Monday, November 30, 2009

Real Genius

In the 1980s, Martha Coolidge’s films were a welcome antidote to the dominance of John Hughes’ output. On the surface, her films appear to be quite similar, but whereas Hughes’ films ultimately play it safe and are conservative in nature (i.e. the status quo is preserved), Coolidge’s films champion the outsider in society – for example, Nicolas Cage’s punk rocker hooks up with Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl despite societal pressure in Valley Girl (1983). Real Genius (1985) appears to be just another mindless college comedy like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), but whereas that film had its outsiders ultimately become part of accepted mainstream society, the nerds in Real Genius rebel against it and are proud to be different.

Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is a brilliant high school student recruited by Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to become a student at Pacific Tech and join a special team working on an experimental laser. Hathaway tells Mitch and his parents in person at a science fair. The exchange between them is priceless. His parents obviously have no idea just how smart their son is and only want him to get the best education. At one point, Mitch’s mother asks Hathaway, “I saw your show the other night on radioactive isotopes and I’ve got a question for you. Is that your real hair?” He cheerfully replies, “Is Mitch by any chance adopted?” They are oblivious to the implied insult and Hathaway pulls Mitch aside and tells him, “We’re different than most people. Better.” Hathaway’s elitist attitude is established early on, setting him up as an arrogant snob that must be taught a lesson in humility by our heroes.

Hathaway rooms Mitch with Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), the top brain on campus – at least he used to be until Mitch showed up. We first meet Chris as he’s being taken on a guided tour of a top science laboratory. He has a t-shirt on that reads, “I love toxic waste,” and a set of alien antennae on his head that demonstrate he is the antithesis of Hathaway. He may be super smart but he’s not a stuffed shirt. At one point, his tour guide asks him, “You’re Chris Knight, aren’t you?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I hope so, I’m wearing his underwear.” Val Kilmer’s deadpan delivery is right on the money and he demonstrates an uncanny knack for comic timing. The film could have so easily set up a rivalry between Chris and Mitch but instead they become friends and team up against a common foe: Kent (Robert Prescott), an arrogant senior student who is also working on the laser.

Chris is super smart, but something of a loose cannon, always cracking jokes and never taking anything too seriously, much to Mitch’s consternation because he doesn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. Mitch also has trouble adjusting to campus life and this isn’t helped by Kent who enjoys tormenting Mitch when the senior student isn’t busy sucking up to Hathaway. Coolidge replaces the class warfare in Valley Girl with in-fighting amongst academics in Real Genius. The setting may be different, but the tactics are no less mean-spirited as Kent delights in publicly humiliating Mitch. Meanwhile, Hathaway puts pressure on Chris to produce a working laser before the school year ends. Failure to do so will result in Hathaway making sure that Chris doesn’t graduate or work in his field of expertise. Unbeknownst to the ace student, his professor is getting pressured by a flunky and his superior from the CIA who want to use the laser for their own covert actions (assassinations from outer space?).


Every so often, Mitch catches a glimpse of a mysterious long-haired man who goes into his closet at random times during the day. His name is Lazlo (Jon Gries) and he lives deep in the bowels of the school. He used to be the smartest student on campus back in the 1970s but cracked under the pressure and now spends all of his time generating entries for the Frito Lay sweepstakes (enter as often as you like) so as to get as many of the prizes as possible. Jon Gries plays Lazlo as a shy genius, smarter than Chris and Mitch combined. He’s a gentle soul and a far cry from the arrogant blowhard he would go on to play in Napoleon Dynamite (2004).

Over the course of the film, Mitch finds himself attracted to Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who never seems to sleep. She sports an adorable Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and a nervous energy that is oddly attractive. I had a huge crush on her when I first saw this film back in the day, quite possibly one of my earliest cinematic crushes. She was the ultimate nerd sex symbol in the ‘80s with her undeniable beauty and brains. Sadly, after a few films she grew disenchanted with the movie making business and retired to Canada to become a Zen Buddhist.

Remember when Val Kilmer was funny? Between this film and Top Secret! (1984), he displays some impressive comedic chops. Kilmer excels at delivering smartass quips and jokes but is also capable of delivering an inspirational speech that convinces Mitch to stick it out at school and get revenge on Kent. There are two scenes where he dispenses with the jokes and has a relatively serious conversation with Mitch about life. They are refreshingly heartfelt and elevate Real Genius above the usual ‘80s teen comedy.

