Friday, August 29, 2014

Beetlejuice

Tim Burton's films are populated by outsiders and non-conformists with their own unique vision of life that sets them apart from mainstream society. It is this affinity for the disaffected that is perhaps the most personal aspect of his work. The success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) paved the way for Burton's next feature, Beetlejuice (1988), his calling card – a breakout film that led to his getting the job to direct Batman (1989). It is also one of the purest examples of his distinctive sensibilities – a skewed sense of the world as seen through the eyes of someone who is an outsider.

Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) are a happily married couple living in a small town when they are killed in a car accident on the way home from running an errand. In a darkly whimsical touch, their demise hinges on a small dog perched precariously on a plank of wood that sends them off a bridge to a watery demise. The Maitlands come home with no recollection of how they got back. It slowly dawns on them that they’ve died. Maybe it’s the presence of a book entitled, Handbook for the Recently Deceased (“It reads like stereo instructions,” Adam laments) or maybe it’s when he steps out of the house and finds himself in a nightmarish realm populated by a gigantic sandworm.

At first, Barbara and Adam think they’re in some kind of heaven – getting to spend eternity in a home they love, but their idyllic existence is shattered when the Deetzes arrive and move in. Delia (Catherine O’Hara) fancies herself an artist (“This is my art and it is dangerous!” is a priceless bit she says in describing her work), but is actually quite awful. Her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is a crass former real estate developer. Lydia (Winona Ryder) is their daughter, a brooding girl decked out all in black and who lives by the credo, “My life is a dark room. One big dark room.” Only she can see the Maitlands (“I myself am strange and unusual.”) and becomes sympathetic to their plight.


Thrown into the mix is Otho (Glenn Shadix), a trendy hipster interior decorator (“So few clients are able to read my mind. They just aren’t open to the experience.”) that helps Delia transform the Maitland house into a Yuppie nightmare. Barbara and Adam want to get rid of the Deetzes and seek help from the afterlife. First, they go to a kind of Department of Motor Vehicles from the beyond and are assigned a caseworker by the name of Juno (Sylvia Sidney) who gives them some advice.

The waiting room on the way to meet Juno is an amusing tableau of grotesques, from a woman cut in half to a man with a shrunken head to a man with a shark still attached to his leg. It is all of these little touches that bring the afterlife scenes vividly to life and are so memorable, like the sickly yellow and green lighting scheme that portrays it as some kind of bureaucratic hell, or when Juno has a cigarette and the smoke exits the slit around her neck.

When her advice doesn’t get rid of the Deetzes, but instead encourages them to stay (in a memorable scene where the Maitlands force the Deetzes and their friends from the city to lip-synch and dance around to “The Banana Boat Song” by Harry Belafonte), they enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a self-professed "bio-exorcist" who helps the recently deceased from being "plagued by the living,” and acts like a perverted used car salesman. Not surprisingly, he has his own agenda, which soon puts him at odds with the Maitlands, culminating in a wonderfully surreal battle royale between the good ghosts and the bad mortals with Betelgeuse ping-ponging back and forth like a bee on acid.


Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are well cast as the nice but rather bland Maitlands. All they want is to be left in peace and see the Deetzes as an affront to everything they value. The Maitlands represent wholesome, small-town America and much of the humor in the film comes from the culture clash between them and the insensitive big city Deetzes. 1988 was a good year for Baldwin who showed versatility in several films, including Married to the Mob, Working Girl and Talk Radio, but playing such a “normal” guy in Beetlejuice was quite a departure from these other roles. Likewise, it was a strong year for Davis who also appeared in Earth Girls Are Easy and The Accidental Tourist, which featured the actress playing very different roles. Their easy-going charm and how comfortably the play off each other made Baldwin and Davis a believable couple.

Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse is the comedic equivalent of a whirling dervish – a force of nature as he makes the maximum impact with his limited screen-time. Betelgeuse is a venal degenerate willing to say or do anything to get what he wants. Keaton embodies him with just the right amount of manic energy. The scene where Betelgeuse meets the Maitlands for the first time and lists his “qualifications” is a marvel of comic timing and tempo as the actor bounces off of Baldwin and Davis’ intimidated couple. Keaton conveys a zany energy that recalls his feature film debut, Night Shift (1982), only cranked up another notch. Beetlejuice was the culmination of a string of comedies for Keaton and served as a fitting conclusion to an impressive run of films (although, he did star in 1989’s The Dream Team) and so it’s not surprising that he went all out with this role. He would go on to play Batman in Burton’s two contributions to the franchise and then tried his hand at more serious fare.

