Friday, May 19, 2017

On the Air

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a very prolific period for David Lynch, from the performance art of Industrial Symphony No. 1 in 1989 to the HBO mini-series Hotel Room in 1993, it seemed like he was everywhere. It was the surprise success of the Twin Peaks television show, however, that put the eccentric artist on the cover of every major magazine and guest on all the major late night talk shows. He and his creative partner Mark Frost parlayed the buzz from it into convincing ABC to broadcast a sitcom they created called On the Air.

The series followed the wacky misadventures of the fictional 1950s T.V. network Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company as they produce The Lester Guy Show, a variety program aired live. The humor of the show is often derived from the peculiar personalities that work in front of and behind the cameras as well as their disastrous attempts to put the show together every week.

Much like with Twin Peaks, Lynch directed and co-wrote the pilot episode thereby establishing the look and tone of the show that subsequent writers and directors would follow. Cool jazz music courtesy of regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti plays over the opening credits, punctuated by a farting sound, which establishes the absurdist tone Lynch is going for right from the start.

We meet the people working for ZBC as they prepare for a live broadcast of The Lester Guy Show. There’s Valdja Gochktch (David L. Lander), the director of the show and the nephew of the owner. He’s from the “old country” and sports a thick European accent that nobody can understand except for Ruth Trueworthy (Nancye Ferguson), an optimistic production assistant. We meet producer Dwight McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan) who is suffering from pre-show anxiety as evident from two coffee mugs he holds in his shaking hands, creating quite the puddle around him.

They have their hands full wrangling the “talent,” which includes the adorable yet clueless Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), an ingénue with zero acting experience and not too smart either. Her introduction, as she tries to understand Gochktch’s directions, is an amusing exchange as his thick accent comes up against her sweet, yet dense nature. She’s much easier to handle than Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan), a washed-up movie star that still demands to be treated as such thus annoying the hell out of everyone with his primadonna behavior.

If this wasn’t enough pressure to contend with, network president Bud Budwaller (Miguel Ferrer) shows up to make sure everything goes smoothly. He sets the tone by barking orders and insulting McGonigle (“Dink spine” and “gob of jelly” being two of the more memorable ones). His job is on the line and he commands through fear and intimidation. Not surprisingly, Miguel Ferrer gets some of the show’s best lines, like his assessment of Betty: “She’s no dim bulb, she’s a blown-out fuse.” The actor is playing a variation of his rude FBI agent from Twin Peaks complete with a shouty, overbearing approach and adopting an intimidating stance in the control room, wielding a large nightstick.

Things start off decently enough with Lester’s pretentious interpretative dance routine with moody jazz music until a prop he’s using falls over, taking him with it. It’s all hilariously downhill from there as music and sound effects cues are all wrong, a stagehand appears on camera, and Lester is knocked unconscious. Against all odds it is Betty who saves the show when she talks to the camera and sings “The Bird in the Tree,” a sweet song reminiscent of “In Heaven” from Eraserhead (1977), and that offers a short respite from the insanity as all hell breaks loose. Amazingly, the show is a hit! The rest of the short-lived series sees Budwaller and Lester conspiring to ruin Betty because they resent her success while she remains blissfully unaware.

The cast acquits themselves quite well, hamming it up for this cartoonish world that their characters inhabit – Ferrer plays a stereotypical blowhard studio executive, Ian Buchanan portrays a pompous movie star, Nancye Ferguson plays a His Girl Friday-type P.A. and so on. On the Air is less interesting when it spends time away from the studio, like in the second episode when Betty meets Mr. Zoblotnick (Sidney Lassik) for dinner, and works better when riffing on cultural touchstones of the time period, like the quiz show craze.

While working on the sound for an episode of Twin Peaks during its second season, Lynch came up with the idea for On the Air, which involved “people trying to do something successful and having it all go wrong.” He would go on to direct the pilot, co-write two episodes and supervise post-production.

