Friday, May 27, 2016

Less Than Zero

In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was published when he was only 20 and still in college. Its debauched tale of bored and hedonistic Los Angeles rich kids became a hit with the novel selling millions of copies. The Village Voice included him as part of a new generation of writers labeled the “literary brat pack” along with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York). It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling and the 1987 film version proceeded to neuter the source material by imposing a strong anti-drug message and toning down the sexuality to the point that Ellis hated the film, insisting that the end result resembled his novel in name only. Over the years, the film has transcended its source material and works best as a snapshot of the times and the social milieu it depicts.

Six months after graduating from high school, Clay Easton (Andrew McCarthy) returns home from college to L.A. for Christmas and is reunited with his ex-girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz) and his best friend Julian (Robert Downey Jr.). He arrives to the strains of “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles, which instantly transports us back to the mid-1980s. A lot has happened since graduation – Clay caught Blair and Julian having sex, which put an understandable strain on their friendship.

Clay attends a party that instantly transports one back to the ‘80s as he’s immediately greeted by a wall of televisions, neon, big hair, jackets with shoulder pads, and skinny ties. The first significant person he encounters is Rip (James Spader at his most James Spader-ish), a drug dealer Clay used to buy cocaine from. The film comes to life when James Spader first appears and exudes the kind of creepy charm that made him the go-to guy to play douchebag preppies in films like Pretty in Pink (1986) and The Rachel Papers (1989). He oozes insincere charisma and then as suddenly as he appears, Rip disappears back into the party.

Spader has another nice scene with Downey where Rip reminds Julian that he owes him $50,000, and the latter, the eternal hustler, gets some coke from the former and promises to pay him back only to take off. Once alone, Spader shows Rip thinking and then looking back at where Julian had been. At that moment, it isn’t hard to imagine that Rip is contemplating his next move, figuring out how to punish Julian. Spader plays this scene so well, keeping his emotions contained under an icy exterior. No one does calm, reptilian menace quite like Spader and it’s in the way he talks and walks as well as how he carries himself that is unsettling in an understated way.

Clay and Blair are reunited in a room that has been production designed to death (in a good way), resembling Antarctica, complete with fake icebergs and penguins. She is visibly upset and tells Clay that Julian is in trouble. She won’t give specifics except to say that he randomly disappears and is wasted all the time. Watching this scene reminds one that 1987 was the height of Jami Gertz’s hotness. She looks beautiful and also conveys the vacant jittery nature of her cokehead fashion model character. The actress gets her moments, like when she watches Clay dancing at a party and the camera gradually dollies in on her as she looks away, tears streaming down her face with an expression that seems to say, “How did I get here?” It’s a powerful bit of acting and a nice visual snapshot of her character.

Clay finally encounters Julian who is clearly coked to the gills, which Robert Downey Jr. conveys so well, instilling his character with a wide-eyed intensity and head-bobbing restlessness. Judging from the menacing look Rip gives Julian from across the room, he is in some kind of trouble with the drug dealer and director Marek Kanievska conveys it visually, focusing on the facial expressions of Downey and Spader to suggest the bad blood between them.

At one point Clay tells Blair, “Well, you fucked up, you look like shit but hey, no problem all you need’s a better cut of cocaine…Are we having fun? Is that what we’re doing? Let me know – it doesn’t feel that way.” And so begins the overly preachy, “Just Say No” segment of Less Than Zero as it becomes less interesting than what came before. Thank goodness Downey pops up to give it a much-needed jolt of reality as Julian hits rock bottom in a disturbing sequence that anticipates Requiem for a Dream (2000) by a few years and without all the flashy editing and cinematographic pyrotechnics.

Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation as Julian in what was his first substantially serious role. He demonstrates the capacity for having no vanity as an actor, which is evident in a scene where we see Julian smoking crack and he’s a sweaty mess. There’s no dialogue but through body language and facial expressions, the actor conveys his character’s self-destructive downward spiral. Downey’s Juilan is in a clammy, bloodshot state with his rumpled designer clothes, unshaven look and pretty vacant eyes. The actor wisely doesn’t always play it with manic bravado and has quiet moments where one can see that Julian is aware of his mounting problems but is in so deep he’s unable to get out from under it. Downey nails the absolute desperate depths that his character is willing to go in order to feed his drug habit, which includes stealing Clay’s mother’s jewelry and allowing Rip to pimp him out in order to pay off his debt.

Less Than Zero was an important film for Downey in that it acted as a transition from silly teen comedies to more dramatic fare. For the first time, he showcased some formidable acting chops. This is evident in the last scene Julian has with his father (Nicholas Pryor) as the former makes one last plea to the latter, asking if he can come home. We get an idea of the damage he’s done to his family. Julian seems sincere but one gets the feeling that he’s done this before. His father finally agrees in an emotionally charged moment but it is ultimately too late. Julian has burned too many bridges and people like Rip who are coming to collect. It is a tough scene to watch because it feels so raw and real. Downey physically transforms himself into a pale, disheveled mess of a human being who is gradually self-destructing in front of our eyes. It is a harrowing performance that transcends this flawed film.

