Friday, August 23, 2019

Tarzan, The Ape Man


“Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” – John Derek

Sometimes the making of a movie is a more interesting story than the movie itself. There are legendary tales of runaway productions plagued by the clashing of egos, extravagant spending or unforeseen acts of nature. Such is the case with Tarzan, The Ape Man (1981), a vanity project directed by John Derek to promote the “talents” of his wife Bo Derek who, for a short time, was a sex symbol thanks to the critical and commercial success of 10 (1979). John managed to convince MGM to back his “vision” of the Tarzan story from Jane’s point-of-view. With Bo known more for her stunning looks than her acting chops, how could this go wrong? Plenty. The Dereks’ hubris knew no bounds as they managed to alienate the film crew, the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, and the studio. Predictably, the movie was savaged by critics but people saw it anyway and it was a commercial success. The movie itself is incredibly inept on all levels. What is interesting is the story about how it got made with the Dereks exerting an unusual amount of control over the production.

The character of Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and first appeared in print in 1912. Son of a British lord and lady that were stranded on the east coast of Africa by mutineers, as an infant Tarzan was raise by an ape tribe. Once he became an adult, Tarzan crossed paths with Jane Porter, a young American woman who, along with her father and others, had been marooned on the same jungle area as Tarzan. The stories proved to be very popular and this led to adaptations in film, radio and television over the years. MGM bought the film rights in 1931 for the tidy sum of $100,000 and didn’t let it lapse for decades, much to the chagrin of the Burroughs family.

In 1980, actor-turned-director John Derek announced that he would remake the 1932 movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, promising a “sensual, erotic” update with his wife Bo starring (as Jane) and producing. Tired of being exploited by other filmmakers, she decided it was okay to be exploited by her husband and only make movies with him where she could do nudity on her own terms. For the Burroughs estate this was the last straw and they charged MGM with copyright infringement and sought unsuccessfully to block the release of the movie. They were upset that the Dereks’ project would steal the thunder from a long-delayed deal the estate had with Warner Brothers to make an officially-approved $15 million adaptation. The Burroughs family lost on both counts and filming went ahead as scheduled.

At the time, Bo said that their intention was to tell a story “that was bigger than life – something with the magic and fantasy that 10 had been. We wanted the story to be corny, romantic and more absurd than 10.” If the final product is any indication, they were successful in their goal. According to Bo, it was John that came up with the idea of telling the story from Jane’s perspective instead of Tarzan’s: “She has the perfect male who can’t talk, isn’t sophisticated enough to think he is superior to her and doesn’t have any credit cards.” John acted as his own hype man: “We are putting ourselves on the line in this one, arrogantly saying, ‘We know best and we can do it better.’”

After looking at the 1932 movie, famously starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, the Dereks realized that “we didn’t need to change anything to suit our idea: it really had been Jane’s story all the time.” They set about writing the screenplay with Gary Goddard, known more for his work on theme parks, who wrote it in two weeks. In a controversial move, the resulting script reduced Tarzan’s dialogue to a few grunts (he gets even less than that in the finished movie). The Dereks went back to Burroughs’ stories for inspiration, claiming that no one could have possibly taught Tarzan to speak English with his parents dead and raised by great apes.

After the financial success of 10, MGM wanted to get in the Bo Derek business and agreed to finance John’s vision for a new Tarzan movie. Right from the get-go the Dereks asserted their authority when they refused the studio’s offer to shoot the movie in a Hollywood safari park. They told the studio that they “would not film in a jungle Disneyland.” In June 1980, the Dereks spent two weeks scouting locations up the Amazon but found it “too dark and too dense.” Kenya was not right either as they couldn’t get close enough to the animals. They finally decided to film in Sri Lanka for the jungle, and the Seychelles Islands, 1,868 miles away, for the sea, the beach and the high cliffs they wanted. Understandably, the studio balked at expensive location shooting but according to John, “’We’ll leave the country and shoot the movie in some faraway place and John will direct and everyone can shut up.’”

The Dereks flew out to Sri Lanka on January 12, 1981 with a film crew of 23, a lion named Dandi, an orangutan known as C.J., three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot python they recruited from Thailand. Lee Canalito, a 27-year-old boxer-turned-actor standing 6’4” tall and weighing 280 pounds, was cast as Tarzan. His claim to fame was appearing as Sylvester Stallone’s brother in the ill-fated Paradise Alley (1978).

Problems occurred right away when the Dereks foolishly decided to spend their first night in a tent in the jungle instead of the hotel with the crew in order to get in the spirit of the story. They were soon driven out by mosquitos. They should’ve taken this as an omen. For the shoot, the Dereks ordered 150 elephants and on the first morning they only needed two. The problem? No one had ordered the elephants and it would take a week for them to walk to the location.

By their own admission the Dereks berated their crew who weren’t impressed with Bo and John’s management skills. She said, “I knew some of them weren’t going to last very long – and they didn’t. So every day, as people goofed or didn’t do their jobs – I said, ‘Walk!’ And they did.” Bo was flexing her producer’s muscle. “It was the first time dealing with people twice my age who I had to fire. They had made dozens of films. I hadn’t. But getting rid of someone wasn’t really difficult.” In the first 15 days of principal photography, Bo fired 15 of the 23 crew members, including Tarzan himself. According to Bo, “Lee had a beautiful quality with a Michelangelo face but he wasn’t the proud lord of the jungle.” When he was cast, Canalito was overweight and the Dereks had sent him to the gym to get fit. In the end, “when we saw the rushes; we realized there just too much jiggling.” When MGM cabled the Dereks asking what replacements they needed, they replied, “None. We’ll do it all ourselves.” Again, how could this go wrong?

