Thursday, May 28, 2009

Coming Soon: Michael Mann Week at Radiator Heaven!

Mark your calendars, folks. Here at Radiator Heaven, I'm planning a week-long celebration of Michael Mann's body of work from Sunday, June 28 to Saturday, July 4 - the week that his latest film Public Enemies debuts in theaters.

For more than twenty years, Chicago-born Mann has been making films and producing television programs. He is highly regarded by film critics and cineastes but largely unrecognized by the public at large. And yet, he is responsible for producing one of the most popular TV shows of all time: Miami Vice. Like fellow filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (of whom Mann greatly admires and is sometimes compared to), Mann likes to oversee and control every aspect of his films and push the boundaries of technological innovation in order to achieve his vision. Like, Kubrick, he has a relatively small but memorable output: ten films that contain similar thematic preoccupations and stylistic motifs. That is not to say his films are derivative. Mann has worked in several different genres: the horror film with The Keep (1983), the period drama with The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the sports biopic with Ali (2001). He is perhaps best known for his work in the urban crime thriller genre of which many of his most celebrated films (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral) could be classified as such.

I am looking for contributions in the form of articles, essays, a collection of images or whatever else floats your boat so long as it pertains to any of Mann's films or TV shows. If you're interested, leave a comment below with links to contributions on your blog
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You can also show your support for this blogathon on your own blog with one of these handy dandy banners below:









"It's the intensity of the experience, the power of film to make you dream, to take over your nervous system and sweep you away. It's because I love being swept away and I love the power of this medium to do that, intellectually and emotionally." – Michael Mann

DVD of the Week: The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Criterion Collection

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is one of those forgotten films from the 1970s. It’s a melancholic story of small-time criminals working on the fringes of Boston’s underworld. It’s not exactly the kind of feel-good story that lights up the box office but it is one of those fascinating, character-driven films that amazingly made its way through the studio system at a time when executives were willing to roll the dice on more challenging fare.

Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) is a minor league gunrunner who’s been around the block quite a few times as evident in a nice scene that introduces him making a deal with Jackie Brown (Keats), a guy who gets him all kinds of guns. The dialogue in this scene is well-written and delivered expertly by both Robert Mitchum and Steven Keats. The scene also provides some insight into Mitchum’s character as well as getting the narrative ball rolling. Coyle is looking at a stretch in prison for a job he did for Dillon (Boyle), a bartender who snitches to Dave Foley (Jordan), a cop. The film also follows a group of bank robbers led by a man named Scalise (Rocco) and his partner Artie Van (Santos). Coyle is trying to strike some kind of deal with Foley to stay out of prison because he has to support his family. Coyle supplies the bankrobbers with their guns and the question becomes, will he rat these guys out to save his own skin or will he give up Brown?

Paul Monash’s screenplay features the kind of conversational tough guy dialogue Quentin Tarantino wishes he could write. It’s strictly no frills and crackles with authenticity like you imagine the way criminals would really talk to each other. Almost every criminal interaction is rife with tension as we wait for someone to double-cross somebody else, especially in the scene where Brown buys a bunch of machine guns from three guys.

Nobody plays a world-weary yet savvy crook quite like Robert Mitchum who inhabits the role of Eddie Coyle effortlessly. Coyle is the kind of street-level crook that you see in a film like Mean Streets (1973). He leads the kind of blue collar existence that you could easily see him working in a factory instead of running guns. Mitchum is part of a solid ensemble cast that features the likes of Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Alex Rocco, and Joe Santos – all wonderful character actors who play their respective parts with complete conviction.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle presents an enthralling look at the levels of this particular criminal underworld and how it functions. There is nothing glamorous about how this world and the people who inhabit it are depicted. They are all just trying to get by. Peter Yates directs the film with the same no-nonsense approach that he applied to Bullitt (1968). The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a slice-of-life tale about a criminal in the twilight of his career trying to avoid a prison stretch and faced with some tough choices that he must make. If you’ve seen a number of crime films from the ‘70s then you pretty much know how this one’s going to end – most criminals either go to prison or wind up dead. However, this inevitability does nothing to detract from the superb way this film eventually plays out. Kudos to the folks at Criterion for pulling this one out of the archives and giving it the new lease on life that it deserves.

Special Features:

Unfortunately, the extras on this DVD are slim at best. As per usual, the accompanying booklet contains a well-written essay by film critic Kent Jones and an excellent profile of Mitchum published in Rolling Stone around the time of the film’s release.

There is an audio commentary by director Peter Yates. He cites The Friends of Eddie Coyle as one of the three favorites of his career because of the cast and the location. They shot entirely in Boston. Naturally, he talks about working with Mitchum and praises his style of acting. Yates says that they used as much of the dialogue from the novel as possible because it so authentically represented the rhythms of the way people speak in Boston.

Also included is a Stills Gallery of rare, behind-the-scenes photographs including scenes that were deleted.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Long Goodbye


“I felt that the film was almost an essay, an education, to the audience, to say, ‘Stop looking at everything exactly the same way.’” – Robert Altman

When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, United Artists promptly bungled its ad campaign. Robert Altman's film radically reworked Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name and the studio had no idea how to market the offbeat movie. It polarized critics and promptly disappeared from theaters. People weren’t ready for its offbeat vibe and the way it satirized Los Angeles culture. However, it was Elliott Gould’s unusual take on private investigator Philip Marlowe that drew the lion’s share of people’s criticism. His loose, easy-going style flew in the face of the traditional interpretation made famous by Humphrey Bogart and was tantamount to heresy among cinephiles but in retrospect paved the way for a film like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), which also confounded the mainstream with its own eccentric take on West Coast culture.

