Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Talk Radio

Talk Radio (1988)

Starring Eric Bogosian and Alec Baldwin
(Written and) directed by Oliver Stone

Based on lead actor Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer-nominated play, the film is a small, low budget affair, made in a short period of down-time in between Stone's blustering behemoths "Wall Street" and "Born on the Fourth of July".  It's taut and claustrophobic, taking place largely within one location, a radio studio; a dark dark environment, with pools of light dotted around, much like the central character.  Bogosian plays the aggressive, abrasive late night talk radio host Barry Champlain, a ranting, opinionated broadcaster (one might nowadays call him a "shock-jock").  To a quiet but utterly haunting score by Stewart Copeland (ex of The Police) the camera glides around the studio, as Champlain debates the state of the nation, AIDS, and race, with a procession of red-necked hicks, showing us studio execs Dan (Alec Baldwin), Deitz (John Pankow), engineer Stew (the great John C Reilly, go to man for supporting actors such as this!), and producer Laura (Leslie Hope), who is in a romantic relationship with Champlain.

In an ad-break, a bombshell is dropped; the show is being picked up by Metrowave Broadcasting, and will be syndicated nationally, from the following week. Champlain is angry at having been kept in the dark about the whole deal.  He sees it as "his" show, and clear seethes at the corporate machinations going on behind the scenes, and his not having been even consulted. It's not just the listeners and callers who bear the brunt of his annoyance, but also the station employees, several of whom are his close personal friends.  We take a break from the studio over the weekend, where it's illustrated what a divisive personality he has, when he and Laura attend a basketball game where he is to be the "star guest" but is cheered and booed by the crowd in equal measure.  He is clearly shocked, but tries to smile through it, without much conviction.  Underlying the stream of adoring callers, he has been getting death threats from Neo-Nazi groups, with many of whom he argues on air, more often than not ending with him delivering a dismissive put-down before cutting the caller off.

Barry's ex-wife flies to Dallas from Chicago, whee she now lives having remarried; she wants to be present for his big national debut.  In flashback we're shown the germination of their relationship and how Barry got his big break in radio.  Also, sadly, how the seeds of their separation and divorce were sown.  Needless to say it's Barry's responsibility.  The second half ot the film is different in, if not tone, then texture.  It feels very circular (one wonders if, in the theatre it was produced in the round!). the increasingly agitated Barry paces around his studio console in circles again and again.  In one fantastic shot the camera follows him around, spinning, with each circuit he makes.  The suggestion is that he's mixed up, and in a state of unease, with everything going round and around in his mind.  It has a dizzying effect on the viewer too, as we lose any point of reference other than Barry's words.  The photography, by (justifiably Oscar decorated) Stone regular Robert Richardson, is nothing short of spectacular.  The use of reflection; screen characters are seen seen bouncing their reflected light (and personalities) against the cold glass environment of the studio; often as Barry is addressing a caller, the viewer's attention will be drawn to the unheard characters seen only in the distance or via their light off the studio's reflective surface. The studio vies with the darkness of night outside and throws up a myriad of views of each character and situation.  Given that this originated from a stage play, this is a hugely effective way of opening up the stage.


Things come to an explosive head when a call come in from a young, crazy stoner named Kent, who had called previously, claiming that his girlfriend had over-dosed on heroin.  Barry, despite the vigourous protestations of Dan, invites the kid into the studio, where he proves to be out to be a lunatic.  The more Champlain abuses him of being a moronic, depressing pointer to the future of the USA, the more manically laughs.  He seems to think it's all a joke.  He's a mulleted blond, denim-clad, Axl Rose wannabe Grade A moron. It's a fascinating experience for the viewer - we've got to know something of Champlain's personality.  Where is his balance between deliberate provocation and rudeness, and where does his belief truly lie?  The film asks that question as it's not even clear that he knows himself. These later scenes are shot in such a way so as that they move towards him close and closer physically and into the character and several shots are just extreme close ups of Barry's face close to the microphone as he talks.  There's an extraordinary, explosively emotional climax which I won't spoil for you - just SEE THIS FILM.

