Friday, August 29, 2008

DVD of the Week: Son of Rambow

The things we see at an impressionable young age, be they films, television programs, books or music, leave a lasting impact on us because we haven’t had many life experiences up to that point in our lives. So, those formative experiences tend to leave a lasting impact. This also applies to the friendships you form and these two things intersect in Son of Rambow (2007). In some respects, this film is Be Kind, Rewind (2008) for kids but instead of several films being recreated on the cheap, there is just one – the first Rambo film, First Blood (1982).

Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is a dreamer who spends his free time drawing. Lee Carter (Will Poulter) is the school bully who spends his free time getting into trouble. Will comes from a strict, religious family while Lee’s family is very wealthy and never around, except for his older brother who bullies him. One day, Lee gets Will in trouble and the two boys form a tentative friendship.

In his spare time, Lee bootlegs films playing at the local cinema and one of them is First Blood, which Will inadvertently watches. For an impressionable young boy who is not allowed to watch TV, the film is a revelation and his dreams and drawings are filled with fantasies where he is the son of Rambo. What Lee really wants to do is make a movie and starts off using Will as his stuntman.

Lee and Will decide to make their own version of First Blood with Will playing Rambo and Lee as Colonel Trautman. The two boys bond during filming as Lee helps Will come out of his shell and Will gives Lee something to care about. More importantly, they become close friends – something that both boys lack in their lives.

Lee and Will complement each other well as Will’s family is too strict and Lee’s are too lax. Obviously, casting is crucial and the two young actors – Bill Milner and Will Poulter – are excellent. They have wonderful chemistry together and don’t suffer from the usual self-conscious acting tics that plague many childhood actors. Milner conveys a dreamy enthusiasm while Poulter has a certain Dennis the Menace charm – pragmatism in contrast to Milner’s head-in-the-clouds mentality.

Son of Rambow is a celebration of films and filmmaking. Lee and Will are definitely not in it to make money. They do it because it’s fun and a form of escape from their boring school lives and from their stifling home lives. Because they have no budget and limited resources, the two boys have to be more creative and get the footage they need in true guerrilla filmmaking fashion – literally run and shoot. And once they enlist the help of a group of French exchange students, the scale of their film increases in a way that is reminiscent of Max Fischer’s ambitious plays in Rushmore (1998). However, at its core, Son of Rambow is about a little boy’s yearning for his absent father, how he deals with it in his art and rich fantasy world and his friendship with another boy his age.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director Garth Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith, and actors Bill Milner and Will Poulter. Jennings says that they showed Sylvester Stallone the film and he loved it. Originally, there was a voiceover narration over the opening credits by Will as an adult but Jennings didn’t like it and so it was scrapped. This is a very loose, playful track as Jennings plays lame music at random moments which I could have done without but it is nice to hear everyone joking with each other as they recount all kinds of filming anecdotes.

“Boys Will Be Boys: The Making of Son of Rambow.” Like the film itself, this featurette is atypical of the usual fluff press kits. Jennings and Goldsmith interview Milner and Poulter, who had only done school plays before this film. The kids seem very down-to-earth and talk about what it was like making their first film with clips from it and behind-the-scenes footage peppered sporadically throughout. Jennings talks about how the film is based loosely on his own childhood.

“Garth’s Short Film ‘Aron’” is a cute home movie that Jennings made when he was a kid and ended up becoming the inspiration for Son of Rambow.

Son of Rambow Website Winner” is an amateur short film like the one Will and Lee make in the film that won the online contest. It is actually pretty well done and entertaining.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Movies About Movies Blog-A-Thon: Ed Wood

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Movies About Movies Blog-A-Thon being coordinated at the goatdogblog.

“There are times in history, like Paris in the ‘20s, when groups of artists happen to get together at the same time. I think of this as kind of the bad version.”
-- Tim Burton

For those of us who have always loved to watch movies Ed Wood (1994) is a gloriously atmospheric, black and white love letter to cinema. Tim Burton's film recalls a bygone era when one could see movies in theaters with palatial stages and grandiose art deco architecture. He understands that for the devoted cineaste, the best moments in life have often been spent in a darkened movie theater being enveloped by a film and becoming one with the environment it creates for two hours. Watching a movie is a form of escape from the harsh realities of the real world and Ed Wood argues that making films can also do the same thing. Of course, Burton's movie takes this idea to an extreme. The characters that populate the movie are perhaps a little too devoted to their craft — so much so that they develop an intense denial towards the awful elements in their own lives.

No one understands and appreciates this devotion to cinema more than Burton. From Beetlejuice (1988) to Mars Attacks! (1996), his films are lovingly crafted homages to the horror and science fiction B-movies that the director enjoyed in his childhood. Burton once commented in an interview, “There’s a roughness and a surprising nature to most B movies that you don’t get in classic films — something more immediate.” With Ed Wood, Burton indulges this obsession completely by telling the story of a man who loved to create and watch movies.

Initially, Ed Wood may seem like a rather odd vehicle in which to celebrate a love of movies. What does the infamously touted "worst filmmaker of all-time" have to do with what makes movies so great? As Burton's film amply demonstrates, what filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. lacked in technical merits to make a good movie, he more than made up for with heart and enthusiastic perseverance.

Ed Wood was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on October 10, 1924. He spent his youth watching westerns and Universal horror films. Wood first got bitten by the filmmaking bug when his parents gave him a movie camera at eleven years of age. After serving as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, he moved to Hollywood in 1948. He started off as an actor in local theater and idolized Orson Welles. Wood spent a few years doing little but making contacts, including aspiring producer Alex Gordon who helped him meet Bela Lugosi.

