Wednesday, July 30, 2008
1) Choose 12 Films to be featured. They could be random selections or part of a greater theme. Whatever you want.
2) Explain why you chose the films.
3) Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre so I can have hundreds of links and I can take those links and spread them all out on the bed and then roll around in them.
4) The people selected then have to turn around and select 5 more people.
Monday: Two-Fisted Action: The Walter Hill Double Bill:
The Warriors and Streets of Fire
Tuesday: Paranoid Thrillers of the 1970s Double Bill:
The Parallax View and The Conversation
Wednesday: Movies About Movies Double Bill:
Matinee and Ed Wood
Thursday: John Carpenter's Apocalyptic Horror Double Bill:
The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness
Friday: Pulp/Serial Films of the '90s Double Bill:
Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer
Saturday: Michael Mann's Cops and Robbers Double Bill:
Heat and Miami Vice
Monday, July 28, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) is a struggling medical student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. It quickly becomes evident that he is lousy at the former and excels at the latter. And yet, when he is given a chance at the big time, he cracks under the pressure. Lilah (Sally Field) is a dedicated housewife that also yearns to be a comic. She has the raw talent but not the command of craft that Steven possesses. At first, he doesn't give Lilah the time of day but slowly they bond and he teaches her the fundamentals of stand-up comedy. "All you need is the right gags," Steven tells her, and he's right. Once Lilah has some decent material she discovers her natural gift of making people laugh. An uneasy friendship develops between the two and the personal conflicts they must resolve: Steven's desire to make it big vs. his inability to do so and Lilah's love of comedy vs. her love for her family.
David Seltzer wrote the first draft for Punchline in 1979 after becoming fascinated by comedy clubs while looking for someone to play a psychiatrist on a TV pilot that he was writing. He had a development deal with the movie division of ABC. Originally, the tone of the film was more good-natured a la Fame (1980) with more characters and less of an emphasis on Steven Gold. Bob Bookman, an executive, sponsored the script but left for Columbia Pictures. He bought the screenplay because Howard Zieff was interested in directing it. When Zieff lost interest (he ended up doing Unfaithfully Yours in 1984), the script was buried for years.
In 1986, producer Daniel Melnick found the screenplay for Punchline among twelve other scripts collecting dust in the vaults of Columbia Pictures. Seltzer's screenplay had gone through three changes of studio management because the executives didn't like the mix of comedy and drama. They also didn't like the Steven Gold character because they thought he was, according to Melnick, "obsessive, certainly self-destructive and could be considered mean-spirited." The studio couldn’t get a major star to commit to the material and so Melnick decided to make the movie for $8 million and with no stars. Interim studio president, Steve Sohmer didn't like that idea and sent the script to Sally Field, who had a production deal with
Field didn't mind sharing the majority of the screen time with Hanks and taking on the role of producer because, as she said in an interview at the time, "as a producer I am not developing films in which I can do fancy footwork. I don't have to have the tour de force part."
Two months before the Punchline went into production, Tom Hanks wrote a five-minute stand-up act and performed it at the Comedy Store in
The first half of Punchline is a fascinating look at the inner workings of stand-up comedy and what it takes to make it. In this respect, Seltzer's film is an unflinching portrayal of this profession. As Steven tells Lilah, "it takes every night, six clubs a night, all night. It takes working stag parties and elk club parties where you're opening for a fucking accordion player." It is this kind of dedication that is clearly needed in order to be successful. Stand-up comic, Sobel felt that the atmosphere of the film's comedy club was very authentic. "There's a lot of desperation in the movie on the part of a lot of the comedians, which I feel is on the nose of what it is to be a stand-up."
The film's weakness lies in Lilah's family life. Except for a wonderfully choreographed sequence where Lilah has to rush to get dinner ready for her husband and his guests before they home, the moments that feature Lilah with her family are where Punchline loses its energy and becomes a maudlin drama. This aspect of the film just isn't as fascinating as the parts dealing with the art of stand-up comedy.
Punchline's best moments are when Steven's manic presence dominates the screen. Tom Hanks' characterization deftly shows how tragedy and comedy are entwined. In one scene, his character has a gig at a hospital where he entertains a group of patients and doctors. Hanks is genuinely funny as he works the crowd, making fun of people's injuries so that they forget their own pain for a moment. The beauty of this scene is watching how Hanks interacts with his audience and how convincing he is as a stand-up comic. For the actor, the allure of doing stand-up comedy was "walking into a room of 400 people and taking them wherever you want for 20 minutes. Steven is god of his universe as long as he's got a microphone in his hand."
