Wednesday, September 10, 2014
In 1997 there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. There were message boards, email, websites, maybe some very early blogs, but the dissemination of information and access to reports, accounts, and testimonials, for all that we thought at the time was lightning fast, was nothing compared to today. This thought occurred to me while revisiting Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson’s seventeen-year old film about an invented war fed to the media to distract the public from a Presidential sex scandal two weeks before he hopes to be reelected. In it, Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a kind of independently contracted fixer brought into the White House by Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to help clean up the mess and potential fallout once the story breaks. So Conrad enlists the help of Stanly Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a big Hollywood producer, to put the pieces in place to sell not just a war, but a whole package and all the emotions and patriotic fervor that come with it, to the public.
Monday, September 1, 2014
The Academy has a great history of awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a generally lifeless, inoffensive work of mediocrity. I can hardly say that A Beautiful Mind is not a good movie (I regrettably put it on my top ten list for 2001), but it certainly isn’t great. It’s not even particularly memorable except in its simplistic depiction of mental illness.
I can’t say with any certainty to what degree John Nash suffered with schizophrenia or how it manifested itself, but I do know that the way Akiva Goldsman incorporates it into his screenplay, based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, seems almost preposterous, designed specifically to aid the unsubtle viewer in understanding what Nash was going through. I guess I shouldn’t fault the movie for trying to reach a broader audience, but nor should we assume that it has anything new or interesting to say on the subject.
Good Will Hunting was the first in a series of roles Robin Williams took that became increasingly dark, subversive, and at times questioning the very nature of our existence. It’s easy to see patterns in retrospect and ascribe meaning to them, but I remember it being clear at the time that Williams seemed intent on making a serious mark as a dramatic actor in a range of parts in (often) independent films. The years following Good Will Hunting saw him chase his suicidal wife into limbo as his character negotiated his own afterlife in What Dreams May Come. Later he was the villain in both One Hour Photo and Insomnia. But a lot of that seems to point right back to Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film penned by the wunderkinds Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Of course the Oscar Williams finally won likely helped earn him more interesting offers and afforded him greater freedom to take risks. But without Sean Maguire, the widowed psychiatrist who helps the title character find himself, he might have continued making more of Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Lauren Bacall wasn’t a great actress. This much I’ve learned from watching the four films she made with Humphrey Bogart. But she was a great movie star. She had tremendous screen presence and could practically make the tough Bogart roll over and beg. In Key Largo, their final film together, although I didn’t tally the minutes, I would venture to say they share more screen time than in any other of their previous three outings.
Key Largo was based on a now obscure stage play by Maxwell Anderson about a WWII veteran who runs afoul of a once-notorious mafia kingpin while passing through the Florida Keys and spending time with the family of a slain war buddy. The action is very dialogue heavy, a lot of it indoors in various settings around a hotel mostly closed for the off season. It’s not the most expressive film for a John Huston-directed picture, but he makes the most out of the cramped settings.