Gabe Jarret is perfectly cast as the helplessly square Mitch with his dorky haircut and his J.C. Penny’s wardrobe. We aren’t meant to laugh at him and Coolidge shows that he’s a good kid thrust into a new and strange environment. He’s smart, but lacks the emotional maturity, which he will acquire over the course of the film. Jarret does a nice job of conveying his character’s arc. He doesn’t totally transform into Chris but instead absorbs some of his traits while remaining true to himself.

In the ‘80s, William Atherton seemed to be the go-to guy for playing douchebag authority figures, with memorable turns as the unscrupulous journalist in Die Hard (1988), the “dickless” EPA guy in Ghostbusters (1984), and, of course, his turn in Real Genius. Atherton’s job, and man, does it he do it oh so well, is to provide a source of conflict for our protagonists. He portrays Hathaway as the ultimate arrogant prick and we can’t wait to see him get his well-deserved comeuppance at the hands of Chris and Mitch.


Real Genius does plug in the usual tropes of ‘80s teen comedies with the now dated soundtrack of New Wave songs, most of them forgotten except for “Everybody Wants to the Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, which plays over the blissfully carefree ending of the film. There are the wacky comedic set pieces involving pranks. There’s also the T&A factor when Chris takes Mitch to an indoor pool party populated by sexy beauticians. Not to mention, the dorm that Chris and his classmates live in which vaguely resembles the chaotic frat house in Animal House (1978), only inhabited by really smart people.

However, it is how the film presents these generic elements that sets it apart from the typical ‘80s teen comedy. For example, the pranks are quite inventive, like when Chris and Mitch manage to place Kent’s car in his dorm room. There are several and they all lead up to the mack daddy of them all, which occurs at the climax of the film. While there is the requisite T&A factor in Real Genius, the PG rating assures that we don’t see much, just some girls in bikinis. Instead, we get the understated romance that develops between Mitch and Jordan, which is rather sweet in its own unassuming way. The dorm is certainly not the debauched chaos of Delta House, but it clearly is a place of fun, led by Chris and his various antics.

Producer Brian Grazer loved the humor and the sensibility that Martha Coolidge brought to Valley Girl and asked her to direct Real Genius. She thought that the screenplay was funny, but it had “a lot of penis and scatological jokes” that reminded her of other teen comedies she had turned down in the past. However, Grazer brought in Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to give the script a polish and had Coolidge re-read it. She liked it and Grazer’s boundless enthusiasm convinced her to commit to the project. Still not completely satisfied with the script, Grazer brought in comedy writer P.J. Torokvei to help Coolidge create the story, come up with the ending and fully develop the characters. For example, it was Torokvei who came up with the character of Jordan and was responsible for many of Chris Knight’s memorably smartass remarks.

Coolidge insisted on researching laser technology and policies of the CIA. The producers even brought in top-level consultants from the military and weapons development experts. To make Real Genius distinctive from other teen science fiction films at the time, the director went to great lengths to make sure the science was authentic and the science fiction aspect was plausible. At the time, scientists were actually working on the powerful laser Chris and his fellow students were developing for Hathaway, but the filmmakers could only work with a smaller wattage for reasons of safety and cost. The production used real lasers with very little visual effects enhancement, of which was used only sparingly at the film’s climax.

In addition, she interviewed dozens of Cal Tech students and based most of the stories in the film and the visual depiction of their school on Cal Tech, in particular Dabney Hall. Coolidge also met with all kinds of scientists and students, including the legendary Cal Tech mathematician grad that was rumored to have lived in the steam tunnels. To say that the director was a stickler for authenticity was an understatement. The graffiti in the dorm was copied from the actual dorm graffiti by scenic painters and then embellished further by Cal Tech students brought in by the production.

Not surprisingly, Coolidge and producers saw many young actors for the role of Chris Knight. It became obvious that Val Kilmer was the best actor to embody the role, but John Cusack was also considered at one point. However, once principal photography began, Coolidge found Kilmer not so easy to work with because he was “intellectually challenging and erratic.” He avoided working by asking a lot of questions and was sometimes late to the set and acted moody. That being said, over the 75-day shoot, they gained a lot of trust and worked well together.

The filmmakers also spent a lot of time trying to cast an actor for the role of Mitch Taylor. At one point, they seriously considered hiring a true young genius that had graduated college in his early teens. They discovered Gabe Jarret late in pre-production and he had the “right combination of seriousness, gawkiness, intelligence and emotion that we needed,” Coolidge remembers.

