Friday, January 20, 2017

O.C. and Stiggs

The 1980s was not an easy decade for Robert Altman. After enjoying a fantastic run of films in the 1970s that included the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975), he effectively burned his bridges with the Hollywood studios with Popeye (1980) and found work in Europe and took to adapting stage plays for the big screen through independent financing. In the early ‘80s, National Lampoon magazine published wild stories about two troublemaking teenagers named Oliver Cromwell “O.C.” Ogilvie and Mark Stiggs, written by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann.

I don’t know if it was Altman’s agent’s idea or the director saw all these successful teen comedies being made and decided to try one himself, but O.C. and Stiggs (1987) was an ill fit to say the least – one that has its charms and its moments, but definitely a cinematic oddity in the man’s filmography. He didn’t care for the genre and turned this indifference into a movie that was a biting satire of the genre. Not surprisingly, nobody liked it and the movie quickly disappeared. Even among Altman fans it has few supporters and with good reason.

O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry) are suburban teens and avid practical jokers that live in Phoenix, Arizona. The main target of their gags is the Schwab family, a decadent, materialistic clan headed by Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley), an arrogant blowhard who sells insurance. The mother (Jane Curtin) is a drunk, their son (Jon Cryer) is a gullible idiot while their daughter is about to get married. The source of the boys’ ire towards the Schwabs stems from Randall cancelling O.C.’s grandfather’s (Ray Walston) retirement insurance thus denying him the ability to have assisted care. The movie recounts O.C. and Stiggs’ summer spent terrorizing the Schwabs.

In some respects, O.C. and Stiggs are like teenage versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John from M*A*S*H (1970). Both feature clever hipsters but the latter were also brilliant surgeons whereas the former are only good at one thing – staging elaborate practical jokes. In M*A*S*H, the two surgeons were fighting against authority and the absurdity of war while O.C. and Stiggs are fighting against materialism and mediocrity as represented by the Schwabs with their bad fashion sense and gaudy décor – the epitome of the “ugly American.”

The problem with O.C. and Stiggs is the central characters. They aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times with Stiggs embodying the spirit of them while O.C. is given scenes away from his friend that flesh out his character a little bit – at least we get some insight into his behavior. They aren’t as cool as they think they are – they have no friends and no girlfriends thanks to their obnoxious behavior. The teen pranksters are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s grandfather is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.

This movie sees Altman in an extremely playful mood with the same kind of fast and loose structure as California Split, which also features two freewheeling pals careening from one crazy encounter to another. A crazed, babbling Dennis Hopper even pops up as a burnt out Vietnam vet. It’s as if his photographer character from Apocalypse Now (1979) had somehow made it out of Kurtz’s compound and came back to the United States. The boys cross paths with a Schwab neighbor played with effortless cool by Martin Mull. At one point, Stiggs asks him what he does and he replies without missing a beat, “Well, basically I drink and make a lot of money.” Unfortunately, he disappears as quickly as he was introduced but thankfully, and inexplicably, shows up later at a sports-themed restaurant opposite Bob Uecker playing himself, rattling off athletes’ names indiscriminately.

There are some enjoyable moments, like a rare instance of seriousness when we see O.C. having breakfast with his grandfather and we see how the latter’s health affects the former. His jokey demeanor is a façade to cover his rather bleak home life. Another wonderful moment comes when O.C. dances with a beautiful girl (Cynthia Nixon) at the Schwab wedding – a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It isn’t enough to keep this uneven movie together.

The characters of O.C. and Stiggs, created by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann, were one of the most popular features in National Lampoon magazine. Their last appearance – in the October 1982 issue – would go on to provide the basis for the movie’s screenplay. Jeffrey Katzenberg over at Paramount Studios loved the stories of these crazy kids and wanted to make them into a movie. A script was written by Carroll and Mann and Sylvester Stallone even briefly flirted with the project.

