Sunday, June 28, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: The Natural

The Story: Set the day: July 23rd.

That will be Opening Day of the shortened 2020 baseball season.

I would advise that not just the catcher wear a mask.

The Set-Up: It has been a disappointing season for the New York Knights. But, this year more than most: the addition of 34-year old rookie Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) has changed the fortunes of the Knights, putting them three games ahead of their nearest rivals for the pennant. At a banquet, Hobbs comes down with food poisoning—an attempt by a local gambler to sway the outcome of the season and Hobbs is laid up for three games, which the Knights lose putting them even with their rivals. Hobbs is informed that a bullet from a decade-past shooting incident has been removed from his stomach, and that because of the condition of his stomach-lining, he should retire from baseball. But, Hobbs is adamant to play for several reasons, even resisting an attempt of bribery by the team's owner to throw the game. He pays a visit to the clubhouse to see Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and Assistant Manager Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth). 

Play Ball!

POP FISHER: I wanted to win that pennant worse than I wanted any goddamned thing in my life. You'd think I could just this once, wouldn't you? 
FISHER: I didn't care nothing about the Series. Win or lose, I would have been satisfied. 
FISHER: I'd have walked away from baseball, and I'd have bought a farm. 
ROY HOBBS: Nothing like a farm. 
HOBBS: Nothing like being around animals, fixing things. 
HOBBS: There's nothing like being in the field...
HOBBS: ...with the corn and the winter wheat. 
HOBBS: The greenest stuff you ever saw. 
FISHER: You know, my mother told me I ought to be a farmer. 
HOBBS: My dad wanted me to be a baseball player. 
FISHER: You're better than anyone I ever had. And you're the best goddamned hitter I ever saw. 
FISHER: Suit up.

The Natural

Words by Phil Dusenbury and Roger Towne

Pictures by Caleb Deschanel and Barry Levinson

The Natural is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Home Video.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Disclosure (1994)

Saturday is "Take Out the Trash" Day.

Disclosure (Barry Levinson, 1994) Handsome, but su-leeeeeeazy mounting of the Michael Crichton story about sexual politics in the work-place. With Michael Douglas heading the cast, the film could be confused for Fatal Attraction II, and one wonders just how far the makers were going for that, what with Douglas top-lining ...Attraction and Basic Instinct and Demi Moore, late of Indecent Proposal. Unfortunately, where those films whetted the national apetite for dangerous sex-capades, Crichton's cold-shower-of-an-idea seems tame.

At a cutting-edge Seattle software firm* experimenting in virtual reality, Tom Sanders (
Douglas) thinks he's getting a promotion from his slick-as-shit boss (Donald Sutherland). He gets passed-over for Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore, all power-suit, push-up bra and stiletto heels), who's robotically quick with company-approved schpiel, with just a bit of predator to her. She's also an ex-girlfriend of the Douglas character.

Wuh-oh! Better watch out, Mike!

But because it's a two-hour movie, when Meredith invites him for an after-hours conference with some wine and her tongue in his ear, he goes--rather than saying, oh, I don't know--they've got e-mail at this high-tech Seattle firm?--"Hey, let me draw up a complete scenario of where we've been for that last three months with documentations and e-mail that to you, and then we can tackle it fresh in the morning." No, he doesn't do that, he's a little slow. Meredith, though, is pretty darn quick. When she starts unzipping his pants, what does he do? Stop her? Nooooo...When the simulated sex act begins? Noooooo. (I should mention that, at this point, Douglas does the patented Sharon Stone "pleasure" move from Basic Instinct--cock your head back so your neck is bent double and spasmodically open and close your mouth in a guppy fashion).
Finally, after the two are in a quasi-missionary position, the panting Douglas grows a conscience and decides to leave the office, after which Meredith follows him screaming "Get back and finish what you started, or you're dead, do you hear me?!" Since the office is in Pioneer Square, just about every bar-patron and driver on the Alaska Way Viaduct could hear her. As does the cleaning lady.

Anybody think this is a bit dumb?

