Monday, June 30, 2008

New York in the Movies Blog-a-thon: Quick Change

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the New York in the Movies Blog-a-thon being coordinated by The Derelict at 12 grand in checking.
New York City. There have been many cinematic odes to the Big Apple, from Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), to Blue in the Face (1995), but few films have shown comedic contempt for this famous metropolis — Martin Scorsese's double hit of King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1985) being notable exceptions. Adapted from Jay Conley's original novel, Quick Change is a neglected comedy that delights in gleefully thumbing its nose at the city so nice they named it twice.

Early on in the film, Bill Murray's character, Grimm (a self-reflective nod to his character’s attitude towards the city) remarks, "God, I hate this town." It is an often repeated line that nicely establishes the scornful tone of the film that begins when Murray, dressed as a clown, robs a bank in downtown Manhattan. After escaping with his cohorts, Phylis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid), it becomes readily apparent that Grimm is tired of New York City and that this well-crafted heist and the subsequent getaway is the big kiss-off to the town he hates the most. However, New York City does not want to relinquish its hold on Grimm and his gang so soon, and a series of events conspire to delay their escape. It does not help that they are pursued by a persistent, veteran cop (Jason Robards) who makes it his life’s mission to track them down.

The first third of Quick Change — the bank heist — is the best part of the film. It is a brilliant starting point that demonstrates Bill Murray at his smart-ass best. He gleefully fools and infuriates both the cops, the media, and even the hostages with his flippant attitude. His disposition is understandable when juxtaposed with the media circus that occurs outside the bank. Curiosity seekers and the media, smelling a potential story, flock to the scene. Even hot dog vendors race each other for the best vantage point to hock their wares. Everybody is looking to exploit the situation in some fashion and this makes the desire for Grimm, Phylis and Loomis to succeed all the more significant.

However, for all the comic ingenuousness of the opening scene, Quick Change begins to slowly unravel as the trio attempt to leave New York City and encounter more and more absurd situations that gradually escalate to unrealistic proportions. What makes these circumstances nonsensical is the ease that Murray's character is able to conveniently resolve them. The filmmakers should have stuck to showing New York City with its annoying denizens and inhabitants that worked so well in the first third of the picture. It is not that the rest of the film is bad necessarily, it is just that it comes as a let down after such an excellent beginning.

Murray still retains much of the sarcastic edge that made him a star on Saturday Night Live, but some of the films he did before this one (i.e. The Razor’s Edge) suggest that he was looking to do something different, that maybe he had gotten tired of the whole process. He has spoken of the hardships he endured making Scrooged (1988) and his disappointment with how Ghostbusters II (1989) turned out. Murray touched upon a feeling of disenchantment with the filmmaking process in an interview during the release of Quick Change:

There's such a sense of incompleteness about a movie: You feel it as an actor delivering funny lines, and you feel it especially as a director: You tell the joke in June of 1988, and you have to wait two years to get the laugh. It's 1990, and I'm still waiting for the laugh.

This feeling is what may have motivated Murray to take more control on Quick Change. In addition to starring, he also co-produced and co-directed (screenwriter Howard Franklin also co-directed) the movie.

Where his contemporaries like Steve Martin and Chevy Chase have softened their edge over time (see Father of the Bride and Cops and Robbersons respectively), Murray seems to get more and more acerbic with every film. He had not been that good since he did Ghostbusters way back in 1984.

The rest of the cast supports Murray's antics brilliantly. Geena Davis showed with Beetlejuice (1988) that she had the capacity to be a wonderful comedic actor and she proves it once again as Murray's lover and partner in crime who also harbors a secret that threatens to consume her. Randy Quaid is at his hysterical best during the first third of the film, but his dumb guy shtick soon gets tiresome. It seems that the National Lampoon's Vacation films threaten to forever typecast him as a lunkhead. I hope for his sake that this is not the case. This leaves Jason Robards to play the straight man of the picture. He fills these shoes admirably as the detective who, like Murray's character, is tired of New York City and all of its eccentricities. But something, perhaps a sense of duty, keeps him going and determined to catch the robbers if it is the last thing he ever does.

