Friday, October 17, 2014

The First Power

The late 1980s to the early 1990s was a good time for Lou Diamond Phillips. La Bamba (1987) was his breakout movie with an inspired performance as legendary rock ‘n’ roller Richie Vallens. He capitalized on this newfound fame by delivering a gritty performance in Stand and Deliver (1988), but his most commercially successfully period was Young Guns (1988) and its sequel (1990). He parlayed the clout garnered from these movies to star in The First Power (1990), a B-movie fusion of supernatural horror and neo-noir that was critically mauled, but a hit at the box office, more than doubling its budget. Written and directed by Robert Resnikoff, the movie looks like an average ‘80s cop picture with a typically intense performance by Phillips and a charismatically creepy turn by Jeff Kober playing the antagonist.

A nun (Elizabeth Arlen) warns her superiors about the rise of cult killings in the United States as a sign that Satan is getting more powerful. They dismiss her claims and send her back to the convent from whence she came. As it so happens, there is a serial killer known as the Pentagram Killer (Jeff Kober) on the loose in Los Angeles who carves a, you guessed it, pentagram into the bodies of his victims.

Russell Logan (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the police detective determined to catch this nutbag, but has been unable to figure out the killer’s next target until he gets a phone call from a mysterious woman claiming that she knows. Resnikoff films the caller in noirish shadows so that her identity is obscured. One night, Logan and his partner Oliver Franklin (Mykelti Williamson) are patrolling streets three nights into their stakeout and their brief exchange not only conveys the camaraderie between the two men, but that Logan is skeptical of the supernatural angle to these killings while his partner is a believer.


Of course, his superiors don’t buy Logan’s theory or his anonymous source, but they’re soon eating their words when one of the undercover cops (Sue Giosa) is nabbed by the killer. Fortunately, Logan and Franklin arrive just in time with the former pursuing the killer through backstreets and ending with a showdown in a warehouse. Logan manages to prevail but is stabbed multiple times in the process.

The sicko is identified as Patrick Channing who is described by friends and co-workers as, big surprise, a quiet, mild-mannered guy that was good at his job. At Channing’s trial, he is all smiles as if he knows something everyone else doesn’t. He confronts Logan on the steps of the courthouse and after joking around cryptically tells the cop that he “owes him one.” Channing looks Logan creepily in the eyes and says, “See ya around, buddy boy.”

Sure enough, Channing gets the death penalty, which prompts Logan’s anonymous source to call again and warn him to stop the execution. He’s killed, but Logan has a nightmare that the killer escapes from the gas chamber as well as seeing things that aren’t there when he’s awake. To make matters worse, the undercover cop that Logan saved is killed in Channing’s preferred style of choice. This provokes Logan’s anonymous tipster to finally surface – Tess Seaton (Tracy Griffith), a beautiful professional psychic that claims Channing’s spirit has been set free and this has enabled him to start killing again.


Naturally, Logan doesn’t believe her, but when some random junkie is brought in and identified as the killer of the undercover cop, something doesn’t seem right and he hears Channing’s voice when he confronts the catatonic derelict. All of these coincidences, plus even more weird occurrences, spook Logan enough so that he decides to team up with Tess to track down and stop Channing once and for all.

Lou Diamond Phillips dresses like a typical maverick cop complete with cowboy boots, jeans and a trenchcoat while spouting lines like, “I can do anything I want!” but the actor wisely tones down these clichés when Logan is taken out of his comfort zone as he transforms from cynic to cautious believer. As the movie progresses, Phillips does a nice job of showing how his character’s confidence is shaken after witnessing several bizarre things he can’t explain. The actor adopts a haunted look as Logan begins to doubt his sanity. To prepare for the role, Phillips rode around with Detective Bob Grogan, the primary investigator in the Hillside Strangling cases, in an unmarked police car and observed him at work.

Tracy Griffith is good as a professional psychic driven to stop Channing when she starts seeing him after his death. She’s a proactive character and a good foil for Logan. Tess doesn’t come across as some kind of New Age flake, but a grounded person who speaks matter-of-factly about the spirit world. At times, Tess brings down Logan’s defenses and the two actors play well off each other in these scenes and in others as he is the jaded cop and she is the true believer.


