#377. Alan J. Pakula

Some directors might not be prolific, but the movies they make are profound statements about humanity that stick with us over time. One almost wonders if the jobs they had before directing helped them to see the world in a slightly more significant way. From 1969 to 1997, Alan J. Pakula only directed 16 films, but at least a few of them have continued to be recognized for their greatness. Before he became a director, he had produced seven movies, including the Best Picture nominee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). His penchant for legal and political thrillers was present through his nearly 30 years of directing, and he certainly showed how it could be done and done well. Even though he died at the age of 70 due to a car accident, his films will live on in posterity. This week’s two films highlight some of the best of director Alan J. Pakula.

All the President’s MenAll the President's Men
Year: 1976
Rating: PG
Length: 138 minutes / 2.30 hours

While To Kill a Mockingbird was the first film Pakula produced to be nominated for Best Picture, All the President’s Men (1976) was the first film he directed to be nominated for this prestigious award. Many consider some of his previous films, like Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), to be precursors to this political thriller. With all the legal implications that can come from accusing the White House of something as serious as the Watergate scandal, Alan J. Pakula showed us how a political thriller can be just as much of a legal thriller, even if it never gets to the courtroom. Some of his later works, like Presumed Innocent (1990) and The Pelican Brief (1993), continue in the same legal thriller genre that Pakula has shown he knows how to handle. Still, All the President’s Men is his most famous, even being recognized on the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) top 100 list at #77.

The burglary of the Democratic National Committee isn’t considered to be important, but The Washington Post decides to report on it anyway. What initially seems like a routine robbery soon becomes much more suspicious as the thieves are soon shown to have connections to former CIA employees who themselves are connected to individuals in Richard Nixon’s inner circle. Diving further into this conspiracy, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) contacts his anonymous informant, “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), and learns this incident goes all the way to the top of the government. Woodward and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), need substantial evidence that the President is behind these wrongdoings since any false accusations could be considered slander and could possibly endanger their lives if the allegations are true. The two reporters write the article anyway and leave the rest to fate.

Sophie’s ChoiceSophie's Choice
Year: 1982
Rating: R
Length: 150 minutes / 2.50 hours

Along with All the President’s Men, another of Alan J. Pakula’s films, Sophie’s Choice (1982) managed to break onto the AFI’s top 100 list at #91. It’s no wonder why this is, considering it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and ended up earning Meryl Streep her first Best Actress Oscar (but her second Oscar overall at the time). Pakula wrote the screenplay for three other films he directed, including the aforementioned Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief. And while Sophie’s Choice isn’t necessarily the same as his legal or political thrillers, there is certainly a good amount of drama present in this Holocaust period piece. The fact that “Sophie’s Choice” is practically a verb in today’s popular culture just goes to show how significant a film it has remained over the decades since its release.

Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) is a Polish immigrant who moved to Brooklyn after the horrors of the Holocaust left her alone. Back in Europe, she was married and had a happy life with her two children. She seems to be trying to regain her happiness in New York but ends up being in an abusive relationship with Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline). After becoming friends with a writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol), she eventually runs to him when Nathan is revealed to be a paranoid schizophrenic and reacts violently shortly afterward. During their time together, Sophie tells Stingo about how she had to choose which of her children would be sent to a Nazi work camp and which one would be executed. Even though Stingo wants to help Sophie, she returns to Nathan, and the two of them die shortly afterward.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome Alan J. Pakula movies

Bacon #: 2 (Klute (directed) / Donald Sutherland -> Animal House / Kevin Bacon)

#376. Washington D.C.

As the national capital of the United States, it’s no wonder Washington D.C. has been the backdrop for many films. It’s obvious that political thrillers would use Washington D.C. as their setting, considering the vast amount of politics that occurs in this city. However, there are plenty of other films that have capitalized on the notoriety of the nation’s capital. Whether it’s the historical adventure of National Treasure (2004), a sequel for America’s superhero with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or the Die Hard (1988) reimagining of Olympus Has Fallen (2013) (not to mention the Die Hard sequel, Live Free or Die Hard (2007)), Washington D.C. has plenty to offer as a set piece. Heck, even sci-fi films like Independence Day (1996) have used it as a site for emphasizing alien dominance over humans. This week’s two films have Washington D.C. as their central setting.

