Friday, May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

It has been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) concluded a trilogy of post-apocalyptic films by Australian filmmaker George Miller and featured the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a cop who lost his family to a gang of marauding bikers in Mad Max (1979), came to the rescue of a group of survivors in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and was the savior to a group of children in the aforementioned Thunderdome. Over the course of the three films, Max underwent a complete character arc, going from a man who loses his humanity in the first film, begins to regain it in the second film and comes full circle in the last one.

For Miller, Thunderdome was intended to close the book on this world… or so he thought. Several years ago, ideas for a new Mad Max film came to him and he even came close to making it on more than one occasion, including originally with Mel Gibson returning only for him to eventually be replaced by Tom Hardy, but forces beyond his control delayed production until a couple of years ago. The end result is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Miller’s return to his distinctive brand of kinetic action and visual storytelling that made the Mad Max films so influential, spawning countless imitators.

Miller starts things off quickly and economically as he establishes Max’s (Tom Hardy) backstory and the world he inhabits only to see him immediately captured by a vicious cult led by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who doles out water sparingly to his impoverished population. He sends out his warriors, known as War Boys, chief among them the bionic-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to scavenge for precious fuel.


The scale and scope of Joe’s post-apocalyptic civilization is incredible, putting the Bartertown from Thunderdome to shame. Miller makes a point of showing how this society functions and sustains itself by growing food and using women’s breast milk for sustenance with the populace living in fear of the tyrannical Joe who rules with an iron fist.

Max is enslaved and used as a living source of blood for sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa takes off with Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women specifically selected for breeding, he saddles up his considerable motorized armada and goes after her. Max is chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle like a hood ornament. Furiosa not only has to worry about Joe and the War Boys, but also other marauders from neighboring turfs known as Gas Town and Bullet Farm respectively. Through a series of mishaps, the resourceful Max escapes from captivity and forms a very uneasy alliance with Furiosa as they try to escape Joe and his army to a land she calls the “Green Place,” from her childhood. The rest of Fury Road plays out in a series of intense chase sequences punctuated by scenes that allow the characters (and us) to catch our breath.

Tom Hardy, a Method-y, physical actor, is perfectly cast as Max, stepping into the iconic role originally portrayed by Mel Gibson. As an actor, Hardy possesses little vanity, wearing a metal mask over his face for a good 30 minutes of the film, barely saying anything and when he does Max turns out to be a man of very few words or a grunt. He barely speaks early on because he’s been out in the wasteland for too long, starved of human contact only to be enslaved where he’s brutalized into submission. It is only once he spends time with Furiosa and the Five Wives does he begin to speak again. Over the course of the film they humanize him. Max remains something of an enigma, which is how he works best as a character. The less we know the better. We only get fragments of his past through nightmarish visions and fevered-dream hallucinations.


Hardy is an excellent foil to Charlize Theron who plays a more verbal character – one that is driven to a cause: take the Five Wives to the Promised Land and finally be free from Joe’s oppressive rule and his world where women are breeders, subservient to men. Furiosa is as tough as Max if not more so but she also has a reason to live unlike Max who functions on a primal instinct of survival. She and Max have a Howard Hawksian relationship born out of mutual respect as they work together towards a common goal. Like Max, she is a survivor, dealing with her own painful past, hoping to outrun it as she hopes to outrun Joe and his army. She is Max’s equal and as much a protagonist of the film as he is.

Miller takes us through a series of spectacular chase sequences, one more insane and ambitious than the next, including one that takes place in a massive sandstorm complete with twisters and cars exploding! Fury Road features some of the most crazed stunts and they are all the more impressive when one realizes that they were all done practically with a minimum of CGI enhancement. In this day and age of CGI-saturated blockbusters there is something refreshing about Miller’s fusing of an old school approach with contemporary technology.

The vehicles are brilliant Frankensteinian creations courtesy of Colin Gibson who seems to be channeling Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on acid. He has assembled a funky hodgepodge of hot rods and muscle cars fused together in extreme ways so that they make the ones in The Road Warrior look like tinker toys. Some of these vehicles are outfitted with metal spikes so that they resemble motorized porcupines. There’s one that takes the body of a 1970s Plymouth Valiant and adds tank treads. Joe drives something called the Gigahorse – two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes welded together and then souped up with a pair of big block Chevrolet V-8 engines. Max’s iconic 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe from the first two films even makes an appearance.


In a fantastic coup, Miller managed to get legendary cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) out of self-imposed retirement to give Fury Road a distinctive look. Instead of resorting to the drab, monochromatic look of so many films of its ilk, he and Miller adopt a sunbaked look for the day scenes and a cool, gun-metal blue look for the night scenes. Just because this is a slam-bang action movie doesn’t mean it can’t look stunningly beautiful at the same time.

Fury Road reinforces just how safe and formulaic blockbuster action movies like the Fast and Furious franchise have been for years by delivering a deliciously subversive film that contains all the requisite thrills you expect from the genre and then some. As Miller said in an interview, “I just love action movies. For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies.” Every frame of Fury Road is instilled with this love and infectious energy – an impressive feat for a 70-year-old filmmaker who has once again has set the standard for everyone else. I imagine, like with the previous Mad Max films, they’ll be countless imitators. Accept no substitutes for this film is the real deal.


SOURCES

Hill, Logan. “Mad Max: What It Takes to Make the Most Intense Movie Ever.” Wired. May 11, 2015.


