Monday, January 31, 2011

Sundance 2011: Day 4

1/29/2011 - Saturday was my last day in Park City, and I made the most of it. It was the best of my four days spent at Sundance. All three of the movies I saw were amazing. At each of them I met one fascinating moviegoer after another. What's more, the day was spent finally getting meet a number of filmmakers and film critics, not to mention getting my picture taken with a few of them. All pictures will be uploaded in a later blog post, once I get them uploaded on my computer.

The day began in the afternoon with a Film School Roundtable at the Sundance House, which I had been invited to because I was carrying my Film School pass. At the Roundtable, various directors of films at the festival sat onstage and told us stories about how they got their movies made. Once it was time for a Q & A, I asked them that dreaded question: what kind of day jobs did you all have to take in order to raise the money to get your movies made?

"I was a stripper," deadpanned Kinyarwanda director Alrick Brown.

I took extensive notes because I knew their advice would probably come in handy. Some of them told me that had taken jobs as preschool teachers or tech company operators, some told me they had taken jobs in the industry. Many of them told me that they didn't have cars and that they had had to live with their parents for a number of years--a concept I found absolutely terrifying!

Then some of the directors came over to our tables and had inside conversations with us. I got to meet Todd Rohal, the director of The Catechism Cataclysm, which I hadn't gotten the chance to see--but his stories about it make me definitely want to check it out. I also got to meet Thomas De Napoli, who is a music video director, as well as Orlando von Einsiedel, a filmmaker from the UK who had entered a short film into the festival.

"What was it about?" I asked von Einsiedel.

"It was about skateboarding kids in Afghanistan," he replied.

My jaw dropped. "Hey, I saw that one!" I exclaimed. "It premiered before The Green Wave, didn't it?"

He laughed, and nodded. I told him my favorite part of his film (which was entitled Skateistan: To Live And Skate Kabul) involved interviews with a young Afghan girl who freely expresses her love of skateboarding despite the male disdain in her community. I then asked him whether he had actually traveled to Afghanistan to do all the interviews, since not every documentary filmmaker actually conducts their own interviews; think Scorsese with No Direction Home: Boby Dylan. But von Einsiedel confirmed that he conducted all of the interviews himself. When I told him that I was from St. Louis, he asked where that was. I told him it was a big city in-between Missouri and Illinois; I had a heck of a time raising my arms in the air in an attempt to form a shape of the Gateway Arch. Then again, I'm not sure the Arch is recognized all around the world.

That evening, I saw the wonderful romantic drama Jess + Moss, which I had had to Wait List for--but man, was it worth it. The film is not your average romantic drama, as it involves the strained rleationship between a 12-year old boy and an 18-year old girl who spend their days frolicking in the Kentucky fields and backwoods, creating their own dreamworld that is isolated entirely from the society outside.

Because Jess + Moss has all the aura of a Robert Mulligan coming-of-age drama, I asked the film's director, Clay Jeter, whether Mulligan had been an influence. Jeter was amused with my insights but replied that he was more influenced by the likes of Terrence Malick and David Lynch and added that, storywise, he had been influenced heavily by Carson McCullers' novel of The Member of the Wedding. After the Q & A, I got my picture taken with Jeter and his girlfriend, Sarah Hagan--who plays Jess in the film.

Up on Main Street I was able to buy tickets from a guy selling tickets for the movie that was going to win the U.S. Documentary award. "Which movie is it going to be?" I asked him. He said we wouldn't know until shortly before the screening. Heading over to the Library Centre to stand in the insanely long lines (that Library Centre is HUGE), we eventually all found out that the movie would be How to Die in Oregon. Once we were all seated, director Peter D. Richardson came out, and the audience broke into applause in congratulating him for winning the award.

I felt myself welling up with tears throughout How to Die in Oregon. It's a touching, eye-opening account of the physician-assisted suicide system that is legal in Oregon and has recently been legalized in Washington and Montana. The movie's narrative is centered around a woman in her 50's by the name of Cody Curtis, who has been diagnosed with a terminal liver cancer and spends the next six months pondering over whether she should appoint the Death With Dignity program to end her life early and spare her family any more needless pain.

