Friday, April 28, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Now, more than ever, Hollywood studios are all about movie franchises – not just one sequel after another, but several franchises existing in a larger one, often referred to as a cinematic universe. Studio executives gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on these individual franchises in the hopes that they’ll be commercially successful. Marvel Studios led the charge and has been doing it longer and more successful than anyone else while its rival, DC Entertainment, has had decidedly mixed results.

This hasn’t stopped every studio from trying with Warner Bros. wading into the fray with Godzilla (2014), the first franchise within the MonsterVerse. It was successful enough financially to embolden the studio to go ahead with their second franchise reboot – Kong: Skull Island (2017). Instead of setting it during the 1930s as Peter Jackson’s epic reimagining had done in 2005, the filmmakers decided to set it during the Vietnam War with all sorts of references to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s a nifty idea but does it translate into a decent movie?

Unlike Godzilla, this movie wastes no time introducing the Big Guy in a fast-paced prologue set somewhere in the South Pacific during World War II. Is the purpose of this sequence to establish Kong’s presence in roughly the same geographic neighborhood as Godzilla thereby linking these franchises? The opening credits take us through three decades of history until we reach 1973 and the last days of the Vietnam War.

Bill Randa (John Goodman), a senior government official, and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), a young geologist, fast-talk their way into mounting an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island complete with a military escort. The soldiers were supposed to be going home but their superior officer, Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a career military man, is more than happy to take on one more mission.

Since they are venturing into uncharted territory, Randa hires professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former British Special Air Service captain. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an acclaimed photojournalist intrigued by the air of mystery that surrounds the island and finagles her way onto the expedition. Both Conrad and Weaver are outsiders and suspicious of the true nature of this mission, which creates an uneasy bond between them.

This movie makes some odd choices along the way, like the scene where the expedition flies a squadron of helicopters through a dense and difficult storm that surrounds the island but all the tension of this scene is drained by Packard droning on about the Icarus myth. Why? Samuel L. Jackson’s flat delivery is supposed to demonstrate his character’s unflappable nature, I suppose, but it also robs the scene of the white-knuckle intensity that everyone else is experiencing. The establishing shots of the lush island are breathtaking and then the filmmakers ruin the mood by blasting Black Sabbath over the soundtrack a la “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now.

Fortunately, this clumsy moment is disrupted by a Kong attack, captured in agonizing slow motion and then a fantastic shot of the giant ape in front of the setting sun with the helicopters coming at him. Not surprisingly, Kong makes short work of the helicopters in a thrillingly staged sequence as he ruthlessly dispatches these aggressive interlopers on his turf while Packard quietly fumes in anger as Jackson gets to do his best Captain Ahab impression, growling his way through his dialogue while doing his best Kubrickian death stare. You know he will make it his life’s mission to take the giant ape down in retribution for killing several of his men.

As determined as Packard is, Randa is even more obsessed with killing Kong for his own personal reasons that John Goodman chillingly reveals to Packard. Meanwhile, Conrad and Weaver just want to escape the island, alive if possible, but it won’t be easy as they encounter all sorts of creatures – some benign, some very deadly. The movie quickly divides its time between Packard and his men and Conrad and Weaver.

John C. Reilly’s scene-stealing turn as a World War II pilot that crash landed near the island and has been trapped their ever since acts as our grizzled tour guide to this exotic land and its inhabitants while also acting as Skull Island’s equivalent to Dennis Hopper’s gonzo photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. He provides much-welcome levity amidst the CGI workouts and cardboard character stereotypes while also injecting a humanistic energy and vitality that is largely absent from the rest of the movie. To that end, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson aren’t given much to do except gape at amazement at the CGI wonders the filmmakers put in front of them, or grim-faced determination as they run away from another computer generated monster.


I see what the filmmakers are trying to do with Skull Island – fuse the hallucinogenic madness of Apocalypse Now with King Kong (1933), which is admittedly an intriguing idea. That being said, Skull Island comes across more as a great movie pitch that hasn’t been developed any further than that. Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s King Kong, but at least it was a personal statement and a love letter to the original film while Skull Island feels more like franchise building, but I do appreciate the 1970s Vietnam War era setting; it’s just a shame that the filmmakers don’t do more with it than endlessly reference Apocalypse Now and use it as an excuse to play classic rock over the soundtrack at various points. The movie has performed well at the box office so mission accomplished I suppose.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Driver

Author Raymond Chandler famously said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” I thought of these words as I watched Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) recently and thought about how it applied to its titular protagonist. The film was only Hill’s second outing as a director and yet it showed an assured touch in the choreographing of vehicular mayhem with a no frills approach to storytelling that is one of the hallmarks of his body of work.

It didn’t hurt that he learned the art and the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from the likes of Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair), Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway), and Paul Newman (The Drowning Pool). By the time, he directed his first feature film – Hard Times (1975) – he had seen and done a lot. The Driver saw Ryan O’Neal, in a surprising turn as a taciturn getaway driver, heading up a solid cast that featured the likes of Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani. The end result is a lean crime film populated by people that are the best at what they do, traveling down those mean streets Chandler talked about – they just happen to be on opposite sides of the law.

The film jumps right in by showing the Driver (O’Neal) plying his trade. He helps two crooks that have knocked over a casino escape the scene of the crime. He’s the epitome of cool under fire – not even breaking a sweat when the cops give chase, skillfully losing multiple pursuers through the streets of Los Angeles. At one point, he plays chicken with two oncoming cop cars! Hill does a superb job depicting this dynamic chase, not only conveying the speed and intensity of it, but also the skill and utter professionalism of the Driver.

