Monday, December 22, 2008

Bad Santa

Tired of all the sappy Christmas movies that play endlessly on the ABC Family and Lifetime channels around the holiday season? Feeling jaded and cynical about the yuletide spirit? If so, then Bad Santa (2003) is probably for you. Like The Ref (1994) before it, Bad Santa is an anti-Christmas movie. They both gleefully thumb their cynical noses at the fake cheer and manufactured mirth of the holiday season. However, where The Ref betrayed its own misanthropic tendencies with a tacked-on feel-good conclusion, Bad Santa does not make the same mistake. As a result, it had a modest run at the box office and garnered decent reviews before going to DVD. Fans now have three options: the theatrical version, a raunchier, longer unrated version, and the preferred, Director’s Cut.

Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is a department store Santa who hasn’t hit rock bottom – he lives there. When he’s not puking in alleyways or passing out on and off the job, Willie and his partner (and head elf), Marcus (Tony Cox), break into the safes of the stores they work at and then split with the spoils. However, this successful scam hits a snag when they arrive in Phoenix, Arizona and Willie’s vulgar behavior alarms the skittish department store manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) and shrewd head of security Gin (Bernie Mac). Willie’s life undergoes even more changes when he hooks up with a friendly bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham) with a Santa fetish and a little kid (Brett Kelly) who really believes that Willie is Santa Claus.

Bad Santa wastes no time establishing its cynical worldview with Willie’s jaded opening voiceover that is hilarious in a darkly humorous way. The Director’s Cut removes the voiceover and so we aren’t manipulated as much on how to feel or what to think. It’s rare that a comedy revolves around such an unlikable central character. Willie is no Scrooge — he’s gone way beyond that into a whole new and surreal realm. Willie doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He pees his pants while on the job (because he’s just too hungover to move), he drinks constantly and he’s indifferent or downright mean to children — both on and off duty.

Billy Bob Thornton is something of a revelation in this role. He is constantly dirty and disheveled without a trace of vanity (he admitted to being drunk while making this film). It quickly becomes obvious that the actor committed completely to putting this disgusting character on screen. And yet, there is a charming quality to Thornton that doesn’t make you hate Willie completely. In fact, most of the time you are laughing out loud at his crazy antics or the things that he says to others. The film works so well because Thornton really makes the material work and makes you believe in his character. I’m not a huge fan of the man’s work but he’s really good in Bad Santa.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by excellent supporting cast that features Tony Cox (Me, Myself and Irene) as Willie’s long-suffering partner and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as the bartender with a heart of gold. There is also John Ritter (in his last live-action role) as the perpetually nervous and anal-retentive manager, and the always-reliable Bernie Mac as the no-nonsense department store detective. They all play well off each other and are given moments to showcase their talents.

Also of note is Brett Kelly who plays Thurman Merman, the little kid that befriends Willie — whether he wants him to or not. Kelly is excellent as a stocky rich kid who’s ostracized by other kids his age because of his weight. He is also left alone at home with his barely there grandmother. Kelly has really good comic timing as demonstrated by the funny scenes with Thornton where he pesters him with a constant stream of questions about Santa and the North Pole. Thurman seems oblivious to Willie’s nasty responses and immune to his vulgar mean-spiritedness. Eventually, this behavior wears down Willie to the degree that he not only tolerates Thurman’s presence but actually finds himself caring about something.

If you decide to rent or watch Bad Santa, I would recommend the Director’s Cut which also features an audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman. The filmmaker claims that he never thought he’d live to see this cut be released. He also candidly slams the cluelessness of test audiences that resulted in his original version being altered. For the pivotal role of Thurman Merman, the studio wanted to cast a good-looking child but Zwigoff was adamant about picking a child that looked more real, like the ones in the original The Little Rascals. In one of many amusing asides, Zwigoff admits to never having seen Lauren Graham in her popular television show The Gilmore Girls. This is a refreshingly candid track as the two men talk about their difficulties with the screenplay at great length.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “But I didn't like this movie merely because it was weird and different; I liked it because it makes no compromises and takes no prisoners. And because it is funny.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis said that Bad Santa was “a Christmas movie that Lenny Bruce could love.” In his review for the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Mr. Thornton is an ace at playing cantankerous, mouthy jerks in love with the sound of their own voices, men who lack the restraint or sense of shame to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Thornton has a dozen ways to hit bottom, none of which ask for the slightest audience sympathy. (Perhaps only Mickey Rourke of Barfly could have given a comparable interpretation.)”

Bad Santa is unrepentant in its own politically incorrectness and never betrays its original, crass, jaded worldview with a cop-out happy ending. The Director’s Cut certainly reinforces this and is 11 minutes shorter than the Unrated version with at least seven scenes now missing in action. The results are a mixed bag. While some scenes that were cut out of this version should have been left in, the film does feel tighter now trimmed of any excess fat. There is still a hint of redemption for Willie but on his own terms. It is truly amazing in this day and age that a film backed by a Hollywood studio would have the balls to bite the hand that fed it by making an uncompromisingly uncommercial effort like Bad Santa.

For more on the Director's Cut, check out an interview with Zwigoff, here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

DVD of the Week: Burn After Reading

As they did with Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers followed up the Academy Award-winning crime thriller No Country For Old Men (2007) with a comedy, in this case Burn After Reading (2008), a farce set in Washington, D.C. The Coens have adhered to the pattern of following a dramatic film with a comedy for most of their career – Raising Arizona (1987) followed Blood Simple (1985), for example. Whether it’s by design or just to amuse themselves, they seem to like mixing up genres.

CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is being taken off international duty because of an alleged drinking problem and is relegated to a desk job in Washington, D.C. Understandably upset, he quits and decides to write his memoirs. Meanwhile, his wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a U.S. Treasury agent. A compact disc with a copy of Cox’s memoirs is found at a fitness center by one of its employees, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a dimwitted fitness nut. He teams up with a fellow employee named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) to blackmail Cox. She plans to spend her half of the money on completely unnecessary cosmetic surgery.

