Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"It was a clean shoot" - HOMICIDE's most debated episode turns 20 today

"It was a clean shoot."

I must have seen those words several hundred times during my time reading the Usenet group devoted to Homicide: Life on the Street. Within that community, it referred to a plot point so notorious that no further context was needed - the climax of season 5's "Deception." (Teleplay by Debbie Sarjeant; Story by Tom Fontana & Julie Martin & James Yoshimura.)

Today, that episode turns 20.

I've thought of that episode and its fallout a lot over the last few years, as we've seen more and more police-involved shootings gain prominence in the news. I can't help but reflect on how much those Usenet debates taught me about police procedure long before the larger zeitgeist was arguing when it should be legal for a cop to shoot someone.

The Homicide episode was the resolution to a subplot that had run through several episodes over the course of the prior year. Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Kellerman (Reed Diamond) had long been trying to get the goods on local drug kingpin Luther Mahoney (the fantastic Erik Todd Dellums), who'd managed to slither out of every attempt they made to nail him. In this episode, they finally crack the case when circumstances lead them to intercepting one of Mahoney's incoming heroin shipments. One swap of fake drugs for the real ones later, and Luthor's dealers face a lot of angry customers. Luther himself knows he had to have been betrayed by either his own lieutenant or his suppliers.

So he agrees to a meeting in a public place. Things go bad, Luthor kills two people and escapes to his penthouse. Lewis and Kellerman are separated and by the time Kellerman gets to Luther's penthouse, Luther has gotten ahold of Lewis's gun and is aiming it right at him.

Kellerman issues three warnings to drop the gun. Luthor turns to Kellerman, gun arm extended 45 degrees at his side and with a mocking laugh, says, "Go ahead Detective. Read me my rights." Kellerman, advancing on Luther, says "You have the right to remain silent" and then shoots him in the chest.

Debate: is this a clean shoot?

In the strictly legal sense, yes. So long as Luther has the gun, he can be considered an active threat. Kellerman has warned him twice to drop it. Law enforcement professionals who frequented the group confirmed that this factor pretty much makes Kellerman's actions defensible. (Despite the questionable act of beginning a Miranda reading before shooting the suspect.)

Here's where Homicide muddied the waters a bit. Before Kellerman arrives, Lewis is the first one to catch Luther. And when Lewis pulls a gun on him, Luther immediately puts his hands up and says "I'm unarmed. I'm surrendering."

Lewis responds by holstering his gun and giving Luther a beatdown for all the murders over the past year that he's escaped justice for. During this struggle, Luther gets Lewis's gun and that's the point where Kellerman enters.

Someone's in the wrong here, but it isn't Kellerman. As you might expect, though, the cops sanitize their statements to keep Lewis in the clear. It's an interesting bit of ethics coming from the characters we're expected to see as "the good guys."

Does what Lewis did change any of the facts about what Kellerman did? In terms of if Kellerman was right to do what he did, I say no.

And yet, this shooting would have repercussions through the following season. A new arrival to the squad, Falsone (Jon Seda, playing a character I so disliked it took a solid decade not to react with disgust to his appearance in any other series), kept picking at this scab, convinced that Kellerman was the dirty one. It didn't help that Kellerman wasn't in a good place. Prior to the Mahoney shooting, he'd been accused of corruption when he was in fact the only member of his old squad not taking payouts AND he'd come close to committing suicide over his distraught reaction to another of Luther's victims.

And Lewis ends their partnership, basically cutting Kellerman out of his life as much as he can. Kellerman takes none of this well, drinking heavily and is clearly compromised on the job. By the end of the season, when what's left of the Mahoney organization has more or less declared war on the squad, Kellerman finds himself being interrogated over the shooting by Falsone... and the squad's biggest gun and best interrogator in the box: Detective Pembleton (Andre Braugher.)

