Friday, June 26, 2015

Roadracers

Still hot off his feature film debut with El Mariachi (1992), Roadracers (1994) marked Robert Rodriguez’s first foray into the Hollywood studio system and it was not a smooth transition. Accustomed to shooting fast and loose and with complete creative control, he met resistance from a crew that were used to working a certain way and at a certain pace and they resented this young upstart coming in and changing the way things were done. However, this experience prepared him for his next project, which would also be done with a studio.

Roadracers was part of a series of made-for-television movies entitled Rebel Highway for the Showtime channel that aired in 1994. The concept was a series of 1950s B-movies remade “with a ‘90s edge,” spearheaded by Lou Arkoff, son of legendary movie producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, and Debra Hill (Halloween). The two producers invited directors like John Milius, Joe Dante and William Friedkin to pick a title from one of Arkoff’s movies, hire their own writer, select their own director of photography and editor, and have final cut. They were only given $1.3 million and 12 days to shoot their film with a cast of young, up and coming actors and actresses. Used to shooting fast and cheap, this set-up must’ve appealed to Rodriguez who created the most entertaining installment and remained truest to the spirit of those ‘50s B-movies.

The film starts off in typical energetic Rodriguez fashion as local juvenile delinquent Dude Delaney (David Arquette) outwits the local cops in his hot rod while his girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek) cools her heels to the blistering rockabilly stylings of Johnny Reno. The music and Rodriguez’s rhythmic editing perfectly compliment the Dude’s wild driving and wild behavior as he arrives at the nightclub, manages to charm his disgruntled girlfriend, and whoop it up to Reno’s music.


Dude’s best friend Nixer (John Hawkes) hitches a ride, much to Donna’s chagrin, and babbles on about his latest obsession – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). They soon cross paths with Teddy Leather (Jason Wiles), the local tough kid, and his friends, challenging them to a drag race all to the distinct strains of Link Wray’s music. Rodriguez has a lot of fun with this scene as Nixer insults Teddy’s girlfriend (“I got a boner the size of your head!”) and Dude casually flicks his lit cigarette on her hair (so obviously a wig), which ignites it at the crucial moment in the race.

These opening scenes do an excellent job of capturing the silly fun of goofing off with your friends when you’re young and have your whole life ahead of you. Rodriguez himself was just starting out and brings an energy and vitality that is exciting to watch as it translates on-screen in the way he shoots and edits every scene. It is like the frame can barely contain the action in it.

After the drag race, Teddy swears revenge on Dude as does his father Sarge (William Sadler), who just so happens to be the head cop in this small Texas town. He has been looking for any excuse to bust the young punk.


With his slicked-back pompadour, unshaven look and mischievous smirk permanently affixed to his face, David Arquette certainly looks the part of a ‘50s juvenile delinquent – the kind that wakes up in bed with his electric guitar and lives from one goof to the next, epitomized by the tried and true cliché of live fast and die young. Arquette has always been something of an eccentric performer that Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with – the notable exception being the Scream movies, which allowed him to indulge in his trademark quirkiness. Rodriguez gives him license to have fun with the role, knowing what a plumb part it is for a young actor – playing a cool delinquent that aspires to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician like his hero Link Wray. Dude is a restless soul with unbridled energy that this small-town just can’t contain and Arquette conveys this in his enthusiastic performance.

William Sadler appears to be having a blast as the film’s antagonist – the authoritative cop. Rodriguez allows the actor to stretch out in what amounts to a fairly standard role by giving him substantial moments like early on when Sarge goes into detail about how good the pigs in blankets his mother makes for him are to his new partner. Just watch how Sadler savors the admittedly tasty-looking snack like it was the best food on earth. It’s all a bit ridiculous but that’s kinda the point and it gives us some insight into his character. As a result, Sarge is more than just a faceless authority figure.

In an early role, John Hawkes plays Dude’s best friend and movie fanatic, convinced that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is real. The actor gets to dish out some of the funniest insults as his character gleefully pokes fun of Teddy and his gang. Hawkes plays well off of Arquette and their scenes together are a lot of fun to watch as they react to each other’s antics. For example, there’s a scene where Nixer watches in awe as Dude applies a massive amount of hair gel to his hair providing the sequence’s perfectly timed punchline, “Little dab’ll do ya.” This is a set-up for an even more impressive scene where Dude uses said gel to slick down a roller rink so that Teddy and his boys take a spill all to the vintage rockabilly music of Hasil Adkins.


In what was her American acting debut, Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek is just fine as Dude’s girlfriend. Admittedly, she doesn’t have much to do except look beautiful and act exasperated at her boyfriend’s antics. Rodriguez tries to give her something to work with by showing the racism Donna encounters from her white classmates. He uses the allegory of conformity in Body Snatchers for the small-mindedness of the town that treats her like a second-class citizen because of her ethnicity.

When Wes Craven dropped out at the last minute to make another A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, the producers of Showtime’s Rebel Highway series of made-for-T.V. movies asked Robert Rodriguez to fill in because he had proven with El Mariachi that he could make one fast and cheap: “So I had the least amount of money out of everyone else in the whole slate of pictures. They figured they would make up the difference on mine, and that’s why I got in on it.” He was given a budget of $700,000 (El Mariachi was made for only $7,000!), wrote the screenplay in two weeks and was given 13 days to shoot Roadracers, one less than he did on El Mariachi.

