Friday, October 9, 2015

Who Can Kill a Child?

Killing a child on-screen is definitely one of the taboos in mainstream cinema. The common perception is that showing such an act is so upsetting to an audience that they will be turned off the movie. The people who made Who Can Kill A Child? (1976) didn’t care about this particular cinematic taboo as the film proceeds to transgress it over the running time.

The opening montage lays it on thick by documenting how children have been abused and killed during war throughout history. It all comes across as heavy-handed and drags on for far too long, but once the story kicks in, the film gradually builds narrative momentum. A woman washing up dead on a popular Spanish beach turns out to be an ominous bit of foreshadowing. The local authorities quickly realize that she didn’t die from drowning but from several knife wounds!

Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are on vacation in Spain. The first third of the film is important as it not only introduces the two protagonists but also presents them as ordinary people on holiday. They do all the usual tourist things, like take in the sights, watch fireworks and take pictures of their gorgeous surroundings. It is this normalcy that lulls us into complacency, which will then be turned on its head in the film’s second act. It also gets us to identify and empathize with this couple so that we care about what happens to them later on.

Tom and Evelyn decide to visit an island off the southern coast. They are first met by several children that seem friendly enough except when Tom gets a little too nosey with one child’s fishing gear and the tyke gives him a dirty look complete with accompanying foreboding music. As they make their way through the village there’s a noticeable lack of activity. In fact, aside from the children on the dock there’s no one around. They go into a bar and it looks like the inhabitants left in a hurry some time ago.

Pretty soon the lack of life becomes downright unsettling. This isn’t helped by a young girl that appears briefly before Evelyn and who takes an unusual fascination with her unborn child. This scene is made uncomfortable by the sound of the unborn child’s heartbeat playing loudly on the soundtrack along with some creepy music.

Once Tom and Evelyn arrive on the island, director Narciso Ibanez Serrador establishes a tense, slow burn as they investigate the village, offering up little moments that create an almost unbearable feeling of dread as we sense that something isn’t right with this place and it keeps us on edge until the kids surface. The first real indication that something is horribly wrong occurs when Tom spots a young girl beating an old man to death with his cane. When Tom confronts her, she just giggles gleefully and runs away. This is only the beginning of the nightmare that Tom and Evelyn will encounter. Then, the film shifts gears to a white-knuckled battle for survival as the vacationing couple must try to find a way to escape and avoid these homicidal children.

Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome are believable as a nice couple whose lives are turned upside down when they land on an island where the balance of order is out of whack. The actors do a fantastic job of portraying the increasing fear that their characters experience as they realize what has happened on the island. This fear soon turns to sweaty desperation as they struggle to survive, their very lives at stake.

The child actors are surprisingly effective. They look adorable and innocent but their eyes look a bit dead, suggesting something not quite right. The glee they display in killing an adult is particularly chilling. There’s one scene, in particular, where one of the killer children converts another one by intently staring into her eyes for a few moments that is quite powerful and achieved through simple camera setups and judicious editing proving yet again that when it comes to horror less is more.

Serrador does an excellent job of gradually ratcheting up the tension as Tom discovers what happened to the adults in the village and it turns out to be quite chilling in nature. What also adds to the tension is that we only know what the couple does and find out things as they do. In doing so, we share in their growing dread. In some respects, Who Can Kill A Child? is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of The Birds (1963) only with children. Serrador’s film doesn’t offer an explanation as to why the children are behaving so irrationally – they just are, which makes it that much more unsettling. The film offers some tantalizing clues and heavy-handed symbolism but no definitive answers.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bad Taste

Watching Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) again was a potent reminder of how much fun his early films were before he made the transition to respectable Hollywood filmmaker after the critically-acclaimed art house hit Heavenly Creatures (1994). His early efforts playfully give the finger to respectable cinema as they revel in cheesy gore and silly humor. Bad Taste is a 90-minute "splatstick" spoof of alien invasion movies as Jackson became New Zealand's answer to Sam Raimi. Shot on weekends over three years for only $11,000, Jackson's film utilized a small, but dedicated cast and crew with all the rough-around-the-edges charm of a low budget horror movie.

Jackson’s tongue is firmly embedded in cheek right from the get-go as the opening scene, with its shadowy government operative, takes the piss out of the James Bond movies. A small-town has been overrun by a nasty bunch of "astro bastards," alien beings bent on harvesting the Earth's population for their own greedy consumption. Fearing that they're being visited by, as Derek (Peter Jackson) puts it, "a planet full of Charlie Mansons," it's up to the brave men of the Astro Investigation and Defense Service (or AIDS for short - as one character says, "I wish we'd change that name.") to stop these "intergalactic wankers" from taking over the world.

We meet Barry (Pete O’Herne) as he encounters a shambling man with an ax. He says to Derek over the radio, “Geez, he could be Ministry of Works or something,” to which his buddy replies, “Nah, he’s moving too fast.” Barry pulls out a gun and blasts away, blowing the top of the man’s head off. Jackson makes sure to show a close-up of the brain matter complete with squishy sounds. The ongoing exchange between Barry and Derek is quite funny as the former laments, “Why can’t aliens be friendly?” while the latter replies, “There’s no glowing fingers on these bastards.” Barry and Derek are hilariously inept in dispatching the aliens while their cohorts, Frank (Mike Minett) and Ozzy (Terry Potter) drive in a muscle car and are rather adept at killing these otherworldly invaders.