The Driver is doggedly pursued by the Detective (Dern) who has been after him for some time and is determined to bust him. He knows what the Driver does – he just can’t catch him in the act. As he says at one point, “I respect a man that’s good at what he does…I’m very good at what I do.” Does this sound familiar? This dialogue would not sound out of place in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). The Detective respects the Driver’s skills, which only makes him that much more determined to arrest him.

In fact, he is so driven that he bullies a crook (Joseph Walsh) to hire the Driver to help him and his buddies escape a bank after they rob it in broad daylight. It’s a risky move but the Detective feels that it’s worth it if he can catch his prey. This sets the wheels in motion for an inevitable showdown between these two opposing forces.

Ryan O’Neal delivers an incredibly controlled performance as a man of few words, preferring to let his actions speak for him. We know nothing about his past or his private life. He is his work and Hill tells us all we need to know through his actions, like how well he can evade multiple pursuers, or his non-descript attire and economy of words, thereby making him difficult to identify and arrest as he leaves very little of a footprint as it were. Hill even manages to show a slyly humorous side to the man in a scene where he “auditions” for three crooks, proceeding to trash their car in a parking garage while they’re all in it. This sequence is simultaneously amusing and impressive. The Driver is a fascinating, enigmatic character that O’Neal expertly brings to life.

Bruce Dern matches O’Neal beat for beat, being the conceited chatterbox to the latter’s quiet intensity. Whereas the Driver shows very little emotion, the Detective is a grinning braggart so sure of himself and his plan to catch his prey. Dern gives his cop a jovial spin but it’s all a façade to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. Underneath lurks the nastiness of someone that doesn’t like to lose.

Hill takes us on a tour of the L.A. underworld – abandoned factories, parking garages, casinos, and sparsely furnished cheap hotel rooms that reflect the Driver’s world. During the night scenes, Hill utilizes the shadows effectively, creating a neo-noir vibe that is almost tangible.

The director also deconstructs and strips the crime film down to its most basic elements and so the end credits feature no proper names, only identifying the characters by what they do. He provides them with no backstories, forcing us to identify with them by what they do and how they behave in the moment. In this respect, Hill anticipated what Michael Mann has been doing in films like Miami Vice (2006) and Blackhat (2015).

Producer Lawrence Gordon came up with the idea of a film about a professional driver and then Walter Hill wrote the screenplay over the summer of 1975 while waiting for his directorial debut, Hard Times, to be released. He wrote the film for Steve McQueen but the actor didn’t “want to do another car thing.” The studio wanted Charles Bronson – he had worked with Hill on Hard Times – but they had a falling out over it and so he went with Ryan O’Neal instead.

For the role of the Detective, the studio wanted Robert Mitchum but he passed on the role and Hill went with Bruce Dern, rewriting some of his character’s dialogue to accommodate the actor’s personality and to contrast O’Neal’s taciturn Driver.

When it came to principal photography, Hill shot all the dramatic scenes first and then all the chases at night, which he felt “would be very much more in the spirit of what the storytelling wanted to be.” The director had learned about car chases working as second assistant director on Bullitt (1968). He realized that what made the famous car chase so memorable was not just the stunts but “the technique of shooting from inside. You really felt it was a rollercoaster ride as well as something you were observing. I made damn sure that when I was doing The Driver I filmed an enormous amount of inside shots.”

When Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) came out a lot was made about how much it resembled The Driver (and Mann’s Thief) and it certainly owes a debt to Hill’s film but conversely it is indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) with its protagonist of few words that is also an elite criminal. Like Refn did with Drive, Hill makes The Driver his own by applying his specific style and worldview. For example, the crook (Rudy Ramos) that double crosses the Driver partway through the film would be the first of many nasty baddies that populate Hill’s films – amoral men without regard for life, like Luther in The Warriors (1979) and Ganz in 48 HRS. (1982). These guys cannot be civilized or contained – they must be killed because of the threat they pose to the natural order of things.

The Driver may be a criminal but he has his own moral code that he follows and he doesn’t break his rules unless forced to by the bad guy. As Chandler said, he is neither “tarnished nor afraid,” and remains an unflappable presence throughout the film, adapting to any complications that come his way, including the trap that the Detective sets for him.

The Driver received mostly negative reviews when it was first released in theaters. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “And then there are those chase scenes. They’re great. They fill the screen with energy, even if it’s mechanical energy that doesn’t substitute for the human kind.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby, “For a movie in which there are so many chases. The Movie is singularly unexciting and uninvolving, though it does have its laughs.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas described the film as “ultraviolent trash that wipes out Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Isabella Adjani,” and “plays like a bad imitation of a French gangster picture which in turn is a bad imitation of an American gangster picture.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “There’s no realism, no psychology, and very little plot…There is, however, a great deal of technically sophisticated and very imaginative filmmaking.”

The Driver was not a financial success but has become an influential film, counting filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, the aforementioned Refn, and Edgar Wright among its admirers. For Hill, it began a terrific run of action-oriented films that included films like The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort (1981) and continued up to and including Streets of Fire (1984). Some of them were box office hits, some were not but all of them were instilled with the filmmaker’s no-nonsense, hardboiled sensibilities and a terrific capacity for kinetic action.


SOURCES


Hewitt, Chris. “Edgar Wright and Walter Hill Discuss The Driver.” Empire. March 13, 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Brewster McCloud

After the critical and commercial success of M*A*S*H (1970), Robert Altman used the buzz garnered from it to push an experimental film called Brewster McCloud (1970) through the studio system. It is ostensibly about a young man constructing a pair of wings so he can fly while also weaving in a storyline about a series of murders involving victims that have been strangled to death. It is, at times, a film about dreamers that also slyly references the films of Federico Fellini, Bullitt (1968) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The end result is a fiercely idiosyncratic film even by Altman’s standards, which may explain why it is not as widely championed like some of his other work.

