Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Enemy of the State" (1998) Dir: Tony Scott

What I remember:
I have been very out there and vocal about my love for “The Conversation”, a film I have considered in my top 5 without wavering. That top 5 is, of course:
“Vertigo", “Chinatown", "Citizen Kane", "The Conversation" and "Barton Fink". What, you might ask, are the criteria to make it to such a lofty and exulted place as Wayne’s top 5 films of ALL TIME? 

Here goes:
1) They must be entertaining as hell
2) They must not have any lagging or dull moments
3) They must deal with a subject that I find fascinating
4) There must be elements of humor, no matter how weighty the subject matter
5) They must have hit an emotional chord for me
6) They must have some very original stylistic and visual elements
7) They must have provided some kind of transformative moment for me
8) The performances and dialogue have to all be spot on…no crappy miscasting
9) The music must not overpower the film, or inappropriately work against it
10) There can be no moments of anachronism or other unbelievable elements that pull me out of the film
11) Apparently from the looks of the above list, no happy ending. 

Three movies on the top 5 of the AFI Top 100 that wouldn’t cut it with the above list:
“Gone With The Wind” (#4)- There are entire swaths of this film that bore the crap out of me. Sorry, Lisa (my wife adores this film).
“Casablanca” (#2)- I love it, but let’s face it, the camera does next to nothing of interest in this movie. Some nice lighting, but that’s it.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (#5)- See “Gone With The Wind”.
The other two are “Citizen Kane”, which is on my list and “The Godfather” which comes in at about 9 or 10 on my Top 100. “Vertigo” is their #61, and neither “The Conversation” or “Barton Fink” made the AFI list at all. 

Can I deal with this for a second? “Vertigo” is 61st? RUFKM? It’s behind “Dr. Zhivago” and “High Noon”? Sight and Sound has it at number one in THE WORLD! Have they even seen this film? Have you? If the answer is no, then stop reading this blog and go rent it RIGHT NOW. 

Anyway, I can understand “Barton Fink” not making the list. There are elements in all of the Coen Brothers’ films that are not universally beloved, but boy oh boy do they speak to me! In fact, some of their lesser films are the ones I love best, in particular this one, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man”. I think if you are a baby boomer (I am), Jewish (I am) and/or in the Arts/Entertainment field (I am) then these films really connect. 

However, “The Conversation” having no place in the AFI Top 100 is a complete oversight. Coppola himself says it is his favorite, even more than either  Godfathers or “Apocalypse Now”. 

So why am I yammering on about “The Conversation”, you might ask (and aren’t you the inquisitive one today)? Because “Enemy of the State” is as close to a sequel as we are ever going to get. True, it is not directed or even produced by Francis Ford Coppola, but it does have Gene Hackman in basically the same role he played in “The Conversation”. Yes they changed his name, but there is no question we are dealing with the same subject matter, and an extrapolation of what might have happened to his character, Harry Call. Would it have been better if Coppola had helmed “Enemy of the State”? Maybe not; his efforts as a director since 1980 had fallen woefully short of his first decade, and maybe his spark was gone. Tony Scott would not have been my first or even 50th choice; in fact he made some of my least favorite movies, including “The Fan” and “Beverly Hills Cop II”. But he also directed this film and “True Romance” which I think is just about perfect. 

My memory is that “Enemy of the State” was great: action packed with some amazing chase scenes, and it tackled a very important subject— the limits of Government surveillance. The film gained stature in my memory after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act. They tackled this issue before it was really huge. I like that! Let’s see if 13 years after 9/11 it has the same resonance.

After re-watching:

 I'm not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please. -Congressman Hammersley

An NSA bigwig (Jon Voight) needs the votes of a Congressman (Jason Robards) and his cronies to pass a bill that extends the rights of the Agency to use satellites for surveillance of average Americans. The Congressman refuses, remaining steadfast in his concern for the rights of individuals. The bigwig has his honchos kill the Congressman, and then make it look like a car accident caused by drug abuse. Ironically, an environmental group has a camera installed at the scene which captures the entire proceedings. When the environmental watchdog views the tape, he realizes that he has this evidence, but the NSA does too, and chases him. In the course of this chase, he drops a memory card with the video in the shopping bag of an unwitting lawyer (Will Smith), who then becomes pursued and persecuted himself by the NSA gang. His only help in this adventure is an off-the-grid ex-surveillance expert named either Brill or Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman) who is ambivalent about being drawn into this situation.