Derek is the most hapless of the bunch, surviving on a seemingly endless supply of dumb luck as he spills all kinds of alien blood that splashes all over him before suffering a nasty injury of his own. Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of his very expressive face whether it is the goofy looks he gives as Derek of the even goofier ones as Robert (an alien also played by Jackson) and yet still finds amusing variations on each character.

Bad Taste is one of those movies that has a ridiculous, irrepressible charm all its own. The amateurish acting, the non-existent production values, and crude, yet effective special effects actually work in favor of the film much in the same way as Raimi's first two Evil Dead movies. There is some pretty inventive gore, like one alien getting a hammer in his head when another alien is shot by Derek who then proceeds to shoot its arm off. We then get an image of an alien with a hammer in his head and the arm still attached to it! What Jackson and company lack in budget and flashy special effects they more than make up for with hilariously memorable dialogue ("I’m a Derek and Dereks don’t run!") and plenty of local humor, complete with regional slang and references to Kiwi culture.

For such a low budget feature it is impressive just how stylish it is with Jackson’s creative camerawork that swoops by aliens and tracks along with our heroes. At one point, he pays homage to and manages to surpass the lunacy of Bruce Campbell fighting himself in Evil Dead 2 (1987) by playing two different roles, Derek and an alien named Robert, with the former torturing the latter. Through some clever editing, Jackson ends up fighting himself in an exciting battle atop a cliff.

In 1983, Peter Jackson planned to shoot a 10-15 minute film for the Wellington Film Festival. Originally entitled, Roast of the Day, it would eventually evolve into Bad Taste. Childhood friend Ken Hammon was enlisted to co-write the screenplay with Jackson and said, “The original idea was a guy who was collecting for a charity to fight starvation. He goes to a small town where these strange hillbilly people eat him.” At some point, they decided that the hillbillies were aliens in disguise. Jackson funded the entire production with $17,000 from working as a photo engraver at The Evening Post, Wellington’s largest newspaper. His parents loaned him $2,500 to buy a 16mm bolex camera with a sync speed motor and built all the other equipment himself, including dolly tracks, a crane and a steadicam. His crew consisted of himself and Hammon who spent hours shooting and carrying Jackson’s equipment over several locations on cold, sometimes wet Sundays for months. For the cast, he enlisted work colleagues who ended up spending years shooting the film on that particular day because everyone worked six-day weeks.

After a year, Jackson took a week off to edit the footage he had shot and assembled a 60-minute rough cut but realized that he didn’t have an ending.  He wrote one and started shooting again, deciding to make it gorier when he felt that the rough cut was boring: “The film was vastly improved at this point, and much more entertaining.” Eventually, Jackson ran out of money and screened the footage for the New Zealand Film Commission’s executive director Jim Booth who liked it and had the ability to approve small amounts of money for script development. Booth gave him $30,000 in $5,000 checks over time, which allowed Jackson to quit his day job and buy costumes and sets. The Commission gave him $200,000 to finish post-production, which included blowing it up to 35mm, hiring a composer, doing a sound mix, and color timing among other things. Bad Taste had its world premiere at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival where Jackson sold it for a tidy sum of money and the film went onto have its New Zealand debut at the Wellington Film Festival.

Bad Taste not only skewers staples of the science fiction and horror genre, like E.T. (1982) and The Shining (1980), but isn't afraid to poke fun at itself with numerous in-jokes about New Zealand. This is a wonderful introduction into Peter Jackson's low budget roots, especially for people who only know him as the director of The Lord of the Rings films. This cult film gleefully trashes many of the sacred cows of the horror and science fiction genre while celebrating the low budget, no-holds-barred aesthetic of classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).


Botes, Costa. “Peter Jackson: Made in New Zealand.” May 30, 2002.

De Semlyen, Nick. “The Making of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste.” Empire. January 2015.

Ihaka, James. “From Splatterfest to Epic Tale: The Price of Building an Empire.” The New Zealand Herald. November 26, 2012.

“Lord of the Cinema: Sir Peter Jackson Interview.” Academy of Achievement. June 3, 2006.

Williams, David E. “Braindead: An Interview with Peter Jackson.” Film Threat. February 17, 1992.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Talented Mr. Ripley

By J.D. Lafrance and Lady Fitzsimmons

Fresh from the commercial and critical success of phenom The English Patient (1996), filmmaker Anthony Minghella dove back into the literary world for his next film – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Adapted previously as Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon, Minghella cast Matt Damon, still hot property from Good Will Hunting (1997) in the title role, and surrounded him with a new class of actors in ascension: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The end result was a lavish adaptation full of rich period detail and a fascinatingly complex performance by Damon as a social-climbing sociopath.

“If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out. Starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket.”

Thus begins our story with voiceover narration by protagonist Tom Ripley (Damon). We meet him at a party hosted by the Greenleaf family in 1950s New York City, where Tom makes quite the impression on wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn).  After the soiree, Tom shed ‘his’ Princeton blazer, revealing his for con of the film – posting as a Tiger for someone else. It pays off; the next day Herbert asks him to go to Italy and persuade his son Dickie (Law) to come back home for $1,000, which, by 1955 standards, is a tidy sum. Herbert is not happy with his son’s behavior overseas – “That’s my son’s talent,” he tells Tom, “spending his allowance.”

