Posts in: July 2nd, 2010

Talk Radio (1988)

Why does Talk Radio feel so bland and lifeless? Eric Bogosian anchors the film with a great performance as Barry Champlain, a Tom Leykis/Howard Stern-style shock jock. Oliver Stone, an energetic filmmaker who never shies away from going a few hundred degrees over the top, directed. Yet the film itself is oddly hollow.

Could it be that time has not been kind to Talk Radio, that the nature of the callers and Barry’s reaction to them no longer hold any shock value? This will undoubtedly sound strange, but I have a sense that the main problem with the movie stems from opening it up beyond its stage roots. The film is actually at its best when it focuses on Barry and the callers, and the backstage melodrama surrounding a media conglomerate (represented by the intriguingly ineffectual John Pankow) syndicating Barry’s Dallas-based show nationally. Whenever it strays away from that, attempting to turn into a study of Barry’s many character flaws, it becomes watch-checkingly tedious.

The grueling “character study” portion of the film revolves mainly around Barry’s relationships with two women: Laura (Leslie Hope), the attractive producer he’s currently sleeping with, and Ellen (Ellen Greene), his ex-wife. Once Ellen arrives on the scene, the film grinds to a screeching halt for an extended flashback, contrasting Barry’s rise to radio prominence with the collapse of his marriage. Even though a few moments tied to these flashbacks occur in the third act—notably program director Dan (Alec Baldwin) dismissing Barry as a disposable “suit salesman” (a reference to his pre-radio job) and Ellen trying to liven up the show by calling in, resulting in caustic Barry verbally abusing her—the sequence is very long and adds little to the story beyond seeing Bogosian in a somewhat hilarious Howard Stern wig.

Similarly, the film centers on recurring threats from various redneck callers, many of who are involved in neo-Nazi organizations and have big problems with Barry’s Jewish heritage. Barry reveals himself as surprisingly well-versed in their propaganda, able to easily poke holes in their arguments and dismiss their threats as silly hoaxes. The conversations themselves are lively and engaging, but they have the unfortunate side effect of turning Talk Radio into a “message movie,” leading to an obvious, over-the-top ending that’s frustratingly unearned. The movie’s over 20 years old, but I still have reservations about ruining the ending. Let’s just say the last five minutes could have used the disinterested restraint of latter-day Oliver Stone, not the frothy melodrama of his heyday. With a more subdued ending, the bigotry subplot could have succeeded in tackling its issues subtly.

Although the film spans several days, Bogosian’s stage play takes place over the course of a single night of Barry’s show. Film and theatre are, obviously, different media, and generally straight-up “let’s just film the play”-style adaptations don’t translate well. However, Stone’s directorial style lends itself to a more straightforward adaptation, as evidenced by his skillful handling of the call-in segments that do appear in the film. (Although, on a boring technical note, Stone’s abuse of the split diopter, instead of taking the time to set up proper deep-focus shots, gets distracting—certain shots make it appear as if the background characters have paid a visit from Heaven.) Stone could have easily taken a cue from the play and made a visually compelling, emotionally energetic slice-of-life showing the inner workings of a late-night radio show. Instead, the film breaks up the radio-show scenes, surrounding them with the aforementioned redundant flashbacks, as well as scenes bluntly foreshadowing the ending.

Talk Radio has a number of great moments, and it may be worth seeing for Bogosian’s performance alone. However, the film itself is a disappointment. Fans of Bogosian would do better to check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (that’s not sarcasm—he’s really great in that movie).

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The Package (1989)

Andrew Davis, director of one surprisingly great Chuck Norris film (Code of Silence) and two of Steven Seagal’s best efforts (Above the Law and Under Siege), made two films that contained the story beats of a typical ’80s action flick in a much more subdued, realistic fashion. One is probably his most well-regarded work, 1993’s The Fugitive. The other is the much less well-known The Package, a Cold War relic that packs a satisfying punch despite its relative lack of action.