When the big interrogation goes down, Lewis doesn't directly implicate Kellerman, but more or less lets Pembleton know that going after Kellerman wouldn't necessarily be on the wrong track. Thus, Kellerman finds himself defending this shooting again a year after the fact, with Pembleton and Falsone seizing on Kellerman's reenactment of the scene where he shows Luther had the gun down. Kellerman continues to insist that the suspect had a gun, but the others act as if "but the gun was down" trumps that.

This ends Mike's career. His lieutenant says he'll toss the confession if Kellerman resigns. thereby sparing the unit from further scrutiny.

In the real world, it doesn't. And it's interesting to me that Homicide chose to tell the story in this way. There are three options:
1) straight up ignorance of police procedures - unlikely
2) disregard of real procedures in the name of dramatic license - possible, maybe even probable.
3) we're meant to look below the surface to understand WHY everyone as they do.

As 3 is the most interesting to debate, that's the line of thought we're gonna follow here.

At the end of this arc, arguably the most significant example of police conduct goes unpunished, and really not even acknowledged. Lewis beat up a surrendering suspect and put himself in a position where that suspect took his weapon. And to the bitter end, Lewis never acknowledges that or even gives the dramatically satisfying speech of telling Kellerman, "I'm sorry I put you in that position, Mikey." Hell, he never even acts grateful for what was done, instead, more or less gaslighting Kellerman into taking all the blame.

I used to hate how this ending sold out Kellerman. He was one of my favorites, and Reed Diamond was vastly underrated in that role. To this day, when he shows up on my TV, I'm excited to see him. Andre Braugher's departure that season sucked up most of the press, but Kellerman's exit also left a massive hole in the squad. I would moan about the "bad writing" of this ending and let myself get sucked into the "clean shoot" debate. It was years before I realized I wasn't giving the writers credit for the hidden depth of the story. Deep subtext wasn't often present in network drama, and certainly not when the characters assert something about the story that is actually directly antithetical to the meaning of that story.

And so we return to Mike Kellerman, the loyal friend, the good cop, the guy who wouldn't even rat on the dirty cops in his old arson squad despite the fact doing so would have instantly saved his skin. His reward for this was that the stink of being dirty hung over him so much that witnesses even recognized him as "the dirty cop" from the news. The guy who tried hard to do everything right, got punished for it at every turn. The way the Mahoney saga went is entirely keeping with that. Kellerman's tragic fall comes not from something awful he did, but from the corruption of others around him. It's his lot to wear the scarlet letter that belongs to others. He's not the guy to throw others into the fire and not even two corruption scandals will take that last bit of integrity from him.

It was a clean shoot. It could never be anything BUT that given the circumstances.

Kellerman doesn't go down because he's defending the shooting. He goes down taking the bullet that belongs to Lewis's sloppy takedown, because as long as the debate stays on the shooting, no one's really out for blood there.

Kellerman is the cop he was trained to be. And this is a story about how the system and society destroy him, while less noble "good guys" thrive for far longer.

It was a clean shoot.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema

A recent viewing of a few direct-to-DVD type films gave me flashbacks to my reader days. I explore that in this post for Film School Rejects:

In my prior life as a script reader, I certainly read a lot of bad scripts, but at times, an even more common occurrence was a script that seemed to do a great many things right, but somehow fell just short of being something you wanted to champion as a movie. As draining as the terrible scripts were, there’s something pure about clear-cut bad. It takes little effort to explain why they’re unfit.

The real challenges were the scripts that had kind of a decent premise, kind of an okay twist or two, and a lead character who wasn’t bad so much as he or she was just… there. The raw materials are there for what COULD be a script. They just happen to be assembled in the least compelling way possible. It’s competent enough that it feels close to being a movie, but it’s raw enough that you won’t want to put your job on the line to tell someone else to read it. Scripts like this often got the “Consider with Reservations” ranking. If you’ve worked in Hollywood, you’ve probably read a number of scripts like this. If you’re not in the biz, it’s hard to find a good analogy to explain these scripts that need more time to bake.

