Monday, May 31, 2010

Fletch

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is actually a re-posting of one of my earliest posts for this blog but I have gone in and cleaned it up and added some new material in honor of the 25th anniversary of Fletch!

Has it really been 25 years since Fletch (1985) was first released in theaters? For my money, it is still the best film Chevy Chase ever made (with Caddyshack a very close second). I can put the film on at almost any time and still find it just as funny, no matter how many times I have seen it. And yet, it is too often dismissed as just another dated piece of 1980s pop culture. To be sure, the soundtrack is horribly dated (Stephanie Mills’ “Bit by Bit” anyone?) but this part of the film’s charm. It is also often cited as the rare highlight of Chase's career that subsequently went downhill over the years. But Fletch has endured, thanks in large part to repeated broadcasts on television channels like TBS and rock-steady video rentals (with revenues of $24 million in the United States alone). So why does Fletch continue to inspire such a strong and loyal following after all these years? It is simple: insanely quotable dialogue, a colorful assortment of character actors and, of course, Chase's inimitable, vintage smart-ass persona.

When he's not avoiding his ex-wife's attorney – Arnold T. Pants, Esq. (George Wyner) – Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an investigative reporter who writes under the anonymous pen name Jane Doe for a Los Angeles newspaper. He is currently looking into the local drug trade on the beach and its links to police corruption when he is approached by Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), a rich businessman who tells him that he is dying from bone cancer. He wants to pay Fletch $50,000 to kill him. After doing some digging, he finds out that Stanwyk is lying and may also have some kind of involvement in the city's drug trade. His investigation ends up connecting these two seemingly unrelated plots for an exciting finale.

Fletch originated from a novel of the same name by Gregory Mcdonald. According to the author, the idea for the character came from hearing "from other people in the newsroom about other reporters doing these things for stories, and that gave me an idea. He was running around in my head for quite some time before I actually wrote the book." The novel was very successful and soon Hollywood came calling. His Fletch books were optioned around the mid to late 1970s but the author had the option of approving the actor cast to play Fletch. Mcdonald remembers that "everybody from 12 to 72 in Hollywood wanted to play Fletch. But I kept throwing a monkey wrench into their plans." He rejected the likes of Burt Reynolds and Mick Jagger when the studio mentioned Chevy Chase as Fletch. Despite never really seeing the comedian in anything, Mcdonald agreed to this choice. Years before, the comedian’s manager had recommended Mcdonald’s books to him but showed no interest in them or playing Fletch. However, when an old friend and producer Alan Greisman and screenwriter Andrew Bergman got involved, Chase agreed to do the film. Mcdonald sent him a telegram saying, “I am delighted to abdicate the role of Fletch to you.”

Chevy Chase started out as a satirical writer for the Smothers Brothers, National Lampoon magazine, and Mad magazine. He started acting in a comedy workshop called Channel One in Greenwich Village in New York City. Chase learned the art of comedy through improvisation during his stint at the workshop. "A laugh is a surprise," he once said in an interview, "and all humor is physical. I was always athletic, so that came naturally to me." Chase shows a stellar range of physical comedy in Fletch. His technique ranges from broader displays, such as the dream sequence when he imagines himself as the unusually aggressive L.A. Lakers star power forward (“6'5", 6'9" with the Afro”), to more subtle bits such as when he bangs his nose into a door, posing as the accident-prone Mr. Poon.

Andrew Bergman was hired to adapt Mcdonald's book into screenplay form. He was only 26-years-old when Mel Brooks transformed his first script, "Tex X," about a black militant cowboy, into Blazing Saddles (1974). The money Bergman made from that script allowed him to stay in New York City where he wrote The In-Laws (1979), a brilliant black comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Bergman went on to write several more screenplays for mediocre films in the '80s before working on Fletch. Bergman remembers that he wrote the screenplay “very fast – I did the first draft in four weeks ...Then there was a certain amount of improv, and something that we used to call dial-a-joke. Michael [Ritchie, the director] found this aircraft hanger, and called me and said we need a scene set in an aircraft hanger. So I wrote it that afternoon.” This, of course, became the scene where Fletch poses as an airplane mechanic by the name of G. Gordon Liddy and famously chastises the real mechanics that confront him about not using ballbearings. “It’s all ballbearings nowadays,” he says with hilarious mock-indignation. However, Mcdonald read the script was upset by how much it differed from his novel. He wrote the studio and listed his numerous issues with the script. Ritchie invited the author to the set of the film and then took him out to dinner where, according to Mcdonald, "Point by point, he showed me where I was wrong. I was beautifully chewed out.”

