I’ve long bemoaned the lack of sophistication and wit in modern day movies. They just seem so dumbed down and targeted to the lowest common denominator. Seeing THANK YOU FOR SMOKING felt like a huge breath of fresh air….so to speak. Based on the Christopher Buckley novel of the same, the film is adapted and directed by Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman.)
The film follows the exploits of Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart) who works as a lobbyist for the Tobacco industry. He is a slick smooth operator who can talk better than anyone in the room. He lunches daily with his only friends Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), an alcohol lobbyist, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), a gun lobbyist. They refer to themselves as the M.O.D. Squad (“Merchants of Death”.) As part of his mission to display cigarettes in a positive light, Nick Naylor flies to Los Angeles on business, taking his young son with him. While in town, he meets with a CAA-esque Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe) to discuss how they can work together to make cigarettes sexy and cool in an upcoming sci-fi film. He also stops at the home of cowboy Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), the “Tumbleweed Man” (read: Marlboro Man), who was a long running symbol of tobacco before his battle with lung cancer turned him against it. Nick Naylor comes to his house to offer him hush money to silence him from speaking out about the evils of cigarettes.
Meanwhile, back in Washington Nick must battle his rival Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy). Things get even more complex with Nick is seduced by ruthless journalist Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) who writes a scathing expose about him in the press. All the while, Nick’s young son is studying his every move and is clearly set to follow in his footsteps.
What anchors this film and makes it work so well is Aaron Eckhart’s performance. He has been great in other films such as Erin Brockovich and In The Company of Men, but this is the first role he’s had that really utilizes him to his full potential. Nick Naylor is sleazy, ruthless, slick and shallow….but you can’t help but like him. You secretly want him to win. He is fast, funny and perfect in the role. The supporting actors are also excellent.
The dialogue is smart and well paced. Good satire is a difficult thing to tackle and Reitman has done a fantastic job. I look forward to his future work and hope that he continues to make films that are on this same level of quality. Finally….WIT and INTELLIGENCE has returned to movie screens. It’s about time.
To wet my appetite for the upcoming Noir Festival, I went to the Aero Theatre to see the Noir Double Feature. Both films were directed by Richard Fleischer, who was an outstanding craftsmen. First off was NARROW MARGIN (1952) starring Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw. This was a delightfully nasty noir with great characters and dialogue. Marie Windsor plays a gangster’s wife who is forced on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify in a racket busting trial. Charles McGraw plays the police officer who is assigned to protect her and to make sure she arrives safely. Their characters despise each other and their constant verbal sparring is wickedly enjoyable. There are many twists and turns in the script that constantly keep you guessing. I won’t give away the ending because this film IS on DVD, but sufficed to say if you want to see a fantastic and tightly wound noir, this is it!
The next film was VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955) starring Victor Mature, Sylvia Sidney and Lee Marvin. I was very excited to see this since it is not available on video. Shot in lush color and CinemaScope, this film was a perfect big screen experience. Based on the caper novel by W.B. Heath, VIOLENT SATURDAY weaves together the stories of several people in a small town whose lives converge during a violent bank heist. What I loved about this film was how rich it was in character development. The first 3/4 of the film was ALL back story on the lives of each character, going into their problems, conflicts and histories. Some of the scenes and characters seemed to be taken right out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but the tone and manner in which it was all presented felt very right within the context of the film. What made the film so powerful in my mind was that by the time the bank heist happens, I felt as though I had an emotional investment in each character. As an audience member, I had spent time with them and gotten to know them so their violent fates seemed so much more tragic to me. I guess my big complaint about most films (particularly modern ones) is that you NEVER get to have characters this rich or fleshed out. If this film were made today, it would have started with the bank heist and never would have taken such a generous amount of time setting it up. It is almost as if today people (generally speaking) don’t have the attention span to sit through things that aren’t edited in MTV fashion. The problem with so many movies is that since you never get that character development, you don’t CARE about what happens to the characters. I could rattle off so many expamples of movies that don’t work for that very reason. VIOLENT SATURDAY was so beautifully written that it should be shown in every screenwriting class. I can’t praise this film enough. I’m only sorry it is so hard to find.
Perhaps I will adpot this film as one of my “pet projects.” Allow me to explain….There are so many incredible old movies that aren’t on DVD. I’ve taken a handful of my favorites and have taken it upon myself to gently lobby the appropriate studio to release them. I’ve written to the Fox Home Video department (and the in house restoration expert) many times about NIGHTMARE ALLEY and BLOOD AND SAND both starring Tyrone Power. Fortunately NIGHTMARE ALLEY is now on DVD! I don’t take credit for that personally BUT I figure that my gentle prodding via e-mail is at least another brick in the wall and another reminder that there are still people out there who care about these films.