The pilot episode tested so well with audiences that ABC ordered six more episodes. Even though it was ready to go in spring, the network put off airing it until summer. On the Air debuted on Saturday night at 9:30 with little promotional support, which many of the cast and crew felt was a message from the network about how little they cared about the show. Chief among them was Miguel Ferrer: “Why don’t they just put a bullet in its head? The support we’ve gotten from the network – or lack of support that’s perceived on my part – is enormously disappointing.” Lynch echoed these sentiments: “I’ve heard that summertime is pretty much the worst time you can be on, but we’re going on in summer. I’ve heard that Saturday night is the worst night of the week to be on, and we’re going on Saturday night…”

Not surprisingly, On the Air was not well received by critics when it aired. In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, ”Different, certainly, even strange, but unfortunately about as funny as, well, an overworked foreign accent.” Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote, “Lynch and Frost still can’t seem to protect their initial vision once they pass the ball on to others, as the numbing flatness of the second episode—which involves a plot inspired by the ‘50s quiz-show scandals—painfully demonstrates.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Chris Willman wrote, “Though On the Air appears destined—between its unfortunate time slot and Lynch’s own odd sense of comedic timing—to be just a footnote in both his career and TV history, it’s one to tape for posterity, before it becomes Off the Air.” Finally, People magazine’s David Hiltbrand wrote, “The show’s comically choreographed mayhem is a difficult premise to sustain, like trying to stage a big bumper-car pileup again and again.”

If you ever wondered what a David Lynch sitcom would be like then On the Air is the short-lived answer. It’s a silly trifle of a show but also very sweet, much like Betty who embodies its heart and soul. While it is hardly a masterpiece, the show does have its moments. I love how it is bathed in ‘50s nostalgia and reflects Lynch’s particular brand of comedy that is usually kept in check but is allowed to run rampant for better or for worse.


SOURCES


Cerone, Daniel. “Television of the Absurd: Twin Peaks’ Co-Creators Try Again with On the Air.” Los Angeles Times. June 18, 1992.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy came as a pleasant surprise amidst the summer blockbusters of 2014 as it continued Marvel Studios’ dominance in the multiplexes. It was a breath of fresh air in the comic book superhero movie genre by eschewing filmmaking by committee in favor of the singular vision of James Gunn. He took a bunch of relatively unknown characters and transformed them into a bickering yet lovable rag-tag team that saved the universe. The movie’s success demonstrated the strength of the Marvel brand and the expansion of their cinematic universe into the cosmic realm, which had been hinted at in The Avengers (2012).

The phenomenal triumph of Guardians of the Galaxy ensured that a sequel was inevitable with Gunn returning to writing and directing duties. This time out, his goal was to deliver more of the same from the first movie while going deeper into the characters and the dynamic between them with the focus on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) learning more about his mysterious, extraterrestrial father.

Taking place only a few months after the events depicted in the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) starts off on a high note as the opening credits play over Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) grooving to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra while his fellow teammates fly around trying to stop an inter-dimensional monster from destroying valuable batteries belonging to the Sovereign race, bantering and bickering in the most entertaining fashion.

Naturally, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) pisses off the Sovereigns by stealing some of their batteries and the Guardians find themselves fugitives yet again as they barely escape a giant space battle, rescued at the last minute by Ego (Kurt Russell), the Living Planet and Peter’s father. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been exiled from the Ravagers and hired by the Sovereign to find Peter, but along the way his crewmates mutiny, leaving him defeated and in a dark place.

Vol. 2 has a lot more heart than the first movie and this is due in large part to the relationship between Peter and his father and also between Peter and Yondu, fleshing out his backstory. The scenes between Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell have genuine warmth to them as Peter has to figure out if he can trust Ego while the latter wants to bond with his son. Fortunately, there is more to their relationship than that and this complicates things, leading to an epic and emotional showdown. Michael Rooker, a favorite of Gunn’s, also gets more substantial screen-time resulting in a surprising turn of events for his character so that he is more than a perpetually pissed-off mercenary.

We also get additional insight into what motivates Drax (Dave Bautista) and delve into the strained relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). This means more screen time for all of them and this enriches these characters in a surprisingly satisfying way that several of the Marvel sequels (Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2) failed to do but that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) was able to thanks to having the same screenwriters as the first movie thus having stable continuity much like what Gunn has done with this franchise. It also helps that these characters have already been established and so he doesn’t have to spend time introducing them, which frees up more running time to examine them in more detail.

The cast is uniformly excellent once again, each actor getting multiple moments to build upon what they did in the first movie and so Chris Pratt starts off being the smart-ass Star Lord we all know and love and then gets to convey some genuine emotion as his personal stakes in what happens rise dramatically. Even scene-stealer Dave Bautista gets to have some playful banter with new team member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with empathic powers.

