Friday, August 28, 2015

Beach Red

In his book of collected film criticism, Ghosts in the Machine, Michael Atkinson makes a convincing argument that actor/director Cornel Wilde is more of a maverick filmmaker than the much more celebrated Sam Fuller. To be fair, Wilde has far fewer directorial efforts than Fuller – only nine – but each one attempts to push the boundaries of genre and audience expectations. This is certainly true of Beach Red (1967), an adaptation of Peter Bowman’s 1945 novella of the same name, which is a visceral, unsentimental look a group of United States Marines that land on an unnamed Japanese fortified island in the Pacific during World War II. The film features the occasional surreal imagery that anticipates Apocalypse Now (1979), harrowing battle scenes that likely inspired the ones in Saving Private Ryan (1998), and voiceover narration of various soldiers’ thoughts coupled with flashbacks of their lives back home done years before Terrence Malick would do the same in The Thin Red Line (1998).

To wit, the film’s first image is that of a jungle a split second before it is blown up – one that Francis Ford Coppola would steal outright and use for even more dramatic effect in the aforementioned Apocalypse Now. The opening credits play over paintings of battle scenes depicting Japanese and American pastoral settings while Jean Wallace (Wilde's wife) sings the mournful title song, establishing the anti-war stance this film takes.

In an audacious move, the last painting morphs into the first scene as we meet the tough-talking Marines en route to a Japanese island. They gripe amongst each other while Captain MacDonald (Cornel Wilde) looks over his men and shares his thoughts about war via voiceover narration, anticipating a similar technique employed by Malick in his own World War II epic. However, Wilde is not the thoughtful philosopher Malick is and MacDonald’s musings definitely skew closer to the no-nonsense prose of Sam Fuller. We also get the inner thoughts of soldiers scared of dying, which is quite effective as they sit in a boat headed for the island and an uncertain fate.


The beach landing is rendered in brutal fashion as men are shot and killed before they reach the beach. Wilde does an excellent job of giving a sense of scale with long shots of hundreds of men wading through the water while explosions go off around them and bullets whiz by dangerously. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors as soldiers wade past severed limbs and a young man, paralyzed by fear, gets an arm blown off by mortar fire in a scene later recycled in Saving Private Ryan. There is a refreshing lack of sentimentality as Wilde grimly depicts the brutality of war and arbitrary nature of death. Why do some men die while others are spared? Beach Red suggests that is random and many survive by sheer luck.

While Wilde and co-star Rip Torn get significant screen-time, no one character is fully developed – the filmmaker has bigger fish to fry. He’s more interested in depicting the horrors of war in unflinching detail. The refusal to focus on one or two characters puts the viewer off balance because they don’t know who to identify with and this adds to the unpredictable nature of Beach Red.

Wilde also gives significant screen-time to the Japanese, showing one of its commanders thinking about his wife and life at home. He also shows some of their devious tactics, like putting a decoy up in a tree for the Marines to shoot at and then kill them, or Japanese soldiers dressing up like American ones in order to get close enough to kill them. He also attempts to humanize the Japanese by presenting a scene where we see foot soldiers getting ready for the advancing Marines and they joke and talk amongst themselves – one guy even sketches a flower to the pass the time. This prevents them from being rendered as merely anonymous monsters.


Wilde employs all sorts of ballsy techniques for the time, like briefly adopting a first person point-of-view of a Marine making his way through tall grass en route to stopping a Japanese machine gun nest. The filmmaker also uses freeze frames to capture a soldier’s fear of stabbing himself with his own bayonet in jarringly effective fashion. In another scene, MacDonald’s flashback about his wife back home is rendered via a montage of still images while she laughs about something, which is followed by footage of her embracing him as she gets upset that he is going to war. These broad strokes succinctly show what’s at stake for him. Wilde doesn’t telegraph these techniques but rather crudely inserts them for maximum effect. The unconventional way he uses these techniques keeps us constantly on edge and adds to the unpredictable nature of the film.

