"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Tenet

Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker that with every movie he makes sets out to challenge himself, whether its an unconventional narrative with Memento (2000) or making a non-franchise movie like Inception (2010) at a time when studios rarely greenlight projects not already based on an established property. He is a rare Hollywood studio filmmaker capable of making original big-budgeted movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars. This has given him the clout to make his boldest movie yet – Tenet (2020), a sprawling spy thriller that explores the manipulation of time.

This movie is a testament to the kind of juice Nolan has within the industry. He is able to command a budget over $200 million starring John David Washington, whose casting as the movie’s lead must have raised eyebrows with studio executives as he has no experience with a project of this magnitude or the kind of drawing power of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConnaughy – actors who helped sell Nolan’s previous ambitious fare. Even the casting of Robert Pattinson as Washington’s co-star was something of a risk as he is no longer the bankable Twilight heartthrob he once was having rejected Hollywood for the most part to appear in foreign and independent films.

Nolan is also employing a deliberately demanding narrative at a time when Hollywood wants to spoon-feed audiences that have been conditioned over decades to expect formulaic product. This may explain why his name factors so prominently in the movie’s marketing as with the absence of a big name movie star he has become the star. Is this something the ambitious filmmaker wanted all along – to be a distinctive brand name like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg? Or, has he bitten off more than he can chew and will Tenet finally end his streak of profitable popcorn movies with more on their minds than car chases and explosions?

The movie begins with an impressively orchestrated sting operation at the National Opera House in Kiev with an unnamed CIA operative known only as the Protagonist (Washington) liberating an exposed spy and obtaining a mysterious device. He’s caught and tortured by Russian agents but manages to take a cyanide pill before divulging any information and dies. Or does he? He wakes up in a hospital bed from a medically-induce coma. Officially declared dead, thus taking him off everyone’s radar, he’s given an assignment by his boss (Martin Donovan): prevent World War III from happening. This is tagged with a bit of advice: “All I have for you is a gesture with a combination with a word: tenet. Use it carefully. It’ll open the right doors but some of the wrong ones, too.” This last line is particularly relevant to understanding what happens later on in the movie.

With the help of a fellow operative named Neil (Pattinson), the Protagonist discovers that the man responsible for triggering World War III is a powerful Russian oligarch by the name of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). To get close to him, he befriends his unhappy wife (Elizabeth Debicki) by appealing to her interest in fine art. The rest of the movie plays out the Protagonist’s mission to get to Sator and discover how he’s going to bring about the end of the world and stop it from happening.

Some have complained that Tenet is too complicated and the plot too hard to follow. Is it maybe that we’ve had our senses dulled by an endless stream of mostly mindless big budget blockbusters that do little to challenge us? Nolan provides plenty of exposition rest stops along the way to explain what’s going on, such as the scientist (Clemence Poesy) the protagonist meets early on that gives us a taste of movie’s central conceit: a technology known as “inversion” that sees objects and people traveling backwards in time by reversing their entropy. Or, as she puts it at a gun range where the bullet travels back into the gun instead of hitting its target, “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.” He gradually fleshes this concept out over the course of the movie until the last third where, admittedly, things do get a little tough to follow but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the exciting climax.

Tenet features some of Nolan’s best choreographed action set pieces, from the opening sting in Kiev to the stealing and crashing of a jumbo jet liner into a building that is as impressive as anything in Inception. The opera house sting, in particular, is right out of the Michael Mann playbook in the way it is staged and the use of dense tech lingo as Nolan drops us right into the middle of the action with little to no explanation, reminiscent of the opening sequence in Miami Vice (2006).

John David Washington is excellent as the no-nonsense protagonist who tells someone early on, “I’m not the man they send into negotiate. Or the man they send in to make deals, but I am the man people talk to.” The actor deftly juggles action sequences with dialogue-heavy ones effortlessly. He plays a rather enigmatic fellow with little to no backstory thus forcing us to get know him through his actions in the movie.

He plays well off of Robert Pattinson’s quirky operative. It’s the juicier role and the actor has fun providing much-needed levity at just the right moments in this otherwise po-faced movie, much as Tom Hardy did in Inception. For example, when he and the Protagonist are talking about stealing and crashing a jumbo jet liner, the latter asks, “How big of a plane?” to which the former says sheepishly, “That part is a little dramatic.” The way Pattinson delivers this line is a wonderful bit of subtle comic timing.

Kenneth Branagh plays a vicious Russian billionaire with malevolent intensity. Nolan wisely prolongs his introduction for as long as he can so that the character’s reputation precedes him and our anticipation of his first appearance increases. Sator is a power hungry bully with a crucial edge – he communes with the future for a very specific reason that isn’t the usual mad man villain stuff we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.

Ludwig Göransson replaces Nolan’s long-time go-to composer Hans Zimmer and the movie is better for it. With a few exceptions, he eschews Zimmer’s sledgehammer orchestrations for pulsating electronics that provide the movie’s moody backbone and enhance Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which adopts a grounded, realistic look reminiscent of Inception.

It’s no secret that one of Nolan’s burning ambitions is to make a Bond movie. He doesn’t need to anymore. With Inception and now Tenet he’s made two spy movies jacked-up on science fiction steroids and done it his way with the kind of creative freedom the Bond producers would never allow. With this movie it feels like he has pushed the techno spy thriller as far as it can go by introducing grand science fiction concepts that turn the genre on its head.

What is Nolan’s ultimate end game? He has reached the point in his career where he has the creative freedom to control every aspect of his movies and so everything in it – the muffled dialogue, the overpowering music and sound effects – is intentional. Nolan wants to be regarded as a serious filmmaker such as Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick – two of his cinematic idols – are considered serious auteurs. He lacks that special something that those filmmakers have, transcending genre trappings to create films that are groundbreaking and unique in ways other than on a technical level.