THE SHOW is filled with signature Browning material including jealousy, revenge, murder and an array of bizarre and macabre imagery. The problem with the film is not these elements, but rather how they all tie together. The plot goes off the tracks and into cliched melodramatic territory and sentiment that really don’t mix well. For example, when Cock Robin is on the run from the police, Salome takes him to her family home. Once there, he learns that Salome’s brother is scheduled to be executed by hanging (the platform for the hanging and the prison are conveniently within view of the living room). In order to spare Salome’s blind and dying father the heartache of knowing the truth, Cock Robin passes himself off as his long lost son. The old man embraces him and concludes that he can die in peace having reconciled with him. Meanwhile Salome keeps urging Cock Robin to turn himself into the police for having stolen money from a sheep hearder’s daughter. There is one particularly bizarre scene in the film where “The Greek” tries to behead Cock Robin, who then shortly thereafter tries to behead Salome. If that weren’t enough, the finale of the film includes “The Greek” trying to kill Cock Robin with a giant poisionous lizard. Just the image of John Gilbert running from a big lizard was cringe worthy to put it mildly. Finally the lizard bites “The Greek” who then shoots the lizard before dying.
My conclusion was that EVERYONE involved deserved much better material. In spite of this, it was still interesting to see this rarely screened film and if you are ever restless at 4am and it happens to air on Turner Classic Movies…and you happen to be coming down from a very bad trip or sobering up…then you might want to check it out.
I’d seen FREAKS 4 or 5 times, but the opportunity to see this twisted little gem on the big screen was irresistible to me! I LOVE this film! It is not cinematic brilliance or anything, but regardless it tends to occupy a very special place in my heart. I tend to deeply relate to the misfits, outcasts, misunderstood and eccentric people of the world…..maybe because I am that way myself. I have the biography of Tod Browning entitled “DARK CARNIVAL” by David J. Skal. It is a fascinating look into Tod Browning’s life and influences. I had David sign my book and in the front he inscribed, “To Karie, “One of us! One of us!” To me, Tod Browning was a unique and gifted director who made a tremendous imprint on the genre of horror that is still felt today. He was there at the beginning making audiences shocked, afraid, disgusted and captivated all at the same time. Not to many people have ever been able to pull that off since.
In addition to my appreciation of Grinhouse, I had more personal reasons for wanting to see SAVAGE SEVEN. The film’s star Adam Roarke was my first film teacher. He ran a school called The Film Actor’s Lab in Dallas, Texas where I grew up. I’ve been madly in love with movies ever since I could remember and when I was 15, I begged my parents to let me attend Adam’s film classes. When I first met him, he looked at me with my big bangs and penny loafers and said, “We don’t take children at this school. There is another place across town, why don’t you go there?” I looked him right in the eyes and said, “I want to be here with the adults and with you…..I want to learn about film.” I was so serious and emphatic and he could sense that right away. He looked at me and said, “All right, you can stay.” Adam taught film acting and other classes that involved breaking down and analyzing film scenes. Adam always treated me with kindness and never looked down on my because of my young age. He was such a vibrant and fascinating person. He had TONS of amazing stories about Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. He knew so much about film-past and present. To me, he always seemed so much larger than life. Adam was the first person I can remember besides my parents who really believed in me. He was so happy for me when I got accepted into film school. I had directed my first student film and was dying to show it to him. I called him and he said, “Great! Bring it with you and we can watch it next week when you’re in town.” He died of a massive heart attack in his sleep only a few days later.
What breaks my heart is that I never really got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me and how important he was in my life. I also lament that I never got the chance to see his films while he was alive and discuss them with him. Most of his films are not available on video and they certainly weren’t being shown in the late 80s and 90s when I knew him. Only since moving to Los Angeles in 2000, has the opportunity finally presented itself for me to see his work. I’ve now see SAVAGE SEVEN, THE STUNT MAN and PLAY IT AS IT LAYS all on the big screen. The first time I saw one of his films, the minute I heard his voice and saw his face, it was like he was alive again. It felt like I was getting to spend time with him again. He looked and sounded so much like the Adam I remember. It was surreal and comforting at the same time.
After the Q&A, I chatted with Richard Rush and told him about my time with Adam. Then he invited me to see more of his films at the Egyptian and said we would speak again soon. Mr. Rush was so nice and spoke so highly of Adam. I turned around and started to cry. My friend Lucas went with me and we decided to go out for dinner. We sat in a cafe and ate frito pie, which we concluded was perfect meal to accompany a grindhouse night.
I would high encourage anyone to catch more Grindhouse movies AND also to catch the “New Hollywood” films of the 60s and 70s that will soon be playing at the Egyptian. They will be showing PLAY IT AS IT LAYS again and some more Richard Rush films as well. Check out the Filmradar calendar for times and details.
They are well worth taking a look at.