While trying in vain to feed his cat late one night, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) receives a visit from his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, Mexico. When he returns home, the police are waiting for him and claim that Lennox brutally murdered his wife. Marlowe does not believe that his good friend is a murderer and refuses to tell the police anything. After three days in jail, he's released when the police inform him that Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. It's an open and shut case but something doesn't quite sit right with Marlowe. He is subsequently hired by the wealthy Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her alcoholic husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a famous author with an Ernest Hemingway complex. Marlowe learns that the Wades knew the Lennoxes and that there is more to Terry's suicide and his wife's murder than initially reported.

The Long Goodbye is bookended by the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and the song quickly fades out as if to signal that this film will not be a classic noir take on Chandler. Marlowe wakes up after an undetermined period of time. How long has he been asleep? He mutters to himself while trying to feed his cat, a very fickle pet that will only eat a specific brand of food, and when he tries to fool the feline with another brand hidden in an old can, the cat bolts. So what is the purpose of the first ten minutes of the film dedicated to Marlowe feeding his cat? First off, it establishes that this is going to be a very different take on Chandler’s book and that Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox, is as fickle as his cat – he only hangs around Marlowe when he needs him but when he’s no longer of use, he splits. This opening scene came from a story a friend of Altman’s told him about his cat only eating one type of cat food.
The Long Goodbye is much more than a murder mystery. Taking Chandler's novel set in the 1940s and updating it to the 1970s, Altman is also interested in satirizing the superficiality of L.A. culture. Marlowe is surrounded by an odd cast of denizens that populate the city: his neighbors are a group of women who spend their time getting high and doing yoga with very little clothes on, the security guard for the Wade's gated community does impersonations of famous actors like Barbara Stanwyk and Jimmy Stewart, and Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a nasty gangster who is proud of his Jewish heritage. Throughout it all, Marlowe repeats his own personal mantra of sorts, “It’s okay with me,” which personifies his easy-going nature.

The heart of the film is Elliot Gould. His Marlowe is a laid-back guy in a rumpled suit that wanders through the film muttering jokes to himself and chain smoking constantly. Gould's character is man out of time, a throwback to another era, which provides a sharp contrast to the trendy, health-obsessed '70s culture that surrounds him. Altman nicknamed Gould’s character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been wandering around L.A. in the early ‘70s but “trying to invoke the morals of a previous era.” The actor delivers a wonderful assortment of smart-ass comments to anyone who gives him trouble but also knows when to play it straight during key dramatic moments. He’s also not afraid to improvise in a given scene like when the police interrogate him and he smears the fingerprinting ink under his eyes like a football player and then applies it to the rest of his face a la Al Jolson, riffing off the police officer that is giving him a hard time. Gould delivers a multi-layered performance that ranks right up there with his other classic Altman films, M.A.S.H. (1970) and California Split (1974). There was clearly a creative synergy between the two men that resulted in both of their best work to date.

Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner commissioned a screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had written the script for the Humphrey Bogart version of The Big Sleep (1946). The producers offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Both directors passed on it but Bogdanovich recommended Altman, whom he admired. Bick and Kastner sent Brackett’s script to Altman while he was shooting Images (1972) in Ireland. Brian Hutton was supposed to direct but was offered another film and Altman took over. Initially, he didn’t want to do it until he was told that Gould would be cast as Marlowe.

In adapting the book, Brackett had problems with its plot which she felt was “riddled with clichés” and was faced with the choice of doing it as a period piece or updating it. Altman and Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. He wanted Marlowe to be a loser. Her first draft was too long and she shortened it but the ending was inconclusive. She had Marlowe shooting Terry Lennox because it was the way Hutton wanted it. Altman liked the ending because it was so out of character for Marlowe. He agreed to direct but only if the ending was not changed.
Altman conceived of the film as a satire and it was his decision to cast Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt. The director only knew Van Pallandt from The Johnny Carson Show and from the Clifford Irving scandal. He felt that she resembled a character from Chandler’s novel and the studio allowed him to do a screen test. He also made all kinds of changes to the script, like Wade’s suicide and Marty Augustine smashing the Coke bottle into his girlfriend’s face. Altman did not read Chandler’s book and instead gave copies of Raymond Chandler Speaking to the cast and crew and advised them to study the author’s literary essays. Altman originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Roger Wade but he died just before shooting began and the director was persuaded to meet with Sterling Hayden.

When Bogdanovich was briefly attached to the project, he wanted Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin to portray Philip Marlowe. United Artists president David Picker may have picked Elliott Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct the film. Bogdanovich did not see Gould in the role because he was “too new” and left the project. Brian Hutton also wanted Gould to play the private detective. At the time, Gould was box office poison in Hollywood after his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger where he argued with co-star Kim Darby, exchanged blows with director Anthony Harvey, and abused drugs as well as being unreliable and absent. Warner Bros. stopped the production early on and Gould claimed that he was blamed for its failure. The studio collected on an insurance policy that attested the actor was crazy. For The Long Goodbye, United Artists gave Gould the requisite physical before approving his contract and demanded a psychological exam to determine that the actor was mentally stable. Gould read the first draft of Brackett’s script described it as a “pastiche” and very convoluted. Altman called Gould to discuss the film and the actor told him that he always wanted to play Marlowe. Altman asked Gould to read the novel as well as Chandler on Chandler. Gould discovered that he was exactly the same age, height, and weight as Marlowe.
When it came to the scenes between Marlowe and Wade, Altman had Gould and Hayden ad-lib most of the dialogue. Hayden, with his long, scraggily beard and scattershot delivery of his dialogue, is great as the eccentric writer who constantly refers to Marlowe as “Marlboro” (“the Duke of Bullshit,” he adds at one point), in reference to his ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Hayden delivers a wonderfully unpredictable performance full of bluster and eccentric line readings. According to Altman, Hayden improvised a lot of his dialogue and was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time. In the scene where Marlowe tries to save Wade from drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean, Gould almost drowned when he went out too far. He was only able to do three takes. The director decided that the camera should never stop moving and put the camera on a dolly. However, the camera movements would counter the actions of the characters so that the audience would feel like a voyeur. To compensate for the harsh light of southern California, Altman gave the film a soft, pastel look reminiscent of old postcards from the 1940s.