Nolan is at his best when making cerebral spy thrillers like Inception or gritty comic book movies like The Dark Knight trilogy. He doesn’t do touchy-feely sentiment very well, which is why the emotions expressed in Interstellar (2014) felt forced. He’s not a warm filmmaker like Spielberg but more of a puppet-master like Kubrick. Nolan’s movies work best when he uses emotion like a garnish, sprinkling it sparsely over his story. Tenet is a strong, bold effort that invites repeated viewings, not to get past its aggressive sound mix, but to unravel the timelines of the three main characters who are complicated through the plot machinations of the movie.

Friday, August 7, 2020

American Graffiti

“The anthropologist side of me never went away and…the whole innocence of the ‘50s, the mating rituals of the ‘50s, the uniquely American mating ritual of meeting the opposite sex in cars was very fascinating to me…I saw the beginning of the ‘60s as a real transition in the culture in the way, because of the Vietnam War, and all the things we were going through and I wanted to make a movie about it.” – George Lucas

There is a fascinating push-pull friction going on in American Graffiti (1973) between George Lucas the anthropologist with the use of long lenses and takes observing his subjects and Lucas the autobiographer with his close-ups on the compelling dramatic moments of his characters going through events either he experienced or people he knew. The film is at times nostalgic for this bygone era and at other times chronicling it from a distance, which may explain why it has aged surprisingly well as a time capsule of that time period and of Lucas as an artist when he made it, before he would create a franchise empire that would overshadow everything else he has done.

The film follows four young men and the women in their lives on the last night of summer vacation in 1962. We are introduced to the first three in a long shot arriving in their respective vehicles at a local diner in Modesto, California. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is deciding whether or not to college on the east coast. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is also going off to school and can’t believe that his friend is having doubts, pointing out that this is finally their chance to escape their dead-end town and avoid ending up like John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the local drag racer that never grew up and has a reputation for having the fastest car. Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is entrusted with Steve’s ’58 Chevy Impala while he’s away at school and spends the night trying to get laid.

Curt, Steve and his girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) start the night off by going to the freshman hop at their high school to remember all of “the good times” as Curt puts it, which sets John off: “I ain’t going off to some goddamn fancy college. I’m staying here right here! Having fun, as usual.” This hints at the trouble he won’t say but we know. He feels left behind while they go off to college. He wants things to stay the same; later complaining that rock ‘n’ roll has gone downhill since Buddy Holly died.

The characters soon go their separate ways and Lucas the anthropologist cuts to a montage of cars cruising up and down the main street of the town. This was a nightly ritual that began back in the 1950s and continued on into 1960s and beyond – teenagers would go riding in their cars making fun of each other, getting into trouble and picking each other up. We see John in his element for this is where he feels most comfortable. He’s the king of the strip. All the while, Lucas has music playing with famed radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack’s colorful banter between songs. The music acts as a Greek chorus, complimenting and commenting on what we are seeing.

The guys’ lives are complicated by the women they are either involved with or encounter over the course of the night. With John, it’s when he agrees to pick-up Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), a young girl and not a beautiful woman as he was led to believe. Curt spots a mysterious striking blonde woman (Suzanna Sommers) in a car mouthing what he believes are the words, “I love you,” and spends the rest of the film trying to find her. Steve and Laurie start off by agreeing to see other people while they’re away at college but that quickly goes south when they get into a fight at the dance. This tension flares and simmers over the course of the night. Finally, Terry picks up a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark) off the street and they go through a series of misadventures.

The split personalities of Lucas the documentarian and the autobiographer are most apparent early on during the depiction of the freshman sock hop that Curt, Steve and Laurie attend, which is much more interesting than the melodrama that erupts between the latter couple. Lucas is a depicting a ritual from a bygone era that he actually experienced, which gives the sequence an air of authenticity. Once again, Lucas’ documentarian side comes to the foreground as he meticulously recreates this dance right down to the band Herby and the Heartbeats (Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) playing the music and the dance moves of the kids. Lucas the self-mythologizer takes over when we see Curt wandering the empty, darkened halls of the high school. He ends up talking to a teacher (Terry McGovern) chaperoning the dance and asking him about his college experience. He only lasted a semester before going home after deciding he wasn’t “the competitive type.” This only feeds into Curt’s doubts.

Of the four main characters Curt and John are the most interesting, even getting the film’s most poignant moments. Steve is your typical all-American class president type and Terry is a dweeb that just wants to get laid. Curt, in comparison, starts off with the dilemma of going to college or staying put, then becomes obsessed with a blonde woman in a car and this leads him to being shanghaied by local greaser gang The Pharaohs who force him to pull a series of pranks as a form of initiation. Richard Dreyfuss is charming and funny in the role, especially how he interacts with others, using humor to both deflect insults and keep himself out of trouble as we see with his misadventures with The Pharaohs.

Curt’s brief stint as a juvenile delinquent is both amusing and a bit harrowing as The Pharaohs put him in danger on two separate occasions but he is able to use his affable personality to get out of these sticky situations. Dreyfuss plays well off of Bo Hopkins’ genial yet menacing greaser. There’s always the implied threat of violence hanging over them but Curt manages to pull off the tasks he’s given and survive the night.

John starts off as a typical hot rodder interested only in cars and picking up women but the more time he spends with Carol his true character emerges. Initially, they have an antagonistic relationship, as he’s embarrassed to be seen with this young kid, afraid it will damage his reputation. She feels like no one likes her, not her older sister Judy who dumped her with John or this grease monkey who is trying to get rid of her. Mackenzie Phillips does an excellent job of showing that Carol is more than an annoying brat. She wants to hang out with the older kids and be taken seriously.