Walker, Michael. “How Mad Max’s Megacars Were Melded.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 12, 2015.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Flash Gordon

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Film Preservation 2015 Blogathon that is being co-hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark.

After the phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977) every studio was eager to capitalize on the movie-going public’s renewed interest in feel-good space operas. This resulted in numerous rip-offs and wannabes with arguably the most hyped of them all being Flash Gordon (1980). It was the brainchild of legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis who, ironically, was responsible for Star Wars when he bought the film rights for Alex Raymond’s comic strip when George Lucas was unable to thereby paving the way for him to create his own science fiction epic.

Alas, Flash Gordon was a debacle from the word go. Early on, De Laurentiis decided that the movie should be filled with humor and hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay. Semple had written several episodes for the 1960s Batman television series and proceeded to apply a similar camp aesthetic to the movie. During filming there was some confusion between the cast as to the tone of the movie. The end result is a lavishly mounted production with absolutely stunning production and set design, which is in contrast to the rather silly tone for a fascinatingly jarring effect.


As a result, Flash Gordon barely surpassed its budget at the North American box office but performed well overseas. However, it failed to reach the dizzying heights of Star Wars that De Laurentiis was hoping for and was derided by many critics that felt it was a horrible, cinematic trainwreck. Then, something happened. Over the years, Flash Gordon quietly became a cult classic among science fiction fans, counting director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), comic book artist Alex Ross and comedian Seth MacFarlane (Ted) among its admirers who have all paid tribute to this much-maligned movie.

The movie sets its peculiar tone from the opening credits that feature Queen’s bombastic theme song playing over panels of Raymond’s comic strip interspersed with Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) wreaking havoc on the Earth’s weather system. “Flash” Gordon (Sam J.Jones), the star quarterback for the New York Jets football team, meets travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a small airplane that struggles with turbulence, which mysteriously turns into a meteor storm coupled with an unscheduled solar eclipse.

The “irrational” Dr. Zarkov (Chaim Topol) is convinced that the storm is an attack and plans to launch a counterattack with his own rocket. After a meteorite hits their plane causing the pilots to mysteriously and suddenly disappear (?!), Flash and Dale manage to crash land right into Zarkov’s laboratory. The clearly mad scientist tricks Flash and Dale into his rocket and the ensuing struggle accidentally manages to launch them into outer space where they pass out from excessive g-forces.


The rocket finds its way into the Imperial Vortex where it is guided by Ming’s forces to the planet Mongo. Our heroes are captured by Ming’s troops, sporting a curious mix of samurai and Star Wars stormtrooper armor. It is only but one of many odd touches that populate Flash Gordon – like the enigmatic Lizard Man, a guy dressed in a poorly-made costume, and who is quickly vaporized by Ming before he can make any kind of meaningful impression.

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are led through a red-saturated hallway that answers the question, what if Dario Argento applied his 1970s era Giallo aesthetic to a space opera? They are brought to Ming’s throne room where they meet a truly odd assortment of characters: Prince Vultan (Brain Blessed) and his Hawkmen clad in skimpy armor and giant wings, and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and his men that come across looking like a futuristic riff on Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Along with Ming, they participate in a bizarre ceremony that is intended to demonstrate their loyalty to the emperor.

Another odd detail includes the fact that the women populating Ming’s throne room are scantily-clad in some of king futuristic bikini outfit, chief among them Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s daughter, who becomes mildly aroused when Flash employs some of his gridiron moves to best a few of Ming’s finest troops in a wonderfully cheesy sequence that involves Dale doing her best cheerleader impression and Zarkov employing slapstick comedy to end the struggle. As a result, Dale becomes Ming’s concubine and Flash is imprisoned, scheduled for execution. He must figure out a way to escape and free Dale while convincing Barin and Vultan to unite against their common foe.


The tonal shifts among the cast are illogical and could almost give the viewer whiplash, but they only add to the wonderfully absurdist vibe of Flash Gordon. God bless ‘em, Sam Jones and Melody Anderson play their characters with aw shucks earnestness right out of a 1950s sci-fi movie while Chaim Topol and Brian Blessed ham it up for the cheap seats with the latter looking like he’s having the most fun of anyone in the cast. Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde play it absolutely straight almost as if they’re reciting Shakespeare with the former perfectly cast as Ming and making the most of hi s character’s evil plans monologues. Part of the fun of watching this movie is to see these contrasting performances bounce off each other as the cast try to spout the ridiculous dialogue convincingly. It makes for a heady experience that you either submit to or reject – there is no middle ground with Flash Gordon.

At times, the dated special effects, especially the extensive use of rear projection, look pretty bad and yet there is something authentic about it. The old school effects and astounding sets have a tangible quality that is missing from a lot of contemporary SF epics. In particular, the effects for Mongo’s atmosphere are quite breathtakingly beautiful and one has to admire the filmmakers’ audaciousness. The movie also has several exciting action sequences, including a surprisingly bloody gladiatorial battle between Flash and Barin on a platform that is constantly shifting and with spikes emerging and disappearing with unpredictable frequency creating a real sense of danger. Seeing this fight play out at a young, impressionable age scared and thrilled me in equal measure. Along with David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Flash Gordon is one of the most distinctive-looking SF movies to come out of the ‘80s.

