Monday, March 30, 2009

Gridlock'd

“This is gonna be a fucking nightmare day, I can just feel it.” These rather prophetic words are spoken by Stretch (Tim Roth) as he and his best friend, Spoon (Tupac Shakur) start the day trying to kick their drug habit in the film, Gridlock’d (1997). But it’s not going to be that easy as the duo run into bureaucratic red tape at every turn.

The film begins on New Year’s Eve as Spoon’s girlfriend, Cookie (Thandie Newton) overdoses on heroin. This intimate brush with death forces Spoon to face his own mortality. “Do you ever feel like your luck’s run out, man? Lately, I’ve been feeling like my luck’s been running out.” These lines take on a rather eerie significance when you realize that Shakur was killed shortly after this film finished shooting.

And so, the two struggling musicians make a New Year’s resolution: to go into rehab and get off drugs for good. The only problem is that not only are they constantly given the runaround, hassled, and turned away by government workers, but an evil and very persistent drug dealer (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his henchman (Tom Towles) are also pursuing them.

Now, this may sound like the makings of a moralistic film but Gridlock’d refuses to fall into this trap. Instead, it comes across as a very stylish social satire — a strong indictment against the United States health care system and their welfare programs. The ultimate irony is that Stretch and Spoon want to do the right thing but their attempts are constantly thwarted at every turn by overburdened social workers that are too burnt out to care.

Gridlock'd marks the directorial debut of Vondie Curtis-Hall, an actor by trade who has appeared in such films as Die Hard 2 (1990), Broken Arrow (1996), and a regular spot on television's Chicago Hope. Hall wrote the screenplay for Gridlock'd in 1993 and it was originally conceived of as his final film school project, based on his actual experiences with drug addiction in the 1970s in Detroit. "Heroin is the drug of the '90s. But it was also the drug of the '70s, when I was doing it," he said in an interview. Much like the two main characters in his film, Hall and a friend sought treatment for their addiction only to be told that it would take weeks for them to get admitted into a program.

But Hall kicked the habit, paid his dues an actor, and cashed in some favors to get this personal project off the ground. Polygram agreed to finance the film with a modest $5 million budget. Hall sent the script for Gridlock'd to actor Tim Roth while he was working on Rob Roy (1995). Initially, Roth wasn’t interested in doing the film but Hall met and convinced him to do it. For Roth, it was the script that attracted him to the film. "Normally you'd work through a screenplay and say, 'We'll have to change that and that and somehow try to make it work', but here the dialogue was always dead-on."

Hall wrote the character of Spoon with Laurence Fishburne in mind but couldn’t afford the veteran actor. He had considered Tupac Shakur for the role but thought that the rapper was too young and was also just out of jail. However, someone gave Shakur the script and Hall ended up auditioning the rapper who really wanted to do the film. Shakur made the cut and Hall said that with this film, the rapper “wanted to prove that he was a good actor,” and felt that he was “actually a lot like I was at the time the film was set. He wanted to sort himself out and was looking for some help.”

Gridlock’d’s strength lies in its two leads. The interaction between Roth and Shakur is excellent. For example, there is a scene where the two men sit at the bedside of their unconscious friend and Shakur delivers a heartfelt speech where he decides to stop doing drugs. It is an emotional moment as Shakur looks over at Roth who says nothing — he gives Shakur a little smile. It is an action that says a lot more about their friendship than any words could. They also display crackerjack comic timing with Roth’s Stretch a manic goofball to the laidback cool of Shakur’s Spoon. They play well off each other which is crucial in a buddy film like this one.

The visuals in Gridlock'd are also worth mentioning. The film's camerawork is very stylish but never overwhelms or obscures the story or its characters. Instead, the film's imagery only enhances the mood of any given scene. There is a great shot early in on the film when Spoon and Stretch wait in the hospital to hear any word on Cookie's condition. The two men are sitting on a bench with a huge mural of an idyllic setting: a peaceful cottage scene complete with lake and a sailboat. It is an ironic image when you consider where they are, what has happened, and how they feel. And yet, coupled with very soulful music on the soundtrack, it is an oddly peaceful image juxtaposed in a fast-paced film.