They take a walk through a junkyard and John points out a few cars and their histories, such as the people that died in them. He’s managed to avoid that fate so far and stay the fastest guy on the strip. It is a quiet, poignant moment between these two characters where they put their differences aside. Paul Le Mat is excellent in this scene as John lets his cool façade down for a few minutes and shows a vulnerable side to Carol. In their next scene together, he helps her terrorize a car of girls that threw a water balloon at her. It is an important bonding experience for them as it is no longer two of them sniping at each other but them working together against a common foe. Their night ends on a sweet note as he finally drops her off at her house and gives her a part from his car – a little memento of their night together. It means the world to her as she runs off into the house while he heads off into the night with a wry smile.

Curt’s payoff comes when, in a last ditch Hail Mary to get in touch with the mysterious blonde, he goes to the local radio station to get a dedication played in the hopes she’ll contact him. He meets the night D.J. who doesn’t claim to be the mythological Wolfman but promises to relay the dedication to the man. As Curt leaves the station he looks back and sees the D.J. adopt the Wolfman’s distinctive voice and smiles with the knowledge that few others have.

American Graffiti heads towards its exciting climactic showdown between John and Bob Falfa (played to cocky perfection by Harrison Ford), an unknown drag racer in a black ’55 Chevy One-Fifty Coupe who has been looking for him all night. It’s dawn when the two head out of town to race. John has been dreading this moment, as he knows Falfa’s car is faster than his, thanks to a brief encounter earlier that night, but the would-be challenger crashes his car. Terry gushes about John’s win and in a rare moment of candor among his friends, tells him that he would’ve lost. Terry won’t hear it and hypes him and his car. John goes along with it, snapping back into “character” as it were. After all, being the top hot rodder is all he has in life and he knows it. In that moment, he comes to terms with it.

One can’t stress the importance of music in this film enough. It is everywhere. The first thing we hear is a radio being tuned to a station with the characters listening to it or having it play in the background throughout the film with the legendary Wolfman Jack commenting occasionally between songs. Music is often used to establish a mood and take us back to the time period as evident early on when “Sixteen Candles” plays over a shot of cars parked at Mel’s Diner, or showing cars cruising up and down the main drag to “Runaway” by Del Shannon as Lucas the anthropologist observes these people in their natural habitat, chronicling their nightly rituals.

For all the nostalgia that this film evokes people often forget the darker elements that gradually appear towards the end as Laurie is almost killed in a car accident. Lucas delivers the most powerful, emotional gut punch at the end with an epilogue that bluntly states the death of one of the main characters and another MIA in Vietnam. In an incredible example of tonal whiplash, the Beach Boys’ cheery “All Summer Long” plays over the credits ending things on a bittersweet note.

With every passing year there are fewer people that can answer the American Graffiti poster’s tag line question, “Where were you in ’62?” Lucas takes us back to a more innocent time when John F. Kennedy was still President of the United States and before a series of political assassinations, coupled with the Vietnam War, divided the country. We have this knowledge and are aware that these characters are on the cusp of all of this happening but are currently blissfully unaware. The farther we get away from the year that the film is set and the less people still alive who can remember it, American Graffiti becomes less of a nostalgia piece and more of a snapshot of a certain time and place, capturing Lucas as a young man before his life became complicated with filmmaking and empire building.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Reflections in a Golden Eye

In a career as vast as Elizabeth Taylor’s, you’re bound to find the occasional oddity or strange outlier that doesn’t get mentioned often or is given much attention but is just peculiar enough to invite rediscovery. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) is such a film. It started out as a way for Taylor to get her long-time friend and fellow actor Montgomery Clift an acting gig and boost his spirits after surviving a horrific car accident that shattered his good looks and confidence. It eventually became a twisted Southern gothic tale starring Marlon Brando opposite Taylor, directed by none other than John Huston who imposed its distinctive golden filter over every scene.

The film chronicles the dysfunctional marriage of Major Weldon Penderton (Brando) and his wife Leonora (Taylor) who likes riding horses and having an affair with Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), good friends with her husband. Private Williams (Robert Forster) is a young man that tends to Leonora’s horse and does yard work for the Penderton’s. He becomes obsessed with the couple and in particular Leonora, observing their most private moments from their yard at night.

We are introduced to the three main characters in a way that tells us something important about each one of them. Williams is a gentle soul that enjoys hanging around the stable, taking care of the horses. Weldon is a vain man obsessed with making himself look better as evident by the way he admires himself in a mirror after a workout, flexing his muscles. Leonora is all about what makes her happy, whether it’s making sure all the details for an impending party are just right or her affair with Morris.

Weldon and Leonora have a loveless relationship that borders on the contentious. She likes to have fun and he’s a humorless man, which begs the question, was it always like this? Were they ever happy together? Now, they have an antagonistic relationship as typified when he chastises her for walking around the house in bare feet. She responds by taking off all her clothes and walking around the house, which only infuriates him more. As she heads upstairs, Leonora simply turns, looks over her shoulder and says, “Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman?” While Brando seethes and chews up the scenery, Taylor wisely plays it low-key with simmering contempt. If Weldon is repressed then Leonora is the complete opposite, an exhibitionist who has no problem expressing how she feels at given moment.

This is a juicy role for Elizabeth Taylor to sink her teeth into as she vamps it up as a boozy, spoiled housewife with voracious appetites. She relishes her dialogue and delights in Leonora’s rebellious behavior towards Weldon and cheerfully condescends to Alison (Julie Harris). She is blissfully oblivious to everyone else’s problems, going on about her preparations for the party or casually dismissing Alison’s flamboyantly gay houseboy Anacleto’s (Zorro David) obvious disdain for her.

