Friday, March 17, 2017

Perdita Durango

Perdita Durango (1997) is a fascinating oddity in the filmography of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia. It was his attempt at breaking into the North American market with a cast that featured recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini. Unfortunately, De La Iglesia’s film came out before Bardem became known to audiences here and two years before Gandolfini hit it big with The Sopranos. As a result, Perdita Durango was trimmed by ten minutes and dumped into direct-to-video hell with the generic title Dance with the Devil. Even in this neutered form, De La Igleisia’s film is a gonzo potpourri of wild sex, crazed violence and pitch black humor. In other words, the stuff that instant cult films are made of.

Based on Barry Gifford’s novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango, De La Iglesia’s film is a spin-off, of sorts, of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) – also an adaptation of one of Gifford’s novels – by focusing on one of the minor characters featured in that film (and played by Isabella Rossellini). Perdita (Perez) is a tough, no-nonsense lady clad in a Tura Satana-style black outfit. She meets Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem), a maniacal criminal who also happens to be an even more maniacal witch doctor.

The couple cross the border into Mexico, become lovers and partners in crime as they kidnap a white-bread couple of teens – Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) and transport a truckload of human fetuses to Las Vegas while trying to evade determined Drug Enforcement Agency officer Woody Dumas (Gandolfini).

The opening scene, where a schlubby guy tries to pick up Perdita at an airport, tells us all we need to know about her – she’s smart, tough and more than capable of handling herself, sending the hapless guy scurrying with a few choice words. It’s a juicy role that Rosie Perez sinks her teeth into, immersing herself fully. She shows a wide range of emotions as her character is more than an amoral criminal, she also conveys a vulnerability – albeit fleeting – that gives her a bit more depth than one would expect from this kind of a film.

Romeo is an impulsive mad man as evident in a flashback where he forces a busty bank teller to expose her naked breast while he’s robbing the bank! He then double-crosses his partner, hitting him with the getaway vehicle. Much like Perez, Javier Bardem commits fully to the role with scary intensity. Romeo is a force of nature that follows his own beliefs that are a funky fusion of a love for cinema and a twisted belief in Santeria.

James Gandolfini portrays Woody as a slightly sleazy, slightly seedy character that speaks with a slightly weasely lisp and has the misfortune of being repeatedly hit by fast moving vehicles, not unlike a live-action Wile E. Coyote. He also seems to be mildly fixated on Ava Gardner, at one point remarking how much he likes her lips. He’s determined to bring down Romeo for his outstanding drug offenses and will let nothing get in his way. It becomes a point of pride for him. Gandolfini steals every scene he’s in with his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and that is saying something in a film that features larger than life characters played by Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

The film is at its most horrific in the scenes where Romeo practices voodoo. In one ritualistic scene, he drenches himself in blood and smothers his face in a bag of cocaine. He then hacks limbs off of a corpse, tears out its heart and writhes around on the ground, channeling multitudes of demons. There is an unpredictable energy to the scene that makes it scary and thrilling. De la Iglesia contrasts these scenes with gallows humour. Romeo may be a vicious killer but he also loves the music of Herb Albert. There is a hilarious moment where he and Perdita happily groove to the strains of The Dating Game theme.

From the grotesque mutants who threaten Earth in Accion Mutante (1993) to the graphic voodoo practices in Perdita Durango, horrific, often bizarre, imagery has always been prominent in Alex de la Iglesia’s movies. Like his cinematic contemporaries — Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro and France’s Christophe Gans — De la Iglesia impishly mixes a variety of genres in his films:

“I like to play with genres and construct my own movies...What I am trying to do is inject poison into these genres. In a happy comedy I like to introduce poison and make the movie freaky and weird, with a tasteless sense of humor.”

It is no surprise that, like Del Toro and Gans, De la Iglesia comes from a comic book/fanzine background that informs all of his work. There is something of the film geek in all of three filmmakers that results in a desire to include show-stopping spectacle set pieces in their movies and to quote other films in their own work, fueled by an obsession with American culture.

El Dia de la bestia was a huge hit in its native country, earning six Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), and breaking box office records. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez saw the movie and wanted De la Iglesia to direct Perdita Durango. Gomez felt that De la Iglesia’s sensibilities were better suited for the project than current director, Bigas Luna. With pre-production already underway, De la Iglesia came aboard and molded the material to fit his preoccupations.

For all of its inspired lunacy, Perdita Durango is not without its poignant moments, like when Romeo waxes nostalgic about seeing Vera Cruz (1954) at an impressionable age and how the fate of Burt Lancaster’s character resonated with him. Like with that film, there is a certain sense of fatalism in Perdita Durango as Romeo knows he’s going to die but goes through with one last job anyway and De La Iglesia literally has him become Lancaster’s character, mimicking the showdown in Vera Cruz with the one between Romeo and his cousin Reggie (Carlos Bardem). Perdita Durango ends on a deliciously subversive note as the titular character walks through a gaudy Vegas casino with “Winner” signs flashing all around her – epitomizing the American dream – but she’s lost everything.


Perdita Durango is a curious oddity in De la Iglesia’s oeuvre. It is his most overt attempt to crack the North American market (where he has only a small but dedicated following) with his first English-speaking film and a cast of recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. This alienated his Spanish fans who probably felt he had sold out, while his perchance for graphic sex and violence scared off potential distributors and mainstream audiences in North America, sending the film direct to video. This reaction is unfortunate because Perdita Durango is De la Iglesia’s most successful effort: a perfect mix of the ridiculous and the epic, with the right blend of genres (crime, horror, comedy, road trip) and a wonderfully eclectic cast that features his regular favorites (Santiago Segura) and colorful character actors (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins).