Rodriguez meant with resistance from the get-go as he clashed with the producers over the film’s composer. They had already hired one and he told them to give the man half the money and let him use the other half to bring in Texan musician Johnny Reno whom Rodriguez knew from elementary school. The filmmaker saw Roadracers as an opportunity to work on a larger film before making Desperado (1995), the sequel to El Mariachi with Antonio Banderas. It also gave him a chance to show that Salma Hayek could act in English so he could cast her in Desperado.


For Rodriguez, it was a film of several firsts – it was first time shooting on 35mm and the first time he worked with professional actors and crew, the latter of which proved to be a challenge for the young filmmaker. A lot of the movies in the series were going over budget and over schedule in terms of hours (18-20 hour days) and Rodriguez inherited a crew that was burnt out. He ended up shooting most of the film himself. “I was just this little punk, so they looked at me and were questioning everything that I was doing because I was shooting really fast and I was shooting my edits. I wasn’t shooting full shots.”

In addition, his preferred method was to work fast: “The actors didn’t have much time to overthink what they were doing, and I didn’t either as a filmmaker. I just went by complete instinct and let my subconscious take over.” John Hawkes, who played Dude’s best friend Nixer, remembers that Rodriguez “was kind of frustrated, because even though it was a small project by Hollywood standards, I think he felt like it was over-crewed, that there were just too many people around … He was very much a do-it-yourself guy. About a couple of days into the shoot, he was pretty much shooting it himself.”

Roadracers received mostly positive notices from critics. In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor wrote, “From square parents to ominous rumbles, Roadracers doesn’t miss a cliché in the depiction of rebels without a cause. Skillfully done, though.” The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Willman wrote, “Roadracers, too, looks and feels as if it were done on the fly, with adrenaline dripping into the editing bay.” In his review for the Austin Chronicle, Lewis Black wrote, “Arquette and Hayek are good as the leads, Arquette’s goofiness confusing enough to serve the story, with ex-Austinite Hawkes turning in an inspired turn as Arquette’s kind-of-geeky friend.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Mike D’Angelo wrote, “Buoyed by winning performances from David Arquette and Salma Hayek and ferociously kinetic editing by Rodriguez, it makes for a fun pastiche…at least until it turns needlessly violent and ‘realistic.’” Finally, New York Magazine’s John Leonard called it, “surprisingly entertaining.” In retrospect, Rodriguez said of this film: “You look back and go, ‘I don’t even direct or shoot or edit like that anymore.’ You wish you could get back to that.”


Rodriguez inherently understands what ‘50s iconography is cool – hot rods, rock ‘n’ roll music, black leather jackets, and beautiful women – and fills Roadracers with them. If there is a particular emphasis on period music it’s because he’s a musician himself and applies the energy and rhythm of ‘50s rockabilly to the pacing of his film so that it is the cinematic equivalent of this music. This explains why Rodriguez revels in Dude’s musical epiphany – when he messes up his amp but as a result gets an awesomely loud and distorted sound reminiscent of the thunderous sound of his hero Link Wray. Rodriguez proceeds to contrast this with the safe, sell-out sound of Reno’s other band that turns out to be nothing but a façade as Nixer finds out they’re miming to a record player, which is the ultimately betrayal as far as Dude’s concerned. It drives Dude a little mad and the film along with until it builds in intensity to a nightmarish climax. What Roadracers lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style and let’s face it, Rodriguez has never been pre-occupied with substance. His films’ primary goals are to entertain and have some fun and this one delivers on both counts.


SOURCES

Brennan, Patricia. “Fast Cars, Fast Girls and Raging Hormones.” Washington Post. July 17, 1994.

Corliss, Richard. “I was a Teenage Teenager.” Time. August 15, 1994.

Gallagher, Brian. “John Hawkes Talks Roadracers.” MovieWeb. April 20, 2012.

Huver, Scott. “Robert Rodriguez Looks Back at Roadracers, Ahead to Machete Kills and Sin City 2.” Popcorn Biz. April 24, 2012.

Nicholson, Max. “Rodriguez Reflects on Roadracers.” IGN. April 20, 2012.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Way We Weren’t.” Chicago Reader. November 18, 1994.


Sullivan, Kevin P. “Robert Rodriguez Reminisces about his Early Film Roadracers.” MTV. April 24, 2012.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Killers (1946)

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and featured two hitmen sent to kill a man who makes no attempt to run or defend himself. Producer Mark Hellinger bought the screen rights for $36,750 and the screenplay was written by John Huston (uncredited), Anthony Veiller and Richard Brooks. The Killers was released in 1946 and featured Burt Lancaster in his film debut, pairing him up with a young Ava Gardner after five years of minor roles. The end result is a classic film noir featuring a doomed protagonist and an alluring femme fatale intertwined over a large sum of money.

Late one night, two hitmen – Max and Al (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) – arrive in a small New Jersey town looking for a boxer known as Ole “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster). Director Robert Siodmak presents a place enshrouded in shadows with the local diner providing a welcome source of light. The two no-nonsense men enter the eatery and proceed to give the owner a hard time. They exchange some nice hard-boiled dialogue (they repeatedly call the owner “bright boy”) and tell him of their intent to kill Swede.

One of the customers – a man (Phil Brown) who works with Swede – manages to escape and get to his co-worker before the hitmen. He warns Swede who doesn’t seem particularly upset and already resigned to his fate. In fact, when we first see him, Swede is lying in bed, his head obscured in darkness and already looking like a corpse. The two men arrive and shoot Swede to death. Why didn’t he run? Why did he just let these men kill him? Insurance man Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to figure out the answers to these questions and decipher his last words, “Once I did something wrong.” The film proceeds to flashback to Swede’s last days and then further back as Reardon talks to those who knew him.


