Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Them!

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Keep Watching the Skies Blogathon over at The Cinematic Frontier blog.

The creation of and subsequent use of atomic bombs in World War II had a profound effect on the world – one that is still being felt to this day. It had an immediate impact in the United States with the public being afraid of potential war with Russia in the 1950s as they sought to build their own nuclear arsenal in competition with America. There was also the fear of the effects that nuclear power would have on everyday life and this manifested itself in many ways.

In the world of film, Hollywood sought to capitalize on this anxiety by producing monster movies involving irradiated animals and insects that grew to massive proportions, threatening the lives of average citizens. These movies successfully connected with audiences and soon, Hollywood was churning them out on a regular basis. Of the many that were made, one of the best was Them! (1954) featuring giant ants mutated by radiation in New Mexico.

The origins of Them! lie with former Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Sherdeman who commissioned the original story from George Worthing Yates about giant ants nesting in the New York City subway tunnels. Sherdeman liked the story because, other than man, “ants are the only creatures in the world who plan and wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at the time.” Yates also wrote the screenplay but it was rejected by the studio for being too expensive to produce because of all the special effects sequences.

Russell Hughes, a contract writer for the studio, was brought on board to rewrite the script and he came up with the structure that consisted of a detective story for the first half and an action thriller for the second half. Hughes died prematurely from a heart attack with only 20 pages completed and so Sherdeman finished it himself.

He then pitched the project to the studio via drawings and a 16mm film about ants made by entomologists from UCLA. He also got art designer Larry Meiggs to make a three-foot ant head with movable antennae and mandibles. Warner Bros. executive Steve Trilling was impressed and a film test was shot. However, studio head Jack L. Warner wasn’t convinced of its commercial prospects and offered the project to 20th Century Fox. Sherdeman convinced WB producer Walter McCuhan that Them! had commercial potential because Fox was willing to pay a decent amount of money for the story. The studio finally agreed to finance the film.

Two State Police Officers find a little girl (Sandy Descher) walking alone in the desert. She doesn’t respond to their inquiries and appears to be in a state of shock, traumatized by some unknown event. They investigate a trailer nearby and find that it has been ripped open by something quite large. I like that director Gordon Douglas shows the officers examining the trailer for clues as to what happened, especially Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) who carefully inspects various items, including a strange print in the sand outside.

This procedural stuff piques our curiosity but what really gets our attention more than anything else is a high-pitched noise that awakens the now-sleeping child. The look of absolute terror in her eyes is chilling. What would make that sound and do that kind of damage, rendering a little girl into a nearly catatonic state?

The two troopers investigate a general store later that night and it too has been torn open from the outside. A sandstorm rages outside, which only adds to the ominous atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. Like the trailer, they find sugar lying out in the open and no money has been taken. While Peterson heads back to the station his partner stays behind only to be attacked and killed by the source of the high-pitched noise.

When one of the victims turns out to be an FBI agent on vacation with his family, the Bureau sends one of its representatives, Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness), to investigate. Everyone is mystified by the print they found at the first crime scene until two representatives from the Department of Agriculture – father /daughter team Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) – deduce that it belongs to a monstrous ant. They get first-hand knowledge when one of them attacks Pat in a suspenseful scene in a sandstorm. The solution to the problem is simple – they have to find the nest and destroy it but it isn’t going to be that easy as two airborne queens split the scene for parts unknown.

The elder Medford is the stereotypical absent-minded professor that provides a lot of the film’s humor as he fumbles his way through things like radio etiquette but is brilliant in his area of expertise, acting as the voice of reason. He also gets to intone some of the film’s best lines, like his sage warning early on, “We maybe witness to a biblical prophecy come true.” The younger Medford is the leggy scientist that claims she is as capable as any man only having to be rescued by Graham and Peterson when attacked by a giant ant.

All of the actors do excellent work in their respective roles with Edmund Gwenn as an erudite scientist, who is both amusingly befuddled by things outside of his expertise and a wonderful deliverer of exposition dialogue, as one of the standouts along with James Whitmore who brings a no-frills authenticity that contrasts effectively with the fantastical premise of giant ants.

His style of acting echoes Douglas’ no-nonsense direction, which expertly handles simple scenes with characters talking to each other, while keeping our interest, as he does with the exciting action sequences. He even has the confidence to stop the narrative more than halfway through to give us a science lesson on how ants act and live! It is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. The exposition-heavy screenplay is well-written and brought to life by the talented cast. The end result is the best monster movie to come out of the ‘50s. Them! is a fascinating reflection of the fears of atomic power that people felt at the time. Dr. Medford sums it up best at the very end when he says, “When man entered the atomic age he opened the door into a new world. What we will eventually find in that new world nobody can predict.”


SOURCES


Stafford, Jeff. “Them!Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Red River

Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) presents a patriarchal society where men live by a macho, male code that excludes women and explores the notion of what it is to be a man and how violence aids in this definition. The lack of women in this male-dominated world leads to the forming of male friendships that contain the subtext of homoeroticism. Red River consists of an on-going battle between the old, nostalgic male-dominated world, embodied by Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), versus a more progressive world, as represented by Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), that combines the old world values with compassion. Hawks’ film also uses violence and the notion of professionalism as a male refuge.

From the start of the film, Red River establishes a male-dominated world devoid of women. Dunson and Cookie, his loyal friend, decide to leave the settlers and stake out their own claim on the frontier. His love interest (Coleen Gray) appears and, despite her protest to the contrary, he excludes her from his world because the frontier is, as he puts it, "too much for a woman." She cannot go with him to tame the frontier because that does not fit into his old world values where men explore and women stay home. He is a man set in his beliefs as Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) explains to the settlers, "He's a might kept man when his mind is made up. Even you can't change him."