With the exception of Brad Pitt, the cast plays their roles fairly straightforward, so much so that you’d hardly know it was a comedy. As a result, Pitt all but runs away with the film as a clueless goofball who thinks he knows what he’s doing but is in way over his head, which is never a good thing in a Coen brothers film. The scene where Chad meets Cox is a lot of fun to watch if only to see the fitness trainer try to match wits with the ex-CIA man. Pitt squints suspiciously and tries so very hard to appear competent. He delivers a wonderfully entertaining comedic performance that seems at odds with the rest of the film. Much like Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers (2004), Pitt deserves to be in a better Coen brothers film.

The problem with Burn After Reading is that it’s populated by vain, greedy and generally unlikable characters that only care about themselves. And in case you missed the point or message of the film, two CIA bureaucrats (Rasche and Simmons) sum everything up for us, like Marge in Fargo and The Stranger in The Big Lebowski (1998) only in those cases it was done for poignant effect. In case of Burn After Reading it simply spells everything out just in case you nodded off partway through or lost interest in what was happening. As they demonstrated with Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers, the Coens are not successful with films in a contemporary setting (even No Country was a period piece). By their high standards, Burn After Reading is a disappointment.

Special Features:

“Finding the Burn” takes a brief look at the making of this film. George Clooney points out that it’s not a political film per se but rather involving “people doing dumb things.” Both Ethan Coen and actress Frances McDormand say that the film is about middle-aged people while Ethan jokingly refers to it as their “Tony Scott, Bourne Identity kind of movie. . .without the explosions.”

“DC Insiders Run Amuck” examines the origins of the film. The Coens wanted to write a film for specific actors in mind and so it was contingent on getting the likes of Clooney and Brad Pitt. Joel Coen says that Pitt embraced his “inner knucklehead” on this one. Basically, the idea was to transform Clooney and Pitt into two “suburban dorks.”

Finally, there is “Welcome Back George,” which takes a look at how the Coens like to work with Clooney and always want him to play idiotic characters or “dopes” as the actor calls them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Twenty Actresses Meme

Jeremy over at Moon in the Gutter and Ibetolis over at Film for the Soul tagged me with this meme that originated over at Film Experience Blog. The goal of this meme is to select twenty of your favorite actresses. So, here are my faves in no particular order:

Kate Winslet (fave role: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)



















Diane Lane (fave role: Unfaithful)



















Winona Ryder (fave role: Edward Scissorhands)



















Jennifer Garner (fave role: 13 Going on 30)



















Irene Jacob (fave role: The Double Life of Veronique)













Thora Birch (fave role: Ghost World)













Kelly Macdonald (fave role: Two Family House)












Mary-Louise Parker (fave role: Weeds)



















Michelle Williams (fave role: The Baxter)



















Jennifer Jason Leigh (fave role: Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle)



















Isabella Rossellini (fave role: Cousins)



















Julie Delpy (fave role: Before Sunrise)













Barbara Stanwyck (fave role: Double Indemnity)



















Laura Dern (fave role: Wild at Heart)



















Juliette Binoche (fave role: Blue)



















Nicole Kidman (fave role: Birth)













Monica Vitti (fave role: L'Avventura)













Pam Grier (fave role: Foxy Brown)



















Michelle Yeoh (fave role: Supercop)



















Maggie Cheung (fave role: In the Mood for Love)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese's truly great films have all had a personal touch to them. One only has to look at films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) to see a real vitality and energy to the action on-screen. It is these early films that convey a real sense of someone intensely in love with film — which may be due in part to the fact that Scorsese and his cast and crew were just starting out. Mean Streets, in particular, is a visceral, intimate experience that is just potent today as it was when it first came out.

Mean Streets takes the notion of the American success story and reduces it to almost nothing. The characters that inhabit this film are small-time hustlers and punks with no real direction in life and no future. Set in the "Little Italy" neighborhood of New York City, we are introduced to most of the main characters in the opening moments of the film. Each one is given his own little scene in order to showcase his distinct character-defining obsession. We first meet Tony (David Proval), the order-obsessed owner of a local bar, as he throws out a junkie and then chastises his bouncer for his lack of initiative. Next, is Michael (Richard Romanus), a serious looking loan shark who ineptly tries to sell a man a shipment of German lenses only to be told by the customer that they are actually Japanese adapters. This is followed by the explosive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a happy-go-lucky punk who gleefully blows up a mailbox and then runs off. Finally, we meet the film's protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young man who is embroiled in conflict — both personal and external.

Charlie is torn between two worlds: the static isolation of his uncle's environment and the constricting chaos of Johnny Boy's lifestyle. He must make a choice between the two, while trying to exist in both. Conflict occurs when these two worlds inevitably collide and Charlie is left to pick up the pieces. This revisionist approach is in stark contrast to the traditional gangster film which almost always follows a curve that traces the criminal's rise and eventual fall. However, Scorsese disrupts this notion by having no rise and leaving the fall unresolved. The only thing that is truly alive and vital in the film is Scorsese's camera which dollies and tracks all over the place with incredible energy and enthusiasm which is truly infectious.

The source of this intensity stems from Scorsese's personal identification with the material. At the time, the young filmmaker was writing the screenplay for Mean Streets (then known as Season of the Witch) and he had just finished wrapping up Boxcar Bertha (1972) for B-Movie guru, Roger Corman. Scorsese showed the rough cut of the latter to famous actor/director John Cassavetes who told him, "you just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit. You're better than that stuff, you don't do that again." Cassavetes asked Scorsese if he was working on something that he really wanted to do. He showed him the Season of the Witch script and Cassavetes urged Scorsese to work on his own material and not on others.