Beetlejuice was a breakout film for a young Winona Ryder whose Lydia was a poster child for young goths everywhere. She does a nice job playing a death-obsessed girl who isn’t overly fond of her parents and finds herself increasingly drawn to the Maitlands. Ryder’s performance goes beyond the superficial trappings of her character to reveal a deeply unhappy person. The most obvious character who represents Burton's loner motif would seem to be Betelgeuse with his outrageous appearance and worldview that threatens to dominate the whole film, but it is Lydia who is also the most autobiographical character in Burton's film. Lydia's all-black attire and dreary credo, "my life is a dark room," mirrors the filmmaker's own fashion sense and personal assessment of himself. Therefore it seems only natural that Lydia is the actual emotional center of this film, not Betelgeuse, with the true conflict being the resolution of her morbid fixations, while the larger battle of life vs. death rages on around her. The success of Beetlejuice would lead to her signature role in the pitch black comedy Heathers (1988).


Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones play vain, self-absorbed Yuppies that are the complete antithesis to the Maitlands. O’Hara, in particular, is excellent as the sometimes shrill wannabe artist who feels the need to impose her taste on others. She plays well off of Glenn Shadix’s pretentious interior decorator as evident in the scene where they go through the house, picking out color schemes for various rooms. Coming out towards the end of the 1980s, Beetlejuice can be seen as a cheeky critique of Yuppie materialism as embodied by the egotistical Deetzes who see the quaint small-town as an opportunity for them to exploit it for commercial gain. They are set-up as the film’s antagonists and we can’t wait to see them their comeuppance at the hands of Betelgeuse.

After Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Tim Burton was offered screenplays with the word “adventure” in it and found that they lacked originality. “I had read a lot of scripts that were the classic Hollywood ‘cookie-cutter’ bad comedy. It was really depressing.” He finally started work on a script for Batman, but it was put on hold by the studio until the director proved his box office appeal. Eventually, record industry mogul turned movie producer David Geffen gave him the script for Beetlejuice, written by Michael McDowell. For Burton, McDowell’s script had a “good, perverse sense of humor and darkness … It had the kind of abstract imagery that I like.”

Burton worked on the script with McDowell and producer Larry Wilson for a long time until they felt that a fresh perspective was needed. Script doctor Warren Skaaren was brought in to provide some logic. Burton ended up casting several actors with a knack for improvisation, which was incorporated into the shooting script. For example, when Michael Keaton was cast as Betelgeuse, Burton would go over to his house and they would come up with jokes, creating the character through lengthy discussions.


Burton originally wanted to cast Sammy Davis Jr. as Betelgeuse, but fortunately the producers rejected that notion. It was Geffen who suggested Keaton, but Burton hadn’t seen him in anything because he preferred to meet with the actor in person. When they met, Burton began to see Keaton as Betelgeuse. For the look of the character the director wanted him to resemble someone that had “crawled out from under a rock, which is why he’s got mould and moss on his face.”

Geffen had overspent on their remake of Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and so they allocated only $13 million for Beetlejuice’s budget with $1 million designated for its extensive special effects. To this end, artist Alan Munro was hired and worked closely with Burton storyboarding the film in the spring of 1986. They quickly found a common affinity for movies that came up with creative ways to create SFX cheaply. This translated to effects that were “more personal … What people will see are effects that are, in a sense, a step backward. They’re crude and funky and also very personal.”

Burton and Munro decided early on to avoid costly post-production opticals in favor of performing the effects live on set. Munro was brought back two months after completing the storyboards to oversee the visual effects when the producers realized it was going to be a bigger job that originally anticipated. To help out Munro, Burton brought in frequent collaborator effects consultant Rick Heinrichs. He and Munro spent the first few weeks of production filming tests to show the crew that they could create effects via “cheap, stupid, easy methods.” The crew wasn’t convinced and Munro remembers, “There weren’t a lot of believers when we were actually working on the film.” Heinrichs remembers that they ran into problems creating the effects live and this made for “one of the most exhausting and frustrating experiences I’ve ever been through.”

