Friday, September 21, 2018

Born on the Fourth of July


“When people say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America, but when it comes to the government, it stops right there.” – Ron Kovic

Oliver Stone’s filmic prescience is widely regarded by critics, students and the public at large. It hit is apex with 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, a cinematic crystal ball, which anticipated the rise of Donald Trump’s divisive “Make America Great Again” nationalism. Stone’s biopic traces the life of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), from his beginnings as the quintessential all-American boy proud eager to serve the country he loves and respects in the Vietnam War, to being a disillusioned veteran, paralyzed in battle and how it led to his anti-war activism. This film asks particularly difficult questions about what it means to be American and has become even more relevant today than the year it was released to critical and commercial success.

Ron Kovic’s voiceover narration establishes a picturesque childhood, he and his best friends play soldiers with other neighborhood kids. He grows up in the Norman Rockwell-esque small town America of the 1950s. Born on the Fourth of July is propaganda – but all is not what it appears; Stone cleverly subverts it, showing us little cracks in the idyllic façade. As a child, Ron idolizes the soldiers he sees with his family in a parade early on in the film. This is tempered when one soldier visibly winces at the sound of firecrackers and another is shown, arms lost in battle, a grim look on his face.

Stone’s multi-layered patriotic imagery during the opening credits sequence is bathed in a sun-kissed glow, courtesy of Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography. Ron’s mother (Caroline Kava) even calls him her “little Yankee Doodle Boy.” This is the land of 4th of July fireworks, parades populated by beautiful cheerleaders and where Ron is an exceptional athlete, hitting an in-the-park home run as a boy. He lives in suburbia with a family that embodies the American Dream.

As a teenager, he excels in wrestling, being pushed to his limits by a coach whom has all the zeal of an army drill sergeant. It is in these early scenes that we see the Tom Cruise we all know – the ambitious go-getter, but Stone tempers this by showing Ron lose an important match in front of his classmates, friends, and family. His anguished expression – as boos ring out around him –foreshadows more painful defeats to come.

Ron’s hero worship of the military continues when he attends a presentation (a.k.a. a recruitment pitch) by the United States Marines at his school. There is delicious irony as Ron looks adoringly at the Marine speaking (played by none other than Tom Berenger) as if the actor’s demonic soldier from Platoon (1986) somehow survived, returning stateside to recruit young men to fight in the Vietnam War.

Ron buys into it, eager to serve his country as his father (Raymond J. Barry) did before him in World War II. He wants to go and fight in Vietnam and is even willing to die there (“I want to go to Vietnam – and I’ll die there if I have to). His life is playing out like a stereotypical Hollywood movie. He even rushes to the prom, in the rain, to declare his love for girl-next-door-eseque Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) as “Moon River” plays over the gymnasium speakers.

Ron’s idyllic youth comes to a violent end once we see him in ‘Nam, his platoon accidentally slaughtering an entire village. To make matters worse, he inadvertently shoots and kills one of his own soldiers. He tries to own up to it but his superior (John Getz) dismisses him. Where everything stateside was simple to understand – Ron always took for granted that he knew what was expected of him. Vietnam is chaotic and confusing, the enemy difficult to identify. As he did with Platoon, Stone immerses us in the sights and sounds of battle, albeit in a more stylized depiction. Here, he employs more slow-motion, filters, and skewed camera angles to show the disorienting effect of combat through Ron’s eyes.

He is wounded in battle and is shipped back to the Bronx Veterans Hospital where he finds out that he’s been paralyzed from the chest down. Despite the absolutely appalling conditions (rats scurrying between beds, interns shooting up in closets and Ron starring at his own vomit for hours), he still believes in the American Dream and is critical of the anti-war protestors he sees on television. He aggressively attacks physical therapy, refusing to accept the doctor’s diagnosis that he’ll never regain the use of his legs.

Cruise is particularly effective in these scenes as he conveys Ron’s gradual disillusionment with the system. He is slowly becoming dehumanized by the system that cares little about him. Government cutbacks result in poor conditions and treatment that Stone depicts in unflinching detail. Is this how our country honors those that put everything on the line to serve their country?

Ron’s homecoming is a heart-wrenchingly bittersweet one. On the surface, his family is happy to see him – the heartbreaking emotions swell under the surface, conveyed in his mother’s eyes when she embraces him, giving a brief, sad look that he is unable to see. While his father goes on about the changes he’s made to the bathroom to make it more accessible for his son, Ron only half-listens as he looks around his old bedroom, lingering on a photograph of himself during his wrestling days at high school. Stone shows Ron’s image reflected in the glass of the picture frame, visually giving us a before and after of this man’s life.

Ron quickly picks up on how differently people in the town look at him: “Sometimes I think people know you’re back from Vietnam and their face changes, their eyes, the voice, the way they look at you.” A family dinner breaks up when Ron’s brother (Josh Evans) leaves the table, unable to stomach his brother’s patriotic rant. He participates in a parade, much like the one he saw as a child and flinches at the sound of a firecracker, like the veterans he once saw, and this time is faced with angry protestors and other townsfolk; he begins to realize this is not his father’s war.

At the rally afterwards, Ron falters while making a patriotic speech as he experiences a flashback to ‘Nam. Confused, he is “rescued” by childhood friend and fellow veteran Timmy Burns (Frank Whaley). The relief that washes over him at the sight of a familiar face is palpable. The scene between the two men afterwards is quietly affecting as they share stories of their experiences on the battlefield. Timmy tells Ron about the headaches he has – “I don’t feel like me anymore” – and his frustration that the doctors don’t know how to help him. Cruise conveys incredible vulnerability as Ron regrets the mistakes he made in Vietnam, how he feels like a failure, and how badly he wants to regain the ability to walk. This scene features some particularly strong acting from both men, defining moments for both actors and the characters.