Hanks is also able to show us the darker side of his character in a brutal scene where he has a shot at being discovered and ruins it. Steven does his act at a club with a talent scout watching only to realize that his father, whom he fears and loathes, is in the audience. The look on Steven's face before he does his act says it all — he knows he's going to blow it but goes on anyway. The scene is so painful to watch because it is in such a sharp contrast to the hospital scene. To a deafening silence, Steven starts talking about his relationship with his father before breaking down and crying in front of the audience. It is an emotionally powerful scene that is tough to watch and one that the film is never able to surpass.
And this is due in large part to Hanks who goes all out with his performance by showing such a wide range of emotions that swing from euphoria to bitter resentment. It's an unusual role for Hanks who usually plays nice guys. As the actor recalled in an interview, "he's not a lovable goofball. His difficulties don't make him a nicer character or a more sympathetic character but they do make him a darker character." Under Steven's very funny facade lurks a self-destructive, jealous person who will do anything to succeed. Is this what it takes to make it as a comedian? The film never really answers this question. Instead, it is left up to the audience to decide one way or the other.
The best comedy is about yourself, your life, what you know, and finding what is funny in that. Punchline taps into this truism by showing that comedians not only comment on their own lives but what they see around them as well. This film is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of the stand-up comedy profession and how tough it really is. There is a ring of honesty to these scenes that the rather sappy happy ending cannot diminish.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a hot shot driver burning the candle at both ends. He’s a thrill-seeking junky fueled by amphetamines and driving fast. His latest assignment is driving a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from
The opening scene of the film features a collection of shots of old men in a small, seemingly deserted town out in the middle of nowhere. They all have grizzled looks of people who have lived hard lives with faces full of character. Gradually, we see more activity in the town as bulldozers rumble along, setting up for the confrontation with Kowalski. A CBS news truck shows up and then a highway patrol helicopter before Kowalski himself is revealed, chased by three patrol cars. This is the present and the rest of the film shows how he got to this point.
At first glance, the premise of Vanishing Point seems pretty slim. Admittedly, it is total B-movie material, however, Guillermo Cain’s (pseudonym for avant-garde Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante) screenplay sneaks in a subversive political subtext. Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Kowalski is a Vietnam War veteran who has had trouble adjusting to normal life back home. He’s seen police corruption first hand and mistrusts any kind of authority. Cain uses Super Soul as the mouthpiece for the film’s political stance. He cheers Kowalski on with an inspired rap: “The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver. The last American hero. The demigod. The super driver of the golden west. Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone rider. The police numbers are getting’ closer! Closer to our soul hero in his soulmobile!”
Barry Newman is Kowalski. Not much is revealed about his character except that his whole existence seems to revolve around driving cars from one destination to another. He portrays the man as a burn-out who’s been through a series of dangerous, risky jobs that fuel his need for speed. Through a series of flashbacks we find out he used to race dirt bikes and stock cars. He was also a cop who rescued a young girl from being raped by his partner. Newman has tired, seen-it-all-before eyes that say more than any words could. Kowalski is more than just a burn out; he is also a folk hero of sorts who is helped by the everyday people he meets along the way. There is something sympathetic about Newman’s performance; there is still a glimmer of humanity that years of disappointment have failed to eradicate. This is reinforced by a flashback where we see that Kowalski was in love once and even led a happy life but his girlfriend drowns in a surfing accident. This illustrates why he is so jaded and helps explain his reckless attitude.
Cleavon Little is good as Super Soul. It was his feature film debut and he makes the most of his screen time with an inspired performance. He delivers his dialogue in a way that feels like it was entirely improvised. He transforms Super Soul into some kind of hep, jive talking preacher of the counter-culture who rocks the microphone with his inspired raps. He acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, encouraging Kowalski and warning him of traps that the law has set up for him. The first appearance of his character says so much of social climate of the times. As he walks his seeing eye dog across town its denizens clearly look upon him with the same kind of disdain as in the scene in Easy Rider where Billy, George and Wyatt enter a diner and are scrutinized by the prejudiced townsfolk. However, Super Soul also pays for helping out Kowalski as a group white rednecks trash his radio station and beat him up. This racially motivated attack is bloody and brief and speaks volumes about race relations at the time.
