Friday, July 31, 2009

DVD of the Week: Repulsion: Criterion Collection

Repulsion (1965) was Roman Polanski’s second feature after the auspicious debut of Knife in the Water (1962) and established him as a filmmaker with a knack for conveying psychological horror. The film is also a startling study of loneliness and one person’s descent into madness. The success of Repulsion would soon attract the attention of Hollywood and lead to the playful horror film Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and the horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We meet Carol (Catherine Deneuve) working at a beauty salon in London. She keeps nodding off much to the annoyance of her client. She then meets her boyfriend and they have a conversation where she appears to be distracted and barely contributing. Carol seems unable or unwilling to relate to anyone, even her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). She sits alone in her apartment and Polanski amplifies the sounds of dripping water and a ticking clock to reflect her slowly deteriorating mind. There are also shots of Carol walking the streets of London to the jazzy soundtrack of Chico Hamilton that provide a snapshot of the city – one of the hippest places in the world at the time. Carol forgets about a dinner date with her boyfriend and he finds her on a street bench staring at a crack in the sidewalk. What makes what’s happening to her all the more disturbing is that Polanski gives us no explanation as to why this is happening to her – it just is. When Helen, one of Carol’s last ties to reality, leaves for vacation with her boyfriend, she really goes off the deep end which culminates in a truly chilling conclusion.

Catherine Deneuve delivers an astonishing performance as a lost, lonely woman losing touch with reality. So much of her performance is internalized and she conveys Carol’s madness in the listless way she seems to be going through the motions, or in her eyes, the glazed expression she has while zoning out at work. In the hands of a lesser actress some of the things she does or the way she behaves could come across as silly but there is a complete conviction to her performance, a willingness to go all the way which is impressive to watch. There are large portions of the film where Deneuve is acting on her own and reacting to her environment, or what she perceives to be her environment, that is not an easy thing to pull off but she is more than up to the task.

Throughout most of Repulsion, and especially after Helen leaves for vacation, we question what is actually reality and what is only happening in Carol’s fevered imagination. At a certain point it becomes obvious that she is becoming a danger to herself and to those around her and yet no one seems to notice or wants to get involved, her sister included. But then do any of us stop to help that crazy homeless person talking to themselves? The sad reality of Repulsion is that Carol has so far alienated herself from society that she is beyond help and that is the true horror and tragedy of Polanski’s film.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by director Roman Polanski and actress Catherine Deneuve. Polanski considers the film one of his “shabbiest” in terms of technique. He says that the entire film is intended to be seen from Carol’s point-of-view. Deneuve says that she lived in London and says that it is easy to feel lonely in the city. She talks about the challenge of filming on the noisy streets of the city. Polanski points out shots or camerawork that he would do differently now while Deneuve says that he was difficult to work with but that it helped her performance.

Also included are two trailers.

“A British Horror Film” is a retrospective featurette with key crew members, including Polanski. They talk about the origins of the project – how they came up with the story, the financing and so on. Everyone interviewed tells engaging anecdotes about how the film was made.

“Grand Ecran” was made for French television and features rare footage of Polanski and Deneuve at work on the set of the film. It provides fascinating insight into the director’s working methods at the time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mission: Impossible

A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert (Chinatown) Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian (Scarface) De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning two additional sequels.

Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.

De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise's idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.

Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).

Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to "constantly surprise the audience.”

Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.

The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.

The filmmakers delivered the Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience "out of the genre," according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film's theatrical release.

In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.

The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”

Mission: Impossible opened on May 22, 1996 in 3,012 theaters – the most ever up to that point – and broke the record for a film opening on Wednesday with $11.8 million, beating the $11.7 million Terminator 2 made in 1991. De Palma’s film also set house records in several theaters around the United States. It grossed $75 million in its first six days, surpassing the previous record holder, Jurassic Park (1993) and took in more than $56 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, beating out previous record holder, The Flintstones (1994). Mission: Impossible went on to make $180.9 million in North America and $276.7 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $457.6 million.

