"...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

Friday, October 28, 2022

High Plains Drifter


 

From The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) to Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) to Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood has made all kinds of westerns. High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of his more intriguing efforts in the genre – it takes the enigmatic Man with No Name gunslinger from Sergio Leone films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), fusing it with the gothic sensibilities of the Don Siegel film, The Beguiled (1971). It starts off as a typical lone gunfighter-for-hire story. In this film, Eastwood’s mysterious character is part avenging angel and part vengeance demon, determined to punish the people of a town for a crime that is gradually revealed.
 
The Stranger (as he is referred to in the credits) literally materializes out of the hazy, shimmering horizon like an apparition while Dee Barton’s eerie music plays on the soundtrack. After Eastwood’s credit and the film’s title appears, the score transitions into a more traditional western motif, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
 
High Plains Drifter starts in typical western fashion with a hired gun wandering into the town of Lago looking for work. After quickly and efficiently dispatching three mercenaries who challenge him, he’s offered a job by the town elders. Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin brothers, Dan (Dan Vadis) and Cole (Anthony James), have just been released from prison. They tried to steal gold from the town and whipped Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) to death. Now, they aim to return, take the gold, and exact revenge on the townsfolk.

The Stranger agrees and is given unlimited credit at all of the town’s stores and proceeds to exploit their goodwill, starting off by giving two American Indian children candy they were eyeing and a pile of blankets to their grandfather, right after the store owner berated them with racial slurs. He goes on to accumulate material items for free – new boots, a saddle, and cigars. He then uses his leverage to humiliate the town elders by making Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the town dwarf, the new sheriff and mayor, and has the hotel owner’s barn stripped of its wood to build picnic tables, much to their chagrin. They have to go along with it, lest they lose the only person standing between them and the vengeful outlaws headed their way.
 
The film’s big question: who is The Stranger and what is his motivation? Within minutes of being in Lago he has killed three men and raped a woman (Marianna Hill). Initially, it appears to be a nasty, misogynistic streak in the character but, as we learn more about the town and in its denizens, the more we understand what this mysterious gunslinger is doing. His motivation begins to shift into focus early on when he dreams of the Marshal being whipped to death while the whole town watched and did nothing. The haunting music from the start of the film comes on as we see Bridges and the Carlin brothers whip Duncan at night. He pleads for help while all the townsfolk stand and stare, the camera framing them in near-dark shots, some almost in silhouette, which creates an ominous mood. As the poor man is whipped to death he mutters, “Damn you all to hell,” which is exactly what The Stranger plans to do to the complicit townsfolk.
 
Interestingly, the second flashback to what happened to the Marshal that fateful night is predominantly from Mordecai’s perspective. He takes us back and this time, we see the townsfolk’s faces more clearly. Unlike The Stranger, he was there and saw what happened. Eastwood also cuts back and forth from shots of the outlaws’ evil faces, the residents, and the Marshal’s point-of-view. In doing so, he makes the man’s pain and suffering more personal and we see the townsfolk’s reaction to what is happening more clearly – some are indifferent, some afraid, and some malevolently approving. It is Mordecai, however, who seems the most upset and remorseful.

Who is the Marshal to The Stranger? It is never clear. The hotel owner’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) even asks him: he is coy with the answer, refusing to confirm or deny his relationship with the dead man. Everything he does in the town, from making a mockery of its elders to getting carte blanche with all of their resources, is to punish the townsfolk, not just for their complacency but for their sins. As the film progresses, we also learn more about what motivates the town elders – why they are so distrustful of outsiders, why they are so eager to cover things up, and why they hired The Stranger to protect them from Bridges and the Carlin brothers. The scenes with them illustrate the corruption inherent in the authoritarian structure – something Eastwood has been distrustful of his entire career – as The Stranger’s abuse of power eats away at the relationship among the town elders until they begin to turn on each other.
 
Future members of Eastwood’s informal repertory company of actors, Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, and Dan Vadis are well cast as the grungy, amoral outlaws that kill three men in cold blood as soon as they are released from prison, stealing their horses and clothes. These consummate character actors have no problem playing dirty, unrepentant, evil criminals and, over the course of the film, we anticipate their inevitable confrontation with Eastwood’s gunfighter. The key to his films is to have someone who is a formidable threat to his character and Lewis, with his character’s ruthless drive to exact revenge, is completely believable in that role.
 
Clint Eastwood received a nine-page treatment from Ernest Tidyman, known mostly for writing the screenplays for urban crime films such as Shaft (1971) and The French Connection (1971). The primary inspiration for the screenplay was the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964, in which 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and failed to help her or call the police. The starting point for Eastwood was, “What would have happened if the sheriff in High Noon had been killed? What would have happened afterwards?” Once he agreed to do it, Tidyman took these two ideas and developed the treatment into a script that was subsequently revised by Eastwood’s go-to script doctor, Dean Riesner, who added, his trademark black humor: early in the film, one of Lago’s hired guns says to The Stranger, “Maybe you think you’re fast enough to keep up with us, huh?” to which he replies curtly, “A lot faster than you’ll ever live to be.” The biggest mystery of the film is The Stranger’s identity. Eastwood later admitted that the script identified him as the dead sheriff’s brother and that “I always played it like he was the brother. I thought about playing it a little bit like he was sort of an avenging angel, too.”

