Friday, July 31, 2015

Dead Poets Society

Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.

Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.

Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied.


He hopes that they will learn to think for themselves. How could you not be inspired by someone like that at such an impressionable age? However, Keating is not saying that all other disciplines are less worthy – on the contrary, they are often crucial to our day-to-day existence – but a love of literature is good for the soul and enriches our lives. In their own respective ways, Neil and Keating are instrumental in bringing Todd out of his shell – whether he wants to or not. The last 30 minutes of Dead Poets Society take on a considerably darker tone as the boys are forced to grow up fast when faced with the death of one of their own. They must make some important choices that will change their future at Welton as they must decide if they should stick together or save their own skins as the ramifications could affect their future academic career. Weir takes great care to show how this death affects not just the boys but Keating as well in a deeply profound way.

Ethan Hawke plays Todd as a wide-eyed innocent, meek in temperament and soft-spoken with the hint of a nervous stutter. At times, Todd is so quiet that those around him are often barely aware he’s in the room and Weir conveys this visually by the character’s placement in a given shot. Along comes Keating who forces Todd out of his shell as only a charismatic teacher can with the rousing battle cry of carpe diem. It is this ideal that he tries to instill in Todd and his classmates and Hawke does a nice job over the course of Dead Poets Society showing how his character struggles with it. The moment where Keating forces Todd to let go and create a poem spontaneously is a powerful one as we are witness to a personal epiphany and an emotional breakthrough.

Robert Sean Leonard delivers what is arguably the most powerful performance in the film as a student who starts out full of passion for the written word thanks to Keating’s influence and this inspires him to get involved in theater. It is his idea to resurrect the Dead Poets Society and the other boys follow him because he is a natural, charismatic leader. As the film progresses, Neil’s personal arc takes on increasingly dramatic dimensions and Leonard is excellent at showing how the pressure that his father (Kurtwood Smith) exerts takes its toll. What was once a promising future eventually becomes a prison imposed by his father and Neil feels that there is only way out. As a result, he becomes a tragic figure and a potent warning of what happens when you buck the rigid system structure imposed by parents, authorities, etc.


Robin Williams is quite good and very believable as an English teacher. Weir reins him in and not once does the comedian go on one of his trademark manic tears, but still has his funny moments. More importantly, he is incredible at conveying a passion for literature and this in turn inspires his students who resurrect an old tradition of his when he was a student at the school – The Dead Poets Society, a group of boys who met, after lights out, at the old Indian cave off campus and recited their favorite poetry (and even some of their own). Keating is an outsider who used to be an insider – once a student at Welton Academy – and he’s gone on to be a free thinker who tries to impose his out-of-the-box approach on the school. Not surprisingly, he meets with resistance from the administration.

The cast is uniformly excellent and convincingly convey the kind of familiarity and friendship that exists and forms in a boarding school environment with Josh Charles and Gale Hansen being notable stand-outs with the former playing an irrepressible romantic that pursues a girl he pines for from afar and the latter playing a beatnik-in-training, who throws down the first gauntlet of rebellion against the administration. Even though they play archetypal characters, their performances move beyond the clichés into well-nuanced, three-dimensional people that we grow fond of and care about.

Weir perfectly captures the look and atmosphere of the northeast in autumn with orange and brown colored leaves on trees or lying on the ground as winter approaches. He also accurately depicts the rarified atmosphere of private school life: the camaraderie of the boys, the secret breaking of the rules, and the strict adherence to tradition. He shows us glimpses of the day-to-day goings on: chapel first thing in the morning, classes where one learns the standards (Latin, Trig, etc.) and the participation in sports like rowing.


When writing the screenplay for Dead Poet Society, every character was based loosely on someone Tom Schulman knew in real life. For example, Keating was inspired by an English teacher he had in his sophomore year of high school and a teacher he had in the Actors and Directors Lab in Los Angeles years later. Of all the characters in the film, Todd is the one Schulmann identified with the most because he was also shy and afraid of public speaking.