So, the aspiring auteur began to seek financial backing for his script which initially began as a continuation of the characters in his first film, Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1968). Scorsese changed the title to Mean Streets, a reference to famous pulp writer Raymond Chandler, and sent the script to Corman who agreed to back the film if all the characters were black. Scorsese was so anxious to make the film that he actually considered this option, but fortunately actress Verna Bloom arranged a meeting with potential financial backer, Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the musical group, The Band. Taplin liked the script and was willing to raise the $300,000 budget that Scorsese wanted if Corman promised, in writing, to distribute the film.

According to Scorsese, the first draft of Mean Streets focused on the religious conflict within Charlie and how it affected his worldview. "See, the whole idea was to make a story of a modern saint, a saint in his own society, but his society happens to be gangsters." Along with fellow writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese wrote the whole script while driving around "Little Italy" in Martin's car. They would find a spot in the neighborhood to park and begin writing, all the while immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of what would eventually appear on-screen. Mean Streets for them, was a response to the epic grandeur of The Godfather novel. "To us, it was bullshit," Martin remembers, "It didn't seem to be about the gangsters we knew, the petty ones you see around. We wanted to tell the story about real gangsters." It is this rejection of the often pretentious and operatic approach of The Godfather films that really makes Mean Streets distinctive. It was one of the few gangster films, at the time, to use a personal, almost home-movie view of its subjects. The settings and situations are so intimate and personal that you almost feel embarrassed, as if you are intruding on someone's actual life.

Once the financing was in place, Scorsese began to recruit his cast. Robert De Niro had met the director in 1972 and liked what he had seen in Who's That Knocking. De Niro was impressed with how the film had so accurately captured life in "Little Italy" where he had also grown up. Scorsese offered the actor four different roles, but he could not decide which one he wanted to portray — they all had interesting aspects to them. After another actor dropped out of the project, Scorsese cast Harvey Keitel in the pivotal role of Charlie. Keitel's first film was also Scorsese's debut with Who's That Knocking and as a result, the two already had a rapport. This may explain why the director ignored the fact that the actor had little experience, and instead opted for a certain amount of rawness and a familiarity with the subject matter that Keitel possessed. Scorsese's gamble paid off and Keitel's strong performance is one of the many highlights of Mean Streets. He manages to convey the inner turmoil that threatens to consume Charlie's character as he struggles to save everyone around him and ends up saving no one.

Keitel was also responsible for convincing De Niro to play Johnny Boy. "I didn't see myself as Johnny Boy as written, but we improvised in rehearsal and the part evolved." This improvisation also resulted in some of the most memorable scenes in the film, including the back room conversation between their two characters where Johnny Boy explains to Charlie, in a rather humorous fashion, why he has no money to pay off his debt to Michael. It is also incredible to see how much energy De Niro instills in Johnny Boy — the embodiment of the film's frenetic force. He is the unpredictable element in Charlie's otherwise, structured world. Whenever Johnny Boy is on-screen the camera mimics his furious pace that absolutely bristles with intensity. Scorsese reinforces this energy in an early scene where Johnny Boy enters Tony's bar to the strains of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones. Even though the entrance is captured in a slow motion tracking shot, De Niro's character is so energetic that not even this technique can slow him down.

The whole cast was prone to improvising dialogue and Scorsese only encouraged them more by creating a very collaborative atmosphere to the whole shoot. This provided actors like Keitel room to grow and learn their craft. "Mine was a gut, root, raw experience of trying to express myself, and express the character of Charlie in Mean Streets, and trying to discover what it meant to express yourself in a character. I was learning my technique, learning how to apply it. Marty and I always discussed a scene, and usually he trusted me to do what I had in my mind to do." This trust resulted in a great performance from not only Keitel but the whole cast who transformed into their characters effortlessly.

Keitel was not the only actor who felt like he could make his character his own, the whole cast was encouraged to personalize their roles. Richard Romanus, who played Michael in the film, remembers that Scorsese "allowed you to flesh out the character. Even if you were in the middle of a scene and something came up that was organic, he wouldn't dismiss it. He would respond to it, and he would probably include it. To me, that is his great gift. He's an actor's director." This approach created a fun environment for the cast and crew to work in and allowed them more opportunity to be creative. As a result, Scorsese, as he put it, "kept pushing the limits of the budget and drove everybody crazy. But that was the only thing we could do because the more we got down there, the more fun we had and the more we realized the atmosphere we wanted to get." To his credit, Scorsese and his crew achieve this effect with smoky, dimly-lit bars for his characters to inhabit and an amazing classic rock soundtrack to compliment the proceedings. There are several moments in the film where the actors are laughing at something and it seems like they are genuinely enjoying the moment and the experience of making this film which only enhances the enjoyment of watching it.

One of the real joys of Mean Streets is the way Scorsese's camera captures the action. The camera is restless and frantic as it moves in tight, narrow spaces that lead to dead ends. This is done to convey the destiny of the characters. They are full of energy, but are going no where in life. In Mean Streets, Scorsese also used a hand-held camera to create a jerky, off-balance effect that conveys the sensation of disorientation. There is no centre of power. No other scene demonstrates this effect more than the famous pool hall brawl where Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Tony go to collect some money from the owner. A fight breaks out when Johnny Boy's bravado insults the owner. Scorsese uses a hand-held camera to convey the constant confusion of the fight. The camera darts and weaves all over the place, following one fight for a while before shifting to another brawl in an indiscriminate fashion. This effect raises the fight to a frightening level as the audience is drawn right into the middle of the pool hall melee.

We are in as much danger as the characters and this adds an element of realism not seen in traditional gangster films. The combatants in Mean Streets are not easily identified and separated, but instead everything is mixed up and obscured to duplicate the spontaneity of the ensuing chaos that constitutes a real brawl. The violence has no meaning or nobility and no one becomes a hero or succeeds as a result of using excessive force. After the pool hall fight is broken up, the conversation continues as if it never happened. The fight served no purpose and achieved no real end, except to enliven the characters' mundane existence for a few minutes. Mean Streets excels in its realistic portrayal of violence that goes so far as to implicate the viewer in the spectacle, as the pool hall fight scene illustrates. The camera, and by extension, the viewer enters the fracas, which creates a sense of danger not only for the characters but for the audience as well.