Director Michael Ritchie had much the same career arc as Bergman. He enjoyed success early on in theater and television, directing episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Dr. Kildare in the 1960s, before breaking into feature films with Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972) – both starring Robert Redford. After a successful run of films in the 1970s that included The Bad News Bears (1976), Ritchie directed mostly forgettable fare, like The Island (1983), until Fletch came along. According to actor Tim Matheson, Fletch was the first film Chase did after cleaning up a problem he had with drugs. Regardless, the studio hedged their bets and hired Ritchie to keep tabs on Chase. However, during principal photography, the director would do one take that adhered to the script and then another take where Chase was allowed to improvise. The comedian enjoyed the role and working with Ritchie as it allowed him to play a diverse collection of characters. He once said in an interview, “I love props, like wigs and buck-teeth and glasses. At one point I wear an Afro and play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There were some scenes where I didn't recognize myself.”

Fletch is essentially a vehicle tailor-made for Chevy Chase. It plays to the comedian's strengths; in addition to his affinity for physical comedy, the film is famous for showcasing his trademark deadpan smart-ass delivery of dialogue and his knack for playing a wide variety of characters – abilities he perfected on Saturday Night Live. Chase expertly juggles Fletch's numerous aliases. From the likes of the absent-minded, Dr. Rosenrosen to Mr. Underhill's racquet club "friend" John Cocktosten, Chase makes each one distinctive and hilariously memorable.

Fletch spends the film skewering all sorts of authority figures, from wealthy businessman Stanwyk to the scary chief of police Karlin (Joe Don Baker). He always has a snappy comeback for any given situation. For example, there is a scene early on where Fletch has a funny exchange with Frank (Richard Libertini), his long-suffering editor at the newspaper, about the identity of the reporter’s source to the drug trade going on at the beach. Frank asks Fletch for more information to which he replies, “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” Frank asks, “Alright, how gray?” Without missing a beat, Fletch replies, “Charcoal?” Infuriated, Frank’s hand trembles with anger as he holds a pot of coffee to which Fletch responds by holding an empty styrofoam cup and shakes it also. I think that why the film appeals to so many is that in some way we wish that we all could walk through life like Fletch delivering smart-ass one-liners and getting away with everything. Chevy does it in such a casual, nonchalant way that seems so effortless. It was just a perfect marriage of Bergman's script and Chevy's knack for improvising and physical comedy.

Capitalizing on the immensely popular action comedy, Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Fletch adheres to the same formula: the maverick protagonist who has a problem with authority, the use of multiple disguises to get in and out of dicey situations for comedic effect, the obligatory car chase, and even the hopelessly dated synth-soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer who seemed to be everywhere in the ‘80s, scoring major hits like the aforementioned Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun (1986). His distinctive minimalist synth beats are the glue that holds the collection of forgettable ‘80s songs together. Fletch deviates in one significant aspect: Chase's character never uses a gun (he also repeatedly gets the crap kicked out of him).

Another aspect of Fletch that makes it so unforgettable is the strong supporting cast. The film features character actors like Joe Don Baker as the slimy Chief of Police Karlin (who brings a wonderfully scary intensity to his role), George Wendt as the amiable drug dealer Fat Sam, Tim Matheson as the double-dealing bigamist Alan Stanwyk, M. Emmet Walsh as the probing Dr. Dolan, and a young, pre-Thelma and Louise (1991) Geena Davis as Larry, Fletch's ever loyal co-worker. I’ve always harbored a cinematic crush on Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (playing Stanwyk’s wife, Gail) thanks to this film. Her first encounter with Fletch at the racquet club, decked out in a cute, white tennis outfit, is a memorable one. She essentially plays straight man to Chase (who doesn’t in this film?) and they have pretty decent chemistry together. One of the joys of the film is how Chase interacts with all these people and how they react to his flippant, off-handed remarks. Watch him in action in the hospital sequence as he confuses and befuddles the staff in order to get the information he wants (even offhandedly ordering a cup of fat and making a sly reference to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) – it is not only what he says to them but, more importantly, how he delivers the dialogue that makes it so funny.

There are the little asides that are a constant source of amusement, like when researching Stanwyk’s past, Fletch comes across information about the man’s parents and their hometown. Chase deadpans, “that’s three names I enjoy. Marvin, Velma and Provo.” There’s also the recurring gag of Fletch running up an expensive tab on the Underhills, an obnoxious member of the racquet club that Gail frequents, and who Fletch overhears berating the waitstaff upon his initial visit. From that point on, whenever he gets a chance, Fletch orders all kinds of exotic foods and drink, sticking it to this arrogant jerk.

