Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman (1925 - 2008)

Legendary actor Paul Newman died on Friday after a long battle with cancer. He leaves behind a very impressive legacy that includes a diverse body of work. Newman had movie star good looks but wasn’t afraid to play complex, sometimes unlikable characters. Instead of providing an overview of his great career I thought I would talk about two films of his that stand out in my mind as prime examples of his remarkable range as an actor.

The Hustler (1961) is a significant milestone in Newman’s career. It not only launched him into the Hollywood stratosphere but also marked the beginning of an incredible run in the 1960s, with films like Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Newman became a movie star but acted like a character actor, creating one memorable character after another. Arguably, The Hustler is where he really came into his own, delivering a powerful performance as small-time pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson.

The Hustler is not so much about the game of straight pool as it is about the meteoric rise and fall of Fast Eddie. The prologue introduces him and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) as they hustle a bar with a handful of customers (including a young Vincent Gardenia as the bartender). Fast Eddie knows how to act like he’s an erratic pool player even feigning being drunk. But when it counts and when other people’s money is on the line, he makes the crucial shot to win it all. Fast Eddie’s goal is to play and beat the best pool player there is: Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fast Eddie is young, cocky and full of life but he meets his match with Fats who wears him down over 36 hours straight of pool, defeating him financially, physically, and, most importantly, spiritually. Fats breaks Fast Eddie who now has to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie with youthful exuberance. He is young, good-looking and plays a mean game of pool. Fast Eddie’s got the world by the tail, that is, until Fats beats him and he then stupidly (and arrogantly) hustles the wrong guys, getting his thumbs broken in the process. Over a short amount of time Fast Eddie ages emotionally, changing into a bitter, angry man. Newman does a great job of conveying this transformation as Fast Eddie begins to resemble one of the world-weary characters in Jack Kerouac’s Beat novels.

Fast Eddie’s salvation, in a weird sort of way, lies with a woman he meets at a bus terminal. Like Fast Eddie, Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) has been chewed up and spit out by life. She’s an alcoholic but seems to have more deep routed problems and Piper Laurie subtly hints at them. She plays Sarah like a classy barfly, although, she says that she’s an ex-actress turned college student. Sarah and Fast Eddie are drawn to each other because they are both marginalized figures. They recognize the damaged qualities in each other.

The Hustler went on to become a critical and commercial hit. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won for its cinematography and art direction. Many years later, Newman would revisit Fast Eddie in The Color of Money (1986) co-starring Tom Cruise and directed by Martin Scorsese. The Hustler flies in the face of traditional 9-to-5 suburban living by presenting characters who live on the fringes and who refuse to conform. They are deeply flawed and this is what makes them so compelling to watch. They are capable of being so cruel to each other and the film explores the origins of this behavior. Director Robert Rossen doesn’t judge the characters and instead leaves that up to the audience. Ultimately, the film is about winning and losing in America and the toll it takes on an individual as represented so powerful by Newman.

The Verdict (1982) came along at just the right time in Newman’s career. He hadn’t had a hit film in some time or a role that really challenged him (Absence of Malice being a notable exception). This would all change when he signed onto this troubled production. Based on the book of the same name by Boston malpractice lawyer Barry Reed, The Verdict was adapted for the screen by David Mamet and to be directed by Arthur Hiller. However, Hiller left due to “creative differences” and Jay Presson Allen was brought in to rewrite the script. She eventually left for the same reasons Hiller did and James Bridges came aboard to write and direct with Robert Redford starring. They couldn’t agree on certain story points and the project stalled. Newman and Sidney Lumet were hired and decided to go back to Mamet’s script.

Frank Galvin is an alcoholic lawyer who scans the obituaries for potential clients. He hasn’t won a case in ages, losing four of them in three years, and his office, like his life, are in shambles. It’s located in an old building where the elevator doesn’t even work. His friend, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) throws him a case that is a guaranteed moneymaker. Its two weeks away and Galvin hasn’t even read the file or met the client.

A pregnant woman goes into a hospital to deliver her third child. She is given the wrong anesthetic and lapses into a coma that kills the child. It leaves the woman brain dead with zero chance of recovery. Galvin figures that the case won’t go to trial and that the Archdiocese, who owns the hospital, will settle out of court. That would suit him just fine as he’s been reduced to an ambulance chaser deathly afraid of going to court. He talks to a doctor who’s willing to testify and figures the case is a slam dunk. Then, something happens to him: he visits the comatose woman and realizes that the offer the Archdiocese gave him isn’t enough, not by a long shot. This woman deserves justice. Someone needs to pay for what happened to her. Galvin feels compelled to stand up for her rights and decides, against his better judgment, to go to court, facing off against Ed Concannon (James Mason), a real shark who has infinite resources at his disposal and is not afraid to use them (and any other means) to win the case. Frank, on the other hand, only has Mickey.

