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“The flagship film podcast” featuring in-depth reviews, top 5 lists and interviews.

The American President

Keith Phipps

Let’s travel back in time. Not that far back, though it might seem like a long trip. The year is 1993, and after 12 years railing against the policies and aftereffects of the Reagan/Bush years — from deregulation to foreign intervention to the rise of the religious right — the Democrats have finally elected a president: Bill Clinton. But any hopes that simply electing a left-leaning President with a populist touch will fix everything fade pretty quickly. Even the law that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction doesn’t account for the backlash that greets the Clinton administration, first with the rapid ascent of right-wing media figures like Rush Limbaugh, the subsequent onrush of difficult-to-parse-but-just-as-difficult-to-kill scandals like Whitewater and Travelgate, and the disastrous midterm elections of 1994. Dogged by uncomfortable rumors before his election and accompanied by a powerful, and thus divisive, First Lady, Clinton did not instantly heal the nation by offering logically infallible common sense solutions to America’s greatest problems.

But what if he did? That’s more or less the starting point for The American President, which opens a few years into a presidency in which Michael Douglas’ eloquent, charming, playful Andrew Shepherd has won overwhelming national approval by telling it like it is and — with the help of a support staff that includes characters played by Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, and Anna Deavere Smith — skillfully pushing legislation through a sometimes oppositional Congress.

But even presidents with a 63% approval rating aren’t infallible, nor are they necessarily satisfied. As the film opens, Shepherd has delivered a speech with that ended cryptically with the words “Americans can no longer afford to pretend that they live in a great society.” There’s still work to be done: on crime, on gun control, on the environment and more. And Shepherd is working hard to find practical solutions that don’t find him surrendering his ideals when the unexpected happens: he falls in love with a woman who’s like him in many ways: Sydney Wade, a hard-charging environmental lobbyist who puts her beliefs first but still gets the job done.

Arriving at the White House for the first time, with little expectation of even meeting the President, much less falling in love with him. Sydney pauses to “savor the Capra-esque quality” of the moment. This is Sorkin’s script hanging a lantern on both an obvious source of inspiration — Frank Capra’s idealism-fueled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — and that inspiration’s roots in fantasy. Capra’s own politics could be a little confusing. He was a Republican who stood up to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even expressing admiration for Franco and Mussolini. But he also went all in to support America’s war efforts in World War II with his Why We Fight Films and ended his life opposing the war in Vietnam. Mr. Smith has less to do with the particulars of politics than beliefs, at least theoretically, shared by all honest participants in American democracy. It’s a beguiling fantasy of our common values triumphing over what divides us.

To that, the film film adds at least a suggestion of depicting how politics is actually practiced — with nods to the two-fisted business of winning votes and the occasional need to compromise now for another victory down the road — but not enough to sour the wish-fulfillment, giving audiences the all-things-to-all-people liberal healer that America maybe thought it was electing in 1992 — and sprinkles a winning romance on top of it all.

The film remains enchanting — powered by Douglas and Benning’s charming chemistry. But it also looks positively ancient and a little shopworn. Sorkin has returned, again and again, to projects in which wise middle-aged men set the world straight with forceful erudition, including his series The West Wing, which often played like an extension of this film. Beyond that, while its fantasy version of Washington may always have been  only loosely tethered to the real Washington, it now seems positively disconnected. In an era in which a President’s affair with a porn star barely makes the news because of even more shocking scandals, who can buy a film in which the thought of, gasp, a single president having consensual sex with an unmarried woman will shock a nation.

Yet, there’s that word again: Capraesque. The American President isn’t a film that wants to show us the America we live in but the America we want to live in. Maybe that’s why it’s possible to poke holes in the film’s high ideals and willful naivete while still enjoying, and maybe even believing in it.

Chinatown

TASHA ROBINSON

Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne famously got the film’s title, and the key exchange “What did you do in Chinatown?” “As little as possible,” from an LAPD friend of his. The man reportedly said that white cops assigned to LA’s Chinatown district found it difficult to sort through all the languages and dialects they faced there, so they never knew if they were helping or hurting a situation, and they just tried to stay out out of the way. It certainly could be argued because Chinatown protagonist Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, doesn’t play by that rule, everyone suffers. This isn’t a film about heroes making a difference, it’s a classic 1970s post-Watergate paranoid thriller about how institutions are corrupt and untrustworthy, the rot stretches from the top to the bottom, and anyone digging into what’s really going on is going to regret it, both because of the dangerous and possibly lethal consequences, and because nothing they learn is going to improve their lives.

