Friday, January 30, 2015

Nate and Hayes

Before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), pirate movies were considered to be box office poison and with good reason. High profile efforts like Yellowbeard (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and the most notorious of them all Cutthroat Island (1995) were financial flops. In 1983, Nate and Hayes attempted to fuse the sensibilities of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the pirate genre to predictable critical scorn and lackluster box office returns. The movie is significant for two reasons: the screenplay was co-written by John Hughes and starred Tommy Lee Jones. Yes, the man responsible for classic 1980s teen movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) wrote a pirate movie. I remember when Nate and Hayes came out and the trailers made it look like a fun, action/adventure romp, but for some reason I never got around to seeing it. Decades later, I decided to check it out and see if it was as derivative as its reputation would suggest.

We meet Captain Bully Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) and his crew hacking their way through a jungle not unlike the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This will be the first of a few nods to that film. They cross a dodgy looking rope bridge (that oddly anticipates Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom by a few months) and arrive in a village populated by spear-wielding natives. Hayes is a cocky and confident smuggler trading rifles for gold. Predictably, the deal goes bad and he barely escapes with his life in an exciting chase sequence only to be caught by Ben Pease (Max Phipps), a rival now working for the Spanish who charge him with treason. He is thrown into prison where he recounts the story of how he got there.

Hayes is taking a young missionary couple – Nathaniel (Michael O’Keefe) and Sophie (Jenny Seagrove) – to an island mission somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where they plan to get married and convert the local natives to Christianity. Hayes is smitten with Sophie who invests the money she inherited from her dead father in his “trading company” unbeknownst to Nate. Unfortunately, on their wedding day the mission is attacked by a ruthless gang of slave traders led by Pease. They burn the village to the ground, kidnap Sophie and leave Nate for dead. Hayes rescues him and together they devise a plan to rescue Sophie.


Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t have matinee idol good looks and this works in his favor as Bully Hayes. The actor’s rugged features are a good match for his character. The actor tempers his trademark stoicism with a mischievous roguish glint in his eye. Hayes may have disreputable standing, but meeting Sophie awakens good tendencies within him. Jones is a physical actor and he uses that quality effectively in Nate and Hayes to play a man of action. The actor is also smart enough to realize that he’s starring in a pulpy genre movie and adjusts his approach accordingly by playing Hayes as an unrepentant adventurer as he says at one point, “I never flew the skull and crossbones, but I have sought pleasure and profit all my life at sea without regard for any man’s law.”

Michael O’Keefe plays Nate, the uptight missionary who learns to loosen up once he hangs out with Hayes and his crew. It’s a thankless role that the actor commits to fully, but doesn’t succumb to simple caricature. Nate isn’t an idiot; he’s just naïve and quickly learns a thing or two about the world under Hayes’ guidance. Jones and O’Keefe play well off each other, their characters start off loathing each other and then bond over confronting a common foe and achieving the same goal. At times, it looks like the two actors are having a blast playing heroes in a pulpy action/adventure movie in the way they exchange good-natured looks while pursuing the bad guys.

The casting of Hayes’ crew is spot-on. They really do look like a group of grungy buccaneers out for a good time and to make some money, not above killing anybody that gets in their way. Ferdinand Fairfax’s direction and Tony Imi’s cinematography is a little on the flat side, giving Nate and Hayes a made-for-television quality with the occasional cinematic flourishes, which is a shame because the pirate movie is a genre crying out for flashy style as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise demonstrate so amply.


David Odell wrote a screenplay entitled Savage Islands, which he based on an actual Pacific pirate in the 19th century. Jeffrey Katzenberg greenlighted the film over at Paramount Pictures with Tommy Lee Jones cast as the pirate. According to Odell, as they were in pre-production building ships, director Ferdinand Fairfax wasn’t happy with the ending of the script. Odell rewrote it several times but Fairfax “couldn’t decide what he wanted.” John Hughes owed the studio a commitment and they sent him a copy of the script. He did a rewrite in three weeks, transforming a 105-page script into a 250-page one, and then left the project. A week before principal photography began the filmmakers were not satisfied with Hughes’ revisions and, according to Odell, tossed them out. Odell handed in another draft and went off to work on Supergirl (1984). The filmmakers were still unhappy with the third act and Fairfax rewrote it himself.

Nate and Hayes received mostly negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it one out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is a loud, confusing, pointless mess that never seems to make up its mind whether to be a farce of an adventure.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Ferdinand Fairfax, the director, allows the actors to strain for comic effects that aren’t there.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that the movie “could easily have been terrific … But Nate and Hayes drowns in excessive violence and Trevor Jones’ loud, bombastic score.”

At the end of the day, Nate and Hayes starts off as an extended riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then mutates into a pirate movie that plugs in all the right elements: fist fights, gun battles, chases, swordfights, angry natives, a lovely damsel in distress, dastardly villains, and loveable rogues – what more could you want? Nate and Hayes is saved from being simply another genre exercise by Jones’ appealing performance. The obvious comparisons to Indiana Jones probably hurt the movie’s commercial prospects, but over time it has aged surprisingly well, coming across as a lean, swashbuckler as opposed to the unnecessarily overstuffed, plot-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean movies.