Since Fletch, Michael Ritchie continued as a director-for-hire on a number of movies that didn't make much of an impact, except for Fletch Lives (1989) and the highly enjoyable James Woods con-man comedy, Diggstown (1993). Sadly, Ritchie died on April 16, 2001 from complications of prostate cancer. Andrew Bergman, on the other hand, enjoyed critical and commercial success with The Freshman (1990), which he wrote and directed, and also made two successful, box-office-friendly romantic comedies starring Nicolas Cage – Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and It Could Happen To You (1994). Sadly, Chase's post-Fletch career has not been as triumphant. He starred in Fletch Lives, which has its moments but let's be honest, it is a pale imitation of the original. He has done a series of forgettable family-oriented films (Cops and Robbersons anyone?) that feature Chase on auto-pilot. Even the man himself admits, "I made about 28 movies and I think about five of them were good."

Fletch enjoyed generally positive reviews from critics back in the day. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Chase’s performance: "He manages simultaneously to act the material with a good deal of nonchalance and to float above it, as if he wanted us to know that he knows that the whole enterprise is somewhat less than transcendental.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “In Fletch the quick, smartly paced gags somehow read as signs of vulnerability. Incidentally, they add greatly to the movie's suspense. Every minute you expect the hero's loose lip to be turned into a fat one.” The Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “Chase and Ritchie make a strong, natural combination: the union of their two flip, sarcastic personalities produces a fairly definitive example of the comic style of the 80s, grounded in detachment, underreaction, and cool contempt for rhetorically overblown authority figures.” However, Roger Ebert only gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "The problem is, Chase's performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level, at least as far as he is concerned. He projects such an inflexible mask of cool detachment, of ironic running commentary, that we're prevented from identifying with him ... Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.”

In 2008, a group of writer and editors from the Los Angeles Times picked 25 films from the last 25 years that “best speak to the essential DNA of the Southland. We started with two simple ground rules: The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list.” Fletch made the list and they had this to say about it:

“’I'm Chevy Chase and you're not.’ Well, these days he's not really Chevy Chase either, but he was when he made this 1985 farce. The film adapts novelist Gregory MacDonald's character Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, an investigative reporter with a loopy, tape-delayed brand of humor and a penchant for awful disguises. With the relentless one-liners and odd get-ups, it's almost as if Peter Sellers was a passenger on Airplane – or maybe Jerry Lewis stumbling through All the President's Men ... Director Michael Ritchie was adept at keeping Chase at the right level of snarky and subversive and, with that Lakers dream sequence Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and yes, even Chick Hearn!), Fletch feels like a hometown spoof for the ages.”

More so than in any other film, Fletch is classic Chevy Chase. While he is in exceptional form in Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation, they do not showcase his unique talents as well as in Fletch. In every scene, Chase does a fantastic job carrying the picture with the right mix of comedy and drama. Fletch has aged surprisingly well over the years. The jokes are still funny and many of Chase's one-liners are insanely quotable. So much so that Fletch has become a cult film. In an interview for the New York Post, Bergman tries to explain its appeal. “It’s so bizarre, but Fletch strikes a chord. There’s a group of movies like that in the ‘80s, like Caddyshack, too, that captured a certain wise-ass thing.” Chase also looks back on the film with fondness. “It was at the height of my career in film, and it was as close to me as a person as any part I’d played.” Perhaps the most meaningful praise comes from Gregory Mcdonald himself: "I watched it recently, and I think Chevy and Michael Ritchie did a good job with it." As Fletch would put it, "and a damn fine answer if I do say so my damn self."


For more Fletch, check out Mr. Peel's wonderful retrospective post. There's also a really good piece in Entertainment Weekly that also covers the long, checkered past to re-boot the series. Finally, two awesome fan sites dedicated to the film: Laker Jim's and The "Official" Unofficial Fletch Page.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Legend

“The time is ripe for a John Ford of science fiction films to emerge. And I’m determined to be that director.” Ridley Scott told this to author Harlan Ellison when he asked him to write the screenplay for Dune. Although, Scott’s version never happened, for years it looked like he was going to fulfill that bold statement with the incredible one-two punch of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 1980s was a fertile period for fantasy films with the likes of memorable efforts such as Dragonslayer (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Ladyhawke (1985) and not so memorable ones likes The Beastmaster (1982) and Krull (1983). The best of the bunch was Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). With this film, he wanted to do for the fantasy genre what he did for science fiction with Blade Runner – create a visually stunning film rich in detail. He cast two young, and up-and-coming stars, Tom Cruise and Mia Sara, recruited acclaimed author William Hjortsberg to write the screenplay, have make-up genius Rob Bottin bring the various fantastical creatures to life, and get legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith to compose the score.