Burt Lancaster delivers a muscular performance, portraying a man with no desire to live and then, as his past is delved into, anguish over someone that drove him to attempt suicide. Even further back reveals a boxer from Philadelphia who turned to crime thanks to a bum right hand. The actor does a nice job of creating a doomed protagonist. It’s all in Lancaster’s haunted, defeated eyes. When told he can no longer fight because of his permanently damaged hand, Swede looks for a new direction in life. He doesn’t want to be a cop and so he turns to a life of crime.

Ava Gardner creates quite a first impression as Kitty Collins, an alluring woman that meets Swede at a party and immediately catches his attention. They soon become an item and it’s not hard to see how she so easily corrupts him. The actress looks stunning (she sure knows how to wear a sweater!) and Kitty knows exactly the emotional buttons to push in order to get Swede to do what she wants.

The Killers is filled with all kinds of memorable little touches, like Siodmak showing a heist being pulled visually with voiceover narration as if providing a commentary track over what went down instead of going the conventional route by having it play out in typical fashion – something that has been done countless times. There is also stand-out dialogue, like when a doctor says about one of Swede’s criminal associates, now on his deathbed, “He’s dead now except he’s breathing.”


For a film noir, The Killers spends a lot of time exploring the Swede’s motivations and examining why he was so willing to die. At the end, he had no reason to live. He drove away the people he loved, betrayed by the woman he loved, and was unable to continue as a boxer – his real passion. Swede’s fatal flaw is that he’s loyal to a fault, willing to go to the mat for Kitty, blinded by love to her conniving, manipulative ways. Like most noirs, the prime motivation for Swede is money and a dame – both of which prove to be his downfall.

Prior to The Killers, Ernest Hemingway had refused Hollywood’s advances to adapt his work but producer Mark Hellinger was an “old friend,” and he agreed to sign over the film rights to him. The first few minutes of the film are quite faithful to the source material but deviate significantly afterwards. Don Siegel was originally considered to direct but Hellinger went with Robert Siodmak. Siegel ended up making his own adaptation in 1964 with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan in a rare bad guy role.

Burt Lancaster was only 23-years-old when he made The Killers and was paid $20,000 for his work on it. Ava Gardner has been under contract with MGM since 1941 but had only appeared in minor, forgettable roles. Hellinger was impressed with her work in Whistle Stop (1946) and wanted her to play Kitty Collins. MGM agreed to loan her out to Universal.


The Killers was a box office hit, playing around-the-clock at New York’s Winter Garden theater, which had more than 120,000 moviegoers see it in the first two weeks. The film was well-received by critics, but more importantly Gardner, who became friends with Hemingway, said that the writer, “always considered The Killers the best of all the many films his work inspired.”

A man’s life is made up of many parts, much like a puzzle as Reardon finds out during the course of his investigation. He only gets the entire scope of Swede’s life by talking to several people in his life. Together, their testimonies provide a better understanding for why he did what he did and why it led to his sorry fate. It’s what makes The Killers a tragic tale.


SOURCES


Frankel, Mark. “The Killers (1946).” Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Princess and the Warrior

After the breakout success of Run Lola Run (1998) established his international reputation, Tom Tykwer reteamed with his leading lady Franka Potente for a follow-up film entitled, The Princess and the Warrior (2000). He wisely opted not to repeat the frenetic pacing of the thrill-a-minute Lola, instead slowing things down with Princess, which depicts an unconventional romance between two very different people. He tells a touching, sometimes tragic tale that not only demonstrated his versatility as a filmmaker but also that of his cinematic muse Potente who plays a very different character from the one she portrayed in Lola. While Princess wasn’t as big a hit as Lola it was a much richer experience emotionally as we watch two people try to connect with each other amidst the chaos of the world around them.

Sissi (Franka Potente) is a beautiful nurse that works at a psychiatric hospital. Tykwer immediately draws us in with an intimate scene in which she works with a young blind man (Melchior Beslon) on his tactile senses. It’s a scene that gives us some insight into Sissi – she’s kind and understanding. Meanwhile, we meet Bodo (Benno Furmann), an ex-soldier, leaning over an overpass, his arms outstretched as if pretending he can fly. When he’s not getting fired from a job (for crying while digging a grave), he’s a small-time crook helping his brother Walter (Joachim Krol) plot a heist at a bank in which he’s employed.

In a nod to Run Lola Run, the next day Bodo is running away from two men whose gas station he robbed and in the ensuing foot chase he temporarily hitches a ride on a truck, distracting the driver who doesn’t see Sissi crossing the road up ahead until the last second. She is hit and trapped under the vehicle unable to breath. By chance, Bodo comes back and notices her under the truck. He saves her life by performing a makeshift tracheotomy. As he’s helping her, Sissi notices Bodo crying, an involuntary action that happens on occasion. During this moment she thinks of the oddest things, like how his sweat tastes or that her behind itches. They are separated at the hospital and all she has to remember him by is a button off his jacket.


After she’s released from the hospital, Sissi finds herself haunted by this man who saved her life. Working at the psychiatric hospital isn’t the same anymore. She becomes obsessed with finding him. She eventually tracks Bodo down and a tentative relationship begins to develop as she attempts to convey her gratitude for him saving her life while he tries to push her away feeling that he doesn’t deserve her attention.