SOURCES


Helford, Ross. “A Conversation with David Odell.”

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blackhat

Michael Mann’s interest in computer hackers and the socio-political impact of their illegal activities can be traced as far back as 1995 when he was briefly linked to an adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Count Zero, a science fiction tale involving international espionage via cyberspace. Two decades and several films later, Mann has returned to this subject matter with Blackhat (2015), a thriller about a group of American and Chinese government agents tracking a cyber-criminal determined to disable the international banking network.

The filmmaker certainly has his work cut out for him as historically movies about computer hacking are notoriously inaccurate (Swordfish) or pure flights of fancy (Hackers) with WarGames (1983) having the distinction of being a more realistic portrayal and a bonafide hit as well. Mann’s perchance for meticulous research and his obsession with attention to detail would ensure that at the very least Blackhat would depict the world of computer hacking as realistic as a fictional film would allow. The challenge would be to convey all the requisite tech jargon in an interesting and understandable way that wouldn’t lose the uninitiated while also appealing to those in the know.

After one of their nuclear power plant’s computer network is infiltrated by an unknown hacker causing the coolant pumps to overheat and explode, the Chinese government sends cyber defense expert Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who also enlists the help of his sister (and computer expert) Chen Lien (Tang Wei), to the United States where he compares notes with FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) who dealt with a similar attack. When soy stock is manipulated at the Chicago Mercantile Trade Exchange, Dawai and Barrett figure out that the same Remote Access Tool (RAT) was used as on the power plant.


Dawai reveals that he was the co-architect of the software and that to catch the hacker behind these incidents they need the other person who helped create it – Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). The trouble is that he’s currently serving a 15-year stint in prison. He cuts a deal with the FBI: he’ll help them catch the hacker in exchange for commuting his prison sentence. And so, the assembled team begins to track down the trail the hacker left behind, both electronically and in the real world.

Chris Hemsworth does a solid job as a hardened career computer hacker and handles his tech-heavy jargon well, selling the material in a believable way. He even has a nice scene with Tang Wei where, over dinner, Hathaway reveals a bit about his checkered past, conveying a convict mentality much like James Caan’s character did in the diner scene from Thief (1981). Some may criticize the casting of Hemsworth as he is too good-looking to play a credible hacker but let’s face it, to get Blackhat made at a studio with the budget it had ($70 million), Mann had to cast a recognizable movie star with some clout. Thanks to his recurring role as Thor in the insanely popular Marvel Studios movies, he has that clout.

The romance that develops between Hathaway and Lien initially feels tacked on and unnecessary, like it was a clumsily written plot device to get us emotionally invested in the characters and is not integrated as well as in films like Miami Vice (2006) or Public Enemies (2009), but as the film progresses it starts to feel more natural. This is perhaps Blackhat’s glaring fault and what separates it from Mann’s truly great films. The film lacks the emotional weight that you see in Heat (1995) or The Insider (1999) where the stakes are so high for the individual characters. There is a lot at stake for Hathaway in Blackhat, but it never resonates as strongly in previous Mann films and this may be due to the weaknesses in the screenplay or Hemsworth’s performances or a combination of both. That being said, it is interesting to note how for the first half of the film Hathaway’s attacks on the bad guys are all done from distance, be it from a computer or a gun. It is only once he becomes personally affected that he must deal with his enemies in an up close and personal fashion.


The screenplay written by Morgan Davis Foehl (and revised by Mann) throws around plenty of computer-speak but does it in a way that allows you to follow what’s going on with very little trouble, which is important in a film that hopscotches all over the world, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Indonesia. Unlike pretty much every other fictional film’s depiction of computer hacking, Blackhat gets a lot of the details right, most notably in what comes up on computer screens. Instead of trippy graphics we see screens of computer code that Hathaway and his crew have to sift through and make sense of in order to figure what the bad guys are doing.

Mann is still a master of action as evident in several tense shoot-outs sprinkled throughout the film, including one in a storage yard between Nick and his crew and the bad guys. It is an immersive experience that drops you in the middle of a noisy gun battle with bullets that whiz by and danger lurking around every corner. Blackhat is also beautiful to look at with some truly stunning digital cinematography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh, from the vast expanse of an airfield that dwarfs Hathaway to the Hong Kong skyline at night. Mann takes us to some exotic locales and immerses us in them in a way that creates an atmospheric experience. Shooting on location creates a real, tangible sense of place that you can’t fake with CGI. It also provides local color and offers a window into a foreign culture.


