Monday, March 30, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
A striking image opens the film: a gigantic zeppelin docks with the Empire State Building while the night sky is filled with lightly falling snow. The world’s top scientists have gone missing and ambitious newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow in Lois Lane mode) is covering the story for The Chronicle. She meets secretly with the last scientist who hints at a top-secret project. She soon has an idea of just how important this project is as huge, flying robots swarm over the city’s skies. They begin attacking the city, turning cars over like tinker toys.
Before you can activate your Commander Cody decoder ring, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) and his squad of fighter planes arrive to save the day. It becomes obvious that Joe and Polly have a history together. There is a sexual tension between them as they form an uneasy alliance: she shares information with him in exchange for an exclusive scoop on the source of the robots and the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf (Laurence Olivier). They are aided in their adventure by Joe’s trusty sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), a whiz technician capable of inventing a deadly ray gun, and Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie), Joe’s ex-girlfriend and commander of a squadron of flying fortresses.
Kerry Conran grew up on films and comic books of the ‘30s and 1940s and commented in an interview, “The stuff that was most visually striking were the covers of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The graphic images just in the covers, I thought, told stories on such a grand scale...The artwork of that era, they just dreamed up things on that level.” He and his brother, Kevin, were encouraged by their parents to develop their creative side at a young age. According to Kevin, their mom “didn’t buy us coloring books and have us color them in, she’d bring us blank pads of paper with pencils and you’d make your own picture and color it in, that sort of stuff, which didn’t seem like a big deal, but it sort of is. We always had a lot of support in that respect.” The Conran brothers were also influenced by the designs of Norman Bel Geddes who did work for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and designed exhibits for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Geddes also designed an Air Ship that was to fly from Chicago to London. Another key influence was Hugh Ferriss, one of the designers for the 1939 World’s Fair and who designed bridges and huge housing complexes.
Conran went to CalArts, a feeder program for Disney animators and became interested in 2-D computer animation. While there, he realized that it was possible to apply some of the techniques associated with animation to live-action. He remembers trying to “use the computer that was just emerging as a technology that was viable for filmmaking, and use a technique that was used traditionally forever – you know, the blue screen – but taken to a real extreme conclusion.” Conran had been out of film school for two years and was trying to figure out how to make a film. He figured that Hollywood would never take a chance on him — an inexperienced, first-time filmmaker. So, he decided to go the independent route and make the movie himself.
In 1994, Conran set up a blue screen in his living room and began assembling the tools he would need to create his movie. He was not interested in working his way through the system and instead wanted to follow the route of independent filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh. Initially, the Conrans had nothing more than “just a vague idea of this guy who flew a plane. We would talk about all the obvious things like Indiana Jones and all the stuff we liked.” Conran spent four years making a black and white teaser trailer in the style of an old-fashion newsreel on his Macintosh personal computer. Once he was finished, Conran showed it to producer Marsha Oglesby, who was a friend of his brother’s wife and she recommended that he let producer Jon Avnet see it. Conran met Avnet and showed him the trailer. Conran told him that he wanted to make it into a film. They spent two or three days just talking about the tone of the film because, according to Avnet, he wanted to “make sure we were on the same page, because he was going to write it. It wasn’t written at that point.”
Avnet and Conran spent two years working on the screenplay and developing a working relationship. Then, the producer took the script and the trailer and began approaching actors. In order to protect Conran’s vision, Avnet decided to shoot the movie independently with a lot of his own money. “I couldn’t protect him from the studios. I prayed we could shoot the movie and then show it to the studios. And we’re lucky, they all wanted it.” The producer realized that “the very thing that made this film potentially so exciting for me, and I think for an audience, which was the personal nature of it and the singularity of the vision, would never succeed and never survive the development process within a studio.”
When it came to casting actors in the movie, Avnet used his connections and reputation and started “looking for people who fit the look, looking for people who had the right theatrical pedigree, if possible, looking for people who weren’t over-exposed.” In 2002, he showed Jude Law the teaser trailer and the actor was very impressed by what he saw. He remembers, “All I got at that early stage was that he’d used pretty advanced and unused technology to create a very retrospective look.” Avnet gave him the script to read and some preliminary artwork to look at.