Wood and Lugosi became friends and when he finally scraped together enough financing to make Glen or Glenda (1953), he gave Lugosi a role as an omniscient master of human fates. Wood gave Lugosi a larger role in Bride of the Monster (1955), despite the actor’s increasing ill health. Lugosi’s various drug addictions and his bad health finally took their toll and he died on August 16, 1956. Wood was crushed. However, before Lugosi’s death, Wood shot some generic footage of him in a cemetery and outside his home. This footage became the basis for Wood’s most infamous film, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). He made Plan 9 for only $6,000, armed with stock footage and a script he had written in less than two weeks. The film barely got a distributor, made no money and was shortly pulled from theaters. By the 1960s, Wood was reduced to writing trashy novels and making low budget sex films. He died from a heart failure on December 10, 1978 in North Hollywood.

Ed Wood spans the six year period in which he made his most celebrated movies. Starting with the autobiographical Glen or Glenda and climaxing with the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Burton's film eschews the traditional biopic format for a looser, more impressionistic take on Wood's life. This approach is necessary because many of the details of the cult filmmaker's life are contradicted by those who knew him or are simply not known, as documented in Rudolph Grey’s excellent oral biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy. Burton opts for a more intimate character study of the director and his small but dedicated crew. He never puts these people down, but rather celebrates their intense love of making films.

The origins for Ed Wood can be traced back to two men. During his sophomore year at the University of Southern California, Scott Alexander wrote a proposal for a documentary about Ed Wood entitled, The Man in the Angora Sweater. Fellow classmate and screenwriting partner, Larry Karaszewski remembers that they had "always talked about what a great biopic it would be. But we figured there would be no one on the planet Earth who would make this movie or want to make this movie, because these aren't the sort of movies that are made." The two film students were not interested in "making fun of Ed Wood the way most traditional things written about Ed up to this time had done," Karaszewski recalls. "What's interesting is that since Ed Wood was so on the fringe of Hollywood, the story became one that was more about someone who wants to be a film director than about a guy who actually is a film director."

Alexander and Karaszewski went on to write the Problem Child films but the Ed Wood movie was always in the back of their minds. Out of frustration from being pigeonholed, they wrote a 10-page treatment for film school buddy Michael Lehmann with Karaszewski's tongue-in-cheek pitch, "the guys who wrote Problem Child and the guy who directed Hudson Hawk making a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time." Lehmann showed the treatment to his producer, Denise DiNovi, who in turn showed it to Tim Burton. The trio struck a deal where Lehman would direct and DiNovi and Burton would produce the film.

Burton originally was going to take the role of producer because he was set to direct Mary Reilly (1995), a version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story but told from the perspective of the doctor's housekeeper. However, Columbia Pictures was interested in speeding up the production faster than Burton wanted and they also rejected his casting of Winona Ryder as the housekeeper in favor of Julia Roberts. Frustrated, Burton left the project and regrouped at a farmhouse in Poughkeepsie, New York. He started reading Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy book in preparation for the movie. The more he read, the more interested he became in Wood and his world, to the point where he wanted to direct the film.

Burton was attracted to Wood's unusual hopefulness. He recalled in an interview about how he was drawn to the man's "extreme optimism, to the point where there was an incredible amount of denial. And there's something charming to me about that." The filmmaker also identified with the Wood-Bela Lugosi relationship as it mirrored, in some ways, his relationship with Vincent Price. "Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me, the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol."

However, no screenplay had been written at this point. So, Alexander and Karaszewski worked 14-hour days, seven days a week for six weeks writing what would eventually become a 147-page screenplay. For the two writers, there was a certain level of desperation that inspired such a large output in such a short span of time. Alexander told Film Threat magazine that "there was a bit of mercenary attitude behind the script in the fact that we were trying to appeal to Tim's instincts. He's a very personal filmmaker and everything with him is on a gut level . . . We knew we had one shot, and so we tried to put in scenes that would work for him on an iconographic level or would parallel his relationships." This angle paid off as Burton liked their first draft so much that he agreed to direct and use said draft without any revisions — a practice virtually unheard of today where screenplays are re-written and doctored to death. Lehmann, who was originally supposed to direct, was developing the screenplay for Airheads (1994) into a movie and so he and Burton swapped roles on the Ed Wood movie.

Ed Wood was in development with Columbia Pictures but this soon changed when problems between the studio and Burton arose. The director wanted to shoot the film in black and white with total creative control. Karaszewski remembers at the time that "the studio was saying, 'How about if we shot it on a color negative and released it here in black-and-white, but then later on if the film is not that successful we could make it a color video?' Tim said no way." Burton recalls, “I went through that ten years ago on Frankenweenie. It looks like shit. If you’re going to make a decision, make a decision. You don’t hedge it.” Columbia responded by putting the film in turnaround a month before principal photography was scheduled to start. Almost immediately Warner Brothers, Paramount and Fox became interested in optioning the film but Burton went with Disney because they agreed to give him complete creative control and an $18 million budget but only if he worked for scale.

After working on large-sized, multi-million dollar productions like Batman Returns (1992), Burton saw Ed Wood as a chance to be more instinctive in his filmmaking approach. "On a picture like this I find you don't need to storyboard. You're working mainly with actors, and there's no effects going on, so it's best to be more spontaneous." This attitude towards the filmmaking process results in Burton's most accomplished movie to date. Ed Wood is a perfect blend of the filmmaker's unique visual style and his pre-occupation with what Gavin Smith calls, "the irrepressible outsider who will not be denied." Wood fits in with other Burton protagonists, like Pee-Wee Herman, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, who do not fit into normal mainstream society but struggle to achieve their dreams anyway.

With this in mind, it seems only fitting that Burton cast Johnny Depp as Wood. It was the second time that the two had worked together (the first being Edward Scissorhands) and further reinforced the belief by many film critics that Depp was actually Burton's cinematic alter-ego. For Depp, the appeal of Ed Wood was the era that the filmmaker and his crew lived in:

“There must have been a kind of optimism that we lack today. People wore suits then. People wore overcoats and hats. Somehow that meant something to me. People cared. There was a kind of enthusiasm about the country. That was the big thing that had to be put across. It was an innocent time."