Dunson is a self-made man who strikes out on his own to start a cattle ranch known as the Red River in Texas with loyal friend Groot and a young boy named Matt who survived a Native American Indian attack. Ten years pass and Dunson cultivates enough cattle to sell them for a lot of money in Missouri. So, Dunson, Cookie and a grown-up Matt make the perilous journey that sees them facing Indians, bad weather and internal strife – the latter of which may be the greatest danger as Dunson becomes a hard, twisted version of his former self.

Red River is quick to establish the male code of what it is like to be a real man. Before Dunson starts the cattle drive he talks to all of his ranch hands and explains the rules that will govern the drive when he states that "Every man who signs on for this drive agrees to finish it. There'll be no quitting along the way. Not by me and not by you." Dunson is framed by himself in this scene. Only he has the power to establish the rules because he is the authority figure of this male group. Once the men sign on for the drive, they must live by Dunson's professional code of conduct.

Dunson belongs to an older time where a real man is defined in terms of getting your enemy before they get you. In Hawks' film the "enemy" takes many forms, from Native American Indians to the wild frontier that the men must navigate in order to reach their destination. When Dunson and his loyal friend leave the settlers at the beginning of the film they are attacked by Indians. Dunson efficiently guns down two of them and kills another with a knife. It is a savage scene as the two men wrestle vigorously in the water before Dunson prevails. By his way of thinking, he has proven that he is a real man because he can handle any dangerous situation.

After the brief encounter with the Indians, Dunson finally reaches the expansive area that he will turn into a prosperous ranch. He looks at the land and proudly appraises it as "Everything a man could want." Over the years, Dunson kills many men all in defense of the American Dream of conquest and taming the frontier. Dunson is clearly a man of old-fashioned sensibilities who stays fixed in his ways, refusing to change for no one, even for the woman he loves. These old world values only strengthen when he learns of her death. Dunson becomes cold and dead inside. Everything he loved is gone with her passing and he refuses to let his guard down for anyone. To fill this void, Dunson creates a male friendship with the only surviving member of the settlers: a little boy named Matt. Dunson meets Matt and after a manly display in which the boy threatens him with gun to which he slaps out of his hand, does Dunson decide that, "He'll do." Matt has been accepted into the fold. He is now part of the male-driven world.

To show compassion or emotion is to show weakness in Red River. Those who reveal a more feminine side are punished. During the cattle drive, Dan (Harry Carey, Jr.), one of the cowboys, tells Dunson and Matt his dreams of the future. With the money he will earn from the cattle drive, he plans to buy a house and a pair of red shoes that his wife always wanted. It is an emotional moment that reveals a domesticated way of life that goes against Dunson's frontier vision. This opposition is destroyed when Dan is consequently killed in the stampede. Dan is killed because he does not belong in Dunson's world. He yearns for a more docile lifestyle. However, Dunson does show some emotion when he learns of Dan's death. He tells Matt to give the money that Dan would have earned to his wife and, although he does not come right out and say it, to use some of the money to buy her a pair of red shoes.

This is a brief glimpse of Dunson's compassionate side, but it quickly disappears when he finds out who caused the stampede: Bunk Kenneally (Ivan Parry), a cowboy with an obsession for sugar. One night when he tries to steal some sugar he accidently disrupts all of the dishes. Kenneally is filmed alone by Hawks as he tries in vain to prevent the accident. By doing this, Hawks is illustrating how Kenneally, like Dan, is different from the rest of the men. He displays a feminine property in the form of his weakness for sugar and this results in the stampede that kills Dan. Dunson returns back to his cold, macho persona as he plans to whip Kenneally for his weakness. In Dunson's mind, he equates stealing sugar with the characteristics of a weak child when says, "Stealing sugar like a kid. Well, they whip kids to teach 'em better." Kenneally is no better than a child in Dunson's eyes. But Matt intervenes and spares Kenneally's life where Dunson would have killed him. This is the first real indication that Dunson's values are wrong. Matt represents the new version of what it is to be a man. He can be compassionate and still be a man.

After Matt saves Kenneally, Cherry Valance (John Ireland) comes up to him and says, "But your heart's soft. Too soft. Might get you hurt some day." Matt merely replies, "Could be. I wouldn't count on it." Matt can be kind, but he is not afraid stand up for his beliefs. It is this kindness that the men respect, while they fear Dunson's rigid work ethic, which results in Matt taking over as leader of the cattle drive when the elder man goes over the edge. This is a symbolic passing of the old world into the new. Dunson's values are no longer valid with the current times and so Matt must take his place with a modern version of manliness.

Matt represents the new version of what it is to be a man. He can be compassionate and still be a man. He can be kind, but he is not afraid stand up for his beliefs. It is this kindness that the men respect, while they fear Dunson's rigid work ethic, which results in Matt taking over as leader of the cattle drive when the elder man loses control. This is a symbolic passing of the old world into the new. Dunson's values are no longer valid with the current times and so Matt must take his place with a modern version of manliness.

An interesting adult male friendship forms between Cherry and Matt who admire each other's prowess with a gun. Cherry consistently gazes at Matt in admiration, fascinated with his gun. Hawks reinforces this friendship by framing the two men together in a shot and in doing so permeates the scene with homoerotic undertones. Cherry comments that Matt has a nice gun and that there are "only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere." Next to guns and watches, women do not rate very high in this world where male friendships are more important.


