Monday, August 31, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
The film opens to the strains of “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements and right away you know you’re in good hands. The year is 1987 and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college. He is planning to go to Europe for the summer with his buddies; however, his folks can no longer afford to help him pay for it or for grad school at Columbia University in the fall where he hopes to study journalism. James makes some calls, does some legwork and realizes that, with his academic background and a resume with a severe lack of work experience, he’s not qualified for manual labor.
Faced with no other options, James decides to apply at Adventureland, a local amusement park. Much to his surprise, he’s hired right on the spot and put in charge of various games booths. He’s shown how everything works by Joel (Martin Starr), a terminally bored co-worker who’s clearly done this song and dance routine way too many times, telling James at one point, “So, your life must be utter shit or you wouldn’t be here.” While working at the theme park James meets Em (Kristen Stewart), an attractive co-worker with excellent taste in music, and whom he develops a crush on. He also befriends Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park’s maintenance man, and who is in a local band in his spare time and claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed. James spends the summer hanging out with Em and his fellow co-workers and learns that if he wants to be a good writer he needs to have some life experiences under his belt.
Adventureland accurately portrays the thankless slog of a minimum wage job (“We are doing the work of pathetic lazy morons,” Joel deadpans) with repetitive tasks, annoying customers, and crap pay. The only thing that makes it remotely bearable is the people James works with – after all, misery loves company. Mottola includes all sorts of nice touches, like the cheesy Foreigner cover band that plays at the local bar, or the mixed tape of music that James makes for Em, which give the film a more personal feel. This is helped considerably by a great soundtrack that features the likes of Big Star, Crowded House, Husker Du, and The Jesus and Mary Chain – bands responsible for some of the best alternative music of the 1980s. Like the way music was used in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), the music in Adventureland transports you back to another time and immerses you in it.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have excellent chemistry together and do a good job of playing two young people that want different things out of a relationship. She has her own issues and they keep James always slightly at arm’s length. One hopes that despite the success of the Twilight films, Stewart will continue to make small, more personal films like Adventureland. Eisenberg nails the awkwardness of someone who’s had very few life experiences, especially in the romance and relationship department.
Mottola does a good job of portraying the brief flings that happen over the course of a summer. They are intense while they last even though they rarely do. He also accurately depicts how messy they can be, especially when you’re at that awkward age – your twenties – and are still trying to figure things out. Adventureland has an authenticity in how it feels to be in your twenties and to fall in love for the first time, stumbling through things, learning as you go. Whereas Mottola was basically a hired gun on Superbad, Adventureland comes from a very personal place and has much more heart while still being very funny and entertaining.
“Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland” takes a look at how this film came together. It was based on Mottola’s actual experiences working at an amusement park on Long Island during the summer of 1985. He talks about the casting of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart who, in turn, talk about their characters. The producers briefly mention how they were able to find a vintage amusement park. Also included is behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the film.
There are three deleted scenes with optional commentary from writer/director Greg Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg. We get more of the theme park’s managers played with killer comic timing by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. There is also an additional scene between James and Connell. Mottola puts this footage in context with the rest of the film and briefly explains why it was cut.
Finally, there is an audio commentary with Mottola and Eisenberg. They banter back and forth with a lot of self-deprecating humor. Mottola says that he didn’t want to make an “’80s kitsch-fest” and recounts some of his own experiences working at a theme park in his youth and how it informed the film. Eisenberg chimes in with the occasional comment and asks Mottola questions about the film. This is a very chatty track as they dish all sorts of trivia and filming anecdotes.
Monday, August 24, 2009
In Predator, Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaeffer, the leader of an elite special forces team that go into dangerous hot spots all over the world and retrieve people in trouble (as he says early on, “We’re a rescue team, not assassins.”). This time around, his mission is to go into some godforsaken jungle in Central America to find a cabinet minister and his aide whose helicopter was shot down by a band of guerrillas. They have to find the chopper and then follow the guerrillas’ trail. Along for the ride is Dillon (Carl Weathers), an old buddy of Dutch’s, who is now a CIA agent.
The helicopter ride into the jungle quickly establishes a pissing contest between all of these tough guys as Blain (Jesse Ventura) spits a nasty wad of chewing tobacco onto Dillon’s boot. The message is quite clear: Dillon is the new guy, the unwanted interloper in this tight-knit group. This scene also introduces us to Dutch’s team. You’ve got Hawkins (Shane Black), the wisecracking guy who tells dirty jokes – badly; Poncho (Richard Chaves), the one with the least memorable character traits; Billy (Sonny Landham), the tracker with an uncanny sixth sense; Blain, the good ol’ boy redneck; and his friend Mac (Bill Duke), the intimidating man of few words. One of the things that makes Predator so enjoyable is the interplay between the members of Dutch’s squad, like how Hawkins tells bad jokes to Billy, or the camaraderie between Blain and Mac. Right from the get-go you can tell that this is a tight-knit group from the verbal short-hand and familiarity between them. These actors manage to convey all of this in very little time and also make it believable.