Gridlock’d was generally well-received by critics. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Still, maybe Hall made the smart bet, by positioning this story halfway between real life and a crime comedy. The world of these streets and tenements and hospitals and alleys is strung out and despairing, and the human comedy redeems it.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Shakur’s performance: “He played this part with an appealing mix of presence, confidence and humor.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Shakur and Roth, who seem born for these roles, are allowed to take charge – and have fun doing it.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and felt that Hall “hadn’t latched onto a particularly original notion of city blight. But he knows how to mine the humor in such desperation, stacking up explosive confrontations like a tilting tower of dirty dishes.”

Gridlock’d is filled with many such clever moments that elevate it above the usual drug movie. Without resorting to preachy sermons, it does an outstanding job of showing how bad the drug problem is the United States and how badly equipped they are in dealing with it. Gridlock’d is a smart film with plenty of humor and action to alleviate the rather serious subject matter. Best of all, it refuses to sentimentalize or romanticize its characters. And in an age of political correctness, this is a refreshing concept.

Here's a great clip from the film:


Monday, March 23, 2009

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was a film bound to polarize audiences and critics alike. Loving homage or blatant rip-off? It really depends on whether you love or hate this movie. Personally, I was transported away to this cinematic dreamland for the entire running time. Kerry Conran’s labor of love is an unabashed tribute to the old pulp serials of the 1920s and 1930s (Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, etc.). It succeeds where previous pulp serial homages of the 1990s failed (The Shadow, The Phantom, Dick Tracy). Like those films, Sky Captain successfully captures the look and feel of these vintage serials but, most importantly, it also stays true to their spirit — something that these other films failed to do (The Rocketeer as the lone exception). The road to its creation is a fascinating one, from a black and white independent film to big budget film released by a major studio.

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

DVD of the Week: Quantum of Solace: Two-Disc Special Edition

With the successful reboot of the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale (2006), fans speculated what the next adventure would be and who would be the director. With the new look and attitude expertly established by Martin Campbell, the producers made the decision to have Marc Forster helm the next one, Quantum of Solace (2008). At first, he seems like a rather odd candidate to direct as he’s known mainly for edgy independent films like Monster’s Ball (2001) and the sentimental biopic Finding Neverland (2004). However, his choice makes more sense once you realize that his films are predominantly character-driven and Casino Royale had much more of an emphasis on character than most other Bond films. The question would be could Forster handle the demanding action sequences?

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.

Special Features:

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

Running on Empty


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."

And so begins Running on Empty (1988), a film about choices: how important they can be and how they affect others. As the film progresses, Danny, the eldest son, is on the verge of being accepted to college. He is a gifted musician who discovers that he has a real chance at getting accepted into Juilliard. To make matters more complicated, he falls in love for the first time with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a smart, independent girl who shows Danny that he must develop a life of his own. As a result Danny must make the toughest choice of his life. Does he stay with his family, thereby sacrificing any chance for a life of his own, or does he take advantage of a shot at a real life and run the risk of never seeing his family again? The dramatic tension central to the film is the choice Danny must make and how it will affect those around him.
The film’s producers Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne first thought of the idea for Running on Empty in the early 1980s after reading a newspaper story on the arrest of two underground radicals in upstate New York. In 1983, Lorimar commissioned a screenplay. Screenwriter Naomi Foner was brought on board to work on the script and decided to tell the family’s story from the children’s’ perspective. She had known radicals who had gone underground and interviewed people who had lived that way, incorporating details from their lives into the script. Foner was also inspired by several women who were members of Students for a Democratic Society, now living in hiding with their children. Lorimar decided not to go ahead with production because the executives who had originally approved the project had been replaced.

Director Sidney Lumet read Foner’s script and decided to exercise an option he had as part of his contract with Lorimar that allowed him to produce one film of his choosing. Actress Christine Lahti was cast first and she had participated in the student unrest at the University of Michigan in her youth. She did a lot of reading as research and was fascinated by the support system that provides people who have gone underground with money, cheap housing and fake IDs. River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton were cast next.

Running on Empty is a film that refuses to restrict itself to a specific genre. As Lumet, points out, "it's not exactly a coming-of-age story. Danny, the older son, is already mature and knowledgeable. It's more about the consequences of our actions and the dynamics of what makes a family. These people's lives are a mess. The children are the only success they've got." If anything, Running on Empty is also a sobering look at the darker side of the '60s. Some people really wanted to change the world and found out that their actions, no matter how noble they seemed, had their consequences as well. The film shows how two people are forced to live with the actions of their past and how it has changed their lives and the lives of their children forever. However, the film ultimately focuses on Danny and his attempts to break free of his parents' problems and lead a normal life.