Watching the movie, I keep wondering what I should ask Richardson during the Q & A afterwards. So moved was I by the film that I wanted to stand up and declare my hope that the Death With Dignity program be legalized in my home state of Missouri and others like it--but I feared this would be too political a comment. Finally, after the film was over and Richardson called upon me, I mustered up the courage and asked him what was probably the most difficult question anybody could ask a filmmaker who would take the enormous responsibility of directing such a risky film.

"I just want to start by saying that what I love most about this movie," I started, "is that it honors these people. It doesn't portray them as cowards. It portrays them as brave people who have fought as hard as they can against their diseases, and it honors their right to choose."

An audience member behind me mmhmed in agreement.

Then I proceeded to ask Richardson the harder part of the question: "But, if you don't mind, I'm going to play Devil's Advocate for a minute--because it occured to me, while watching, that this film is probably going to be attacked by politically-oriented critics, from either side of the spectrum, who might charge that this movie exploits these people, or that it takes advantage of the decision they are in. If people start saying things like this, how would you respond?"

Richardson replied with a very thoughtful answer. He told me that he was aware going in to make the movie that he knew the movie might open wounds. The basic point he addressed, however, is that he hopes that Cody's story, as told in the film, will offer a feeling of comfort for any Americans watching the film who are experiencing her same situation. "I hope that answers your question," he added sincerely.

It most certainly did.

The night ended with a midnight screening of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, an Oregon Trail thriller starring Michelle Williams. None of us in the audience were prepared for the kind of film it would actually turn out to be: an extremely slow-moving study of what it means to be lost in the wilderness, with minimal character development in favor of a strong emphasis on abandonment by civilization and God.

Kelly Reichardt could not be at the screening, which disappointed me a great deal: there were so many questions I would have liked to ask her about the film. At the same time, Reichardt might have done herself a favor by not attending; some of the audience members were so bored with Meek's Cutoff that they walked out halfway through the picture. So uncertain is the movie that [spoilers] it even ends on a note of sheer uncertainty, with the characters still lost in the wilderness--their situation still unresolved.

I turned to a new friend of mine, Andreas Wappel of Austria, and told him that I thought the ending could have been better.

"What ending?" he responded.

This is the feeling that most of the audience members had. A few people told us that they felt like their $15 had been wasted. Many were dumbfounded when I attempted to try to make a case for the film. While I didn't think Meek's Cutoff was perfect--I wanted to know a little more about the characters, and wasn't sure about how successful the ending was--I talked about how much I admired the way the movie emphasizes that feeling of being so utterly lost. I couldn't think of another film where I had felt that. I even told Andreas that it was like the "Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001 stretched out for 2 hours.

So, on Sunday morning, I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle and flew back to St. Louis. Before departure, I happened to run into Orlando von Einsiedel in the security lines, which was a most pleasant surprise. He was flying back to the UK. I recalled my hilarious conversation with him about where St. Louis was. Then, I was back in St. Louis--with my memorabilia and my memories.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sundance 2011 (Days 2 & 3)

1/27/2011 and 1/28/2011 - Thursday began with an afternoon screening at the Library Centre of Susanne Bier's masterful In A Better World, which previously won an award for Best Foreign Language Film at this month's Golden Globes and has recently gotten an Academy Award nomination for the same category. Because it's an absorbing cinematic experience on the same level on The Lives of Others, I'd prefer not to give away any plot details, but I will mention some of the more amusing things that happened at the screening. During the Q & A after the show, an audience member asked Bier about why the movie's title is pronounced in Swedish as Haevnen. "Does it literally mean 'Heaven'?" the audience member asked.

"No, no... 'Haevnen' doesn't mean 'Heaven'," Bier replied. "It means revenge."

The audience burst out laughing.

Bier then explained, "The reason we didn't call this movie Revenge in English is because the term "revenge" has a different meaning for Americans--it wouldn't attract the same audience we're hoping for."