It is interesting to note that Beach Red came out when the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was heating up and one can’t help but wonder if Wilde meant his film to be a warning, of sorts, about the brutality of such conflict. This is particularly apparent when the Marines make their way through dense jungle not unlike the ones in ‘Nam.


For a film made in the late 1960s, the depiction of violence is surprisingly graphic, anticipating Sam Peckinpah’s orgy of carnage in The Wild Bunch (1969). Beach Red certainly lives up to its name as men have limbs blown off, are shot in the neck, are brutally stabbed, and have arms broken with sickening snaps. Wilde’s lack of polish as a filmmaker actually works in the film’s favor as it reinforces the visceral depiction of war in a way that more sophisticated films do not. He manages to eschew the two-fisted heroics of some of Fuller’s war films in favor of gritty realism mixed with experimental techniques. Beach Red doesn’t really say anything new about war but does find new ways of depicting its hellish nature.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Nickel Ride

I sometimes wonder while watching a heist film, what happens to the loot from a big score? Where is it stored? The Nickel Ride (1974) answers these questions by focusing on a man in charge of a set of Los Angeles warehouses that store the loot. It is a crime film you might not have heard of as it doesn’t have the pedigree of something like The Getaway (1972), which was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Steve McQueen. Instead, it was directed by veteran journeyman Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) and starred Jason Miller, fresh from the critical and commercial success of The Exorcist (1973). Despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or, The Nickel Ride wasn’t well-received and quickly disappeared into obscurity, which is a shame because it deserves to be as highly regarded as other films of its ilk.

The film begins with a group of criminals showing up to a warehouse with a truckload of stolen goods. A flunky claims that they’re at capacity and so one of the criminals threatens the guy at gunpoint. The underling claims that his boss has got an angle on a new storage space. The crook warns the man that his boss is losing control, that he needs this new storage space and that he’s got four days to make it happen. Welcome to The Nickel Ride.

Cooper (Jason Miller) is a fixer – the man with keys to a set of warehouses in Los Angeles that house all kinds of illegal goods. He’s feeling the pressure of finding a new block of storage space. He’s got a potential space lined up but the owner wants more money. Within the first 30 minutes, the film has expertly introduced Cooper, the world he inhabits, the people he regularly interacts with, and his main dilemma, and does it in a matter-of-fact way that was the hallmark of many crime films from the 1970s.


Cooper’s life gets more complicated when his boss Carl (John Hillerman) saddles him with a protégé by the name of Turner (Bo Hopkins), a grinning chatterbox that attempts to ingratiate himself to Cooper by comparing the man to greats like Babe Ruth, Rocky Marciano and John L. Sullivan to which Cooper deadpans, “They’re all dead except one.” When Cooper asks Turner how old he is, the man replies with a mischievous smile, “Old enough to know better, young enough to do it again.” A pre-Magnum, P.I. John Hillerman plays Carl with the air of sophistication. He’s an old school guy like Cooper but he’s also feeling the pressure as well, but you’d hardly know it from his unflappable demeanor.

Bo Hopkins brings a jovial, good ol’ boy charm to the role of Turner. He initially comes across as some kind of country bumpkin that talks incessantly about the most trivial things, which acts in sharp contrast to the no-nonsense Cooper, but behind those wide eyes Hopkins hints at menace waiting to be unleashed. He definitely starts off a wolf in sheep’s clothing and there is a tension as we wait to see the menacing side reveal itself.

Jason Miller brings a world-weariness to the role of Cooper. He’s been doing this job for too long and is tired. The actor conveys this weariness with his heavy-lidded eyes and the slouched way he walks. Yet, Miller also conveys the air of a confident man who has done this for a long time but even he’s feeling the squeeze from Carl. I like that the film takes time to include moments of insight into Cooper. For example, there’s a scene where he tells a story about the personal meaning of a watch his girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes) fixes for his birthday. It builds up his character so that we care about what happens to him later on. Miller plays Cooper as a man who thinks a great deal and you look at his eyes and imagine him trying to figure things out in his mind. Cooper maybe showing signs of age that leave him vulnerable to younger guys like Turner who are faster and stronger, but he has years of experience to draw on and that makes him dangerous.