Despite the large revenues, the film received a mixed reaction from critics. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "This is a movie that exists in the instant, and we must exist in the instant to enjoy it.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden addressed the film's convoluted plot: "If that story doesn't make a shred of sense on any number of levels, so what? Neither did the television series, in which basic credibility didn't matter so long as its sci-fi popular mechanics kept up the suspense.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and said that it was "stylish, brisk but lacking in human dimension despite an attractive cast, the glass is either half-empty or half-full here, though the concoction goes down with ease.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, "What is not present in Mission: Impossible (which, aside from the title, sound-track quotations from the theme song and self-destructing assignment tapes, has little to do with the old TV show) is a plot that logically links all these events or characters with any discernible motives beyond surviving the crisis of the moment.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The problem isn't that the plot is too complicated; it's that each detail is given the exact same nagging emphasis. Intriguing yet mechanistic, jammed with action yet as talky and dense as a physics seminar, the studiously labyrinthine Mission: Impossible grabs your attention without quite tickling your imagination.”

The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?

NOTE: If you want to get more of a De Palma fix, head on over to John Kenneth Muir's blog where every Friday he takes a look at one of the man's films. The first one is Dressed to Kill and is up and ready for you to check out. There is also a great debate raging over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies about whether De Palma is an auteur or not.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Twelve Monkeys

"It's one thing to get lost in your own madness, but to become lost in somebody else's madness is weirder." – Terry Gilliam

How do you know when someone is crazy? This is a question that filmmaker Terry Gilliam tries to answer in many of his films, for he is obsessed by the notion of insanity – what makes someone insane and how do others view this person. Is someone really crazy or do they simply have a different view of the world than the rest of society? In the past, Gilliam's films have presented characters that tend to blur the boundary between sanity and madness, but perhaps his most complex treatment of this subject is Twelve Monkeys (1995). It is with this project that the filmmaker combines his long standing obsession of breathtaking visuals with his knack for working closely with actors. This combination has resulted in more mature films for Gilliam who is normally associated with stylish overkill: films that tend to let the visuals overwhelm the story and characters. And make no mistake, Twelve Monkeys contains some of the most stunning images you are ever going to see but never at the expense of the story or its characters and herein lies one of the reasons why Gilliam remains one of the most interesting people working in film today.

Twelve Monkeys is a film that constantly plays with, distorts, and more often than not, manipulates time. The film begins in the year 2035. A deadly virus has wiped out almost all of humanity, leaving the survivors to take refuge deep underground. Only the occasional foray up to the surface in protective gear by a select group of "volunteers" offers any clues as to what went wrong. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is one such volunteer who is particularly good at retrieving information. As a result, he soon finds himself being sent back in time to find out how the virus originated and who was responsible. Unfortunately, he goes back too far, arriving in 1990 and is promptly thrown into a rather nightmarish mental hospital in Baltimore where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a fellow inmate with a loopy sense of reality that feeds all sorts of paranoid delusions of grandeur. Cole also encounters Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) a beautiful doctor who feels sympathy for him and his plight.

As Cole travels back and forth in time he begins to realize that one of the most important clues to the source of the deadly virus may lie in the rather enigmatic underground organization known only as The Army of the 12 Monkeys. Soon, Railly and Goines begin to play integral roles in Cole's search as he consistently crosses paths with them. But is this all taking place in Cole's mind? Is he really humanity's only hope at averting a catastrophic disaster or is he just insane? From the first shot to the film's conclusion we are never quite sure of Cole's sanity or lack thereof. It is just one of many questions that the audience must think about not only during the film but long after it ends.