Mean Streets opened at the New York Film Festival to good reviews and good business. It did so well that Scorsese wanted to show it in Los Angeles where, despite favorable reviews, it promptly flopped. However, Mean Streets began to gradually find an audience and has since become an influential and much imitated film amongst up-and-coming independent filmmakers who identify with the low-budget exuberance of Scorsese's film. Even Scorsese himself returned to the same neighborhood, only with greater command of his craft and on a bigger scale with Goodfellas (1990). One only has to look at indie films like Laws of Gravity (1992), A Bronx Tale (1993), and Federal Hill (1995) to see that Mean Streets still continues to inspire filmmakers more than twenty years after its release.

Friday, December 12, 2008

DVD of the Week: Bottle Rocket: Criterion Collection

Bottle Rocket (1996) saw the auspicious debut of a uniquely talented filmmaker with his own distinctive cinematic worldview. Wes Anderson made a very personal film with several of his friends starring in it, most notably brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, who would go on to have very successful careers of their own. Owen co-wrote Bottle Rocket with Anderson and it is really their shared vision. They would collaborate on several other films, most significantly Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but Bottle Rocket is where it all began.

Dignan (Owen Wilson) helps his friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) “escape” from a mental hospital (he doesn’t know that his friend was there voluntarily) and once they are on the road, Dignan reveals his 75 year plan for them. Part of it involves becoming criminals and they practice by robbing Anthony’s house before upgrading to a local chain bookstore with the help of their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave), who seems to have been included only because he has access to a car.

It becomes readily apparent that these guys are pretty lousy criminals. They may be adults but they still have a lot of growing up to do. Anthony’s kid sister, Grace, seems to realize this when she asks her brother, “What’s going to happen to you, Anthony?” She comes across as wise beyond her years, like one of the Glass children in a J.D. Salinger short story.

However, in Anthony’s case, he is looking for purpose in his life as he says at one point, “One morning over at Elizabeth’s beach house she asked me if I’d rather go water skiing or lay out and I realized that not only did I not want to answer that question but I never wanted to answer another water sports question or see any of these people again for the rest of my life.” He and Dignan come from privileged homes and are clearly rebelling against the boring lives they lead. They are looking for something else, which Anthony will only realize later on when he meets Inez (Lumi Cavazos).

Anderson does a great job of conveying what good friends Anthony and Dignan are early on by the way they banter back and forth, often talking over each other and easily getting on each other’s nerves as only close friends can. Anderson often plays this for laughs like in the scene where Anthony, Bob and Dignan go over their plans for the bookstore heist. Bob is playing with a handgun which annoys Dignan to the point where he dissolves their gang until Anthony acts as peacemaker. Their criminal ineptitude is also played for laughs when they rob the bookstore. These little jobs are Dignan’s attempts to impress Mr. Henry (James Caan), the local criminal mastermind who proceeds to show them how a real crook operates.

Owen Wilson plays the first of what would become the prototypical Anderson protagonist: irrepressible dreamers with immature streaks. One can see these qualities in Max in Rushmore and Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums. Dignan is a deluded optimist and Wilson makes him charming despite the crappy things he does to his friends. In contrast, Luke Wilson plays Anthony as the laidback realist who tries to keep Dignan grounded. A lot of the film’s humour comes from watching these two characters interacting with each other and watching the colourful supporting cast bouncing off of them.

Bottle Rocket is an excellent reminder of what an exciting decade the 1990s were for American cinema with the likes of David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and, of course, Wes Anderson emerging with fresh and exciting films that were all welcome relief from the safe, formulaic studio movies produced by Hollywood at this time.

Special Features:

Ever since Wes Anderson has been releasing special editions of his films through the Criterion Collection, fans have been hoping that Bottle Rocket would get deluxe treatment. The wait is finally over.

Disc one starts things off with an audio commentary by director/co-writer Wes Anderson and actor/co-writer Owen Wilson. They touch upon which scenes from the original short film survived into the feature. They also point out the re-shoots done after a disastrous test screening. Anderson and Wilson talk about how producer James L. Brooks helped them get Bottle Rocket made and taught them about screenwriting. It’s great to hear these two long-time friends talk about their first film.

On disc two there is “The Making of Bottle Rocket,” a 25-minute retrospective featurette that brings back key cast and crew members as they reflect on how the film came together and what they think of it now. There is footage from the short film and outtakes from the feature film. One gets the impression that James L. Brooks really mentored Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. Mainly, it is just great to see everyone from Luke Wilson to Kumar Pallana reminiscing about making this film.

“Storyboards” is a collection of Anderson’s original sketches for specific shots and scenes in the film.

“The Bottle Rocket Short” was shot in 1992 with only $4,000 on 16mm black and white film stock. Running only 13 minutes, it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993. Crappy copies have circulated on the Internet for some time and now fans can throw them away as this copy looks great. One can see the core ingredients of what would become feature film.

Also included are a collection of deleted scenes that include the source of Future Man’s name but mostly there are several scenes between Anthony, Bob and Dignan. There are some really entertaining and funny bits but one can see why this stuff was cut.

“Murita Cycles” features friend and collaborator of Wes Anderson and the Wilson family, Barry Braverman and a short documentary that he made about his father, a Staten Island bicycle shop owner that inspired the Bottle Rocket short film.

“The Shafrazi Lectures, No.1: Bottle Rocket” is a rather odd featurette with a guy reviewing the film. He compares it to films from the 1950s and talks about his favourite scenes.

“Anamorphic Test,” Originally, Anderson planned to shoot the film in the widescreen Panavision format and shot a test scene that actually looks really good. It’s too bad that they didn’t go that way.