Flash Gordon’s weakest aspects are the obvious attempts to ape Star Wars with nods to stormtroopers, a flying droid and General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), Ming’s second-in-command, serving as a poor man’s Darth Vader. He gets little to do except bark orders and supervise torturing Princess Aura. The movie is at its best when it subverts aspects of Lucas’ film, like taking the earnestness of Luke Skywalker and placing it in a football player’s body or splitting Princess Leia into two characters – the bland eye candy that is Dale Arden and the duplicitous Princess Aura who has a kinky streak (what’s up with her pet dwarf Fellini?) and the hots for Flash.


After writing the screenplay for a remake of King Kong (1976) for legendary Italian movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was given a coffee table book of the Italian translation for the Flash Gordon comic strip and told that it would be the basis for his movie. He was told to make it funny: “At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic.” Semple admitted that he didn’t think the character of Flash in the script was particularly good, but that “there was no pressure to make it any better.”

Initially, Nicolas Roeg was hired by De Laurentiis to direct Flash Gordon. He had just come off another science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) when the producer approached him to direct. He wasn’t sure and took some time to read Raymond’s comic strip. Roeg came to the conclusion that Raymond was a “genius, an absolute genius.” He became really excited at the prospect of making a Flash Gordon movie and went off to write the screenplay. His concept for the movie was Flash as a “metaphysical messiah.” Roeg spent a year writing and showed it to De Laurentiis who didn’t want to make that version. He wanted to make his version and Roeg left the project.

Mike Hodges was approached to direct the sequel and turned down the offer but when Roeg left the project, the former changes his mind because “it was totally different from what I had previously done.” The director admitted that he was not a fan of the science fiction genre and didn’t consider the movie to be part of it but instead wanted to “keep to the comic book version.” According to Hodges, Raymond’s original comic strip became the bible that was referenced while making the movie.


One of De Laurentiis’ family members saw Sam J. Jones on the Dating Game show and from that he received the call to meet the producer. The aspiring actor consulted a few friends that were fans of the old Flash Gordon serials and they brought him up to speed on the character. He was flown into London and interviewed by De Laurentiis. Soon afterwards, he was cast in the movie and almost immediately immersed in rehearsals, costume fittings and daily workouts in order to prepare for the role. In addition, his hair was dyed blonde and he tried on blue contact lenses but they hurt so much that he did not end up using them. Lacking in experience, Jones worked with an acting coach on the set every day. Jones not only did most of his own stuntwork but also helped choreograph all the action sequences.

Melody Anderson was set to appear in a television series when she received a phone call from De Laurentiis who proceeded to convince her to do Flash Gordon instead. She flew all night from New York City to London only to be taken immediately to the studio where she had her blonde hair changed to brown, costume fittings, screen tests and a meeting with Hodges. Twelve days later, she found herself in Scotland with filming starting the next day. “We didn’t have any preparation time at all … It’s such a large special effects picture, the actors really are secondary in it.”

The massive production was spread over six sound stages at Shepperton Studios, the Star Wars facility at Borehamwood, and an aircraft hangar at Brooklands. Principal photography was synchronized with the special effects department because most of the live-action footage would be matched with opticals in post-production. To add to the chaos, the crew was a mix of Italian and English crew members who did not know how to speak to each other.” Anderson said, “The actors were caught in the middle.” Semple blamed the chaos of the production on the “great leeway given to the art director, Danilo Donati,” who had worked with Frederico Fellini, among others, describing him as a “crazed Italian who literally never read the script, but instead went off on his own.” Semple said that an example of the rampant spending on the production was the $1 million Donati spent on the Arboria set, which was only used in one shot!


Jones and the rest of the cast were instructed to play their parts seriously and he said, “When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And they discovered they had a comedy.’” Anderson backs up Jones’ approach to acting in Flash Gordon: “I’m surprised that (people) are laughing, because we weren’t out to make a funny film. In fact, De Laurentiis was very upset when he showed the film and people started to laugh, because he thought they were laughing at it and not with it.” Semple said, “And Dino, especially, had no idea what he wanted. He wanted something Flash Gordon, and I adored Dino, but he didn’t have much idea about the difference between sort of camp and Star Wars.”

For the movie’s score, Hodges persuaded De Laurentiis to take a chance and have the popular rock band Queen compose it. Lead guitarist Brian May said, “As I remember the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was not convinced that rock music could work as score i.e. as background music for a film that was not about rock music!” The band spent a week creating demos of all the themes for the movie and played them for De Laurentiis. May recalled, “He was pretty stony-faced. At the end, he said something like, ‘I don’t think this music is right for my film,” and left. The band was understandably crest-fallen as a result, but Hodges assured them that it would work out. A couple days later, they heard that their music was approved.

Unfortunately, the experience of making Flash Gordon was a bittersweet one for Jones who was sued by De Laurentiis for breach of contract. He, in turn, counter-sued, claiming that he hadn’t been paid according to the original agreement. This, and the movie’s poor performance at the North American box office, doomed any prospects of a sequel.


Flash Gordon does what a movie of this kind should – transport us to strange new worlds that don’t resemble our own. The movie is pure escapist entertainment. Cinema needs more ambitious oddball movies like it that refuse to play it safe and dare to risk failure. These fascinating trainwrecks are often more memorable than the ones that adhere to the same old tired formulas. In retrospect, the ‘80s was a great time for eccentric genre movies with the likes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) managing to navigate their way through the studio system and find their audience thanks to home video where they could be rediscovered and watched repeatedly. Watching this movie again, it really is amazing that something like this exists. Only a European sensibility fused with the desire to ape the success of an American blockbuster could result in something like Flash Gordon and the world is a better place for its existence.


