Friday, July 18, 2014

The Black Stallion

The two action/adventure films that made the greatest impression on me as a young boy were The Black Stallion (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). While I’ve seen the latter countless times over the years, I realized recently that I hadn’t seen the former since my parents took me to see it in theaters back in 1979. How could this be? I seem to remember liking it enough that my folks bought me Walter Farley’s 1941 novel of the same name on which it’s based. It wasn’t exactly hard to find on home video or see occasionally on television. I recently caught up with the film Blu-Ray and was instantly taken back to when I first saw it as a child. I was also able to appreciate its artistry more now as an adult. The Black Stallion is beautifully shot – it’s basically an art house film for children, which is unthinkable in this day and age of noisy CGI animated movies and dumbed-down live-action fare. This is due in large part to the intelligent screenplay – written by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William D. Wittliff – and the masterful direction of Carroll Ballard who got an incredibly sensitive performance out of a young boy by the name of Kelly Reno. The film was regarded as a unique anomaly when it came out and continues to be one of the most under-appreciated children’s films.

Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) is a young boy traveling with his father (Hoyt Axton) on a ship off the coast of North Africa in 1946. Ballard creates an exotic mood right from the get-go with Carmine Coppola’s low-key experimental score and Caleb Deschanel’s hand-held camerawork, popular in 1970s documentaries. Alec spots a majestic-looking Arabian stallion being treated poorly by its handlers. He goes below deck to tell his father about this wonderful horse, but he’s in a high stakes card game with some shifty-looking players. The young boy takes a bunch of sugar cubes and feeds them to the horse.

Later on, Alec’s father shows his son all the loot he won in the card game. Naturally, he pockets the money, but gives the boy a pocket knife and a figurine of Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s magical horse. In an enthralling scene, he tells Alec the story of how Alexander tamed and befriended Bucephalus, foreshadowing Alec’s relationship with “The Black,” the horse on the ship. Most of the dialogue spoken in the first half of The Black Stallion is done in this scene as Ballard relies on visual storytelling, which is quite effective in the harrowing sequence where the ship is sunk by severe weather. He does an excellent job of conveying the chaos that ensues as everyone frantically tries to escape the sinking ship via nightmarish lighting and disorienting camerawork. This is an intense scene for a children’s film as Alec and The Black narrowly escape.


Both of them wash up on a small, deserted island. Alec must first gain The Black’s trust and then over time they bond, surviving by their wits. There is no dialogue during these scenes as Ballard relies on Reno’s expressive face and the way he interacts with the horse to tell the story of their emerging friendship. This is enhanced by Coppola’s wonderfully minimalist score and Deschanel’s stunning cinematography that initially presents the island as an imposing, unforgiving environment to one that gradually becomes a beautiful haven, of sorts, as Alec and the horse become more familiar with their surroundings. This entire stretch of The Black Stallion resembles a children’s adventure film as if directed by Terrence Malick as we get one stunning shot of the sky and the island after another.

What really stands out in the first half of this film is the acting of first-timer Kelly Reno. Once Alec is stranded on the island with The Black, he has to convey a whole range of emotions – fear, sadness, and wonderment – and does so convincingly. In addition, he has to interact with this horse and make us believe that they are developing an unbreakable bond. This is not an easy task for a seasoned actor much less an inexperienced child, but the lack of formal training actually works to Reno’s advantage, giving his performance an authentic feel.

I like how Ballard shows Alec’s resourcefulness on the island. For example, he shows how the boy tries to catch a fish or builds a fire for warmth or collects seaweed for The Black to eat. He also does a nice job of gradually showing Alec and the horse becoming friends. Despite saving each other’s lives early on, the horse is understandably wary of the boy, only knowing cruelty at the hands of humans. There is almost a nature documentary feel to these scenes as Ballard’s camera plays close attention to the horse’s behavior. He is fascinated by how The Black acts and in turn so are we. It is something he would return to again only with wolves in the equally impressive Never Cry Wolf (1983). There’s nothing forced or cutesy about the relationship between Alec and the horse. There is, at times, a playful quality, like when Ballard films the boy riding The Black for the first time, capturing it almost entirely from an underwater point-of-view. However, for the most part, this is a heartfelt and sincere story about two characters and it’s hard not to get caught up in their adventure.