The constant supply of comical cameos keeps the rest of the film watchable. The always entertaining Phil Hartman appears as an anxiety-ridden Yuppie who holds the trio at gunpoint when he mistakenly thinks that they are breaking into his new apartment. The scene is a great battle of talents as he and Murray square off against each other. Tony Shalhoub makes an appearance as a hopelessly incoherent foreign taxi cab driver who delays the robbers from escaping the city. Shalhoub demonstrated once again that his comedic talents were being wasted on the Wings TV show and that his strengths lie in role like this one and his performance as a jaded Hollywood producer in Barton Fink (1991).

Bill Murray had high hopes for Quick Change. As he said in an interview, "everyone will enjoy this movie. But New Yorkers will enjoy it especially because they know how bad their city really is." Sadly, the film disappeared rather quickly upon its release. Perhaps its cynical view of New York City was too much for mainstream tastes. It is too bad because this is quite an entertaining film that only suffers from a weak ending, but is also filled with exceptional performances — especially that of Murray's who is finally given some room to showcase his comedic talents — something that he was not able to do at that time (although, Scrooged featured a tour-de-force performance by Murray). Watching Quick Change reminds one of his vintage roles in the aforementioned Ghostbusters and Stripes (1981), and shows that he has a legitimate shot at becoming a director. Let's hope his next directorial effort is without a chaperon.

Here's the trailer:


Monday, June 23, 2008

Rumble Fish

History remembers Francis Ford Coppola's, Rumble Fish (1983) as a film that was booed by its audience when it debuted at the New York Film Festival and in turn was viciously crucified by North American critics upon general release. It's too bad because it is such a dreamy, atmospheric film that works on so many levels. It is also Coppola's most personal and experimental project — on par with the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979). From the epic grandeur of The Godfather films to the excessive Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Coppola has pushed the boundaries, both on-screen and off. He has almost gone insane, contemplated suicide, and faced bankruptcy on numerous occasions, but he always bounces back with another intriguing feature that is visually stunning to watch. And yet, Rumble Fish curiously remains one of Coppola's often overlooked films. This may be due to the fact that it refuses to conform to mainstream tastes and stubbornly challenges the Hollywood system with its moody black and white cinematography and non-narrative approach.

Right from the first image Rumble Fish is a film that exudes style and ambiance. It opens on a beautiful shot of wispy clouds rushing overhead, captured via time lapse photography to the experimental, percussive soundtrack that envelopes the whole film. This creates the feeling of not only time running out, but also a sense of timelessness. Adapted from an S.E. Hinton novel of the same name, Rumble Fish explores the disintegrating relationship between two brothers, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). The older brother derives his name from his passion: stealing motorcycles for joyrides. The film begins with the Motorcycle Boy absent, perhaps gone for good, while Rusty James tries to live up to his brother's reputation: to act like him, to look like him, and, ultimately, to be him. Rusty James' brother is viewed as a legend in the town as he was the first leader of a gang and also responsible for their demise.

Much like Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), the Motorcycle Boy is initially physically absent, but his presence is felt everywhere — from the shots of graffiti on walls and signs that read, "The Motorcycle Boy Reigns," to the numerous times he is referred to by characters. This quickly establishes him as a figure of mythic proportions. When the Motorcycle Boy finally does appear — during a fight between Rusty James and local tough, Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) — it is a dramatic entrance on a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). This appearance marks a significant change in the film. We begin to see the world through the eyes of the Motorcycle Boy, almost as if the whole film is taking place in his head.
Consequently, Rumble Fish is shot entirely in black and white to simulate his colour blindness. We even begin to hear the world like he does: voices sound echoey, disembodied, with his own heartbeat threatening to drown everything else out. It is this existential worldview that makes the Motorcycle Boy a tragic character. The rest of the film explores his attempts to come to grips with this outlook and his relationship with Rusty James, who views him as a hero — a label that the older sibling has never been able to accept.

Coppola wrote the screenplay for Rumble Fish with Hinton on his days off from shooting The Outsiders (1982). As the filmmaker said in an interview, "the idea was [that] The Outsiders would be made very much in the style of that book, which was written by a 16-year old girl, and would be lyrical and poetical, very simple, sort of classic. The other one, however, Rumble Fish, which she wrote years later, was more adult, kind of Camus for teenagers, this existential story." Coppola even went so far as to make the films back-to-back, retaining much of the same cast and crew. Warner Brothers was not happy with an early cut of The Outsiders and chose not to distribute Rumble Fish. Despite a lack of financing, Coppola completely recorded the film on video during two weeks of rehearsals in a former school gymnasium, encouraging his young cast to improvise.
Actual filming began on July 12, 1982 on many of the same Tulsa, Oklahoma sets used in The Outsiders. The attraction to Rumble Fish, for Coppola, was the "strong personal identification" he had with the subject matter: a young brother hero-worships his older, intellectually superior sibling. Coppola realized that the relationship between Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy mirrored his own connection to his brother, August. It was an older, more experienced August who introduced Francis to film and literature. Coppola always felt like he was living in the shadow of his brother and saw the film as a "kind of exorcism, or purgation" of this relationship.