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Lonely Guy

The Lonely Guy (1984), starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin, is part of a popular subgenre of the romantic comedy with sad sack protagonists unlucky in and often looking for love such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981) with the female equivalent in movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Someone Like You (2001). These movies often feature socially awkward protagonists fumbling their way through unsuccessful relationships. The Lonely Guy fancies itself as a grandiose cinematic statement on the subgenre right down to the mock-epic-style opening that playfully references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Larry Hubbard (Martin) is a successful greeting card writer living in New York City. He comes home one day to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and seems completely oblivious to it all in an amusing bit where he carries on with his daily routine as if nothing is wrong. Kicked to curb, Larry wanders the streets until he sits on a park bench and meets experienced “lonely guy” Warren Evans (Grodin) whose girlfriend just left him for a guy robbing her apartment (“It’s probably for the best. She was really starting to let herself go,” he deadpans.).

Warren gives Larry a lot of helpful advice, like avoiding wealthy neighborhoods to live in because they have high crime rates (he even sees a man thrown off a building and another guy shot on the sidewalk in front of him!). These early scenes between Steve Martin and Charles Grodin are among the strongest of the movie as the former’s optimism clashes hilariously with the latter’s pessimism.

Larry soon discovers that there are all kinds of other lonely, single guys like him out there and they need advice like he did and so he decides to write a book entitled, A Guide for the Lonely Guy. It becomes hugely successful and Larry finds himself not so lonely any more. He even tries to pick up a woman at a bar by telling her that he’s looking for a real relationship while she admits that she just wants to have sex. As if on cue, Warren shows up and asks Larry, “Ever think about getting a dog?”

This scene demonstrates how The Lonely Guy deftly juggles satire with keen observations on human behavior. Everything is heightened for comedic effect reminiscent of the Zucker Abrams Zucker movies only not quite as zany. In some respects, this movie, with its self-reflexive voiceover narration and breaking of the fourth wall, feels like a warm-up for Martin’s comedic opus L.A. Story (1991), which manages to balance satire with poignant observations about relationships much more successfully.

Larry meets Iris (Judith Ivey), an attractive woman he keeps running into but is unable to make it work because the timing isn’t right. They have an on-again-off-again relationship that plays out over the course of the movie.

Martin manages to effortlessly tread a fine comedic line between hapless doormat and hopeless romantic. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies is that they’re populated by impossibly good-looking people that would never have a problem finding love and while he is a handsome guy Martin is able to convey the awkwardness of someone lacking confidence – that makes him a believable lonely guy.

Grodin plays Warren as the ultimate dweeb who refers to his plants as “guys.” In the 1980s, he excelled at playing uptight, nebbish characters (Midnight Run) and this is one of the best takes on this type. In a movie with many outrageous gags and set pieces, he wisely underplays, delivering a less is more performance that is quite funny. The best scenes in the movie are between him and Martin. They play well off each other and it’s a shame they didn’t do more movies together.

Neil Simon adapted Bruce Jay Friedman’s book, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life and then Jay Friedman and Stan Daniels, known for their work on television sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, wrote the screenplay. The project was a challenging change of pace for them as the latter said, “We were used to writing about real people and real problems – in other words, just straightforward realistic comedy. The Lonely Guy is a stylized way of getting at reality.”

Principal photography began in spring of 1983 at Universal Studios’ famous New York City backlot on Stage 28 with Larry and Warren’s apartments built on the same soundstage. Incredibly, a life-sized scale replica of the Manhattan Bridge was constructed, standing eight feet in the air and was 44-feet wide, taking four weeks to build. In addition, actual location shooting took place in Los Angeles and for three weeks in New York.

The Lonely Guy was savaged by critics with Roger Ebert giving it one-and-a-half out of four stars and writing, “The Lonely Guy is the kind of movie that seems to have been made to play in empty theaters on overcast January afternoons.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Whenever the film tries for sprightliness, it stumbles. When it gives in to the basic misery of Larry and his situation, though, it begins to make some sort of morose comic sense.” Pauline Kael felt that is had “some wonderful gags and a lot of other good ideas for gags, but it was directed by Arthur Hiller, who is the opposite of a perfectionist, and it makes you feel as if you were watching television.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Nevertheless, despite the flailing around, the picture fitfully accumulates a handful of modest highlights and silly brainstorms. They may seem sufficient to justify the trouble, especially if you extend Martin & Co. the courtesy of not expecting a classic.” Even Martin wasn’t too crazy with the end result. He didn’t like Larry and felt that as a character he was “too weak. I realized I played too nebbishy. That’s what was written, but it’s not a character I especially want to play anymore.”

Even though the situations Larry finds himself in are heightened for comedic effect, The Lonely Guy does capture the single guy mindset quite well – the desperation and the rationalization that a lot of men experience as they try to find that special someone. Ultimately, the movie suggests that you have to be willing to put yourself out there if you want to meet someone and that takes courage as you run the risk of being rejected. There’s something to be said about making an attempt and the movie champions this approach albeit in a satirical way. If The Lonely Guy is remembered at all its as a commercial and critical failure that not even its star liked but I think he, Kael and other film critics have been too hard on this trifle of a movie that is funny and features a stand-out performance by Charles Grodin.