Early on, Jeff Kanew (Revenge of the Nerds) was set to direct and he wanted Liam Neeson to play Keating but the studio wanted Robin Williams. The comedian wanted to do the film but not with Kanew. The film was originally planned to be shot outside of Atlanta with sets built but Williams did not show up for the first day of shooting. Afterwards, the studio shut down the production and burned down the sets. Kanew left as a result. In 1987, Peter Weir met with Walt Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg about making a film with them. At the end of the meeting, Katzenberg gave him the script for Dead Poets Society. The director read and loved it as well as the chance to work with Williams.

In order to bond as a group, the seven young actors that played Keating’s students played soccer together and ran through simple acting exercises prior to principal photography. To get them into the spirit of their characters, Weir created an “atmosphere where there was no real difference between off-camera and on-camera – they were those people.”


Weir shot the film in sequence so that the actors would experience the same rollercoaster of emotions as their characters. He was also careful to rein in Williams’ trademark knack for improvisational comedy so that the character’s humor “had to be part of the personality,” and so they agreed “at the start that he was not going to be an entertainer in the classroom.” For the pivotal setting of the fictional Welton Academy, the production used St. Andrew’s School in Middleton, near Wilmington, Delaware with filming taking place from mid-October 1988 to late January 1989. For the most part filming went smoothly, however, in order to keep the budget under control, Disney shortened the shooting schedule, which stressed Weir out to no end. The director finally snapped and straightened things out with Katzenberg.

Dead Poets Society received mixed reviews from mainstream critics with Roger Ebert infamously giving it two out of four stars. He wrote, “The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon. If you are going to evoke Henry David Thoreau as the patron saint of your movie, then you had better make a movie that he would have admired.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Even worse, Mr. Schulman and Mr. Weir seem to accept the Keating character at romantic face value. In allowing him to remain a sort of hip Mr. Chips, they leave unexplored the contradictory nature of his responsibilities.” The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington wrote, “Ultimately, whatever its flaws, The Dead Poets Society commands respect and affection. It becomes—in ways that most movies don’t even attempt—a cry of passion and rage against the brutality of a conformist society, against the deadening of our capacity for beauty.”

There’s a long-standing tradition of coming-of-age stories set in prep schools both in literature with likes of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye and films like If… (1968) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Dead Poets Society is very much in that tradition, offering a poignant coming-of-age tale featuring conflicts between individuality and conformity. A way someone comes of age is through experience and taking something away from it. After what happens to Neil and then Keating, Todd is finally moved to assert himself in a way he was unwilling to do so before in a moving scene that manages to end the film on a hopeful albeit bittersweet note. I always get the feeling that Neil and Keating’s respective sacrifices are not in vain and that Todd will carry on their passion for the arts and for life now that he has finally learned how to seize the day. By the end of the film, Neil and Keating have had a profound effect on not just Todd but many of his classmates.


Dead Poets Society would earn Robin Williams a much-deserved Academy Award nomination and launch the careers of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles, all of whom are still working in prominent movies and television to this day. The film would go on to inspire and influence subsequent boarding school movies like School Ties (1992) and Mona Lisa Smile (2003) among others but they all still live in the long shadow that Weir’s film casts. It still resonates today because its themes are timeless.

SOURCES

Anica, Rocio. “Screenwriter Tom Schulman Talks Dead Poets Society Blu-Ray.” I Am Rogue. January 19, 2012.

Brew, Simon. “Why Dead Poets Society’s Sets Were Burnt Down After One Day.” Mental Floss. April 24, 2015.

Griffin, Nancy. “Poetry Man.” Premiere. July 1989.

Mammarella, Ken. “Middletown Marks Dead Poets Society Anniversary.” The Delaware News Journal. March 22, 2014.