SOURCES

Brender. Alan. “Mike Hodges: Director of the New Flash Gordon.” Starlog. March 1981.

Flash Gordon and the Storyboards of Mongo.” Prevue. September-October 1980.

Kennedy, Harlan. “Bad Timing.” American Cinema. January-February 1980.

Khoury, George. “Hail Flash Gordon!” SFX. February 2008.

Swires, Steve. “Lorenzo Semple, Jr.: The Screenwriter Fans Love to Hate, Part Two.” Starlog. September 1983.

Willson, Karen E. “Melody Anderson.” Starlog. December 1980.


Willson, Karen E. “Sam J. Jones.” Starlog. December 1980.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

While The Avengers (2012) smashed box office records, more importantly, writer/director Joss Whedon did the impossible by successfully integrating comic book superheroes the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America from their own franchise movies into another one that saw them team-up with Black Widow and Hawkeye to stop a common threat. Whedon achieved this in an entertaining and exciting way that no one had done before. Burnt out from the endeavor and brought on essentially as a hired gun, he was understandably cautious of being courted to make the inevitable sequel. He was persuaded by being given more creative freedom, which included the addition of three new superheroes and a longstanding nemesis of the Avengers, the mad sentient robot Ultron. As a long-time comic book fan, Whedon understands that a team of formidable heroes needs to face a threat worthy of their abilities and what better one than a nearly indestructible robot and its army of drones. While it was a given that Age of Ultron (2015) would be a bigger and more action-packed follow-up to the original, would Whedon be able to juggle this large cast of characters without short-changing anyone and be able to instill the same amount of heart and humor amidst the CGI as he did with the first movie?

One of the good things about a movie like Age of Ultron is that Whedon has already established the Avengers as a team in the first movie and so he can jump right in as this one does with them already assembled in the Eastern European country of Sokovia taking down a Hydra base where Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has been experimenting with Loki’s scepter, which has resulted in two powerful beings – the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who have superhuman speed and can manipulate minds and project energy respectively.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has created a squad of automated robots utilizing his Iron Man technology to do the work he doesn’t have the time for under the auspices of the Ultron program. His ultimate goal is to create an artificial intelligence for these robots so that they can carry out his global peace keeping mission. To achieve this, he and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) use Loki’s scepter without telling the other Avengers.


Back at the Avengers Tower, the team enjoys a little downtime and we get to see them banter with some of Whedon’s trademark entertaining dialogue. He also does a nice job of showing the dynamic between the group and certain members, like a nice bit where everyone tries in vain to lift Thor’s hammer. A crude form of the now sentient Ultron crashes the party (literally) and escapes, taking the scepter with him. He proceeds to assemble a massive army of robots to bring about the end of the human race. To make matters worse, he recruits the Maximoff twins, appealing to their anger towards the Avengers.

Whedon improves on the action sequences from The Avengers by upping the scale and intensity including a very memorable slugfest where Stark dons Hulkbuster armor to stop the rampaging green monster under Wanda’s influence. I like that during these battle scenes, Whedon shows our heroes saving people from the carnage while still engaging in the occasional witty banter – a staple from the comic books. In fact, we see the various Avengers going out of their way to save people, putting their very lives on the line because that is what superheroes do. As Whedon said in a recent interview, he wanted to “get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people … What a hero does is not just beat up the bad guy – a hero saves the people.”

One of the problems with many of the Marvel movies is that the villains tend to lack personality. Let’s face it, they all want basically the same thing – to either rule the world or destroy it. What makes them stand out is a distinctive personality and that comes in part from the screenplay and from casting. In a masterstroke, Whedon brought on board James Spader to portray Ultron. He’s an actor with an idiosyncratic personality, which the filmmaker utilizes so well throughout the movie as Spader gives a deliciously evil performance. This is even more impressive as he instills an entirely CGI character with a personality that resembles Tony Stark gone bad. Whedon makes a point of showing what motivates not only Ultron but also Pietro and Wanda. They all have deeply rooted grudges against Stark and the rest of the Avengers and for the latter two this comes from a deep, personal pain.


He also sets up the ideological battle between Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which foreshadows the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016). Rogers is upset that Stark went ahead and created a sentient robot without consulting the rest of the team or thinking about the ramifications of his actions while Stark, driven by his anxiety over almost dying at the hands of an alien race in The Avengers, wants to make sure that the Earth has an army of its own should another massive threat present itself. To this end, the climactic battle between the Avengers and Ultron and his army of robots could be seen as a slyly scathing critique of drone warfare while also being a pretty cool battle to watch.

Whedon has definitely learned a lot from the first Avengers movie – not just on a technical level, but also improving on its shortcomings, like making up for giving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) the short shrift when he was brainwashed for most of it by showing us what he’s been up to since that one ended. By doing this, Whedon also gives Hawkeye a more personal stake in saving the world this time out. It is more than just that. Whedon manages to give all the heroes a crucial part to play in stopping Ultron. As he did with the first movie, Whedon achieves just the right rhythm of downtime between actions sequences that not only moves the story along, but also develops the characters and their relationships with each other in a way he wasn’t able to do in The Avengers. He even introduces the possibility of a romance between two of our heroes.