And she's right. In A Better World is not a movie that celebrates revenge but is, instead, about how revenge cripples good people. Some are going to find it sanctimonious, but I would beg to differ. Note to the Academy: the Oscar for Best Foreign Film belongs right here.

Surprisingly, I was able to buy one of the last two tickets for The Green Wave later that evening. The film is a fascinating documentary about the outrageous events surrounding the Iranian election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad and his totalitarian cronies fixed the elections, put his democractic opponent Musavi under house arrest, and subjected thousands of protesting voters to horrible raping and torturing during the months that followed. The movie is less successful during the animated sequences that cover certain events that were never captured on camera--while the animation itself has an intriguing comic-book vibrance, it feels like something out of a different movie. During the Q & A, director Ali Samadi Ahadi
gave an impassioned speech about his strong detestment for Ahmadinejad's rule, as well as his hope that someday there will be widespread democracy in the Middle East. He also elaborated on the sacrifices that came with making the film, and how he knew that he would never be able to return to his family in Iran once the film was finished. After the arrests of filmmakers Maziar Bahari and Jafar Panahi, how could he?

The midnight showing of the documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel was a lot of fun. Director Alex Stapleton has made the film look like a gritty Roger Corman film in itself, and certainly has made it just as entertaining. The film includes splendid interviews with Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdonavich, as well as interviews with other Corman protogees who passed away in the previous year (George Hickenlooper, Irvin Kershner, David Carradine) and of course, interviews with Corman himself and how he longed to be taken seriously as a filmmaking artist. During the Q & A afterwards, Stapleton had trouble adjusting her blouse in order to hide the other half of her visible black bra (an observation that this red-blooded American male is not particularly proud of noticing), but otherwise, Stapleton's enthusiasm for her subject and her accomplishment shone through.

One of the Corman interviews she includes in the film involves Corman's disgust for the blockbuster boom that took off after Jaws and Star Wars, and how he believed at the time that it was absurd to make movies on $35 million budgets ("why not use that money to build a city?"). Somewhat unsettled by this quote of Corman's, and finding it to be rather anti-artistic, I asked Stapleton during the Q & A about whether she agreed with Corman or not. She told me that she agrees with Corman to the extent that big budgets are often wasted on bad films, and pointed out that several of Corman's protogees (including James Cameron) have gone on to make movies with big budgets anyway, somewhat differing significantly with Corman's own worldview of cinema budgets in general.

Friday morning began with a screening of Miranda July's The Future at the Eccles, and it was a screening I will never forget. When I rented her 2005 debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know a couple years ago, I knew that July was an interesting filmmaker who would be going places. Now that I have seen The Future, I realize that she is something more: one of the wisest filmmaking voices of our generation.

Though it has dozens of side-splitting moments that had the audience laughing for minutes, The Future is not a full-blown quirky comedy like Me and You and Everyone We Know; and, as a result, I actually think it's a much better film. Miranda July has confirmed her incomparability as a poet of desperation--her films are about aging, wandering souls whose only longing is for love and security. In The Future, she and Hamish Linklater play Sophie and Jason, a couple that decides to adopt a stray cat from the pound and, then, make the most of their lives in the next 30 days waiting before they're allowed to take the cat home.

But that doesn't even begin the incredible scope of July's 91-minute film, which eventually becomes the most surreal and intoxicating independent movie of its kind since Charlie Kaufmann's Synecdoche, New York. As pleasant of a film as Me and You and Everyone We Know was, it followed a typical linear narrative that all first-time independent filmmakers generally adopt for their debut projects. Five years later, July is a much more experienced filmmaker and has chosen this time to play around with narrative structure and, what's more, blend the line between reality and imagination. This seemingly small movie packs a wallop: a talking moon, a litle girl buried in dirt from the neck down, a yellow shirt that literally crawls a across neighborhood street, and characters who have the ability to freeze time.