It is. It gets dumber, when the Douglas character sues for sexual harassment, and she sues back. Crichton is making a point about sexual politics in a predatory environment in the work-place, but the message gets a bit dulled, and then the film-makers make a last-minute bid for political correctness that works as well as it did in The Bonfire of the Vanities, that is, not at all. Crichton was a hell of a writer, but his female characters were usually lacking personality (not that his male characters were ever fully developed), but were particularly and inexplicably fickle in their thinking. He was hardly a person to be objective about the battle of the sexes.** 
Even the high-tech elements are a little suspect, with a virtual environment that evidently sucks so much CPU that it slows down the "Delete" process long enough to make it a race to amp up the drama.Disclosure is a by-the-numbers package deal combining the movie-making cachet of Crichton, Douglas and Moore, in the hope it would translate to big bucks at the box-office. In that way, it resembles nothing so much as the fly-by-night computer companies that took a collective dive when the hi-tech bubble burst. Both had similar problems.

No one was buying.

* One of those very rare films set in Seattle that is actually filmed in Seattle rather than Vancouver, BC. Even Battle in Seattle about the WTO riots was filmed in Canada. Okay, they did come to town for a week-end to shoot pick-ups. 

** His non-fiction book, "Travels" has a couple of episodes where I got the impression that the author was not only a chauvinist, but an unapologetic one.


Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) 

"A policeman's first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves ... The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around."
Frank Serpico

Based on Peter Maas' best-seller ("Serpico: The Cop Who Defied The System" published 1973) about the Knapp Commission (1970-1972) and its star-witness, Frank Serpico, whose whistle-blowing on wide-spread systemic (there's that word) corruption in the New York City Police Department (and his subsequent suffering of acts of reprisal within his department), led to the formation of the commission by the city government. Serpico testified to the common practice of bribes given to officers and shake-downs for protection which were so pervasive and so accepted that any one—like Serpico—who did not take money were considered untrustworthy among the rank and file, a culture that was so topsy-turvy as to be Orwellian.

But, Serpico lived it on a day-to-day basis, and despite threats and intimidation, lived to tell the tale.

Events happened so fast that a film utilizing Maas' material was turned around very quickly for a December, 1973 release only a year after the commission had wrapped up its duties and made its recommendations. Director Sidney Lumet (a quick replacement for John G. Avildsen, who was originally attached) made short work making the film—4 1/2 months for shooting and post-production—utilizing locations in all five burroughs of New York City. It also had the benefit of new star Al Pacino, fresh off his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, providing a two film range where he could play both the extremes of both heroes and villains.
The film starts towards the end of events in 1971, with a thrumming drumbeat of windshield wipers as Detective Frank Serpico (Pacino) is being driven by car to the hospital after being shot in the face on a drug-bust.  Police guards are stationed at his hospital room and he's visited by Chief Sidney Green (John Randolph)—who has been working with Serpico on internal investigations and who suspects he's been shot by one of his partners in the narcotics division.
It's 1960 and Frank Serpico, the son of Italian immigrants, has made them proud graduating from the police academy, fulfilling a life-long dream of being one of the guys in blue who "know what's going on." But, he starts to become dissatisfied with how his fellow officers do their jobs and before long, he gets a plain clothes job with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. But, working the street in suits and ties seems a bit stupid to him, so he begins to grow his hair out, and dress in more funky clothes. The other cops think he's crazy...or gay...but he gets results, even though one of his fellow officers might take a shot at him for not recognizing he's a cop.
He draws the attention of Bob Blair (Tony Roberts), a detective with the Mayor's Office of Investigations and the two make an unlikely friendship: Serpico knows the streets and Blair knows the politics and when the detective is given his share of split bribe money, he turns it back to his sergeant and informs Blair, who wants to do an official look into it, but Serpico won't testify lest he become a target for fellow officers, so the two quietly drop it, but Serpico begins recording his phone calls and gets transferred to another division, one described as "clean as a hound's tooth".
It's the first of many transfers, each more frustrating than the next because they all are taking bribes, pay-offs or letting well-connected criminals skate as long as they get their take. He's told with some intimidation by his colleagues, that you can't trust a cop who doesn't take bribes, so he confides in the well-meaning Captain Inspector McClain (Biff McGuire), who tells him he'll take his complaints to the commissioner if he'll just be patient and continue gathering evidence on the inside. But, after a year and a half of "gathering evidence" nothing is done, while Serpico becomes increasingly afraid for his life. Blair is stymied by politics when he tries to take it to the office of the Mayor.