Sam Jones, who appeared in 10 as Bo’s husband, was briefly considered to be Tarzan. After auditioning by swinging from a tree on a rope at a local Hollywood park, 26-year-old Miles O’Keeffe was cast as Tarzan and flown out with 24-hours notice. The 6’3”, 200-pound man was a former football player and psychology major, which of course made him the perfect person to play Tarzan. He arrived in Sri Lanka, drove four hours through the jungle and started filming immediately.

In the wake of all the crew firings it became a family affair with Bo’s mother, who had come along as a hairdresser, put in charge of wardrobe and makeup. Bo’s sister Kerry helped as an assistant director. Even Bo’s best friend was given a job. The remaining professional film crew ended up taking on ten jobs each. According to the rookie producer everything was going well: “As people went we had more fun, the problems were easier and we were getting better things on film.” As anyone who has seen the final product, this comment is more than a little surprising and speaks volumes of the couple’s hubris.

If the Dereks had problems working with their crew, they didn’t have much luck working with animals either. The lion they brought over was the wrong one and he didn’t like working with chimps and the elephants. Apparently, he didn’t like working with humans either. During the scene where Tarzan tries to drag Jane out of the water and onto the beach, Dandi’s leash broke. The animal lashed out at Bo with his paw, hitting her on the left shoulder which sent her sprawling back into the water. He then hit her on the right hip but slipped before he could strike again. Fortunately, the trainer and the rest of the crew intervened and subdued the lion.

Bo did get along with the orangutan but he got jealous when Tarzan started making love with Jane. The same could not be said about the chimps. “They may look fun but they are pigs to work with,” John said. The elephants were also a handful. The younger ones wanted to play while the larger ones wanted to fight. During filming they had to be tied to large trees that couldn’t uproot. Initially, the python was afraid of Bo but as filming progressed it became friendly and even tightened himself around her body during a scene. “I didn’t much care for the wrestling with him in the water because then he would slide his body between my legs and thighs.”

Tired of being judged solely on her looks, Bo wanted to be taken seriously – hence taking on the producer mantle. She wore many hats during the production, claiming to have dealt with money problems, checking the number of packed lunches that were needed and even acted as script girl for a while. She also found out the local caterers were charging too much for lunch and fired them. They were replaced by a messenger boy who was cheaper. John said of his wife, “Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” Half of that sentence is accurate.

The production incurred more headaches when moving from Sri Lanka to the Seychelles Islands. Lions need jumbo jets to travel in. The only plane available was a 707 so John put the animal on a 747 out of Seychelles via London – a round trip of 11,663 miles. Filming mercifully wrapped on March 11, 1981. Miraculously, the movie finished on schedule (48 days) and on budget ($6.6 million).

The controversy continued as the Burroughs estate took MGM to court claiming that “Tarzan is nothing more than a spear carrier,” and Jane, “in sexual matters she is now the aggressor in a sense…The walking by Jane topless for long stretches seems pervasive.” The estate also objected to the “suggestion of sexuality” between Jane and her father and the “rubbing of Jane’s breasts” that took place in a scene where she was “leaning on all fours” in preparation for being raped by the Ivory King (Steve Strong). The estate also objected to a moment where a chimp “actually kisses her breast” and a scene at the end of the movie in which Tarzan, Jane and an orangutan “are almost simulating sexual activity.” The Burroughs estate claimed that the original 1931 license meant that all Tarzan films were intended for family entertainment and MGM violated the deal by allowing extensive nudity in the Dereks’ movie.

The judge presiding over the case screened the 1932 film, a 1954 remake with Denny Miller and ordered cuts in four sequences. The Dereks refused to make them so MGM did and resubmitted the movie to the judge who demanded additional cuts. He was finally satisfied after three minutes and six seconds were removed. An outraged John proclaimed, “Tarzan should be so lucky as to be made by us.” He fumed about the cuts: “Ninety percent of Bo’s nudity will be cut out. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.” In protest, Bo went on Los Angeles television to announce that she and John were giving up their 10% of the gross and promised to contribute the money to saving gorillas endangered by poachers in Zaire.

It is safe to say that film critics were not kind to Tarzan, The Ape Man. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "The Tarzan-Jane scenes strike a blow for noble savages, for innocent lust, for animal magnetism, and, indeed, for soft-core porn, which is ever so much sexier than the hard-core variety." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "To describe the film as inept would be to miss the point, which is to present Mrs. Derek in as many different poses, nude and seminude, as there are days of the year, all in something less than two hours. She is a magnificent-looking creature...However, as an actress she displays the sort of fausse naivete that is less erotic than perfunctorily calculated, in the manner of an old-fashioned, pre-porn-era stripteaser who might have started her act dressed like Heidi." The Washington Post's Gary Arnold wrote of John Derek's direction: "His approach to the mating of Tarzan and Jane is so revoltingly coy and his filmmaking style so inertly picturesque, like an arthritic imitation of The Black Stallion, that the movie is no more titillating than two hours of patty-cake."

After all the dust had settled, a bitter John called Hollywood “a hellhole,” claimed MGM “failed me,” said that the Burroughs estate was “arrogant and sue-happy,” the judge “made the Constitution a joke,” and felt that the press was “out to get us.” He had to feel, however, somewhat vindicated by the box office results as Tarzan made $36.5 million off a $6.6 million budget, but the damage had been done within Hollywood. Effectively burning his bridges, he made Bolero (1984) for Cannon Films once again starring Bo, which, in addition to being mired in production problems, was a critical and commercial flop. They made one more film together – Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989), which effectively killed off his filmmaking career. Bo continues to act in movies and T.V. with her most significant role as Brian Dennehy’s trophy wife in the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy Tommy Boy (1995).

