The Looming Tower Explores the FBI and CIA Before 9/11
Posted on March 8, 2018 at 10:32 pm
Hulu’s new series, “The Looming Tower,” is based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book about the US intelligence agencies in the years before 9/11. His focus is on the rivalry between the heads of the FBI and CIA operations investigating Osama Bin Laden and the rise of Al-Qaeda and how their unwillingness to share information made it impossible to prevent the attack. In the series, adapted by “Capote” screenwriter Dan Futterman, Peter Sarsgaard plays CIA Analyst Martin Schmidt, a fictionalized character, and Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s counterterrorism operation, who was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center.
It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.
Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.
The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”
Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.
The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.
All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.
As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.
Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.
Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?
Our Souls at Night was the last novel written by best-selling author Kent Haruf, published after his death, and it has an elegiac quality. The film, the fourth pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and the first in 38 years, has a rare quality in film, quiet grace. Movies love to tell us the story of young love, impetuous, volatile, and thrilling. But there is something even more moving about last love, the love that happens when you are old enough to understand how precious it is and old enough to know how foolish it would be to waste any more time.
Addie (Fonda) and Louis (Redford) are longtime neighbors. They know each other a little in the way people in small communities do. He was her daughter’s teacher. Both widowed, they have been living alone. And then, one night, she knocks on his door to ask him a question: would he like to come over to her house and sleep with her? Not sex, she assures him quickly. It’s just lonely in bed, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.
He asks for time to think about it, and then says yes, coming over to her house with his pajamas in a paper bag and going to the back door to keep the neighbors from gossiping. They get to know one another, in simple, spare, but profoundly honest conversations about their most painful experiences, told without rancor and told with a simple generosity of spirit.
When Addie’s young grandson comes for an unexpected visit, she and Louis become even closer as they give the boy a chance to open up. They have an idyllic moment, almost as though it is a second chance for them to correct the mistakes they made in their first families, and learning more about each other through him. Then other ties and complications return.
It is a joy to see these two marvelous actors with their chemistry undimmed, performers with a deep understanding of craft and a deep trust in each other, take on these roles. Like the characters they are playing, they are beyond pretense, with the sureness of experience and the joy of cherishing each moment that only comes with age.
Parents should know that the film has references to sad and difficult family situations including the death of a child. Characters drink and one drinks too much. There are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation and characters use some mild language.
Family discussion: Why does Addie pick Louis? Why does Louis say yes?
If you like this, try: “On Golden Pond” and “Barefoot in the Park”
Notes from the Upside Down: Guy Adams on Stranger Things
Posted on August 28, 2017 at 2:00 pm
Author Guy Adams answered my questions about his new book, Notes from the Upside Down: An Unofficial Guide to Stranger Things available August 29, 2017. One reason for the popularity of the instant classic Netflix series is that it invites viewers to explore it on many levels. In the book, Adams talks the reflections and variations throughout “Stranger Things” of the influences that inspired the writer/directors, Matt and Ross Duffer, when they were growing up in the 1980’s. Adams also provides extensive background details on the music, the actors, and the ways that the show reflects and transcends genre. It is the perfect companion to rewatch the first season before season two premieres on Netflix October 27.
How long did it take you to watch “Stranger Things?” (I admit, though I very seldom binge-watch, I saw it all in less than 24 hours.)
I didn’t binge actually. I am the sort of writer who is constantly being beaten to a weeping pulp by one deadline or another — a fortunate problem to have I’ll admit, though the cats once staged an intervention when they caught me eating from their biscuit bowl as I didn’t have time to stop and cook.
My partner and I usually have a TV show on the go that we watch together for an hour of Not Work a few evenings a week, so it actually took me a couple of months or so. Naturally, when working on the book I did binge, cramming the lot in over a few days while making notes.
Can you give examples of influences/call-outs to Stephen King, John Carpenter, and “Poltergeist?”
Oh Lord… that’s a terribly big question. When talking about influence we’re really discussing the flavor of the show. You take a forkful, chew and say… “Is it just me or did you sprinkle some Firestarter in here, just to give it spice?” Aside from obvious nods — which are simply passing moments, in-jokes almost — it’s really a case of raiding your mental food cupboard and pulling out all your favorite foods and combining them. A big part of the book is discussing the resultant stew of all of that. Something that is a meal in and of itself but which retains the taste of the individual ingredients.
What is it with the food metaphors? Maybe I need lunch.
*Heads for the cats’ biscuit bowl*
I’ll throw a call-out to each your way just so I’m not dodging the question entirely.
In the fourth episode we see a state trooper reading Cujo; in the seventh episode science teacher Mr. Clarke subjects his date to Carpenter’s The Thing; In the first episode Will’s mum tells him she’ll take him to see Poltergeist.
Why did the Duffer brothers want the kids to face a science-based threat, rather than pure fantasy?
Their initial ideas for the show grew from fascination with secret government projects such as MKUltra and The Montauk Project (one of which is substantially more fictional than the other…. probably). So they were always coming at the story from the perspective of weird science rather than the supernatural. It’s always a great storytelling trick for horror and fantasy, of course, start from a perspective of science — from what may be real — and then let rip. Monsters can be more terrifying if you sell them in terms of a lab rather than a gothic crypt.
Of course the fact that that’s the case shows the fascinating way audience psychology has changed over the years. When you go back to the dawn of horror fiction, when readers were far more religious and spiritually inclined, terror was always to be found beyond the grave. Then, as the years — and technology — progressed we found more things in the real world to frighten us. The devil started playing with test tubes, atomic bombs, DNA… Where are the boogeymen of tomorrow I wonder? When will we start seeing terrorism couched in terms of horror fiction? Fundamentalist zombies, fighting against the moral crimes of the living…
What is it about Barb? Why did she become such a fan favorite?