Whedon understands that it isn’t hard creating a movie where the heroes have to take on a villain bent on world destruction. It doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t care about the heroes and aren’t invested in what they have at stake. You have to make it personal for them and the filmmaker excels at this by taking the time to providing a motivating factor for each of the Avengers. It’s a tricky balancing act because we know that none of them can be killed off – they already have upcoming movies in their own franchises or someone else’s to appear in – but you can make the audience forget that temporarily by getting them invested in an compelling story filled with witty banter, snappy one-liners and passionate speeches from our heroes and the bad guy. While Age of Ultron is somewhat darker in tone than The Avengers – lacking that movie’s overall feelgood vibe, it is more ambitious in scope and scale and a richer experience.



SOURCES


Buchanan, Kyle. “How Avengers: Age of Ultron Nearly Killed Joss Whedon.” New York magazine. April 13, 2015.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Big Town

Most actors have what I refer to as “paycheck movies” somewhere in their filmography. They are movies that are done for the money or the desire to work that month. They are movies that are usually not all that memorable and done purely for mercenary reasons but they are still part of an actor’s body of work. One such movie is The Big Town (1987), made after Diane Lane took three years off from the business and saw her reunited with Matt Dillon, her on-screen love interest in The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983). Like Lane, he had hit a speed bump in his career after the box office hit The Flamingo Kid (1984). I’m sure appearing together was a large part of the appeal of doing The Big Town for both actors. While their on-screen chemistry continued, the final product was something of a mixed bag.

J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon) is a small-time crapshooter who aspires to make it in the big city. He is a very skilled/lucky dice thrower with the gambling instincts of his deceased father, much to the chagrin of his mother. He’s young and too restless for life in small-town America circa 1957. He soon arrives in Chicago and the movie does a nice job of immediately immersing us in the sights and sounds of the period era thanks to a soundtrack of classic songs from the likes of Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, and Big Joe Turner among others.

He soon goes to work for Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (Bruce Dern and Lee Grant) who set him up with a place, a bankroll and establish the ground rules. They’re all business and don’t have much expectations as young men like him come off the bus every week. They team him up with Sonny Binkley (David Marshall Grant), a veteran gambler who shows him the ropes. Cullen takes to big city life like a fish to water, making consistent money for the Edwards.


One day, Cullen meets a sweet single mom named Aggie Donaldson (Suzy Amis) at a local record store. She loves all kinds of music and dreams of being a disc jockey one day. Always looking for action, Cullen is told about the Gem Club, a strip joint with high stakes and a very exclusive crap game. It is also the only place in town where gamblers can play with their own money and not give any of it to their handlers. Naturally, the odds are stacked heavily in favor of the house, which is run by the no-nonsense owner George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones).

The first night playing Cullen wins big ($14,000!) and in the process pisses off Cole by not only beating the house badly, but doing it in front of his regulars. After subsequently being set-up by Cole, in retribution, Cullen starts a torrid affair with his gorgeous wife Lorry Dane (Diane Lane), the Gem Club’s star stripper. However, he also finds himself increasingly attracted to the more wholesome Aggie and starts a romance with her. Eventually, Cullen has to make a choice while steering clear of the dangerous Cole – if he can.

Matt Dillon’s cocky gambler evokes Paul Newman’s iconic turn in The Hustler (1961) as both of their characters push their respective luck to the limit. For Cullen, he is very smart when it comes to shooting craps (he expertly figures out when Cole swaps dice for a loaded pair) but exhibits poor judgment when it comes to women, seeing two at the same time. Aggie represents his small-town, Midwestern roots while Lorry represents his flashy big city life. Dillon has the retro looks from a bygone era and has no problem portraying a gambler from the 1950s.


Much like Dillon, Diane Lane looks like she came from another time. Her retro stripper look resembles her mother Colleen Leigh Farrington, herself a nightclub singer and Playboy Centerfold (Miss October 1957) and one wonders if her performance in The Big Town was a tribute to her mother. Lane even pulls off a very sexy fan dance at one point, showing off the research and hard work she put into the role. Lorry is more than a stereotypical bad girl. She is a woman trapped in a situation with a dangerous man that is also her husband. And yet, we are never quite sure if she can be trusted even while Cullen falls head over heels for her. Lane does what she can with an underwritten role that often relegates her to very attractive eye candy.

Dillon and Lane had undeniable chemistry in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and continue it with The Big Town. As sweet as Suzy Amis’ Aggie is, one can’t see Dillon’s slick gambler settling down with the single mother and her daughter. Cullen and Lorry are much more suited for each other with their similar outlooks on life. It doesn’t hurt that the two actors radiate genuine on-screen heat. And while Dillon does have some nice chemistry with Amis, it pales in comparison to Lane.

Tommy Lee Jones turns in a typically effortless performance as the movie’s heavy, opting for a less is more approach as he conveys danger with an ominous look or a slight edge in his voice. The always-watchable Bruce Dern plays a blind fixer by the name of Mr. Edwards who bankrolls up and coming gamblers like Cullen. He has a nice scene with Dillon where his character tells Cullen how he lost his sight in a well-delivered monologue. He used to be a hotshot dice roller like Cullen but losing his sight ended his career and he’s been searching for the man who robbed him of his vision ever since.


The Big Town sprinkles snazzy period dialogue and colorful gambler slang throughout, courtesy of Robert Roy Pool’s screenplay – itself an adaptation of Clark Howard’s novel The Arm. There is a nice shot partway through the movie of Cullen and Lorry walking down a deserted Chicago street late at night, which is soon followed by them kissing passionately under elevated train tracks much like a similar scene also with Lane in Streets of Fire (1984) albeit without the rain. Ralf D. Bode’s cinematography, coupled with Ben Bolt’s direction results in a movie that looks like it could easily exist in a corner of the world of period television series Crime Story, but as a prequel of sorts (since that show took place in the 1960s).