I like that director Robert Mulligan shows us Cooper’s daily routine – getting up early and making breakfast for and walking to work where he encounters an amicable vendor (the smooth talker sells good luck pieces and has watches for sale running up and down his arms), and banters with Paddie (Victor French), the owner of a nearby bar before arriving at his modest office. This routine provides valuable insight into Cooper and helps us get to know him. He’s the kind of guy who still wears a suit and tie to work at a time when the dress code had relaxed greatly. This marks him as an old school kind of person that still cares about his appearance at work.

Linda Haynes plays the fresh-faced Sarah who loves Cooper and is largely unaware of the dangerous world in which he works. There is a disarming earthiness that the actress conveys, which is very attractive and it is easy to see why Cooper is attracted to Sarah. Her character isn’t naïve per se; living in L.A. for any period of time would remedy that, but rather Cooper keeps his work compartmentalized, keeping her out until it becomes too late.

Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) adopts a naturalistic look as much of The Nickel Ride takes place during the day. There is an almost documentary-like feel to the first half of the film as he presents L.A. as a sun-kissed concrete jungle where Cooper feels most at home. For the night scenes, Cronenweth takes a page out of the Gordon Willis playbook so that the characters almost become lost in the shadows. His camerawork compliments Mulligan’s assured direction – the result of years of experience.


Then-up-and-coming screenwriter Eric Roth does a nice job of creating a fascinating portrait of a veteran criminal beginning to lose his touch and become increasingly paranoid as a result. Cooper knows that losing your edge can get you killed in his line of work. Roth spends a lot of time developing the character of Cooper and his relationship with Sarah, which give this crime story some humanity.

The Nickel Ride was not well-received back in the day. In her review for The New York Times, Nora Sayre wrote, “The Nickel Ride is handsomely filmed in bleak pastels, but the numerous close-ups manage to stress the slowness of the action, and quick cuts can’t dispel the tedium.” Movietone magazine’s Richard T. Jameson wrote, “There is no discovery in the film—only close, concentrated, precise, dissective care and an exacting honesty. These are virtues, certainly, but they don’t relieve the sense of foregone conclusion.” However, in recent years, the film has started to be re-evaluated as the Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton felt it would “make you believe the best of ‘70s cinema will never fully be quarried out.”


“Without work I’m nothing. What else is there?” Cooper says to Sarah at one point. He is a man defined by his job. Sure, he has her but work provides him with structure and stability. Without it he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. What happens when the powers that be try to take it away from him? The answer, as is common with these kinds of films (especially ones made in the ‘70s), is a tragic one. The Nickel Ride is an underrated film that deserves to be regarded with other great crime films of the ‘70s, like The Outfit (1973), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Charley Varrick (1973) among others.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cousins

I’ve always felt that it was rather unfortunate that Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is regarded as a classic romantic comedy while Cousins (1989) is barely remembered at all. Of course, I’m biased as I don’t really care for the former and adore the latter, a remake of the 1975 French comedy Cousin, cousine, directed by Joel Schumacher in-between box office hits The Lost Boys (1987) and Flatliners (1990). There are superficial similarities between Four Weddings and Cousins as romance blossoms among wedding ceremonies and a funeral – call it, Three Weddings and a Funeral. From there they deviate significantly in pretty much every way but over the years Four Weddings has not aged all that well while Cousins has aged like a fine wine and I find myself savoring it more every time I watch it.

Right from the first scene Schumacher establishes the parallels between our two lead characters with Larry Kozinski (Ted Danson) running late to a wedding thanks to his wife Tish (Sean Young) while Tom Hardy (William Petersen) makes his family late to the same wedding because he doesn’t want his daughter Chloe (Katharine Isabelle) to bring her blanket in his newly-cleaned car, much to his wife Maria’s (Isabella Rossellini) exasperation. Larry and Maria are in respectively unhappy marriages with Tish disgruntled that they have to travel everywhere on a motorcycle while Tom resents Maria siding with their daughter.