Young, up-and-coming producer Peter Newman was assigned the project and was able to get Mike Nichols interested in directing but his numerous commitments on Broadway forced him to bow out. Newman had gotten friendly with Robert Altman and pitched the project to him. He was looking for work at the time. MGM, still licking their wounds from the Heaven’s Gate (1980) debacle, were desperate to make a successful teen comedy. Freddie Fields, Altman’s former agent, became the head of MGM at a time when the director was on the outs with Hollywood studios. He agreed to hire Altman to make O.C. and Stiggs but only for $8 million or less and that he promised to shoot the script (the director was notorious for throwing out the script and improvising dialogue). Two months later, Altman was in Phoenix, Arizona in the middle of summer of 1983 where temperatures soared to 120 degrees, making a movie he wasn’t jazzed about doing.

When Altman showed the movie to MGM, their executives didn’t like it and Newman said, “That’s one of the few instances where Bob didn’t want to hang around and fight the fight. He didn’t finish that movie. The studio finished that movie.” This certainly explains the final product and the odd push-pull of style vs. content. Neither Carroll and Mann nor the movie’s two young leads were happy with the final product. To make matters worse, MGM was in financial trouble and so the movie sat on the shelf for years until 1988 where it was screened at the Film Forum in New York City for a week.

There is something oddly fascinating watching Altman apply his trademark aesthetic to the ‘80s teen comedy. While O.C. and Stiggs pull pranks on the hapless Schwabs, the director bombards the soundtrack with multiple layers of sound and overlapping dialogue, and his slow, roaming camera gradually zooms in on something that strikes his fancy. Altman flips the ‘80s teen comedy on its head. He even refuses to populate the film’s soundtrack with trendy New Wave music, instead opting for the catchy African music of King Sunny Ade. No wonder people hated this movie when it came out. Clearly Altman did not grasp the original source material (or didn’t even bother to read it) and just did his own thing.

O.C. and Stiggs is what happens when you pair up a filmmaker with a genre he has no affinity for and the results are, at times, amusing. At some point, you either surrender yourself to the goofiness of the whole enterprise or resist this maddeningly frustrating effort. Aesthetically, it is typical Altman fare but content-wise he’s out of his depth: sometimes, this can result in a fascinating train wreck or a big ol’ bore. This movie falls somewhere in-between. I can’t totally dismiss it but I don’t watch it very often either. This one is for Altman completists only.


SOURCES

Stephenson, Hunter. “Let O.C. and Stiggs Live.” Apology Magazine.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: An Oral Biography.Vintage. 2010.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It finally happened. The Star Wars franchise released its first ever, non-chapter offshoot movie, the first in a planned anthology series. In this day and age, where all the studios in Hollywood now follow Marvel’s lead by trying to build their own lucrative franchises complete with interlocking movies, Lucasfilm have followed up the wildly successful Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which is essentially a prequel to Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). If you recall, at the beginning of that movie, Princess Leia gave R2-D2 the stolen plans to the Death Star in the hopes that Obi-Wan Kenobi would get and take them to the Rebellion. Rogue One chronicles how these plans were stolen in the first place. Is this movie a simple cash-grab and a really expensive piece of fan fiction or does it stand on its own merits that justify its existence?

As a child, Jyn Erso witnessed her mother (Valene Kane) killed on orders from Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), an Imperial Military officer that “persuades” her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), to continue his work on the Death Star, a massive space station capable of destroying entire planets. Jyn (Felicity Jones) grows up with an understandable hatred for the Empire. This makes her an obvious recruit for the Rebellion but initially she’s not interested, even after they rescue her from an Imperial prison.

They soon offer her a deal: accompany intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to a planet called Jedha where renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is holding a captive Imperial cargo pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) sent by Jyn’s father. Andor assembles a rag-tag group to undertake a mission with impossible odds a la The Dirty Dozen (1967), among them Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior, and his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a Rebel warrior and mercenary. They are introduced in an impressively staged sequence where Imwe single-handedly takes out a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers with only a staff.

Right from the get-go, Rogue One establishes a decidedly dark tone with the murder of Jyn’s mother and then the tense mood on the Imperial-occupied Jedha that boils over when Saw’s warriors attack an Imperial blockade in a busy city area. Most significantly, there’s the apocalyptic image of a Jedha city obliterated by a test blast from the Death Star. This is a war movie with plenty of casualties and a grim tone to match. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity, like the give and take between Imwe and Malbus (these guys need their own movie), and the sarcastic retorts from K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer droid that has been reprogrammed by Andor.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Felicity Jones and Diego Luna as particularly memorable leads. Fresh from her Academy Award nominated turn in The Theory of Everything (2014), she shows an impressive versatility as a rugged fighter but with a touching vulnerability when it comes to her father. Jyn joins the ranks of strong female characters in the Star Wars universe. Luna matches her as the Rebellion fighter with a checkered past that is only hinted at but it clearly motivates his actions. The actor does an excellent job at conveying this in his performance.