Dutch and his team find the cabinet minister’s helicopter with two dead pilots and it appears to have been taken out by a heat-seeking missile – pretty advanced stuff for what Dillon said were a rag-tag group of guerrillas. Not long after, they find another crashed chopper but this time there are a group of dead Green Berets who were skinned alive and disemboweled. It is pretty obvious to all concerned that this is not the work of typical guerrillas. So who did it and why? We start to get glimpses of something shadowing Dutch and his team from its eerie-looking thermal image point-of-view.
Dutch and his team find the guerrillas’ camp and, in a masterfully orchestrated sequence, take it apart, killing anyone who gets in their way, save for a woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), whom Dillon takes hostage. During this sequence we get to see “old painless” in action, a minigun that is normally used on helicopters, in the hands of Blain who uses it to shred the enemy in an impressive display of United States military power. Schwarzenegger even gets to let loose a couple of his trademark one-liners, like when he impales a hapless bad guy with a knife and says, “stick around.” But it is Jesse Ventura who gets the best line in this sequence when Poncho notices that he’s been shot and tells him so to which Blain replies, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
What’s important about this sequence is that we find out Dillon lied to Dutch. The rescue mission was a cover story in order to get his team to wipe out a group of guerrillas that were about to stage an invasion across the border. This creates a nicely portrayed tension between the two men as Dutch realizes he can no longer trust his old friend. This sequence also gives the Predator a chance to study its prey for when it begins hunting them. We also see how tough and well-trained Dutch and his men are so that it makes them getting so easily dispatched by the Predator that much more impressive.
Predator starts off as a fairly standard action film as Dutch and his team track down and take out the guerrillas. However, director John McTiernan gradually introduces aspects of a horror film as the Predator begins hunting and picking off Dutch’s team. What makes this so creepy is the way the alien hunter is presented. It is able to blend into the jungle with a futuristic cloaking device that bends the light, making it nearly impossible to see. We also see things through its distinctive P.O.V., including how people’s voices sound distorted to it, only to be played back repeatedly as the Predator attempts to mimic them. This includes a few key phrases by Mac (“Anytime” and “Over here”) and Billy’s creepy laugh. The sudden nature of its attacks is also scary as we don’t know where or when it is going strike, putting us in the same boat as the characters. Because of its cloaking device, it appears as if the jungle comes alive and takes a victim, as Anna says at one point. There is one rather chilling moment when Mac confronts the Predator for only a moment and he sees its eyes flash for a second and then it’s gone.
Easily the best display of firepower in Predator comes when Blain is killed and the surviving team members unload all of their weapons at the direction of the fleeing Predator, firing round after round in what has to be one of the most awesomely vulgar displays of firepower ever put on film (at least until John Woo’s Hard-Boiled). There is also plenty of man candy on display, like when Dutch and his team set a series of traps for the Predator and we get a montage of muscled, sweaty men grunting and flexing their way through it.
The screenplay even manages to squeeze in a few nice little moments between characters, like when Vietnam War veterans Blain and Mac comment on the harsh environment. Blain says it “makes Cambodia look like Kansas” and that if “you lose it here, you’re in a world of hurt.” Mac, in turn, gets a nice scene when he takes first watch one night and eulogizes his dead comrade, recounting a story about how he and Blain were the only ones to survive their platoon getting massacred in ‘Nam. The script also does a nice job of giving us a few tantalizing tidbits of the Predator mythology like when Anna tells her captors about how it hunted the people in her village during the hottest years ever since she can remember in a brief yet haunting speech. Among the cast members, Bill Duke does a great job of conveying his character’s gradual mental breakdown as he becomes obsessed with avenging his friend. This culminates in a fantastic sequence where he chases the Predator through the jungle raving to himself nonsensically.
McTiernan does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and immersing us in the dense, atmospheric jungle, complete with various animal sounds that immerse you in the sights and sounds of this place. He really conveys a sense of place and the blistering heat as the characters never stop sweating profusely. Predator would be the beginning of a fantastic run for the director that continued with Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) before stumbling with Medicine Man (1992), only to helm the commercial and critical failure Last Action Hero (1993).
Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were influenced by ancient myths and the Brothers Grimm stories. They were also interested in films and stories about big game hunters in Africa and wanted to create a story where the hunters are the ones that become hunted. They wanted to write a screenplay about an alien big game hunter that comes to Earth to hunt Special Forces soldiers. They began work on the story during the summer of 1983 and called it Alien Hunter. The Thomas brothers started with the climax – a one-on-one fight – and worked backwards to create the story of the team of soldiers and their mission. They completed a draft of the script in September 1983 which involved a team of soldiers led by a Native American major. Over the course of the film, he would reconnect with his heritage and remember tribal legends. This would help him defeat the alien hunter.
