No. 115 | June 10, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about oil, and what it does to people
Other films about oil this week are personal or local. This one’s global. Syriana is a political thriller spanning three continents and multiple storylines.
Oil here is not a diversionary MacGuffin, something just to get the action started, as you might see in a Bond movie. It’s, as much as anything, the point of the movie: oil is what makes the world go round. It’s what everyone’s fighting for—the key to riches, the key to power, the key to control of the political chess board in the game that the master players are playing.
The action is complicated, not easy to summarize, but what the film lacks in simplicity it makes up for in scope. Big companies, a Washington law firm, the CIA, and a ruling family in an Arab monarchy are all in on the game. In the geopolitics of the story, American interests are in jeopardy when a Mideast government grants rights to the Chinese, and the Americans do whatever they can to regain the advantage. That includes an under-the-table deal to get government approval for a corporate merger and a plot to assassinate an Arab prince who hopes to reform his country’s repressive ways.
The film stars Matt Damon as a globetrotting financial analyst working for an energy company, George Clooney as a CIA officer stationed in the Mideast, Jeffrey Wright as a Washington attorney who makes things happen, Chris Cooper as the head of an oil company, and Alexander Siddig as the would-be reformer in the Gulf emirate.
I’ve seen criticism that Syriana is too far-fetched, the wild imaginings of conspiracy theorists. The film certainly has a conspiratorial feel, as if pulling back the curtain to show us all how the world really works. It is fiction, clearly, but is it inconceivable? I don’t think you’d say so if you’ve been paying attention.
No. 106 | May 28, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Good Night, and Good Luck is a righteous film. As a work that aims to promote a worthy cause, it succeeds, and as a work that aims to remind us of an important figure from an earlier era, it succeeds. But as a film that provides deep insight into the characters it portrays—well, it never aims to do that.
Edward R. Murrow was one of the founding fathers of broadcast journalism. He remains an iconic figure, though his career and life were over before most people today were born. Most of us never saw him on television; we’ve only heard of the man. It’s our loss that we have no one of Murrow’s stature to inform us of what’s happening in our world. In the years before Good Night, and Good Luck was made, in 2005, the country had marched off to war, voices of dissent at home were largely quelled, and the performance of the media, through a combination of cowardice and incompetence, was a national disgrace.
George Clooney—whose father, Nick, is a former TV news anchor (and onetime host for the AMC movie channel)—aimed to remind the public, and the media, that the role of journalism is to counter, not acquiesce to, the powers that be. Clooney co-wrote the script, directed the film, and co-starred in a supporting role as CBS newsman Fred Friendly.
Good Night, and Good Luck takes place during 1953 and 1954, with Murrow and his news team battling the anti-Communist crusade led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. David Strathairn plays Murrow. It’s a convincing portrait. He looks and sounds like Murrow, and he captures the essential bravery that Murrow displayed at the time, which has set the standard for people in television news ever since.
In the film, we see Murrow in front of the TV camera, we see him give speeches, we see him at work at the CBS offices. He takes his job seriously and he does it well. He smokes a lot of cigarettes. We don’t get much more of the man. We don’t know what else is in his life or what got him to this point. Fair enough, this isn’t a biopic. But a movie from a decade earlier, Quiz Show, is an interesting contrast. Also about television in the 1950s, it gets deep into the lives of the characters when they’re away from the camera. We see what makes them tick, and it makes for a more engaging movie. Good Night, and Good Luck, on the other hand, is more urgent. It may not be a great film, but it’s an important one.
One final note about the cinematography: like Monday’s feature (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Good Night, and Good Luck was shot in color and released as a black-and-white film. It’s a good choice. Black-and-white captures the look of the times. It’s stunning and artfully done. But the choice of black-and-white was a practical one too. The character of Joseph McCarthy is not played by an actor. The senator is seen only in archived film from the ’50s, all of which is black-and-white. (Not realizing that the onscreen McCarthy was McCarthy himself, some people in test audiences had complained that the performance of the “actor” was over the top.)
1. Name the singer-actor who had a #1 album on the music charts and won an Oscar for acting, but was not featured at MAD About Movies this month?
2. Five black-and-white films from the past two decades are listed below. Name the one color film.
Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
Pi (1998, Darren Aronofsky)
Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Béla Tarr)
Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke)
3. This month director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (call him “Joe”) won the top prize at Cannes for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It was the first time a film from his country won the Palme d’Or. What is his country?
