Tuesday, 28 February 2012

All the President's Men (1976)

Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden

All the President’s Men is not so much about the corridors of power as it is about the darkened car parks of power. The office complexes of power. The suburban homes of power. For anyone who loves conspiracy theories, this film is a must see.

The film deals with a conspiracy and a cover-up. And it is, of course, a true story. Five men were arrested in the offices of the Democratic National Committee on the night of 17th June 1972. This could have been put down to a simple bungled burglary and forgotten about. But rookie Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward smelt a rat. If the suspects had not made any phone calls then how did a high-powered lawyer know to get there to represent them? With his colleague Carl Bernstein they began to follow the trail. The trail led to individuals within CREEP (the Committee to RE-Elect the President – the ‘President’ being Richard Nixon of the Republican Party). Campaign funds were clandestinely used to pay the burglars (all ex-CIA assets). Those campaign funds were overseen by a group of powerful individuals, some inside the White House itself – including former Attorney General John Mitchell and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. This money was used by a prolonged campaign to undermine Nixon’s Democratic Party opponents through dishonest, immoral and illegal means that involved elements of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department: “ratfucking”. Through diligent reporting and chasing down every lead they come across Woodward and Bernstein are able to print the truth. The film ends with the series of headlines that followed their scoop – guilty pleas, criminal charges and, finally, the resignation of President Nixon.

The other reason conspiracy nuts should see the film is to witness one very simple truth. “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House”, Woodward’s contact Deep Throat (Hal Holbrooke – last seen as Ron in Into the Wild) says: “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” This was a major cover-up by people whose asses were directly on the line, and they couldn’t keep a lid on it. How likely is it that they could hide the existence of, say, extraterrestrial technology all these years then? And the irony is that Nixon didn’t have to go undermining his Democratic opposition; they were doing a good enough job of undermining themselves. In ’72 Nixon beat McGovern by a landslide. As Scott, the Post’s Foreign Editor comments: “Why would the Republicans do it? McGovern’s self-destructed just like Humphrey, Muskie, the bunch of them. I don’t believe this story. It doesn’t make sense”. What comes out, however, is that the Democratic candidates’ implosions may have been orchestrated by those close to a President who was at one point lagging in the polls behind Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie. “A year before Nixon wasn’t slaughtering Muskie, he was running behind Muskie, before Muskie self-destructed.” “If he self-destructed…”

This strikes at the very heart of the American dream. Nixon later claimed that “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”. Au contraire. What the Watergate scandal exposed was an Executive that felt itself above the laws of the nation. By equating opposition to the President with treason against the state the Executive could morally justify lies, forgery, burglary, bugging, misuse of government funds and employees. The President is supposed to be the best of the United States. The Watergate scandal exploded that myth. If one of the central pillars of what makes America great in its peoples’ eyes is corrupt, how does that reflect on the rest? When the two reporters are walking up the road to visit Sloan (Stephen Collins) at home there is a comment made about the nice, neat little suburban streets: “It’s hard to believe something’s wrong with some of those little houses.” When the White House is sullied, all houses in the U.S.A are sullied too. People do not like it when their dreams are exploded. But Woodward and Bernstein’s crusade had to take place. “Nothing’s riding on this”, they are told by their fire-breathing editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), “except the First Amendment to the Constitution, the freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country”.

The doubles playing between Woodward and Bernstein is captured beautifully by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They may not particularly like each other, but they work together perfectly. The two actors memorised each others’ lines so that they could butt in and overlap each other seamlessly. They are perfectly in sync. In one scene Bernstein flings a cookie to the typing Woodward; Woodward catches it and deposits it, before resuming typing. That’s how in the groove they are with each other. Throughout the acting is naturalistic, with occasional interruptions like an aeroplane flying overhead. Some characters never appear on screen, only being heard down the receiver of a telephone. The ensemble cast play it like a documentary – which to a certain extent it is. The offices of the Washington Post were recreated on set and the stars hung around the real newsrooms to get a feel for the tempo of the place. This is despite the outlandish subject matter – dark deeds in high places, clandestine meetings in parking lots, “your lives may be in danger”… In fact, I would say that only once does the film stray from this naturalism, when Woodward is leaving a rendezvous with Deep Throat. He trots out down a darkened alleyway, the music builds, he whips around suddenly… and no one is there. As a means to heighten tension, very effective; as veracity, somewhat over-played in my viewpoint.

"Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?"
Hoffman and Redford are cast against type...

The film only takes the story of Watergate so far. It takes it up to the point where Nixon is over-whelmingly re-elected to the Presidency, where Woodward and Bernstein can finally prove the link to Haldeman (“the second most important man in this country”), and where Bradley gives them the go-ahead to publish. The fall-out thereafter is covered by headlines on a teleprompter. But to cover the rest of the tale, the grand juries and indictments would have spun the movie out far too long, and would have veered away from the focus on the two reporters. All the President’s Men is over two hours long without this – though to be fair the story speeds along at a breathless pace. I would advise a certain level of familiarity with the events before sitting down to watch though, otherwise the roll-call of names and alphabet soup of acronyms can get pretty confusing. I had to search Wikipedia to find out what the ‘Canuck letter’ that torpedoed Muskie’s bid was – and who Muskie was, having never heard of him before. Suffice to say that the film is a great look at how dogged determination, forensic thoroughness and just a light sprinkling of hunches and bullshitting can turn a seemingly unpromising little event into the world’s most famous journalistic scoop.