For the house that explodes with popcorn at the film’s exciting climax, the special F/X people designed all kinds of hydraulic systems to move the popcorn. The next challenge was generating all the stuff. They couldn’t buy all the popcorn needed for the scene in the short amount of time they had so the film crew popped 40 tons themselves on the lot over six weeks. All the popcorn was stored in 38 40-foot tractor-trailer trucks.

Real Genius received mixed to positive reviews when it was released. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin felt that the film was at its best when it took its characters seriously, “though it does so only intermittently." Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "When it's good, the dormitory high jinks feel like the genuine release of teen-age tensions and cruelty. Too bad the story isn't as smart as the kids in it." The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley felt that, "Many of the scenes, already badly written, fail to fulfill their screwball potential ... But despite its enthusiastic young cast and its many good intentions, it doesn't quite succeed. I guess there's a leak in the think tank.”

However, Roger Ebert awarded the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, saying that it "contains many pleasures, but one of the best is its conviction that the American campus contains life as we know it.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Salem Alaton felt that Coolidge “turned in the summer's best, and she didn't cheat to do it. There's heart in the kookiness. Real Genius has real people, real comedy and real fun.” Time magazine's Richard Schickel praised the film for being "a smart, no-nonsense movie that may actually teach its prime audience a valuable lesson: the best retort to an intolerable situation is not necessarily a food fight. Better results, and more fun, come from rubbing a few brains briskly together."

Real Genius argues that nerds can have fun too, but there needs to be a balance. You can love solving problems but it can’t be all science and no philosophy as Chris tells Mitch. People like Kent and Hathaway have no sense of humor and are self-obsessed egotists. They are ambitious to a fault, not caring who they step on the way, while Chris and Mitch are aware of the consequences of their actions. There is sweetness to this film that is endearing and rather strange considering that Neal Israel and Pat Proft wrote the screenplay (authors of such paeans to sweetness, like Police Academy and Bachelor Party), but Coolidge is firmly in charge and wisely doesn’t let Real Genius get too sappy. She also doesn’t let the funny stuff devolve into mindless frat humor, instead maintaining a proper mix that doesn’t insult our intelligence. The end result is a film that the characters in the film might enjoy, if they weren’t already in it. Achieving just the right alchemy may explain why the film continues to enjoy a modest cult following and is one of the few teen comedies from the ‘80s that stands the test of time.



The "Pacific Tech" in the film is actually a thinly-disguised version of CalTech in real life. Here is a page examining many of the references to CalTech in the film. Info on a real-life laser gun. Last, but certainly not least is Edward Copeland's fantastic look back at the film over at Edward Copeland on Film. His post inspired my own.


SOURCES

"Back to the 80s: Interview with Martha Coolidge." Kickin' It Old School. January 13, 2011.

O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "Martha Coolidge." Starlog. September 1985. Pg. 35-37.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

DVD of the Week: The Ice Storm: Criterion Collection

Director Ang Lee has had a fascinatingly diverse career. He’s tried his hand at the literary adaptation with Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Civil War epic with Ride with the Devil (1999), a period martial arts tale with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and a comic book adaptation with the much-maligned Hulk (2003). He has successfully dabbled in several genres and with The Ice Storm (1997), he adapted Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same name, a drama set in 1973 during the waning years of the sexual revolution.

The film takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday in New Canaan, Connecticut and explores the relationship between two families: the Carvers and the Hoods. Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is returning home from school and hopes to lose his virginity to an attractive classmate named Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). His sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) is obsessed with the Watergate hearings and delights in watching President Nixon going down in flames. Their parents, Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen), are a bland WASPy couple whose marriage is stuck in a rut. Ben is having an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) who is in a loveless marriage with Jim (Jamey Sheridan). They have two sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), oddly off-kilter boys who are becoming increasingly sexually aware with Wendy’s help.

All of their conflicts and problems boil to the surface at a “key party” that the Carvers and Hoods attend during an ice storm. There’s a faint whiff of desperation as all of these conservative WASPs try to be hip swingers. Meanwhile, their children are up to their own subversive activities with unfortunate, tragic consequences.

Needless to say, both of these families are very dysfunctional with the adults being sexually repressed and the kids exploring their sexuality. Lee underlines the dysfunction of these families by visually referencing panels from issue 141 of the Fantastic Four comic book occasionally throughout the film. Paul is reading it on a train during the film’s climactic ice storm. The FF are a family of superheroes and in this particular issue they are plagued by internal strife. There is some delicious foreshadowing as Tobey Maguire would go on to play Spider-Man and Lee would adapt the Incredible Hulk.