I like how Stone spends time showing the moments and events that happen to change Ron’s views of the war. It wasn’t just one incident but a series of them, most significantly an anti-war rally where we can see the change of his way of thinking play over his face. Without warning, cops move in and he watches, helplessly, as they beat protestors. At last, Ron breaks down in his parents’ home, getting into a shouting match with his mother as he finally lets out all of the anger and anguish built up inside him about the war. He’s approaching rock bottom and Cruise conveys Ron’s hurt in a raw and powerful way that is riveting to watch.

It isn’t until he goes to Mexico – in a dust-up with a group of veterans in a bordello – that Ron has an epiphany out in the desert with Charlie (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Vietnam vet. They get into a heated argument about how many babies they killed over there. Afterwards, exhausted, Ron says, “Do you remember things that made sense? Things you could count on before it all got so lost? What am I gonna do, Charlie?” This conversation, combined with visiting the graveside and confessing to the parents of the American soldier he accidentally killed (in a painful, gut-wrenching scene that Cruise gives everything he has), are the pivotal moments that transform him into being an anti-war activist.

When Ron emerges on the floor of the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, speaking out against the war and President Nixon administration, Ron has a cathartic moment, finally finding a way to channel his anger and frustration. Once removed from the convention, he’s almost arrested and roughed up, the police giving no consideration for his physical condition. Undaunted, he uses his military training to organize the protestors and continue on in a battle of a different kind.

One month after Ron Kovic gave a speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, his book about his experiences before, during and after the Vietnam War was reviewed in The New York Times. It drew the attention of movie producer Martin Bregman who bought the rights to the book. He quickly realized that it didn’t have good commercial prospects as the subjects of Vietnam and life as a paraplegic being its focal points. Kovic then served as a consultant on a film about the same subject – Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), starring Jon Voight, who won the Academy Award for his performance. Universal Studios – who were going to finance Born on the Fourth of July – pulled their money and support. No other studio was interested and no one wanted to direct it. All Bregman had was a screenplay written by a young Oliver Stone, who clearly identified with Kovic’s experiences: “My story and that of other vets is subsumed in Ron’s. We experience one war over there then came home and slammed our heads into another war of indifference…and we all came to feel we had made a terrible mistake.”

Bregman found German investors willing to put up money for pre-production, hired Dan Petrie (A Raison in the Sun) to direct, cast Al Pacino as Kovic, with Orion Pictures distributing the film. A few weeks before rehearsals were to begin, the foreign financing fell through and the rights reverted back to Universal. Pacino had second thoughts and left to make …And Justice For All (1979), leaving Bregman $1 million in the hole and Stone depressed, his script without a home. The latter promised Kovic that one day they’d make this film together and became a filmmaker in his own right.

While Stone wrote the script for Wall Street (1987), Tom Pollock, then-president of Universal, took a look at the filmmaker’s script for Born on the Fourth of July and realized, “it was one of the great unmade screenplays of the past 15 years.” He told Stone that the studio would make it for $14 million and a major movie star as Kovic. After making Platoon, Stone considered rewriting a script from 1971 based loosely on his own experiences returning home from Vietnam but put it aside in favor of Kovic’s story, which he felt had broader appeal.

Stone and Kovic considered Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage, and ultimately went with Tom Cruise. Stone met with him and told the actor he needed a movie star to play Kovic and had a small budget to make it. Cruise, who had wanted to work with Stone, accepted the challenge. He was drawn to the film as he felt it was a personal passion project for Stone: “I thought it was almost his life story, too, his Coming Home.”

The young actor identified with Kovic’s working class ethic and his drive to become the best: “I grew up hearing ‘no’s and can’ts’, but I pushed myself forward, always looking ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck.” Stone was drawn to Cruise’s all-American boy image: “I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?” Furthermore, “I sensed with Tom a crack in his background, some kind of unhappiness, that he had seen some kind of trouble. And I thought that trouble could be helpful to him in dealing with the second part of Ron’s life.”

Bregman felt that Cruise was a safe choice and not strong enough an actor for the tough material. Initially, Kovic agreed until he met Cruise: “I felt an instant rapport with him that I never experienced with Pacino.” The two men talked for hours and Kovic got very emotional. He remembered, “I felt like a burden was lifted, that I was passing all this on to Tom. I knew he was about to go to Vietnam, to the dark side, in his own way.” The actor remembers meeting the man he would play on film and how he “really opened up to me.” Cruise knew this would be a daunting role and felt ready after making The Color of Money (1986) with Martin Scorsese and Rain Man (1988) with Barry Levinson. “I made it work one day at a time. If I looked at the mountain, it was just too high.”

Stone wasn’t immediately convinced: “Tom was cocky, sure he could handle everything. But I wasn’t so sure…He was shaky at first, but we shot in continuity as much as possible to show how, step by step, he began to understand.” To prepare for the role, Kovic took Cruise to veterans’ hospitals where he spent days talking and working with paraplegics. He hung out with Kovic in a wheelchair until it became second nature. Cruise also read many books about the war, including Kovic’s diary. Stone brought in his trusted military adviser Dale Dye to work with Cruise and the cast on two separate week-long training missions. Dye remembered that he “treated him no differently than I treated anybody else…A big part of it was, of course, helping Tom Cruise get the mentality he needed for the film.” They had to dig their own foxholes and live in them as well as learn to handle a variety of weapons. Stone also brought in Abbie Hoffman to talk to the cast about the peace movement in the 1960s. The legendary activist even has a cameo in the film.