Law: “What was clear was also that at the center was a really great cinematic relationship, which you could put into any genre and it would work. You know, the kind of bickering [relationship]. I always like to call it African Queen (1951) meets Buck Rogers.”
Avnet wanted to work with Law because he knew that the actor had “worked both period, who worked both having theatrical experience, who worked on blue screen, who hadn’t hit yet as a major action star.” The actor had just come off doing Cold Mountain (2003) and was intrigued at going from filming on real locations to working on a film done completely on a soundstage. Law recalls, “At the time, there was no money attached, and he [Conran] was a first time director. It took us a year and a half to put it together and even then, we didn’t have a studio deal.” The actor believed so much in Conran’s movie that he also became one of the producers and used his clout to get Gwyneth Paltrow involved. Once her name came up, Law did not remember “any other name coming up. It just seems that she was perfect. She was as enthusiastic about the script and about the visual references that were sort of put to her, and jumped on board.” Paltrow said in an interview, “I thought that this is the time to do a movie like this where it’s kind of breaking into new territory and it’s not your basic formulaic action-adventure movie.”
Giovanni Ribisi met with Avnet and, initially, was not sure that he wanted to do the movie but after seeing the teaser trailer, he signed on without hesitation. Angelina Jolie had literally come from the set of Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) and agreed to work on the movie for three days. Despite her small role, she had conducted hours of interviews with fighter pilots in order to absorb their jargon and get a feel for the role.
Avnet went to Aurelio De Laurentiis and convinced her to finance the film without a distribution deal. Nine months before filming, Avnet had Conran meet the actors and begin rehearsals in an attempt to get the shy filmmaker out of his shell. Avnet recalls, “By the end of three days of rehearsals, I remember where he said something, describing the ice cave where the dynamite is, and I could see the actors looking really, really intently on him. I realized that he got them.”
Ten months before Conran made the movie with his actors, he shot it entirely with stand-ins and then created the whole movie in animatics so that the actors had an idea of what the film would look like and where to move on the soundstage. To prepare for the film, Conran had his cast watch old movies, like To Have and Have Not (1944) with Lauren Bacall for Paltrow’s performance and The Thin Man (1934) for the relationship between Nick and Nora that was to be echoed in the one between Joe and Polly.
Working on a soundstage surrounded entirely by blue screens required a new way of looking at the acting process. Ribisi remembers, “The analogy that you say to yourself is it’s like doing theater or avant-garde theater. There’s just a stage and the actors and all of that. But no, it is different, and it’s something that actors are going to have to be getting used to and [they need to] develop some degree of technique for that.” Law echoed these sentiments: “It almost felt like make-believe playing, rather than limiting because I couldn’t see something specific.” Avnet constantly pushed for room in this meticulously designed movie for the kind of freedom the actors needed, like being able to move around on the soundstage. He told Conran, “Look, you’ve got these great actors, you’ve got a great relationship, don’t hamstring them. Give them some freedom.”
Conran and Avnet were able to cut costs considerably by shooting the entire film in 26 days (not the usual three to four months that this kind of film normally takes) and working entirely on blue screen soundstages. After filming ended, they put together a 24-minute presentation and took it to every studio in June of 2002. There was a lot of interest and Avnet went with the studio that gave Conran the most creative control. They needed studio backing to finish the film’s ambitious visuals. At one point, the producer remembers that Conran was “working 18 to 20 hours a day for a long period of time. It’s 2,000 some odd CGI shots done in one year, and we literally had to write code to figure out how to do this stuff!”
Avnet cultivated a calculated release for the film by first moving its release date from the summer (it was supposed to open a week before Spider-Man 2) to September, then courting the Internet press and finally making an appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with key cast members in an attempt to generate some advanced buzz.