Despite the dual nature of Matt in Hawks' film, and the admission that he and Dunson "love each other," as one character observes, Red River ultimately fulfills the notion that violence and professionalism are a male refuge. Dunson finally changes his brand so that it will have Matt's initial on it as well. Dunson draws the new brand into the ground and says to Matt, "You've earned it." Hawks cuts to a shot of the new brand and the film ends. This symbolic passing of the male mantle of power from Dunson to Matt undermines the progressive nature of his character. All of Matt's actions are undermined in this moment when he symbolically becomes a man with Dunson's blessing. As a result, Red River upholds the conventions of male genres.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Breathless

When Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983), a fast and loose remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave Classic A bout de soufflé (1960), was released in theaters, it infuriated cineastes and film critics who couldn’t believe that the filmmaker had the audacity to remake such a highly regarded film with the likes of hunky actor Richard Gere and then-unknown actress Valerie Kaprisky, making her American debut. They couldn’t wrap their collective heads around McBride’s stylish reimaging of Godard’s film, updating it for the 1980s complete with ample nudity, numerous comic book references, and a rockabilly-heavy soundtrack that is as bold a cinematic statement today as it was back then.

Breathless adheres to A bout de soufflé’s basic premise as it chronicles the volatile love affair between a small-time crook and his foreigner girlfriend. Jesse (Gere) is a car thief who wants to scrape together enough money to take his French girlfriend Monica (Kaprisky) to Mexico. His life gets complicated after accidentally killing a police officer and the ensuing manhunt puts a considerable strain on his relationship with her.

We first meet Jesse emerging from a casino in Las Vegas bristling with smarm and charm in equal measure. He’s decked out in a powder blue suite and red ruffled tuxedo dress shirt, which establishes Breathless’ saturated, comic book color scheme. As Godard did with handheld camerawork and jump cuts in his version, McBride makes bold stylistic choices with his version as evident in the scene where Jesse drives back to Los Angeles in a stolen Porsche with Jerry Lee Lewis blasting away on the stereo. The entire scene is saturated with a red filter and utilizes the old school rear projection technique of a desert background. By doing this, the filmmaker is drawing attention to the artifice of the film itself. It’s almost as if the entire film is taking place in Jesse’s mind or, rather, we are seeing the world through his distinctive point-of-view.

Richard Gere plays Jesse as a grinning opportunist always looking for an angle to play, always hustling for money and treating the world as a playground to exploit. The actor fully commits to the role using his trademark charm to make an essentially unlikable character appealing through sheer force of will. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is Gere at the apex of his physical beauty, which McBride shows off at every opportunity, including a startling amount of nudity at the time (Gere bares it all). What makes his performance so captivating is all the choices he makes, like the little dance move Jesse does while trying to hitch a ride. The actor wisely doesn’t try to ape Jean-Paul Belmondo’s brooding, Marlon Brando-esque performance in the original, opting for an energetic take that is so interesting to watch as, at times, Jesse is practically jumping out of his skin with vitality.

The actor does his best to instill some substance into a simple character that is comprised entirely of attitude and cocky swagger. The Silver Surfer interludes serve this purpose. Jesse is obsessed with the comic book, relating to the eponymous protagonist’s ruminations while roaming through the universe alone. There’s a crucial exchange partway through the film between Jesse and some kid at a newsstand about the Surfer with the former arguing, “You know why he stays? He stays because he likes it here on Earth. He wants to help the people out.” To which, the latter counters, “The Surfer’s nuts to hang around. He knows that life on Earth has no meaning – it’s chaos, it’s out of control! But he’s got a chance to break way. I mean, he’s plugged into the galaxy. He’s got the power cosmic! Only a jerk would stay when he could go.” Jesse clearly identifies with the Surfer and these words, coupled with a sobering reminder in the newspaper of the cop he killed has him reconsidering his decision to stick around but he does because of his love for Monica.

Valerie Kaprisky, with her stunning, fresh-faced sexiness, certainly looks the part of a beautiful UCLA student majoring in architecture, but her lack of English-speaking prowess is distracting. It looks like she’s concentrating too much on speaking correctly and not enough on acting or emoting. That being said, she has undeniable chemistry with Gere and they look great together.

Like A bout de soufflé showed off 1960s Paris, Breathless takes us on a tour through ‘80s L.A., including memorable stops at the murals in Venice Beach, Westwood Beach, the Pines, and, of course, downtown. McBride does a fantastic job conveying a sense of place – so much so that the city is practically another character.

McBride has a keen understanding of the power of cinema in sequences like the one where Jesse and Monica make out in a 1957 Thunderbird convertible to Link Wray’s “Jack the Ripper” on the soundtrack. The filmmaker understands that this is what makes cinema so exciting – the marriage of attractive actors, American iconography and the right song to go with it. He’s not afraid to mix things up, sliding in a few choice contemporary cuts, like a chase sequence scored to the fantastic song, “Message of Love” by the Pretenders.

Jim McBride was an independent filmmaker that struggled to find work after making Glen and Randa (1971). To make ends meet, he drove a taxicab and taught film at New York University grad school. After writing several screenplays that were never made, he moved to L.A. in the mid-1970s and “finally decided that the best approach for me was to present the studios with something that already existed.” He had been obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de soufflé for 20 years and credited it with inspiring him to be a filmmaker.

As luck would have it, actor/screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who had worked with McBride on David Holzman’s Diary (1967), knew Godard and met with him in L.A. while he was meeting with studios about backing a film. He asked Carson and McBride to drive him around the city for a week. At the end of it they told him about their idea to remake A bout de soufflé in L.A. Carson remembered, “A day later, when we went to pick him up, he picked up a paper napkin, and wrote on it, ‘You have the rights to Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard,’ and handed it to us.” With producer Martin Erlichman, McBride made a deal with Universal Pictures in 1978 with Gary Busey set to star. The deal fell through and McBride spent two years trying to get actors like Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Al Pacino interested. They weren’t because McBride wasn’t well-known enough and he found that “movie stars are terrified that if they make one wrong movie, it will destroy their careers. So it takes them forever to make a decision.”