Principal photography was a grueling 65-day shoot with 15,000 extras and 160 speaking roles. Dallas doubled for both Long Island and Mexico. The production shot 10-12 hours a day in 100-degree heat. At one point, Cruise got sinusitis. Several crew members fainted in the extreme climate. At one point, Stone became quite sick. Focused on the film, he ignored the symptoms until they got in the way of his work. He went to a local hospital in Dallas, underwent a panel of tests and was given medicine. His condition, however, only worsened. The film’s production coordinator called a local physician who had treated other crew members. He recognized Stone’s symptoms as an allergic reaction to a particular kind of pollen common in Dallas at that time of year.

Stone challenged his crew to duplicate Long Island in Dallas on a small budget. Several blocks of houses were given new looks and landscaped to recreate Massapequa, 1957. Principal photography began in October 1988 with the successful transformation of a southeast section of the city into a Long Island neighborhood. Born on the Fourth of July also saw Stone, for the first time, experiment with several different kinds of film stocks: 16mm, Super 16 and 35mm. He combined footage shot for the film with grainy, archival footage that was originally shot for network news in ’72 to recreate the veterans demonstrating at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. This certainly wouldn’t be the last time as he continued to do so with The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), and U Turn (1997).

Filming went on hiatus for the Christmas holidays, giving Stone an opportunity to edit sections of the film. He realized that his vision for Born on the Fourth of July had expanded and he would need to shoot more footage than budgeted. Stone went to Pollock and told him he needed an additional $3.8 million. The studio executive was hesitant but after the director showed him some edited sequences, he was given the money and allowed to go ten minutes over the running time that was in his contract.

Cruise had a particularly tough time with the scene where a sexually impotent Kovic pays to be with a Mexican prostitute. Stone remembers the actor’s shyness:

“We just kept shooting, working up to the place where Tom cries, thinking about everything he’ll miss – certainly not from the joy of sex. On one take, something happened inside him. Those tears came from someplace in Tom.”

Cruise remembered, “I went to Oliver and I said, ‘I’m just not there. It’s just not working.’ I remember feeling a lot of anxiety actually.” Stone told him to just do the scene and not think about it. The actor did it and, in the process, learned to let go. The two men clashed occasionally: “Tom is macho, aggressive, male and he wants the best. Perfection is his goal and if he doesn’t achieve it, his frustration is high.” Stone also clashed with the studio, nervous about the film’s commercial prospects so he and Cruise gave up their salaries for a percentage of the profits – a gamble that paid off exponentially.

Kovic was so impressed by Cruise’s performance that on the last day of filming he gave the actor his Bronze Star that he won in Vietnam. For Stone, he wanted the film to “show America, and Tom, and through Tom, Ron being put in a wheelchair, losing their potency. We wanted to show America being forced to redefine its concept of heroism.”

More conflicts arose between Stone and the studio during post-production. When it came to editing the film, Stone felt that the ending needed to be reshot and he also wanted John Williams to score the film. Cruise and Pollock agreed about reshooting the ending but the executive did not want to spend the extra money required to get Williams. In addition, he wanted to move up the release date to Veterans Day instead of Christmas. This enraged Stone and he went to Mike Ovitz, then-head of Creative Artists Agency, who wielded great power in Hollywood, and got him involved. After a meeting with Pollock, Stone agreed to shoot a new ending and Pollock agreed to both keep the original release date and pay to have Williams create the score. Stone remembers, “It left a lot of bad blood. I didn’t continue to work with Universal.”

Born on the Fourth of July received mixed to positive reviews at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It is not a movie about battle or wounds or recovery, but a movie about an American who changes his mind about the war…This is a film about ideology, played out in the personal experiences of a young man who paid dearly for what he learned.” Pauline Kael was much more dismissive: “Born on the Fourth of July is like one of those commemorative issues of Life – this one covers 1956 to 1976. Stone plays bumper cars with the camera and uses cutting to jam you into the action, and you can’t even enjoy his uncouthness, because it’s put at the service of sanctimony.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “It’s the most ambitious non-documentary film yet made about the entire Vietnam experience. More effectively than Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and even Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, it connects the war of arms abroad with the war of conscience at home.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “C+” rating and wrote, “Tom Cruise tries hard, yet he’s fatally miscast: He simply doesn’t have the emotional range to play a character wallowing in grubby desperation.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Born on the Fourth of July is nettlesome work. Stone has gifts as a filmmaker, but subtlety is not one of them. In essence, he’s a propagandist, and, as it turns out, the least effective representative for his point of view.” Finally, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone has found in Cruise the ideal actor to anchor the movie with simplicity and strength. Together they do more than show what happened to Kovic. Their fervent, consistently gripping film shows why it still urgently matters.”

There are people that are patriotic and those that are nationalistic fused with fascism, twisted into something so ugly that it doesn’t resemble what would be called patriotism, to spawn the bastardization of what passes for democracy today. This film wrestles with the definition of patriotism. The power of constitutional rights – most pointedly, the right to assemble and freedom of speech – are both key to our understanding about what it means to be American. It is not un-American to be critical of the country when it has become an unjust place, when the landscape has become an inhospitable place no longer nurturing the ideals upon which it was founded.

Within the fabric of Born on the Fourth of July lies hope. We hope that Kovic is not representing the lone man but the everyman. Hopefully, we will all wake up to what is really happening, pick ourselves up and enact change. This film is a rallying cry that needs to be sounded again, repeatedly, unrelenting in its echo.


SOURCES

Chutkow, Paul. “The Private War of Tom Cruise.” The New York Times. December 17, 1989.

Dutka, Elaine. “The Latest Exorcism of Oliver Stone.” Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1989.

Gabriel, Trip. “Cruise at the Crossroads.” Rolling Stone. January 11, 1990.

O’Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.