Right from the get-go Altman eschews a traditional opening by having a lecturer (Rene Auberjonois) talking over the MGM logo as he addresses the audience about the relationships between birds and man’s desire to fly. Then, the opening credits play over a woman (Margaret Hamilton) singing the “Star Spangled-Banner” off-key in the Houston Astrodome with a marching band. She stops and chastises them for being in the wrong key. She makes them start over and so do the opening credits.

The reclusive Brewster McCloud (Bud Cort) lives under the stadium working on a pair of wings in the hopes that someday he may be able to take flight like a bird. During the day, he drives a cranky, wheelchair-bound old man (Stacy Keach), taking him on errands where he hurls verbal abuse at everyone he encounters. Meanwhile, Houston is plagued by a series of murders with each one of the victims strangled to death. Prominent citizen Haskell Weeks (William Windom) uses his clout to get the local police to bring in “legendary super cop” Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) from San Francisco to investigate.

Brewster crosses paths and befriends Suzanne (Shelley Duvall), a Superdome tour guide, while trying to steal her car, which she doesn’t seem to concern her all that much. Watching protectively over Brewster is Louise (Sally Kellerman), a beautiful and mysterious guardian angel of sorts that takes care of him.

Having given Bud Cort is feature film debut in M*A*S*H, Altman cast this distinctive actor to play the enigmatic titular character and he makes his way through the film with his own agenda while only briefly interacting with others. Cort’s soft-spoken nature contrasts nicely with Shelley Duvall’s chirpy optimism. They both have unique acting styles and thrived under Altman’s direction. It is a lot of fun to watch their quirky acting styles bounce off each other, like the scene where Suzanne recounts how she acquired her muscle car. Duvall, with her large than life eyelashes, is absolutely adorable, especially when Suzanne good-naturedly tries to seduce Brewster in a sweet scene.

Decked out in a turtleneck sweater, slacks and shoulder holster, Shaft cheekily resembles Steve McQueen’s titular character from Bullitt with a voiceover reporter narrating solemnly, “If keeping your cool and being totally composed makes for a better detective then this Shaft is one whale of a cop.” There’s something amusing about seeing Murphy – normally known for playing square, authoritarian types – playing a cool, no-nonsense cop. It helps that he’s playing a subtle parody of Bullitt but does so with a straight face right down to his all-business attitude as he tells the beat cop (John Schuck) assigned to him, “Now there’s a killer loose in the city, Johnson. Are we gonna get him or are we going to go downtown and play politics?”

In typical Altman fashion, he juggles a large cast of characters and multiple storylines, effortlessly moving them in and out of the foreground without ever losing sight that the film is ultimately about Brewster and his desire to fly like a bird. This is captured beautifully in a sequence that sees him dreaming of flying above the clouds to the soulful song “White Feather Wings” sung by Merry Clayton.

The screenplay, originally entitled, Brewster McCloud’s (Sexy) Flying Machine, had been written by Doran William Cannon (who had written the script for Otto Preminger’s Skidoo) in 1967 and it was, according to its author, “probably the most famous unproduced script in the country.” It had also been optioned several times by Hollywood studios but never filmed because Cannon refused to sell the rights unless he was allowed to also direct.

Music producer Lou Adler wanted to start making movies and optioned Cannon’s script – who must’ve had a change of heart about directing – offering it to Robert Altman after M*A*S*H. The director moved fast, nixing MGM’s desire to shoot in New York, where the script had originally set the story in the TWA Terminal at JFK airport, for Houston, which he found more stimulating. He did, however, hit some roadblocks along the way – firing then-up-and-coming cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth for relative unknown Lamar Boren, and, during filming, being hospitalized with a hernia.

Altman also rewrote the script, revising it heavily without notifying Cannon, making it “very farcical and broad.” According to Adler, the original script was “much more of a sexcapade” with Brewster having sex with each of the three women in the film. Altman changed it so that Brewster only had sex with Shelley Duvall’s character. The role of Frank Shaft was created entirely by Altman for Michael Murphy simply because he was one of the director’s favorite actors. Altman also downplayed the violence so that all of the murders occurred off-screen.

Fresh from making M*A*S*H, Altman cast several actors from that production, including Bud Cort, Rene Auberjonois, and John Schuck. Cort had auditioned for and didn’t get a role in a play in New York and was thinking of doing some episodic television. Altman told him not to because he was a movie star. Cort remembers the filmmaker telling about his role in their next film together: “You’re going to play a mass murderer and it’s going to be a whole reaction to how sick society is right now.” Altman also cast new, raw talent. Assistant director Tommy Thompson and fellow crew member Brian McKay met Shelley Duvall at a party when she tried to sell them her boyfriend’s paintings and told Altman that he had to meet her. He thought she was putting on an act but when he did a screen-test with her, realized that she was an “untrained, truthful person. She was very raw in Brewster but quite magic.” Three days after he cast her, principal photography began.

Filming Brewster McCloud was the typical Altman experience – location shooting away from the studio, watching dailies at the end of the day with cast and crew, and parties with lots of marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and opium. Adler remembers that Altman “would stand up and make a speech, pretty much the same speech every night. ‘No one in this room knows what this movie is about except me.’ Then he would retire to his room and write the next day’s pages.”

In classic Altman fashion, entire scenes were created and improvised on the spot when something struck his fancy or he became fascinated by some of the Astrodome’s architecture. Other scenes were written by Altman at night and then presented to the actors the next day. For example, Shaft’s sudden suicide came up at dinner between the director and Murphy the night before. Cannon even showed up to the set for a visit and was given an icy reception. He was bitter at not having been consulted on the script changes while Altman said it was “a piece of crap.” That being said, Cannon had a clause in his contract that guaranteed sole screenwriting credit despite all the work Altman had done.