High Plains Drifter was put into production in late summer of 1972. The studio wanted Eastwood to shoot the film on its backlot but Eastwood decided to shoot on location. He originally considered Pyramid Lake, Nevada but his car ran out of gas before he got there. The American Indian tribal council were divided about a film crew shooting on their land. Someone in the production suggested Mono Lake in California, which Eastwood had visited in the past. Once he arrived, the filmmaker found a point overlooking the lake and decided that would be the site for the town. He went on to find all the other locations within a four-minute drive save for the opening shot, which was done outside of Reno. Production designer Henry Bumstead and his team built the town of Lago in 28-days. They assembled 14 houses, a church and a two-story hotel. These were complete buildings so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on location.
 
The Stranger has the townsfolk literally transform Lago into Hell by painting of all the buildings red – a striking image to be sure – which not only evokes hellish imagery but also symbolizes the blood on the hands of the townsfolk who were all culpable in the Marshal’s death. The climax of High Plains Drifter is where the film goes full-on horror as The Stranger leaves, letting the ill-prepared townsfolk “handle” Bridges and the Carlin brothers. Naturally, they put up little to no resistance as they are too scared to shoot and run away or as in the case of Drake (Mitchell Ryan), the mining executive, are shot and killed.
 
Later that night, Bridges and his crew terrorize the survivors, exposing their hypocrisy. It is at this point when The Stranger reappears, that, just like the Marshall, as Cole is mercilessly whipped to death with The Stranger framed with nightmarish flames of the town burning in the background. The two surviving outlaws walk through the town on fire – hell on earth indeed – only for Dan to be whipped around the neck and hung. Bridges still has not seen The Stranger until he hears the words, “Help me,” (sounding very much like the murdered Marshal) and turns to see him standing in front of a burning building for the final showdown. He easily guns down Bridges who asks The Stranger’s identity – and gets no response.

Late in the film, the motel keeper’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) says, “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind.” High Plains Drifter ends on an emotional note as The Stranger observes Mordecai naming the Marshal’s previously unmarked grave before riding out of town, disappearing into the hazy horizon like a ghost with a reprise of the unnerving music from the opening credits. The dead Marshal can finally rest: those responsible for his demise have been punished. The film is a scathing indictment of how greed can corrupt those in positions of power. It is also a powerful critique of bystander apathy, as embodied by a town of cowards and petty, greedy tyrants that let a good man die. The Stranger embodies the dead man’s spirit and his search for vengeance.
 
 
SOURCES
 
Gentry, Ric. "Director Clint Eastwood: Attention to Detail and Involvement for the Audience.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.
 
Hughes, Howard. Aim for the Heart. I.B. Tauris. 2009
 
McGilligan, Patrick. Clint: The Life and Legend. Harper Collins. 1999.
 
Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
 
Wilson, Michael Henry. “’Whether I Succeed or Fail, I Don’t Want to Owe it to Anyone but Myself’: From Play Misty for Me to Honkytonk Man.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.

Friday, August 19, 2022

White Squall



For a filmmaker as prolific as Ridley Scott he’s bound to have a lot of hits and misses. For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a few Someone to Watch Over Me’s (1987). It is some of the fascinating yet flawed outliers in his filmography that are the most interesting. Case in point: White Squall (1996), a dramatic recreation of the doomed school sailing trip lead by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon on the brigantine Albatross, which sank on May 2, 1961, allegedly due to a white squall, killing six people. Adapted from Charles Gieg’s book The Last Voyage of the Albatross, the film received mixed reviews and, despite its cast, featuring a bevy of young, up-and-coming actors, performed poorly at the box office.
 
The film follows Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf) as it opens with the young man giving up his last year of high school to sail on the Albatross. His brother got into an Ivy League school on a scholarship and it is hinted that he doesn’t have the grades to do the same. The rest of the boys are loosely sketched and it’s up to the talented young cast to breathe life into their respective characters. You’ve got Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), the bully who thinks he’s cooler than everyone else; Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe), the meek one; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to be there, and so on.
 
We meet most of these boys as they are prepared to board the Albatross for a year-long voyage at sea where they’ll learn everything they need to know about operating a boat while also keeping up with their academic studies. They are immediately greeted by McCrea (John Savage), the grizzled English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest to them. They go below decks and are greeted by boys already there. True to Social Darwinism, a pecking order is quickly established but as they will find out, everyone answers to Captain Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) a.k.a. The Skipper who sets the ground rules when he addresses them for the first time: “The ship beneath you is not a toy and sailing’s not a game.” In this scene, Jeff Bridges tempers his innate likability and charisma by playing the Skipper as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who demands his students follow the rules. This is further reinforced in the next scene when he finds out that Gil is afraid of heights and browbeats the young man to climb up the rigging and in the process not only traumatizes him but humiliates him in front of the other boys.

Scott shows us what it takes to get a boat such as the Albatross ready for sea, how everyone works together, and how a rookie mistake almost costs Chuck his life when he hangs himself on the rigging only for the Skipper to rescue him. Early on, the boat hits a rough patch of water, a foreboding taste of what’s to come, and we see everyone act as a team to rescue one of boys who is tossed overboard. To make up for the deficiencies in the lack of character development in Todd Robinson’s screenplay, Scott includes several scenes showing the boys bonding, whether its’s Gil’s tearful recollection of how his brother died or Dean admitting he’s a poor student that doesn’t know to spell. We slowly begin to care about what happens to these boys, which is crucial later when they are put in peril with the storm.
 