Other notable performances include veteran martial artist Donnie Yen as a blind, quasi Jedi and Alan Tudyk as a pessimistic droid. The former instills the movie with tantalizing references to the Force while the latter makes C3P0 seem positively cheerful in comparison. Character actor extraordinaire Ben Mendelsohn is quite strong as the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star and gets some meaty scenes involving his character navigating the treacherous waters of Imperial politics that provide fascinating insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the Empire.

The attention to period detail is fantastic as the uniforms for both Rebels and the Empire are faithfully recreated as are their various vehicles, from X-Wings to Star Destroyers while also incorporating ones we haven’t seen before. This ensures that Rogue One fits seamlessly with the Original Trilogy movies. This isn’t done as merely an exercise in nostalgia – although, fans of those movies will have fun spotting the occasional Easter egg here and there, but actually incorporated into the very fabric of the story.

My good friend and fellow writer Noah Chinn argued in his review for Rogue One that there is a “tonal mismatch” that creates a jarring effect when compared to the rest of franchise. He points out that in the other movies there was always a glimmer hope. Even with its darkest installment, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), there was hope at the end – not so much with Rogue One, which ends on a nihilistic bummer. I didn’t have a problem with this – as an adult, which is Noah’s point. But what if I saw it as a child? Would have it emotionally scarred me? That being said, at the risk of sounding like an old fart, kids these days are coddled too much and the ending of Rogue One teaches them the power of self-sacrifice, of giving everything you have for something you believe in. Judging by the box office receipts of this movie, audiences don’t seem to have a problem with the dark tone of the movie either. Perhaps Rogue One is simply reflecting the times in which we live in and people are responding to it.


It is a testimony to how involved I became in these characters and their story, even though I ultimately know what happens – the Death Star is destroyed – I didn’t know what happened to the characters I had never seen before, that I became invested in their respective fates. Rogue One is a much darker, dare I say, nihilistic movie than any of the other ones in the Star Wars franchise. It is also one of the best. I can’t imagine it being made under Lucas’ watch, which may upset purists, but now freed of his control it has allowed the new brain-trust to make bold moves and if this movie is any indication of what is in store for future standalone movies, fans are in for a real treat.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Once Upon a Time in the West

After making The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone decided to stop making westerns and began work on what would become Once Upon a Time in America (1984), a period gangster epic. Paramount Pictures, however, approached him with a tantalizing offer that he could not refuse: access to legendary actor Henry Fonda to make a western with a substantial budget. Leone had always wanted to work with Fonda – his favorite actor – and accepted the offer. The end result was a cinematic masterpiece – a brooding meditation on the end of the Wild West as symbolized by the construction of a railroad that represented the ushering in of a new way of life. More than any of his other westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West is an unabashed love letter to the genre.

The film begins with three men waiting for a train to arrive at a desolate, crudely constructed station. In typical Leone fashion, there is very little dialogue with only atmospheric sound, which creates a sense of impending dread as it becomes apparent that they’re waiting for someone to arrive and kill them. The director expertly plays on our expectations as we know what’s going to happen but he delays it for as long as he can, milking it for every ounce of tension. It isn’t until their target finally disembarks that music is finally heard and it is that of a lonesome harmonica as played by the mysterious man – latter dubbed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) – who efficiently dispatches them but is also tagged by one of their bullets.

Frank (Fonda) is an amoral killer that guns down a man and his three children in cold blood because the land they’re on is very valuable to Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad tycoon that employs him. Unbeknownst to them, the man’s beautiful wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town to start a new life with him. Leone uses her first appearance to beautifully orchestrate the introduction of the town of Flagstone that has been built up around the railroad via a tracking shot that follows her from the train to the station and going right into an establishing shot of the town with Ennio Morricone’s soaring, evocative score all in one smooth camera move.