McBride found a copy of the original film’s screenplay in a French magazine and translated it into English. Then, he and Carson worked from it, dropping and adding things, making it their own, and “by the end it was something very different from the original, for better or worse.” McBride has said that he wanted to make his version “more passionate and emotional, though the emotions are exaggerated in the way that Hollywood movies used to be.”

Universal dropped the project and Orion Pictures took it over. McBride approached Richard Gere who was also apprehensive about working with an unknown director until the former agreed to give the latter say in rewriting the script and casting actors and hiring the crew. While figuring out the approach to Jesse, Gere realized that the “root of him is music – music manifested by his moods. He uses the energy and emotions of the things around him to his own purposes.”

Erlichman spotted topless photographs of Valerie Kaprisky in French magazine Parish Match in June 1982 and asked her to read for the film even though she had only done some modeling with a few parts in French films. She felt that it went terribly but was called back the next day. Two days later, she was flown to L.A. for a screen test. It was a five-minute test that required her to be naked. To make her feel more comfortable, Gere also performed in the nude even though it wasn’t required. Kaprisky won the role and was told that Gere wanted her cast because she was someone he would like to make love to: “I think it shows in the movie. If you don’t really feel like doing it, it shows,” she said. Furthermore, the actress said of the film’s explicit love scenes, “We were not acting the love scenes. They were half real.”

The day after he finished shooting Breathless, Gere left to make Beyond the Limit (1983) in Mexico. During that time, Orion wanted to rush the release of Breathless, forcing McBride and his editor to make “very quick choices which weren’t necessarily the right choices,” Gere said. When the actor returned, he and McBride “sort of forced the situation,” and convinced the studio not to release the film, thereby allowing them to shoot new scenes and take more time on the editing.

Erlichman knew going in that Breathless would be a tough film to sell: “It was against the form of what has been accepted. There hasn’t been a major motion picture hit in years with a star who dies in the end. Also, anti-heroes aren’t big with your basic movie-going crowd, the 14-to 24-year olds.” The film made $4.4 million on its opening weekend. After two months, it grossed just over $22 million from an $8 million budget.

Breathless received negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The result is a stylistic exercise without any genuine human concerns we can identify with – and yet, an exercise that does have a command of its style, is good-looking, fun to watch, and develops a certain morbid humor.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “I still don’t understand why Mr. McBride and Mr. Carson elected to do the film but, considering the more obvious possible pitfalls, they could have done a lot worse. That is meant to be praise.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Presumably, McBride and Carson convinced themselves that they were being true to the spirit of the original, but their notion of a star-crossed romance played out between lovers attracted to criminal extremes is fundamentally devoted to pandering to a certain star image—Richard Gere as hunky jailbait.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “McBride’s presentation of Richard Gere is frankly pornographic, perhaps the only way to handle this Victor Mature of the 80s; Valerie Kaprisky costars—meekly.”

Breathless is about being young and in love, not caring what anyone else thinks. Jesse lives for and in the moment. The problem is that no one else thinks that way, including Monica. He lives in another era, listening to 1950s music and stealing cars from that era while also reading ‘60s era Silver Surfer comic books. He doesn’t fit into the materialistic ‘80s and this is represented by the push and pull of the film’s style, utilizing Classic Hollywood techniques like rear projection with music video-like moments.

Breathless is an ode to impulsive, passionate young love but tempered with its fleeting nature. Monica and Jesse have a telling exchange partway through the film where she says, “I’d love to know what’s behind that face of yours. I stare at you and stare at you and can’t see anything,” to which replies, “What do you want to know? I’m from Earth, I’m a person, I love you.” For her, that’s not enough. As she tells him earlier, “You roll the dice too much,” and she’s right. She wants something more meaningful but he doesn’t let anyone get past the brash façade because his instinct is to mistrust everyone. This ultimately dooms their relationship.
  
SOURCES

Adams, Sam. “Interview: L.M. Kit Carson.” A.V. Club. August 19, 2011.

Farber, Stephen. “A Maverick and a Star Remake the Classic Breathless.” The New York Times. November 21, 1982.

Lovell, Glen. “McBride Bankable with Success of Breathless.” Boca Raton News. July 22, 1983.

Lubow, Arthur. “The Film is Over, but Valerie Kaprisky is Still Breathless Over Richard Gere.” People. May 30, 1983.

Moynihan, Maura and Andy Warhol. “Richard Gere: Beyond the Limit with the Star of The Cotton Club.” Interview. October 1983.


Stewart, Justin. “Interview: Jim McBride.” Film Comment. January 31, 2013.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Electric Dreams

Long before Spike Jonze’s critically-acclaimed Her (2013) featured a relationship between a man and computer operating system, there was the little-seen Electric Dreams (1984) that depicted a love triangle between a man, a woman and his computer. It marked the feature film debut for music director Steve Barron and for emerging film production company Virgin Films. While some of its 1980s stylistic trappings date the film, it was quite prescient in the way it shows how technology is prevalent in our daily lives – even back in 1984.

This is particularly evident in the opening scene where we meet Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) struggling to get an airplane ticket at a computerized kiosk. As he’s waiting for his flight he notices a kid playing with a remote controlled car. Barron shows other passengers occupied with electronic devices: a hand-held game console, a digital watch and so on. Sound familiar? The situation today is the same only more prevalent and with smart phones. Furthermore, at work, Miles’ every move is tracked by surveillance cameras.

Miles is a bookish, disorganized architect and it’s affecting his work. A co-worker recommends he buy a personal computer as it will help him get his life in order. His trip to an electronics store is an amusing snapshot of how computers were regarded back then. When he tells the sales clerk that he doesn’t know anything about computers, she replies, “Nobody does, but don’t you want one for when you do find out?” He buys one, sets it up at home and naively trusts it with running all of his appliances and home security. What could possibly go wrong?