Depp portrays Wood as a naïve dreamer who loves the movies. He even gets ideas for movies from discarded stock footage that a stagehand runs for him. "Why if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage," he says as he dramatically constructs an absurd tale from a montage of completely unrelated footage that could only come from his brain. There is something contagious about this approach that makes you root for Wood to succeed — even if you are aware of the director's eventual downward spiral into poverty and obscurity.

To play the pivotal role of Bela Lugosi, Burton cast legendary character actor, Martin Landau. For the director, Landau was his only choice. "Martin has done great movies. He's done weird cheesy horror movies. He's done it all." The veteran thespian was no stranger to genre films and immersed himself completely in the part. The first thing he did was make-up tests with Rick Baker to capture the external essence of Lugosi. Baker didn't use extensive applications on Landau, just enough to allow the actor to use his face to act and express while also resembling Lugosi physically. As Landau remembers, "I could then react, not as I would react, but as Lugosi would react. Ultimately I walk differently, I behave differently and I sound differently."

To augment the rather Method style of getting into character, Landau also did extensive research on his subject, watching 25 of Lugosi movies and seven interviews with the man between the years of 1931 and 1956. From this research Landau constructs a Lugosi that is a gruff, grumpy old man who spits out obscenities when provoked. He's the jaded counterpoint to Wood's youthful optimism. At one point he says, "this business, this town, it chews you up, then spits you out. I'm just an ex-bogeyman." He underlines perfectly one of the most important unwritten rules that governs Hollywood: you're only good as your last movie.

And yet, Lugosi also talks about what's wrong with modern horror films: "they don't want the classic horror films anymore. Today, it's all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers. Who would believe such nonsense?" For Lugosi, the older films were "mythic, they had poetry." Even though he is talking about horror films of the '50s, Lugosi could easily be talking about the horror films of today where subtlety and imagination has been replaced by sterile, state-of-the-art special effects and formulaic stories. The clunky effects of these older movies, with their rubber-suited monsters and fake blood, have a certain texture to them that you can almost touch. There is something comforting about this because you know that it's real. Computer effects, for the most part, lack any real textures and are too perfect looking — they lack any kind of personality.

If Ed Wood is a loving homage to movies, it is all the more fitting that Orson Welles, the patron saint of cinema, is celebrated throughout. From the obvious touches, like the poster of Citizen Kane (1941) that hangs in Wood's office, to the use of deep focus photography (where the fore, middle and background are all in focus) and low angle perspective shots favored by Welles, his presence is felt everywhere. This culminates in a meeting between the auteur and Wood at Musso and Frank Grill, a famous West Coast eatery. With his stocky build and deep voice, Vincent D'Onofrio bears an uncanny resemblance to Welles. As he and Wood share a drink and commiserate about their struggles to get films made, there is a particularly important exchange:

Triumphant music plays in the background as Welles delivers this sage advice and it inspires Wood to go back and finish Plan 9 his way, right of wrong. For Burton it was important to include this scene even though it never actually happened because Wood often equated himself with Welles.

Ed Wood ends with a triumphant screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at the same theater where Bride of the Monster failed. Even though this never really happened, it is a nice way to end the movie — on a high note instead of what really happened. Wood became an alcoholic and was reduced to making schlocky nudie films. Burton clearly means to celebrate the man and his love of movies and so this bit of revisionism can be forgiven. After all, there are many articles and books that document the less savory aspects of Wood's life.

With Ed Wood, Burton transforms the filmmaker into the ultimate cinephile. Wood criticizes Vampira for not giving Lugosi's movie the proper amount of respect and mouths the dialogue to movies as he watches them — totally enraptured in the experience. As Gavin Smith pointed out in his interview with Burton, Wood is the “patron saint of movie junkies, raptly mouthing his own films’ dialogue Rocky Horror-style, his own number one fan.”

Ed Wood had its world premiere at the 32nd New York Film Festival at the Lincoln Center. Burton's film was also shown later at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. When it went into wide release on October 7, 1994 in 623 theaters, it grossed $1.9 million in its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $5.8 million in North America, well below its estimated $18 million production budget.

Reviews, however, were highly positive. Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, "Burton has made is a film which celebrates Wood more than it mocks him, and which celebrates, too, the zany spirit of 1950s exploitation films – in which a great title, a has-been star and a lurid ad campaign were enough to get bookings for some of the oddest films ever made." USA Today gave the film four out of four stars and declared it, "Burton's best since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and if that doesn't tickle you, stay away from Ed Wood movies." In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin said that the film was "an unobtrusively gorgeous black-and-white film with a wide range of striking visual effects." Despite the film being a commercial disaster, Burton is very proud of the movie. "I love the movie, I'm proud of it. It's just that no one came. I guess if I was like everybody else, I would just blame a bad marketing campaign. But that's too easy." As Landau put it in an interview, the real joy came from the experience of making the actual movie. “I loved the challenge of doing it. It was a great set to work on, and Tim and Johnny and I had a day of mourning when it was all over.”

And yet, Ed Wood has endured. It went on to win two Academy Awards (one for Landau's performance and one for Baker's make-up) and a slew of critics’ awards. The movie has also become a favorite of film buffs everywhere, which is rather fitting considering that this is exactly its target audience. Sadly, Burton went on to make Planet of the Apes (2001), a paint-by-numbers action film with expensive computer effects that lacked any of Burton's distinctive personality — the complete antithesis to Ed Wood. Hopefully, he has not become completely absorbed by the Hollywood system and that there is still some of the spirit of Ed Wood left in him.

Special thanks to the Depp Impact site for the stills from the film. Here is a page dedicated to film from the best website dedicated to Burton and his films. This is actually were this article was originally published.

Val brought to my attention a wonderful short film that Vincent D'Onofrio directed called Five Minutes Mr. Welles that debuted at the 2004 Venice Film Festival and addresses his performance in Ed Wood as Orson Welles and how his voice was actually dubbed over.

