Friday, January 30, 2009

DVD of the Week: Supercop: Two-Disc Ultimate Edition

Supercop (1992) is the North American name given to the third installment of the popular Police Story series starring international action movie star Jackie Chan. It was the first film in the franchise not to be directed by Jackie but instead by Stanley Tong. It was also the last film in the series to feature actress Maggie Cheung as Jackie’s girlfriend.

Chan Ka-Kui (Jackie Chan), or supercop as he’s known in his police department, volunteers for a dangerous undercover mission in mainland China to bust up an international drug ring. He is teamed up with Inspector Yang (Michelle Yeoh) and poses as a merchandiser of Foshan National Machinery Plant, while she poses as his sister, but not before displaying some of his fighting prowess sparring with the military academy’s top martial artist. This gives Jackie a chance to demonstrate his knack for physical comedy.

Yang gets to show off her impressive fighting skills when she saves Chan and Brother Panther (Yuen Wah) from being arrested. This allows the two of them to gain Panther’s confidence. He takes them to a compound where they meet his partner-in-crime, Big Brother (Ken Tsang), a ruthless psychopath. To further complicate things, Chan’s girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung in a thankless role) shows up on a vacation trip and assumes that he’s cheating on her with Yang.

What a “tough” choice Jackie has in this film – choose between the adorable Maggie Cheung and the beautiful Michelle Yeoh. It’s not really fair, though, because Cheung is relegated to a damsel-in-distress role while Yeoh is more Jackie’s equal, fighting and hanging off speeding vehicles. Did I mention that she spends part of a car chase hanging onto the side of a van? She is Jackie’s ideal foil as they banter and bicker like an old married couple – when they aren’t busy taking on numerous bad guys. Yeoh is also more than capable of handling herself in the action sequences. She matches Jackie at every step. Even when he’s hanging for dear life from a helicopter, she manages to jump onto a moving train with a dirt bike, which has to be seen to be believed. Even more impressive is that it’s done without CGI. She actually did it as the end credit blooper reel reveals.

Supercop is a fun, exciting and entertaining film that you would expect from Jackie Chan. It has all kinds of cheesy jokes, top notch fight scenes and insanely choreographed chase sequences, all done without the assistance of computer technology. In this day and age there is something refreshing about that.

Special Features:

The first disc features an engaging audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. He talks about the differences between this version and the Hong Kong version. For example, there were different opening credits and musical scores for each version. This begs the question, why wasn’t the Hong Kong version included on this supposedly “Ultimate Edition?” Logan points out the members of Jackie’s stunt-team and talks about their excellent timing in the action sequences. Logan provides brief biographical information on Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung as well as a wealth of production details on this very informative track.

The second disc starts with a real treat: “Flying High: An Exclusive Interview with Star Jackie Chan.” He talks about working with director Stanley Tong, who, at the time, was a young director. Jackie talks about working with Michelle Yeoh and speaks admiringly of her ability to do her own stunts. He also recalls how scared he was doing the helicopter sequence.

“Dancing with Death: An Interview with Leading Lady Michelle Yeoh.” She had a background in ballet and only started doing martial arts when she did her first action film. She learned something new on every subsequent film. Yeoh talks about how she got into acting and speaks eloquently and warmly in this engaging interview.

“The Stuntmaster General: An Exclusive Interview with Director Stanley Tong.” He talks about working with Jackie over five films and how they collaborate together. He talks about the challenge of doing the stunts in the film without CGI.

“The Fall Guy: An Exclusive Interview with Jackie Chan Bodyguard, Training Partner and Co-Star Ken Lo.” He recounts his first meeting with Jackie when he was bouncer and the action star asked him if he would like to work in films. they have worked together for 20 years.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tron

When Tron came out in 1982, it was intended to be a visually stunning parable against the abuse of powers by computers and technology. More than twenty years later, the film plays more like a nostalgic ode to the early 1980s, than a simple good vs. evil morality tale. Tron evokes the heady days when video games like Pac-Man, Defender and Centipede ruled the arcades and when it seemed like everyone owned a Commodore 64 or an Atari 2600 – the eight track of personal computing. It also anticipated the proliferation of CGI special effects and was not a big hit back in the day but its influence is widespread – it enjoys a small, but loyal cult following today.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a hot shot computer programmer turned computer hacker after being fired three years ago by ENCOM corporate big wig, Ed Dillinger (David Warner). To add insult to injury, the executive stole a series of video games that Flynn created and transformed them into wildly popular and profitable products, chief among them Space Paranoids – much to the young programmer's chagrin. Flynn can prove true authorship of the games but only if he can gain direct access to ENCOM's mainframe. Enter ex-girlfriend Laura (Cindy Morgan) and her current beau, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) – both disgruntled employees at ENCOM – who give Flynn the access he needs to find out the truth. However, the corporation's artificial intelligence, the tyrannical Master Control Program, discovers what Flynn is doing and uses a high tech laser to digitize the troublesome hacker and transport him inside the computer world.

This is where Tron really begins to get interesting as writer/director Steven Lisberger creates a flashy, neon-drenched world, a cybernetic version of Social Darwinism where lowly computer programs must participate in gladiatorial battles against the Master Control's ruthless minions. These involve games where opponents throw glowing discs at each other or, in another game, hurl a ball of energy at one another. If either one of these things hits someone, they are killed or de-rezzed – slang for deresolution. Even though the computer effects are primitive by today’s standards, back then they were considered ahead of their time. There is a certain clunky charm to the effects that makes Tron all that more endearing to its fans. The look of the computer world is all blacks and dark blues, which is in nice contrast to the vivid neon red and blue of some of the characters and vehicles that inhabit it.