Andrew McCarthy is saddled with the thankless role of the straight-laced protagonist. Any of his character’s edges from the novel have been completely sanded down and the actor does the best he can with the material he’s given. Clay is the audience surrogate and our entry point into this exotic world. McCarthy plays it close to the vest and portrays Clay as someone who keeps his feelings in check – the epitome of west coast cool. The actor uses his expressive eyes to convey emotions that reside just under the surface, usually in the presence of Blair.

Less Than Zero portrays the parents of these kids in just as unflattering a light, whether it is Julian’s unforgiving father or Clay’s father (Tony Bill) who plays boring classical music on the piano while his perfectly coifed wife (Donna Mitchell) looks on approvingly. It’s all so elegant and boring – no wonder these kids are losing themselves in drugs. The glossy look of the film is complemented by stylish camerawork courtesy of Edward Lachman (The Limey) and so we have the camera gliding over a swimming pool at night as Julian curls up nearby, his sickly pallor looking even worse at night, reflected off the water.

Producer Marvin Worth bought the film rights to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero for $7,500 before its publication in June 1985. It went on to become a bestseller. The purchase was sponsored by vice presidents of production for 20th Century Fox Scott Rudin and Larry Mark. Worth hired Michael Cristofer, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Shadow Box, to write the screenplay. He stuck close to the tone of the novel, removed Clay’s bisexuality but kept his drug habit. Worth felt that the script was commercial but the studio disagreed and hired producer Jon Avnet, who had worked on Risky Business (1983), to take over the project.

Avnet thought that Cristofer’s script was “so depressing and so degrading” and proceeded to tone down the graphic nature of the novel so the film wouldn’t alienate audiences. Furthermore, he wanted to take Ellis’ novel and “tell a sentimental story about warmth, caring and tenderness, in an atmosphere that is hostile to those kinds of emotions.” Had he actually read the novel? How exactly to do this and by how much was a source of conflict between the producer and studio executives. To make matters worse, the project ran afoul of regime changes in the studio: Fox president Larry Gordon, who had approved the purchase of the book, was replaced by Alan Horn. He was, in turn, replaced by Leonard Goldberg who didn’t like the book. However, studio chairman Barry Diller wanted to make the film. The film’s cinematographer Ed Lachman thought that no one at the studio had read the book but “because it was popular and a bestseller, they optioned it. When they saw their own neighborhoods, kids, and lifestyles depicted, they got very reactionary about the project.” Ellis concurs and felt that when Goldberg, a family man with kids, took over at the studio, “it became a different beast.”

The producers wanted to have relatable characters and a compelling story. Harley Peyton was brought in to rewrite the script. He recognized the job was a daunting one because it was like “reading someone’s diary,” but felt it was “The Great Gatsby in 1984 with drugs.” Clay was no longer amoral and passive. In addition, he and his girlfriend Blair heroically try to get Julian off drugs. The project was still considered risky and so the budget was kept under $8 million. Marek Kanievska was hired because he had dealt with ambivalent sexuality and made unlikable characters relatable in Another Country (1984). The producers felt that he could bring an outsider’s perspective to L.A. culture. Kanievska was attracted to the “extreme” nature of the characters in the novel and felt that they didn’t “have to be nice, to be pleasant to each other in order to be accessible to an audience.”

When interviewing actors for the film, the producers met many kids that were similar to the ones in Ellis’ novel and “who were from broken families. It was like a nightmare listening to them talk about the problems they had had with drugs, and the fact that now, at age fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, they had been out of rehab for year. There’s something very wrong with the American dream.” At the time, Robert Downey Jr. found the role of Julian a challenging one: “I had to do all my homework before I started, as far as getting rid of any inhibitions I would have about the character. I had to not care what people would think about me for playing it.” He said rather prophetically, “It will probably be with me forever,” and added, “This one hit a little too close to home.” Clarifying, he said, “Not in relation to me being like the character – I’m really not. It’s more just the truthfulness of the piece.”

For the first three or four weekends of pre-production, Kanievska, art director Steven Rice and production designer Barbara Ling went to nightclubs where kids hung out between midnight and five a.m. so that they knew what they were like. They talked to a group of Beverly Hills kids and found out what they were doing. The production used several actual famous fashionable and former L.A. clubs with Ling creating themes and making environments just like they were doing only on a bigger scale. The film also featured “scratch” videos that combined art, satire, politics and music, appropriating images from T.V. and film and combining them with original footage, then synced or counterpointed with music. Ling wanted to contrast a real “glamourama” look at Beverly Hills with “a flip-side, an underbelly that’s covered up by the gorgeous beauty of the manicured lawns and vast estates.”