Chinatown is frequently cited on lists of the best films of all time, and especially best screenplays of all time, but it didn’t spring out of nowhere fully formed. It follows a long tradition of Tinseltown mysteries and LA noir films that echo stories by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It just updates them for a 70s era of cocky swagger and nihilistic endings. Jake is an unusual figure for any kind of noir film — per the usual pattern, he’s a private investigator who gets in over his head. But he isn’nt the usual struggling sad sack who’s operating from somewhere near the bottom of the bottle, or fighting to make ends meet near the back half of his glory days. Jake is successful and well-established, with a staff of assistants, no problem getting work, and his name frequently in the papers. He tracks down mysteries with confident, even contemptuous style, bluffing his way into his targets’ offices and ransacking their desks, or begging a business card from a new acquaintance so he can pretend to be them to get past a police cordon just a few hours later.

And other parts of Chinatown don’t fit the familiar mold, either. Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray isn’t the usual femme fatale, half legs, half schemes. She’s a decent person, though the audience doesn’t necessarily know that until it’s too late for her. And the hateful controlling figure who the PI patsy would normally take down — in this case, Hollywood hero John Huston, as water magnate Noah Cross — walks away from the story victorious, with all the cards in his hands. It’s as cynical a film as they come, summed up in the admonition “Forget about it, it’s Chinatown.” Meaning “Even if you know the truth here, it’s futile to try to do anything about it.”

Chinatown came at an odd time for Polanski. It was the first feature he made in America after fleeing the country when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in Los Angeles by members of the Manson family. And it was the last film he made in America before permanently fleeing the country ahead of his sentencing for sexual abuse of a teenager. Certainly there have been any number of film historians over the years who’ve tried to conceptually connect Chinatown’s dark, bitter look at LA with Polanski’s feelings about America — especially since Robert Towne reportedly wanted a much less dark and gruesome end for the movie. But regardless of Polanski’s personal connection with the content, Chinatown does feel of a piece with its era — and particularly with other films about the contrast between Hollywood’s sunny environs and dreammaking business, and the ruthless exploiters who take advantage of both.

What makes Chinatown stand out from so many other films in the same vein is its darkness, but also its tightness. The mystery at its core is complicated, but Towne makes it easy to track how one discovery logically leads to another, and how that old detective-story blend of motives — desire for money, curiosity about the truth, and just a grim stubbornness in the face of threats and bullying — all combine to send Jake down a road he can’t seem to turn off of, no matter what it costs him. In the end, he can’t help any of the victims, and he’s more or less become one himself. He’s maybe wiser about the world and the evil in it, but not about what to do about it. In the end, the film implies, his biggest sin was ignoring that advice to do as little as possible, and stay out of the deep end, where the sharks swim.

Big

SCOTT TOBIAS

The ‘80s were weird. Within a two-year span, studios released four Freaky Friday-style body-swapping comedies, including Like Father, Like Son with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, Vice Versa with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and 18 Again with George Burns and Charlie Schlatter. The fourth was Big, and it’s the only one with any staying power. There are plenty of reasons why: Tom Hanks, in his first great role since Splash, channels the sweetness and whimsy of a 13-year-old trapped in the body of a 30-year-old. Elizabeth Perkins, as the toy company executive who takes an interest in this peculiar young upstart, is both disarming and heartbreaking in a very difficult role. And its director, Penny Marshall, deftly manages the tone, even as Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg’s script leads the audience into some strange and deeply uncomfortable situations.

And it should be uncomfortable, because it’s about a boy coming of age and losing his innocence in process—and that’s not easy under the best of circumstances. Before he makes a fateful wish to Zoltar, the fortune-telling machine, young Josh Baskin is a kid who’s still going to the carnival with his doting parents, and he hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet, which makes him too small for a carnival ride, leading to unfathomable humiliation in front of an older girl he likes. When his wish to be “big” is granted and he turns into Tom Hanks, it’s immediately revealed to be a curse: He terrifies his mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl, who suspects this older man has done something awful to her son. He flees to a flophouse in New York City, which is filled with the sounds of anger, gunshots and seedy characters. And even when he lucks into a job at a toy company and quickly works his way up the ranks, he isn’t sure how to handle Susan Lawrence, played by Elizabeth Perkins, an executive who not only likes him—but seems to like-like him. And how do you process those new feelings in a 30-year-old’s body?