DVD of the Week: My Blueberry Nights

For years, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai has resisted the lure of the United States, content to make his films in his native country (with the exception of Happy Together which was shot in South America) without any Hollywood movie stars. This has changed with My Blueberry Nights (2007) which Wong made in America with recognizable names like Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, and in her feature film debut, singer Norah Jones. However, Wong hasn’t exactly sold out – he made the film independently and it was distributed by the Weinstein Company. Wong’s film debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to a less than favorable reaction and was quietly given a limited theatrical release.

After finding out that her boyfriend is cheating on her, Elizabeth (Norah Jones) takes refuge in a small New York City diner run by Jeremy (Jude Law). She drowns her sorrows in a piece of blueberry pie – the most unpopular pie in the diner – while Jeremy provides a sympathetic ear. After getting mugged on the subway, she takes off to Memphis, Tennessee, working as a waitress in a diner by day and in a bar at night. Elizabeth stays in contact with Jeremy through postcards that she writes to him periodically as she ruminates on life wherever she is and the people she meets.

At the bar, she crosses paths with a sad drunk named Arnie (David Strathairn) who is a cop during the day. Arnie comes to the bar every night and announces that this is his last night of drinking. He too is harboring heartbreak – separated from his wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). They have a mercurial relationship at best. Elizabeth moves on to Las Vegas, Nevada working as a cocktail waitress in a casino where she meets a cocky gambler named Leslie (Natalie Portman). The two become friends despite Leslie conning Elizabeth out of her money as we learn of the gambler’s own broken heart in the form a dysfunctional relationship with her ailing father.

Sadly, there is no real chemistry between Norah Jones and Jude Law. It feels like Jones is just saying her lines and not living them. There is no emotional depth to her performance as she tries too hard to act and it shows. In addition, Law is simply not believable as a working class cafe owner. Rachel Weisz also seems miscast, like she’s trying out for a boozy, foul-mouthed role in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and vamps it up way too self-consciously. Wong’s weakness is his absolute need to cast beautifully looking people in his films and in this case it is the film’s fatal flaw. On a positive note, Natalie Portman is well cast a smooth talking con artist and the only one (aside from David Strathairn) who looks comfortable in her role. With her curly, light brown hair and brash demeanor, she reminds one of Karen Mok in Wong’s Fallen Angels (1995).

Like Wim Wenders before him, Wong has created a road movie about America as seen through the eyes of an outsider. And like Wenders did with Paris, Texas (1984), Wong has enlisted Ry Cooder to score the film. He also recruited cinematographer extraordinaire Darius Khondji to work his magic. The New York scenes have a vibrant green, red and yellow look of the diner that Jeremy runs. The Memphis bar scenes are dominated by garish red neon that symbolizes Arnie’s self-imposed hell. One of Wong’s strengths has always been striking shots inserted throughout his films and this one is no different, like a stunning shot of a weathered, yellowed food order in the Memphis diner where Elizabeth works. Finally, in the Vegas scenes, glitzy neon lights and signs are beautifully reflected on automobiles.

However, all of this gorgeous imagery is wasted on a miscast film. My Blueberry Nights would most definitely work better with the dialogue turned off and Ry Cooder’s score and the various songs taking over. Wong’s casting for this film was clearly lost in translation and constantly takes one out of the film. This is shockingly unusual as his films are normally perfectly cast. While it is definitely not the worst film ever made it is a low point for Wong only because he has set the bar so high in the past.

Special Features:

“The Making of My Blueberry Nights” is your standard promotional featurette. Wong says that the film is based on a short film he made years ago and when he met Norah Jones in New York City, he decided to expand it into a film. Jones claims that there was no script when she first agreed to do the film but she trusted him. Wong talks about casting the other roles in the film and the actors speak about their characters.

“Q&A with Director Wong Kar Wai” was recorded at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City on April 3, 2008. He talks about working with singers, his impressions of New York and how the film evolved while he was making it. Wong speaks eloquently about some of the themes of his films and his working methods in this excellent, albeit too-brief, featurette.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

Finally, there are “Still Galleries” with evocative location scout snapshots and publicity photographs.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mulholland Falls

They say timing is everything and this certainly applies to the release and reception of movies. Case in point: Mulholland Falls (1996). Released a year before the very similar L.A. Confidential (1997), it was also a retro-neo-noir set in 1950s Los Angeles and featured a murder mystery leading to a vast conspiracy. However, Falls was promptly blasted by the critics and quickly disappeared from theaters while Confidential became the toast of critics and received award from all over the world. So, what went wrong? Falls featured an impressive cast of solid character actors (it had more name actors than Confidential) and a critically acclaimed director with Once Were WarriorsLee Tamahori as opposed to Confidential’s Curtis Hanson who had only done adequate B-movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994). Now that a few years have passed, Mulholland Falls has aged surprisingly well.

Set in 1953, the first image is one of a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb explosion. It is one of the enduring images from that era and one that hangs like a shadow over the characters and events in the film. Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) leads a group of four cops known as The Hat Squad who do things their own way, like bullying out-of-town gangsters and dropping them off one of the deserted stretches of Mulholland Drive (aka “Mulholland Falls”) as a deterrent for setting up shop in L.A. One day, Max and his crew – Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri), Eddie (Michael Madsen) and Relyea (Chris Penn) – go out to a construction site to investigate the murder of a beautiful woman (Jennifer Connelly) who has been literally pressed into the ground. There is a shock of recognition on Max’s world-weary face. His connection to the dead girl and his subsequent investigation into her murder leads to a dangerous conspiracy involving the United States government and a mysterious General Timms (John Malkovich), head of the Atomic Energy Commission.
After the success of Once Were Warriors, Tamahori was offered many projects before finally choosing Mulholland Falls. Michael Mann was originally attached to the film but left at some point. One of the first things that is so striking about this film is the gorgeous attention to detail with vintage cars, suits and music from the period. This is enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of the legendary Haskell Wexler who evokes classic film noir in every frame of Mulholland Falls. Tamahori assembled an impressive crew including the likes of production designer Richard Sylbert, who worked on Chinatown (1974) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Wexler, who won an Academy Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and worked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) amongst others.