Known mostly for playing dastardly villains throughout his career, Jeff Kober gets to sink his teeth into a juicy role he clearly relishes playing judging from the shit-eating grin he gives throughout the movie. It’s a larger than life role that all allows the actor to play broadly and have fun with it.

The First Power received mostly negative reviews from critics. USA Today gave the film one out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “This is the kind of film that feels compelled to explain its title long after you care; that has its hero carry bigger and bigger guns, even when they’ll do no good against a supernatural villain.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Power is so shopworn and imitative, you don’t need Lou’s psychic buddy to tell what is about to happen.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “The action is fairly consistent and some of the special effects are good, but the whole thing is seriously stupid.”

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “For all its purposed concern for spirituality, The First Power is a hollow, bone-crunching, blood-splattered business.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The movie is really just a squalid cop thriller with occult clichés.” However, the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Robert Resnikoff’s lively first film is basically a shock-studded chase sequence, enlivened by dialogue that is occasionally quite funny.”


The first third of The First Power follows typical cop thriller conventions, but as Resnikoff gradually introduces supernatural elements and they begin to dominate the movie becomes more interesting. This results in some impressively staged action sequences, like when halfway through Logan corners Channing on a rooftop only for the killer to jump off, plummeting ten stories and land on his feet. It’s an audaciously staged stunt and also helps Logan believe that the supernatural is playing a part in Channing’s actions. There’s another nice bit where Logan and Tess confront Channing in a run-down hotel only for the killer to tear down ceiling fan and use it as a weapon. It isn’t very realistic, but does look cool.

The First Power does suffer a bit from The Terminator (1984) syndrome in that once Channing is resurrected and starts hopping from body to body he becomes a seemingly unstoppable killing machine much like The Hidden (1987) a few years before only it dabbled in science fiction instead of horror. There’s also very little character development and this leaves it up to Phillips and Griffith to use their charisma to get us to care about what happens to Logan and Tess, which they just manage to do. Resnikoff has created an efficient thriller trimmed of any narrative fat with a deliberately ambiguous ending that feels a bit like a cheat. While it won’t win any awards for originality, The First Power is an entertaining thriller and a supernatural noir that anticipates the likes of Lord of Illusions (1997) and The Ninth Gate (1999).


SOURCES


Smith, Harry. “Lou Diamond Phillips, Actor on The First Power.” CBS This Morning. April 4, 1990.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Enemy

As a rather astute reviewer over at The Playlist observed, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) was the best thing to ever happen to Jake Gyllenhaal’s career. The much-hyped studio blockbuster was a commercial and critical failure prompting the actor to take stock of his career. He began working with directors that thought outside the box (Duncan Jones) and films that subverted their genres (End of Watch). This deliberate decision to turn his back on mainstream movies in favor of more challenging fare culminated with Enemy (2013), a psychological thriller by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. With a storyline that involves a man discovering he has a doppelganger, which leads to their lives intersecting in ways that threatens their very existence, Enemy invokes the Harlan Ellison short story “Shatterday,” and, in particular, its adaptation that aired on the mid-1980s anthology television show, The New Twilight Zone. While Villeneuve’s film exists very much in the thriller genre, there is a pervasive feeling of dread and unease reminiscent of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) that sees Enemy crossover into the horror genre.

An ominous vibe is established right from the get-go with shots of the Toronto skyline enshrouded in smog through a sickly yellow filter coupled with a menacing, minimalist score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that puts you immediately on edge. College history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is teaching a class about how dictatorships work, which he claims, among other things, involves a repeating pattern that keeps the population busy through lower education, entertainment, limited culture, and censoring information as well as any kind of self-expression. In a way, his life is that of a self-imposed dictatorship as he repeats the same routine – he teaches his class, has dinner with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), they have sex, and she leaves. It’s a rather banal existence that includes residing in a non-descript apartment among one of many similar-looking buildings. Adam is clearly stuck in a rut and in need of a change.