The connection between Josh and Susan, Perkins’ character, should feel much skeevier than it does, especially once the innocence of their initial “sleepover” leads to a much more intimate adult relationship. Before sex, Josh is at a party, asking for a milkshake to wash down the awful taste of Beluga caviar; after sex, he’s asking his secretary for a cup of black coffee. The contrast is funny, but it should be unsavory, at least on paper. I’m reminded a little of a moment between Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep in Defending Your Life where they’re in the afterlife, and Streep is remembering her kids, whom she left behind in the accident that killed her. But, she decides, she feels okay about it. Something about the context of the place makes it possible to bear her loss without feeling burdened by it. That’s the magic of Big for me: In the context of this fantasy, an older woman sleeping with a 13-year-old can be processed as funny and ridiculous—and, in the end, surprisingly bittersweet for both parties.

Nevertheless, the question of how Big plays now is hard to avoid. Shea Serrano wrote a piece two years ago in The Ringer called “‘Big’ Is Secretly a Horror Movie” that lays out the wreckage Josh’s adventures leave in everyone else’s life. Serrano writes: “It’s a fun movie and a silly movie and a lighthearted movie. Except here’s the thing: It’s super not any of those things. It’s the reverse of all of those things. The only way it works as those things is if you look at it through Josh’s eyes, which is what you’re supposed to do because Josh is the centerpiece.” And, of course, he’s right, especially when he talks about how traumatic the experience is for Josh’s mother. But perspective matters, too. We do see the film through Josh’s eyes, and his actions are explicable at every turn, whether he’s playing with silly string and robot buildings or following through on a 13-year-old’s very real interest in the opposite sex. Big is a horror film when you think about it, but it’s not a horror film when you experience it. Or at least it isn’t for me. We’ll see how everyone else feels about it after the break.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Tasha Robinson

Early on in Jordan Peele’s Us, the protagonist, Adelaide, says she’s been noticing a lot of weird coincidences lately, and she thinks they’re a hint of something larger coming. It’s hard to know what to make of that in the context of Us, given that the plot point doesn’t seem to come to much. But it does feel like it’s a potential way of explaining all the coincidences that abound around the film’s relationship to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe it’s even a reference to Invasion’s own odd series of coincidences, starting with the meeting that radically shaped the film. In a making-of featurette, Kaufman explains that he’d been thinking about remaking Don Siegel’s 1956 horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so he dropped in on Siegel’s office, looking for his blessing and his advice. While he was there, who happened to walk in but Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 Body Snatchers. And as the three men started talking, Kaufman says, Siegel and McCarthy let him in on some of the details of the film they wanted to make back in 1956, and couldn’t get past the studio at the time.

That’s how the 1978 Body Snatchers came to get made, and how Siegel and McCarthy ended up with cameo roles in the film. Here’s another mild coincidence for you: in 1978, the idea of a sound designer — not a sound recorder or supervisor, or a foley artist, but someone whose entire job was to invent new sounds for things that didn’t exist — was a rapidly growing discipline, thanks to the tremendous influence of George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars, and his tremendous focus on created sound effects for that film. Lucas’ sound designer, widely credited with having pioneered the discipline as it exists today, was Ben Burtt — who wound up on Body Snatchers, trying to figure out a way to create the noises of alien duplicates being born out of pods. Coincidentally, his wife was pregnant when the film was being made, and when he sat in on an ultrasound to hear what his new baby sounded like — also a newly popular and common technology at the time — he heard the sounds he wanted to use in Body Snatchers. When Donald Sutherland is sleeping in the garden, and a steady wet throbbing surrounds him as four alien duplicates form at his feet, you’re listening to the heartbeat of Ben Burtt’s unborn child.

