Friday, July 21, 2017

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

“Ladies and Gentlemen – Welcome to violence,” are the words heard via voiceover narration as the narrator links the act of violence with sex. He then goes on to espouse the virtues of women before offering a warning:

“Handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, anytime, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!”

Smash cut to the movie’s three protagonists strutting their stuff to a bunch of desperate-looking slobs urging them on while the catchy theme song by the Bostweeds plays over the soundtrack. Welcome to the wild world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Welcome to the world of Russ Meyer.

Meyer was a filmmaker that made a name for himself in the 1960s by directing a series of modestly budgeted, financially successful sexploitation movies rife with campy humor, satire of traditional American values, and featuring his number one obsession: big-breasted women. The last motif was featured prominently in every movie with at least one if not several voluptuous women. His most well-known movie remains Faster, Pussycat!, a pulpy tale of three go-go dancers that partake in a deadly crime spree in the California desert. It was not a financial success at the time but went on to develop a sizable cult following and proved to be a significant influence on popular culture, from music (White Zombie) to comic books (Daniel Clowes) to cinema (Quentin Tarantino).

We’re only two minutes into the movie and already Meyer has given us a lot to think about with the voiceover narration that is sexist and yet intentionally melodramatic in tone as the filmmaker slyly pokes fun at the attitudes of the times where men were expected to work while their wives stayed at home and raised the children. Meyer skewers the notion of male panic where they might feel threatened if women actually had some power thereby setting up the battle of the sexes struggle that dominates the movie. The three go-go dancers are shot from a low angle so that they appear larger than life while the men that slobber over them are shot from a high angle so that we are looking down on them, which only reinforces how pathetic they are – pretty heady stuff for an exploitation movie.

Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) are the aforementioned go-go dancers that head out on the open road in their speedy sports cars. Billie races off on her own much to Varla’s chagrin. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Varla is the leader, ordering Rosie to get Billie out of the lake she found and jumped in. This gives Meyer the opportunity to stage a fight between two soaking wet women, first in the water and then in the sand until Varla breaks it up. She settles the beef by playing a game of chicken with Rosie and Billie, which she, of course, wins. Varla has nerves of steel and the confidence to back it up.

The three women cross paths with a man named Tommy (Ray Barlow) and his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard). He also has a sports car and enjoys racing it in time trials. Billie challenges Tommy to race her, Varla and Rosie. He manages to beat them all until Varla cheats and nearly causes him to crash. She then proceeds to bully Linda and challenges Tommy to a fight. It’s a drag down, nasty brawl with Varla killing him with her bare hands. Varla kidnaps Linda, who has passed out from shock, and they all hightail it out of there.

While getting gas for their cars, the women hear about a local wheelchair-bound recluse known as the Old Man (Stuart Lancaster) that’s sitting on a bunch of money. Varla decides to check it out and see if she can get her hands on the money but she’ll have to get past his two sons – a simple-minded muscle-bound hulk referred to as the Vegetable (Dennis Busch), whom Billie works her charms on, and Kirk (Paul Trinka), a much smarter, savvier person whom Varla targets, using her considerable assets to captivate. The rest of the movie plays out a battle of wills between Varla and the Old Man.

There is an interesting dynamic between the three women. They aren’t friends per se and whatever their relationship is becomes strained after Varla kills Tommy and only gets worse when they arrive at the ranch, their uneasy alliance put to the test with Varla’s latest criminal scheme.

Varla is a cocky bully as evident in the way she relentlessly taunts Tommy and Linda, provoking him into a fight, and, a little later, making fun of a not-too bright gas station attendant. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, especially men. In her all-black outfit and leather gloves, Varla is quite a sight to behold and Tura Satana goes for it, diving into the role with gusto.

Billie is the sex kitten always looking for a good time. She is the rebellious one that sometimes doesn’t do what she’s told. Rosie is Varla’s enforcer and lover. She doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, basically doing whatever she’s told to do while also worrying about Varla’s schemes.

The Old Man is an odd duck gone crazy with a skewed view of women; bringing them up to his remote ranch only for the Vegetable to get too rough with them. “What they know about hurtin’ and pain?” he says at one point. “We’re paying them back, boy. Each woman a payment.” He’s a sexist pig that hates Hippies and Democrats, clashing with the liberated Varla.

The movie is riddled with fantastic, memorable pulpy dialogue, like when Varla tells Tommy, “I never try anything. I just do it. Like I don’t beat clocks just people.” There are also some hilarious exchanges between characters, like when Linda offers Rosie a soft drink and the replies, “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we touch is hard!”

For an exploitation movie, Faster, Pussycat! is beautifully shot by Walter Schenk in richly textured black and white. For example, there is a scene where Billie seduces the Vegetable and Meyer’s camera lingers over his naked, muscular upper torso, objectifying him in a way that is normally done to women. The movie also features crackerjack editing by Meyer himself, especially during the action sequences. The editing adds to the kinetic nature of the chase sequences and fight scenes, each with their own specific rhythm.

The impetus for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was pretty simple for Russ Meyer: “I had men kicking the shit out of the women, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we do one where the women kick the shit out of the men?’” To bring this vision to life, he enlisted ex-child actor John E. “Jack” Moran, who had appeared in Gone With the Wind (1939) and others but had wasted away his money on alcohol. The two men met through a mutual army buddy and Moran told Meyer that in return for the screenplay he wanted Writers Guild minimum pay (paid in cash), a cheap motel room, and a bottle of booze. Four days later, he had completed a script entitled, The Leather Girls, but it wasn’t easy because of Moran’s alcoholism. Meyer would lock him in the room and not let him out until the end of the day where he’d be rewarded with a jug of alcohol.