This is easily one of Stone's best films.  He's a director I admire with consummate sincerity.  I know some films have worked better than others, but I geuinely think this is one of his utmost best - not just within his portfolio but in cinema in general. Everything works.  Bogosian is a powerhouse.  The "Barry Speeches" are mesmerising, and he has created a character who is at once cocksure and dismissive of almost everyone but at the same time with his eyes, frequent laughter, and body language conveys a man infected by the deep insecurity we all feel.  At one pivotal point a hand is held out to him and he's told "You don't know how to love", but he smacks it away and chooses to be angry, because that's what he has to do.  To support such a whirlwind performance much be hugely difficultly so enormous credit has to go the supporting cast.  Baldwin, in particular, is fantastic.  There's a scene coming to mind where's behind glass outside the studio trying to convey his authority to Barry but can't be heard, despite his obvious frustration, which is clearly illustrated. Pankow is quiet, calm, and doesn't have a lot to do besides look non-judgmental but he carries it admirably,  All in all this is a tight, arguably disturbingly straight-forward, but inarguably thought provoking, well-performed, well scripted and directed, deeply atmospheric film, and is well worth checking if you want to think about some of the major isues of the day, as now as in the late 1980s.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Starring David Niven and Kim Hunter (although Roger Livesey is given higher billing) 

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressubrger

In that quaint old way you used to see / hear, this film begins with a voiceover, but it's an unusual one.  A written message also scrolls across the screen: "This is the story of two worlds and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war."  Any correspondence to any world, real or imagined, is purely coincidental..." Starting with a shot of planets and stars, the voice intones: "This is the universe.  Big, isn't it?".We get a short astronomy lesson before the film itself begins. The central idea of he film, as hinted here, is that life, death and the afterlife are way beyond our current comprehension, and played out as part of a grander scheme of things.  As a 7 year old, seeing this for the first time, how could I not be arrested by this notion?  A historical film, set firmly in the real world, but with a supernatural - dare I say it metaphysical (not that I'd have known that word at 7!) - bent.  It's one of the films which made me fall in love with cinema.  

The story is that of a British airman, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, whose Lancaster bomber is crippled and shot down a few days shy of the end of the Second World War.  Believing he must surely die, he nevertheless makes radio contact with Britain, and talks briefly with an American radio operator named June.  His plane crashes, but miraculously, he seems to remain alive. Making his way back to his base and unit, he eventually meets up with June, and they soon fall in love.  This is the point at which Fate (with a capital F) intervenes, and the meaning of the mysterious Cosmic prologue becomes clear.  Peter is visited by an ethereal visitor, "Conductor 71" (Marius Goring), a corporeal spirit whose role is to guide (conduct) souls to the afterlife.  The thing is, Peter should have died when his plane was shot down, but due to an "administrative error" he remained alive.  Now, the Conductor, and Heaven, want to balance their books.  But Peter and June are in love now, and this occurred after Heaven's error.  So they argue that Peter should be left to live.  Thus begins something of a battle of the fates, between human and post-human life.  An unearthly trial occurs in "Heaven" to determine Peter's future, whilst Doctors back on Earth fight to save his life.  The outcome is truly in the balance in a markedly tense sequence of scenes.

The Prosecutor is an American Revolutionary, Farlan (Raymond Massey), who despises England and Britain arguing that Peter must stay in the afterlife.  Peter is allowed to call a counsel for his defence, and chooses his friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey).  Truly, the trial becomes a matter of life and death - if Peter loses, he will have to remain in "heaven"; if he wins he can return to earth to be with June.  The plot itself is emotional and engrossing, compelling, I would say.  But what really makes the film work is the direction and cinematography.  Pressburger and Powell were the most formidable pair of directors of their age.  "Life and Death" is easily up there with "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus" and "Peeping Tom".  The photography, by the unmatched Jack Cardiff (check out the biography "Magic Hour", seriously) is superb, and lives long in the mind.  The scenes on Earth are in glorious Technicolour, but the scenes set in Heaven are, somewhat counter-intuitively, depicted in Black and White.  One would imagine it would be the other way round, but it's striking and extremely effective.  Thematically, it says that things in Heaven are simply black or white, right or wrong.  On Earth things things exist in bold technicolour, and are debatable. It sticks long in the memory. The two realms are linked by a giant, dramatic "stairway to Heaven".

Niven is predictably superb, as he always was, the stoic Brit, fighting his feelings and fighting for his feelings.  Newcomer Kim Hunter - later to play Dr. Zira in "Planet of the Apes" and its sequels, is remarkably sympathetic as June.  Roger Livesey offers up sterling support as June's friend, and Peter's Doctor, Reeves.  Particularly humourous and memorable is Marius Goring as the Conductor, a French Revolutionary in a former life.  There's even a cameo from a young (Sir) Richard Attenborough as a befuddled, deceased airman arriving in Heaven and being sent to "registry".  Aside from the already mentioned look of the film, and great performances, what deeply draws a viewer in is the emotion and unpredictability of the story.  The denouement is not only highly unpredictable but also sincerely emotional.  It's unique, and I can't think of a film to which it can be compared.  I try to shy away from the cliche of the word "masterpiece" but this truly is one.  It sparked my love of cinema (OK maybe "Star Wars" or "ET" did that, but this just cemented it.  See it if you get any chance to do so.