Thank You for SmokingThank You for Smoking
Year: 2005
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

To get anything done in Washington D.C., you have to be part of the government. Even being a senator or representative isn’t a foregone conclusion either, as we saw in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). While pushing a political agenda might be difficult, there are ways to do it. Some might consider the “sleeper agent” tactics of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to be preferable to the alternative: lobbying. Money talks, and when money is put in all the right places, all the right people start to push a particular agenda. In the end, the political machine is more like a business than a government, as money is able to influence the people in charge of the government to do the bidding of the wealthy. If money were removed from the equation, then maybe we might have a fair and unbiased group of representatives. Who knows when that will happen, though?

If there’s anything lobbyists are good at, it’s spinning the truth to fit their agenda. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) has been talking his way around the fact that smoking kills by using studies funded by Big Tobacco to disprove this correlation. Even with his silver tongue attempting to convince consumers that smoking is safe, fewer people are smoking. Nick figures a few big-budget Hollywood films might be the shot in the arm cigarette sales need, but soon he has to defend against a bill being brought to the Senate that would put a skull and crossbones on packages of cigarettes. After Nick is abducted by his opponents and given a lethal dose of nicotine via nicotine patches, he still doesn’t change his mind or his message. He defends the public’s right to choose, even if the choice isn’t healthy. His years of smoking cigarettes saved him, but now that he’s unable to smoke ever again, he decides to start his own firm.

All the President’s MenAll the President's Men
Year: 1976
Rating: PG
Length: 138 minutes / 2.30 hours

The people who run the government from Washington D.C. can often be the most interesting topics of biographies. Individuals with as much power as a president certainly have stories to tell. Movies like JFK (1991) and W. (2008) look into these administrations and create an entertaining narrative from the events of their presidencies. Of course, there are others in Washington D.C. with plenty of power as well. FBI directors like J. Edgar Hoover (in J. Edgar (2011)) or FBI agents like Robert Hanssen (in Breach (2007)) have secrets to keep, and their stories are more interesting when these secrets are revealed. This can even be done to comedic effect, like in Burn After Reading (2008). When the government is out of control, though, the people need to know. That’s why films like The Post (2017) and All the President’s Men (1976) are important: they show us how the media should be keeping the government honest.

Shortly after The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers, two reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are tasked to report on the Democratic National Committee break-in at the Watergate complex. As they begin to unravel the story, it soon becomes apparent how scandalous the implications are. Unfortunately, with no reliable sources, the two reporters cannot confirm anything. When Woodward uses his anonymous source, “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), he is encouraged to “follow the money.” Digging deeper, the reporters find the conspiracy entangles much of the current administration, including the president. While the two round out their sources, the White House issues an evasive denial of allegations, which means The Post could be in trouble if their story is proved false. Confident in their information, the reporters write the article, and the rest is history.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 different takes on Washington D.C.

#375. Jason Reitman

It can be tough to grow up in the shadow of your parents’ success. Furthermore, when your father is comedy director Ivan Reitman, the challenge can be even greater. While Ivan directed such classic comedies as Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), his son, Jason Reitman, has shown that he has the skills to follow in his father’s footsteps. Perhaps the exposure to the film-making industry at such a young age is what helped develop Jason Reitman into the director he is today. Even though Jason’s films aren’t nearly as sophomoric as many of his father’s, they still have a sharp edge of comedy that he uses to examine many controversial topics. In fact, Jason’s ability to create meaningful comedies earned him a few Oscar nominations, an accomplishment his father never managed with the screwball comedies he created in the 1980’s. This week’s two films highlight some of Jason Reitman’s best works.