Jill’s trip to her new family’s homestead gives Leone a chance to show the breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, immortalized in so many John Ford westerns. Leone masterfully shows the scale of this famous landmark as he juxtaposes its size against Jill’s miniscule horse and buggy. En route, she crosses paths with a grungy bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has been framed by Frank in the killing of Jill’s family. She is told to build a railway station and a small town on her property by the time the track’s construction crew arrives or she loses the land. The rest of the film plays out her struggle, Cheyenne’s desire for revenge and Harmonica’s mysterious motivations that involve Frank.

One of the things that separates Once Upon a Time in the West from Leone’s other westerns is that it is a meditation on violence. Whereas The Good, The Bad and the Ugly featured many people being gunned down rather indiscriminately, Leone dwells on the effects of it in Once Upon a Time in the West as evident in the scene where Jill arrives at her new family’s ranch only to see their dead bodies laid out. Leone lets the scene breathe, lingering on Jill’s reaction as she takes it all in. Claudia Cardinale’s acting in this scene is impressive as she has to rely on her expressive face to convey Jill’s emotions. As a result, we empathize with her and care about what happens to Jill throughout the film. We are invested in her plight.

Jill is the heart and soul of Once Upon a Time in the West – quite a significant development for Leone as all of his previous films featured male protagonists. She manages to not only survive in the harsh environment of the west but also navigates the treacherous waters of a male-dominated society. Cardinale instills Jill with a formidable inner strength and a strong will that allows her to endure evil men like Frank and gain the respect of men like Cheyenne and Harmonica. The actress does an excellent job of conveying the arc of her character as Jill goes from widow to savvy businesswoman.

The most underrated performance in the film is that of Jason Robards as the ne’er-do-well bandit Cheyenne. Initially, he seems to be out for himself but he does have a code that he follows – he doesn’t kill children – and this absolves him of the death of Jill’s family. Robards has a memorable moment with Cardinale in a scene between their characters where Cheyenne says to Jill, “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was – for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.” There’s a bit of the lovable rogue in this character as evident in the impish way he takes out three of Morton’s henchmen on the man’s train that is as clever as it is deadly (I also love how he calls Morton, “Mr. Choo-Choo.”).

Perhaps the biggest revelation is Henry Fonda’s performance. Known mostly for playing moral, upstanding men in films up to that point, he plays an irredeemable killer that has no problem gunning down women and children. It is all in those piercing, cold blue eyes of his, which Leone captures in close-ups to chilling effect. Frank is at his creepiest when he rapes Jill, speaking to her seductive tones as he toys with keeping her alive. He plays the dastardly villain that you can wait to see get his comeuppance.

Watching Once Upon a Time in the West again was a potent reminder of how good an actor Charles Bronson was in the right role. Much like contemporary Clint Eastwood, he had a limited range but knew how to work within it. Harmonica speaks little in the film but doesn’t have to because he works best as an enigmatic figure. For most of the film we don’t know why he wants to kill Frank except for some past offence that gradually comes into focus as the film progresses until all is revealed during the climactic showdown. Harmonica’s storyline represents the repercussions of violence for he is the living embodiment of karma as he reminds Frank of all the people he’s killed over the years. He’s the one time that Frank let someone live – a mistake he didn’t make again – and it has come back to haunt him.

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul and Leone certainly understands this with the many close-ups he has of actors’ faces, lingering on their expressions, from weathered hired guns to the fresh face of a beautiful widow, and, most significantly, the ways to convey what their characters are feeling.

If Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica represent the old way of doing things – through violence and intimidation – then Jill represents the new way – building something from nothing through an honest day’s work. There is an important exchange between Frank and Morton that illustrates the transition from the old way of doing things to the new as the tycoon says, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” The gunslinger replies, “It’s almost like holding a gun. Only much more powerful.” This scene shows that Frank is self-aware; he knows that his way of dealing with problems is on its way out and that big business, as represented by men like Morton, are the future.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a more somber film than The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which is a triumphant celebration of the western, while the former is a eulogy of the genre. With it, Leone took it as far as he could. By showing the end of the Wild West, of a certain way of life led by men like Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, the filmmaker was saying goodbye to the genre. If those three men represent “something to do with death,” as Cheyenne pufgvcvfts it, then Jill represents life and so it is rather fitting that the film ends with her giving the men working on her station water, providing them with sustenance so that they can continue building a soon to be thriving town out in the middle of nowhere.