Not surprisingly, MGM did not understand Brewster McCloud and the new studio head did not like it or Altman (the feeling was mutual). They gave the film a perfunctory release and yanked it from theaters after it grossed less than $1 million prompting Adler to describe studio executives as “a bunch of bag salesmen who’ve been put in their jobs like a bunch of pawns.” Murphy said of the film: “I think it was kind of a look at the insanity of all that period in time, you know? Guys were really breaking loose and doing their ‘dream films’ and doing nutty stuff.”

To further illustrate how little the studio cared about the film, the premiere at the Astrodome (attended by a whopping 24,000 people) was plagued by technical problems regarding the sound so that, as one critic commented, it was “a bit like viewing a movie in the world’s largest drive-in while locked out of your car.”

Brewster McCloud received mixed to negative reviews although Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “One of the things about MASH was that people wanted to see it a second time. That’s typical of the recent Robert Altman style, Brewster McCloud is just as densely packed with words and action, and you keep thinking you’re missing things. You probably are. It’s that quality that’s so attractive about these two Altman films.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the film attempted, “to be a kind of all-American, slapstick Orpheus Ascending, a timeless myth about innocence and corruption told in the sort of outrageous and vulgar terms that Brian De Palma and Robert Downey do much better.”

Altman twists genre conventions on their head, bending them to conform to his vision and so the strangulation murders are preceded by bird shit dropping on the victim’s face moments before they are killed. The crime scenes are chaos as a veteran police detective (G. Wood) clashes with Shaft and his superiors who all appear to have no idea who is committing these murders. The irony is that despite his reputation for being a skilled cop Shaft is ultimately ineffectual in catching the killer.

Even the climactic car chase – a staple of the thriller genre – is given an Altman twist as Suzanne leads the cops on a wild chase with some wonderful reaction shots of her clearly enjoying the evasive moves she pulls to foil her pursuers with Louise providing well-timed interventions along the way. At one point, Altman even employs easy-listening music during the chase. The filmmaker constantly subverts our expectations at every turn. Brewster isn’t the innocent dreamer he was first made out to be and it brings into question his desire to fly. Was it genuine or an act of hubris?

Brewster McCloud is not an easy film to love. It defies traditional narrative storytelling by irreverent thumbing its nose at the conventions. The protagonist is an enigma that we never get to know or identify with and this is all the way Altman wants it. It’s a film that I admire but don’t watch all that much, which is a matter of personal taste as opposed to one of quality. I prefer the laid-back, easygoing charms of films like The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974). That’s the beauty of Altman’s films – you can approach them on your own terms and I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


SOURCES

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. St. Martin’s Press. 1989.

Reed, Rex. “Houston’s Not-So-Gala Premiere.” Chicago Tribune. December 20, 1970.

Thomson, David. Editor. Altman on Altman. Faber & Faber. 2005.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 2009.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Logan

It’s still unclear if the massive commercial success of Deadpool (2016) will usher in a wave of R-rated comic book superhero movies but it has given us Logan (2017), the third (and supposedly final) movie focused on the titular character (a.k.a. Wolverine), played by Hugh Jackman, the popular mutant from the X-Men franchise. Fans of the violent antihero had been frustrated with how the character had been depicted in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013), as they were watered-down adaptations that, at best, were sporadically faithful to the source material.

As a result, anticipation was high when it was announced that Logan would not only draw inspiration from the Old Man Logan graphic novel by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, but it would be decidedly darker in tone, graphically violent and delve deeper into the character than previous installments with some comparing it favorably to the Clint Eastwood revisionist western Unforgiven (1992).

Director James Mangold sets the tone right from the start when a bunch of gang-bangers attempt to steal the hubcaps from the limousine Logan drives. He’s not as fast as he used to be but still as deadly with his adamantium claws as the hapless would-be car thieves find out the hard way in a sequence that features blood, cursing and severed limbs as Logan hacks and slashes his way through the assailants.

Logan is much older than we’ve seen him before and the world is largely absent of mutants. He lives under the radar, driving a limo to make ends meet. He lives in Mexico where he takes care of an enfeebled Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who suffers debilitating seizures and has to be given drugs to keep his mental powers in check. These initial scenes between Charles and Logan carry a dramatic weight as we see what tragic figures both men have become. They are no longer heroes and are living day-to-day on the margins of society, numbing the pain with alcohol and drugs. It is a shock to see Charles so weak and helpless and Logan so bitter and beaten down by life, tormented by his past.

He wants to avoid trouble and be left alone but, of course, trouble finds him in the form of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has mutant powers uncannily like Logan. She is being pursued by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the leader of a militant group of cyborgs known as Reavers. What makes her so significant is that a new mutant hasn’t been born in 25 years. Her guardian hires Logan to take her and Laura to North Dakota for $50,000, which will allow him to fulfill his desire to buy a boat and live on the sea.

The action sequence that reveals Laura’s powers is a bravura one as we see this little girl slice and dice her way through a heavily armed group of mercenaries with a little help from Logan. She has the quick and deadly moves that Logan used to have and this sequence shows them off quite effectively with brutally efficient economy by Mangold.

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in various movies for 17 years and this is his best performance as the character with the actor finally given a meaty screenplay (courtesy of Scott Frank) to sink his teeth into. The Logan of this movie is a broken man that doesn’t care much about anything or anyone. The actor also looks the part with his graying hair and full beard. It is the little touches, however, like the way Logan walks with a limp or has to use reading glasses that show the gradual ravages of time that have taken their toll on him.