Everything has been building to the film’s climactic set piece – a massive white squall that threatens to sink the Albatross. Scott and his crew create a harrowing scene that rivals the nautical disasters depicted in Titanic (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000), only he did it with practical effects while those other films leaned on CGI to do most of the heavily lifting. This gives the sequence a visceral impact as it looks and sounds real. This isn’t some CGI creation but an actual thing that Scott captures in vivid detail. It’s a powerful visual reminder of the true power of nature and that we are insignificant compared to it. Every so often we are reminded of this fact.
 
Chuck provides the film’s voiceover narration, taken from the journal he kept during the journey. He is the wide-eyed idealist that is the calming influence on the rest of the boys and takes to the Skipper’s tough love style of leadership without losing his humanity. Scott Wolf channels a young Tom Cruise as he delivers a strong performance as the audience surrogate. After the survivors are taken back to land he breaks down in a moving scene, and then Chuck attempts to clear the Skipper’s name in the ensuing tribunal, Wolf delivering a passionate speech expertly. Chuck is the film’s social conscience as he struggles to do the right thing. He stands up for the Skipper when it looks like he will be blamed for what happened.

It is easy to see why the name actors in the cast such as Ethan Embry, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, and Wolf went on to notable careers. They are most successful at making their characters memorable but there is also Eric Michael Cole who plays the bully in the group. Channeling a young Matt Dillon his character is full of swagger and we eventually discover what’s behind the bravado as delivers an impressive performance that should have garnered him more high-profile roles.
 
White Squall, however, falters in its depiction of the Skipper. At one point his wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), says to him, “You know, Sheldon, sometimes, not often, you act almost half human.” Therein lies the problem with this character – there’s nothing human about him, just some glowering Ahab that not even Bridges’ ample charisma can make a dent in. We get zero insight into what motivates him beyond running a tight ship. The actor tries his best but he’s not give much to work with, such as a scene where Frank inexplicably harpoons a dolphin. To punish him, the Skipper tells him to finish off the poor animal and when he refuses, does it for him. It’s an unnecessarily, ugly scene that provides no insight into either character.
 
This being a Ridley Scott film everything looks beautiful from the Albatross docked at dusk silhouetted against the sky to the slow-motion glamor shot of Dean diving off the highest point of the ship with the skill and grace of an Olympic athlete. We get a seemingly endless number of exquisite shots of the boat at sea with the sunlight hitting it at just the right angle.

Screenwriter Todd Robinson met Chuck Gieg while on vacation in Hawaii and the latter told him the true story of the Albatross. Inspired by it and the book Gieg had co-written about surviving the incident, Robinson wrote the screenplay with his close involvement, to ensure it stayed true to the actual events, and took it to producers Rocky Lang and Mimi Polk Gitlin. They shopped it around to various directors but they all wanted to change it to fit their vision. The producers finally brought it to Ridley Scott who bought it before Christmas 1994. At the time, he was considering directing Mulholland Falls (1996) but after reading Robinson’s script in 90 minutes he immediately wanted to do it. He was drawn to the lack of sentimentality and the coming-of-age aspect of the script.
 
As was his custom with films based on real-life incidents, Scott strove for authenticity and brought Gieg and the real Captain Sheldon on as technical advisors. For the ship, the production used Eye of the World, a 110-foot topsail schooner from Germany. He did not want to shoot the sea sequences in a giant water tank, common at the time, as he felt that the waves never looked large enough or realistic. He studied documentary footage and water patterns to see how they moved and reacted. He and director of photography Hugh Johnson shot mostly with hand-held cameras to get the raw look they wanted. To this end, they filmed four months on the seas, starting in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where on the first day got 30-foot seas, “because the crew was so well-versed by then in terms of leaping around this boat and getting camera positions, we dealt with it pretty easily actually,” Scott said. From there they spent most of the time in the Caribbean with shooting the land scenes on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada.
 
Scott eventually had to concede using water tanks for the climactic storm sequence that sinks the Albatross. He waited to film this sequence until the end of principal photography as he was dreading it “like a big monster. I didn’t want it to be a 9-minute, crash-wallop-bang and everybody’s in the water. I wanted to experience the whole process of what it means to be shot out of the blue like that, to be trapped, to see people that you got to know quite closely just taken away from you.” He used two water tanks in Malta – one that held six million gallons of water and was 40 feet deep and the other held three million gallons of water and was eight feet deep. Initially, wave machines were used but they did not produce strong enough wind effects for Scott so he brought in two jet engines to do the job. As he said they “basically blew the shit out of the set – 600 mile-an-hour winds.” The storm sequences took five days to film with the production constantly having to worry about the cameras getting wet.

Filming the sequence wasn’t without its peril as Jeff Bridges recalled, “I’ve had some real-life close calls when I’ve been surfing, and I know that feeling of fighting for your life in the water. During the storm scene there were some long takes where we were being hit with wind and waves and being knocked underwater. You don’t worry so much about acting then--you just want to survive the take.” Scott remembered one day of filming: “We got the water pretty churned up and I saw Jeff sticking his arm rigidly in the air with his fist clenched. I thought he might be screaming, ‘Right on,’ but it turned out he was screaming, ‘Stop, I’m going under.’”
 
White Squall received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie could have been smarter and more particular in the way it establishes its characters. Its underlying values are better the less you think about them. And the last scene not only ties the message together but puts about three ribbons on it." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Written by Todd Robinson and photographed against beautiful blue skies by Hugh Johnson, White Squall improves when it takes on the daunting job of replicating the title storm. Mr. Scott manages to capture pure, terrifying chaos for a while, and this slow-moving film finally achieves a style of its own." The Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote, "It's disappointing that a director with the vision of Ridley "Blade Runner" Scott and an actor with the depth of Jeff "Fearless" Bridges conspired to produce such a sodden venture, but Hollywood never seems to tire of flushing multimillions down the bilge pipes." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews wrote, "The 20 or so minutes we spend with the Albatross in the squall is high adventure, to be sure. Everything else is ballast." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "White Squall is lovely to look at, but frustrating to behold. These boys are fine specimens of American manhood. But they’re unreachable, like ships in a bottle."
 