Ressner, Jeffrey. “Breaking Conventions.” DGA Quarterly. Fall 2012.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout


With a Mission: Impossible movie you know exactly what you're going to get: plot twists a-go-go, some baddie hell-bent on world domination (or destruction) and Tom Cruise performing a series of insanely dangerous stunts as his Ethan Hunt character and the IMF team save the world. You would think that being disavowed by their government yet again would get old but we expect it as part of the franchise's tried-and-true formula. Let's face it these movies are cinematic delivery systems for masterfully orchestrated action sequences with Cruise upping the ante with every subsequent installment. The latest – Fallout (2018) is no different. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns to orchestrate the mayhem once again and improves on his previous outing, the excellent Rogue Nation (2015).

In the wake of Hunt capturing Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) in the previous movie, his fanatical disciples from the Syndicate have regrouped and renamed themselves The Apostles and are hellbent on obtaining three plutonium cores for their latest client, the mysterious John Lark. Hunt and his team are tasked with finding Lark and intercepting his meeting with the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), an arms dealer who is brokering the deal. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and Hunt is forced to free Lane with the help of untrustworthy CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill), charged with babysitting the IMF team, but who clearly has his own agenda. The rest of movie plays out in a series of plot twists and double-crosses as the stakes are increasingly raised.

Freed from the shackles of the dour DC Cinematic Universe movies, Henry Cavill gets to play a hulking brute cum antagonist – “the hammer” to Ethan’s “scalpel” as Angela Bassett’s Director of the CIA puts it so succinctly. The actor is clearly having a blast playing an assassin as evident in a fantastically kinetic fight sequence that takes place in a public bathroom as Walker and Ethan square off against a mysterious terrorist. It is a sober reminder of just how stale the speed-up/slow-down action sequences of the superhero movies Cavill has been involved in have become. Here, McQuarrie allows him to cut loose and play a different role, which he dives into with gusto.


McQuarrie manages to give everyone on the team their moment to shine, putting an emphasis on teamwork – something that was missing from some of the previous installments. In particular, it is great to see Ving Rhames given so much to do where in the past it felt like he was marginalized at times. Simon Pegg even gets in on the action, including a crucial part in the movie’s nerve-shredding three-way finale.

If Paula Patton’s tough IMF agent in Ghost Protocol (2011) marked a significant evolution in how female characters went from damsels in distress to throwing down just as hard as the men, then Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust – introduced in Rogue Nation – was even more advanced. Her character is clearly Ethan’s equal and with her own intriguingly enigmatic agenda. This continues in Fallout as initially we aren’t sure just whose side this MI6 agent is on and then once it becomes clear, her dilemma is just as personal as Ethan’s.

Tom Cruise always comes across as an otherworldly presence in interviews with his forced laugh and vague, stock answers that come from playing the fame game for so long, but in the Mission: Impossible movies, in particular this one, he appears completely comfortable as he’s played Ethan for so long that it has become second nature. This familiarity with the character and his relationships with the IMF team has never felt more natural. As a result, we care about what happens to them, which is crucial to Ethan’s central dilemma in Fallout: saving someone he loves versus saving the world. McQuarrie lets us think that we know more about Ethan’s past by the end of the movie without actually telling us anything that new – instead, shedding light on his inner life, which is summed up best towards the end when a battered Ethan is reunited with his team. The emotions that play over Cruise’s face are surprisingly moving.


With Ghost Protocol, Cruise upped his game on the stunt work with every subsequent installment having us wonder, what crazy stunt is he really going to do next? It is a wonderfully analog element in this digital age chock full of CGI heroics that we pretend happened but know in our hearts were created in a computer somewhere. McQuarrie is his partner in crime, using long takes and full body shots to show Cruise really jumping out of a plane at 25,000 feet and flying down the streets of Paris on a motorcycle at insane speeds only to get knocked off and thrown like a rag doll. How long can he keep this up? Who knows but for now it is a lot of fun to watch.

Is this the best Mission: Impossible movie yet as some claim? I don’t know. I have to see it a few more times and let it sink in before I can rank it up against the rest of the series but it is certainly right up there. McQuarrie has pulled off a deft cinematic trick with Fallout by making a standalone sequel. There is just enough exposition dialogue to clue newbies into who everyone is and their relationship to one another while judiciously sprinkling references to previous movies for fans in the know. He also sets up fascinating possibilities for the next Mission: Impossible movie should he choose to accept it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Rockford Files (1974-1980)


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When I was a child my grandfather and I bonded over several things: Clint Eastwood films, James Bond and The Rockford Files. Some of my fondest memories I have of him are watching an episode of the latter whenever I would stay at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather loved the show. Even though he never verbalized it to me, I think he admired private investigator James Rockford (James Garner) as a stand-up kind of guy with the ability to talk his way out of almost any situation, often with a good sense of humor and played fair even when those that conspired against him did not. He was an honest man in a profession not known for it.

The show was created by producer Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell, originally conceived of as being about a private investigator who only took on closed cases. Huggins assigned Cannell to write the script who then proceeded to tweak the clichés and conventions of the genre. Garner signed on to the project and NBC agreed to finance the pilot episode. The show ran the gamut of the crime genre as Rockford investigated murders, blackmail, missing persons, finding stolen money and so on.

Rockford is an ex-convict (wrongly convicted) turned private investigator who worked the Los Angeles area in his gold-colored Pontiac Firebird with his base of operations a mobile home located on the beach. He doesn’t even have a secretary – just an answering machine (immortalized in the opening credits) to take his messages. His father, Joe “Rocky” Rockford (Noah Beery) is a retired trucker who constantly gives his son grief over his profession. Detective Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) delights in giving him a hard time but helps out when he really needs it. Santos is an underappreciated character actor who was the ideal foil for Rockford as the street-smart cop. He is definitely set in the same mold as the frumpy Andy Sipowicz that Dennis Franz would later make popular on NYPD Blue.