SOURCES

Pollock, Dale. “Steve Martin: A Wild and Serious Guy.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1984.


The Lonely Guy Production Notes. 1984.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Year of the Dragon

“No one remembers in this country. No one remembers anything.” – Stanley White

A commercial and critical debacle on the scale of Heaven’s Gate (1980), which helped topple a Hollywood studio, would be a career killer for most filmmakers but not for Michael Cimino who came roaring back five years later with the controversial adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Year of the Dragon (1985). Co-written by Oliver Stone, it starred Mickey Rourke as a hard-charging, unrepentant racist and sexist cop that decides to battle organized crime in New York City’s Chinatown.

The film polarized critics, failed to make back its $22 million budgets and angered members of the Chinese American and Asian American communities that blasted it for being racist, sexist and xenophobic but Cimino defended his film by arguing that it dealt with racism and was not actually racist. This did little to quell the controversy, which hurt its box office performance.

Cimino immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of Chinatown with a cacophonous celebration in the streets filled with people. Amidst this chaos, one of the local crime bosses is killed in broad daylight sparking speculation that a gang war has begun with young punks moving against their elders. This gets the attention of the New York Police Department who install Stanley White (Rourke) as the new police captain of Chinatown.

He immediately adopts a more proactive approach to crime by barging into newly appointed kingpin Harry Yung’s (Victor Wong) office and telling him and his underlings to keep the young gangs under control, laying down the law in a superbly delivered speech:

“You think gambling, extortion, corruption are kosher because it’s a thousand years old? Well, all this thousand years old stuff, it’s a lot of shit to me. This is America you’re livin’ in, it’s 200 years old so you better get your clocks fixed.”

This tactic doesn’t endear him to his superior, Bukowski (Raymond J. Barry) who scoffs at White’s theory that the Chinese gangs, if they go unchecked, will make in-roads into other boroughs. It’s a fascinating fiery battle of wills as White argues that the reason the Chinese gangs don’t get busted for trafficking heroin is because they’re smart. Bukowski dismisses this notion and tells White to go after the youth gangs whom he regards as nothing more than troublemakers.

One memorable exchange has Bukowski tell White, “You’re not in Vietnam here, Stanley,” to which he replies, “There, I never saw the goddamn enemy. Here, they’re right in front of my eyes. They got no place to hide, no jungle.” In some respects, he has a point and in other ways he doesn’t. New York is its own jungle made of concrete and steel that is just as dangerous and unforgiving as the one in Vietnam as White will find out later on.

Cimino provides valuable insight into White’s troubled home life and his turbulent relationship with his wife Connie (Caroline Kava) who wants to have a child; the only problem is he is never around because of his workaholic tendencies. They’ve grown apart and, as a result, he finds himself increasingly attracted to beautiful young Chinese American television reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane Koizumi). Their initial meet-cute starts off as a history lesson as White attempts to dazzle her with his knowledge of Chinese history and the ills that plague Chinatown, and it culminates in a bloody shoot-out as a brazen youth gang riddle the restaurant they’re in full of bullets.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Chinese triad societies have their own problems. The youth gang attacks have made them look weak and no new revenues are coming in. It’s time for new leadership and the ambitious Joey Tai (John Lone), a bridge between the gangs and the elders, has a plan for the Chinese mafia to re-exert their influence in Chinatown and beyond thereby setting up an inevitable confrontation between him and White but not before a series of escalating attacks against each other.

Year of the Dragon is a snapshot of the criminal underworld in 1980s Chinatown, showing how things work in a way that is fascinating to watch. Cimino doesn’t pull any punches and presents flawed characters on both sides of the law. This is best exemplified by Mickey Rourke’s obsessed cop. The actor is not afraid to play unlikable characters and White is one for the ages – he’s racist, sexist and manages to piss off just about everyone that he comes in contact with, including his wife who tells him at one point, “You used me up, Stanley and then you burned me down. And I was a rock,” but he is good at his job, which is all he has left. Even that begins to slip through his fingers as his increasingly aggressive tactics burn his bridges within the police department and the Chinese community. It is Rourke’s natural charisma that makes White an interesting character. Watch how the actor works the room when White confronts Harry Yung and how he controls the space, or the scene where he gives a squad of cops a pep talk – it’s a masterclass in acting.

Cimino and Oliver Stone’s screenplay crackles with intensity and is chock-a-block with tough guy dialogue while also acting as a searing expose of the Chinese triads by pitting two strong-willed men against each other, leaving plenty of bodies in their respective wakes. The script goes to great lengths to show how the drug trade works, like how Joey gets his heroin directly from Southeast Asia, bypassing the Italian mafia who has always marginalized them. You certainly feel Stone’s politics blasting through his pulpy prose. Year of the Dragon is the cinematic explosion of Cimino and Stone’s collective ids writ large over every frame of this gritty, visceral opus (with a dash of Sidney Lumet cop procedural for good measure).

Coming off writing the screenplay for Scarface (1983), Oliver Stone was depressed at being unable to get personal films like Platoon (1986) made. He was contacted by filmmaker Michael Cimino who was adapting Robert Daley’s book Year of the Dragon for Dino de Laurentiis. He had read and was impressed with Stone’s script for Platoon and wanted him to co-write the script for Year of the Dragon. Cimino thought that if Stone worked for a lower than usual fee, de Laurentiis might finance Platoon. Stone told him that no one cared about the Vietnam War anymore but Cimino disagreed. Stone remembers, “It was Michael who convinced me that the climate was right for it.”