Up in the AirUp in the Air
Year: 2009
Rating: R
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

Jason Reitman’s films have earned critical acclaim for their portrayal of the human condition. From teenage pregnancy to getting fired, these life-changing moments can also be filled with comedic irony. Certain themes, like family and relationships, have been a common occurrence in Reitman’s films, including Young Adult (2011), Men, Women & Children (2014), and Tully (2018). Perhaps the most relatable moments in life are what propelled his films like Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) into critical success. Both earned nominations for Best Picture, as well as Best Director nods for Reitman. What sets these films apart from his other works is his ability to convey the decisions we make in our lives, as well as the ones made for us by entities outside of our control. In the end, films like Juno and Up in the Air focus on the most fundamental element of humanity: relationships.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has no home. He’s not homeless, but rather a businessman who travels and enjoys the experience so much that he doesn’t have a permanent address. As a minimalist, he gives motivational speeches about “What’s in Your Backpack?” to highlight how a life free of connections is liberating. Of course, the irony is that his job is to help companies fire their employees. He needs to travel to each of these businesses in person, as the termination process is something that he feels needs to be done in person. When Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) introduces a video teleconference option, Ryan’s jet-set lifestyle might be in jeopardy. After attending his younger sister’s wedding and realizing that some amount of stability is beneficial, Ryan begins to rethink his philosophy of life.

Thank You for SmokingThank You for Smoking
Year: 2005
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Ivan Reitman directed many films with ridiculous premises, like Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Junior(1994), which is probably why Jason Reitman’s first feature-length film, Thank You for Smoking (2005), carries some of this ridiculousness over into the next generation. However, Thank You for Smoking relies on taking a controversial idea to its extreme and logical conclusion instead of merely asking the question of “what if?” no matter how crazy that question may be. This is perhaps the greatest difference between Jason Reitman’s films and the films of his father: Jason’s films feel like they could actually happen. Since Thank You for Smoking was still early in Reitman’s directing career, there is a political focus that can be implied from his father’s films (like Stripes (1981) and Dave (1993)).

We all know smoking kills, but that still doesn’t stop lobbyists like Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) from using his spin tactics to show that there is no link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer. Granted, the study that shows this lack of correlation was funded by the tobacco lobby. Since anti-tobacco sentiments are growing, Nick travels to Los Angeles to convince movie producers to add cigarette product placements in their films. Ironically enough, even the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) is dying of cancer and is against the advertising of cigarettes. With legislation to put a skull and crossbones on packages of cigarettes, Nick hits the talk-show circuit to preach consumer choice to the nation. He still holds these beliefs, even after an attempt on his life using nicotine patches to give him nicotine poisoning. Now that he can’t ever smoke again, he finds this is the right time to start his own firm.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 relatable Jason Reitman movies

Bacon #: 2 (Dave / Frank Langella -> Frost/Nixon / Kevin Bacon)

#374. Fired!

It has been said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” For the rest of us who do have to work, our job can be a means to an end or it can be the uneven side of a work/life balance. Many people define themselves by their jobs, using their profession as an opportunity to subtly hint at their income. Even though most people need jobs, there are many reasons these people might be fired from said jobs. From incompetence to downsizing, an individual’s livelihood usually hinges on whether or not they have a job. Being fired from a job isn’t the end of the world, it’s merely a forced transition. These transitions can either be positive or negative, based mostly on how much the person liked their job. This week’s two films highlight the impacts of being fired from a job.

                                                       The Secret Life of Walter MittyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Year: 2013
Rating: PG
Length: 114 minutes / 1.90 hours

The continual improvement of technology is both a blessing and a curse. While these new technologies often make our lives easier through automation, this simplification can take away jobs from hard-working individuals. Furthermore, as the world increases its reliance on the digital realm, many tactile products must make the transition from analog to digital to remain relevant. In the age where all information is easily accessible on a computer, the need for newspapers, magazines, and hardcover books is reduced in kind. Some people will still hold on to these relics due to nostalgia or other sentimentality, but when the producers of such physical media find themselves in need of an upgrade, there are inevitably jobs that will be lost in the transition. The march of progress can certainly leave people behind in its dust.

Life magazine has recognized its need to transition into the digital world. As a result, the final printed issue needs an exceptional picture to represent the end of an era. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is in charge of the photographs for the magazine and has just received a roll of pictures from famed photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Sean indicates that negative #25 should be used for the cover, but the image is missing from the roll. While layoffs are happening all around him, Walter travels the world to find the elusive photojournalist so the final issue can get its cover image. The transition team in charge of layoffs continues to lose its patience as Walter tries to track down the picture. Eventually, Walter is fired just after finding the photo. Along the way, he has realized his life needs to be more than just a job.