In lieu of the Sony Corporation hacks in 2014, Blackhat is eerily relevant. The film shows just how vulnerable we all are to having our private, intimate details exposed, from the individual to a high-ranking NSA agent. With the right software and the means, anything can be hacked. Blackhat is part cyber whodunit and part pulse-pounding action thriller. It is too soon to say if this is another masterwork from Mann. Some time, distance and repeated viewings will determine how it ranks in the pantheon of his work. That being said, it is still an impressive effort that demonstrates Mann’s ongoing exploration of his trademark motifs and themes that include protagonists who excel at their respective vocations, brief yet intense romantic relationships, and the role technology plays in their lives. Blackhat also features Mann’s trademark style, but with plenty of substance. It may lack the emotional weight of his previous work and, as a result, may not convert new fans to his particular brand of cinema, but to the faithful the film is pure cinematic catnip.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Inherent Vice

There are unfilmable novels and then there is Thomas Pynchon, the premiere post-modern novelist responsible for legendary tomes like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. He is known for producing dense, complex novels that explore themes such as racism, philosophy, science and technology while fusing theological and literary ideas with popular culture references to comic books, films, urban myths and conspiracy theories. Satire and paranoia are common currencies that he uses in his novels. And that’s only scratching the surface.

The 1960s were an important decade for Pynchon. It was at this time that his novels V. and The Crying of Lot 49 were published and the bulk of Gravity’s Rainbow was written. He would revisit the ‘60s again from the perspective of the 1980s with Vineland and, most recently, with Inherent Vice, which was published in 2009. The latter novel has been considered his most accessible work since Lot 49 and has been adapted into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur responsible for such memorable efforts as Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) among others.

Possibly informed by Pynchon’s stint in Manhattan Beach, California during the mid-‘60s, Inherent Vice is part stoner comedy/mystery and part lament for an era that was all but gone by 1970 when the story takes place. If the ‘60s was about having your head in the clouds then the ‘70s was about having your feet on the ground. Like its source material, the film plays fast and loose with notions of plot and story, riffing on elements of a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery through a counterculture filter.


Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator of the rumpled variety. One night, he’s visited by an ex-girlfriend by the name of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) whose latest boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a big-time real estate developer, and his wife are involved in some kind of shady scheme. Doc soon finds himself framed for murder, Shasta disappears (as does Mickey) and he runs afoul of hardass Los Angeles police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). During the course of his investigation, Doc finds himself immersed in the bizarro social strata of California culture, including a drug-addicted surf musician (Owen Wilson), a member of the Black Panthers (Michael K. Williams), a cokehead dentist (Martin Short), and a secret cartel known as the Golden Fang.

Inherent Vice is the second collaboration between Anderson and actor Joaquin Phoenix and the former may have found his cinematic alter ego. Working together brings out the best in both of them with the actor delivering another excellent performance. He portrays Doc as a peaceful hippie P.I. content to coast through life surrounded by a cloud of pot smoke, but is thrust into a strange world when an ex-lover comes back into his life. He acts as our guide on this journey and the key to navigating the sometimes murky narrative waters is to never lose focus of the primary mystery: the disappearance of Shasta. Doc represents the peace-loving idealism of the ‘60s and who is confronted by all kinds of outlandish people that represent the aggressive excessiveness of the ‘70s.

Anderson populates Inherent Vice with a stellar cast of supporting actors that includes Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and Martin Short, all of whom bring this collection of oddball characters vividly to life. Some may find the cavalcade of recognizable movie stars distracting but, on the contrary, they act as important signposts along the way to help us keep track of the numerous characters Doc encounters during his investigation.


Josh Brolin gets the most screen-time of the supporting cast as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a throwback to cops of the early ‘60s, complete with crew cut and deep loathing of hippies like Doc. Initially, Bigfoot starts off as Doc’s primary nemesis, but over the course of the film he reveals a frustration with his lot in life, displaying a grudging mutual respect. Brolin certainly has the imposing frame to play Bigfoot and wisely plays the role straight, which makes several of his scenes that much funnier because the uptight character is a product of a bygone era that clashes with the more easygoing Doc as much as the excessive culture of the ‘70s.

The trailers for Inherent Vice are misleading in the sense that they sell the film as some kind of madcap comedy and while there are some out-and-out funny scenes, like Martin Short’s cocaine-addicted dentist, there is a melancholic tone that permeates most of the film expanding on “The High Water Mark” speech Raoul Duke gives late in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as he laments the death of ‘60s idealism. Inherent Vice even ends on a surprisingly emotional moment that is quite affecting. Instead of going for quick, comedic beats, Anderson applies the aesthetic he used in There Will Be Blood and The Master by breaking the film down into lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes between Doc and one of the many people involved either directly or tangentially to Shasta’s disappearance, which may test the patience of some expecting the stylish zaniness of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. While Terry Gilliam’s film reflected Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo sensibilities, so too does Inherent Vice reflect Pynchon’s peculiar sensibilities. Like the book, Anderson takes his time and lets you sink into Pynchon’s world, which is certainly not an experience for everyone.

Several reviews have compared Inherent Vice to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), but they are only similar on a very superficial level. Anderson’s film is its own thing – a shaggy dog journey through a corner of Pynchon’s universe that the filmmaker has brought faithfully and lovingly to life. Much like Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2012), Inherent Vice is made by and for fans of Pynchon’s novel, which will leave the uninitiated out in the cold, struggling to follow a film that may seem like an incoherent mess, but is actually quite faithful to its source material with huge chunks of the author’s prose coming out of the characters’ mouths. You shouldn’t have to see a film more than once to “get it,” but there are some that reveal themselves in more detail and whose nuances are appreciated upon repeated viewings. This is such a film. As Pynchon himself once famously said in response to the complexity of his novel V., “Why should things be easy to understand?” The fact that one of Pynchon’s novels has been adapted into a film is quite a significant accomplishment. That it successfully translates his worldview is even more noteworthy.