Paul Newman is excellent as the alcoholic attorney who develops a conscience and is determined to win his case despite the odds. Even though his character is a lush, Newman doesn’t resort to the usual drunk stereotype or showy theatrics. Galvin is the kind of alcoholic that needs a drink to steady his hand and calm his nerves. Newman plays a flawed character but with noble intentions and his story is one of redemption, the underdog against the system as it were. James Mason is the ideal opponent for Newman. He’s got the Hollywood pedigree that is comparable to Newman’s and brings a rock solid gravitas to the role. There’s a scene where his character is coaching one of the witnesses and it is incredible to watch how he manipulates the poor man. Mason’s character has an air of supreme smug confidence that makes you want to see Newman win, if only to wipe that superior expression right off his face.

I think that one of the reasons Newman resonates so much with me is that he reminds a lot of my grandfather. They came from the same generation and shared a lot of the same values. In a weird way, watching Newman was almost like watching my grandpa. Paul Newman was an original and he will be greatly missed.

As you would imagine, the tributes to Newman have been flooding in. Here are three of my faves: Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, a nice collection of clips from YouTube, and a tribute written by Shawn Levy, who has completed a book on the actor that should be out soon.

Friday, September 26, 2008

DVD of the Week: The Godfather Collection: The Coppola Restoration

What can you say about The Godfather films that haven’t already been said? They have become a part of the cultural fabric with numerous memorable lines and scenes from the three films appearing in countless television shows and films, either reverentially or as some form of parody. This only illustrates how influential Francis Ford Coppola’s films have become over time. But we often forget how much of a gamble making the first film was with an untested director, a veteran actor that the studio considered to be box office poison, and a cast of relative unknowns. The gamble paid off and the film was incredibly successful, spawning two sequels. In the last few years, the first two films have undergone an expensive and painstaking restoration process in an attempt to bring them back to the way they were originally intended to be shown.

“I believe in America,” is the first line spoken in The Godfather (1972) and it is a key piece of dialogue in many ways. The film is one of the great American stories and is also one about family. The man who asks Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) for a favor in the classic opening scene is initially denied because he has shunned “the family” in the past. If he wants this favor done he has to pledge allegiance to the Don. This is the strength of the Corleone family: an infrastructure of people in positions of power and influence who owe them favors.

Trouble arises when the Don turns down an offer from the Turk to deal drugs. He goes to a rival mob family, the Tattaglias, who proceed to put a hit out on the Don. As a result, Michael (Al Pacino), one of the Don’s sons, becomes involved in the family business. This becomes the film’s great tragedy: Michael, who had been allowed to have a normal life outside of the family, is drawn into the business and this ultimately breaks his father’s heart.

The Godfather features an incredible cast with classic Hollywood veterans like Marlon Brando and Sterling Hayden and the new generation of Method actors like Al Pacino and James Caan. Everyone does a fantastic job but it is Pacino who really stands out, delivering a subtle, economic performance. Michael starts the film with a promising, legitimate future and ends it as a ruthless Mafioso Don who brutally and efficiently orchestrates his rise to the head of all of the mob families in New York City.

Fresh from the phenomenal success of the first Godfather film, Coppola followed it with Part II (1974), a sequel that many consider superior to its predecessor. However, over the years the two parts meld together so seamlessly and compliment each other so well that they really feel like one epic film. Of the two movies, Part II is much more ambitious as Coppola weaves two stories together: the rise of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and Michael Corleone’s consolidation of his empire. The film begins in the past as we see Vito as a young boy escaping certain death in Italy to America along with countless immigrants hoping to have a fresh start. It’s the archetypal Horatio Alger story of a boy who starts with nothing to become a powerful crime figure.

Michael is entrenched in Lake Tahoe, Nevada and in league with Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin) who has smoothed things over with the Gaming Commission so that the Corleone family can expand their casino empire in Las Vegas. However, Geary wants a larger cut for his troubles and also makes it known that he doesn’t like Michael’s family. Michael denies him the raise and refuses to pay the gaming license setting the wheels in motion for an inevitable conflict.

To make matters worse, trouble is also brewing with rival Miami gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) that Michael spends most of the film helping plan to put together an immense merger in Cuba that will create several lucrative casinos. This is done in conjunction with several other powerful businessmen that only serves to underline the corporatization of the Mafia and by extension, America. Michael realizes that in order to thrive and survive, he must think like a CEO of a large company.

There are so many classic scenes in this movie but the one that always sticks in my mind is when Michael tells Fredo (John Cazale) that he knows he’s the traitor within the family. He grabs his brother, kisses him and says, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” It’s the kiss of death as Fredo has gone against the family for the last time.

Any vestige of humanity that was in Michael in Part I is absent in Part II as Pacino’s portrayal is that of the calculated head of the Corleone family. His face is a cold, impenetrable mask that gives away nothing. It is like he is dead inside. It’s a tightly controlled, minimalist performance from an actor normally known for his explosive intensity. John Cazale is also excellent as Michael’s traitorous brother, Fredo, tired of being constantly passed over by his ambitious sibling. So, he betrays Michael as retribution and Cazale brilliantly conveys Fredo’s conflicted nature. He’s strictly small-time and his vendetta is so petty. And yet, its ramifications create huge ripples.