The Thomas brothers had no agent and could not get anyone to read their script. While visiting 20th Century Fox, they shoved a copy of their script under the door of executive Michael Levy. Thinking that an assistant had put it there, he read and liked the script. Levy took it to recently promoted head of development Lawrence Gordon who bought it in early 1984. It was given to producer John Davis who had the Thomases polish their script for two years while he was busy with other projects.
In 1986, Gordon had backed Commando, an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was looking for a new project for the movie star. Gordon gave the Thomases’ script to his protégé, producer Joel Silver, who had overseen the production of Commando, while Davis hired John McTiernan to direct, based on his work on Nomads (1986). Schwarzenegger liked how the script started off as a war movie before becoming more like science fiction. He was also interested in playing a character who was more of a team player.
The original design of the alien hunter was that of a thin-legged creature with a one-eyed cow skull head and pincers for hands. McTiernan was not crazy about this look and Schwarzenegger recommended that they approach Stan Winston, who had worked with the actor on The Terminator. Winston started with an image Silver had come up with of a dreadlocked warrior and was sketching ideas on a plane to Japan with James Cameron. during pre-publicity for Aliens (1986). Cameron suggested putting mandibles on the creature’s face and Winston incorporated this into the design. Winston and McTiernan decided to make the Predator a bulkier, more physically imposing creature so that it would be a more credible threat to Schwarzenegger.
In assembling their cast, McTiernan and Silver wanted some of the actors to have military experience so that Dutch’s commando team would look and act more authentic. Richard Chaves was found appearing in an off-Broadway play about Vietnam. Jess Ventura had been a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and completed two tours there. McTiernan knew Bill Duke from AFI’s film school and had been impressed by his project work. Carl Weathers was an ex-professional football player and McTiernan brought him on board to act against Schwarzenegger to aid in the star’s performance. Sonny Landham had dabbled in pornos in the 1970s, worked also a stuntman and had a dangerous reputation so the studio’s insurance company stipulated that he would only be hired if Silver had a bodyguard to keep the actor out of trouble. Silver hired Shane Black in the hopes that the screenwriter would do rewrites on the script. Black refused to mess with another writer’s work without their consent and became a member of the cast instead.
The three-month shoot was done on location in Mexico in and around the small town of Puerto Vallarta. McTiernan and the film’s cinematographer Donald McAlpine wanted to shoot in a deeper jungle located in Palenque but studio executives did not agree. McTiernan figured that he didn’t have the clout to change their minds but ended up re-shooting as much as he could at Palenque anyway. The director had the cast show up to Puerto Vallarta a week before the start of principal photography so that they could get used to the environment and to have military adviser Gary Goldman teach them how to move in the jungle and act like Special Forces soldiers. On non-shooting days, Goldman put the cast through routine marches so that they would bond as a team and appear on film like guys who had been together for years.
The cast and crew faced all sorts of challenges during the shoot. The filmmakers did not realize that the forest in Puerto Vallarta sheds its leaves in the autumn. The leaves started to fall two weeks into principal photography and the crew had to glue them back onto branches. For many shots that were done from treetops, McTiernan would join the camera crew in the trees. One time, he fell out and hurt his wrist. The director was too embarrassed to say he was hurt and only discovered after he returned home that his wrist was broken. Several cast members experience stomach flu during the shoot. After picking the wrong restaurant to eat in, Schwarzenegger was put on a saline drip to rehydrate himself. A few weeks later, the hotel water supply was contaminated and almost everyone, except for Carl Weathers, wasn’t told until the next day.
Early in the shoot, the final Predator costume had not arrived and McTiernan shot the footage of the invisible Predator with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a red suit, which was removed in post-production. McTiernan wanted the cloaked Predator to leap through the threes in a way that a human could not replicate and tried a monkey in the red suit but all it wanted to do was hide or try to take the suit off. The director was not happy with Van Damme’s performance and the martial artist was less than thrilled about playing a special effect without credit in an uncomfortable suit. Van Damme claims he quit (but changed his story later on and said that Silver fired him) because he refused to do a stunt. In Jesse Ventura's autobiography, he alleges that Van Damme intentionally injured a stunt man. At any rate, Van Damme was removed from the film and replaced by the seven foot, two inch tall Kevin Peter Hall.
Predator was generally not well-received when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell described the film as "grisly and dull, with few surprises.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack wrote that “the film is a rather pointless thing when you get down to it, has little of the provocative intelligence that was found in Terminator, but at least it's self-propelling in terms of suspense and cheap thrills.” Cinefantastique magazine’s Dean Lamanna wrote, “the militarized monster movie tires under its own derivative weight.” However, Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to champion the film. He wrote that “it has good location photography and terrific special effects, and it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie," but still noted that "the action moves so quickly that we overlook questions such as why would an alien species go to all the effort to send a creature to earth, just so that it could swing from the trees and skin American soldiers? Or, why would a creature so technologically advanced need to bother with hand-to-hand combat, when it could just zap Arnold with a ray gun.”