When it came to casting, Meyer picked Lori Williams to play Billie, the sexpot go-go dancer. She was from Pittsburgh and at 18 had already been in beach-party and Elvis movies. Meyer initially didn’t want to hire her as he didn’t think her breasts were big enough, but told her, “we’ll pad you up and that’s how I got it.” She was also responsible for her character’s outfit. Haji was cast as Rosie, Varla’s lover, but Meyer didn’t tell her or Tura Satana that their characters were lesbians until deep into filming as it was a taboo topic back then.

Satana had already been in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce (1963) and wasn’t crazy about auditioning for Meyer as she knew his reputation. She also didn’t want to do any nudity. Satana read the script and told Meyer that Varla needed to “have a little more balls,” and it was then he knew he had found his Varla. The two clashed during filming, most notably when he told her about his no sex rule for cast and crew during filming. She balked at this, telling him, “I need it every day, and if I don’t get it I get very cranky. If you want me to give you a good performance, I need to be relaxed. And that relaxes me.” The director relented but demanded that the actress not tell anyone else. She picked the assistant cameraman to hook up with during the shoot.

The bulk of Faster, Pussycat! was shot around Lake Isabella, Randsburg, and Johannesburg with the latter two being mining ghost towns near the Mojave Desert. The Old Man’s ranch was located just out of the town of Mojave. Filming out in the desert wasn’t easy as Satana recalled that on the first day it was 110 degrees in the shade. After three hours of filming she had a sunburn. This didn’t stop her from being involved in various aspects of the production. She helped choreograph Varla’s fight scene with Tommy and was less than thrilled with Ray Barlow, the actor that played him: “Oh God, was he a chickenshit. I had to literally carry him through all those fight scenes.”

Susan Bernard’s overprotective stage mother got on the cast and crew’s nerves, demanding that her daughter get more dialogue and screen-time. Satana finally lost it when the mother referred to the Pussycats as a “bunch of whores,” and demanded she leave the location or she’d quit. Meyer wasn’t impressed with Bernard’s acting skills and enlisted Satana to provoke a reaction out of her for a given scene, which she was only willing to oblige.

After these initial speed bumps, the rest of the shoot went fairly smoothly except for the scene where Varla tries to crush the Vegetable with her car, which Satana felt should have a close-up of the tires spinning. Meyer disagreed and Satana punched a wall in frustration, breaking her hand. She went to the hospital, got it looked at, and returned to filming without telling anyone. Meyer wasn’t happy with the shot he got and tried Satana’s suggestion, grudgingly agreeing that she was right.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a fascinating B-movie where its villain is also its protagonist, played charismatically by Satana who clearly relishes her role as a larger than life character. No one or nothing seems to satisfy Varla. She wants more, leaving a destructive wake in her path. She and the Old Man are monsters that can’t be allowed to roam the countryside as they are too twisted to exist in our world and must be destroyed. It is not surprising, then, that the two most “normal” and moral characters survive. Ultimately, Faster, Pussycat! is a morality tale featuring a battle of good vs. evil told in an entertaining way by skilled showman Meyer.


SOURCES


McDonough, Jimmy. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film. Crown Publishers. 2005.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Like Crazy

I can’t imagine how young people meet each other and fall in love in our modern world fragmented by technology. For all of the promise that things like Facebook and smart phones were supposed to make it easier to connect with others all over the world, they actually do just as good of a job keeping us physically apart. You can check up on a potential love interest by studying their FB page, Twitter feed and Instagram page all before meeting them in person and all of which can be nothing more than a carefully created persona that doesn’t represent the actual person. When people get tired of being in a relationship they can break things off with a text message or a tweet. How is this affecting the young people of today?

Filmmaker Drake Doremus addresses many of these notions with his bittersweet long-distance romance Like Crazy (2011), an independent film he shot on a still digital camera for $250,000. The end result is an emotionally affecting on again/off again romance between two people that can’t seem to let each other go despite all of the obstacles in their path depicted in authentically intimate fashion so that you really feel like you’ve gotten to know these people over the course of the film.

British exchange student Anna Gardner (Felicity Jones) and American student Jacob Helm (Anton Yelchin) meet at a college class they have together in Los Angeles. One day, after class, she leaves a handwritten note on his car. Impressed that she took the time and effort to write him a letter, he calls her and they meet for coffee. Their initial meeting is fused with the awkwardness of a first date, hoping you’ll say the right things and don’t act like an idiot. They broach the usual topics, like what they’re majoring in – journalism for her, furniture design for him – and their plans after school. There are self-conscious, pregnant pauses punctured by humor that is typical of a first date, but the way they look at each other you can tell there’s definitely a spark of attraction.

Anna and Jacob go back to her place where they stay up all night talking, bonding over their mutual love for Paul Simon’s music and he gets her to read some of her writing. At the end of the night, she sees him off and the silent yet intense looks they give each other tell us that these people are falling in love. Sure enough, we get one of those standard happy couples montages as we see them hanging out and getting close but done in a tastefully understated way. I like that they give each other very personal gifts – he makes his first ever chair for her and she gives him a book that chronicles their relationship through a combination of words and pictures.