Gone is the warm, family vibe of Don Vito and in its place a more business-like way of doing things. Clearly, this transformation is a metaphor the corporatization of America. The important distinction that Coppola draws between Vito and Michael is that the former turns to a life of crime in order to support his family while Michael does it for the power and the money. The Godfather Part II ends on an anti-climatic note as Michael has achieved more power and eliminated all of his enemies but it is a hollow victory because he is dead inside.

Why? This is the question that many people asked themselves before and after seeing Coppola’s third (and hopefully last) installment of The Godfather saga. The first two parts were such perfect meditations on violence and the absolute corrupting effect of money and power on an individual. The way Part II ended was a darkly poetic conclusion that nothing else really needed to be said.

Apparently, Coppola thought otherwise and went back to the well one more time with Part III (1990). The problem is that he waited too long. Too many years had passed and he had changed as a filmmaker. Hollywood had changed and this is reflected in the movie. First and foremost is the casting: Andy Garcia? Bridget Fonda? George Hamilton?! They are fine actors in their own right but are they really acceptable substitutes for the likes of James Caan, John Cazale and Robert Duvall? Granted the first two played characters that died in Parts I and II but the miscasting of these actors speaks volumes of what is wrong with so many films coming out of Hollywood these days. Actors are cast for their marquee value and not because they are necessarily right for the role.

The film opens with a haunting shot of the Corleone’s Lake Tahoe compound. It is empty and desolate, a reflection of Michael’s heart. He is still trying to go legit and hopes to achieve this by being embraced by the Church and by giving generously to several charitable causes and organizations – as if he could buy his way into respectability. Michael is also looking for a successor: his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), a brash hothead just like his father, Sonny Corleone (James Caan). Vincent’s smoldering good looks and dangerous charisma attracts Michael’s daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) and they become romantically involved. Michael also has to watch out for rival gangster, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who has taken over Michael’s Mafia business and has a beef with Vincent who, in turn, wants to kill Joey and take over.

Much was made at the time of the casting of Sofia Coppola. While she certainly can’t act, she did her best under the circumstances (Winona Ryder dropped out due to illness and Sofia quickly stepped in to help out her old man) and let’s leave it at that. On the plus side, the whole debacle motivated Sofia to find her true vocation behind the camera as a successful director. Andy Garcia pulls off a pale imitation of James Caan’s Sonny. A lot of shouting and shoving guys around does not convey the true menace and toughness that Caan had. This becomes painfully obvious in a scene that Garcia has with Joe Mantegna and Al Pacino, both of whom easily upstage him. Poor Pacino looks lost in this movie. Being the consummate pro that he is, the veteran actor still rises to the challenge and shows the occasional glimmer of brilliance but he really isn’t given much to do as crazy as that sounds.

The Godfather Part III has the feeling of a paycheck movie because it lacks the passion of the first two parts. In the ‘90s, Coppola’s generation of Movie Brats had fallen on hard times. The Godfather Part III was Coppola’s attempt to regain box office clout within Hollywood but instead he was crucified by critics for his troubles.

Special Features:

The new transfers for The Godfather Parts I and II are stunning. It really is like seeing them for the first time. All of the murky, faded colors have been restored to their original glory while still retaining the warmth of the film stock. Gordon Willis’ then-controversial cinematography can finally be seen they way it was intended on these new discs. If you have the original box set, it is worth it to double dip if only for the restoration job on these two films.

Carried over from the original set are all of Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary tracks for the three films. On The Godfather one, he appropriately enough, starts off by talking about the film’s famous opening scene and how it was supposed to start with the wedding but a friend suggested he do something else. Coppola talks about how he organized the elaborate wedding sequence and shot it only 2-3 days! He talks about the pressure he was under by the studio and in read danger of being fired because they didn’t like what he was doing. Coppola points out where certain scenes were shot and points out things like the horse’s head being real. This is pretty solid track that we’ve come to expect from the veteran filmmaker.

Coppola’s contributes another excellent commentary for The Godfather Part II. Initially, he had no interest in doing a sequel and dealing with studio bureaucracy. He suggested Martin Scorsese for the job. The studio balked at this idea and accepted all of Coppola’s terms. The veteran filmmaker talks at length about the development of the Corleone family from Part I. Coppola also touches upon his love of improvisation and how he had the cast rehearse on location in Lake Tahoe. They improvised for a whole day in effort to get into character. Coppola is engaging and very articulate, delivering a top notch track that is well worth a listen for any fan of this movie.