Then, after a trip to Netflix one recent afternoon, I realized there’s an easy series of examples I can point to. In their library at any given time, you’ll stumble across a ton of recent films you’ve never heard of that star former mega-stars like Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, and Pierce Brosnan.

The men who headlined some of the biggest films of the eighties and nineties now film entire movies that no one knows exists until they show up under the heading “Because you liked Con Air.” Just going back five years, here are the films of just ONE of those aforementioned actors: Stolen, The Croods, The Frozen Ground, Joe, Rage, Outcast, Left Behind, Dying of the Light, The Runner, Pay the Ghost, The Trust, Snowden, The USS Indianapolis, Dog Eat Dog, Army of One, Arsenal, and Vengeance: A Love Story. That’s SEVENTEEN films! How far into that list were you before you were sure I was talking about Nicolas Cage?

Read the rest of Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema over at Film School Rejects

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Ten years after it's release, the little-seen Richard Gere film THE HOAX remains a fascinating film about truth, outrageous lies and why the bigger the lie, the more people believe it. Based on the real story of a man who convinced his publishers he was working with recluse Howard Hughes on the latter's biography, eventually becomes a great study in tension and paranoia too.

And, in showing how people rationalize even the most unbelievable lies, it seems more relevant today than ever, in the Trump era.

This is the topic of my latest piece for Film School Rejects:

But to return to The Hoax, there’s something appropriate about the uncertainty of historical fidelity in a film about a writer pulling off the mother of all lies. It’s 1971 and Clifford Irving (played with wonderful desperation and cunning by Richard Gere) has just had his latest book rejected by a publisher. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of his last book — about an art forger — has killed his hopes for another project. Like many writers when faced with a “Pass,” he doesn’t take it well and barges into a company meeting to say he’s got the book of the century, something they’d regret passing on — an autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes.

It’s an utterly implausible and grandiose lie and — in a manner less surprising in the Trump presidency of 2017 than it was in 2007 — the brazenness of the lie gives it credibility. Who in their right mind would lie about something so easily impeached? Putting the experience of his last book to use, Irving expertly forges notes from Hughes (and it is true that in real-life, handwriting experts said that the odds of being fake were “less than one in a million.”) Hughes’s reclusiveness and erratic behavior also ends up selling the lie. The man was known to be unstable, so bizarrely, and attempt he’d make to disown involvement with Clifford would lack enough credibility to expose Irving.

The real Clifford Irving complained bitterly about the liberties the movie took with his life. Screenwriter William Wheeler agrees with my notion of truth in film, telling The New York Times, “I almost feel like I would not be servicing the material correctly if I didn’t have some mischief in my attitude. I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the things that happened, and the motives of those doing it, and within that, construct my own tall tale, based on Clifford’s tall tale, which is based on Howard’s tall tale. And [director] Lasse [Hallström] did his own spinning on top of mine. And then, Richard.”

Read the rest at FSR: Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reactions to my FSR post "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike"

With two weeks to go on the WGA's contract with the AMPTP, I've got an already hot new post on Film School Rejects taking a look back at the consequences of the last Writers Guild strike:

Hollywood is facing the threat of another Writers’ Guild Strike, one which would immediately stop all writing and rewriting on guild signatory productions — essentially everything from the major studios. So far, negotiations have been contentious, with the WGA arguing that though the business has seen record profits, the average writer’s income has declined in this boom period. And yet, at the bargaining table, the AMPTP — who represent the producers — came offering not gains, but rollbacks. They basically asked the writers to accept less than their current contracts.

The total cost of what the writers are asking for is not particularly excessive. For instance, the cost to Disney would be $21.2 million a year — barely more than half of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger’s $43.9 million salary last year. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this, but if you’re interested in the particulars, this post from TV writer Ken Levine lays it all out pretty well.