Jacob meets Anna’s parents – Bernard (Oliver Muirhead) and Jackie (Alex Kingston) in an amusing scene over dinner where her mother is delightfully frank while her father is more diplomatic. Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston do an excellent job of quickly conveying two people that have been married for years by the way they play off each other and know how to embarrass their daughter. Naturally, the initial glow of Anna and Jacob’s budding romance becomes overshadowed by the looming expiration date of her student visa. It’s the cold splash of reality on their whirlwind romance.

Anna and Jacob throw caution to the wind and let their emotions govern their actions when she decides to stay the summer after her visa expires. When she goes back home for a family function and then tries to return to the United States she is detained by immigration and not allowed in. The rest of Like Crazy plays out how this decision affects their relationship, which they try to maintain over long distance.

Anton Yelchin brings a wonderful low-key quality to Jacob complete with a dry sense of humor that he uses to defuse a tense situation between him and Anna in a scene where, upset that she has to leave soon, buries herself in a book until he finally cracks her up by saying he once rescued a cat from a tree. Jacob is definitely the quieter of the two but that doesn’t mean he feels things as intensely as Anna does and Yelchin conveys that in his body language and facial expressions.

Prior to Like Crazy, the only thing I had seen Felicity Jones in was Rogue One (2016) where she plays a tough resistance fighter. In this film, she plays a much more complex character with a wide range of emotions. There’s a superb moment where, back home, Anna goes out with some friends and is chatting with a guy about the usual small talk and then during a brief lull in the conversation she goes silent and adopts a far away look as she is obviously thinking about Jacob that Jones conveys so well. Anna is often ruled by her emotions and one gets the feeling that she is never able to let go of her feelings for Jacob, that her love for him has impacted her profoundly. With Anna, Jones has created a fully realized character that has virtues and flaws just like anybody else.

It goes without saying that with a film like this the chemistry between the two leads has to feel genuine or it won’t work. Fortunately, Yelchin and Jones have fantastic chemistry together and make for a believable couple. They do an exceptional job of depicting the emotional arc of their relationship, from the first blush of romance to the uncertainty of their future together. It is a testimony to Yelchin and Jones’ skills as actors that they get us to care about Jacob and Anna and we become invested in their relationship, rooting for them to make it work – even when they get involved with perfectly nice people in an attempt to move on with their respective lives. I like that Doremus doesn’t try to villainize the significant others of Anna and Jacob. Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence) and Simon (Charlie Bewley) are perfectly nice people in their own right but no matter how much they try to make it work they aren’t right for Anna and Jacob.

Drake Doremus realistically depicts the highs and lows of long distance relationships like someone who has experienced it himself. For example, she conveys how painful it is to spend chunks of time together only to have to go back home when all you want to do is spend every minute with the other person. He nails the heart-wrenching experience of seeing off a loved one at the airport and the euphoria of seeing them arrive. He also nails the frustration of dealing with government bureaucratic red tape that is sometimes necessary to be with someone from another country. It is a powerless feeling as you are at the mercy of some faceless government official that doesn’t care about your situation. Doremus also isn’t afraid to show the stupid decisions people make along the way and how that impacts a relationship.

There are some people in life that just get you. There’s no explaining it and you have to hold on to those people because they are rare in this world. I believe that’s why Anna and Jacob keep getting back together. They connected on a deeply profound level that no amount of geographic distance or achievements in their professional lives could touch. Doremus gets it and depicts it with unflinching honesty. He has made a deeply personal film that is also relatable as he is dealing with basic emotions and feelings that most of us have experienced in our lives.


Like Crazy is all about the messiness of life, right down to the intentionally ambiguous ending that serves as a litmus test for the viewer, leaving it up to them to continue the story in their imagination if they like. Ultimately, people that really love each other find a way to make it work. It takes effort and commitment but it is possible and this film shows two people figuring it out as they go along, making mistakes and hopefully learning from them, but not losing sight of what they mean to each other.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones

The first time I ever heard of Jim Jones and the tragic events of Jonestown was from the absolutely gripping episode of In Search Of…, a television series that investigated controversial and memorable historical figures, and paranormal phenomena, hosted by Leonard Nimoy from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The eyewitness accounts and actual news footage taken before and after the mass murder of 909 people on November 18, 1978 at the direction of and orders from their leader, Jones, was disturbing, even more so because it actually happened.

It didn’t take long for a fictionalized account of what went down to be made, entitled, Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979), a Mexican exploitation movie starring Stuart Whitman, Gene Barry and Joseph Cotton. The next year, a classier, more fact-based docudrama was made. Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones was a T.V. miniseries based on Charles A. Krause’s book, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account and starred Powers Boothe as Jones. It chronicled the man’s journey from devoutly religious child growing up in Indiana to fanatical cult leader in Guyana.

The story begins with Jones (Boothe) testing his followers’ loyalty while Congressman Leo J. Ryan (Ned Beatty) plans to fly down to Guyana and investigate reports that some of his followers are being mistreated and others being held against their will. Jones is told of Ryan’s impending arrival and flashes back to his childhood. This miniseries attempts to dig deep and show his early adoption of The Bible as a way to live his life. It also provides salvation from a dysfunctional household where his strict father (Ed Lauter) abused his mother (Diane Ladd) until she took her son and left.

Jones grows up to be a preacher, standing up to a racist barber that refuses to cut the hair of a little African-American boy. He espouses that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. He is soon put in charge of a struggling congregation consisting mostly of a few elderly parishioners and literally going door-to-door asking people to come to his church. It works and Jones has a racially integrated congregation at a time and in a place where that was vehemently objected to by some.