A fellow teacher (Joshua Peace) strikes up a conversation one day and the man recommends a film for Adam to watch entitled, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way. He watches the movie and notices an actor that looks exactly like him! Intrigued, Adam looks the man up online and finds out that his name is Daniel Saint Claire a.k.a. Anthony Claire, a struggling actor in a troubled marriage with his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon). Soon, Adam’s obsession with Anthony affects his work and his personal life as he decides to make contact with the actor. At first, he thinks Adam is nothing more than a stalker, but is soon intrigued by this person who sounds exactly like him and arranges a face-to-face meeting. Pretty soon their respective worlds unravel as they dangerously dabble in each other’s lives.


Enemy gives Jake Gyllenhaal a chance to show his range as an actor as he starts off by portraying Adam and Anthony as two men that lead very different lives. The former is a slightly depressed professor while the latter is a confident actor. Gyllenhaal not only relies on wardrobe to differentiate the two men, but also in the way they carry themselves. Adam adopts a kind of defeated posture complete with slightly hunched shoulders while Anthony is self-assured in the way he moves around a room and interacts with his wife. This culminates in the scene where the two men first meet each other and the reaction shots Gyllenhaal gives as Adam and Anthony scope each other out is fascinating to watch. After that meeting, things change dramatically as their identities begin to blur together.

There’s a definite Lynchian vibe with technology portrayed as a menacing presence, the city as a claustrophobic hell and the use of darkness reminiscent of Lost Highway as Adam is sometimes framed in his dimly lit apartment or appears and disappears into the shadows. There is also a perverse streak that manifests itself in a subplot in which Anthony belongs to an exclusive, Eyes Wide Shut-esque sex club that we are teased with early on as a beautiful woman allows a dangerous-looking spider to crawl up her leg. This scene also introduces an unexplained recurring arachnid motif that climaxes with the startling last image of the film.

Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve read Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s novel The Double and it inspired him to make Enemy. He was working on another film at the time and hired a screenwriter to adapt the novel. Eventually, another writer by the name of Javier Gullon came on board and wrote a draft with the director. Villeneuve had the daunting task to find the right actor who could play two different characters that looked the same. He saw Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko (2001) and felt that he would be “willing to do strange things,” and marveled at how strong he was in Brokeback Mountain (2005) – two qualities he was looking for in Enemy.


He heard that the actor was available and sent him the screenplay with a manifesto describing what he wanted it to be and how he planned to make it, which intrigued Gyllenhaal. The actor invited Villeneuve to drinks in New York City. While talking over glasses of wine, a woman approached them and claimed that her son looked exactly like the actor. Gyllenhaal thought that this encounter would make a good premise for the film. The two men discovered that they shared similar artistic sensibilities and hit it off.

Villeneuve was looking for a specific urban landscape that was “spreading forever.” He felt that most big cities in North America, like New York, had been overshot, but not Toronto, which had mostly been used to double for other metropolises. He ultimately chose to film in Toronto because it had the “kind of claustrophobic oppressive environment” he was looking for and had some of the same identity issues as the protagonist: “When we were shooting, there were moments you could feel like you were in Sao Paulo or Hong Kong of anywhere. Culturally, it’s pretty extraordinary … and I think that question of identity, in an interesting way, is at the heart of Toronto itself,” commented Gyllenhaal. The distinctive yellowish color scheme came out of a “feeling of sickness, a feeling of nausea, a feeling of discomfort, feeling of paranoia, fear” that Villeneuve got from reading the novel. They were originally going to add CGI smog to the outdoor scenes, but there was so much actual pollution the summer they shot in Toronto they didn’t have to add anything!

Filming had a very loose vibe to it with some takes lasting 20 minutes. In order to create the “artificial world” of the film, Villeneuve needed enough time to work with the actors and allow them to improvise “in order to create sparks of life in front of the camera,” he said in an interview. In the scenes where Gyllenhaal plays opposite himself, computerized motion control technology was used so that any camera moves could be duplicated exactly. The actor would perform half the scene, consult with Villeneuve about which takes were the best to use, change outfits, and shoot the other side with audio playback in a tiny earpiece.