Sounds like the ingredients for a masterpiece, right? Partway through principal photography, the elaborate forest set created on a soundstage burned down. The studio, eager to appeal to Cruise’s youthful fanbase, replaced Goldsmith’s score with one by Tangerine Dream because they had scored Risky Business (1983), the breakout film for the young actor. To add insult to injury, the studio and Scott cut over 20 minutes of footage for North American audiences. After all the dust had settled, Legend was a commercial and critical failure, relegated to cult film obscurity. It’s too bad, really, because even the mangled U.S. version has a lot going for it, namely Bottin’s groundbreaking prosthetic make-up and Tim Curry’s mesmerizing performance as the Lord of Darkness. In 2002, Ridley Scott revisited Legend for a souped-up Ultimate Edition DVD that allowed the director to assemble a version of the film approximating his original intentions.

The opening credits play over shots of a dense forest at night. In typical Scott fashion, we are fully immersed in the sights and sounds of this place. We a goblin by the name of Blix (Alice Playten) walking through the forest until he comes across a foreboding marsh dominated by an imposing structure that resembles a massive tree. It is known as the Great Tree – “when evil anarchy ruled the land, the wicked came here to sacrifice,” a character says at one point.

The first words that are spoken in the film are, “I am the Lord of Darkness. I require the solace of the shadows and the dark of the night,” They come out of Tim Curry’s booming, theatrical voice, one that is absolutely dripping with menace. Not surprisingly, his enemy is the light of day, but he seeks to find a way to make it night forever. Since he is confined to the shadows, Darkness (Tim Curry) entrusts his “most loathsome of goblins,” Blix, whose heart is “black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch,” to find and kill the two remaining unicorns – the most pure symbols of goodness and light. Darkness instructs Blix to bring him their horns – the source of their power.

Reclusive creatures, the unicorns can only be lured out into the open by innocence. Cut to Princess Lili (Mia Sara), a beautiful young woman traveling carefree through tall grass, singing happily to herself. Mia Sara, with her expressive big eyes and fresh-faced look (this was her feature film debut), certainly epitomizes the essence of innocence. When she’s not slumming with the common folk, Lili flirts with Jack O’ the Green (Tom Cruise), a young man who lives in the forest among the animals. While the film’s stylized dialogue doesn’t always sound convincing coming out of Tom Cruise’s mouth, he makes up for it with a very physical performance, moving gracefully at times like a classically trained dancer.

Jack shows Lili the wonders of the forest, including the rare unicorns. Their first appearance, captured in slow motion and soft focus, is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, Blix and two other goblins have been following Lili. When she dares to break the unwritten rule of the forest and actually touch one of the unicorns, the goblins strike, taking down one of the magical animals and removing its horn. Lili’s single act of selfishness plunges the world into darkness, blanketing the once lush forest in snow and transforming a nearby pond into ice. I wonder if Peter Jackson is a fan of Legend as the scene where Jack dives into a pond to retrieve Lili’s ring, with its use of a distorted lens, eerily anticipates a similar shot early on in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) when the Ring’s backstory is recounted.

Lili runs off in shame and guilt, leading the goblins to the second unicorn that they capture. She finds her way to the Great Tree and is courted by Darkness, only to be bewitched and transformed into his dark bride. Crestfallen over Lili’s betrayal, Jack takes refuge in the forest and is discovered by Gump (David Bennett) the elf and two dwarves, Screwball (Billy Barty) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) – providing much of the film’s comic relief. They are in turn helped out by a fairy named Oona (Annabelle Lanyon) who is smitten with Jack. Together, they go to the Great Tree to retrieve the unicorn’s horn and free its mate.

The corruption of Lili sequence is arguably the highlight of Legend as it takes on a captivating, dream-like atmosphere. Dazzled by sparkling trinkets and jewelry, she spots a figure dancing in swirling black garments. Lili is compelled to dance with this mysterious, featureless figure and pretty soon they merge into one and she adopts a stunning Gothic look, complete with black lipstick to contrast her pale alabaster skin. Lili has been bewitched by a powerful spell and it is at this point that Darkness chooses to reveal himself, emerging from a mirror. Scott prolonged the reveal of Darkness’ entire appearance for as long as possible. All we get early on is a tantalizing glimpse of a hand or an arm. But here is the money shot and what an impressive creature he is: massive with two large horns and cloven feet. He is Rob Bottin’s crowning achievement, a creation so stunningly fully-realized that it still surpasses anything done in subsequent fantasy films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy included. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tim Curry’s personality is still able to permeate the tons of prosthetic makeup that he’s buried under. With that great voice and the deliberate cadence he adopts, Curry gives his dialogue an almost Shakespearean flair with the lyrical quality in which he speaks.