Tom, whose current employ is playing a piano at a cocktail bar, jumps at the chance to make some serious money – and rub elbows with the upper crust in Europe. Ever the astute social chameleon, we see Tom studying up on popular jazz songs and artists because it is a passion of Dickie’s and, more importantly, a way to immediately ingratiate himself. With one foot barely off the boat, Tom is already changing identities, telling fellow traveler Meredith Logue (Blanchett) that he is Dickie Greenleaf.

Tom orchestrates a chance encounter between himself, Dickie, and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Paltrow) on the beach in an amusing scene: Tom is all kinds of awkward as he sports lime green bathing trunks, which “compliment” his pasty white skin. I love how Dickie points this out (“Have you ever seen someone so white? Grey actually.”) and how quickly Tom makes fun of himself (“It’s just an undercoat.”). Tom is intensely serious in his plan to take on the character of a student on holiday, the way a rich playboy takes on a lover.

The seduction begins.

Tom impresses Dickie with an uncanny impression of his father and a mutual love of jazz. They become fast friends and are soon singing jazz in broken Italian at a hipster nightclub that Minghella captures in all of its dark, sweaty glory, masterfully capturing the energy of the moment. Tom agrees to help Dickie perpetuate a ruse – they will string his father along so that Dickie can continue to spend his money.

Tom is a student of human behavior, observing people for only a short while before being able to do an impression of them. For example, he studies the way Dickie signs his name and files it away for later use. Minghella shows Tom rehearsing in front of a mirror like an actor (where he creepily imitates a conversation between Marge and Dickie with eerie exactness). Like many great thespians, Tom is a blank slate, which allows him to become fully immersed in the “roles” he plays. During lunch he reveals his talents to Dickie and Marge – “Forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody” – and his “purpose” for being there. Every single movement – we realize now – has, from the beginning, been surgically planned and impeccably executed, a black widow weaving the web or perhaps, more appropriately, the funnel spider, launching the fatal attack from a place unexpected, at a time unthinkable.

The web is completed a mere 24 minutes and 30 seconds into the film as we watch the spider plot his “attack.” This section, this leg of Tom’s trip, is the film’s transition to a psycho-drama; Tom is becoming Dickie, and Dickie is coming closer to the edge of the cliff. It’s also worth mentioning the subtle homoerotic nuances of Damon’s facial movements, the lingering looks fostered by the sensuality.

Matt Damon does a fantastic job of presenting Tom as a socially awkward nerd, disarming Dickie and Marge who “realize” that he’s not threat to them. This allows them to act both good-naturedly and condescending towards him – they don’t see him as an equal. Dickie and Marge are all about social niceties; these will end up being used against them. Damon is all tentative gestures and aw shucks self-deprecation…but in private, he offers glimmers of Tom’s true self – something that is gradually revealed over the course of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Taking this role was a shrewd move on Damon’s part. He capitalized on the buzz from Good Will Hunting by then taking a chance on a different and difficult role instead of taking the easy route, and doing a romantic comedy or something safely within his wheelhouse.

The mesmirizingly handsome Jude Law is well-cast as spoiled playboy Dickie, a young man that spends most of his time traveling all over Italy, spending his father’s money. Dickie is the kind of person who’s into whatever is fashionable at the moment, like Charlie Parker-era jazz, and befriends people like Tom until he loses interest in/becomes bored with them. He’s a flake that thinks loving such things makes him a deep person and Law conveys this extraordinarily well. Dickie’s short attention span and spoiled-brat attitude of instant gratification anticipates the prevailing attitude of what society has become today. Marge sums him up best when she confides in Tom:

“The thing with Dickie … It is like the sun shines on you and it’s glorious … and then he forgets you and it’s very very cold,” to which he replies, “…so I’m learning…” She says, “When you have his attention you feel like the only person in the world. That’s why everybody loves him.”

Gwyneth Paltrow plays the perfect WASP socialite, tired of the “whole Park Avenue crowd,” and fled to Paris to work on her novel. She has problems of the idle rich and initially appears to be Dickie’s superficial equal. It’s Marge, however, that is the first person to suspect Tom’s real agenda but because she’s a woman – and it’s the ‘50s – she’s dismissed as being distraught. Fresh from the phenomenal success of Shakespeare in Love (1998), Paltrow was at the height of her mainstream popularity; getting her was a real casting coup for Minghella. She definitely looks the part and conveys an air of entitlement. Ultimately, Marge is a sympathetic, even tragic character as evidenced in a nice scene between her and Tom. She explains Dickie’s shifting attention from him to Freddie, hinting that she is aware of her boyfriend’s affairs with other women. Marge seems resigned to her lot in life with an air of sadness that humanizes her.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles and makes a dramatic entrance, befitting his larger than life persona, arriving in a sporty convertible that sends scores of pigeons scattering. He hops out and says with a mischievous grin, “I wish I could fuck every woman just once.” Hoffman makes an immediate impression – a high society accent and phony laugh intact – as he grabbily steals Dickie away from Tom. Freddie is a bully that delights in putting Tom in his place by reminding him of his lower-class status. It’s easy to see why Freddie and Dickie are friends – they are nasty people that treat others badly with little or no remorse for their actions. We don’t feel all that bad about their ultimate destinations.