What have I learnt about D.C.?
It has an awful lot of icky concrete architecture. Actually, to be honest I already knew that, as Washington is the first place on this cinematic odyssey where I have actually been in real life. With so much emphasis here on unconstitutional actions it reminded me somewhat of Walter Bagehot’s comments about the British (or, actually ‘English’) constitution. He talked about the constitution being “dignified and efficient”: the dignified bits (such as the monarchy or the House of Lords) are not very efficient, and the efficient bits (such as the Commons committees) are certainly not dignified! Here we have the trappings of a dignified government – the beautiful Mall with its eye-catching Washington Monument, the majestic dome of the Capitol rising beyond the trees, the pristine frontage of the White House. And in the background is the efficient world which really runs the country: anonymous sources in garages at midnight, deniable assets burgling offices after dark, press releases and “non-denial denials”, smears and innuendo. For the public at home the way things actually work and the way they want to think things work need to be kept separate lest the American political system fall into disrepute. Woodward and Bernstein link the two, and ever since the gloss has appeared a little chipped. Going to Washington I was awed by the grandeur of the monuments to American democracy, but its dark underbelly was always hovering at the corners of my eye-sight: expensive restaurants for the wining and dining of clients, security roadblocks and cameras reminding me of the surveillance state and power of the secret services, and the Watergate Complex itself, dirty, grey and cheap-looking.

Can we go there?
Oh, sure. The dignified aspects of Washington can be seen in the background of many shots – the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the White House. The only one that lets us have a good look at it, however, is the Library of Congress, where the reporters pore over lending requests. There is a lovely overhead shot that pulls away, leaving them seem small and insignificant in the grandeur of its reading room. It can be visited; if I found myself in Washington again I think I might follow in Woodward and Bernstein’s footprints (although they, admittedly, did not find what they were looking for here). There is the more sordid side to Washington too, as exemplified by the ugly Watergate Hotel. It really is a quite fantastically unaesthetic building. I was going to suggest that you might like to stay at the Watergate Hotel for the full experience: however, its website merely says that it is closed for renovations, and will reopen again in late 2009. Instead you could maybe try to lodge at the Hall at Virginia Avenue belonging to George Washington University opposite. Back in the day it was a Howard Johnson’s Motel and G. Gordon Libby used Room 419 as his look-out point (‘Base 1’).

Many of the scenes were filmed back on set at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California. As I mentioned above, the offices of the Washington Post were recreated as faithfully as possible, even down to the exact same makes of office furniture and the shipping across from the Post’s real offices of container loads of workplace detritus. Certain exterior scenes took place in California too. Donald Segretti’s apartment is in Marina del Rey. The Dade County Justice Building in Miami is actually Los Angeles City Hall. And the car park where Bob Woodward meets Deep Throat is actually belongs to ABC Television; it can be found at 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Century City.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Dir. Frank Capra
Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold

Senator Joseph P. Kennedy disliked the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington intensely, arguing that it would damage America’s prestige in Europe. Coming from a self-serving dynastic patriarch who unsuccessfully tried to keep the USA out of the Second World War I regard that as a glowing tribute to Frank Capra’s 1939 look at American politics. The film was actually banned in those countries controlled by Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin. I’m starting to like the sound of this movie even more…

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shows the best of American democracy in the person of young, idealistic rookie senator Jefferson Smith (a tousled, boyish James Stewart). But it also shows the worst of American democracy in his fellow senators who are disinterested, easily led, or just plain corrupt. It is a film about graft, about political machines and puppet-masters, and about how good men who stand against either are targeted for destruction.

The film starts with the announcement of the death of a senator near the end of his term of office. When this occurs in the U.S. – unlike in the U.K. when a by-election would be called – the governor of the state that senator represents gets to appoint the replacement. In this case the governor is firmly in the pocket of political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) – as was the deceased. Taylor wants a placeman appointed to support his graft scheme of building a dam at Willett Creek. The local citizens’ committee want a crusading reformer instead. Torn between these two conflicting demands the governor (at the urging of his huge family of Hollywood moppet children) appoints instead the leader of the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith. This wholesome all-American face is designed to placate the crowds while being easy enough to manage in support of the dam scheme.

And sure enough, Smith is over-awed by Washington and what it represents. He idealises his colleague Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (a perfectly modulated performance from Claude Raines), who was once firm friends with his father. Which is a pity, because the urbane Paine is also firmly in Taylor’s pocket and has included the dam scheme as part of an appropriations bill. To keep him out of trouble Paine suggests that Smith author a bill of his own; to the exasperation of his cynical and sassy secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) Smith drafts it in one long evening, proposing that a national boys’ campsite be established in his home state with a governmental loan. It’s a popular and inoffensive plan except for one small detail – the location chosen for the campsite just happens to be Willett Creek, the same location as Taylor’s dam. When he refuses to drop his bill in favour of Taylor’s proposal (the pay-off being a guaranteed twenty years in the Senate) the machine moves to crush him, framing him as corrupt by claiming that he already owns the land in question. Paine at first tries to avoid attacking Smith, whom he likes, but Taylor insists that the senator do his bidding or else lose his support for a mooted presidential bid. Paine calls for Smith to be expelled from the Senate.

Meanwhile Saunders, the experienced and hard-bitten Washington veteran who admits she is only in the game because “I need the job and a new suit of clothes”, has started to see American politics through Jeff’s eyes, as a source of hope and idealism. She instructs him on how to play for time until they can refute the accusations and gather support in his home state. This means filibustering. As long as he can hold the floor of the Senate Chamber his expulsion cannot be put to the vote. Thus he embarks on a marathon session of speechifying, hoping that his Boy Rangers will be able to spread the truth more successfully than Taylor’s machine and newspapers.

The Bluffer's Guide to Washington: Smith (James Stewart)
& Saunders (Jean Arthur) - but who is learning from whom?