Beetlejuice received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “But the story, which seemed so original, turns into a sitcom fueled by lots of special effects and weird sets and props, and the inspiration is gone.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Burton, who seems to take his inspiration from toy stores and rock videos in equal measure, tries anything and everything for effect, and only occasionally manages something marginally funny.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called it a “stylish screwball blend of Capraesque fantasy, Marx Brothers anarchy and horror parody … Not since Ghostbusters have the spirits been so uplifting.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “There’s a distinctive feel to Beetlejuice, a deliberate Brecht-Weill jerkiness that allows satire and just plain silliness to play off each other most successfully.”


Beetlejuice has the polished, yet personal, handmade feel of Burton’s previous film complete with old school effects that included stop-motion animation, matte paintings and practical makeup effects, which have helped the film age well over the years. Like his other films, Beetlejuice is interested in outsiders, people like Lydia and Betelgeuse that don’t fit in or taking people like the Deetzes, who are at home in a big city like New York, and making them fish out of water in small-town Connecticut. The Maitlands are also taken out of their comfort zone of a living existence and thrust into the strange world of the afterlife.

Beetlejuice serves up many of the clichĂ©s of life after death and the supernatural and proceeds to gently poke fun of them in an entertaining way with a showstopping performance by Keaton at the heart of it. It remains one of Burton’s signature films and one of the best examples of how he managed to marry an idiosyncratic style with commercial appeal. Beetlejuice’s success would lead to a short-lived cartoon and occasional talk of a sequel that has gained some traction in recent years.


SOURCES

Salisbury, Mark. Burton on Burton. Faber & Faber. 1995.

Shapiro, Marc. “Explaining Beetlejuice.” Starlog. May 1988.


White, Taylor L. “Making of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and His Other Bizarre Gems.” Cinefantastique. November 1989.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Raw Deal

Wedged between high profile box office hits Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), Raw Deal (1986) has become something of a forgotten movie in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. It was a gritty crime story made at a time when the action star could seemingly do no wrong with every movie doing well at the box office. Not so with Raw Deal, which barely made a profit in comparison to action movie rival Sylvester Stallone and his own crime movie Cobra (1986), which was a huge hit. Both were hyper-violent movies with a large body count, but Raw Deal was a little too generic, a little too formulaic despite Schwarzenegger’s trademark humor. Or maybe audiences couldn’t buy an Austrian bodybuilder infiltrating his way into the Italian mafia.

When a mob witness and the FBI agents protecting him are brutally murdered by an efficient team of mafia hitmen from the Patrovita family, Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin), the father of one of the men killed, seeks out an old friend, Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger). He’s a disgraced ex-FBI agent now sheriff of a small town who spends his time catching speeders and arguing with his drunk wife (Blanche Baker). When she hurls a freshly baked cake (with the word, “shit” scrawled on it no less) at him, he merely dodges it and replies dryly, “You should not drink and bake,” in what is possible the worst line ever uttered in a Schwarzenegger movie. You have to give credit to the screenwriters – Gary DeVore and Norman Wexler – for actually trying to give Schwarzenegger’s character some semblance of a backstory and actual conflict in the form of marital strife.

Mark meets with Harry who tells him of his desire of revenge for his son’s death. He asks Mark to go undercover in the Patrovita organization and destroy it from within. In exchange, Harry will pull some strings to get Mark reinstated as an FBI agent. Putting up Schwarzenegger against an old pro like Darren McGavin was probably not a good idea as it only highlights his lack of acting skills. McGavin is quite good as the grieving father determined to take down Patrovita at any cost. So, Mark fakes his own death and Harry sets him up with a new identity – Joseph P. Brenner from Miami (?!) – and bankrolls the clandestine operation.


Mark goes about getting noticed by the Patrovita organization in typical Schwarzenegger fashion – by breaking up a crooked gambling operation run by a rival mob outfit led by Martin Lamanski (Steven Hill). There’s something almost comforting about the movie’s paint-by-numbers action sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of The A-Team and are filmed and edited so cleanly that we always know what’s going on as Mark busts some heads and then drives a truck into the joint.

Watching Arnold Schwarzenegger work a room in Raw Deal is amusing and fascinating because he walks so stiffly, like he’s an alien trying to act like a normal human being. Even his line deliveries are robotic in nature, but you have to give him an A for effort. He is obviously more comfortable in the action sequences where he gets to beat guys up while dispensing quips. And that is part of Schwarzenegger’s charm. Admittedly, there is something inherently silly about him managing to infiltrate the mob by merely slicking back his hair and wearing expensive suits, but let’s face it, with every one of his movies you have to suspend your sense of disbelief. However, Raw Deal’s premise pushes it perhaps too much – hence its disappointing box office returns. Audiences just weren’t buying him in this role.