The seeds of Twelve Monkeys lie in an obscure French New Wave film called La Jetee (1962) made by Chris Marker. The film was composed entirely of black and white photographs and set in Paris after World War III. It was an apocalyptic vision in reaction to the threat of nuclear annihilation that became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s. Writers David and Janet Peoples were approached by producer Robert Kosberg to do an adaptation of La Jetee. The screenwriting couple wasn't that keen on the idea, however. "We couldn't see the point. It's a masterpiece and we didn't see that there was anyway to translate that masterpiece," David remarked in an interview. And he was no slouch to the art of screenwriting, having rewritten the screenplay for Blade Runner (1982) and penned the brilliant Clint Eastwood film, Unforgiven (1992).

Kosberg got the Peoples to watch La Jetee again and the couple began to see possibilities for a different, more detailed take on the material. "How would we react to people who showed up and said 'Oh I've just popped up from the future' and in turn how would that person deal with our reaction." With this in mind, David and Janet set out to write a challenging piece of fiction that not only manipulated our conventional views of time but that also dealt with the notion of madness. Janet explained in an interview, "We were very interested in asking questions like 'Is this man mad? And how about the prophets of the past, were they mad? Were they true prophets? Were they coming from another time? What are all the different possibilities?'" The film's script argues that certain people who are classified insane by society at large may not really be crazy at all but are in actuality presenting ideas that are way ahead of our time. And perhaps the blame for this misunderstanding should be leveled at the psychiatric profession which, as one character in the film observes, has become the new religion of a society that has deserted traditional faith for modern technology.

After showing the finished screenplay to Marker and getting his blessings, the Peoples were faced with the daunting task of finding someone who would not only click with the material but also have the visual flair that the story needed. The couple figured that the only director to handle such tricky subject matter was somebody like Ridley Scott or Terry Gilliam. The theme of madness that plays such a prominent role in the script fit right in with Gilliam's preoccupations and so he seemed the natural choice to direct. As luck would have it the filmmaker was between projects and looking for work after several years of seeing potential projects fall through for various reasons.

Gilliam was also eager to take a lot of Hollywood money (a $30 million budget) and create a strange art film that would fly in the face of the traditional mainstream movie. "The idea that someone's writing a script like this in Hollywood and getting the studio to pay for it was pretty extraordinary. So I thought let's continue to see how much money we can get the studio to spend." Gilliam's battles with Hollywood studios are the stuff of legend – most notably his struggle with Universal over the release of Brazil (1984). They wanted to revoke the director's final cut privileges to insert a happier ending instead of Gilliam's decidedly downbeat ending. Gilliam's vision prevailed in the end, but the ordeal left him understandably wary of further studio involvement. He had reconciled somewhat with Hollywood by making The Fisher King (1991) which turned out to be a surprise commercial and critical success.

Architecture plays an important role in Terry Gilliam's films and Twelve Monkeys is no different. "I've always used architecture as if it was a character." To this end, Gilliam found all sorts of intriguing architecture to populate his film. This included the transformation of an 1820's prison into a 1990's mental hospital where the film's protagonist, James Cole first meets the Jeffrey Goines. The director found that the structure was designed like a wheel with spokes and hub. And so Gilliam used one section where three spoke-like parts headed off into nowhere. "It seemed to me [that] this trifurcated room was right for multiple personalities." This feeling of madness is further amplified by the extensive use of skewed, off-kilter camera angles that are often shot at low angles to constantly distort and disorient the scene. "We started doing it and it got more and more fun to see how far we could push it because I wanted to create an atmosphere that you don't know whether this guy is crazy or whether he actually does come back from the future." The unusual camera angles not only mimic Cole's confused state but also reflect Jeffrey's manic, hyperactive worldview. By presenting the mindsets of these two characters in such a fashion, Gilliam is inviting us to see the world through their eyes and in the process offer a new, unique take on the world that we might not have been aware of before.