That the good guy wins has little to do with the American democratic system, which studiously turns its back on Jefferson. Nor has it much to do with the wisdom of the electorate – in the most crushing scene Paine brings in to the Senate mailbag after mailbag of post from electors, the very people Smith is relying on to support his cause; they unanimously call for his expulsion from the chamber (this is just as Taylor had predicted: “I’ll make public opinion out there within five hours! I’ve done it all my life.”) Instead Smith only wins because of a crisis of guilt on the behalf of Senator Paine who confesses all. Had he been a worse man, graft would have prevailed. But the film plays to that inbuilt shred of decency in all Americans. Paine sees in Smith his former best-friend when he was young and idealistic. Saunders has her love for D.C. reawakened by Smith’s admiration for all that it could and should represent (Jeff learns from Saunders the way politics really works, she learns from him how it should work). It is she who urges him to put up a fight rather than accept his fate in a stirring speech when she finds him downcast at the Lincoln Memorial: “Your friend Mr Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. Not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.” Even the press corps, as drunken and jaded a group of sharks as one could hope to meet, come to take up Jefferson’s cause (and not just for the story either). Capra’s film says that, yes, the Senate is composed of place-fillers, time-servers and hired men (unanimously men), but there is still something golden and special about American democracy, American democratic institutions and American democratic ideals. And an ounce of idealism – or naivety – can sweep out the graft and restore it to what it could be. All that needs to happen is that the American people believe. Smith argues that “this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!” It is this message that stuck in the throats of the Hitlers, Stalins… and Kennedys.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reminded me of the famous quote by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is a very bad way to runa country. But, it is better than all the alternatives.” As a rallying call to the side of democracy and against the tide of dictatorship that was by 1939 sweeping the world it was perfectly judged and perfectly timed. It restated the American belief that their political system was somehow charmed, somehow a torch held up before all the people of the world. In many ways it can be seen as a precursor to 1942’s classic Casablanca. Here Jean Arthur plays the Humphrey Bogart role, a world-weary cynic who comes to fight for what is right through love of someone who does believe in a better future. Indeed, it is notable that Arthur gets top-billing in the movie, over Stewart.  

What have I learnt about D.C.?
That it can be controlled. Political bosses and monopolous capitalists can ‘buy’ politicians, either with money or the support of their organisations and newspapers. Spinning public opinion they can control the electorate too. But they can be defeated by those who believe in right and decency. The monuments of the District speak to man's higher ideals.

Can we go there?
Why would one not want to? Arriving at Union Station Jefferson is so entranced with the golden dome of the Capitol gleaming in the sunlight that he takes an unauthorised bus tour of the city. He is forever running away to the Lincoln Memorial or George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Though the latter is never shown the former has a starring role and for my money is home to the best scene, where Saunders talks him into fighting the forces leagued against him.

Most of the movie was filmed on set back in Hollywood however; those background shots of Washington, the Capitol building, the Lincoln Memorial and Union Station are rarities. The recreation of the Senate on set was faithfully done however, only a very little under the scale of the real thing.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Week 9: D.C. - the District of Columbia

"I used to wear dress blues,
 I used to get my cues
 From the dudes in D.C.
 With the wing-tip shoes..."
 - 'The Grave and the Constant',
 Fun Lovin' Criminals

D.C. (the District of Columbia) isn't a state. It is a mere geographical anomaly. It can't even elect senators. However America only has 50 states and there are 52 weeks in a year, so I thought I would include it. After all, how can you have a film list about the USA that ignores its capital?

D.C. is, to all extents and purposes, Washington. For Europeans the one immediately identifiable landmark in the District is, of course, the White House. For Americans it might actually be the great domed Capitol, home to the House of Representatives and the Senate. For anyone who has been there it must surely be the National Mall, the great swath of green running the length of the city dotted with monuments designed to remind one of America's greatness and founding principles - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, that's all hooey. Let's remember our Gibbons: "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely". The cinema age has seen the US emerge from being a peripheral player on the world stage, to a great power, to one of only two superpowers, to the world's policeman. The players upon this stage hunger for national power, but international power comes with it. There is a reason the American president is described as "the most powerful man in the world". And where there is power there must also be corruption. While this might be no surprise amongst the decadent poseurs and closeted bureaucracies of the Old World, America is, of course, supposed to be different, to be better. So let's lift the lid off the tensions brewing within the Beltway and begin our search for corruption.

The three films for this week, all of which deal with corruption in some form or another, are:

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • All the President's Men (1976)
  • The Exorcist (1973)

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Trigger Man (2007)

Dir. Ti West
Starring: Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb

“Be patient!” the character of Sean tells his deer-hunting companions around half an hour into the film Trigger Man. “We’ve been patient!” his exasperated friends reply. I knew how they felt. Thirty minutes in, nothing had happened, and I was already bored.

One of the few plus points I can find about Trigger Man is that it is short, only 80 minutes long. But that 80 minutes is really padded out. I would say quarter of an hour could have been cut easily – maybe even twenty if the director / editor / writer / cinematographer / producer Ti West had decided to not be so indulgent. The film opens with Sean (Sean Reid) pulling up in a car outside a New York apartment. He exits the car and crosses the road. He rings the intercom. There is no answer. He waits. This takes three minutes. And it is not a ‘build the tension’ three minutes either; it is three minutes shot from across the street with a jerky handheld camera that incorporates a sudden unexpected zoom in for no real purpose. However, his friends then come out to see him.  Reggie goes to buy some cigarettes. He walks into a corner shop. He spends thirty seconds looking at drinks in the chiller cabinet. He then turns away without having bought a drink, buys a packet of fags, walks out on to the street, pauses, and rejoins his friends. That’s another minute gone. By the time the opening credits start, eight minutes in, the audience has learned:
1)      there are three people who know each other slightly
2)      one of them is engaged / married and is driving his fiancĂ© / wife’s car
3)      another one smokes
4)      one has long hair
And that is it.