Despite the negative reaction, Predator was a hit with the general public both in its theatrical release and on home video. It went on to spawn an inferior sequel, starring Danny Glover, a fantastic comic book mini-series by Dark Horse Comics, and two Alien vs. Predator films. All of them pale in comparison to the original, which still holds up today because of the fantastic premise, the solid cast of actors, the ingeniously designed creature, and the surprisingly memorable dialogue. Ah yes, the insanely quotable dialogue. In high school, my best friend and I used to love to quote from this film all the time, especially Schwarzenegger’s dialogue (always with his trademark accent). There’s not many films of this kind where you remember dialogue from it years afterwards and what is missing from a lot of films of this type today. Will anybody quoting from Alien vs. Predator ten years from now? Doubtful. People will still be quoting and enjoying Predator and that is a pretty good legacy for any film.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are junior editors looking for their big break at a publishing house during the day and making the scene and being seen at a high-profile Studio 54-esque nightclub at night. Alice remains loyal to her publishing job, patiently biding her time until she can advance up the ladder while Charlotte is more interested in working in television. The film follows their various romantic entanglements and how they are intertwined with the fate of the nightclub they love to frequent.
Charlotte is superficial and condescending towards Alice, criticizing her dating habits under the auspices of giving her advice. She’s self-centered and Kate Beckinsale does a good job (almost too good) of portraying her shallow character. In contrast, Alice is much more reserved and nice, even if she is socially awkward, like the way she clumsily tries to seduce Tom (“Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”). Fresh from her breakout role in Kids (1995), Chloe Sevigny creates a layered character that we are meant to empathize with because she has more substance than Charlotte. Stillman regular Chris Eigeman turns up in a memorable supporting role as Des, the superficial manager of the nightclub, who is not above telling a woman that he’s gay in order to break-up with her. In other words, he’s a perfect match for Charlotte.
Part of the charm of The Last Days of Disco is the rarefied social strata that Stillman presents and populates with fascinating characters that have easily recognizable and relatable traits and experiences. The film is also a lament for the demise of disco, most notably in the form of Josh (Keeslar), and one gets the feeling that he is Stillman’s mouthpiece in regards to his feelings about disco. He confides in his friend Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) that he’s a “loyal adherent to the disco movement” despite frequenting very few nightclubs, but nonetheless feels very passionate about the music – shades of Tom from Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan (1990), who doesn’t read fiction but instead prefers good, literary criticism.
Josh also verbalizes his feelings about the fate of disco rather eloquently at the film’s conclusion. The speech is a bit long-winded but delivered convincingly by Matt Keeslar which ends the film on a somewhat melancholic note, tempered by the jubilant end credits sequence which features a subway car full of people dancing to “Love Train” by the O’Jays. In retrospect, we know that the end of disco ushered in New Wave and hair metal music which dominated popular music until the late ‘80s with the rise of alternative music. I was never a fan of disco music but the way Stillman uses it in The Last Days of Disco, and his obvious love for it, makes me appreciate it a bit more. I don’t know if I’d listen to this music outside of the film but within its confines, the music works incredibly well. Thanks to Stillman’s film, I have come to respect this much-maligned genre.
For quite some time there had been rumors that the folks at the Criterion Collection were planning a special edition of this film. Stillman had even talked it up in interviews. The previous DVD came and went rather quickly before going out-of-print, fetching steep prices on eBay, so for fans of this film it nice to have Last Days of Disco finally readily available.
There is an audio commentary by director Whit Stillman and actors Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Stillman wastes no time diving into the origins of his film and how Winona Ryder was almost cast as Alice but her agent was slow in responding and Sevigny got the role. The actress has a charming, self-deprecating wit and points out her awkward dancing style. Eigeman says that he almost didn’t do the film because the studio felt that he wasn’t famous enough. He was also worried that he’d be typecast; playing a character similar to the ones he did in Stillman’s two previous films. The director speaks eloquently about his interest in disco on this chatty, engaging track.
Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman. There is a subplot with Jimmy (Astin) that fleshes out his feelings for Alice and Charlotte. There is also more footage of Des outside of the club. It develops his character more and is nice to see, particularly if you’re a fan of Eigeman. Stillman puts the footage in context and explains why it was cut.
Stillman reads from his 2000 book, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which is a novelization of the film from the point-of-view of Jimmy Steinway and also picks up after the events in the film.
A nice inclusion is a vintage featurette from the time of the film’s release. This promotional material features behind-the-scenes footage and soundbites from Stillman and his cast.
Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer.
Monday, August 17, 2009
When the film was released, articles surfaced that described the comedian as an ego maniac and hinted at personality clashes between him and the film’s director Thomas Schlamme. Smelling blood in the water, critics gave Axe Murderer mostly negative reviews. I believe, although he’s never admitted as much in interviews, that he took the film’s failure personally and has retreated behind make-up and elaborate costumed characters ever since. Sure, the Austin Powers films were very successful but the first one is the funniest with subsequent sequels recycling a lot of the same jokes. Nothing Myers has done since Axe Murderer has been as good or as funny. I would argue that it is his best film to date.
Charlie MacKenzie (Mike Myers) is a coffeehouse poet who lives in San Francisco and is also afraid of commitment. He has broken up with past girlfriends for absurd reasons. He says of one, “she smelled like soup.” Charlie vents his frustrations through his Jack Kerouac-esque Beat poetry that is as funny as it is a tribute to the famous writer, right down to Myers adopting a similar cadence when reciting his prose. He’s even accompanied by a hep jazz trio reminiscent of some of Kerouac’s poetry recordings. Charlie hangs out with Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), his best friend and undercover cop. When we first meet Tony he looks a like a caricature of a 1970s-era pimp. “I look hip,” he tells Charlie who replies, “No, you look like an undercover cop trying to look hip.” Tony longs to be like Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) but instead feels like Fish from Barney Miller. Let me just say that I wish Anthony LaPaglia would do more comedies. From his character’s introduction, dressed in a parody of pimp, he displays a knack for being funny and plays well off of Myers in their first scene together.
The film’s first major comedic set piece arrives when Charlie visits his parents for dinner. They are fiercely proud Scots and his father (also played by Myers) even has a wall of portraits of famous folks from Scotland (that include the likes of Sheena Easton, Jackie Stewart and, of course, Sean Connery). We are introduced to them listening (and dancing) to the Bay City Rollers until an international soccer match comes on the television. Not surprisingly, Myers steals the show here as he rattles off one classic line after another. Watch the bit where Charlie’s father tells Tony about his theory of a secret society made up of the five wealthiest people in the world (known as the Pentavert) and you can see LaPaglia trying not to crack up. Finally, he just loses it as Myers goes off on Colonel Sanders and “his wee beady eyes.” I always wonder while watching this scene how many takes it took and if they just gave up after awhile and used the one where LaPaglia is laughing the least.
When the actors did the first cast read-through of the script, Charlie’s father had not yet been cast and so Myers read the character’s lines. The filmmakers realized that he could play that role as well. To fit both characters in the same scene together required the split-screen process. To look the role of Charlie’s father, Myers spent over three-and-a-half hours having specific prosthetic make-up applied.
Brenda Fricker plays Charlie’s mother and is the quintessential strong-willed Scottish woman. Although, she does seem to have a rather unhealthy attraction to Tony and refers to tabloid rag The Weekly World News as “the Paper.” She even justifies its authenticity by its impressive subscription numbers. In addition to following their Garth Brooks diet, she tells Charlie about the “Honeymoon Murderer,” a woman who marries men under fake identities and then kills them.
Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher who works at Meats of the World, catches Charlie’s eye when he buys some haggis for his father. To get closer to her, he volunteers to help out around the store. They bond over a montage of them working and goofing around. While filming these scenes, Nancy Travis was chopping vegetables with a kitchen knife. She looked up quickly to react to some antics by Myers and looked back down to see the tip of her middle finger on her left hand, “literally hanging by a thread.” A local doctor sewed her finger back together. Travis described Myers as “very particular but also clever” and said that they did a lot of improvising together. The more time Charlie spends with Harriet and the closer they get, the more he suspects that she may be the Honeymoon Murderer. Is he just falling back on his phobia of commitment, or is there something to his paranoid theories?
Nancy Travis is adorable and she and Myers have good chemistry together. The actress remembered that she was drawn to Harriet’s “qualities of danger and compassion mixed with humor make her an intriguing character.” Travis is not afraid to be a goofball and yet also have an air of mystery which keeps Charlie (and us) guessing as to her true intentions.
Amanda Plummer is quite good as Harriet’s eccentric sister Rose and delivers an off-kilter performance as only she can. In addition, there all kinds of celebrity comedian cameos from the likes of Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Michael Richards, Alan Arkin, and Steven Wright, who were attracted to the opportunity of working with Myers and the rest of the cast. Phil Hartman, in particular, is a real stand-out as Alcatraz Prison tour guide John Johnson, “but everyone here calls me Vicky,” and who proceeds to tell a funny yet also creepy story about one of the inmates.