Stone met with de Laurentiis and he agreed to write Year of the Dragon if the mogul financed Platoon (he later reneged on this agreement with Stone). Cimino and Stone conducted a lot of research for the film, interviewing anybody who would talk to them about gangs and heroin dealing in New York’s Chinatown, but it wasn’t easy. Stone said:

“We got information finally from a dissident gangster group. These were guys who were on the outs and very unhappy. They took us to Atlantic City and showed us the inner workings of the gambling world, and also showed us their side of what was going on in Chinatown.”

This connection was provided by a line producer by the name of Alex Ho who had been working for de Laurentiis for two years. He remembered:

“One time Oliver and Michael wanted to see this gambling house where only Chinese people are allowed to enter. So this policeman who was really nice to us busted one of the gambling joints that night so we could see what it was like…Another night Michael wanted to see what happens when someone is shot with a shotgun, so we spent the whole night sitting in an ambulance.”

For the protagonist, Stone suggested changing his name to Stanley White, after a police detective friend he knew from another project. White gave them permission to use his name and a lot of his “eccentricities.” Stone, however, was not happy with how de Laurentiis interfered with the ending of the film. While White had two women in his life, so did Joey Tai – one in Hong Kong and one in New York. Stone said:

“In a moment of sentimentality, he brings the Chinese wife to the States and the Mickey Rourke character finds out about it. So, after he can’t get him legally with a bust or a wiretap, he busts him for bigamy.”

De Laurentiis made Cimino change the ending to a more conventional shoot-out, which Stone did not like. The filmmaker said that Cimino also ran into problems casting the role of Stanley White:

“We went to several people, but they didn’t want the part. In some cases, it was because of Michael’s reputation after Heaven’s Gate, but also most actors didn’t care for the character. He’s a right-winger. He’s a racist. That is the way the character was conceived and written. He’s sexist on top of it. You had to have a big pair of balls to play that part.”

Cimino shot on location in North Carolina, recreating nearly all of the New York setting there at great expense. Ho remembered:

“Like there were two Mercedes that were to be in crashes. There was a 380 and a 450, and I said, ‘Could I buy a 380 and then just change the number to 450 for the crash scene?’ And Michael said, ‘No.’ That was like ten or fifteen thousand dollars.”

Not surprisingly, Year of the Dragon divided critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The actors fare particularly badly under such circumstances. Mr. Rourke, who almost always generates a relaxed, knowing magnetism, is entirely lost in the underwritten role of a middle-aged policeman.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Year of the Dragon has an arrogant, electric energy that dares you to look away from the screen for an instant. Do so and you miss a furious piece of action that has bubbled up, seemingly out of nowhere.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “Cimino might make a good movie if he were forced to shoot someone else’s script, and banned from hiring extras, but he’ll never do it – he’s an auteur, and our best example of auteurism’s limits.” Finally, the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “For all of its excesses, Year of the Dragon is a solid entertainment. It marks director Cimino as a man to watch now not for his spend-thrift ways but for the size of his vision.”

Year of the Dragon opened in 982 theaters on August 16, 1985 and was met with harsh criticism and protests by the Asian community in Hollywood, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston. They objected to the racist and sexist attitudes expressed in the film. Many felt that it perpetuated Asian stereotypes. Judy Chu, an instructor of Asian-American studies at UCLA, said that the film “only reinforces the stereotype that Asians have no value for love and no sense of integrity…Even the newswoman is a stereotype. She is a new version of an old stereotype of the Geisha girl.” Even Richard Daley, the author of the novel, which it was based on, became an outspoken critic of the film: “When I read the script, I wanted to cry. I thought about taking out full-page ads…Dissociating myself from Cimino’s work. It is offensive to anybody.” Eventually, a disclaimer was placed before the film.

Stone dismissed criticism of the portrayal of Chinese people in the film: “The thing critics never realized is that the Chinese were at that time the biggest importers of heroin in this country. They outdid the Mafia, but nobody knew about it because they did it quietly.” Cimino also addressed the controversy, saying, “The film was accused of racism, but they didn’t pay attention to what people say in the film. It’s a film which deals with racism, but it’s not a racist film. To deal with this sort of subject, you must inevitably reveal its tendencies.”

While Year of the Dragon features several racist characters it isn’t a racist film. Cimino isn’t afraid to acknowledge the existence of such people and those kinds of ugly sentiments. He lets many of the Chinese characters speak in their native tongues and espouse their history in America, shedding light on decades of horrible treatment. If anything, Cimino’s film is a savage indictment of such attitudes showing how they lead down a destructive path.

Instead of playing it safe in the hopes of getting back in the good graces of Hollywood, Cimino stayed true to his artistic sensibilities and delivered a hard-hitting crime drama that asks difficult questions and offers no easy answers. Year of the Dragon is an ugly film that forces you to engage it on its own terms and there’s a refreshing honesty to this approach. It flew in the face of the rah-rah, America is great sentiments of movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rocky IV (1985), and Top Gun (1986). Cimino’s film exposes an America that is rotten to the core and built on a foundation of thousands upon thousands of bodies – people that died anonymously. Is it any wonder it failed at the box office? You don’t come out of Year of the Dragon feeling good but sometimes that’s okay, too. Sure, White got his man and got the girl at the end, but it’s a hollow victory at best and one could argue that it didn’t change much. At least he tried and Cimino admires the attempt.