White Squall takes more than a few pages out of Dead Poets Society (1989) playbook – a coming-of-age story populated with a cast of young, aspiring actors, most of whom would go on to memorable careers. Scott’s film falters when it tries to replicate the heartfelt, emotional ending of Peter Weir’s film but instead feels forced as the soulless Frank suddenly redeems himself and all the surviving boys rally around the Skipper. It feels false as the film has done nothing to achieve this moment unlike in Dead Poets where its satisfying conclusion was the culmination of everything that came before. Also, the Skipper is such an unlikable character throughout the film it is hard to see why the boys admire him enough to rally to his defense at the end unlike Robin William’s teacher in Dead Poets who gradually gains his students trust and admiration. Sometimes there is a good reason why a particular film is an outlier in a director’s filmography – it’s not very good. Such is the case of White Squall, a beautifully mounted film, pretty to look at but ultimately with an empty core.
 

SOURCES
 
Clarke, James. Virgin Film: Ridley Scott. Virgin Books. 2010.
 
Crisafulli, Chuck. “Stirring Up a See-Worthy Squall.” Los Angeles Times. January 28, 1996.
 
LoBrutto, Vincent. Ridley Scott: A Biography. University Press of Kentucky. 2019.
 
Williams, David E. “An Interview with Ridley Scott.” Film Threat. April 26, 2000.
 
Wilmington, Michael. “White Squall Director a Visionary without Visual Strategy.” Chicago Tribune. March 15, 1996.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Hoffa

 


Danny DeVito is quite the accomplished character actor, starring in television shows such as Taxi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and highly regarded films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Get Shorty (1995). What isn’t talked about nearly enough is his directorial output, which is not as prolific but does contain some notable efforts. In the 1980s, he directed back-to-back hits with the Hitchcockian goof Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and the pitch-black divorce satire The War of the Roses (1989). Both films demonstrated his stylistic flare behind the camera and decidedly darkly humorous worldview.
 
DeVito parlayed the box office clout he accrued from those two films into Hoffa (1992), an epic rise and fall historical biopic about controversial labor leader James R. Hoffa, who led the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters union and eventually ran afoul of both organized crime and the United States government, disappearing on July 30, 1975 never to be seen again.
 
The success of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) kicked off a golden age of historical biopics in the 1990s with the likes of JFK (1991), Bugsy (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Quiz Show (1994), and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) among many others populating cinemas during this time. Stone’s The Doors (1991) and the aforementioned JFK, however, paved the way for Hoffa to get made – that, and the machinations of the film’s producer Edward R. Pressman to put together the team of legendary actor Jack Nicholson in the titular role, getting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet to write the screenplay, and DeVito to direct.

This was going to be the latter’s magnum opus that would garner all kinds of awards and catapult him into the rarified air of the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stone. Some critics, however, bristled at the lionization of Hoffa as a hero, raising more than a few more eyebrows as the man was known for employing controversial tactics to get want he wanted. Hoffa failed to make back it’s $40+ million (which reportedly rose to close to $50 million) budget, received mixed reviews and picked up a few, scattered award nominations. What happened?
 
The film begins at the end of Hoffa’s (Nicholson) life – the last day he was seen alive with the rise and fall of his career seen through the flashback reminisces of Robert Ciaro (DeVito), a long-time friend and an amalgamation of several real-life associates. We see how the two men met, while Ciaro is on the road making a delivery and Hoffa pitches him a membership to the Teamsters, then a fledgling organization. At the time, truck drivers were overworked and underpaid. Hoffa shows up to the loading docks one-day spouting Mamet’s profane dialogue, telling the workers to go on strike, which starts a massive brawl. In doing so, he also costs Ciaro his job and later that night he ambushes Hoffa only to be held at gunpoint by one of his associates, Billy Flynn (Robert Prosky). “Life’s a negotiation. It’s all give and take,” Hoffa tells Ciaro as he apologizes and explains him motives.
 
We see Hoffa’s early, botched strong arm tactics, such as firebombing a local business that results in the death of Flynn. We see Hoffa mixing it up, yelling at scab drivers crossing picket lines, getting into scuffles not just with the cops but also the mafia. The strike is cutting into their profits and Hoffa cuts a deal with them, which not only aids in his rise to leadership of the Teamsters, but also, ultimately, led to his downfall. The film shows early on how Hoffa wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, helping a trucker change his tire while he pitches membership to the Teamsters, natch, and getting bloody while fighting in the strikes.

 
At times, David Mamet’s Midwest tough guy dialogue feels like it could have come from one of fellow Chicago native Michael Mann’s films but it has his distinctive cadence in such gems as “Because I’m sitting out here to meet with a fella,” or “What’s out the car is my guy. What’s in here is you watching the phone.” Another memorable bit of dialogue: “Are we talking words, here, we usin’ words? That’s what we’re doin’.” The cast, in particular Nicholson and DeVito nail the sharp, clipped style of Mamet’s dialogue.
 