In late summer of 1986, director Harold Becker was set to adapt Clark Howard’s novel The Arm, about a crapshooter, and approached noted gambling expert Edwin Silberstang to be a technical advisor on the movie. He read the screenplay and agreed to do it. Silberstang taught Matt Dillon the rules of the game, the difference between a basic street game and playing at a casino, and some of the street slang. They spent time betting at casinos in Las Vegas. After ten days, they flew to Toronto where the interior gambling scenes were to be filmed and ‘50s era Chicago was recreated for financial reasons.

Silberstang helped design a special craps table that allowed the audience to follow the action easier and could be broken in half for special shots. However, two weeks into principal photography, Becker was replaced when he clashed with producer Martin Ransohoff over creative differences. Columbia Pictures chairman and CEO David Puttnam brought in one of his friends, Ben Bolt, son of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) screenwriter Robert Bolt, to direct. Puttnam was not fond of Ransohoff’s three-picture deal at the studio and wanted to help out a friend, but it rankled some within the industry who wondered why an unproven Brit was hired to direct a period piece set in Chicago.


The Big Town received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Dillon’s performance: “Dillon has some kind of spontaneous rapport with the camera. He never seems aware of it, never seems aware that he’s playing a character. His acting is graceful and fluid, and his scenes always seem to start before their first shot so that we seem him in the middle of a motion.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that it was “so entertaining, so true to its period that it’s easy to peg it as another ‘50s nostalgia piece when it actually possesses the kind of complexity usually associated with less commercial, less starry productions.”

In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “More to the point, this huge cliché of a movie isn’t even a distant relation of films like The Color of Money, which can actually make you root for hustlers. The Big Town only proves we’ve gone back to the 1950’s one time too many.” The Chicago Tribune’s Joanna Steinmetz wrote, “But director Ben Bolt, whose previous experience is in British and American television, is not about to let style carry this show. Unfortunately, he’s not about to let substance carry it, either.” Finally, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Ben Yagoda wrote, “Then, somewhere around reel three, the chips, so to speak, are cashed in … So the stageyness becomes stagier, the improbabilities more improbable and the lunacy loonier.”

In retrospect, The Big Town can be seen as a stepping-stone towards bigger and better things for Dillon and Lane (and Jones as well). Shortly after this movie he would attract much critical acclaim for his role as a junkie in Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and she would be nominated for an Emmy for her excellent work on the T.V. miniseries Lonesome Dove (which would also feature Jones). The Big Town didn’t exactly set the box office on fire – barely registering, in fact, but it wasn’t meant to with its small budget and limited distribution. The movie tells a story we’ve seen a million times before: a young man from a small-town that tries to make it in the big city only to learn a painful lesson. While it is hardly an original idea, the movie does have its entertaining moments with engaging performances from Dillon and Lane, which should appeal to fans of both actors.



SOURCES

Comer, Brooke. “Big Trouble in The Big Town.” American Cinematographer. September 1987.

Silberstang, Edwin. Winning Casino Craps. Random House. 2007.


Stadiem, William. Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess. St. Martin’s Press. 2013.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Jacknife

By the mid-1980s, the American public was finally coming to terms with the effects of their involvement in the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone’s film Platoon (1986) opened the popular culture floodgates and soon a cottage industry of war-related material was everywhere, from Time-Life books to television shows to comic books. Hollywood also capitalized on the renewed fascination with the war and the people that fought in it by releasing films that were either set in Vietnam during the war or stateside in present time with returning soldiers still coping with the trauma of being over there. One of the best examples of the latter was a small, independent film entitled Jacknife (1989) starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker. Adapted from the play Strange Snow by its playwright, Stephen Metcalfe, the film is a smartly-written, well-acted character study about people trying to put their lives back together while living with unresolved issues.

One day, Joseph “Megs” Megessey (Robert De Niro) shows up unannounced to take his friend Dave Flannigan (Ed Harris) out to the opening day of fishing. He lives with his sister Martha (Kathy Baker) who’s understandably surprised and upset to be woken up by a strange man pounding on her front door. Megs quickly disarms her with his easy-going charm and pretty soon they’re rousing Dave out of bed, much to his chagrin. He’s a raging alcoholic and has a typical antagonistic sibling relationship with Martha.

These early scenes are very well-played by the three actors as they tell us a lot about their respective characters and the dynamic between them. Robert De Niro plays Megs as an enthusiastic whirlwind of upbeat energy while in sharp contrast Harris’ portrays Dave as a bitter man who drinks to suppress deep-rooted anger and pain. Kathy Baker plays Martha as a somewhat reserved woman who is bemused by Megs’ gregarious nature.


Even though Dave claims that Megs is not his friend, they are bonded for life thanks to their experiences fighting together in the Vietnam War, which saw them both get wounded while their best friend Bobby (Tom Isbell) was killed – something that continues to haunt the two men. Dave drinks to forget and just wants to be left alone while Megs decides to try and reach him and in doing so maybe help himself in the process. Jacknife explores how Megs and Dave’s tenuous friendship is threatened by the former’s growing romantic interest in Martha.