Undeniably, the coolest sequence in the film is the light cycle race where Flynn, Ram (Dan Shor) and Tron take on three of the MCP goons. It involves futuristic vehicles made out of energy and that leave behind a solid trail that one uses to block in their opponent and destroy them. The action is fast-paced and exciting to watch with dynamic visuals. The computer world is beautifully realized in vivid detail that immerses one fully and is obviously a large part of the film’s appeal. Lisberger adopts a pretty simple color scheme of predominantly primary colors. Tron is one of those rare examples where style over substance works. The computer world that Lisberger and his team worked so hard to create is rich in detail. It also plays on our romantic notions of what really goes on inside our computers – not a collection of microchips and circuit boards but a vast world where programs fight each other for survival. It's no wonder that visionary science fiction writer, William Gibson once commented in an interview that the cyberworld in Tron is how he envisioned the cyberspace in his own novels.

The film’s genesis began in 1976 when Lisberger, then an animator of drawings with his own studio, looked at a sample reel from a computer firm called MAGI (Mathematical Applications Group, Inc.). At the time, he was researching technology in the late 1970s. Shortly afterwards, Atari came out with Pong and he was immediately fascinated by them. He wanted to do a film that would incorporate these electronic games. According to Lisberger, "I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind." He was frustrated by the clique-ish nature of computers and video games and wanted to create a film that would open this world up to everyone.

Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner borrowed against the anticipated profits of their 90-minute animated television special, Animalypmics to develop storyboards for Tron. They moved to the west coast in 1977 and set up an animation studio to develop Tron. Originally, the film was conceived to be predominantly an animated film with live-action sequences acting as book ends. The rest would involve a combination of computer generated visuals and back-lit animation. Lisberger planned to finance the movie independently by approaching several computer companies but had little success. One company, Information International, Inc., was receptive. He met with Richard Taylor, a representative, and they began talking about using live-action photography with back-lit animation in such a way that it could be integrated with computer graphics.

Lisberger and Kushner took their storyboards and samples of computer-generated films to Warner Bros., MGM and Columbia – all of whom turned them down. Lisberger spent two years writing the screenplay and spent $300,000 of his own money marketing the idea for Tron and had also secured $4-5 million in private backing before reaching a standstill. In 1980, Lisberger and Kushner decided to take the idea to Disney, which was interested in producing more daring productions at the time. However, Disney executives were uncertain about giving $10-12 million to a first-time producer and director using techniques that, in most cases, had never been attempted.

The studio agreed to finance a test reel which involved a flying disc champion throwing a rough prototype of the discs used in the film. It was a chance to mix live-action footage with back-lit animation and computer generated visuals. It impressed the executives at Disney and they agreed to back the film. The script was subsequently re-written and re-storyboarded with the studio's input. At the time, Disney rarely hired outsiders to make films for them and Kushner found that he and his group were given a less than warm welcome because “we tackled the nerver center – the animation department. They saw us as the germ from outside. We tried to enlist several Disney animators but none came. Disney is a closed group.”

One the reasons why the cyberspace in Tron is so striking is because of the creative brain trust assembled to help realize it. Futuristic industrial designer Syd Mead, legendary French comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and high-tech commercial artist Peter Lloyd served as special visual consultants. Mead designed most of the vehicle designs (including Sark's aircraft carrier, the light cycles, the tank and the solar sailer). Moebius was the main set and costume designer for the film. Lloyd designed the environments. However, these jobs often overlapped with Moebius working on the solar sailer and Mead designing terrain, sets and the film's logo. The original Program character design was inspired by the main Lisberger Studios logo, a glowing body builder hurling two discs. CGI had been used in films before, most notably in Westworld (1973) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), but was it used much more extensively in Tron. In order to pull it off, four of the United States’ foremost computer graphics houses produced the computer imagery for the film. They invented the computer techniques and created the visual effects in approximately seven months. More than 500 people were involved in the post-production work, including 200 inker and hand-painters in Taiwan.

Jeff Bridges brings a playful energy to the film both in the real world – like when he breaks into ENCOM – and in the computer world, like when he gets acclimatized to his new surroundings. Tron is the no-nonsense hero while Flynn provides comic relief. We are introduced to Flynn in his environment – the video arcade that he owns, beating the world record score for Space Paranoids, one that he invented but was stolen from him. Now, he plays the game and the only profits he sees from it are the quarters that kids put in it. Bridges brings an engaging, boyish charm to the role as is evident in the way he gleefully circumvents ENCOM security and then proceeds to sneak in so that he can find and use an unattended computer terminal. There are the little touches, like when Flynn sneaks on ahead and hides from Laura, that keep the mood light and fun, just before our hero is zapped into the computer world.

In the real world, Tron’s alter ego, Alan is a bespectacled, slightly bookish programmer who is frustrated by the lack of access he has to his company’s computer system. Bruce Boxleitner plays these two contrasting roles quite well. He knows he’s the straight man to Bridges’ charismatic goofball Flynn. We meet his character as he tries to access a high level of security so that he can run his Tron program, an independent security program that would act as a watchdog to the company’s MCP computer. There is a cut to a long shot and we see that Alan’s cubicle is one of hundreds – impersonal and he is treated as an insignificant cog in a massive corporation. Interestingly, the corporation’s name is ENCOM, which eerily foreshadows another evil empire, but in the real world – Enron.

After several Wall Street investment analysts attended a screening and were largely unimpressed with what they saw, Disney stock dropped $2.50 in active New York Stock Exchange trading. This put something of a damper on the studio’s prediction that there would be at least $400 million in domestic sales of merchandise, including an arcade game by Bally Midway and two Mattel Intellivision home video games. Tron was released on July 9, 1982 in 1,091 theaters grossing $4.8 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $33 million in North America, moderately successful considering its $17 million budget but still regarded as a financial failure based on the studio’s expectations.

