San Francisco for potential victims, Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix) discovers the shy Rose, a folk music-loving coffee shop waitress who does little else but stay in with her mother every evening. Jumping at the chance of a night out, she agrees to accompany Birdlace to his party but, as the night unfolds and the true nature of the "dogfight" is discovered, Birdlace experiences increasing feelings of guilt that belie his true feelings for Rose.

One remarkable element of 'Dogfight' is just how many other films it reminds me of while remaining totally unique. Its initially cruel-sounding premise brings to mind both Francis Veber's 'Le Diner de Cons' (1998) and Neil LaBute's 'In the Company of Men' (1997) while the subsequent romantic tale of two individuals connecting over a short period of time evokes Richard Linklater's 'Before Sunrise' (1995) and Sofia Coppola's 'Lost in Translation' (2003). 'Dogfight' most closely resembles the Linklater film (which it predates) but remains very much a unique experience. The sustained mood of 'Dogfight' is most unusual. It plays like a romantic comedy but with heavily dramatic elements, encapsulated by an ending that recasts the way the viewer processes the previous 90 minutes. The terrific script by ex-Marine Bob Comfort is full of witty and touching scenes but the uniqueness of 'Dogfight' is largely down to director Nancy Savoca, who has created an exquisitely balanced tone and avoided the potential sentimental pitfalls and dramatic cliches that most directors would have pushed towards.

The period detail is modestly and effectively evoked, bringing to mind yet another film, Rob Reiner's 'Stand by Me' (1986), a comparison heightened by the presence of Phoenix in both films. A soundtrack of lesser-heard rock 'n' roll and folk songs subtley accompanies the action and Savoca focuses very much on the characters, rather than shoving a string of period-specific signifiers in our faces. Only the Kennedy assassination element seems superfluous. It is, of course, relevant to the Marines' imminent Vietnam trip but the mention of this destination is enough narrative foreshadowing without heavy-handedly situating the emotionally-pivotal directly beside the historically-pivotal. Fortunately, this narrative blot is treated as something of an afterthought, which highlights its pointlessness.

'Dogfight' is the epitome of a movie that simply wouldn't work without the right casting. The lead roles of Birdlace and Rose carry so much emotional weight that the wrong actor would cause the entire project to collapse. Fortunately, the leads turn in stunning performances. Lili Taylor, who in truth I have always found a little irritating in other performances, is extraordinarily sympathetic, convincing and multi-layered. Never falling into the trap of playing Rose as a one-dimensional pity figure, she instead makes her a naive but resilient character whose speedy captivation of Birdlace is completely realistic. Phoenix, meanwhile, lives up to his reputation as one of the greatest losses to the acting world, with perhaps the strongest performance I have seen him give. Birdlace is an extremely difficult role to play. He swings between a loud, obnoxious Marine and a sensitive, resourceful human being. The genius of Phoenix's performance is in the grey area between these two extremes. He can never comfortably be one or the other, struggling to stop swearing and boozing while with Rose but also never quite fully immersing himself in the rowdy behaviour of his buddies. The film highlights this by frequently cutting between Birdlace's night out with Rose and the comedy antics of the other Marines.

Like any good character piece, 'Dogfight' does not encourage us to side with one character over the other. Although the very nature of the "dogfight" is abhorrent, we sympathise with Birdlace's subsequent, sincere guilt and attempts to make amends. And while we admire Rose's dedication to her peaceful ideals, we also glimpse a good dose of youthful naivety and immaturity in her reactions to anyone who questions them. Rose believes music and peace can change the world, while Birdlace believes war and guns undoubtedly change the world and a lot quicker. But these conflicting views are never patronised or mocked and the characters never sway towards stock hippy or stereotype military meathead.

Superb set-pieces punctuate the fast-moving flow of the script. An encounter in a snobby restaurant which ends in an unexpected tirade of obscene non-sequiturs is a comic highpoint while a scene in which Rose sings for Birdlace in a deserted cafe is unerringly realistic and unsentimental, making it all the more touching. And the film's climax, which could so easily have been a mawkish cliche, is both beautifully written and directed, leaving the audience with one of the most satisfying ambiguous endings this side of John Carpenter's 'The Thing' (1982).