The script clumsily attempts a romance between Mark and Monique (Kathryn Harrold), a beautiful gambler, that results in our hero passing out before he gets anywhere with her in bed. Of course, it’s all a ruse because Mark is still loyal to his wife and Monique is spying on him for Max Keller (Robert Davi), the right-hand man to Patrovita’s (Sam Wanamaker) top enforcer Paulo Rocca (Paul Shenar). Poor Kathryn Harrold is saddled with the thankless gangster moll role, but gets a bit of a backstory with Monique’s gambling problem and actually helps Mark out in a scene where a bunch of Lamanski’s goons try to work him over. She gets in a few shots instead of being a helpless damsel in distress. God bless her, Harrold gives it all she has and really sells the mundane dialogue as best she can.


The always interesting to watch Robert Davi shows up as a thug who puts on classy airs, but is supposed to be showing Mark the ropes even though he’d rather hang him by them. Davi is one of those guys that exudes an authentic tough guy vibe and he gives his scenes with Schwarzenegger a palpable sense of menace. Maybe I’ve seen him playing a good guy in too many episodes of Law & Order, but I just couldn’t buy Steven Hill as a rival mob boss. He looks too frail and out of place among the gangsters. He also doesn’t get much to do and the scenes he has are unconvincing.

Another problem with Raw Deal is that it doesn’t have a bad guy who provides a credible threat to Schwarzenegger’s character. Commando had a memorable villain in the crazed Bennett, played with over-the-top gusto by Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior), and Predator had a nearly invisible alien picking off the movie’s team of badass protagonists in deadly efficient fashion. In comparison, Raw Deal has Sam Wanamaker’s blustery mob boss who doesn’t do much but yell at his underlings and wastes Paul Shenar (Scarface) as an ineffectual right-hand man. I had hopes that Robert Davi would step up get a chance to go toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger at the movie’s climax, but his character is dispatched partway through and his absence leaves a sizable void that is never filled.

Not surprisingly, Raw Deal was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “It replaces absolutely everything – plot, dialogue, character, logic, sanity, plausibility, art, taste and style – with a fetish for nonstop action.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Though the language is vulgar, the macho posturing absurd and some of the plotting inscrutable, Raw Deal has a kind of seemliness to it.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Actually, it’s the audience who needs the sympathy; Schwarzenegger seems faintly bemused but game for the script’s most howling excesses; he simply lowers his head and gets on with the action.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave the film one star and wrote, “How can you screw up an Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture? All you have to do is give the guy a gun and tell him to shoot.”


In some respects, Raw Deal is reminiscent of the television show Wiseguy, which also featured a cop going undercover to fight crime, only way more violent and not as well written or acted. What saves it from being a total waste of time is the perverse, dare I say cheeky, sense of humor occasionally at work, like when Mark casually takes out one of Patrovita’s gravel pits full of anonymous flunkies with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones blasting on the soundtrack. Naturally, the highlight of Raw Deal is its climax when Schwarzenegger goes into killing machine mode, transforming into a one-man-army as he take out a room full of on Patrovita’s men.


Raw Deal is one of those ‘80s action movies that you don’t have to think too hard about (or at all), but just enjoy it for what it is – a competently made genre piece with car chases and shoot-outs. And so this movie was considered a hiccup in an otherwise successful run of movies in the ‘80s for Schwarzenegger as he went on to make Predator and a string of other very successful efforts, continuing his cinematic competition with Stallone. Raw Deal tends to be a forgotten movie in Schwarzenegger’s career and watching it again only reinforces why this is the case.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Popeye

Popeye (1980) is the film you get when the powers that be entrust a big budget, high-profile project to an idiosyncratic maverick like Robert Altman who proceeds to take the studio’s money and produces a fascinating cinematic oddity. Never one to play it safe, he enlisted fellow iconoclastic artists like musician Harry Nilsson to compose the score, acclaimed playwright Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay and cast comedian Robin Williams, in only his second film role and first starring one, as the titular character. Looking back at it now, it’s amazing that the film ever got made in the first place (it almost didn’t). It is also a powerful reminder of just how safe and formulaic these kinds of films have become over the years (one only has to look as far as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies). And this is due in large part to publicized commercial failures like Popeye, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), which resulted in Hollywood freezing out these darlings of 1970s American cinema in favor of successful producers like Joel Silver, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who helped usher in a flashy style over substance that reflected the materialistic decade of the 1980s.