Gilliam was not just content to challenge mainstream audiences with unusual visuals and subject matter, but he also wanted to mess with people's perception of certain movie stars by casting box office names like Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis against type. "One of the reasons [for doing Twelve Monkeys] was taking Bruce and putting him into situations and asking of him things I don't think he's ever done before or that people haven't seen him do ... and with Brad Pitt it's the same thing. Brad is pretty laconic in some ways. Suddenly he's a blabbermouth, jabbering away at high speed. I love doing that, playing with the public's perception of that star; otherwise, it wouldn't be fun." As a result we get a very different Bruce Willis here than we have come to expect. Gone are the wisecracks and smart-aleck attitude and instead we see Willis impart a real wounded sensibility to the character of James Cole. The reluctant time traveler always seems to be flinching at every little thing, often appearing disoriented or distracted as he struggles to understand what is going on around him. Willis displays great skill in this role – perhaps the best of his career – as he creates a truly tragic figure that may or may not be losing his mind.

Brad Pitt's character, Jeffrey Goines, resides at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Where Cole is a sad, brooding figure, Goines is a frenetic psychotic oscillating wildly between paranoid ravings and calm interludes where his madness is kept in check but still resides behind wild eyes. It's a daring performance for Pitt who lets it all hang out as he gladly chews up the scenery with his loony radical environmentalist cum revolutionary that all but steals every scene he's in. It's a performance that Pitt worked long and hard to achieve and it paid off in a Golden Globe Award that year for Best Supporting Actor and an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Twelve Monkeys was well-received by critics at the time. Roger Ebert wrote, “the more you know about movies (especially the technical side), the more you're likely to admire it. But a comedy it's not. And as an entertainment, it appeals more to the mind than to the senses.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “In a movie in which time travel is used to rectify the past, it's too bad scriptwriters David and Janet Peoples didn't go through the time/space tunnel to work on that first draft again. But Willis and Pitts's performances, Gilliam's atmospherics and an exhilarating momentum easily outweigh such trifling flaws.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Bruce Willis’ performance: “Mr. Willis holds the film together with his poignant, battered physicality, the suffering of a man fighting desperately for sanity and survival.” However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Intent on both dazzling and punishing the viewer, Gilliam gets lost in creepy spectacle and plenty of old film clips (notably Vertigo).”

It is easy to see what attracted Terry Gilliam to a project like Twelve Monkeys. In keeping with his past films, this one also played "with the same old things – time, reality, madness – so I was intrigued." Even though it was one of the few projects he did not originate himself, Gilliam quickly made the film his own. In fact, it is Twelve Monkeys' unique look that prevents any easy categorization. As Gilliam observed in an interview, "I'm determined to make it indefinable." It is this avoidance of any clear cut genre that makes the film a riddle waiting to be solved. The film is also structured somewhat like an onion. On the surface, the audience knows very little at the beginning, but gradually as it progresses and the layers are removed, more and more of the mystery is revealed. However, this is not readily apparent after an initial viewing. Only after subsequent screenings does the full impact and brilliance of what Gilliam and his cast and crew have created sink in. It is this great amount of care and detail that has clearly gone into this film that makes Twelve Monkeys worth watching.

Friday, July 17, 2009

DVD of the Week: Under the Tuscan Sun

*NOTE* This is actually a fairly old DVD but I was just looking for an excuse to post something about Diane Lane.

From her screenplay for The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) to her directorial debut with Guinevere (1999), Audrey Wells has created films with strong female protagonists. She continued this trend with Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) with a main character that goes on a journey of self-discovery in Italy.

Frances (Diane Lane) is a professor of literature living in San Francisco with her husband. Her bad reviews of other people’s books comes back to haunt her when a writer harboring a grudge hints that her husband has been having an affair. During the messy divorce, and understandably upset over his betrayal, she sells her half of their house rather than pay up via alimony.

Frances moves into a noisy apartment building and tries to figure out what to do with her life. She suffers from writer’s block — not just with her book but with her life. Patty (Sandra Oh), her best friend and support group, is unable to go on a ten-day trip to Tuscany because of her upcoming pregnancy. So, she gets Frances to go in the hopes that a change of pace and scenery will provide her with a fresh start.