As always, Coppola assembled an impressive ensemble cast for his film. From The Outsiders, he kept Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Glenn Withrow, William Smith, and Tom Waits, while casting actors like Mickey Rourke and Vincent Spano who were overlooked for roles in the film for one reason or another. They fill out their roles admirably, but Mickey Rourke in particular, is mesmerizing as the Motorcycle Boy.
To get Rourke into the mindset of his character, Coppola gave him some books written by Albert Camus and a biography of Napoleon. "There's a scene in there when I'm walking down the bridge with Matt; and I'd try and stylise my character as if he was Napoleon," the actor remembers. The Motorcycle Boy's look was patterned after Camus complete with trademark cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth — taken from a photograph of the author that Rourke used as a visual handle. He portrays the character as a calm, low key figure that seems to be constantly distracted as if he is in another world or reality. Rourke "Methodically" conceived the Motorcycle Boy as being "an actor who no longer finds his work interesting." To this end, he uses subtle, little movements and often cryptic phrases that only he seems to understand.

This feeling is further enforced by the two brothers' alcoholic father, played brilliantly by Dennis Hopper in a surprisingly low key performance. He describes the Motorcycle Boy perfectly when he says that "he is merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river. With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and finding nothing that he wants to do." Rourke's Motorcycle Boy is almost embarrassed by the myth that surrounds him, that threatens to drown him. He openly rejects it when he says, "I'm tired of all that Robin Hood, Pied Piper bullshit. You know, I'd just as sooner stay a neighborhood novelty if it's all the same to you... If you're gonna lead people, you have to have somewhere to go." It is this reluctance to embrace his legendary reputation that gives the Motorcycle Boy an element of humanity that was not in the novel.

Not only did Coppola assemble a talented cast of actors, but he also gathered an impressive crew to create the images and the proper mood to compliment them. The striking black and white photography of the film's cinematographer, Stephen Burum, lies in two main sources: the films of Orson Welles and German cinema of the 1920's. Welles' influence is particularly apparent in one scene where the Motorcycle Boy and Steve bring a wounded Rusty James home. While Steve and Rusty James talk in the background, the Motorcycle Boy looms into a close-up, as if the lens were a mirror in which he was admiring himself. He is clearly a character who suffers from what one critic called, "fatal narcissism," a trait common in many of Welles' films. This deep focus shot (a favorite of Welles) shows how far removed the Motorcycle Boy is from his brother and from everyone. He is like a mirror, impenetrable and impossible to read as Steve observes, "I never know what he's thinking." This scene harkens back to Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), which used the deep focus technique to give characters that look of "fatal narcissism," to live a doomed existence.

Before filming started, Coppola ran regular screenings of old films during the evenings to familiarize the cast and in particular, the crew with his visual concept for Rumble Fish. Most notably, Coppola showed Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn (1951), the inspiration for the film's smoky look, and Robert Wiene's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) which became Rumble Fish's stylistic prototype. Coppola's extensive use of shadows (some were painted on alley walls for proper effect), oblique angles, exaggerated compositions, and an abundance of smoke and fog are all hallmarks of these German Expressionist films. Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1983), shot mainly in time-lapse photography, motivated Coppola to use this technique to animate the sky in his own film. The result is an often surreal world where time seems to follow its own rules.

Coppola envisioned a largely experimental score to compliment his images. He began to devise a mainly percussive soundtrack to symbolize the idea of time running out. As Coppola worked on it, he realized that he needed help from a professional musician. And so he asked Stewart Copeland, drummer of the musical group The Police, to improvise a rhythm track. Coppola soon realized that Copeland was a far superior composer and let him take over. The musician proceeded to record street sounds of Tulsa and mixed them into the soundtrack with the use of a Musync, a new device at the time, that recorded film, frame by frame on videotape with the image on top, the dialogue in the middle, and the musical staves on the bottom so that it matched the images perfectly. One only has to see Copeland's evocative score matched with the film's exquisite imagery to realize how well the musician understood Coppola's intentions.