Unlike the cast of The Irishman (2019), Nicholson, et al were cast at just the right time in their lives to play younger and older versions of their characters credibly. Nicholson does an excellent job delivering several of Hoffa’s fiery speeches. He fully commits to the role compared to Al Pacino’s take on the man in The Irishman where the legendary actor seems to be playing himself rather than the man. Nicholson certainly captures the bluster and swagger of Hoffa, a man with charisma and confidence to spare. One of the joys of his performance is watching him spout so much of Mamet’s dialogue – no easy feat – and he does it while adopting the Teamster’s distinctive tone and way of speaking. Some of his best scenes are the ones where he squares off against Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) as he reduces their conflict to the working man versus the rich elite. Nicholson does get a few reflective moments in the scenes on his last day seen alive as he and Ciaro reflect on their friendship over the years.
 
Nicholson and DeVito are surrounded by a hell of a supporting cast with Anderson’s uncanny take on Kennedy, nailing his distinctive accent. J.T. Walsh shows up as one of Hoffa’s close associates who is initially loyal until he gets a taste of power and turns his back on his mentor at a crucial moment. A young John C. Reilly shows up as another one of Hoffa’s associates who worships him early on but eventually betrays him by testifying against him during the trial for labor racketeering. Armand Assante also pops up as the mob boss that Hoffa makes a deal with to gain more power within the Teamsters. The veteran actor wisely downplays his performance next to Nicholson’s acting pyrotechnics. He doesn’t need to chew the scenery as his mere presence exudes power and authority. His performance is a sobering reminder of how much his presence is missed films such as this and Sidney Lumet’s Q & A (1990). There are also small parts for Bruno Kirby and Frank Whaley, who was on quite the run at the time with pivotal roles in The Doors, JFK and Hoffa.

The film is ambitious in its scale and scope as evident in the scene where Hoffa leads a strike that turns into a massive brawl involving hundreds of people. DeVito captures the chaos masterfully as trucks are overturned, people are viciously beaten and even a mother is separated from her child all the while the corporate bigwigs can be seen watching safely from their lofty vantage point. It’s a tough, brutal sequence that is unflinching in its depiction of ugly violence. The epic look and feel of Hoffa is due in large part to his direction with the help of legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum as he digs deep into his stylistic bag of tricks including crane shots, split diopter lens, sweeping 360-degree camera moves, God’s eye overhead shots, point-of-view shots, and masterful framing of shots and scenes via 2:35.1 aspect ratio that rival the likes of Spielberg and Stone at the time.
 
Joe Isgro was a top record promoter making a reported $10 million a year but in 1989 a grand jury indicted him on 51 counts of payola and drug trafficking. The charges were dismissed a year later but the damage to his reputation had been done and he decided to pivot into the film business. Just before this legal mess he had been approached by Frank Ragano, former Hoffa attorney, and Brett O’Brien, son of Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s adopted son. The former claimed he had obtained the film rights from the Hoffa estate, however, not long after Isgro signed a letter of agreement to do the film, O’Brien told him that they didn’t have the rights and their option had expired. Isgro told O’Brien the deal was off and made a new one with another production company for the rights to Chuckie’s story, which was used as the basis for the screenplay written by Robin Moore, who had authored The French Connection, and interviewed several members of the Teamsters union about Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975.
 
Isgro approached film producer Edward R. Pressman with Moore’s script hoping that Pressman could convince Oliver Stone to direct. Pressman liked what he read and optioned the script as well as the tapes and transcripts of Moore’s interviews. He found the script “very expositional, not fully formed as a movie but there was the raw material for one.” Caldecot Chubb, then Vice President of Pressman’s production company, pitched Hoffa to 20th Century Fox production executive Michael London in August 1989. He recalled telling London, “In America, everyone thinks they know Hoffa. They think he was a gangster, period. But he was a labor leader, a guy with courage and heroism, a guy who stood up for his men.” An hour and half after their meeting concluded, London called Chubb and told him that if he could get David Mamet to write the script they would finance the film.

Pressman had met Mamet in 1985 and called him, pitching the idea of Hoffa as King Lear. In October 1989, Mamet met with Pressman, Chubb and Joe Roth, then President of Fox. Pressman remembers Mamet telling them that his father had been a labor lawyer and he understood that world. His conditions were that they could give him and all their research material and he would give them back a finished script. He was paid in the neighborhood of one million dollars and put two other projects on hold while he spent several months writing the script.
 
The studio loved what Mamet wrote and told Pressman to hire a top director. His first choice was Barry Levinson but when he met with Mamet about the script in 1990, the men did not see eye to eye on the vision for the film and the director passed on the project. Pressman reportedly met with Stone and John McTiernan but they weren’t seriously considered for the film. Around this time, Danny DeVito was having lunch with Roth who was telling him about the projects they were working on and when the former heard about Hoffa he immediately wanted to do it. He met with Pressman in April 1990 and presented his vision of the film. The producer said, “It was clear to me Danny was articulate and ambitious and every bit as prepared as the best filmmakers I’d worked with.” DeVito was hired.
 
To play Hoffa, both Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were considered until someone suggested Jack Nicholson. He read the script in the summer of 1990 after making The Two Jakes (1990) and agreed to do it but principal photography had to be delayed for six months while he filmed Man Trouble (1992) for Bob Rafelson. His salary increased the film’s budget dramatically to over $40 million and Roth told Pressman in the fall of 1991 that Fox would only pay for $37 million of it. Pressman sold the cable rights in France for $5 million and convinced DeVito to work for union scale, saving an additional $7 million in exchange for a share of the film’s box office receipts.