Before she knows it, Frances is on a bus full of tourists in Italy with the tour guide telling everyone her life story. She spots a charming little villa on the tour and decides to get off the bus. Frances becomes enchanted with the place. She meets the owner and decides to buy it. To say that the house is fix-it-upper opportunity is a mild understatement but she plugs away, renovating the house and, in the process, her life.

Under the Tuscan Sun was a nice change of pace for Diane Lane, fresh from her role in the dark, erotic thriller, Unfaithful (2002). She is quite good as a newly independent woman trying to start her life over. The gorgeous Lane looks absolutely radiant and brings a lot of charm to the role. She shows a real knack for light comedy as well.

It also doesn’t hurt that director Audrey Wells surrounds the stunning Lane with a picturesque, postcard perfect Italian countryside. Every frame is filled with resplendent scenery and everyone eats delicious looking food. It is a shameless love letter to Italy. A more cynical person might say that this film is just one long ad for the tourism board of the country. It works. Under the Tuscan Sun really makes you want to go there, discover your very own villa and escape from it all. In some respects, this film is reminiscent of Enchanted April (1992) in that it also features women getting away from dreary past lives and moving to Italy to gain their independence and start their lives anew. In terms of plotting and dialogue, Tuscan Sun is pretty standard fare but it is quite entertaining, features a winning performance by Diane Lane and is handsomely photographed.


Special Features:


“Tuscany 101” is a ten-minute Making Of featurette that is your standard press kit fluff. Writer/director Audrey Wells talks about how her film subverts the traditional romantic comedy structure. Diane Lane comments that the “location is the star of the film.” The cast gush about working on location in Italy with an Italian crew.

There are three deleted scenes that are quite good and it’s a mystery why they were cut (for time?). No explanation is given but at least they are included on this DVD.

Finally, Wells contributes an audio commentary. She read the book by Frances Mayes but didn’t feel that it could be adapted into a film. She was working on her own idea about a woman overcoming heartbreak and realized that the two stories could be combined. Wells admits that her film is a loose adaptation but feels that the essence of the novel was conveyed. This is a strong track and Wells imparts a lot of good factoids and observations about her film.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Strange Brew

Anybody who grew up in Canada during the 1980s should be familiar with the McKenzie brothers – Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug (Dave Thomas) – the missing link that bridges the gap between Cheech and Chong and Bill and Ted. The McKenzie brothers had cultivated a sizable cult following with their memorable and largely improvised skits on SCTV. Eventually, Hollywood beckoned, only Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas decided to the make the film on their own terms, directing it themselves on location in Toronto. The result is Strange Brew (1983), a quest for beer money with allusions to Hamlet.

The film begins much like their skits on SCTV with the boys on the set of their Great White North show with the topic, not surprisingly, being movies. Bob and Doug show off the film that they made together and it turns out to be a crudely shot science fiction tale called The Mutants of 2051 AD that pokes fun at post-apocalyptic films that were all the rage at the time. When their film fails to satisfy a theater full of people (what were they expecting?), Bob and Doug give their dad’s beer money to a man and his pitiful two children begging for a refund. To mollify their irate dad (his voice provided by none other than Mel Blanc), the boys unsuccessfully try to get free beer with the ol’ mouse-in-the-beer-bottle gag which, of course, doesn’t work.

So, they decide to go to the source: Elsinore Brewery, an ominous-looking castle-like complex located right next to the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane. Bob and Dog end up saving a woman whose car is stuck in the electrified gate of the complex. Her name is Pamela (Lynne Griffin) and her father, who used to run Elsinore, has been killed by his brother (Paul Dooley) who proceeded to marry Pamela’s mother. Sound familiar? However, it is the malevolent Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) who is the puppetmaster, manipulating the brother so that he can take control of Elsinore and perfect his mind control formula through an electronic music device that he experiments on the neighboring mental patients.