Audiences stayed away and critics savaged the wooden dialogue and simple story. In his review the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Fascinating as they are as discreet sequences, the computer-animated episodes don’t build dramatically. They remain a miscellaneous form of abstract spectacle.” Jay Scott of the Globe and Mail concurred: “It’s got momentum and it’s got marvels, but it’s without heart; it’s a visionary technological achievement without vision.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt the same way. “Its visual effects are wonderfully new. They are also numbing after a while. And how could they not be? They’re loud, bright and empty, and they’re all this movie has to offer.”

However, not everyone felt this way. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and described the film as "a dazzling movie from Walt Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here's a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun.” Near the end of his review, he noted (in a positive tone), "This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it's populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it is not really a movie about human nature. Like [the last two Star Wars films], but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us.”

Amazingly, Tron wasn’t even nominated for a special effects Academy Award because “the Academy thought we cheated by using computers,” Lisberger remembers. However, his film and the world he and his team created captivated a small group of moviegoers. A loyal cult following developed around Tron over the years. The film may have not captured the public consciousness when it first came out but it has since developed a loyal following that loves it dearly. In many respects, Tron is a snapshot of the early '80s when video games were just starting to take off, but it also was a harbinger of things to come. It paved the way for the elaborate computer graphics we see in movies like The Matrix (1999) and the new Star Wars trilogy. However, Tron warns that we cannot rely totally on computers to do everything because in doing so we run the risk of losing our humanity. I always imagine Flynn going on to become Bill Gates or maybe Steve Jobs.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Diane Lane

“Making movies is the weirdest thing you could ever do. It’s a contrivance, but you’re attempting to reach people’s hearts in the dark, and there are so many factors that are out of your control.” – Diane Lane

Today, actress Diane Lane celebrates her birthday. Not only is she one of the few child actors to make a successful transition into adult roles, she is also one of those rare actresses who has only gotten better over time, both in her performances and how she carries herself. Lane has aged very well over the years, looking even more beautiful and sexier without the resorting to plastic surgery.

Lane was born in New York City to Colleen Farrington, a nightclub singer and Playboy centerfold, and Burton Lane, a Manhattan drama coach who ran an acting workshop with John Cassavetes. She began acting professionally at the age of six, appearing in an acclaimed production of Medea. At 12, she had a role in Joseph Papp’s production of The Cherry Orchard with Meryl Streep. Lane made her feature film debut at 13 opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in A Little Romance (1979). A year later, she was featured on the cover of Time, declaring the aspiring actress as one of Hollywood’s “Whiz Kids.”

Two of her very early roles stand-out in my mind: Touched by Love (1980) and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981). Both films show her raw talent and ability to completely disappear into a character. In the case of the former, you really believe that she has a cerebral palsy. Lane delivers an absolutely heartbreaking performance as a girl who becomes a pen pal with Elvis Presley (based on a real life story). There is no obvious mugging for the camera or over-exaggerating mannerisms. In the latter, she plays a proto-typical riot grrl with just the right amount of punk rock attitude and charisma that you believe she could garner a loyal following of supporters.

The Fabulous Stains turned out to be a good warm-up for Lane’s first adult role as Ellen Aim in Walter Hill’s pulpy action film Streets of Fire (1984). By the time she did this film, the young actress had already done more than ten films. Lane described her character, at the time, as, “the first glamorous role I’ve had.” She looks beautiful and inhabits her rock star character with complete conviction. She has all the moves down cold as an iconic rock star and looks great on stage. Lane has that retro look and she would have been a big star in Hollywood films made during the 1940s.

Around this time Lane also worked with Francis Ford Coppola for the third time on The Cotton Club (she appeared previously in his S.E. Hinton double bill, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish). She turned down starring roles in Splash (1984) and Risky Business (1983) to appear in Streets of Fire and The Cotton Club, which were high-profile, big budget Hollywood films. It looked like she was destined for A-list superstar status. However, both films were commercial and critical failures.

Lane took three years off and returned to the business with three unremarkable films before getting all kinds of positive notices for her role in the Lonesome Dove television mini-series. She is wonderful as the beautiful prostitute Lorena. Her character is more than just eye candy – she has the courage and the tenacity to stay with the cattle drive even when her beau leaves her to go off gambling. Lorena dreams of going to San Francisco and aims to do it, come hell or high water.

During the 1990s, Lane alternated between conventional studio films (Judge Dredd and Murder at 1600) and independent films (My New Gun and Gunshy). Her strongest film to come out of this decade was 1999’s A Walk on the Moon opposite Viggo Mortensen. The film’s director Tony Goldwyn and producer Dustin Hoffman wanted Lane for the role of housewife Pearl even though she did not look or sound Jewish. She earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her complex, vulnerable performance as a frustrated woman caught between the stifling conformity of her Catskills community and notions of sexual liberation as represented by the Woodstock rock festival of 1969.

Lane delivered the best performance of her career as a housewife who has a steamy, adulterous affair with a mysterious book dealer in Unfaithful (2002). There’s the much-praised scene of Lane’s character riding the train after having her first romantic tryst with her lover intercut with the actual encounter. The range of emotions that play across her face as she replays it over in her mind is incredible to watch. She smiles to herself and her hand absently runs across her chest. Her mood darkens ever so gradually before lightening again as she smiles and then breaks out into a laugh. Finally, her face takes on a slightly sad expression. In only a few moments, she has run a whole gamut of emotions and pulls it off masterfully.