All of this anchored by a most ingenious plot device: a track of narration by the lonely stray cat, named "Paw Paw", that waits patiently in its cage for the day when Sophie and Jason will finally come to bring it home. We never get to see what Paw Paw actually looks like; we only see her giant paws, which gesture like regular human hands (one of the film's funnier moments). And her voice (by July herself) sounds like the dialect of Norman Bates' crotchety old mother: it's creepy, it's hilarious, and it's even sad. I will not spoil the events that ultimately unfold from Sophie and Jason's anxious wait to adopt Paw Paw, but I can't rave enough about how much of a must-see experience The Future is. When it opens worldwide later in the year, I hope to see it again, maybe even to review it. I have a very good feeling it's the kind of film that improves with repeated viewings. It's also the most haunting film I've seen at the festival--and I say that as someone who has also seen Vampire.

The day ended early after I chatted with some of my fellow Film School Pass cardholders during a brunch at the Sundance House and, later, joined them in the Miner's Tour afterwards, which, with its fascinating pieces of digital art (including a piece by James Franco that puts a sexually-charged twist on the first season of Three's Company), is highly recommended. I had wanted to Wait List to buy a ticket for Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter at the Redstone later in the evening, but the movie was unfortunately so crowded that only about 12 Wait Listers (out of 70) were able to get tickets (my uncle and I were numbers #45 and #46). To add insult to injury, this was my last chance to see the film at Sundance. But I'm looking forward to its wide release.

Only one disappointment about the screening this morning of The Future: Miranda July was not there. The excuse was that she's "needed all around the world." It's a shame, too, because I wanted desperately to have a picture taken with her. And then to give her a great big hug.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sundance 2011 (Day 1)

01/26/2010 - Try spending 15 hours of your day all around Park City and up and down main street--from the Eccles to the Egyptian Theater--and then you'll get an idea of how I'm feeling. Exhilerated, ecstatic, and... exhausted. Four films/events in one day. I might have seen even more had I not done so much walking, but it did me good. I'm familiar enough with the layout of Park City to be able to navigate it freely for the next three days.

Margin Call, the debut film by filmmaker J.C. Chandor, was the first film I saw this morning (and my first film at the festival). It's already catching a lot of fuss as one of the hottest news films premiering at Sundance. Revolving around a firm that is being forced to cut several of its employees or else it runs the risk of collapsing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as a movie it's somewhere in between Up in the Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. While a superior effort in comparison to the former film, it lacks the character depth of the latter--Chandor becomes so caught up in crafting a "financial thriller" that he keeps the people in the story at a strange emotional distance; and he lacks the snappy dialogue of Glengarry Glen Ross because his language is devoid of life (he's no David Mamet). Some of the actors in the A-list cast perform admirably (Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany), while others don't do nearly as well (Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto). By far the most effective sequence in the film is the introduction of Jeremy Irons as the head executive who can make or break careers at the drop of a hat.

This year's TimesTalks seminar was hosted by Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga, all of whom were interviewed onstage by New York Times columnist Melena Ryzik. It was entertaining to see them up close and in-person, and one enjoyed seeing them make fun of each other--although many of their replies to Ryzik's thoughtful questions came across as impatient and snide. They often complained that they didn't understand the purpose of her questions (Liotta and Kinnear were particularly hard-pressed in responding to a question by Ryzik as to how seriously they take the concept of promoting the films they star in--since, unlike Farmiga, neither one has ever directed a film and thus held responsibility over financial costs). When asked about his method of acting, Liotta had a habit of consistently replying, "We're actors! It's fun to pretend!" and seemed unwilling to go further than that. Farmiga reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when an audience member recalled her Up in the Air performance from last year: "Is that a queestion, or a comment?" she replied to the audience member. "Because... well, I agree with you." Kinnear didn't seem to be as hostile, though his constant insistence on turning the harder questions over to Farmiga and Liotta had an air of uncertainty to it. Was he just kidding, or was he honestly uncomfortable with the questions?