Tom loves Dickie so much that he wants to be him. Throughout the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella offers several moments that show Tom’s fixation on Dickie. He studies Dickie’s mannerisms because Tom wants to be him: eventually, he adopts the young man’s identity. The second half of the film is a fascinating study of how Tom attempts to maintain two identities without anyone catching on to his deception. At times, it’s a tricky juggling act that Tom works hard to maintain as he manages to narrowly avoid being discovered. Minghella gradually increases the tension as Tom’s ruse gets harder to maintain, especially with the Italian police breathing down his neck.

It would be easy to say that Tom suffers from multiple personality disorder but he does not. He is one man, with one mind, given to flights of fancy that lead to human degradation of the basest kind. He daydreams, he kills. The first third of The Talented Mr. Ripley resembles a Technicolor classic Hollywood movie like Roman Holiday (1953), then shifts gears into a psychological thriller a la Roman Polanski, and finally segues into a crime thriller as Tom tries to cover his tracks – and we wonder if he’s going to get away with it. The film gets darker and darker as the humanity is being drained from it every time Tom takes a life. It shows the absolute depravity that someone is capable of as Tom paints himself into a corner with the blood of his victims.

The look of The Talented Mr. Ripley mirrors its protagonist. It starts off with warm, sun-kissed colors, courtesy of John Seale’s cinematography, and gradually darkens as Tom gets deeper and deeper in trouble. The seaside color palette of the Italy in the film is worlds away from the regular day-to-day color palette of the New York City where we first meet Tom. However, when it comes to both clothing and architecture, vacationing by the seaside, houses are generally not your everyday bricks and mortar – they are light blue, coral and pink stucco. The same can be said about vacationing wardrobes. Gone are the grey flannel suits and navy blazers of the Upper East Side and in are shirttails out with white pants and Docksiders. Women’s hair is in ponytails, worn with bathing suits and pleated shorts. Gone are reading glasses, only to be replaced by designer sunglasses. It is the graceful ease of seaside living, for the rich, that is. As we near the third act of the movie, it is like summer vacation is over and we’re back to our mainland wardrobe – darker hues and heavier materials – a prime example of this is Tom wandering the decks of the ship wearing a poor boy’s black coat. Ripley is a visually gorgeous film…but beyond that, it is also rife with rich symbolism. For example, there are several times throughout where islands of rock are either passed in boats or in the background as part of the landscape. They are reminders of the magnificent L’Avventura (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting masterpiece involving whimsical young adulthood, idyllic scenery, and dark philosophical mystery.

Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955 while moving from Massachusetts to Santa Fe before going to Europe, where she lived most of her adult life. A child of divorce, she made a living early on writing for action comic books. Tom Ripley would become her favorite character and after the first novel, she wrote four more featuring him. She said of Tom, “He could be called psychotic but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational … I consider him a rather civilized person who kills when he absolutely has to.”

Producer William Horberg had read Highsmith’s novel in the mid-1980s and was immediately intrigued by the story. He left Paramount Pictures in 1992 to become a producer with Sydney Pollack’s company, Mirage Enterprises. He gave Pollack a first-edition hardcover copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley as a gift in the hopes that he’d be interested in making it into a film.

When Horberg made inquiries about the film rights to Ripley, he found that French producer Robert Hakim, who made the 1960 adaptation Purple Noon, still controlled the property. Horberg said, “Over the years I had heard many stories about filmmakers who pursued the property only to run into problems with him.” Producer Tom Sternberg knew the Hakim family and was also an admirer of Highsmith’s novel. After Robert died, his family asked Sternberg to set up Ripley as a film project in the United States.

Through his lawyer, Sternberg heard that Horberg and Pollack were also interested adapting the book. As it turned out, Hakim’s widow was a big fan of The Firm (1993), which Pollack directed. She and her daughters met with the filmmaker and agreed to sell the rights to his company. Paramount agreed to finance the project and helped in its development.

Horberg and Pollack were big fans of Anthony Minghella and sent him a copy of the book. He had first read the novel in 1980 and felt an affinity for its protagonist but “not in terms of what he did, but why he did it, and what he did that was at the heart of it, which was a sort of self-loathing, a sense of inadequacy, of being an outsider, a sense of yearning, to love and be loved.” He was the son of working class Italian parents and grew up on the Isle of Wight, where he felt that “every English person was a Dickie Greenleaf.” He was drawn to the material because he felt it had “one extraordinary idea in it, which is the idea of a man who commits murder but is never caught. I thought that was an audacious subject for an American movie particularly, which is so used to moral closure.”

He was about to make The English Patient but had to wait until his leading man – Ralph Fiennes – was finished his Broadway run of Hamlet. He finished the first draft of the screenplay as The English Patient started rehearsals in Rome and found the material so compelling that he wanted to direct Ripley as well. He asked the studio to wait until he finished his film and they did.