For the look of the film, Kanievska employed “lots of red, lots of greens, lots of blues. There’s a slightly trashy, Hollywood element of neon everywhere.” Lachman said that they attempted to invert day and night because the characters lived at night. To convey the “heightened reality” of the characters on cocaine and other drugs, he wanted to show how things look “when you’re high or coming down. And there was always tension in the frame: the camera was always moving in on these characters to be unsettling – the characters weren’t stabilized in their environment.”

The studio did research and found that teenage girls liked Andrew McCarthy and since Less Than Zero would be an R rated film they had to appeal to his fanbase without alienating a slightly older audience. An early test screening with an audience aged 15 to 24 revealed that they hated Downey’s character. Since the book had been published in 1985, young audiences wanted to live in a “great apartment, have a great boyfriend and wear great clothes,” according to Scott Rudin, then president of production. New scenes were filmed that made Blair and Julian more repentant including one where she throws a vial of coke down a bathroom sink.

Lachman claims that the studio took the film away from Kanievska during the editing process. According to the cinematographer, executives “believed when they saw the film that it was an attack on their own lifestyle and depravity.” He saw the director’s cut and it was very different from what was released. Kanievska had tried to take a “non-judgmental approach towards the subject matter, to show things as they were, without moralizing, the way the book did.”

Ellis was 23 years old when the film was being shot and admits that he was “lost in my own world, going to parties,” and wasn’t interested in it. Before it came out, he was contacted by Kanievska and met with him one afternoon for a drink. When Ellis got there, the director was drunk. He apologized to Ellis and told him, “The movie didn’t work out. I just want you to be prepared when you see it later tonight.” Not surprisingly, Ellis didn’t like it but has seen it in recent years and found that it has “aged well. I suppose that if there was no novel, we’d probably be even fonder of it, but there’s that novel that keeps messing everything up.”

Downey has said that Less Than Zero was a turning point for him: “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. That changed on Less Than Zero. The role was like the ghost of Christmas Future. I became an exaggeration of the character.” Soon after finishing the film, he went into rehab. In recent years he has said of the film: “In some ways it was the most honest work I’ve ever done even though I was nowhere near the level of depravity of these characters.”

Less Than Zero received decidedly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie’s three central performances are flawless: Gertz, as the frightened girl who witnesses the disintegration of her friend; McCarthy, as the quiet, almost cold witness from outside this group, and especially by Downey, whose acting here is so real, so subtle and so observant that it’s scary.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The persistent unnaturalness of the film’s look (only rarely interrupted, though it needn’t have been, by a naturally lighted outdoor scene to put the characters back in touch with some kind of reality) winds up being deeply disorienting, and very powerful.” However, the knives came out with the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington who wrote, “Instead of making this hopped up “Just Say No” parable, it’s a pity the film makers didn’t zero in on the novel’s true riches: its penetration into a scene and an attitude, its understated morality. Hooked on the drug of compromise, they’ve scraped Ellis’ world down to zero.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Less Than Zero is noodle-headed and faint-hearted, a shallow swipe at a serious problem, with a happily-ever after ending yet.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “Reefer Madness comes to Beverly Hills in the affluent 80s.”

In recent years, the film has begun to experience a critical re-evaluation with the Los Angeles Times voting it the 22nd best film set in the city in the last 25 years by a group of the paper’s writers and editors with Chris Lee writing, “With its neon-bathed shots of Melrose Avenue, decadent nightclub set-pieces and scenes plotted around the turquoise brilliance of swimming pools at night, Less Than Zero viscerally evokes the Big Empty – the hedonism, superficiality and laissez-faire nihilism – of ‘80s L.A.”

In retrospect, along with The Boost (1988) and Clean and Sober (1988), Less Than Zero is a powerful snapshot of the coke-fueled ‘80s and the casualties that were left in its wake. In some respects, it’s an empty film because it reflects the empty lives of the characters that inhabit it. If the ending feels a little after school special-ish it’s because the studio mandated it. Julian is punished for being an addict and then Clay and Blair have a scene where they tell each other what they’ve learned from this experience but thankfully it’s blasted away by Roy Orbison’s haunting ballad (penned by Glenn Danzig no less!) “Life Fades Away” that plays over the end credits. The film should have ended with Clay and Blair but jettison all their dialogue, started the song earlier and just had them look haunted. Yes, they survived but they’ll never be the same and leave it at that.

