Tag: barry levinson

Wag the Dog


Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.

Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.

The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.

De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.

Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.

The Bay


The Bay (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) agrees to participate in an interview via webcam about what really happened on July 4, 2009 in Claridge, Maryland where she, as a tyro reporter, was assigned to cover the day’s festivities. The celebration is interrupted by a few residents covered in blisters, boils, and lesions begging for help. Soon, others begin to exhibit similar symptoms which eventually lead to amputation of limbs and gruesome deaths. Since the government confiscated all materials that documented the truth, Donna believes that it is her duty to reveal the cover-up before she can move on.

“The Bay,” based on the screenplay by Michael Wallach and directed by Barry Levinson, is a horror-thriller rooted in the found footage sub-genre but, unlike many of its contemporaries, telling the story through this specific avenue works. Instead of the material forcing us to play waiting games until the inevitable jolts, its downtimes are propelled by real ideas, human fears, and craft from behind the lens.

It is generous in making us squirm. The camera is not afraid to showcase the symptoms on people’s skin: how widespread the rashes are, the intensity of their colors, and the differences in texture between large and small sores. But the disgusting details are not limited what we can find on our own skins. There are a handful of scenes that show menacing-looking parasites found in fish that may very well be related to the contagion in the small town.

The events unspool slowly, at least initially, but there is always a sense of urgency. Even though it is essentially about an ecological horror that triggers a pandemonium, it is focused in terms of how the mystery is dealt with. For example, while handling the first wave of patients, doctors assume that the disease is triggered by some sort of virus. Over time, as more information become available and patterns get clearer, assumptions evolve. Appropriately, there is an overall feeling that dealing with an unknown plague, in addition to bureaucracies and red tape, is an unrelenting uphill battle.

It is not without a savage sense of humor. I was amused during moments when someone off-camera says, “Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” while an infected shows a friend her angry rashes. We laugh because someone in the film voices out what we are thinking. More subtly funny are moments when Donna tells us, in the most deadpan delivery, that a certain someone on screen will be dead by the end of the day. I was also entertained by her many reactions to the horrors around her while out there in the field.

What works less effectively is at times the camera cuts too quickly from something fascinating. My favorite scenes involve two oceanographers (Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka) making all sorts of grim discoveries about the toxicity of Chesapeake Bay and possible causes of what is happening in Claridge. I relished the moments when we are given the chance to peek inside a fish and what its passengers are doing. I wanted to cover my eyes or look away but my curiosity left me paralyzed.

“The Bay” is compendium of newsreels and interviews; what is recorded via digital cameras, video cameras, phone cameras, hidden cameras; as well as video chats, audio recordings, and radio transmissions. Despite its many “sources” and therefore styles of showing isolated but connected occurrences within a community, it is somewhat of a miracle that the picture is never off-putting.

You Don’t Know Jack


You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in my high school Psychology course when we learned about the ethics of dealing with patients. It was a particularly memorable chapter because Kevorkian and his methods sparked a rousing debate about his methods. Like in the film, students who did not support euthanasia, assisted suicide, argued mainly from the perspective of religious dogma. I distinctly remember thinking that it was such a weak argument because it lacked common sense. The reason why I support euthanasia was not about living or dying. It was all about choice. I’d rather jump off a fifty-foot story building than to allow the government to choose when and how I should die. I admired the film, under Barry Levinson’s swift yet careful direction, because it painted Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) as Dr. Kevorkian and not as Dr. Death, as the media and his enemies unjustly labelled him. While the media and government played an integral role in Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle, the picture took a more personal route and allowed us to get to know the medical practitioner in question and his biggest supporters such as his sister Margo Janus (Brena Vaccaro), one of his oldest friends Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a fellow activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), and a lawyer named Geoffrey Fiegler with a flair for the dramatic (Danny Huston). All delivered very strong performances with utmost conviction and devoid of cliché. By showing us scenes not easily found in books or covered by the media, despite my support for the issue of euthanasia, I learned something new and surprising facts about Dr. Kevorkian. There were many scenes that moved me but one that I will not forget for a long time was when Dr. Kevorkian decided to be thrifty regarding the gas required to make the person unconscious prior to stopping the heart. That was an important scene for me because it marked the point where I thought Dr. Kevorkian crossed the line. While he did regret it afterwards, it was unethical because the crux of euthanasia was to allow a terminally ill person to die in a peaceful and humane manner. During that scene, the person was uncomfortable and experienced pain. However, I was glad that the filmmakers added that scene because it showed us that Dr. Kevorkian, despite his best intentions, was far from perfect and that his willingness to push the envelope without fully thinking things through was ultimate downfall. Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian was excellent. Although his portrayal was denitely not as eccentric as the actual person, I believe it was one of his most mesmerizing roles in years. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Adam Mazer, deserves to be seen especially by those who do not quite know where they stand in the issue. It just might help to put certain things into perspective.

Diner


Diner (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Barry Levinson, “Diner” was about a group of friends verging on adulthood who constantly tried to find a distinction between marriage and being in love with a woman. I adored this film greatly because I felt like the guys were the kind of people I could talk to. Even though they were silly and talked about the most unimportant things, they were very entertaining and each had a distinct personality. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) was about to get married, Boogie (Mickey Rourke–who I did not recognize at all) was a womanizer, Modell (Paul Reiser) got on everyone’s nerves, Tim (Kevin Bacon) had issues with his brother, and Shrevie (Daniel Stern) was addicted to music. But my favorite was Billy (Tim Daly), Eddie’s best man, because he was the most mysterious of the group. His interactions with Eddie had a certain feeling of sensitivity to it; the look he portrayed in his eyes made me think that he harbored a secret and I desperately wanted to know what it was. While they all had separate personalities, I liked that Levinson surprised us somewhere in the middle. The picture seemed to have flipped itself inside out and showcased something unexpected about them. For instance, Tim turned out to be someone who was genuinely intelligent despite his sometimes unwise decisions. The biggest strength and weakness of this film was its many colorful characters. Since there were so many of them, I was never bored because it jumped from one perspective to another with relative ease. But at the same time, I wished it had less characters so it could have had the chance to dig deeper within the characters’ psychologies. Nevertheless, “Diner” was very funny because the guys had chemistry. Their interactions made me think of nights when my friends and I would hang out at Denny’s, talk about the most random things, tease each other, and eat until it was either difficult for us to breathe or our mouths were simply exhausted from talking. So I felt like the movie really captured how it was like to be considered as an adult (over eighteen) but not quite reach the maturity level of a real adult. “Diner” is a deftly crafted picture with intelligence despite the dirty jokes, characters who are easy to identify with and a script that flows and sounds natural. I always feel the need to say that a movie may not be for everyone only because the movie is heavy on dialogue. But I think this film is an exception because it knows how to have fun but remain honest so the audiences can feel like they’re part of the inner circle instead of simply eavesdropping from another table.