Hoffa shot for 85 days, starting in February 1992 in Pittsburgh before moving on to Detroit, then Los Angeles with the final two weeks in Chicago in June on an initial budget of $42 million that eventually came in just under $50 million.
 
Hoffa received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Hoffa shows DeVito as a genuine filmmaker. Here is a movie that finds the right look and tone for its material. Not many directors would have been confident enough to simply show us Jimmy Hoffa instead of telling us all about him.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. Nicholson has altered his looks, voice and speech to evoke Hoffa, but the performance is composed less of superficial tricks than of the actor's crafty intelligence and conviction. The performance is spookily compelling without being sympathetic for a minute." The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan wrote, "All the audience is left with are snapshots of repetitive tough-guy behavior, a scenario that is too limited to hold anyone’s interest for a 2-hour-and-20-minute length."
 
Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "D" rating and wrote, "When an actor as great as Nicholson gives a performance this monotonous, it raises the question, Why make a movie about Jimmy Hoffa in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is that it wasn’t so much Hoffa’s life as his lurid, headline-making death that hooked a major studio into backing this project. The result is somehow perversely appropriate: a massive Hollywood biopic about a man who never quite seems there." In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "The biggest mistake is DeVito's direction. He fills every moment with soaring, weighty music and spectacle-happy cinematography. Like a kid clutching power candy, he can't let go." While doing press for the film, DeVito made no apologies for his positive take on Hoffa: “He put bread on the table of the working man. That to me is a hero.”
 
DeVito does lay it on a bit thick at times, such as the scene where hundreds of trucks park by the side of the road as drivers show their support for Hoffa as he and Ciaro are driven to prison with David Newman’s score swelling dramatically. Hoffa’s home life is also never seen with his wife Josephine (Natalia Nogulich) trotted out for a few moments but we get no insight into their dynamic. If the film’s portrayal of Hoffa has fault it’s that we don’t get an understanding of what motivated the man. When we meet him, he is fully-formed. He is confident of his convictions. How did he get that way? What made him such a staunch defender of the working man? Why was he so power hungry? We never know for certain and maybe no one did but it is a lack of depth in an otherwise compelling portrait of the man. For all the hero worship of Hoffa, DeVito does try to show the ramifications of the man’s actions such as him ignoring the Teamsters leadership’s orders to back off and starting a massive brawl with the scabs and cops that results in the death of several of his fellow members. There’s also the scene where he uses intimidation tactics to kill a newspaper story that will portray him in a negative light thereby damaging his chances of being elected President of the Teamsters.

Among the gold rush boom of historical biopics in the ‘90s Hoffa has mostly become forgotten thanks to its lackluster box office and mixed critical reaction. By the time Stone made Nixon (1995), large scale, star-studded historical films were no longer en vogue and by the end of the decade less and less of these films were being made with notable exceptions such as Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), but despite stellar reviews it also underperformed at the box office. Hoffa has enjoyed some renewed interest thanks to The Irishman, which features the labor leader prominently. While he is not the central character his presence casts a long shadow over the film and is nowhere near as interestingly depicted as in DeVito’s film. Perhaps there is a more definitive take on the man? A limited series that could go into more detail? In the meantime, we have this lavishly staged, well-acted look at the man who had a profound effect on labor unions and the working class.
 
 
SOURCES
 
Freedman, Samuel G. “The Captain of the Hoffa Team.” The New York Times. September 13, 1992.
 
Goldstein, Patrick. “A Labor-Intensive Hoffa.” Los Angeles Times. August 30, 1992.
 
Willistein, Paul. “DeVito’s Hoffa Salutes Top Teamster Working Class Hero.” The Morning Call. December 25, 1992.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Dick


On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C. police arrested five burglars breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building. It was later revealed that then-President Richard Nixon approved plans to cover up the break-in. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in bringing much of this scandal to light with their chief anonymous source famously nicknamed “Deep Throat” after the mainstream pornographic movie that was popular at the time.
 
This scandal has been documented and dramatized numerous times, most famously in Alan J. Pakula’s film, All the President’s Men (1976), arguably the definitive take on this incident. In 1999, along came director Andrew Fleming and his screenwriting partner Sheryl Longin with Dick, a comical movie that pokes fun at the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal as it imagines “Deep Throat” being two naïve 15-year old girls. This was several years before the real identity of this informant was revealed so much of the movie’s humor comes from these unlikely teenagers helping take down Nixon.
 
Dick opens with a framing device of French Stewart as a Larry King-type talk show host interviewing an aging Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCullough). Naturally, he asks them to reveal the identity of “Deep Throat,” which of course they refuse while bickering like an old married couple. The movie proceeds to riff on the famous opening credit sequence of All the President’s Men, poking fun at it with two teenage girls doing the typing and making a mistake that is corrected with White Out.

Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) and Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) are hanging out at the Watergate Hotel where the former lives with her mother (Teri Garr) writing a fan letter some pop rock star of the day late one night. While mailing said letter they accidentally stumble into the Watergate break-in. The next day, they encounter G. Gordon Liddy (a wonderfully twitchy Harry Shearer) during a tour of the White House with their class and spot a piece of “toilet paper” stuck to his shoe. It turns out to be the CREEP list featuring financial pay-offs to the Watergate burglars. Naturally, the two girls are clueless as to what the list means.
 
While H.R. Haldeman (Dave Foley) is interrogating Arlene and Betsy (“When you think of your President do you think friendly thoughts?”), President Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers notices them and seeks attention from the two girls. To keep them quiet, Nixon (Dan Hedaya) appoints them official White House dog walkers, thinking that they are just a couple of dumb girls, but it allows them access to the inner workings of the White House where they witness cover-up tactics such as the shredding of important documents.
 