Tamahori says that people within the industry were surprised that he hired veterans like Sylbert and Wexler and realized that Hollywood was being run by young executives: “it’s a kind of youth-oriented thing, and—blast, blam, blam, blam, make the action for the under-25-year-old crowd. Do this, do that, you’ve got to be on top, you have to be fast. They see age as being old and boring.” Mulholland Falls consciously eschews this approach for a slower paced, more thoughtful vibe that harkens back to films made before music videos and their kinetic editing changed the way films were made in Hollywood.

With his gravelly voice and weathered good looks, Nick Nolte is well cast as the conflicted tough guy, Max Hoover. If there is one significant problem with the film it is the lack of screen time given to the excellent members his crew. They are given little time to develop their characters with only Chazz Palminteri edging out the others. Palminteri plays Nolte’s best friend and second-in-command. He’s the most sensitive of the bunch (although, that’s not saying much) because he’s seeing a female psychiatrist and this makes him the voice of reason, often curbing Max’s more self-destructive impulses. Tamahori met Burt Reynolds and Tom Arnold for the role of Coolidge but felt that Reynolds was a little old for the role.
Little time is devoted to developing the chemistry between them. The filmmakers should have used The Untouchables (1987) as inspiration although, the crucial difference is that in Brian De Palma’s film we see how Eliot Ness and his crew come together while in Mulholland Falls, Max and his group have been together for some time. Pete Dexter’s screenplay doesn’t do a good enough job making us believe that they are a tight-knit crew. That being said, the chemistry between Nolte and Palminteri begins to kick in towards the end of the film but it is too little, too late.
The casting of actresses Jennifer Connelly and Melanie Griffith is right on the money as they both have the voluptuous body type common to that era, especially Connelly who has curves in all the right places and that were also used to great effect in The Rocketeer (1991). Sadly, Connelly and Griffith aren’t given too much screen time but this does give Connelly’s character something of an ethereal, mysterious quality that is quite haunting and works well in the film.

John Malkovich essays yet another one of his cultured bad guy roles as General Timms. The first meeting between him and Nolte is good as we watch two different acting styles bounce off each other. Timms tries to dazzle Hoover with philosophical double speak while the cop plays dumb but subtly applies pressure on the scientist. What is so interesting about this scene is what is not being said. Watching this film again, I was struck by the eclectic cast featuring the likes of Treat Williams, Andrew McCarthy, Bruce Dern, Daniel Baldwin, William Petersen, and Rob Lowe.

For the most part, Mulholland Falls was not well received by critics. This is probably best summed up by Peter Stack’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle where he wrote that the film “falls flat a lot. The best of the old noir detective dramas had lively pacing and crisp tough-guy dialogue. The movie seems at times like an exercise in slow motion and in dull, cumbersome writing.” However, Roger Ebert felt that it was “the kind of movie where every note is put in lovingly. It’s a 1950s crime movie, but with a modern, ironic edge.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan highlighted Jennifer Connelly’s “haunting presence,” and felt that the film combined “a vivid sense of place with a visceral directorial style that fuses controlled fury onto everything it touches.”
There is somber tone that hangs over Mulholland Falls and the ending is refreshingly downbeat (unlike the very classic Hollywood ending of L.A. Confidential) evoking Chinatown of which it was most often compared to. Like any good noir protagonist, Max’s shattered life stays shattered. The murder has been solved but at a terrible cost to his own life. While Falls is a flawed film and certainly not as strong as Confidential, it is not an awful film by any means and actually has a lot of merits. It is definitely worth another look if you haven’t seen it since it debuted or if you’ve never seen it before.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

DVD of the Week: Rogue

After the surprise success of his debut film, Wolf Creek (2005), horror fans eagerly anticipated Greg McLean’s next film about a killer crocodile entitled, Rogue (2007). However, a rival croc film, Primeval (2007), stole its thunder, tanked at the box office, and Dimension Films delayed Rogue’s release as a result. After several delays, the studio gave the film a way-too brief theatrical release in North America (in only 10 theaters) and unceremoniously released it on DVD which just goes to show that timing is everything.

Pete McKell (Michael Vartan) is a travel writer for a magazine who takes a wildlife river cruise with a group of tourists in the Northern Territory of Australia. On the way back, Kate (Radha Mitchell), the boat’s tour guide and skipper, spots a distress flare. She makes the decision to check it out, which you just know is a really bad idea. To make matter worse, Kate takes the boat through forbidden sacred territory. The once beautiful-looking scenery now becomes increasingly foreboding. Predictably, the boatload of tourists gets stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a monster crocodile methodically stalking them. It doesn’t take long for our group to start bickering amongst themselves while Kate tries to maintain order and keep everyone calm.

McLean puts us immediately at ease with stunning cinematography that captures the gorgeous countryside while we get to know the characters in the boat. If he ever decides to give up feature films, he could make a lucrative career making nature documentaries. McLean dwells on the wild life and their environment which does a good job of drawing us into this world. You really get the sense that he loves this country and cares about these characters. It is a clever tactic that establishes a false sense of security, lulling us into complacency so that when the first scare comes, it really has an impact. McLean also pays close attention to the film’s soundscape with all kinds of eerie noises that evokes another atmospheric Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), as he gradually lets the darkness seep in.