There are a lot of fascinating production stories like that about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, about  how Kaufman worked to get what he describes as the look of a film noir, but in color. Or how he had no budget for the opening alien-world sequence, so his effects designers assembled an alien world on a small piece of plywood, and populated it with writhing creatures made by pouring a $10 bottle of art gel into water. Or how once again, Alien’s Veronica Cartwright went into a horror sequence without having been told beforehand what would happen. When Donald Sutherland shrieks at her at the end of the movie, she says, that was real horror on her face in response — just as with the Alien chestburster scene, she’d been given some leadup idea what to expect, but hadn’t been filled in on the details.

But the making-of aside, Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains fascinating for other reasons. The stars — Sutherland, Cartwright, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy — are facing a threat that sounds like a paranoid fantasy, no matter how you spin it. Aliens who copy humans and then destroy the originals are rapidly taking over Earth, and there’s no way to explain that without sounding insane. The original 1956 Body Snatchers was taken as a metaphor for the creeping spread of either communism or McCarthyism, but the 1978 version, Kaufman says, is more about the dread and malaise of the 1970s — that feeling that the government couldn’t be trusted, authority figures couldn’t be trusted, and especially the psychiatric community couldn’t be trusted, since it was so determined to tell everyone that their problems could be solved with positivity and hugging.

So if you can’t trust anyone, who do you turn to when humanity starts to disappear? According to this version of Body Snatchers, all you can do is cling to your loved ones as long as you can. Maybe that involves trusting a few friends to watch your back. Maybe it involves acting on a longstanding crush, and seizing whatever emotional connection you still have time for. And maybe eventually it involves giving in and becoming the thing you most fear, because there’s no other choices. It’s a conclusion Peele also reaches in Us, in a very different way, and that certainly isn’t a coincidence.

Total Recall

Keith Phipps

“He awoke — and wanted Mars. The valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of another word…” So opens Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” one of the most famous efforts from the prolific, and much-adapted, science fiction writer. The story of a man who contracts an agency to implant false memories of Mars only to uncover real memories he didn’t know he had, Dick’s version begins similarly to the Paul Verhoeven-directed Total Recall, then diverges significantly. But both the source material and the film it inspired stay true to a theme that runs throughout Dick’s work: If our only way to determine reality is our minds and our mind can’t be trusted how to we define what’s real?

For Douglas Quaid, that question takes on special urgency after he visits Rekall, an organization he turns to to give him memories of the trip to Mars his wife Lori (played by Sharon Stone) will never let him take. Suddenly he remembers he’s a special agent, a buddy at work is trying to kill him, he encounters a recording of himself instructing him how to remove a bug that’s been implanted in his brain, and he’s taking off for Mars in a desperate attempt to save his life and the lives of the rebels fighting for control of the planet.

Unless, as a visitor to the fancy Mars hotel in which he’s staying, tells him, he’s still unconscious back at Rekall and all this is an implanted memory gone wrong.

Total Recall was many years in the making and could have taken a much different form. Writer Ronald Shusett acquired the option to Dick’s story in 1974, before anyone thought much of turning his stories into movies. He co-wrote a script with Dan O’Bannon, with whom he’d also write Alien, and from that script many drafts would flower, including a version that might have been directed by David Cronenberg and a Patrick Swayze-starring Bruce Beresford-helmed version that was this close to happening before producer Dino De Laurentis ran out of money. That opened the door for Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d already formed a mutual admiration society based on Schwarzenegger’s fondness of Robocop and, presumably, Verhoeven’s recognition that Schwarzenegger could be a valuable tool in his quest to create as many subversive blockbusters as he could while in Hollywood.

Total Recall advanced that goal. Like Robocop, it’s in love with extremes: Graphic violence, unnerving imagery, and bigger-than-life heroes —Schwarzenegger doesn’t even need a robot suit to look like a comic book character. Here he throws in hints of the graphic sexuality that would define his next film, Basic Instinct, and with it some of the misogyny that film either celebrates or undermines, depending on how you look at it. And, like Robocop, Total Recall also satisfies all the needs of a blockbuster audience, particularly of the late-’80s/early-’90s era when an R-rated action film could still be a box office success.