May, Grady. “Interview… Dead Poets Society Writer Tom Schulman.” GST. January 16, 2012.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ant-Man

Flush from the unprecedented series of successful movies based on their comic book titles, Marvel Studios has been emboldened to start making movies on their lesser known characters, the first being Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Its surprise commercial and critical success paved the way for Ant-Man (2015), a character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, and who first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 as the superhero alter ego of a brilliant scientist. Anticipation was high for this movie when it was announced that filmmaker Edgar Wright, responsible for beloved cult movie hits Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) among others, would be directing and co-writing it. However, a few months before principal photography began, Wright abruptly left the project over the dreaded “creative differences” excuse, which temporarily threw it into limbo. Peyton Reed, known for comedies like Bring It On (2000) and Yes Man (2008), replaced Wright raising more than a few eyebrows and leading to speculation as to what kind of movie he would make. The casting of Paul Rudd, known mostly for appearing in comedies, also seemed to suggest that there would be considerably more humor in Ant-Man than in previous Marvel movies.

Skilled cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just been released from prison after years for breaking and entering and grand larceny. He tries to go legit for the sake of his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), getting a job – albeit briefly – at Baskin Robbins and quickly gets fired in an amusing scene. Meanwhile, reclusive scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is trying to keep his invention of technology that allows one to shrink to the size of an insect a secret because S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to appropriate back in the day.

His protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has spent years trying to figure out how Pym achieved it and is very close to perfecting it himself with the plan of developing a potential army of soldiers wearing suits with this technology and then selling it to the highest bidder (i.e. Hydra). Believing Cross to be dangerous, Pym seeks out someone to utilize his Ant-Man technology and stop Cross. As luck would have it, Scott owes child support and is desperate to find work in order to prove he’s responsible. He agrees to pull a burglary with ex-con pal Luis (Michael Pena) and his fellow ex-con roommates in a nicely orchestrated set piece. Scott uses his considerable skills to bypass various security systems in a house that turns out to be Pym’s residence.


Scott finds the Ant-Man suit and puts it on, accidentally discovering what it does when it shrinks him down to the size of an insect in his bathtub. As a result, it now looks like a massive reservoir and the simple act of turning on the water is like a massive tidal wave to Scott. This sequence is a marvel of seamless special effects as we see Scott bounce from landscape to landscape that includes the surface of a vinyl record, a rug and a vacuum cleaner. It turns out that this has all been an audition, of sorts, planned by Pym who has been watching Scott for some time. He comes to Scott with a deal: go back to prison or work with him to stop Cross.

Casting against type, Paul Rudd is excellent as Scott Lang, balancing his character’s desire to be reunited with this daughter and the fun action stuff, especially when Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) trains him to fight. Rudd is believable as one of Marvel’s trademark flawed heroes in need of redemption. He also brings his considerable good-natured charm to the role, which only enhances how entertaining and enjoyable he is in this movie.

Michael Douglas is quite good as a veteran scientist also looking for redemption to be a better father to his daughter. He also provides the required pathos as Pym is wracked with guilt and regret over losing his wife to the Ant-Man technology. Much like with Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), it is nice to see a veteran actor of Douglas’ stature having fun and cutting loose in a big budget comic book superhero movie like this one.


In the scenes where Pym mentors Scott, Douglas and Rudd play well off each other as the former plays straight man delivering the necessary exposition dialogue that explains who he is and what his technology can do while the latter is the audience surrogate, acting appropriately (and hilariously) incredulous when confronted with all this incredible technology. Honed on countless comedies, his reaction to a few of the amazing things he experiences is priceless.

Corey Stoll brings just the right amount of gravitas and menace required for the stock bad guy role. The actor tries hard to give Cross some depth and provide compelling motivation for his character’s actions. There is an attempt in the screenplay, and with Stoll’s performance, to show Cross’ descent into madness the more power hungry he becomes.

There is something pretty cool about seeing Scott running alongside a vast army of ants or running along a barrel of a gun. The final showdown cleverly juxtaposes an epic battle on a small scale – a children’s train set – but the stakes couldn’t be more dramatic. Most interestingly, Ant-Man introduces the existence of the Microverse, a dimension that exists on a sub-atomic level thereby leaving the door open for the possible introduction of The Micronauts much like Guardians of the Galaxy ushered in the notion of the cosmic portion of the Marvel Universe.