Patrick Stewart matches him scene for scene as an old man that can no longer control his powers and has to be given a strict regime of drugs to keep them in check. He and Logan bicker like an old married couple as they argue about what to do with Laura. The two actors play well off each other – something that comes from making several movies together – and there is something touching about seeing how Logan cares for Charles. They share poignant moments that ground the movie and give it an emotional weight that was lacking from previous Wolverine movies. We actually care about what happens to these characters because over the course of the movie we’ve become invested in their struggle.

More than any other X-Men movie, Logan tries to go deeper and examine what motivates these characters. It goes beyond the usual mutants are different and discriminated against because of their otherness tropes that we’ve seen many times already. The movie presents a world where mutants are created and experimented on like lab rats only they’re being manufactured as living weapons. It’s this brave new world that clashes with Logan’s old school ways.


Comic book superhero movies are often criticized for being too superficial – sacrificing things like character development in favor of spectacle. Logan maintains a balance of both better than most. It is refreshing to see a superhero movie where the protagonist doesn’t have to save the world. This movie’s scale is much more modest, more intimate. Perhaps the weightiest theme it wrestles with is that of mortality. Wolverine is no longer the nearly invincible fighter we’ve seen in previous movies. He’s a burnt-out shell of a man painfully aware of his limited time left on earth. The dilemma he faces is what does he do with the time he has left? He’s not searching for a purpose in life – it finds him in the form of Laura. He is tired of fighting and the toll it has taken on his body. He just wants it to end and Logan gives him that closure. It’s not the Unforgiven of superhero movies – Logan really doesn’t change all that much – but it’s damn near close.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Crying Freeman

Based on the best-selling manga of the same name by Kazio Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami about a deadly assassin that cries every time he kills his target, Crying Freeman (1995) marked the auspicious feature film debut of French filmmaker Christophe Gans. Never given a theatrical release in the United States, it took years to find its way on DVD where it developed a small but dedicated following.

When a young artist by the name of Emu O’Hara (Julie Condra) witnesses the murders of several Japanese Yakuza members at the hands of Yo Hinomura (Mark Dacascos), her life changes forever. Yo is a kind of Manchurian Candidate (1962)-style assassin, a tortured man forever marked with a full-body tattoo and a curse that keeps him working for a Chinese Triad known as “Sons of the Dragon.” They are at war with rival Japanese outfit the Hakushin Society, led by Shido Shimazaki (Mako), in Vancouver.

He enlists the help of Detective Netah (Tcheky Karyo), an Interpol agent, and Detective Forge (Rae Dawn Chong), a local cop, to track down and protect Emu as she witnessed the murder of Shimazaki’s son at the hands of Yo. He surmises that Yo will kill her and that they can apprehend him when he comes for her. The police are given 48 hours to do it or else a full-out gang war will erupt in the city streets. Emu’s life gets even more complicated when she falls in love with Yo, which puts her life in great danger.

I like that Gans shows what motivates both the protagonist and antagonist of the film and so we have a lengthy flashback explaining how Yo became a deadly assassin while also showing the inner workings of the Hakushin Society and Detective Netah’s role in it. This gives the “good guys” and the “bad guys” added dimension that you don’t often see in comic book adaptations or action movies. Gans also shows the corruption that exists in both organizations with Yo and his Japanese counterpart Ryuji (Masaya Kato) being set up and targeted for death once they have outlived their usefulness. This sets up an action-packed finale as Yo protects Emu from numerous assailants in a stylistic love letter to the Hong Kong films of John Woo.

Both Mark Dacascos and Julie Condra are dead ringers for their manga counterparts and Gans wisely compensates for their lack of acting prowess by largely limiting their dialogue, letting their body language do most of the heavy lifting. But then, you’re not watching Crying Freeman for Oscar caliber acting; you want to see plenty of action-oriented mayhem and this film certainly delivers the goods. That being said, the two leads have superb chemistry together, which makes their on-screen romance believable and, apparently, off-screen as they got married after making the film.

From the lethal meet-cute between Yo and Emu to the scene where Yo takes out Shimazaki, Gans choreographs the action sequences in slow motion reminiscent of Woo’s Hong Kong action epics. Gans gets a lot of bang out of his modest $5 million budget scoring major style points with these sequences. I like how he mixes things up with the types of weapons Yo uses, ranging from guns to a bow and arrow to a sword. It demonstrates an impressive versatility on his part while keeping the action sequences distinctive from one another.


Gans does his best to impart, at times, heavy-handed symbolism and artsy-fartsy flourishes into what is basically an action crime film and I admire his attempt to do something different so that it stands out from the usual genre fare. While Crying Freeman may seem heavily indebted to Hong Kong action films, it anticipated the much more satisfying follow-up Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), a fantastic genre mash-up that demonstrated how much Gans had learned in the intervening years.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Night Falls on Manhattan

In a prolific and diverse career, some of Sidney Lumet’s best films dealt with police corruption. It was a theme that the filmmaker was drawn to as far back as the 1970s with Serpico (1973) and would revisit regularly in the 1980s with Prince of the City (1981) and the 1990s with Q & A (1990). It was towards the end of the latter decade that he made Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), an adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Tainted Evidence about a newly elected district attorney’s attempt to battle corruption within the New York Police Department. The film wasn’t given a particularly wide release and performed modestly at the box office with mixed reviews. Perhaps it was felt that Lumet’s film was nothing more than an expensive, feature-length episode of Law and Order, which is unfortunately because it delves into the personal and professional dilemmas of its characters in a much deeper way than that television show.

The film starts off by shedding light on the little-shown process of how someone becomes an assistant district attorney by following Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) as he pays his dues by working all kinds of cases in big and small court rooms with long hours that take their toll on his personal life – all in a wonderfully economic montage that is vintage Lumet as he succinctly gives us the information we need to know about the job.