As often happens with doppelganger stories, the other person’s identity begins to eclipse that of the protagonist. Adam begins to question his existence and becomes rightly paranoid of Anthony who starts to take a disquieting interest in the professor’s life. Adam is a slightly sympathetic man that lives in fear of Anthony who is an amoral opportunist. The director does an excellent job of gradually building tension as Adam and Anthony meddle in each other’s lives and there’s an almost tangible feeling of impending doom as the film progresses. What is also interesting is how the existence of these identical-looking and sounding men affects the women in their lives in disturbing ways. Both Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon do a nice job of showing how their respective characters gradually sense something amiss about their significant others.

Enemy examines the notion of identity and what happens when what makes you unique is no longer the case. How do you deal with the knowledge that there is someone out there that looks and sounds exactly like you? How does that affect the way you live your life? Villeneuve’s film wrestles with these questions and offers no easy answers, leaving it up to the viewer to figure things out. As he said in an interview, Enemy is “designed to be a puzzle … to be an enigma … You’re supposed to be disoriented. The way we tried to do it, it’s supposed to be an exciting disorientation, not a frustrating one.” Or, as his leading man put it, “To me now, when people go What the fuck? I love that response. And this is a movie like that.”


SOURCES

Braun, Liz. “Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve Enjoying Close Creative Partnership.” Toronto Sun. January 9, 2014.

Braun, Liz. “Denis Villeneuve, Jake Gyllenhaal Team Up Again for Enemy.” Toronto Sun. March 7, 2014.

D’Addario, Daniel. “Jake Gyllenhaal: Movies are like Dreams.” Salon.com. March 10, 2014.

Emmanuele, Julia. “Director Denis Villeneuve Says It’s Normal to Be Confused by Enemy.” Hollywood.com. March 17, 2014.

Jagernauth, Kevin. “Denis Villeneuve Talks Shooting Toronto for Enemy, Dipping into the Subconscious and His Next Projects.” The Playlist. March 20, 2014.

Lawson, David Gregory. “Interview: Denis Villeneuve.” Film Comment. February 26, 2014.

Miller, Julie. “Jake Gyllenhaal Plans to Do Something Crazier Than Be Tasered or Lose 20 Pounds for a Film.” Vanity Fair. March 5, 2014.

Olsen, Mark. “Jake Gyllenhaal Doubles Down in Enemy.” Los Angeles Times. March 15, 2014.


Suskind, Alex. “Jake Gyllenhaal Talks the Duality of Enemy and Why He Wants You to Be Confused.” The Playlist. March 11, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dawn of the Dead

I’ve seen George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) enough times that when I watch it, I pay more attention to things that go on in the background or margins of scenes because I’ve always been fascinated with the world he created in the Dead films. Unlike the many imitators and wannabes, he took the time to develop the protagonists, giving them flaws and vulnerabilities so that we care about what happens to these characters while still delivering the goods in the gore department. The end result is a smart, exciting and horrifying masterpiece that has more on its mind than killing zombies.

Taking place years after the events of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn begins with Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) waking up from a nightmare into a living one. She works at a Philadelphia television station embroiled in chaos, trying desperately to stay on the air. In recent viewings I’ve paid closer attention to what is being said in the background as Romero gives us tantalizing hints to this world whose order is rapidly disintegrating thanks to the zombie epidemic.

Two pundits argue about whether people are actually coming back to life and eating the living. As the opening credits continue to appear, Romero shows people behind the scenes continuing to argue among themselves. Right from the get-go Fran has a forceful personality as she’s willing to stand-up to her boss when she goes against his orders and removes non-existent rescue stations from being broadcast. In a nice touch Romero uses one of the T.V. pundits to give us the low-down on the zombie rules in Dawn for those who might not have seen his other films. We learn that the President of the United States has implemented martial law in the country and people are no longer allowed to stay in their homes.