The film was surprisingly well-received by most major critics. Roger Ebert gave it a four star rating and praised it for “its heedless energy and joy, it reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen, without having to pass through reality along the way.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden liked its visuals and its evocation of a bygone era but felt that "the monochromatic variations on sepia keep the actors and their adventures at a refined aesthetic distance... At times the film is hard to see. And as the action accelerates, the wonder of its visual concept starts giving way to sci-fi clichés." Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A-" rating, saying, "The investment is optimistic and wise; Sky Captain is a gorgeous, funny, and welcome novelty." However, USA Today said that the film was "all style over substance, a clever parlor trick but a dull movie,” and Stephen Hunter, of the Washington Post, called it "a $70 million novelty item."
Sky Captain is an absolutely gorgeous looking film filled with eye-popping visuals and drenched in atmosphere. Everything is bathed in a warm sepia filter and captured in a soft focus lens clearly meant to evoke the glamour of classic Hollywood cinema. Sky Captain is a marvel of set design and visual effects. The film’s elaborate backgrounds were created through a series of photographic plates and 3D animation. By creating an entire world through CGI, Conran raised the bar on these kinds of films. Now, filmmakers are only limited by their imagination... and their budgets.
The problem with most films of these kinds is that the actors are often overwhelmed by the striking visuals. Fortunately, Conran has assembled a strong cast. Jude Law does an excellent job as the wisecracking, square-jawed matinée hero while Gwyneth Paltrow is his ideal foil, criticizing him at every opportunity but you know that it is done out of love. Law remembers that he “tried doing it like an American using 1930’s speak, but it felt like we were sending it up and what we wanted to do was to play it for real, so people didn’t think that we were making a modern version of a 1930’s movie.” Everyone is clearly enjoying breathing life into these archetypal characters. High caliber actors like Law, Paltrow and Angelina Jolie take these intentionally cliché characters and make them interesting to watch.
Sky Captain has all the markings of a debut by a first-time filmmaker. There is a go-for-broke, let’s-cram-everything-in-this-one attitude that a first-timer has a tendency to adopt because they do not know if there are going to get another chance. Conran has said that his intention was to create something “almost innocent and fun, the things that inspired me in wanting to make movies, the qualities of why I wanted to go to the movies. You lose yourself and escape into a world that didn’t exist anywhere else but in the movies.” Sadly, Sky Captain failed at the box office thus insuring the unlikely prospects of a sequel. It is too bad because the movie presents a richly textured and detailed world with fun and exciting characters.
As a little postscript to this article, after Sky Captain, Conran was set to direct an adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, John Carter of Mars, which would have been right up his alley but sadly, Sky Captain's abysmal box office performance nixed that and he hasn't done anything since. I've searched and Googled all over the Internet for any word on what he's working on next but he seems to have dropped off the radar, which is a damn shame in my opinion.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
He proves that he’s got the action chops in the film’s prologue where James Bond (Daniel Craig) ruthlessly dispatches several adversaries in a thrilling car chase along busy, twisty country roads in Siena, Italy. This film also returns to the franchise’s trademark opening credits sequence with barely silhouetted naked women float around in some kind of trippy limbo with Bond repeatedly firing his gun as Alicia Keys and Jack White provide a suitably hard-hitting, bombastic duet called, “Another Way to Die.”
Bond is still dealing with the death of Vesper Lynd, the woman he loved in the previous film. He’s also investigating a shadowy organization that boasts having operatives everywhere, including MI-6, much to the chagrin of Bond’s superior, M (Judi Dench). He uncovers one of the secret organization’s high level operatives, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric – a dead ringer for a young Roman Polanski), a man who specializes in overthrowing governments in Third World countries in exchange for their resources. He currently has his sights set on Bolivia but of course Bond is determined to stop him because he also tried to kill the woman he loved in Casino Royale.
Daniel Craig builds on the foundation he established in the previous film. With the death of his lover, Bond has little to live for except for revenge and this gives him an icy intensity that Craig conveys so well with his penetrating blue eyes. He’s been one of the consistently fascinating actors to watch in the last ten years. He’s got undeniable charisma and backs it up with some serious acting chops.