As most critics at the time of its release noted, because the first half of The Black Stallion is so bold in its unconventional storytelling, the second half is a little anticlimactic as Alec and The Black are rescued and return home where they cross paths with Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), a veteran horse trainer who is coaxed out of self-imposed retirement by the young boy to prepare both of them for a big race. Mickey Rooney brings his trademark charm to the role while delivering a nicely understated performance as a man whose passion for racing is reignited by Alec and his mysterious horse. There is an almost haunting look of defeat on Rooney’s face when we first meet Henry, but this soon gives way to joy as he dusts off all his techniques and imparts his knowledge on the boy. These scenes take a fascinating look at what needs to be done to train not just a horse, but a rider for a race.

There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that took place during the making of The Black Stallion. Francis Ford Coppola was so taken with Walter Farley’s novel that he bought the rights to the entire series, envisioning sequels and possibly a T.V. series. He asked fellow UCLA classmate Carroll Ballard to develop a film adaptation with editor Walter Murch. Both Ballard and Murch found the book lacking originality and was too sentimental for their tastes. Ballard said, “I really didn’t like the book that much. I thought it was kind of a Leave It to Beaver story.” He and Murch told Coppola how they felt, which angered him. Coppola told the two men that if they didn’t like the project they could quit.

Ballard, probably realizing that this was only real shot at directing a film, stuck with it, but his friction with Coppola continued into pre-production as they disagreed over the screenplay. Melissa Mathison, one of the screenwriters, said of Ballard, “There would have been absolutely no words in The Black Stallion if he could have managed it. The meaning and feeling had to be in the picture – more photograph than moving picture.” Producers Tom Sternberg, Fred Roos and Ballard traveled to England, Morocco, Egypt and the United States looking for the right Arabian stallion to portray The Black. They found Cass Ole in San Antonio, Texas. In addition, three other horses were trained to do other things like fighting and running. Before filming began, the four horses underwent an 11-week training session. Each horse was trained to do different things so that by the start of filming the production had a loving horse, a bucking horse, a wild horse, and a race horse. Kelly Reno grew up riding horses on his parents’ 10,000-acre Colorado ranch. His mother heard about an open audition for The Black Stallion and entered her son who was chosen for the much-sought after role. He joined the training for several weeks so that he could develop a rapport with Cass Ole.


Sardinia, Italy was chose for the island sequences because of its breathtaking coastal areas and Toronto, Canada because it closely resembled the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in the late 1940s. Ballard started filming in 1977, but felt that Coppola interfered with principal photography. Bad weather was a problem during the entire Canadian shoot with the summer of ’77 being one of the rainiest and hottest on record. One day’s temperature was recorded at 115 degrees! The Sardinia shoot had its own unique logistical problems with its remote location and challenging terrain. Camera equipment had to be hand-carried in and out of the site. The sinking of the ship was recreated in a large outdoor water tank at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. An actual-sized passenger ship – the largest ever created for that tank – was built.

During principal photography, Ballard adopted an improvisational approach that upset several of the Canadian crew members. The Toronto crew that worked on The Black Stallion while filming in Canada was used to the fast working methods of T.V. production and according to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Ballard “wanted to be able to change his mind and shoot what he felt like shooting,” which turned out to be a very Terrence Malick-esque way of filming. Even Deschanel had his doubts about Ballard’s style of directing. The two men had worked together on some documentary films previously and so when it came to make his feature film debut, Ballard enlisted Deschanel’s expertise.

After principal photography ended, The Black Stallion began an equally turbulent post-production phase. Francis Ford Coppola originally envisioned an unconventional score and brought in jazz and classical artist William Russo, but he quickly got into disagreements with Ballard over the musical approach to be taken and the composer quit without writing a note! Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) composed a score, but Ballard demanded so many re-writes that he ended up alienating the composer from the project. Ballard brought in Shirley Walker to develop a new underscore for some of the film’s more intimate sequences, like the ones on the island and ended up alienating her as well. Things got so bad that the director ended up rewriting multiple cues for the final edits of the film.