The toxic cinematic cocktail that is Less Than Zero must’ve come as quite a shock to fans who were expecting to see heartthrobs Downey, McCarthy and Spader in another reassuring John Hughes teen comedy and instead were subjected to Downey as an increasingly devastated junkie. Whenever I watch this film I can see a good one trying desperately to get out. One thing I know: no amount of behind-the-scenes tinkering was able to dilute Downey’s blistering performance, which has stood the test of time and provided a hint of the great performances that were to come in subsequent years.


SOURCES

Boucher, Geoff. “The 25 Best L.A. Films of the Last 25 Years.” Los Angeles Times. August 31, 2008.

Boucher, Geoff. “Robert Downey Jr. Revisits His Film Career.” Los Angeles Times. October 9, 2011.

“Bret Easton Ellis Takes New York.” Interview. June 23, 2010.

Buchanan, Kyle. “Bret Easton Ellis on Less Than Zero, Its Adaptation, and Its Sequel Imperial Ballrooms.” Movieline. May 17, 2010.

Geller, Lynn. “Ed Lachman.” Bomb. Summer 1990.

Harmetz, Aljean. “Sanitizing a Novel for the Screen.” The New York Times. November 18, 1987.

Less Than Zero Production Notes. 20th Century Fox. 1987.

Rea, Steven. “An Actor’s Brush with Reality – Robert Downey Jr. Is Uncomfortable with His New Role.” Philadelphia Inquirer. November 8, 1987.


Williams, Murphy. “Robert Downey Jr.: Return of the Hero.” The Telegraph. April 26, 2008.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Le Divorce

For my money, Le Divorce (2003) is one of the better Woody Allen films not made by Allen. It is in fact made by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory – the powerhouse filmmaking duo behind such hits like A Room with A View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993). In retrospect, Le Divorce feels very much like the European-set films Allen would start making a couple of years later. It is set in the upper crust of society and features artists and intellectuals and those around them dealing with troubled relationships and dysfunctional families. In other words, prime Allen material.

Merchant Ivory landed a huge casting coup with Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, the former still enjoying buzz from her breakout role in Almost Famous (2000), and the latter with Mulholland Drive (2001). Unfortunately, audiences and critics weren’t taken with the film’s charms and it underperformed at the box office and received scathing notices but I’ve always enjoyed its light, comedic touch with unexpected dramatic moments even if it does suffer from a weak ending.

Isabel Walker (Hudson) arrives in Paris to visit her sister Roxeanne (Watts), a poet who is pregnant when we meet her and has also been abandoned by her husband Charles-Henri de Persand (Melvil Poupaud) for another woman. Thankfully, Isabel has arrived just in time to console her and provide support while also starting an affair with Charles-Henri’s mother’s dashing brother-in-law Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) who is rich and also married, but as Roxy tells her, the French have a carefree attitude towards infidelity. The rest of the film plays out the aftermath of Roxy and Charles-Henri’s break-up and the ramifications for those close to them in expected and unexpected ways.

Naomi Watts gets the thankless role of the spurned woman who is miserable for most of the film as she rails against a society with sexist attitudes towards divorce, which rightly infuriates Roxy. Coming off of the 2002 English language remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998) and going on to make the gritty drama 21 Grams (2003), she displayed quite an impressive range during this period  (and continues to do so). Roxy is going through a turbulent period what with her pregnancy and the divorce and Watts does an excellent job portraying the jumble of emotions her character is experiencing on a daily basis.

Le Divorce explores the dynamic between Isabel and Roxy with the former being young and impulsive while the latter is older and more experienced. Over the course of the film we become sympathetic to Roxy’s plight and disapproving of Isabel’s affairs because we know they will inevitably end badly and she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to handle it. The filmmakers don’t judge her (or anyone for that matter) and instead leave it up to the viewer to make up their own mind.

After Almost Famous, Kate Hudson appeared in a series of romantic comedies with varying degrees of success and so appearing in Le Divorce makes sense. Her role sees Isabel torn between two Frenchmen, allowing the actress to mix comedy with drama in a way that her Hollywood movies didn’t. Critics complained of the lack of chemistry with Watts but I think they play well off each other. Isabel acts as the audience surrogate and we are introduced to French culture through her experiences. She turns out to be a good study, quickly adopting two lovers at the same time.

The always-watchable Glenn Close steals scenes as Olivia Pace, an American author who lives in Paris and hires Isabel to get her affairs in order. The veteran actress makes the most of her screen-time, especially early on when Olivia tells Isabel about her fascination with French women and how she’d love to write a book about them and their customs: “Their scarves alone – an entire chapter.” She narrates a brief montage of the various ways French women wear their scarves. Close does such a great job of creating an intriguing character that I’d love to see her be the focus of her own film.