Rogue is a very well-written film – unusual for the horror genre – as some of the characters impart fascinating croc lore about their territoriality. The dynamic between the characters is also very believable and they react exactly as you would expect in an extreme situation such as this one. It’s great to see a genre veteran like Radha Mitchell, who has done science fiction (Pitch Black) and horror (Silent Hill), revisit the latter with Rogue. She brings an authenticity that grounds the film in reality. She also has a kind of charisma that is very appealing and the camera picks up on it.

The croc effects – a mix of CGI and animatronics – are quite realistic looking and much more believable than the ones used in both Lake Placid (1999) and Primeval. It’s an impressive beast in size and ferocity to say the least. McLean knows how to wring every bit of tension from a scene, most notably, a harrowing sequence where several tourists attempt to cross a river via a suspended rope. After the graphic violence of Wolf Creek, McLean shows surprising restraint with the gore and makes up for it with the intensity of the croc attacks. Rogue is one of those rare horror films with heart and that gets you emotionally invested in the characters while still trying to scare the pants off you. It also reminds us of the harsh reality of Mother Nature and just how much we are at her mercy.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/producer/director Greg McLean. He mentions that he wrote the screenplay 11-12 years ago and has always been fascinated by the Northern Territory of Australia. McLean says that his goal on this one was to make an old fashioned monster movie with a killer croc. He points out bits of footage that was reinstated for the DVD. The director also points out the various locations they shot in and the challenges of shooting in extremely hot weather with all kinds of insects, snakes, and, of course, crocs around them. McLean speaks with an obvious passion for this film and does an excellent job taking us through his experience of making Rogue.

“The Making of Rogue” covers various aspects of the film in excellent detail: casting, principal photography, special effects, editing, and the score. McLean was inspired by a news story from the 1970s about a large, territorial crocodile that attacked several fishing boats over the course of a year. The filmmakers wanted the film to look like an epic journey and really capture the untouched beauty of the Australian countryside. This documentary shows the massive undertaking of making Rogue out in the middle of nowhere and under extreme conditions. This is more in-depth than your usual promotional featurette and fascinating as hell.

“Welcome to the Territory” consists of three mini-documentaries that basically takes segments from the Making Of doc and expands on them. The first one is on the special effects for the film’s most spectacular death scene. Next, is a look at the music for the film. We see McLean working with the film’s composer and how they approached complementing the visuals. Lastly, there is one about the Northern Territory where they shot most of the film. It’s a beautiful yet quite dangerous place. The filmmaker shot in a very remote area. Also included is more vintage newsreel footage of an actual rogue crocodile in the ‘70s.

“The Real Rogue” takes a look at how the visual effects team shot footage of actual crocs in order to create a realistic looking and moving animal. We excerpts of handlers dangling food a few inches away from a hungry croc.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cutter's Way

One rainy night Richard Bone's (Jeff Bridges) car breaks down in an alleyway. He spots a large, mysterious car in the distance. A man dumps something into a garbage can. At first, Bone thinks nothing of it and proceeds to meet his best friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a nearby bar. Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who lost an eye, arm, and leg in the war, is an embittered shell of a man who lacks direction in his life. Bone is also stuck in a rut, selling boats for a mutual friend and hustling rich, beautiful women. He often stays at Cutter's house and is attracted to his friend's long suffering wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Insulating herself from a mundane existence with marijuana and alcohol, she is the only woman to have resisted Bone's charms.

The next day, a young girl is found brutally murdered in the same alleyway where Bone abandoned his car. He becomes a suspect. When Bone spots the man he thinks is the murderer in a parade later that day – the very wealthy local tycoon J.J. Court (Stephen Elliot) – Cutter begins to take an interest in the mystery that unfolds. His interest soon becomes an obsessive conspiracy theory that develops into a troublesome investigation with his skeptical friend and the dead girl's sister (Ann Dusenberry) along for the ride. Welcome to the world of Cutter's Way (1981).

Cutter and Bone's arduous journey mirrors the film's own struggle to be made. A friend of screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin told him about a man by the name of Paul Gurian who made money producing films and that he should send him a script. Fiskin did not hear anything from Gurian for awhile. Then, out of the blue, the producer called him. He told him that he had bought the book Cutter and Bone, that he would be out in Los Angeles in three days to visit him, and to buy a copy of the book. Fiskin was so broke that he stole a copy of the book (which he eventually returned) and read it. "The set-up's great, the characters are fine. But the last half of the book is an instant replay of Easy Rider (1969). You cannot make a film out of this," Fiskin said in an interview. Gurian agreed with the screenwriter's assessment and hired him to adapt the book.

Gurian got the studio, EMI, interested in financially backing the film with Robert Mulligan to direct and Dustin Hoffman to play Alex Cutter. However, a scheduling conflict forced Hoffman to leave the project. This prompted Mulligan to leave as well. To make matters worse, EMI pulled their money once Mulligan and Hoffman were gone. Gurian took the film to United Artists where the studio's vice president, David Field, became interested in backing it. U.A. would never have looked at Cutter and Bone had then president Dan Rissner not suffered a serious heart attack thus giving Field the ability to greenlight projects. It was a hard sell because no one at U.A., except for fellow executive, Claire Townsend, wanted to make the movie.

Gurian gave Fiskin a list of directors and Ivan Passer's name was the only one the screenwriter didn't recognize. Passer, a Czech émigré, got his start as Milos Forman's screenwriter on Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Fireman's Ball (1968) before fleeing the country in 1968 when the Russians invaded. Fiskin and a couple of United Artists executives screened Passer's Intimate Lightning (1966) and agreed that he was the man to direct Cutter and Bone. The director was already involved with another project but after reading Fiskin's screenplay he wanted to do it.

Despite Field's support for the film, it seemed like United Artists did everything in their power to prevent Cutter and Bone from being made. The initial budget was supposed to be $3.3 million but then Field found out that U.A. would only make the movie if the filmmakers were able to reduce the price tag to under three million dollars. Passer and company played along. Then, U.A. said that the film needed a big name star for it to succeed at the box office. The studio liked Jeff Bridges' work in the dailies for Michael Cimino's opus Heaven's Gate (1980) and said that they would only make Cutter and Bone if the filmmakers got the actor to be in their movie.