Mark Rydell is something else as Marty Augustine. In the first scene we see him in he threatens Marlowe, then talks sweetly to his girlfriend, and then goes back to menacing Marlowe. At times, Augustine is downright charming and then he suddenly and shockingly smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face just to make a point. With the shocking violence of this scene, Altman said, “It was supposed to get the attention of the audience and remind them that, in spite of Marlowe, there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.” Augustine is clearly a psychopath and Rydell nails the character’s shifting moods with unsettling intensity. The Coke bottle scene is like a cold splash of water to the face and it causes not only the audience to sit up and notice but Marlowe as well, who, up to this point, has mostly been in his own little world. Now, Marlowe has a real, vested interest in what happened to his friend Lennox because he owed Augustine a lot of money and is now threatening Marlowe’s life.
The Long Goodbye was previewed at the Tarrytown Conference Center in New York. The gala was hosted by Judith Crist, then the film critic for New York magazine. Altman flew in for the Q&A session. The film was not well-received by the audience except for Nina Van Pallandt’s performance, which got good notices. The mood at the Q&A was “vaguely hostile” and afterwards Altman was reportedly “depressed.” The Long Goodbye did not fair well in its limited release in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. As a result, the New York City opening was canceled at the last minute after several advance screenings had already been held for the press.

The Long Goodbye received mixed reaction from critics and performed poorly at the box office because of the unconventional story, plot, and character changes from the novel. Sight and Sound and The Film Quarterly attacked the depiction of private detective Philip Marlowe, saying: “one can not satirize or destroy a hero image until one defines it.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wasn’t crazy about the film either: "Altman's lazy, haphazard putdown is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire.”
The film was abruptly withdrawn from release by United Artists with rumors that it would be re-edited. Altman went to Picker and told him, “No wonder the fucking picture is failing. It’s giving the wrong impression. You make it look like a thriller and it’s not, it’s a satire.” The studio analyzed the reviews for six months and concluded that the advertising campaign was too narrow. They created a new release strategy for The Long Goodbye with a novel ad campaign that featured a poster illustrated by legendary Mad magazine artist Jack Davis. Altman explained that he “had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre.” United Artists spent $40,000, and the New York City première was profitably and critically successful. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Don’t be misled by the ads, The Long Goodbye is not a put-on. It’s great fun and it’s funny, but it’s a serious, unique work.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Elliott Gould's "good performance, particularly the virtuoso ten-minute stretch at the beginning of the movie when he goes out to buy food for his cat. Gould has enough of the paranoid in his acting style to really put over Altman's revised view of the private eye." The Long Goodbye ended up on The New York Times’ year-end Ten Best list. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond won the National Society of Film Critics’ award for best cinematography in 1973. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the film still failed to perform well elsewhere.

The Long Goodbye has endured and become one of Altman’s signature films. It also has some famous fans, chief among them the Coen brothers who cite it as their favorite of Altman’s and an influence on The Big Lebowski. Aside from being a cheeky satire on Hollywood almost as much as The Player (1992) was, a later Altman film that brought him back into the mainstream, it is a film about loyalty. By the end of the film, Marlowe has learned a valuable lesson – there are some friends you don’t stick your neck out for. He is loyal to a fault and realizes that Lennox wasn’t the friend that he thought he was. As the Altman quote states at the beginning of this article, Marlowe is forced to stop looking at everything exactly the same way, just as we are, and see his friend for who he truly is.


SOURCES

Gardner, Paul. “Long Goodbye Proves a Big Sleeper Here.” The New York Times. November 8, 1973.


Kass, Judith M. Robert Altman: American Innovator. Warner Books. 1978.

Friday, May 22, 2009

DVD of the Week: Taken: Two-Disc Extended Edition

When Taken (2008) was finally released in North America, after already playing in Europe for a year, it became a surprise hit. Not bad for what is essentially a B-movie revenge story starring an A-list actor. The film was produced by French filmmaker Luc Besson, who’s responsible for action classics like La Femme Nikita (1990) and The Professional (1994). He also produced and co-wrote the popular Transporter films so he certainly knows what audiences around the world want to see.

Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) loves his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Even though he and his wife (Famke Janssen) are divorced, that doesn’t stop him from going to his daughter’s birthday party. He’s a retired government agent skilled in counter-terrorist tactics and is coaxed into doing a routine protection job by his buddies. This sub-plot gives us an early indication of how good Mills is at his job so that we believe he is capable of what he does during the course of the rest of the film.

Kim decides to spend the summer in Paris and this doesn’t sit well with her father who isn’t crazy about the idea of his 17-year-old daughter living in a strange country, especially when he finds out that she’s following U2 all over Europe. It only takes a few hours before Kim and her friend are kidnapped in Paris by a group of Albanians. It doesn’t take long for Mills to do a background check on these guys, fly to Paris to find his daughter and make the guys who took her pay dearly for their crimes. As soon as Mills lands in Paris, Taken kicks into high gear as he uses his considerable skill sets to deadly effect.

The filmmakers do a nice job of establishing Mills’ love for his daughter and it doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson comes across as very sympathetic and likable with eyes that can be warm in one scene and then convey icy determination in the next. He is also believable as a one man killing machine who can work his way through the Paris underworld to find his child. Taken was directed by Pierre Morel who also helmed the vastly entertaining French action film District B13 (2004). With that film, he demonstrated a knack for staging and choreographing exciting and visceral action sequences.