He eventually forms the Peoples Temple, a venue where he can preach his progressive views. Boothe is excellent in these early scenes as a straight arrow that faithfully believes in religion and its ability to bring everyone together regardless of color. He’s also a great salesman, using his charisma to not only attract people to his church but also get them to contribute financially or donate items. Jones genuinely cares about people, feeding and educating them as well as the community at large.

Jones meets with Father Divine (James Earl Jones), a spiritual leader that believed he was God, and who is doing what he’s doing only much more successful at it. Their brief meeting is a revelation for Jones and shows him a way to build up his congregation: he must develop a bigger personality and be so charismatic that people are willing to do anything and give everything for him. It is the beginning of the Jim Jones cult of personality.

Guyana Tragedy takes the time to show why so many people believed so devoutly in Jones. Initially, he honestly wanted to and did help people but the bigger his congregation got, the tougher it became to do everything he wanted to do. He began to rely on drugs to keep his energy up but he also staged fake faith healings and cheated on his wife (Veronica Cartwright) only to rationalize away these things by saying that he was close to a “vision of life everlasting,” claiming that he was “The Chosen One.”

Anybody who knows anything about Jones’ story knows that everything that happens before Jonestown is prologue, anticipating the centerpiece of the miniseries when Jones and his people move to Guyana and make a go of it, building an agrarian society. It is a disturbing testimony to Jones’ hold on that many people that he was able to convince them to start a new life with him in a foreign country.

The last hour shows how things go from bad to worse in Jonestown. His followers work long, grueling hours while Jones tells them the “news” from around the world over a loudspeaker. The attractive young women are drugged and have sex with him. He then dissolves all marriages among his followers and pairs them up himself. Jones believes he has created a utopia but it’s actually hell on earth.

Powers Boothe excels at Jones’ fiery preaching style, delivering the man’s sermons with a conviction and intensity that is something to behold. During these sermons, the actor adopts a kind of seductive purr in his voice as he woos his congregation and then brings a powerful intensity when Jones gets worked up with his fire and brimstone rhetoric. It is fascinating to see how he works a room in such a dynamic fashion. The actor does a masterful job of showing Jones’ gradual shift in ideology, from idealistic symbol of change to an increasingly paranoid man with a messiah complex. He is absolutely riveting in his depiction of Jones’ descent into paranoid delusions, convinced that the CIA is plotting against and spying on him.

The cast is an embarrassment of riches featuring the likes of Brad Dourif as a junkie that is taken in by Jones and Diana Scarwid as his desperate wife that find salvation with the Peoples Temple. Veronica Cartwright plays Jones’ long-suffering wife that is first to recognize and call him on his changes in attitude and behavior but ultimately remains loyal to him. Meg Foster and Randy Quaid show up in minor roles as loyal employees of Jones’ day-to-day operations that have a change of heart when he keeps their child from them, claiming the boy to be his own. These talented actors enter and exit Boothe’s orbit throughout the show, playing well off of him, helping paint a portrait of a complex man.

Originally, director William A. Graham approached Tommy Lee Jones to play Jim Jones but he was busy filming Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and was unable to do it. Someone recommended then-relatively unknown actor Powers Boothe who got the part. To research the role, the actor interviewed former Peoples Temple members and watched any footage of Jones that was available. He asked former followers, mostly women, why Jones attracted so many people to his cause: “The answer I heard most was that Jones had more sex appeal than any man they’d ever seen.” Boothe has said that he approached the role as if he was playing King Lear and with his portrayal, set out to avoid the cliché vision of Jones as “a maniacal ogre. Wrong. He was charming, sweet and a fabulous speaker. If someone chooses to take that power, he can lead a lot of lambs to slaughter.”

There was an infamous sign displayed prominently in Jonestown that said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is an important reminder that we cannot let mad men like Jones run rampant. One of the lessons to be learned from Jonestown is that we must be vigilant against cults that are harmful under the guise of helping people in the name of God.

The last few minutes of Jonestown are as harrowing as you’d expect, but ultimately nothing is as horrific as the real thing and that is the problem that all dramatizations of Jonestown face. No matter how faithful a recreation it will always pale to what actually happened as the chilling newsreel footage and photographs of what went down there in that In Search Of… episode powerfully demonstrate. Like any good historical biopic should do, it is a good jumping off point for one to do their own research and dig deeper into the subject if they are so inclined. That being said, this does nothing to diminish Boothe’s powerhouse performance as Jones. He commits completely to the role and brings the man vividly to life.


SOURCES

Patches, Matt. “Q&A: Powers Boothe on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Deadwood, and His Heavy Career.” Grantland. August 22, 2014.

Scott, Vernon. “The Rev. Jim Jones Haunts Actor.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 27, 1987.


Sheff, David. “An Unknown Actor Re-Creates the Horror of Jonestown and Makes His Name: Powers Boothe.” People. April 20, 1980.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Night Moves

Some of the best American cinema from the 1970s reflected a sense of disillusionment and pessimism as a result of a series of shocking political assassinations in the 1960s and culminated with the Watergate scandal in the early ‘70s. There was a deep feeling of mistrust in authority and a sense that the United States was no longer the great country people perceived to be.

One of the best films that reflect these feelings to come out of this decade is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), starring Gene Hackman as a down-on-his-luck private investigator. The actor had a great run of diverse roles around this time (including The French Connection, The Conversation, and Scarecrow) and this one is among his very best.