When filming The Duellists (1977) in France, director Ridley Scott came up with the idea for Legend after another planned project, Tristan and Isolde, fell through. He thought of a story about a young hermit that is transformed into a hero when he battles the Lord of Darkness in order to rescue a beautiful princess and release the world from a wintery curse. However, Scott felt that it was going to be an art film with limited mainstream appeal and went on to do Alien and then extensive pre-production work on a version of Dune that never happened. Frustrated, Scott came back to the idea of filming a fairy tale or mythological story. For inspiration, he read all the classic fairy tales, including ones by the Brothers Grimm. However, he wanted Legend to have an original screenplay because he felt that “it was far easier to design a story to fit the medium of cinema than bend the medium for an established story.”

By chance, Scott discovered books written by American author William Hjortsberg and found that he had already written several scripts for some unmade lower-budgeted films. Scott asked Hjortsberg if he was interested in writing a fairy tale. As luck would have it, he was already writing some and agreed. The two men ended up bonding over Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). In January 1981, just before Scott was to begin principal photography on Blade Runner, he and Hjortsberg spent five weeks working out a rough storyline for what was then called Legend of Darkness. Originally, Scott “only had the vague notion of something in pursuit of the swiftest steed alive which, of course, was the unicorn.” He wanted unicorns as well as magic armor and a sword. Hjortsberg suggested plunging the world into wintery darkness. Scott also wanted to show the outside world as little as possible and they settled on the clockmaker’s cottage. The quest was longer and eventually substantially reduced. Scott wanted to avoid too many subplots that departed from the main story and went for a “more contemporary movement, rather than get bogged down in too classical a format.”

The look Scott envisioned for Legend was influenced by the style of classic Disney animation which, incidentally, was the studio Scott originally offered the project to but they were intimidated by the film’s dark tone despite his reassurances that he would not go too far in that direction. Regardless, the director visually referenced Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940) and Pinocchio (1940). Early on, Scott worked with Arthur Lea as a visual consultant, drawing some characters and sketching environments. However, Scott replaced Lea with Assheton Gorton, a production designer the director had wanted to work with on both Alien and Blade Runner. Scott hired Gorton because he knew “all the pitfalls of shooting exteriors on a soundstage. We both knew that whatever we did would never look absolutely real, but would very quickly gain its own reality and dispense with any feeling of theatricality.”

As with all of Scott’s films, Legend is a marvel of production design as evident from the interior of the Great Tree. For example, there’s the hellish kitchen where Jack and his companions find themselves imprisoned only to watch helpless as some other poor creature is tortured among infernal fires. There are the intricate carvings and finely crafted sculptures located in Darkness’ throne room, or the immense columns that lie just outside of this room and Scott gives you an idea of their scale as they dwarf Lili when she runs among them. You could pause the film at almost any moment and marvel at the detail contained in a single frame.

And yet for all of its visual grandeur, the film feels surprisingly intimate. It certainly is not set on the scale of say The Lord of the Rings and this actually works in its favor. Legend has a very specific focus with one overriding quest for our heroes to accomplish. There is a textured, hand-made quality to Scott’s film that seems to be missing from most post-Lord of the Rings films (with the possible exception of The Brothers Grimm as director Terry Gilliam was also working with a modest budget).

Scott also consulted with effects expert Richard Edlund because the director did not want to limit major character roles to the number of smaller people that could act. At one point, Scott considered Mickey Rooney to play one of the major characters but he didn’t look small enough next to Tom Cruise. Another idea they considered was to use forced perspective and cheating eye-lines (later used on in The Lord of the Rings films). Edlund came up with the idea of shooting on 70 mm film stock, taking the negative and reducing the actors to any size they wanted but this was deemed too expensive. Producer Arnon Milchan was worried that the budget for Legend would escalate like it did on Blade Runner and would be an expensive box office failure also. Scott had to find an ensemble of small actors.

After completing The Howling (1981), Scott contacted Rob Bottin about working on Blade Runner but he was already committed to doing John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Scott told Bottin about Legend and towards the end of his work on The Thing, the makeup wizard received a script for it. He saw this as an excellent opportunity to create characters in starring roles. After finishing The Thing, Bottin sat down with Scott and they reduced the amount of creatures to a workable number (the script suggested thousands). It would be a daunting task involving complicated prosthetic makeup that would be worn for up to 60 days with some full body prosthetics as well. According to Bottin at the time, Legend had the largest makeup crew ever dedicated to one project. He divided his facility into different shops in order to cover the immense workload. As actors were cast, Bottin and his crew began making life casts and designing characters on drafting paper laid over sketches of the actors’ faces.