The film starts off on a dramatic note as we see Popeye (Robin Williams) arrive at the seaside town of Sweethaven on a rowboat during a dark and stormy night. As the opening credits end, night gives way to day and we are introduced to the town and its denizens. This also allows us a chance to marvel at the impressive production design as the entire shanty town of Sweethaven was built from scratch. It looks like a fully-functional, lived-in place much like the grungy, frontier town in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).

As soon as Popeye sets foot on the docks he’s greeted by the local taxman (Donald Moffat) and hit with a ridiculous number of taxes (docking tax, new-in-town tax, leaving-your-junk-around-the-warf tax, and so on). It also gives us the first indication of Robin Williams’ take on Popeye, which is muttering to others and mostly to himself. In this respect, his portrayal of the iconic sailor is reminiscent of Elliott Gould’s version of Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Popeye is on a journey to find his estranged father who left him when he was a baby. In a nice touch, he keeps an empty frame next to his bed with the words, “Me Poppa” scrawled where a picture should be.


The director applies his trademark layered audio tracks with a nicely orchestrated dinner sequence at the Oyl boarding house where Popeye. Olive (Shelley Duvall) and her family talk about Bluto (Paul L. Smith), her fiancĂ© and a large man who resides on a ship known as the Vile Body. He enforces the various town ordinances, in particular, the 9 p.m. curfew where all the town lights must be out. Popeye gets ready to eat only to realize by the end of the scene that dinner is over and everyone has left the table. He mutters bemusedly to no one in particular, “Never good to be too full, I guess.”

The film’s first action sequence takes place at a local diner when six ruffians (including a young Dennis Franz) make fun of Popeye’s pappy and provoke him into showcasing his formidable brawling skills. Altman employs gifted physical performers to give the fight a stylized look as innocent bystanders do all kinds of pratfalls trying to avoid getting pulled into the fracas. It is refreshing to see a pre-CGI comic book adaptation eschew expensive special effects in favor of the natural physical prowess of an actor. For someone not known for action/adventure, the action sequences, especially Popeye’s fight with a giant octopus, are inventively staged by Altman. He favors long shots so that you can see all the action and, in the case of the climactic battle between Bluto and Popeye, the actors do most of their own stunts.

Popeye was Williams’ first starring role in a film and he certainly picked an ambitious one, playing an iconic character first popularized in comic strip form in the 1930s. It was the Fleischer brothers cartoons from that era that most people remember and was the criteria which many critics used to criticize his performance. This is quite unfair as Altman and Feiffer were trying to evoke the Popeye of E.C. Segar’s original comic strip. The actor does his best to ground the character while adding an air of whimsy to most of the things he says. Popeye is content to take things in stride, but isn’t afraid to stand up for himself. Williams, ever the expressive performer, is ideally cast as Popeye. The comedian grimaces and mutters his way through the film in a way that must’ve freaked out the studio who fretted so much about whether audiences would understand anything he said or not, forcing him to re-record Popeye’s dialogue


If there was any actress that was born to play Olive Oyl it would be Shelley Duvall. With her tall, slender frame and large expressive eyes, she does a fantastic job of embodying the high-strung Olive. There’s an adorable dorkiness to Duvall’s take on the character that is quite endearing. It also helps that she has good chemistry with Williams. They have a nice scene together when Popeye and Olive argue over how best to parent Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), a baby they found abandoned in a basket the night before. There’s another scene with the kid where Popeye and Olive serenade each other under the guise of singing the baby to sleep that is charming in its sincerity. The highlight of their sweet romance (and of Duvall’s performance) is when Olive serenades Popeye by singing “He Needs Me,” which is one of the loveliest, most fanciful love songs. Duvall pulls it off as Olive pines for Popeye by singing and dancing her way into his heart. The song would be resurrected years later by Altman devotee Paul Thomas Anderson in his own quirky romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

Far from the cinematic trainwreck that critics of the time pronounced it to be, Popeye is an engaging, fun fairy tale of a film that doesn’t have a cynical or crass bone in its body. This sincerity extends to Harry Nilsson’s delightful songs full of innocence and romance that probably flew over a lot of kids’ heads at the time. I know it did with me and it took years for me to appreciate the artistry that went into them. The decision to include numerous musical numbers and have the actors sing was certainly a ballsy one and adds to the stylized feel of the entire film. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were not accomplished singers and so having them to try carry a tune wasn’t always pleasing to the ear, but in the case of “He Needs Me” there is a sweet simplicity that works. There is an unpolished yearning in Duvall’s voice that you wouldn’t get in the same way with a professional singer.
  