Was this ahead of its time? I’ll say! And even though it’s now 16 years old, much of the technology is pretty cool: the 3D simulators, the satellite imaging, the various types of bugging devices et al. It really doesn’t seem dated except for the computer screens and lack of smartphones. 

Sadly, there are a bunch of elements that qualify for exclusion from number 10 on my must list above. That was the one that says you can’t have things in the film that are so inaccurate that they pull you out of it, saying to yourself “Wha? That shit ain’t right!” 

Here’s what ain’t right: Little Italy in Baltimore of 1998 is definitely NOT Little Italy in New York of 1955. The differences? Italian Social Clubs, which were the center of Mafia life in New York, were prevalent in New York’s Little Italy of the ’40’s through ’70’s. Little Italy of Baltimore in 1998 had virtually nothing to do with the mob. It’s just a bunch of crappy Italian Restaurants with bad food and no parking. Nowadays there’s a garage or two, but the food still stinks. And there’s NO MOB at all. You know how I know this? If the mob was there, the food would be AWESOME. In fact, I doubt very much if Italians have anything at all to do with Baltimore’s Little Italy. I’m going on record as saying that they are Greeks. I love Greek food, but they have no idea how to make Italian food.

 Robert Clayton Dean, the lawyer played by Will Smith, gets drawn into this situation not unlike the way Roger Thornhill from “North by Northwest” gets drawn into his…merely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s the thing; the NSA guys know he’s not involved in this conflict, that he’s merely a guy who got the video by happenstance, and yet they still find it necessary to trash his house, reputation, marriage and most importantly, credit rating. Instead of just bull-rushing him, why couldn’t they just say, “Hey man….that crazy dude we were chasing? He dropped something in your bag, and we need that shit. It’s for national security and whatnot”. I mean if it were me, I’d say, "yeah cool, what was it you were looking for?” End of problem. Basically, the whole film turns on a plot device that is more than a bit ridiculous. At least in “North By Northwest”, you can totally believe that James Mason and crew think Thornhill is lying, George Kaplan doesn’t really exist, but they don’t know that. 

One other little item that breaks my 10th Commandment, aka -Thou shalt not cause the audience to say out loud the words “No fucking way!”. 

The store in Dupont Circle where Dean is shopping when the Greenpeace guy drops the video in his bag is a Lingerie store; a store wherein all the shopping clerks are drop dead models wearing only the lingerie they sell. WHAT? In DC? First of all, the closest thing we have here to a “Lingerie Store” is Victoria’s Secret at the Pentagon Mall. The clerks there all look like Betty White. I say, “No fucking way!”.

But let’s get back to the theme, and what really is smart about “Enemy of the State”. The discussion that lingers about the NSA, The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and our own personal safety at home is maybe one of the most important of the 21st Century. This is not the forum for me to expound on my feelings on this subject, but suffice to say that if you need to kill a Congressman to protect our people from terrorists, then there is a real priority issue here. How about we limit the availability of automatic weapons to Schizophrenics first? Make someone pass a Rorschach before they can buy a Kalishnikov. 

In this film, there is a line spoken by Hackman that goes “Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president” , “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis”. 1998, people! Three years before 9/11! That part of the film is very compelling, and it definitely adheres to Wayne’s 3rd commandment, “Thou shalt be about something fascinating”.


You want action? You want pacing? You want chase scenes? Man, oh man this film has it all. It is relentless from the opening credits, and there is so much information, that you feel like you need to be a mainframe to process it. This is a good thing. 

I really enjoyed the chase scene when the Environmental guy (Jason Lee) is trying to escape from the NSA thugs. The cutting is fast, but not so breakneck that you can’t follow what’s happening. Plus the voice over sound mixing of the techie NSA guys tracking him, and the cutaways to the satellites and choppers are just right. They seem to be tapped into every surveillance camera in the area, and when Lee is not visible by satellite he is traceable in other ways. There’s no way he can disappear. The climax of that scene is devastating, and really well done. 