The Ice Storm feels like an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes film from the 1970s with a dash of Atom Egoyan (the look of either Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter). It also has a textured, painterly quality thanks to the exquisite cinematography of Frederick Elmes who also shot some of David Lynch’s best films (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart). He really captures the tacky, kitschy look of the ‘70s and is helped considerably by the attention to period detail (awful sweater vests over turtleneck sweaters) and the top notch production design (capturing the look of the houses from that era).

The Ice Storm takes a fascinating look at a specific time and place through the eyes of an outsider – the Taiwanese-born Lee who offers a fresh perspective on American culture. His film can be seen as a melancholic lament for the end of an era and the loss of innocence that began with the Kennedy assassination. Kudos to the Criterion Collection for giving this unfairly neglected film their deluxe treatment.

Special Features:

The first disc features an audio commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus. They banter back and forth like the long-time friends and collaborators that they are. At one point, Schamus jokingly refers to a “pre-Scientology” Katie Holmes and recounts some of the challenges of shooting on location including greedy town locals who held up filming. Lee makes some astute observations about the characters and points out his favorite shots and lines of dialogue in the film. They talk about Maguire’s voiceover narration and how it provides structure to the film and how it comments on the action. This is an entertaining and informative commentary.

There is also a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with “Weathering the Storm,” a 36-minute retrospective featurette with new interviews with a lot of the key cast members who reflect on making the film and how it affected their careers. Joan Allen describes the script as minimalist in nature and was intrigued by it. Kevin Kline’s agent described it as the bleakest one he’d ever read and this piqued the actor’s curiosity who read and found it quite funny. Sigourney Weaver talks about the social restrictions her character and women in general faced in the ‘70s. Everyone talks about what it was like to work with Lee. This is an excellent look at how the film came together by some of the actors who were in it.

“Rick Moody Interview” features the author of the source novel talking about his feelings towards the film adaptation. These characters were an intimate part of him and the film version was a very different take on them. He was allowed to watch the process of the adaptation by the filmmakers.

“Lee and Schamus at MOMI.” The two talk about their filmmaking career together at the Museum of the Moving Image in November 2007. They talk about how various films came together and reflect on them in an eloquent and intelligent way.

“The Look of The Ice Storm” features interviews with cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg, and costume designer Carol Oditz. They talk about how they helped realize Lee’s vision.

Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Schamus. We see Ben at work in a funny bit with Kline and Henry Czerny. He talks about why these scenes were cut.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Nixon

Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.

The first real indication of Stone’s thesis of the political system as a wild, untamable animal comes when Nixon talks to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) at a horse race about running for President. There are all kinds of shots of horses snorting wildly – the first hint, visually, of what Stone is trying to get at. Hoover makes it known that he will support Nixon if he, in turn, supports him, and is willing to supply him with dirt on Robert Kennedy to help the cause. Hoover makes an intriguing comment when he tells Nixon, “I look at it from the point of view that the system can only take so much abuse. It adjusts itself eventually ... But there are times there are savage outbursts.” He cites Martin Luther King’s promiscuity and continues, “Sometimes the system comes very close to cracking.” The implication in this scene is that Hoover is a significant cog in the United States political machine and one that Nixon must respect and work with.

The second significant example where Stone gives support to his thesis is when Nixon meets with Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), director of the CIA. Like Hoover, Helms is a powerful man within the system because he knows and protects so many of its dirty little secrets. They get to talking about Cuba and Nixon’s involvement to assassinate Fidel Castro, which Helms has evidence of via memos. He refers to it as “not an operation so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changed shape. It developed appetites.” Helms is fiercely protective of his position and of the CIA, resisting Nixon’s request for incriminating documents. Where Hoover is portrayed as gruff and obvious, Helms is elusive and distant, played with icy intensity by Sam Waterston.

The third and most important example occurs when Nixon spontaneously meets with war protesters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is where Stone lays it all out and the film features a fascinating exchange between the President and a female protester (Joanna Going):

Protester: You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. ‘Cause it’s not

you, it’s the system. The system won’t let you stop it.

Nixon: There’s more at stake here then what you want or what I want.

Protester: Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being President?

You’re powerless!