Early on, the film establishes Harry Moseby’s (Hackman) lone wolf credentials as his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) asks him why he doesn’t join his friend Nick’s agency, to which he replies, “That’s not an agency, that’s an information factory.” Hackman shows a deft touch at handling shifting tones as Harry goes from a serious discussion with his wife about his job to messing with her uptight boss at the high-end antiques store she works at: “When are we going bowling again?” he says with a straight face to which the annoyed man replies, “You seem to get some kind of weird satisfactions from this sort of thing, don’t you?”

Harry is thrown a job involving Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a veteran actress whose teenage daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith) has gone missing. Arlene comes across as a bit of a washed-up boozehound and Janet Ward has a lot of fun putting an emphasis on the word “Biblical” when mentioning that her film producer ex-husband wanted to make Biblical epics. She represents the sad side of Hollywood where once beautiful actresses are phased out when they are deemed too old by studio executives.

Harry also finds out that Helen is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). The scene after he finds out shows Hackman masterfully conveying the jumble of emotions that must be playing behind Harry’s sad eyes. His new case has barely started and he’s dealing with his wife’s infidelity. She finally comes home from the movies and he’s watching a football game (although, his facial expression suggests that he’s not really watching it). She asks him who’s winning and he replies, “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.” It’s such a great line and sums up Harry’s mood perfectly. He doesn’t say much and he doesn’t have to because Hackman’s facial expressions say it all.

Harry methodically picks up Delly’s trail and encounters a beaten-up mechanic (a motormouthed James Woods), a bitter stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), and a good-looking stuntman (Anthony Costello) with a memorable laugh who’ve all briefly entered and exited her orbit along the way. Director Arthur Penn does an excellent job fleshing out these minor characters with their limited screen-time. They provide the initial impressions we get of Delly as a wild child with quite the sexual appetite.

Harry’s investigation takes him to Florida where Delly’s stepfather Tom (John Crawford) is chartering seaplanes. He finds her and begins to figure out what’s going: Tom is messing around with Delly, much to his girlfriend Paula’s (Jennifer Warren) chagrin. Tom’s also part of the local smuggling scene. In addition, Harry finds himself attracted to Paula, which only complicates things.

Gene Hackman is excellent as a private investigator that thinks too much. Harry is a complex character, haunted by his past – a strained relationship with his estranged father – and tired of dealing with lousy divorce cases, sifting through people’s dirty laundry when he has plenty of his own. The actor is given a rich character to fully inhabit, which he does with his trademark commitment.

While Melanie Griffith plays the free-spirited sex kitten who’s acting out to get back at her mother, Jennifer Warren plays a fascinatingly, fully realized character. Paula’s been around the block a few times but isn’t ashamed of her past. Regretful, perhaps, but not ashamed. She’s smart, demonstrating an understanding of the chess game Harry’s obsessively recreates, and matches him in the witty banter department. Warren has a down-to-earth beauty that has an authenticity to it and it is easy to see why Harry is attracted to Paula. She’s a sad character that seems lost in life much like Harry. These are damaged people looking for solace, trying to outrun the baggage of their past.

Scottish novelist Alan Sharp was working on a detective story called An End of Wishing with producer Robert Sherman. The former asked the latter, “Should I make this a typical detective story about a guy trying to solve a crime or should I make this what I really would like it to be, which is about a guy trying to solve himself?” Sherman told him to go the latter route and when the screenplay was completed, sent it to John Calley, then-head of Warner Bros.

The studio agreed to make the film for $4 million and brought Arthur Penn on board to direct. He was drawn to the script because the political assassinations in the ‘60s had made him depressed and “felt we needed to give voice to our grief. It was a beat-up culture.” Sharp changed the name of the script to The Dark Tower, which Penn subsequently changed to Night Moves during production. The screenwriter was surprised that the director liked his script as he felt it wasn’t resolved. They started working on it together and Sharp was also surprised that someone of Penn’s stature and experience didn’t know more about the screenwriting process than he did. The writer did find the director affable and very smart.

Penn rehearsed with the cast for ten days before principal photography, which Hackman, with his improvisational theater background, enjoyed. Filming began in the latter half of 1973 at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida and Los Angeles. Hackman, at the time, was dealing with personal issues and reportedly acted sullen during filming. Penn admitted that they didn’t pay much attention to plot and that it was “not going to be achievable, that you were never going to be able to delineate a mystery properly,” which may have hurt its commercial chances. Furthermore, he said, “We’re part of a generation which knows there are no solutions.” He and Sharp disagreed over how to end the film with the former wanting there to be hope that Harry would get back with his wife while the latter wanted Harry and Paula to go off together. They compromised on the ending that exists now.

Night Moves received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Miss Warren creates a character so refreshingly eccentric, so sexy in such an unusual way, that it’s all the movie can do to get past her without stopping to admire. But it does.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.” The Los Angeles Times’ Doug List wrote, “Few actors can communicate that kind of inner struggle better than Hackman…doesn’t require a role with offbeat characteristics or an overcharged personality to create an unforgettable character.” In his review for Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life.”


Damaged people populate Night Moves: Arlene, chewed up and spit out by Hollywood; Delly following in her footsteps; Paula, an ex-hooker using Florida as a temporary waystation, and Harry, an ex-football player turned small-time private investigator. Near the end of the film, Harry tells Paula, “I didn’t solve anything. Just fell in on top of it,” which sums up his journey. What does it all mean and does it have to mean anything? These are some of the questions Harry wrestles with during the course of the film. Ultimately, he’s driven by the truth no matter how ugly or fruitless as the last image so brilliantly conveys. Night Moves is a fascinating character study with a tangible, lived-in feel that places an emphasis on behavior, and serves as a snapshot of a battered and bruised era trying to recover from turbulent events that took place in the ‘60s.