If A Tree Falls is my choice for the best documentary being entered in Sundance. This is an absolutely engrossing film about the life and times of Daniel McGovern, an "eco-terrorist" responsible for arson attacks that led to the destruction of dozens of American log factories and artificial tree markets. Though nobody was in fact killed during his attacks, McGovern was eventually tried by the government as a terrorist and sentenced to life in prison. The film also documents McGovern's allies in the far-left "Earth Liberation Front" and reveals how they were able to dodge harsh prison sentences after they had caved in to plea bargaining. We also get to hear the story from the perspectives of the businessmen who lost their companies to McGovern's acts of arson, and the film takes an unbiased view in deciding whether or not McGovern's crimes were acts of terrorism.

What we know for sure, after seeing the film, is that McGovern's crimes are undeniably serious, but so are the ruthless acts of the National Guardsmen who took disgusting measures against the non-violent environmentalists who were protesting alongside McGovern and his accomplices. During the Q & A at the end of the film, I told director Marshall Curry that I found it to be the best documentary of its kind since Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, and then asked him if he'd like to interview McGovern after he gets out of prison. Curry told me he hopes he can conduct such an interview and then include it on a future DVD.

Something tells me that few films at the festival are going to be superior to Vampire, which is already my favorite movie at Sundance by a mile. I'm not familiar with the previous work of director Iwai Shunji, but now I know for sure that he is a filmmaker to look out for. Vampire is a masterful piece of filmmaking from beginning to end: not only did Shunji write and direct the piece, but he also edited it, photographed it and even composed the musical score; as a result, everything about the film is gorgeous. It's a splendidly-acted film, too, with Kevin Zegers' Simon Williams being by far the most likable movie vampire in a long time, in part because he doesn't kill his victims in the old-fashioned way, in part because his intent is not to murder but to put willfully suicidal souls out of their misery. Other impressive cast members include a surprising comeback by Keisha Castle-Hughes (what happened to her after Whale Rider?), as well as another by Trevor Morgan (the bratty kid from Jurassic Park III) as a rapist vampire with homosexual fetishes. The most radiant performance in the film is by Adelaide Clemens as a young, glacial blonde who may very well be the key to rescuing Simon from his dreadful existence.

The movie is extremely gory (I saw a couple of squeamish moviegoers flee the Yarrow auditorium in a panic), but never to an exploitive degree. It's a lovely, poetic film that takes its material very seriously. If there's a flaw, it's that it doesn't quite know when to end: Shunji treats several shots as if they're meant to be the final shot of the film, and a concluding scene with Smallville star Kristen Kreuk feels superfluous. Still, I'm probably just missing something essential about Shubji's approach, and when this movie hits theaters nationwide I'm DEFINITELY seeing it again. You should, too.

Took some pictures today that will be uploaded once the trip is over. Regarding celebrities on the streets, I didn't see any famous actors or actresses walking around (excepting Liotta, Kinnear and Farmiga inside the Egyptian Theatre), although I did spot a famous film critic: when I was walking towards the Library Centre in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get in line for the new Elmo documentary, Elvis Mitchell came out of nowhere crossing the street. I literally froze in my tracks as the ticket salesmen greeted him with a pleasant, "Hello again, Elvis!"

I think I may have also passed Kenneth Turan on the sidewalk up on Main Street, but I can't be too sure.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Leaving for Sundance on Tuesday

And so I prepare for my journey to Utah on Tuesday night. This is going to be the first time I've ever attended a major American film festival (discounting my single-day attendance of the St. Louis International Film Festival back in November), and I'm as nervous as ever--not so much over the movies I'm thinking about seeing once I get there so much as I am over... the airport security.

You're not going to believe this, but as a moviegoer burdened with 20/30 vision, I keep asking myself this dreaded question: should I bring spare contacts? I have no way of knowing if the security guards are going to take them away from me if I try to bring them onboard the plane.

But this is little cause for alarm, surely.

I'm hoping I'll be able to blog daily about the festival, although given my uncertainty about how much computer access I'll have while I'm there (I'm staying with my aunt and uncle), I don't know how that's going to work. I may end up having to save all my recollections for when I get back... but hopefully not! I definitely plan on taking dozens of pictures for everyone's enjoyment.