SOURCES

Camy, Gerard; Viviani, Christian. “Entretien avec Cimino.” Jeune cinema. December/January 1985/1986.

Horn, John. “MGM/UA May Insert Dragon Disclaimer.” Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1985.


Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.

Friday, February 24, 2017

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has captivated and intrigued filmmakers for decades, from George Melies’ silent short film in 1907 to the 1997 made-for-television movie starring Ben Cross. The most well-known cinematic adaptation is the 1954 Walt Disney action/adventure classic starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. I distinctly remember watching this version as a child at a friend’s house and being absolutely terrified by the giant squid battle that occurs at the film’s exciting climax. The film has fascinated me ever since.

It is 1868 and tall tales circulate about a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean, disrupting shipping lanes and creating fear and apprehension among sailors. Not so with Ned Land (Douglas), a brash harpooner with an interest in sea monsters. His introduction tells us all we need to know about the man as he walks through town with two beautiful women on each arm and scoffs at two men warning others about the sea monster. Ned gets into a fight with them and is dragged off to jail by the police.

Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are trying to get to the Orient but their plans are scuttled by the threat of the sea monster until a representative from the United States government offers them transportation if they join an expedition hoping to find it and prove or disprove its existence. Intrigued, he agrees and Ned tags along, eager for adventure.

They search for three months and find nothing. As luck would have it, one night they encounter a ship wreck with no survivors, which fuels rumors of the sea monster among the crew. Sure enough, the “monster” surfaces, evades their cannon fire and proceeds to cripple the ship with ruthless efficiency. Ned, Aronnax and Conseil are thrown overboard and left to fend for themselves.

They happen upon the “sea monster,” which is actually a man-made iron-riveted submarine known as the Nautilus. They board it and find the ship deserted so they go exploring. The interior is a fascinating mix of dirty iron and rivets with Victorian opulence that has inspired countless Steampunk books and films. The sub’s crew returns after performing an underwater funeral service for one of their own and intercept our heroes before they can escape. They meet Captain Nemo (Mason), the cultured and quite mad captain of the vessel. The rest of the film plays out Aronnax, Conseil and Ned’s attempts to derail Nemo’s plans as neither guests nor prisoners.

Not surprisingly, the underwater sequences are among the highlights of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, like when the sub crew take Ned, Aronnax and Conseil out for a “hunting” expedition and the bottom of the ocean floor comes to life with all kinds of creatures big and small, adding to the wonder of this sequence. Aronnax sums it up best: “A strange twilight world opened up before me and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.” Nemo and his men farm the bottom of the ocean for their food. This sequence takes on a quasi-documentary feel as we observe Nemo and his men at work, living off the land.

The centerpiece of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the legendary giant squid attack. After having narrowly survived an attack by a warship that saw the Nautilus take on water and nearly sink to uncharted depths, they are attacked by a giant squid. It’s all hands on deck – literally – as Nemo, his crew and Ned fight the sea creature during a violent storm at night. It is a harrowing sequence that director Richard Fleischer expertly squeezes every ounce of tension out of with white knuckle intensity.

James Mason plays Nemo as an erudite man that believes what he’s doing is right as most men of his kind do. He is as comfortable walking around his sub in a smoking jacket and cigar as he is in a deep diving suit harvesting the sea floor. He’s more than a mad genius but also an accomplished musician, playing the organ while the Nautilus travels silently along the ocean floor, which creates an ominous atmosphere. He doesn’t care for the chaos on land, full of people wanting to control one another, while he only feels truly safe on the ocean floor. There’s certainly a method to his madness as he uses the Nautilus to sink a ship with components that will be used for war and whose crew employ slaves to obtain it. As the film continues, Mason deftly shows Nemo gradually coming apart at the seams, consumed by his own desire for vengeance.

Kirk Douglas is well cast as Ned, the rascally rogue full of charm. He doesn’t have any set plan in life, content to go where the wind blows, much to Aronnax’s chagrin who tries to develop a plan to stop Nemo. Ned is a wild card, an unpredictable force of nature that confounds the professor and infuriates Nemo. Douglas delivers one of his trademark physical performances full of energy and passion.

Paul Lukas does a superb job of showing Aronnax’s initial admiration of Nemo, which turns to disgust when he sees first-hand what the man is capable of – murdering an entire boatload of sailors – and yet also feels compassion for the man after hearing about his tragic past. Lukas plays the professor as a conflicted man that believes he can reach Nemo but in the process becomes infected by the man’s mania.

Harper Goff was a designer that had worked as a sketch artist for Warner Bros. in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, he had become a freelancer, creating illustrations for various magazines. In 1952, he met Walt Disney while in London, England and he recruited the artist to help design a family park that would be called Disneyland. Not too long afterwards, Disney asked Goff to go to the marine lab at the California Institute of Technology to see footage of marine life that Dr. McGinnity had shot with the notion that it might be integrated into an undersea film for the True-Adventure series.