The Burroughs’ estate got their classier, more faithful Tarzan film three years later with the unwieldly titled, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), starring then-unknowns Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell, which, despite its talent behind the camera (director Hugh Hudson, screenwriter Robert Towne & make-up effects artist Rick Baker), didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Hollywood continues to try to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation with John and Bo Derek’s version serving as a cautionary tale of giving too much creative control to filmmakers that clearly can’t handle it.


SOURCES

Harmetz, Aljean. “Tarzan was the Star Once, And Not Bo Derek.” The New York Times. June 10, 1982.

Hawn, Jack. “Tarzan Publicity a Blessing for Some.” Los Angeles Times. July 25, 1981.

Kelly, Sue & David Wallace. “Too Wild?” People. July 27,1981.

Lewin, David. “Bo Derek Takes to the Jungle to Bring Tarzan Back Alive.” The New York Times. July 19, 1981.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


Ever since his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino has made a point of casting actors that were successful but whose marketability has waned over time only to be marginalized by Hollywood. Once leading men, they became character actors or starred in B-movies. He doesn’t care about what’s trendy and has sought out these forgotten actors with the belief that they can be great again if given the right material – think of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994) or Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997) or David Carradine in the Kill Bill films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is the culmination of Tarantino’s fascination with these kinds of actors as its two protagonists are an actor and his stunt double who have been pushed to the margins with one trying to get back into Hollywood’s good graces while the other has made peace with his lot in life. The irony is that Tarantino has cast two of the biggest movie stars in the world in these roles – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The relationship between these two characters lies at the heart of the film – a sprawling, yet intimate epic set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s with multiple storylines whose end result is a love letter to that time and place.

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a journeyman actor at a crossroads. His agent (Al Pacino) lays it out for him. He can continue doing guest spots as the villain on television shows like The F.B.I. or he can go to Italy and make westerns where he’ll be the hero, just like he was on the popular T.V. western Bounty Law. Rick isn’t convinced and we follow him and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) over the course of two days (with a third day six months later) as he takes stock of his life and career. The film follows three tracks – Rick and Cliff, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and, to a lesser degree, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) follower Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) – as they occasionally intersect in all kinds of expected and unexpected ways. Once Upon a Time follows the trajectories of Rick, Cliff and Sharon with the former’s on the decline while the latter’s is taking off. All three are at crucial points in their respective lives and careers with the three days depicted in the film proving to be incredibly pivotal.

What I liked about this film is that you get to live with these characters. Like Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s best film up to this point, he takes the time to get know these characters by showing bits of business, like devoting a scene to Cliff feeding his dog (while the theme to the T.V. show Mannix plays in the background no less). Does it move the narrative forward? No, but it does provide us with insight into how he lives. This is a film rich in character behavior and it makes for a much more rewarding experience.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in another fantastic performance as an actor with a fragile ego looking at the possible tail end of his career. Rick is created in the mold of Tab Hunter, Ty Hardin or Vince Edwards – actors that were heartthrobs in Classical Hollywood but were unable to adapt to the winds of change of the ‘60s when their kind of leading man changed to the likes of Peter Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. He must make a serious choice about what to do and fortunately for him Cliff is there to give him a boost when he needs it. The always-reliable stunt double acts as a cheerleader. DiCaprio brings his customary intensity but also shows a refreshing capacity for comedy, like when Rick has a meltdown in his trailer after he’s unable to remember lines in a scene, or surprising vulnerability, like when he breaks down in front of a child actor (Julia Butters) on the set of his latest T.V. guest spot.

Over the years, Brad Pitt has grown into his looks and has become increasingly comfortable in his own body and this has made him a better actor. He knows he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself and it is this assurance in his own abilities that results in one of his strongest performances to date. Cliff’s laconic self-confidence sets the tone for the entire film and provides a welcome counterpoint to Rick’s panicked uncertainty. This is Pitt’s most relaxed, confident performance since Killing Them Softly (2012) and one that allows to him inhabit a fully-realized character who certainly has his share of regrets but has made peace with his past.

We get to see Sharon Tate live and breathe again as she hobnobs with hip Hollywood elite like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and popular musicians like Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) at the Playboy Mansion in one scene. Margot Robbie delivers a vivid portrayal of the young actress and the best example of this is when, on a whim, Sharon goes into a theater showing The Wrecking Crew (1968) where she appeared along with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer. Tarantino stages a wonderful meta moment of Robbie playing Sharon watching the real Sharon on the big screen, basking in the audience’s enjoyment of the movie. While she may not have as much screen time as DiCaprio or Pitt (the film is ultimately about their characters), Tarantino weaves her in and out of the film for the entire running time so that there are echoes of her presence even when she isn’t on-screen.

For fans of esoteric pop culture, it is a real thrill to see Tarantino pay homage to ‘60s era T.V. by showing clips from Rick’s claim to fame, Bounty Law, which was patterned closely after Wanted Dead or Alive, however, unlike Steve McQueen breaking out from that show into high profile film roles, Rick continued playing characters on the small screen, missing out on that crucial part of a lifetime. Tarantino playfully intersects his characters with iconic historical figures, like Cliff’s amusing encounter with a cocky Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. For once, the filmmaker isn’t shamelessly ripping off other films and T.V. shows and passing them off as his own but instead referencing them directly or in the background of scenes.