The creature makeup in Legend features Rob Bottin at the height of his powers. Consider Meg Mucklebones (Robert Picardo), a nasty-looking witch with green skin, large ears and a crooked nose – exaggerated ugliness at its most inventive. In the film, she has long, spindly arms that end at curved fingernails. The amount of detail just in her face alone is incredible. With the exception of Cruise and Mia Sara, all the principal actors spent an average of three-and-a-half hours (with Tim Curry taking five-and-a-half hours) every morning having extensive makeup applied. Each person needed three makeup artists working on them.

Curry took considerably longer because his entire body was encased in makeup. At the end of the day he had to spend an hour in a bath in order to liquefy the soluble spirit gum keeping it on him. At one point, Curry got too impatient and claustrophobic and pulled it off too quickly, tearing off his own skin in the process. Scott had to shoot around him for a week. From that point on, he had to have an oxygen tank because the makeup was so claustrophobic. Out of all the characters the most challenging one in terms of makeup was Darkness. Bottin and Scott had agreed on a Satanic look for the character. Curry had to wear a large, bull-like structure atop his head with three-foot fiberglass horns supported by a harness underneath the makeup. The horns placed a strain on the back of the actor’s neck because they extended forward and not straight up. Fortunately, Bottin and his crew came up with horns that were lightweight enough to reduce the strain.

Set at a budget of $24.5 million (that by many reports escalated to $30 million), the film’s sets were constructed on six huge soundstages at Pinewood Studios in England, including the world’s largest film stage where a vast forest resided. It took 50 men 14 weeks to build. Principal photography on Legend began on March 26, 1984. The larger the production became, the less money Scott had to work with. Then, 16 weeks into production, and with 10 days left on the large soundstage at Pinewood, the entire set burned down during a lunch break. Flames from the fire leapt more than 100 feet into the air and clouds of smoke could be seen for five miles away. Scott quickly made changes to the schedule and only lost three days as the crew continued to film on another set on a different stage. Meanwhile, the art department rebuilt the section of forest set that was needed to complete filming.

Scott’s first cut of Legend ran 125 minutes long. He felt that there were minor plot points that could be trimmed and cut the film down to 113 minutes, testing this version for an audience in Orange County. However, it was felt by studio executives that the audience had to work too much to be entertained and another 20 minutes was cut. The 95-minute version of Legend premiered in France in September 1985 and the United Kingdom in December through its world distributor 20th Century Fox. Universal Pictures originally planned to release the film in North America on November 6, 1985 but pushed back the date after audience previews did not go well. They re-cut it and replaced Jerry Goldsmith’s score with one by Tangerine Dream. Goldsmith said, “That this dreamy, bucolic setting is suddenly to be scored by a techno-pop group seems sort of strange to me.” It must’ve been a bitter pill for the veteran composer to swallow. Normally, he would spend 6-10 weeks on a film score but for Legend he spent six months writing songs and dance sequences ahead of time “so they could shoot them. Of course all that is out now.” At the time, Scott said, “European audiences are more sophisticated. They accept preambles and subtleties whereas the U.S. goes for a much broader stroke.” As a result, he made the film simpler.

Considering the problematic post-production phase it is not surprising that the final product was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “Despite all its sound and fury, Legend is a movie I didn't care very much about. All of the special effects in the world, and all of the great makeup, and all of the great Muppet creatures can't save a movie that has no clear idea of its own mission and no joy in its own accomplishment.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby described it as a “slap-dash amalgam of Old Testament, King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings and any number of comic books.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Scott must have thought the story of Legend was immensely rich and complicated; the film begins with a 168-word crawling preface. Yet it is as simple as a bedtime tale, and may have the same effect: putting the kiddies right to sleep.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott felt that the film was “something closer to Ladyhawke Meets The Goonies.”

In his review for the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote, “Ridley Scott’s whimsical pratfall, now at embarrassed area theaters, stars likable Tom Cruise and a ninnyish newcomer Mia Sara in a kookaburra cross between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Black Cauldron, but haplessly devoid of whit of charm. Nor is there a whit of wit.” When Harlan Ellison reviewed the truncated North American version he wrote, “If wonder is the creation of a world in which one would love to live—Oz, Lawrence’s Arabia, the streets of Blade Runner—then this film conveys wonder. The things that come before one’s eyes in this motion picture are quite remarkable. Things we have never before seen.” However, he felt that the film was, “at final resolve, a husk. A lovely, eye-popping vacuum from which a sad breeze blows. Because it finally gives nothing. Its steals our breath, captures our eyes, dazzles and sparkles and, like a 4th of July sparkler, comes to nothing but gray ash at the end.”