Nixon: No. No, I’m not powerless. ‘Cause I understand the system. I

believe I can control it. Maybe not control it totally but tame it

enough to do some good.

Protester: Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.

Nixon: Maybe I am.

Of this scene, Stone has said that Nixon realizes that the system is “more powerful than he is. We can’t get into it that much, but we hint at it so many times – the military-industrial complex, the forces of money.” Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the United States political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Stone and the screenwriters conceived of the concept of the political system as “the beast,” which one of the film’s screenwriters Christopher Wilkinson described as “a headless monster that lurches through postwar history,” and served as a metaphor for a system of dark forces that resulted in the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War, as well as helping Nixon’s rise to power and his fall from it. In an interview, Stone elaborated further. He saw “the beast” as a “system ... which grinds the individual down ... it’s a system of checks and balances that drives itself off: 1) the power of money and markets; 2) state power, government power; 3) corporate power, which is probably greater than state power; 4) the political process, or election through money, which is therefore in tow to the system; and 5) the media, which mostly protects the status quo and their ownership’s interests.”

Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures the essence and spirit of the man. He shows Nixon’s aggressive side, where he speaks in football metaphors and refers to himself in the third person, and also a vulnerable one in the scenes with his wife, Pat. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since because he hasn’t been given material and a director that has challenged him in quite the way that Stone did with Nixon.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award-winning thespian, portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by and watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. There’s a scene where she reacts in private to her husband losing the 1960 Presidential election to John F. Kennedy and she looks visibly upset, wiping away tears while trying to maintain her composure. In the following scene with her husband, Pat tells him about the toll his political career is taking on their family, which comes across as quite touching. Tears well up in Pat’s eyes as she consoles her husband while he looks tired and defeated. It’s a wonderfully intimate moment that humanizes both of them considerably. All of the scenes between Allen and Hopkins crackle with a kind of tangible intensity as we see the toll politics takes on them. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of films. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, J.T. Walsh, and, in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as Richard Helms. These recognizable faces help one keep track of the historical figures that pop up throughout the film.

Originally, Stone had been developing two projects – the musical Evita (1996) and a film about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. When they both failed to get made, he turned his attention to a biopic about Nixon with the president’s death in April 1994 being a key factor in the director’s decision. The project actually originated with Eric Hamburg, a former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after having dinner with Stone. In 1993, Hamburg mentioned the idea to writer Steve Rivele with the concept being that they would incorporate all of Nixon’s misdeeds, both known and speculative. Hamburg encouraged Rivele to write a screenplay with his partner Christopher Wilkinson. They wrote a treatment in November 1993. In it was the concept of the political system as a beast and this is what convinced Stone to get involved. He immersed himself in research with the help of Hamburg.

Stone commissioned the first draft of the film’s screenplay from Rivele and Wilkinson and it was completed on June 17, 1994, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The script was based on research from various sources, including documents, transcripts and hours of footage from the Nixon White House. Early on, Rivele and Wilkinson hated Nixon but the longer they worked on the film, and “the more we knew about him, our contempt was slowly eroded to the point where we more than pitied him, we empathized with him.” Stone structured his film into two acts with the first one about Nixon’s loss of power and the second one about Nixon in power only to lose it again.

Stone pitched the project to Warner Bros. but, according to the director, they saw it “as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action.” They also didn’t agree with Stone’s choice to play Nixon – Anthony Hopkins. Instead, they wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson – two of Stone’s original choices and both of whom had passed on the role. Stone even met with Warren Beatty but the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script. Stone went with Hopkins based on his performances in Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993). The director remembered, “the isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon.” Upon meeting Stone for the first time, Hopkins saw the director as “one of the great bad boys of American pop culture, and I might be a fool to walk away.” He was convinced that to take on such a challenging role that would require him to “impersonate the soul of Nixon” by the scenes in the film when he talks about his mother and father. “That affected me,” he said. To prepare for the role, Hopkins watched a lot of documentary footage on Nixon. At night, he would go to sleep with footage playing so that it would seep into his subconscious.