SOURCES

Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman. St. Martin's Press. 1987.

Segaloff, Nat. Arthur Penn: American Director. University of Kentucky Press. 2011.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hardware

Drone technology is commonplace now but back in 1990 it was a novel concept and Hardware (1990) anticipated the use of remote controlled robots for warfare making it eerily relevant now more than ever before. This film marked an auspicious debut for filmmaker Richard Stanley as he successfully tapped into the emerging alternative rock music genre of the late 1980s with Cyberpunk culture to create a distinctive science fiction film with political undertones fused with thriller genre tropes. While it received negative reviews from critics back in the day, it was modestly successful commercially and has since gone on to become a cult film.

We are introduced to a post-apocalyptic futureworld where scavengers roam the wasteland known as the Zone looking for anything they can sell. Civilization exists in an industrial graveyard where radiation levels are still high, keeping people inside. Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) is a forager who buys the disembodied head of a robot from a fellow scavenger as a Christmas present for his beautiful girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a multimedia artist that welds metal sculptures.

Early on, Jill says about her sculpture, “It’s like I’m fighting the metal and so far the metal is winning.” These words prove to prophetic as she takes the robot head and adds it to her massive sculpture. Unbeknownst to her and Mo the robot head is actually a highly advanced military drone known as the M.A.R.K. 13. It activates and begins to reassemble itself. It soon sees Mo and Jill as threats and thus begins a battle between humans and robot, flesh vs. metal, humanity vs. technology as the film hurtles towards a bloody, horror movie showdown.

I like that Stanley takes the time to develop the relationship between Mo and Jill. They love each other but there is a tension between them as they quarrel over having kids and population control. There is a believable intimacy between them and Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis have excellent chemistry together. Jill is no damsel in distress and is much more resourceful than her physically stronger boyfriend who tends to go charging into a dangerous situation. With the help of Mo’s best friend, Shades (John Lynch), also physically inferior, confronts the M.A.R.K. 13.

McDermott does a solid job of playing a flawed but ultimately stand-up guy that genuinely cares for Jill even if he’s not a 100% committed to their relationship. Character actor extraordinaire William Hootkins (Star Wars) shows up as Jill’s creepy neighbor who is obsessed with her and has been stalking her for some time. The actor is not afraid to go for it, playing a completely distasteful person whose comeuppance is well-deserved.

Stanley makes some unusual musical choices, like Simon Boswell’s spaghetti western-tinged score that kicks off the film with the scavenger with no name (played by Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy) wandering the wasteland, or playing classical music over Mo’s hallucinogenic demise complete with fractal imagery no less – the M.A.R.K. 13 literally orchestrating it all. It really earns its Cyberpunk credentials by including choice cuts like “Stigmata” by Ministry and “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd., which enhance the futuristic feel of the world Stanley has created.

Stanley fleshes out his futureworld via radio broadcasts featuring Iggy Pop as an enthusiastic DJ known as Angry Bob, providing tantalizing details of just how bad things have gotten. Outside, everything takes on a hellish red haze. Mo and Shades take a cab driven by none other than legendary rock ‘n’ roller Lemmy who puts on “Ace of Spades” by his band Motorhead on the stereo. Much like Blade Runner (1982), the desired destination for those who can afford it is outer space but who can afford it? Certainly not Mo and Jill.

The original idea for Hardware came out of a dream Richard Stanley had when he was 13:

“I had a series of dreams about the guy in the hat, the character that turns up in Dust Devil and a bunch of other things. In one dream he was searching for something, and he digs up the metal skull with the camera lens eyes and hypodermic teeth.”

Aspects of those dreams surfaced in a Super-8 short film entitled, “Incidents in an Expanding Universe,” that Stanley made piecemeal while going to school in South Africa when he was a teenager. Most of the inspiration for what would become Hardware came from music videos, horror comic books like Creepy and Eerie, as well as spaghetti westerns and Italian horror movies. He wrote the screenplay in a week while listening to Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” repeatedly.

After finishing the script for Wicked Films and TV, Ltd., Stanley joined a guerrilla Muslim faction in Afghanistan. While there, he was nearly killed by a Russian missile and spent three days wandering with a wounded comrade strapped to his back until he found a Red Cross refugee camp. It was there that he learned, via telex that a deal had been made with Palace Pictures to turn his script for Hardware into a film. Stanley went straight from the battlefield and into pre-production on his film.

Originally, Hardware was set in England but when Miramax got involved, becoming co-financier and its distributor in the United States, they insisted that American actors play Jill and Mo. Stanley wanted to cast Bill Paxton as Mo and Jeffrey Combs as Shades but was only allowed to employ two Americans and had already cast Stacey Travis as Jill, which meant that Combs was out. Stanley met with Paxton, who really wanted to do it, but couldn’t get out of his commitment to making Navy SEALs (1990). The filmmaker originally envisioned Mo to be more like a Hell’s Angel but Dylan McDermott changed him to a career military soldier that believes in family and reads The Bible. As a result, Stanley didn’t like the character as much because he lacked the deeper flaws he had originally envisioned.