When a heavily armed drug dealer (an imposing Shiek Mahmud-Bey) kills two cops, seriously wounds a police detective (Ian Holm), and escapes in a cop car, the fiery district attorney Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) takes a personal interest in Sean as his father was the detective that was critically wounded and wants Sean to prosecute the drug dealer. The scene where Morgenstern pitches the case to Sean is a joy to watch as veteran character actor Ron Leibman works the room with his larger than life character.

Morgenstern tells Sean that it’s a simple case and he’ll have the jury’s sympathy because of his father. After Sean leaves, the understandably upset senior A.D.A. Elihu Harrison (Colm Feore) tears into his boss for choosing the younger man over him and tells him the real reason he picked Sean over him – it’s all about politics because he knows that when he’s up for re-election he’ll be going up against Harrison. The scene provides fascinating insight into backroom politics – something that Lumet excels at doing. The D.A. is a shrewd man and knows that by giving the case to Sean he’s going to be personally motivated to do everything he can to put the drug dealer away.

In an intriguing twist, flashy defense attorney Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss) agrees to take on the drug dealer’s case under the auspices that it was self-defense as the police where trying to murder him. To make matters worse, Morgenstern bungles the arrest of the drug dealer and it plays out embarrassingly in front of the press on T.V. The court case plays out as you would expect, but the film really gets interesting when it explores what happens afterwards.

For fans of courtroom dramas, Night Falls on Manhattan is pure cinematic catnip as we get to see Andy Garcia and Richard Dreyfuss go at it as they each try to appeal to the jury with every skill at their disposal. These kinds of films give actors the opportunity to show off their chops as they often have intense exchanges with fellow actors playing witnesses they question while also delivering lengthy speeches.

Andy Garcia is excellent as an up-and-coming assistant district attorney that he wisely doesn’t play as naïve or earnest but rather inexperienced. Fortunately, he’s a quick learner and climbs up the ladder, finding all kinds of corruption along the way to becoming district attorney. Sean sincerely believes in law and order and that no one is above the law – cops or crooks. Naturally, this is put to the test over the course of the film. It’s great to see Garcia mixing it up with veteran actors like Ian Holm and Ron Leibman in scenes that bring out the best in all involved.

Richard Dreyfuss delivers an outstanding performance as a former 1960s radical cum slick defense lawyer who has an incredible scene with Garcia where Vigoda cuts through the posturing on display in the courtroom and reveals that he took the no-win case of the drug dealer in the hopes of uncovering police corruption and redeem the death of his 15-year-old daughter who overdosed. It’s an emotionally charged scene where Dreyfuss brilliantly underplays his character’s touching vulnerability.

Leibman is also a notable standout in the cast as the blustery D.A. but over the course of the film he loses that bluster and confides in Sean, giving him sage advice about what he’s in store for: “Everybody’s gonna want a piece of you now that you’re elected.” His young protégé asks him if he’s going to have make one big deal to which his mentor replies, “Hundred little deals, a thousand. Deal after deal after deal after deal.” It’s a riveting scene as the former D.A. tells Sean how it is and Leibman nails it, losing none of the intensity of his earlier scenes even though he’s become something of a tragic figure.

Night Falls on Manhattan examines why cops go on the take and it is not as simple as they want to make money. It often runs deeper than that and this is one of the hallmarks of Lumet’s police corruption films. He is fascinated with how the justice system works and examines its inner workings in a way that few other filmmakers have done. He presents the justice system as a complex mechanism with many working parts. His films dramatize what happens when one of these parts malfunctions. It is never easy to fix. All of his films don’t offer easy answers because real life is like that. The protagonists in these films have to make tough choices that have serious ramifications and then they have to live with them.

Sidney Lumet was coming off back-to-back commercial misfires with A Stranger Among Us (1992) Guilty as Sin (1993) and Night Falls on Manhattan was seen as the director returning to familiar turf. The film was inspired by the infamous 1986 shoot-out between the police and big-time drug dealer Larry Davis who killed several cops in a bust gone wrong. It was based partly on the Robert Daley novel Tainted Evidence, although, according to Lumet, only the beginning of the film up to the trial came from the book, the rest was original. The filmmaker was drawn to the idea that the film’s protagonist “doesn’t pursue anything, it pursues him. And slowly the world that he’s living keeps closing in, and closing in with a complexity he never thought possible.”

Night Falls on Manhattan received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Night Falls on Manhattan is absorbing precisely because we cannot guess who is telling the truth, or what morality some of the characters possess.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “The great thing about Lumet is that he is not cynical but instead finds an amusing irony in exploring the art of the possible, in discovering that point at which decent people in positions of power and responsibility can be capable of working together privately, of looking the other way if necessary, for the greater good of all concerned.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The plot is such a warhorse that Lumet…feels he has to explain why he’s filming it in a letter to the press: ‘Why am I back at the same old stand: cops, corruption, culpability? Because the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s getting worse.’”

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Lumet’s screenplay does a good job of articulating the disillusioning realities of careerism and crime. And he has an ear, as ever, for the disparate voices of the city. But Night Falls on Manhattan is also oddly listless. It doesn’t often live up to the doomy eloquence of its title.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “That said, what must be added is that, disappointingly, Night Falls on Manhattan doesn’t quite add up. Dreyfuss is great, Holm is great, Mahmud-Bey is great, Leibman is great, but Garcia is so mopey and conflicted he becomes ultimately tiresome.”

Night Falls on Manhattan ends as it began – with a new crop of fresh-faced assistant district attorneys only this time Sean talks to them and it’s his turn to impart sage advice as he tells them:

“You’re going to spend most of your time in the grey areas. But out there that’s where you’re going to come face to face with who you really are and that’s a frightening thing to ask of you. And it might take a lifetime to figure out.”