Is anybody else going? Maybe we'll see each other!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Zero Hour! (1957)

Hall Bartlett’s Zero Hour! (1957) is remembered today as the movie that inspired Airplane! (1980), but I was more interested in seeing the film because, well, it was directed by Hall Bartlett. I’ve long been a champion of Bartlett, a filmmaker largely forgotten because many of his films were major critical and commercial misfires, often due to his sometimes-poor taste in screenplays. But Zero Hour! is the first important fictional film in Bartlett’s patchy, uneven career, and the filmmaker who later went on to (in my opinion) fashion a masterpiece out of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) could not have done so if he hadn’t made Zero Hour! first. If Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the film that finally allowed Bartlett to lift off and fly, then Zero Hour! is the film from which he first began to grow wings.

The story of Zero Hour! and its production begins with Arthur Hailey, a young English writer who had flown for the RAF during World War II and had written the teleplay for a TV movie, Flight Into Danger, in 1956. Hollywood beckoned, and a year later Hailey was remaking Flight Into Danger into Zero Hour! for the big screen while producer John C. Champion assisted him on the screenplay. Then, when searching for a director, Champion selected Hall Bartlett, who had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary: Feature for Navajo (1952) but was having trouble finding work in his attempts to launch a directing career in Hollywood. After Zero Hour! was released in 1957, Bartlett began getting recognized by the studios, and was able to find work directing more movies in successive genres while Hailey remained situated in the disaster movie genre. Not surprisingly, Hailey went on to write Airport (1970) and its three sequels; he had, essentially, established a successful screenwriting enterprise on remaking the same story five times.

In fact, it was thought for a long time that David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams were spoofing Hailey’s Airport movies when they set out to make Airplane! at the closing of the decade, but no: Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. had seen Zero Hour! on television late one night, loved the unintentional absurdities of the screenplay by Hailey, Champion and Bartlett, and sensed, correctly, that it was ripe for parody at the dawn of the 1980’s. If you watch Zero Hour! and Airplane! back-to-back, you’ll notice that the latter film steals heavily from the dialogue of the former film, from the discussions about the protagonist’s failures to handle “responsibility” to the conversations between the protagonist and his estranged loved one about “watching the sun come up”, and so on. Henceforth, some critics have suggested that Airplane! is more a literal remake of Zero Hour! than a mere parody of it, but this can hardly be the case when one takes into account that Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. didn’t embrace the material in the least—they made fun of it. The box office receipts of Airplane!, of course, rewarded their “fun”.

While Zero Hour! falls short of greatness, I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed almost every minute of it, not just because of my familiarity with Airplane! but also because I appreciated the directions Hall Bartlett took with the story. It’s relieving to see this material being used for the purposes of thrills instead of laughs, and this explains, in part, why I think Zero Hour! is actually a much better film than Airplane!, which is so limited in its ambitions that I have found it exceedingly less and less funny over the years. Not so with Zero Hour!, a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, celebrates the disaster-movie clichés of its narrative and offers sequences of effective, edge-of-your-seat suspense that still hold water with repeated viewings. But what makes Zero Hour! so worthwhile, above all, is the performance by Dana Andrews as a shell-shocked WWII veteran—right up there with Arthur Kennedy’s performance in Bright Victory, and Frank Sinatra’s performance in Some Came Running, as one of the finest portrayals of veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder in the decade immediately following the end of the war.

The Bartlett-Champion Picture begins with a shot of fighter planes taking off over the opening titles. They are units of the 22nd squadron of the Royal Air Force, led across Germany by Canadian squadron leader Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews); a corny narrator (an uncredited William Conrad) informs us that Striker had led a mission on April 10, 1945 to “penetrate enemy fighter cover and hold the formation intact for a vital, incendiary raid on the German supply despots of Vispa.” When Stryker’s force encounters the enemy fighters, Bartlett immerses us entirely in the battle, incorporating John P. Fulton and Norman O’Skeete’s visual effects with Lyle Figland and Charles Grenzbach’s explosive sound effects while John C. Fuller’s sharp editing presents the firefight from different angles—even going so far as to have enemy fighter planes shoot directly at the camera. It’s a glorious battle, but then things go wrong when Stryker leads his team into a thick layer of fog. Cries by his men of “We’re too low, Ted!” go unheard: his planes crash, six of his men die, and Stryker himself is faulted for recklessly pursuing the “vital target” of his mission and allowing his planes to fly so low.