Danny's story is so powerful and interesting because of the intelligent screenplay by Naomi Foner and the performance by River Phoenix. Foner's script contains realistic dialogue so natural that it could have been plucked from real life. Her characters are not hackneyed stereotypes but engaging three-dimensional human beings that you come to love and care about over the course of the film. And this reaction is due in large part to the actors themselves: veterans like Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti and younger thespians like Phoenix and Martha Plimpton deliver outstanding performances.
The moments between Phoenix and Plimpton, in particular, are charged with emotion and intensity that has a real ring of honesty to it. There is a scene where Danny comes to see Lorna in the middle of the night and he sneaks her out of the house in order to tell her who he really is and why he is so evasive about revealing personal information. It is a warm, intimate moment that feels completely authentic. The way the two actors interact with each other is touching and very emotional because it seems so believable. Others must have thought so as well. Phoenix, only 17 years old at the time, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Danny as well as being named Best Supporting Actor by the National Board of Review and being nominated for a Golden Globe. It was a real testament to his acting ability and is without a doubt one of his best performances, equaled only by his work in Stand by Me (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991).

The film was barely given a decent theatrical release and was fairly well-received by critics at the time. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it "one of the best films of the year." In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "The courtship between Danny and Lorna is staged especially disarmingly, with Mr. Phoenix and Miss Plimpton conveying a sweet, serious and believably gradual attraction.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "A curious mix of soap opera and social history, Lumet's film shouldn't work, yet its fusion of oddly matched parts proves emotionally overpowering. You have to be pretty tough to resist it.” However, Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post wrote, “Running on Empty doesn't make much sense for the title of the movie ... but it does work as a description of the director. Sidney Lumet may be the laziest major director working today.”

Running on Empty is about making the kind of decisions that alter one's life. Danny's parents made a decision a long time ago and now it is their son's turn. What is so interesting about a film like this is that it explores the ramifications of these kinds of important decisions and how people live with the results. This film refuses to depict its characters in any kind of cliché manner, instead opting for a kind of realism that has a ring of honesty to it. After watching this film, you feel like you have just looked through the window into a very special world with characters that you grow to care about and admire. It is the kind of film that can affect you in a meaningful, emotional way that resonates long after the images fade from the screen. For all the seriousness of its subject matter, Running on Empty is a very entertaining film that refuses to give any easy answers to the complex problems it raises.


SOURCES

Deans, Laurie. “Following Her Heart is Lahti’s Style.” Globe & Mail. September 9, 1988.

Harmetz, Aljean. “River Phoenix Ranks Acting Below Animal Rights & Music.” The New York Times. January 5, 1989.

Kerr, Peter. “Campus Radicals Count the Cost of Commitment.” The New York Times. September 4, 1988.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Abyss

The more times I see The Abyss (1989), the more I am convinced that it is James Cameron's best film to date. Wedged between megahits, Aliens (1988), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Abyss was unfortunately lost in the shuffle. This may also have been due to the flood of leaky underwater films like Leviathan (1989) and Deep Star Six (1989) that were released around the same time. Even though The Abyss came out after these financial and critical failures, it was dismissed by most critics as yet another underwater disaster. Most reviewers were clearly tired of this string of underwater themed films and assumed that Cameron’s motion picture was no better than the rest. However, this is simply not the case with The Abyss, which, like many of Cameron's films, is filled with stunning visuals, a strong ensemble cast, and a solid story that is never sacrificed at the expense of the movie’s special effects.

As the film opens, a United States nuclear submarine is accidentally sunk by a mysterious, unidentified source under 2,000 feet of water off the coast of Cuba. Nearby, a corporate owned underwater oil-drilling rig commandeered by Virgil "Bud" Brigman (Ed Harris) is subsequently ordered to aid a group of Navy SEALs, led by the no-nonsense Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), to salvage the downed sub and search for survivors, if any. To make the situation even more interesting is the surprise arrival of Bud's soon-to-be ex-wife, Liz (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the rig and rejoins the crew to ensure that everything goes smoothly. As the mission progresses, a storm rages topside causing many problems for the rig and its crew. Add to this the growing tensions of nearby U.S. and Russian naval fleets and you have a potentially volatile situation. But this is only the beginning of a string of dilemmas that beset Bud and his cohorts who gradually realize that there is something else down there with them, and it may not be human.