Ant-Man is a heist movie/superhero origin story combination that utilizes the same story structure as Iron Man (2008): a cocky, ne’er-do-well utilizes experimental technology to defeat a rival with the same tech only with a decidedly lighter touch and more heart. The movie is full of the kind of colorful visuals we’ve come to expect from Marvel with a nice blend of humor, exciting action and characters that are easy to root for and others to root against. The visual effects are incredibly rendered and beautifully realized as you would expect. For the most part, a movie with so many cooks in the kitchen is surprisingly coherent with only a few jokes failing to hit the mark, but it is far from the disaster some feared. In the end, Ant-Man manages to tread a fine line between openly acknowledging the absurdity of its concept (the ability to shrink down to the size of an insect) and telling a rousing story about redemption. After the decidedly darker tone of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man, with its bright colors and more freewheeling vibe, comes as a welcome palette cleanser of sorts before we head back into more serious far with Captain America: Civil War (2016).

Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson had one of the best runs of any actor during the 1970s and that’s saying a lot when you consider it was at a time when the likes of Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, among others, were doing some of their very best work. Nicholson actually made a big splash with his scene-stealing supporting role in Easy Rider (1969), which kickstarted a fantastic run of films, beginning with Five Easy Pieces (1970) and continuing with notable efforts like The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Last Detail (1973), and Chinatown (1974) – and this is before the halfway point of the decade! Perhaps his most fruitful collaborator during this period was filmmaker Bob Rafelson whom he co-wrote The Monkees movie Head (1968) with and went on to direct Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. Five Easy Pieces is one of those complex character studies that typified some of the best American films from the ‘70s.

We meet Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) working on an oil field somewhere in California to the strains of “Stand by Your Man” By Tammy Wynette, which, in retrospect, seems ironic because he could care less about his girlfriend’s loyalty. It is playing on a record player when he comes home and Nicholson gives it a brief look of disdain. When Bobby rebuffs his girlfriend Rayette’s (Karen Black) suggestion to play the song again she tells him to play the B-side, he snarkily replies, as only Nicholson can, “It’s not a question of sides, it’s a question of musical integrity.” The last bit is delivered with the actor’s trademark shit-eating grin. It seems like Ray doesn’t exactly understand what he means but does know that he’s making a joke at her expense.

Bobby and Ray go bowling with his co-worker Elton (Billy “Green” Bush) and his wife Stoney (Fannie Flagg) and then proceeds to belittle her in front of them for her lack of athletic prowess. He’s cruel to Ray and looks down on her, which begs the question, why is he with her and why does she put up with him? Bobby is someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which makes one wonder why he lives with Ray, a nice enough person but clearly not his intellectual equal. He barely tolerates her needy behavior and one gets the feeling that he is punishing himself.


The early scenes of Bobby and Elton working on the oil fields are beautifully realized as we actually see these guys hard at work and then joking with each other during breaks. These moments have a naturalistic vibe as Nicholson and Billy “Green” Bush play so well off each other that they are completely believable as good friends.

It’s the first indication of what Bill Murray would later say in Stripes (1981), that Bobby is “part of a lost and restless generation.” He doesn’t have time for people that can’t keep up with him. He cheats on Ray and then lies to her about it. She knows he is and even cries about it but stays with him anyway. Even Elton rubs Bobby the wrong way, provoking him to say, “Keep on telling me about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke!”

Five Easy Pieces is a slice-of-life film whose story doesn’t begin properly until 30 minutes in when Bobby quits his job and Elton is arrested – all on the same day. To make matters worse, Bobby’s sister Partita (Lois Smith) tells him that their father is very ill, having barely survived two strokes. We also find out that Bobby is a classically trained pianist and comes from an affluent family. He soon heads out to be with them, Ray in tow and the film shifts gears into road movie territory before finally settling into a family drama.


Nicholson plays Bobby like a man at war with himself. He is a misanthrope trying to act like he cares about other people. He tries to make it work with Ray but can’t help but be cruel to her. It’s in his nature to condescend to those that can’t keep up with him or piss him off. This usually manifests itself in treating Ray like shit most of the time but it is also funny and deserving, like the famous diner scene where he gives a surly waitress a piece of his mind in trademark Nicholson fashion.