One day, he runs into his new upstairs neighbor – a beautiful and talented cellist named Madeline Robistat (Virginia Madsen). Barron makes a point of paralleling her impressive first practice with an orchestra and Miles’ newfound mastery of his PC. After overloading his computer with data from a powerful mainframe at work, it somehow becomes sentient, sparked to life by Madeline practicing her cello, playing with her in a nicely orchestrated sequence.

She thinks it was Miles playing along and finds herself intrigued by him. They run into each other again at the local supermarket and go out for dinner. It’s a lovely scene as they tentatively get to know each other and one can sense the growing attraction between them. His computer becomes increasingly jealous of their developing relationship, trying to sabotage it in initially relatively harmless ways but as the movie progresses, becomes more brazen with its efforts.

Lenny Von Dohlen plays Miles as a shy, erudite guy that feels awkward in social situations, especially when it comes to women. The actor is careful not to resort to full-on nerd clichés and Miles is smart enough and good-looking so that you can see why Madeline is attracted to him. He maybe a brilliant architect but he lacks experience when it comes to interpersonal relationships and she gets him to come out of his shell.

Virginia Madsen does an excellent job transcending the beautiful girl-next-door stereotype. Madeline is smart, sexy and sweet and this is due in large part to the actress’ undeniable natural charm and charisma. Her character is clearly a talented musician that knows how to have fun as evident from the montage where she and Miles go on a tour of Alcatraz and veer off from the group to do their own thing.

The scenes depicting the early stages of their romance demonstrates the undeniable chemistry between Von Dohlen and Madsen. The movie comes alive and is charged with infectious energy in the scenes where Miles and Madeline are falling in love. As a result, we begin to care about these two and what happens to them.

Barron employs several of his music video techniques to keep Electric Dreams visually interesting. A computer animated dream sequence must’ve seemed pretty novel at the time and holds up quite well despite the cheesy music that accompanies it. There’s another scene where Miles’ PC takes over his apartment and stages its own noisy party complete with loud music and light show. Surprisingly, it doesn’t date the movie, but the music certainly does and this is true of many movies made in the ‘80s. He also does a decent job of showing off San Francisco and this creates a real sense of place. This isn’t just some anonymous city but one with distinctive architecture and it would make sense that someone like Miles would live there.

Steve Barron made his music video directorial debut in 1979 and quickly made a name for himself with memorable efforts like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, and “Take on Me” by A-Ha. A video he did for Haysi Fantayzee caught the attention of Rusty Lemorande who was co-producing Yentl (1983) at the time and also finishing up his own script entitled, Electric Dreams. He was looking for a director and asked Barron to do it. The director took Lemorande’s script to Virgin Films, which were becoming increasingly interested in going into film production and within four days agreed to finance it. Two months later, filming began in San Francisco with additional studio work done in London at Twickenham Studios.

Electric Dreams received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “It’s not often that a modern movie has the courage to give us a hero who doesn’t seem to be a cross between a disco god and an aerobics instructor, but the von Dohlen character is a nice change.” In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “In the failure of Electric Dreams to blend and balance its ingredients properly, plot elements are lost (the brick), credibility is overtaxed (the lovelorn computer), and what remains is high tech without being high art.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Electric Dreams also shows us just how digitalized, automated and dehumanized our world has become, and in its light, sweet way reminds us to pull the plug on the PC, lest we become one of the data-debased.”

At the time, the film was criticized for cashing in on the music video craze. Barron said, “The fact that there’s so much music has to do with the success of Flashdance. This film isn’t Flashdance 2. Flashdance worked because of the dancing. It didn’t have a story. Electric Dreams does.” To her credit, Virginia Madsen looks back on the film with fond memories:

“I had a mad, crazy crush on Lenny Von Dohlen. God, we were so…we were head-over-heels for each. Nothing happened, and at this point, I admit it: I wanted it to happen. [Laughs] But we both had other people in our lives. We were very young, so our pining for each other was great for the movie.”

Electric Dreams is a self-described “fairytale for computers” and in a way that’s true as a PC becomes magically infused with artificial intelligence and begins to display human emotions like anger and jealousy. The movie is also a warning against the over-reliance on technology and how it controls every aspect of our lives – something which, unfortunately, is now our reality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still fight against it. Barron’s movie champions human contact over the electronic kind and that is something our world desperately needs.


SOURCES

Harris, Will. “Virginia Madsen on Smelling Christopher Walken, Getting Tax Advice from Arnold Schwarzenegger, and More.” A.V. Club. July 19, 2013.

Mills, Nancy. “Video Director in Virgin Territory.” Los Angeles Times. November 26, 1983.


Pollock, Dave. “The Smoke-Filled Room Leads to Clean Deals.” Los Angeles Times. May 26, 1984.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Suicide Squad

Anticipation was high when the first trailer for Suicide Squad (2016) debuted. The playful, irreverent tone came as a welcome relief from the dark, somber tone of previous DC Extended Universe movies, Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Perhaps DC was going to go for the same kind of colorful, anarchic vibe of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)?

Based on the comic book of the same name, Suicide Squad features a team of supervillains sent on seemingly impossible mission a la The Dirty Dozen (1967). Much like with the aforementioned Guardians, DC took a gamble on an independent filmmaker with no blockbuster experience. David Ayer is known mostly for writing and directing gritty police procedurals with morally dubious protagonist in films like Harsh Times (2005), Street Kings (2008), and End of Watch (2012). He was an intriguing choice to write and direct a comic book movie to say the least.