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.
The bulk of The Abyss was shot in and around Gaffney, South Carolina. At first, this seems like a rather unlikely place to shoot an underwater epic, but it turned out to be the best place after their decision to shoot on-location became unrealistic. Cameron had originally planned to try filming in the Bahamas where the story is set, but soon realized that he had to have a totally controlled environment because of the stunts and special FX involved. To this end, Cameron found the Cherokee Nuclear Power Station, an abandoned site that proved to be ideal for what they needed. The film crew ended up shooting all of the underwater sequences (this comprised 40% of all live action principal photography) in two specially constructed concrete containment tanks: one holding 7.5 million gallons of water, and the other holding 2.5 million gallons.

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.
In addition, Cameron was also breaking new ground in the area of special visual effects, which were divided up among seven FX divisions with motion control work by Dream Quest Images and computer graphics and opticals by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM was brought on board to create the amazing water pseudopod and spent six months to create 75 seconds of computer graphics needed for the creature. However, this work caused the film’s release to be delayed from July 4, 1989 to August of the same year.

The production difficulties that plagued The Abyss have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. There were reports from South Carolina that Ed Harris was so upset by the physical demands of the film and Cameron’s dictatorial style that he said he would refuse to help promote the picture. The actor later denied it and did press for the film. He did admit that the daily mental and physical strain was very intense. He recalled, “One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out.” The actors were not happy about the slow pace of filming. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio remembered, “We never started and finished any one scene in any one day.” Michael Biehn was frustrated by the waiting. He claims that he was in South Carolina for five months and only acted for the three to four weeks. Cameron responded to these complaints by saying, “For every hour they spent trying to figure out what magazine to read, we spent an hour at the bottom of the tank breathing compressed air.”
Like all of Cameron's other films the action plays a secondary role to the central love story — whether it was between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in Terminator or Ripley and Newt in Aliens. In The Abyss we are presented with a disintegrating relationship between Bud and Liz. And yet, as the film progresses and we spend more time with these two people, we begin to realize that they still love each other and that this is what adds a real element of humanity to the special effects-laden film. But The Abyss is much more than that. It mixes elements of an exciting thriller, action film, and science fiction story together in one great package. The way the film is structured, we are presented with several small movies that, when linked together, comprise a larger whole. It is this wonderful structure that makes one realize that there is more going on than a search for a missing submarine.

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 deviates from Cameron's other features in the sense that it stresses the idea of settling disputes through non-violent means. Violence in the film is not the solution to the problem, but the source. This idea is illustrated through Lt. Coffey, the main instigator of violence in the film. His violent acts create the many problems that the protagonists face and this ultimately results in his demise. On the other hand, Liz personifies the peaceful alternative. Where the selfish Coffey sees anger and hatred, Liz is willing to sacrifice herself for others. She is the calming effect on everyone and her presence on the rig is pivotal in resolving many of the story’s conflicts. It's a refreshing view that you don't often see in films nowadays where everything is solved at the end of a gun. Unfortunately, this viewpoint seems to have disappeared from Cameron’s subsequent work, which has since regressed to the usual violent antics. Whether it was because of the film’s failure to connect and succeed on a mass level or the departure of long time partner, Gale Anne Hurd, is unknown, but with a film like True Lies (1994), Cameron seems to have abandoned a strong, independently minded female character for one that is objectified by the camera and on the receiving end of a lot of misogynistic behavior. It’s too bad because The Abyss contains none of this and instead points the way for a new kind of action-oriented film that stresses problem solving over violence, while still providing the requisite amount of thrills. This is a much-needed antidote to the mindless violence and anger that is problematic in so many films today.

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.”
The Abyss is a truly special film that never lags in pace or interest thanks to the many stunning visuals courtesy of breathtaking computer animation from Industrial Lights and Magic (effects that were the precursor to ones used in Terminator 2). There are also fascinating characters and exciting, often intense situations that keeps the viewer involved in the story. The Abyss is one of those rare films that you wish wouldn't end because the world and the characters that inhabit it are so compelling and exciting. This film demonstrates, yet again, that James Cameron is one the few directors who can make good science fiction films, with a strong story, a solid cast, and exceptional images that help elevate it above the usual Hollywood dreck and straight-to-video sci-fi clunkers. And that is truly something special at a time of militaristic, flag-waving propaganda like Independence Day (1996) which purports to be entertainment, but is just another mindless special effects workout.


SOURCES

Blair, Ian. “Underwater in The Abyss.” Starlog. September 1989.

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.