Marlon Brando is terrific playing a tragic figure trapped in a repressive prison and wanting so desperately to escape it. The scene where he is almost killed while riding a runaway horse is a powerful one as it culminates in a complete emotional breakdown. All of Weldon’s suppressed emotions come bubbling to the surface, erupting like a volcano in a powerfully acted moment by the actor. He can’t harm is wife directly so he punishes her in more insidious ways, such as taking out her beloved horse Firebird. When it nearly kills him after he provokes the animal, Weldon viciously whips it with a tree branch. He’s clearly venting his anger at Leonora out on this poor horse. Weldon is doing this as much to punish her as himself, lying to his wife about beating Firebird so that when she finds out and comes back understandably enraged, she begins striking him with a riding crop while he just stands there and takes it.

Williams is an enigmatic figure. Why is he so fascinated with these people? His obsession with them only grows as the film goes on. Robert Forster delivers an intriguing, largely wordless performance as a voyeuristic young man that spends most of his time observing the Penderton’s disintegrating marriage. Williams often stares impassively, his obsession guiding his actions as he increasingly takes more risks to spy on Leonora. He even goes so far as to breaking into their house, going into her bedroom and watching her as she sleeps.

Julie Harris plays Morris’ long-suffering wife, still dealing with the death of her child three years ago. The only comfort she finds is with Anacleto, a colorful character with a flair for the dramatic as he cuts loose while Morris looks on disdainfully. Zorro David delivers a wonderful monologue about a dream he had in such an odd way that anticipates similar showstopping moments in David Lynch films. His character would not be out of place in one of them. It's a shame David never made another film after this one as his onscreen presence is absolutely riveting.

Everyone in the cast is going for it, playing their respective roles to the hilt, be it Brando’s repressed major, Taylor’s lusty housewife, Forster’s stoic voyeur or Harris’ tragic wife.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a beautiful shot film by Aldo Tonti with a golden filter that saturates the entire film with one object in a given scene naturally colored. This is in reference to Anacleto’s drawing of a golden peacock whose eye reflects the world. The film also features excellent use of shadows during night-time scenes where Williams spies on the Penderton’s, creeping around the outside of their house. There is another stand-out shot of a train, enshrouded in smoke, leaving the station at dawn.

After saving Montgomery Clift’s life in a horrendous nearly fatal automobile accident, Elizabeth Taylor had been trying to find a project for them work together on. The accident not only physically disfigured him but also had a huge psychological impact and his subsequent reliance on drugs and alcohol made him almost unemployable. In 1964, his agent suggested that they star in an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, a Southern gothic story about sexual repression. Clift was to play a latent homosexual army officer that becomes fixated on a young private. Taylor was to play opposite Clift as his wife and object of the private’s obsession.

Producer Ray Stark was understandably worried about insuring Clift and told the actor he’d have to put up his beloved brownstone as collateral. He was so desperate for work he considered but Taylor wouldn’t hear it and announced to the press that she and Clift were making the film together – their first since Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). When Stark asked her to reconsider, she offered to give up her salary to pay for his insurance.

Complications arose when Taylor told Clift that her husband Richard Burton wanted to co-star and direct the film. Not only did Clift not consider Burton a serious actor but also felt uncomfortable in the presence of the Welsh alpha male. Burton eventually decided not to do the film and John Huston was hired to direct. Unfortunately, Clift died in July 1966 and was subsequently replaced by Marlon Brando at the suggestion of Taylor.

Production on the film began in October 1966 in Rome where Burton and Taylor had been filming the play Doctor Faustus. It was a ten-week shoot with Brando often going out to dinner with Burton and Taylor. The film’s distinctive golden amber look was a result of extensive experimentation for a specific effect as Huston remarked, “This served to separate the audience somewhat from the characters, who were in various ways withdrawn from reality, and to make their story a bit more remote and erotic.”

An executive at Warner Brothers objected to the look of the film and Huston was able to convince the studio to release his version in select cities. Reflections in a Golden Eye received poor reviews and did not perform well at the box office. Variety said, “Brando struts about and mugs as the stuffy officer whose Dixie dialect is often incoherent.” Newsweek said that the film was “devoid of style and grace,” and called it “perverted.” The New York Times criticized the film’s “odd and pretentious use of color to convey the notion of reflections in a golden eye, I suppose that is, the suffusion of the whole thing in a fluctuating golden wash or monotone.” Finally, Pauline Kael gave it one of its more merciful reviews, stating, “Despite everything that is laboriously wrong with Reflections, the visual style – like paintings made from photographs – is interesting and the director, John Huston, and the actors are able to do some extraordinary things with Carson McCuller’s conceptions.” Technicolor prints had been struck at the same time as Huston’s version and replace them when the film was given a wider release.

The Penderton’s are a tragic couple that shouldn’t be married as he’s gay but unable to come out of the closet as a result of the repressed times and the environment in which he lives in. She, on the other hand, can’t empathize with other people as she’s so concerned with herself. Reflections in a Golden Eye is about damaged people, from the repressed Weldon to the selfish Leonora to the unhappy Alison to the obsessed Williams.

The film is also about perception – how people perceive others and themselves, from Weldon admiring himself in the mirror to Williams obsessively gazing at Leonora while she sleeps. It is an unhealthy, destructive gaze that Anacleto observes more succinctly when he shows Alison his watercolor of a peacock, explaining that in its eye are “reflections of something tiny, and tiny and…” upon struggling to find the right word, settles on “grotesque,” contorting his face. This film features grotesque caricatures of human beings doing horrible things to each other with often tragic results.


SOURCES

Kashner, Sam and Nancy Schoenberger. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. itbooks. 2011.