Gene Hackman stars as Johnny Gallagher, a Green Beret tasked with transporting a soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the U.S. for a court martial. The soldier escapes, and Gallagher quickly discovers the soldier assumed the identity of a different man. However, Gallagher himself gets arrested for losing his “package,” which hinders his quest to track down the soldier and learn his true agenda. With the help of his lieutenant colonel ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), Gallagher escapes from military custody and tracks the unknown soldier to Chicago and quickly unravels the plan: he’s a hired assassin who needed to get into the U.S. without a passport to carry out his mission—the assassination of the President.

Here’s where the Cold War politics enter into it: the President and the Soviet General Secretary intend to sign a treaty at the site of the first nuclear reaction, the University of Chicago. The treaty will ultimately lead to total nuclear disarmament on both sides. Mysterious forces within both the U.S. and Soviet militaries don’t want this treaty to happen. Gallagher, Eileen, and ex-Green Beret-turned-Chicago cop Delich (Dennis Franz) work together to unravel this conspiracy and find the soldier—eventually identified as Boyette—before he can carry out his plan.

Like Above the Law, The Package seeks to expose corruption within the U.S. military. This puts it at odds with the majority of thrillers at this time, which painted our military as unstoppable badasses. Portraying the Army as a vast, complex organization that contains some heroes, some villains, and a hell of a lot of people occupying a tricky gray area instantly makes the film more compelling than one might expect from a Cold War thriller. Obviously, because it’s a movie, the heroes prevail, but Davis and screenwriter John Bishop never make the story as black-and-white as, say, The Delta Force.

Davis’s directorial restraint is the film’s biggest strength. From a story standpoint, The Package could have easily starred Seagal and featured long gunfights, big explosions, and trademark aikido beatings. Everything about the story screams, “Big, ballsy action movie.” Instead, Davis eschews the big spectacle in favor of quiet character moments. For instance, an early scene in which Gallagher and Eileen reflect on their divorce casts a strain over their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. Moments like these lend credibility to the outlandish conspiracy plot, giving it almost a Day of the Jackal docudrama feel.

That’s not to say the movie lacks for action. It’s fairly subdued, but it does have some well-choreographed stunt sequences—car chases, shootouts, a few explosions here and there. However, the focus on characters over squibs lends authenticity even to these sequences. In addition to that, Davis—a Chicago native—has a keen eye for the details of our miserable winters. The streets and alleys are not thoroughly plowed, causing the cars to fishtail awkwardly on turns and fail to stop. It lends the action sequences a believable sloppiness.

Davis takes full advantage of his superior cast. Hackman and Cassidy do great work at creating their uneasy relationship. Hackman plays a tough guy with more conviction than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His menacing glare can strike more fear than all the chiseled biceps in the world. Cassidy manages to find the vulnerability in a stoic, career military woman. Although everyone in the cast does a solid job, the most noteworthy supporting players are Franz as a cheerful family man and John Heard playing a huge douche-nozzle (who, not surprisingly, plays a key role in the conspiracy).

The Package may seem like an artifact of a forgotten war against a forgotten enemy, but the skillful direction and great acting allow it to transcend its era. It remains a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller.

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Weak Link

So I have a reason other than laziness for not updating lately. In addition to the fact that I don’t really get access to big “summer movie”-type scripts, nor do I have much desire to read them (especially after bearing witness to the travesty called Jonah Hex), I’m making a big push to launch a new site with one of my best friends from college.

“Zuh?” you’re undoubtedly saying. Well, here’s the skinny: longtime readers recall that I once “worked” for a bottom-rung film-review website. My friend Mark also wrote for the site, and both of us left with a great deal of disappointment and lessons learned. So last summer, in the midst of a Vicodin-fueled haze after my wrist surgery, I concocted the world’s greatest idea (according to my drug-addled mind): we’d create our own bottom-rung film-review website. With the myriad lessons learned from our miserable experiences, we’d attempt to carve out own niche in the online world of film criticism.

Once the drugs wore off, this seemed like a terrible idea. However, a stone-cold sober Mark loved the idea and kind of forced me to see it through, by virtue of the fact that I hate disappointing other people (and consequently end up disappointing myself). While I designed the site, Mark and I hashed out what we’d write about—what angle could we come up with to get readers who typically fall through the cracks of film sites? We came up with some ideas that may prove unsuccessful, but we’re going forward out of a combination of stupidity and bravado.

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