Finally, there is a collection of photographs by Laura Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ mother. We see Anderson and the Wilsons planning the short film in 1992. There are shots of them at Sundance and also lots of great behind-the-scenes snap shots of them making the feature film.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

With the recent and unfortunate passing of Forrest J. Ackerman, I thought I would post a tribute to a classic science fiction film of the 1950s as a nod the kinds of films that Ackerman championed over the years.

There have been three remakes of the classic 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers — 1979, 1994, and 2007 respectively. This does not include the countless rip-offs and homages that have been made since the original graced the screen: some good (They Live), some bad (The Astronaut’s Wife) and some just plain ugly (Body Snatchers). By far the superior film in every way is the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, which continues to thrill and entertain while hopeless rehashes like Abel Ferrara’s film try in vain to recapture the power and the impact of its predecessor. What Ferrara and other imitators don't understand is that extravagant special effects and elaborate chases do not compensate for a non-existent story and weak characters — something that Siegel understood implicitly and wisely avoided in his film.

Adapted from Jack Finney’s excellent novel The Body Snatchers (1954), Siegel’s film is the best of all the versions made because it is the most faithful to the novel. The film begins with suspenseful music while the credits are shown over a sky filled with rushing clouds. After the credits end we meet a frantic Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) who is being questioned by the police. When a psychiatrist arrives Miles goes wild, until reassured that his story will be heard. What follows is a flashback account of how Dr. Bennell, with the help of an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) uncover a secret plot by aliens from outer space to take over the inhabitants of the small town of Santa Mira. It is a subtle invasion that at first glance does not appear to be that much of a threat, but as Miles and Becky soon discover, its implications reach far and wide, threatening not only close friends like Jack and "Teddy" Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), but all of humanity.

The film's inception lies in the hands of producer Walter Wanger who had read Finney's story in its original serial form in Collier's magazine. He felt that it would make a good low-budget film for Allied Artists and asked Don Siegel to direct. After convincing screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring to join the production, the film began to take shape. From the start, the three men shared the same approach to the material. Their intention was to have the film act as a metaphor for the way "the majority of people in the world unfortunately are pods, existing without any intellectual aspirations and incapable of love,” remembers Siegel. Originally, producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel wanted to shoot Invasion of the Body Snatchers on location in Jack Finney's model for Santa Mira, Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco. In the first week of January 1955, Siegel, Wagner, and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring visited Finney to talk about the film version and to take a look at Mill Valley. The location proved to be too expensive and Siegel and some Allied Artists executives found locations resembling Mill Valley in nearby Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, the Los Feliz neighborhood and in Bronson and Beachwood Canyons. However, much of the film was shot in the Allied Artists studio on the east side of Hollywood. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally budgeted for a 24-day schedule at $454,864 and the studio asked Wanger to cut the budget significantly. The producer proposed a shooting schedule of 20 days and a budget of $350,000.

Initially, Wanger considered Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotton, and several others for the role of Miles. For Becky, he thought of casting Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter, Vera Miles, and others. With the lower budget, Wanger had to abandon these choices and cast Richard Kiley, who had just starred in Phoenix City Story for Allied Artists. Kiley turned the role down and Wanger cast two relative newcomers in the lead roles: Kevin McCarthy, who had just starred in Siegel's Annapolis Story, and Dana Wynter, who had done several major dramatic roles on television but had not done a film.

The film was shot in 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18. The cast and crew worked a six-day week with only Sundays off. The production went over schedule by three days because of night-for-night shooting that Siegel wanted. The final budget was $382,190. Siegel used his lack of budget and unknown actors to create an authentic, natural feeling of normalcy to the proceedings. This became one of the strengths of the film. We so easily believe that this is Smalltown, USA that when the horror of what is really happening becomes apparent the shock is that much more significant. Siegel, a former special effects expert knew full well the pitfalls of relying too much on effects and not on the plot. "Instead of doing what so many science fiction and horror films do — spend all their money on special effects and put poor actors on the screen — we concentrated on the performers. The main thing about the picture, however, was that it was about something and that's rare." And so Siegel actually used the handicap of a small budget to his advantage by downplaying the special effects in favor of creating strong, three-dimensional characters and telling a suspenseful, often scary story.

The project was originally called, The Body Snatchers after the Finney serial. However, Wanger wanted to avoid confusion with the Val Lewton 1945 horror film with a very similar title. The producer was unable to come up with a title and accepted the studio's choice, They Come from Another World that was assigned in summer 1955. Siegel protested this title and suggest two alternatives: Better Off Dead and Sleep No More, while Wanger offered Evil in the Night and World in Danger. None of these were chosen as the studio finally settled on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in late 1955. Wanger saw the final cut in December 1955 and protested the use of the Superscope format. Its use had been a part of the early plans for the film but the first print was not made until December. Wanger felt that the film lost sharpness and detail. Siegel had originally shot Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Superscope look was a post-production lab process designed to make the film resemble the popular Cinemascope format.

The studio scheduled three previews for the film on the last days of June and the first day of July 1955. According to Wanger's memos at the time, the previews were successful. However, later reports by Mainwaring and Siegel contradict this, claiming that audiences could not follow the film and laughed in the wrong places. In response, the studio removed much of the film's humor, "humanity", and "quality", according to Wanger. He scheduled another preview in mid-August that did not go well. The studio decided to change the film's title to a more conventional science fiction one. In later interviews, Siegel pointed out that it was studio policy not to mix humor with horror. Both Siegel and Mainwaring were satisfied with the film as shot. It was originally intended to end with Miles screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. The studio, wary of such a pessimistic conclusion, insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to the movie that suggested a more optimistic outcome to the story which is thus told mainly in flashback. Siegel decided to shoot these scenes because he knew the studio would put them in regardless and if he filmed them then perhaps he could do a little damage control. Mainwaring scripted this framing story and Siegel shot it on September 16, 1955 at Allied Artists.