Phillips, Gene D. “Talking with John Huston.” Film Comment. May/June 1973.

Spoto, Donald. A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Harper Collins. 1995.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pronto

Somewhere, there’s an alternate universe where James Le Gros is playing recurring Elmore Leonard character Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens in a series of television movies instead of Timothy Olyphant in a T.V. series. Watching Le Gros in Pronto (1997) is a study in contrast of styles to what Olyphant would do later in Justified. Airing two years after Get Shorty (1995) was released in theaters, and based on the 1993 novel of the same name, Pronto clearly tries to ape it in style and tone only with less money and star power in front of the camera.

Leonard fans will find themselves on familiar turf right from the get-go as we are introduced to Harry Arno (Peter Falk), a Miami Beach bookie who’s been skimming off the top from the mob for years. He has his regular customers and haunts – everything seems to be going swimmingly until he’s tipped off by police detective friend Buck Torres (Luis Guzman) that the Feds are tapping his phone and his boss, Jimmy “The Cap” Capotorto (Walter Olkewicz), has put a hit out on him.

Pretty soon someone tries to take Harry out (although, he certainly knows how to take care of himself) and Raylan shows up in the lobby of his building. Harry invites the lawman up and we get Le Gros’ take on Raylan. He saunters in wearing a suit and a big white cowboy hat that looks completely out of place in neon-drenched Miami. He spots Harry and gives him a big, corn-fed grin, which screams hayseed and when he opens his mouth out comes the equivalent of a southern Boy Scout.

He tries to convince Harry to testify against Jimmy and in return he will protect him. Not surprisingly, Harry’s not the testifying type and gives Raylan the slip, taking refuge in an Italian town that has special significance for him from World War II. The rest of the movie plays out seeing who will find him first – Raylan or sadistic mob tough guy Tommy “The Zip” Bucks (Sergio Castellitto), who wants to make sure Harry doesn’t testify.

Peter Falk plays his usual, easy-going self, breezing his way through the movie as only he can. Harry is a smart guy, a typical Leonard protagonist who is always one step ahead of everyone else, always thinking, especially when everyone is looking for him. Le Gros initially plays Raylan as a little too cartoonish but as the movie progresses one realizes that this is a conscious choice. Raylan has created a country bumpkin-ish façade so that his enemies underestimate him. As the stakes get higher and the situations get more serious, the façade falls away and the actor brings a wonderful intensity to the role revealing a deadly determined lawman.

Pronto is directed by Jim McBride but you’d hardly know it from the flat, functional lighting in many scenes and the predictable framing. Where is the visual flair of Breathless (1983)? Where is the playful, anarchic energy of Great Balls of Fire (1989)? With the exception of some nifty transitional wipes between scenes, the man that made those films is absent. I understand, sometimes you have to do jobs to pay the bills, but one would think based on past adaptations that his visual style would be perfect for Leonard’s material, which makes this feel like a missed opportunity.


Fortunately, screenwriter Michael Butler, who penned notable crime thrillers The Gauntlet (1977) and Flashpoint (1984), does an excellent job adapting Leonard’s book, preserving the snappy dialogue, and he’s aided by a talented cast that tries to give life to his script in the way we’ve come to expect in more successful adaptations, such as Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998), it’s missing the vivid style to compliment it. Still, Falk, Glenne Headly and especially Le Gros are good enough to keep one watching until the end. Ultimately, it is unfair to compare Le Gros’ take with Olyphant. The latter had six seasons and 78 episodes to flesh out Leonard’s character and bring him to life, Le Gros had a 100 minutes and did the best with what he had to work with, delivering an engaging performance that always makes me wonder what could have been?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Hard Target

In the 1990s it seemed like Jean-Claude Van Damme was the appointed gatekeeper in Hollywood that Hong Kong action filmmakers had to get past to work in America. Between 1993 and 1997 he starred in the American debuts of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark to varying degrees of success. Despite being marred with production challenges and post-production clashes with his leading man, Woo’s movie, Hard Target (1993), is the most interesting effort of the three filmmakers even in its compromised final form. It stands as a cautionary tale rife with ignorant studio executives and an egotistical movie star.

In New Orleans, rich men pay $500,000 to hunt and kill defenseless combat veterans down on their luck for sport. These hunts are facilitated by Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his right-hand man Pik van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo). Natasha Bender (Yancy Butler) comes to town looking for her estranged father that she hasn’t seen since she was seven-years-old. Unfortunately, he was the man brutally murdered in the movie’s opening sequence.

She soon crosses paths with mysterious drifter Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), an unemployed Cajun and ex-United States Marine, when he rescues her from four random thugs accosting her in an impressively staged sequence that shows off his fighting skills. When going through official channels proves to be futile (because her father was homeless), Nat hires Chance to find her father. Their investigation uncovers Fouchon’s business and they soon find themselves being hunted by him and his rich clients.

Along with Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), Hard Target is a rare Hollywood movie to feature the plight of the homeless so prominently. Nat and Chance’s investigation takes them to through homeless population in the city and Woo’s camera lingers on their horrible living conditions. He also shows some of the jobs they must do to survive. The movie also gives noteworthy screen-time to blue collar workers in a scene where Chance tries to sign up for a merchant marine job only to find that he has outstanding union dues, which feels like Woo’s sly nod to On the Waterfront (1954) only Van Damme is no Marlon Brando. It is also sympathetic to war veterans with the targets that Fouchon picks being ex-military men who we are clearly meant to side with, including Chance.

Sporting an unfortunate mullet, Van Damme fumbles his way through the screenplay and Woo wisely tries to limit his dialogue, understanding that his leading man is much more comfortable kicking the crap out of people. He can’t even say a one-liner zinger very well. Look at how he tries to do it compared to how Arnold Vosloo does in several scenes. Obviously, he’s a better actor than Van Damme. Woo does what he can to try and impart a modicum of depth by filming Van Damme in slow motion or having lingering shots of Chance thinking, trying to figure things out.