'Dogfight' is a film that is perhaps even more endearing for being totally unknown. The intimacy of the narrative is increased by the sense that you really are the only person in the world sharing in this small, romantic moment in time. Having said that, it is a great pity that it has not found the audience it so richly deserves and that it took the tragic death of one of the most promising actors of the last few decades to get 'Dogfight' any attention whatsoever. A film of tremendous emotional resonance, 'Dogfight' is a must for the romantics out there but I'd reccomend it to just about anyone. With enormous crossover potential between indie and mainstream markets, the disappearance of 'Dogfight' is a mystifying crime that I will continue to do my best to rectify and perhaps one day it will be afforded the recognition it deserves.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Network

39. Network (1976)
Dir: Sidney Lumet


Sidney Lumet is rarely mentioned among the greatest directors of all time and yet the plethora of amazing films he turned out cannot be ignored: '12 Angry Men' (1957), 'Serpico' (1973), 'Dog Day Afternoon' (1975) and 'The Verdict' (1982) to name just a handfull. Lumet's absence from the pantheon of directorial masters can be explained by his reliance on strong material and excellent actors rather than a consistent, recognisable signature style. He is often seen as the glue that holds together the film's main attractions rather than the auteur whose signature is indelibly scratched at the foot of the screen. There is an element of truth in this and yet I feel Lumet has been sorely underrated, especially in regard to his ability to draw amazing performances from his actors and keep extremely wordy, cerebral scripts constantly engaging on an emotional level. Lumet never worked on a wordier, more cerebral script than Paddy Chayefsky's 'Network'. In fact, it's hard to imagine a wordier, more cerebral script than Paddy Chayefsky's 'Network'!

Although it has maintained its critical acclaim, 'Network' has faded a little from public consciousness. It came out in a very strong year for films, sharing the Best Picture Oscar nominations with the likes of 'All the Presidents Men' and 'Taxi Driver' but losing out to the mumbling, tedious shower of shit that is 'Rocky'! Unlike those other three films, 'Network' tends to be a movie that is largely known about by film-buffs. But the influence of this classic is frequently apparent in the very best writing of today, not least in the work of Aaron Sorkin. One of my all-time favourite TV writers, Sorkin has often acknowledged the influence of 'Network' on his classic TV shows 'Sports Night' (1998-2000) and 'The West Wing' (1999-2006), as well as an overt reference in the opening episode of his surprisingly disappointing 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip' (2006-2007). Sorkin again tipped his cap to 'Network' when he picked up his well deserved Oscar for his 'Social Network' (2010) screenplay.

Paddy Chayefsky has come to be respected as one of the great screenwriters of all time and 'Network' is often seen as his crowning glory. A savagely satirical look at the ruthlessness of television networks locked in ratings battles, the film is mainly set in boardrooms, offices and studios and is filled with technical TV blather about ratings and shares which will undoubtedly lose the more impatient viewer early on. But this constant chat becomes riveting as the persistent viewer comes to realise that these cold statistics are the driving force behind the often reprehensible actions of the characters. Ratings are everything and, comparatively, human lives are expendable.

'Network' focuses mainly on three characters: head of news programming Max Schumacher (William Holden), news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and entertainment producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). All three of these characters have their flaws and the professional and emotional fallout when the three collide is the meat of 'Network'. Schumacher and Beale are both in the Autumn of their years after distinguished careers, facing competition from ambitious young go-getters like Christensen. When Beale learns that he is to be fired due to declining ratings, it's the beginning of a slow and ever-more terrifying decent into madness. Schumacher's instinct upon witnessing this mental disintergration is to protect his old friend while Christensen's (and, thanks to her powers of persuasion, pretty much everyone else's) is to exploit him for the all important ratings. So begins a power struggle in which the ever more insane Beale is used as a pawn in a game whose ending is impossible to predict.