Forster does a surprisingly excellent job creating a lean, no frills revenge story under the guise of a Bond film. He is more than capable of handling the action sequences, of which there are many, and invests us in Bond’s personal quest for vengeance all the while fulfilling the usual expectations of a Bond film: beautiful women, death-defying stunts, exotic locales, and world-dominating villains. In a refreshing break in formula, Quantum of Solace is not a stand-alone adventure but instead wraps up the narrative loose end left hanging at the end of Casino Royale. This gives the film a truly satisfying conclusion as Bond is finally able to put a painful part of his past to rest and move on to the next mission and, of course, the next film.
The first disc features a music video for “Another Way to Die” with Alicia Keys and Jack White in a slick video done very much in the style of the opening credits sequence. As far as Bond songs go, it’s actually quite good and a definite improvement over Chris Cornell’s song for Casino Royale.
Also included are teaser and theatrical trailers.
The second disc starts off with “Bond on Location,” which takes a look at the challenge of finding original locations all over the world for the film that fit the specific visual look that Forster wanted to achieve. This included set design, how the extras looked and so on.
“Start of Shooting” examines the daunting task of following up the phenomenonal success of Casino Royale. Craig had to do much more extensive training for this film, including things like stunt-driving.
“On Location” sees Forster viewing the film’s various locations as characters unto themselves. They shot in some pretty remote areas.
“Olga Kurylenko and the Boat Chase” takes a look at the new Bond girl and how they viewed her character as Bond’s equal. The actress did a lot of physical training so that she could do many of her own stunts.
“Director Marc Forster” talks about what he brings to the film. The cast speaks admiringly of him.
“The music” examines composer David Arnold’s work on the film and how he tried to reflect its themes in the music. Alicia Keys and Jack White talk briefly about working together and we see footage of them shooting the music video for their song.
Finally, there are “Crew Files,” a collection of mini-featurettes spotlighting various crew members who introduce themselves and then explain what they do on the film with behind-the-scenes footage.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Imagine the scene: a teenager is playing baseball. It's his turn up at bat and he promptly strikes out. He dejectedly leaves the diamond on his bike — presumably bound for home. On the way, he spots two cars with suspicious looking men in them. The boy quickly ditches the cars and finds a younger boy by giving a dog his shoe. It does not take long to deduce that they are brothers. No explanation is given for this rather odd behavior. However, we soon find out that the boy's name is Danny Pope (River Phoenix) and that his parents, Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti) are 1960s subversives who went underground after claiming responsibility for bombing a military research lab that was developing napalm in 1971. The resulting action accidentally blinded a janitor which caused the Popes to become fugitives, roaming the country like gypsies, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Arthur and Annie made a choice a long time ago to live this kind of life. But their two sons are also stuck with this choice and its consequences. As Annie tells her husband at one point, "Look at what we're doing to these kids. They've been running their whole lives like criminals and they didn't do anything."
Monday, March 9, 2009
As the film opens, a
The Abyss was a project that James Cameron had dreamed of making ever since he was 17 years old. He wrote a “very, very crude and simple story dealing with the idea of being in the very deep ocean and doing fluid breathing and making a descent to the bottom from a staging submersible laboratory that was on the edge.” His original short story concerned the adventures of a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, “which is the sort of sci-fi idea that appeals to all kids, I suppose,” he said. Over the years, Cameron became involved in numerous other projects but he never forgot about this underwater adventure and wrote several drafts that changed radically over time but the original idea that started it all remained intact. When Terminator (1984) and Aliens became bonafide box office hits, Cameron was in a position to make his dream project a reality. He had no idea the problems that he would face trying to realize this dream.
As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the actual shoot consisted of a grueling six month, six-day, 70-hour a week schedule that took its toll on cast and crew alike. “I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don’t ever want to go through this again,” Cameron remarked at the time. And yet, the sense that what they were making was groundbreaking and worth doing was the glue that kept everything together. The film’s producer, Gale Anne Hurd clearly viewed The Abyss in this fashion. “No one has attempted this before, and we had to solve everything from how to keep the water clear enough to shoot, to how to keep it dark enough to look realistic at 2,000 feet where it’s pitch black.” By all accounts, the cast and crew thrived on this challenge, and as the final results demonstrate, succeeded in producing a truly stunning work.