Lance Henriksen and Woo give the character of Fouchon a bit of depth where the script is unable to by doing it visually, like in an amusing scene that starts with the baddie dressed in white playing a classical piece of music on a piano in his mansion. Is this to show that he’s not just a sadistic businessman but also a frustrated artist? Who knows? The actor is clearly having fun with the role, relishing the part of an evil capitalist that literally preys on people. Fouchon seems to honestly believe the B.S. he pitches to his clients, telling one, “It has always been the privilege of the few to hunt the many…Men who kill for the government do it with impunity. Now all we do is offer the same opportunity for private citizens.” Henriksen fleshes out his character with odd little affectations, like how Fouchon stops to fix his hair in a mirror right after Pik kills one of their flunkies, or how he carries a gun that only fires one bullet at a time (albeit a big bullet), which is extremely impractical but does illustrate the character’s ego.

Vosloo matches him beat for beat as his cultured enforcer. Like Henriksen, he has a great voice – a smooth South African accent that gives his baddie an exotic vibe. They play a sadistic tag team that don’t take too kindly when their flunkies make mistakes as evident in a scene where Fouchon and Pik discipline the man that picks their targets with a large pair of scissors. After clipping off part of the man’s ear, Pik delivers a parting shot with deadpan perfection, “Randal, I come back here – I cut me a steak.” He jams the scissors into the wall for dramatic effect that is pure Woo. The two actors play well off each other with Henriksen playing a more emotional character prone to angry outbursts while Pik is cold and emotionless. There’s a reason why these two characters get the bulk of the movie’s memorable dialogue.

Woo puts his distinctive stylistic stamp on movie right away as he employs slow motion techniques during the sequence where an unfortunate homeless man is hunted by men clad all in black riding on motorcycles (a visual nod to Woo’s previous film Hard Boiled). He also utilizes freeze frames and an editing style that shows the same action from several different angles reminiscent of his work in The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992).

No amount of studio meddling can completely neuter Woo’s full-blooded style as he inserts some of his trademark visual motifs, like white doves flying in slow motion near the movie’s hero, in this case a scene where Chance connects the dots in Nat’s father’s case. For the last 30 minutes, Woo ups the carnage to ridiculous levels as Chance forces Fouchon and his men to hunt him on his turf in a fantastically choreographed series of action set pieces in a warehouse storing old Mardi Gras floats. Woo pulls out all the stops, employing his trademark action flourishes – someone firing two guns at the same time, two men shooting at each other at close range, and other inspired bits, like a great shot of Chance kicking a can of gasoline in the air and shooting it with a shotgun, which sets it and his assailant on fire.

Even Woo’s stylishly framed shots can’t distract from ridiculous moments like when Chance punches a snake in the head to subdue it and then bites off its tail. The film’s intentional comic relief is provided late on by the welcome appearance of Wilford Brimley as Chance’s moonshine-making uncle who lives deep in the bayou and sports an outrageously scenery-chewing Cajun accent. Brimley appears to be fully aware of the silly action movie he’s in and embraces it wholeheartedly.

While working on Hard Boiled, Woo was worried about Hong Kong’s impending transfer to mainland China and the restrictions that would inevitably be put on his work by the new regime. He had always wanted to make movies in Tinseltown and, as luck would have it, he received a phone call from executive vice-president of production at 20th Century Fox’s Tom Jacobson who wanted to produce one of his films, giving him several screenplays to read. Woo also got a call from Oliver Stone who wanted to produce a modern kung-fu movie set in South Asia and Los Angeles. He gave Woo a script, which he liked but the project fell through.

After completing Hard Boiled, Woo’s business partner Terence Chang introduced him to Universal Pictures producer Jim Jacks who, at the time, had a project called Hard Target with action star Jean-Claude Van Damme already in place with a screenplay by written by former Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer. When developing the script, Jacks worked with Pfarrer and they had discussed both Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1965) and the 1932 adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game as templates. The first one didn’t work and they decided to go with the second, setting the story in New Orleans to explain Van Damme’s accent. The producer was looking for a director after Andrew Davis turned it down. Woo was given the script and liked it but needed convincing. Jacks, Pfarrer, and Van Damme flew to Hong Kong to meet with the filmmaker to talk about the project, which he agreed to do.

The studio needed convincing to hire a filmmaker known for “over-the-top, melodramatic action movies,” according to Jacks. The studio didn’t know any of Woo’s films and it wasn’t until studio chairman Tom Pollock said, “Well, he certainly can direct an action scene. So if Jean-Claude will approve him, I’ll do it with him.”

When Woo arrived for work he experienced the culture shock of being inundated with a seemingly endless supply of meetings with executives and bureaucratic red tape he had deal with before shooting began. He was also surprised that movie stars had so much power: “They had final cut approval, final draft approval, lots of final approvals! And I was so shocked because in Hong Kong the director is everything. The director has so much freedom to do whatever he wants!”

Despite a language barrier, Woo worked well with most of the cast, giving them artistic license as Arnold Vosloo remembered, the director encouraged them to “Go for it, you guys [Arnold and Lance] go off and find out who these guys are. He allowed us that freedom and luxury of doing that.” Woo worked around the language barrier early on by listening more and speaking less, conveying his points by facial expressions, gestures or a few words.

Woo also got on very well with Lance Henriksen right from the start: “When I met him, I unconsciously shook his hand bowed. It was one of those moments of absolute respect for each other,” the actor said. In return, Woo let him pick out his character’s wardrobe and allowed him to ad-lib some of his dialogue, a few lines actually made it into the final cut.