The other great chase scene comes when Dean is running through a tunnel (that I guess is supposed to be the Fort McHenry tunnel) and they keep finding him no matter how evasive his actions. 

The film's climax is straight out of the end of "True Romance". Two groups that had no idea they were at odds are pointing guns at each other, while our hero finds himself smack dab in the middle unarmed. And, as is the case with "True Romance" you pretty much hope that everyone EXCEPT our hero ends up dead. The tension in "Enemy" doesn't really get a chance to build as beautifully as it does in "True Romance". The Tarantino script just seems to have a better hold on this aspect of a thriller.


Will Smith would certainly not be my first choice for a role of this kind. That being said, he does a fine job as the Hitchcock "Wrong Man" type, and adds just enough cleverness to offset the cluelessness. Would the film have been better with a more sharp-tongued edge at the center? Maybe, but I think that he pulls off playing a person to whom Lyle says a number of times “You are either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid”.

And how, you might ask (another question), was Hackman in his extrapolation of Harry Call 25 years later? Hackman always delivers that Hackman touch. He can be rude, abrasive, charming, funny, fierce and icy cold all within seconds of the other. Somehow, he makes it work.  

The rest of the cast is really deep, and really good. Listen to this list;
Besides the people I already mentioned (Smith, Hackman, Voight, Lee, Robards) how about Jack Black, Seth Green, Lisa Bonet, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Anna Gunn, Phillip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore, Regina King and Larry King (no relation…that’s a joke, people). 

So what? No room for Kevin Bacon in this flick?


How did “Enemy of the State” do in regards Wayne’s 11 Commandments? Pretty good on all counts except for 5, 7 and particularly 10. It definitely did not hit any emotional chord for me, nor did I find it transformative—I did not feel changed after watching this film. But many of my favorites also fall short in those categories. 
What’s good about this film is really good; the interesting subject matter, the pacing and action, the stylistic elements. What really is a problem for me are all the "no fucking way" moments, and at the heart of them, the actual motor that drives the story. The murder, cover-up, and persecution of an innocent just go too far for even my fevered imagination. 

And the most unbelievable thing of all? That there is a Congressman out there whose vote you can’t buy!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Dead of Night" (1945) Dir- Various

A Special Halloween On Second Look

What I remember:

This will be my “Treehouse of Horror” entry. That much loved series of episodes of "The Simpsons” is usually told in 3 or so slightly related tales, all spooky. “Dead of Night” was possibly the first movie to attempt this feat. I can recall about 4 of the episodes, but I am sure there are a bunch more. 

Two of them are definitely recreated in “The Twilight Zone” series. The famous Ventriloquist's dummy episode from the Zone that starred Cliff Robertson was positively based on the episode in “Dead of Night” starring Michael Redgrave. The other famous Zone episode that debuted herein was “Twenty Two”, also known by it’s most famous line: “Room for one more, honey.” 

Holy crap, that show creeped me out beyond words the first time I saw it. Sure there are some great Zone episodes, some total classics, some really hilarious episodes, some really poignant ones. But by far the creepiest stay with you. For me it’s; “Twenty-Two”, Shatner with the Airplane Gremlin, and “The Howling Man”, which was based on a Roald Dahl story. I’m not saying they were my favorites, but they definitely terrified me. Funny, if you look at that Gremlin now, it looks like it’s wearing a clown outfit that went absurdly wrong. All I know is it gave me nightmares as a pre-teen.

When I found out that “Dead of Night” was responsible for “Twenty-Two” and maybe a few other Twilight Zone stories, I knew I had to see it. 

So it’s British, right? That means the horror will be understated, subtle, intelligent and well acted. I can go for that. What I remember was that this truly was the case, and that the way they tied the different stories together was really interesting and fun. It was a bit uneven, for sure…not a classic of the genre, but really original in concept and execution. 

Oohhh…execution. A creepy word. 

I know I watched this with my wife back in the ’80’s. She, too, is a big fan of the Zone, and also of “Twenty-Two”. I believe that “A Stop at Willoughby” is her favorite. Remember that one? With the harried commuter who keeps seeing this beautiful small town on his daily train, even though there’s no actual stop for it? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Yet. 