So if the writers demands aren’t that excessive, is it wise for the AMPTP to force a strike by playing hardball? A long strike would have the result of impairing production in television and film. In TV, the fall season would be delayed and on the feature side, the major tentpoles set for 2019 might have to begin production without complete scripts. And under Guild rules, no writing or rewriting can be done on those scripts for the duration of a strike. This would include Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the ninth Fast and the Furious film, the next Spider-Man film, Transformers 6, and at least one or two yet-to-be announced Warner/DC films.

In looking back at the old strike, I aggregated an "oral history" of sorts, compiling the quotes of what writers, actors and directors had to say about how the strike affected the production of several 2009 releases: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Star Trek, and Quantum of Solace. Just about all of those were critically panned (save for Star Trek, which I actually think is a fantastic film) and the strike was frequently cited as a factor in their quality.

There was a little blowback on Twitter about the title of the article, "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike." It was accused of being anti-writer propaganda, which I strongly dispute. The writers don't WANT to have to strike, but they are left with no choice if the AMPTP won't make a fair offer rather than instead coming to the table with rollbacks. So if you as viewers don't want your anticipated tentpoles of the next two years to be terrible, support the writers so that they can get a fair deal from the AMPTP.

I also faced some snark on Twitter from people saying "these movies were going to suck anyway." Frankly, I think that sentiment is far more anti-writer than what my headline was accused of being. As noted, Star Trek actually turned out pretty good, Wolverine had two sequels that were very good, The Bond films immediately before and after Quantum were also great, and even Transformers was considered pretty decent until the sequel. It's not impossible that more of these films could have been good.

Let's not forget how much we scoffed at sure-fired duds like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie before we saw them. Ergo, saying these films were going to "suck anyway" is assuming facts not in evidence.

Anyway, take a look at how things went down on those films in the post here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?

Got another post for Film School Rejects that sort of branches off of my earlier The Films of Frank Capra III, Ranked post. This one examines the pathology behind the relentless ranking lists we get each time a franchise releases a new chapter.

The ubiquity of practice certainly suggests the writer and the readers must be getting SOMETHING out of it. Is it that in our society, we find it less satisfying to praise a winner if we’re not simultaneously mocking and debasing the losers? I’ll plead guilty to relishing the act of putting HOOK at the bottom of every “Spielberg Movies, Ranked” list I’ve ever been a part of. Would others argue that the list serves the purpose highlighting the cream of the crop? If that was so, why not just write a post called “The Five Best Marvel Movies?” 

Read the rest of "Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?" over at Film School Rejects

Friday, April 14, 2017

Fate of the Furious: The Films of 1st AD Frank Capra III, Ranked!

I have another new piece at Film School Rejects. This week, the lastest film in the Fast & Furious series has been released: The Fate of the Furious. As is required by law, when a franchise unleashes a new chapter, there must be some measure of ranking the previous entries, or the previous works of a collaborator.

Friday brings us the release of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in The Fast & The Furious series. Thus, there could be no better time to look back and rank the previous works of one of the films most notable craftsmen, a man whose name is legendary. I speak of course of First Assistant Director Frank Capra III.

Capra III is the grandson of director Frank Capra, a Hollywood legend whose work includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. How did that pedigree fare two generations removed? This exhaustive look at Mr. Capra III’s 1st AD career will tell the tale.

While the film’s director often gets the lion’s share of the credit, the First AD is one of the most critical positions on set. In fact, it’s the most important person “below the line.” (In other words, the most important of the people who aren’t “important.”) He or she is the one who keeps the trains running on time, the taskmaster who sets the schedule and then keeps everyone on it. They oversee the entire crew and essentially do all the hard work so the director can focus on the minutiae of their job. A true student of film can probably stop the distinctive work of an AD everywhere without even checking the credits.

21. Oscar (1991) — Mr. Capra the Third’s maiden voyage as 1st AD was the rather unremarkable mob comedy from Stallone’s brief foray into lighter fare such as this and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Capra’s background directing seems stranded in the stagy production design.

See if you agree with the rest of my rankings and check out the entire list at Film School Rejects.