Cameron’s production company had to design and build experimental equipment and develop a state-of-the-art communications system that allowed the director to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly onto tape for the first time. For all of the underwater scenes they used three cameras in watertight housings specially designed by underwater cinematographer expert Al Giddings, known for his incredible work on The Deep (1977). Another special housing was designed for scenes that went from above-water dialogue to below-water dialogue. Underwater visibility was a major concern for Cameron as he wanted to see the actors’ faces and hear their dialogue. Western Space and Marine built ten experimental diving units for the film. They engineered helmets which would remain optically clear underwater and installed innovative aircraft quality microphones in each helmet.
The production difficulties that plagued The Abyss have become the stuff of
As Cameron demonstrated with Terminator, he has a real eye for action sequences and The Abyss is no different. One scene in particular, demonstrates Cameron's ability to create moments of white knuckle intensity. Several compartments of the underwater rig begin flooding, while crew members try frantically to escape to a safer area. Cameron's hand-held camera follows these men through the claustrophobic hold at such a breakneck pace, via a compelling first person point-of-view angle, that one can't help but get caught up in the feeling of urgency brought on by this dangerous situation. At times, it feels like you are actually bouncing through the tight corridors of the rig alongside the characters and this enhances the thrill and excitement of such adrenaline-fueled sequences.
The Abyss is also similar to Cameron's previous film, Aliens in the sense that both have a top rate ensemble cast. The crew of the rig all have their own distinctive personalities, which are each given their own moment to shine and never detract from the larger story. The interaction between these people has a ring of honesty and authenticity, which suggests that every character is important and crucial to the film’s outcome. But these colorful characters never obscure the three main principles that are also fully-fleshed characters each with his or her own agenda. Ed Harris portrays Bud as a man dedicated to his rig and his people, but he cannot balance his work life with his personal life. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Liz is, as she later admits, "a cast iron bitch," but underneath the hard, tough exterior there are occasional glimpses of a sensitive dreamer fighting to get out. Cameron regular, Michael Biehn (an underused actor also seen in Terminator and Aliens respectively) personifies intensity as the leader of the Navy SEALs who slowly loses his grip on reality and his priorities, posing a threat to the safety of everyone on the rig. Each of these characters has their own inner conflicts as well as the larger conflict that threatens everyone. One of the pleasures of watching The Abyss is seeing how these personal conflicts play out and resolve themselves by the end of the film.
The Abyss was ultimately sunk by poor timing. Being released after two horrible underwater films was not a wise move. Critics and audiences were just not receptive to yet another underwater film, especially one that clocked in at over two hours. Newsweek’s David Ansen wrote, “The payoff to The Abyss is pretty damn silly – a portentous deux ex machina that leaves too many questions unanswered and evokes too many other films.” In her review for the New York Times, Caryn James claimed that the film had “at least four endings,” and “by the time the last ending of this two-and-a-quarter-hour film comes along, the effect is like getting off a demon roller coaster that has kept racing several laps after you were ready to get off.” The Globe and Mail’s Chris Dafoe wrote, “At best, The Abyss offers a harrowing, thrilling journey through inky waters and high tension. In the end, however, this torpedo turns out to be a dud – it swerves at the last minute, missing its target and exploding ineffectually in a flash of fantasy and fairy-tale schtick.” However, the USA Today gave the film three out four stars and wrote, “Most of this underwater blockbuster is “good,” at least two action set pieces are great. But the dopey wrap-up sinks the rest 20,000 leagues.”
Harmetz, Aljean. "A Foray into Deep Waters." The New York Times. August 6, 1989.
James, Caryn. "Undersea Life and Peril." The New York Times. August 9, 1989.
McLean, Phillip. "Terror Strikes The Abyss." Sunday Mail. August 27, 1989.
Sujo, Aly. "Abyss Puts Studio Executives on Edge." Globe & Mail. August 8, 1989.
Walker, Beverly. "Film Plot Mirrored Filmmakers' Troubles." Washington Times. August 9, 1989.