His relationship with Ray is the first of several contradictions about the man. Rafelson sometimes conveys these contradictions visually, like when Bobby and Elton are stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway and the former hops up on the back of a truck and begins playing the piano strapped to it. He starts playing a classical piece really well and gets so engrossed in it that he doesn’t realize (or care) that the truck is taking the off ramp while Elton continues on. It’s quite the image: Bobby in his oil rigging work clothes playing piano. His contradictory nature is what makes him such a fascinating character. He’s Holden Caulfield all grown up and like J.D. Salinger’s most famous protagonist, he can’t stand phonies, dishing out scathing put-downs to people that upset him, like the aforementioned waitress.

The scenes where Bobby interacts with his family are when we get the most fascinating insights into his character and the closest to understanding him. His family is a bunch of eccentric intellectuals that delight in taking digs at each other and it is easy to see why Bobby hasn’t visited them in years. Most interestingly, we see how he acts around a woman named Catherine (Susan Anspach) who is his intellectual equal. She doesn’t put up with any of his shit and accuses him of having no inner feeling, but they have a brief fling anyway. She ends up offering a very accurate assessment of Bobby’s personality in a quietly powerful scene that Susan Anspach delivers in direct and eloquent fashion.


Karen Black has the tough job of playing a sweet woman who may not be the smartest person but she doesn’t deserve Bobby’s condescension. Ray is a target for much of his scorn. It’s not that she’s dumb per se; it’s just that she’s not as smart as Bobby. She doesn’t always understand what he says or gets things he references but then few people do outside of his family. Ray is not blessed with the kind of self-awareness that curses Bobby. After the first time he lays into her verbally we feel sympathy towards Ray. Sure, she’s annoying at times and talks a lot about nothing in particular, but she’s a nice person – an innocent of sorts. Black does a good job of refusing to reduce Ray to a silly caricature.

Jack Nicholson first met Carole Eastman in 1957 at an acting class taught by veteran character actor Jeff Corey. They became friends and would work on The Shooting (1967) with her writing the screenplay and him acting in it. Bob Rafelson met Nicholson at a film society in Hollywood and they bonded over foreign films and John Cassavetes. They ended up writing the script for the Monkees movie Head. At the time, Nicholson had given up acting and told Rafelson, “I’m tired of it. I always get to play the shitty B-part not the A-part, and it’s always in conventional movies.” The director responded, ‘Well, not the next one.’ The next one I want you to star in it.”

Rafelson had written some scripts in the 1960s based on friends he had in college and afterwards, some of whom were dead: “So I was writing about self-destruction.” He envisioned the protagonist of what would become Five Easy Pieces as a concert pianist, originally coming up with a vision of “Jack, out in the middle of a highway, the wind blowing through his hair, sitting on a truck and playing the piano.” He wasn’t happy with the scripts he had written and showed one of his scripts to Eastman. He knew of her work on The Shooting and Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970). He said of the writer: “I don’t think I ever met anybody – male or female – with such audacious and bold imagination.”


He asked her to work on it and she came back with Five Easy Pieces. Rafelson recalled, “The only scene of mine she kept was the one in the diner.” The character of Bobby was a composite of Nicholson, her brothers who “drifted almost mysteriously from place to place, and whose behavior remained finally inexplicable to her,” Ted Kennedy, “whose position as the youngest in his own celebrated family suggested the kinds of competitive feelings and fears” she wanted for Bobby, and her “own deep personal beliefs.” Rafelson said of Eastman, “Here she was, this rather thin and kind of fragile-looking woman and she could easily write about the most obscure things like waitresses, Tammy Wynette, bowling alleys, oil fields…”

Rafelson ended up tweaking Eastman’s script in several ways, most significantly the ending, which as originally written, had Bobby die when his car veered off a bridge – an allusion to Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Nicholson and Rafelson did not like this ending with the former wanting Bobby to walk down a street alone, but the latter ultimately went with the one in the film. Eastman was quite upset at the changes Rafelson made and felt betrayed.