After seeing the Broadway musical adaptation of Annie in 1977, Hollywood producer Robert Evans was so taken with it that he pursued the film rights. However, he was outbid for them. He still had his heart set on adapting a comic strip as a movie musical. As luck would have it a Paramount Studio executive reminded him that they had the rights to Popeye. Evans decided he would produce it. He was good friends with actor Dustin Hoffman and contacted him about playing the titular character.


Executive producer Richard Sylbert suggested Evans contact screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Little Murders) to write the screenplay. He jumped at the opportunity because the writer hadn’t had a script produced into a film since the early 1970s and idolized the work of E.C. Segar who created Popeye. Feiffer agreed to do it if he could replicate the tone of the comic strip and not the animated Fleischer brothers short films from the late ‘30s and early 1940s. Evans agreed, but under the condition that the film appeal to both adults and kids. Feiffer started by reading a book about Segar’s career. He found himself drawn to how civil Popeye was “about the awfulness of everybody,” and “a genuine charm … a civility towards his view of the universe.” Feiffer decided to have the romance between Popeye and Olive Oyl as the heart of the film while also having the sailor search for his estranged father.

It was soon announced that Lily Tomlin would play Olive Oyl and Hal Ashby was hired to direct. To prepare for the role, Hoffman took tap-dancing lessons and worked with a choreographer. During the rewriting process, Feiffer and Hoffman began to drift apart for reasons that are still unclear. Feiffer said, “It ended up just very unfriendly, and I still don’t remember finding out a damn thing about what he felt about the movie.” Incredibly, Evans sided with Feiffer and not his good friend Hoffman who subsequently left the project. With the lack of a bankable movie star, the project fell apart with studio executives losing interest and Ashby and Tomlin moving on to other films.

Evans stuck with the project and claimed that the material was so strong anyone could play Popeye even up and coming comedian Robin Williams who was enjoying success on the Mork and Mindy television show. Paramount executives loved the idea of Williams as Popeye and the project picked up momentum with Gilda Radner being considered for Olive Oyl thanks to the success of Saturday Night Live. Evans still needed a director. Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols were considered, but Robert Altman received a copy of the script. He was interested, but only if he would have creative control. Evans met with Altman and was impressed with his take on the material. He offered the director the job much to the chagrin of the studio who wanted to go with a more commercially viable director. At the time, Altman was coming off successive box office failures. However, Evans stood by Altman with Williams supporting him as well. The studio relented and Evans said, “It’s got to be exciting to make it. I’d rather take a chance on falling on my ass but possibly hitting magic than just make something that’s predictable.”


While Evans went off to Texas, overseeing preparations for Urban Cowboy (1980), Altman began populating the cast and crew with his regulars, including the likes of Paul Dooley and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, which didn’t sit well with studio executives that needed convincing. Most interestingly, Altman hired singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson to compose the score despite others warning him against it. Williams supported the decision early on and after meeting the man, Altman was convinced.

Feiffer had his reservations about Altman because he knew of the director’s reputation for straying from the script and encouraging improvisation from his actors. His initial meetings with the director did little to reassure him. Feiffer also didn’t like the lyrics Nilsson wrote for many of the songs as he felt they conflicted with his script. Altman wasn’t convinced that he would be able to work with Evans or Feiffer who didn’t think he could work with Altman or Nilsson. Altman and Feiffer got along during meetings about the script, but once filming began the latter was unhappy with Williams’ improvisations. He complained to Altman who in turn complained about Feiffer to Evans. Altman told Feiffer to speak with Williams privately and that smoothed things over.

Altman loved shooting on location and away from the intrusive presence of the studio. To this end, he picked the island of Malta for the film. The remote location had its setback, however, as the production was plagued by bad weather, special effects problems, and accidents and injuries during filming which resulted in the production going $20+ million over budget. The production ran into difficulties with the creation of Popeye’s iconic muscular forearms which didn’t look right. Williams remembered that they were like “wearing two long gloves that you use to clean the toilet.” After a few tests proved that they didn’t work, the makeup person was fired and an Italian makeup crew was brought in and they did a much better job. Meanwhile, Altman had to film around Williams for almost four weeks while the arms were redesigned.