Our story begins with the wedding of Phil Kozinski (George Coe) and Edie Hardy (Norma Aleandro). Phil’s nephew Larry, with Tish and his son Mitch (Keith Coogan) in tow, arrive late to the actual ceremony as does Edie’s daughter Maria and her family. Everyone gathers for the reception and it’s exactly the kind of joyful gathering you’d expect from the merging of two large families complete with loud music and plenty of drinking. Schumacher even adds little bits of color, like the two lecherous groomsmen that ogle all the women at the party, complete with running commentary (“Bad tits,” they say of one, and “No ass,” they say of another). There are even two young people that spot each other and lock eyes in love at first sight. You know that they will be a married couple by film’s end.


In the youth-obsessed culture we live in it’s great to see two older people getting married and so happy and in love with each other, which makes what happens to them later on that much more painful because we’ve grown to care for them in such a short time. Larry is the kind of good-naturedly flawed character we’ve come to expect from these kinds of rom-coms as typified when he tries to deliver a toast to Phil only to be ignored by the noisy gathering and then when given the floor to say his piece, ends up delivering an endearingly awkward tribute. On the other hand, Tom is a hothead that gets into an argument with one of Maria’s relatives at the first wedding that almost comes to blows before storming off in a huff. He’s pursued by Tish, who spotted him earlier, and they go off to have sex somewhere.

As everyone leaves, Maria and Larry find themselves without their respective spouses and get to talking. Schumacher bathes them in the warm, golden light of the setting sun that is so welcoming that you are transported there. Maria finds Larry easy to talk to and likes how good he is with Chloe. Tom and Tish finally show-up with lame excuses and the reaction on the faces of Larry and Maria tell us that even though they’re too polite to say anything they know what their respective spouses have been doing.

Maria meets Larry on her lunch break and they acknowledge that their spouses are having an affair. They strike up a friendship and pretend to have an affair to get back at Tom and Tish, but they soon find themselves attracted to each other. Almost 40 minutes in and Lloyd Bridges enters the picture as Phil’s gregarious brother Vince, showing up at a funeral but only from a distance as he says to Larry, “At my age you don’t want to get too close to an open grave,” and then lights a cigarette immediately afterwards. Bridges makes an instant impact with his crackerjack comic timing and delivery of dialogue when Vince confides to Mitch, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors. Besides, I don’t like to see people in their coffins – they always look so much smaller without their spirits.” He is the film’s most obvious attempt to appeal to the cheap seats and threatens to dispel the romantic mood that Schumacher has so painstakingly established to this point. It is almost as if Vince came from a broader comedy to invade this one and his presence threatens to upset the delicate tone of Cousins.


In many respects Cousins is a cinematic love letter to Isabella Rossellini. A natural beauty in her own right, the camera absolutely loves her and Schumacher makes sure that the actress is framed and lit just right. Initially, though, her hair is pulled back and she wears conservative attire, which visually conveys Maria’s repressed nature. When Larry takes her to see his boat she lets her hair down and begins wearing clothing that is less constrictive. Maria is soft-spoken but with firm convictions. Over the course of the film, she learns to let go and enjoy life but runs the risk of forgetting about her responsibility to Chloe who has been acting out at school. Rossellini does a fine job of portraying the conflicted nature that exists within Maria. She’s been the dutiful wife who’s put up with her husband’s philandering ways for so long that she’s lost touch with her own wants and needs. Larry helps her find them again.

Between his hit sitcom Cheers and popular comedies like Three Men and a Baby (1987), the 1980s was a good decade for Ted Danson. As a result, he was the biggest draw in Cousins. He plays the most relatable character as the fun-loving Larry. Danson doesn’t portray him as the kind of zany, lovable goofball type that comedians like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin made popular during this decade. He opts for a more grounded performance, playing a guy who seems easygoing but it is just a façade and he is bothered by his wife having an affair. Fortunately, his ruse with Maria is a pretty good distraction; however, eventually he has to accept the feelings he has for her if he truly wants to be happy.