The one cast member Woo did have difficulty with was Van Damme due to his own limited ability with English, his ego and his role as one of the film’s producers. The movie star insisted that one camera be dedicated to close-ups of his oiled biceps. Woo was always waiting for Van Damme who was on his phone making deals with other studios or working on other projects while everyone else was setting up a shot. Vosloo also backs up Woo’s account of Van Damme’s behavior on set: “If he had somebody that was more willing to be a player as opposed to a star, it would have been a far better film – but Jean-Claude really hurt John.” Vosloo claimed that Van Damme would show up to the set after Woo had already set up shots and questioned his choices then told him to do it another way.

In addition to Van Damme lording his producer status over Woo, the studio was concerned that the filmmaker wouldn’t be able to handle an American film crew so they hired Sam Raimi to shadow him on the set and take over if he got in trouble. This backfired when Raimi became one of Woo’s most ardent supporters, arguing with executives over his creative freedom during post-production when Van Damme wanted to do his own cut of the film with the help of the chief editor from the studio behind Woo’s back until Raimi stepped in:

“Of course, I was so upset, you know. ‘It's not right! This is my movie, I should do my own cut!’ And Sam wasn't happy as well, so he arranged a big meeting. He got together all the producers and the editor and he was screaming in the meeting! ‘This is a John Woo movie! Let John do his work!’ And he made everybody back off, and I was so grateful.”

Unfortunately, Raimi could only do so much and in addition to running into studio interference, Woo’s cut of the film ran afoul of the MPAA who made him cut it down from an X rating for violence to a more marketable R rating. The critical reception wasn’t much better. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Hard Target does what it can to present Mr. Van Damme in a bold new light. Curiously, the film's neo-Peckinpah taste for slow motion gives Mr. Van Damme's stunts a balletic quality that diminishes their spontaneity." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote, "Essentially, Hard Target is a risk-averse Van Damme vehicle, steered by many hands, and set on tracks leading directly to the delivery entrances of the country's video stores. Woo isn't the driver by any means. He's just a VIP passenger along for the ride."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "Woo’s particular brand of idiosyncratic sentimentality, however, is largely absent (a victim, apparently, of the testing process), as is Chow Yun-fat, the star of all of Woo’s most recent films and the director’s alter ego. Van Damme, the erstwhile 'Muscles From Brussles,' turns out to be an insufficient replacement, woodenly stymieing all of Woo’s persistent attempts to mythologize him via careful use of slow-motion photography.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "By the time Hard Target reaches its amazing climax, set in a warehouse stocked with surreal Mardi Gras floats, the film has become an incendiary action orgy, as joyously excessive as the grand finale in a fireworks show. Woo puts the thrill back into getting blown away."

Woo fared better with his next movie Broken Arrow (1996), which still diluted his style and thematic preoccupations but it did bring him together with John Travolta, hot off Pulp Fiction (1994), and who would become an important collaborator on his most creatively successful Hollywood film, Face/Off (1997), which allowed the filmmaker to finally cut loose stylistically and thematically, having learned how things worked within the studio system.


SOURCES

Keeley, Pete. “Hard Target at 25: John Woo on Fighting for Respect.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 24, 2018.

Hall, Kenneth E. John Woo: The Films. McFarland & Co. 2005.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Open Range


Kevin Costner was already an acclaimed and popular actor when he starred in and directed Dances with Wolves (1990). The film was a critical and commercial success but he soon became too ambitious for his own good with the disastrous, high-profile one-two punch of Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997). The critics turned on him and they failed to connect with a mainstream audience like Dances had, prompting him to focus more on acting and be choosier with his directing gigs.

Open Range (2003) saw Costner not only return to the western genre but also to the director’s chair after six years. As he did with Dances, the filmmaker put up his own money to help make the film and adjusted his ambitions by making a straight-up crowd-pleasing story that married the entertaining thrills of a western like Tombstone (1993) with the no frills meditation on violence of Unforgiven (1992).

Four men are driving a herd of cattle through an open range in Montana, 1882. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner) are the two veteran cowboys aided by two inexperienced young men Mose Harrison (Abraham Benrubi) and Button (Diego Luna). The film quickly establishes the dynamic between these men as they wait out an intense thunderstorm by playing cards. After the storm passes, Costner shows the men performing daily chores with little bits of business like how Charley approaches a skittish horse. Every man pulls his own weight as Mose says to Button and we see them work together to get their wagon out of the mud from the storm. Driving cattle is hard work and Costner doesn’t let us forget it. He also indulges in the romance of it with a montage of lovingly crafted shots of cattle being herded over the countryside.

On the surface, Boss is the grizzled cantankerous veteran, Charley is the ex-gunslinger with a dark past while Mose and Button are like brothers. It’s a testament to the skill of these four actors that after only spending ten minutes with their characters we are right there with them due to their camaraderie. We are invested in their story. When these men work and live off the land together like they have, a permanent bond develops between them. When this dynamic is threatened we want to see those responsible get their comeuppance.

When Mose fails to return from a supply run at a nearby town, Charley and Boss go investigate. They find out that he’s in jail after mixing it up with some local cattlemen. It sounds out of character for Mose and a conversation with Marshal Poole (James Russo) confirms that something isn’t right. Sure enough, local cattle baron Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) chimes in. He doesn’t like free grazers like Boss and Charley because he doesn’t want the competition. He threatens them and they take the badly beaten Mose to Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott) and his beautiful assistant Sue (Annette Bening). Of course, Baxter won’t let things go and sends four masked men to intimidate them. The inevitable confrontation results in tragic consequences and the rest of Open Range plays out Charley and Boss getting revenge on Baxter and his men.