I assume Bartlett cast Dana Andrews in the part of Stryker because of the actor’s familiarity with such roles. In William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Andrews had played a fighter pilot who eventually comes home to a wife who has decided to leave him; he’s desperately looking for a job during the final scenes of that movie, and finds one only at the last minute. Similarily, at the start of Zero Hour!, we learn that Andrews’ Ted Stryker has been through no less than twelve jobs in 10 years; in the present year of 1956, he applies for a position in the Jet Research Winnipeg Division at the Mid-Canadian Aircraft Corporation, but the employer (Roy Gordon) looks at his past record and doubts he’s still capable of holding a job. Stryker tries to win his sympathies by confessing that he and his wife are “right at the breaking point”, insisting that, this time, he won’t let his memories of the war be a distraction and that he’ll make good on his commitment to his work. It seems like he’ll end up getting the job, but when Stryker returns home he finds a note from his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell), stating that she’s boarding a plane to Vancouver and taking their son with her.

“Don’t you feel anything for me anymore?” he asks Ellen when confronting her on the plane. “There’s so many things to make love last,” she replies. “Most of all, it takes respect. I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.” This dialogue was made infamous by Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty in Airplane!, but I like the way it’s delivered by Andrews and Darnell so much more. Yes, the dialogue is soapy, but remember: Arthur Hailey wrote it during the Eisenhower era, when it was actually more acceptable to write American films stressing the strength of the nuclear family and not the other way around. The broken marriage between Ted and Ellen is contrasted with the younger romance between the plane’s stewardess, Janet (Peggy King), and her boyfriend, Tony (Jerry Paris), who is seated next to Stryker. Janet vows to the pilots that someday she’ll take Tony to the alter “if I have to drag him every inch of the way—after all, remember? I’ve been trained for every kind of emergency!” Yet when Stryker approaches Janet while she’s in the middle of an argument with Tony, she immediately starts addressing Tony as “Mr. Decker”; she’s embarrassed to flaunt her relationship with him. Tony has a charm of his own in a sock puppet named “Paddy”, which can go from kid-friendly (when it’s entertaining the Strykers’ young son) to horny (when it’s asking Janet for kisses). As Tony explains of Paddy, “He’s got a one-track mind, just like me.”

Then, disaster strikes. Passengers begin suffering from food poisoning. By an amazing coincidence, there just so happens to be a doctor, Dr. Baird (Geoffrey Toone), onboard, and he deduces that the passengers who ordered grilled halibut for their evening meal are the ones being stricken; Bartlett goes for a hilarious close-up on the horrified face of the pilot, Captain Wilson (former pro-football player Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch), when he overhears the doctor’s diagnosis and shrieks, “Doctor, I just remembered something: I ate fish, too!” Once both of the pilots have passed out, Baird utters the line made notorious by Airplane! (“The life of everybody onboard depends on just one thing: finding someone back there not only who can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner,”), and skillfully diverts a panic by asking individual passengers only for assistance at the radio. Once Ted Stryker is brought back to the cockpit, however, he realizes the truth: both pilots are down!