Finally, there is Coppola’s commentary for The Godfather Part III. One of the heated debates the filmmaker had with the studio was over Pacino’s hair. He wanted Michael to look older and like a man in crisis, while the studio didn’t want to mess with Pacino’s distinctive looks. Coppola defends his casting of Sofia and feels that she delivered a “real” performance because she wasn’t an actor. He also addresses the scathing criticism she received as in fact an attack on him. Coppola explains that the film differs from the other Godfather movies because it is about the death of Michael Corleone. This is a solid track with good observations and analysis by Coppola — better than the film itself.

The rest of the supplemental material is spread out of two discs. Thankfully for those who did not buy the first box set all of the extras from it have been carried over with a whole other disc of brand new material.

The fourth disc features all the brand new material and starts off with “Godfather World,” which takes a look at how The Godfather films influenced popular culture, including parodies on The Simpsons and South Park and how it informed the characters on The Sopranos. All kinds of celebrities, from William Friedkin and Alec Baldwin to author Sarah Vowell who sing its praises with clips of shows and films that reference it.

“The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t” tells the story of how Hollywood had changed at the end of the 1960s with the demise of the studio moguls and the rise of the film brats, the first generation of film students who became filmmakers. One of them, Coppola, ended up being picked to direct The Godfather. This is an excellent look at how the director almost didn’t get the gig and why.

“...When the Shooting Stopped” examines the post-production phase of the first film. Coppola battled with the studio over the length of it. Executives initially did not like Nino Rota’s score for the film and samples of some of his original and revised cues are played.

“Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather” takes a look at the newly restored transfers for Part I and II and how they preserve Gordon Willis’ gorgeous cinematography. This featurette takes us through the restoration process, showing before and after examples.

The Godfather on the Red Carpet” is a forgettable featurette shot during the premiere of Cloverfield (2008) with various minor celebrities gush about the films.

“Four Short Films on The Godfather” features celebs citing which one they prefer, Part I or II. Another one has Richard Belzer, and the man who adapted the films for the stage, quote their favourite lines, which turns out to be quite funny. The third one sees Coppola talk about his love of cannoli and how made it into the film. Finally, Coppola answers the question about what happened to Clemenza in Part II and why he died.

The fifth disc starts off with “A Look Inside,” a feature-length documentary about The Godfather trilogy done when Part III was being made. As a result, a lot of the major players were interviewed. We see Coppola at work on this film with on-set footage of the director working with Pacino. We also see Coppola working on the script with author Mario Puzo. The doc then goes back to the first film with Coppola’s battle with the studio over casting Brando, Pacino, et al. with fascinating vintage screen tests and rehearsal footage. This is an excellent extra that goes into great detail.

“On Location” revisits key locations in the lower east side of New York where they shot parts of all three films and how they transformed them into various historical periods.

“Francis Coppola’s Notebook” examines how he adapted Puzo’s book into the first film. Coppola shows us his notebook that he used as his master document that he would constantly refer to. This featurette provides fascinating insight into the man’s creative process.

“Music of The Godfather” features an audio excerpt of a conversation Coppola had with composer Nino Rota about the music for the film. Also included is footage of composer Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) working on Part III. Francis talks about working with his father.

“Coppola and Puzo on Screenwriting” features the author talking about the origins of his novel while Coppola discusses adapting it with Puzo into the films.

“Gordon Willis on Cinematography” features the man talking his approach to the look of the film and the choices he made and why.

“Storyboards – Godfather Part II and Part III” allows you to see sketches for the look of both films and see how Coppola planned to shoot them.

The Godfather: Behind the Scenes 1971” is a vintage promotional featurette done at the time of the production of the first film. This is a fantastic snapshot of the times.

“The Filmmakers” are text biographies of key crew members.

Also included are 30 additional scenes from the four eras, spanning the entire trilogy. Much of this footage was inserted into the first two films when they were shown on television.

“The Family” gives you a handy organization chart for the Corleone family. You can see who everyone is and how they are related.

Finally, there are “Galleries” with trailers for all three films, stills, a collection of portraits of enemies of the Corleone family, and footage of the Academy Awards wins for the first two Godfather films.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Perfect World

In 1993, Clint Eastwood was enjoying a resurgence in popularity. His revisionist western Unforgiven (1992) won three Academy Awards and he received critical and commercial acclaim for his performance in the action-thriller, In the Line of Fire (1993). When he was approached with the screenplay for A Perfect World (1993), he was still making Line of Fire and doing promotion for the Academy Award nominations for Unforgiven. As a result, Eastwood anticipated only directing A Perfect World. However, when Kevin Costner came on board, he felt that Eastwood would be perfect for a smaller role in the film. Eastwood agreed because it wouldn’t require him to spend a lot of time in front of the camera.
A Perfect World is essentially a road movie set in Texas, 1963, three weeks before the John F. Kennedy assassination (an event that subtly hangs over the film with ominous foreshadowing) that recalls a simpler, even more innocent time. Thematically there is much more going on as the film wrestles with father/son relationships, child abuse and religion. The film begins with two convicts making a daring escape from prison only to take refuge in the neighboring suburbs. Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) is the more amoral one as he wants to kill the driver of the vehicle they commandeer to leave the prison. He then later tries to rape a woman whose house he breaks into. The other convict, Butch Hayes (Kevin Costner), steps in before things go too far with Pugh and the woman. Butch even convinces her little boy, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), to give him the handgun that was dropped during the ensuing scuffle.

