NETWORK (1976) revisited

March 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was the year after ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the year before ANNIE HALL. 1976 was good for the underdog as Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY won the Oscar for Best Picture, edging out such (now) classic films as TAXI DRIVER, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and the film we are going to talk about here, NETWORK.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” That’s the lasting quote most recite when asked about NETWORK. And since those folks are generally energetically emphatic as they recall the line, it says quite a bit about the influence and ongoing impact of the film. In fact, many believe much of what the film warned us about has come to pass – and is even happening right now!

The story begins with (fictional) UBS network news anchor Howard Beale being let go after many years on the job. His personal issues have become a problem, and unlike his competitors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, he’s no longer dependable. With two weeks remaining until his final broadcast, Beale goes off script and creates a firestorm of emotion in the viewing audience as he promises on-air suicide and rants about TV programming, journalism, and society as a whole. People across the country take him up on his direction to go to the window and yell out the above mentioned catchphrase. What follows cuts to the core of the film’s theme. Beale’s friends worry about his mental well-being, while others at the network are concerned only with the ratings bump, and how best to capitalize on his revived and re-engaged audience.

What had previously been a respectable newscast, transitions into what we recognize today as a Reality TV show. Beale is provided a pulpit to rail against the establishment and the general public for its acceptance or surrender. He criticizes those who have given up reading books and have allowed TV to guide their thoughts (sound familiar?). Beale proclaims “television is a carnival” even as he becomes its lead barker, and proudly accepts his new label as “an angry prophet denouncing hypocrisies of our time.” It’s now been over 40 years since the film premiered, and the parallels to today’s world are crystal clear.

As with any quality film, there are multiple sub-plots and story lines, as well as numerous characters we get to know. There is an ambitious program director willing to make her mark by any means necessary. All of this turmoil occurs while UBS is going through a corporate takeover, so we get a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes political wranglings of those in power and those striving to be. An inner-office romance blends with the reckoning that accompanies middle age, and the resulting cracks in a long-term marriage. In yet another jab at the TV industry, a brainstorm leads to the birth of the “Death Hour”, an idea for a series based on the illegal and often violent actions of a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. The negotiations with this group are either the funniest or the most dangerous of the film, depending on your perspective. In keeping with the era, we are reminded of the ongoing economic recession, and get news flashes on the situation with kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, plus the two assassination attempts on then President Gerald Ford. These doses of reality add the necessary gravitas to the film to prevent it from dipping into soap opera territory.

 The cast is stellar and deep. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale. Mr. Finch died in January 1977 at age 60, and a couple of months later was named the Oscar winner for Best Actor, becoming the first acting winner to be so awarded posthumously (later joined by Heath Ledger). He was previously nominated for SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971). Although he was talented and had a fine acting career, he might be best remembered in Hollywood lore for his ongoing affair with Vivian Leigh, who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time. Sir Olivier was also Mr. Finch’s acting mentor. In his role as Howard Beale, Finch got to chew scenery at the level every actor dreams of.

Faye Dunaway plays the ambitious program director Diana Christensen. She won the Oscar for Best Actress, and had previously been nominated for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967, a role she chose over Elaine in THE GRADUATE) and CHINATOWN (1974). She also appeared (with her NETWORK co-star William Holden) in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and is unfortunately remembered for her frightening portrayal of Joan Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST, giving wire hanger nightmares to an entire generation. Her first marriage was to Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, and more recently you’ll recall her as co-presenter with Warren Beatty, and part of the calamity at the 2017 Oscars when LA LA LAND was erroneously named Best Picture before the confusion was cleared and MOONLIGHT was awarded the statuette. Dunaway’s Diana is unabashedly ambitious and flounces through the newsroom taking no prisoners. Her relationship with Holden’s character has one of the more unusual on screen love-making sequences, as she continues to talk shop as things heat up.

William Holden plays Max Schumacher, the veteran news director forced out of his job for placing more importance on protecting his friend Howard than in increasing the ratings and revenue of the broadcast. Mr. Holden died in 1981 at age 63 from injuries sustained during a fall. He was a Best Actor Oscar winner for STALAG 17 (1953), and a nominee for NETWORK and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Mr. Holden also appeared in other classic films as PICNIC (1956), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). He once shared an apartment with baseball great Hank Greenberg while both were serving in the military (1943), and was Best Man at the wedding of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As Max, Holden captures the middle-age frustrations of a man unwilling to live with the cultural change of the new conglomerate owner, and equally uneasy with a marriage that has grown too stale. His stereotypical fling with the exciting younger woman ends as expected … only with a world class monologue.