In a genius bit of casting, Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston – both of whom have appeared in Allen films – play Roxy and Isabel’s parents with The State’s Thomas Lennon as their uptight brother. Their scenes are the most reminiscent of Allen’s films as they obsess over a family painting of Saint Ursula that may or may not have been painted Georges de la Tour that Roxy brought with her to France and Charles-Henri’s parents want to claim as partially their own.

Matthew Modine pops up intermittently throughout Le Divorce as a creepy stalker type whose motives aren’t immediately clear but his abrasive behavior has a jarring effect that threatens to break the spell that Merchant Ivory have worked hard to maintain. He eventually upsets the film’s tone at the climactic scene where the filmmakers lose their collective minds and the plot as if they couldn’t figure out how to end things and tacked on one borrowed from an American thriller.

Diane Johnson wrote Le Divorce after hearing many stories in Paris about American women who came to France and married Frenchmen only for their relationships to break up. Published in 1997, it went on to become a best-seller. The city of Paris had always been a special place for Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Ivory had been traveling to the city for more than 50 years. He even owned an apartment with Merchant in Paris and their production company had an office located there. Merchant said, “I think that Paris has played a very special part in our lives.”

They bought the rights to her novel after she had written a screenplay for Ivory’s production company. She was asked to adapt her own novel and rewrote the ending, something that arose from Disneyland in Paris refusing them to film the climactic scene there. Merchant invited the deputy mayor of Paris to lunch and convinced him to empty out the Eiffel Tower on short notice but only between the hours of 6:30 and 9:30 in the morning. Ironically, during filming, a holdup took place at the American Express in Disneyland with hostages being taken.

Ivory was able to cast his first two choices – Glenn Close and Kate Hudson with the former being someone he wanted to work with for 20 years and the latter he considered the quintessential California girl, which was ideal for the part. The most challenging role to cast was that of Roxy. Many actresses were asked but none of them were interested because, according to Ivory, “I thought it was because they had to go around playing pregnant for two-thirds of the movie, crying and slashing their wrists and things.” After seeing Mulholland Drive, Ivory sent Naomi Watts a copy of the script. She identified with the character because she claimed to have “always felt like an outsider,” growing up in a family that moved around frequently and so she never felt like she “belonged anywhere.”

Le Divorce received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Le Divorce doesn’t work on its intended level, because we don’t care enough about the interactions of the enormous cast. But it works in another way, as a sophisticated and knowledgeable portrait of values in collision.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “The film’s greatest achievement, however, is in keeping a dizzying variety of characters at odds with each other without any breach of good manners, and without descending to facile stereotypes and caricatures.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “I’m disappointed to report that Hudson and Watts have no chemistry as sisters, perhaps because Watts never seems like the expatriate artiste she’s supposed to be playing.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote, “As it is, Le Divorce is tasteful, but almost entirely without flavor. It is tough work to sit through a comedy made by filmmakers with so little sense of timing and no evident sense of humor. What’s French for annulment?” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “It is so cliché to end this cosmopolitan tale of families attempting to cross a cultural divide in the cheap, derivative and violent manner of a bad American action flick.” In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “But Le Divorce is essentially the story of two sisters, and this is where the movie fatally breaks down, mostly due to an off-kilter performance by Watts…Hudson does her best to carry her co-star but – through no fault of her own – doesn’t fare much better.”

Le Divorce explores the clash of cultures as Roxy and Isabel try to understand Charles-Henri and his family’s attitudes towards love, marriage and relationships. They quickly learn that the French have a certain kind of detachment when it comes to the end of a relationship. It seems as if they fall in and out of love with ease whereas Roxy still has feelings for her husband because he’s the father of their child and unborn child. Isabel tries her hand at European-style relationships and enjoys herself initially but soon finds it all a bit messy emotionally.

Since Roxy is the film’s protagonist, we are meant to empathize with her. Charles-Henri’s cruel treatment of her makes him the obvious antagonist until the film’s climax when Merchant Ivory pull the rug out from under the audience and get him out of the way a little too neatly, replacing him with Modine’s spurned husband. That being said, two-thirds of Le Divorce takes a delightful, engaging look at French culture via fine art, cuisine, fashion, and architecture, transporting the audience to Paris for two hours. Director James Ivory uses Paris quite effectively with its colorful streets full of restaurants, cafes and bookstores as a backdrop for the colorful characters that populate the film. Unlike Woody Allen’s superior Midnight in Paris (2011), however, it doesn’t end on a satisfying note. It doesn’t follow through in a way that remains true to what came before, which is a shame because it has so much going for it.


SOURCES

Chautard, Andre. “It’s Divorce, Parisian Style.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 2003.

Entertainment News Service. “Americans in Paris.” Chicago Tribune. August 8, 2003.

Hohenadel, Kristin. “Californians in Paris; Merchant Ivory, Too.” The New York Times. September 8, 2002.