Siegel had problems with these sequences because as he saw it, they let "you know right away that something unusual is going on. If you start, as I wanted to, with McCarthy arriving in the town of Santa Mira, it reveals it slowly, we understand why McCarthy can't readily accept the terrible thing that appears to be happening. And the dramatic impact of the ending is reduced with the epilogue." Allied Artist also made Siegel cut out a lot of the humor in the film, but enough survived for the director's intended effect. "I felt the idea of pods growing into a likeness of a person would strike the characters as preposterous. I wanted to play it that way," Siegel remembers, "with the characters not taking the threat seriously. For example, if you told me now that there was a pod in my likeness in the other room, I would joke about it. However, when I opened the door and saw the pod, the full shock and horror would hit me and the fun would be gone. I wanted the people in the film to behave like normal people." Despite the studio's constant meddling, Siegel managed to create an impressive film whose impact has not diminished over the years.

In addition to these bookends, Wanger wanted to add a variety of speeches and prefaces. He suggested a voice-over introduction for Miles. While the film was being shot, Wanger tried to get permission in England to use a Winston Churchill quotation as a preface to the film. The producer also tried to get Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film. He wrote speeches for Welles' opening on June 15, 1955 and spent considerable time trying to convince Welles to do it but was unsuccessful and considered science fiction author Ray Bradbury instead but this also did not happen. Mainwaring eventually wrote the voice-over narration himself. The shorter version of the film was often rerun late at night on TV stations and one PBS showing in 1988. The full theatrical version was not widely released until 1978 when a remake was produced starring Donald Sutherland.

Like the novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a real marvel of pacing — achieved by gradually building the suspense, until the tension is too much. When Miles begins to tell his story, he starts by saying, “At first glance everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” While these words are spoken, Siegel presents an ordinary looking small town. Miles’ words are a teaser that makes us curious. We want to know what this evil force is, how it has taken the town captive, and why it seems so normal. It is this curiosity that draws us into the story. At first everything seems normal, but little details appear that suggest otherwise. Maybe it is the scared child running out in front of Miles’ car, the same boy who later claims that his mother is not his mother, crying, “Don’t let her get me!” These events are all warning signs that point to a larger, impending danger that threatens the small town.

By giving us only bits and pieces at a time, Siegel slowly begins to reveal the threat of alien invasion. People act normal enough, but something is slightly askew. People seem to have emotions, but as one character observes, “There is just the pretense of it.” Body Snatchers feeds on our fear of dehumanization and conformity — not only of ourselves, but our family and friends. A lot of the suspense in the film is derived from the fact that the characters must stay awake to remain human; to sleep means becoming a pod. Sleep is an important motif of the film, to the point where Siegel originally wanted it to be called Sleep No More, a reference to Shakespeare's play, Macbeth. For Siegel, sleep is a metaphor for conformity or the stifling of any intellectual curiosity. People often sleepwalk through their whole lives — never truly alive. And like Miles in the film, we are surrounded daily by these intellectual sleepers, being subtly invaded by their ever-growing numbers. Again, the studio stepped in and imposed a more science fiction/horror-like title which the filmmaker had no choice but to accept.

Despite the compromises Siegel was forced to make, his original intentions were not diminished. Through subtle references and imagery, he managed to convey his fears of conformity and present the solution to this problem in the form of its hero: Miles Bennell who embodies individuality and humanity — something that the pods (read modern industrial society) try to destroy. Unfortunately, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was not blessed with a big budget or big name stars and as a result critics and box office success ignored it upon initial release. Over the years film buffs and student groups began to take interest in the film and an ever-growing cult following developed leading to its rediscovery in the 1960s by French New Wave critics who declared it to be one of the best and most influential science fiction films of the 1950s, along side such classics as The Thing (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Them! (1954). American critics underestimated the widespread influence it has had since its initial release. A much imitated (see The Hidden amongst many others) film, it still manages to captivate and delight people today. The film has been read on many different levels, most often as a subtext for protesting Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare mentality or as an anti-Communist allegory. First and foremost it is an entertaining film that blends a science fiction premise with film noir and horror elements (in particular, its use of unusual camera angles, close-ups, sharp editing, music, and lighting). Despite two remakes, the original film is the superior version because its director, Don Siegel understood Finney’s novel and was able to translate its intent successfully to the screen without relying on flashy special effects and trickery like so many contemporary science fiction films.


For more tributes to Ackerman, check this one, this, and this, as well as an old blog-a-thon done in his name.

Friday, December 5, 2008

DVD of the Week: Fanfan la Tulipe: Criterion Collection

Adapted from a beloved French story dating back to an 1819 song, Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) is a French swashbuckling bodice-ripper, an action-adventure film as if written by Oscar Wilde – in other words, all kinds of amusing double entrendes and bawdy language.

“Once upon a time there was a charming land called France...” begins Fanfan la Tulipe’s cheeky voiceover narration that plays over shots of men dying during the Seven Years War. Right from the get-go, peasant soldier Fanfan (Gerard Philipe) finds himself in trouble as an enraged father rounds up a posse to find and punish the young man for messing around with his daughter. Fanfan easily escapes and avoids further reprisals by enlisting in the King’s army. Along the way, he meets Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida), a sexy fortuneteller with a habit of wearing low-cut dresses. He quickly proves his worth by taking on and soundly defeating half a dozen bandits from trying to rob from Princess Henriette, the King’s daughter no less.

Fanfan is a happy-go-lucky adventurer who constantly finds himself in situations way over his head and that are usually his fault, but he seems blissfully unfazed by adversity and authority. He is unapologetically rebellious and, as the DVD liner notes point out, the character anticipates Johnny Depp’s equally carefree rogue, Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Gerard Philipe plays Fanfan with just the right amount of irreverence and playfulness. And yet for all of his insubordination, when it counts, he risks his life saving a little boy from exploding kegs of gunpowder. Adeline is his ideal foil, matching him in the insouciance department. She is more than a match for him. The gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida is perfectly cast as the saucy fortuneteller who pines for Fanfan even though he’s only interested in the King’s daughter.