Robert Duvall is Frank Hackett, the cut-throat front line manager brought in by the new owners to shake things up and create some profit.  Mr. Duvall is still working today at age 88, and began his career on TV in 1960. He won a Best Actor Oscar for TENDER MERCIES (1983), and was nominated six other times for performances in THE GODFATHER (1972), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), THE GREAT SANTINI (1979), THE APOSTLE (1997), A CIVIL ACTION (1998), and THE JUDGE (2014). He also appeared in BULLITT (1968), MASH (as Frank Burns, 1970), THE GODFATHER II (1974), THE NATURAL (1984), and Larry McMurtry’s classic western series “Lonesome Dove” (1989). You might also remember him as Boo Radley, quietly hiding behind the door in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), though he’s likely best remembered for a certain character’s love of napalm in the morning. Duvall’s Hackett is a symbol of blind ambition and thirst for power.

 Beatrice Straight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Louise, Max’s scorned wife. She’s only in only a couple of scenes, and her approximately 5 minutes on screen remains the briefest to win an acting Oscar. Ms. Straight acted in very few movies, and spent most of her acting career in TV projects and on stage, though many will recall her as one of the scientists in POLTERGEIST (1982). When Louise rips into Max, she’s speaking for the untold number of middle-aged women who have been in that situation … simultaneously angry, hurt and afraid.

Ned Beatty plays Arthur Jensen, an eccentric network executive, and with basically one powerful and memorable scene, received the only Oscar nomination of his 45 year career. Mr. Beatty’s first screen appearance was in DELIVERANCE (1972) and his pig squeals haunted many viewers (including yours truly). He has also played delicious villains, the everyman, and buffoons, and appeared in such fine movies as NASHVILLE (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (NETWORK’s Oscar competition), SILVER STREAK (1976), SUPERMAN (1978), SUPERMAN II (1980), THE BIG EASY (1986), RUDY (1993), and more recently as the voice of Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He hasn’t acted in the past 5 years, and turns 82 years old this year.

You might think that is already an incredible lineup of acting legends, but we aren’t done yet. Wesley Addy appears as network executive Nelson Chaney, and Mr. Addy was also in one of my favorite film noirs, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Kathy Cronkite plays radical activist Mary Ann Gilford, and Ms. Cronkite is the daughter of news icon (and University of Texas graduate) Walter Cronkite (who also appears in clips). Conchata Ferrell is part of the UBS creative team, and Ms. Ferrell is now best known as Berta on “Two and a Half Men” and as the pizza shop proprietor in MYSTIC PIZZA (1988). Ken Kercheval plays Merrill Grant, and “Dallas” fans will recognize him as JR Ewing’s nemesis, Cliff Barnes. Making a brief appearance is Lane Smith, whom we all remember as Joe Pesci’s opposing counsel in MY COUSIN VINNY (1992), and in a blink-and-you’ll miss it role in the terrorist negotiation scene is an uncredited Lance Henriksen. Mr. Henriksen now has a cult following after his chilling role in ALIENS (1986). He’s also appeared in many other classic films over the years: DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), THE TERMINATOR (1984), and he has over 250 screen credits. Lastly, you might recognize the voice of the film’s narrator. Lee Richardson is an actor and the voice of more than one hundred commercials.

NETWORK was directed by the great Sidney Lumet. He received one of his 5 Best Director Oscar nominations … the other four were 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981), and THE VERDICT (1982). He also directed THE HILL (1965), SERPICO (1973), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), and his final film BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007). Mr. Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005, and died in 2007 at age 86. One of Lumet’s four wives was Gloria Vanderbilt, and his book “Making Movies” is a must read for any aspiring filmmaker.

Writer Paddy Chayefsky gets much of the credit for the success of NETWORK, and rightfully so. The script is a work of art, and brought him one of his three Oscars. The other two were MARTY (1955) and THE HOSPITAL (1971), making him one of only five three-time writing winners. He also wrote cult favorite ALTERED STATES (novel and screenplay) and adapted PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) for the screen. Mr. Chayefsky’s influence can be seen (and especially heard) in the dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, one of today’s most celebrated writers. Mr. Chayefsky died in 1981 at age 58.

The film won 4 Oscars (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay) and was nominated for six others. The 3 acting wins tie it for most ever with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), and it’s the only movie to date with 5 acting nominations. It’s also highly probable that NETWORK is the only film where the Best Actor and Best Actress don’t share any screen time together. Owen Roizman was nominated for Cinematography, and his other nominations include THE EXORCIST (1973), TOOTSIE (1982), WYATT EARP (1994) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) … that’s right, he filmed the infamous car chase scene. Alan Heim was nominated for Editing, an Oscar he would later win for ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).