Franka Potente has had a fascinating career, from mainstream fare like Blow (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) to Creep (2004) and Romulus, My Father (2007), but The Princess and the Warrior may feature her most affecting performance to date. She initially portrays Sissi as this beautiful, virginal character – an innocent that doesn’t understand the ways of the world. She is a sweet, empathetic person that puts other people’s needs before her own – it’s the nature of her job and it is what makes her such a good nurse. However, by living and working at the hospital, Sissi has physically locked herself away from the world while Bodo has locked himself away emotionally, which allows him to go out in the world. Together, maybe they can help each other escape from their self-imposed prisons. They need to escape their respective worlds – hers of sterility and routine and his of darkness and pain, heading down a new road together.

Benno Furmann plays Bodo as a person suffering from profound internal pain and the actor conveys it through his expressive, shell-shocked eyes. He carries around guilt and regret that threatens to crush him. He copes by internalizing it and not letting anyone get close. Furmann delivers a wonderfully sensitive performance of a tormented soul and the scenes where Bodo relives past traumas are heartbreaking. The actor has a riveting presence and you cannot take your eyes off him because he is so interesting to watch. Bodo is the polar opposite of Sissi as he has seen too much, knowing only too well how cruel the world can be. Tykwer also shows their contrasts visually with Sissi being soft, pretty with white skin and blonde hair while Bodo has dark hair and is angular and athletic with tanned skin.


Furmann and Potente have fantastic chemistry together and the scenes they share crackle with intensity. It is interesting to note that we learn about Sissi through her actions and her interactions with other characters while with Bodo it is mainly through expositional dialogue that fleshes out his backstory.

The Princess and the Warrior is a sensual film much like the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski in the way it engages your tactile senses as much as the medium is able. Tykwer does this by inserting close-up shots of Sissi rubbing an ice cube on her skin or in another scene holding a seashell up to her ear. He has created an intimate story about two people but with epic emotions, like the life and death experience they share with the truck accident. This is evident in the moment where she’s being gurneyed away in the hospital after the accident and Sissi tries to hold Bodo’s hand until he finally lets go.

Like Run Lola Run, the inspiration for The Princess and the Warrior came from a single image that filmmaker Tom Tykwer thought of: “The moment of a woman – which I knew immediately was Franka – waking up from unconsciousness and realizing she’s under a car. She doesn’t really understand what it means, but realizes she must have been hit by that car and then she understands that she is actually dying.” After thinking up the initial idea, he developed it after spending four weeks vacationing on a remote island off the coast of West Africa with then-girlfriend and actress Franka Potente. Tykwer has said that the film was influenced greatly by dreams: “This film is constantly walking through this dream and reality and this fairytale feeling and a hell-like reality.”


Potente worked with him on developing her character. She first imagined Sissi with big shoes because they kept her “feet on the ground.” Then, she saw Sissi wearing baggy nurse’s outfits because she was unaware of her sexuality. Potente changed her hair color to light blond and wore white clothing to convey Sissi’s angel-like sense. The actress figured out Sissi’s body language: “We were sure that she was a character that hadn’t really experienced her sexuality and doesn’t know anything really about her body as a woman.” The actress worked on how Sissi walked and the way she talked – “very quiet, not so self-confident, searching, but forward and curious.” For research, she worked in a psychiatric ward for a week but it didn’t work out well. “I didn’t know what to do. All your communication patterns, anything you know doesn’t work there. These people don’t match any patterns.” Tykwer also spent time in a ward and felt that “few films represent the normality of that. People live there and use rituals, like any family has its rituals … There’s a low-key high tension, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next.” Sissi ended up being one of Potente’s most difficult roles to perform because it was the farthest away from herself.

The Princess and the Warrior received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Tykwer uses the elements of genre in his film, but evades generic simplicities. He is using the conventions of a bank heist movie, not to make a bank heist movie, but to lay down a narrative map so that we can clearly see how the characters wander off of it—lose their way in the tangle of their lives and emotions.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Ms. Potente and Mr. Furmann make a sullenly attractive couple. When the camera isn’t scouring their faces as if searching for an entry into their souls, it is circling around them voyeuristically.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Ponderous when indulging in the mysteries of chance and destiny, the movie is also arresting when absorbed in the details of Sissi’s unorthodox living and working environment among unstable patients.”

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “This film demands much more acting than sprinting from Potente than Run Lola Run did, and she is more than up to the challenge, creating a compelling portrait of a young woman who beneath a demure surface is as coolly daring as a comic book heroine.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “And it’s engaging to sit through a movie that deconstructs action elements – in this case, a bank robbery – and casts them in an entirely different light. Unlike Hollywood’s heavy-hitting movies of the summer, you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next.” However, the USA Today’s Mark Clark gave it two-and-a-half stars and wrote, “At 133 minutes, however, the movie keeps putting a paceless point on what would seem to be an obvious homily. Crawl, Lola, crawl.”


Tykwer’s film explores different kinds of love and provokes questions about the nature of it. There’s love between friends, love between brothers, love between caregiver and patient, romantic love and even subtextually with love between director and leading lady. There is a tradition in cinema of directors being involved with their leading ladies – James Cameron and Linda Hamilton, Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet and at the time they made this film, Tykwer and Potente. Does the director have to be in love with his leading lady to capture her inner beauty and her external luminescence on camera? If so, he succeeded with both Lola and Princess. Interestingly, they never did another film together after this one and broke up a few years later. He has also never managed to equal the brilliance of Princess since.

The Princess and the Warrior reminds us to notice the world around us, the lushness of life and to enjoy the textures of things. This film is full of little moments that have meaning and contribute to the textured world Tykwer has created. Princess is all about the unpredictable directions life takes and how one chance encounter can change everything. It sounds like a cliché, but Tykwer’s approach is anything but that. He has crafted what feels like a very personal film about two very different people that find each other and in doing so provide what the other needs. For her it is to break free from a world she’s only known and for him it is dealing with a past trauma. This is a powerful film that takes you on a journey with these characters and by the end they have changed significantly from when we first me them. It addresses weighty themes like life, death and morality in a thoughtful way.