Lane earned widespread praise for her performance. Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman awarded the film an "A-" grade and praised her for delivering, "the most urgent performance of her career, is a revelation. The play of lust, romance, degradation, and guilt on her face is the movie's real story.” She received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Unfortunately, she didn’t win either and went on to pleasant if not predictable fare like Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) and Must Love Dogs (2005). The former features Lane as a professor of literature who divorces her husband after learning of his affair. She ends up going on a ten-day trip to Tuscany. Lane is good as a newly independent woman trying to start her life over. The gorgeous actress looks absolutely radiant and brings a lot of charm to the role. She shows a real knack for light comedy as well. It also doesn’t hurt that director Audrey Wells surrounds the stunning Lane with a picturesque, postcard perfect Italian countryside.

In recent years, Lane was given the opportunity to flex her dramatic chops with a strong turn in Hollywoodland (2006), a true-life murder mystery about actor George Reeves. While doing publicity for Nights in Rodanthe, a romantic film reuniting her co-star Richard Gere (they were in The Cotton Club and Unfaithful together), she expressed dissatisfaction with the types of roles she’s been offered, what she would like to do, and hinted at possible retirement. I, for one, hope that she changes her mind and gets offered some stronger roles in better films. As everyone knows, Hollywood is youth-obsessed and this makes it harder and harder for women over 40 to get substantial parts. Hopefully, she will continue to make films.

Here are a few fan sites for all things Diane Lane:

The Diane Lane Headquarters

Diane-Lane.org

The Unofficial Diane Lane Web Page

Friday, January 16, 2009

20 Men I Admire

I was originally tagged with this meme over at that swingin' blog The Dino Lounge run by Keith. The rules are simple:

This is called the 20 Men I Admire Meme. The title pretty much says it all. I decided to pick entertainers of the past (some of these men are still living), but other bloggers could pick men of any era.

Make sure you post these rules when you participate in this meme. Here are the rules:

A. Link back to the blog that tagged you.

B. Link back to the originator of this meme, which is The Dino Lounge.

C. Create your own list of 20 men that you admire and post them on your blog.

D. Tag 5 other people to particpate in this meme.

E. If you like, please let The Dino Lounge know that you've participated in this meme so he can check out your posting and comment on it. Thanks.

Anyways, here are my choices in no particular order:

David Lynch




















Jack Kerouac













Jello Biafra



















Lenny Bruce















Jim Jarmusch



















Steve McQueen



















Clint Eastwood

















Lee Marvin



















Paul Newman



















Michael Mann



















Bill Murray



















Mike Patton













Steven Wright














Orson Welles



















Tom Waits













Robert Mitchum



















Joe Strummer



















Hunter S. Thompson

















Bruce Springsteen



















Warren Oates

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Way of the Gun

“People are welcome to hate my film . . . It was never meant to be pleasant. It was never meant to be fun.” – Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie

The Way of the Gun (2000) is a film made out of anger and frustration. After winning an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects (1994), Christopher McQuarrie should have been able to parlay that success into a dream project of his choosing and yet he couldn’t even get arrested while Bryan Singer went on to his own success with the X-Men films. It was actor Benicio del Toro who came to McQuarrie and suggested he write and direct a crime film. The reasoning was that a studio hoping for another potential Usual Suspects would bankroll it. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened but McQuarrie made it on his own terms. The result? A nihilistic action film cum neo-western that is unashamedly at odds with itself. The Way of the Gun straddles the line between the independent and studio worlds. It is easily the best post-modern crime film following in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).

The prologue plays out like a preview trailer for the film and features a then-relatively unknown Sarah Silverman as the ultimate foul-mouthed girlfriend with a big mouth and who unleashes a profanity-laced tirade on the film’s protagonists that it would have made Richard Pryor blush. Even though it has nothing to do with the rest of the film, its purpose is to set the tone and establish the two protagonists, Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro), as atypical in that they provoke a fight for no reason, and to let us know that this isn’t going to be your typical action film.

As Parker’s opening monologue states, they live on the margins of society and who “stepped off the path and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us.” He and Longbaugh eke out a minimalist existence with no possessions or creature comforts because, according to Parker, “need is the ultimate monkey.” To get by they sell their blood and sperm, the latter in a very funny scene where the two men are subjected to a series of questions only to give very unconventional answers reminiscent of the clever dialogue in a Tarantino but without the obvious and often jarring popular culture references.

While cooling their heels at the clinic, they catch wind of a woman (Juliette Lewis) being paid one million dollars to have a baby for a rich couple (Scott Wilson and Kristin Lehman) who can’t be bothered to conceive one themselves. So, Parker and Longbaugh decide to kidnap the woman for money in a very unconventional way as they have to get past her two very determined bodyguards (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs). This results in a shoot-out (in which innocent bystanders are killed in the crossfire) and an unusual car chase that has to be one of the slowest ever put on film.

When the bodyguards fail to protect the pregnant woman, the husband brings in a veteran professional, Joe Sarno (James Caan) and his partner (Geoffrey Lewis) who is introduced playing a bizarre version of Russian roulette (the reasons for which are never explained and left for us to ponder). Caan’s introduction establishes Sarno as the kind of confident criminal that populates Michael Mann’s films – the kind that are ultra-efficient and no-nonsense. You get the feeling that the two bodyguards consider him an over-the-hill geezer who’s out of touch, but Sarno sets them straight: “The only thing you can assume about a broken down old man is that he’s a survivor.”

The Way of the Gun has the requisite action sequences but the way that they are depicted constantly subvert genre conventions. There are no likable characters unless you count James Caan’s quietly confident “adjudicator,” who follows his own personal moral code. As McQuarrie said in an interview, he wasn’t interested in making a film that “you can follow characters who don’t go out of their way to ingratiate themselves to you, who aren’t traditionally sympathetic.” The two protagonists are amoral mercenaries who kidnap a pregnant woman for money. They are, in turn, pursued by two henchmen who are secretly plotting against their employer who has paid the pregnant woman to give him and his self-absorbed trophy wife her baby once it’s born. The employer’s son is a disgraced doctor.