Director Richard C. Sarafian and cinematographer John A. Alonzo create a film of pure, visual storytelling. The first ten minutes alone feature almost no dialogue. They know that the car is the real star of Vanishing Point and showcase it in dynamically shot sequences that perfectly convey speed and motion through driver point-of-view shots and kinetic edits. For example, one scene starts with a close-up of Kowalski’s license plate and then the camera pulls back suddenly to reveal his car speeding along the road. To convey the appearance of speed, the filmmakers undercranked the cameras. For example, in the scenes with the Challenger and the Jaguar, the camera was cranked at half speed. The cars were traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour but at regular camera speed they appeared to be much faster. There are liberal uses of zoom shots and the camera is often close to Kowalski’s car as if it is us who are chasing him. There are also fantastic long shots of the car speeding across the land that let us appreciate the vast, open spaces of
Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin performed many of the film’s breaktaking driving. He got his start in the business as a stunt double in the 1940s and 1950s, working on many B movies. He graduated to stunt driver on films like The Young Lions and Thunder Road (both in 1958). Just prior to Vanishing Point, he choreographed the legendary car chase in Bullitt (1968) and would go on to orchestrate equally famous vehicular mayhem in The French Connection (1971) and The Getaway (1972) before winning an Academy Award for his work on Against All Odds (1984). Barry Newman did a few of the minor stunts while Loftin set-up and performed the major ones in Vanishing Point. The actor learned from Loftin and was encouraged by the stunt coordinator to do some of his own stunts. For example, in the scene before the crash at the end of the film, Newman drove, performed a 180 degree turn on the road and went back, himself without Sarafian’s knowledge.
Loftin requested the use of the 1970 Dodge Challenge because of the “quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower” and felt that it was “a real sturdy, good running car.” Five alpine white Challengers were loaned to the production by Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of filming. No special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars except for heavier-duty shocks for the car that jumped over No Name Creek. Loftin remembers that parts were taken out of one car to make another because they “really ruined a couple of those cars, what with jumping ramps from highway to highway and over creeks.” Newman remembers that they 440 engines in the cars were so powerful that “it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You’d put it in first and it would almost rear back!” For the climactic crash at the end of the film, Loftin used a derelict 1967 Camero stripped of its engine and transmission. A tow-rig set-up was used with a quarter mile of cable and with the motor and transmission out. Loftin expected the car to go end over end but instead it stuck into the bulldozers which looks better.
After filming, Vanishing Point was cut from 107 to 99 minutes, completely removing a scene where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling that Newman felt gave the film “an allegorical lift.” It was cut because the studio was afraid that the audience wouldn’t understand. Newman recalls that the studio had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters as a multiple release only for it to disappear in less than two weeks. The film was not well-received by American critics at the time. Charles Champlin, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Vanishing Point might have had a point, but it . . . ah . . . got lost. What’s left is sophisticated craft and fashionably hokey cynicism.” It didn’t get much better in the Reporter where Larry Cohen wrote, “Calculated, tedious and in desperate need of tightening, the picture, produced by Norman Spencer, is uninvolving and devoid of a cohesiveness that might have made it work.” Finally, Variety add the final critical nail in the coffin: “While car addicts may be able to maintain interest in the ultra-fast manipulation of the car, many viewers will just get car sick . . . or sick of the car, which isn’t the same thing.”
However, the film was a critical and commercial success in
Monday, July 7, 2008
Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring offbeat subject matter (see They Live and In the Mouth of Madness), created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung fu film. This often maligned genre is given a new level of respectability that is rarely seen in
From the engaging prologue, Big Trouble takes us back to the beginning of our story with the first appearance of truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a good-natured, fast-talking legend in his own mind. When he and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), go to the airport to pick up the latter's future bride arriving from
Big Trouble in Little China was originally written as a period Western set in the 1880s with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Producer Paul Monash bought Gary Goldman and David Weinstein's screenplay but after a reading he found that it was virtually unfilmable due to the bizarre mix of Chinese mythology and the Wild West setting. He had the two first-time screenwriters do a rewrite, but Monash still didn't like it. "The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century
Keith Barish and Monash brought in W.D. Richter, a veteran script doctor (and director of cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) to extensively rewrite the script. Almost everything in the original screenplay was discarded except for Lo Pan's story. "I realized what it needed wasn't a rewrite but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought and there's no intention that the original writers will stay on." Richter's template for his draft was Rosemary's Baby (1968). "I believed if, like in Rosemary's Baby, you presented the foreground story in a familiar context — rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately — and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience." Richter was having a hard time getting his own scripts made into movies so he tried sneaking in his own eccentric ideas into other people's projects. "It's often easier to take an idea that they bring to you and try to pass it through your sensibility. If you're honest up front, you get license to work with material you wouldn't get them to look at if it was your own story."