In a nice touch, the patients don plastic armor and play hockey while this creepy synthesizer music plays reminiscent of Rollerball (1975) with a bit of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars (1977). Doug even pretends he’s Darth Vader to which Bob proudly says, “He saw Jedi 17 times.” As thanks for saving Pamela, Bob and Doug are given jobs in the brewery counting bottles of beer on the assembly line. It’s a dream come true and they end up bringing cases of free beer home to their ecstatic father. However, the McKenzie brothers also become unwittingly involved in the power struggle between Pamela and Brewmeister Smith.

Strange Brew displays its Canadiana with pride. During the opening credits, TTC streetcars can be plainly seen and, at one point, Bob and Doug’s van launches into Lake Ontario and the distinctive CN Tower can be plainly seen in the background, gracing the Toronto skyline. That’s kinda the point with Bob and Doug as they were Canada’s cultural ambassadors during the ‘80s, preserving and also poking fun at the Canadian stereotype: the beer-drinking, doughnut-eating, hockey-playing Canuck. Bob and Doug speak with words like “hoser”, “knob”, “take off, eh”, and “beauty” that were meant to poke fun at the way Canadian accents are perceived by those outside of the country but they ended up being absorbed into our popular culture lexicon anyway.

The McKenzie brothers were created in 1980 when the Canadian version of SCTV had to be two minutes longer than the syndicated version on American television. However, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission dictated that the two extra minutes be Canadian in content. Thus, Bob and Doug were born as a flip response to that decree. A typical skit would involve the brothers announcing a topic of discussion, like back bacon or snowshoes, and end up getting into an argument about beer or other petty sibling disagreements. The skit became quite popular and in 1981, they recorded a comedy album which sold a million copies. Because the record did so well, Moranis and Thomas thought about parlaying that success into a film.

After fellow SCTV cast member John Candy got an offer from Universal Pictures to do a film called Going Berserk (1983), Moranis and Thomas started talking about writing a screenplay for a Bob and Doug film. Andrew Alexander, executive producer for SCTV, reminded them that he had exclusive contracts and if they wrote a script he would sue them. So, they hired Steve De Jarnatt (the cult film genius behind Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile) to write the first draft. Initially, Thomas told De Jarnatt that he wanted to base the film’s story around Hamlet but the writer stuck to it too faithfully and Thomas told him to have fun with it by making Bob and Doug like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Pamela like Hamlet. Their agents sent the script to various studios in Hollywood and a few days later they had a deal with MGM based not on the script but on record sales, “the breakout potential, and the fact that it was being advertised on a television show,” Thomas remembers. He and Moranis were unhappy with the script because Bob and Doug were improvised characters done in their “comic voices” and they felt that nobody but them could write these characters.

Moranis and Thomas faced the challenge of expanding their improvisations from “two guys talking about how hard it was to get parking spaces in donut shops to a full-length story,” said Thomas at the time of the film’s release. He began re-writing the script without Moranis who began to get cold feet about doing the film. After working on the first 50 pages, Moranis took a look at what he’d done and they worked together rewriting it. However, they weren’t sure just how much they could legally change and did most of the major alterations in the first third with Bob and Doug’s cheesy lo-fi SF film and the McKenzies watching it in a movie theater and causing a riot. Thomas remembers that the script was “far more bizarre and conceptual in the beginning ... If we had been able to rewrite the whole thing, we would have made the whole thing like that.”

Originally, Moranis and Thomas were not going to direct or write Strange Brew but ended up doing both with the guidance of executive producer Jack Grossberg, who had produced films by Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. They were given a modest budget of $5 million. Before filming, all of the major breweries wanted the McKenzie brothers to appear in beer ads. Molson’s Brewery was even featured prominently in their SCTV segments. They had the promise of Molson’s but once the company found out that there was a joke in the film about putting a mouse in a beer bottle so that a complaint can be made in order to get a free case of beer, the company distanced themselves from the film. The filmmakers were also banned from filming in a Brewers’ Retail store so they built a replica of an outlet at a cost of more than $15,000 and used the Old Fort Brewing Co. in Prince George, British Columbia to double for Elsinore Brewery.