Rumble Fish is a rare example of a gathering of several talented artists whose collaboration under the guiding vision of a filmmaker results in a unique work of art. Why then, did the film receive such scathing reviews when it was released? The film alienated former head of production for Paramount, Robert Evans, who "remembers being shaken by how far Coppola had strayed from Hollywood. Evans says, 'I was scared. I couldn't understand any of it.'" Apparently, many critics agreed as typified by Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times, who wrote, “Rumble Fish is not a success, but there is something deserving of attention in its failure. Mr. Coppola thinks BIG, which is better than not thinking at all.” Janet Maslin, in the same newspaper, was not so kind: “But the film is so furiously overloaded, so crammed with extravagant touches, that any hint of a central thread is obscured.” However, Jay Scott wrote one of the few positive reviews for the film in the Globe and Mail. “Francis Coppola, bless his theatrical soul, may have the commercial sense of a newt, but he has the heart of a revolutionary, and the talent of a great artist.” Rumble Fish’s failure may have been due to the climate of American cinema at the time. The film was released in the early 1980's when art films and independent cinema were not as widely celebrated as they are now. Nobody was ready for a stylish black and white film with few big name stars and little sign of mainstream appeal. American critics and studio executives, on the whole, just did not "get it."

It is a marvel that Rumble Fish was even made at all. Only Francis Ford Coppola's unwavering determination and his loyal cast and crew could have made such a project possible. He had the clout and the resources to assemble such a collection of talented people to create a challenging film that acts as the cinematic equivalent of the novel by capturing its mood and tone perfectly. Every scene is filled with dreamy imagery that never gets too abstract but, instead, draws the viewer into this strange world. Coppola uses color to emphasize certain images, like the Siamese fighting fish in the pet store — some of the only color in the film — to create additional layers in this complex, detailed world.
After lackluster efforts like Jack (1996) and The Rainmaker (1997), it seems that Rumble Fish is Coppola's last, truly personal and experimental film. With a few odd exceptions, he has been content to merely rest on his laurels and reputation and crank out safe, formulaic films that lack any real substance or passion. Perhaps Coppola is tired from the numerous battles he has had with Hollywood studios over the years and simply does not have the energy to make the daringly ambitious films that he made during the '70s and early '80s. It is too bad, because Rumble Fish shows so much promise and creativity. Tossed off as a self-conscious art film, now that some time has passed, I see it as a movie clearly ahead of its time: a stylish masterpiece that is obsessed with the notion of time, loyalty, and family. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Coppola's film is that it presents a world that refers to the past, present, and future while remaining timeless in nature. I've included a vintage clip from Siskel and Ebert's old movie reviewing show to give you an indication of what the mainstream critics thought of this film (their comments start around the five and half minute mark):


Also worth checking out is a great fan site dedicated to the film and another one dedicated to actor Mickey Rourke.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stripes

Watching Stripes (1981) again after all these years makes me nostalgic for the early comedies of the first generation of Saturday Night Live cast members: Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Fletch (1984) and so on. They were goofy and silly but they also had an engaging, anarchistic attitude that is so much fun to watch. This is definitely the case with Stripes, a film that pits a “lost and restless generation,” as the film’s main protagonist puts it at one point, against rigid authority that is only interested in producing, lean, mean, killing machines, to paraphrase another character. Much of the film’s humor comes from the clash of these two ideologies.

After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning (“You still have your health,” deadpans his best friend), John Winger (Bill Murray) decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his best friend Russell Zisky (Harold Ramis) to enlist as well (“If I get killed, my blood is on your hands,” he says, to which John replies, “Just don’t get it on my shoes.”). Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined.

Stripes settles into a classic fish-out-of-water formula as John and his misfit platoon (with the likes of John Candy and Judge Reinhold) gradually become efficient soldiers despite their complete ineptitude and perchance for breaking all the rules. The gang of misfits fulfills all the requisite stereotypes: “Cruiser” (John Diehl) is the dumb guy, “Ox” (John Candy) is the lovable oversized oaf, “Psycho” (Conrad Dunn) is the crazy guy, and, of course, John is the group joker and self-proclaimed leader. Other conventions include casual nudity (Ox wrestles three strippers in a mud wrestling contest) and the obligatory love interests as John and Russell get involved with two cute, female MPs (P.J. Soles and Sean Young). This template would prove to be so successful that it was exploited in films like Police Academy (1984), PCU (1994) and countless others.