With Legend, you can see Ridley Scott aiming for the prestige and grandeur that Peter Jackson achieved with his The Lord of the Rings films. Scott’s film had the ambition and the sterling production values but failed to capture the popular imagination because of the lack of faith and belief that the studio had in it. Did Scott not do his homework and remember how Universal screwed over David Lynch on Dune (1984) and Terry Gilliam on Brazil (1985)? This was not a studio friendly towards fantasy and science fiction films. One wonders how Legend would have done back in the day (or now for that matter) if this director’s cut had been available and the studio put everything they had behind it like New Line Cinema did with The Lord of the Rings films. We’ll never know and as it stands, Legend is a fascinating cinematic what-could-have-been and a cautionary tale of an ambitious filmmaker succumbing to a myriad of problems and pressures that marred his original vision. Alas, Scott never did realize his dream of becoming the John Ford of science fiction and fantasy films. The commercial and critical failure of Legend, coupled with its production and post-production problems, scared him off from revisiting these genres ever since. Although, he’s been talking up doing a prequel to Alien so only time will tell.

For more in-depth information on the various different versions of the film, check out the exhaustive FAQ.








Monday, May 17, 2010

Star Wars Blogathon: Episode IV: A New Hope

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Star Wars Blogathon over at the SciFIDrive blog.

For many of my generation, the first Star Wars film (1977) was a defining moment of our childhood and so I always look back at it in a nostalgic way. I had the action figures, the coloring book, the calendar, the t-shirt, and so on – all part of the vast merchandising that helped build the George Lucas empire. But as a kid I wasn’t thinking about that – I loved the film and wanted to have everything associated with it, including the comic books and the novelization. The Star Wars I love is the original incarnation unmolested by Lucas’ awkward revisionist CGI makeover. The Star Wars I know and love has Han Solo (Harrison Ford) firing first. The film has been analyzed and written about extensively so I can only look at it from my perspective and offer various observations that always stick out in my mind whenever I watch it.

One of the reasons Star Wars works so well is because of a solid combination of engaging storytelling and groundbreaking (for its time) special effects. The coming-of-age story is as old as the hills and I’m sure that is part of the film’s appeal – its comforting familiarity. Young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leaves behind his life on a small, insignificant planet and becomes involved in an intergalactic civil war that involves rescuing a princess from the clutches of an evil empire. In the process, he grows up and becomes a man.

I still get goosebumps when I see that opening text, “A long time ago. In a galaxy far, far away...” And then, John Williams’ rousing score kicks in with a sudden blast from the horn section and we’re on our way. We get that iconic shot of the small Rebel Alliance spacecraft being pursued by an Empire Star Destroyer so massive it takes up at least three-quarters of the screen as it rumbles into view. We soon meet two of the film’s most endearing characters – C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), droids that have a sometimes slapstick-y love/hate relationship a la Laurel and Hardy. 3PO is the eternal pessimist as evident from his declaration early on, “We’re doomed.” Of course, this is as the Empire prepares to board the Rebel spacecraft. 3PO and R2 play well off each other – the former whines about danger and complains about the conditions of Tatooine (the planet they escape to), while the latter clearly has a purpose, a mission that he must complete with or without his long-time companion. They bicker like an old married couple and even on his own, 3PO still bitches about R2.

Has there ever been a cooler introduction for a villain than the one for Darth Vader (David Prowse)? Having boarded the Rebel ship by force, he emerges from the smoke to survey the damage done. We immediately hear his ominous breathing, that unsettling raspy respirator sound – awesome! We soon hear James Earl Jones’ booming, authoritative voice (later on the voice of CNN no less!) which, coupled with David Prowse’s intimidating physical presence and the brilliantly black armor, creates an instantly memorable bad guy, a real force of evil. Lucas constantly reminds us what a badass Vader is in scenes like the one where he deals with one of his officers who dares to scoff at the power of the Force compared to the power of Empire’s new battle station, The Death Star. Vader warns him, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Unconvinced, the guy foolishly insults Vader’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion” and, in response, the Dark Lord merely raises a hand and chokes the man from afar. Vader coolly and ominously replies, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Now, how badass is that? It takes Peter Cushing’s bureaucrat Grand Moff Tarkin to step in and call Vader off. As evil as Vader is, Tarkin is on a whole other level. He destroys a planet populated by millions of innocent people just to make a point and teach Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) a lesson. How nasty is that? Vader just chokes a few guys which pales in comparison to what Tarkin does.