SOURCES

Axmaker, Sean. “Tykwer Slows Down After Lola.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. July 2, 2001.

Blackwelder, Rob. “Life Beyond Lola.” SPLICEDwire. April 20, 2001.

Fuchs, Cynthia. “Interview with Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente.” PopMatters. 2001.


Munoz, Lorenza. “Dreamers and Destiny.” Los Angeles Times. June 21, 2001.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Like those who were thrilled and dazzled by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s ode to the pulpy action/adventure serials of a bygone era  with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), I eagerly anticipated their follow-up three years later. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was not only a prequel but a much darker tale. After being teased with images in Starlog magazine ahead of time, I finally saw the film and was once again transported back into Indiana Jones’ world of fortune and glory filled with even more impressive death-defying stunts and daring escapes from seemingly impossible situations.

Over the years, the more times I saw this film the more its flaws became apparent. This was even more evident with the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which returned to the heartfelt, freewheeling vibe of Raiders, making the darker tone of Temple of Doom even more obvious. There was also the annoying presence of Indy’s love interest, moments of casual racism and rather extreme violence for a PG rated film (demonstrating Lucas and Spielberg’s clout within the industry). I was curious to see how the film has aged, especially in light of the crushing disappointment that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which failed to live up to decades of built-up expectations.

Right from the opening credits, film buff Spielberg gets to indulge in his love of musicals with a rousing Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance number that introduces nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). Lucas and Spielberg quickly segue into a James Bond-esque action sequence as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), decked out in a dapper tuxedo, has it out with Chinese gangsters in crowded nightclub all the while fighting the effects of being recently poisoned.


Spielberg ups the intensity of the violence as Indy skewers a gangster with a flaming kabob. The action sequence is impressively choreographed as Indy uses the chaos of the panicking patrons to frantically search for the antidote. Like Raiders, he narrowly escapes the local baddies, this time with the help of his diminutive sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and with Willie tagging along via an airplane only this one is piloted by men working for the gangsters.

While our heroes are asleep – understandably exhausted by the nightclub mayhem – the pilots dump all the fuel and parachute out. Indy wakes up and is forced to improvise, which leads up to the franchise’s most ridiculous death-defying stunt until Crystal Skull saw Indy survive a nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a refrigerator. Indy, Short Round and Willie plummet for miles as they inflate a raft, manage to land right side up only to then fall off a cliff, landing right side up again in rapids. Now, I know the Indiana Jones films are pure escapism but they always had one foot in the realm of the semi-real world and this stunt pushes the envelope of credibility even for this franchise.

Our heroes arrive at an Indian village and right away we notice something is amiss. Everyone is starving and the surrounding countryside is a barren wasteland. Most alarmingly there are no children. The vicious Thuggee cult has come in, taken the village’s sacred Sankara stone, their children and caused all the poverty and desolation. Their elder chief appeals to Indy’s altruism and enlists him to go to nearby Pankot Palace to retrieve their stone.


Indy translates the chief’s sad tale of the tragedy that befell them to Willie and Short Round (and us) in Harrison Ford’s typically low-key yet moving way that makes us sympathize with the plight of these people. Further motivation comes in the form of a young boy who somehow managed to escape, dehydrated, starving and showing signs of physical abuse. This, more than anything, provides an emotional weight to Indy’s new adventure. How can you not get behind the destruction of an evil cult so that an impoverished village can become prosperous again?

As Indy and co. get closer to Pankot Palace, Spielberg does a nice job of gradually introducing an ominous tone as our heroes uncover a Thuggee altar decorated with severed fingers and limbs while swarms of vampire bats populate the sky indicating that they are getting closer to the heart of darkness in this particular jungle. Once they arrive at the palace, Spielberg immerses us in Indian culture and has a bit of gross-out humor as Willie and Short Round are subjected to local delicacies: a snake cut open to reveal smaller snakes, beetles, soup with eyeballs floating in it, and for dessert chilled monkey brains. It is a bit of frivolous juvenile humor while Indy and the palace bureaucrat Prime Minister Chatter Lal (Roshan Seth) discuss the region’s history.

Not surprisingly, Temple of Doom really takes off once Indy uncovers a secret passage to the bowels of the palace. It is here that Lucas and Spielberg really push the PG rating envelope as far as it could go in 1984. Our heroes witness a Thuggee ceremony that features its chief priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rip a beating heart out of a living man only to see him lowered into a molten lava pit. It’s not graphic per se but it is pretty disturbing, made even more so by the terrified reactions of the man and Willie. It does an impressive job of establishing just how evil this cult is and sets up Mola Ram as a formidable opponent.


Things get even darker, if that’s possible, when our heroes are captured. Short Round is whipped and sent to work in the mine with the other children from the village, Willie is prepared to be Mola Ram’s next sacrifice and, worst of all, Indy is tortured and forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” which brainwashes him over to the Thuggee cult. If that wasn’t enough, we get scenes of emaciated children being beaten and whipped, which threatens to take us out of the film with its almost sadistic overtones.