Moranis and Thomas had already been playing these characters for some time by the time they did Strange Brew – in fact, the characters were at the height of their popularity at the time of the film – and so they effortlessly slipped into these roles. They really capture the sibling dynamic so well. Bob and Doug may bicker and pick on each other but when it counts they get it together and save the day. The casting of Max von Sydow as Brewmeister Smith was an inspired choice as he brings a certain amount of gravitas to the role and is actually a threatening presence, not some cartoon buffoon, which is in sharp contrast to Paul Dooley’s easily bullied character.

Strange Brew received generally positive reviews from critics. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Anyone who's partial to the McKenzies' humor doubtless has a fondness for beer. The price of a ticket could buy enough beer for an experience at least as memorable as this one.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold called the film, “neither triumph nor fiasco, Strange Brew leaves plenty of room for improvement, but I hope Thomas and Moranis get the chance to demonstrate that they've learned a lot from the mixed assortment of nuttiness in their first movie comedy.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “What's terrific about the McKenzie Brothers is their offhand depiction of two English-Canadian working-class dimwits ... and what's terrific about the movie is its equally offhand surrealism.”

For a film about two goofball brothers, Strange Brew is surprisingly clever with a fairly elaborate plot that riffs on Hamlet quite a bit with Bob and Doug essentially playing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern parts. By today’s gross-out comedy standards Strange Brew is kinda tame but that is certainly part of its appeal because it reflects the Canadian identity at the time. There is almost a sweetness to the goofy humor that is endearing. A film like this one probably couldn’t be made today, which may explain how a few years ago a proposed sequel fell through at the last minute when financing didn’t come through. Moranis’ self-imposed exile after the death of his wife didn’t help matters but Thomas was able to coax him out of retirement for a television special that took a irreverent look back at Bob and Doug’s legacy. At least we will always have Strange Brew.

Here are two great fan sites dedicated to all things Bob and Doug:

An Unofficial Bob & Doug McKenzie Page

The Hoser

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thank you.

Well, by most accounts it looks like Michael Mann Week here was a rousing success! I want to give a sincere and heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed. I can say in all honesty that I read and thoroughly enjoyed everyone's submissions. It is great to see so many people who enjoy Mann's films. I would also like to thank everyone who stopped by and left comments... and to those who stopped by and didn't leave comments. Your patronage is appreciated.

I'm going to take a break this week as, quite frankly, I'm burnt out from last week. But, rest assured, I will have another post ready for next Monday. Thanks again, everybody!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Michael Mann Week - June 28 - July 4, 2009

WELCOME!

It is
Michael Mann Week here at Radiator Heaven. This week is all about Mann and his films, T.V. show, etc. in honor the theatrical release of his brand new film Public Enemies. Throughout the week I am planning several posts on his films, including a review of his new film. I encourage you to join in on the fun either through the comments section of posting an appreciation of your own either on your own blog or hosting it here.

I've decided to organize all of the posts that I have found, either over time or that were submitted, by film. That way, you can go to a specific film and see what others thought of it. As links are submitted I will put a date in brackets next to them to connote when they have been recently added. I also plan to accept links and articles all through this week so if you are still working on something or you go see
Public Enemies opening day and want send me your review, by all means go right ahead.


The Jericho Mile:
"Mann's Men: The Jericho Mile (1979)." by Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy.

Thief:

"Thief." by Tristan Eldritch at Kirby Dots.
"Mann's Men: Thief (1981)." by Tim Brayton.
"Thief" by Joshua at Octopus Cinema. (added June 29)
"Michael 'the' Mann - Thief" by Tommy Salami at Pluck You, Too!!! (added June 29)

"Thief" by Neil Fulwood at The Agitation of the Mind. (added July 4)

The Keep:
"The Devil in The Keep" by Mr. Peel at Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur.
"Mann's Men: The Keep (1983)" by Tim Brayton.
"#48: The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)" by Dr. Mystery over at Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath

Manhunter:

"Images From My All Time Favorite Films: Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986)" by Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter.
"Mann's Men: Manhunter (1986)." by Tim Brayton.