“The Girl in the Bay City Boy’s Club,” showcases Rockford’s ability to recognize and deal with potential conflict as he sorts out someone doing a poor job of tailing him while also stopping at a nearby Jack in the Box for food. When it turns that the person following him is a potential client (Blair Brown), he confronts her. This episode features an early, memorable appearance by Evelyn “Angel” Martin (Stuart Margolin), a lovable ex-con cum con man that occasionally helps out Rockford when he’s not hitting him up for cash or getting him in trouble, much to his friend’s chagrin.

Like many shows, some of its most memorable episodes feature appearances by notable guest stars. Case in point: Isaac Hayes in “The Hammer of C Block.He plays Gandy Fitch, an ex-convict and Rockford’s former cellmate. It seems that Fitch served 20 years for killing his wife but claims that he didn’t do it. Rockford owes him a favor and Gandy has come to collect, asking him to find the real killer. Hayes brings a gruff edginess to the role of a surly ex-con who keeps calling Jim, “Rockfish,” much to his chagrin. Hayes brings an authentic, tough guy swagger that plays well off of Garner’s laid-back nature.

Occasionally, Rockford would play hard to get if he felt a case could be solved by the police unless the money was right and the potential client made a compelling argument like in “The Real Easy Red Dog,” when a woman (Stefanie Powers) is convinced that her sister’s suicide is actually murder. Rockford would rather eat a sandwich he just prepared and watch a football game but she finally wears him down. The woman turns out to be a rival private investigator and her job offer is just a smoke screen. This puts him at odds with Lieutenant Diel (Tom Atkins), a gruff police officer with a thing for P.I.s, specifically Rockford. The playful banter between Rockford and his female counterpart is a joy to listen to with Garner and Powers looking like they’re having fun with it.


Garner brings a considerable amount of charm and leading man good looks to his role. He has a snarky sense of humor but knows when to play it serious when the situation warrants it. I like that Rockford solves cases through good ol’ fashion legwork – searching for clues, reading and questioning people and using his smarts to solve the case. The show is set up so that we figure things out along with him. We’re rooting for Rockford as we like him and that’s down to Garner’s amiable take on the private investigator. It’s easy to root for him as he’s the perpetual underdog, often at the mercy of dangerous and powerful crooks that have no qualms about hurting or punishing him, but he keeps plugging away, using common sense, intuition and his wits to survive.

The Rockford Files is also a fascinating snapshot of Los Angeles in the mid 1970s: drive-in diners on the beach, rotary style phones, big cars and so on. The show certainly wasn’t groundbreaking, adhering to the tried and true crime/mystery format but doing so in a very entertaining way with well-written scripts that are well-acted by the reliable cast. Watching an episode of The Rockford Files is the equivalent of reading a really good mystery novel, albeit condensed into one hour. It was a prime time hit with a strong six-year run, enjoying a cult following in the 1980s thanks to syndication and this led to a series of made-for-television movies from 1994-1999.

For me, there is something reassuring and almost comforting about watching The Rockford Files. It is like revisiting an old friend. There is a lot of enjoyment in watching Rockford’s noble pursuit of the truth over the course of a given episode with Garner’s genial take on the private investigator guiding us through his character’s various misadventures. Sometimes he won, sometime he didn’t but it was always enjoyable to see what kind of case he was mixed up in.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Prisoner (1967-1968)

What if James Bond tried to resign?

It is this intriguing premise that lies at the heart of influential British television series The Prisoner. Coming off the spy show Danger Man, actor Patrick McGoohan and writer George Markstein created a decidedly unconventional follow-up (some say sequel) that turned the espionage genre on its head. It was a show unafraid to defy expectations right down to the uncompromising final episode that so infuriated viewers back in the 1960s that McGoohan famously went into hiding. It’s legacy of messing with viewers’ minds lives on to this day in T.V. with the likes of The Sopranos, Mr. Robot and the recent revival of Twin Peaks, but no one did it better than The Prisoner.

The opening credits are a marvel of efficient visual storytelling by brilliantly establishing the premise in only a few, dialogue-free minutes. Top-secret government agent Number Six (McGoohan) resigns rather emphatically from his job. Unbeknownst to him, he’s followed home and as he packs to leave for somewhere else, smoke is piped into his place. He loses consciousness and so it begins….

He awakens in a quaint, remote seaside resort known as “the Village.” One almost might say it is an idyllic place except that he is forbidden to leave. The denizens act nice enough – maybe a little too nice – but in a way that feels slightly off. This is best encapsulated in the often-repeated phrase, “Be seeing you,” that the villagers say to one another and that quickly goes from provincially charming to downright creepy.

Each episode sees a different Village administrator, known only as Number Two, try to find dissimilar ways to get Number Six to reveal why he resigned while he devises ways to escape and figure out the identity of the mysterious Number One who supposedly rules over the Village. His captors don’t want Number Six running around in the world with the kind of knowledge and secrets that he knows. After all, information is power and they want to know what he knows. Naturally, Number Six resists (“My life is my own.”), and it is his resilience the Village will put to the test repeatedly, and therein lies the main source of conflict.

Patrick McGoohan brings his trademark intensity and intelligence to the role. In every episode we see Number Six thinking and scheming of ways to outwit his captors and escape. While the actor displays a wide range of emotions, he also plays the role enigmatically, never revealing too much as Number Six resists any kind of inquiries from the powers that be.

The actor famously turned down playing James Bond on two different occasions and “The Girl Who Was Death” sees the show at its most playful as the spy genre and detective shows are satirized, complete with overly complicated plots and an insane, power-hungry baddie with the requisite femme fatale. This episode certainly conveys McGoohan’s feelings about the spy genre and why he had no interest in playing Bond.