SOURCES


Siegel, Jules. “Who is Thomas Pynchon . . . and why did he take off with my Wife?” Playboy. March 1977.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Strange Days

Mainstream popular culture’s flirtation with the Cyberpunk genre reached its cinematic zenith in 1995 with Johnny Mnemonic, Judge Dredd, Virtuosity, Hackers, and Strange Days. They all underperformed at the box office for various reasons and with varying degrees of success managed to convey the aesthetics and themes of the genre. The most satisfying film from the class of ’95 was Strange Days, an action thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. Bigelow had already dabbled in the Cyberpunk genre by directing an episode of the sci-fi television miniseries Wild Palms in 1993. She was clearly testing the waters for what would be a full-on treatment with Strange Days. Anchored by strong performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, the film explores some fascinating ideas, addresses topical issues and comes closest of any film at that point since Blade Runner (1982) to translating the ideas of Cyberpunk authors like William Gibson onto film despite a disappointing ending.

Bigelow starts things off audaciously as we experience a restaurant robbery from the point-of-view of one of the assailants, following them as they are subsequently chased by the police. After the sequence ends she reveals that it was all recorded via illegal technology known as SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that allows the user to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of the subject recorded directly from their cerebral cortex.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a slightly upscale street hustler that deals in these discs, but draws the line at “blackjack clips” (a.k.a. snuff films) because he’s got ethics. James Cameron and Jay Cocks’ tech slang-heavy dialogue in the opening exchange between Lenny and his supplier, a jittery guy named Tick (the always watchable Richard Edson), does a fantastic job of immersing us in the former’s world by the way he speaks and acts. As Lenny drives through the streets of Los Angeles, making deals on his cell phone, Bigelow provides us with glimpses of a city in decline. It’s as if the 1992 L.A. Riots never completely ended as we see burning shells of cars, soldiers patrolling the streets and three women beating on a man dressed as Santa Claus.


Meanwhile, a young woman named Iris (Brigitte Bako) is running for her life from two cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) whom she witnessed and recorded on a SQUID device killing prominent rapper and outspoken activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). If the recording is made public it will put an already unstable general populace over the edge.

Strange Days features, without a doubt, my favorite performance of Ralph Fiennes’ career. At the time, it was seen as casting against type, but in retrospect it was a stellar example of his impressive range and willingness to immerse himself in a character. Lenny tries to talk his way out of a number of dicey situations and is only sometimes successful. From his expensive yet sleazy-looking wardrobe to his rapid-fire patter, Lenny is a slick operator fast-talking his way through life, but whose whole world changes when he watches a particularly disturbing SQUID clip. Fiennes does an incredible job of portraying a man stuck in a rut of his own making and is eventually forced to take stock of his life.

Lenny also has a tough-love friendship with Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense private security contractor. They banter back and forth but when he occasionally tests the limits of their friendship she gives him a reality check about the chaotic mess that is his life. Angela Bassett is a revelation as Lenny’s ass-kicking friend. She exudes a toughness that not only comes with her profession but is also part of her character and a survival instinct. Mace may be hard on Lenny, but it is only because she cares about him. Bassett and Fiennes share a nice scene together where Mace cleans up Lenny after Philo’s goons gave him a tune-up. It’s a touching moment that says so much about their friendship. What I find interesting about Mace is how Bigelow reverses the traditional action stereotype by having her be the tough action star who can handle herself while Lenny consistently gets the crap kicked out of him and has to be rescued. She’s also the voice of reason and helps him finally let go of his attachment to Faith.


The 1990s was a good decade for Tom Sizemore with memorable roles in films like True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Heat (1995), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He had a bit part in Bigelow’s previous film, Point Break (1991), and is well-cast as Lenny’s other close friend, Max Peltier who humors his continued obsession with Faith. Like Lenny, he’s an ex-cop only he got into the private investigation business. Sizemore brings his customary easygoing charm to the role and gets to say one of the film’s most memorable lines when Max tells Lenny, “The issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, Lenny … The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.” There’s a fantastic give-and-take between Fiennes and Sizemore that makes their characters’ long-standing friendship instantly believable. It’s all in the shorthand and the good-natured ball-busting between them that is fun to watch.

When he’s not on the street making deals, Lenny relives key moments of a past relationship with ex-girlfriend Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), a singer now involved with her manager Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). While the cast is uniformly excellent, the lone exception is Juliette Lewis who simply isn’t convincing as Lenny’s object of obsession. She broods and sulks her way through Strange Days and plays such an unlikeable character that you wonder what Lenny sees in Faith. I don’t find her all that attractive, especially in this role and she comes across as flat in her scenes with Fiennes who is obviously a much superior actor. This film also further emboldened Lewis to continue singing off-camera, joining other actors that fancy themselves rock stars.