"#57: Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)" by Dr. Mystery.
"Manhunter" by J.D.
"Personal Faves: Manhunter" by Neil Fulwood
(added June 29)

The Last of the Mohicans:
"Legends of the Fall: The Last of the Mohicans." by Tristan Eldritch.
"Mann's Men: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)." by Tim Brayton.
"
'Stay alive, no matter what occurs': sex and survival in The Last of the Mohicans" by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door.
"The Last of the Mohicans" by J.D.
(added June 30)

Heat:

"Mann's Men: L.A. Takedown (1989)." by Tim Brayton
"Mann's Men: Heat (1995)." by Tim Brayton
"Because she's got a GREAT ASS!"
by Andrew Bemis at Cinevistaramascope.
"A Los Angeles Crime Saga." by Adam Ross over at DVD Panache.
"From the Vault: Heat," by Edward Copeland at Edward Copeland on Film.
"Heat (1995). Part 1: Both Sides of The Law." and "Heat Part 2: Emotion and Detachment." by Tristan Eldritch.
"
HEAT: Empathies of Badasses" by Alexander Villalba at Comment de Cine. (added June 29)
"Heat" by Joshua.
(added July 2)


The Insider
:

"A Slight Rant On One Of The Biggest Snubs In Academy Award History" by Jeremy Richey

"The Insider: Ten Years Later" by Sean Murphy at Murphy's Law.
"More thoughts on 'The Insider'" by Sheila at The Sheila Variations.
"PERSONAL FAVES: The Insider" by Neil Fulwood.

"The Insider" by J.D.
"Mann's Men: The Insider (1999)" by Tim Brayton.

"
THE INSIDER: The Mann Who Knows About Film" by Alexander Villalba.(added July 2)

Ali:
"Ali" by J.D. (added June 28)

"Mann's Men: Ali (2001)" by Tim Brayton (added June 29)

"Ali" by David N at We Can Rebuild Him (added July 1)

Collateral:
"Collateral
(2004)"
by Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe.
"Mann's Men: Collateral (2004)" by Tim Brayton. (added July 2)
"Collateral" by J.D. (added July 3)

Miami Vice:
"Smooth. That's how we do it." by Andrew Bemis.
"Miami Vice (2006)" by Joe Valdez.

"
April Showers: Miami Vice" by Nathaniel Rogers at the Film Experience Blog.
"Virtue in Vice" by Keith Uhlich at The House Next Door.
"Miami Vice: Michael Mann's Misunderstood Masterpiece" by Kevin J. Olsen at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. (added June 29)
"Cool: Miami Vice" by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler. (added June 30)
"Mann's Men: Miami Vice (2006)" by Tim Brayton. (added July 2)

Public Enemies:

"Mann's Men: Public Enemies (2009)" by Tim Brayton. (added July 2)
"Public Enemies: Take One" by Kevin J. Olsen. (added July 2)
"New Wave and Old Guard" by Matt Zoller Seitz at IFC Daily. (added July 2)

"
The Mann act: 'Public Enemies'" by Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running. (added July 2)
"Public Enemies" by J.D. (added July 2)

"PUBLIC ENEMIES: Watching Our Real Dreams" by Alexander Villalba. (added July 4)


"Dying Breaths: Some Thoughts on Public Enemies." by Tristan Eldritch. (added July 7)

"Public Enemies" by Tommy Salami. (added July 10)

Misc:"Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 1: Vice Precedent" by Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door. (added July 2)
"Michael Mann: an A-Z" by David N (added July 1)

"Masculine Codes in the Films of Michael Mann" by Peter at Foxtrot Sierra. (added June 29)
"Crime Story" by J.D.