Watching several episodes back-to-back is like a experiencing an acid trip – the more you watch the more you lose touch with reality as you become deeper immersed in this strange world as the show goes from a spy fantasy story to a science fiction/horror hybrid fused with ‘60s era psychedelia and “pop art.” It as if artist Jim Steranko had decided to take a break from drawing Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD and decided to go into art direction for The Prisoner.

The show’s overriding theme is free will as Number Six resists Number Two’s repeated attempts to get him to divulge his reason for resigning. The Village is a false utopia. In “Arrival,” Number Two claims that it has everything one could want. Everything that is, except for freedom – the commodity that Number Six values most. Number Two controls every aspect of the Village, including its inhabitants and anyone who steps out of line is dealt with in ruthless fashion as a big white malleable sphere known as a Rover emerges with a horrific sound and absorbs said troublemaker. There are hidden surveillance cameras everywhere, eerily foreshadowing the way we live today.

The Prisoner also explores the abuse of power. The government that Number Six used to work for thinks that they own the secrets in his head and do everything in their power to extract them. To this end, they have an entire Village under their control to aid in this endeavor. It is all about control – who has it and how they exert it. As the show begins, the Village administrators have all the power, but over time Number Six gradually wrests control and repeatedly resists their various methods to extract information from him.

“A. B. and C” is an excellent example of the lengths that Number Two will go to extract information out of Number Six – dream manipulation – while also serving as a showcase for the show’s style, employing rear screen projection right out of a Classic Hollywood movie, and skewed camera angles and quick cuts inspired by Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1962), which only draws attention to the artifice of the dream.

While there is some dispute over who came up with what, McGoohan is often credited as the driving force behind The Prisoner, starring in every episode, and writing and directing several of them. This is a rare actor as auteur project – an accomplishment that has rarely been equaled on T.V. with the notable exception of Twin Peaks: The Return where David Lynch directed and co-wrote every episode and also appeared in many of them. The Prisoner was clearly a passion project for McGoohan and it shows in every detail, right down to the décor of Number Six’s home and the blazers everyone wears, that this was all thought out beforehand and with great care.

The Prisoner’s legacy is impressive. It has gone on to inspire comic book writers (Grant Morrison), musicians (The Beatles), films (The Matrix), and T.V. shows (Lost). The less said about the mediocre six-episode miniseries remake on AMC in 2009 the better but hopefully it motivated some to seek out the original, which continues to provoke and remains even more relevant today than when it first came out. We are even more prisoners of our own making, trying to control every aspect of our lives and that of others through technology. McGoohan was warning us of these dangers way back when but clearly his admonition was not heeded.

"We're so desperately concerned with saying 'We're free!' And I want to know, how free are we? I think we're being imprisoned and engulfed by a scientific and materialistic world. We're at the mercy of gadgetry and gimmicks” – Patrick McGoohan

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Carlito's Way


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“When I went to Berlin and I was watching it in Berlin after it opened and did okay in the United States, I remember watching in Berlin and said, ‘I can’t make – I can’t make a better picture than this.’” – Brian De Palma

He said these words with a heavy heart while recounting a story of seeing Carlito’s Way (1993) at the Berlin Film Festival, realizing he had poured his heart and soul into a film that received mixed reviews from critics and did well but not great at the box office. The start of the 1990s had not been good to Brian De Palma with the high-profile and costly failure that was The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). It shook his filmmaking mojo so much that he second-guessed the narrative structure of Raising Cain (1992), a return to more familiar territory with the psychological thriller, which took a personal toll on the man.

He was in need of a hit to appease the studios and moved on to what he hoped would be a commercial hit by reteaming with Al Pacino in an effort to recreate the magic of Scarface (1983). If fans were expecting the same over-the-top bombast with Carlito’s Way they would be sorely disappointed as it took a more melancholic, introspective approach while still featuring De Palma’s virtuoso camerawork and masterful action set pieces, crafting a tragedy about how a criminal tries to go straight but is ultimately doomed from the get-go.

Carlito’s Way features one of the oldest chestnuts in the world. Narrating his story during the last moments of his life, Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a veteran criminal, has recently been released from prison, intent on leading a normal, law-abiding life. Of course it isn’t going to be that easy – when he returns to his old neighborhood, his reputation precedes him. Local gangster Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), a cocky, up-and-comer, sets his sights on Carlito after being shamed by him in public. Carlito, however, barely notices him as he’s torn between reuniting with an old flame and a struggling Broadway dancer, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), and keeping his lawyer and friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), out of trouble.


As a personal favor to David, Carlito runs a nightclub for the latter to raise enough money to move to the Bahamas and start his own business renting cars in a tropical paradise with Gail. However, Carlito’s loyalty to David will be his undoing – his friend has become so corrupt during the time that Carlito was in prison that he’s not only wanted by law enforcement but the mafia as well.

Carlito’s Way begins at the end (even though we don’t know it yet) with Carlito being shot and rushed to the hospital. While lying on the stretcher going through the train station, he flashes back to how he got there. De Palma lets it all play out over the opening credits, in dreamy slow motion, with somber classical music playing over it all. The entire sequence is shot in black and white save for a billboard that says, “Escape to Paradise,” with inviting tropical imagery symbolizing Carlito’s desire to escape a life of crime for a better one.

It is 1975 and Carlito has been released from prison after a five-year stint, reinvigorated and reborn. At his hearing he sticks it to the judge (a cameo by Paul Mazursky no less!) and the District Attorney (James Rebhorn) in classic Pacino style, delivering a speech like he’s accepting an Academy Award. It’s as close to Scarface as Pacino gets and, in a bit of irony, Carlito is actually sincere about going straight. Unlike Tony Montana, he doesn’t want to rise to the top of the criminal underworld – he wants to get out. He even tells both the local crime boss and David that he’s retired but they don’t believe him. An ex-con career criminal going straight? No way.