Sean is a different man then who we met at the beginning of the film. He still believes in the law but its tempered by what he’s experienced. It may have shaken his resolve but it hasn’t broken it. Not yet.


SOURCES

Callahan, Maureen. “A Streetwise Legend Sticks to His Guns.” New York Magazine. May 26, 1997.


Simon, Alex and Terry Keefe. “Remembering Sidney Lumet.” Hollywood Interview. April 1, 2015.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Perdita Durango

Perdita Durango (1997) is a fascinating oddity in the filmography of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia. It was his attempt at breaking into the North American market with a cast that featured recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini. Unfortunately, De La Iglesia’s film came out before Bardem became known to audiences here and two years before Gandolfini hit it big with The Sopranos. As a result, Perdita Durango was trimmed by ten minutes and dumped into direct-to-video hell with the generic title Dance with the Devil. Even in this neutered form, De La Igleisia’s film is a gonzo potpourri of wild sex, crazed violence and pitch black humor. In other words, the stuff that instant cult films are made of.

Based on Barry Gifford’s novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango, De La Iglesia’s film is a spin-off, of sorts, of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) – also an adaptation of one of Gifford’s novels – by focusing on one of the minor characters featured in that film (and played by Isabella Rossellini). Perdita (Perez) is a tough, no-nonsense lady clad in a Tura Satana-style black outfit. She meets Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem), a maniacal criminal who also happens to be an even more maniacal witch doctor.

The couple cross the border into Mexico, become lovers and partners in crime as they kidnap a white-bread couple of teens – Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) and transport a truckload of human fetuses to Las Vegas while trying to evade determined Drug Enforcement Agency officer Woody Dumas (Gandolfini).

The opening scene, where a schlubby guy tries to pick up Perdita at an airport, tells us all we need to know about her – she’s smart, tough and more than capable of handling herself, sending the hapless guy scurrying with a few choice words. It’s a juicy role that Rosie Perez sinks her teeth into, immersing herself fully. She shows a wide range of emotions as her character is more than an amoral criminal, she also conveys a vulnerability – albeit fleeting – that gives her a bit more depth than one would expect from this kind of a film.

Romeo is an impulsive mad man as evident in a flashback where he forces a busty bank teller to expose her naked breast while he’s robbing the bank! He then double-crosses his partner, hitting him with the getaway vehicle. Much like Perez, Javier Bardem commits fully to the role with scary intensity. Romeo is a force of nature that follows his own beliefs that are a funky fusion of a love for cinema and a twisted belief in Santeria.

James Gandolfini portrays Woody as a slightly sleazy, slightly seedy character that speaks with a slightly weasely lisp and has the misfortune of being repeatedly hit by fast moving vehicles, not unlike a live-action Wile E. Coyote. He also seems to be mildly fixated on Ava Gardner, at one point remarking how much he likes her lips. He’s determined to bring down Romeo for his outstanding drug offenses and will let nothing get in his way. It becomes a point of pride for him. Gandolfini steals every scene he’s in with his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and that is saying something in a film that features larger than life characters played by Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

The film is at its most horrific in the scenes where Romeo practices voodoo. In one ritualistic scene, he drenches himself in blood and smothers his face in a bag of cocaine. He then hacks limbs off of a corpse, tears out its heart and writhes around on the ground, channeling multitudes of demons. There is an unpredictable energy to the scene that makes it scary and thrilling. De la Iglesia contrasts these scenes with gallows humour. Romeo may be a vicious killer but he also loves the music of Herb Albert. There is a hilarious moment where he and Perdita happily groove to the strains of The Dating Game theme.

From the grotesque mutants who threaten Earth in Accion Mutante (1993) to the graphic voodoo practices in Perdita Durango, horrific, often bizarre, imagery has always been prominent in Alex de la Iglesia’s movies. Like his cinematic contemporaries — Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro and France’s Christophe Gans — De la Iglesia impishly mixes a variety of genres in his films:

“I like to play with genres and construct my own movies...What I am trying to do is inject poison into these genres. In a happy comedy I like to introduce poison and make the movie freaky and weird, with a tasteless sense of humor.”

It is no surprise that, like Del Toro and Gans, De la Iglesia comes from a comic book/fanzine background that informs all of his work. There is something of the film geek in all of three filmmakers that results in a desire to include show-stopping spectacle set pieces in their movies and to quote other films in their own work, fueled by an obsession with American culture.

El Dia de la bestia was a huge hit in its native country, earning six Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), and breaking box office records. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez saw the movie and wanted De la Iglesia to direct Perdita Durango. Gomez felt that De la Iglesia’s sensibilities were better suited for the project than current director, Bigas Luna. With pre-production already underway, De la Iglesia came aboard and molded the material to fit his preoccupations.

For all of its inspired lunacy, Perdita Durango is not without its poignant moments, like when Romeo waxes nostalgic about seeing Vera Cruz (1954) at an impressionable age and how the fate of Burt Lancaster’s character resonated with him. Like with that film, there is a certain sense of fatalism in Perdita Durango as Romeo knows he’s going to die but goes through with one last job anyway and De La Iglesia literally has him become Lancaster’s character, mimicking the showdown in Vera Cruz with the one between Romeo and his cousin Reggie (Carlos Bardem). Perdita Durango ends on a deliciously subversive note as the titular character walks through a gaudy Vegas casino with “Winner” signs flashing all around her – epitomizing the American dream – but she’s lost everything.