McQuarrie takes the time to reveal the motivation for most of the major players involved. They are complex reasons in comparison to Parker and Longbaugh’s who are just in it for the money until Parker spends too much time with the mother and starts to develop traces of a conscience, conflicting his motivations. And yet whenever this happens, something occurs that snaps him back to the goal at hand: the money.

This film doesn’t care if you like it or not. What spawned such a confrontational attitude in McQuarrie? And what separates The Way of the Gun from other, “talky, violent guys ‘n’ guns” films popular in the 1990s? The answer lies with the aftermath of 1996 Academy Awards. After winning an Oscar, McQuarrie naively thought that he would be able to write his own ticket and “then you slowly start to realize no one in Hollywood is interested in making your film, they’re interested in making their films.” He spent years as a script doctor while trying to get financing together for an epic biopic of Alexander the Great for Warner Brothers. He realized that he had to make a film that was commercially successful if he was going to be treated seriously by Hollywood.

McQuarrie approached 20th Century Fox and told them he would be willing to write and direct a film for any budget that they would be willing to give him so long as he had complete creative control. He remembers that the studio told him “to get fucked. No money. No control. No nothing.” What the studios really wanted was for him to write another Usual Suspects. Angry and frustrated, McQuarrie met Benicio del Toro and producer Ken Kokin (who had also worked on The Usual Suspects) for coffee and the actor convinced the writer to write a crime film on his own terms because he would face the least amount of interference from the studio. However, McQuarrie did not want to be typecast as “a crime guy” but realized that he had nothing to lose. He was, as he puts it, “unemployable and ready to make trouble,” which sounds like the perfect ingredients for a down ‘n’ dirty crime film.

McQuarrie begrudgingly started to write a screenplay and the first thing he did was to write a list of every taboo and “everything I knew a cowardly executive would refuse to accept from a ‘sympathetic’ leading man.” Not surprisingly, he said, “This movie was written from a place of real anger.” The idea for the film came from two sources: Del Toro telling McQuarrie that he had never seen a really interesting kidnapping film and the screenwriter’s wife telling him about an article she had read about an executive with a young wife who hired a surrogate mother so that she could have a child. They even hired bodyguards for the surrogate mother and as soon as McQuarrie heard “bodyguards,” the film came to him. He drew inspiration from films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and The Magnificent Seven (1960) because “the camera remains as far back from the action as possible and just captures the drama.”

McQuarrie wrote the first draft in five days. The first ten pages were a prologue, a trailer to another film with Parker and Longbaugh that was to be shot as “slick and hip as possible. Guy Ritchie and Michael Bay but with horrible, unspeakable acts of violence and degradation,” McQuarrie remembers. He realized that this was too extreme and cut it during pre-production. He and Del Toro gave the screenplay to several high-profile actors at the time, all of whom turned them down. Because of the lack of sympathetic characters, McQuarrie didn’t even bother to show the script to any Hollywood studios. Instead, he went to five independent companies and only Artisan Entertainment agreed to make the film.

Artisan resisted the casting of Del Toro because he had an independent film/art house film reputation. The studio wanted Phillippe who had just come off of Cruel Intentions (1999). The young actor wanted to change the direction of his career and, according to McQuarrie, “was besieged with choice offers, and we didn’t want him, but he would not take no for an answer.” The filmmaker met with actor and liked his enthusiasm for the script. Juliette Lewis was McQuarrie’s first choice for Robin, the surrogate mother and wanted her character to tweak the stereotypical view of women in crime films: “The woman is essential to the story and no one wants her around. Everyone wants to be rid of her. She is the complication. She is the conflict.”

The Way of the Gun is the complete antithesis to the crowd-pleasing Usual Suspects with its realistic depiction of violence and how it affects those who inflict it and those who it is inflicted on. In many respects, the film pays homage to the gritty crime films of Sam Peckinpah, like The Getaway (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), especially in the climactic shoot-out in a Mexican brothel but eschewing a flashy, slow-motion bloodbath for a gun battle reminiscent of the bank heist shoot-out in Heat (1995). There’s no stylish editing or jerky, hand-held camerawork. We always know who is where and what is happening. McQuarrie’s film is similar to Peckinpah’s in the types of characters that populate its world and the lack of judgment placed on them. One could easily see Sarno fitting seamlessly into one of Peckinpah’s films. On the surface, McQuarrie’s film appears to be aping Tarantino’s glib, pop culture-saturated dialogue and flashy violence but The Way of the Gun goes deeper, exploring the professional code between criminals like Del Toro and Caan, as well as showing how painful and messy violence really is in a climactic shoot-out that features a graphic childbirth.

Not surprisingly, The Way of the Gun received mixed reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "McQuarrie pulls, pummels and pushes us, makes his characters jump through hoops, and at the end produces carloads of 'bag men' who have no other function than to pop up and be shot at. . .Enough, already.” In his review for the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, "It's a song you've heard before, but each chord is hit with extraordinary concentration." Andy Seiler praised James Caan's performance in his review for USA Today, "To hear Caan menacingly intone 'I can promise you a day of reckoning you will not live long enough to never forget' is to remember why this man is a star." In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "Phillippe talks like Brando; Del Toro apes the body language. Nevertheless, James Caan steals the movie as a veteran tough guy, rotating his torso around some unseen truss.”