Tarantino has made his first hang out movie. For the first half we are just following Rick and Cliff around as they drive through L.A. listening to music. Remember that? Ah, the simple days of driving around with your friends just enjoying each other’s company and listening to tunes on the radio or tape deck. Once Upon a Time captures that vibe beautifully. After the orchestral score for The Hateful Eight (2015), Tarantino returns to the mixed tape approach with 60 musical cues! What a soundtrack he has assembled for this film – perhaps his best – with local radio station KHJ acting as a Greek chorus of sorts with deep cuts from the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Vanilla Fudge, and The Box Tops.

Tarantino and his production crew meticulously and lovingly recreate late ‘60s era L.A., immersing us in the sights and sounds of the downtown to the hills of the infamous Cielo Drive. Billboard advertisements on buildings and the sides of buses are on display prominently while also buried in the background of scenes. Long defunct movie palaces like the Pussycat Theater and the Aquarius Theatre are brought back to life, all of it adding to the rich tapestry of the film.

From its vintage Columbia Pictures logo to the KHJ Batman radio promo that bookend the film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s loving tribute to Sharon Tate, to Los Angeles and to making movies with the friendship between Rick and Cliff at its center. They have a bit of Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham thing going on and their rapport gives the film its unexpected heart. Tarantino has crafted the most substantial relationship between two characters since Jackie and Max in Jackie Brown. As Rick edges towards obsolescence is the filmmaker using him as a mouthpiece to convey his own thoughts about impending retirement from filmmaking? Perhaps. I like to think that of the many things Once Upon a Time is about it’s a tribute to the forgotten actors from a bygone era – people like George Maharis and Edd Byrnes – that are only remembered by a select number of devoted film fans if they are remembered at all. Tarantino’s film argues that their stories are worth telling, too.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Thunderball


While two generations separated us, one thing my Grandfather and I bonded over was our love of movies, namely Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and Sean Connery James Bond movies. With the latter, he was old enough to have seen them when they first came out – their brand of ruthless violence and beautiful women appealed to him. He came from a time when men were men and women in spy movies were kittens in distress. I think he also admired Connery’s style and particular brand of machismo. Of course at my young age, I had no idea about any of this; all I knew was that he (a man of few words) and I (equally so) could enjoy those movies together, which is why the Connery Bond movies will always have a special place in my heart, Thunderball (1965) being my favorite. Conventional wisdom says that Goldfinger (1964) is the best movie of the Connery era but I love the ambition of Thunderball. It has the best action sequence and Bond girl from this period.

The movie’s opening prologue sets the tone right away as Bond confronts a widow that turns out to be a male enemy agent. They engage in battle that is quite intense – Bond finally kills him by breaking his neck with a fireplace poker. He proceeds to escape the scene with the aid of a jetpack! This segues into one of the most striking opening credits sequences, complete with beautiful women swimming underwater alongside men armed with spear guns, foreshadowing the movie’s exciting climax, all the while Tom Jones belting out the theme song with his trademark gusto. Maurice Bender uses color masterfully in this sequence, mixing a saturated palate of dark purples and blues with red, giving them a distinctive look.

SPECTRE are at it again. After eliminating a duplicitous agent, the organization gets down to business as their Number Two a.k.a. Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) has devised a plan to steal a NATO bomber carrying two nuclear warheads, then ransom them for $280 million. The British government has seven days to come up with the money or SPECTRE will bomb either a British city or an American one. I like that we only see the head of SPECTRE from the shoulders down. Remember when mastermind villains had an air of mystery to them? I’m always amused by the casual indifference Largo shows after one of his contemporaries is fried by the boss. Business as usual.

By sheer coincidence, Bond stumbles across this plot while recuperating, which mainly involves bedding the lovely female staff member (Molly Peters) there, at a spa in England, where he’s nearly killed for his troubles. This sequence features awkwardly blatant sexism as Bond initially forces himself on said staff member…then blackmails her into having sex, in lieu of not telling her superiors about a mishap that almost resulted in his demise. Bond’s attitude towards women is certainly the most problematic element of both the movie and the franchise. It is the aspect that has dated the movie the most.

Thunderball features one of the most exotic and gorgeous Bond girls – Dominique “Domino” Derval (Claudine Auger) – whose brother (Paul Stassino) was killed by SPECTRE and replaced by an imposter. Her “guardian” is none other than Largo, which gives Bond access to him. She doesn’t immediately give in to the spy’s charms, or fall into bed with him, either. She plays hard to get or, rather, she is the property of another man. That doesn’t last long once Bond enters the mix. Early on, he recognizes that Domino is different, telling her at one point that she swims like a man to which she cheekily replies, “So do you.” Claudine Auger plays Domino as someone candid and self-aware enough to admit that she’s a kept woman but one gets the sense that she’s biding her time. Domino uses Bond to help her escape from Largo – and then later as an instrument for revenge. It is an interesting relationship, to say the least. Auger conveys a wonderful vulnerability in the role, shedding tears when Bond informs her of her brother’s death. She isn’t an aloof socialite. She becomes determined to kill Largo and make him pay for what he did to her brother.