Goff had been a fan of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea since he was a child. While developing a storyboard for the McGinnity footage, he visualized a sequence for the film involving two divers on the ocean floor and made a series of sketches. Disney saw the sketches and told Goff that he also loved Verne’s classic novel and had contemplated making a film version. Unfortunately, MGM owned the rights at the time and Disney didn’t want to buy them. Later, he and Goff found out that the studio had sold the rights and this, along with Goff’s impressive storyboards, changed Disney’s mind and he acquired the rights.

Originally, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was envisioned as a full-length animated film with Goff placed in charge of production development. His first job was to design Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. As per the source material, he had to design a vessel that looked like a sea monster and could be strong enough to ram ships at high speed and not take on too much damage itself. Disney didn’t like Goff’s initial design and felt that it should look sleek and futuristic. Goff argued that the Nautilus “was built hastily and roughly at Nemo’s secret base. The only available material was the rough iron that was salvaged from wrecks.” Goff eventually won the argument.

By late fall of 1952, Disney decided to abandon the animated format in favor of live-action because it would be cheaper and not take as long to make. In addition, his other live-action films were modestly budgeted and performed well at the box office. For 20,000 Leagues, a 60 x 125-foot indoor tank was built for $300,000. Many of the water effects scenes were shot there, like the famous giant squid battle.

To write the screenplay, Disney hired Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer, a duo that had success on a few B-movies over at RKO, but it was the Disney-esque comedy The Happy Time (1952), starring one of his contract actors Bobby Driscoll, that convinced Disney they were right for the job. The first challenge was creating a story out of a novel whose American translation didn’t have one, “only a series of incidents,” Fleischer said. The first thing he and Felton did was flesh out Nemo’s background and his philosophy on life, which would then drive the story. They obviously couldn’t include everything from the novel and picked what they felt was the most memorable incidents – the cannibal attack, the giant squid battle and so on. Disney reviewed their work and added moments of levity, like the pet seal, to alleviate the often dark and violent tone.

When it came to the casting of the pivotal role of Captain Nemo, Disney approached acclaimed actor James Mason who actually turned the studio down a couple of times because he was afraid it would be a children’s film with Nemo “being played down to a juvenile level.” He read the script and thought it quite good. He also felt that director Fleischer would provide an “adult point of view,” and decided to do it even if he wasn’t sure how to play the part. He found himself drawn to Nemo’s “cause and individuality…He wanted to build the world according to his own specifications, rather than the specifications of the current powers. This, I thought, would be interesting to deal with.”

In spite of having a newly built indoor tank, Disney felt, for reasons of realism, that the diving sequences should be shot on location with only one sequence completely filmed in the indoor tank. Fleischer and Goff scouted for a good underwater location in the Bahama Islands with its clear water and superior reefs. They found such a location and the production, consisting of 20 tons of equipment and a crew of 54 people, were transported there at considerable cost. Principal photography began on January 11, 1954.

After eight weeks of location filming, the main unit returned to Burbank, California for four months of principal lot photography. For the giant squid attack sequence, sculptor Chris Mueller (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and mechanical effects expert Robert A. Mattey (King Kong) created the creature with the former designing its body and the latter bringing it to life. The sequence was originally shot at sunset and after a week of filming, Fleischer stopped because the footage looked too artificial with the effects of the squid being visible and the deck of the Nautilus looking like an obvious set. Second unit director James C. Havens took over and decided to shoot the sequenced in a rainstorm, which would solve their problems and be more exciting. It also cost Disney $200,000 and a six-week delay in shooting.

While Douglas and Mason were well-behaved on set (they both had a reputation for being mercurial performers), Paul Lukas clashed with Fleischer. Initially, they got along fine but according to the director, the actor “was going through some kind of crisis” and had trouble remembering his lines. He was good friends with co-star Peter Lorre but by the time principal photography had ended on June 19, 1954, they were no longer talking to each other. Lukas even threatened to sue Disney, Douglas and Fleischer!

In the past, Disney had his films released through RKO who had taken a large cut of their grosses at the box office. With 20,000 Leagues, he created Buena Vista, distribution subsidiary that would lower the costs and give total control to the promotion of his films. A preview was shown on December 9th to several hundred exhibitors in New York City. Everyone loved it, sensing it would be a hit. Two weeks later, it opened in 60 theaters across the United States to generally positive reviews and performing well at the box office but was also Disney’s most expensive film at that time - $9 million!

Ostensibly, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a rousing action/adventure film. It also acts a warning of the dangers of man’s inclination for war and the futility of such pursuits. “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new, better life – all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time,” are Nemo’s sage words that he utters towards the end of the film and then again at the very end, resonating even more powerfully after everything that has happened.


SOURCES


Frazier, Joel and Harry Hawthorne. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Cinefantastique. May 1984.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Moonlight Mile

Brad Silberling got his start directing television shows like Doogie Howser, M.D. and NYPD Blue before making the jump to feature movies with studio fare like Casper (1995) and City of Angels (1998). It wasn’t until Moonlight Mile (2002), however, that he finally had something personal to say. The film was loosely inspired by the grieving period he went through after his then-fiancée, actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989. It featured then-up-and-coming actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Pompeo alongside veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon delivering thoughtful performances in this moving story.