The film ends on an ambiguous downer – do they die? What happens to the girl’s baby? The answers to these questions are left up to the individual to figure out. McQuarrie isn’t going to provide any easy answers and he’s not going to hold your hand. Why should he? The entire film was an exercise at subverting expectations and genre conventions. Thankfully, McQuarrie doesn’t compromise his intentions one iota – the benefit of making the film independently. He wanted to make a film that was “difficult to watch. I wanted to make a film about violence and criminals that had to be endured rather than something that entertained without consequence.” Whether you like The Way of the Gun or not, there’s no question that he succeeded in what he wanted to do.

Friday, January 9, 2009

DVD of the Week: Breakfast at Tiffany's: Centennial Collection

Based on the novella by Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is one of those classic, quintessential New York City films, like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The World of Henry Orient (1964), and Manhattan (1979). These films are all snapshots of the city at a particular point in time. Seeing the Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is like going back in time with all kinds of vintage vehicles and places that don’t exist anymore. The film is also one of Audrey Hepburn’s signature roles – one that she will always be remembered for but it almost didn’t turn out that way. Capote envisioned Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly while Paramount Pictures wanted Hepburn but even the actress wasn’t sure she could play the part. Now, it is impossible to envision anybody else in the role.

Right from the start, with the shots of Holly Golightly (Hepburn) walking through the deserted streets of the city while Johnny Mercer sings “Moon River,” director Blake Edwards establishes a wistful, romantic atmosphere. Holly is a carefree, single girl living a glamorous life in the Big Apple. She was clearly the prototype for Carrie Bradshaw and the girls in Sex and the City with her single girl with expensive tastes. Holly is “crazy about Tiffany’s,” the legendary jewelry store that we see her staring at dreamily in the opening credits. For Holly, going to Tiffany’s is like going to church.

Paul (Peppard), a struggling writer, moves into her building and is quickly introduced to the whirlwind force of nature that is Holly. He’s been working on a novel for five years but one gets the sense that he lacks inspiration. He seems a bit defeated, still stinging from a bad review in The New York Times years ago (which he can still quote from, bitterly). Holly dreams of marrying a rich man – what better way to maintain her glamorous life? As the film progresses, we, along with Paul, learn that there is much more to Holly than meets the eye.

Audrey Hepburn is absolutely adorable as Holly, an irresistible, charming individual. Under Holly’s bubbly exterior, Hepburn’s performance hints at a loneliness, an inner sadness. She conveys a heartbreaking vulnerability underneath a cheery façade. This is evident in the famous scene where she sings “Moon River” on the fire escape of her apartment. One gets the feeling that she needs to be rescued, to be saved, and this gives the film an almost tangible, melancholic tone.

She has wonderful chemistry with George Peppard who plays it cool, downplaying his role which acts as a nice contrast to Hepburn’s flamboyance. He has a tough job of playing the straight man to Hepburn’s colorful Holly. He is the audience surrogate. However, Peppard is excellent because he knows exactly how to react to all of Holly’s outrageous behavior. At first, his character seems a bit on the bland side but as the film progresses bits and pieces of his past are revealed which flesh out his character.

The film’s only blemish is the racist Asian caricature played by Mickey Rooney that is horribly dated and offensive. Fortunately, he is only a small part of the film. Regardless, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great film about two lonely people each harboring their own dark secrets and that find one another and fall in love. The film is also a love letter to the city of New York, capturing a time and place that no longer exists but one that we can revisit again and again every time we watch this film.

Special Features:

A few years ago, a pretty decent Anniversary Edition was released. Now, Paramount has re-released the film under their Centennial Collection banner. Is it worth the double dip? The good news is that all of the extras from the previous edition have been carried over.

On the first disc is an audio commentary by the film’s producer Richard Shepherd. He candidly speaks about his opposition to Rooney playing a Japanese man but Edwards wanted his scenes kept in. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Holly but Hepburn was Shepherd’s first choice. There are quite a few lulls of silence between comments which makes listening to this track something of a chore. But when he is talking, Shepherd recalls several factoids and anecdotes about filming this classic.

New to this edition is “A Golightly Gathering” reuniting several of the actors who appeared in the film’s famous party scene at, where else, a cocktail party. They talk about their experiences working on the film and the roles they played. They also talk about working with stars Hepburn and Peppard as well as director Blake Edwards.

Another new extra is “Henry Mancini: More Than Music,” which takes a look at the legendary composer with his wife talking about how they met and offering her impressions of him along with his son and daughter. Naturally, they talk about his involvement in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Also new is “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective,” which addresses the racist stereotype of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi. Several experts on Asian Americans portrayed in popular culture talk about the character and how it perpetuated a cartoonish stereotype.

From the previous edition, there is “The Making of a Classic,” a retrospective featurette. Shepherd wanted Hepburn to play Holly but Paramount didn’t think she was right for the part. Cast members, friends and family gush about Hepburn. Blake Edwards recounts some decent anecdotes about filming and admits that he didn’t want Peppard to play Paul but grew to appreciate him. Everyone, including Edwards, wishes that they could have recast Rooney in the role of the upstairs Japanese neighbor.

“It’s so Audrey! A Style Icon” is another extra carried over from the previous edition and it examines Hepburn’s look in the film. She was not considered a classic beauty but was very beautiful. She flew against the voluptuous Jayne Mansfield type popular in the 1950s. Hepburn had a great eye for fashion and what suited her body type. This is illustrated by numerous clips from several of her films that show off her personal style.

“Behind the Gates: The Tour” is a new extra that takes a brief look at the studio lot for Paramount Pictures, a vast lot with all kinds of city sets and soundstages for filming.

From the previous edition is “Brilliance in a Blue Box,” which takes a look at the famous jewelry store Tiffany’s. They talk about the famous Tiffany Canary diamond – the largest at the time – and how Hepburn was one of the select few that ever got the chance to wear it. Some of the store’s history is covered but this feels suspiciously like a promo for the store.