I'm reluctant to say too much more about the plot of 'Network' because if you manage to come to it without knowing anything about where the story goes, it has the power to frequently shock and surprise the viewer with its many twists and turns. Instead of giving anything away plotwise then, let's instead focus on the many other things that make 'Network' great. Chief among these must be Chayefsky's script, which is truly one of the great screenplays of all time. Almost every main character gets at least one long, impressive monologue and even some of the supporting players get their time in the spotlight with one big scene and then out. Some critics found the script a little too busy and overstuffed for its own good but Lumet handles these great wodges of dialogue brilliantly, keeping everything moving along at a considerable lick and deftly flitting between the emotional and professional lives of the characters to create an unusually full picture of their existences.

Immeasurably important in bringing these characters to life are the uniformly excellent cast and 'Network' broke several records for Oscar nominations and wins in the acting catergory. It was one of only 9 films to ever be nominated for 5 acting awards and one of only 2 films to win 3 of those acting awards (the other being 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951)). Beatrice Straight, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her gut-wrenching performance as Schumacher's wife, gave the shortest performance ever to win an Oscar (she is on screen for a total of 5 minutes and 40 seconds) while Ned Beatty's apocalyptic performance, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, lasts even less time. Finally, Peter Finch's unforgettable turn as Beale became the first ever posthumous Oscar to be awarded when Finch died between the film's release and the Oscar ceremony. The only other posthumous Oscar eventually went to Heath Ledger for his performance in 'The Dark Knight' (2008).

That's a lot of statistics to take in and this review is as in danger of getting as lost in technicalities as 'Network' sometimes seems to be. But I feel it's necessary to look at that amazing list of record-breaking achievements as a preface to just how top-notch the acting in 'Network' really is. Peter Finch's turn as Howard Beale, all flailing limbs and messianic denunciations, is the most indelible of all the film's performances but William Holden's subtle, sympathetic Max Schumacher is perhaps even better. As a married man becoming obsessed with a far younger woman, Schumacher comes across as somewhat pathetic and selfish but Holden balances this with his ethical heroism and dignity in his professional life. His final scenes with Dunaway are some of the best written moments I've seen in any medium and Holden gives them exactly the right amount of gravitas to make them believable despite their convoluted premise. Dunaway, in an unforgivingly cold and ultimately evil role, taps into exactly the right balance between professional brilliance and emotional dearth. Diana Christensen's inability to function in any context other than the cutthroat world of network television is encapsulated in Dunaway's superbly calculated performance which culminates in the smallest of glimpses at the unhappy woman hidden so deeply underneath.

With such a remarkable trio of lead performances, one might be tempted to assume that the supporting cast matter little. But while Finch, Holden and Dunaway undoubtedly have what it takes to carry the film between them, Lumet has populated the smaller roles with equally extraordinary performances. Beatrice Straight, in her sole scene, turns in the most heart-rendingly believable representation of emotional hurt I've ever seen. By contrast, Ned Beatty's memorable "The world is a business" speech, is deliberately over the top. The overacting, however, is crucial to the story rather than an artistic decision and Beatty manages to balance the requirements of the script with a believably megalomaniacal quality which earned him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Often forgotten in a cast where practically everyone was Oscar nominated, is Robert Duvall who is gloriously detestable as the hot-headed boss Frank Hackett. If ever there were a cast who epitomise the Stanislavskian conceit that "there are no small parts, only small actors", then it is this one.

'Network' represents one of those rare moments in film where absolutely everything seems to come together. Strong direction, scripting, story, characters and acting all play a part in making it one of the greatest movies ever made and it's so densely packed that it demands to be seen again and again, the initial shock value of where the plot takes us replaced on subsequent viewing by an ability to luxuriate in the amazing dialogue and performances. Too numerous in its achievements to pin down to any single genre, 'Network' could be described as a black-comedy, a drama, a satire, even a thriller at a push. It's best not to have any expectations because 'Network' is ultimately a singular narrative and filmic experience. Just see it and improve the ratings of this most deserving of media sources!