Fiskin figured that they would never get the talented actor and that his salary would be too much or that his schedule would conflict or he would not like the screenplay. As it turned out, Bridges wanted to do it. Passer cast actor John Heard after seeing him in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello. United Artists wanted a movie star to play the role of Cutter but Passer insisted on Heard and the studio relented. Finally, Passer cast Lisa Eichhorn as Mo after she dazzled everyone at an audition with Bridges.

Cutter's Way takes its time introducing the cast of characters and the world they inhabit. The film gradually lets you get to know them and their daily routine. Jeff Bridges proves once again that he is one of the best American actors working in film today. He portrays Bone as a man afraid of commitment, content to do little but fall back on his pretty boy looks to bed any woman who crosses his path. As one character tells him, "Sooner or later you're going to have to make a decision about something." This could be the underlying thesis of the whole film: making decisions and taking a stand about something.

John Heard's Alex Cutter is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He desperately wants to get involved in something, anything to stop living life in a bottle of alcohol. And so, he latches on to the murder mystery with the ferocious tenacity of a pit bull. Heard plays Cutter like a character straight out of a Tom Waits song. His performance, complete with raspy voice and cynical outlook on life, recalls many of the down-on-their-luck losers that populate Waits' songs.
Lisa Eichhorn's Mo is a complex character torn between being loyal to her physically crippled husband and falling in love with the emotionally crippled Bone. It is this conflict that makes her a tragic figure and Eichhorn is able to show this struggle in her tortured facial expressions and body language. All three actors vividly breathe life into their respective characters creating the impression that they exist beyond what we see on the screen, that in some way we already know them. This is the real strength of Cutter's Way. The actors and the brilliant screenplay create a world that comes to life before our very eyes.

Director Ivan Passer also deserves credit for creating this world. From the haunting opening shot of a parade, caught in dreamy slow motion, filmed at first in black and white and then, as the credits fade in and out, it gradually becomes colour, Passer draws the audience into his absorbing drama. Cutter's Way contains strong visuals thanks in large part to Jordan Cronenweth's excellent cinematography. Nothing is spelled out for the audience, even right up to its conclusion.

Unfortunately, United Artists did not like the ambiguity in what was then titled Cutter and Bone. When U.A. executives, David Field and Claire Townsend, the film's biggest supporters, left for 20th Century Fox, the studio felt that they would get no credit if the film succeeded and no responsibility if it failed. So, there was no interest in it. Cutter and Bone became a victim of internal politics. U.A. senior domestic sales and marketing vice president Jerry Esbin saw the film and decided that it did not have any commercial possibilities. Passer remembers that U.A. "didn't do any research. I was supposed to have two previews with a paying audience. It was in my contract." The filmmaker did not see his film with a paying audience until the Houston Film Festival many weeks later.

If Passer felt that United Artists was not behind Cutter and Bone (they spent a meager $63,000 on promotion) it did not help that when it premiered in New York City in late March of 1981 all three daily papers and the three major network critics gave it bad reviews. Perhaps the most damning one came from Vincent Canby in the New York Times which was the nail in the coffin for Cutter and Bone in the minds of U.A. executives. The studio was so freaked out by the negative reviews that they planned to pull the film after only a week. Little did they know that the next week Richard Schickel in Time, David Ansen in Newsweek, and New York City's weekly newspapers would write glowing reviews urging everyone to see the film.

The positive reviews prompted United Artists to give Cutter and Bone to their "art" division, United Artists Classics, where they changed the film's title to Cutter's Way (thinking that the original title would be mistaken by audiences for a comedy about surgeons) and entered it into a number of film festivals. At Houston's Third International Film Festival it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (John Heard). A week later it was given the prestigious closing feature slot at the Seattle Film Festival. With a new ad campaign in place, Cutter's Way re-opened in the summer of 1981 in Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City. Word of mouth helped the film turn a profit.

Do we support Cutter's obsessive conspiracy theories or Bone's refusal to get involved? In doing so, Passer has created an intelligent film about decisions that poses an interesting question: is life merely a collection of random events or is everything planned out? The answer is left up to the audience and the characters to decide. By letting the audience actively participate in the mystery, Cutter's Way is a cinematic oddity in this age of explicit thrillers that offer superficial characters and predictable conclusions.


Jim Emerson has written wonderful article about the film's haunting opening credits over at his blog. Here is another great blog review of the film. Here's a nice review of Jack Nitzsche's haunting score (thanks to Ned Merrill).


SOURCES

Jameson, Richard T. "Passer's Way." Film Comment. July-August 1981.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Drugstore Cowboy

Filmed in "beautiful" Portland, Oregon, Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is an unapologetic look at the life of a junkie during the early 1970s. As the film opens we see the protagonist, Bob (Matt Dillon), flat out on a stretcher in a speeding ambulance. He stares at the camera and his voice narrates, "I was once a shameless full-time dope fiend." It is this confessional voice that sets the tone for the rest of the film as Bob takes us back in time to show how he reached his current state. He was the leader of a gang of drug users who robbed drugstores to maintain a constant high.

The gang follows a family mentality with Bob acting as the street smart "father," and Diane (Kelly Lynch) as the "mother" who keeps everyone else in line. "I loved her, and man, she loved dope," Bob remembers. Rick (James Le Gros) is the "son," a quiet guy who clearly views Bob as a father figure. Nadine (Heather Graham) is Rick's wife, the "daughter" figure, and a recent addition who is forever trying to prove her worth to the others. Director Gus Van Sant introduces this "family" in a great opening scene where they work together to rob a drugstore in broad daylight. Each one enters the store, apparently by themselves, each casing the place, waiting until Nadine provides the signal – a faked epileptic fit that draws everyone's attention, leaving Bob free to sneak behind the counter and take the drugs. The plan is flawlessly executed with Diane even having the time to steal a paperback novel from a rack.