After re-watching:

“Well, when it comes to foreseeing the future, something once happened to me that knocks your theories into a cocked hat. Something I’ll not forget to my dying day. As a matter of fact, it very nearly was my dying day!”-- Hugh Grainger

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect who has been called to spend the weekend at a country farmhouse in order to consult with its owners, The Foleys, on rebuilding their  house. Upon his arrival, he gets struck with the sensation of deja vu, and becomes aware that he has met all the people in the house in a dream. This recurring dream, he soon realizes turns into a nightmare eventually. One of the guests, a Dr. Von Straaten (Frederick Valk) is skeptical, and has a scientific explanation for Craig’s feelings. As the day progresses, events that Craig has predicted from his dream start becoming reality. At the same time, it turns out that each of the other guests has had some experience with the paranormal, and they relate these tales in episodic fashion.


Strange that Ealing Studios would be the source of a film that you would more likely associate with Hammer. Ealing was well known and loved for it’s comedies like “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Yet the chilling premise of this film is handled very expertly, as if the Studio had been churning these out for years. 

Anthologies are not my favorite form of storytelling. I always feel like I am getting cheated out of depth of character and plot. At 103 minutes, “Dead of Night” doesn’t give you a lot of that. 
There are basically 5 tales. Besides the over-running plot line of deja vu, each of the other tales is told by a guest at the house. 

The first is told by ex race car driver Anthony Baird (Hugh Grainger). This is our original version of “Twenty Two”. In this case, it’s a wide awake dream from his hospital room while recovering from a racing accident. Though it’s bedtime, and his radio is playing, it suddenly grows very quiet. The radio fades out, the clock stops ticking, and outside birds tweet. He goes to the window, and parts the drapes to see that it is daytime, and there is a horse-drawn hearse below. The driver smiles and says, “Just room for one inside, sir.”  I guess you can figure how the rest of it goes….instead of a plane, it’s a bus that goes over the bridge, with our friend the hearse driver as the ticket taker. It’s a great story, but if you are familiar with the Twilight Zone version, you pretty much know what’s coming. 

Young Sally (a 15 year old Sally Ann Howes) follows with a classic ghost story. She is playing a version of “Hide and Seek” at a Christmas party in an old house that she has been told by another child is haunted. Of course she stumbles upon a room and a crying child. Since all the children are in costumes, it isn’t remarkable to Sally that the child is in period dress from the 1860’s. He tells her he is scared of his half-sister, Constance. Later Sally finds out that there was a child murdered in that very house, a Frances Kent murdered by his sister Constance. In 1860. What’s actually strange here, is that this is a real case from UK history, and the names were not changed. So much for the disclaimer about "any resemblance blah blah blah.” This would be like you meeting a kid called Bobby Franks in a house in Chicago, and him telling you that he’s scared of these two High School students he knows, named Leopold and Loeb.
This story is probably the weakest of the 5, and maybe the most transparent. There is certainly no surprise for the audience in finding out that Frances was a ghost. 

The 3rd story I did not recall, and it’s really well done. Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of when she bought an antique mirror for her fiancĂ©, Peter (Ralph Michael, looking a bit like Clifton Webb). When Peter looks in the mirror, he sees a different room completely than his own. He begins acting strangely, and eventually he becomes jealous and angry. Suffice to say that something awful happened in that room, and he begins to take on the personality of the inhabitant.This episode is well shot and acted, and I found it quite suspenseful. 

The 4th is a bit of comic relief from a very popular comedy team of the era, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. These were the two guys who were obsessed with the Cricket scores in “The Lady Vanishes”, even at the risk of their own safety. They were also in “Night Train to Munich” in similar fashion. In “Dead of Night” they are obsessed golfers, in love with the same woman, who decide to play a game wherein the winner gets the woman’s hand in marriage, and the loser disappears. Radford wins by cheating, and upon losing, Wayne actually walks into the water hazard and drowns. He begins to haunt Radford when the afterlife informs him that Radford cheated. There are a couple of laugh out loud moments in the “Topper” tradition, but certainly nothing new here. I do love the British tradition of watching a guy do something very silly he thinks nobody can see, and then having another character walk in on this. 