Fran’s boyfriend Stephen Andrews (David Emge), a helicopter pilot, urges her to take off with him. She hesitates, a last vestige of loyalty to her job perhaps, until a co-worker tells her, “We’re off the air by midnight anyway. The emergency networks are taking over. Our responsibility is finished.” The way he says that last line – in a resigned way – has always affected me and strikes a slightly ominous tone. Later on, our heroes find a television and Romero treats us to snippets of news from the outside world. One pundit suggests that the zombie outbreak might be a viral disease. We are never given the full picture, but in a way that is a smart move on his part as he realized that whatever we think up, filling the gaps with our own imagination would be better than anything he could come up with and so, in a way, we become a part of the creative process.

As if to illustrate the martial law orders for people to leave their homes, Romero cuts to a SWAT team carrying out a raid on a tenement building. We meet Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a smart and able man who tries his best to avoid a racist member (James Baffico) of his team as they enter the building to find a mix of people and the living dead. The racist cop is a continuation of the men that shot Ben at the end of Night of the Living Dead only he takes pleasure in killing African-Americans, living or dead. His actions give us a first real taste of Tom Savini’s groundbreaking make-up effects as he blows off some hapless civilian’s head off with a shotgun blast.

Fortunately, this renegade cop is taken out by one his own, Peter Washington (Ken Foree). Interestingly, the raid on the apartment building devolves into chaos just like at the T.V. station, minus the zombies, of course. I like how the sight of the living dead affects these cops. One man is so traumatized that he takes his own life. Roger is also affected and we see the shock play out on his face. Peter isn’t the cold killing machine he initially appears to be. When he and Roger clear the basement of zombies, a tear runs down his face as he tries to keep his emotions in check, but it must be difficult having to kill his fellow man.


Peter and Roger team up and the latter knows Stephen so they hook up with Fran and escape in the helicopter. As they make their way across Pennsylvania, Romero cuts to a group of redneck hunters who’ve teamed up with the military and are treating the whole thing like a hunting party complete with beer and music. This echoes a similar scene in Night of the Living Dead only with more a satirical vibe as the country music and the laidback attitude of the hunters creates a bizarrely festive mood, punctuating the pervasive feeling of dread that has permeated Dawn of the Dead up to this point.

Our heroes discover a shopping mall and decide that it is just too good of an opportunity to pass up. As they systematically take control of the place, Dawn of the Dead becomes a fascinating treatise on the pros and cons of materialism as over time our heroes get complacent and over-confident that they’ve rid the place of zombies. As is often the case in Romero’s films, humans are just as big a threat if not more so to the protagonists than the living dead. This comes in the form of a gang of marauding bikers that threaten our heroes’ peaceful existence.  It’s good in a way because the bikers wake them up, reigniting their survival instincts and reminding them that no place is safe and that the best strategy is to keep moving.

I’ve always felt that Dawn of the Dead has never gotten enough praise for its excellent screenplay that presents realistic characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances. For example, there’s a good exchange in the helicopter as everyone debates how they’re going to get more fuel and Peter lays it out for them, cutting through the bullshit: “Wake up, sucker. We’re thieves and we’re bad guys, that’s exactly what we are.” He makes a good point – societal order has gone out the window and it is everyone for themselves. There’s another nice bit when our heroes discover the rather large shopping mall and decide to check it out. As they observe the living dead shambling by stores Fran wonders, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” to which Stephen says, “Some kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”


I like that Romero isn’t afraid to have flawed protagonists. It’s more realistic and makes them more relatable. For example, Stephen isn’t as adept at killing zombies as are the well-trained Peter and Roger. His first run-in with the living dead is awkward as he clumsily tries to protect Fran. He’s also a lousy shot, unable to kill a zombie after three shots from his rife and then he almost shoots Peter while trying to nail another one. Roger is a little too cocky and over-confident when it comes to dealing with zombies. Interestingly, it is the characters with the least amount of flaws – Peter and Fran – that survive. Romero doesn’t pass judgment on any of these characters, but instead simply presents them warts and all and leaves it up to the audience to decide.