On his way to the premiere of Meatballs (1979), director Ivan Reitman thought up the idea for a film: “Cheech and Chong join the Army.” At the premiere, he pitched it to Paramount Pictures and, incredibly, they greenlit the project that day. Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote the screenplay in Toronto and would read it to Reitman (who was in Los Angeles) over the phone. He would, in turn, give them notes. Reitman gave the script to Cheech and Chong’s manager and he read it and thought it was very funny. He gave it to the comedians but they wanted complete control. Reitman then suggested to Goldberg that they change the two main characters to ones suited for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, figuring that if they could get Ramis interested in it and let him tailor the script for the two of them that Murray would be interested in doing the film. It worked and Murray signed on to do the film.

Ramis had already co-written Animal House and Meatballs but was unknown as an actor. He screen-tested for Columbia Pictures, who hated his audition but Reitman told the studio that he was hiring him anyway. Judge Reinhold’s character, Elmo, ended up with a collection of all the best jokes from the Cheech and Chong version of the film. Before filming he thought that he had a handle on his character but once filming started, he was “petrified” because this was his first big studio film. The casting agent picked Sean Young based on how she looked and P.J. Soles tested with Ramis and they got along very well together. John Diehl had never auditioned before and this was his first paying acting job. Goldberg knew John Candy from Toronto and told Reitman that he should be in the film. He didn’t even have to audition.

One of the reasons why Stripes is my favorite Bill Murray comedy is the little touches that he adds to a scene that makes it that much funnier. For example, in the first scene where John goes to pay a guy after getting a shoe shine, Murray turns his back to the man so that he won’t see how much of a tip he’s going to give him. It’s an odd, idiosyncratic choice that no one else would’ve thought to make but it enriches the scene ever so slightly. The next scene demonstrates Murray’s gift for physical comedy when he loads a snotty rich lady’s luggage into the trunk of his cab and accidentally bags himself. It’s an obvious gag to be sure but Murray still makes it funny.

John continues to antagonize the lady (Fran Ryan) during the ride to the airport but in a deadpan, sardonic way. At one point she says, “I’ve never gone this way before,” to which he replies, “I’m sure there’s a lot of ways that I’ve gone that you haven’t.,” implying that she’s square and conservative while he’s hip and liberated, thereby establishing a clear generational gap. The rich lady insults John and so instead of getting angry at her he decides to mess with her, including one memorable bit where he starts driving fast. Suddenly alarmed, she says, “Aren’t you going too fast?” He replies, intentionally slurring his words, “Oh, it’s not the speed, really so much, I just wish I hadn’t drunk all that cough syrup.” John proceeds to give the lady a little scare but when she calls him a bum, he’s had enough and quits right in the middle of a bridge, throwing his car keys in a river and leaving her stranded.

It’s not until almost eight minutes into the film that Elmer Bernstein’s first musical cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune. The scene where John’s girlfriend Anita (Roberta Leighton) leaves him is interesting because it straddles the line between comedy and drama. She is clearly unhappy with their relationship and he tried to deflect her complaints with humor before half-heartedly saying, “I’m part of a lost and restless generation,” and follows this up asking her a rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do, run for the Senate?” This scene underlines John’s dilemma – he lacks direction and any kind of motivation. Interestingly, no music plays during this scene so that the gravitas of the scene, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music. Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two banter back and forth about John’s sorry state of affairs.

The chemistry between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis is excellent. Ramis is the perfect straight man to Murray’s smart-ass slacker. They had been friends and worked together for some years and play well off each other as evident in the scene where Russell bets John that he can’t do five push-ups. It is in this scene that John realizes that he’s in crap physical shape and that the army is his only hope in turning his life around. Every scene had some element of improvisation and this was due in large part to Murray and Ramis who suggested things for him to say and this spread to the other cast members. Stripes is quite possibly Murray’s best comedy. He was on his way to becoming a big movie star (he had already conquered TV with SNL and a scene-stealing turn in Caddyshack) and applied the comedic chops he honed on TV to this role. Murray has a way of delivering dialogue and being able to give certain lines a sarcastic delivery or add a look or a facial expression that makes what he says so funny.