Plot, characterisation and character development are almost non-existent. Sean takes two old friends (very old – they didn’t even know whether he was engaged / married) out deer hunting. He has got into it to bond with his father-in-law, they have never done it before and are more interested in drinking and shooting then stealthy tracking. They drive out from New York into the woods. They poke around a bit. Then, forty minutes in, someone starts shooting them. The character of Sean is established as being a bit preppy, marrying into money. He develops by being shot by an unseen assailant for no particular reason.  The character of Ray (Ray Sullivan) is established as having long hair and refusing to use the corner shop next door because “Jihadists” now run it; it is also established that he has, at one point, watched the movie Predator. He develops by being shot by an unseen assailant for no particular reason. The character of Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) is established as someone who smokes and who seems to have a relationship problem in his life. He develops by being shot by an unseen assailant for no particular reason. On 55 minutes a fourth character is introduced, that of Jogger (Heather Robb). The character of Jogger is established as being a female who jogs,. She also stretches and drinks water but does not speak. She develops by being shot by an unseen assailant for no particular reason. Eventually the audience gets to see the previously unseen killers. They themselves are killed before uttering a single line of dialogue. And that’s it. There is no explanation as to why these two men have been randomly shooting people. There is no link between them and the three deer-hunters; the three friends were just unlucky to have been in the same location at the same time as the two killers. I kept looking for something to tie it all together. Maybe there was an environmental message suggesting that the three friends were just innocent prey to the killers, just as the deer would have been prey to them? No. There wasn’t. Maybe they would have dark secrets and they were being punished for their previous actions, as in Saw? Unless watching Predator counts as a crime, however, we know nothing about their previous actions – and even then it was not established that Sean had seen that movie. Maybe there would be a twist and a character from earlier on in the film would be revealed as the murderer (the Scooby-Doo “Why, it’s Old Man Rivers who runs the haunted amusement arcade!” ending)? However, considering that there were no other characters in the film – with the possible exception of an elderly Chinese lady who walks past Sean on the street in New York – this was always going to be unlikely. There was no twist. There was no rationale behind the attacks. Not only did I waste 80 minutes of my life watching the film, I wasted it trying to spot links, motives and reasons that simply were not there.

Trust me - I know how you feel...

Nor are the production values particularly good. The handheld camera is wobbly and the sound quality is abysmal, particularly whenever the action takes place near to a stream. There is some use of soundtrack near the beginning. Use of it during the film’s finale would have possibly added some tension. Instead we just had a man walking around an abandoned mill in silence. At least Rosalie Goes Shopping had good production values and a proper story. To be honest, the whole thing was so amateurish, I feel slightly bad reviewing it in such negative terms. If a group of mates of mine had spent an afternoon knocking something like this up in a park I would have been quite impressed. However, the thing clearly has pretensions to professionalism, and wants to be Deliverance or The Blair Witch Project. It isn’t. It was launched upon an unsuspecting paying public and so I have no hesitation in slating it. Frankly, it gives independent cinema a bad name!

I have watched this movie, people, so you do not have to. Use your 80 minutes of freedom wisely. Make love, sit in the sun, spend time with your children, alphabetise your CD collection, just for the love of God do not watch this film.

What have I learnt about Delaware?
It is not until the credits roll that the film specifies that it was shot in Delaware. Neither do any of the characters make reference to Delaware. The only comment they make about location is when Sean, in answer to a question, says that the river they are looking at may be the Brandywine. This creek rolls down from southern Pennsylvania to feed into the Christina and Delaware Rivers in Wilmington.

Accepting this fact, however, I now know that northern Delaware is easily drivable from New York – the entire journey would only take around two-and-a-half hours, making a day trip from NYC feasible. There are wild deer that can be hunted in the wooded northern part of the state, surprisingly close in to the city of Wilmington. And the rocky falls of the Brandywine Creek have obviously been utilised in the past for industry, as the existence of the abandoned mill proves.

Can we go there?
Yes. The bulk of the film was shot in Delaware’s Alapocas Run State Park and Rockford Park. These are right in Wilmington itself. It certainly seems worth a look if you are in the neighbourhood, with paths, woods and deer (though I doubt that you are allowed to hunt so near to the city centre). The abandoned mill featured is the Bancroft Mills complex; these mills produced textiles from 1831 up until they closed in 1961. It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and is currently being converted into luxury condominiums under the name of ‘Rockford Falls’. The cliffs across the creek where Sean takes his whiz are used as a rock climbing course.

Overall Rating: 0/5

Monday, 20 February 2012

Mayor Cupcake (2011)

Dir. Alex Pires
Starring: Lea Thompson, Judd Nelson, Dorian Harewood, Frankie Faison

Mary Maroni (Lea Thompson – best known as Marty McFly’s mum-to-be in Back to the Future) is a cupcake baker in a diner in the quiet little town of Bridgeville, Delaware. And she is quite happy just baking her cupcakes and looking after her family. However, she ends up as mayor due to a set of hilarious circumstances. (Well, the filmmakers seem to think it’s hilarious; I’m not entirely sure someone choking to death on a cupcake deserves the comedy music soundtrack treatment they gave it here…)

With her hands on the town’s accounts she discovers the shocking truth – Bridgeville is not just skint but heavily in debt. This is largely due to the former mayor and his two appointed councilmen skimming money out of the budgets for their own gain. She has to introduce some radical home economics to settle the budget – turning off every other street light, selling the police force’s cruisers and mounting the cops on bikes instead, and suspending garbage collections. She boards up the town hall and relocates the civic employees to booths at Jimmy’s Grille, where she works. But as she tries to sort out the pickle the town is in she polarises opinion among her constituents, has less time for her family, and – worst of all – the quality of her cupcakes starts to suffer!

It’s not a bad film. It has a nice plot arc, even if it is a bit predictable. Bridgeville’s townsfolk have their own individual characters, from Peter Patrikios’s sleazy car-salesman Greg Grundle, through Michael Petted’s Quail, the antique store owner who can’t bear to sell any of his antiques, up to the stand-out character of the film for me, Peter Schmitz’s Black Bart, the local bicycle-riding, trilby-wearing cynic. Mary’s family have their idiosyncrasies too. Her husband Donald is a moustachioed policeman with a secret harmonica habit, played by The Breakfast Club’s Judd Nelson. Of her three daughters (two of which are played by Leoni’s own daughters) one wants to be an American footballer, one is concerned with politics, and one sings in a band (their signature tune is a cover of Simple Minds’s Don’t You Forget About Me, which was of course the theme from The Breakfast Club. One wonders if it is written into Nelson’s contract that this song must play at all times he is onscreen?)