The Black Stallion sat on the shelf for two years! United Artists executives claimed it was unreleasable because they felt it was an art film for kids. Finally, in 1979, Coppola used his clout to get it released. The film enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The first hour of this movie belongs among the great filmgoing experiences. It is described as an epic, and earns the description.” Pauline Kael said it was “one of the rare movies that achieves a magical atmosphere. Seeing it is like being carried on a magic carpet; you don’t want to come down. (it may be the greatest children’s movie ever made.)” The Los Angeles Times’ March Chalon Smith wrote, “You can forgive the film’s second half and its bowing to the push-button emotions of Hollywood; the first half of The Black Stallion, is so graceful it approaches the essence of a wonderful dream.” People magazine called it, “a lyrical film, exploding with beauty.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Ballard’s direction, of a story designed to excite the viewer’s imagination and curiosity, instead stifles these feelings by emphasizing the cosmetic value of every frame.”


Even though it is easy to figure out how The Black Stallion will end, Ballard manages to wring every ounce of tension out of the climactic race, and does little to diminish the emotional impact. So many films that involve animals are full of silly slapstick or are rife with sappy sentimentality. The Black Stallion is refreshingly devoid of either. It is a sincere children’s film that can also be appreciated by adults who will marvel at its craftsmanship while still getting caught up in the engrossing story and the relationship between its two engaging lead characters. Ballard’s film was even better than I remember it being those many years ago. It transcends any notions of personal nostalgia and should be regarded as an under-appreciated masterpiece.


SOURCES

The Black Stallion – One Tough Movie.” Arabian Horse-World. April 1978.

LoBrutto, Vincent and Harriet R. Morrison. The Coppolas: A Family Business. Praeger. 2012.

Silberg, Joel. “The Right Stuff.” American Cinematographer. January 2010.

Sragow, Michael. “E.T. Turns Thirty.” The New Yorker. October 3, 2012.

Takis, John. “Liner Notes.” The Black Stallion: Intrada Special Collection CD.


Wulff, Jennifer. “Horse Power.” People. September 17, 2001.


Here's a link to the official site of the books and that has an excellent section on the film.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Moonstruck

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of their Great Romantic Movies countdown.

It took a Canadian filmmaker to make Moonstruck (1987), the quintessential Italian-American romantic comedy from a screenplay written by an Irish-American playwright, but then isn’t that what the American experience is all about? For what is the United States, but the great melting pot? Norman Jewison’s film is a celebration of love, life and food. John Patrick Shanley’s script is full of romantic yearnings for, among many things, the opera and, of course, the moon. Above all else, the film places an emphasis on the importance of family. Moonstruck was the My Big Fat Geek Wedding (2002) of its day only infinitely better and about an Italian family as opposed to a Greek one. Watching Jewison’s film again, you realize just how much Nia Vardalos’ romantic comedy is heavily indebted to it. If Moonstruck is La Boheme than Greek Wedding is Tony and Tina’s Wedding.

Loretta Castorini (Cher) is engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). They act like an old married couple and they haven’t even tied the knot yet! And therein lies the problem – their relationship lacks passion. He is called away suddenly to Italy to see his mother on her deathbed and asks Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding. Ronny works in a bakery and is bitter over having lost his hand in a freak accident, blaming Johnny for what happened. In a classic case of opposites attracting, Loretta and Ronny find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other.

At the time, Nicolas Cage was considered an odd casting choice because of his reputation as an eccentric character actor. The way he gestures and enunciates certain words is off-kilter in such a way that it gives his scenes a wonderfully unpredictable vibe. He makes unusual choices and surprisingly they all work. Cage delivers a very physical, Brando-esque performance only filtered through his very distinctive style of acting as evident in the scene where Ronny and Loretta meet for the first time. Cage is fascinating to watch for the unusual choices he makes. Ronny paces around the room, starting his rant quietly before gradually building in intensity, punctuating his impassioned speech with words like, “huh” and “sweetie.” Jewison orchestrates the actor beautifully through editing so that the scene has an absolutely captivating rhythm as we gain insight into Ronny’s character. Cage conveys an impressive range of emotions as Ronny goes from pride to rage to sadness.


He plays well off of Cher and they have the kind of chemistry that is so important for this kind of film. His fiery, Method approach works well in contrast to Cher’s more controlled style and their scenes together crackle with the intensity of two actors with very different approaches bouncing off each other. Ronny is a wounded animal, “a wolf without a foot,” as Loretta puts it, and she is “a bride without a head,” as he tells her, but over the course of the film she transforms him into a civilized human being. She brings out the romantic who likes to dress up and go to the opera. Cher does a wonderful job of immersing herself in the character of Loretta, a strong-willed, smart woman who thinks she has it all figured out until she meets Ronny. On the surface, Loretta may seem like a cynic, but she has taken what she feels is a more realistic approach towards love because of the death of her previous husband. She has chosen to marry Johnny not because she loves him, but because he’s a safe bet. Her heart has fallen asleep only to be awakened by Ronny. Cher won a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance as a widow who, against her better judgement, falls in love again. Watching her in this film reminds one how natural an actress she is and what a crime it is that she doesn’t act more often.