The chemistry between Danson and Rossellini in the scene where Larry shows Maria his boat is incredible and feels authentic as we realize that these two people are starting to fall in love. All their scenes together are so enjoyable to watch because we want to see these people happy. Their conversations quickly move beyond the usual flirting to honest talk about their unfaithful spouses. At first, it is a game, tricking their significant others into thinking that they too are having an affair of their own, but the more time they spend together the more genuine their feelings are for each other. The screenplay lets this unfold naturally and in time.
  

In their own ways, Larry and Maria are natural nurturers while Tom and Tish are not. For example, Tom tries to bribe and then threaten his daughter not to bring her blanket in his car while Tish is unable to cheer up Mitch after a disastrous attempt to woo the girl of his dreams. Larry and Maria are completely opposites. She is unhappy because her husband cheats and her job as a legal aid exposes her to the ugly side of love while he is a dance instructor, teaching older couples how to dance. He sees people happily interacting with each other on a daily basis. She is a repressed housewife while he’s a dreamer and they soon find themselves drawn to each other. She’s charmed by his easygoing nature while he’s attracted to her beauty.

Tish starts off as a bit of a shrill stereotype and initially Sean Young plays her a bit on the broad side. It’s a thankless role playing the cheating spouse but as the film progresses she’s given the opportunity to flesh out her character so that we get some insight into what motivates Tish Once she realizes that Larry and Maria are falling in love she regrets her affair with Tom. We also get a nice scene between Tish and Tom as they confide in each other what is lacking in their respective marriages and what draws them to each other. Young does such a good job that you actually feel a slight twinge of sympathy for Tish.

This leaves William Petersen to play the bad guy in Cousins. Tom is a slick car salesman who takes himself way too seriously, even if others don’t, like when someone early on asks if he sells Subarus to which he replies, in a way that suggests he’s done it several times before, “I sell BMWs, I just happen to work out of a Subaru showroom.” He is a serial philanderer who breaks up with three different women so that he can continue his affair with Tish. Larry treats Maria like shit, cheating on her with many women before cutting them all loose for a hot and heavy affair with Tish. He’s a blowhard and a hypocrite, getting angry at Larry when he suspects the affair that is going on with his wife even though he’s having one of his own! Hot off the one-two punch of To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Manhunter (1986), Petersen brings the same level of intensity to Tom complete with an Alpha Male gusto that is in sharp contrast to Danson’s easygoing dreamer.


For a filmmaker who has made a lot of commercial hits and dabbled in numerous genres, Schumacher is not very well-regarded, due in large part to his most high-profile misfires, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). Has enough time passed to finally let him out of director’s jail for crimes against cinema? He’s served his time and I think he is due for a career reappraisal. For most of his career he’s made crowd-pleasers for Hollywood and Cousins is no different only that it is in terms of pacing and tone. It bounces back and forth between family drama and passionate romance while juggling several characters successfully. Schumacher brings a deft touch to the film, immersing us in this world and the characters that inhabit it. He adopts a leisurely pace that allows us to get to know these characters and care about what happens to them.

It doesn’t hurt that the script is smartly-written with well-drawn characters that transcend their archetypes (i.e. the wacky uncle, the repressed wife, the cheating cad, etc.) through several brief but significant moments that give us insight into them. With the exception of Tom, there are no clear cut good and bad characters – everyone contains shades of grey and this is what makes Cousins a more interesting film than Four Weddings and a Funeral. Schumacher is one of those directors who are only as good as the material he has to work with and the script by Stephen Metcalfe (Jacknife) is excellent. This allows the director to let his cast have fun with their characters and the situations they’re put in while he utilizes absolutely beautiful cinematography courtesy of Ralf Bode (Dressed to Kill) to create a warm and inviting film.

Producer William Allyn began pursuing the American rights to Cousin, cousine in 1985 and it took three years but his persistence finally paid off. Stephen Metcalfe, the resident playwright at the Globe Theater in San Diego, was hired to write the screenplay. Then, Joel Schumacher was offered the job to direct and was thrilled to be given “something so unusual, so special.” From the outset he wanted to present characters with “human flaws,” that were “heroic sometimes, silly sometimes and they make mistakes.”