Unfortunately, Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are largely wasted as anonymous rogue cops that make things tough for our heroes. The latter utters one or two sentences the entire film and the former reprises his psychotic grin from Full Metal Jacket (1987) and little else.


At the time, much was made of a particularly disturbing sequence in which Lenny watches a SQUID clip of a man raping and killing a woman. To make matters even worse, the killer wires up his victim so that she experiences him getting off on raping her. Rape is always a tricky thing to depict and Bigelow is clearly not glorifying it, but showing it to be an ugly, horrifying act. I think it is important that she makes a point of showing how upset the clip makes anyone who watches it. In regards to this scene, Cameron said in an interview, “Rather than glorifying violence, it puts you in the driver’s seat of being the killer. That deglamorizes it.” Bigelow said, “My hope is that the violence is understood in its context. The violence is designed to be horrific. It’s designed to make you think it is awful.”

The screenplay is at its best when its dialogue immerses us in this near-future world. For example, we witness Lenny pitching the SQUID experience to a neophyte. He tells the potential client, “This is not like T.V. only better. This is life. It’s a piece of somebody’s life. It’s pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. I mean, you’re there, you’re doing it, you’re seeing it, you’re hearing it, you’re feeling it.” These words beautifully sum up how the technology works and its allure. It is the ultimate in virtual reality. For thirty minutes you get to be someone else and experience what they went through without any of the potentially messy consequences. It’s the latest in voyeuristic thrills. Fiennes really shines during this scene as he seduces the potential client with his pitch in a riveting performance, telling him at one point, “I’m your priest. I’m your shrink. I’m your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I’m the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious.”

James Cameron came up with the idea for Strange Days in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1993 that he mapped out the entire film in a 140-page screenplay/treatment hybrid. However, he was beginning work on True Lies (1994) and unable to make it himself. He contacted ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and asked if she was interested in directing Strange Days. She found herself drawn to its “incredibly clever, great concept,” and how it “operates on many levels.” Bigelow contacted ex-Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks, whom she had worked with previously on an unrealized Joan of Arc film, and asked him to complete Cameron’s partially finished script.


After the L.A. Riots, Bigelow helped with the clean-up effort and this provided a lot of visuals for the film: “You’d be on a street corner with these shells of buildings that once were, with tanks and National Guard cruising by.” Unlike science fiction films like Blade Runner and Total Recall (1990), Bigelow set Strange Days in a “hyperkinetic, darker version of today … It’s a future that we’re almost living in.”

Ralph Fiennes was drawn to the role of Lenny Nero because it wasn’t an “obvious contemporary action hero.” He saw the character as “weak, he’s emotionally screwed-up, he’s a bit of a jerk – but he’s likeable. He’s not particularly brave, and somehow he comes through the shit and is okay.” Cameron identified with Lenny, saying in an interview, “Lenny is me. There is a certain aspect of a filmmaker that is a salesman, who has to be able to sell a studio on a movie.” To research the role, Fiennes met with and drove around with Los Angeles police officers.

The exciting foot chase between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break gave Bigelow the confidence to do the point-of-view chases in Strange Days. To film the first person SQUID clips, the director and her team had to build a stripped-down Steadicam that was light and versatile. She constructed and even choreographed the opening restaurant robbery sequence to be continuous and unbroken even though the final version has cuts. To create the massive New Year’s Eve celebration at the climax of the film, the production staged a rave with 10,000 people in downtown L.A. with performances by Deee-Lite and Aphex Twin. Over the course of filming that night, five people were hospitalized from overdosing on the hallucinogenic drug Ecstasy.


Strange Days received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Fiennes gleefully captures Lenny’s sleaziness while also showing there is something about this schlockmeister that is worth saving, despite much evidence to the contrary. As for Ms. Bassett, she looks great and radiates inner strength even without the bone-crunching physical feats to which she is often assigned.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers described it as Bigelow’s “magnum opus,” and “a visionary triumph.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Bigelow, a poet of cheap thrills, turns the audience into eager voyeurs. I only wish she’d stayed with her premise. Strange Days has a dazzling atmosphere of grunge futurism, but beneath its dark satire of audiovisual decadence lurks a naggingly conventional underworld thriller.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “As the New Century approaches in an eruption of racial conflict, murderous cops and battered heroes, the movie screeches into reverse and love conquers all. It’s not that a happy ending is bad, it’s that it comes from nowhere but a failure of nerve.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Strange Days does have a superior cast, but only Bassett manages to survive the numskull script, and that just barely.”

Even though Strange Days is set in the near future, it is very much a film of its time. The killing of Jeriko One and the subsequent cover-up eerily anticipates the deaths of real-life rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. even though I’m sure Cameron and Cocks were inspired by the beating of Rodney King, which led to the subsequent L.A. Riots in 1992. It appears that Bigelow’s film is heading towards a riot of similar if not bigger proportions, but during the third act Cameron and Cocks lose the courage of their convictions and opt for a love conquers all cliché ending when a Rome is burning finale would have been a more fitting conclusion. It robs Strange Days of its power so that it’s merely a good film instead of a great one.



SOURCES

Heath, Chris. “Are You Feeling Lucky, Cyberpunk?” Empire. April 1996.