When it came to casting the role of Tom Ripley, Minghella saw Good Will Hunting and was impressed with Matt Damon’s performance, as well as his turn in Courage Under Fire (1996). The two men met and found that they were on the same page on how to depict Tom. To prepare for the role, Damon lost 25 pounds in order to appear pale and skinny, and spent a month learning how to play the piano, finding that his playing posture informed the way Tom sat and walked.

For the role of Dickie Greenleaf, Minghella met with many American actors but found that they couldn’t evoke the character’s “class snobbery” and he thought of Jude Law for the role. Initially, the actor was not keen on playing Dickie but Minghella won him over. Law was drawn to the part due to being “fascinated by the challenge of trying to make nasty characters likeable.” Minghella wrote the role of Marge Sherwood with Gwyneth Paltrow in mind and she was the first person he cast. Initially, she didn’t understand how interesting the character was but during the rehearsal process, she discovered “how full and complicated the role is.”

To prepare for making Ripley, Minghella rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and I Vitelloni (1953), as well as reading the memoirs of Paul Goodman and Paul Monette in order to get a handle on the cultural touchstones of the young American characters in Ripley. He also read Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny,” about the writer’s Yale 1957 classmate Denny Hansen, a closeted gay varsity athlete who went to Europe as a Rhodes scholar.

The Talented Mr. Ripley received mostly positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is an intelligent thriller as you’ll see this year.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Jude Law’s “star-making role for the preternaturally talented English actor Jude Law. Beyond being devastatingly good-looking, Mr. Law gives Dickie the manic, teasing powers of manipulation that make him ardently courted by every man or woman he knows.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Damon is at once an obvious choice for the part and a hard sell to audiences soothed by his amiable boyishness … But the façade works surprisingly well when Damon holds that gleaming smile just a few seconds too long, his Eagle Scout eyes fixed just a blink more than the calm gaze of any non-murdering young man. And in that opacity we see horror.”

The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a case in point, is an often brilliant but ultimately confused murder melodrama in which there is no mystery to be solved, and no characters sympathetic enough to generate suspense about their fate in the patented Hitchcock manner.” However, in her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin criticized Minghella for turning, “The Talented Mr. Ripley into a splashy tourist trap of a movie. The effect is rather like reading The National Inquirer in a café overlooking the Adriatic.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “It ends up a dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study. Ripley says he’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody – but a fake nobody is all we’re offered…”

“I always thought it’s better to be a fake somebody then a real nobody,” Tom says towards the closing of the film. The last shot – his reflection in a closet mirror as he replays the latest murder in his mind. Tom’s mirror image is a repeating motif throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley; one imagines his life as a hall of mirrors. Which one is the real Tom Ripley? Are we seeing the “real” Tom before the closet door closes into darkness and the film ends? Its final shot brilliantly, visually sums up what Tom is: a sociopath unable to truly love because when he gets too close to the object of his affection, his impulse is to destroy, lest he reveal too much of his real self.


“Cinderella Minghella.” The Guardian. February 16, 2000.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Matt Damon Acts Out.” Time. March 6, 2000.

Rich, Frank. “American Pseudo.” The New York Times. December 12, 1999.

Simon, Alex. “The Talented Mr. Minghella.” Venice Magazine. February 2000.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 1. Empire.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 2. Empire.

The Talented Mr. Ripley Production Notes. Miramax Pictures. 1999.

Friday, September 18, 2015


The world needs dreamers – people with their heads in the clouds thinking big ideas. We need people like this for without them we would never have gone into outer space. Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985) champions dreamers in a refreshingly earnest way that never feels forced and is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production and Dante was never allowed to edit it properly. As a result, the ending feels a little awkward but does nothing to diminish the heartfelt sincerity that exists in every frame. Sadly, mainstream moviegoers weren’t interested and Explorers was a box office failure but has gone on to develop a small but devoted cult following.

It’s no coincidence that the film begins with Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) dreaming that he’s flying through the sky and then over some Tron-esque landscape while War of the Worlds (1953) plays on a television in the background of his bedroom. It’s a sly commentary on Dante’s part as his aliens will be nothing like the ruthless ones in that film.

Ben tells his best friend Wolfgang Muller (River Phoenix) about it on the way to school the next day. They share a common nemesis in the form of schoolyard bully Steve Jackson (Bobby Fite) who enjoys tormenting them with his friends on a daily basis. Ben befriends Darren Woods (Jason Presson), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who helps him out with Steve.

Dante does a nice job early on of developing the dynamic between Ben, Darren and Wolfgang who, on the surface, are unlikely friends. Darren is a mechanically-inclined cynic from a broken home while Wolfgang is a nerdy bookish type that is ruled by logic and comes from a family of eccentric geniuses. Ben is the bridge between these two polar opposites – a nice kid from a stable home who isn’t particularly cool but not a nerd either – he’s a dreamer. He’s the glue that keeps them together.

Ben draws a circuit board he saw in a dream and gives it to Wolfgang who assembles a piece of technology that creates a transparent bubble. It can be resized, moves at incredible speeds and is seemingly indestructible. Over several nights out in the woods, the boys build a crude craft out of a tilt-a-whirl seat that allows them to all be in the bubble. They decide to use it to explore the galaxy for alien life. Dante takes this fantastical premise and grounds it in a kind of matter-of-fact realism via scientific jargon Wolfgang frequently spouts but without losing a sense of wonderment that is the film’s strongest attribute.