Vol. 2 features another fantastic soundtrack of classic rock, from Fleetwood Mac to George Harrison, with an even stronger collection of songs that Gunn marries so well with a given scene, like when Peter serenades Gamora to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” or George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” playing while Peter and the others arrive on Ego’s planet. As with the first movie’s soundtrack, this one elicits a wide range of emotions, from romantic notions to melancholy to elation. Gunn, more than any other filmmaker working for Marvel Studios, knows how pick the right song for the right scene and the right moment.


If the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie introduced us to these colorful characters and the galaxy they inhabit, then Vol. 2 goes deeper, allowing us to get to know them better. The first movie was about the formation of a family of misfits, of strangers, and the sequel examines the importance of it. If the first movie had a flaw it was a rather generic villain. This one does not make the same mistake as the baddie is fully developed with a valid motivation that is personal and therefore poses a more meaningful threat to our heroes. Gunn has managed to make an exciting, action-packed space epic that has an intimate character study at its core. Vol. 2 feels even more personal of a movie than the first one and without sacrificing the splashy spectacle we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Broadcast News

After the success of the Academy Award-winning Terms of Endearment (1983), writer/director James L. Brooks spent a few years researching and writing what is possibly his most personal film to date: Broadcast News (1987). Drawing from his years in television, including a stint at CBS News, he took a spot-on look at the ethics of journalism and filtered it through a love triangle between people who work at a network affiliate T.V. station. In short, Brooks’ film is the Bull Durham (1988) of journalism films – smart, funny, insightful and even poignant in the way it looks at the people who deliver us the news on our T.V. screens every night. In some ways, Broadcast News anticipated the dumbing down of televised news so that now there is a whole generation of people who prefer The Daily Show, satirizing today’s top stories, over watching the real thing on the major networks or CNN.

Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is a slightly dimwitted hunk that aspires to be a hard-hitting investigative journalist but is clearly suited to be a news anchorman. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a super-smart news reporter that lacks on-screen charisma – basically the polar opposite of Tom. The object of their affection is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), an intelligent control freak and T.V. news producer. She finds herself attracted to Aaron, her intellectual equal, but drawn also to Tom’s hunky good looks. At some point, she must make up her mind and decide who is worth loving and who isn’t right for her.

I like how we see these people at work, like the scene where Jan edits Aaron’s newstory under a tight deadline. With only a few minutes left she wants to insert a Norman Rockwell painting into it with a new voiceover. While this is going on Joan Cusack’s co-worker is freaking out because she has to deliver the finished video tape to the control room. With seconds to go she makes a mad dash through the studio that is simultaneously tense and hilarious. It is all worth it when the story airs and everyone gets a sense of satisfaction because it worked and their co-workers let them know. This sequence shows the comradery that exists between these people. They care about the stories they’re trying to tell and really want to make a difference.

Broadcast News is a film of its time, capturing the state of flux that network news was in. Early on, Brooks lays out his views of what’s happening to T.V. news at a conference Jane is speaking at. While she warns of their profession being in danger, people talk amongst themselves or get up and leave forcing her to skip over topics, like trends involving magazine shows and news as profit. Her biggest reaction comes from showing a clip of an elaborate display of dominoes that all the networks showed in favor of an important government policy change. This scene warns of a future that has now happened, making Brooks’ film quite prescient.

As is customary with Brooks’ films, there are some spot-on observations about relationships, like when Aaron says to Jane at one point, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?” It’s funny because it’s true. In addition to witty dialogue, Broadcast News also has its moments of hilarious physical comedy, like the classic scene where Joan Cusack races through the newsroom to get a taped news story to the control room seconds before it is supposed to air. There are little moments as well, like, en route, where she accidently bangs into a water fountain that makes this sequence so funny to watch.

In a wonderful bit of then casting against type, William Hurt plays a good-looking blank slate of a person. Tom means well and really tries to understand the things Jane and Aaron say but he just doesn’t get it and is unable to articulate himself properly. I love the scene early on where he admits his short-comings to her: “I can talk well enough and I’m not bad at making contact with people but I don’t like the feeling that I’m pretending to be a reporter. And half the time I don’t get the news that I’m talking about.” Hurt does an excellent job in this scene as Tom tries to articulate his flaws as a reporter. He’s confident and well-paid while also showing a refreshing self-awareness of his flaws. He just doesn’t know how to fix them. Hurt could have easily played his character’s shallowness for laughs but there is an earnestness there that is endearing but this disappears as he becomes more savvy in his profession.