4. Match the information below for the three films adapted from 1950s teleplays.
Film title (year): Television series (teleplay year), Writer, Lead actor on television, Lead actor on film
Marty (1955): _____, _____, _____, _____
12 Angry Men (1957): _____, _____, _____, _____
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962): _____, _____, _____, _____
Television series: Studio One (1954), The Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953), Playhouse 90 (1956)
Writer: Rod Serling; Paddy Chayefsky; Reginald Rose
Lead actor on television: Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Robert Cummings
Lead actor on film: Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Ernest Borgnine
5. What is the “Sinatra Doctrine”?
a. The policy of the Rat Pack to have Frank Sinatra sing the first and last song of every concert appearance.
b. The policy of the Catholic Church that allowed Sinatra to remarry in the church despite his first, second, and third divorce.
c. The policy of the Kennedy administration to go easy on Sam Giancana during its crackdown on organized crime because of the mobster’s ties to Sinatra, a friend of the Kennedy family.
d. The policy of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to allow Warsaw Pact nations to determine their own internal affairs.
e. The policy of Woody Allen’s character in Bananas after the rebels have made him president and he declares that everyone is now going to do it “My Way!”
No. 105 | May 27, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
Watching The Good German made me wonder what Steven Soderbergh did to offend the critics. Did he forget to send them Christmas cards? Did he shoot spitballs at them from the back of the theater? Did he say something nasty about their mothers?
Surely he did something egregious to account for the reaction to his film. The critical response doesn’t seem entirely rational. I hesitate to use the word savage, but after reading another review just now, I’d say it might be the right word for describing the critical war party that was out to get the director when The Good German came out. “Off with his head!” is the approximate gist of many reviews, though as far as I can tell, those exact words didn’t make it into print. (It might have made for an engaging ad campaign.)
I won’t say that The Good German is an unqualified success. I’m not sure it’s even a qualified success. But I’d say at the very least it’s an interesting misfire, and probably even better than that. I’ve only seen the film a couple of times—once when it was first released, once recently—and I may need another viewing before making any firm assessments. Some films are like that. This one seems to be.
Set in 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied victory, The Good German follows Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent (for The New Republic, no less), as he returns to Berlin to search for, among other things, his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Lena’s husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), is a mysterious figure and the “good German” of the title. Having been involved with the German rocket program during the war, Emil is a much-wanted man, sought by the Americans, the Soviets, and the British, all with their own motives. The war was hell, and even for those who made it through, there was a price paid for survival, secrets they’d rather not divulge. The end of the war is no end to the moral compromise, and in Soderbergh’s universe, there is not the usual clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. At least you can’t tell by the uniform.
The Good German is an adaptation of the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon. The film version departs from the book, and Soderbergh borrows freely from films of the ’40s for story material, and more. One obvious influence is Casablanca, and perhaps this is where Soderbergh gets himself into hot water with the critics. It’s an unwise comparison to draw for any film, but more than that, the borrowing overshadows what’s onscreen, especially the final scene with the plane waiting at the airstrip, and it does get in the way of The Good German telling its own story. The divided-city milieu of The Third Man is also evident, as are echoes from Chinatown, though that isn’t a war film or in black-and-white.
Soderbergh has had an interesting career, hopping between entertainments and experiments. The Good German qualifies as one of his experimental works, though essentially it’s a genre film, an historical spy story/murder mystery, with a recognizable narrative. Soderbergh made a 1940s film in the 21st century. He did mimic the technology of the early era, at least, though the sensibility—not to mention the language and subject matter (the Hays Office would have had a field day with this one)—is more appropriate of our time.
The initial response was hardly receptive, though I do think it’s worth another view. The final word (as always) has yet to be written.
No. 99 | May 19, 2010
Our theme this week
Rat Packs, and other “Packs” that made movies
George Clooney said a wise thing in 2001 when the remake of Ocean’s Eleven was coming out. “We’re never going to be as cool as those guys.” On that he was right. But on the other hand, Clooney and his pack of thieves made a better movie.
Clooney was careful to downplay the parallels between the “eleven” in the remake and the Rat Pack of the original. But when you make a movie called Ocean’s Eleven, you invite people to make comparisons anyway. In media shorthand they were the “new” Rat Pack, even if they steered clear of the label themselves.
The remake was another heist movie, also set in Vegas, with a slick cast featuring some of the hottest names in Hollywood, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and Andy Garcia. Carl Reiner and Eliott Gould lent the production their veteran touch, and Julia Roberts, as Danny Ocean’s ex, added her million-dollar smile. Steven Soderbergh, in one of his lighter turns, directed the action with finesse. In short, the film is about movie stars having fun, and as a piece of juiced-up, pure entertainment, it was one of the decade’s more enjoyable pleasures.
Ocean’s Eleven was a hit with audiences, and Soderbergh, Clooney, and the pack made a couple of sequels, Ocean’s Twelve, in 2004, and Ocean’s Thirteen, in 2007.
Among the core team—Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Roberts, and Soderbergh—none is known for his or her singing prowess. But like the earlier Rat Pack, they are frequent collaborators in the moviemaking business, both onscreen and behind the scenes. Their work includes many popular and entertaining films from the past decade or more. Here, some in which at least two were associated: Out of Sight (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Syriana (2005), The Good German (2006), The Departed (2006), Michael Clayton (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and The Informant! (2009).
“How did you get by the laser fields in the Great Hall?”
A scene that works in any language.