With his eye patch, Largo is one of the more distinctive Bond villains. He oozes confidence and power but is not afraid to get his hands dirty, exemplified early on when he kills an operative who has outlived their usefulness. He’s also not above feeding another to a swimming pool of sharks. He owns a yacht with the coolest name – Disco Volante, which would go on to become the name of Mr. Bungle’s second album (they’ve also covered “Thunderball” in concert). Largo’s finest moment is when he invites Bond to his estate. They trade thinly-veiled insults in a rather sophisticated dick-measuring contest, Largo casually threatening Bond with a shotgun while they shoot some skeet. Largo takes the first shot, nails it and says to Bond, “What could be easier?” Bond smiles and says, “Seems terribly difficult” before effortlessly nailing his shot: “No, it isn’t, is it?”

Bond, however, meets his match with Largo’s female enforcer Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). She has no qualms about torturing his female assistant (Martine Beswick) then bedding him, proving to be just as aggressive as he is in the sack. She’s fully aware of Bond’s reputation and even calls him on it: “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts hearing heavenly choirs sing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue,” which pretty much nails Bond’s relationship with women. She’s the most dangerous person in the movie, perhaps even more than Largo, and comes the closest to trapping and killing Bond in the movie, with one of her men managing to wound him.

The movie climaxes with a thrilling underwater battle of Largo and his men versus Bond and his, with dangerous sharks thrown into the mix. One of the frequent complaints leveled at Thunderball is that there are too many underwater sequences. While, the crashing landing and subsequent salvaging of the NATO bomber does drag on for too long, you’ve got the underwater meet-cute between Bond and Domino, Bond photographing Largo’s yacht, and Bond having sex with Domino in the ocean. Then there is the aforementioned underwater battle. Its critics say the sequence drags on too long but I love every minute of it. I like that Largo isn’t afraid to lead his men into battle. He’s not a criminal mastermind that lets others do the killing. He leads by example. This leads to a kinetic fist fight with Bond aboard the Disco Volante as Largo tries to escape, only for Domino to save the spy’s life and get her much deserved revenge as she delivers the killing blow – a rarity in the franchise. She is the first Bond girl to directly save Bond and the first one to kill the main baddie.

Thunderball ends in typical cheeky Bond fashion as he rides off into the sunset with the girl living to fight another day, in another installment. This marks the fourth and last of the truly essential Connery Bond movies that has it all: cool gadgetry (the yacht that can detach its rear half to make a speedy getaway), sharks, a nasty villain sporting an eyepatch, beautiful women (three of them!), and just the right mix of well-timed levity, and visceral action.

Friday, May 24, 2019

First Man


Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by space travel. The seeds were planted in science fiction movies like Star Wars (1977) but my interest intensified in the early 1980s with the United States Space Shuttle program. If kids in the 1960s and 1970s had the space race between the Americans and the Russians, my generation had the Shuttles – incredible spacecraft that would hurtle into outer space to launch telescopes or rendezvous with space stations. The tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986 where it exploded 73 seconds into its flight was a sobering reminder of the danger of these endeavors.

My interest in the Space Shuttles dovetailed with the release of The Right Stuff (1983), a historical biopic about the Mercury Seven astronauts that playfully exposed their flaws and celebrated these brave men. Over the years, my interest in the subject continued with films like Apollo 13 (1995) and so when it was announced that a biopic chronicling Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon was being made I was all in.

First Man (2018) is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land (2016) and reunited him with his leading man Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong. As a result, anticipation for the film was high and then it failed to perform at the box office despite mostly glowing reviews. Some have speculated that the frivolous controversy over the omission of the planting of the American flag on the Moon as being unpatriotic may have turned off mainstream audiences, it was more likely Gosling’s historically accurate, reserved take on Armstrong, coupled with a somewhat detached point-of-view that probably turned off filmgoers. Who cares? First Man is a thoughtful, moving film that takes a visceral approach to the challenges of traveling into outer space.

Much like The Right Stuff, First Man starts off by putting its protagonist in peril. Armstrong (Gosling) is testing the X-15 rocket-powered plane by pushing it and him to the absolute limits as he escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a gripping, visceral experience punctuated by a brief break of serene beauty as he takes a moment to admire the view of our planet from such a great distance. This soon gives way to sweaty, white knuckled panic as he has trouble re-entering the atmosphere. Chazelle makes sure we experience it right along with Armstrong and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

It’s 1961 and Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the death of their young daughter Karen. The taciturn Armstrong internalizes his feelings in front of everyone, only grieving by himself in private. He processes her death and goes immediately back to work but the powers that be ground him. While dealing with paperwork he notices a pamphlet for Project Gemini, whose focus will be on space exploration. In 1962, he applies for and is accepted into the program. The rest of First Man chronicles his journey and some of the challenges he faced on the way to achieving his goal: landing on the Moon.

Unlike The Right Stuff, First Man plays the astronaut training scenes straight-faced with the physical exercises depicted as grueling affairs that best the most determined men, like Armstrong, and the most confident, like Ed White (Jason Clarke), who are all pushed to their physical and mental limits. He spends little screen-time on this aspect of the program as it has already been depicted numerous times before.

Chazelle makes interesting choices on how he depicts certain events, like how Ed tells Neil about their friend and fellow astronaut Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) dying in a jet crash. Instead of going for the obvious close-ups on anguished faces, he shoots both men silhouetted in the frame of Armstrong’s front door. They accept the news with no emotion having been trained to be cool under pressure but when Armstrong comes back into the kitchen with his wife and son, Gosling conveys the inner turmoil through his expressive eyes and how every facial muscle clenches as Armstrong fights to keep in the emotions he’s feeling about the death of one of his closest friends.