John Carpenter had wanted to do a film like Big Trouble in Little China for some time. Even though it contains elements of an action / adventure / comedy / mystery / ghost story / monster movie, it is, in the filmmaker's eyes, a kung fu film. "I have dug the genre ever since I first saw Five Fingers of Death in 1973. I always wanted to make my own kung fu film, and Big Trouble finally gave me the excuse to do just that." Barish and Monash offered Carpenter the movie in July of 1985. He had read the Goldman/Weinstein script and deemed it “outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements.” After reading Richter's script he decided to direct. Carpenter loved the off-the-wall style of Richter's writing and coupled with his love of kung fu films, it is easy to see why he jumped at the opportunity to make Big Trouble.
The two filmmakers had crossed paths before when Carpenter rewrote Richter's screenplay, The Ninja, a big-budget martial arts epic, for 20th Century Fox. In fact, Richter and Carpenter had both attended
Problems began to arise when Carpenter learned that the next Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child (1986), featured a similar theme and was going to be released near the same time as Big Trouble. Ironically, Carpenter was asked by
To achieve the efficiency that he would need for such a shoot, Carpenter surrounded himself with a seasoned crew from his previous films. He reunited with three long-time collaborators, line producer Larry J. Franco (Starman), production designer John Lloyd (The Thing), and cinematographer Dean Cundey. The cameraman had worked with Carpenter on his most memorable features: Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982). The director wanted as many familiar faces on board because "the size and complexity are so vast, that without it being in dependable, professional hands, it could have gone crazy...So I went back to the guys who had been with me in the trenches before on difficult projects."
Carpenter and Cundey had parted company before Starman due to "attitude problems." Cundey says it was due to scheduling conflicts, but Carpenter has said that they had problems while working on The Thing. However, when Big Trouble came along, Carpenter met Cundey in
Big Trouble also saw Carpenter re-team with his old friend, actor Kurt Russell who has appeared in several of the director's films, most notably Escape From New York and The Thing. At first, Carpenter didn't see Russell as Jack Burton. He wanted to cast a big star like Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson to compete with Golden Child's casting of Eddie Murphy. However, both Eastwood and Nicholson were busy and Fox suggested Russell because they felt that he was an up-and-coming star. The actor remembered reading the script and thinking that it "was fun, but I was soft on the character. I wasn't clear how to play it. There were a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn't know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie." After Carpenter and Russell began to go over the script, the character started to take shape. The role was a nice change for Russell as Carpenter remembers, "Kurt was enthusiastic about doing an action part again, after playing so many roles opposite ladies recently. So off we went."
After watching Big Trouble it’s impossible to see anybody else as Jack Burton. Russell perfectly nails the macho swagger of his character: he’s a blowhard who’s all talk, totally inept when it comes to any kind of action and yet is still a likable guy. It is the right mix of bravado and buffoonery, a parody of the John Wayne action hero much in the same way Russell made Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken a twisted homage to Clint Eastwood. Russell said, at the time, that he "never played a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn't the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He's a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up. He thinks he knows how to handle situations and then gets into situations he can't handle but some how blunders his way through anyhow." Russell showcases untapped comedic potential that ranges from physical pratfalls to excellent comic timing in the delivery of his dialogue. One only has to look at his scene with Wang and the elderly Lo Pan to see Russell’s wonderful comic timing. No one before or since Big Trouble has been able to tap into Russell's comedic potential as well as Carpenter does in this movie.
By many of the actors' accounts, Carpenter is a director open to suggestions and input from everyone involved. Dennis Dun’s character starts off as the sidekick of Big Trouble and ends up accomplishing most of the film's heroic tasks while the initial hero, Jack Burton, becomes the comic relief. Prior to Big Trouble, Dun's only other film role was a small part in Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon (1985) but he was a veteran of more than twenty plays. Carpenter liked the actor in Cimino's movie and met with him twice before casting him in Big Trouble. Even though shooting began only a few days after Dun was cast, the action sequences weren't hard for the actor who had "dabbled" in martial arts training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult.