Relevant seems too weak as a description to make the point of how the film’s message stands up today. Television should be a vehicle that informs and educates instead of serving up drivel like dating and quirky personality shows. Of course entertainment is an important piece of the puzzle, but we shouldn’t end up holding an empty bag. One of the final scenes in the film highlights the lack of scruples from the executive team. A final decision is made that at first seems over-the-top, but is it really so hard to believe? Howard Beale is a man who has lost, or is losing, his mind – but the network milks him until that cash cow is dry. We can’t help but note the themes that still hit home today: corporate and personal greed, ambition, grief, mismatched relationships, the misuse of power, the willingness to sit back and accept, and the fear of life with no purpose.

ROCKY was the only 1976 film to eclipse $100 million at the box office, and in addition to the other Oscar nominated films listed in the first paragraph, 1976 also blessed us with horror classics CARRIE and THE OMEN, thrillers like MARATHON MAN (“Is it safe?”) and KING KONG (Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges), BOUND FOR GLORY (the 5th Best Picture nominee) and Barbra Streisand’s A STAR IS BORN, comedy classics BAD NEWS BEARS and THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN, and Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, FAMILY PLOT. 1976 was also the year we lost Agatha Christie, Busby Berkeley, Howard Hughes, Fritz Lang, Dalton Trumbo, Alastair Sim, and Sal Mineo (a still unsolved murder). Forty-three years later, NETWORK lives on as a lesson we have yet to learn.

***NOTE: another thing to notice is the natural teeth of Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch. Comparing it to the blindingly bright pearly whites of today’s actors provides quite the contrast.

watch the trailer:

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RAMPART

February 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dirty cops happen in real life sometimes, and in the movies quite often. It can be an intriguing subject to explore … psychological demons, ego, power-mongering, etc. Typically we see it presented as a cop torn between doing the right thing and feeling like he is owed something. Rarely do we see a cop portrayed as beyond hope … so far gone morally that redemption is no longer even a possibility.

Writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) present to us Officer Dave Brown, known to his fellow cops (and even his daughter) as “Date Rape” Dave. The moniker stems from a vice incident where Brown supposedly dished out street justice to a serial date rapist. With no proof of his guilt, Brown remained on the force and his rogue manner has now escalated to the point where he is a constant danger to himself and others. This guy has no moral filter for everyday living.

 Officer Brown is played with searing intensity by a Woody Harrelson you have never before seen. As loathsome a character as you will ever find, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is hated by EVERYONE! Somehow he has daughters by his two ex-wives (who are sisters) and they all live together in a messed up commune where ‘hate’ is the secret word of the day, every day. Most of the time no one speaks to Dave except to tell him to “get out”. He spends his off hours drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having meaningless sex. Heck, that’s just about how he spends his time while on duty as well.  Dave’s behavior and the theme of the movie seem to be explained in a scene when he tells the IA Detective (Ice Cube) that he is not a racist because a he hates “all people equally“.  

The supporting cast is phenomenal, though most aren’t given but a scene or two. This includes Robin Wright (who nearly matches Dave in the tortured soul department), Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, and Steve Buscemi. The first hour feels like an Actor’s Retreat as most every scene introduces another familiar face.

 Still, as terrific as Harrelson is, and as deep as the cast is, the film is just too one note and downbeat and hopeless to captivate most viewers. Some of Moverman’s camera work is quite distracting and the sex club scene was pure overkill and unnecessary. Downward spiral is much too neutral a term to describe this character’s path and ultimately, that prevents the film from delivering any type of message. Harrelson had been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate, but it would not be surprising if the film itself worked to his detriment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a fantastic performance by Woody Harrelson OR you are just looking for a way to kill that pesky feeling of joy that’s been following you around lately

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need to like at least one character in a movie

watch the trailer:


RANGO

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I just can’t believe it. Last year I was raving about Toy Story 3 being my favorite film of the year, and now here I am again extolling the excellence of another animated feature. However, Rango is a different experience … these are all new characters and a whole new look for animation. I would even say this is more a film for grown-ups than for kids, though kids will certainly get a kick out of Rango, a colorful chameleon energetically voiced by Johnny Depp.

 The story and film pay homage to many classic movies and especially to spaghetti westerns. You will easily spot the tributes to Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Hunter S Thompson, Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, High Noon, and of course Chinatown. The main story line is nearly identical to Chinatown … the control of a town’s water. Here we get the Mayor, voiced by Ned Beatty, in the John Huston role. For film fans, this is just so much fun!