But it unsettles while it satisfies. Just as every version of reality seems a little unreal to Quaid, something about the film always seems off — starting with the protagonist. Any film that asks us to buy Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ordinary guy is asking a lot, and both Total Recall and its star know this and play it as yet another reality-warping element. He seems more out of place as a working joe than as a secret agent. But is he? That’s the big question looming over the film. Which is real: Quaid or McClane, the identity in which he operated as an interplanetary man of mystery? Who is the real love of his life: Lori or Melina, the woman he believes he left behind on Mars? And where does he belong: on the red sands of Mars or in the low-key dystopia world of 2084 Earth? Which is the dream and who is the dreamer. Can we know? Does it even matter? We’ll talk it over after the break.

White Men Can't Jump

SCOTT TOBIAS

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning and losing is all one big organic globule from which one extracts what one needs.”

These are the words of Gloria Clemente, the tempestuous sage played by Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump. And they are also the words of Ron Shelton, who sees sports as one big organic globule from which he can extract comedy, romance, and a little bit of philosophy. Shelton’s experiences as a minor-league ballplayer informed the wonderful details of farm club life in his 1988 breakthrough film, Bull Durham, but his perspective on failure is what sets him apart. Where other sports movies are about inspirational figures and miraculous comebacks, his movies are about men whose personal shortcomings prevent them from making it big. Bull Durham ends before the season is even over, with Kevin Costner’s journeyman catcher quietly retiring after helping a more talented younger player make the bigs. Shelton’s great Tin Cup ends with Costner’s never-was golfer wrapping up a tournament run with an epic meltdown that seems like a loss, but is really a win. And White Men Can’t Jump ends with a streetball triumph that seems like a win, but is really a loss.

In any sport, there are plenty of never-wases—athletes who tethered themselves to  dreams of professional glory, but didn’t have the talent or the temperament or the good fortune to make it all the way. When Costner’s catcher talks about his brief stint in the majors on the team bus, his teammates gather around to hear stories of baseball cathedrals where new balls are used for batting practice. Most of them are not going to see even that much action, but this is all they’ve ever thought about doing, so what could possibly be their Plan B? In White Men Can’t Jump, we don’t learn the backstory of Sidney Deane, the preternaturally confident street ball king played by Wesley Snipes, but we do discover that Billy Hoyle, the sharpshooting geek played by Woody Harrelson, did some college hoops in Louisiana. It doesn’t seem like he was scouted. Perhaps he didn’t even finish school. Whatever the case, he didn’t make it.

And so now, Sidney and Billy are working the courts like Paul Newman in The Hustler, running a con where Sidney pretends like Billy is a stranger and has his opponents choose anyone around to be his teammate. They invariably choose Billy because he’s a goofy-looking white guy they assume they can run off the court. The scam works, but there’s no honor among thieves in this world, so Sidney has no moral reservations about running his own con on Billy and taking him for every dime. And Billy, who’s terrible with money, find his own ways to blow his newfound winnings, like betting Sidney that he can dunk a basketball.

One of the grace notes of White Men Can’t Jump is its attention to the practicalities of the hustle, which often fall to Sidney and Billy’s significant others—Sidney’s wife Rhonda, played by Tyra Ferrell, and Billy’s girlfriend Gloria, who’s hard at work studying for her own dream of appearing on Jeopardy. There’s a sense that both men love basketball too much to leave it behind, but only Sidney has the skills to do something else for money, serving as a contractor on various home construction projects. Billy has no other skills, and can’t get beyond his current cycle of losing any money he wins, and begging for second chance after second chance from Gloria, who loves him, but also considers him a project she might have to abandon.

The moral of Ron Shelton’s movies is those who take from the sport are better off than those who let the sport take from them. Costner’s characters in Bull Durham and Tin Cup never come close to realizing their ambitions as athletes, but they have the good sense to appreciate the wisdom, friendship and love they’ve gained from their experiences and they’re content to leave the dream behind. Sidney Deane seems like he’s getting close to that moment, too: He and Rhonda want to move away from Vista View apartments—where there ain’t no Vista, there ain’t no Views, and there sure as hell ain’t no vista of no views. Basketball is a means to an end for him, and there’s a sense that he’ll find his way there. Billy Hoyle, on other hand, knows no other life but the hustle. For him, a win is almost always a loss in disguise, because it’s the precursor to a mistake he can’t stop making. He’s a lovable loser. But, in the end, he’s not just played the chump. He is the chump.


 
 

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