This is a crucial moment because it establishes early on the instant bond between Butch and Phillip. Despite the circumstances, there is something about Butch that Phillip intrinsically trusts. What this is will become more apparent later on in the film. When a neighbor intervenes unexpectedly, Butch and Pugh kidnap Phillip and take off in a stolen car. Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) is called in to track down and bring in the fugitives. However, the Governor (Dennis Letts) assigns him a criminologist by the name of Sally Gerber (Laura Dern). He immediately resents her intellectual approach to the situation as opposed to her being a woman which would have been the norm at the time. He tells her, “This is not a penal escape situation, this happens to be a manhunt. And no talking around in circles is gonna fix all that.” Eastwood immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between Red and Sally which parallels the antagonistic relationship between Butch and Pugh. In no time at all, both conflicts will be resolved – one amicably, the other violently.
Like many of Eastwood’s characters, Red works on instinct and common sense. He resents authority figures and bureaucracy. He likes to be left alone and do things his own way. He sees Sally as an annoyance and a possible obstacle in his path. However, she clears the air pretty quickly, letting him know that she’s no pushover when she tells him, “But the one thing I won’t do is be your straight man so you can play hero to a bunch of morons who think you’re some kind of hillbilly Sherlock Holmes.” These lines deflate Eastwood’s traditional stoic lawman fa├žade and Red even offers a compromise of sorts. He encourages Sally to speak up and even though he might not agree with her theories, he’s willing to listen. A Perfect World proceeds to cut back and forth between Butch and Phillip’s developing friendship and the partnership between Red and Sally with the two storylines dovetailing finally at the film’s conclusion.

One of the hallmarks of Eastwood’s directorial efforts is an emphasis on character and the relationships that are created between them. This film is no different with John Lee Hancock’s superbly written screenplay. He would go on to adapt Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the film of the same name that Eastwood also directed in 1997. Sadly, they haven’t teamed up since but these two efforts are proof that they were a good match for each other. Hancock’s screenplay is filled with clever dialogue, like when Butch tells Phillip his theory about how a car is a time machine. Everything behind them is the past, everything in front is the future and inside the car is the present. “We’re time traveling through Texas,” Butch proudly proclaims. And in a way that’s what the film is doing – taking us back to a time that doesn’t exist anymore, to a time before President Kennedy was killed and when people were more hopeful and optimistic. His assassination (and that of other key figures of the 1960s) changed all that and we watch these events transpiring with the knowledge of how radically history will change in a few short months.

Hancock’s screenplay should also be noted for how well it develops the relationship between Butch and Phillip. Early on, Butch puts his trust in the boy by leaving him and Pugh in the car with the gun while he goes into a store for supplies. Pugh is able to get the drop on Phillip and take the gun away from him only to find out that there are no bullets in it. Butch assumed that this would happen and did not want to see Phillip get hurt. He may be a convict but he is not as heartless as Pugh. In turn, Phillip trusts Butch and stays with him even when he has the option, on a couple of occasions, to escape. Butch makes Phillip feel important and needed. Once they are on the road, having ditched Pugh, Butch refers to the boy as the navigator of the car. Later on, he asks Phillip to scout a car that he is interested in stealing. Butch doesn’t make Phillip feel like a passive observer but encourages him to become involved in their adventures.

Another significant factor in their friendship is Phillip’s lack of a father figure – something that Butch can also relate to and this provides common ground between them. Butch also speaks honestly to the boy. In one scene, when Phillip says that his mother told him his father would return, Butch replies that she lied and that he is never coming back. He doesn’t come out and say it but we sense that Butch knows this from his own personal experience. He also broadens the boy’s horizons by allowing him to experience things that his Jehovah’s Witness practicing mother would never condone, like drinking soda or wearing a Halloween costume and going trick or treating.
The relationship between these two characters works so well not just because of the excellent script but also because of the strong performances from Costner and T.J. Lowther. On the surface, Butch seems like one of Costner’s cocky, cool characters that he is often known for (i.e. Fandango, Silverado or Bull Durham), yet underneath lurks a dark, dangerous streak that surfaces when he sees a child being abused (the sure sign that Butch was probably abused when he was a child as well). Eastwood never lets us forget that Butch is a criminal. Costner is able to balance this element of danger with his trademark charm, like when he helps Pugh differentiate between a fact and a threat in a scene that is slightly threatening because violence is involved but is also funny as well because of the absurd tone. If Costner had any doubts about his character going into this film, Eastwood assured him that movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney weren’t afraid to play convicts and “have a bad side,” the director said, “and I had Kevin play a much harder edge than he has played.”