So okay, the plot of Zero Hour! is ridiculous. It would not be invalid to suggest that by not celebrating the campiness of the material, Bartlett might have deprived it of some of its entertainment value; this criticism would certainly be adopted by Airplane! fans. But once I sensed how fiercely committed Bartlett was in making Zero Hour! into a slam-bang, sweat-inducing thriller, I went ahead and enjoyed the ride. There’s a good level of added suspense when the Strykers’ son falls ill and Ellen finds herself joining her husband in the cockpit, assisting him at the radio. To land the plane together might not only save the lives of their fellow passengers, but of their son as well—it may even save their marriage. When Stryker’s old nemesis, Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden in one of his best roles), is brought to the Vancouver Air Control to guide Stryker down to the airstrip, he makes no secret of his skepticism: “I may be wrong—I hope I am—but my feeling is that when the going gets rough upstairs tonight, Ted Stryker’s gonna fold up.” But once Stryker shoots back that he’s sick of Treleaven ordering him about how to handle the flying gear (which, of course, is “sluggish... like a wet sponge,”), we realize that Stryker, while determined to do things his own way, is not considering quitting. He’ll land the plane whatever the cost, and won’t make the same mistake again.

Here and there, the movie has compromising flaws. The story requires suspension of disbelief, obviously, but I was surprised at how tolerant the passengers on the plane are of the situation at hand. A minor subplot involving Captain Wilson’s wife (Patricia Tiernan) arriving at the air control inquiring about her husband’s condition is boring, and should have been cut out. Aside from those glaring issues, the movie turns out rather decently, and Airplane! devotees will find themselves recognizing many of the lines in Hailey’s script. Take, for example, when the Strykers’ son visits the cockpit and chats with Captain Wilson; the exchange between the captain and the boy about “have you ever been in a cockpit before?”, sans the pedophilia gags, is all here. As is the scene of Janet and Tony slapping a hysterical female passenger silly in order to calm her down. And Treleaven’s muttering that “I picked the wrong week the quit smoking.” And Dr. Baird’s final words to Stryker and his wife: “I just want to tell you both good luck. I’ll keep your son with me.” Not as epic a catchphrase as Leslie Nielsen’s “I just want to tell you both good luck—we’re all counting on you,” but, oh... it’ll do.

The film’s greatest aspect, however, is Dana Andrews’ tortured performance as Ted Stryker, which requires him to walk through the film’s scenes in a state of constant self-loathing, much of which is thoroughly made clear in his anguished facial expressions. Watch the way he reacts with embarrassment when his son, whose name is Joey, tells the pilots in the cockpit about how his father “shot down a lot of planes” during the war. Joey (Raymond Ferrell) idolizes his father and wants to grow up to be a pilot just like him; he asks him why he didn’t fly jets during the war (“There were no jets back then”, his father patiently reminds him). He asks him if he can teach him how to fly someday. “I just don’t seem to have the time anymore, Joey,” Stryker tells his son. “You never have time for anything!” Joey complains, which prompts his father to concede, “I know.” Fans of Airplane! might find themselves laughing unintentionally when Ellen turns to her husband at the end and says, “Ted, I just wanted you to know, now, I’m very proud,” but by that point in the movie I was so wrapped up in their relationship that I found myself smiling at the moment, not laughing.

What makes Zero Hour! a better film than Airplane!, I think, is just how much more superior it is in terms of filmmaking. Hall Bartlett went on to pursue an artistic career through a series of hit-and-miss films; David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams chose, instead, to stick comfortably with empty, mainstream crowd pleasers. Airplane! understands the concept of stupid parody without acting on witty satire; Zero Hour!, however, comments bravely on the downfall of the 50’s nuclear family through a supercharged thriller, and delivers the goods in the process. As Zero Hour! glides towards its conclusion, Ted Stryker and his wife are frantically flying the plane through fog, searching for the lights of the Vancouver landing strip while they are awaited down below by ambulances, police cars and firefighters stroking a pet collie. The eventual landing of the plane is terrifying, and very nearly ends in horror, but Stryker faces his fears—and saves the day. “Ted, that was probably the lousiest land in the history of this airport,” says Treleaven over the radio. “But there’s some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.”

Surely a great filmmaker couldn’t possibly take this material seriously. Hall Bartlett does, however, and that’s just one of the many reasons why Zero Hour! deserves to be seen.

(And yeah yeah, don't call me Shirley, etc.)