Kehr, Dave. “Merchant-Ivory Eiffel.” The New York Times. August 8, 2003.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It has been said that 2016 marks the deconstruction phase of the comic book superhero genre what with Deadpool turning it on its ear with a healthy dose of postmodern irreverence. It also saw two movies that addressed the very heroic nature of these larger than life characters, first with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Captain America: Civil War. Both movies featured iconic superheroes in conflict with each other while also addressing the effect they have on the world. How does the general populace react to them and, more importantly, how do those in positions of authority react to them? The latter in both movies – not so well. Should superheroes be governed and if so by whom? Should they be held accountable for the massive destruction incurred from their world-saving battles? These two movies address these questions in very different yet intriguing ways.

Civil War takes the basic story from the 2006-2007 Marvel Comics limited series of the same name, written by Mark Millar and penciled by Steve McNiven, and uses it as a springboard to address narrative threads introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Civil War intertwines two primary storylines: Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) track down elusive assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the continuing animosity between Cap and Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), which finally reaches a critical mass when they disagree over the creation of an international governing body to watch over and control the Avengers, splintering the team into two camps – those on Cap’s side and those on Iron Man’s. This culminates in an epic battle between both sides.

Civil War starts off with a bang as Cap and his new Avengers team comprised of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as they track down and stop Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the Hydra agent who has now become supervillain Crossbones, from stealing a biological weapon in Lagos. For Rumlow, it’s a personal vendetta as he blames Cap for almost dying in the collapse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in The Winter Soldier. This is a recurring theme throughout the movie: deeply personal motivations for why characters do what they do.

Meanwhile, the individual human cost of battles like the one in Sokovia at that climax of Age of Ultron weighs heavily on Tony as do the people that died during the Crossbones mission on Cap. To make matters worse, United States Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) meets with the Avengers to inform them that the United Nations is preparing legislation that will sanction their future actions. He considers them all dangerous and is concerned that they continue to operate unchecked, showing them a greatest hits montage of carnage that ensued during their battles. He gives them a choice: come on board with this legislation or retire.

Tony feels guilt over the ramifications of his actions – what with helping to create Ultron and all – and that of the Avengers and backs the sanctions along with Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Black Widow. Cap argues that signing this legislation will take away their right to choose. What if the U.N. sends them somewhere they don’t want to go or shouldn’t go? Where does it all end? Things for Cap only get more complicated when the Winter Soldier, who is actually Cap’s childhood friend Bucky now a brainwashed killer, is responsible for the death of T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) father. Meanwhile, the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is quietly plotting something big and it involves the Winter Soldier.

While this movie seems plot-heavy, it moves along briskly, punctuated with kinetic action sequences, like an exciting chase through the streets of Bucharest as Cap tries to capture Bucky alive while preventing Black Panther from killing him. It starts off as a dynamic foot race and then ramps up to vehicles that rivals the chase early on in The Winter Soldier. Much like with that movie, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a real knack for orchestrating kinetic action sequences that create an almost palpable sense of danger for our heroes because so much is at stake. It doesn’t hurt that they wisely enlisted the help of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of the dynamic action revenge thriller John Wick (2014), to choreograph some of this mayhem.

This culminates in the epic airport battle teased in all the movie’s trailers and ads. It is everything they promised and more. This is easily the best action sequence in any of the Marvel movies since The Avengers (2012). It’s epic, visceral and loaded with several mini-battles as hero fights hero. We also get to see the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and he’s everything you’d want him to be – full of funny quips, nerdy and more than capable of holding his own with the likes of Cap and co. only he lacks the battle-hardened experience. This is easily the best cinematic incarnation of the webslinger since Spider-Man 2 (2004). On Cap’s side, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) pops up to lending a helping hand and offer a slew of his own funny one-liners and a cool surprise in the heat of the battle.

There are deeply personal stakes for several of the characters in Civil War, from Black Panther’s desire to get revenge for the death of his father, to Tony’s guilt over the death of a young man in Sokovia, to Cap and his friendship with Bucky. All of these things are powerful motivators for what they do in the movie and supersede accords and sanctions. Initially, there was some concern that the inclusion of all these characters would create an overly stuffed movie but on the contrary the Russo brothers found a way organically integrate newcomers like Black Panther and Spider-Man and use their appearances as a springboard for their upcoming standalone movies.

In a nice contrast to past Marvel villains, Zemo is a more cunning, understated menace whose endgame isn’t readily apparent and only reveals itself towards the end at a crucial moment just before the exciting climax where Cap and Tony have it out one last time. The filmmakers mess around with the formula on this one. Whereas Age of Ultron featured yet another super baddie bent on world domination, Civil War features a villain that wants something that isn’t on an epic scale. He wants revenge and has a very definite agenda that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the movie in a wonderfully understated way that makes quite a gut-punching impact when it is finally unveiled to our heroes.