Most of the film is experienced through Armstrong’s perspective. When he goes up in the Gemini 8, Chazelle depicts it through his P.O.V., quite often showing us what he sees – a seemingly endless array of dials and switches and then cutting to close-ups of Armstrong’s face as he reacts to this extraordinary experience. Once the rocket launches, Chazelle bombards us with a cacophony of sights and sounds as the noisy rocket shakes and vibrates violently, escaping the Earth’s atmosphere in an incredibly intense sequence.

Chazelle ratchets up the tension even more when Armstrong’s spacecraft suddenly loses control and plummets via a violent continuous left roll towards the Earth. The G-forces cause his co-pilot to pass out and within seconds of passing out himself, Armstrong manages to gain control, which is conveyed in jarring close-ups and kinetic editing as Chazelle cuts from Armstrong’s panicked eyes to the various switches and mechanisms he utilizes to keep alive. Chazelle juxtaposes these intense moments of Neil at work with his downtime at home presented in elegiac fragments reminiscent of the family scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). They aren’t traditional scenes with a beginning, middle and ending, but rather snapshots of the Armstrong family dynamic.

Gosling is excellent, delivering a complex portrait of Neil Armstrong. He digs deep and shows the man’s private side, how he doesn’t show emotion to anyone, even, at times, his wife, preferring to express it alone. His generation saw emotion as a sign of weakness. Any private reservations he has he keeps to himself. This lack of communication comes to a head, however, on the eve of his mission to the Moon. Janet finally has had it and confronts him, forcing her husband to talk to their children about the danger of the mission. It might be the last time they see him and she wants Armstrong to let their children know that. He is not afraid of many things but having an open and honest conversation with his family terrifies him. Gosling is incredible in this scene as he conveys how uncomfortable Armstrong feels in this situation, answering his children’s questions like a press briefing as he doesn’t know any other way. Gosling conveys the emotions brimming under the surface in his eyes while his body language gives nothing else away. It is this unflappable nature that makes Armstrong a brilliant astronaut but not the greatest husband and father.

For all his stoicism, Chazelle shows a lighter side to Armstrong when he and his wife recount how he wrote lyrics in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan to the faux disbelief of their friends as they all break up into laughter. This is an important scene as it humanizes Armstrong. This portrait of the man feels authentic but it isn’t very audience-friendly. He isn’t an easy person to relate to or like and Gosling’s natural charisma tempers this somewhat but he doesn’t try to go for the easy route nor does the film and make you like him. It forces the audience to meet him on his own terms, which probably hurt its commercial appeal.

Jason Clarke turns in another wonderfully solid performance as Ed White, Armstrong’s best friend and one of the few people able to penetrate the man’s stoic exterior. He’s an astronaut, too, so he knows what Armstrong is going through but even he can’t relate to the part of him that is still dealing with the death of a child. He is aware of his inscrutable nature and allows White in further than anyone else. After the death of See, Armstrong doesn’t want to let anyone else get too close as he knows how dangerous their job is and doesn’t want to mourn yet another person close to him. When one of their own dies on a mission they all think that could have been them. That’s the reality of their existence: there is always a high probability that they won’t come back and First Man shows how it affects Armstrong and his family.

The actual mission to the Moon is masterfully recreated with Chazelle capturing all the technical details while also allowing for a bit of artistic license that feels right and remains true to the spirit of Armstrong’s character as he finally gets closure on his daughter’s death. While there is a certain amount of tension conveyed in the actual landing on the Moon (they almost run out of fuel), Chazelle tempers this with the wonderment of being there in a way that has not been done before in a fictional film. Everything Armstrong has done in his life has prepared him for this moment and instead of underlining how momentous landing on the Moon was for the United States and for the world, the director opts for showing what it means to Armstrong.

In 2014, Damien Chazelle was approached by the producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey with the book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen they’d optioned for Universal Pictures. Initially, he had little interest in Armstrong or the space program and was unsure about doing an adaptation as well as something based on real life. Everything he had done before had been made up and personal. The more he read about the man, though, the more he was intrigued about the very private person that had experienced multiple tragedies, which included the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his daughter at age three. Chazelle was also able to find a personal connection – he could identify with the hard work it took to achieve something and realize a dream. He pitched First Man to Ryan Gosling but they started talking about La La Land instead and made that first. The director felt that both Gosling and Armstrong shared similar qualities: introverted, cool-under-pressure and men of few words. Working with the actor on La La Land and getting to know him personally confirmed that Gosling was right for the role.

Chazelle began looking for a screenwriter that could do the research needed and then transform it into a narrative. He met Josh Singer in 2015 and liked his passion for the project. While Chazelle was shooting La La Land, Singer worked on the script. For research, they visited NASA and met a few of the surviving astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as well as spending time with Neil’s wife, Janet.

As he began assembling his crew for the film, he sought out Nathan Crowley, the production designer on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), as he admired his practical approach: in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, and lived-in sets. The look of the film was inspired by the archival materials that were uncovered during research and this included photographs the astronauts took in space, the LIFE magazine photos of the family, old home movies, photos the astronaut families shared, and seeing actual capsules. He also eschewed obvious themed films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Apollo 13 in favor of films like Battle of Algiers (1966) and The French Connection (1971) that opted for gritty realism. He ended up compiling a 300-page dossier of images that the crew nicknamed “The Notebook” (in reference to the Gosling film of the same name) that he could refer to during the 58-day shoot.

Chazelle worked hard to separate the man from the mythology and wanted to show his range of emotions. He was interested looking at Armstrong on the family level with his wife and children. He also wanted to depict lesser known aspects of Armstrong’s life, like how he almost died in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle while training for the Moon landing. Chazelle also wanted to remind people “how dangerous that first era of space travel really was,” and “make it as scary and uncertain as it really was.”