Hochman, Steve. “Rave Party Extras Are Deee-Lited.” Los Angeles Times. September 19, 1994.

McGavin, Patrick Z. “One Director’s Reality Check.” Chicago Tribune. October 15, 1995.

Smith, Gavin. “Momentum and Design.” Film Comment. September-October 1995.

Spelling, Ian. “Strange Genesis.” Starlog. January 1996.


Yakir, Dan. “Strange Days.” Starlog. November 1995.

Friday, January 2, 2015

L.A. Confidential

Prolific crime novelist James Ellroy has only had three of his books adapted into films (Blood on the Moon, L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia) while other novels continue to languish in development hell. On the surface, this is baffling as they are chock full of memorable characters, colorful period dialogue and engrossing mysteries at their heart. Dig deeper and it becomes readily apparent why his novels have largely failed to go into production; they feature large casts of characters, each with their own subplots pivotal to the main story. Additionally, the period dialogue is sometimes raw with racial epitaphs, and his lengthy tomes are quite plot heavy.

Where does a screenwriter begin in tackling one of Ellroy’s novels?

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson found a way with their adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1997), a sprawling epic that was part of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, a series of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles, a universe occupied by several recurring characters, and the sordid crimes they sought to stomp out in their city. It wasn’t easy as the two men shopped their passion project around a Hollywood wary of a period neo-noir much like the women of Ellroy’s world were wary of the johns they met on a nightly basis. It starred two then-unknown Australian actors, Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Fortunately, Warner Bros. took a chance and the gamble paid off with a film that managed to distill the essence of Ellroy’s novel without gutting it completely. L.A. Confidential performed well at the box office ($126 million), it was a critical darling and an awards magnet, winning two Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson).

We are introduced to three police officers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) uses strong-arm tactics to get the job done, especially when it comes to men that are violent towards women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) stages busts with Hollywood actors and actresses for tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) and is the technical advisor on the Dragnet-esque television show Badge of Honor. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is by the book to a fault and has plenty of ambition to burn. As his commanding officer Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) tells him, “You have the eye for human weakness but not the stomach.”


These three men each have their own respective beats that they patrol, but are brought together with their involvement in “Bloody Christmas,” which saw several cops beat on six Mexicans in custody accused of assaulting two police officers. Their careers are shaken up in the aftermath, but get a chance at redemption courtesy of the Nite Owl Massacre, a coffee shop shoot-out that saw six people brutally murdered. What appears initially to be an open and shut case involves aspects of police corruption and a high-end escort service with prostitutes surgically altered to resemble famous movie stars, chief among them Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) who looks like Veronica Lake. For Bud, the case is a chance to prove to himself and others that he is more than an enforcer for Dudley. For Jack, it’s a chance to get back to why he became a cop in the first place. For Ed, it’s a chance to prove himself and get out from under the shadow of his father, a legendary Los Angeles Police Department detective.

Known mostly for unsuccessful genre movies like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Virtuosity (1995), L.A. Confidential put Russell Crowe firmly on the A-list. He brings the requisite physicality necessary for Bud White with a ferocity and an intensity that is riveting to watch. Over the course of the film he does an excellent job of conveying Bud’s change of heart as he begins to question his reputation as hired muscle and uses his brains when he becomes embroiled in the Nite Owl case. His romantic involvement with Lynn also shows a romantic, more vulnerable side, which comes as a pleasant surprise.

Kevin Spacey is well cast as the publicity-seeking cop who would probably trade places with the celebrities he busts on a regular basis. Jack loves the attention that his technical advisor gig gets him and loves hobnobbing with movie stars. However, early on, Spacey hints at a dissatisfaction that exists in Jack’s life. He’s tired of staging pot busts for Sid’s tabloid rag and begins to yearn for the more substantial police work he used to do. This is encapsulated in a nice, reflective moment Jack has during a quiet interlude in a bar when he stares long and hard at his latest payoff and himself in the mirror.


Guy Pearce has the toughest role as he plays a largely unlikeable character for most of the film. Ed is a prissy bureaucrat in a cop’s uniform. He’s a political animal not afraid to sell out his fellow officers to further his own career. This brings him in direct conflict with Bud who is everything Ed is not. Pearce does a nice job of showing how Ed changes as the deeper he gets into the Nite Owl case the more dirt he gets on his hands and blood on his face. The actor’s best moment comes in the scene with Spacey where Ed explains to Jack why he became a cop. He also admits to losing sight of why he became one as does Jack (Spacey’s sad expression at this moment is particularly affecting). It’s a nice little moment between these two characters that provide personal motivation for their continued involvement in the Nite Owl case.

Kim Basinger is an actress with limited range and I’ve always felt that she was somewhat miscast as Lynn Bracken and that someone like Jennifer Connelly, with her experience in period movies like The Rocketeer (1991) and Mulholland Falls (1996), would have been a much better choice. Basinger certainly looks the part, but lacks the dramatic chops to pull off the role convincingly except for a scene where Lynn lets Bud in past the prostitute as movie star façade to her personal bedroom where Hanson provides us with visual cues to her small-town past. Lynn sits on her bed and for a moment she doesn’t look glamorous, but someone who has been playing a role for too long and is tired. Basinger achieves an aching vulnerability that is impressive and one wishes that the rest of her performance was as good as this scene.