She’s a perfect point of audience empathy I think. The girl who never quite did. She has one close friend, doesn’t quite belong, gets dragged into another dimension by a mucous-drenched, egg-laying kill machine… I mean, we can all relate.
Horror and fantasy have always played well to the outsider. Especially young outsiders. How many of these stories portray The Unpopular Kids at school, learning to battle their demons and winning? Proving themselves to their parents, their bullies, the beautiful people they really want to sleep with but can’t because ‘they’re out of their league’? It’s all wish-fulfilment, really.
I was an overweight, spectacle-wearing kid. First I wanted to be Peter Parker, then I wanted to be Carrie.
Now I want to be Paul Sheldon, having a nice relaxing lie down while someone waits on me hand and foot. Especially foot.
Do you have a favorite song on the soundtrack that is especially fitting for its scene?
I love New Order’s Elegia playing during Will’s funeral, a wonderfully haunting bit of electronic misery.
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s soundtrack is a real joy throughout though. I never met a synthesizer I didn’t love. To the considerable misery of readers, I prove as much by offering a playlist of electronic-based movie soundtracks they may wish to subject themselves to.
Over the last eleven years or so of being a writer I’ve all but given up on songs, my iTunes is loaded with soundtracks. This upsets my partner no end. She can often be found staring at me from the door of the office, shaking her head sadly, ‘This… I don’t know what this is… but you can’t call it music.” I was listening to Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack to All the Colors of the Dark yesterday, I think she came very close to leaving me.
The series’ biggest surprise is the way it blends genres, with elements of science fiction, horror, and both tween and teen coming-of-age. How do the Duffer brothers as filmmakers make that so seamless without jarring shifts in tone?
I’d argue that this kind of fiction always blurs those boundaries, though. You can find horror in its purest form in cinema, certainly, a solid eighty or ninety minutes designed to do nothing but scare. Generally though, horror is the theme you attach other narratives to. It’s a way of talking about other stuff. Family, relationships, love, faith, how difficult it is to be gay when you dream of a man with blades for fingers (admittedly that last one is quite specific but Nightmare on Elm Street Part II went there for us).
Perhaps I’m biased but I’ve always loved fiction that gleefully switches tone. Life is never a single genre. In any given day I try and hit all the major algorithms on your Netflix system: comedy, horror, fantasy, thriller, romance, nunsploitation… I don’t always manage of course, but one has to have a goal in life.
If you could have one item from the “Stranger Things” wardrobe closet for your personal collection, what would you pick? What items are especially evocative of the 80’s?
Well, I already have Dustin’s hair (I simply beat it into submission with scissors) but I can’t say I hanker after many of the clothes, I owned too many of them the first time round. What possesses someone to think ‘fluorescent’ and ‘clothing’ should ever go together? If you’re not trying to avoid being hit by a car at night there’s really no excuse for it.
Steve Harrington is certainly the character that pulls the look off best, in that hateful way horrendously attractive people can.
I especially appreciated your focus on some of the actors in the movie’s smaller roles. When we re-watch to prepare for the second season, who should we pay special attention to? Who do you hope will be back?
“There’s no such thing as small parts,” someone once said. Probably some poor actor holding a spear in a lousy production of Julius Caesar.
I was determined to shine the spotlight on as many people as possible, though. It’s easy to get distracted by the star performances but it would have been an empty and pointless set without everyone else.
As readers will know, I’m vaguely obsessed with Cara Buono as Karen Wheeler. There’s a whole different story happening there and we only get hints of it. I’m convinced she’s the town’s most thrilling person trapped in its dullest marriage. Surviving off chardonnay and occasionally picking locks to her children’s rooms. I have no doubt she’ll be back but I’d be most interested in her starring in a spinoff, a horror-tinged reboot of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. She could battle demons while her husband sits in his La-Z-Boy and dreams of chicken dinners.
Two Off-Beat Streaming Picks: The Incredible Jessica James and Opening Night
Posted on July 31, 2017 at 9:37 pm
Not in the mood for superheroes? Two indie picks worth watching premiere this week on streaming services.
“The Incredible Jessica James” (Netflix) is a star-making vehicle for Jessica Williams, “The Daily Show’s” youngest correspondent. She had a small role in the previous film from writer/director Jim Strouse, and he wrote this film for her. As it opens, she does a fierce, funny, and free dance through her apartment and onto the roof and by the time the credits are over, we are completely captivated. The story is nothing new. She’s an aspiring playwright trying to find her way in New York City, with a wall covered in rejection letters and a heart recently broken in a breakup with a guy (Lakeith Stanfield) who is very appealing, so we feel for her. She attends her younger sister’s baby shower. She tries to help a young girl in the drama class she teaches. She goes on a blind date. She has a quirky/quippy best friend (Noel Wells). It’s a pretty standard romantic comedy. But Williams has a nice chemistry with Chris Dowd as her possible new love, there are some funny lines, and she is utterly irresistible. See it. You’ll have fun and you’ll always be able to say that right from the beginning you knew she’d be a star.
“Opening Night” (Amazon) is a backstage story about a dumb jukebox musical and all of the drama and chaos that goes into giving the audience a great show. It’s wildly uneven, as though it was put together by an improv group or maybe its large cast each wrote a premise on a slip of paper and then everyone picked one out of a hat. Topher Grace is appealing, as always, if slumming a bit as the one-time performer turned stage manager, dealing with various crises of love, fear, and various substances. A plotline about male and female dancers competing to seduce the new guy goes on way too long and way too far as does another about the cynical star’s accidental ingestion of drugs. It’s the kind of raunchy that indicates a failure of imagination. What makes it fun is the cast of real theatrical performers who show us that the show really must go on. It kind of makes me wish we were sitting out front to see them do the whole show.