Up in the AirUp in the Air
Year: 2009
Rating: R
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

Perhaps the most difficult part of a manager’s job is firing their employees. This can occasionally be made easier by the employee’s incompetence, but so many managers abhor conflict that employees can get away with incompetence and still keep their job (like in Office Space (1999)). However, when a company is struggling to survive, and layoffs need to happen, it is up to the manager to fire their employees. This can be much more difficult to handle for both parties, considering how many workers are still good at their jobs, despite the changes happening in the company. While some documentary films like Fired!(2007) discuss what it feels like to be fired from the employee’s side of the interaction, Up in the Air (2009) takes the opposite side of this equation and shows what it’s like to be the one facilitating the firing.

It’s never easy to fire someone, which is why many companies hire Human Resources consultants to do the dirty work for them. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is one of the best consultants, traveling across the country to help these companies fire their employees. His experience in the business has allowed him to recognize that people need a human element to the firing process. When a new video teleconferencing system is introduced by up-and-coming Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), Ryan feels obligated to show how the removal of the human element makes things worse. Natalie also learns this the hard way when her boyfriend dumps her via a text message. Of course, the real irony is when Ryan realizes he has not made any deeper human connections due to his job requiring him to travel extensively. Does he leave his career to put down roots?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 jobless gems

Snack Break: Congratulations

There are some years where the Best Picture Oscar is clearly a cut above the rest. Sure, lots of the nominees (albeit fewer than in previous years) were pretty good movies, but none were nearly as great as Green Book.

Green Book

Of this year’s nominees, I still need to see Roma and Vice, and I will get to them eventually. There were also other films that I was not aware of that have now piqued my interest as well. But, in the end, I think Green Book is a timeless story that speaks loudly about the journey of life and getting to know others who might be different from us.

If you want to see what I thought about the other nominees this year (that I did see), you can check out the links below:

#373. Life

We all have one life to live. What we do with that life is mostly up to us. Sure, circumstances may limit our opportunities, but how often do we celebrate those who broke through those limitations and lived a full life because of their perseverance? Even in the realm of cinema, most characters only have one life. Unless the plot is more like a video game, or there’s a “reset button” motif, most films will have a certain amount of impact when a character dies. It has been suggested that people should live for their eulogy, and not their resume. Audiences are inspired by those individuals who lived a full life, especially when compared to those who do nothing more than pass through this existence with no impact to those around them. How then, should we define our lives? This week’s two films examine the lives of two different individuals.

Life of BrianLife of Brian
Year: 1979
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours

Regardless of your opinion about Jesus Christ and whether or not he died for our sins, most people agree that his life was the most influential existence on the planet. After all, our whole calendar system is pinned to the year of his birth, even if it’s not referred to as anno Domini (AD) any longer. Many films have been created about Christ’s life, some even touting it as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Consequently, there are also many parodies of this Biblical story. Some might consider these films sacrilege, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Others, like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) take a more comedic approach in their parody. After all, it’s easy to make jokes when a person’s life is so well known that audiences will understand the references, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Born in a humble stable in Bethlehem, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) lived a life adjacent to Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley). While Jesus would go on to speak about love and forgiveness, Brian focuses his life on getting the Romans out of Judea. In order to impress a girl, he joins the People’s Front of Judea but ends up arguing with the members more than accomplishing the group’s ultimate goal. When the Romans finally pay attention, Brian has to blend into the crowd and does so by mimicking some of what he has heard from Jesus. Suddenly, a devout following springs up and finds everything Brian does as divine, even if most events are pure happenstance. Unfortunately, because his disciples won’t leave him alone, he sneaks away and is captured. Despite being crucified, Brian is reminded to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

The Secret Life of Walter MittyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Year: 2013
Rating: PG
Length: 114 minutes / 1.90 hours