Also carried over is “Audrey’s Letter to Tiffany’s.” Hepburn was a huge admirer of the store and wrote a preface for the 50th Anniversary book in 1987. This letter is read by one of the store’s representatives.

Included from the previous edition is the original theatrical trailer.

Finally, a new extra is gallery of production stills, movie stills and publicity photographs.

The new extras are well made and entertaining but hardly essential an if you already own the previous edition, it is not worth double dipping. However, if this is the first time you’re buying this film on DVD then this is the one to get.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984) is arguably the cult film most worthy of having its own franchise. It made a bid for this status in 1984 but its eccentric characters and ambitious blend of several genres left audiences and critics perplexed and it promptly tanked at the box office thus sealing its fate as a cinematic oddity. It’s a shame because the film is funny and exciting and features a top notch cast of character actors. It assumes that its audience is intelligent and observant enough to pick up references to the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and Orson Welles’ radio plays. There’s a lot of plot and backstory to digest which may have scared people off initially.

We first meet our hero, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), performing complex brain surgery with a colleague known as New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) whom he asks to join his team, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Buckaroo goes directly from surgery to a testing site out in the desert where he proceeds to drive a jet car into a mountain and survive thanks to a nifty little gizmo called the oscillation overthruster. Imagine Buckaroo as the Chuck Yeager of scientists. The overthruster allows Buckaroo to travel through solid matter into what is known as the 8th dimension.

His success catches the attention of Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), a mad scientist who managed to catch a glimpse of the 8th dimension in 1938 and was subsequently possessed by one of its inhabitants, Lord John Whorfin. Naturally, this drove Lizardo stark raving bonkers and he feels nothing but contempt for the human race. For example, he taunts one of the attendants at the mental hospital he is staying at with the memorable line, “Laugh while you can, monkey boy!” This only one of many hilarious bits of dialogue to come out of John Lithgow’s mouth as the actor has a blast chewing up the scenery, complete with an outrageous Italian accent. He inhabits the role of the evil Lizardo with complete conviction. Originally, the studio wanted to cast an unknown actor but the role has been written with Lithgow in mind. He was not sure about the character but director W.D. Richter convinced him by "claiming what a real feast for an actor this wonderful Jekyll and Hyde character was," the actor said. For Lizardo's accent, Lithgow spent time with an Italian tailor at MGM and recorded his voice. He changed his walk to that of an "old crab, and because my alien metabolism is supposed to be messed up". Lithgow said of his character, "playing Lizardo felt like playing the madman in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

Lizardo escapes the mental institute and hooks up with his fellow alien refugees, the Red Lectroids, who run Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems (a nod to a fictitious company in several Thomas Pynchon novels). To finish off a busy day, Buckaroo and his group of scientists make an appearance at a local nightclub to play a set of music as a Huey Lewis and the News meets Adam Ant-type rock ‘n’ roll band. However, their set is interrupted by a beautiful but distraught woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin). Buckaroo consoles her with one of his many pearls of wisdom, “No matter where you go, there you are.” The next day, Lizardo sends three of his lackeys to steal the overthruster at a press conference held buy Buckaroo so that he can return to the 8th dimension. Buckaroo and his team figure out that the Red Lectroids arrived on Earth on October 31, 1938 in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which is a sly nod to Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, only in this film it wasn’t a hoax. As if Buckaroo didn’t have enough to worry about, he receives a message from the Black Lectroids (who, incidentally, look like black Rastafarians) from Planet 10 who will trigger World War III if he doesn’t stop Lizardo by sundown.

Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch met through the Dartmouth College Alumni magazine. Richter had read a review of a book that Mac Rauch had written called Arkansas Adios, then bought and read it. He enjoyed the book so much that he wrote Mac Rauch a letter asking permission to adapt it into a film. Mac Rauch was flattered and agreed. The two men began corresponding and when the writer told him about his interest in becoming a screenwriter, Richter offered him an open-ended invite to visit him in Los Angeles where he was attending the University of Southern California and working as a script analyst for Warner Bros.

Years passed and Richter became a successful screenwriter. Mac Rauch took Richter up on his offer and arrived in L.A. Richter proceeded to introduce the writer to producer/director Irwin Winkler who gave Mac Rauch rent money for the next six months. Over several dinners, Mac Rauch told Richter and his wife about a character named Buckaroo Bandy that he was thinking of writing a screenplay about. Richter and his wife liked the idea and paid Mac Rauch $1,500 to develop and write it. According to MacRauch, his script was inspired by "all those out-and-out, press-the-accelerator-to-the-floor, non-stop kung fu movies of the early '70s.” Richter remembers, "Mac's working technique then was sort of improvisational. He would write 30 pages and then give them to us. We'd comment on them, and he'd take them away and so radically alter them no matter what we said that he'd come back with a new storyline, new characters.” Mac Rauch recalled, "It's so easy to start something and then – since you're really not as serious about it as you should be – end up writing half of it ... You shove the hundred pages in a drawer and try to forget about it. Over the years, I started a dozen Buckaroo scripts that ended that way."

Mac Rauch's original 30-page treatment was entitled, Find the Jetcar, Said the President - A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller. Early on, one of the revisions Mac Rauch made was changing Buckaroo's surname from Bandy to Banzai but he wasn't crazy about it. However, Richter convinced him to keep the name. The Hong Kong Cavaliers also appeared in these early drafts, but, according to Richter, "it never really went to a completed script. Mac wrote and wrote but never wrote the end." Another early draft was entitled, The Strange Case of Mr. Cigars, about a huge robot and a box of Hitler’s cigars. Mac Rauch shelved his work for a few years while he wrote New York, New York for Martin Scorsese and other un-produced screenplays.