Sure enough, he gets roped into an “errand” with his young cousin (John Ortiz) that turns into a bloody shoot-out. As always, De Palma injects the film with his trademark bravura action sequences. One look at the set-up and, like Carlito, we know that something is not right. Pacino shows how his character survived for so long as he expertly sizes up the situation and takes stock of the room: how many guys and where they are in relation to each other and him. Carlito is calm, unruffled, while his eyes convey a readiness for anything.

De Palma thrives at orchestrating these kinds of set pieces, masterfully using editing to build anticipation and suspense as we wait for the inevitable explosion of violence, gradually building the tension as we feel Carlito’s apprehension. Despite his desire to go legit, he gets drawn back into a life of crime; he can’t escape.

Carlito is a role tailor-made for Al Pacino, allowing him to essay another larger-than-life character. Carlito is a smart guy who cannot escape what he is no matter how hard he tries and the actor conveys the melancholy that lurks behind the bravado of his character. For all of his street smarts, Carlito makes the fatal mistake of underestimating local small-time tough guy Benny Blanco (a perfectly cast motor-mouthed Leguizamo) who keeps trying to get an audience with the veteran crook only to be rebuffed every time.


Carlito also pines for Gail and goes up to the top of a neighboring building in the rain to watch her in a dance class. He is still in love with her and envisions being reunited with her as part of his dream of escaping a life of crime. Like James Caan’s safecracker in Thief (1981), Carlito is making up for lost time and wants to start his new life right now, but his old one won’t let him go.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sean Penn’s sleazy, coked-up lawyer. The actor reportedly did the film to help finance his directorial debut, The Crossing Guard (1995). For a paycheck role, Penn does a great job immersing himself in the part, complete with a frizzy Afro and receding hairline. It’s as though Pacino’s presence inspired Penn to step up his game, making Penn’s memorable turn so much fun to watch. Even though David dresses in expensive clothes and smokes fancy cigarettes, he’s a cokehead that runs with a dangerous crowd who thinks he’s untouchable. His hubris is his undoing.

The rest of the cast is filled out by solid character actors like John Leguizamo, who plays Benny as a pushy little runt not to be underestimated, and the always-reliable Luis Guzman as Carlito’s right-hand man. There’s also Viggo Mortensen in a small role as a former contemporary of Carlito who has been let out of prison to get the dirt on his friend. Wheelchair-bound and wearing cheap, stained clothes, the actor isn’t afraid to portray a pathetic snitch, a shadow of his former self. He plays a sad figure that really gets under Carlito’s skin. It also shows how far the D.A. is willing to go to send him back to prison.

The only miscasting is Penelope Ann Miller as Pacino’s love interest. She looks out of place and just doesn’t have the acting chops to hold her own against Pacino. She does have a good scene with Pacino when, much to Carlito’s surprise, he discovers that Gail moonlights as a stripper to make ends meet. It is a continuation of his disillusionment in the sense that despite all of her talk of trying to make it as an actress, Gail gets naked for other men. Like Carlito, there is her dream and there is her reality. They have an interesting conversation as he awkwardly disapproves of her dancing for men, to which she unashamedly counters, “You ever kill anybody, Charlie?” Carlito realizes that he has no right to judge her as he’s done far worse for money.

Loyalty is both Carlito’s greatest attribute and vice. It is his loyalty to David that gets him in trouble with Benny Blanco and the Italian mobsters that go after in him in the film’s exciting climax. He has a personal code that he adheres to no matter what happens. However, it is the internal conflict that rages within him that ultimately clouds his judgment. It is his natural instinct to be the ruthless criminal he was versus the legit businessman he wants to be, which results in the sparing of Benny’s life when the smart play was to kill him, as he’ll be a problem later on.

Carlito knows that David is out of control and taking unnecessary risks, like ripping off a wiseguy for $1 million, but helps him break said crook out of Riker’s Prison out of friendship, a debt he feels he owes him. Ultimately, he can’t change who he is. The two men finally have it out and Carlito realizes what a true friend David is as the lawyer lays it out for him, tells him that he looks out for himself, while Carlito lives by an antiquated code. That’s all Carlito needs to hear and ends their friendship, leaving him at the mercy of a mob assassin.


New York State Supreme Court judge Edwin Torres wrote Carlito’s Way in 1975 and its sequel After Hours in 1979, both chronicling the rise and fall of Puerto Rico drug kingpin Carlito Brigante. Al Pacino came to producer Martin Bregman with these two novels and said that they could be made into a film. Screenwriter David Koepp was already working for Bregman when he was given the two novels and told to adapt them into a screenplay. He liked them but taking 800 pages and making them into a film was a daunting task. Koepp was also unfamiliar with Spanish Harlem in the 1970s. When it came to adapting the novels, he ended up using more of After Hours as it featured an older Carlito that Pacino could play.

Bregman felt that Brian De Palma was the best person to direct but he wasn’t interested in making another gangster film. At the time of making Carlito’s Way, De Palma’s personal life was in turmoil. He said, “In the space of two years, I got married; I had a child; and I got divorced!” He elaborated further: “I wasn’t able to reconcile my private life and my professional life.” Like Carlito loses Gail, De Palma lost his second wife, movie producer Gale Ann Hurd. To this end, De Palma was drawn to Koepp’s script as he recognized his own crisis in Carlito’s:

“A guy who just got assassinated and who thinks, ‘Shit, I’m dead! How did I end up here?’ And he reviews his life to understand the chain of events and to accept what has happened to him. That was my situation at the time. To make this film that conveyed what I was feeling, I had to lay myself bare.”