Lowther matches Costner’s performance with his superb take on a shy, young boy who develops a strong bond with his captor. He has such an expressive face which he uses to great effect during emotional scenes, like the internal conflict that becomes apparent when Phillip is given the chance to escape or stay with Butch. He has been cut off from everything and everyone he knows. He has little choice but to stay with the convict. Lowther doesn’t have too much dialogue but he is able to convey so much with a look and with his expressive eyes. He is more than capable of holding his own with Costner and their scenes together are well-played as we see their friendship develop over time. Eastwood was never interested in playing the sympathy angle with this friendship. He said, “You can’t have him treat the kid as if he’s paternal. I didn’t want it to come off like he’s cuddling the kid.” Above all, the director did not want the boy to “become precious. I wanted an un-Disneyesque kid.”

The script also provides motivation for Red’s personal interest in this case. We learn that the lawman put Butch in juvenile hall when he was young in an attempt to save him from his abusive father but it turned him into a career criminal. Red even paid off a judge so that Butch would stay in longer and so he feels guilty and responsible for what happened to him. Even though he never comes out and says it, one feels that Red wants to be the person to find Butch and try set things right. This backstory also explains the convict’s hatred for any kind of child abuse (Pugh hitting Phillip or a mother physically scolding her two children) and this manifests itself in a particularly strong way towards the end of the film when he and Phillip take refuge in a poor family’s house in what is surely the darkest scene in the film. After witnessing the father repeatedly abusing his little boy, Butch hits and threatens the father, his own rage threatening to boil over. A scene that started off warm and inviting turns into one that is uncomfortable and filled with tension as Phillip sees just how dangerous Butch can be. He ties up the entire family and we see how this affects Phillip as he observes the fear in the eyes of the mother and her child as Butch threatens the father repeatedly.

Phillip stops Butch before anything fatal happens to the family but the question lingers, was he going to kill them or just tie them up so that they couldn’t get away? Regardless, Phillip shoots Butch and runs away, setting the stage for the film’s climatic showdown between Red and Butch. Even here, Eastwood defies our expectations by drawing out the stand-off. The relationship between Butch and the boy continue to play out as he apologizes for shooting him. They have one last emotional conversation and because we have gotten to know these characters, we care about what happens to them. Their final moments are very touching, even moving. Costner and Eastwood finally have a scene together and this is what we’ve been waiting for the entire film. Not much is said between them and this is because we already know their motivations, Eastwood has been building to this moment. Visually, A Perfect World begins and ends the same with a slow motion shot of Butch lying in a field with money floating around him in the wind but by the film’s conclusion we know how and why he got there.

These sequences feel like something out of a dream and coupled with the leisurely pace probably didn’t endear it to mainstream audiences who were expecting another crowd-pleasing popcorn movie like In the Line of Fire. Critical reaction was mixed. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, “When John Lee Hancock’s script tries to get heavy and psychological on us, it just won’t wash – the movie is a pipe dream or it’s nothing.” Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times, praised Costner’s performance as “absolutely riveting, a marvel of guarded, watchful character revealed through sly understatement and precise details.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr praised Lowther’s performance “of few words, most of the important stuff being conveyed by glances ranging from shy to mischievous.” Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post, felt that the film’s protracted showdown between Costner and Eastwood was a “non-event. Yet almost despite itself, the scene works.” Finally, USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and criticized Costner’s performance: “He’s never quite believable, but he is tolerable in a role that demands a star presence.”
A Perfect World is closer to Unforgiven thematically as both films explore how the sins of the past affect the present with Eastwood playing tortured characters that try to fix old mistakes that had life-altering consequences but end up resolving things violently. In the case of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s character takes an active part in this resolution but with A Perfect World events spiral out of his control. This film is one of his most underrated efforts to date with its almost lyrical approach making it ripe for rediscovery by another generation of filmgoers receptive to an Eastwood film with complex relationships and a tragic conclusion reminiscent of more recent efforts like Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).


SOURCES

Carr, Jay. “The Flint of Clint.” The Herald. December 7, 1993.

Wuntch, Philip. “Dirty Harry Mellows with Age.” Ottawa Citizen. November 24, 1993.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Clive Barker's The Plague

There’s an old saying about the road paved with the best of intentions. Writer/director Hal Masonberg and his screenwriting partner Teal Minton tried to cross this road only to be run over both ways. You would assume that they were screwed over by a big Hollywood studio, and that does happen, but they’re first screwed over by a fellow filmmaker. All Masonberg and Minton wanted to do was make a horror film for adults with rich characters and that did not focus on quick scares. Instead, their film The Plague (2006) was taken away from them and tampered with by would-be filmmakers. The result is a sobering cautionary tale that is still awaiting a satisfying conclusion.
All children under the age of nine around the world have unexpectedly lapsed into an eerie comatose state. Ten years later and there is still no change and no answers as to what caused it or a solution. To make matters worse, every child that is born is also in a coma. Fresh out of prison, Tom Russell (James Van Der Beek) returns home to a small town in New Hampshire to reconnect with his brother Dave (Arne MacPherson) and his ex-wife Jean (Ivana Milocevic).