With Taken, Morel is also able to have the audience develop an emotional connection with Neeson’s character as well as delivering kickass action scenes. The film delivers exactly what it promises: an excellent and entertaining thrill ride with no frills. It is as single-minded as its protagonist’s mission and plugs in exciting car chases, fight scenes and gun battles. And yet, you are still emotionally invested in Neeson’s character – you care about what happens to him and his daughter. The result is a truly satisfying and engaging film.

Special Features:

On the 2-Disc edition, you have the option of watching the theatrical version or the unrated cut.

There is an audio commentary by director Pierre Morel and cinematographers Michel Abramowicz and Michel Julienne. They decided on two distinctive looks for the film: sunny and vibrant colours for Los Angeles and a darker vibe for Paris. They talk about the differences between American and French film crews. They also praise Liam Neeson’s ability to play a loving father and a deadly killing machine. They also talks about the challenges of working in a city like Paris.

Also included is a commentary by co-screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. He mentioned that he’s been writing for 30 years with 15 of them with Luc Besson. They met on The Fifth Element (1997). He worked with the filmmaker on creating a production company in Europe writing “low-impact action movies.” Kamen says that the premise of the film was based on a story Besson heard from a French cop. Kamen also talks about how he writes with Besson and praises his “cinematic vision.”

“Le Making Of” is fairly standard if not engaging press kit material with the main cast talking about their characters and the story with clips from the film. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of some of the film’s exciting action sequences being shot.

“Avant Premiere” features footage of the film’s world premiere in France with Neeson, Morel and Besson doing interviews on the red carpet. There is haunting footage of Neeson and his late wife Natasha Richardson who was also in attendance.

Finally, there is “Inside Action: Side by Side Comparisons,” which takes a look at six action sequences being filmed along with the finished product.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eddie and the Cruisers

When Eddie and the Cruisers came out in 1983 it was either ignored or received negatively by critics and performed poorly at the box office. However, over the years it has quietly cultivated a small but dedicated cult following. The film is primarily a mystery – what happened to musician Eddie Wilson? – and it also an unabashed love letter to rock ‘n’ roll and the New Jersey shore in the 1960s. It has been over 25 years since the film was released and it is high time for a re-evaluation of this under-appreciated gem.

Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin) is a journalist for Media magazine and is doing a retrospective piece on Eddie and the Cruisers, a New Jersey bar band that was a minor sensation in the 1960s with one hit record and the top song in country during the summer of 1963. The band were working on an ambitious follow-up when lead singer Eddie Wilson (Michael Pare) drove his car off a pier and met with a watery demise on March 15, 1964. Or did he? No body was found. Maggie’s hook is that maybe Eddie didn’t die. She draws a parallel between him and French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who like Eddie, pulled a disappearing act at the height of his popularity while striving for perfection in his art. Now, everyone is looking for the master tapes of A Season in Hell, the album that was to be Eddie’s magnum opus, and which also disappeared only a day after Eddie vanished.

Through a series of flashbacks from all of the surviving band members, we see the rise and fall of Eddie and the Cruisers. The film is told predominantly from the point-of-view of Frank “The Wordman” Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), the band’s piano player and lyricist. He teaches English in high school now but Maggie’s questions bring all the old memories flooding back. The first flashback takes us back to 1962, while President John F. Kennedy was still in the White House, and when the United States was still a relatively innocent and hopeful country. Eddie and the Cruisers meet Frank at a bar in the Jersey Shore. Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance), their bass player, has been writing their songs but they aren’t enough for Eddie who tells him, “it just ain’t what I was looking for.” Eddie spots Frank and asks him what he thinks. Frank impresses Eddie with his knowledge of writing when he points out that Sal’s song needs a caesura, “a timely pause, a kind of strategic silence.” This is pretty high-falootin’ stuff for a rock ‘n’ roll movie and an indicator that this film aspires to be something different.

Eddie dreams of creating music that endures and director Martin Davidson juxtaposes these almost wistful sentiments with Sal’s contemporary Cruisers revival that is pure Las Vegas cheese, bastardizing the music as a lame lounge act where he finally gets to front the band. He embodies the very thing that Eddie was against – prostituting yourself instead of remaining true to the music. Sal’s version of the Cruisers, complete with an Eddie wannabe, is like when you see Lynyrd Skynyrd with only one original member of the band left – a pale imitation of its former self.

Davidson has said that the inspiration for the film came from a desire to "get all my feelings about the music of the last 30 years of rock music into it.” He optioned P.F. Kluge’s novel of the same name with his own money and at great financial risk. He wrote the screenplay with Arlene Davidson and decided to use a Citizen Kane-style story structure. He said in an interview, “That was in my head: the search.” He made a deal with Time-Life, a company that was going into the moviemaking business. However, they quickly exited the business after making two films that were not financially successful and Davidson’s project was left high and dry. He was understandably upset and a couple days later he went out to dinner and ran into a secretary who worked on the first film he had made. Davidson told her what had happened to his film and she gave his script for Eddie and the Cruisers to her business partners. In a relatively short time a deal was struck with a company called Aurora and Davidson was given a $6 million budget. Aurora made only three films – The Secret of NIMH (1982), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), and his film.