It's in 1973 and Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) is staying with Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Sarandon) after the death of his fiancée and their daughter. Ben copes by keeping busy, micromanaging the funeral and the reception afterwards while Jojo suffers from writer’s block. Joe sticks around because he doesn’t know what else to do, feeling like he’s the last link to their daughter, even staying in her room. While trying to retrieve wedding invitations from the local post office, he meets Bertie Knox (Pompeo), who helps him out. They gradually become attracted to one another but they both harbor painful secrets that hold them back.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon are believable as a married couple from the short hand they have between each other, like how Jojo frequently reminds Ben to lower his shoulders. It is these little, personal touches that provide valuable insight into their relationship. It is also interesting to see how they cope with the grief of their child’s death in their respective ways. Ben is all nervous energy and tries to keep busy, pushing the grief down deep so that he doesn’t have to deal with it. Jojo, however, channels her pain through anger and bounces it off Ben in little ways that are familiar to anybody’s who’s been married for a decent amount of time. Sarandon excels at playing this no bullshit kind of character and it juxtaposes well against Hoffman’s internalized bundle of energy.

Jake Gyllenhaal is decent as the bewildered fiancé trying to make sense of it all – his feelings for his fiancée, his responsibility towards her parents and what he’s supposed to do next – and Bertie comes along and shakes it all up. Joe is wracked with guilt over a secret he’s keeping from Ben and Jojo and it’s tearing him up inside. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job conveying this internal conflict. He delivers an impressively nuanced performance and at such a young age.

The lovely, pre-Grey’s Anatomy Ellen Pompeo plays Joe’s alluring potential love interest that is harboring deep, personal feelings of loss herself. Like Joe, she’s damaged and adrift in life and this draws them together. The actress conveys a fragile vulnerability under a tomboy façade that is intriguing to watch.

In 1989, Brad Silberling was a film graduate with a promising career directing T.V. he was engaged to 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer. One day, she was shot and killed by a crazed fan. Silberling remembered, “The moment this happened, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’” He moved into her parents’ house in Oregon, staying there for several months while he tried to figure out what to do next and comfort them during this dark time.

Four years later, he channeled this experience into the screenplay for what would become Moonlight Mile (originally entitled, Babies in Black). Silberling said, “Like the girl in the film, Rebecca was an only child with parents who were vital and interesting. I didn’t know them very well and, suddenly, we were thrust into a unique type of intimacy in which the boundaries were unclear and the expectations hazy.”

He didn’t have an easy time of getting it made. Even after back-to-back hits with Casper and City of Angels, it took years for Moonlight Mile to get made. Four studios passed on it, including DreamWorks who felt it was too close to American Beauty (1999). Studio executives didn’t know how to market it as Silberling said, “They’re stumped by stories that are character-driven and don’t box themselves up neatly.” It wasn’t until Susan Sarandon and then Dustin Hoffman agreed to do it that financing came through. Initially, Hoffman turned it down in 1998 but changed his mind two years later when the filmmaker pitched to him again. The actor said, “Hearing Brad talk about it – I detected a yearning in him. He wanted to make this movie to figure something out.” Silberling’s agent contacted Disney’s studio chief and gave him 24 hours to decide on the $20 million film. He agreed to bankroll it in the fall of 2000 with principal photography taking place in the spring of 2001.

Moonlight Mile received mixed reactions from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Moonlight Mile gives itself the freedom to feel contradictory things. It is sentimental but feels free to offend, is analytical and then surrenders to the illogic of its characters, is about grief and yet permits laughter.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Yet somehow the director has put together a collage of period music without succumbing to the usual classic rock clichés, and he has a good instinct for the ways people use pop music to communicate and to express emotions they can’t quite articulate. In fact, if they articulated them a little bit less, Moonlight Mile would be a stronger movie.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Silberling has crafted a good number of strong, memorable moments—a barroom dance set to the Rolling Stones title song is particularly nice—but finally the presence of real feelings underlines what’s missing when they’re not there.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Joe’s cleaving to his replacement parents, letting himself replace the child whose loss they have yet to confront, is a sticky, fraught situation that Silberling reduces to a pileup of TV episodes.”

I’ve always been a sucker for small-town American slices of life stories and Moonlight Mile is one that stayed with me for days. Even though it’s set in ’73, Silberling doesn’t hit you over the head with period details, letting the soundtrack, populated by Sly and the Family Stone, T-Rex, Van Morrison, and others do that instead. He focuses on the characters and their dilemmas, which are compelling in their own right. The music compliments them and so we get a touching moment when Joe and Bertie slow dance to “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones or when they drive off to an uncertain future to the strains of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.”

What makes this film distinctive from others of its ilk is how personal it feels, from the song choices to the specific behavior of the characters. This doesn’t feel like some generic studio movie – it is a personal statement from someone that had to make it. It’s a film that features characters dealing with grief and guilt and trying to communicate these feelings with others. It also explores the real need for personal connection and how that can help people open up and be vulnerable, which helps deal with their personal traumas. How does one go on with their life after the death of someone close to them? Everyone has their own way of dealing and Moonlight Mile shows several coping methods – none of them are easy. This film was a highmark for Silberling and after its commercial failure (it was the victim of a studio regime change), he went back to standard studio fare and directing T.V. It’s a shame he hasn’t found anything as personal and moving as this film but it remains a poignant tribute to Rebecca Schaeffer’s memory and that part of his life.


SOURCES

Diaconescu, Sorina. “All the Way Back.” Los Angeles Times. September 22, 2002.

Ojumu, Akin. “The family that grieves together…” The Guardian. February 15, 2003.