The three young lead actors are perfectly cast. Ethan Hawke is excellent as an idealistic dreamer that yearns to be a space explorer and live out his sci-fi fantasies. He avoids slipping into cheesiness by imparting a sincerity that feels authentic. Jason Presson is also good as the cynical yin to Hawke’s idealistic yang. He provides the practical knowledge to help build their craft. Finally, River Phoenix disappears into his bookish scientist constantly clad in a tie and suit jacket like a pint-sized college professor. While these kids are smart and resourceful, Dante doesn’t let us forget that they are still kids who have to face bullies, have crushes on girls and do their homework. It makes them relatable so that by the time Explorers takes a turn to the fantastical we are invested in their journey.

The three actors play so well off each other and are completely believable as good friends, each bringing their own distinctive personality to the table. Just watch how they interact with each other as they launch their craft for the first time. These are resourceful young boys living out their dreams. Dante includes all kinds of nice touches that fleshes out these rich characters, like Ben’s love of 1950s science fiction movies and novels, or Wolfgang’s chaotic family life complete with noisy siblings and an absent-minded professor (wonderfully realized by James Cromwell) for a father.

Dante pulls out all the stops for the last third of Explorers with visually dazzling special effects that are tangibly old school, like the boys’ craft that is made out of a hodge-podge of junk they found, and include some impressive makeup work by the legendary Rob Bottin. It makes me sad to think that nowadays this would all be done with CGI because the practical effects give the film a timeless quality. All of this visual eye candy does a decent job of distracting one from how jarring the last third of the film is from what came before it.

After writing two screenplays that were tailored to what was popular with little success, Eric Luke decided to work on something he really “wanted to do when I was a kid. And who cares if it’s commercial or not?” He grounded his script in real-life trials and tribulations from his own childhood, including an unrequited crush on the girl next door. While the character of Wolfgang was based on a scientific kid he knew and befriended over his extensive comic book collection, Ben was the one that Luke most related to and he also had friends like Darren and Wolfgang.

Luke was working in a Los Angeles effects house when his Explorers script was discovered by producer David Bombyk. He showed it to his associate Edward Feldman and told him, “Read this. The first 65 pages of this script are terrific.” Feldman read it and agreed but felt that the rest “went into a Flash Gordon-type adventure and got kind of hokey.” He felt that it showed enough promise and gave the first 65 pages to Paramount Pictures. Within 24 hours they bought it and Luke was brought in do all the rewrites.

The studio was interested in hiring Wolfgang Petersen to direct. He had just come off making The NeverEnding Story (1984) and wanted to shoot Explorers in Bavaria. Feldman felt that an American story like Explorers would be “very hard to duplicate those little American nuances in a foreign country.” He also felt that Petersen would have given the film “a more serious, dramatic look,” and hired Joe Dante instead. At the time, the director hadn’t finished work on Gremlins (1984) and was tired from making it and his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and wasn’t sure he could do it. Paramount was persistent, however, and Dante finally agreed. The director found himself drawn to “the story [that] exists to serve the characters. This is different for me: it’s more of a stretch. Although, the story has many of the same elements that I like to work with, there is more emphasis on the characters.” Once onboard, the director worked closely with Luke on script revisions.

For the three young leads, a nationwide casting search was conducted with Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson chosen to play the protagonists. Dante found that working with his three 14-year-old lead actors reminded him of what it was to be like a kid: “We tend to always romanticize childhood a little bit, but working with kids reminds you that it’s a tough period to go through.”

In order to realize that aliens in Explorers, the production hired makeup effects wizard Rob Bottin who started work right after finishing Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend (1985). Originally, Dante wanted the aliens to be puppets but Bottin felt that doing it that way would slow things down: “They’re going to want to pump this stuff out, yet these aliens have pages and pages of dialogue.” He wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and recommended they have people in suits – blending body makeup and wire-controlled appendages. He wasn’t interested in the typical men-in-suits look because “doing that limits you to all these head shapes which have already been done to death.” Bottin designed stalk eyes that could move independently from the rest of the head.

Dante was thrust into a rushed production schedule mandated by the studio and “if a scene didn’t work out, we would just have to think of another way to do it, rather than take time to get it right.” He also had to contend with script changes, which resulted in changes to the last third of the film due to “the expense of creating this otherworldly environment,” and only had seven pages of material covering the boys’ encounter with the aliens. Dante and his collaborators ended up adding material on the fly.

To make matters worse, the studio changed hands during the post-production phase of Explorers and the new regime told Dante, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” This forced Dante and his editor to rush cutting the film and what was released was essentially a rough cut. Dante said, “The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) … The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular!”

Explorers received generally positive to mixed reviews with most of the criticism addressing the film’s third act. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Explorers, which is lively but largely familiar until the point when it reaches its batty pinnacle, frequently shows off Mr. Dante’s sense of humor to good advantage.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Explorers itself is bubble-thin, but it glides by gracefully on the charm of its three young heroes and their vividly envisioned adventure in space. It’s also a truly gentle film, one of the precious few that actually is suitable for children.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “The effects are ho-hum and the scenes are repetitious – there’s really only about an hour’s worth of movie here.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Unfortunately, in Explorers – the latest kids space travel movie – the human kids are far more interesting than the aliens they meet. Maybe the movie’s script is making the wry comment that it’s not so interesting ‘out there,’ but I doubt it.”