DC – this is how you do a battle with superheroes. Once again, Civil War demonstrates how far behind DC is from Marvel in terms of superhero movies on every level. Unlike Batman v Superman and even their own Age of Ultron, the filmmakers of Civil War do a great job of juggling this large cast of characters, giving everyone their moment to say something cool/funny and do something cool or significant without forgetting that the movie is ultimately about Cap and the arc of his character so that he goes from being a patriot in The First Avenger (2011) to an insurgent in Civil War. It’s his story and it’s a personal one. It is really a marvel of narrative juggling that succeeds where even the overstuffed Age of Ultron came precariously close to collapsing under its own ambitions. It is quite an accomplishment and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should be commended on a good job.


So many movie trilogies tend to end a weak third installment that tries to tie up all the loose narrative threads created in the previous incarnations while going bigger in scale while losing sight of what made them so good in the first place (i.e. Return of the Jedi, Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises). At the heart of Civil War is Cap’s friendship with Bucky. It’s a thread that has run through all of the Captain America movies, culminating with this one where it is put to the ultimate test. This relationship is also the most satisfying aspect of this excellent movie because it is also the most compelling thing about it. Civil War manages to be simultaneously epic in scale in terms of how what happens affects so many characters and intimate in the sense of Cap’s journey over these movies. The filmmakers never let us forget that at its heart, the movie is about Cap and Bucky’s lifelong friendship. That gives us something to care about amidst all the carnage.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Conversation

With the assassinations of important political figures during the 1960s like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John and Robert Kennedy, Americans had become very cynical about their government in the 1970s. This distrust manifested itself in many forms with the Watergate scandal only reinforcing these beliefs. Filmmakers reacted accordingly and the ‘70s saw a boom of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that included The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976). One of the very best from this decade was The Conversation (1974), written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). Using Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as inspiration, Coppola used a surveillance man’s obsessive attention to detail to comment on the government’s gradually invasion of people’s privacy and the moral implications of it.

A couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) are walking through the busy Union Square in San Francisco talking amongst themselves and unaware that their conversation is being recorded by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), one of the best sound surveillance men in the business, and his team. He doesn’t care about the people he spies on or what happens to them – he does his job, does it well and gets paid.

Outside of his profession, Harry is anonymous as Coppola shows visually when he finishes a job and disappears in a crowded city street just like anyone else. Not surprisingly, he values his privacy and is irked when an upstairs neighbor leaves a birthday present in his apartment without permission. In his spare time he plays along to jazz records with his saxophone and Coppola frames Harry in a way that establishes him as something of a lonely person. These scenes give us valuable insight into Harry – he likes to be left alone. He’s great at his job because he has few extracurricular distractions like friends. He doesn’t like people asking him questions and, as a result, doesn’t let anybody get close to him, like the woman (Teri Garr) he sees for sex occasionally, pushing her away when she asks a few innocent questions, which triggers his built-in suspicions.

We see Harry at work, going through the recordings of the couple in the city square, trying to piece it together from his various sources, expertly filtering out ambient and environmental sounds. It’s not just that he has customized gear that only he knows how to use, but he also has the skills to pull off seemingly impossible jobs.

Harry completes the job of the couple talking in Union Square but refuses to hand over the tapes when his client’s assistant (an ominous Harrison Ford) alters their arrangement causing Harry to hold onto the tapes. “Now look, don’t get involved in this, Mr. Caul. Those tapes are dangerous…Someone may get hurt,” he warns/threatens Harry. As the sound expert leaves the building he spots both the man and woman he recorded at the beginning of the film on separate floors. From this point on, Harry’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he begins to question everything he sees and hears.

Harry returns back to his workshop and pours over the couple’s conversation obsessively, looking for any word or phrase that might hint at why it is considered dangerous by his mysterious client. The interesting thing about the conversation he recorded is that every time he revisits it and discovers something new its meaning changes and so what started as a seemingly meaningless conversation between two people begins to take on more sinister implications. Harry’s paranoia begins to affect his work and he snaps at Stan (John Cazale), his assistant, over trivial things like using the Lord’s name in vain.

Gene Hackman delivers a career-defining performance as a man clearly wound too tight and when his work begins to take its toll he shows how Harry gradually unravels. Early on, the actor does a great job providing all kinds of insight into his character through behavior, like how he acts around others and, more importantly, how he acts when he’s alone. The actor does it so naturally that he disappears into the role. All of this set-up provides a foundation for when his world starts to come apart and he questions the notion of reality as he perceives it.