Dun enjoyed the freedom he had on the set. "John gave me a great deal of leeway to develop my character and pretty much let me do what I wanted. He just encouraged me to be as strong as I could. He gave me a lot of freedom." This freedom results in a very strong performance from Dun who holds his own against a veteran actor like Russell. Dun remembers that he and Russell shared the same approach to acting. "We never really talked about the scenes. We would come in that day to shoot a scene, and we would just do it. A large part of it was working off each other, just looking in each other's eyes and taking each other's energy and running with it." The chemistry between the two characters is one of the many endearing qualities of Big Trouble as evident from numerous scenes, most notably the one where Wang Chi bets Jack that he can split a beer bottle in half and the scene where the two men attempt to break into Lo Pan’s building to rescue Wang’s fiancée.
The studio pressured Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton's love interest and constant source of aggravation. For Carpenter there was no question, he wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio wasn't crazy about the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky's (1981) and Police Academy (1984). "I told them we needed an actress, and I enjoyed the way Kim wanted to play the character. She blended in well with the film's style." Cattrall plays Gracie as a pushy, talkative lawyer who acts as the perfect foil for deflating
Big Trouble’s script cleverly avoids the trap of reducing her role to a screaming prop by having Gracie take an aggressive part in the action. "Actually," Cattrall said in an interview, "I'm a very serious character in this movie. I'm not screaming for help the whole time. I think humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I'm the brains and he's the brawn." There’s a great give and take between her and Russell. Their characters make for an entertaining screwball comedy couple: he’s always on the make while she constantly fends off his obvious advances. This was Carpenter's intention. He saw the characters in Big Trouble like the ones "in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people." Listen to how Jack and Gracie talk to each other—it’s a very rapid-fire delivery of dialogue that is reminiscent of Hawks' comedies.
Production designer John Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and re-created
Another refreshing aspect of Big Trouble is the way it is immersed in authentic Chinese myths and legends. Carpenter explains: "for example, our major villain, Lo Pan, is a famous legend in Chinese history. He was a 'shadow emperor,' appointed by the first sovereign emperor, Chan Che Wong. Lo Pan was put on the throne as an impersonator, because Chan Che Wong was frightened of being assassinated. Then, Lo Pan tried to usurp the throne, and Chan Che Wong cursed him to exist without flesh for 2,000 years, until he can marry a green-eyed girl." Big Trouble could have easily made light of Chinese culture, but instead mixes respect with a good dose of fun.
Big Trouble also places Asian actors in several prominent roles, including Victor Wong and Dennis Dun who is the real hero of the story, as opposed to Kurt Russell's character who is a constant source of comedy. "I've never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film," Dun commented in an interview, "I'm Chinese in the movie, but the way it's written, I could be anybody." Big Trouble crushes the rather derogatory Charlie Chan stereotype by presenting interesting characters that just happen to be Chinese. Carpenter also wanted to avoid the usual cliché soundtrack. "The other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music. I didn't want that for Big Trouble. I wanted a synthesizer score with some rock 'n' roll."
As if sensing the rough commercial road that the film would face, Russell felt that it would be a hard one to market. "This is a difficult picture to sell because it's hard to explain. It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in
The film received critically mixed reviews when it was first released. Ron Base, in his review for the Toronto Star, praised Russell's performance. "He does a great John Wayne imitation. But he's not just mimicking these heroes, he is using them to give his own character a broad, satiric edge.” Walter Goodman in the New York Times wrote, "In kidding the flavorsome proceedings even as he gets the juice out of them, the director, John Carpenter, is conspicuously with it.” Harlan Ellison praised the film, writing that it had "some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives.”
However, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "special effects don't mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds", and felt that it was "straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.” Paul Attanasio in the Washington Post, criticized the screenwriters for being "much better at introducing a character than they are at developing one.” David Ansen wrote, in his review for Newsweek, "though it is action packed, spectacularly edited and often quite funny, one can't help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre.” In his review for The Times, David Robinson felt that Carpenter was, "overwhelmed by his own special effects, without a strong enough script to guide him.”
Big Trouble came out before the rise in popularity of
In an effort to have more freedom on the films he made, Carpenter became an independent yet again, cranking out Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) in rapid succession. The veteran filmmaker didn't fully embrace a big studio again until Escape From L.A. in 1996, but its disastrous critical and commercial reception drove Carpenter underground again where he's been ever since, continuing to make the kinds of films we wants to make. Big Trouble in Little China has stood the test of time. It was rediscovered on video where it has become a celebrated cult film with a dedicated audience — so dedicated, in fact, that an on-line campaign helped convince 20th Century Fox to assemble an impressive two-DVD set of the film. Big Trouble has since become one of the most beloved films in John Carpenter’s career and with good reason. It is a fun, clever movie that still holds up today and remains one of the finest examples of cinema as pure entertainment.