The ‘sensible small-town values’ expressed do sometimes veer to the right of the spectrum at times – there is no mention of environmental costs attached to the citizens having to drive their own garbage out to the landfill and no mention of recycling. Nor is there any mention of the possibility of taxes in the town being raised. Or what the consequences of the debt might be; it is a simple ‘we’re in debt, we must get out of it’ formula proposed. The failure of the local bank is blamed upon excessive regulation, and the silver bullet to cure the town’s woes is for Black Bart to stand ahead of speed traps and warn passing motorists to slow down. (The theory is that instead of collecting fines from passing motorists the fact that they warn the motorists about the speed traps will encourage them to stop and spend money in the town). Hell, Mayor Maroni even becomes the idol of Fox News. Despite this, I think it is wrong to try to superimpose some national political viewpoint on the film. And anyway, her opponents are campaigning under the slogan "Change We Don't Need" and the President himself (with a voice that sounds very like that of President Obama) tries to appoint her to a national position. The plot isn’t that complicated: those running the town are corrupt and have been defrauding the townsfolk, and they get their comeuppance from a woman thrust into a situation she didn’t ask for but determined to do the right thing.

Fox News: Daring to tackle the big stories

First time writer / director / producer Alex Pires has whipped up an impressive debut movie here which stands him in good stead for the future. In many ways the film is like a cupcake. It is sweet, fluffy and inoffensive. As President Obama himself comments at the end: “everybody likes cupcakes!”

What have I learnt about Delaware?
The state may be small, but it has enough small towns where individual close-knit communities exist and small town values rule. They are proud of their own individual heritage of entrepreneurs and immigrants building the town up (as shown in the opening montage of historic photos of Bridgeville) and their own individual customs (such as the Punkin Chunkin championships and RAPA Scrapple). But Delaware does have attractions, namely the beaches of Delaware Bay. The only reason people come to towns like Bridgeville is to pass through between D.C. and the beaches – if anything these towns are just irritants on their journey.

The folks like small government and minimal interference in their lives; if anything there is an apathy about politics that lets those who chose to get involved dominate the town. As Greg comments, the townsfolk are stupid, and if you see something you want, you can take it. And like many places in America it has been hit by economic problems like unemployment and bank collapses.

Can we go there?
Bridgeville really exists, and a lot of its features can be seen in the movie, such as the town hall, the cemetery and the water tower. And it does indeed host the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition (a contest to hurl a pumpkin the furthest distance possible with a machine) the first weekend after Halloween – in 2010 over one hundred teams took part. It also hosts an Apple Scrapple Festival a bit earlier in the year in October, so autumn definitely seems to be the time to visit. RAPA Scrapple was founded and is still based in the town and is the world’s largest producer of scrapple (a ‘semi-solid congealed loaf’ made from ‘a mush of pork scraps and trimmings’ according to Wikipedia. Yummy! And if you do get hungry, Jimmy's Grille really exists too, on Main Street, and is a local favourite so you can maybe look to find the booths where Mayor Mary held office. They don’t seem to sell cupcakes however!

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Fight Club (1999)

Dir. David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB!”

This could be a short review.

The unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) is a victim. He works a good job at an automobile company, assessing faults in their cars. He goes where he is told and toes the company line. He fills his apartment with IKEA furnishings. He has a very decent stereo and a wardrobe that is getting towards very respectable. His life is lived by other peoples’ rules – do this, say that, buy these. He is 30 now and knows the next thing expected of him in the Game of Life is marriage and children. He never makes any decision for himself and never takes any responsibility for his actions. He cannot even sleep at night.

Then he meets Tyler. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is the mirror opposite of everything the Narrator is. “I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”  He is free-wheeling, anarchic, his own master. He lives off the grid. He argues that you don’t need all your possessions: “The things you own end up owning you”. His ‘career’, if that is what it can be called, consists of stealing the waste human fat from liposuction centres, converting it into soap, and selling it back to upscale department stores. He also finds a little time to splice pornographic images into family films as a cinema projectionist and, ahem, ‘adulterate’ the food in the fancy restaurants he works as a waiter in. When the Narrator returns from a business trip to find that his flat has exploded he ends up living with Tyler in his squat. A beautiful bromance develops. The Narrator becomes more like Tyler in some ways. Notably together they set up Fight Club, a (literally) underground society where men from all across the social spectrum can come together and indulge in the most primal masculine act of all: beating the living shit out of each other. It is not done for money, or glory. It is done because without having experienced a fight and without having experienced pain, how can a man say that he has lived? Letting go of possessions, of status, of self-regard is the only way, in Tyler’s eyes, of finally becoming ‘free’.

But then something comes between them. Tyler starts having sex with Marla (Helen Bonham Carter, establishing the goth-queen look that would so bewitch Tim Burton), a woman the Narrator had met when they both started crashing the same victim self-help groups. Tyler tells the Narrator to never talk about him with Marla; in return the Narrator begins to suspect that Tyler is keeping things from him. Fight Clubs start to spread across the local area. Participants are given ‘home work’, such as getting a random stranger to start a fight with them, a fight which they are to lose. This then develops into a dedicated cadre of black-clad urban commandos (or ‘space monkeys’) pitching up at Tyler’s house. They become thoroughly deconstructed, not even having names. Similar groups (or, to be more accurate by this point, ‘cells’) spring up across the entire country. And then they start planning for ‘Project Mayhem’… The Narrator starts to panic as he realises that everything he and Tyler created together has spun out of his control. At this point Tyler vanishes. In a panicky cross-country chase the Narrator finally comes to realise precisely who Tyler is and what he has planned.