Our 5th story is clearly the strongest and most chilling, if maybe the least original. It’s told by the skeptical Dr. Von Straaten. Yes, it’s the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of it’s own. Wasn’t there also a movie with Anthony Hopkins called “Magic” that used this gimmick? And I know there was a silent film by Erch Von Stroheim called “The Great Gabbo” that preceded this. Hmm…Von Straaten. Von Stroheim. An homage, perhaps? I wonder if the director of “Greed” ever tried to get some money from Ealing for their appropriation of his work.

 Anyway, this little story was beautifully realized and perfectly acted by Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, who’s dummy Hugo is an evil little bastard, ready to dump him at the first sign of another ventriloquist. Hugo has got this high-pitched whiny voice, thus making him even more evil than he looks. Which makes me wonder….why is it that dummies are so evil looking? Aren’t they supposed to be funny? I mean, even Knucklehead Smith gave me the willies. And Charlie McCarthy? An Irishman with a monocle and top hat? TERRRRRifying. Forget clowns, people. Dummies. (Shudder).


Some neat tricks are used by our team of directors. Ealing flagship director Robert Hamer, helmed “The Haunted Mirror” episode, and did some nice work with the reflections and camera movement. The trickery reminded me of Magritte, more than a little. 

Brazilan born Alberto Cavalcanti, who directed “The Christmas Party" and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” later on teamed up with Sally Ann Howes again in an adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby”. Obviously his work in the Dummy story was the highlight of this film. The camera angles and lighting are particularly effective. And he got just the right amount of movement from the dummy…just enough to make him seem like he had his own mind. He does some nice work in the ghost story too; particularly the contrast between the action and mayhem of the kids playing games and the silence and seclusion of the little murdered boy’s room.

Charles Crichton, another Ealing man, directed the Golf story, and his humorous bent and timing make it work. The man who helmed “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “A Fish Called Wanda” 37 years apart had quite a career, it turns out. Lots of TV, but also a co-directing spot for “The Birdman of Alcatraz”. 

The “Hearse Driver” and the Architect’s dream were directed by Basil Dearden. He does a great job at creating the eerie atmosphere, and also the really dry and subtle end of the film. I enjoyed the transition in the hospital room from noisy nighttime to silent day. Sound and picture together work to form a very seamless transformation. Ironically, Dearden himself died in an auto accident. I guess he wasn’t given the same warning as Baird. Or maybe he was, and was skeptical like Von Straaten.


Most of the heavy lifting is done by Redgrave, with a bit of help by Googie Withers and Ralph Michael. The rest of the acting is pretty standard, and young Sally Ann Howes is maybe even a bit over her head, particularly when she realizes that she just hung out with a ghost, and repeats “I’m not frightened... I’m not frightened”, before collapsing into the arms of an older woman.
Radford and Wayne are exactly who they are, and their humor, while maybe a little antiquated, still gets the job done. 

Back to Redgrave, though. I didn’t remember him being this effective, but he is simply marvelous. When he is drunk at the bar, he resembles Hugo’s limp body almost more than the dummy. At the end of the episode, when the dummy has taken over his mind, his expressions are positively chilling. And the fact that the dummy’s voice comes out of this rictus of a mouth that doesn’t move, is truly horrifying. I think there is a bit of influence on the final scene of "Psycho" here. I'm sure Hitch had seen this film, and that last shot of Norman with his Mom's voice ("I wouldn't hurt a fly") is quite similar to Hugo's voice coming out of Frere's unmoving mouth. 
Even though it’s only about 20 minutes long, this version of the dummy from hell is the best I’ve seen, and it’s mostly thanks to Redgrave.


Despite the familiarity with it’s story lines and tropes, “Dead of Night” has a unique feel to it. The circular overriding narrative was apparently the inspiration for the guys who invented the Steady State model of the universe in 1948! The way the stories spring from this and the strength of the two scariest episodes make this a great and enjoyable watch. 

It's the funeral home's name! Willoughby! He's dead, you see? Oh, you knew, already? Spoiler spoiled!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭1/2