The taxi cab driver was originally to be played by Sinead O’Connor but she had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict and Stanley persuaded hard rocker Lemmy to do it at the last minute for a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was given a shoulder holster with a pistol during filming and proceeded to draw it and the weapon accidentally fell out of his hand and into the Thames River, lost forever.

Most of the film was shot in the Roundhouse, an empty building that had been derelict for years (it used to be a concert venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix), in Camden Town. The production built Jill’s apartment in the middle of the building and lived there for six weeks. Some city exteriors were filmed in Canning Town and Port Talbot in Wales, the latter of which had inspired the futureworlds of Blade Runner and Brazil (1984). The desert scenes were shot in Morocco. The production saved up enough money to take a crew of eight there and found it very challenging, encountering a “freak storm with flash floods and a lot of people drowned in a nearby town,” Stanley recalled.

The shooting schedule was originally set for seven weeks but stretched to nine with cast and crew working grueling 12-hour days, six days a week for little money. Six models of the M.A.R.K. 13 were used for filming with a modified battery remote-control one costing $80,000, a full costume, a foam one for stunt work, a fire resistant one, a pair of walking legs, and a bag of assorted parts.

Predictably, Hardware did not do well with critics at the time of its initial release. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Watching Hardware is like being trapped inside a video game that talks dirty.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “ It’s as if someone had remade Alien with the monster played by a rusty erector set.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Hardware is an MTV movie, a mad rush of hyperkinetic style and futuristic imagery with little concern for plot (much less substance).” In her review for the Chicago Tribune, Johanna Steinmetz wrote, “Though it does know how to hammer home a point, Hardware doesn’t always have matching nuts and bolts.” Stanley said of his own film at the time: “I want to inflict serious damage on the audience…I’m sticking my finger up at everything. I purposely wrote the dialogue to be vitriolic and disgusting…I’m moving punk from vinyl to film.”

Society in Hardware is obsessed with population control and why not? Who would want to bring up children after World War III? Inhabitable space is of a premium after most of the world has been reduced to a derelict wasteland. For such a small budget, Stanley does an excellent job of creating a tangible world with its own distinctive lived-in look and feel.

Hardware warns of being over-reliant on technology as the M.A.R.K. 13 traps Jill in her apartment by taking control of the door locks, the phone and all of the electrical systems putting her at a severe disadvantage. Science fiction can often act as a warning – beware of what the future may bring or how the abuses of technology could be our undoing. We are supposed to heed the warnings of these fictional prophecies but we rarely do.


SOURCES

“Cult Director of Hardware Richard Stanley Interviewed.” The Quietus. June 24, 2009.

Forsythe, Coco. “Richard Stanley Interview: Dust Devil.” Future Movies. June 22, 2009.

Jones, Alan. “Hardware: Filming High Concept on Low Budget.” Cinefantastique. 1991.

McAllister, Matt. “Interview: Richard Stanley.” Sci-Fi Bulletin. 2009.

Nutman, Philip. “On Robots and Ratings.” Fangoria. 1990.

“Richard Stanley: Interview.” Time Out London.


Vijn, Aro. “Richard Stanley, I Presume? An Interview with the Director of Hardware.” Screen Anarchy. November 18, 2009.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Con Air

By all rights, Con Air (1997) should have been an awful waste of time – just another tired Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone action movie whose final fate should have been wedged between beer and pick-up truck ads on television. Instead, the movie cleverly sends up and celebrates nearly every action cliché in the genre. No expense is spared as Powers Boothe is enlisted to solemnly intone the virtues of the U.S. Rangers at the beginning of the movie and then has Trisha Yearwood sing a sappy love song (“How Do I Live”) over the protagonist reuniting with his wife.

U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is due to be paroled after killing a drunk who threatened him and his wife (Julia Roberts wannabe Monica Potter). We are subjected to the typical passage of time montage documenting Poe’s stint in prison as director Simon West and the screenplay by Scott Rosenberg slyly reference a similar sequence with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987) and the prison riot scenes in Natural Born Killers (1994). No, really. The prologue clocks in at a speedy five minutes and change, economically setting up the premise. Then, the opening credits play over Poe in prison reading and writing letters to his daughter, employing every cliché in the book all with a thick as molasses Southern drawl.

Of course, Poe’s trip home isn’t going to be that easy as his knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time continues when the plane he’s on just happens to be transporting the worst criminal scum on the planet. Chief among them, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), a serial rapist (Danny Trejo), a Black Panther-esque militant (Ving Rhames), a Hannibal Lector rip-off (Steve Buscemi), a young Dave Chappelle riffing his way through the movie as a minor criminal that incites the jailbreak, and a whole slew of mass murderers.

Naturally, the convicts get free of their restraints and take control of the plane. To make matters worse, Poe’s buddy (Mykelti Williamson) goes into insulin shock. On the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) get into a heated debate about how exactly to deal with the runaway plane – Larkin wants to take it down through peaceful means while Malloy wants to shoot it out of the sky. Naturally, it’s up to Poe to do the right thing and save the day.

Clearly riffing on his psychotic assassin from In the Line of Fire (1993), albeit with a much better sense of humor, John Malkovich gets the lion’s share of the movie’s best dialogue and delivers it with his trademark scathing dry wit. He really seems to be having fun with this role. Along comes Steve Buscemi as a criminal with a revered and feared reputation and yet we never actually see him do anything to support these claims. He and Malkovich get locked into a competition to see who can deliver the best one-liner with the driest of deliveries.