Five Easy Pieces was shot over 41 days, starting in early winter 1969 and going into January on a budget of $876,000 on location around Bakersfield, California, Eugene, Oregon, and Victoria, British Columbia. When it came to the climactic scene between Bobby and his father, Nicholson and Rafelson disagreed on how the character should act. The director wanted Bobby to break down and cry and the actor felt that he would be doing it out of self-pity. Nicholson ended up rewriting the scene himself, waiting until the day of, on location, to write it. While writing and then acting the scene, he drew on his own relationship with his actual father.


Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it a “masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity.” In his review for the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton wrote, “director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman’s film is totally human, trading [Easy] Riders’ counterculture mytho-poetics for a study in the charisma of disdain (which Nicholson personifies) and how rebellion and loutishness are often indistinguishable (ditto), never excusing the pain Bobby causes.” However, The New York Time’s Roger Greenspun felt that it was a film “that takes small risks and provides small rewards.”

At the end of Five Easy Pieces, Bobby comes to terms with who he is and makes peace with his father in a moving scene that demonstrates his capacity for inner feeling – he just keeps it buried deep inside, only allowing it to surface during rare occasions. He says to his father, “I move around a lot, not because I’m looking for anything really but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” This is as close as Bobby gets to a confession of sorts, or an explanation of his behavior. Rafelson has said that he saw Five Easy Pieces about a man “condemned to search for the meaning of his life.” Bobby spends the entire film discontented, looking for something he can never find, doomed to spend his life searching for the meaning of it all. Rafelson and Nicholson would work together again several times, but this maybe their best collaboration to date.


SOURCES

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Simon and Schuster. 1998.

Knepperges, Rainer. “The Monologist and the Fighter: An Interview with Bob Rafelson.” Senses of Cinema. April 2009.

McGilligan, Patrick. Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson. W.W. Norton and Company. 1995.

McLellan, Dennis. “Carole Eastman, 69; Wrote Screenplay for Five Easy Pieces.” Los Angeles Times. February 27, 2004.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Bombast: Carole Eastman.” Film Comment. November 21, 2014.


Thomson, David. “One for the Road: Bob Rafelson and Five Easy Pieces.” Sight and Sound. September 2010.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lineup

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on Edward Copeland's blog.

Coming early on in his career, The Lineup (1958) is the kind of no-nonsense crime film that director Don Siegel excelled at and, in some ways, anticipated the same approach he took to his remake of The Killers (1964) years later. He wastes no time as The Lineup starts off with an exciting chase as a taxi cab driver tries to get away from a pier full of disembarking passengers with a stolen suitcase, runs over a cop and is shot and killed. Inside the case is a statuette containing $100,000 worth of heroin. The two detectives investigating the case – Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) – return the case to its owner in the hopes that he’ll lead them to a narcotics ring.

For the first 22 minutes of the film, Siegel does a good job showing us the nuts and bolts of a police investigation: inspecting the crime scene, questioning witnesses, the forensics lab, and organizing line-ups of potential suspects. Guthrie and Quine soon discover a rather elaborate heroin smuggling ring. The first third of The Lineup has the look and feel of an episode of Dragnet as we follow around these two just-the-facts cops. This changes once we are introduced to Dancer (Eli Wallach) and his partner Julian (Robert Keith) – two hitmen. They soon meet up with Sandy McLain (Richard Jaeckel), their wheelman who replaced the dead cab driver.

Eli Wallach plays Dancer, a sociopathic hitman who figures into the drug deal. He’s a consummate professional judging from the way he questions McLain about the job at hand. The beauty of Wallach’s performance is how Dancer gradually becomes unraveled over the course of the film and embodies Julian’s observation, “He’s a wonderful pure pathological study. A psychopath with no inhibitions.”