The film, then, essentially comes down to a battle for control, between the tyrannical Tyler and the beaten-down Narrator, over the organisation they created together. Tyler gets stronger as the Narrator gets weaker; as soon as the Narrator is absent or asleep Tyler manages to ramp up his plans. In the end it comes down to two climactic face-to-face meetings. In the first, in an anonymous hotel bedroom, Tyler points out certain home truths, stating as fact that the Narrator wants Project Mayhen to succeed just as much as he does. In the second, when the Narrator desperately tries to prevent the realisation of Tyler’s plans he finally comes to the conclusion that only by finally letting go and taking responsibility for his own actions can he finally defeat his nemesis.

Living off the fat of the land:
The Narrator follows Tyler's lead

There are certain movies – like American Flyers – that one cannot help but watch without thinking “This is so ‘80s”. I have always said that while you can get ‘’80s movies’, ‘’70s movies’ and so on, you never really get ‘’90s movies’. I take that back. Fight Club is a ‘90s movie. It has a late ‘90s cod-philosophy. There is a resentment about how the world has turned out, a world of advertising selling consumerism. Brands are all over the place: Calvin Klein, Volkswagen Beetles, IBM. We see the Narrator on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles flicking through what we at first assume to be a pornographic magazine but instead turns out to be the IKEA catalogue. Allegedly there is a Starbucks coffee cup in every single scene of the film. And then there is a reaction against this, an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist anger like that witnessed at Seattle’s anti-globalisation riots (which took place in 1999, the year of the film’s release). Tyler expresses his contempt of “an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

At the same time the styling, right from the opening computer-generated speed tour of the brain’s synapses, through the typeface of the titles and the pumping Dust Brothers soundtrack, effectively took me back to my time at university when I first saw the film. I could not even tell you whether Brad Pitt’s hipster-cool look with his leather jacket, tank top and tinted sunglasses merely reflected the age or served as pop-culture inspiration for it. Ed Norton’s drab washed-out shirts and Helena Bonham-Carter’s messy hair and chunky heels were definitely the former however.

What have I learnt about Delaware?
Assuming this is Delaware it’s pretty god-damn scuzzy. I say ‘assuming’ because nowhere does it mention specifically that the film is set there. There are clues. Apparently the zip and telephone area codes on Tyler’s business card are Wilmington, Delaware, numbers. The sign outside the Narrator’s apartment block proclaims it to be “A Place to be Somebody” which is the monumentally bland slogan of the city of Wilmington. And in one scene Tyler and the Narrator discuss that apparently other Fight Clubs have started, and list their locations as Delaware City and New Castle (both located just south of Wilmington) and also Penn’s Grove (which is situated just across the river in New Jersey. And finally there are all those office blocks headquartering credit card companies. And many credit card companies are indeed headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, so it makes sense for the film to be set there.

But as I say, it is seriously scuzzy. The streets are perpetually rain-slick, the roads lined with self-help groups in church halls and neon-fronted cinema marquees, grand buildings sub-divided into flats or left to collapse through rot and mould. A cityscape has not looked so horrific since Taxi Driver.

Can we go there?
The film might be sort-of set in Delaware, but it was not filmed there; the good burghers of Delaware forbade it. Gee thanks guys. That really helps. But we are meant to believe that the locale is that of Wilmington – even though the city referred to on Tyler’s business card and in the news clippings seems to be called Bradford instead.

The film was actually shot in many locations in and around Los Angeles, with most of the interiors being created at the 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. ‘Lou’s Tavern’, the bar where the first Fight Club is formed, is in Wilmington however – Wilmington, California. It was a real-life strip bar called ‘Shipwreck Joey’s’ and was located near Los Angeles Harbour. It also appeared in the movie To Live and Die in L.A. Sadly it was demolished back in ’99. Tyler Durden’s house – or, rather, its exterior – was constructed especially for the film nearby at (I think) 240 N Neptune Avenue. It too was torn down after filming. This means the actual number of genuine, still-existing locations is pretty limited. Marla’s apartment is in the Hotel Bristol at 423 W 8th Street which reopened as housing units in 2010 after standing empty for seven years; the Narrator’s apartment block (the ‘Pearson Towers’ in the film) is actually Promenade Towers at 123 S Figueroa Street. Both are in Downtown L.A. The launderette where Marla steals clothes from the washers is ‘Laundryland’ at 4371 Melrose Avenue. The church where Marla is first met at the cancer victims’ support group is St Brendan’s Catholic Church at 310 S Van Ness Avenue. And the grand restaurant where Tyler spiked the lobster bisque is the dining room of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on South Grand Avenue. Photos of some of the locations can be found here.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Week 8: Delaware

"Next stop Wilmington, Delaware,
 And there's a rumour Melle Mel'll be there..."
 - 'Postcards',

In one scene in Wayne's World giant postcards are projected onto the back of the set, allowing Wayne and Garth to pretend that they are in the likes of New York or Texas. "Imagine being magically swept away to... Delaware..." they say. They try desperately to think of something to say about the location. "Hi", they finally come up with, "We're in Delaware..." 

This is the definitive movie scene about Delaware. In fact, if you find any other - lesser - blogs about trying to find a film for each American state (one film mind you, just one) the film they always have to represent Delaware is Wayne's World precisely because of that scene, despite the fact that the movie is actually set in Aurora, Illinois. The rationale is clear: nothing ever happens in Delaware and no movies are set in Delaware.

How I laughed... until I discovered that it was true. Delaware is famous for one thing - it has no tax, meaning that lots of companies are headquartered there. Other than that, zip. Rhode Island is smaller, but I already have four films to choose between for that state. For Delaware I am really struggling.