In order to get a credible looking and sounding band for the film, Davidson hired Kenny Vance, one of the original members of Jay and the Americans. He showed Davidson his scrapbook, the places they performed, the car they drove in, and things like how they transported their instruments. Vance also told Davidson stories about his band, some of which he incorporated into the script. Vance asked Davidson to describe his fictious band and what their music sounded like. Initially, he said that the Cruisers’ sound resembled Dion and the Belmonts but when they meet Frank they had elements of Jim Morrison and The Doors. However, Davidson did not want to lose sight of the fact that the Cruisers were essentially a Jersey bar band and he thought of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Davidson told Vance to find him someone that could produce music that contained elements of those three bands. Davidson was getting close to rehearsals when Vance called him and told him that he had found the band – John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band from Providence, Rhode Island. Davidson met them and realized that they closely resembled the band as described in the script, right down to a black saxophone player, whom he actually cast in the film. Initially Cafferty was hired to write a few songs for the film but he did such a good job of capturing the feeling of the 1960s and the 1980s that Davidson asked him to score the film

Tom Berenger did not try to learn how to play the piano for the film but did practice keyboards for hours in his trailer to at least create the illusion that he could play. Matthew Laurance actually learned how to play the bass through rehearsals. Michael Pare said of his role in the film that it was "a thrill I've never experienced. It's a really weird high. For a few moments, you feel like a king, a god. It's scary, a dangerous feeling. If you take it too seriously." Davidson had the actors who played in Eddie's band rehearse as if they were getting ready for a real concert. Pare remembers, "The first time we played together – as a band – was a college concert. An odd thing happened. At first, the extras simply did what they were told. Then, as the music heated up, so did the audience. They weren't play-acting anymore. The screaming, stomping and applause became spontaneous.” Davidson recalls, "One by one, kids began standing up in their seats, screaming and raising their hands in rhythmic applause. A few girls made a dash for the stage, tearing at Michael's shirt. We certainly hadn't told them to do that. But we kept the cameras rolling.”

The filmmakers do a pretty good job recreating the period details on a modest budget at best. There’s the cool cars, the clothes, and so on, but more importantly there is a tangible atmosphere of simpler times and nostalgia. This is encapsulated in the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll music of the Cruisers that sounds a lot like early Springsteen. There is also a little bit of period music, most notably Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” that is used to immediately transport you back to that time. As soon you hear that distinctive song it instantly invokes that period and there is no question where we are.

What Eddie and the Cruisers nails so well is the dynamic between the members in the band, like how Sal gets on Eddie’s nerves, or how a romance develops between Frank and Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), the band’s back-up singer. Davidson’s film shows how the band members bicker among each other but come together when it counts – playing live, where they know how to energize an audience. The film presents several band archetypes – the charismatic lead singer, the junkie band mate, the arrogant one, the laid back one, and the thoughtful one – but without being too obvious about it. Joann is the Patti Scialfa to Eddie’s Bruce Springsteen but Frank falls for her the first time they meet in ’62. There are certainly sparks between them but as anyone who’s been in a band knows, the fastest way to break one up is getting romantically involved with a fellow bandmate.

One of the best scenes in the film that illustrates the band’s dynamic is the flashback showing how their biggest hit, “On the Dark Side,” evolved. Eddie takes Frank’s slow ballad and spruces it up with a catchy up-tempo keyboard melody. Pretty soon the rest of the band joins and a hit is born. This scene shows what a great team Eddie and Frank are – the former supplies the music and the latter supplies the words. It also shows Eddie’s uncanny ear for what works in a song.

Michael Pare really sells the music well and delivers just the right amount of energy and charisma. It helps that the vocals he’s lip-synching to fit him well. You almost believe that he’s really singing. Pare also portrays Eddie as tantalizingly elusive and enigmatic. You are never quite sure what he’s thinking and he’s a man of few words but clearly has ambitions above and beyond entertaining an audience. With the album A Season in Hell, Eddie wanted to create something different and when the powers that be tried to deny him, he disappeared. Along with Streets of Fire (1984), Eddie and the Cruisers was supposed to make Pare a big movie star but both films tanked commercially and critically. Now, he’s relegated mostly to direct-to-home-video fare.

Tom Berenger conveys a slightly sad, wistful vibe as Frank clearly misses the times he had with the band. He has made peace with his lot in life. He’s no longer a musician and his ambitions died alongside Eddie. I always liked Berenger and he’s wonderfully understated in this film. He would go on to the role of a lifetime in Platoon (1986), which was the antithesis to his role in Eddie and the Cruisers and showcased his versatility as an actor. Prior to this film, he also had a memorable turn in The Big Chill (1983). For awhile it looked like he would be leading man material but he has settled rather nicely into character actor roles.

A young Ellen Barkin plays the persistent reporter who tries to unravel the mystery of Eddie’s death. She looks so young and beautiful in this film but isn’t given too much screen time. Looking back, she had a pretty fantastic run in the 1980s with this film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), The Big Easy (1987), and ended the decade in style with Sea of Love (1989). Joe Pantoliano plays the Cruisers’ manager with the same kind of enthusiasm that he would display in other memorable roles in the 1980s, like Risky Business (1983), The Mean Season (1985), and Midnight Run (1988).

Eddie and the Cruisers was originally intended to open during the summer but a scheduling error resulted in a September release when its target audience – teenagers – were back in school. It was released on September 23, 1983 and grossed $1.4 million on its opening weekend. The film was pulled from theaters after three weeks and all of the ads were pulled after one week. It would go on to make a disappointing $4.7 million in North America.

Eddie and the Cruisers received largely mixed to negative reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and found the ending “so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory, that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Some of the details ring uncannily true, like the slick oldies nightclub act that one of the Cruisers is still doing nearly 20 years after Eddie's supposed death. Other aspects of the movie are inexplicably wrong. Eddie's music sounds good, but it also sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen’s, and it would not have been the rage in 1963.” However, she did praise Pare's performance: "Mr. Pare makes a fine debut; he captures the manner of a hot-blooded young rocker with great conviction, and his lip-synching is almost perfect.” Gary Arnold, in the Washington Post, wrote, "At any rate, it seemed to me that what Eddie and the Cruisers aspired to do was certainly worth doing. The problem is that it finally lacks the storytelling resources to tell enough of an intriguing story about a musical mystery man.”