Hanson surrounds his three lead actors with a rock solid supporting cast. James Cromwell is perfectly cast as the fearsome Dudley Smith, the Irish cop that employs brutal and unorthodox methods to enforce the law. David Strathairn’s Pierce Patchett is a cool as they come millionaire and power player with a secret side. Danny DeVito gets a juicy role as sleazy mudraker Sid Hudgens, a man who didn’t uncover or create a scandal he couldn’t exploit.


Hanson wisely hired cinematographer extraordinaire Dante Spinotti (Heat) to capture a bygone era on film and he creates a warm look in the day scenes and a shadowy one at night, but without overdoing it to the point of slavish film noir homage. There are many standout sequences in L.A. Confidential, chief among them a virtuoso sequence where Ed masterfully questions three men suspected of the Nite Owl Massacre, going back and forth, playing them against each other. This sequence is not only wonderfully edited, but also well-acted by Pearce who starts off grilling the three men thinking that they did it, but when one of them spills his guts, realizes that they are guilty of a completely different crime. This sequence also deepens the mystery as the killers are still at large and their motives unknown.

Helgeland and Hanson’s screenplay does an excellent job of gradually building narrative momentum. It introduces the three main protagonists right off the bat with scenes that show their distinctive approaches to police work, which informs their character. Over the course of the film we learn more about them from how they act and what they do. The screenwriters also excel at raising the stakes the deeper Bud, Ed and Jack go into the Nite Owl case and the more they uncover. One gets a tangible sense of danger that these men are in, which makes the film’s climax that much more exciting.

Filmmaker Curtis Hanson had been a long-standing admirer or Southern California fiction writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and John Fante. He had read half a dozen novels by James Ellroy before he turned his attention to L.A. Confidential. He found himself drawn to the characters and not the plot. “What hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn’t like them – but as I continued reading, I started to care about them.” Ellroy’s novel also made Hanson think of L.A. and provided him with an opportunity to “set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the ‘20s and ‘30s, was being bulldozed.”


Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was originally signed to Warner Bros. to write a Viking movie with director Uli Edel and then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story. He was a long-time Ellroy fan and when he heard that the studio had acquired the rights to L.A. Confidential in 1990 as a potential mini-series, he lobbied to write the screenplay. However, Warner Bros. was only talking to well-known writers. When Helgeland finally did get a meeting it was cancelled two days in advance. He found out that Hanson had been hired to direct and met with him while the filmmaker was helming The River Wild (1994). They discovered that not only did they shared a love for Ellroy’s novels, but they also agreed on how to adapt L.A. Confidential into a film. Hanson felt that the key was to “concentrate on the three cops, use them as our tentpoles to hold up the rest of the story and ask what scenes are most important to these guys. Where are the scenes where they play off each other? And how can we bring all their stories together?” He realized that Ellroy’s novels were not “blueprints for movies” because of their many subplots and backstories. He decided to have the characters, not the plot, be their guide because if he and Helgeland approached the adaptation on the plot level they would have “ended up with wall-to-wall exposition.”

The two men worked on the script together for two years with Hanson turning down jobs and Helgeland writing drafts for free. When the studio optioned his book, Ellroy assumed that it would never be made into a film because he designed it to be difficult to adapt and if it was made, he figured that “they would screw it up. But if they do screw it up I am honor-bound to keep my mouth shut because I took the money.” When Hanson and Helgeland finished the seventh draft they showed it to Ellroy. The author had seen Hanson films The Bedroom Window (1987) and Bad Influence (1990) and found him to be “a competent and interesting storyteller,” but wasn’t convinced that his book would be made into a film until he talked to the director.

Warner Bros. didn’t like Hanson’s approach to the script and wanted to condense it into a predictable solo star adventure story. Hanson refused and the studio backed off, suggesting New Regency Productions get involved and handle distribution. Warner Bros. executive Bill Gerber showed the script to Michael Nathanson, CEO of New Regency, which had a deal with the studio. Nathanson loved it, but they had to get owner Arnold Milchan’s approval. Hanson prepared a presentation that consisted of 15 vintage postcards and pictures of L.A. mounted on poster-boards and made his pitch to Milchan. The pictures consisted of orange groves, beaches, tract homes in the San Fernando Valley and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway to symbolize the image of prosperity sold to the public at the time. Then, he showed the darker side of Ellroy’s novel with the cover of scandal rag Confidential and the famous shot of Robert Mitchum coming out of jail after his marijuana bust. He also had photographs of jazz musicians of the time: Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker to represent the music people listened to at the time. Hanson emphasized that the period detail would be in the background and the characters in the foreground. Milchan was impressed with the presentation and agreed to finance the film.