One of things that makes this film stand out is its incredibly witty screenplay. One typically funny exchange involves an army sergeant reprimanding Fanfan: “I’ll break you in. I had three horses killed under me,” to which our hero replies, “Alas, the best always go first.” This is an engagingly witty script with plenty of snappy dialogue and ribald language. For example, in one scene, from high above, Fanfan looks at Adeline’s ample cleavage and tells her, “There’s a lovely valley between those hills...May I fish on Adeline’s shore?”

Fanfan la Tulipe is a fun, action-packed tale with plenty of exciting duels, beautiful women, daring escapes and rescues, and pompous bad guys – everything you’d come to expect from a rip-roaring adventure the likes of which they just don’t make anymore. Largely unknown in North America, this snazzy DVD edition from the folks at the Criterion Collection will hopefully introduce this charming, irrepressible film to a brand new audience.

Special Features:

“Gerard Philipe: Star, Idol, Legend” takes a look at the actor’s career with new interviews from Philipe’s daughter Anne-Marie and his biographer, Gerard Bonal. Philipe made Fanfan la Tulipe at the height of his career. Along with vintage family photographs, Anne-Marie and Bonal document the man’s early life and how he got into acting. By 1945, Philipe was the biggest movie star in France. Fanfan was a big blockbuster of its time and while making it, the actor impressed everyone with his natural aptitude for stuntwork, especially considering he had never ridden a horse and done any swordfighting. This is an excellent look at the actor.

“Clip from Colorized Fanfan la Tulipe” features an excerpt from the 1997 colorized version of the film which gives it a vibrant look but still doesn’t surpass the black and white original.

Finally, there is a trailer.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? (aka A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon)

Every once in awhile you hear about how a Hollywood studio tried to sabotage one of their big budget efforts when it came in conflict with the film’s director and their vision. Case in point: Dune (1984) and Brazil (1985). However, studios also mess with small, independent films because they have much more leverage in which to bully the filmmaker. This is exactly what happened to William Richert’s adaptation of his autobiographical novel, Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?, first published in 1963 when the author was 19-years-old. It was subsequently manipulated by 20th Century Fox from a serious film for adults into a sex comedy for teenagers and called A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988). Richert has resurrected his original cut and released it through his own personal website to finally set the record straight, letting people decide for themselves which version of the film they prefer.

The 1980s saw several nostalgic stories of adult protagonists looking back at their misspent youth. Some, like Stand By Me (1986), were well-received. Others, like Stealing Home (1988), were not. Richert’s original film is definitely in the same vein as these motion pictures with a voiceover narration by the protagonist as an adult, reminiscing about a pivotal moment in his life spent in Evanston, Illinois. Johnny Mathis’ original song, “I’m Not Afraid to Say Goodbye,” plays hauntingly over the opening credits with a shot of a lonely janitor sweeping an elevated train platform. The film is set in 1962 Chicago and concerns a 17-year-old teenager named Jimmy Reardon (River Phoenix) who is trying to get money for college. He enlists the help of his best friend Fred (Matthew Perry).

Jimmy fancies himself a poet of the beatnik variety and is something of a shrewd-ish Lothario, making the moves on a college girl intended for Fred. Jimmy hangs out with wealthy teenagers definitely on the snobby side with too much time on their hands. He is also in conflict with his parents who want him to either go to an all-boys business school or stay at home – not a great choice for a teenager with a raging libido.

Jimmy has a girlfriend (sort of) named Lisa (Meredith Salenger) who likes to make-out with him but doesn’t like it to go much beyond that. They see other people but are obviously strongly attracted to each other. She is scared of losing control of herself around him and succumbing to his charms. Meredith Salenger is adorable as Lisa and I remember having a big crush on her character as a teen watching the film when it first came out. She has an innocent vulnerability that is endearing and sexy. She also has genuine chemistry with her co-star, River Phoenix. Their first scene together has a playful, sexual tension to it that has a ring of honesty for anyone who’s tried to make it with a girl like that. There’s an adolescent awkwardness that is authentic. Unfortunately, the studio version of the film played the sexual episodes for laughs and cheapened them with hit tunes from the ‘60s but this new cut has Elmer Bernstein’s original, elegant score playing over Jimmy and Lisa’s first encounter.

When Jimmy finds out that Lisa is going to college in Hawaii, he sees this as his way out of Evanston. All he needs is $88 for a plane ticket. Jimmy meets one of his mother’s friends, a sophisticated woman named Joyce (a surprisingly sexy Ann Magnuson) and she invites him for a drink at her place. She’s a seductive, independent woman who turns the tables on Jimmy, making all the first moves instead of him being the aggressor and this obviously appeals to him after having to do all the work with Lisa. It’s amazing what a difference music makes to a scene as Bernstein’s smoky jazz that plays over the seduction scene between Jimmy and Joyce gives it genuine heat where the studio cut played it much lighter in tone. Ann Magnuson, with her sexy, long legs and short red hair, resembles a young Shirley MacLaine except more alluring – she’s infinitely more interesting than the bland Lisa and you can see why Jimmy is attracted to her.

The omission of Richert’s narration in the studio cut makes Jimmy a more unlikable character. Its presence in this new version not only gives the film a more literary feel, but also puts us inside Jimmy’s head, providing motivation for what he does in the film and how he feels about it now, after all these years. His fatal character flaw is that he’s controlled by his libido and it gets him into all kinds of trouble. Lisa has romantic aspirations while all he wants to do is have sex with her. This was Phoenix’s first starring role and he is excellent as the contradictory Jimmy. His character writes poetry and yet he lacks sensitivity and empathy towards others. Phoenix expertly conveys Jimmy’s conflicted nature: the intelligent poet and the self-destructive womanizer.

A new scene included in this director’s cut has Jimmy showing compassion for his friend Suzie (Louanne) and also lost in a nightmarish part of Chicago that plays out like a condensed version of After Hours (1985). Louanne plays Suzie, the sarcastic best friend role, and the most interesting woman in Jimmy’s life. She’s funny, honest and not afraid to tell it like it is. If Jimmy was smart, he would go out with her. Louanne has little screen-time but she makes every moment count.