The two become convinced that the only way to solve the problem is to take what they know out of the PD, especially when they learn that, despite assurances, the matter has been deliberately buried in the department and never gone any higher. Even when the matter is taken up, finally, by a grand jury and Serpico exposes himself to danger and retribution by testifying, that the matter is limited to street cops and not the higher authorities who are tolerating it. Finally, with the the assistance of Chief Green and Blair, a reluctant Serpico takes his story to the New York Times, and he is re-assigned to a dangerous Brooklyn narcotics division. It is at that time that he is shot and hospitalized.
These days...these times...with extra attention on the way policing is done post-911 and their militarization in anticipating terrorist attacks in the worst case and calls for defunding the police and diverting funds to social services, the plight of Serpico paints a nightmare scenario. Today's talk of the "one bad apple" coloring the whole of a police barrel is turned on its stem in his story where he is "the one good apple" under constant pressure to be rotten and "doing the right thing" is the exception rather than the systemic norm. One wants to think the best, but the reality is often a different story.
A lot of it has to do with culture. Most work environments I've seen and worked in lately seem to be more adversarial than service, although it is never talked about openly "on the floor." Co-workers will gripe and kvetch about customers and their idiosyncracies (if not downright cravenness) in an environment where the myth of best practices is that the customer is always right. Peer pressure and tribe mentality exacerbates the tendency to create an "us against them" environment. In a job where one is armed and in "warrior-mode" that pressure might be one's last line of defense in a dangerous situation and risking it by "rocking the boat" might not be in one's best interest. One wonders if George Floyd would be alive if the three rookie cops who observed his arrest had spoken up, even if it was questioning the methods of a more veteran officer. Conscience may make cowards of us all, but it certainly doesn't make us conscientious. Not when we're constantly watching our backs.
Despite its production rush, Serpico is one of those paranoid thrillers that's only enhanced by the nervous energy Lumet throws at it, and its a tour de force for Pacino, who appears in nearly every scene and shows how he can carry an entire film on his back with an on-point performance that veers from soulful to manic and is often a pain in the ass without losing an audience's attention or patience. 

"In these challenging times," it is a film that resonates even more than the time it was made.

Lumet would make an unofficial "police corruption trilogy" with this film, 1981's Prince of the City and 1990's Q & A.

Through my appearance here today ... I hope that police officers in the future will not experience ... the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to ... for the past five years at the hands of my superiors ... because of my attempt to report corruption. I was made to feel that I had burdened them with an unwanted task. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist, in which an honest police officer can act ... without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated ... at higher levels in the department. Therefore, the most important result that can come from these hearings ... is a conviction by police officers that the department will change. In order to ensure this ... an independent, permanent investigative body ... dealing with police corruption, like this commission, is essential.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017) One of the new breed of directors that I go out of my way to watch is David Lowery. The first film I saw of his, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, was a subtle variation of Bonnie and Clyde with a streak of altruism running through its cynicism. Then, of all things, he took on a live version of a Disney movie—one of its worst, Pete's Dragon—and turned a torturous musical into a simple, song-less Shaggy Dragon story with a genuine sense of wonder. A Ghost Story came next, but like a phantasm, disappeared quickly from theaters—*poof* Next up was The Old Man and the Gun, a story almost too good to be true—except it mostly was—and showed that Lowery was easing off the pictorial precision and giving his performers room to breathe without making them look like they were in an art painting. The constraints—like the performers—were relaxed and no less satisfying for it. 