Of course, Once Upon a Time in the West wasn’t Leone’s last western as he went on to direct Duck, You Sucker! (1971), a fine film in its own right, but after the masterpiece that was the previous effort, it feels a tad unnecessary. Leone would finally make his last film, the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, where he did for that genre what he did for the western – make it completely his own in a way that feels like a personal, artistic statement.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Anticipation was high among fans of filmmaker Richard Linklater when it was announced that his follow-up to Boyhood (2014) would be Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) and it was being touted as a spiritual sequel of sorts to his beloved cult film Dazed and Confused (1993). While the latter took place on the last day of high school in 1976, the former takes place at the beginning of the college year in 1980. The film enjoyed positive critical notices but its limited theatrical release ensured a similar commercial trajectory to that of Dazed.

College freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives in town with The Knack’s “My Sharona” blasting on his car stereo and his record collection in the backseat. He’s a pitcher who will be living in the same house as his baseball teammates. McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Roper (Ryan Guzman) are the first two he meets with the former informing Jake that he hates pitchers. Jake heads upstairs and encounters friendlier faces – Finnegan (Glen Powell) and Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) – who are providing a running commentary on McReynolds and Roper’s attempt to replenish a waterbed with the latter telling Jake to read his copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (“Chapter 9 – blow your mind,” he tells him).

Linklater’s easygoing style of direction does an excellent job of taking us through the house, introducing Jake’s various teammates and giving them each a moment to make a memorable impression. It doesn’t take long for Jake and some of his teammates to go cruising for girls in a car where, en route, they proceed to sing along to “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang in a show-stopping scene. The rest of Everybody Wants Some!! chronicles the misadventures of these guys as they spend the next three days before the start of college hitting on and/or talking about girls, insulting each other and getting drunk – in other words, acting like young, horny guys.

The cast of relative unknown actors is uniformly excellent as they effortlessly become their respective characters. Linklater has always had a knack for getting exceptional performances out of young actors, starting with Slacker (1991) and continuing with this film. Among the standouts are Blake Jenner as the film’s nominal, good-natured protagonist, Glenn Powell as the smooth-talking Finn, and Wyatt Russell as the perpetually stoned pitcher cum philosopher Willoughby.

Like with many of his films, Linklater finds drama inherent in minor events, like the team getting kicked out of a nightclub when one of their own (the hilariously arrogant pitcher Jay Niles played to perfection by Juston Street) flips out, as it bond the new guys with the veterans. They stick up for one of their own even when they do something they don’t like.

Just past the halfway point we finally see these guys play some baseball in a scrimmage session and it becomes apparent how everything that has already occurred has been leading up to this point. Linklater has orchestrated this in his typically understated way. By the time Jake and his teammates go to a party hosted by performing arts students, one of whom (Zoey Deutch) he’s attracted to, we have become invested in these guys as Linklater takes them out of their comfort zone of baseball into a new experience, which continues their bonding experience as a team both on and off the field. For the first third of Everybody Wants Some!! I was wondering why I should care about these jocks (never having been one myself) but he pulls it off by deftly humanizing them in a wonderfully unassuming way.

Linklater understands the mentality of young athletes and how they are constantly in competition with each other, whether it is playing Ping-Pong or picking up girls, and some guys are gracious in defeat while others act like assholes because they hate to lose. The film provides insight into how these guys act and think, which doesn’t make it as accessible as Dazed and Confused, which limited its commercial appeal, but it is as just a personal statement. Dazed also had more significant female characters, which broadened its appeal. Not so much with Everybody, which has a predominantly male cast but they all aren’t macho Alpha Males with characters like Jake and Finn coming across as more relatable. Linklater manages to humanize most of the jocks in this film and, at the very least, show why they act the way they do.


Like he did with the young Mitch in Dazed and Confused, Linklater uses freshman Jake as a gateway into the world of Everybody Wants Some!!, which allows us to get the lay of the land – who everyone is and where they rank on the team’s social hierarchy. And like that earlier film, this one is hangout movie with Linklater acting as a cultural anthropologist, observing the behavior and practices of a specific subculture – Texas college baseball players. He has drawn on his own personal experiences, much as he did with Dazed, with an authenticity and attention to period detail of someone who lived it.