In 1980, Richter talked with producers Frank Marshall and Neil Canton about filming one of his screenplays. Out of this meeting, Canton and Richter formed their own production company and decided that Buckaroo Banzai would be the first film. Under their supervision, Mac Rauch wrote a 60-page treatment entitled, Lepers from Saturn. They shopped Mac Rauch's treatment around to production executives who were their peers but no one wanted to take on such unusual subject matter by two first-time producers and a first-time director. Canton and Richter contacted veteran producer Sidney Beckerman at MGM/United Artists who Canton had worked with before. Beckerman liked it and introduced Richter and Canton to studio chief David Begelmen. Within 24 hours they had a development deal with the studio. It took Mac Rauch a year and a half to write the final screenplay and during this time, the Lepers from the treatment became Lizards and then Lectroids from Planet 10.

However, a Writers Guild of America strike forced the project to languish in development for more than a year. Begelmen left MGM because several of his projects had performed poorly at the box office. This put all of his future projects, Buckaroo Banzai included, in jeopardy. Begelmen formed Sherwood Productions and exercised a buy-out option with MGM for the Banzai script. He took it to 20th Century Fox who agreed to make it. Mac Rauch ended up writing three more drafts before they had a shooting script.

Buckaroo Banzai features some fantastic casting, like that of the three Red Lectroids that kidnap Penny Priddy and the overthruster. They are played by wonderful character actors Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli and Christopher Lloyd. They kinda appear to be like aliens with their unconventional looks. They get a nice scene to do their thing while investigating a crashed spacecraft. They run into two hapless hunters and a police officer (who is played by none other than John Ashton, who would go on to have memorable roles in films like Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run). Hedaya, Schiavelli and Lloyd all deliver slightly off-kilter line readings that really sell their otherworldly origins.

The casting of Buckaroo and his team is also excellent with guys like Clancy Brown (in a rare good guy role) and Jeff Goldblum, who gives his trademark eccentric delivery of his lines in a way that only he can. Only has to look at the scene where he figures out the Orson Welles connection to the Red Lectroids to see what he can bring to a film. Richter first met him on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1979) and wanted him to play New Jersey. The actor admired his writing and was eager to work with the cast the director had assembled.

Goldblum makes a good team with Peter Weller, another equally eccentric actor who starred in other cult films like RoboCop (1987) and Naked Lunch (1990). You really believe that he is this famous hero, beloved by many. For the role of Buckaroo Banzai, the studio wanted a recognizable movie star but Richter and Canton wanted to cast a relatively unknown actor. Richter had been impressed by Weller's performance in Shoot the Moon (1982) and met with him. He was hesitant, at first, to take the role because he was unclear on the overall tone of the movie. "Would it be campy? Would it be a cartoon? Or would it be the sort of wacky, realistic film that would catch people sideways – and not be a cartoon,” Weller remembers. Richter told him Banzai's story and convinced Weller to do the film. The actor says that he based his character on Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Adam Ant. Weller plays Buckaroo with the right amount of laid-back charm and confidence befitting his larger-than-life character and does a great job of selling the film’s oddball dialogue. This goes for the entire cast. There are no knowing winks to the audience as everyone plays their respective roles with conviction.

By the time of filming, Richter had a 300-page book called The Essential Buckaroo that consisted of notes and had every incomplete script Mac Rauch wrote over the years. Principal photography began during the second week of September 1983 on locations in and around South Gate, an industrial suburb of L.A., with 12-weeks of filming done on the backlot and soundstages at MGM.

Fox hired Terry Erdmann and a team of publicists to promote the film at Star Trek conventions with a few film clips and free Banzai headbands which have now become highly sought after collector's items by fans of the film. The studio made no attempts to sell the film to a mainstream audience with traditional promotion. Studio publicist Rosemary LaSalmandra said, "Nobody knew what to do with Buckaroo Banzai. There was no simple way to tell anyone what it was about – I'm not sure anybody knew.”

Buckaroo Banzai was originally scheduled to be released on June 8, 1984 but was pushed back to August 15. It opened on 236 screens and faced stiff competition against the likes of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Ghostbusters. It made $620,279 on its opening weekend before finally grossing $6.2 million in North America.

The film was not well-received critically. Dave Kehr, in the Chicago Reader, wrote, "Richter seems to have invented an elaborate mythology for his hero ... but he never bothers to explicate it; the film gives you the mildly annoying sensation of being left out of a not very good private joke." In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Buckaroo Banzai "may well turn out to be a pilot film for other theatrical features, though this one would be hard to top for pure, nutty fun.” Richard Corliss, in his review for Time, wrote, "its creators, Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. Richter, propel their film with such pace and farfetched style that anyone without Ph.D.s in astrophysics and pop culture is likely to get lost in the ganglion of story strands. One wonders if the movie is too ambitious, facetious and hip for its own box-office good.”

Buckaroo Banzai has since attracted a loyal cult following and was quite popular on home video. Richter said, "It has had the most dramatic reactions of anything I've worked on. Some loathe it and others are willing to die for it.” The director feels that the film failed commercially because the narrative was too complex, he would have liked to have had more coverage for certain scenes, he could have edited the film better and there were too many master shots and two-shots that left little for the editor to work with.

Buckaroo Banzai is a marvel of esoteric detail that results in a rich world for its characters to inhabit. The New Wave fashion sense of Buckaroo and his team date the film in a wonderfully nostalgic way that only adds to its quirky charm. The film ends with a title card promising a sequel, entitled Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. It’s a goof that sadly, never materialized as box office receipts were bad. It’s a shame because the world of Buckaroo Banzai is so interesting and filled with colorful characters that deserve a series of adventures. Fortunately, Buckaroo lives on in comic book form but it would be nice to see another film.

Check out the official Banzai Institute, here. And here's a fantastic fan site.