Fresh from her hilarious turn in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), Holly Hunter is ideally cast as the chatty Jane, a person who says exactly what she means even if it hurts someone else’s feelings. She is the kind of person that picks up five different newspapers during her morning power walk (and you know she reads them all before work). She’s an obsessive micromanager, which hides her insecurities tied to her love life. She’s the best at what she does for a living but her love life is a mess, pining for clueless pretty boy Tom while oblivious to how much Aaron loves her. Yet, Hunter also shows Jane’s vulnerable side – her awkwardness when it comes to personal relationships.

Albert Brooks nails the smug, smartass qualities that Aaron possesses and how it masks his insecurities when it comes to his romantic feelings for Jane. He clearly loves her but can’t find a way to get past that “best friend” stage of their relationship. That’s really how they work best – chatting with each other on the phone first thing in the morning and again before they go to sleep at night. Brooks excels at playing a brilliant reporter that lacks interpersonal skills and is publicly humiliated twice during the course of the film. The first time is minor – the national news anchor (played with perfect smug condescension by Jack Nicholson) calls Jane to compliment her on a story she and Aaron worked on together without acknowledging him. Brooks plays it for a significantly uncomfortable beat and this foreshadows the second, more memorable time when Aaron reads the news on air and is stricken with the most extreme case of flop sweat (one co-worker comments dryly, “This is more than Nixon ever sweated.”).

Aaron resents Tom for several reasons. He doesn’t like how success comes easy to the good-looking man while Aaron has to work his ass off and still doesn’t get recognized. Mostly, he’s jealous of Tom’s relationship with Jane because he loves her and doesn’t think this other guy, who just waltzes in and dazzles her, is right for her. Aaron is bitter because he is always second choice in his personal and professional lives. He resents this as he’s smarter than Tom but has a whiff of desperation when talking to women and doesn’t have the unflappable charisma needed to read the news on air. He may be smart but he also makes sure that those around him know it. Then, just when it seems like he’s the most unlikable character of the three, there’s the scene where Aaron all but tells Jane that he loves her and the vulnerability he conveys in that moment is touching.

Brooks does something very unusual with Broadcast News: he manages to get us to care about three unlikable people – a bossy know-it-all, an arrogant prick, and a shallow pretty boy. There are all kinds of throwaway scenes where the three characters are called on their overbearing traits in hilarious/semi-serious fashion, like when the head of the news division (Peter Hackes) disagrees with Jane over having Tom read the national news on air for the first time. She confronts him and says that Tom is not read as if it is fact and he replies, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Her response is unexpected. Instead of a witty comeback or angry retort, she quietly and sadly says, “No, it’s awful.” That we care about these characters at all is due in large part to the charisma of Brooks, Hunter and Hurt as well as the superb writing that fleshes out and gives dimension to these characters so that we understand what motivates them and sheds light on their behavior.

From 1964 to 1966, James L. Brooks had been a reporter for CBS News in New York City. He met CBS Evening News senior producer Susan Zirinsky at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco where the idea for Broadcast News was born. He had originally wanted to make a romantic comedy but attending the convention inspired him to have politics in the background of the film. He came up with three lead characters but “didn’t want the movie to declare its hero. All our effort was to have three characters as co-equals.” He also noticed the technological and stylistic changes in the way T.V. news covered the 1984 convention and saw it as a symptom of the changes in American business.

He spent most of 1985 and 1986 in Washington, D.C. doing research, hanging out at the CBS and NBC news bureaus. He showed up at the Gridiron dinner, the White House Correspondents dinner and the Washington Journalism Review awards and took notes, becoming a reporter again. He also spent weeks hanging out with Zirinsky who started as a technical consultant on the film before becoming an associate producer. In addition, he also hung out with the CBS News employees and it clearly influenced him as the budget cuts and firings in the film mirrored what happened in real life, although he denied it at the time. In doing his research Brooks discovered “this new kind of driven, professional woman out there that fascinated me as much as the changes in the television business.” When he started writing the screenplay he “didn’t like any of the three characters. By the time I was finished, I thought I could enjoy having drinks with all of them.”