Reitman was a fan of westerns that Warren Oates had been in and wanted someone who was strong and that everyone respected to control the misfit platoon. Reinhold said that during filming, Oates would tell everyone stories about working on films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and they would be enthralled. The casting of Oates, the veteran of many Sam Peckinpah films, gives Stripes a dose of gravitas and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative John and their scene together in the barracks’ washroom, where Hulka finally asserts his authority, is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it works. Reitman wanted “a little bit of weight in the center,” and have a real argument between Hulka and Winger. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed Murray to do something he hadn’t done before.

However, the improvisational nature of Reitman and some of the cast did not impress an old school actor like Oates. During one of the days of filming the obstacle course scenes, Reitman told the actors to grab Oates and drag him into the mud without telling the veteran actor about it in order to see what would happen in the hopes of getting a genuine reaction. Oates’ chipped his front tooth and was understandably pissed at Reitman, yelling at the director for what he did.
If Stripes has any weaknesses it is in the last third of the movie where the platoon, fresh from a successful graduation parade, is trapped in an Eastern Bloc country (remember, the Cold War was still in full swing at this point) looking for John and Russell after they took off with the army’s top secret armored recreational vehicle (the uber Winnebago). This part of the movie feels forced and tacked on. It just isn’t as strong or as funny as everything that came before it. However, the first two thirds of the movie are so good that not even this hurts the picture all that much.

The film was actually fairly well-received by critics. Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review praised Stripes as "an anarchic slob movie, a celebration of all that is irreverent, reckless, foolhardy, undisciplined, and occasionally scatological. It's a lot of fun." Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it "a lazy but amiable comedy" and praised Murray for achieving "a sardonically exaggerated calm that can be very entertaining.” However, Gary Arnold, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "Stripes squanders at least an hour belaboring situations contradicted from the outset by Murray's personality. The premise and star remain out of whack until the rambling, diffuse screenplay finally struggles beyond basic training."

Only during a time when the United States wasn’t at war with anyone (unless you count the Cold War), does joining the army to improve your life seem like an option if you’re reasonably educated as John and Russell are in Stripes. One gets the feeling that they could have easily had a productive life in almost any walk of life if they only applied themselves. Joining the army on a whim doesn’t seem that funny in our current climate which does date the film somewhat. Regardless, the script filled with tons of witty dialogue and funny gags, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Murray and Ramis have never been better. At the risk of falling back on an old cliché, they just don’t make comedies like this anymore.




Monday, June 9, 2008

Out of Sight

"It's like seeing someone for the first time. You can be passing on the street and you look at each other and for a few seconds there's this kind of recognition. Like you both know something, and the next moment the person's gone. And it's too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it because it was there and you let it go. And you think to yourself, what if I stopped? What if I said something? What if?" – Jack Foley

This bit of dialogue from Out of Sight (1998) perfectly captures the essence of the relationships between the characters in this film. It is about the what ifs and the what could have beens. What the characters do and, more importantly, what they don't do directly determines their fate.

As the film begins, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a career bank robber, escapes from a Florida prison with the help of his loyal accomplice Buddy (Ving Rhames). In the heat of the moment they kidnap a beautiful Federal Marshall named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). She and Jack are stuffed in the trunk of her car as they make a hasty retreat. Trapped in such a small, confined space Jack and Karen have nothing to do but engage in idle chitchat. Even though they are on completely opposite sides of the law there's a spark, an initial attraction that blossoms into something more as the film progresses and their paths inevitably cross again.

Out of Sight is based on the book of the same name by Elmore Leonard. He had wanted to do a bank robber story for a long time. Several years ago, he saw “a picture in the Detroit News of an attractive young woman who was a Federal Marshal standing in front of the Federal Courthouse in Miami. She held a shotgun which was resting on her cocked hip and as soon as I saw that picture, I knew it was a book.” Danny DeVito bought the rights to a previous Leonard book, Get Shorty, for his production company, Jersey Films. After the success of that film, he bought the rights to Out of Sight.

The film came to George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh at a time when both of their careers had reached a critical junction. Clooney was coming off the commercial and critical train wreck known as Batman and Robin (1997). Soderbergh had completely shunned the mainstream with the one-two punch of Gray’s Anatomy (1996) and Schizopolis (1996). Both men were looking for a hit that would put them back on the map. Soderbergh had already made two films for Universal and one of its executives, Casey Silver, offered him Out of Sight with George Clooney attached. Soderbergh was close to making another project and was going to pass but Silver told him, “These things aren’t going to line up very often, you should pay attention.”