Perdita Durango is a curious oddity in De la Iglesia’s oeuvre. It is his most overt attempt to crack the North American market (where he has only a small but dedicated following) with his first English-speaking film and a cast of recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. This alienated his Spanish fans who probably felt he had sold out, while his perchance for graphic sex and violence scared off potential distributors and mainstream audiences in North America, sending the film direct to video. This reaction is unfortunate because Perdita Durango is De la Iglesia’s most successful effort: a perfect mix of the ridiculous and the epic, with the right blend of genres (crime, horror, comedy, road trip) and a wonderfully eclectic cast that features his regular favorites (Santiago Segura) and colorful character actors (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins).

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Lonely Guy

The Lonely Guy (1984), starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin, is part of a popular subgenre of the romantic comedy with sad sack protagonists unlucky in and often looking for love such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981) with the female equivalent in movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Someone Like You (2001). These movies often feature socially awkward protagonists fumbling their way through unsuccessful relationships. The Lonely Guy fancies itself as a grandiose cinematic statement on the subgenre right down to the mock-epic-style opening that playfully references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Larry Hubbard (Martin) is a successful greeting card writer living in New York City. He comes home one day to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and seems completely oblivious to it all in an amusing bit where he carries on with his daily routine as if nothing is wrong. Kicked to curb, Larry wanders the streets until he sits on a park bench and meets experienced “lonely guy” Warren Evans (Grodin) whose girlfriend just left him for a guy robbing her apartment (“It’s probably for the best. She was really starting to let herself go,” he deadpans.).

Warren gives Larry a lot of helpful advice, like avoiding wealthy neighborhoods to live in because they have high crime rates (he even sees a man thrown off a building and another guy shot on the sidewalk in front of him!). These early scenes between Steve Martin and Charles Grodin are among the strongest of the movie as the former’s optimism clashes hilariously with the latter’s pessimism.

Larry soon discovers that there are all kinds of other lonely, single guys like him out there and they need advice like he did and so he decides to write a book entitled, A Guide for the Lonely Guy. It becomes hugely successful and Larry finds himself not so lonely any more. He even tries to pick up a woman at a bar by telling her that he’s looking for a real relationship while she admits that she just wants to have sex. As if on cue, Warren shows up and asks Larry, “Ever think about getting a dog?”

This scene demonstrates how The Lonely Guy deftly juggles satire with keen observations on human behavior. Everything is heightened for comedic effect reminiscent of the Zucker Abrams Zucker movies only not quite as zany. In some respects, this movie, with its self-reflexive voiceover narration and breaking of the fourth wall, feels like a warm-up for Martin’s comedic opus L.A. Story (1991), which manages to balance satire with poignant observations about relationships much more successfully.

Larry meets Iris (Judith Ivey), an attractive woman he keeps running into but is unable to make it work because the timing isn’t right. They have an on-again-off-again relationship that plays out over the course of the movie.

Martin manages to effortlessly tread a fine comedic line between hapless doormat and hopeless romantic. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies is that they’re populated by impossibly good-looking people that would never have a problem finding love and while he is a handsome guy Martin is able to convey the awkwardness of someone lacking confidence – that makes him a believable lonely guy.

Grodin plays Warren as the ultimate dweeb who refers to his plants as “guys.” In the 1980s, he excelled at playing uptight, nebbish characters (Midnight Run) and this is one of the best takes on this type. In a movie with many outrageous gags and set pieces, he wisely underplays, delivering a less is more performance that is quite funny. The best scenes in the movie are between him and Martin. They play well off each other and it’s a shame they didn’t do more movies together.

Neil Simon adapted Bruce Jay Friedman’s book, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life and then Jay Friedman and Stan Daniels, known for their work on television sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, wrote the screenplay. The project was a challenging change of pace for them as the latter said, “We were used to writing about real people and real problems – in other words, just straightforward realistic comedy. The Lonely Guy is a stylized way of getting at reality.”

Principal photography began in spring of 1983 at Universal Studios’ famous New York City backlot on Stage 28 with Larry and Warren’s apartments built on the same soundstage. Incredibly, a life-sized scale replica of the Manhattan Bridge was constructed, standing eight feet in the air and was 44-feet wide, taking four weeks to build. In addition, actual location shooting took place in Los Angeles and for three weeks in New York.

The Lonely Guy was savaged by critics with Roger Ebert giving it one-and-a-half out of four stars and writing, “The Lonely Guy is the kind of movie that seems to have been made to play in empty theaters on overcast January afternoons.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Whenever the film tries for sprightliness, it stumbles. When it gives in to the basic misery of Larry and his situation, though, it begins to make some sort of morose comic sense.” Pauline Kael felt that is had “some wonderful gags and a lot of other good ideas for gags, but it was directed by Arthur Hiller, who is the opposite of a perfectionist, and it makes you feel as if you were watching television.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Nevertheless, despite the flailing around, the picture fitfully accumulates a handful of modest highlights and silly brainstorms. They may seem sufficient to justify the trouble, especially if you extend Martin & Co. the courtesy of not expecting a classic.” Even Martin wasn’t too crazy with the end result. He didn’t like Larry and felt that as a character he was “too weak. I realized I played too nebbishy. That’s what was written, but it’s not a character I especially want to play anymore.”

Even though the situations Larry finds himself in are heightened for comedic effect, The Lonely Guy does capture the single guy mindset quite well – the desperation and the rationalization that a lot of men experience as they try to find that special someone. Ultimately, the movie suggests that you have to be willing to put yourself out there if you want to meet someone and that takes courage as you run the risk of being rejected. There’s something to be said about making an attempt and the movie champions this approach albeit in a satirical way. If The Lonely Guy is remembered at all its as a commercial and critical failure that not even its star liked but I think he, Kael and other film critics have been too hard on this trifle of a movie that is funny and features a stand-out performance by Charles Grodin.


SOURCES

Pollock, Dale. “Steve Martin: A Wild and Serious Guy.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1984.


The Lonely Guy Production Notes. 1984.