Ed Harris has always been willing to disappear into the characters he plays with little concern for vanity and this film is no exception. We first meet Dave passed out in bed, sleeping off last night’s drinking binge. He’s a balding unshaven mess and the actor isn’t afraid to show his character’s flaws while also hinting at early on why Dave is such an unpleasant man. Harris suggests a deep reservoir of guilt and regrets that exists within Dave by the way he carries himself and acts towards Martha and Megs. With the former there is a long-standing antagonistic relationship common with siblings but she doesn’t understand his behavior because he refuses to talk to her about his experiences in Vietnam. With the latter, Dave shares a special bond that only comes with being in life and death situations with someone and they are able to talk about the war.

Robert De Niro played a Vietnam War veteran in The Deer Hunter (1978), but while that character was much more restrained, internalizing his feelings, Megs in Jacknife is the polar opposite. He is a chatty guy who is unfailingly polite and an optimist but De Niro’s performance suggests that this covers up a lot of pain. Unlike Dave, he’s trying to deal with it, but both men are wracked with survivor’s guilt, haunted by their experiences during the war. It is great to see two incredibly skilled actors like De Niro and Harris play off each other as Megs tries to reach Dave. This is done gradually over the course of the film in nice moments like when Megs encourages Dave to join in a game of basketball with fellow truck drivers.


Kathy Baker plays an intelligent, independent woman who has been taking care of her brother for so long that she has no life of her own and it takes Megs’ arrival to break her daily routine. Her role may not be as flashy as De Niro’s or Harris’ but she more than holds her own with them. Megs and Martha’s relationship has a refreshing reciprocal nature as he awakens feelings in her that have been dormant for some time and she helps him heal emotionally, providing something that is lacking from his life.

Jacknife received generally positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Jacknife redeems it in the specifics of the performances. De Niro, Harris and Baker seem to be oblivious to the ‘message,’ and lose themselves in the personalities of their characters. And so the movie works.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas called it, “admirable,” and “affecting.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “But where Jacknife is patronizing, it’s also openhandedly compassionate; where it falls into trite, Baker, De Niro and Harris (doing what he can with a one-note role) pick it up and dust it off.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “But the actors, good as they are, are becalmed by the film’s ponderous way of unwrapping layer after layer of Megs’s and Dave’s Vietnam experience until the expected catharsis has been achieved.”

Jacknife is a wonderfully understated slice-of-life character study about damaged people trying to heal wounds that run deep under the surface. David Jones’ direction is straightforward so that the focus is on the excellent performances and Metcalfe’s well-written screenplay. The only flaw is the score by Bruce Broughton, which is obvious and manipulative, often telling us how we should feel during a given scene. Fortunately, the rest of the film is so strong that this weak element doesn’t detract from everything else.



Jacknife is an important film in the sense that it shows the collateral damage created by war. Young men are sent off into battle and either come back dead or wounded – either emotionally, physically or both. It is the kind of damage that can take a lifetime to heal. Some try to outrun it or numb the pain with alcohol and drugs. This film suggests that only by confronting one’s demons can you have a chance at conquering them. The healing process is not easy and often it takes the support others to get through it. Jacknife is about the importance of human connection, being there for others during the best and worst of times. It’s an honest depiction of the shattered lives created by war that doesn’t resort to cheap sentimentality and for that it should be commended.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Snake Eyes

In the 1990s, filmmaker Brian De Palma struggled between making expensive, high profile failures like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and pushing through personal projects like Raising Cain (1992) and commercial triumphs like Mission: Impossible (1996). Fresh from the success of the latter film, he rounded out the decade with conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes (1998) starring Nicolas Cage. De Palma employed his trademark stylistic bag of tricks to deliver a never dull thriller that was ultimately marred by a weak ending (infamously changed from the original) leaving most critics cold. The film was a modest commercial success and summed up the filmmaker’s performance during the ‘90s as it attempted to balance his personal touches with a commercial sensibility with uneven results.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a flashy, flamboyant, and very corrupt Atlantic City cop who attends a big-ticket prizefight where he meets Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a United States Navy Commander and his straight-laced best friend from childhood. Dunne is in charge of security for Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). During the course of the fight Kirkland is subsequently shot and killed by an assassin with Santoro as a key witness to the incident.

As Santoro investigates the murder he begins to realize that there was a lot more going on during the fight than he initially thought. Who was the beautiful redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) sitting by herself? What happened to the woman (Carla Gugino) dressed in white talking to Kirkland just before he was shot? Why did the supposedly invincible champ (Stan Shaw) lose the fight so easily? The rest of the film follows Santoro's attempts to answer these questions and piece everything together.


Nicolas Cage clearly relishes the role as it allows him to cut loose and have fun with the character. This performance sees him reverting back to his old manic self that you can see bouncing through films like Raising Arizona (1987) or Wild at Heart (1990). Cage seems to be gleefully going over the top in many of the early scenes and it suits his egotistical cop character. Rick’s personality is as ostentatious as his tacky attire. Cage also isn't afraid to play a character that, initially, isn't that nice of guy. He's a self-serving cop only out for himself. He's not your traditional hero. As Rick’s investigation continues, however, and he realizes that there is more going on, Cage modulates his performance as his character wises up and tones down the flash as Rick applies skills he hasn’t used in ages. Cage’s character becomes much more interesting as his life gets increasingly complicated.

Kevin is everything that Rick is not – restrained and responsible. We soon learn that this is all an elaborate façade while with Rick what you see is what you get. Gary Sinise is excellent as the intense Navy Commander that seems too good to be true. That’s because he is and the actor plays an unreliable witness very well. Initially, we don’t have any reason to doubt him but after Rick questions Kevin De Palma audaciously reveals his real agenda so that we now know more than Rick does and spend the rest of the film watching him trying to figure it out. The scenes between Cage and Sinise are a lot of fun to watch as we see two veteran actors play so well of each other, especially as more revelations come to light.