One of the strongest forces on the planet is inertia. In terms of physics, Newton’s first law of motion states that an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity until it is acted upon by an outside force. This can apply to our lives as well. How often do we find ourselves in the same rut, day after day and year after year, with no ability to break out of our routine? If we let life slip by in repetition, how much of our experiences will be relegated to the mundane? When it comes right down to it, inertia is comfort. If we never break out of our comfort zones, we’ll never learn what life has to offer. Sure, we may be tied down to a job or to a family, but if we can break away every now and then, maybe we can experience life in its fullest capacity. After all, “to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) spends an unreasonable amount of time in his head, daydreaming about a life much more exciting than his own. In his visions, he is confident and action-oriented enough to woo his office crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Both Walter and Cheryl work at Life magazine as it undergoes a transition into the digital age. Walter is in charge of the photographic negatives for the magazine but is unable to find the desired negative for the final cover. This picture was taken by elusive photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), so Walter sets out to use the remaining negatives as clues to find the cover photo. Along the way, he bravely takes on whatever life throws at him, no longer living his adventures via daydream. After locating Sean, he learns where the negative is, only to realize he accidentally threw it away. Returning home, Walter has a new perspective on life as the negative is found and the cover is printed.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 lived lives

#372. Few actors, many roles

For the most part, each individual who acts in a movie only has one character to play. In order to get the amount of emotional depth of a single character, these actors will often devote themselves to this singular role. But what about those actors who portray more than one character? Furthermore, what if the whole cast needs to take on multiple roles? There could be many reasons to go this way, including funding limitations, comedic purposes, or thematic motifs. Whatever the reason, when a few actors take on multiple roles in a movie, it can either be a distraction or a fun treasure hunt as the viewer tries to identify all the roles these actors filled. This is even more pronounced when famous and well-known actors are taking on these multiple roles. This week’s two films highlight some examples of a few actors taking on many roles.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

When it comes to a specific character who is seen during different parts of their life, the standard way to show this growth is via different actors playing the same character. This has been done in many movies, including the 2016 Best Picture, Moonlight. Sometimes, a single actor may play the same character throughout the lifecycle, like Brad Pitt did in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). However, when it comes to portraying the same character archetype over centuries of time, the same actor can be employed to show the link between the timelines. During the silent era, Buster Keaton did this in Three Ages (1923), mostly because he was the star of the film. In a more modern context, Cloud Atlas (2012) chooses to use the same set of all-star actors in multiple roles throughout multiple timelines as an artistic technique to show the interconnectedness of the characters.

While most of the members of the ensemble cast of Cloud Atlas only have one segment where they’re the lead character, but appear in most segments. The timeline starts with Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an abolitionist from 1849 who wrote a journal during his near-death experience. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) read this journal while composing “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” for the elderly Vyvan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) found this piece of music in a record store in 1973 before surviving an assassination attempt due to the exposé she was writing. Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) would eventually read the novelization of these events in 2012, which would inspire him to write his own story. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) would be inspired by the movie version of this book in 2144, starting a revolution in the process. Finally, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a post-apocalyptic 2321 created by the revolution.

Life of BrianLife of Brian
Year: 1979
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours

Years after I saw Dr. Strangelove (1964), I came to the realization that three different characters in the film were portrayed by Peter Sellers. The acting was so superb, I hadn’t even noticed they were all the same actor. In general, comedies are more likely to use a small group of actors in multiple roles, especially if they’re known for short comedy sketches on television. Sure, you can have a small set of actors portray multiple characters through their voices, like in The Simpsons Movie (2007), but when it comes to live-action films, the guys from Monty Python are the de facto comedy group when it comes to multiple roles for individual actors. This is likely due to their success in the realm of sketch comedy. Even though there is a narrative thread that runs through movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), they’re essentially just a series of sketches.

Living life in parallel to that of Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley), Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) was born just one door down from the stable where Jesus was born. Years later, he would attend the Sermon on the Mount and become inspired to join the People’s Front of Judea to stand up against the Romans’ rule. Through his exploits, he tries to blend into a crowd by pretending to be a prophet, repeating some of Jesus’ teachings in his own words. This leads to Brian developing a devout following which eventually take everything he says as a lesson or parable. Even random events are seen as miracles in their eyes. After finally escaping his following, he is captured by Roman guards and brought before Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). Pilate offers to release a prisoner, and Brian’s name is offered, but someone else claiming to be him is released while he is crucified.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 many roles with not as many actors