In 1985, James L. Brooks told Albert Brooks that he wanted him to play one of the male leads in a romantic comedy about broadcasting. As a result, the comedian had input on the script early on. For example, the scene where Aaron suffers from flop sweat on the air came from real life. Brooks was watching CNN late one night and saw a news anchor sweating profusely. He called James L. Brooks and told him to turn on the channel and check it out. The director ended up putting it in the film.

William Hurt was Brooks’ only choice to play Tom and admitted, “frankly, if he’d said no, I would have canceled the picture,” but he had limited time available for the project and the filmmaker began to worry that he wouldn’t find his leading lady in time. Brooks had spent six months looking for the right actress to play Jane. With the sets built and rehearsals about to begin on Monday, he still hadn’t found the right person. The script found its way to Holly Hunter who read it on Friday, auditioned with Hurt on Saturday and got the part on Sunday, starting rehearsals on Monday.

Brooks hadn’t seen any of Hunter’s previous work. The audition with Hurt began as one scene and ended up being two hours of going through the entire script like a rehearsal. Both Albert Brooks and Hunter researched their roles at the CBS Washington bureau with the latter studying with Zirinsky. In addition, the two actors hung out together to give their on-screen friendship an air of authenticity.

The first cut of Broadcast News ran three hours and twenty-four minutes with Brooks trying to get it down to around two hours. He previewed the film for several audiences with different endings to see what worked best.

Broadcast News received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The tricky thing about Broadcast News – the quality in director James L. Brooks’ screenplay that makes it so special – is that all three characters have a tendency to grow emotionally absent-minded when it’s a choice between romance and work.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “the film’s most brilliant and sobering touch is the brief epilogue that gives it the perspective of time.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby praised Hurt’s performance: “Mr. Hurt, a most complicated actor, is terrific as a comparatively simple man, someone who’s perfectly aware of his intellectual limitations but who sees no reason for them to interfere with his climb to the top.” However, The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “James Brooks is a tricky kind of talent. He’s smart about little things…But when you get right down to it, his insights about television news coverage…aren’t particularly original observations. Brooks is excellent at taking us inside the world of television, but not terribly good at analyzing it.”

Not surprisingly, the film’s depiction of T.V. news divided its real-life counterparts with CBS’ Mike Wallace finding Tom to be an “implausible” anchorman but found the film itself, “very realistic – the ambiance, the egos, the pressure,” while ABC’s Sam Donaldson objected to the film’s view that “good people are pushed out, bubbleheads get rewarded and management are all venal wimps.”

Of all Brooks’ films, Broadcast News is the most successful at merging his T.V. sitcom sensibilities with his cinematic aspirations. His film is not only chock full of truisms about network news but is also an incredibly entertaining and witty romantic comedy that is unafraid to sprinkle moments of compelling drama throughout. Brooks not only manages to say something about the relationships between men and women but also how it intertwines with their work in a way that escapist fare from the 1980s, like Baby Boom (1987) and Working Girl (1988), didn’t quite zero in on as well.

Partway through Broadcast News, Jane and Aaron realize that their way of reporting will eventually be replaced in favor of people like Tom who represents style over substance. This is addressed in a scene where Aaron semi-seriously compares Tom to the Devil:

“He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit.”

History has proven Aaron right as the Tom Brokaws and Dan Rathers have been replaced by less reliable people. Thanks to the Internet and social media, news reporting has become more immediate and sometimes reported before it can be properly verified, taking the old maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” to an extreme. Brooks’ film saw it coming and people used to clickbait headlines and TMZ sensationalism must look at Broadcast News like ancient history. Looked at now, the film is a snapshot of a bygone era.


SOURCES

Gussow, Mel. “James Brooks Launches a Star.” The New York Times. December 13, 1987.

Hall, Jane and Brad Darrach. “The News about Broadcast.” People. February 1, 1988.

Scott, Jay. “Brooks Gives Acerbic Account of TV News.” Globe and Mail. December 4, 1987.

Shales, Tom. “A Hollywood Director Who Loves Washington.” Washington Post. December 13, 1987.

Siskel, Gene. “James Brooks’ Plan? He does it his way.” St. Petersburg Times. January 10, 1988.


Tobias, Scott. “Interview: Albert Brooks.” The A.V. Club. January 18, 2006.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SOURCES


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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Brewster McCloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SOURCES

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

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

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


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