Cage and Cher are well supported by a fantastic cast of colorful character actors. Vincent Gardenia plays Loretta’s cheap father Cosmo who has a lover on the side and Olympia Dukakis is Rose, her wise mother full of world-weary pearls of wisdom, like when she tells her daughter about men: “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” There’s an air of sadness to her character as Rose seems to have resigned herself to a life where every day is the same. Then there’s Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. as Loretta’s grandfather who can be seen in several scenes walking his small fleet of mangy dogs and seems to be used as merely window-dressing until Jewison gives him a pivotal moment towards the end of the film.

The film’s secret weapon is Danny Aiello as mama’s boy Johnny. From hysterical crying to the way he interacts with Cher’s Loretta, his portrayal of Johnny is a master class in comedic acting. Johnny thinks he knows something about men and women (“A man who can’t control his woman is funny.”), but is quickly put in his place by Loretta. Aiello does wonders with throwaway bits of dialogue like, “My scalp is not getting enough blood sometimes,” as Johnny tells Loretta over dinner while vigorously rubbing his hair. He doesn’t mug per se, but rather plays it straight in a way that makes his character look ridiculous via tiny gestures or through a specific facial expression. Compared to someone like Cage, you know Aiello has no chance with Cher, but the actor plays it like Johnny believes they are going to get married all the way through the film.


There are superb recurring gags, like John Mahoney’s sad university professor who keeps striking out with younger women that throw wine in his face midway through dinner before storming out of the restaurant. While his character is a bit of a Lech, Mahoney’s expressive eyes convey a sadness that makes you feel somewhat sympathetic for him. There’s a nice scene between his character and Rose where they end up having dinner together at the restaurant after he’s publicly embarrassed yet again by his latest young lady friend (Canadian actress Cynthia Dale in a small role). It’s a lovely scene between two lonely people as they talk honestly about their lives and she asks him, “Why do men chase women?” He has no good answer and she tells him, “I think it’s because they fear death.” It kickstarts a fascinating conversation that allows us to understand these two people. Every time I watch Moonstruck I imagine an offshoot film that follows Rose and the professor as they run off together or perhaps have a brief affair.

The use of location is excellent. For example, the opening shot is of Lincoln Center (which features prominently later on) in New York City so we know exactly where we are. Most of the film is set in Brooklyn and Jewison conveys an almost tactile feel for the borough. You want to be there and know these people. You also get a real sense of community. The warm, inviting lighting of the Italian restaurant where Johnny proposes to Loretta and where her mother has dinner with Mahoney’s professor has a wonderful, intimate atmosphere made up of warm reds and contrasting greens that puts you right there. There is another scene where Loretta looks out the window at the full moon in the night sky and the lighting is perfect with just the right music that results in such a touching, poignant moment. No words are spoken because none are needed with such visuals.

Moonstruck received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “I was struck by how subtle and gentle it is, despite all the noise and emotion. How it loves its characters, and refuses to limit their personalities to a few comic traits.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “They’re an irresistibly offbeat couple – Cage playing on the edge, where he likes it; Cher creating a fairy tale realist, captivating yet cautious. He looks like the bastard son of Mama Celeste and Wile E. Coyote, and she, as the camera romances her Mediterranean features, is Mona Lisa in heavy mascara.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson wrote, “They come from Shanley’s gorgeous dialogue: the tart, real talk of people who’ve lived together their lives long, filtered through a poet’s sensibility.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “Cher is the nominal star of what turns out to be a terrific ensemble piece about a bunch of tough-as-nails Italian characters living in New York.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Moonstruck clearly means to celebrate all things Italian. However, it creates the false but persistent impression that most of the people who made it have never been closer to Italy than, perhaps, Iowa.”