With Explorers, Dante has created a sci-fi film for kids but one that doesn’t condescend to them but rather shows the world through the eyes of its youthful protagonists. The director is one of the great chroniclers of 1980s American suburbia, from the Norman Rockwell gone horrible wrong of Gremlins (1984) to the paranoid comedy of The ‘Burbs (1989) to exploring its quirky avenues in the Eerie, Indiana T.V. show. Dante is a rare filmmaker that remembers what it is like to be a kid and to see the world through their eyes without dumbing things down or getting mired in nostalgia. Explorers achieves its sense of wonderment honestly with the help of Jerry Goldsmith’s sometimes wistful, sometimes rousing score that compliments the suburban atmosphere of the first two-thirds and the otherworldliness of the last third.

Dante has always had a subversive streak as a filmmaker and it pops up in the last third of Explorers when our heroes finally make contact with aliens. Ben expects to meet some solemn being a la The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and instead is confronted with two beings educated by American T.V., communicating mostly in famous soundbites. It has a bit of a jarring effect after the earnestness of the first two-thirds but one can see that Dante wasn’t interested in repeating what Steven Spielberg did with E.T. and instead present aliens that kids would find funny and entertaining. Dante refuses to resort the manipulative sentimentality of this film and opts instead for the sense of wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) only on a smaller, more intimate scale.


Lofficier, Randy & Jean. “Exploring Director Joe Dante.” Starlog. September 1985.

Lowry, Brian. “Eric Luke: Exploring His Dreams.” Starlog. October 1985.

Lowry, Brian. “Rob Bottin: Crafting Fantastic Faces.” Starlog. February 1986.

Sayers, John and David McDonnell. “Edward Feldman: Guiding Young Explorers into Adventure.” Starlog. June 1985.

Tonguette, Peter. “What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2.” Press Play. January 14, 2012.

Friday, September 11, 2015


The Wrestler (2008) is generally regarded as Mickey Rourke’s comeback film and proved that given the chance, with the right material, he could be a great actor again. This film oddly echoes another one he made 30 years prior, entitled Homeboy (1988). Interestingly, both films are underdog sports stories with the actor playing down-on-their-luck loners looking for redemption. What makes Homeboy a more interesting film than The Wrestler is that it was a personal, passion project for Rourke as opposed to Darren Aronofsky’s film, which was tailored to the actor’s talents. Homeboy was a film that originated with Rourke and one that he had nurtured and massaged for years, even writing the screenplay under the nom de plume of Sir Eddie Cook.

It’s hard to believe that by 1988, Rourke’s career was considered washed-up – at least in Hollywood where he started off strong with memorable roles in Diner (1982), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then scored his biggest commercial hit with 9 ½ Weeks (1986). This would mark a high point for the actor who’s reputation for being difficult was overlooked so long as his films made money, but three consecutive underperformers saw Rourke increasingly relegated to the margins. It also didn’t help that he fancied himself a boxer – an obsession that would help derail his career even further in the 1990s.

Johnny Walker (Mickey Rourke) arrives at a sea-side resort one rainy night and takes refuge in a nearby bar populated by African Americans who, by and large, look at him with contempt and disdain. It could be that he’s white and it could also be the cowboy attire that he’s wearing. He joins in on a dice game and pretty soon he’s been accepted and is dancing on the bar with a woman while chugging from a bottle of whiskey. Johnny’s handler Lou (Thomas Quinn) arrives to take him to a boxing match he’s supposed to be fighting in.

To say Johnny is an unorthodox boxer is an understatement. When he first climbs into the ring he plays mind games with his opponent by testing the ropes and staring at him silently in a way that could be mistaken for being mentally handicapped. The fight starts and Johnny spends the first round taking all kinds of punches from his opponent and getting in close. He comes out fast in the second round and proceeds to knock his opponent out. This catches promoter Wesley Pendergass’ (Christopher Walken) eye.

Wesley is a shifty promoter cum small-time crook who talks a good game but is clearly trouble. He also moonlights at a local strip club as a stand-up comic/song and dance man who tells jokes badly and sings even worse. Imagine Christopher Walken doing these two things, badly, in his very particular way and you get an idea of just how awesome it is to behold.

Johnny ends up frequenting an amusement park on the boardwalk, drawn to Ruby (Debra Feuer), a good-looking woman that runs a mini-horse ride. She is struggling to get by but dreams of fixing a broken down carousel her father left her before he died. Johnny soon gets roped into a dodgy scheme with Wesley that you know can only end badly. Added into the mix is Grazziano (Kevin Conway), a grizzled low-rent version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, complete with the porkpie hat. He is shadowing Wesley and Ray (Antony Alda), his junkie sidekick, just waiting for them to screw-up. The rest of the film plays out Johnny’s dilemma – does he continue participating in a sport where he’s only one or two fights from possibly dying or go in on Wesley’s ill-conceived scheme or give it all up and help Ruby realize her dreams?