Romero’s script develops complex relationships among our heroes by introducing Fran’s pregnancy early on. While Roger, Peter and Stephen debate whether Fran should have an abortion or not, she sits in another room visibly upset at decisions being made without her two cents. Gaylen Ross handles this scene brilliantly and you really feel for Fran. I like that she speaks up, isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and lets it be known that she is not going to cater to their needs, that she wants to know what’s going on and be treated as an equal. She also demands to be taught how to fly the helicopter in case something happens to Stephen.

Scott Reiniger does a nice job of playing Roger’s transformation from empathetic cop to someone who takes too many chances and loses his objectivity with fatal results. I like how dealing with and killing zombies changes Roger. He covers up the trauma of it through false bravado. His gradual transformation into a zombie is a chilling one, not just because of Savini’s subtle make-up effects, but also how Reiniger conveys the change via his demeanor and the way he carries himself.


Ken Foree’s Peter is the calming influence on the group and he’s the natural leader if you can say it has one. He’s the first to support Fran’s demand to be treated as an equal, but with one caveat – she can’t go out with them until she learns how to use a gun. He also offers up chilling pearls of wisdom like the iconic line, “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth.”

While Night of the Living Dead is rightly regarded as a landmark film, Dawn of the Dead is a more ambitious one. It is also better written with more fully developed protagonists dealing more with just survival, but things like pregnancy and a false sense of security. Like Night, Dawn is very much a film of its time as it offers up harsh critiques on capitalism and materialism, using the zombies as metaphors for mindless consumers. It also deliver the goods for horror fans courtesy of Savini’s impressive make-up effects, culminating in the biker’s siege of the mall, that stands the test of time and still looks better than the CGI effects of its noisier, flashier remake that dumped the socio-political commentary for stylish slam-bam action.


The image of the living dead wandering mindlessly through the mall while goofy-sounding muzak plays over the soundtrack is still one of the most potent images in any film of its kind because it speaks directly to our consumer culture. The living in Dawn of the Dead consume material items while the zombies consume them. Peter and Fran survive because they don’t need all their material items to exist. The mall being overrun by bikers and zombies forces them to leave all those useless creature comforts behind and take only what they need. It is implied that they don’t have much fuel left in the helicopter, which leaves their future uncertain, but they’re alive and for right now that’s enough.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pearl Harbor

“Like I see these people on the Internet saying, ‘Oh, it’s a travesty that Michael Bay is doing this story.’ ‘Oh, why’s he doing it?’ ‘Oh, he’s going to wreck it.’ It’s like shame on those people, you know? Shame on them!” – Michael Bay

I have this sick fascination with the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor (2001). It is just so awful, but kind of mesmerizing in its awfulness. The movie was his attempt to shift gears and show the world that he could do something other than mindless action movies. With this movie, Bay, armed with Randall Wallace’s subpar John Milius-esque screenplay, thought he could replicate the formula of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) complete with Earth-shattering box returns. It was almost as if Bay expected the Academy to park a truck up to his front door and dump a bunch of awards on his doorstep because he was making an IMPORTANT MOVIE. One can almost imagine him thinking to himself, “This will be the movie they’ll remember me for,” with the same kind of hubris not seen since Charles Foster Kane thought he could make the news he was supposed to be covering.

Only that didn’t happen. Pearl Harbor didn’t make Titanic-sized numbers at the box office (although, $449 million worldwide ain’t bad), the critics hated it (let’s face it, by this point his movies had become critic-proof as the film’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer put it, “We made it for people, not critics.”) and it was nominated for more Golden Raspberry Awards than Academy Awards. Although, to be fair, it did win an Oscar for Best Sound Editing – hardly the dominance that Cameron’s movie demonstrated the year it walked away with 11 Oscars. The failure of Pearl Harbor was some kind of reality check for Bay and he retreated back to familiar turf with Bad Boys II (2003) and is now the caretaker of the Transformers franchise.

Bay lays it on thick right from the get-go as we watch two young boys play make believe they’re shooting down German planes in their father’s old biplane, the sequence awash in the golden hue of nostalgia as a crop duster flies overhead in slow motion while Hans Zimmer’s wistful score swells. It’s Tennessee 1923 and Bay then flashes forward to the best friends as aspiring hotshot fighter pilots in 1940, challenging each other like some sort of prototypical Top Gun (1986). One guy even says admiringly, “Those are some smooth aces,” and manages to do so with a straight face. This is only the first of many howlers courtesy of Wallace’s script.