Hackman portrays a man afraid of intimacy with others because he refuses to be vulnerable. His work is a constant reminder of the dangers of letting others know too much and this has made him extremely cautious. His inability to make personal connections with people is good for his job but bad for his personal life. There’s a quietly heartbreaking scene halfway through where Harry tries to be intimate with a woman he meets at a surveillance convention that is beautifully done by Hackman who shows how close Harry gets to connecting with someone only for it to be exposed as a lie thereby confirming his worst fears. In his own way, it is his last cry for help and it all goes downhill after that.

John Cazale turns in another affable performance as Harry’s assistant. He’s the easygoing yin to Harry’s uptight yang. Harrison Ford is effectively creepy and emits a low-key menacing vibe throughout. Allen Garfield gives a memorable performance as one of Harry’s rivals who is gregarious and clearly envious of Harry’s skills and accomplishments. Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams are quite effective as the enigmatic couple that vexes Harry throughout the film and whose true intentions only become apparent late in the story.

There’s a nice shot of Harry standing alone in a part of his workshop that is devoid of furniture, which sums up his character visually. In addition, David Shire’s piano-based score has a melancholic tone that reinforces Harry’s solitary existence. Coppola uses it sparingly, brilliantly integrating it into the film’s complex sound design carefully constructed by Walter Murch.

In 1966, Francis Ford Coppola was talking to fellow director Irvin Kershner about espionage and the latter told him that “most people thought the safest way not to be bugged was to walk in a crowd, but he had heard that there were microphones which were capable of picking out specific voices in a crowd.” He sent Coppola an article about a sound expert by the name of Hal Lipset who lived in San Francisco. Inspired by Lipset, he started working on The Conversation in 1967 and drew inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and the novels of Hermann Hesse, in particular Steppenwolf. He continued to work on it on and off until 1969 when he got more serious, writing the first draft of a screenplay.

He started with a premise: “I want to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy, and I want to make it about the guy who does it rather than about the people it’s being done to.” At some point, Coppola came up with the idea of using repetition, “of exposing new levels of information not through exposition but by repetition.” This approach came as a “source of great difficulty for me. And one that I found unpleasant in that I could never feel anything for the character…I could not relate to Harry. I could not be him. So I kept trying to enrich him.”

Coppola intended to make The Conversation right after completing The Rain People (1969). Gene Hackman agreed to star in it but the director needed a commercial hit in order to get it made. The success of The Godfather gave him that freedom. Originally, Coppola was going to use long lenses to convey a sense of surveillance but felt that it had been overdone and was cliché. He thought of using a static camera, which would give the impression it wasn’t being operated, “so that the actor would walk out of frame, just as if it were an electronic camera.” He did this to convey a sense of invasion of privacy.

The Conversation was filmed over 56 days on a budget of $1.9 million. Principal photography began in December 1972 but after a week cinematographer Haskell Wexler got into a significant difference of opinion with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Coppola sided with the latter and replaced the former with Bill Butler who had worked on The Rain People. For the opening scene, Coppola had six camera positions with some employing very long lenses. He told the cameramen to find the two actors and keep them in focus. He also kept the actors walking around and filmed it many times over three or four days. Finally, to cover himself, Coppola also shot the sequence more conventionally. Editing took a year to complete and Coppola gave Walter Murch a lot of responsibility while he began pre-production on The Godfather Part II.

The Conversation won the Palme d’Or but underperformed at the North American box office. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It’s a movie not so much about bugging as about the man who does it, and Gene Hackman’s performance is a great one.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “I’m not much taken by the sort of Blow-Up ambiguity that Mr. Coppola eventually has recourse to, the movie leaves you wanting more, which is a nice change from all the other movies that send you groggily from the theater feeling as if you’d been force-fed on jelly beans.” Newsweek called it, “brilliantly original,” and Time magazine said it was an “enormous enterprise.” However, the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris wasn’t so taken with the film: “But his blown-up sounds (on the good-old Watergate-vintage Uher 500) and his cyclical images never pack the emotional wallop they should because Coppola has too little faith in the profundity of his mystery to allow it to mesmerize his snooper-protagonist out of his own excessive self-absorption.”

The Conversation is a fascinating film about surveillance in that it isn’t about the people being spied on but the person doing the spying. What kind of person does it take to spy on others and how does it affect them? Coppola eschews the usual thriller tropes – car chases, shoot-outs, etc. – in favor of a more intimate, psychological study of a man. The actual conspiracy isn’t all that important but rather how it affects Harry. The end result is a complex portrait of a man who begins to question what he does and the very nature of his life because one has bled into the other. By the end of the film, Harry realizes that no one has true privacy in their lives, not even him, a surveillance expert and this epiphany shatters his world. How does he pick up the pieces? Coppola leaves this tantalizing question unanswered, leaving it up to the audience to figure it out.


SOURCES

Cowie, Peter. Coppola. Da Capo Press. 1994.


De Palma, Brian. “The Making of The Conversation: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola.” Filmmakers Newsletter. May 1974.