When it came to casting Hanson had seen Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper (1992) and found him “repulsive and scary but captivating.” The actor fit the image Hanson had of Bud White. Like countless other actors, Guy Pearce auditioned and Hanson felt that he was “very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley.” Hanson explained his logic in casting them: “My hope was to replicate my experience of the book. You don’t like any of these characters at first, but the deeper you get into their story, the more you begin to sympathize with them. I didn’t want actors audiences knew and already liked.” At the time, both Australian actors were not well known in North America and Milchan was worried about the lack of movie stars in lead roles.

Regardless, he backed Hanson’s casting decisions and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey. In the case of the latter, Hanson specifically cast the actor against type and told him to think of Dean Martin while in the role. Hanson felt that Jack Vincennes was “a movie star among cops.” Hanson was confident that Spacey “could play the man behind that veneer, the man who also lost his soul.” Once everyone was on board, Hanson gave his cast and crew points and counterpoints to capture L.A. in the 1950s by screening The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which epitomized the glamorous Hollywood look of Lynn Bracken, In A Lonely Place (1950) to show the ugly side, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) because it was “so rooted in the futuristic 50s: the atomic age,” and The Line-Up (1958) for the “lean and efficient style.” Hanson and Spinotti agreed that L.A. Confidential would be shot widescreen and watched two Cinemascope films of the period: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running (1958). However, Hanson didn’t want the film to be an exercise in nostalgia and had Spinotti shoot it like a contemporary film and use more naturalistic lighting.

Before filming took place, Hanson brought Crowe and Pearce to L.A. for two months and immersed them in the city and the time period. He also got them dialect coaches, showed them vintage police training movies and had them meet with real cops. Pearce found the contemporary police force had changed too much to be useful research material, finding the police movies more valuable “because there was a real sort of stiffness, a woodenness about these people” that he felt Exley had as well. Meanwhile, Crowe studied Sterling Hayden’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956). Early on, Crowe and Pearce conducted rehearsals with Helgeland and Hanson, which consisted of them discussing each scene. As other actors were cast, they would join in.


L.A. Confidential received nearly universal praise from the critical community. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “L.A. Confidential is immersed in the atmosphere and lore of film noir, but it doesn’t seem like a period picture—it believes its noir values and isn’t just using them for decoration.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Spacey is at his insinuating best, languid and debonair, in a much more offbeat performance than this film could have drawn from a more conventional star. And the two Australian actors, tightly wound Mr. Pearce and fiery, brawny Mr. Crowe, qualify as revelations.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “This is the first film that has truly gotten Ellroy on screen, and, in many ways, it’s a sleeker and more pleasurable experience than his hard-boiled-bebop prose. With its plot that zips and zags like knife slashes, its cynicism stoked to the melting point, the movie brings the thrill of corruption crackingly to life.” Andrew Sarris wrote, “Ms. Basinger’s career has been spectacularly uneven but considerably better and subtler than one would think from the lurid reputation of most of her vehicles. She has never been as good, as sensitive and as moving as she is here as an unusual angel of mercy in her relationships with two of the three protagonists.”

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Brian Helgeland and Hanson have expertly extracted the essence of the proceedings and boiled them down to a concentrated screen story where appearances are deceptive and nobody gives any information away.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Hanson delivers something ever rarer in film culture, not a new film noir but an old-fashioned total movie, somehow of a single piece.” Finally, the author himself, James Ellroy weighed in on the film: “They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main themes, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes … Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny.”

Helgeland and Hanson successfully adapted Ellroy’s novel because they not only understood that the central theme of the L.A. Quartet is the Evil that Men Do, but also how to translate it on film much in the same way he did it in the source material. Older white men conspire to cheat, lie and kill their way into positions of power and in the process ruin countless lives. These are very bad men who hide behind a façade of respectability and commit heinous acts in order maintain control. This is why L.A. Confidential is a much better adaptation than Brian De Palma’s beautiful looking, but ultimately empty take on Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (2006). It hasn’t stopped people from trying replicate the special alchemy that Helgeland and Hanson created with the likes of Gangster Squad (2013) on the big screen and Frank Darabont’s short-lived T.V. show Mob City. L.A. Confidential the book and the film take us back to the heady days when the LAPD was trying to clean up its act, the city was ambitiously expanding, and the public’s thirst for celebrity scandal was taking off in a big way. These are all background details that flesh out the vivid world they brought to life, populated with fascinatingly flawed characters embroiled in a mystery that will change their lives forever.



SOURCES

Arnold, Gary. “Casting for L.A. Confidential Went in Unexpected Direction.” Washington Times. September 21, 1997.

Chollet, Laurence. “A Movie Made, An Author Happy.” The Record. September 14, 1997.

Mathews, Tom Dewe. “Through A Lens Darkly.” The New York Times. “October 17, 1997.

Seiler, Andy. “They Came From Down Under! And Now They’re Cops!” USA Today. September 19, 1997.

Sragow, Michael. “City of Angles.” Dallas Observer. September 11, 1997.

Taubin, Amy. “Confidentially Speaking: Curtis Hanson Makes a Studio-Indie Hybrid.” Village Voice. September 23, 1997.

Taubin, Amy. “L.A. Lurid.” Sight & Sound. November 1997.


Veniere, James. “Director of L.A. Confidential Hits Stride.” Boston Herald. September 14, 1997.