Due to the isolated location and shooting frequently at night, a lot of alcohol and drugs were consumed by the cast and crew. Altman’s wife, Kathryn remembers, “Everybody was very loaded. A lot of tantrums and fights and tantrums.” Williams concurred: “When we were on Malta, we were on everything but skates. And then they sent the skates in and it got interesting. The open bar at dailies? I think anything, everything was going on.” In addition to the pressures of starring in his first lead role on a big studio film, Williams and wife were not getting along and got into shouting matches after a day of filming had ended.

A six-track studio was built on the island for Nilsson and his musicians. He wrote at least three songs for the film there. Partway through principal photography, Altman did not know the final sequence of songs in the film and this upset the mercurial Nilsson resulting in him leaving the island in a rage. Arranger and conductor Van Dyke Parks took over and completed the score. Most of the tracks that had been laid down were not rerecorded with more polish and Altman liked their raw quality.

Despite all the tension and mishaps during principal photography, Altman cultivated a real sense of community, encouraging the cast and crew to bring family and friends to the location. Movies were flown in for weekend double features. Talent shows were organized and everyone got together to watch dailies. There were also many after hours parties hosted by Altman and his wife.


Far from box office bomb, Popeye made a profit, but the not the kind of numbers the studio was hoping for and this resulted in the film being forever tagged as a commercial flop. Not surprisingly, Popeye received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Popeye then, is lots of fun. It suggests that it is possible to take the broad strokes of a comic strip and turn them into sophisticated entertainment.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “You keep expecting the film to erupt with the kind of boisterousness that is only possible in a musical. It never does. The dances, like the music, are tentative and restrained.” Pauline Kael felt that the film didn’t “come together, though, and much of it is cluttered, squawky, and eerily unfunny … But there are lovely moments – especially when Olive is loping along or singing.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “This is high-risk chemistry, and the results are bizarre … Popeye’s air of alienated whimsy makes for an odd ‘family movie’ indeed.”


At the time, there was a trend to resurrect iconic characters from a bygone era thanks to the success of Superman: The Movie (1978), which begat high-profile commercial and critical failures like Flash Gordon (1980), The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), Bo Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1981). Unfortunately, Popeye gets lumped in there as well. It was Altman’s swan song with Hollywood and its highly publicized failure effectively relegated him to outsider status for the rest of the ‘80s until his triumphant return with The Player (1992).


SOURCES

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. St. Martin’s Press. 1989.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: An Oral Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 2009.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Much ado has been made about the huge risk Marvel Studios took adapting Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for the big screen. Since The Avengers (2012), they’ve been content cranking out sequels to their mega-successful franchises of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Guardians would be a real test of the Marvel brand with most industry insiders forecasting a modest success and a few predicting it to be the studio’s first big flop.

Based on a fairly obscure comic book set in a galaxy far, far away featuring the misadventures of a ragtag group of aliens led by a human orphaned from Earth, Guardians of the Galaxy enjoyed a resurgence in 2008 but still lacked the name recognition of the aforementioned superheroes. Furthermore, it was to be co-written and directed by James Gunn, the B-movie maverick responsible for modern cult classics like Slither (2006) and Super (2010), starring up and comers like Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and professional wrestler Dave Bautista. The two biggest movie stars – Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel – would not actually be appearing on-screen, instead providing voices for completely computer generated characters. Marvel’s canny and pervasive marketing blitzkrieg paid off. Guardians smashed opening weekend records for August.

We first meet Peter Quill as an eight-year-old boy losing his mother to cancer only to be subsequently abducted by a group of notorious space pirates led by a blue-skinned bandit known as Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker). They raise the young boy to be a smuggler and an outlaw a la Han Solo complete with the self-applied moniker Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). He steals a mysterious orb and plans to sell it on the Nova Corps homeworld Xandar, ripping off Yondu in the process, which results in a hefty bounty being placed on his head.


Little does Quill know that this theft has caught the attention of several interested parties: Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a mercenary duo, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a powerful Kree alien who wants the orb so that it can be handed over to Thanos (Josh Brolin), an even more powerful being last seen at the end credits of The Avengers, in exchange for destroying Xandar, his sworn enemies. To this end, Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly assassin, to retrieve the orb.