Shortly before Suicide Squad was released, industry gossip reported a troubled production that was rushed with post-production tinkering by studio executives unhappy with Ayer’s cut. The movie was released to very strong box office results and predominantly negative reviews. Its passionate supporters felt that there was a critical bias against the movie and that the leaked production woes were an attempt to sabotage it right out of the gate. That being said, if the end result is a quality product all of this industry chatter is ultimately irrelevant.

Right from the get-go, the editing feels disjointed as we are briefly introduced to two Suicide Squad members – Deadshot (Will Smith), a top notch marksman and assassin, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), an ex-psychiatrist now complete homicidal looney tune courtesy of the Joker (Jared Leto) – and then go right into setting up the movie’s premise without introducing the others or giving any kind of context. And then, just as government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) begins to establish the premise we are introduced to Deadshot and Harley Quinn again. Only this time giving them some backstory.

It is here that the movie Ayer wanted to make leaks through as we get a deliciously gonzo moment where Harley helps the Joker escape from Arkham Asylum with armed henchmen dressed as a goat, a panda bear and other things. The extended vignette depicting their toxic relationship has a wonderfully unpredictable vibe to it that is over too soon.

From there, we are finally introduced to the rest of the motley crew – Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a master thief whose weapon of choice are very lethal boomerangs, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an ex-gang banger with the ability to summon fire powers, and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a monstrous cross between a human and a crocodile who is also a cannibal. Waller’s plan is to send these baddies out in the world if the next Superman-type being turns out to be a terrorist, but instead are ordered to stop one of their own – the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a former archaeologist now possessed by a very old, very powerful witch that wants to destroy the world with the help of her recently resurrected brother who has also inhabited a body and is rapidly consuming others to become a powerful supernatural entity. Not surprisingly, the wild card thrown into the mix is the Joker who has his own agenda.

For the most part, Suicide Squad cruises by on sheer attitude alone thanks in large part to the charismatic performances of Margot Robbie and Jared Leto who seem to be having the most fun with their larger than life, iconic characters. It’s wonderful to see Will Smith part of an ensemble and exuding the cocky swagger that helped make him king of the box office for several years. It’s just a damn shame that his character is saddled with such a bland backstory that reeks of a movie star demanding that he not play a truly bad guy but someone in search of redemption.

Leto and Robbie bring a new Millennium Sid and Nancy (1986) vibe to their portrayals of the Joker and Harley Quinn that is easily one of the movie’s highlights. Whenever they are on-screen together there is a delightfully unpredictable frisson between them that feels more like a creation between Ayer and his actors rather than some of the more formulaic elements that the movie falls back on. We want to see more of these two together and hopefully their volatile relationship will be explored in more detail in another movie.

Jay Hernandez successfully brings a refreshing dynamic to the group as a tragic figure reluctant to use his superpower because of its devastating effects and how it informs his troubled past. The movie’s secret weapon and scene-stealer is Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, a smartass Aussie that drinks beer and loves pink unicorns. He’s an under-utilized character actor often relegated to bland roles in movies like A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) and Terminator Genisys (2015), but has finally found his signature role and he goes for it in a way that is oh-so enjoyable to watch.

To be honest there isn’t a bum note in the entire cast, even Joel Kinnaman who has the misfortune of playing Colonel Rick Flag, the straight man to these colorful characters, ordered by Waller to babysit them. Technically speaking, if you continue The Dirty Dozen comparisons then Flag has the Lee Marvin role since he’s their handler on the actual mission but early on it feels more like Waller is with her hard-as-nails, no-nonsense disposition as Viola Davis appears to have continued playing her government official from Michael Mann’s little-seen computer hacker film Blackhat (2015). If the filmmakers really wanted to take some chances they should’ve had Waller go along with the Squad on their mission instead of the flavorless Flag so that the always interesting to watch Davis could’ve gotten more screen-time.


There is an interesting dynamic going on in Suicide Squad with Ayer’s patented tough guy dialogue being spouted by comic book characters and naturally much of the enjoyment that comes from watching this movie is derived from these disparate characters bouncing off each other with a delicious amount of friction generated between them because nobody trusts each other. Watching Suicide Squad one can see a really good (possible R rated – at least that’s what the Joker/Harley Quinn scenes feel like) movie trying to get out but the first half is marred by editing by committee and feels disjointed. Fortunately, the second half is much more coherent as the movie settles into the standard comic book formula as the Squad goes after a big bad bent on destroying the world and fighting their way through an army of its flunkies. Far from the trainwreck that most critics would have you believe, Ayer’s movie is a fun, entertaining romp that is, at times, frustratingly at odds with itself.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Outsiders

I was just the right age for S.E. Hinton’s young adult novels in the early 1980s. It was at an impressionable age that I read and re-read The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and Tex (for some reason I never warmed up to That Was Then, This Is Now). I loved getting lost in the worlds she created, often about teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks facing real problems. I liked that she didn’t sugarcoat things or talked down to her readers. There was an authenticity to her work that deeply affected me, especially The Outsiders, the novel of hers I read the most.

As luck would have it, the ‘80s would see film adaptations of her first four novels, starting with Tex (1982), but the one I really looked forward to the most was The Outsiders (1983). At that young age I had no idea who Francis Ford Coppola was or the mostly unknown cast of young actors but I knew that they brilliantly brought Hinton’s novel to the life on the big screen almost exactly how I imagined it when I read it. The film affected me so strongly that the characters in the novel and the actors that portrayed him became indistinguishable.

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” And so begins Hinton’s classic story about troubled youths in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) is a young teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a Greaser, Hinton’s romanticized version of poor, white trash. He and his best friend Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) go to a drive-in movie theater with fellow Greaser Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon).