One of the strengths of Axe Murderer is how it conveys a real sense of place. The city of San Francisco is featured rather prominently, so much so that it is like another character. The opening credits appear as the camera flies over the San Francisco Bay and through the city (we briefly see the Ferry Building) before finally descending onto Jack Kerouac Alley and the Roads coffeehouse (actually the Vesuvio Cafe located very close to the famous City Lights bookstore). The camera enters the busy place and settles on a serving tray with a big mug of cappuccino, which recalls the early to mid-1990s when coffeehouses were all the rage. In addition, there are shots of Charlie driving through Diamond Heights with accompanying music (conducted by Bruce Broughton) reminiscent of the classic cop show The Streets of San Francisco. In addition, other notable city landmarks that are on display in the film include the Fog City Diner, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and a great shot of Charlie sitting on the roof of his place overlooking North Beach.
The filmmakers picked San Francisco as the film’s setting because it seemed like an ideal place for a poet like Charlie. Myers was attracted to its “coffeehouse culture, with its clothes and music and its whole sensibility ... people aren’t going to bars as much. They tend to go out and have coffee.” Several sets were built in warehouses near Candlestick Park and the filmmakers used these soundstages for many weeks. The Dunsmuir House and Gardens in the East Oakland foothills were chosen as the destination site of Charlie and Harriet while on honeymoon. Additional special effects and Matte paintings created the illusion that this location was secluded among mountains. The production replicated the mansion’s rooftop at ground level so that the actors could do their own stuntwork for some of the film’s climactic chase sequence.
So I Married An Axe Murderer originated in 1987 when producer Robert N. Fried met with writer Robbie Fox to discuss story ideas. They ended up talking about the problems they had with women and agreed that “most women appeared to be out to destroy us!” Fried recalled. Producers Cary Woods and Fried formed their own production company in 1992 and Axe Murderer was their first film. They heard about Myers’ work in Wayne’s World before it was released and asked him to play the role of Charlie. On the night of the 1992 Academy Awards, Myers agreed to do it because he liked the screenplay and “the concept of fear of marriage.”
Myers wanted to rework Robbie Fox’s screenplay in order to allow himself the chance to do some serious acting while still doing some Saturday Night Live-style comedy. Myers rewrote the script with friend and fellow comedian Neil Mullarkey which became the shooting script. Myers petitioned to give himself and his friend credit for their work but in arbitration the Writers Guild of America decided that only Fox would receive credit.
Behind-the-scenes troubles included in-fighting among the principal cast members, rewrites, reshoots and lengthy release delays. The media described Myers as a control freak. Director Schlamme disagreed with Myers on a few occasions over the shape of the film. Schlamme said, “Michael was taking a stretch beyond his usual stuff and was playing outside himself. Personality clashes were bound to happen. We struggled.” However, Schlamme disagreed that Myers was the “control freak that the media has painted him to be,” but acknowledged that it was a difficult shoot. Producer Fried admitted that it was not “a smooth movie” and there were on-location “difficulties” with Myers but that “it was good for the film.” Despite early press reports claiming the film was unfunny and over budget, it scored high at test screenings.
So I Married An Axe Murderer was featured at a screening to benefit the San Francisco film office on July 27, 1993 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Its world premiere was the next day with Myers, Travis and LaPaglia attending. The film ended up making only $11.5 million in North America, well below its $20 million budget.
Critical reaction was mixed. Roger Ebert criticized it for being "a mediocre movie with a good one trapped inside, wildly signaling to be set free.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers felt that "Juggling mirth, romance and murder requires a deft touch – think of Hitchcock’s Trouble with Harry. Axe is a blunt instrument.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and said, "In some perverse way, So I Married an Axe Murderer seems to be asking us to laugh at how not-funny it is.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson had a mixed reaction to Myers' performance: "Everything he does is charmingly lightweight and disposable and reasonably impossible to resist. And in the end, because the character is so easily within reach for him, you may come away feeling a little cheated, as if you hadn't quite seen a movie at all.” However, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that it came as "a welcome surprise that So I Married an Axe Murderer, which might have been nothing more than a by-the-numbers star vehicle, surrounds Mr. Myers with amusing cameos and gives him a chance to do more than just coast.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “The movie’s a trifle, at best – but it’s so full of good spirits, and so rich with talented actors having a marvelous time, that its flaws tend to wash away.”
Mike Myers delivers his most relaxed, naturalistic performance approximating an actual human being in So I Married An Axe Murderer. He manages to keep his shameless mugging to a tolerable level – something that would get exponentially worse with subsequent films. This may be due to the fact that he’s allowed to cut loose as Charlie’s dad, playing a much broader character, and this allows him to play Charlie more down-to-earth. Sadly, Myers hasn’t played a character as restrained since, instead opting for more annoying caricatures.