However, Quill when crosses paths with Groot, Rocket and Gamora, the resulting chaos has them arrested by the Nova Corps and thrown into an outer space prison known as Kyln. It is here that they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a warrior with a thirst for revenge on Ronan for killing his family. They form an uneasy alliance and break out of prison to sell the orb with Yondu, the Nova Corps, and Ronan and his trusted lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in hot pursuit.

With this film, Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt becomes a bonafide action star, deftly blending amusing quips with heroic feats. He does a nice job of also portraying Peter Quill as a man haunted by his past, like many of his cohorts. All of the Guardians have lost deeply personal things in their lives and this is what unites them – that, and saving their own lives and, by default, the galaxy. Zoe Saldana gets to portray yet another alien, but instead of being buried under CGI as she was in Avatar (2009), the actress sports a striking green look and a fierce attitude to match. A pleasant surprise comes from the casting of WWE wrestler Dave Bautista who is excellent as Drax, the gruff warrior that tags along with the rest of these ne’er-do-wells. It is a lot of fun to see this athlete bounce off of the other actors and who more than holds his own.


If Quill provides the film its heart, then Rocket provides the bulk of its humor, stealing almost every scene he’s in by not just getting to spout the bulk of the film’s funniest lines, but also the impressive CGI that brings him vividly to life so that he actually emotes convincingly. Special effects technology has finally caught up to Groot and Rocket, creating expressive, fully realized characters. Early on, you stop thinking of them as CGI characters and look at them as part of the team thanks to the voice work of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper who give Groot and Rocket distinctive personalities.

The banter between Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Drax, and even Groot is a large part of the film’s charm. Quill is the wisecracking smartass while Gamora is all business, Rocket has anger management issues, Drax doesn’t understand metaphors (making for some pretty funny exchanges between him and Quill), and Groot just says, “I am Groot” at key moments. Credit should go to the witty screenplay by Gunn and Nicole Perlman that plants the seeds of jokes early in the film only for them to successfully pay off later on.

There is a fantastic mix of character moments and visual eye candy in Guardians of the Galaxy as Gunn immerses us in this strange galaxy and the colorful characters that populate it. His production team has crafted a textured, lived-in universe that is rich in detail and drenched in atmosphere. The film’s vibrant color scheme is complimented by a stellar soundtrack featuring songs from the 1970s and 1980s via a mixtape in Quill’s vintage Walkman that also acts a touchstone to his childhood on Earth and memories of his departed mother. As a result, the songs run the gamut from commenting humorously on the action (“Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede) to also adding poignancy to more reflective moments (“I’m Not in Love” by 10cc) as well.


The only problem I have with Guardians of the Galaxy is that its villainous trio isn’t all that interesting. Ronan and Nebula look cool, but the former is yet another power-mad baddie that Marvel likes trotting out in all of its films with only a few notable exceptions, and the latter suffers from Darth Maul syndrome – a character with a badass reputation but with very little actual proof of such. It’s no surprise that Loki and the Winter Soldier are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strongest villains – they both have deeply personal and compelling motivations for what they are doing, which is something that is lacking with Ronan. As for Thanos, he only gets a cameo this time out with hints that he might figure more prominently in either Guardians 2 or The Avengers 3, but that’s a long way off. Fortunately, our heroes are so interesting and so much fun to watch that the lack of substantial villains is a minor quibble at best.

Gunn has pulled off a real coup with this film. He maintains a tricky balancing act of creating a gonzo space opera full of weird characters and loaded with a dense plot while somehow making it palatable for mainstream consumption without compromise. After the debacle that was the Star Wars prequels, cinema needed a good space opera to expunge the bad vibes of George Lucas’ movies. Only Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005) bravely stepped up and showed everyone how do it right, but now Guardians of the Galaxy joins it by providing an alternative for those hungry for an entertaining science fiction film, fulfilling a need that Lucas was unable to with his prequels.


Guardians of the Galaxy is an unabashed science fiction film full of exotic aliens, power-hungry villains, and exciting spaceship battles with the fate of the entire galaxy at stake. It is also a funny film – as close as Marvel has come to making a full-on comedy. Their other films have had humor, but were largely dramatic in nature. Guardians inverts this formula so that it is largely comedic with dramatic moments and the result is another entertaining and engaging film from Marvel who continue their impressive winning streak. More importantly, this film opens up the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way by introducing an entire galaxy for its increasing number of characters to inhabit.