What is so striking about these early scenes is how much Matt Dillon commands the screen with his cocky swagger and mischievous attitude as he half-heartedly chases a trio of little kids across a vacant lot while “Gloria” by Them plays on the soundtrack. The actor portrays his character like a playful variation of Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One (1953). He really gets to have some fun when Dallas, Johnny and Ponyboy arrive at the drive-in and decide to sit behind two beautiful girls – Cherry (Diane Lane) and her friend Marcia (Michelle Meyrink) – who left their drunk Soc (rich white kids) boyfriends. He starts hitting on Cherry and initially it’s funny and we see genuine chemistry between Dillon and Diane Lane (that would continue in two more films they made together) but things go south quickly when he gets nasty and she tells him to get lost. It’s an enjoyable bit of acting on Dillon’s part as we see how easily Dallas can go from rascally to crude in a few moments. Lane is also decent as Cherry goes from playfully flirting to angrily offended, telling off the nasty punk.

After leaving the drive-in, the focus shifts to Ponyboy and Johnny who take refuge in vacant lot when the latter discovers his parents fighting at home. This scene shows the close bond these two boys have and how tough life is for them, especially when they have to deal with Socs. Ralph Macchio is particularly moving in this scene as Johnny breaks down and laments, “Seems like there’s got to be some place without Greasers, Socs. Must be some place with just plain, ordinary people.” He says these words with a heartbreaking vulnerability reminiscent of Sal Mineo’s doomed teen in A Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Their lives are changed forever when they hang out at a local playground and cross paths with a carload of Socs – the same ones that are boyfriends to Cherry and Marcia and that beat Johnny pretty badly awhile back. They attack Ponyboy and Johnny, trying to drown the former until the latter kills one of them with a switchblade. Fearing that they’ll get in trouble with the law (because Ponyboy’s parents are dead, he’ll be taken away from his brothers) even though it was self-defense, they have Dallas get them out of town. He sends them out to an abandoned church in the country and for a spell the film becomes a two-hander as Ponyboy and Johnny spend the days playing cards and reading Gone with the Wind to each other. This is The Outsiders at its most romantic as they watch sunrises and remark at the stunning colors as Ponyboy quotes a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Over the course of the film, Coppola extends the metaphor to the friendship between the two boys.

Coppola gets truly wonderful performances out of his young cast, in particular C. Thomas Howell and Macchio, as evident in the portion of the film where their characters are hiding out in the country. There’s one scene where Ponyboy gets upset when the realization of how much trouble they’re in sinks in. Their friendship is the heart and soul of The Outsiders with the sensitive Johnny being the Greasers’ unofficial mascot that everyone looks out for – even the jaded tough guy Dallas. Watching this film more than 30 years later it is amazing to see how many actors got their start or that this was their first major role. Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise were all relative unknowns and went on to greater fame after the success of this movie.

Coppola has always had an uncanny eye for casting and this is readily apparent with The Outsiders, which features an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the cast. Lowe and Swayze play Ponyboy’s older brothers, both of whom had to drop out of school to get jobs to make ends meet with the former playing the disciplinarian and the latter, the easy-going peacemaker. They, along with Howell, are believable as brothers, given little screen-time to convey a tight bond between their respective characters.

Howell delivers a thoughtful performance, capturing the dreamer quality that is essential to Ponyboy, a character who reads Gone with the Wind and enjoys sunsets. Estevez is a funny scene-stealer as Two-Bit Matthews, always cracking jokes. Initially, Dallas appears to be the toughest, most cynical of the Greasers, but by the end of the film it is revealed that under that hard exterior is someone with a big heart and when the one thing that keeps him in check is taken away, he spirals out of control, which allows Dillon to go full-on Method scenery-chewing in a powerful, show-stopping, operatic exit that is worthy of the 1950s melodramas Coppola is celebrating.

With the help of cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, Coppola creates a richly textured world shot in glorious widescreen with a look that evokes another epic about troubled youth, A Rebel Without a Cause. The Outsiders is also drenched in the golden hues of warm sunrises and sunsets like something right out of Gone with the Wind (1939). The Outsiders is clearly Coppola’s homage to Rebel and other melodramatic teen movies of the ‘50s. The screenplay is peppered with the occasional grandiose statement like when Dallas dedicates the upcoming rumble with the Socs, “We’ll do it for Johnny,” like a declaration of war that seems anachronistic and cheesy by today’s standards but would not seem out of place in a James Dean film.

One of the themes that drives The Outsiders is a loss of innocence. Despite his poor upbringing, Ponyboy is an idealist who believes in the basic decency of people – even Socs. It is Johnny who keeps him hopeful, to “Stay Gold,” to paraphrase the Robert Frost poem they both love. Ultimately, the film is about looking beyond one’s socio-economic class and judging people by their actions. Although, it is pretty obvious that Coppola’s sympathies lie with the Greasers as opposed to the selfish Socs.

That being said, there’s a nice scene late in the film when Ponyboy has a private conversation with Randy (Darren Dalton), the Soc that was friends with the boy that Johnny killed. He lets his guard down and tells Ponyboy in a moment of rare candor, “You can’t win, you know that, don’t you? It doesn’t matter if you whip us, you’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom and we’ll still be the lucky ones at the top with all the breaks. It doesn’t matter. Greasers’ll still be Greasers and Socs will still be Socs.” It is an important scene in that it not only humanizes Randy but also underlines the fundamental truth about this world – the characters will forever be defined by their socio-economical class. It is this realization that makes the Greasers’ victory over the Socs in the film’s climactic battle ultimately a hollow one. This is compounded further by the tragic demise of two people close to Ponyboy.