Cut to Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) being chewed out by his superior, Major Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) for his screwball antics. Rafe is assigned to duty in England where World War II is raging, much to the dismay of his best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) who confronts him about it thus setting up the true romance of Pearl Harbor. No, it’s not the Hallmark Movie on steroids love affair between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, but Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s bromance. The scene depicting their tiff over Rafe leaving is the first indication that these guys were cast for their looks and not their acting, especially Hartnett who is borderline unwatchable at times. It’s not what he says per se, but how he says it – so wooden – that is so bad. The dialogue they’re forced to utter does them no favors.

The introduction of the beautiful nurses that Rafe and his fellow pilots are destined to meet reminds one that aside from choreographing explosions, Bay really knows how to photograph women, bathing the likes of Beckinsale, Jennifer Garner and Sara Rue, among others, in warm, inviting light as they gush about the hunky pilots they screened days ago. For whatever it’s worth they are all well cast and look like they came from that time period.

Rafe and Evelyn’s (Kate Beckinsale) meet-cute is largely played for laughs, both intentionally (he acts like a clumsy fool) and unintentionally (the dialogue is howlingly bad). As the scene dragged on I started to feel sorry for Affleck who not only has to try and sell this clunky dialogue, but do it with a bandage on his nose and acting like a child that needs to be taken care of, which is intended to be romantic, but comes across as laughable and insulting. And this is supposed to be the most romantic thing that has ever happened to Evelyn?! Dear Lord…


At first glance, the attention to period detail looks convincing, but a significant portion of the film’s Wikipedia page is spent pointing out the many historical inaccuracies, which is surprising with a production that had that kind of budget you’d think they’d have hired some decent technical advisors, but I can see Bay waving them aside in favor of his version of this time period, historical accuracy be damned! It’s Michael Bay’s version of the 1940s. Did he learn nothing from Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), another notorious WWII big budget fiasco? At least Spielberg was trying to make a comedy; Bay has no such excuse with the unintentional hilarity that ensues between explosive action sequences.

Bay is on stronger ground with his depiction of the plane battles where Rafe engages with German planes over England. They are exciting and Bay does a nice job conveying the chaos of aerial battle as planes dive and roll amidst machine gun fire. However, things get complicated when Rafe apparently dies in battle and Danny and Evelyn wait months to get cozy as they console each other. Danny is a little less awkward in flirting with Evelyn than Rafe and Hartnett looks most comfortable in these scenes as he lets his hunky good looks do all the heavy lifting.

Big surprise, Rafe isn’t dead after all and shows up after Danny and Evelyn have consummated their relationship in typical Bay fashion – slow motion amidst virginal white parachutes. Awkward! Oh yeah, she’s pregnant with Danny’s baby. We have to endure this mind-numbingly dull soap opera for over an hour intercut with teases of the Japanese preparing for war while Dan Aykroyd’s Captain Thurman tries to convince the military brass that Pearl Harbor would be a probable target because it would devastate the Pacific fleet. Naturally, Danny and Rafe settle their differences by kickstarting a bar brawl. Fortunately, the Japanese sneak attack allows them to settle their differences fighting side-by-side.


“It’s like, people die all over the world in earthquakes, whatever, you know, in much huger numbers than at Pearl Harbor. But there was something; there’s something. You wonder, What is it? You think, Okay, only three thousand people died, but there’s something, you know?” – Michael Bay

About 86 minutes in and what we’ve been waiting to see, or, as Martin Lawrence puts it in Bad Boys II, “This shit just got real,” as Bay presents a chilling shot of low-flying Japanese fighter planes zooming by two boys standing on a grassy field. He intercuts tons of planes advancing while most of our heroes are asleep, blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen. Not surprisingly, the best part of Pearl Harbor is the actual attack on the place because it allows Bay to do what he does best – blow shit up. Bay tries to replicate the shock and awe of the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a visceral depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’s able to use CGI to follow a Japanese bomb as it is launched from a plane and drops into a battleship, which ends up taking you out of the picture as you marvel at the stylish technique.