Harrison Ford gets to play a much richer range of emotions in Temple of Doom than he did in Raiders, starting in suave Bond mode before shifting gears to the Indy we all know and love. From there the actor gets to engage Kate Capshaw in screwball comedy banter and then gets to play evil when he’s possessed by the Thuggee cult. This part of the film is particularly chilling as we see the good doctor try and fight it but ultimately succumbs to the dark side. The evil look Ford gives once he has been turned to the Thuggees, coupled with the infernal light that bathes his face, is a truly unsettling sight. It allows Ford to show off a versatility that he didn’t in Raiders.

Willie Scott’s initial role in Temple of Doom is to act as Indy’s foil, trading insults in screwball comedy fashion but once they arrive in India, her role changes to annoying whiner, pointing out how yucky the local cuisine (thereby embarrassing Indy in front of the villagers) is and how icky the local wildlife is to her. I understand that Willie is a nightclub singer used to a pampered, luxurious life in the big city but her constant complaining is an irritant. After the feisty sexiness of Marion Ravenwood as brought so vividly to life by Karen Allen in Raiders, who could readily adapt to a given situation and actually help Indy once in a while, Willie is a major step down, acting more often like the requisite damsel in distress than an equal. Indy often spends too much time early on chastising her.


I don’t blame Kate Capshaw, who does the best with what she’s given, but rather Lucas who was going through a messy divorce at the time of the film’s inception and channeled those dark feelings into the screenplay written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, which feels more mean-spirited with a sadistic streak that is a tad disturbing. One feels as if Lucas and Spielberg intend Willie to be the audience surrogate, confirming our revulsion with foreign customs and culture that we don’t understand. She’s comic relief as evident in one scene where she clumsily tries to climb on an elephant only to get on backwards, which sums up her character perfectly. In the next scene, she falls of said elephant and complains about everything, much to Indy’s complete and utter disinterest. Then, when they camp for the night, Willie runs afoul of every creature in the surrounding area and proceeds to scream at the top of her lungs.

All of the darkness that our heroes confront in Temple of Doom makes Indy’s redemption and taking on the Thuggee cult that much more rewarding because Lucas and Spielberg have built up Mola Ram and his followers as the very epitome of evil. We want to see them destroyed and the children freed, which the film obliges in spectacular fashion, culminating in an exciting rope bridge confrontation. Like the other films in the series, Indy doesn’t end up with the treasure in the end. In what is probably the most altruistic of all the films, he recovers the village’s Sankara stone and gives it back to their chief along with all their children. For Indy, seeing a village restored and an evil cult destroyed is better than the fortune and glory he pursued at the beginning of the film.


Temple of Doom used to be widely regarded as the weakest film of the Indiana Jones franchise and with good reason. Indy is saddled with a love interest that spends most of her screen time either whining or screaming in fright. The film also treads the fine line of racism by portraying the people of India as noble, impoverished savages that must be saved by the cultured white man. In attempt to outdo the stunts in Raiders, Temple of Doom ups the ante but it comes across as a bit of overkill. The film lacks Raiders’ heart and soul. And yet, for all of its faults, Temple of Doom is no longer the weakest film in the series thanks to The Crystal Skull, but it did serve as a valuable lesson to Lucas and Spielberg of the dangers of going to extremes and straying too far from what made Raiders so appealing, which they fortunately rectified with The Last Crusade.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

The 1980s action blockbuster movie was dominated by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme (among others) – muscle-bound one-man armies that killed scores of bad guys with guns, brawn and cheesy one-liners. Along came Bruce Willis in 1988 with Die Hard, tweaking the formula by playing a guy perpetually in way over his head, tired, hurt, and using his brains as much if not more than his brawn to defeat the bad guys. Audiences were drawn to his tough yet vulnerable wisecracking character John McClane. The movie was a massive success and the inevitable sequel followed. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) didn’t stray too far from the first one (why bother messing with a good thing?) except to amp up the stunts, the body count and the explosions all the way to the bank, easily outgrossing the original.

“Merry Christmas, pal!” are the words uttered early on in the movie as John McClane’s day starts off on a sour note and will only get worse as his car is ticketed and towed despite his good-humored protests to a cop that clearly doesn’t care about his problems. It’s Christmas Eve and McClane is at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). This lack of cooperation from local law enforcement is nothing new for McClane who faced plenty of it in Die Hard and it is also foreshadows the interference he’ll experience later on in this movie.

Meanwhile, General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde by way of Manuel Noriega, is scheduled to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. However, rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and a team of mercenaries take control of the airport effectively shutting them down, which leaves several planes, including the one with Holly on it, circling and running low on fuel. Stuart plans to let Esperanza’s plane land and then demands a 747 be prepped for take-off at which point they will use it to rescue the drug lord.


Naturally, McClane receives a ton of grief from head of airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) who doesn’t like some hot dog gloryhound cop treading all over his turf. Dennis Franz is at his profane best, dropping F-bombs with gusto. Watching him and Willis trade insults inserts some much welcome levity amidst the bombastic action sequences. Here’s a memorable exchange early on:

Lorenzo: “Yeah, I know all about you and that Nakatomi thing in L.A. But just ‘cos the T.V. thinks you’re hot shit don’t make it so. Look, you’re in my little pond, now and I am the big fish that runs it. So you cap some low-life. Fine. I’ll send your fucking captain in L.A. a fucking commendation. Now, in the meantime you get the hell out of my office before I get you thrown out of my goddamn airport.”

McClane: “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”

Franz is that rare breed of actor that can casually insert profanity in his dialogue and make it flow like poetry. I almost imagine him flying in his buddy David Mamet on the studio’s dime to write his dialogue. It has that vibe to it. Of course, McClane spends the rest of the movie making him looking stupid.