The children are housed in the local high school. There is an effective, unsettling shot of a school gymnasium filled with hospital beds of comatose teenagers. If that wasn’t creepy enough, at two specific times a day, they all experience brief violent seizures. One night, all the children wake up and become violent killers – a sort of Children of the Damned (1963) if the kids had hit puberty.

Tom teams up with Sam (Brad Hunt), Jean’s brother and they fight to stay alive while trying to figure out how to deal with these homicidal teenagers. The producer’s cut of The Plague proceeds to play out in predictable run-and-fight fashion aping, at times, George Romero’s first two zombie films while reducing genre veteran Dee Wallace into a screaming, ineffectual damsel in distress. Notably absent are any attempts at character development and instead we have a clumsily edited horror film with an emphasis on violence and gore.
The Plague originated from Masonberg and Minton’s decision to channel their love of horror films from their youth because they were dissatisfied with the direction the genre had taken in the last 15 to 20 years. They admired horror films that, according to Masonberg, “dealt with existing social fears.” With their screenplay, they wanted to examine the theme of children and violence in society. According to Minton, their intention was to take “a genre B-movie concept and finding the human story in it, giving it some depth and meaning, while still making something that is scary and exciting.” The two men also wanted to subvert expectations and pose questions that the audience would be left to answer. They were not interested in making a predictable slasher film but instead have most of the physical violence happen off-screen. Masonberg and Minton wrote a story about children and fear in society and how we react to it via the horror genre.

Masonberg and Minton spent five years shopping their script around to various studios but after the Columbine massacre and 9/11 happened, the material became too relevant for studio executives who liked it but wanted to play it safe. Finally, Clive Barker’s production company not only liked the script but wanted to make it into a film. Masonberg and Minton decided to go with Barker’s company because they were told that the company wanted to make smart, adult horror films, like the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998). Masonberg spent three years developing his film with Barker’s company, fine-tuning the script. According to the director, he was upfront and honest with them from the get-go about the kind of film he wanted to make.

Barker’s company hooked up with another production company called Armada Pictures who put together the financing to get it made. Despite being called Clive Barker’s The Plague, the film is not actually based on any of the man’s work and he never showed up on the set. Masonberg did meet with him before principal photography and found him always friendly and engaging but they never talked about the script. He got the sense that Barker didn’t know what was going on outside of his own personal projects. Masonberg was only given 20 days to shoot his film, ten days less than he was told was needed. He went to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada to shoot the film and found out that it had been pre-sold to Sony Screen Gems for domestic distribution. No one told him, however, if the studio wanted to make the same film that he wanted to but at that point there was a few scant weeks from shooting and he was in the middle of pre-production.

Before Masonberg started editing his film, one of the producer’s confided in him that a high-level executive in the production company wanted a very different film than the one that was shot. From what the director has since put together, the production company’s producers told him one thing and told Sony something else entirely. According to Masonberg, Barker’s producers told him that they weren’t going after a domestic distributor until after putting The Plague through the film festival circuit. He was also told that the film’s financing had come from foreign pre-sales which was not true. Sony had financed it from the beginning.
Masonberg was given six weeks to assemble a rough cut of his film, which was a very short period of time. He chose to have one of Barker’s producers with him in order to preserve the artist’s interests in the project. Masonberg actually started editing a week early and put together what he felt was the best cut he could with the time available. During this time he also incorporated the notes from 14 producers (?!) attached to the project. It was in Masonberg’s contract that after he delivered his cut, the producers would get their turn. According to Masonberg, Barker’s people promised that they would all work together and that The Plague did not have to be completed in six weeks. Halfway through the editing process, Masonberg sensed that something wasn’t right. According to the director, one of Barker’s producers became cold and distant. Masonberg conveyed his concern to his agent who told him not to worry.

Masonberg heard through Barker’s people that the artist did not like his cut of The Plague and felt that it was too slow and not gory enough. According to Barker's official site, here is what the man himself had to say:
Plague was a screw-up. I trusted the director and I wasn’t going to do to Hal what had been done to me by interfering producers over the years; I had pretty much decided I would let him have his way and if we had to have an argument it would be in the cutting-room about the way the picture was cut - so he shoots the picture and then is absent from the cutting-room most of the time. He did a tough job on a very tough schedule but there were things that I begged for at the end, for the producers to throw in some extra money towards Hal so that he could go back and do a couple of extra days’ shooting but they shook their heads and that was the end of that. It is not a movie I am pleased with or proud of - it feels compromised and Hal got in his car and drove away before the picture was even locked... There were some great scenes, there really are some great scenes and the central notion is wonderfully perverse and apocalyptic but I don’t think Hal served his script how Hal-the-screenwriter imagined it, it was not the movie I read and that Hal pitched to us, a real shame as the script was just so damn good.”