William Richert finished principal photography on his film in 1986 and after editing it, he screened the motion picture for Island Pictures, the financial backers. According to Richert, they liked it so much that it was felt that the film could succeed beyond the art house circuit. While filming, Phoenix had become a popular teen idol with the success of Stand By Me, which definitely played a factor in the decision to go for a wider release. Cary Brokaw was the original producer and financier of the film at Island only to be replaced by Russell Schwartz who took away Brokaw’s executive producer credit while simultaneously selling the distribution rights to 20th Century Fox. The film had a score composed by the great Elmer Bernstein, a new song performed by Johnny Mathis, and an original, end-credit song written and performed by River Phoenix – all of which were removed and replaced by the studio.

Fox decided to do a new advertising campaign. Richert says that he liked the existing campaign and did not want to delay the film’s release. Richert also claims that Schwartz told him that Island was filing for bankruptcy and had to sell the rights to Fox. Studio President Leonard Goldberg screened a copy of the film and felt that it had the wrong “tone” and was a “downer.” According to Richert, Goldberg told him that he was going to screen it for the publicity and marketing team to get their recommendations. Marketing Chief Cynthia Wick, the publicists and Goldberg called Schwartz and told him to get rid of Richert’s narration, Bernstein’s score, and turn it into what Richert cites as a “teen exploitation picture.” He says that they told him that Bernstein’s score was old-fashioned and would be a turn-off to audiences. They replaced it with a new score by Bill Conti and bunch of songs from the ‘60s.

According to Richert, the publicity division spent two years making changes and during this time, Phoenix had garnered great acclaim in films like Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast (1986) The director claims that the young actor’s agent and mother told him not to talk to much about Jimmy Reardon to the press. For example, at the time of the film’s release, Phoenix told the Globe and Mail newspaper that, “morally, I have problems with it,” and that the motion picture, “wasn’t meant to be a teenage film.” His parents also wanted Richert to remove the line, “Jimmy, I want to fuck you,” that Joyce says to Jimmy as she seduces him. According to the director, they were worried that it would offend their son’s fans. Richert argued that his fans wouldn’t be allowed in theaters because of the film’s rating and that the line was integral to the film. Phoenix’s parents said that they would not allow their son to promote the film with the line in it and Richert finally agreed to silence the line but not remove it. He thought that this would appease them but the actor’s mother still refused to have her son do interviews for the film.

Schwartz wanted to replace Richert’s narration with the actor son of Phoenix’s agent, but after hearing his voice on the phone, Richert asked Phoenix to do it and he agreed. The director defends his narration as being “designed to sound like the older novelist I was, remembering his youth...having an older voice provided a frame for River’s performance.” Richert remembers being invited, along with Island executives, to a screening room at Fox where a movie soundtrack expert presented various songs from the ‘60s that would be used in the film. Richert says that he was shocked and angered. Afterwards, he wrote an angry letter to executives at Fox. Richert claims that Chris Blackwell, owner of Island Pictures, called and told him not to protest in public or write any more letters as the studio would cancel the theatrical release and send it straight to video. However, if Richert played ball, Blackwell would keep the director’s version out of the Fox contract and he could release it after five years. Richert agreed and worked with the studio in an attempt to salvage his vision for two agonizing years.

The marketing department changed the name of the film to A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon because they claimed that nobody had ever heard of anyone named, “Jimmy Reardon.” Fox decided not to screen the film for critics in advance, which is generally perceived as a lack of faith the studio has in the film. According to Richert, Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called the studio and insisted on seeing the film. When she was denied, she got a copy from someone at Island and gave it a positive review. Richert claims that Fox tried to discredit Benson and in response, she wrote an even more positive article. After the opening weekend, a Times reporter interviewed Richert and Fox delayed the article and then killed it.

Jimmy Reardon was not well-received by several mainstream critics, including the Washington Post which wrote, “This is a case where the voice of the writer and the unexpectedness of the details he’s collected allow you to overlook the shoddy mechanics – even to consider them as part of the movie’s odd appeal.” Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, wrote that Richert “has done what he can to make this a more or less conventional coming-of-age story. In that he fails miserably, since conventionality is not his strong suit.” However, Rick Groen in the Globe and Mail praised Richert’s casting choices as “subtle as everything else in this intricate picture...Phoenix seems like a pint-sized Mickey Rourke, aping his elders.”

Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? exposes the class struggle that exists in the United States. Jimmy comes from a blue collar family and hangs out with teenagers from an affluent neighborhood in Chicago. Lisa thinks its “cute” when Jimmy takes her to the No Exit, a Beatnik cafĂ©, because she is slumming. For him, it’s a place where he can recite his poetry. She is going to a rich college in an exotic place (Hawaii) while he is going to a mundane business school that his father also went to. Jimmy’s rich friends never have to worry about money and don’t have a care in the world while Jimmy spends the entire film hustling for $88. Initially, he fits seamlessly with this crowd but as the film progresses, he gradually drifts away from them until his big confrontation with Lisa where he exposes her as a hypocrite and a phony right out of a J.D. Salinger story while also reconnecting with his hard-working father.

In the end, Richert went along with all of the studio’s changes so that his film would at least receive a theatrical release but in doing so gave the world a compromised version of his film that was very different than the one he had originally made. Fortunately, his version has now seen the light of the day and is available for anyone to see. Bernstein’s score and Richert’s original voiceover narration completely changes the tone and feel of the film, giving it a much more wistful, melancholic tone instead of the annoying teen sex romp vibe of the studio cut. Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? is a smart, engaging film filled with excellent performances by the entire cast under the rock solid direction of Richert who has crafted an excellent ode to a specific period in his past.

Ann Magnuson offers her views of the director's cut.

Here's the trailer for the director's cut: