Sunday, January 20, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Airplane!

The Story:  Lots of reasons why I wanted to include this scene from Airplane! when I first presented this some years ago: It had been voted into the National Film Registry at the end of that year; Barbara Billingsley, otherwise known as Mrs. Cleaver from the "Leave it To Beaver" television show, had died at the end of that year, and this scene loomed large in her legend. No doubt, her earlier role figured in her being chosen for this (I can't think of a funnier person, other than the ubiquitous Betty White, to make the line "I speak jive" ring with wholesome comic brilliance), and the Zucker Brothers have a fetish for all things "Beaver;" I love Airplane! in the same way I love Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones and Daffy Duck (especially together), a soupcon of Jerry Lewis, and slapstick. Ardently, and every viewing seems opposed to the in-flight meals that start the complications of this whole thing.

You look at the screenplay posted on-line, and what the Jive-Talkers are saying is gibberish, the ZAZ team couldn't speak jive for any reason (they're also referred to as "Black Dudes, but in the on-set transcript they're "Jivemen"), so the dialogue was ad-libbed by the two actors (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) on set. Obviously, they wrote Barbara Billinsley's lines, as well. Some unsung trivia there, for the scene and talk (in it's previous sub-titled conversation) are brilliantly hilarious. 

What's always made this scene funny for me, besides Billingsley's showing up, and the rather nicely rhythmed "jive" being spoken, was the basic joke that understanding a language doesn't always promote understanding. In fact, there is more mis-understanding (it seems) the more you learn; one has to be immersed in the culture to learn the idioms, the slang, the colloguialisms, the provincialisms, the emphases, and vernacular.

And if you look on a color wheel, the opposite of black is Barbara Billingsley.

The Set-Up:  Set-up?  The set-ups only last long enough to deliver the punch-lines. 

Anyone who had "the fish" for dinner on board the flight from Los Angeles to Chicago is getting violently ill, including the entire flight crew, save the stewardesses.

But, that's not important right now....



A Black Dude is holding his stomach in pain.

JIVEMAN 1: Mnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Randy approaches.
RANDY: Can I get you something?
JIVEMAN 1:  S'mo fo butter layin' me to the bone. Jackin' me up. Tightly.
RANDY: I'm sorry. I don't understand.

MRS. SCHIFF, a middle-aged woman, is seated behind the Black Dudes.
JIVEMAN 2: Cutty say he cant hang.
MRS. SCHIFF: Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.
RANDY: Ohhhh, good. 
MRS. SCHIFF: He said he's in great pain and wants to know if you can help him.
RANDY: Would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as
soon as I can with some medicine.

Randy exits.
MRS. SCHIFF: Jus' hang loose, blood.
MRS. SCHIFF: She goonna catch you up on the`rebound on de medcide.
BLACK DUDE (indignantly): What it is, big mamma. My mamma didn't raise no dummy, I dug her rap.
MRS. SCHIFF: Cut me some slack, jack!
They engage in an argument in jive talk, with Mrs. Schiff getting the best of it.
MRS. SCHIFF: Chump don' wan' no help, chump don' git no help.
MRS. SCHIFF: Jive-ass dude don' got no brains, anyhow.


Words by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker

Pictures by Joseph F. Biroc and  Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker

Airplane! is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Fair Game

Written at the time of the film's release....

"Playing the Plame Game"
"The Problems of Two Little People Don't Amount to a Hill of Yellow-Cake in this Crazy World."

Those of us in the United States know the story: Ramp-up to the Iraq war; alleged yellow-cake uranium sales from Niger to Iraq; aluminum tubes thought to be nuclear weapons partsambassador Joe Wilson's editorial calling fraud on those suspicions; shock and awe tactics by the White House leaking information to the press, publicly exposing Wilson's wife as a CIA agent; the furor that created; the investigation; the prosecution and resignation of a key Bush administration official; the President's commuting of his fine and prison term. That's the headlines.

But, the nice thing about Doug Liman's film about the case, Fair Game, is that he immediately makes it personal. Using the same gritty techniques used in The Bourne Identity and Go (he is also the director of photography on this one, as he was making Go), he takes us to hot-spots of the world, the cold corridors of power, and the warm cozy homes of the participants, finding the nuances of life and feeling. We watch as Plame (Naomi Watts), posing as a chemical consultant, travels to Kuala Lampur to talk business, effectively dodging a trap with hockey trivia, then, when things get dicey, turns the table on her contact.  Plame's cool friendly exterior turns icy when she looks her hostage in the eye and says calmly "If you help us, we can help you. And I promise you one thing: you have no idea what we can do."

Truer words. And she has no idea how true those words are.
Plame knows stuff. She knows a lot of stuff*. A prized CIA investigator, she regularly travels to the Middle East coercing, cajoling and charming nuclear scientists and terrorist contacts, making promises, making contacts, hovering in the peripheries, returning home to domesticity with her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson (a nicely rumpled Sean Penn), currently trying to turn his connections into a consulting business. Because of his knowledge on Niger, the CIA asks him to investigate the yellow-cake sale for their investigation for the Vice-President's office...the logistics of which would have been impossible to pull off unseen. Plame, on the other hand, has all the facts that the Bush operatives don't have (or won't acknowledge) about those aluminum tubes that, it turns out, are completely unsuitable for bomb-building.
But that doesn't stop the Administration from using both fraudulent claims as pretexts for invading Iraq to stop a non-existent nuclear program—selling the war is easier if the motivation is fear. Both Plame and Wilson (and their colleagues) watch in horror as the invasion occurs under false pretenses (and Wilson, having met, and been threatened by Saddam Hussein, is no apologist calling him "a monster"). Wilson calls "bull-shit" on the White House, and, fearing "a trust issue," the President's advisers start to spin the story in the Press, starting by leaking that Plame is a CIA officer. Suddenly, this spy, with enemies around the world and friends out of the loop at home, is besieged with questions and the protective bubble she has lived in is popped. Considered toxic by her colleagues in the CIA, she loses her clearances and her job, the phone rings off the hook with confused friends and death-threats and just-plain crazies. The stories start to spin out of control, with Wilson fighting back, but Plame trying to retreat back to an anonymity she will never have again, and a truth that has become irrelevant in the fire-fight at home.
The emphasis on the home situations of Wilson and Plame (and their two children) is what makes this personal political thriller so interesting**: he fights his battles out in the open, but she works in the shadows—when the couple must fight the same battle against their oppressors, the divergent styles splinter the two of them apart. Watts and Penn have worked together before (21 Grams and The Assassination of Richard Nixon), so they're old hands at making a relationship look believable, both, in turn, have moments of weakness and vulnerability, alternating with a fierceness in strength which they share, but rarely at the same time.*** That internal squabble inside the larger fight makes up the heart and soul of Fair Game, Liman and his camera catching moments of temperament between two "inside" outsiders at war at home.

* One of the amusing things about Plame's book on the subject (that shares the same name as the movie) was the redacting of so much of it; Plame was still bound to pass her book's galley to the CIA for review to prevent the dissemination of sensitive state secrets. So much of the book was blacked out that Plame published the censored document as is, and a relative not tied to the CIA explained the deleted segments—using completely public documents—in the Appendix.  The credits for the movie black out many of the names of the characters. Heh.  

** And somewhat akin to Liman's earlier fanciful, fictional spy film Mr. & Mrs. Smith... 

*** They're just the marquee names in a great cast, including Bruce McGill—always fine—as Plame's boss, Michael Kelly—who I've been watching since Eastwood's Changeling—as one of Plame's colleagues, a very subtle Polly Holliday (remember "Flo?") as Plame's mother and Sam Shepard, who has a very short, but very significant, cameo as Plame's Air Force father.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Favourite (2018)

We All Gotta Serve Somebody (And The First One Now Will Later Be Last)
All About Evening the Score...

So, imagine, if you will, that Stanley Kubrick had directed his Barry Lyndon more in the same style of his Dr. Strangelove, with a hint of Fellini's casting abilities, and a bit of the insouciance for time and place of Baz Luhrmann, and you'll have an idea of what it's like to watch The Favourite (note the King's English spelling), the latest film of director Yorgos Lanthimos—who made Dogtooth and The Lobster—but latched onto a script that's been bumping around since 1998, just waiting for "the times" to accept it.

Well, these are them times, with the entire world saturated with egotistical no-accounts (in both political and business circles) and the lackeys, brown-noser's and boot-lickers who circle through their well-appointed revolving doors. It's a comedy based on historical fact with most of the kind of juicy speculation they wouldn't dare put in an historical mini-series on the BBC. One wonder never mistake it for that.

Me, I've wanted to see this thing since I saw Emma Stone do this in the trailer (which I must have seen six times)

Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) struggles to be a happy Queen in 1708. England is at war with France, her husband, Prince George of Denmark, has just died, and the Lords are revolting—divided now between Tories and Whigs, they are spatting over the raising of taxes to pay for England's expenses (led by Robert Harley—played Nicholas Hoult, "The Beast" of the Young X-Men—although the Whigs were actually IN FAVOR of raising taxes). There's a war going on and despite their loyalty to the Queen, they see no good reason why they should be paying for it. Her childhood friend and confidante, the Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, advocates for the increases, and as she has the Queen's ear, up the taxes will go. 
The Queen is not only grieving, she suffers from melancholia and the disease of Kings—gout—and her grief over her husband's death has only compounded what she emptiness she feels from seventeen miscarriages and still-births—she has an infestation of 17 rabbits to remind her of each and every one. (I mentioned this was a comedy, didn't I?)
But, it's not like she's missing the conflict of family-life in any sense—into the mix comes Lady Sarah's cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who has fallen on hard times and a great deal of horse-flop. Her family is bankrupt, owing to the gambling debts owed by her father, and she has come to the palace in "diminished circumstances" to seek employment and to try and make something of herself, rather than be consigned to the streets.
She is, instead, consigned to the kitchen as a scullery-maid—where she is at the bottom of the pecking order. She is kept away from the Queen (as most are) by the manipulations of Lady Sarah—when Harley approached her "to make a statement to the Queen", she shoots back "State it to me. I love a comedy. Is there cake?"—but, when the Queen's gout flares up painfully, Abigail goes to the nearby woods and gathers herbs, makes a salve, and lies her way into the Queen's bed-chamber to apply it. She is found and ordered to be lashed. But, before too much pain is inflicted, Sarah spares her, as the Queen has been comforted. Abigail may prove useful.
"Is there cake?"
That has been the intention all along. Abigail is made Lady Sarah's assistant, and, as such, she is given much more access to the Queen and her own quarters, away from the jealous maids. Sarah also takes her under her wing—"Let's shoot something!"—acquainting her with Anne's daily life and needs, the better for her to serve. But, she doesn't tell her everything, though—such as that Sarah is having an affair with the Queen, something that Abigail discovers quite by accident when she is in the Queen's chambers looking for books.
Noticing her rise in status, Harley approaches Abigail with the task of influencing the Queen in matters of his interest, and for providing any details in her (or Lady Churchill's) thinking that might allow him to take advantage of the situation and out-maneuver one or both of them. Abigail initially refuses, but, to find a way between Anne and Sarah, she agrees on the condition that Harley arrange a marriage between her and a constant would-be suitor, the Baron Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn). Despite Abigail being a commoner, Harley agrees to use his influence wherever possible. 
Abigail, in turn, seduces the Queen and maneuvers around Sarah, making her absent for a time, thus allowing Harley to influence the Queen both on taxes and the marriage of Abigail and Masham, making her a baroness, another step higher in the court.
There may be a war going on in France, but it's nothing compared to the battle royale going on in the palace. The two cousins are constantly plotting using their wiles to seduce male and female alike to gain a foothold in the court, and, given the Queen's moods, it is never assured footing. Each is in danger of slipping—at nay given moment—of losing the advantage they have. There is a mounting escalation of stakes and intimacy to the plots with the ultimate price being...well, let's face it, it will always be servitude.

Be careful what you wish for.
It's a deeply cynical movie about manipulating all sides trying to maintain the status quid pro quo in a perpetually changing environment. And director Lanthimos keeps everything a bit on the surreal side, filming with perspective-warping wide-angle lenses to keep the very perpendicular halls and chambers at looming, encroaching angles that threaten to fall and envelop the players in their machinations.
Anybody who's been watching the squall of end-of-year awards, trinkets, tchotchkes, and doo-dads being handed out by "the authority committees" knows that the players are top-notch. Stone has made a career of the telling detail that defines what is going on in her characters' minds. But, in the past, they've been forthright characters who've been transparent in their attitudes and actions and how they're expressed. Here, Stone plays someone who is just-plain devious, only giving vent to what she thinks when someone's back is turned.
Weisz, on the other hand, turns in a performance that is so opaque that she barely betrays any genuine emotion at all—and if she does, it would do well not to trust it. But it is Coleman who is the revelation. The last few years, she has been on the edges of productions, as the curiosity that gains notice but one can never quite place. Now, given a part of some heft, she dominates the scenes she's in—perhaps because she is without restraint—showing the weakness of Anne, while also knowing full well who's in charge—even when she's not in charge of herself. It's a funny, dangerous performance. No matter what transpires in the wars surrounding her, she is untouchable, and Coleman plays out the benefits and down-sides of it, in bizarrely comic way, which can evoke barks of laughter or pity, even when is not sure when it is actually deserved.

All hail.

Portrait of Queen Anne (1707-1714)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Duchess (2008)

Written at the time of the film's release...

The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008) "We are jungle creatures" says Eleanor of Aquitane in The Lion in Winter, an obvious statement of the theme that no matter what station one achieves in life, at the core we are beasts, however advanced the thought, however disciplined the politics. You can cosset and corset (and even consecrate), but basically all those palaces are just a better class of zoo.

The pre-title sequence of The Duchess makes that abundantly clear on two fronts, as the Lady Georgiana (Keira Knightley*) is brokered for marriage to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, whose voice, even in polite hushed tones, can carry a room), while outside a clutch of waiting-ladies are betting on a foot-race of young men as if they were horses.  Breeding is all.
Of course, it's thrilling to be a DuchessExcept the part about being a duchess...especially married to this DukeEntitled up to his powdered wig and determined to not let any of it slip, his sole focus is a male heir (something at which he's been practicing quite a bit, a daughter suddenly and unexpectedly turning up in the household), and when the Duchess fails to produce (or reproduce) any but female progeny, the Duke begins to take extra liberties.
It was different times, with men talking about emancipation and freedom and revolution, while the women waited in separate rooms, smiling tightly and—if thought not seen—rolling their eyes. There's a reason the Bill of Rights (written slightly earlier than when this film takes place) says "All men are created equal." Women are property, adornments only. A means to an heir.  And if one is not produced in the bargain, the contract can be nullified...but only to a certain extent.  Scandals, royal or not, are to be avoidedAppearances must be keptAnd more so for the ladies than the men.
What feels like a lecture on e-woman-cipation is couched in the true-life misery of the Duchess of Devonshire—her story is somewhat reminiscent of another, more modern-day Duchess who shares her last-name Spencer—who befriends a woman who rebuffs the Duke's advances only to have her be a "third wheel" in a complicated arrangement, then, seeks the company of another manWord gets out, and a scandal in the papers is barely avoided.
It's all very posh, with real locations used, and candles aplenty. Knightley is far more expressive than she seems in the embedded photos, and Fiennes manages to make the wretchedness of the Duke seem somewhat bearable—he's not so much hissable as pitiable, once you get over the desire to thrash him. 
Duchess Georgianna observes (curiously) as her world falls apart.

* I have to admit to rolling my eyes a bit when first seeing the trailer for this film.  I happen to like Knightley, finding her performances spunky, and nicely unafraid to look unattractive in them, but even I had reached my saturation point, seeing her elevated in this period piece.  I didn't see this for a long time, and have a satisfied opinion of it, and her performance in it.  She acquits herself well.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Story: Madness.

It's the last line of The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean's controversial (at the time) film of the Pierre Boulle novel that had gained international fame. I've been working on a piece for this movie for awhile, but it's been delayed because, like Lean, I'm being a bit persnickety with it.

But, I know enough about it that I know that one theme I glance over is the psychological element that Lean, Boulle and screenwriters Carl Foreman and  Michael Wilson (now it can be told, after the dark days of the "blacklist") have to carefully construct in order for it to seem plausible. The building of the Burma Railway was quite a different matter than the circumstances shown in the film. The real British commander of the project, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Toosey, did much to slow down construction and even do sabotage-work on the structure by poorly mixing concrete for the pillars and collecting termites to chew and weaken the wooden sections. 

Toosey was not a collaborator. The film's Col. Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, certainly can be considered one. Perhaps it is all the time spent in the hot-box that has influenced his decision, maybe his ego, stiff-upper-lip-stubbornness and his by-the-book regimentation—he has ordered that none of his men attempt an escape as he was ordered to surrender to the Japanese and any behavior contrary to that order would be considered insubordination—but, once he has been put in charge, he orders that any further sabotage, deliberately poor workmanship, or delay by the men (as was demonstrated by Toosey's group) will not be tolerated. For Nicholson, it's a personal war demonstrating the superiority of their abilities over the Japanese.

But, in the overall scheme of things, he's creating something that will help the Japanese war-effort. He doesn't have the overall view that more soldiers, British and otherwise, will be killed because of his short-term goals. He may win his little victory, but it might help lose the war.

But, the ego and conditioning don't allow him to consider that—it's a matter of pride, building the bridge that will last "in years to come" but will those who use it be colleagues he'd recognize or enemies he once fought against?

But, that's not considered. Bring up the point and it's not taken seriously. In fact, it seems to be enemy action. And the best way for someone so sure to counter-attack is to put the onus on the one not sure and break them down that way. It's a simple matter of deflection. "No, I'm not crazy. You are. The problem isn't me. It's you! I know. You don't." 

Sounds awfully familiar.

The Set-up: British POW's, ostensibly led by the highest ranking, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), are taken to a Japanese work-camp in Burma overseen by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who has charged these new prisoners with building the bridge over the river Kwai linking Bangkok and Rangoon by a certain date. If Saito cannot complete the bridge on time he is charged with committing suicide. After initial resistance to work by officers, Nicholson—who'd been ordered to surrender and has ordered his men not to attempt any escape lest it be considered treason—for the better treatment of his men (and to make certain patriotic and racial points) agrees that his unit will design and build a better bridge that will stand the test of time. Little does he know that a British commando unit has been dispatched to destroy the militarily-valuable bridge.


COL. NICHOLSON:  Hello, Clipton. 
COL. NICHOLSON: About time you paid us a visit.
COL. NICHOLSON: Fine job our chaps are doing.
CLIPTON: Yes. How's he behaving? 

COL. NICHOLSON: He's been most reasonable since we took over. -
CLIPTON: What's he thinking? -
COL. NICHOLSON: I haven't the foggiest. -
COL. NICHOLSON: Thanks, Reeves. -
REEVES: Right, sir.
COL. NICHOLSON: What do you think? 
COL. NICHOLSON: Quite a challenge, isn't it?
CLIPTON: Are you convinced that building this bridge is a good idea?
COL. NICHOLSON: Are you serious? -
CLIPTON: Yes, sir.
COL. NICHOLSON: A good idea? 
COL. NICHOLSON: Take another look.
COL. NICHOLSON: You don't agree morale is high? Discipline has been restored?
COL. NICHOLSON: Their condition has improved? Are they a happier lot or aren't they?
CLIPTON: Yes, sir, but....
COL. NICHOLSON: They feed better and they are no longer abused or maltreated.

CLIPTON: That's all true... 
COL. NICHOLSON: Well, then... Honestly, Clipton, there are times when I don't understand you at all.
CLIPTON: I'll try to make myself clear. The fact is, what we're doing could be construed as...forgive me, sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even treason.
COL. NICHOLSON: Are you alright, Clipton? We're prisoners of war. We haven't the right to refuse to work.
CLIPTON: I understand that, sir. But must we work so well? Must we do better than they could themselves?
COL. NICHOLSON: If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your best or let him die? Would you prefer we disintegrate in idleness?
COL. NICHOLSON: Or have it said we can't do a proper job?
COL. NICHOLSON: It's important to show them they can't break us in body or in spirit.
COL. NICHOLSON: Take a good look, Clipton.
COL. NICHOLSON: One day the war will be over. I hope that those who use the bridge in years to come...
COL. NICHOLSON: ...will remember how it was built...
COL. NICHOLSON: ...and who built it. 
COL. NICHOLSON: Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers, even in captivity. -
CLIPTON: Yes, sir. -
COL. NICHOLSON: You're a fine doctor, Clipton…
COL. NICHOLSON: ...but you've a lot to learn about the army.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Words by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson

Pictures by Jack Hidyard and David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Columbia Home Video.