During filming, Chazelle told his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, “imagine we’re a fly on the wall, carrying a camera, running and gunning with these astronauts.” He wanted to do as much “in camera” as possible and for the actors to see what the audience would see, so if they saw the Earth out a window it was on a 35-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide LED screen. To film the space flight sequences, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert used the screen to project 90 minutes of digital imagery created for the film. A replica spacecraft was built and mounted on a gimbal and synchronized to move in sync with footage on the screen. This allowed the astronauts’ surroundings to be filmed in real time. The footage consisted of 20 cans of 70mm NASA footage that was discovered at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama that had not been viewed in decades as the equipment to project it no longer existed. The filmmakers digitally processed and cleaned up the footage and used it in the finished film. Other footage, like the Saturn V rocket falling away was done with models built at varying scales. No blue-screen or green-screen was used in any shot. Only 726 effects shots were added in post-production.

To stand in for the Moon, Chazelle and his team found the Vulcan Rock Quarry south of Atlanta. Crowley and his team sculpted five acres of it to replicate the Sea of Tranquility. Shooting on location, however, proved to be challenging. On the first day it snowed and the schedule was pushed back a week. The specially built lamp that was 15 feet long, 200,000 watts – the most powerful movie light ever built to simulate the sun – exploded and caught fire 30 minutes into shooting due to the freezing temperatures.

First Man received mostly positive critical notices. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott felt that the film was "strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment – into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination – that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt." Entertainment Weekly gave the film "A-" and Chris Nashawaty wrote, "Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote, "Instead, the movie seeks to remold its protagonist in the image of our own era; it tells us more about us than it does about him." In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents."

It is the emphasis on the intimate in favor of the epic that helps First Man stand out from other films of its ilk. We know the actual event’s place in history and Chazelle opts for telling a more personal story about the man, never losing sight of that right down to the understated yet moving conclusion as Janet meets her husband after he returns from the Moon. Hopefully, it will find a new life on home video and rekindle interest in space exploration, something that people used to dream about and has become forgotten over the years as we’ve become mired in a multitude of earthbound problems.


SOURCES

Davids, Brian. “How Damien Chazelle’s First Man Took a Page Out of Christopher Nolan’s Playbook.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 12, 2018.

Galloway, Stephen. “Damien Chazelle Shoots the Moon: Oscar’s Youngest Best Director Grows Up with First Man.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 22, 2018.

Rottenberg, Josh. “How First Man Director Damien Chazelle and His Visual Effects Team Took Moviegoers to the Moon.” Los Angeles Times. October 16, 2018.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Super 8


J.J. Abrams picked the wrong time to be a filmmaker. With his love of genres like horror and science fiction, he would’ve thrived in the 1980s alongside the likes of Joe Dante, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Steven Spielberg. Instead, he emerged at a time when Hollywood is only interested in remakes, reboots, sequels, and building up existing franchises. As a result, his directorial debut was a sequel (Mission: Impossible III) and then he went on to reboot two existing franchises – Star Trek and Star Wars with massive commercial success. He did manage, however, to make an original film amidst all of this franchise work.

Super 8 (2011) saw Abrams team up with one of his cinematic heroes and mentor, Spielberg. His presence, along with the film’s story about a group of kids getting involved with an extra-terrestrial, led many to claim that the former was merely paying homage to the latter. While this is true to a certain degree, it is only a superficial reading of the film as Abrams draws on other cinematic influences while also incorporating his own sensibilities to make a film that is his personal and best one to date.

Set in an American steel town called Lillian in 1979, we meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young boy that has just lost his mother in an accident at the plant, leaving him alone with his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a police deputy who has no idea how to raise his son. Cut to a few months later and school is out, which gives Joe plenty of time to hang out with his friends, Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Basso), as they work on a zombie movie. Charles is their enthusiastic director that needs a female lead and asks Alice (Elle Fanning), one of their classmates, and she agrees much to Joe’s delight as he crushes on her from afar.

One night, they all sneak out to shoot a scene at the local train station and, as luck would have it, a train goes by while they’re filming. Charles decides to incorporate it into the scene (“Production values!”), however, Joe notices a truck driving onto the tracks and it crashes head on with the train, derailing it in an impressively orchestrated scene that our heroes narrowly survive. Something emerges from the wreckage, something not of this world, that goes on to terrorize the town, crossing paths with Joe and his friends.

One of the most striking things about Super 8 is Abrams’ deft touch with the young actors in the cast. They have to carry most of the film as they are in almost every scene and so casting is crucial. This is where the film excels as evident early on when Joe applies makeup on Alice before she films a scene for Charles’ movie at the train station. It is a marvel of understated acting from these two young people. It isn’t what’s said during this moment but what isn’t as they exchange looks – too shy to say what they’re really thinking. Instead, Abrams has them convey it through the looks they exchange.

After Alice mentions that her dad (Ron Eldard) works at the mill, this triggers painful memories for Joe. He wants to say something but it is still too painful and the look she gives him suggests that she understands. Then, when Alice rehearses a scene with her co-star Martin she delivers an emotional monologue, her expressive eyes on the verge of tears. Alice captivates not just us but the other characters as well. It is an incredible bit of acting from Elle Fanning and it announced her as a young actress to watch. She has an enchanting screen presence and a knack for a light touch as evident in the scene where Joe teaches her how to act like a zombie. He’s clearly smitten with her and we are too.