Monday, August 10, 2009
The film begins with a situation familiar to anyone who’s read Thompson’s work – under pressure to get an article done by a strict deadline for Blast magazine (aka Rolling Stone) for his long-suffering editor Marty Lewis (Bruno Kirby wasted in a thankless role). Up against it, he decides to write about his friend and attorney at law Carl Lazlo, Esq. (Peter Boyle). The film proceeds to flash back to San Francisco, 1968 and Thompson is holed up in a hospital room with a Wild Turkey I.V. drip (nice touch) and his own private nurse. Lazlo shows up (through the window no less) and springs his client for a road trip in a muscle car that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drove in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).
After this promising start, the film stalls with a bit where Thompson pretends to draw a lady’s blood which is pointless and painfully unfunny. Although, things perk up slightly in the next scene where he attends a court case that Lazlo is working. In the courtroom, he proceeds to mix up a Bloody Mary while he waits for the proceedings to begin which is fairly amusing. Lazlo’s defense of four hippies stops the film cold. It is supposed to show his righteous fight for the underdog and the futility of working within the system. It is supposed to set up the struggle between the counterculture and the establishment which epitomized the 1960s. Instead, it just comes across as dull and preachy.
Where the Buffalo Roam jumps to Los Angeles, 1972 as Thompson covers the Superbowl as depicted in the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. After a tedious bit where he checks in, the film reaches its funniest point (not a hard feat, mind you) as Thompson stages his own Superbowl in his hotel room. He corrals a maid and a room service waiter into playing an impromptu game and in the process trash the room in a humorous scene that is the closest this film gets to realizing Thompson’s writing that was often filled with absurdly comical passages.
However, the film stalls yet again when, surprise, Lazlo shows up to take Thompson (and us) away from fun and sidetracks the narrative with painfully obvious political and social commentary as the crazy attorney tries to get his client to join a band of revolutionaries. The whole sequence makes no sense and is a total bore but does make you thankful for the fast-forward button. At this point, I really appreciated what a great job Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp did adapting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) to the big screen.
Fortunately, Thompson doesn’t have much time for Lazlo’s revolution and splits. The film segues into an amusing example of one of Thompson’s infamous college lecture appearances where he conducts a rowdy Q&A session to an adoring crowd of students. It is here where he utters one of his most famous pearls of wisdom: “I hate to advocate weird chemicals or insanity to anyone but they’ve always worked for me.” For anyone who has seen vintage footage of Thompson at one of these college campus appearances, the film’s recreation is spot on – a rare moment of verisimilitude.
Where the Buffalo Roams ends on a high note as it traces Thompson’s misadventures on the campaign trail, pitting him against the elite press corp. as he invades the plane carrying respectable journalists from newspapers like the Washington Post, much to the consternation of a White House representative (played by Animal House alumni Mark Metcalf). Not surprisingly, Thompson gets banished to the “zoo” plane with all of the technicians. It’s a chaotic, noisy crowd where Thompson fits right in. He proceeds to get a straight-laced journalist (played wonderfully by Rene Auberjonois) whacked out of his skull on prescription drugs (he’s later found in the plane bathroom singing, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). This allows Thompson to steal his press credentials, which he uses to meet President Richard Nixon in a bathroom where he proceeds to freak the man out with his Gonzo behavior.
Bill Murray certainly has Thompson’s distinctive voice and unique physical mannerisms down cold. In the opening scene, he nails the man’s tendency to sudden outbursts of anger and conveys his love and use of guns. Thompson also had a tendency to mutter to himself, often dictating into a tape recorder which Murray does quite well. Best of all, the comedian spouts many Thompson-erisms at certain points that make you wonder if they were the parts that Murray and Thompson rewrote or that Murray, channeling Thompson, improvised. But for all of this hard work it still feels like a caricature of Thompson, or rather his public persona, like the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury, but it is still fun to watch. Murray’s performance does contain moments of inspired lunacy, like the hospital room scene and the hotel Superbowl sequence. He does the best with what he has to work with but it’s an uphill battle and he’s constantly thwarted by the unorganized screenplay and ho-hum direction.
In the late 1970s, Thompson’s agent Lynn Nesbit called him one day and told him that movie producer Thom Mount wanted to pay $100,000 for the rights to "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," a eulogy for his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta which appeared in the October 1977 issue Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson agreed to have it optioned without seeing a script figuring that the film would never get made because Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been optioned several times and never made. He remembers, “then all of a sudden there was some moment of terrible horror when I realized they were going to make the movie." In 1978, illustrator Ralph Steadman (who had worked with Thompon on numerous occasions) was asked to create a poster for the film. He used a drawing entitled, Spirit of Gonzo as the basis but this incarnation disappeared and in 1979 he created a completely different poster.
Thompson met with the film’s screenwriter John Kaye but felt that the man understood more than what was in the script. "I was very disappointed in the script. It sucks — a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script." By his own admission, Thompson admitted that he signed away having any control so that he couldn’t be blamed for the end result. In the early drafts, Lazlo’s surname was Mendoza but this was changed after Nosotros, a group of Chicano actors and filmmakers, threatened to generate controversy if the character was played by Anglo actor Peter Boyle.