Initially, when given the script, Isabella Rossellini was not interested in doing it because she was good friends with some of the people that made the original film and thought they might not approve of an American remake. She soon found out that they were thrilled with the idea and she agreed to do it. According to the actress, Schumacher cultivated a fun, creative atmosphere for the actors. For the wedding and party scenes, Schumacher hired entire families as extras so that all the actors had to do was “step into the atmosphere they created,” said Rossellini.

Cousins received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Rossellini’s performance for creating the chance to “make her into a real movie star; she has the kind of qualities that audiences really respond to.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Mostly Stephen Metcalfe’s adapted screenplay succeeds with its burlesque belly laughs, complementing the lyrical affair of the lead pair.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Cousin, cousine was gently directed and featured an enchanting foursome … Cousins, by contrast, is ponderous and dull.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “What makes Cousins feel splintered is that while so much of it is delicately written, there is also a jarring crassness at times, sure-fire cuteness, ‘boffo lines’ or characters, like fake-wood siding tacked on to a beautifully constructed house.”


Cousins examines the value of communication between couples. Tom and Tish cheat on their spouses because they don’t know what they want and how to convey it. Larry and Maria get along so well because they speak honestly to each other. Naturally, this is part of what attracts them to each other. The lack of communication is what complicates the lives of these people and it only gets simpler once they figure out what they want from life, or, as Larry’s father tells him, “You’ve only got one life to live. You can either make it chicken shit or chicken salad.” It’s blunt and to the point but also gets to the heart of the matter, inspiring Larry to go for it. Cousins ends up being a thoughtful romantic comedy/drama hybrid with an engaging love affair between two very different people at its heart. Not a bad way to spend two hours of your time.


SOURCES


Farrow, Moira. “Making Cousins: An Excursion into Relativity.” The New York Times. February 5, 1989.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Southern Comfort

Walter Hill’s best films are gritty, no frills explorations of the violent conflict between men, be it the lone gang that has to run a dangerous gauntlet through New York City in The Warriors (1979) or a veteran cop’s relentless pursuit of a ruthless escaped convict in 48 Hrs. (1982). He is also interested in how people forge close bonds under extreme circumstances and this is certainly true of Southern Comfort (1981), a little-seen action film about a squad of National Guardsmen that become lost in the rural bayou country of Louisiana and run afoul of the local Cajun people.

It’s 1973 and the National Guard are out on maneuvers. In his typical economic fashion, Hill introduces a squad of nine men and immediately establishes conflict between some of them, like Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote) warning recent transfer Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe) that he won’t tolerate any kind of insubordination. PFC Spencer (Keith Carradine) is a racist and PFC Stuckey (Lewis Smith) is an arrogant prick that gleefully fires his weapon at one of his fellow soldiers (the gun has blanks). They talk tough but as Spencer confides to Hardin, they’re basically a good group of guys.

The squad’s arrogance proves to be their undoing. First, they take three boats that don’t belong to them. Then, when they spot a few Cajun men on the shore, they show nothing but contempt with Stuckey opening fire with his gun full of blanks as a joke. The Cajuns respond by killing their squad leader and all hell breaks loose. This squad of National Guardsmen now have to navigate treacherous terrain against well-armed locals that know it way better than they do. The rest of Southern Comfort plays out as a battle for survival in classic Hill fashion.


Hill establishes the squad a dysfunctional group from the get-go and it only gets worse once they are stuck in the bayou as the men bicker amongst each other. There is even genuine distrust, like when Reece (Fred Ward) refuses to share the box of live ammunition he squirreled away before they set out on their mission. Southern Comfort takes a fascinating look at a group dynamic and how it breaks down under extreme circumstances as one-by-one the Guardsmen are picked off by frighteningly enigmatic antagonists. As the film progresses, they become tired, scared and frustrated by their predicament while some of them crack under the pressure.