When De Palma called Sean Penn about Carlito’s Way he hadn’t acted in four years and needed money as his wife at the time, Robin Wright, was pregnant again. The actor said, “I certainly was interested in working with Al Pacino. And I’d had a very good relationship with Brian on Casualties of War.” When he initially talked to the director, Penn got the impression that the film was going to be very raw and his research uncovered a very gritty setting. When he arrived on the night club set during filming to find a very expensive-looking set with many extras and complex moving shots that took a long time to set up, which did not allow for multiple takes. Penn felt “a little duped. And that created tension.”

Torres gave Pacino and Penn a personal tour of the criminal justice system and Puerto Rican New York, taking them to the South Bronx, the barrio and to various clubs and bars. To prepare for the role he took Pacino to salsa clubs in Spanish Harlem. The actor said, “It was the Disney tour of the barrio: ‘So-and-so got shot here. So-and-so got shot right over there.’” According to De Palma, Pacino patterned his character’s cadences and speech patterns after Torres. The judge also arranged for Penn to watch Bruce Cutler sum up the Thomas Gambino racketeering case. The actor also talked to Albert J. Krieger who defended John Gotti. Penn looked through period articles on lawyers and came across a still photograph in Life magazine of a young law student that he based the look of David on.

There are several colorful anecdotes about the filming of Carlito’s Way. De Palma and Penn clashed over the scene in which David asks Carlito to break a mobster out of Riker’s. Penn had done ten takes with the director – happy with take three – but the actor wanted to do another 15 takes until he was happy with his performance. Incredulous, De Palma wanted to do Pacino’s side of the scene. After 25 takes, he insisted on shooting Pacino and Penn got upset as a result. Afterwards, Penn disrespectfully chewed out De Palma over the course of the rest of the day.

De Palma started filming the final chase sequence in the winter – and finished it in the middle of summer. They shot the train-to-train scene over and over again (in the blistering New York heat) with Pacino running up and down the train in a long, black leather coat and De Palma in another running parallel filming it. It was a complicated shot that took many hours. An exhausted Pacino finally had enough and took the train home at four in the morning without telling De Palma. The director recalls, his assistant director telling him, “Al took the train home. And he thinks you’re crazy. He doesn’t know what you’re doing.” When the studio first saw the pool scene they felt it was too long. De Palma interpreted that to mean it wasn’t long enough! He added more footage, setting up the action and building more suspense. Bizarrely, the studio saw the new version – and congratulated him on making it shorter.

Carlito’s Way received decidedly mixed reviews from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Carlito’s Way is best watched as lively, colorful posturing and as a fine demonstration of this director’s bravura visual style.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers gave it four stars and wrote, “The drug wars have raised brutality and betrayal to levels we see reflected on Pacino’s eloquently ravaged face. It’s that face that holds us even when Pacino’s ‘Rican’ accent slips into his Southern drawl from Scent of a Woman. It’s that face that cuts through De Palma’s erratic pacing and derivative shootouts.”

There were critics who wrote decidedly negative words about the film. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave it a “B” rating and wrote, “Watching Carlito’s Way, I never really believed that a heroin dealer and coolly pragmatic killer could be such a simple, romantic guy.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “De Palma’s direction is alert but dispirited, and certainly for us there is a sense of drudgery in having to observe this gifted filmmaker run through his tired bag of tricks.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan criticized Miller’s character: “Miller works hard to make the part believable, but finally the role fits too snugly into the traditional ‘exotic dancer with a heart of gold’ category to allow for much genuine impact.”


Despite the clichéd premise, Carlito’s Way works well because of the caliber of actors, David Koepp’s screenplay with memorable dialogue (“You think you’re big time?! You’re gonna fucking die big time!”), and De Palma’s stylish direction. The last 20 minutes plays out in an exciting chase as the director pulls out all the stops, like the impressively choreographed tracking shot, as Carlito tries to evade mobsters and make it in time to meet Gail at the train station; he is literally racing for his life. What makes the film’s ending so heartbreaking is that Carlito got so close to realizing his dream only for it to be cruelly ripped away at the last minute by someone he could’ve dealt with earlier on but chose not to, and therefore pays for this lapse in judgment dearly.

While De Palma did not originate this project, he certainly made it his own. He found something in Koepp’s script that he connected with on a personal level and transformed what could have easily been a paycheck gig into an artistic expression for what he was going through in his own life. This might explain why he seems crestfallen in the De Palma documentary when recounting watching Carlito’s Way at the Berlin Film Festival years ago. The film was a personal expression and its mixed critical reaction and decent but unremarkable box office was likely a bitter pill for De Palma to swallow at the time. His desire to stay in the game and enjoy the resources that a major studio could provide, coupled with his hunger for a commercial hit, drove him to team-up with Tom Cruise and direct the first movie in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which allowed him to fulfill this goal.

Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Carlito’s Way, like Scarface, is first and last a character study, a portrait of a man who wants to be better than he is.” Much like Carlito, De Palma was also struggling to become a better man in his own life, not wanting to look back. Unlike, his cinematic alter ego, the director overcame his personal demons and triumphed in the end, thereby proving that he was able become a better filmmaker than he had been before, delivering a powerful, personal film that stands as one of the strongest efforts in his filmography.



SOURCES

De Palma. Dir. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Empire Ward Pictures. 2015.

Feeney, Sheila Anne. “So New York…Yet So Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. November 4, 1993.

Grimes, William. “His Honor Himself is Counselor to Pacino.” The New York Times. July 27, 1993.

Keesey, Douglas. Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film. University Press of Mississippi. 2015.

Kelly, Richard T. Sean Penn: His Life and Times. Canongate U.S. 2004.

“The Making of Carlito’s Way.” Carlito’s Way Blu-Ray. Universal Pictures. 2010.