De Palma's choice in actresses with a captivating presence is readily evident in his casting of Carla Gugino as the alluring key figure in the mystery and the only voice of reason in the film – a whistleblower trying to do the right thing. Sadly, she’s largely wasted in a role that amounts to nothing more than relaying expositional dialogue and then reduced to a damsel in distress.


Snake Eyes is a great looking film. De Palma is in fine form and he's got longtime cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables) behind the camera. This makes for a visually interesting film as Burum employs De Palma’s entire bag of tricks: split screens, unusual P.O.V. shots, skewed angles, and starts things off with a bravura 10+minute-long take with no cuts that introduces all of the major characters and the world they inhabit. De Palma does it all while following Rick, which provides all kinds of insights into that man – what he does, his relationship to others and his larger than life personality. It gives Cage a chance to show off, which he does in typical flashy fashion. This long take also forces us to pay attention to not just the people Rick interacts with but also the background details. It is important to what happens later on. This opening sequence also establishes the most crucial relationship in the film – the one between Rick and Kevin, which is increasingly put to the test.

David Koepp’s screenplay presents the Kirkland assassination Rashomon-style as we see it repeatedly from the point-of-view of key figures so that we get more pieces of the puzzle, figuring it out as Rick does. It’s an interesting way to present a thriller of this kind and De Palma and Koepp keep things together for the most part, but one character delivers a monologue near the end of the film that seems like something a Bond villain would spout. For the most part, the director manages to keep us engaged after the show-stopping first ten minutes, but loses it at the film’s climax, which strains credulity.

Initially, Brian De Palma had Al Pacino in mind to play Rick Santoro with an older man-young man dynamic with the Kevin Dunne role. However, Pacino had just done that with Donnie Brasco (1997) and was hesitant to repeat himself. Then, Gary Sinise became available and De Palma went with him and Nicolas Cage, changing the dynamic to characters that were the same age. Sinise worked with De Palma, developing his character’s backstory and motivation for what he was doing while the director had Cage watch screwball comedies because he wanted the actor to say his dialogue at “that Howard Hawks-like speed.” Cage also came up with his character’s flashy attire.


De Palma decided to have the long take at the beginning of the film because he wanted to “show the whole universe that the Nick Cage character was in. I wanted to show HIS world, I wanted to show it really fast, and I wanted to show it whole, in an exciting venue.” He found shooting the actual sequence “akin to a high-wire act: you can get very exhilarated trying to pull it off. It’s also very energizing for the actors. There is a kind of excitement in their performance that you don’t get when you start shooting in master shots, then medium shots, then close-ups.” The opening tracking shot was actually compromised of four SteadiCam shots because 20-minute camera magazines did not exist.

Initially, De Palma had the idea that the ending was to involve Deus ex machine: “we were dealing with such a corrupt world that the only way to solve the problem is to have a hurricane come through and wipe it all away.” Test screening audiences did not like it and so De Palma shot another ending, “which I don’t think is as effective.” Screenwriter David Koepp remembers that in the original ending Rick saved Kevin but test audiences wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance.

Snake Eyes received mostly mixed to negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it out one out of four stars and wrote, “Then comes an ending so improbable it seems to have been fashioned as a film school exercise: Find the Mistakes in This Scene.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “If nothing else in Snake Eyes matches the opening sequence in adrenaline-pumping excitement, the movie never quite fizzles. It just gets sillier and more exaggerated in the self-parodying ways Mr. De Palma’s movies often do.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The camera choreography is exquisite, but De Palma is so entranced with staging his purplish voyeuristic set pieces that we can hardly believe a minute of what we’re seeing. He’s become the masturbator of suspense.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Both Koepp’s script and De Palma’s directing style encourage the actors to be over-emphatic, and macho posturing is high on the list of the film’s weaknesses.” Finally, in his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. De Palma and his collaborators have told a comparatively simple story with a very rich and resourceful mise en scene. This sort of mastery has become so rare in today’s mainstream movies that I find myself more bewitched and beguiled than perhaps I should be.”


Ever the consummate professional, De Palma orchestrates key sequences for maximum impact as he ratchets up the tension by placing certain characters in dangerous situations that they narrowly escape. At times, Snake Eyes seems like a film of two minds. On one hand, it wants to have the stylistic flourishes of De Palma’s more personal work while fulfilling the generic conventions of a thriller. That being said, the film is pure eye candy thanks to Burum’s virtuoso camerawork, which does most of the heavy lifting as does Cage’s deliciously manic performance. Snake Eyes may lack the depth of other De Palma films, like Blow Out (1981), but he seems content to deliver an entertaining thriller utilizing every stylistic trick in his impressive arsenal with the skill of a master filmmaker. The film may lack any kind of real substance but it is wonderful visual eye candy. There’s something enjoyable about letting an expert craftsman like De Palma manipulate us because he does it so well.


SOURCES

Behar, Henri. “Brian De Palma on Snake Eyes.” Film Scouts. August 1998.

Jones, Wil. “David Koepp Interview: Mortdecai, Jurassic Park, Indy 4.” Den of Geek! January 23, 2015.


Taylor, Drew. “Brian De Palma Talks Passion, Digital vs. Film, Psychosexual Thrillers and the Abandoned Ending of Snake Eyes.” The Playlist. July 30, 2013.