In 1984, Eddie and the Cruisers found new life on HBO. After the soundtrack album suddenly climbed the charts, the studio re-released it in the fall of 1984. During its play dates on HBO, the album sold three million copies. Nine months after the film opened, “On the Dark Side,” the Cruisers big hit in the film, was the number one song in the country. Embassy Pictures re-released the film for one-week based on successful summer cable screenings and popular radio single but it failed to perform at the box office. The film and the album eventually did well enough to make way for a sequel – Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives (1989) – that saw Eddie as a construction worker in Montreal (?!). Davidson was offered the sequel but was not crazy about the idea and wanted no part of it. With the exception of Pare, Laurance and Cafferty, nobody from the first film had anything to do with it and the less said about this awful film the better. After the commercial failure of the first film, Davidson has continued to work steadily, mostly in television, directing episodes of Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Judging Amy but has been inactive since 2002.

It’s interesting that the initial rise and fall of Eddie and the Cruisers mirrors the arc of President Kennedy. The band peaks during his presidency and Eddie disappears and his band breaks up after Kennedy is assassinated and the country was thrown into turmoil and disillusionment. This parallel seems more than just a coincidence so I’m sure Davidson had it mind when he wrote the screenplay. What is so endearing about Eddie and the Cruisers is the idealism that permeates the film as embodied by Eddie’s desire to create songs that will allow him “to fold ourselves up in them forever,” as he tells Frank at one point. The film has an internal conscience and celebrates the notion that music can take you to another place and make you forget about your daily problems for a few minutes. This is tempered by a melancholic tone that permeates all of the scenes that take place in the present. Eddie’s death and the end of the Cruisers hangs like a heavy cloud over the surviving members and all of the old feelings and memories are dredged up thanks to Maggie’s inquiries.

Eddie and the Cruisers celebrates getting lost in the music and how it makes you feel. This is pretty ambitious stuff for a little a film about a reclusive singer for a bar band. And, for the most part, the film pulls it off. Along with Almost Famous (2000) and Hard Core Logo (1996), it is definitely one of my favorite films about a fictious band. Davidson is still proud of his film but is bitter about how it was handled. “That picture should have been a theatrical success. There was an audience for it. People still watch it and still tell me about it.” Eddie and the Cruisers has aged surprisingly well and over time all the good notes are intact.

I would be remiss without giving a shout-out to John Kenneth Muir's book, The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia for providing the bulk of the production information contained in this article.

Here's the trailer:


Friday, May 15, 2009

DVD of the Week: Galaxy Quest: Deluxe Edition

When Galaxy Quest was released in 1999, it was a modest success but it certainly didn’t light the world on fire. Over the years, it has quietly amassed something of a cult following who delight in the film’s affectionately satirical jabs at the Star Trek franchise and its fans, specifically the first incarnation with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. With this new Deluxe Edition DVD, it is about time for Galaxy Quest to be revisited and re-evaluated.

Like Star Trek, Galaxy Quest was a popular science fiction television program featuring the adventures of the “intrepid crew” of the NSEA Protector. There’s Connie Madison as played by Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), the requisite eye candy, Laredo as played by Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), the ship’s pilot, Dr. Lazarus as played by Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), the very Mr. Spock-like alien adviser, Tech Sergeant Chip as played by Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), the ship’s chief engineer, and Peter Quincy Taggart as played by Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the two-fisted captain.

The show has been over for years but the cast still frequents fan conventions, signing autographs and reliving their glory days, which has gotten to be a tedious chore. Nesmith has a raging ego and is something of a glory hound, much to the chagrin of his castmates, but when he overhears two non-fans slam him, the show and its fans, he suffers a mighty blow to his ego and begins to question his lot in life. Along come four aliens, Thermians from the Klaatu nebula who plead for his help. They have seen the show, or “historical documents” as they call it, and think that Nesmith and his cast are the real deal. They implore for his help against another alien race that is systematically hunting down and exterminating their race.

Nesmith is beamed aboard an actual working, full-blown version of his spacecraft from the show. Of course, he thinks that it’s just another publicity gig through the haze of a brutal hangover, that is, until he’s teleported back to Earth via a wormhole. Pretty soon, his disgruntled castmates are recruited along with Guy (Sam Rockwell), a glorified extra who played Crewman #6 in one episode of the show and was promptly killed off. Everyone is going to have to put aside their gripes with one another if they hope to survive and prevail.

Galaxy Quest does a spot-on job poking fun at the archetypes from the Star Trek with Tim Allen playing the William Shatner/James T. Kirk type, Alan Rickman playing the Leonard Nimoy/Spock type, and so on. The way the cast plays their respective roles not only relies on our knowledge of their Star Trek counterparts, but also the people who played them. That’s not to say that you have to be familiar with Star Trek to enjoy Galaxy Quest but it certainly helps and you will enjoy the film even more.

All of the cast do an excellent job, in particular Tony Shalhoub as the perpetually mellow engineer – his Zen-like reactions to the various dangers that he and his fellow actors face are hilarious – and Sam Rockwell as the freaked-out crewman who is convinced that that he’s going to be killed at any moment, just like on the show – he plays the character with the same kind of hilarious paranoia as Bill Paxton’s memorable character in Aliens (1986). Look closely and you’ll see The Office’s Rainn Wilson in a small role as a Thermian and Live Free and Die Hard’s (2007) Justin Long as an uber fan.