This being a sequel, the novelty of the original has worn off and McClane seems a little more invincible in this one, but Bruce Willis does what he can to make his character relatable and have flaws, like when he is unable to redirect a plane that the bad guys intentionally crash. We empathize with his frustration at being unable to save the plane and his dejected, defeated face says it all. The movie does its job (maybe a little too well) of making Stuart and his men so evil that you want to see McClane take them all out.

William Sadler plays yet another in a long line of villains with his rogue colonel being a peculiar badass so comfortable with his own body that he practices his martial arts in the nude, which also happens to show off his impressively sculpted physique. It certainly is a memorable introduction to his character. Sadler plays Stuart as ruthless man not above disciplining failure by pointing a loaded gun at a subordinate’s face or, in a particularly nasty move, cause a plane full of innocent people to crash and burn on a runway.


William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia return as a smug journalist and McClane’s wife respectively, spending the entire movie trapped on an airplane together trading barbs. Among the mercenaries keep your eyes peeled for a young Robert Patrick (T2), a clean-shaven Mark Boone Jr. (Tree’s Lounge), John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope).

Much like in the first Die Hard, McClane demonstrates an uncanny knack for improvisation as evident in the first action sequence when he takes on two mercenary thugs in the baggage handling section. After he loses his gun, McClane uses a golf club and then a bicycle to take out one baddie and chase off the other. What I also like is that we see the air traffic controllers problem solve their way around Stuart and his men through good ol’ fashioned ingenuity.

Doug Richardson and Steven E.de Souza’s screenplay has just enough nods to the first movie to let us know that the filmmakers are aware that Die Hard 2 is basically a variation on the original only bigger and louder, symbolized by the iconic money shot (that is equal parts ridiculous and cool) of McClane ejecting out of a plane as it is exploding and him saying at one point, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The movie ups the ante in many respects as he faces even greater odds and is put in even greater danger.


In 1987, Walter Wager’s book 58 Minutes, a thriller that takes place in an airport, was published and within a year he received a phone call from movie producer Lawrence Gordon over at 20th Century Fox who wanted to option the film rights. As Die Hard was becoming a box office success, the studio had yet to announce the sequel but Gordon knew that it was only a matter of time. To avoid getting solicited by every agent and writer in Hollywood, he hired up and coming screenwriter Doug Richardson in 1989 to adapt Wager’s book with the intention of using it as the basis for Die Hard 2 but not telling the studio until they approached him with the project. The studio’s then-new production chief Joe Roth ordered a sequel for the summer of 1990 with principal photography to start right away in order to meet that deadline.

Wager agreed to the sell the film rights to Gordon and months went by with limited updates until one day he was told that his book was being filmed in a month and was now called Die Hard 2! He was understandably surprised and told that Richardson’s script was being rewritten by Steven de Souza who had worked on Die Hard.

Towards the end of principal photography on The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), the movie’s producer Joel Silver gave director Renny Harlin a script entitled 58 Minutes and told him it was going to be Die Hard 2. Harlin read it, liked it and asked Silver, “’Oh, who’s directing it?’ And he said ‘You.’ And I said, ‘Really? Like, next year?’ He said, ‘Well, next week, basically.’” Within a week Harlin was filming Die Hard 2 and editing Fairlane at night and on weekends.


The shoot was hardly an easy one. The movie was set during Christmas and was intended to be filmed at an airport in Denver but when the production arrived the weather was too warm. They spent the next few months chasing the snow, moving from one location to another, including stints in Washington, Michigan and the Canadian border. The production ultimately went to Los Angeles and used three refrigerated soundstages rebuilding the entire church, which was originally shot in Denver. Finally, a few more wide shots were done at Lake Tahoe, the last place they could find snow.

Die Hard 2 received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Because Die Hard 2 is so skillfully constructed and well-directed, it develops a momentum that carries it past several credibility gaps that might have capsized a lesser film.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It will surprise no one who saw the first Die Hard that the heart and soul of the new film is Bruce Willis, who this time is even better. Mr. Willis, with his self-deprecating jokes and his ability to smoke a cigarette while carrying a machine gun, remains a completely wrong-headed choice for the role of a noble, self-sacrificing hero. That’s why he’s so good.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “With flawless technical collaboration, Harlin gets airport control towers and dark New England churches to look rich and brooding for his mostly nighttime action scenes; his fireballs detonate with hell’s own roar, his stunts may be hilarious but they’re show-stoppers, and against all odds, a few of his actors manage a little humanity in all the din.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Though it has more holes than a cheese grater, the screenplay by Steven E. de Souza of Die Hard and Doug Richardson is persuasive braggadocio, a fast-churning, bloodthirsty canticle of mayhem.” Finally, in her review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carrie Rickey wrote, “Like its predecessor, it is an action movie with a sense of humor – and a human component. It also is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller that keeps you at the edge of your seat and nerves.”


Watching Die Hard 2 again is a potent reminder of a time when Willis still cared about acting and didn’t phone it in like he’s done in the last two movies in the franchise that don’t deserve the Die Hard moniker. Most fans agree that they should have stopped with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which was a fitting way to end things on a high note but as long as they make money and Willis is up for it there will be another installment in this tired franchise.


SOURCES

Sullivan, Mike. “Die Hard’s Secret Sequel.” Creative Screenwriting. May 27, 2014.

Wager, Walter. “What Hollywood Did to His Novel…And He Loved It.” Los Angeles Times. July 28, 1990.