Joan Allen auditioned for the role of Pat Nixon over a period of several months. During one of these auditions, she read opposite Beatty when he was briefly interested. After this audition, Beatty told Stone that he had found his Pat Nixon. She learned, through her research, that Pat was a strong person who had a difficult life. Allen based her performance on interviews with former Nixon aides, books about the First Lady and a Barbara Walters interview in the early 1970s. Stone, Hamburg, Hopkins, and Woods flew to Washington, D.C. and interviewed the surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle: lawyer Leonard Garment, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. In addition, Stone hired Alexander Butterfield, a former secretary in the cabinet and special assistant to Nixon and who first revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret tapes of his oval office conversations, John Sears, former deputy White House counsel, and John Dean as consultants. To research their roles, Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino met with their real-life counterparts, but J.T. Walsh decided not to contact John Ehrlichman because he threatened to sue the production after reading an early version of the script and was not happy with how he was portrayed.

Stone’s producing partner and financier Arnold Milchan had a deal with the director to make any film he wanted up to a budget of $42.5 million but refused to honor their agreement, saying that he would put up no more than $35 million because he felt Nixon was an uncommercial project. Stone refused to make the film with that budget and a week before shooting was to begin he approached Hungarian financier Andrew Vajna who had a co-financing deal with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. At the time, Vajna was hoping to get some respectability in Hollywood and possibly an Academy Award and agreed to provide the $43 million budget. In order to cut costs, Stone leased the White House sets from The American President (1995).

Reportedly, there was a lot mischievous jokes exchanged between the actors on the set. Early on, Hopkins was intimidated by the amount of dialogue he had to learn, more of which was being added and changed all the time, and then Sorvino told him that “there was room for improvement” and that he would be willing to help him. According to James Woods, Sorvino told Hopkins that he was “doing the whole thing wrong” and that he was an “expert” who could help Hopkins. Sorvino took Hopkins to lunch and then afterwards the British thespian told Stone that he wanted to quit the production. The director managed to convince him to stay on. Hopkins remembered, “there were moments when I wanted to get out, when I wanted to just do a nice Knot’s Landing or something.” Woods also cracked several good natured jokes with Hopkins. He said, “I’d always tell him how great he was in Psycho. I’d call him Lady Perkins all the time instead of Sir Anthony Hopkins.”

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines actual documentary footage with fictional material and that blends various film stocks in attempt to shed light on a figure most people knew very little about. This fractured, overtly stylized approach suggests that we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective. The film is not meant to be the definitive word on the man but rather, as Stone said in an interview, the “basis to start reading, to start investigating on your own.”

Stone had his editors in three different rooms with the scenes from the film revolving from one room to another, “depending on how successful they were.” If one editor wasn’t successful with a scene it went to another. Stone said it was “the most intense post- I’ve ever done, even more intense than JFK” because he was screening the film three times a week, making changes in 48 to 72 hours, rescreening the film and then making another 48 hours of changes.

Seven days before Nixon was to be released in theaters, the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade president and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” The statement also criticized Stone’s depiction of Nixon’s private life and that of his childhood and his part in planning the assassination of Castro. This statement was actually issued by the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California on behalf of the Nixon family based on a published copy of the script. Stone responded that his “purpose in making the film Nixon, was neither malicious nor defamatory,” and to attempt “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon – the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world.” The attacks didn’t stop there. In a letter to Nixon’s daughters, Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, said that Stone “has committed a grave disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to American history.”

Despite lackluster box office results, Nixon was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert praised the film for how it took "on the resonance of classic tragedy. Tragedy requires the fall of a hero, and one of the achievements of Nixon is to show that greatness was within his reach.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin praised Anthony Hopkins' performance and "his character's embattled outlook and stiff, hunched body language with amazing skill.” However, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle felt that "the problem here isn't accuracy. It's absurdity. Hopkins' exaggerated portrayal of Nixon is the linchpin of a film that in its conception and presentation consistently veers into camp.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss also had a problem with Hopkins' portrayal: "Hopkins, though, is a failure. He finds neither the timber of Nixon's plummy baritone, with its wonderfully false attempts at intimacy, nor the stature of a career climber who, with raw hands, scaled the mountain and was still not high or big enough."

Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great film Oliver Stone has made to date. It is also, coincidentally (or maybe not), the last film he and regular collaborator Robert Richardson made together. The legendary cinematographer was as much responsible for defining the distinctive style of Stone’s films as the director himself. Stone’s work has never been the same since they parted company. Nixon was also the last time he had enough juice in Hollywood to command such an impressive cast of actors. Admittedly, Hollywood has changed considerably since this film was made and Stone has had to adapt with the times but hopefully he has another great film like Nixon left in him.