Mickey Rourke is fantastic as a punch-drunk boxer living on the margins of society. It is the kind of character he excels at playing – one that has a tragic-romantic vibe to him. Like many of the characters the actor plays, Johnny is a thinker, a brooding type that could easily be mistaken for dumb, but Rourke’s performance suggests a man that observes others and takes in the entire scene before he responds or acts. We also get a brief glimpse of how he sees the world and it’s in slow motion with distorted sound as if everything is underwater.

Our first glimpse of Wesley Pendergass sees him playfully trying to comb fellow promoter Moe Fingers’ (Jon Polito) balding head before primping his own luxurious head of hair with a mischievous glint in his eyes as only Christopher Walken can do. It’s a brief teaser for the full reveal a few beats later when Wesley works the room, poking fun at Lou: “And Lou, why was God so good to me and so awful to you?” in his trademark patter that is a thing of beauty to watch. Walken’s Wesley is all smiles and flamboyant moves but in certain scenes he reveals the menace that lurks underneath the gregarious façade. He talks a big game but is strictly small-time.

Not surprisingly, the main draw of Homeboy is the scenes between Rourke and Walken. It is great to see two talented performers like them play off each other with the former portraying a man of few words and the latter playing a flashy motormouth. Each actor brings their own unique energy to their respective roles and it is a lot of fun to see them bounce their distinctive acting styles off each other.

Debra Feuer brings the tough sensibility of someone that has survived a lot of hard times but it hasn’t stopped her from trying to realize her dreams. There’s a nice scene where Ruby recounts memories of watching her father work that Feuer delivers with an air of wistful nostalgia while Rourke, the generous performer, just listens, giving his co-star the space to have her moment. She and Rourke have excellent chemistry together (they were married at the time) as evident in the scenes they share, bringing out the vulnerability in their respective characters.

Lou, as played by Thomas Quinn, is a burnt-out, disheveled variation of Burt Young’s trainer in Rocky (1976). He perfectly encapsulates the seedy charm of this world, populated by broken down boxers and small-time criminals. Over the course of the film, he reveals that Lou really does care about Johnny’s well-being, to the point that he admits his own shortcomings as a trainer to the fighter. This is a world that Rourke knows well and it is evident in the details, from the bustling gym where you can almost smell the sweat, to the seaside carnival where you can almost feel the cool wind coming off the ocean.

Mickey Rourke came up with the idea for Homeboy while he was a struggling actor. When he was younger, he attempted a career as an amateur boxer but after a few fights, a severe concussion ended that aspiration. Rourke never forgot and wanted to depict his boxing experiences on film. He based the character of Johnny Walker on someone he knew as a child, and a boxer who frequented the same gym in Miami as he did: “He had all the tools. He just had a little trouble upstairs … There was no guidance in his life. There was no love. And if you don’t have a certain amount of love, you’re going to turn out like a piece of shit.” Rourke hero worshipped the boxer but was also intimidated by him: “There was some dark fucking thing when I looked at him. When I looked at him, I was looking at myself.”

While working on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), Rourke met and became friends with Christopher Walken. Over dinner one night Walken told Rourke about his theory on how the dinosaurs died out. Rourke was intrigued by Walken’s theory and told him about a film he wanted to make some day about a boxer. Rourke told Walken that he would play the fighter’s manager. Rourke remembered, “I thought, ‘Wow, here I’m having this one chance to have dinner with one of my favorite actors in the world, and he’s talking about dinosaurs in outer space.” Rourke initially wrote what would become Homeboy on coffee-shop napkins as far back as 1984. In an interview from 1985, he described the film as being “about a guy who never was a champion, he’s a guy who was pretty much the reason I stopped boxing.”

When it came time to make Homeboy, Rourke was only interested in casting friends and childhood buddies in supporting roles as opposed to well-known actors. He also cast his then-wife Debra Feuer opposite him and picked Angel Heart’s cinematographer Michael Seresin to direct his first and to date only film.

While Homeboy was released in Europe, it failed to find a theatrical debut in North America when Rourke had it blocked because of a lawsuit he filed against the film’s producer Elliott Kastner for failing to pay him and denying approval over final editing and music. Rourke said, “I felt violated. I learned a great lesson—never trust someone on a handshake. People’s words mean nothing in this business.”

Homeboy is a fascinating study of a self-destructive man. Johnny could be a half-decent fighter if he didn’t drink so much and had enough in the tank to finish off his opponents. Rourke’s actual boxing skills certainly give the fight scenes an authenticity. This is a film about making choices and being smart enough to make the right ones. This sometimes involves learning from many bad ones and this doesn’t always happen. Over the course of the film Johnny has to figure out what’s important to him and make some serious choices that will affect his life forever. Homeboy is no Raging Bull (1980) and it doesn’t aspire to be like that film. It’s an intimate slice-of-life story about people just trying to get by and finding compelling drama in their day-to-day struggles.


Caulfield, Deborah. “Dragon Rourke Breathes Fire.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1985.

Dutt, Saurav. Stand Alone: The Films of Mickey Rourke. 2011.

Goldstein, Patrick. “The Last Anti-Hero?” Los Angeles Times. February 24, 1991.

“Rourke in Dispute Over Homeboy.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1989.

Smith, Gavin. “Out There on a Visit.” Film Comment. July/August 1992.

Walken, Christopher. “Mickey Rourke.” Interview. January 16, 2009.