I do have a potential list of three films. However, I warn you now that other than the first I may not be able to get hold of any others. They all seem to be small, indie productions that have never had a general release. But my favoured options are:

  • Fight Club (1999)
  • Mayor Cupcake (2011)
  • Trigger Man (2007)

Other potential films include The Dish & The Spoon (2011), Head Case (2007), Wrestling (2008) and The Ritual (2009). Don't hold your breath...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mystic Pizza (1988)

Dir. Donald Petrie
Starring: Annabeth Gish, Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio

There is a pizza restaurant in the eastern Connecticut port town of Mystic. It’s name? Mystic Pizza. Cool name, huh? A woman called Amy Jones certainly thought so. She liked the name so much that she wrote a movie of the same name, based around the establishment.

Actually, little happens in the pizzeria itself. There is a subplot about the secret ingredients that Leona (Conchita Ferrell) puts in her traditional Portuguese pizza (who knew?) that won over local television food critic ‘The Fireside Gourmet’ (Louis Turenne), but that is all. However Mystic Pizza is the work place for three very different girls of Portuguese descent. Kat, aka ‘Saint Katharine, (Annabeth Gish) is the good girl, saving up to fund her astronomy studies at Connecticut’s prestigious Yale University. Her sister Daisy (Julia Roberts) is the feisty pool-playing man-hunting good-time girl. And their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor) is having commitment issues about marrying her long-time boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio). It is the lives and loves of these three girls that form the storyline of the film. All three, to a certain extent, try to break out of the roles to which they have been assigned. Kat gradually starts to fall for an architect called Tim (Wiliam R. Moses) whose daughter she has been babysitting, leading to her doing something not at all saintly with him on Hallowe’en. Daisy knows her reputation but is despairing of ever escaping from small-town Mystic where she’ll be “slingin’ pizza for the rest of my life”.  Yet even when she commences a relationship with preppy Porsche-driving WASP boy Charles Gordon Windsor Jr (Adam Storke) she is not afraid to run the relationship on her terms. JoJo loves Bill but is running scared of marriage. Of these three relationships, one ends in wedding bells, one in a tentative future, and one with a very final goodbye.

A slice of '80s heaven: Kat (Annabeth Gish),
Daisy (Julia Roberts) and Jojo (Lili  Taylor)

Tim is the cultured older man who proves to be the most incredible coward, contributing towards Kat’s college fund to try to make himself feel better. Charles is damaged goods. He is persistently unable to finish what he starts, whether it is loud-mouthed darts-related bets in small-town dives, a law degree, or a relationship. In one scene he takes Daisy to dinner with his folks, and then explodes when a comment is made about the Portuguese. However Daisy, the “poor dumb Portugee”, is smarter than he thinks; she twigs that he is using her to get at his father. She calls him on this, gives him a dressing-down and storms off. Of the three it is fisherman Bill who is the most honest. He may not have had the advantages of the other two, but he knows his heart. “I’m telling you I love you” he tells Jojo at one point “and all you love is my dick! Do you know how that makes me feel?” He is the one pushing to make an honest girl woman out of his girlfriend.

The three girls rely on the support and understanding of the others, even though there is obvious tension between Kat and Daisy. Daisy sarcastically comments “Kat, such a good girl. Where did we go wrong with her sister Daisy?” She later tells her mother that she will never be going to Yale; her mother sadly says that that doesn’t matter, she just wants her daughter to be careful. Daisy taunts her sister: “Daddy boffing the babysitter is a really old story Kat, it happens all the time!” In return Kat suggests that Daisy would be more honest if she just charged for sex. Yet when Kat comes home crying after Tim paid her off it is her sister who comforts her. Meanwhile Lili has an amazing monologue where she thanks them and Leona for their advice after Bill breaks up with her.

There is a strong local Portuguese community (with surnames like Arujo, Barboza, Montijo and Valsouano), who work the restaurants, run the fishing fleet and prepare the seafood (the Arujo’s refrigerator is stuffed with lobster). They are religious (Lili’s parents have a hideous light-up Jesus in the front room and Mrs Arujo worries that Daisy is not dating a Catholic) and family-oriented (as soon as the wedding ceremony is complete they are asking when a baby can be expected). They have Portuguese songs and dances at their weddings. And they have their own traditional Portuguese pizzas. They are seen as more honest than the richer WASP inhabitants of Connecticut, whether they are Yale-educated architects like Tim, college drop-outs slumming it like Charles, or snobs with servants like the rest of the Windsors.

So… romance, relationships, supportive galpals, disappointing menfolk? Yes, I suppose it is a chick-flick, but that should not stop any fellers from watching it. The writing is good and the characters are not just one-dimensional caricatures. There is a humanity in the way they are written and the way they are acted. The three leads in particular really earn their billings here. All three went on to have successful careers. Though when the film was later re-released it was Julia Roberts’s face that got the big close-up on the DVD cover. This is unfair as all three deserve equal billing. One other star to get their first big screen break in the fiolm is Matt Damon, who gets one line as Charles's brother.

What have I learnt about Connecticut?
Well, it was nice to get out east away from New York. Connecticut has historic seafaring towns that attract the tourists – like Mystic. This sees an uneasy balance being struck between the tourists, students, and owners of summer homes that once belonged to hoary old Victorian sea captains, and those who still work behind the scenes in the fishing fleets and hospitality industries – many of whom are of Portuguese descent. There is a thriving Portuguese community down by the lobster fisheries. The lobsters, clams and other seafood alone make a visit look appealing. Interestingly Yale seems to be a very local college. People from Connecticut go to Yale, and those who have been to Yale don’t seem to leave Connecticut.