Powers Boothe plays one of Hill’s trademark protagonists – a man of few words and who prefers to let his actions speak for themselves. Hardin is an anti-authoritarian type, preferring to go his own way but when it comes down to it his instinct is to survive and help those around him. He’s smart and wisely respects his opponents.

Keith Carradine’s Spencer starts off as something of a crass opportunist but as their situation gets more serious he steps up and becomes one of the few rational voices along with Hardin. He and Boothe make a great team with the former being the chattier of the two and so they play well off each other in their initially contentious relationship that evolves into grudging mutual respect – a common trait among many of Hill’s films.


In a film like this, where the characters are at the mercy of an inhospitable environment, the setting becomes another character – one that we become immersed in as Hill sets a wonderfully atmospheric mood with the opening credits playing over beautiful yet foreboding footage of the bayou while Ry Cooder’s evocative score plays on the soundtrack. The squad constantly slogs through swampy water and danger lurks behind every tree. What makes this environment even more daunting is that it is seemingly never-ending as these men become increasingly lost and disoriented.

Walter Hill made Hard Times (1975) and it had a Cajun sequence in it. Writer David Giler said to the director, “You know, those Cajuns strike me as interesting, tough guys.” The director agreed and Giler suggested that they make an adventure story incorporating them. Hill wanted to do a survival story and had already made Hard Times in Louisiana. Michael Kane was hired to write a draft, but the studio didn’t like it. The project was put into turnaround. Giler and Hill did some more rewriting of their own and found independent financing. The two men had a deal with 20th Century Fox to acquire and develop “interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply,” as Hill said in an interview. The studio ended up distributing the film.

During the two-day cast rehearsal prior to principal photography, Hill told his actors, “A lot of people will perceive this to be a metaphor for Vietnam. I don’t like to make movies about metaphors … Let’s just go make a movie about guys caught in a situation.” Hill shot Southern Comfort in the swamps in the Castle Lake area outside of Shreveport six days a week for nine grueling weeks. He said, “And just to get out there took this enormous drive, we had to get up four in the morning to be ready to shoot at the crack of dawn.” He remembered that the cast didn’t complain much during filming because they knew what they were all getting into and were in good physical shape. Hill recalled that it was “as tough a movie as I’ve ever done … So often you would get a camera position, you had to get a shot in a couple of minutes before the soft bottom sunk.”


Southern Comfort didn’t cost much but the studio also didn’t spend much promoting it because the subject matter wasn’t deemed all-that commercial. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The strength of the movie is in its look, in its superb use of its locations, and in Hill’s mastery of action sequences that could have been repetitive.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Hill chooses to photograph his material so self-consciously and so prettily, with lots of slow-motion stuff and superimpositions, that you automatically reach for a bottle of aspirin.”

Unlike many other backwoods movies where the locals are portrayed as dumb hillbillies, Southern Comfort presents the Cajuns as proud people with their own vibrant culture and thriving life nestled away from modern society. Hill doesn’t judge them and does a nice job of immersing us in their culture towards the end of the film so that they are no longer some faceless enemy in the bayou. If anything, it is the arrogant, aggressive Guardsmen that are at fault here and responsible for their own fate. After all, they took what wasn’t theirs and provoked the locals on their own turf.

The cruel irony of Southern Comfort is that infighting and the unforgiving terrain does more to decimate the squad than the local Cajun hunters. At the time, the film was seen as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War – something that Hill has not denied but downplayed. Like the U.S. Army, this squad of National Guardsmen are completely out of their depth and at the mercy of an environment they aren’t equipped to deal with and facing an opponent they don’t understand. Today, we are still mired in war with our troops at the mercy of an equally imposing environment, making Southern Comfort as timely today as it was back in 1981.



SOURCES

Markowitz, Robert. “Visual History with Walter Hill.” DGA.

Rizov, Vadim. “Tough Little Stories: Director Walter Hill at 92Y Tribeca.” Filmmaker. January 29, 2013.


Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” Hollywood Interview. December 8, 2012.

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).