Colm Meaney and John Cusack have a lot of fun bickering back and forth, as the former plays an assholish DEA agent, a typical blowhard authority figure, while the latter plays a cerebral U.S. Marshal – one of his trademark characters dropped into a slam-bang Bruckheimer action movie. Part of the fun of watching Cusack in Con Air is seeing him navigate the kind of movie he doesn’t usually do, butting heads with Bruckheimer stereotypes with often interesting results.

You have to hand it to Nicolas Cage; he certainly knows how to pick action movies that allow him to play ever so slightly left-of-center characters like The Rock (1996), where he played an anti-action hero, and Face/Off (1997), a stylish John Woo movie with an insane role reversal plot twist. In this movie, the actor looks ridiculous with his glorious mullet, taking his cue from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s similar ‘do in Hard Target (1993). With Con Air, Cage wisely plays Poe as if it were a straight-forward action movie, which is in sharp contrast to many of the larger than life characters around him. He’s gracious and smart enough to know that when everyone around him is playing larger than life characters, go the low-key route.

Getting his start in commercials, director Simon West wears his influences on his sleeve, doing his best Michael Bay impersonation as he employs oh-so dramatic slow-mo shots of badass characters walking towards the camera (a ‘90s staple – see Armageddon), our hero outrunning an explosion, and everything is gorgeously shot and edited within an inch of its life.

For a big, loud action movie, the dialogue is quite clever and, more importantly, delivered well by the cast – which, incidentally, is an incredible collection of movie stars and character actors. It is so jam-packed with talented thespians that you wonder how in the hell did the powers that be get them all to be in this movie? Con Air looks and sounds like a Bruckheimer action film but it is Rosenberg’s screenplay that is the wild card. It sets up the standard, implausible action movie premise and introduces the genre archetypes (i.e. the lone wolf protagonist with his pretty, loving wife and the criminal mastermind, etc.) and starts messing around with the formula.

Scott Rosenberg garnered a lot of buzz from his screenplay for Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995). Disney came calling and hired him to write a script. They gave him a Los Angeles Times article about a Federal Marshal program that transported inmates across the country. To research the operation, he went to Oklahoma City and spent three days on a plane with convicts. He observed, “hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying.” Rosenberg settled down to write the script, listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers albums and came up with an idea about a guy sent to prison when his wife was pregnant and had never met his daughter. This freed up Rosenberg to populate the script with “the craziest motherfuckers; the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces.”

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer read Rosenberg’s script and bought it for his production company but felt that it needed to be more character-driven. He worked closely with Rosenberg to “add more dimension” to the characters and make it a story about redemption. Bruckheimer hired Simon West to direct because he had been impressed by his T.V. commercial work.

Upon completing The Rock with Nicolas Cage, Bruckheimer asked the actor to star in Con Air. With this movie, he wanted to return to a “more old-fashioned style of action movie,” and used Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) as a point of reference, playing a character with good values. To prepare for the role, he visited Folsom State Prison where he had to sign a “no hostage” clause in order to walk among hardened inmates in the Level Four lock-up. Everything was fine until he, Bruckheimer, Rosenberg and West talked to one group of inmates in the yard and not another. All hell broke loose as one inmate tried to stab another.

Cage observed that many inmates had chiseled physiques and decided to take his cue from boxer Ken Norton and “look like I could survive anything, anywhere.” To this end, he adopted a specific diet, ran five miles a day and lifted weights frequently. At one point, the studio was worried that the actor was getting too ripped, which he found amusing: “I thought, ‘Now that’s a new one – too built-up for an action movie.’” In the script, Poe wasn’t too smart, “just a skeleton of a character,” according to Cage, and made him a Southern man that idolizes his wife. He also decided to make Poe an Army Ranger to explain how he could survive on a plane without a gun. Winning an Academy Award hadn’t mellowed out the actor as West remembered, “If we were doing an intense scene, he’d howl like a banshee and he’d leap around like a banshee, too. I’d give him a minute or two and then I’d say, ‘Let’s move on, Nick.”

Con Air received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…assembled by first-time director Simon West…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Con Air has an important secret weapon: an indie cast. All of the principals normally work in films more interesting and human than this one, which gives Con Air a touch of the subversive and turns it into a big-budget lark.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action thriller pornography. Ultimately, there’s nothing to it but thrust.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “But with a noise level so high the dialogue has to be screamed and more silly moments than sane ones, Con Air is an animated comic book put together to pound an audience into submission, not entertain it.”

Con Air works because the filmmakers take a simple set-up and expertly execute it. The movie still plugs in the usual, over-the-top set pieces. For example, a sports car is towed behind a cargo plane only to crash through a control tower and explode. Our hero’s best buddy even gets to utter a stirring soliloquy as he lies gravely injured. True to form, the ending is highly implausible and excessive even by Bruckheimer standards but you have to admire the filmmakers for going for it. There is a fascinating push and pull going on with this movie as it trots out all the usual action movie clichés while often commenting on them ironically in true ‘90s fashion – so much so that at one point, Steve Buscemi’s spooky killer even acknowledges said irony. Ultimately, what redeems Con Air – well-placed sense of irony – is, sadly, what goes missing when its sappy ending rears its ugly head, even if it tries to evoke the ending of Wild at Heart (1990). No, really.


SOURCES

Con Air Production Notes. 1997.

Longsdorf, Amy. “Traditional Values Drew Iconoclastic Nicolas Cage To Do Con Air.” The Morning Call. June 1, 1997.


“Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Interview.” Kid in the Front Row. March 13, 2010.