Masonberg was unable to contact Barker because his producers did their best to keep them apart. According to Masonberg, he was then kicked off his own film in the “most abusive and unprofessional way,” when Barker’s production company didn’t like his cut of the film. They ended up editing it from scratch and he remembers them telling him, “We’re cutting down the characters and turning this into a killer-kid film.” In addition, they did not want the director present at any screenings of the film. Masonberg was understandably devastated by this betrayal.

Things only got worse. Masonberg’s manager talked with an executive at Sony in charge of the film and was told that the studio owned it and did not see the need to have the writer or the director involved any longer. Masonberg was shocked at this reaction considering that he had not talked to anyone at Sony since the production began and had nothing but good relations with them on previous projects.

Getting kicked off his own film, a project that Masonberg had lived with for years, made him deeply depressed, angry, bitter, and sad. Fortunately, he had kept the film’s dailies on DVD and began to put together the version he originally intended before the whole post-production nightmare. He spent the winter up in Canada with his girlfriend editing The Plague on his Macintosh laptop using Final Cut Pro. He then came back to Los Angeles and created his own post-production facility in his living room. Masonberg spent eight more months editing the film and then taught himself sound design, visual effects, and how to create a temporary score.

Masonberg’s version sets itself apart from the producer’s cut right from the start with a quote from Ezekiel 5:17 that speaks of a plague that will rob people of their children. Masonberg’s cut opens the film up and lets it breathe like a fine wine. We spend more time with Tom and his brother Dave early on which gives more dramatic impact to what happens to Dave because we’ve become invested in the story and these characters, which was missing from the producer’s cut. Masonberg takes his time and lets us get to know the characters and the world they inhabit, slowly building the tension and dread.
One notices that the temporary soundtrack on the director’s cut is much more understated and less shrill and annoying than the producer’s cut. In a nod to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Masonberg’s version lingers on the television newscasts that appear sporadically throughout the film instead of relegating them to background noise as in the producer’s cut. The director’s approach gives us some perspective so that we know the plague is definitely a global phenomenon and as a result there is more at stake.

More problematic are nagging questions like why didn’t our heroes just leave town when they had the chance? Another dumb move sees the protagonists leave the only functioning vehicle unattended, after finding out that the killer teens have deactivated all the others, while they go retrieve two other survivors. In the last third of the film, our heroes take total leave of their senses and make a bunch of stupid decisions that is frustrating to watch. This isn’t entirely cleared up in the director’s cut.

There is a haunting shot early on of a deserted playground as Tom comes back home. Masonberg’s cut lingers longer on Tom’s arrival and establishes much more effectively a tragic atmosphere as his hometown has been rendered a ghost town because of the plague. There are also plenty of chilling images, including one of a little boy emotionlessly breaking a clergyman’s neck.

After the mainstream success of Dawson’s Creek, James Van Der Beek has been trying to shed his squeaky clean image from that show with edgy fare like the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Rules of Attraction (2002). In The Plague, he plays a man wracked with guilt and looking for some kind of redemption. Tom carries around a well-thumbed copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck that the producer’s cut clumsily tries to suggest that we should equate Tom with the book’s troubled protagonist Tom Joad. In Masonberg’s version, Tom comes across as more thoughtful than simply a stereotypical stoic man of action as he is presented in the producer’s cut.

The difference between Masonberg’s version and the producer’s cut is like night and day. For example, Sam is no longer a one-note sidekick and source of comic relief and Dee Wallace no longer has a shrill, pointless cameo. More of Bill Butler’s atmospheric cinematography is preserved and the transitions between scenes make more sense and are smoother in nature. It’s amazing what a difference editing makes and how Masonberg delivered a much more thoughtful, coherent version when given the opportunity to do so.
The Plague was released straight-to-DVD in September 2006 to generally negative reviews. According to Masonberg, his film was completely restructured and stock footage and new dialogue was added. Eight months later, Masonberg started his campaign to get his version of The Plague released because, legally, he can’t show his version of the film. He has created a website, made a mini-documentary called Spreading The Plague chronicling his ordeal, and gotten the word out on radio show, interviews with movie web sites, and pretty much to anybody who would listen.

It is rather ironic that Masonberg and Minton had no desire to make a mainstream horror film but rather something that would be more personal and character-driven and the one that was officially released was exactly the kind of film they didn’t want to make. Hopefully, word will get out about what happened to The Plague and people who care about preserving an artist’s original vision will let Sony know that Masonberg and Minton’s version should be given the chance to be seen.


SOURCES

Masonberg, Hal. “Spreading The Plague: The Perfect Hollywood Ending.”

Murphy, Carrie. “An Interview with Hal Masonberg.”

Thurber, Anthony. “10 Questions with Hal Masonberg.” FilmArcade.net. July 10, 2008.