As much as the 1980s was typified by Wall Street’s (1987) Gordon Gekko and his “Greed is good” mantra, Moonstruck is about blue-collar people. It pays tribute to folks that represent the glue of society, showing us bookkeepers, bread makers, liquor store owners, plumbers and so on plying their trade. The characters in this film may lead workaday jobs, but their personal lives are anything but average. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Moonstruck does heighten ethnic stereotypes for comedic effect, but the latter film does so sincerely and with class. Moonstruck perpetuates a lot of Italian stereotypes, but not in a grating way, playfully making fun of some of them while celebrating others with affection. Far from being a bundle of ethnic clich├ęs, it is a celebration of the Italian-American experience. The crucial difference between the two films is tone. Where Greek Wedding is all cuddly, feel good sitcom, Moonstruck has some bite to it, an edge as represented by Cage’s passionate performance. This film is full of fantastic acting and much pleasure comes from watching a very talented cast speak brilliantly written dialogue. Best of all it has a wonderful sense of romantic naivete, a cinematic love letter to New York City.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

It is rather unfortunate that since his masterful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Terry Gilliam has struggled to not only get funding for his films, but to get them made at all. From the compromised The Brothers Grimm (2005) to the little-seen Tideland (2005), fans of this idiosyncratic auteur have often had to endure agonizingly lengthy intervals between films as he has found Orson Welles’ famous quote about filmmaking – “It’s about two percent movie-making and 98% hustling.” – to be painfully true. After the unevenness of the aforementioned films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) was seen as a return to form with Gilliam writing an original screenplay with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). The end result was vintage Gilliam who was able to cut loose and let his fantasy film freak flag fly free. However, it came at a terrible price when his leading man, Heath Ledger, died suddenly partway through production, which was subsequently temporarily suspended until Gilliam was able to come up with some creative tweaking. He enlisted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to complete Ledger’s scenes and finish Gilliam’s labor of love.

A ramshackle traveling roadshow makes its way through the dirty streets of London, England (the shots of homeless people sleeping on the street evokes Gilliam’s ode to them in The Fisher King) before stopping outside a nightclub under a bridge. It is part-theater (with cheap sets reminiscent of the play put on in Baron Munchausen) and part-magic show as the benign Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) offers some kind of New Age-y promise of fulfillment. When a drunken club kid makes some crude sexual advances towards his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), she takes him through a mirror that acts as a gateway to a surreal magical world allowing Gilliam to cut loose with his trademark flights of fancy. A person’s experience in this realm reflects their personality and so a self-absorbed little boy finds himself in a slightly menacing version of Candyland.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus resembles Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) in that all three films feature a scrappy small group of outsiders that dwell on the fringes of society and barely get by on their unique skills. Gilliam takes us behind the curtain to show how this small group of dreamers ekes out an existence. Anton (Andrew Garfield) serves as the master of ceremonies, of sorts, and is sweet on Valentina who dreams of leading a normal life. Percy (Verne Troyer) is Parnassus’ confidant and comic relief as well as driver of their caravan. Unbeknownst to Valentina, her father made a deal with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) a.k.a. The Devil: in exchange for being granted immortality, he must give him any child of his when they turn 16 years of age. Valentina is only three days from this age and Parnassus tries to figure some way out of it.

Possible salvation comes in the form of a mysterious stranger that Anton and Valentina rescue from a hangman’s noose under a bridge. He (Heath Ledger) eventually wakes up scared, disoriented and suffering from amnesia. Parnassus is convinced that he’s been sent by Mr. Nick as a way to change their agreement. Nevertheless, he takes the man in and makes him part of the troupe, Valentina dubbing him George, but whom we son learn is actually Tony Shepherd who runs a sizable charity. His job is to recruit a potential audience and turns out to be quite adept at fleecing people of their spare change.

Christopher Plummer brings a world-weary gravitas to Parnassus. Throughout the film he makes you wonder if his character genuinely has magical abilities or if he is merely a charlatan who resorts to age-old con man tricks. Parnassus does love his daughter and will do anything to keep her from Mr. Nick’s clutches even if it means taking five souls – too bad he’s not very good at it. Much like the Baron in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Sam Lowry in Brazil (1985), and Parry in The Fisher King (1991), Parnassus is a dreamer who believes in “the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives.”