Waxman, Sharon. “A Director’s Longest Mile.” Washington Post. September 29, 2002.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

“And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way.” – Brian De Palma, Empire magazine, December 2008

Has enough time passed that Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) can be judged on its own merits? Has enough time passed that its critical and commercial failings don’t matter (if they ever did)? And has enough time passed that its troubled production history, as chronicled in Julie Salamon’s tell-all The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, no longer matters? Perhaps this is a case of going into a film without having read the source material being a good thing as it allows the film to be judged on its own merits.

De Palma starts The Bonfire of the Vanities in typically audacious fashion with a long take with no edits as we follow alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) from an underground parking garage up through the bowels of a building, interacting with several people, including a chatty P.R. woman (Rita Wilson), and going up an elevator, getting changed, and finally arriving at the premiere of his own book. You have to admire the seamless choreography of this sequence (courtesy of cinematographer extraordinaire Vilmos Zsigmond) as we get crucial insight into the drunken letch that is Fallow.

His voiceover narration informs us that he’s not really the hero of this story – Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is – and a feature-length flashback tells his story. Sherman is a wealthy Wall Street bond trader and we first meet him taking his dog outside his apartment building for a walk on a dark and stormy night. He meets a man (Kurt Fuller) outside and their exchange feels off as they awkwardly speak stylized dialogue – the first indication that perhaps Tom Hanks was miscast in this film. It’s painful to watch and painful to listen to even in a stylized film such as this one.

The actor fares even worse in a scene where his wife (Kim Cattrall) confronts him over his cheating ways. The initial tone is a comedic one and then awkwardly downshifts to a serious tone so fast that it induces whiplash. The other woman is Maria (Melanie Griffith), a gold digging Southern belle. One fateful night, he picks her up from the airport and accidentally gets lost in the Bronx where he and Maria get to see how the other side lives much to their panicked disdain. They’re accosted by two young African American men and manage to escape, running over one of them, which puts him into a coma.

Fallow is all washed-up and one story away from being fired from a tabloid newspaper until he gets a lead on a story about a hit-and-run involving the same African American man that was run over by Sherman and Maria. He writes about it, which makes Sherman understandably very nervous. With her coaxing he does nothing, figuring it will go away but of course it doesn’t. The rest of the film examines how this crime is exploited by the local community leaders tired of being screwed over by the powers that be time and time again, the media looking for the next sensational story that will sell papers, and the district attorney (F. Murray Abraham) looking to score points with voters as he’s up for re-election.

The main problem the film has is the miscasting of Hanks as a ruthless Wall Street trader. The actor can do many things but ruthless and unlikable is not among them. Even in his darkest roles – Punchline (1988) and The Road to Perdition (2002) – there is always an inherent empathy. He can’t help it as it is in his DNA. This goes against the character of Sherman McCoy who is supposed to be an unpleasant son-of-a-bitch and the casting of Hanks was clearly a move to dilute the character and make him more relatable. What he does do well is sweaty desperation when the cops come calling and casually grill Sherman.

Morgan Freeman kills it as a tough-talking, no-nonsense judge in the South Bronx who schools a naïve assistant district attorney (Saul Rubinek) on how things work in his court via a fiery and masterful monologue – the kind that Samuel L. Jackson usually gets in Quentin Tarantino films – that is a sight to behold and makes me wish the veteran actor would get juicy roles like this again. This is merely a warm-up for the film’s climax where it goes all Frank Capra as Freeman delivers a powerful speech condemning all the parties involved, calling for decency as the judge represents the lone voice of reason.

At the time of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bruce Willis was at the height of his Die Hard (1988) / The Return of Bruno smarmy charm phase and this role lets him lay it on thick while also showing his willingness to play a deeply flawed character in search of redemption. He’s also not afraid to play up the less likable aspects of Fallow, the high society suck-up and the alcoholic lush.

The Bonfire of the Vanities works hard to make Sherman sympathetic when it should be roasting him. He embodies entitled white privilege, which was big during the materialistic 1980s and is making a comeback with Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. In one scene, De Palma makes a point of juxtaposing the African American protestors outside Sherman’s apartment building with the dinner party inside populated by his white rich friends as they metaphorically circle the wagons and show support for one of their own. These people are portrayed as arrogant racists that don’t care about anyone but themselves. If they get into any trouble they just make it go away with money.

The film also exposes the hypocrisy of the justice system. The D.A. doesn’t want to punish Sherman because he’s guilty but because it will help him get re-elected. He’s an opportunist that sends out his minions to do his bidding. Then there is the media that are portrayed as a mob of vultures feeding on the latest story of misery, adhering to the ago old credo, if it bleeds, it leads. Sherman is just the latest headline to sell papers – nothing more, nothing less. If Freeman’s climactic Capraeseque monologue seems too gee whiz of an idealistic ending, De Palma ends things with a brilliant visual punchline that hints at how great the film could have been if the studio hadn’t messed with him behind the scenes.


The Bonfire of the Vanities is a cynical take on modern society with everybody available for a price, from the D.A. vying for re-election to the mother (Mary Alice) of the young man in a coma suing the hospital for $10 million. Divorced from its source material, De Palma’s film is a biting satire that attacks the rich, those that exploit tragedies, and the media. At times, it is also a light farce and, as a result, the film is all over the place tonally as it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Yet, for all this sloppiness and the miscasting of Hanks (who actually does get better as the film goes along), Bonfire is not the complete disaster it is commonly portrayed as and is actually quite entertaining. It deserves to be re-visited and regarded on its own merits.