Can we go there?
This is the first place we have seen in Connecticut that would seem to warrant a trip. Mystic is well geared towards tourists, as we have seen from the film. Mystic Seaport is a maritime museum complete with sailing ships and a recreated 19th century seafaring village. It also has the Treworgy Planetarium – which is where Kat is shown working as a commentator in the film. Mystic also has an aquarium. And one of the town’s newer attractions is a humble pizzeria at 56 West Main Street by the name of Mystic Pizza

Looking at the photos of the real-life restaurant one cannot help but notice that it looks nothing like the version in the film. This is correct. Mystic is too touristy, so shooting was done on in Stonington, a few miles further east. The Connecticut state authorities have handily put together a map showing where many of the locations can be found. The town has its own branch of Mystic Pizza, though the location of the fictional restaurant is above the Garbo Lobster Company at 56 Water Street. Stonington's Peg Leg Pub is now Zack's Bar and Grill. Further east again and the girls’ family homes are located on Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck, right by the Rhode Island border. Over that border in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the Misquiamicut Club was used for the country club where Daisy dumps a load of fish into Charles’s Porsche. Tim’s house is also in Watch Hill, on Breen Road. In fact only the scene on the bascule bridge where the girls see that Bill has renamed his boat ‘Nympho’ was filmed in Mystic. I found a pretty good website that details all the various locations.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Dir. Bryan Forbes
Starring: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman

There must be something in the water in Stepford. It is an idyllic Connecticut town surrounded by trees and meadows. The beautiful large houses are set back behind manicured lawns; out back there are tennis courts or swimming pools. The residents include company bosses, TV executives, scientists and lawyers who work in the local high-tech industries or commute into Manhattan. Their wives stay at home to raise the children and keep their homes clean. They are dutiful, obedient, playful – perfect wives.

Too perfect. The women of Stepford waltz around in pinafore dresses and sunhats talking about the best cleaning products to use like they are Nanette Newman off the Fairy Liquid adverts. In fact one of them is Nanette Newman from the Fairy Liquid adverts! Newcomer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross - best known as Elaine Robinson from The Graduate) soon makes cause with the rebellious Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss). “It’s like maids have been declared illegal, and the housewife with the neatest place gets Robert Redford for Christmas.” They try to empower the local women (“pan-scrubbers”  and “hausfraus” according to Bobbie) by organising a women’s lib session to get them to open up; the concerns that emerge, however, are guilt that they did not do any baking that day because they were so busy polishing the floors to a shine. The session denigrates into a discussion about the merits of Easy-On Spray Starch. Even Joanna and Bobbie’s ally Charmaine (Tina Louise) seems to have a personality transplant, ceasing to criticise her husband, sacking her maid, and allowing her tennis court to be dug up to make way for a pool. Meanwhile the men – including Joanna’s husband Walter (Peter Masterson) – are bonding well up at the Stepford Men’s Association.

Bobbie starts to suspect that there must be something in the water that is making the women meek and submissive – some run off from the town’s biochemical industries. They get a sample of the water tested; results come up negative. But then Bobbie comes back from a weekend away with a new wardrobe, bigger boobs and a passion for housework and Joanna gets scared. She becomes convinced that the behaviour of the womenfolk is not just birds of a feather flocking together or some local chemical imbalance. She starts to think that somehow the Men’s Association is behind it all… But by the end of the film when Joanna meets the other Stepford wives in the supermarket everything seems to be “fine”.

You'll just die if you don't get that recipe:
Nanette Newman (right) shows how to cook up the perfect Stepford wife

The phrase ‘Stepford wife’ is now common parlance. It is used to criticise overly domestic women, those whose ambitions stretch no further than keeping a clean home, a contended husband and a well-cared-for family. In the 1970s when the film was shot, and when the original novel by Ira Levin was published, a wife of this sort was probably seen as a good attribute. Today it all seems weird – far too Desperate Housewives. But with the ‘70s being the age of women’s lib this film really strikes a chord. The men of Stepford are in turns piggish, calculating and malevolent. Their only redeeming feature really is the fact that they don’t want other women, they only want their wives. Just better versions of their wives. Meanwhile we see women with spark, individuality and ambition have it all drained out of them. In Revolutionary Road this was a natural by-product of being trapped in the “hopeless emptiness” of the suburbs; in The Stepford Wives it is much more malign. In Revolutionary Road Frank dooms April as a consequence of his decisions; in The Stepford Wives Walter makes an active choice about what he wants. Ironically, for me, I would say that Revolutionary Road is probably the more horrifying, just because it is more realistic.

One odd thing that bears noting is that The Stepford Wives seems to have been a real family shoot. Nanette Newman was married to the film’s English director Bryan Forbes. One of Joanna and Walter’s daughters actually was played by the real-life daughter of Peter Masterson. This was the screen debut of Mary Stuart Masterson, who later went on to play Idgie in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ©.

What have I learnt about Connecticut?
Where Revolutionary Road showed the suburbs of the aspiring middle class The Stepford Wives shows the homes of those who have succeeded and have money – historic three-storey detached properties with acres of land, set back among the trees, often with pools or tennis courts. This is a snobbish place where men-only clubs survive and hold power. The fact that Stepford is seen as ‘liberal’ by some townspeople just because it had the first Chinese restaurant in Fairfield county and it is about to have a black couple move in speaks volumes about quite how WASP-ish society is around here. Yet nearby Westport has a reputation for attracting writers and artists.

Can we go there?
What, you still want to go to Connecticut? Are you having marital difficulties?

Like Revolutionary Road, The Stepford Wives was filmed on location – and in exactly the same area of south-west Connecticut: Darien, Fairfield, Norwalk. The industrial units can be found in Norwalk (companies headquartered here in real life include pharmaceuticals company IMS Health, mechanical and electrical engineers Emcor Group and Applera Biosystems who are working on the Human Genome Project). The spooky gothic home of the Stepford Men’s Association is also in Norwalkthe Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum. The local shops can be found in the intriguingly-named Goodwives Shopping Center in Darien. The rustic exterior of Dr Fancher’s psychotherapist’s office is in Weston. Ira Levin has said that he based Stepford upon the town of Wilton however. 

Overall Rating: 3/5