Heath Ledger was a versatile actor that could move effortlessly back and forth form big studio films like The Dark Knight (2008) and small independent films like Candy (2006). The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhere in-between and the actor immerses himself with trademark gusto. Tony is the audience surrogate – the most “normal” of any of the characters, but he soon fits in seamlessly with this ragtag troupe. Ledger plays Tony as a passionate smooth-talker that, in one memorable scene, persuades a female mall shopper to enter the Imaginarium. Tony is a meaty role for the actor to sink his teeth into, allowing him to be broad and theatrical and also to bring it down in intimate scenes. In what could have been a jarring change turns out to be a fantastic decision to have Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell portray the Imaginarium incarnations of Tony. They each use their own unique type of charisma to convey Tony’s seductive powers of persuasion.

Tom Waits brings a wonderfully droll sense of humor to the role of Mr. Nick. He portrays a mischievous trickster patiently biding his time until he can take Valentina as per his deal with Parnassus. Waits has a blast playing this deliciously amoral character his scenes with Plummer crackle with a playful energy. A pre-The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Andrew Garfield is good as Anton, the M.C. who is relegated to a background role when Tony takes over and becomes jealous of how the enigmatic interloper charms Valentina.

As you would expect from a Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features some breathtaking visuals, like the immense, snowswept monastery that Parnassus lived in many years ago or the grungy, noisy streets of London, which demonstrates the director’s versatility of working in largely imagined worlds while also utilizing actual locations. The obvious artificiality of the Imaginarium sequences is reminiscent of the Moon sequence in Baron Munchausen. It isn’t that Gilliam had to make due with substandard special effects, but that the obvious lo-tech look of some scenes is intentional as he indulges in his love of the theater. Not surprisingly, the Imaginarium is a surreal realm that follows a kind of dream logic and so you have things like a song and dance number with burly policemen wearing dresses and twirling truncheons.

The film’s central theme concerns the lost art of telling a good story, which is best summed up by Parnassus when he tells Mr. Nick, “Somewhere in this world, right now, someone else is telling a story, a different story, a saga, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death – it doesn’t matter … You can’t stop stories being told,” to which the dapper antagonist deadpans, “That’s a weak hypothesis.” In fact, Parnassus believes so much in it that he makes a deal with the Devil so that he can tell stories forever. Unfortunately, in contemporary times it is harder and harder to find people who want to hear a story being told what with the myriad of modern conveniences that compete for our time be it social media or cell phones.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus champions the power of imagination and the art of telling a good story – something that we are in dire need of in an age where our lives are increasingly dominated by technology and our attentions spans are fragmented by a myriad of distractions. Gilliam believes in good ol’ fashion storytelling. As always, the cynic and the romantic are at odds in Gilliam’s films and this one is no different. Sometimes, the cynical ending wins out as with 12 Monkeys (1995) and sometimes it’s the romantic on as with The Fisher King. What sides does Parnassus go with? Ah, well, as a little boy asks late in the film, “Does it come with a happy ending?” to which Percy replies, “Sorry, we can’t guarantee that.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Speed

When it comes to action movies you don’t have to reinvent the genre every time out. Audiences are hungry for engaging characters to root for, a dastardly villain to jeer and some exciting action set pieces to get their pulses racing. Speed (1994) does just that. While it certainly didn’t win any points for originality – it’s basically Die Hard (1988) on a bus – the movie is so effortlessly entertaining that its flaws seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Every time I watch Speed I get caught up in the action and marvel at the fantastic chemistry between its two leads – Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. And to think the former was considered something of a gamble at the time despite previously starring in the modestly successful cops and surfers action movie Point Break (1991). The latter was something of an unknown commodity herself, appearing previously in a string of forgettable supporting roles in movies like The Thing Called Love (1993) and Demolition Man (1993). The success of Speed changed both of their careers and how the media and the public at large perceived them.

When an explosion strands a group of people in an express elevator between the 29th and 30th floors in a high-rise office building in downtown Los Angeles, SWAT are called in to rescue these poor folks before the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) blows the emergency brakes in 23 minutes unless he gets three million dollars. Leading the charge is Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels), a young hotshot and a cynical veteran respectively, that are introduced hurtling through the air in their in the same kind of fashion as seen in early Tony Scott and Michael Bay action movies.

Jack and Harry have a tried and true dynamic that is familiar in these kinds of movies with the former being a cocky guy who thinks outside the box while the latter is an endless source of sarcastic remarks. They are also very good at their job, so much so that they manage to thwart the bomber in an excitingly tense sequence. It looks like the bomber blew himself up, but when a bus explodes near Jack’s favorite coffee shop (such a ‘90s staple), our intrepid hero is contacted by the bomber and told of a specific bus that has a bomb on it that will arm itself once it reaches 50 miles per hour and blow up if it then goes below that speed. Jack has to find it and then figure out a way to either disarm the bomb or get the passengers off without the bomber’s knowledge. He’s aided in this endeavor by Annie (Sandra Bullock), one of the bus passengers.