The characters of Arlene and Betsy carry on in the proud comedic tradition of movies such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) and Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), of two, not-so-smart or naïve best friends bumbling their way through a series of misadventures. Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are well-cast as two teenagers that aren’t exactly dumb per se, but rather inexperienced. Arlene is the smarter of the two and it is she who decides to ask Nixon to put an end to the Vietnam War when Betsy’s perpetually stoned brother (Devon Gummersall) gets drafted. The next day, Nixon announces an end to the war! Dunst’s Betsy isn’t as smart but plays her part in helping shape history. Williams and Dunst are believable as best friends that spend most of their time together in their own little world. The movie tracks their maturation from naïve teenagers to politically astute young women that help bring down a presidency.

Veteran character actor Dan Hedaya is a hoot with his wonderful caricature of Nixon as a gruff bumbler who thinks that he’s manipulating these two girls when it is the other way around. Hedaya is surrounded by impressive supporting cast of comedians from Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live, including Jim Breuer as White House counsel John Dean, Dave Foley as Haldeman, Ana Gasteyer as Nixon’s secretary, and Harry Shearer as Liddy. Much as Steven Soderbergh would do later with The Informant! (2005), these comedians were not instructed to ham it up but instead play it straight, which makes their performances funnier.
 
About an hour in, scene stealers Will Ferrell and Bruce McCullough show up as the famous Washington Post investigative journalists, playing them as antagonistic partners with the Bernstein being the vain one, occasionally checking his hair, and the Woodward as the more serious one refusing to share any of his work. These comedy ringers’ exaggerated take is in humorous contrast to the solemn view in All the President’s Men.
 
Much of the humor in Dick derives from a treasure trove of Easter eggs for history buffs as the infamous 18-and-a-half-minute gap in one of Nixon’s audio recordings is explained because of Arlene and Betsy recording a message for the President with the former professing her love for him at length. We also see Arlene and Betsy inadvertently help alter history as they not only contribute to ending the war but also aid in brokering peace between Russia and the United States. “I think your cookies have just saved the world from nuclear catastrophe,” Nixon tells them about the latter. Dean betrays Nixon and testifies against him after Arlene and Betsy shame him for his involvement in the cover-up.

Director Andrew Fleming and his co-screenwriter Sheryl Longin first started writing the screenplay for Dick in 1993 where they started with two teenage girls getting into all kinds of misadventures but none them worked. Longin remembered an experience she had at the age of seven. She was with her family on vacation at the same hotel as President Nixon in Key Biscayne. She and two older friends threw ice cubes at Secret Service agents from a seventh-floor window and was convinced that she would get in trouble. Nixon subsequently canceled a planned speech by the hotel pool. She and Fleming took that incident and came up with the idea of the girls being “Deep Throat.”
 
Initially this was just a joke that they found amusing, “and we kept absorbing that, and it just never went away. We just kept finding it amusing. I told people about it. They said, ‘That’s hilarious. No one will ever make that movie.’,” Fleming said years later. After the success of The Craft (1996), he decided to use the buzz from that movie to make Dick, shopping it around Hollywood. People thought it was funny but didn’t want to make it. Fortunately, Mike Medavoy, head of Phoenix Pictures, who had worked with Fleming on Threesome (1994), agreed to make it with Columbia Pictures.
 
They initially sent the script to former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee asking if he’d play himself but he declined. They also sent a copy to former John Dean who sent it back with a note that read, “Good luck.” For the two leads, Fleming was impressed with Kirsten Dunst in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and cast her alongside Michelle Williams, hot off the popular television show Dawson’s Creek.

Fleming and Longin were worried early on that the movie was too irreverent but after reading transcripts of Nixon’s infamous audio tapes they felt that “he was irreverent. He violated us, lied to us. Did things that were illegal and seriously, permanently damaged this country.” Longin said, “Our generation then felt very cynical about politics. We became cynical and apathetic, and we really feel it was because the earliest thing we knew about politics is that they were lying and abusing power.”
 
Dick was well-reviewed by critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Comedy like this depends on timing, invention and a cheerful cynicism about human nature. It's wiser and more wicked than the gross-out insult humor of many of the summer's other comedies." In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, "In exaggerating Nixon's mannerisms, Mr. Hedaya has created the year's funniest film caricature. With his hunched shoulders, darting paranoid gaze and crocodile grimace, Mr. Hedaya's Nixon is the quivering, skulking embodiment of a single word: guilty." The Washington Post's Rita Kempley wrote, "Dunst and Williams, with their giggly comic chemistry, loopy charm and resourcefulness, can be universally appreciated." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas said of the filmmakers, "the core audience they’re most likely hoping to connect with are Betsy and Arlene’s contemporaries, who today would be hitting 40. Actually, ‘Dick’ is so sharp and funny it should appeal to all ages." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Like Election and Rushmore, it’s a ‘teen’ comedy that isn’t a teen comedy at all, but cops groovy teen spirit in the service of something much more adult."
 
Dick uses The World of Henry Orient (1964) as its primary template with two young girls bonding over their mutual obsession with an older man that includes posters and scrap books dedicated to him. Once they get to see behind the curtain, as it were, they become disillusioned and mature both emotionally and politically, and participate in his downfall. The movie eventually mutates into a paranoid conspiracy thriller a la All the President’s Men as the girls not only witness the last days of the Nixon administration but help take it down while being followed and surveilled.