Willman, Chris. “Renny Harlin Finds Plenty of Action in Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. July 4, 1990.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

It has been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) concluded a trilogy of post-apocalyptic films by Australian filmmaker George Miller and featured the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a cop who lost his family to a gang of marauding bikers in Mad Max (1979), came to the rescue of a group of survivors in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and was the savior to a group of children in the aforementioned Thunderdome. Over the course of the three films, Max underwent a complete character arc, going from a man who loses his humanity in the first film, begins to regain it in the second film and comes full circle in the last one.

For Miller, Thunderdome was intended to close the book on this world… or so he thought. Several years ago, ideas for a new Mad Max film came to him and he even came close to making it on more than one occasion, including originally with Mel Gibson returning only for him to eventually be replaced by Tom Hardy, but forces beyond his control delayed production until a couple of years ago. The end result is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Miller’s return to his distinctive brand of kinetic action and visual storytelling that made the Mad Max films so influential, spawning countless imitators.

Miller starts things off quickly and economically as he establishes Max’s (Tom Hardy) backstory and the world he inhabits only to see him immediately captured by a vicious cult led by their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who doles out water sparingly to his impoverished population. He sends out his warriors, known as War Boys, chief among them the bionic-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to scavenge for precious fuel.


The scale and scope of Joe’s post-apocalyptic civilization is incredible, putting the Bartertown from Thunderdome to shame. Miller makes a point of showing how this society functions and sustains itself by growing food and using women’s breast milk for sustenance with the populace living in fear of the tyrannical Joe who rules with an iron fist.

Max is enslaved and used as a living source of blood for sick War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa takes off with Joe’s Five Wives, beautiful women specifically selected for breeding, he saddles up his considerable motorized armada and goes after her. Max is chained to the front of Nux’s vehicle like a hood ornament. Furiosa not only has to worry about Joe and the War Boys, but also other marauders from neighboring turfs known as Gas Town and Bullet Farm respectively. Through a series of mishaps, the resourceful Max escapes from captivity and forms a very uneasy alliance with Furiosa as they try to escape Joe and his army to a land she calls the “Green Place,” from her childhood. The rest of Fury Road plays out in a series of intense chase sequences punctuated by scenes that allow the characters (and us) to catch our breath.

Tom Hardy, a Method-y, physical actor, is perfectly cast as Max, stepping into the iconic role originally portrayed by Mel Gibson. As an actor, Hardy possesses little vanity, wearing a metal mask over his face for a good 30 minutes of the film, barely saying anything and when he does Max turns out to be a man of very few words or a grunt. He barely speaks early on because he’s been out in the wasteland for too long, starved of human contact only to be enslaved where he’s brutalized into submission. It is only once he spends time with Furiosa and the Five Wives does he begin to speak again. Over the course of the film they humanize him. Max remains something of an enigma, which is how he works best as a character. The less we know the better. We only get fragments of his past through nightmarish visions and fevered-dream hallucinations.


Hardy is an excellent foil to Charlize Theron who plays a more verbal character – one that is driven to a cause: take the Five Wives to the Promised Land and finally be free from Joe’s oppressive rule and his world where women are breeders, subservient to men. Furiosa is as tough as Max if not more so but she also has a reason to live unlike Max who functions on a primal instinct of survival. She and Max have a Howard Hawksian relationship born out of mutual respect as they work together towards a common goal. Like Max, she is a survivor, dealing with her own painful past, hoping to outrun it as she hopes to outrun Joe and his army. She is Max’s equal and as much a protagonist of the film as he is.

Miller takes us through a series of spectacular chase sequences, one more insane and ambitious than the next, including one that takes place in a massive sandstorm complete with twisters and cars exploding! Fury Road features some of the most crazed stunts and they are all the more impressive when one realizes that they were all done practically with a minimum of CGI enhancement. In this day and age of CGI-saturated blockbusters there is something refreshing about Miller’s fusing of an old school approach with contemporary technology.

The vehicles are brilliant Frankensteinian creations courtesy of Colin Gibson who seems to be channeling Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on acid. He has assembled a funky hodgepodge of hot rods and muscle cars fused together in extreme ways so that they make the ones in The Road Warrior look like tinker toys. Some of these vehicles are outfitted with metal spikes so that they resemble motorized porcupines. There’s one that takes the body of a 1970s Plymouth Valiant and adds tank treads. Joe drives something called the Gigahorse – two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes welded together and then souped up with a pair of big block Chevrolet V-8 engines. Max’s iconic 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe from the first two films even makes an appearance.


In a fantastic coup, Miller managed to get legendary cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) out of self-imposed retirement to give Fury Road a distinctive look. Instead of resorting to the drab, monochromatic look of so many films of its ilk, he and Miller adopt a sunbaked look for the day scenes and a cool, gun-metal blue look for the night scenes. Just because this is a slam-bang action movie doesn’t mean it can’t look stunningly beautiful at the same time.

Fury Road reinforces just how safe and formulaic blockbuster action movies like the Fast and Furious franchise have been for years by delivering a deliciously subversive film that contains all the requisite thrills you expect from the genre and then some. As Miller said in an interview, “I just love action movies. For me, the most universal language and the purest syntax of cinema is in the action movies.” Every frame of Fury Road is instilled with this love and infectious energy – an impressive feat for a 70-year-old filmmaker who has once again has set the standard for everyone else. I imagine, like with the previous Mad Max films, they’ll be countless imitators. Accept no substitutes for this film is the real deal.


SOURCES

Hill, Logan. “Mad Max: What It Takes to Make the Most Intense Movie Ever.” Wired. May 11, 2015.


Walker, Michael. “How Mad Max’s Megacars Were Melded.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 12, 2015.