I like the little bits of business in the movie, like the attention paid to some of the bus passengers, most notably Alan Ruck’s good-natured yet annoyingly overly chatting tourist and how Annie comes up with a lame excuse, like gum on her seat, in order to move away from him without hurting his feelings. It is things, like that moment, that provide bits of insight into these characters and makes them more relatable. There are also moments of levity like Glenn Plummer’s understandably irked car owner providing a humorous commentary to Jack commandeering his vehicle and then driving like a maniac to catch the bus. These moments are used judiciously to help alleviate the tension at key junctures in the movie.

In 1994, Keanu Reeves was still known mostly for independent movies like River’s Edge (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) and dabbling in studio fare like Parenthood (1989) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). If there were any questions about his leading man credentials prior to Speed, they were quashed by the movie’s massive success. I like that De Bont makes a point of showing Jack thinking things through and figuring out that the bomber is in the building at the beginning of the movie. And so, the beauty of Speed is that it’s not just a battle of wills between Jack and the bomber, but also of wits. Reeves does a fine job in the thankless stereotypical action hero role. The actor doesn’t inject too much personality into the character beyond acting heroic, but comes to life in his scenes with Sandra Bullock who temporarily frees him from the constraints of his underwritten role and actually steals many of their scenes together. That being said, he excels at the physical stuff, building on the action chops he displayed in Point Break and anticipating the even loftier action movie notes he would hit with The Matrix films.

I like that Annie isn’t your typical damsel in distress and Sandra Bullock doesn’t play her that way. She takes the wheel of the bus after the driver is incapacitated and offers witty, witheringly sarcastic remarks, like when Jack asks her if she can drive it (“Oh sure, it’s just driving a really big Pinto.”). She engages in amusing, Joss Whedon-flavored banter with Jack, which helps break up the tension every so often. Annie is not an ultra-confident action heroine, but just someone trying to do the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. It is this appealing girl-next-door quality that audiences fell in love with and transformed Bullock into America’s sweetheart for a few years. With her adorable good looks and spunky charm, Bullock is very likeable as Jack’s foil. There is something inherently appealing about her that makes you like the actress. Annie not only shows resilience in the face of overwhelming danger, but also a vulnerability that is refreshing in an action movie and quite endearing.


It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has terrific chemistry with Reeves. It’s not something you can manufacture: it either exists or it doesn’t and the two actors play well off each other as Annie humanizes Jack. They make a good team working together to keep the bus moving while he tries to figure out how to get everyone off safely. It’s really only until the final showdown with the bomber that she’s reduced to a stereotypical damsel in distress role. The success of Speed paved the way for an ill-conceived sequel that Reeves wisely opted out of, leaving Bullock to try and recreate the magic of the first one with Jason Patric, whom she did not have good chemistry with like she did with Reeves, which can’t be stated enough.

Thanks to his memorable turn in Blue Velvet (1986), Dennis Hopper enjoyed a string villainous roles in several movies (see Super Mario Bros., Red Rock West, Waterworld, and so on) and he looks to be clearly relishing a mad bomber character that alternates between gleefully tormenting Jack and ranting about what he’s owed. Hopper’s baddie isn’t your typical movie psycho, but a guy with a specific agenda that gradually becomes apparent over the course of the movie.

Having learned from master action movie director John McTiernan where he was the cinematographer on Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October (1990), Jan de Bont shows considerable action chops on Speed, from the daring elevator rescue that kicks things off to the preposterous jump the bus makes over a large section of missing freeway. De Bont understands that what makes most top-notch action movies work is dynamic editing. Kinetic action is best conveyed with the right amount of editing so that when something dramatic is happening the movie often cuts to a reaction shot of someone, for example, to show how he or she are dealing with it. No matter how implausible the action if the actors sell it, we’ll believe it, much like the aforementioned bus jump.