Veteran character actor Robert Keith (The Wild One) plays well off Wallach. He’s got a fantastic froggy, weathered voice that you imagine got that way from years of smoking and drinking. He’s the elder, cultured counterpart to Dancer’s younger vulgarian. Richard Jaeckel is excellent as the alcoholic driver who talks big and is always trying to scam a swig of booze, much to Julian’s chagrin. In a nice touch, Emile Meyer plays one of the investigating detectives, the straight arrow counterpoint to the corrupt cop he played a year earlier in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

The Lineup was based on the popular television series of the same name. The show’s producers had hired Siegel to direct the pilot episode and then Columbia Studios asked him to direct the film version. Siegel convinced the producers to hire Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) to write the screenplay. The screenwriter started writing a story about two hitmen. He and Siegel felt that the film should not be named after the show because audiences would be confused and suggested The Chase instead, which, not surprisingly, the studio did not go for.

Siegel makes great use of all kinds of San Francisco locations, which really gives a sense of place, from the scenes at a pier to the Steinhart Aquarium where Julian and Dancer trail a mother and daughter who unwittingly are carrying a packet of heroin to the Sutro Baths with its ice rink and observation deck, the start of the film’s exciting climax. The Lineup’s most memorable sequence is an intense car chase that takes place on the then-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, anticipating another insane West Coast car chase, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).


Siegel’s film is a stripped-down film noir devoid of any narrative fat with a fairly simple, crime does not pay message, but within that structure is a pretty fascinating relationship between Dancer and Julian who carry on, at times, like a bickering old married couple – again a dynamic that Siegel would revisit in The Killers.


SOURCES


Siegel, Don. A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. Faber & Faber. 1996.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Lost Souls

Sometimes you can go exploring the nooks and crannies of an actor’s filmography for an obscure gem or an unfairly overlooked film. Lost Souls (2000), starring Winona Ryder, is not one of those movies. Filmed in 1998 and scheduled to be released in October 1999, it was pushed back to February 2000 in order to avoid the glut of supernatural thrillers like End of Days, The Ninth Gate and Stigmata that were populating the multiplexes at the time. It was rescheduled again to October to avoid going up against the popular Scream franchise where it went up against the re-release of The Exorcist (1973) and promptly tanked at the box office and was trashed by critics. Despite featuring a visually arresting look by cinematographer-turned-director Janusz Kaminski and an engaging performance by Ryder, Lost Souls was plagued by a formulaic plot and cardboard cutout characters.

Father Lareaux (John Hurt) and his team, that consists of Deacon John Townsend (Elias Koteas) and associate Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder), arrive at a psychiatric hospital at the request of one of its patients, Henry Birdson (John Diehl) who obsessively writes pages and pages of numbers. He also happens to be suffering from demonic possession. The exorcism goes badly and afterwards Maya decodes Henry’s cryptic pages and discovers that it repeats the same name: Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin). Meanwhile, Peter, a successful true crime author, is covering the sensational trial of an accused killer. The writer is a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic that doesn’t buy the defense’s theory of demonic possession.

Maya believes that Peter will become possessed by the Devil but, not surprisingly, the Diocese rejects her findings, dismissing them as part of an obsession that originated from a troubled childhood. Of course she ignores them and tracks down Peter, trying to chip away at his skepticism about the existence of God and the Devil by taking him to see Henry only to discover that he’s in a stroke-induced coma. Maya not only has to convince Peter that he may be possessed by the Devil but also work through her own inner demons as it were, especially when she begins seeing things, causing her to question her own sanity.


Winona Ryder brings a fierce conviction and a haunted quality to Maya who firmly believes that people can be possessed and it is her calling to exorcise the demons from them. The actress does a good job of conveying her character’s obsessive nature through sometimes-fidgety body language. She also uses her big, expressive eyes to suggest someone haunted by their past, which we get glimpses of via a flashback of Father Lareaux performing an exorcism on her. She even transforms herself for the role, adopting an almost mousey, unkempt look complete with bulky, ill-fitting clothing and an earthy brown hair color. Ryder is an interesting actress to watch. She has some of the qualities of a silent movie star in the way she carries herself. She has a limited range as a thespian but knows how to work within it.

Ben Chaplin seems like an amicable enough guy and I don’t know if it’s just the roles he picks or it’s his nature but he has a tendency to play characters on the bland side and Peter Kelson is no different. There’s nothing particularly annoying about the character but there also isn’t anything particularly memorable about him either – and he’s supposed to be possessed by the Devil!