Dick is a fun movie but it is easy to see why it tanked at the box office, not even making back its modest $13 million budget. While it certainly can be enjoyed as a goofy comedy about the hijinks of two girls, as it was marketed, you really need to be well versed in the Watergate scandal and All the President’s Men to fully enjoy the humor and inside jokes. This is what killed it commercially as teenagers either didn’t know about it or didn’t care, which is a shame as Dick is an immensely enjoyable movie that deserves a second lease on life.
 
 
SOURCES:
 
Gajewsk, Ryan. “Dick Director on Challenges of Making a Watergate Comedy and Whether It Could Be Done Today.” The Hollywood Reporter. June 17, 2022.
 
Waxman, Sharon. “Generation X’s Tricky Dick.” Washington Post. August 1, 1999.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Gotham


Made during her bombshell period, Virginia Madsen is perfectly cast as an elusive femme fatale in Gotham (1988), a made-for-television movie for the Showtime Channel and that was part of a run of sexy roles in the late 1980s that also included Slam Dance (1987), and into 1990s with The Hot Spot (1990) and forgettable erotic thrillers such as Caroline at Midnight (1994) and Blue Tiger (1994). Fortunately, this one stars Tommy Lee Jones and whose angle is a neo-noir fused with a ghost story.

“You ever find yourself walking down a dark street, you think you hear footsteps coming up slowly, somebody just out of sight?” This question kickstarts the story as Charles Rand (Colin Bruce) asks down-on-his-luck private investigator Eddie Mallard (Jones) to find his wife Rachel (Madsen) and tell her to leave him alone. The only problem: she’s been dead for over ten years. Rand offers Mallard a lot of money to take the case, which he accepts even though, as he confesses to his friend Tim (Kevin Jarre) later on, he fears that he’s feeding into this man’s delusions.

Eddie humors his client and his odd ramblings about his wife (“She lusts for daylight. She wants power in the daylight.”). The man is truly haunted by her death and apparent resurrection and this intrigues Eddie – that and the hefty paycheck. One day, Charles spots Rachel across the street and asks Eddie to go over and talk to her. With her long white gloves, vintage hat tilted at just the right angle and retro black dress, Rachel looks like she stepped right out of a 1940s film noir. Of course, she denies knowing Charles and humors Eddie by going out for a drink with him where she explains that she is a woman of expensive tastes.

Rachel shows up at Eddie’s office and apologizes for coming on so strong the other day and takes him out for a bite to eat as a way of apologizing. She comes across as a slightly sad, lonely wealthy lady. He’s intrigued by her stunning looks and enigmatic past. Their paths cross again as she wanders out of the smoke on a deserted city street one night. The deeper he goes into the case the more he realizes it’s not as simple as it seems and like most noirs he finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex web with Rachel at its center. Is she really the deceased wife or is this merely the delusions of a crazy man?
 
The movie has odd beats that occasionally disrupt its traditional narrative, such as a scene where Eddie and Rachel are serenaded in an alleyway by a dirty bum with an immaculate acoustic guitar and a beautiful voice. It’s a poignant moment as the camera stays on Madsen’s face as Rachel reacts to “Danny Boy,” her eyes gradually welling up and a tear runs down her face. With the help of his very talented crew that includes the likes of David Cronenberg’s longtime production designer Carol Spier, legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and composer George S. Clinton (Austin Powers), writer/director Lloyd Fonvielle creates a suitable neo-noir mood and atmosphere with a touch of the supernatural, such as a spooky shot of Rachel submerged in murky water, a gloved hand reaching out to Eddie.
 
With her old school looks, Virginia Madsen could have been a Classic Hollywood movie star and is perfectly cast as an elusive femme fatale cum woman out of time. She does an excellent job of coming across as this sweet, alluring presence and then transforms into a vulgar, vengeful creature. The actor is more than believable as a woman that could seduce men into doing her bidding and destroying their lives in the process.

Tommy Lee Jones is well cast as a world-weary gumshoe who thinks he knows all the angles until he takes on this case and becomes entangled in Rachel’s web. Like Rachel, Eddie undergoes his own transformation and Jones does an excellent job of conveying a man who has seen it all to one obsessed with a woman that tears his life apart.
 
The critics of the time weren’t too kind to Gotham. The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote, "Madsen is a sensuously spooky Rachel. She is also quite naked in two or three scenes, popping up, literally, in the bathtub, and falling out of a refrigerator. Madsen holds Jones and the camera captive. Maybe it doesn't matter that the whole thing is senseless." In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Lynne Heffley wrote, "What viewers fall victim to is a flawed vision. Suspense fizzles into steamy homage to Madsen’s beauty, clad and unclad; New York City locales are unbelievably underpopulated; a street bum sings “Danny Boy"-all of it-and Madsen’s exquisite lips are either framing romance novel banalities or a favorite obscenity." The New York Times’ Walter Goodman described it as “a lugubrious telling of a story that at its best is incomprehensible.”
 
“It may be a dream but it’s one of those dreams you can’t wake up from,” Eddie says at one point and it is the narrow line Gotham treads between what is real and what we perceive as real. And isn’t that all down to perception anyway? One person’s reality could be another’s dream. Since this movie is a neo-noir typically things don’t go well for the protagonist but Fonvielle twists this convention so that his main character is spared while another character is doomed. He does an excellent job of grounding the movie in its own reality so we’re never sure what is real and what is a dream except for little details that he uses as signposts along the way. It’s a tricky balancing acting between the ridiculous and the sublime but then again, isn’t all a matter of perception?