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank achieve a perfect mix with Out of Sight. The film’s pace moves with effortless ease and self-confidence. The know when to slow things down and savor the moment as well. As Frank proved with his excellent screenplay for Get Shorty (1995), he perfectly understands Leonard's distinctive cadence and the speech patterns of his characters. Cinematic adaptations of books are almost always inferior because so much has to be cut out or changed to fit into a two-hour film. However, Leonard's books are tailor-made for movie adaptations because they are very visual and almost entirely dialogue and character-driven — ideal for the screenplay format. Out of Sight is one of those rare movies that is actually better than the book.

Soderbergh and his cameraman, Elliot Davis, paint their film with a specific color code. The bright colors of the Florida scenes — especially the prison sequences with vibrant blue and the bright yellow prison uniforms worn by various characters — provide a nice contrast to the second half of the film which consists mainly of a gun-metal blue color scheme. The Detroit scenes have a cold, metallic feel to them and this really comes out.

After a string of so-so films, George Clooney finally hit paydirt with Out of Sight. With his movie star good looks and suave charm, he is perfectly cast as the smooth talking criminal. This may be his finest performance to date. For Clooney what attracted him to this role was the chance to play a character that evoked his cinematic heroes of the past. “When I was growing up the heroes for me were the bankrobbers — you know, the Cagneys and the Bogarts, Steve McQueen and all those guys, the guys who were kind of bad and you still rooted for them. And when I read this, I thought, This guy is robbing a bank but you really want him to get away with it.” Clooney’s style of acting is perfect for this role as he plays Foley with the right amount of laid-back charm. This is typified by his character's introduction — the most pleasant, non-violent bank robbery ever committed to film. Clooney has such a likable screen presence that you want to see his character succeed.

Conversely, Jennifer Lopez is his perfect foil as a smart, tough law enforcement officer who can't help but fall in love with this charismatic criminal. She is a very attractive woman but not above wielding a shotgun to apprehend a fugitive. There is a genuine chemistry between the two actors that makes their romance work. And it is this relationship that gives Out of Sight its depth. There is more to this movie than snappy banter and a hip soundtrack. Incredibly, Sandra Bullock was originally considered to play Karen Sisco opposite Clooney, however Soderbergh said, “What happened was I spent some time with [Clooney and Bullock] - and they actually did have a great chemistry. But it was for the wrong movie. They really should do a movie together, but it was not Elmore Leonard energy.”

A killer cast supports the two lead actors. Steve Zahn, an underrated character actor, is perfect as Glen, a stoner screw-up who looks up to Jack but is a royal pain in the ass. Dennis Farina plays Karen's laid-back dad who buys his daughter a handgun for her birthday and just wants to see her married to a lawyer or a doctor. Albert Brooks is Richard Ripley, a bumbling white-collar criminal type who is in way over his head and sports a truly awful toupee. Don Cheadle plays “Snoopy” Miller, a tough guy-wannabe that is a classic schoolyard bully. Rounding this cast out is Ving Rhames, Jack's tough, God-fearing partner in crime.

David Holmes' catchy R&B score comes in and instantly transports the viewer into this world. He mixes in his own brand of funky electronica with old school tunes from the likes of the Isley brothers and Willie Bobo. From the atmospheric noises in the background to Holmes' superb trip hop beats, this is a great sounding movie.

Despite its lackluster performance at the box office, Out of Sight received widespread critical praise. It was clearly a career turning point for both George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. Clooney said in an interview that “Out of Sight was the first time where I had a say, and it was the first good screenplay that I’d read where I just went, ‘That’s it.’ And even though it didn’t do really well box office-wise — we sort of tanked again — it was a really good film.” Clooney went on to success with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Soderbergh saw Out of Sight as “a very conscious decision on my part to try and climb my way out of the arthouse ghetto which can be as much of a trap as making blockbuster films. And I was very aware that at that point in my career, half the business was off limits to me.” The film’s critical reaction gave Soderbergh a foothold in Hollywood that led to the commercial success of Erin Brockovich (1999) and Oscar gold with Traffic (2000).

Out of Sight is a film about making choices and taking chances despite the sometimes inevitable, painful consequences. It is also an entertaining look at a collection of colorful characters and the exciting world they inhabit. This is a smart, sexy and wonderfully stylish crime thriller that was ignored by audiences (due to lousy advertising and an even worse release date) but garnered strong critical reaction (winding up on many Best Of lists that year). Fortunately, Out of Sight has been re-discovered on video and recognized as one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations ever put to film.