Joel Courtney plays Joe as a sensitive boy coping with the death of his mother whom he was very close to and fills that void by hanging out with his friends and making a movie. Like Fanning, Courtney has very expressive eyes and uses them effectively to convey his character’s feelings. They also share the film’s strongest scenes together, giving Super 8 its heart. Both deliver emotional, heartfelt performances, playing damaged characters as a result of absent mothers. Hers left an abusive situation, his died in an accident that shouldn’t have happened. They elevate the film above its genre trappings, giving us something to care about as we become invested in their lives.

The always reliable Kyle Chandler is well-cast as the savvy deputy that quickly figures out there’s more to the train wreck than meets the eye and doesn’t buy the military’s official stance. He’s also believable as a man too busy being a cop to be a proper father until forced to when his wife dies. There is a Gary Cooper-esque quality to the actor, playing a stand-up guy that gets tired of the military lying to him and decides to do something about it. Chandler does an excellent job conveying his character’s dilemma: he has the whole town looking to him to keep them safe while also trying to be a good father to Joe. There’s a scene halfway through the film where Jack forbids Joe to see Alice and the latter finally confronts the former about how little he knows about him. Courtney is so good in this scene as Joe’s hurt feelings come to the surface.

While Joe and his friends live in Spielbergian suburbia complete with dysfunctional families and kids that dream of becoming filmmakers, Alice lives on the wrong side of the tracks with a screw-up for a father, which echoes the character of Darren in Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985), who also lives in the poor side of town with terrible parents. Abrams, however, has different cultural touchstones than Spielberg as evident with a soundtrack that features the likes of The Knack’s “My Sharona” and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” The kids are making a zombie movie, which is an obvious reference to George Romero and Charles even has a poster of Dawn of the Dead (1979) hanging up in his room as well as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

The original idea for Super 8 was, according to Abrams, to make a film about “that time in my life and my friends’ lives making these Super 8 films.” To that end, he incorporated aspects of himself in the kids. He made moves like Charles, but “felt like I experienced the world through the eyes of Joe,” while he also took apart firecrackers and blew up models like Cary. Over time, Abrams incorporated the monster movie genre into the film. Growing up, he had friends whose parents were getting divorced and was afraid that could happen to him. While working on Super 8 he came up with the idea of what if “the mother is suddenly gone and this boy didn’t have the greatest relationship with his dad, what is that relationship once she’s gone?”

While Abrams was clearly inspired by Spielberg and his early Amblin films, he didn’t want to have any overt references to his films even though posters for them would most definitely be hanging on the kids’ walls. Instead, he made Charles a Carpenter and Romero fan. The Carpenter influence extended to the structure of Super 8 itself as Abrams wanted to combine “the sweetness of the autobiographical stuff with the horror of the John Carpenter-type of conditional terror, the premise of something monstrous out there.”

Super 8 is a coming-of-age story as the lives of Joe and his friends are changed forever. They see not just their town, but the world in a different light as their lives are put in real danger and are forced to grow up. A father and son relationship lies at the heart of the film, surrounded by genre trappings. Much like he did with Cloverfield (2008), Abrams wisely waits as long as he can to reveal the alien, building suspense by expertly staging a few attacks on random people by an unseen force. The last third of the film delivers the kind of expectations that are intrinsic with this kind of big budget genre film as the alien presence becomes more overt.

Where Super 8 falls apart somewhat is the last third as Abrams relies on the traditional tropes of the blockbuster action movie as Joe and his friends engage the alien. It is here where Abrams tries to fuse Cloverfield with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and stumbles. For most of the film we are meant to fear the alien as its motives are unclear. By the end of the film it is revealed that the alien had been captured by the United States government and tortured for years, which certainly justifies the swath of destruction it leaves in its wake.

The moment, however, where Joe gives up his mother’s pendant so that the alien can complete its spacecraft and go home rings false. Through the whole film Abrams makes a point of showing how important this object is to Joe. It is the last, significant tangible link to his mother. Why he would give that up doesn’t make sense. Is Abrams trying to tell us that symbolically it means that Joe is finally letting go of the hurt and pain he feels for the loss of his mother? It hasn’t been that long and why does the alien need that particular piece of metal? There is plenty around for it to use. Abrams should have removed that bit and instead played up the fact that Joe and Alice finally connect with their respective fathers who, in turn, have settled their differences between each other. Instead, we have a decidedly bittersweet ending, which is more Abrams than Spielberg.

The commercial and critical success of Super 8 should have paved the way for more original films from Abrams but instead he went back to Star Trek and has directed two Star Wars movies, which should give him the kind of creative control that Christopher Nolan enjoys. Perhaps Abrams simply hasn’t found something personal enough to motivate him into making another original film, or perhaps the flaws in Super 8 demonstrated that he was still learning, trying to figure things out and going back to franchise movie work allowed him to not only increase his industry clout but also gave him a chance to practice with the big toys and budgets that studios provide while working out things for when he decides to do something original.


SOURCES

Billington, Alex. “Interview: Bad Robot’s J.J. Abrams – Writer and Director of Super 8.” Firstshowing.net. June 10, 2011.

Knolle, Sharon “J.J. Abrams on Why Super 8 Is His Most Personal Project Yet.” Moviefone. June 9, 2011.

Ordana, Michael. “J.J. Abrams Combines Childhood’s Wonders, Horrors.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 3, 2011.

Sciretta, Peter. “JJ Abrams Talks Super 8, Bad Robot, Lens Flares, LOST, Spielberg and the Mystery Box.” /Film. June 10, 2011.