Galaxy Quest is a fun film that pays an affectionate tribute to shows like Star Trek while also gently poking fun at some of its clichés. It is also rather ironic that the film sends up a show known for its clunky special effects with its own state-of-the-art (at the time) visual effects by Stan Winston and Industrial Lights and Magic. Galaxy Quest starts off lampooning science fiction and its more obsessive fan culture but then halfway through celebrates it. The film is just flat-out entertaining and fun to watch, while managing to accomplish what many thought impossible – actually getting a good performance out of Tim Allen.

Special Features:

“Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest” is a retrospective making of featurette that has key cast and crew members reminiscing about the experience of working on the film. They take us through its origins and we see how the original concept was quite different but was tweaked over time. In a nice touch, the main cast members return and tell all kinds of filming anecdotes, clearly looking back at this project with genuine affection.

“Never Give Up, Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector” takes a look at the cast of Galaxy Quest and they talk about how they approached their respective roles. The filmmakers talk about why they cast the actors that are in the film and everyone dishes more wonderful stories.

“By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects” takes a look at the film’s snazzy visual effects. They had Stan Winston do the aliens while ILM do the special effects. Winston speaks about his creations in archival footage.

“Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race” examines the alien race that enlists the help of the Galaxy Quest crew. Actor Enrico Colantoni talks about how he came up with his character’s voice.

“Actors in Space” takes a look at how the cast made fun of their profession and their character archetypes.

“Sigourney Weaver Raps” features a taped message that she made for her agent’s birthday where the veteran actress raps with help from her fellow castmates.

Also included are eight deleted scenes that feature more with Fred Kwan as he tours the ship’s engineering section with his Zen-like calmness. There is a scene where the cast are shown their quarters based on their characters’ personalities from the show. And we also get more of them bickering among each other on the alien planet.

“Thermian Audio Track” allows you to watch the entire film dubbed in the alien language, which is actually pretty funny but I don’t know if you would ever watch it more than once.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Traffic

NOTE: This article first appeared over the Film for the Soul blog for the very ambitious and awesome Counting Down the Zeroes series.

By the time Steven Soderbergh made Traffic (2000), he was at the zenith of his powers and popularity having just come off the crowd pleaser, yet socially conscious Erin Brockovich (2000), with an even more powerful critique on a problem that plagues the United States – the war on drugs. He depicts it on a macro and micro level with a masterful command of craft that also manages to balance his artsy sensibilities with his mainstream ones. Soderbergh does it in a way that isn’t preachy, making a film that simultaneously entertains and has something to say.

Traffic is comprised of three storylines. The first one starts off in Mexico with two police officers, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) as they deal with the drug cartels and their corrupt superiors who are in league with them. The next story takes place in Ohio and Washington, D.C. as Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been appointed the new drug czar for the United States while his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) freebases drugs with her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). Caroline and Seth are two cocky, intelligent teenagers who do drugs because it feels good and, for them, it is a rebellious act. After all, they are over-privileged spoiled brats. The last story takes place in San Diego as two undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) arrest a middleman Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) of a drug cartel in the hopes that he’ll testify against his boss Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). When he is subsequently arrested, his wife Helen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) goes from being a naive, affluent housewife to a savvy powerbroker who takes control of and learns how to deal with her tough, Mexican counterparts and in doing so because an equal to her husband, ruthless in her methods to protect her family.

The opening scene of the film not only introduces us to one of the film’s main characters, Javier, but also provides us with a glimpse into how law enforcement works in Mexico. Javier and Manolo bust a truck full of drugs only to have it and their prisoners taken away by a General Salazar (a wonderfully eccentric Tomas Milian) who, as we find out later, is working for a rival drug cartel. Judge Wakefield has a very black and white view of dealing with the drug problem because he is so far removed from it, but by the film’s end he will have intimate knowledge of its devastating effects. With the casting of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, one wonders if Soderbergh was a big fan of Boogie Nights (1997) as he teams up two of its stars. On their way to meet with Ferrer they bicker like old friends who have been partners for some time – Cheadle even warns Guzman not to tell a joke as it will blow their cover. And wouldn’t you know it, when they have a sit-down with Ferrer, Guzman tells a joke. It’s a nice touch that lightens the mood for a moment.

Steven Soderbergh had been interested in making a film about the drug wars for some time but didn’t want to make one about addicts. Producer Laura Bickford acquired the rights to the United Kingdom mini-series Traffik and liked its structure. Soderbergh had seen it in 1990. He and Bickford started looking for a screenwriter and read a script by Stephen Gaghan entitled Havoc about upper-class white kids in Palisades High School doing drugs and involved with gangs. Soderbergh approached Gaghan to work on his film, however, he was already working for producer/director Ed Zwick. Bickford and Soderbergh approached Zwick who agreed to merge the two projects and come aboard as a producer.

Traffic was originally going to be made at 20th Century Fox but it was put into turnaround unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star. When the actor showed interest in the film this in turn renewed the studio's interest. Fox CEO Bill Mechanic championed the film but he left by the time the first draft was finished and this caused the project to go into turnaround. Mechanic also wanted to make some changes to the script but Soderbergh disagreed and decided to take the film to the other major studios. They turned Soderbergh and his producers down because studio executives were scared of a three-hour film about drugs, according to Gaghan. USA Films wanted to do it from the first time Soderbergh approached them. They provided the filmmakers with $46 million budget, a considerable increase from the $25 million that Fox offered.

Soderbergh had "conceptual discussions" with Gaghan while he was shooting The Limey in October 1998 and they finished the outline before he went off to shoot Erin Brockovich. After Soderbergh was finished with that film, Gaghan had written a first draft in six weeks that was 165 pages long. After the film was greenlit, Soderbergh and Gaghan met two separate times for three days working all day reformatting the script. The draft they shot with had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities. The film shortens the storyline of the original mini-series – a major character arc, that of a farmer, is taken out, and the Pakistani plotline is replaced with one set in Mexico.