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 15-years-old, based on the social differences she witnessed at her high school. Viking Press published it two years later in 1967 and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon, kickstarting the Young Adult genre. It immediately struck a chord with young readers who identified with its honest depiction of teenagers and became a staple at school classrooms around the country. In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola received a paperback copy of the novel accompanied by a letter written by Jo Ellen Misakian, a librarian at Lone Star School, Fresno County. Apparently, a petition had been started at school to get the book made into a film and they selected Coppola as the best director for the job.

In her letter, she wrote, “I feel our students are representative of the youth of America. Everyone who has read the book, regardless of ethnic or economic background, has enthusiastically endorsed this project.” Coppola asked his producer Fred Roos to read the book and let him know if it was suitable for cinematic treatment. He read it from cover to cover and recommended Coppola make it. In addition, the novel had sold four million copies since 1970 and this convinced Coppola of its potential for box office success – something that he needed at the time. Roos met with Hinton in the summer of ’80 and found out that she wasn’t a fan of Coppola’s Godfather films or Apocalypse Now (1979) but being an admirer of horses loved The Black Stallion (1979), which he produced, and felt that it demonstrated he and Roos “had some affinity for young adult fiction,” according to the latter.

Hinton asked $5,000 for the rights but at the time Zoetrope, Coppola’s production company, was struggling with massive bank debt when his passion project, the ambitious One from the Heart’s (1982) budget ballooned to $25 million. She agreed to a $500 down payment. He was able to get a distribution contract from Warner Bros. and on the strength of that, Chemical Banks gave Zoetrope a loan and a completion guarantee from Britain’s National Film Finance Corporation, which resulted in a $10 million budget.

Coppola hired young writer Kathleen Rowell to adapt the novel but the filmmaker felt that their screenplay was “too much soap opera” and shelved the project. He would soon return to it, reading the book and feeling that making it would be a way to escape his trouble with Zoetrope: “I used to be a great camp counselor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. It would be a breath of fresh air. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.” He would end up writing 14 drafts with Hinton. The Writers Guild of America wouldn’t give her credit for her contributions and in protest, Coppola temporarily quit the organization.

To prepare for filming, Hinton drove Coppola around Tulsa, showing him locations she thought of while writing the book. To help the cast get into character, Coppola separated them by social class and so all the Greasers stayed on the same hotel room floor and hung out together while the Socs had nicer rooms. Furthermore, the actors playing the Socs received their scripts in leather-bound binders while the Greasers had them in denim notebooks. Actor Ralph Macchio remembers that Coppola had “a very theatrical way of working.” In early March of 1982, the cast spent two weeks rehearsing, improvising, and doing acting exercises, which helped everyone bond with each other. He then videotaped a dress rehearsal with the actors in front of a blank screen. He would superimpose stills of exterior locations sites in Tulsa and shots of interior sets so that by the time principal photography started on March 29, he had a good idea of how each scene would look. C. Thomas Howell remembers, “We were all raw and young and very impressionable, so it was a good time for us to have a mentor like Coppola.”

Filming finished on May 15 as planned and Coppola began editing it during the summer. He approached his father Carmine to compose “a kind of schmaltzy classical score” that would embody the Gone with the Wind for teens vibe he wanted: “It appealed to me that kids could see Outsiders as a lavish, big-feeling epic about kids.”

While performing strongly at the box office, The Outsiders was not particularly well-received by critics with Roger Ebert giving it two-and-a-half out of four stars. He wrote, “The problem, I’m afraid, is with Coppola’s direction. He seems so hung up with his notions of a particular movie ‘look,’ with his perfectionistic lighting and framing and composition, that the characters wind up like pictures, framed and hanged on the screen.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “To those of us who can’t buy Mr. Coppola’s inflated attempts at myth making, it’s a melodramatic kidfilm with the narrative complexity of The Three Bears and a high body count.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Between the aimlessness of the plot and the marshmallow sponginess of the sentimental content, Coppola is left with ingredients every bit as defective and softheaded as the ones he overrated in One from the Heart.”

Coppola’s original version was quite faithful to Hinton’s book but in 2005, he decided to revisit the film and put back in 22 more minutes of deleted scenes, most noticeably at the beginning and end of the film. This new footage opens up the film more. We are introduced to the Greasers much earlier on now that Coppola isn’t reined in by the dictates of test screenings. Another significant change has Coppola replacing all of his father’s beautiful, classical score in favor of period rock ‘n’ roll music. In some cases, like the opening scene where Ponyboy is jumped by some Socs, it works and in others, like the whimsical surf music that plays over the scene where the Socs jump Johnny and Ponyboy, it feels awkward and out of place. Part of the film’s original charm was its moments of ‘50s style melodrama, as epitomized by the film’s orchestral soundtrack, and this is diminished by the newly inserted period music that could be right out of an episode of Crime Story. Hinton’s books are timeless with their universal themes and the original music reflected that. This new music, while accurate for its time period, contributes to a loss of some of the timeless feel.

Throughout the ups and downs that Ponyboy experiences, what matters most is the bond he has with his brothers and his fellow Greasers that are an extension of his biological family. They stick up for each other and this is a large part of the film’s (and book’s) appeal – a story dominated by teenagers with little to no adult presence. When you’re a kid and always being told what to do by your parents, teachers and other adults, a story where kids your own age are the protagonists has a very definite allure – a form of escape that speaks to the reader in a way that feels honest and true. This is why the novel and its film adaptation continue to endure and speak to successive generations of young people.


SOURCES

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

Dickerson, Justin. “An Inside Look at The Outsiders.” USA Today. September 19, 2005.

Gilliam, Mitch, Joshua Kline, Joe O’Shansky and Michael Wright. “Making The Outsiders.” The Tulsa Voice. August 2016.

Harmetz, Aljean. “Making The Outsiders, A Librarian’s Dream.” The New York Times. March 23, 1983.


Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.