Costner expertly uses the widescreen aspect ratio right out of the gate as the title card appears over a wide vista with a cattle drive dwarfed by ominous storm clouds off in the distance. It not only gives a sense of place but also sets the mood. It is this kind of iconography that makes westerns distinctive from other genres.

One of the great pleasures of Open Range is seeing Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall share the screen together. They play well off each other with a believable short hand between their characters conveying years spent together working off the land. They get on each other’s nerves once in awhile, but they also have a great respect for one another. Over the course of the film they get moments where the two men tell each other things about themselves that they didn’t know. It gives us valuable insights into their respective characters.

Duvall’s Boss is a man who has a way with words, telling the townsfolk what Baxter and his men did to Mose and Button, or talking reassuringly to an unconscious Button. Costner’s Charley, on the other hand, is a man of few words but when he does speak he means every one of them. He’s a man who has lived a violent past and is trying to lead a better one but Baxter forces him to get in touch with his violent nature once again.

It is also refreshing to see Costner avoid casting some young, up-and-coming actor to play his romantic interest and opt instead for someone his age like Annette Bening who can more than hold her own. She doesn’t play a damsel in distress (until later) but someone who is capable of using her medical expertise to help Mose and Button after they’ve had run-ins with Baxter’s men. She’s lived life and is not afraid of Charley’s violent past because she’s seen the honorable man he is now.

Costner is a generous actor, giving Duvall and Bening plenty of screen-time and meaty speeches to show off their chops. That’s not to say he marginalizes his role in the film. Initially, Charley seems to be a man of few words but it is only because it takes him awhile to warm up to people. Around Mose, Button and especially Boss he’s not afraid to speak up and tell them what’s on his mind. It’s as if Costner is coming at the film like a fan and wanted to see a veteran actor like Duvall in another western.

Based on Lauran Paine’s 1990 novel, The Open Range Men, Open Range marked Kevin Costner’s return to the directing chair since The Postman and the first western he appeared in since Wyatt Earp (1994). At the time, it was considered a risky move for the filmmaker, which he was very much aware: “The western is a very scary thing for Hollywood, and I’m sure they’re saying, ‘Gee, if Kevin really needs a hit, what in the hell is he doing making a western?’” He and his fellow producers, Jake Eberts and David Valdes, were so committed to the project that they each put in a lot of their own money into it, much as he had done on Dances with Wolves.

They began scouting locations on March 15, 2002 in Canada when they realized it wasn’t feasible to shoot in the United States. They spent months searching the prairies until finding Nicoll Ranch at Jumping Pound Creek, the Turner Ranch and the Hughes Ranch for the cattle driving and range camp scenes. Looking for a place where the fictional frontier town would be located proved to be difficult until they finally discovered the Stoney Nakoda First Nations Reserve west of Calgary but it had no access road. Before the town could be constructed, a one-and-a-half mile dirt road had to be built across the reserve. The filmmakers spent four weeks conducting research and design in Los Angeles. The art directors and designers worked from history books and pictures by pioneer photographers like Silas Melander and Evelyn Cameron.

Putting in a significant amount of his own money allowed Costner to achieve the authenticity he desired, which included spending $2 million building a fully-functioning frontier town. Construction of the town took nine weeks with great care taken to recreate period detail. All the lumber was milled to historical period sizes and weathered for the exterior of buildings. The window glass for the town was hand blown and imported. Even the color palette that was used reflected paint sample charts from 1880. All of this attention to detail allowed Costner to film both exterior and interior shots on location.

The production encountered a few challenges. Nine weeks before principal photography began, Robert Duvall broke his ribs in a horseback-riding accident. Filming began on June 17, 2002 with a budget of $23 million. During the first few weeks, Costner’s appendix ruptured but went undiagnosed until he was rushed to the emergency room two months after the production finished.

Open Range received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Kevin Costner's Open Range, an imperfect but deeply involving and beautifully made Western, works primarily because it expresses the personal values of a cowboy named Boss and his employee of 10 years, Charley.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Duvall knows the difference between underacting and overacting, and knows when each is called for. He plays his part, a thin fantasy of crusty frontier benevolence, as if it were a mediocre poker hand, bluffing Boss into someone bigger and more exciting than he has any right to be.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “There's a lot in this movie, simple, big, small and exciting. It's the year's first serious contender for big prizes. What's not to like about this picture?”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “B” rating and wrote, “Duvall and Costner play together like a seasoned team: They’re wary, unsentimental colleagues whose opposing rhythms — Boss is spiky and righteous, the mellow Charley is slower to anger — never undercut their silent allegiance.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Though his choice of roles has not always been wise, Costner is very much a movie star, and his reversion to an Unforgiven dark side is in many ways more believable than his fumbling courtship of the forthright Ms. Barlow.”

Costner doesn’t want to reinvent the western with Open Range. He simply wants to tell an entertaining story about hard-working men that stand up for their rights to live life on their own terms. The two-hour running time may seem indulgent to some but the film never feels too long. He lets things breathe and allows us to spend time with these characters and get to know them so we care what happens when things go south.

There’s something to be said for telling an entertaining story well. So often these days story is sacrificed for spectacle. In this respect, Open Range is a refreshing call back to classic westerns like Red River (1948) but with aspects of revisionist westerns like Unforgiven. This film is not afraid to tell a simple story where the good guys beat the bad guys and it works in part because it’s done in a sincere way.


SOURCES

Giammarco, David. “Costner’s Last Stand.” The Globe and Mail. August 9, 2003.

Kaufman, Sarah. “After Several Flops, Costner Defends Open Range as a Movie with Heart.” Washington Post. August 15, 2003.

Open Range Production Notes. Touchstone Pictures. 2003.