Before principal photography began, director Art Linson took a four-month crash course on directing. Steadman observed the first-time filmmaker on the set and said that it was “pretty obvious that he was in no frame of mind to catch the abandoned pure essence of Gonzo madness, which can only happen in uncontrolled conditions.” However, Steadman also felt that Linson’s “fanaticism for the subject he was trying to portray was undoubtedly there, and his sincerity, too,” but that the director was under the impression that the film was going to be a runaway hit before he’d even begun filming it and therefore refused to take any chances with the material.
While making Where the Buffalo Roam, Murray hung out frequently with Thompson. They were known to pull some wild stunts, like the time, at Thompson’s Aspen, Colorado home, after many drinks and arguing about who was the better escape artist, the writer tied the comedian to a chair and threw him into the swimming pool. Murray nearly drowned before Thompson pulled him out. The comedian also hung out with Steadman, who gave Murray his impressions and observations of Thompson’s mannerisms. According to Steadman, within two weeks of Thompson being on set, Murray had transformed into him.
Just before principal photography began, Murray became apprehensive because of the shortcomings of the script. Kaye claims that Thompson and Murray changed parts of it during filming and, at that point, he chose to no longer be involved. Linson did allow Murray, with Thompson’s help, to add lines on the set. Years later, Thompson said that he and Murray wrote and they shot several different beginnings and endings for the film but none of them were used. Murray and Thompson continued to be concerned with the film’s lack of continuity and in early 1980 added voiceover narration. Where the Buffalo Roam was sneak-previewed in late March and the last two scenes and most of the narration were missing. Murray was reportedly furious. Universal ended up shooting a new ending and three days before release, a press screening was canceled because of editing problems.
Thompson even served as a consultant on Where the Buffalo Roam but this did little to translate the author's warped vision to the big screen. While watching the film, it becomes readily evident that, despite Murray's inspired performance, Kaye and Linson had no idea what Thompson's books were trying to say. The film seems more like a collection of rather tame highlights from the man's work, including Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Where the Buffalo Roam owes more to the sensibilities of Animal House (1978), with its goofy humor, than Thompson’s savage political satire. Mount also produced Animal House and ended up casting a few of the supporting actors from that film in this one. With Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas we laugh along with Thompson and his attorney but at a certain point the film makes it a point to show that these guys aren’t very nice and are quite destructive – to themselves and those around them. It is this darkness that is missing from Linson’s film, which is a light-hearted romp, a slob comedy in the tradition of Animal House.
In an interesting post-script, Murray had a tough time shaking Thompson’s persona after filming. Murray made the film between the fourth and fifth seasons of Saturday Night Live. When the fifth season began, the comedian was still channeling Thompson, showing up to meetings with the long black cigarette holder and sunglasses. One of the show’s writers said, “Billy was not Bill Murray, he was Hunter Thompson. You couldn’t talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson.” Early in the fifth season of the show, Murray sometimes looked bored on-air and was described as acting like “a tyrant” backstage by some. He seemed to be angry at everyone and very uncooperative. After the film was released and tanked at the box office, as well as being trashed by the critics, the studio quickly pulled it from theaters. Murray started to act more like himself and no one brought up the strange period where he acted like Thompson. Years later, Murray reflected on the film: "I rented a house in L.A. with a guest house that Hunter lived in. I'd work all day and stay up all night with him; I was strong in those days. I took on another persona and that was tough to shake. I still have Hunter in me.”
Where the Buffalo Roam was almost universally panned by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, "The movie fails to deal convincingly with either Thompson's addictions or with his friendship with Lazlo." However, the film critic also noted that "this is the kind of bad movie that's almost worth seeing.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, "Well, the actors haven't transcended their material. They're simply stuck with it. Murray and Boyle don't emerge as a swell comic team, and they aren't funny as individuals either.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, "Screenwriter John Kaye has reduced Thompson's career to a rubble of disjointed episodes, and the relentless mayhem becomes tiresome chaos rather than liberating comic anarchy.” However, The New Yorker’s Roger Angell felt that “the most surprising thing ... is how much of Thompson’s tone gets into the picture.” In later years, Thompson still felt that the film was a disaster. “It was just a horrible movie. A cartoon. But Bill Murray did a good job ... Not to mention that I have to live with it. It's like go into a bar somewhere and people start to giggle and you don't know why, and they're all watching that fucking movie.”
After the film's dismal reception, no other adaptations were completed. It took actor Johnny Depp and his friendship with Thompson to get any kind of serious attempt at an adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas even considered. In the end, I think that the problems I have with Where the Buffalo Roam are best summed up in a speech Thompson gives at the end of the film where he says, “it just never got weird enough for me.” Amen, my brother.