Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Weekend Movie Roundup

Good weekend - two classics and one obscure low budget British drama.

Network (1976):
Sidney Lumet's satire about a fictional television network still packs quite a punch and remains relevant 30 years on. A TV news anchor with low ratings approaching retirement starts to lose his mind and raves like a lunatic on TV. This lunacy actually attracts viewers to the show, and the executives of the struggling network cynically exploit the madman to bolster business, turning the nightly news into a garish piece of entertainment that's lapped up by the masses. It's all about the ratings for these people, no matter the cost. They're so absorbed in the world of ratings that they barely register as human anymore, with the sole exception being the news anchor's best friend and producer (who gets fired early on when he tries to stop the whole charade).

It's a very low key film with terrific writing and performances that indicts TV networks, the people that run them, and the undiscerning audiences who grow up hooked on television. When you get to the scene where the network execs, the leader of a minor communist political movement, and the leader of a terrorist organization are sitting around in a room arguing about the terms of their contracts with the network and how they want grosses to be split, you'll know you're watching something special. It's cynical, funny... and smart.

Midnight Cowboy (1969):
Jon Voight plays hustler Joe Buck, who moves to New York to improve his fortunes by attracting higher class clients - rich, lonely women. Unfortunately, his naivete proves to be a major handicap and he fails to score as well as he'd hoped. Dustin Hoffman plays 'Ratso', another down on his luck individual who teams up with Joe (after initially scamming him) as his 'manager'. The two become unlikely friends who struggle desperately to get by. And that's it really, a simple premise, but it's enough to drive a surprisingly poignant drama.

The narrative is not entirely straightforward - it features some wonderfully bizarre flashbacks and dream-sequences. It's also restrained and avoids cheap sentimentality, which would have been out of place given the characters and the setting. If anything it's moody and depressing, but there's always a little sliver of optimism that runs throughout the film that the characters cling on to, and there are a few good laughs tucked in there as well. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are simply brilliant. I never thought I'd like Voight in any role, much less as a male prostitute, and he was a total surprise in this. Hoffman could have easily overplayed it but fortunately he didn't, and what he delivers in Ratso is a truly memorable character. Watch out for his famous "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" line. Definitely worth watching.

Separate Lies (2005):
This is probably one you haven't heard of, it's pretty damn obscure. I'm not normally a fan of 'marriage dramas', if there is such a thing, but this one's very good. James (Tom Wilkinson) and Anne (the adorable Emily Watson) are a seemingly happily married, well-to-do London couple who split their time between their city flat and a large house in a small suburban town. 'Seemingly happy' because there are in fact deep divisions between them that even they are not fully aware of. It all comes to the fore, however, when Anne knocks over an elderly cyclist while speeding through the countryside with her secret lover William (a slimy Rupert Everett). James learns of the affair while looking into the accident, and decides it'll be best to keep it secret. Things get complicated when Anne continues to see William, and an investigator begins to make inroads into the hit and run case.

As with the other two films I've mentioned in this post, this one features very strong performances. It's a very British movie where emotions are underplayed and everyone's formal and distant. The fact that a lot of emotion is still conveyed despite this is a tribute to Wilkinson and Watson. The story is engaging and deals with the idea of relationships in a mature way - don't expect a Hollywood ending. The only thing which rang false was Everett, who plays it a little too slimy, making it hard to understand how the affair could ever be anything more than just a fling. This doesn't hurt the film too much though, since the focus is mostly on Wilkinson's character. If you don't normally like these type of films, this one won't change your mind; if you're indifferent (like me), then it's worth a watch but probably not worth hunting down.

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