Harrison Ford was initially considered for the role of Judge Robert Wakefield in January 2000 but would have had to take a significant cut in his usual $20 million salary. Ford met with Soderbergh to flesh out the character and Gaghan agreed to rework the role, adding several scenes that ended up in the finished film. On February 20, Ford turned down the role and the filmmakers brought it back to Michael Douglas who had turned down an earlier draft. He liked Ford's changes and agreed to star which helped greenlight the project. Gaghan believes that Ford turned down the role because he wanted to "reconnect with his action fans.”

After Fox dropped the film and USA Films was interested, Soderbergh paid for pre-production with his own money. USA Films agreed to give him final cut on Traffic and when any Mexican characters spoke to each other, it would be in Spanish. However, this meant that almost all of Benicio del Toro's dialogue would be subtitled. Once the studio realized this they suggested that his scenes be shot in both English and Spanish. Del Toro was worried that some other actor would be brought in and re-record his dialogue in English after working hard to master Mexican inflections and improve his Spanish vocabulary. Del Toro remembers, "Can you imagine? You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said, 'No way. Over my dead body.' Steven was like, 'Don't worry. It's not gonna happen.'" The director fought for subtitles for the Mexico scenes arguing that if the characters did not speak Spanish, the film would have no integrity and would not as convincingly portray what he described as the "impenetrability of another culture.”

The filmmakers went to the DEA and U.S. Customs early on with the screenplay and told them that they were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. The DEA and Customs pointed out inaccuracies in the script and gave them access but didn’t try to influence the content of the script. Soderbergh cites the influence of the films of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard and he spent a lot of time analyzing The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Z (1969), which, according to the director, had the feeling that the footage was caught and not staged. He was also inspired by Alan J. Pakula’s film All the President’s Men (1976) because he admired its ability to tackle serious issues while also being entertaining. In the opening credits of his film, Soderbergh tried to replicate the typeface from All the President's Men and also the placement on-screen – bottom left-hand corner. Analyzing this film helped the director deal with the large cast and working in many different locations for Traffic.

Half of the first day's footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio bosses knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. The insurers made him agree that any further lensing mishaps resulting in additional shooting would come out of the director's own pocket. Soderbergh shot in cities on a 54-day schedule and came in $2 million under budget. The director operated the camera himself in an effort to "get as close to the movie as I can," and to eliminate the distance between the actors and himself. Soderbergh drew inspiration from the cinema verite style of Ken Loach’s films, studying the framing of scenes, the distance of the camera to the actors, lens length, and the tightness of eyelines depending on the position of a character. Soderbergh remembers, "I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic.” Most of the day was spent shooting because a lot of the film was shot with available light.

Soderbergh gives each storyline its own unique look so that it is easier to keep track of where we are and shows the distinction between the borders within the drug war as the film frequently jumps back and forth from each story. The Mexican one has a yellow, sunburnt look, the D.C. story adopts a cold, gun metal blue look and the San Diego one is the most realistic looking with no filters. The director utilizes extensive hand-held camerawork that not only gives this epic film a more intimate feel (because he can get right in there with the actors) but also gives certain scenes a sense of tension and urgency. It also gives the film a feeling of authenticity, a realness that comes from docudramas, like The Battle of Algiers.

For the hand-held camera footage, Soderbergh used Millennium XLs that were smaller and lighter than previous cameras and allowed him to go anywhere with it. In order to tell the three stories apart, he adopted a distinctive look for each. For Robert Wakefield's story, Soderbergh used tungsten film with no filter for a cold, monochrome blue feel. For Helena Ayala's story, Soderbergh used diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposing it for a warmer feel. For Javier's story, the director used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to produce a strobe-like sharp feel. Then, he took the entire film through an Ektachrome step which increased the contrast and grain significantly He wanted to have different looks for each story because the audience had to keep track of many characters and absorb a lot of information and he did not want them to have to figure out which story they were watching.

Each story illustrates the futility of trying to win this so-called war on drugs. The Mexico story shows how an honest lawman like Javier walks a dangerous line where he tries to make a difference while avoiding angering his corrupt superiors who would kill him if he doesn’t do what he’s told. The D.C. story shows how deeply drugs have infiltrated our society when an affluent politician’s daughter becomes a drug addict, going to the poor slums to get high. How can he win the war on drugs when he can’t even keep his own daughter away from it? The San Diego storyline shows how those at the top of the drug food chain are untouchable because they have the money to maintain a respectable façade and can afford the best lawyers money can buy to make any charges brought against them go away.

Traffic was very well-received by film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn't preach. It is so restrained that at one moment—the judge's final speech—I wanted one more sentence, making a point, but the movie lets us supply that thought for ourselves.” The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, "Traffic is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he's going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled.”

Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and praised Benicio Del Toro's performance, calling it, "haunting in his understatement, becomes the film's quietly awakening moral center.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, "Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade.” In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, " The hand-held camerawork – Soderbergh himself did the holding - provides a documentary feel that rivets attention.” However, Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, "there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another.”

While it’s true that Traffic doesn’t really say anything new about the war on drugs, it does reinforce how prevalent drugs are in our society and show how clueless our government is in their attempts to stop it. The problem is that the infrastructure that is in place is dysfunctional so that even when honest men like Javier or Wakefield come along with the best of intentions, they become ensnared in bureaucratic red tape. Traffic seems to suggest that the best that these men can do is make a difference in their own small pocket of the world, whether it is Javier brokering a deal so that his town gets baseball field and the ability to play games at night, or Wakefield finally making a personal connection with his daughter in a meaningful way. The drug problem will never go away no matter how much money and manpower our government throws at it.