This sequence gives Bay a chance to indulge in explosive mayhem (or Bayhem) and man, does he ever cut loose. He makes sure we are thrown right into the middle of the action. There are some truly unsettling shots, like an ominous one of a Japanese torpedo traveling underwater and we can see the legs of countless men treading water above. That being said, it’s hard not get caught up in the carnage as we see scores of innocent sailors get blown and shot up. Not to mention, as badly as they are written, we care a little bit about what happens to Rafe and Evelyn and their friends. And yet, Bay can’t resist sticking blatant jingoistic images like the shot of American flag submerged underwater alongside men trying to stay alive.

He also can’t resist shooting the aftermath of the attack stylishly, smudging the lens with a Vaseline effect, distorting it so as to avoid an R rating with all the bloody casualties. There is the occasional odd shot, like a group of shambling burn victims framed like something out of George Romero zombie movie. Rafe and Danny help rescue men trapped in damaged ships and Bay frames Hartnett in a glamour shot, his hair stylishly mussed up, which feels sneakily exploitative and cheapens the pain and suffering around him.


Historical figures like President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) are reduced to caricatures and in what is meant to be a dramatic moment, but comes off as unintentionally ridiculous, he rises out of his wheelchair to make a point about the resilience of the human spirit. This gesture instead invokes a similar moment, although played for laughs, in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The last third of the movie features Alec Baldwin at his most Baldwin-iest as he barks out orders and makes inspirational speeches almost recalling his arrogant motivator of men from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). The actor does his best to make his cliché-ridden, rah-rah dialogue sound half-decent through sheer force of will, but it isn’t easy.

Pearl Harbor might have been a passable movie if it had ended after the attack but no, we’ve got to end things on a feel-good high and so there is the tacked on Doolittle Raid, which transforms Pearl Harbor into a revenge movie. You can almost imagine Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer brainstorming ideas – how can we give Pearl Harbor a happy ending? The Doolittle Raid also seems to be included as a way to punish Danny for stepping out with Evelyn behind his best friend’s back. And so Danny gets to die a noble death while Rafe ends up with Evelyn to raise the dead man’s child.

Pearl Harbor attracted a large number of young actors into its vortex with the likes of Jennifer Garner, Sara Rue, Jaime King, and Michael Shannon who I’m sure their agents all told them to do the movie as it would be a big boost to their careers. There’s also a few dependable veteran character actors, most notably Tom Sizemore, who brings a much-needed gritty charisma that fresh-faced pretty boys like Affleck and Hartnett can’t.


When my wife and I saw Pearl Harbor in a theater – like many we are suckered by the rather solemn, impressive-looking trailers – three-quarters of the way through she felt a rat brush by her foot. We realized that maybe we weren’t the key demographic for this movie and the presence of rats was a sign. We beat a hasty retreat and upon leaving the theater demanded our money back. We met an usher on a butt break who asked us what we thought of the movie. We told him of our woes and asked him how it ended and he bemusedly recounted the Doolittle Raid and the fates of Rafe and Danny. He did a better job of telling the story than Bay!


Pearl Harbor may feature the most harrowing depiction of the battle on film, but surrounds it on both sides with instantly forgettable filler. It has an odd place in Bay’s wrongraphy. It is the director at his most restrained with some shots lasting at least a couple of seconds before an edit (that’s a snail’s pace for him). It’s not that Bay made a movie about Pearl Harbor, but that he did a bad one. Shame on him! Instead of becoming a chapter of history like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that we will always remember, Bay’s movie belongs to a chapter of cinematic history we’d like to forget. One good thing came out of this recent experience of watching Pearl Harbor – it finally sated my curious, morbid fascination with it. I don’t feel the need to every watch it again.


SOURCES

Jones, Kent. "Bay Watch." Film Comment. July/August 2001.

Laskas, Jeanne Marie. "The Life of Michael Bay." Esquire. July 2001.