Lost Souls is one of those movies you can tell was directed by a cinematographer because he employs all the showy, stylistic flourishes that most directors keep in check on their own productions. So, Kaminski cuts loose with the excessive use of slow motion shots, skewed angles, extreme close-ups and adopts the same washed-out look he employed for Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan (1998). Kaminski does stage a suitably creepy set piece in which a bathroom comes apart around Maya with tiles flying off the walls and foul-looking brown water pouring out all over the floor while Henry suddenly appears brandishing a large, sharp knife.


In 1997, writers Betsy Stahl and Pierce Gardner pitched the idea for a supernatural thriller to Meg Ryan and her producing partner Nina R. Sadowsky as a vehicle for the actress. However, she decided to do City of Angels (1998) instead. While looking for a new lead actress, the studio landed Janusz Kaminski as director who said at the time of its release, “It’s not the most ideal project, but no one will give me the most ideal project without being able to see what I can do as a director.” Winona Ryder soon signed on.

Ryder was drawn to the project because she knew nothing about the subject matter. She was also attracted to the challenge of playing a character that believes in demonic possession, something that she didn’t personally believe in. She also wanted to do a thriller. To prepare for the role, she met with Father John Lebar who had experience with exorcisms and she even watched a few of them on videotape. Ryder also read The Bible but said, “I don’t believe in the devil. Never have. I think he’s a very abusive tool used on children. I think that’s a horrible way to raise a child – through fear. But I respect people who do believe he exists.”

Ryder had heard of Ben Chaplin through director Michael Lehmann who had worked with him on The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996) and with her on Heathers (1989). As a result, she wanted him to do Lost Souls with her and he needed a job. During release delays, the studio requested reshoots for the finale because they considered the original to be too abrupt. Two more endings were filmed before executives went with the original one.


Not surprisingly, Lost Souls received predominantly negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “These events and others are related in a downbeat, intense, gloomy narrative that seems better suited for a different kind of story. Even the shock moments are somewhat muted, as if the movie is reluctant to ‘fess up to its thriller origins.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Too late to seize on any New Year dread – though at one point, Philip Baker Hall, as a faux priest, gets to say, ‘They had their 2,000 years; now it’s our turn’ – the picture settles for a muted hysteria and cockroaches flailing about on their backs.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “The deep questions Lost Souls asks are these: Can Maya save Peter? Does the devil flourish in the absence of a belief in God? Was screenwriter Pierce Gardner, previously a producer, struck dumb by repeated viewings of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Kim Basinger in Bless the Child? But decipherable editorial positions, let alone answers, don’t follow.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Pierce Gardner’s woefully underdeveloped script is further undermined by stretches of unintentionally amusing dialogue. Neither scary nor even suspenseful, the picture is swiftly a turnoff, and stunning cinematography by Mauro Fiore and elaborate production design by Garreth Stover do not compensate for the many flaws.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe felt it was a “pretty dreary affair to sit through. It’s not even scary … Basically, it’s just a green-tinted, contemplative pseudo art-horror flick that can’t avoid such silly pronouncements.”

Lost Souls treads the same familiar ground already covered by countless other films, from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Stigmata without doing anything to stand out from those other efforts aside from some superficial cinematographic pyrotechnics. Ryder, as always, is interesting to watch and one wishes that she was in it more. In fact, a more intriguing movie would’ve been one that focused on Maya instead of Peter, delving more into her past instead of only the tantalizing tidbits we get in Kaminski’s movie. One gets the feeling that Lost Souls was probably compromised from the get-go and if the studio really had a strong movie on their hands that they believed was good they wouldn’t have moved its release date multiple times. The end result features a solid performance by Ryder but little else.


SOURCES

Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. “Lost Souls.” Entertainment Weekly. October 12, 2000.

“The Return of Ben Chaplin.” Movieline. November 1, 2000.


Vincent, Mal. “Goody One-Shoe.” Los Angeles Times. November 2, 2000.