Rango the chameleon is a very likable character who just wants to make friends. He dreams of being a hero so that people will look up to him. Of course, he learns the hard way what being a hero really means. The town of Dirt, the desert, and multitude of characters are all fantastically drawn. There are times the film has a look of live action with terrific lighting and detail, and the colors are perfect.

 The voice acting in the film is truly outstanding and it starts with Depp’s fine work. Also contributing are Ned Beatty (Mayor), Bill Nighy (Rattlesnake Jake), Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Alfred Molina (Armadillo), Ray Winstone, Charles Fleisher (from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Timothy Olyphant as the Clint Eastwood character no-named Spirit of the West. There is also a useful and very funny Mariachi band that pops up periodically to push the story along.

Director Gore Verbinski is known best for his Pirates of the Caribbean movies (with Depp) and he really gets to go all out on his visual style here. He is helped immensely by George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and their first foray into animation. Heads up Pixar … you definitely have some tough competition!

A note of caution: I did notice a lot of younger kids seemed to get bored and had trouble following the story.  There are some terrific action scenes, but there is also a great deal of time spent on the story and characters – not exactly perfect for keeping a kid’s attention.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you love a good western or good animation (this one is both)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have very young kids … there are long dialogue-driven sequences between the few action effects


THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

July 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based upon the work of crime novelist Jim Thompson, who is quite famous as a writer and whose works have often been translated to film. This time oft-creepy director Michael Winterbottom is in charge and comes pretty close to creating a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the bits that fall short, very nearly ruin the film.

Psychological crime thrillers can be the most fascinating genre (see Inception), but only when the lead psycho is relatable in some sense and the story is complete. Here, Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance as the dude you don’t want your daughter to date. There is a deep darkness hidden behind his aw-shucks facade of innocence and cutesy west Texas drawl.

The violence is expected, yet still shocking, when it first rears its head on poor Jessica Alba. We feel the first punch. What happens in this first encounter catches us off-guard and leaves us wanting to know more background on Affleck’s character. Instead, we are really only spectators in his plan of violence that seems to have no real goal. Think Natural Born Killers. Heck, even Ted Bundy had a real plan!

The creepiness factor is upped a bit since most everyone associated with the crimes seems to suspect Affleck’s character, but no one knows what to do or how to stop him. Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas and Simon Baker (miscast) give it a go. Personally I wanted more of the Koteas character as well as Ned Beatty, who plays a powerful developer against whom Affleck holds a grudge.

Bill Pullman is tossed in near the end to help wrap things up, but mostly the ending is as unsatisfying as the rest of the story. It is uncomfortable to watch Affleck’s character, so devoid of morals and empty of soul, but it feels wasted on a small town deputy sheriff with no vision. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing … but it makes for a much weaker film.


TOY STORY 3 (2010)

June 21, 2010

  Greetings again from the darkness. Has there ever been a bad Pixar movie? Nope. And as many really good movies they have created, there are now two truly great ones: Toy Story and Toy Story 3. The first one (released 15 years ago) transformed the way animation is made and set the standard for kids’ movies that parents can also enjoy. This third installment takes animated story telling to the next level.

Of course all the great voices are back: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Sarge (R Lee Ermey). Imagine assembling that cast and then adding two fabulous new characters: Lotsa Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Ken (Michael Keaton); expanding Jodi Benson’s Barbi to a key role, and re-vamping Slinky-dog with Blake Clark taking over for his deceased friend, the fabulous Jim Varney. This is major star power and an over-abundance of talent!

Then again, we have all seen stellar casts fall flat without a worthy script. Fear not as Pixar legend John Lasseter (Exec Producer here) has passed the reins again to director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc.). This story is brilliant and engaging. I challenge anyone from age 5 to 95 to avoid being drawn in to the themes of separation, friendship, loyalty, and power.

There are some laugh outloud moments along with the usual wise cracks from Buzz and Potato head. This time we are also treated to some darker moments with Lotsa, a power-hungry stuffed bear, and his band of misfits that include a giant baby doll and Chuckles, the creepiest clown this side of Poltergeist, and especially the frightening/funny monkey working security.

Some Pixar touches include the voice of Andy is provided by the grown up voice actor who did Andy in the first, a couple of glimpses of the evil kid Sid (first Toy Story) who has grown up to be a garbage man (same shirt) and the re-use of Randy Newman’s classic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. Too many other “little” moments to mention, but this is pure film genius and should not be missed.