But, A Ghost Story. What of that?

A recent viewing on Netflix shows it to be the simplest of tales, but what Lowery does with it—with one painterly eye and the other winking—makes for one of those movies you want to discuss after its un-spooled and is flapping against the projector...and you're still in your seat (while the theater clean-up crew give you a wary glance). 

Nobody has any names in the movie—the two main folks are C (played by Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a married couple, slightly fracturing, but still together and still in love with each other. He's a musician when he's not doing other things and she's doing other things. They are childless and one would say rootless, except that one of their areas of contention is that she wants to move and he doesn't. In the opening, there are unexplained things that happen in the house—the piano makes a thump in the middle of the night and a wary nighttime exploration reveals nothing. The house subject to areas of shimmering color that have no seeable origin.
Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. But, so does death. C is killed in an auto accident on the street outside their house. M goes to the hospital to identify the body, and does so. She leaves. 

Long pause on the same angle of the shot of the body on the examination table. Very long pause. And the sheet on the slab sits up. Looks around. The next shot is of a hospital wall with a sink prominent, center-stage, and we see the reflection of the sheet-swathed C approaching screen-right before we see the "real" thing crossing our field of vision.

The "real" thing is a figure in a head-to-floor sheet with cut-out eyes, like a child's home-made Hallowe'en ghost costume. Maybe it's a cost-cutting move to present the main character, appearing in virtually (spiritually?) the entire movie, as a practical costume rather than creating a feature-length digital effect. But, the effect is so simple, so cheery, and so...eerie (especially as Lowery presents it) that one warms to the conceit and "just goes with it," as opposed to grousing about a "cheap effect"—especially when it's Affleck giving the physical performance under the sheet.
C's ghost, wandering around the hospital, has an opportunity to "go to the light"—in a sequence that has the same animated feel of the time-portal appearances in Time Bandits—but does not. Instead, he goes home, back to the house he shared with M, observing the few comings and goings passively, even when the is the threat—from his point of view—of her becoming involved with another man. This isn't A Guy Named Joe (or Spielberg's version Always) or even Ghost. C merely watches and doesn't (or can't) interact with the living, at least, not yet (there will be a time when he is responsible for some poltergeist activity later in the film). He is rooted in one spot and, by his own choice, remains there, even after M has packed off and left, leaving an embedded note in the house's drywall that, once he's able to manifest himself enough to interact with the "real" world, he tries to retrieve. It will take years. 
Until another family moves in to the house—one of a few—his only contact is another ghost, inhabiting the house next door and who waves from one of its windows. Their communication, rather wittily supplied in sub-titles, concerns the basics ("Hi." "Hello." "I'm waiting for someone." "Who are you waiting for?" "I don't know.") It is only once the houses are abandoned and razed, does the other ghost say "I don't think they're coming" and disappears, without another word.
But, C stays, never venturing from the spot where the foundation existed. Even after the suburb has become overtaken with urban development, he remains, finally inhabiting the office building that has risen up in the house's place. And it's here that the film starts to become a bit phantasmagorical as C's "stay-in-place" journey becomes more identifiable as one of time and not place.
I eat this kind of movie like a fine continental breakfast, the kind of film that tells its story through image more than dialogue. Mostly silent—there is a wonderfully mordant score by Daniel Hart—the film plays out like the "Zarathustrian apartment" sequence towards the end of 2001: a Space Odyssey; things happen and it's the viewer's job to keep up with the changes without a narrative hand-holding strategem. One should keep in mind that literal-mindedness may not be an asset—the film is dealing with the after-life, after all, and rules don't necessarily apply in that dimension. It is a journey, but its not one anybody alive enough to watch the film could be able to argue with.

Shot in the claustrophobic aspect ratio of 1.33:1—the old "Academy" ratio, that was jettisoned when wide-screen started to be introduced—A Ghost Story is a simple story, well-told, beautiful to look at, and leaves one pondering what one has just seen and marveling at how such a thing has come to be.

It has an amazing after-life.