Jeremy Richey at his blog Moon in the Gutter has also written an excellent appreciation of both the film and its killer soundtrack.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Control

Ever since Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British band Joy Division, died in 1980, he has achieved the iconic status of an emerging artist showing signs of brilliance before meeting an early, tragic end. In Curtis’ case, he committed suicide on the eve of his band’s first American tour. His brief life has already been depicted on film in Michael Winterbottom’s fast ‘n’ loose look at the Manchester music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, 24 Hour Party People (2002), but it was only for the first half of that film. Control (2007) draws most of its content from Touching from a Distance, the memoirs of Ian’s wife, Deborah, and is directed by music video maker Anton Corbijn. He not only directed the video for their song, “Atmosphere,” but also shot some of the most memorable photographs of the band, making him the ideal choice to helm this film.
Control begins with Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) as a high school student listening to loads of David Bowie and doing what so many of us do: imagining himself as a rock star. Corbijn not only makes a point of showing the profound influence Bowie had on Ian but also includes nice little touches, like how he had his writings organized in three binders: novels, poems, and lyrics. Ian meets Deborah (Samantha Morton) through a mutual friend and they end up falling in love and getting married at a young age.
One of the things that makes Control work so well is the choices that Corbijn makes. When Ian and Deborah go see David Bowie and then the Sex Pistols in concert, he doesn’t try to have actors portray these famous musicians because it would be a distraction and possibly take us out of the film. Instead, he maintains his focus on Ian and Deborah as it is their story after all.
We see the band in their infancy when they were called Warsaw – a rough draft of what would become Joy Division. The film really captures their undeniable energy and it is a credit to the actors that they are able to depict that realistically. This is done by them actually playing their instruments instead of simply miming along to tracks off the album. The actors who play the members of Joy Division all look very close to their real-life counterparts but not to the point of distraction.
Sam Riley, especially, eerily inhabits Ian Curtis, getting all of his mannerisms on stage down cold but, more importantly, he inhabits the man offstage which is even tougher to do. Riley is a revelation as he really becomes Ian and shows the complexities of the man – the struggle with epilepsy and his relationship with Deborah and his mistress Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara). His expressive face conveys Ian’s inner turmoil so effectively and the actor wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation but really becomes Ian.
The always excellent Samantha Morton is heartbreakingly good as Ian’s wife. She conveys the strength of Deborah and the tragedy of her gradually disintegrating relationship with Ian. You can see the pain and frustration on her face. It’s a wonderfully understated performance. Her finest moment is in the scene where Deborah confronts Ian about his affair with Annik. She pleads angrily with him to admit to what he’s done but he says nothing and she leaves in frustration. It’s a devastating scene that is uncomfortable to watch at times.
This is a very low-key biopic. Even when it hits the important moments – i.e. Ian meeting his future bandmates at a Sex Pistols gig, their first appearance on Tony Wilson’s TV show, and so on – the drama of them is downplayed so that they are presented rather matter-of-factly which is wonderfully refreshing to see. It also sets Control apart from Hollywood biopics of musicians like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Those films tended to telegraph the significant events in their subject’s lives but in Control, Corbijn adopts the same kind of tone as Joy Division’s music – very monochromatic but with a lot of emotion as well. It’s a black and white film about a very colourful personality.
Control shows the problems Ian faced – step-by-step – that led to him committing suicide. He started out as a fairly happy guy but the problems he had started to seep into his life – epilepsy, his mistress, and the side effects of the medicine he took for his condition. The film explores how all of these factors affected his mental state and influenced his songwriting. Corbijn punctuates the significant moments in Ian’s life with Joy Division songs – for example, as his relationship with Deborah disintegrates, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays on the soundtrack. This isn’t done just to comment on what is happening; it is also the moment in time when this particular song was born.
Filmed in richly textured black and white, Control is an excellent look at Ian Curtis’ life that tears down the iconic image and delves deeper. Corbijn’s film refuses to romanticize the man and this sets it apart from most other musician biopics. It is understated yet emotionally affecting and a fitting tribute to his legacy and that of Joy Division.
Here is an excellent fansite dedicated to the film. Go here for a nice interview with Corbijn. Here is a fan site dedicated to Ian. This is an interesting article written by Ian's daughter about her reaction to the film. Finally, this has to be THE definitive Joy Division site. Check it out.