As the group flees the scene in a getaway car, Bob shoots up in the back seat and Van Sant uses this action to enter Bob's head and show us the worldview of a junkie. As the drug takes hold Van Sant has the real world fade into the background and a dreamy, surreal world filled with floating syringes, spoons and houses complete with a hypnotic, monotone rap of a stoned Bob narrating the action: "Upon entering the vein, the drug would start a warm edge that would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion that began at the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft, lofty appeal." It's a dreamy logic that seems to suit Bob's own little world perfectly. In fact, much of the film is seen from Bob's viewpoint. Van Sant takes the basic ritual of shooting up and focuses in on the primary components: extreme close-ups of the pills, a lit match, and a syringe sucking up the drugs off a spoon. It is almost like we are preparing for a fix right along with Bob.


And yet for such an accurate portrayal of the highs of drug use, oddly enough Van Sant does not show Bob or any of his crew in the throes of withdrawal, especially when, later on, he decides to go straight. While some of the negative aspects of this kind of life are shown, like people dying, the film refuses to show what happens when one tries to stop using drugs, unlike, say Trainspotting (1996), which does it so well and with such frightening intensity. What sets Drugstore Cowboy apart from other films about drug users is nice little touches like Bob’s superstitions: dogs, hats on beds and, strangely enough, looking at the back of mirrors. It is the hats, however, that is the most important hex and one that comes back to haunt him later in the film.

Matt Dillon does an excellent job of portraying someone high on drugs, in particular the scene where Bob has taken speed. The actor nails all of the fidgety mannerisms, like clenching his job repeatedly. In Dillon’s long, illustrious career, this performance is his most relaxed and naturalistic. He gives Bob a cool, confident swagger that seems so right for the character. Dillon presents Bob as a smart person, always thinking ahead, always one step ahead of the law. He's smart because as he says, "I just know, from years of experience, the things to look for, the signs . . . All you gotta do is look for the signs." It is this ability that keeps him on top of his game. Dillon's voiceovers are particularly effective in filling in the gaps and giving little tidbits of junkie culture. There is no wall between him and the camera and there are no artificial mannerisms in his performance.

The rest of the "family" is also excellent, in particular Kelly Lynch who is the perfect foil for Dillon. Diane’s role in the crew is evident in the way she deals with the other members. For example, when steps in and breaks up a heated argument between local speed-freak David (Max Perlich) and Bob, it is like a mother breaking up a fight between two little boys fighting over a toy. James Le Gros is a greatly underappreciated character actor who dabbles in mainstream films like Point Break (1991) and Zodiac (2007), usually in small roles, and meatier parts in independent films like Living in Oblivion (1995) and Scotland, PA (2001). In Drugstore Cowboy, he plays Bob’s inexperienced right-hand man and protégé. At first, Rick seems a little on the dumb side as he speaks simply but there’s more to him. Le Gros spends a lot of time watching Bob and learning as becomes evident later on. Rounding out the crew is Heather Graham as Nadine. Before her performance as Rollergirl in Boogie Nights (1997) launched her career on a mainstream level, she had a memorable turn as Agent Cooper’s doomed love interest in Twin Peaks. She’s good as the hopelessly naive and inept member of the crew and her sole purpose is to be a pain in Bob’s ass but you kind of feel sorry for her at times.

James Remar brings a real sense of humanity to what could have been a stock cop role. He usually plays bad guys (48 Hrs.) or disreputable types (The Warriors) and gets to show off his range with Gentry in Drugstore Cowboy, playing a cop trying to bust Bob and his crew. At first, he comes across as a typical antagonist, always giving Bob hard time but something happens over the course of the film. As Bob attempts to kick his drug habit, Gentry becomes a more sympathetic figure. He recognizes that Bob is trying to make an honest go of things and supports him in his own way.

What would a film about junkies be without a cameo by the king of them all, William S. Burroughs who plays a defrocked priest. Van Sant uses Burroughs as a sort of prophetic figure who delivers a sage monologue on the future of drugs: "Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict, in the near future, right wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus." The legendary writer apparently wrote all of his own lines and it shows, as these words seem like vintage Burroughs, coming right off the pages of Naked Lunch. His presence also helps give the film an authenticity.

In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, This is a drug movie made from the inside out, by people who understand the life . . . Van Sant gives his material shape and an invigorating, syncopated style. It keeps coming at you in surprising, dazzling ways. It jazzes you.” David Ansen, in his review for Newsweek magazine, wrote, “Van Sant has an unforced lyrical touch and a feel for low life that's free of both condescension and macho romanticizing. Every minute of Drugstore Cowboy is vital and alive, even when its junkie protagonists seem barely to be breathing.” In his review for the New York Times, Stephen Holden praised Dillon’s performance: “Mr. Dillon's Bob is alternately appealing and appalling. Even though he devotes all his energies to crime and addiction, he brings a certain swaggering savvy to his tasks.” The film helped put Dillon back on the map, leading to a string of memorable film roles in mainstream fare like Mr. Wonderful (1993) and There’s Something About Mary (1998) and indie films like To Die For (1995) and Beautiful Girls (1996). It also gave Gus Van Sant’s career a considerable boost and he went on to make his best film to date with My Own Private Idaho (1991).

Drugstore Cowboy is a film filled with strong performances, and stunning cinematography as Van Sant mixes Super 8mm with 35mm, using time lapse photography with elements of surrealism to create a world as seen through the eyes of a junkie. Van Sant does not judge his characters, he merely presents them as they are and leaves it up to the audience to make their own minds. Even though the film deals with depressing subject matter it never dips down the murky level of a film like Sid and Nancy (1986), but rather offers a ray of hope at the end as Bob tries to come clean and kick his habit. It won't be easy for him, but at least he has a chance to give it a shot.