Screenwriter Graham Yost had cut his teeth writing for television and found himself between jobs when he wrote the screenplay for Speed – then called Minimum Speed. He finally got a job writing for Full House when he got the call that his Speed script had sold. He soon quit the sitcom. Jan de Bont was developing a movie about skydiving at Paramount Pictures when he was shown the script for Speed. He liked the premise and wanted it to be his directorial debut, sticking with the project even when the studio put it in turnaround and it eventually migrated over to 20th Century Fox. However, he wasn’t the first choice to direct with the likes of John McTiernan and Walter Hill approached, but both of who turned the project down.

For the role of Jack Traven, the studio approached Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and then Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Someone mentioned Keanu Reeves and Yost remembered that he was quite good in Parenthood. The actor was initially hesitant to do the movie after reading Yost’s script: “There were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced – Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy.” Coming off Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), Reeves spent two months in the gym in order to look the part of a police officer. He immersed himself in the role, training with the actual LAPD SWAT, which inspired him to get a military-style haircut. This freaked out some studio executives who felt the look was a little extreme. He further immersed himself in the role by also picking out his character’s clothes. While Speed was in production, Reeves’ good friend and fellow actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose. De Bont adjusted the shooting schedule so that Reeves had a chance to deal with it.

As originally written, Annie was an African-American paramedic and at some point, Halle Berry was approached. Yost wanted someone funnier for the part and thought of Ellen DeGeneres. The studio wanted actresses like Meryl Streep and Kim Basinger, both of whom passed because they didn’t buy into the movie’s premise. The studio didn’t want Sandra Bullock and De Bont had fight for her: “I couldn’t see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses … I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way – in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual.” De Bont brought Bullock in to audition with Reeves several times to not only convince the studio that she was right for the role, but to also develop a rapport between the two actors that would be readily evident in the final movie. At the very last moment, the studio relented and allowed him to cast her.


Everyone agreed that the script needed work and a week before principal photography was to begin, De Bont brought in Joss Whedon, then a script doctor on films like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Waterworld (1995), to do some revisions, which involved, according to Yost, rewriting almost all of the dialogue. He also cut back on some of Jack’s superficial humor and made him a more earnest character, tweaked the plot, like showing how Jack was able to track down Dennis Hopper’s bomber, and changed Alan Ruck’s character from a lawyer who is killed to a tourist. De Bont remembers, “I would call him early in the morning and say, ‘Joss, I need two lines for this.’ And then he’d call me back 10 minutes later. He’d come up with some great little sayings that were basically continuing the tension, while at the same time pushing some relief into it as well.” De Bont came up with the action set pieces, like the 50-foot bus jump, that he had always wanted to see in a movie.

Speed enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “All of this is of course gloriously silly, a plundering of situations from the Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies all the way back to the Perils of Pauline, but so what? If it works, it works.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The summertime no-brainer needn’t be entirely without brains. It can be as savvy as Speed, the runaway-bus movie that delivers wall-to-wall action, a feat that’s never as easy as it seems.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Nothing Speed puts on screen, from fiery explosions to mayhem on the freeway, hasn’t been done many times before, but De Bont and company manage to make it feel fresh and exciting.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s a pleasure to be in the hands of an action filmmaker who respects the audience. De Bont’s craftsmanship is so supple that even the triple ending feels justified, like the cataclysmic final stage of a Sega death match.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Sandra Bullock’s performance: “If it weren’t for the smart-funny twist she gives to her lines – they’re the best in the film – the air on that bus would have been stifling.”

Like any good action movie thrill ride, Speed puts its characters through its paces by confronting them with one danger after another. What makes this movie so appealing is how Jack and Annie work together to figure out and overcome the obstacles that confront them. Not every problem is solved with a gun like in so many action movies from the 1980s. In fact, in Speed, guns are rendered useless, forcing Jack to be much more resourceful. If there isn’t much depth to these characters it’s because there doesn’t need to be. Speed has nothing more on its mind then to be an entertaining ride and on that level it works like gangbusters.



SOURCES

Bierly, Mandi. “Speed 20th Anniversary: Screenwriter Graham Yost Looks Back on the ‘Bus Movie’ That Became a Classic.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 2014.

Gerosa, Melina. “Speed Racer.” Entertainment Weekly. June 10, 1994.

Kozak, Jim. “Serenity Now! An Interview with Joss Whedon.” In Focus. August/September 2005.


Tapley, Kristopher. “Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves and Jan de Bont Look Back at Speed 20 Years Later. HitFix. June 10, 2014.