Friday, November 20, 2009

DVD of the Week: Blue Chips

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the 1970s, director William Friedkin was at the peak of his powers. The one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) made him a force to be reckoned with. And then, he made Sorcerer (1977), a critical and commercial failure. His industry clout disappeared as fast as he had acquired it. Studios did not want to deal with his inflated ego and hard-headed pragmatism. Other than the excellent, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) Friedkin has made one forgettable film after another through the 1980s and 1990s. On paper, Blue Chips (1994) must have seemed like a good idea. Team up Friedkin with a Ron Shelton (responsible for one of the best sports films ever, Bull Durham) penned screenplay to create a hard-hitting expose on college basketball. So, what happened?

Just to let us know that he hasn’t completely sold out; Friedkin opens the film by having college basketball coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) chew out a locker room full of players. He yells at them for a bit before walking out and then comes back in for more yelling. Repeat. It is a scene we’ve seen a million times before but this time it has a jarring effect because Friedkin drops us into the scene without any explanation, leaving it up to the audience to figure out what’s going on.

Bell is under a lot of pressure. Having experienced his first losing season, he’s still feeling the heat from accusations that his team shaved points off a game a few years ago. It continues to dogs him much to his chagrin. The powerful head of the alumni (played with oily, reptilian charm by consummate character actor, J.T. Walsh) dangles a carrot in front of Bell: use the power of the alumni coffers to recruit better players. Bell resists. He’s proud of the fact that he’s never resorted to illegal tactics that have tainted the game.

So, Coach Bell drives across the country trying to recruit players like a travelling salesman, sweet-talking families. But he soon finds that in order to get good players he has to do more than promise substantial courses and a vibrant campus life. Colleges not only have to convince the potential player but his family as well. The bottom line almost always comes down to this: what does the school have to offer them and their son? It’s not just a strong school, but, for some, the promise of a new house, a car, or a job. And so, Bell finally gives in and makes a deal with the film’s devil — Walsh’s slick, head of alumni, decked out in expensive suits and a buxom blond on each arm.

Why? College basketball represents big money through television revenue. A winning team draws bigger crowds and therefore more money. This makes the school’s alumni happy and willing to give more money to the school for certain programs, like the basketball team, thus ensuring future excellence in the sport. It is a cycle that feeds on itself. When one of these parts breaks down, the devastating ripples are felt throughout.

Nick Nolte is well cast as the intense, hard-drinking (what else?), hard-nosed coach who is feeling the pressure. The veteran actor has that natural, world-weariness that makes him perfect for the role and the rugged physicality that makes him believable as a big-time college basketball coach. Nolte not only talks the talk but he also walks the walk as evident in a basketball practice sequence where he actually conveys the impression that he knows what he’s doing. He backs this up with his on-court antics that are right out of games you’ve seen on T.V. Blue Chips also has the NBA pedigree with the likes of retired legends like Larry Bird and then-marquee players like Shaquille O’Neal and “Penny” Hardaway populating the movie.

Friedkin doesn’t seem all that interested in the basketball sequences, shooting them in the standard way that we have seen on T.V. instead of trying something different, like employing his trademark you-are-there cinema verite which would have captured the intensity of a live game, much as Oliver Stone did in Any Given Sunday (1999). Friedkin seems more interested in the off-court mechanics: the wheeling and dealing needed to get raw talent from high schools to their college without a rival school stealing/enticing them away, and Bell wrestling with his conscience. This is when the film is at its strongest and most interesting.

Blue Chips is fine until its conclusion when it suddenly loses its freakin’ mind as a guilt-ridden Bell tries to redeem himself at a post-game press conference. It just doesn’t seem believable — especially when this scene is followed by a staggeringly naïve, it-starts-with-our-kids message that is way too preachy. It betrays what the film has been saying up to this point: that no one seems to play for the love of the game anymore. Everybody wants something – money, a house, a car, or a job. Ultimately, Blue Chips is about an honest man who sells his soul, who gives into overwhelming pressure to get what he wants and who loses his way. Friedkin almost pulls it off and the sudden, pat ending makes one wonder if he originally intended a more downbeat ending only for the timid studio to impose a more positive conclusion. In doing so, they’ve alienated the audience who was with them up until that point.

Special Features:

Nothing. Considering what a good job Friedkin has been doing revisiting his old films and whole-heartedly supporting the DVD medium, one wonders if there was some friction between him and the studio on this film. Maybe they decided not to ask for his participation lest the notoriously vocal filmmaker sound off on any potential conflicts that arose during filming or how he views the film now.