I always found it fascinating how the Jawas are basically the used car salesmen of the galaxy and they even try to pawn off a faulty droid to Luke and his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown). Mark Hamill’s take on Luke is right on the money, playing the character as a teenager on the verge of becoming a young man – someone who would rather pick up power converters over at Toschi Station than haggle over the price of droids with Jawas. His uncle sees right through Luke and chastises him, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” This little moment is one of the reasons why Star Wars appealed to a younger generation – they could relate to Luke’s disinterest in chores and his frustration of being stuck on his uncle’s farm. Who would rather hang out with their friends than get stuck doing boring chores? This is further reinforced in the scene where Luke talks to Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and Uncle Owen about transmitting his application to the Academy sooner rather than later but his uncle wants him to stick around for the harvest and another year. After Luke goes off in defeat, his aunt says, “Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him,” to which Owen replies, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” This conversation cleverly hints at earth-shattering revelations that come in the next film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I just want to say how much I love the little moments of domesticity that Lucas shows here with Luke having a meal with his aunt and uncle or another scene where we see Aunt Beru (who I always struck by what a kind face she has and what a gentle person she appears to be) preparing some sort of meal. It humanizes these people in a short amount of time so that we care about what happens to them later on.

What I also like about the story is that Lucas makes it personal for Luke. His only reason for staying was to help out his aunt and uncle but when they are killed by Imperial Stormtroopers, his life as a farmboy dies that day. He’s got nothing left to lose and his innocence has been taken away from him forever. Lucas makes sure that we understand just how horrible the Empire is with a lingering shot of the aunt and uncle’s still smoking, charred skeletons, which was pretty shocking to me when I first saw the film at a very young, impressionable age. This scene ups the stakes and reinforces just how ruthless the Empire is and how personal it has gotten for Luke.

The casting of Alec Guinness as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi was genius on Lucas’ part. With his classic British accent, he gives his dialogue a classy spin, perfect for the expositional dialogue his character imparts throughout the film. For example, early on he explains the nature of the Force to Luke: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his powers. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” What a great way to describe the Force – it’s succinct and doesn’t give too much away, just enough to let our imagination fill in the rest.

One of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars takes place in the Cantina at Mos Eisley (a place that Obi-Wan warns Luke is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”), a bar where all sorts of strange and unusual creatures hang out. Of course, the purpose of this sequence is for Luke and Ben to meet and hire Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to rescue Leia, but it is also a fantastic showcase for a memorable collection of exotic-looking alien creatures. There’s one that looks a little like Cousin It from The Addams Family, one that looks like the Wolfman, one that kinda looks like a devil with two horns sprouting out of the top of his head, and so on. The diversity of these creatures is so fascinating that I just like rewatching this sequence to check out all of the various creatures. This sequence has gone on to inspire several other films, including Nightbreed (1990), Serenity (2005), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The aliens in Star Wars don’t look cute and cuddly but strange and dangerous. Lucas reinforces this by having Luke bullied by two lowlifes until Obi-Wan steps in with his mad lightsaber skills.

How cool is Han Solo? We meet him haggling with Obi-Wan over the price of taking them to Alderaan and Han tries to impress his prospective clients with the speed and reputation of his spacecraft the Millennium Falcon. However, after their meeting, Han runs into Greedo, a bounty hunter collecting a sizable debt that the smuggler owes notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt. Han acts cool and casual, keeping Greedo talking while he quietly unholsters his gun and blasts the bounty hunter before he can shoot him. How badass is Han? Harrison Ford plays it so well – all cool and accommodating to Greedo so that he has time to get the drop on him. It’s this scene that establishes Ford’s character – is he a bad guy or a good guy? You’re never really sure until the end of the film and this is due in large part to Ford’s performance as a cocky smuggler who only looks out for himself.

I also like Han’s simple philosophy, like when he scoffs at the notion of the Force: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side ... I’ve flown from one side of the galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff but never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” He provides a lot of the film’s moments of humor, like when Luke tries to convince him to rescue Leia by appealing to his greed, or his constant bickering with her. As he tells Luke at one point, “Wonderful girl. Either I’m gonna kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” Han and Leia end up bantering like a couple in a vintage screwball comedy and this is carried over to an even more memorable degree in The Empire Strikes Back.

Another exciting scene is the one where our heroes escape the Death Star while Han and Luke man the Falcon’s laser cannons. Lucas uses editing and Williams’ stirring score to make this scene even more dynamic. It’s a nice warm-up for the climactic sequence where a squadron of Rebel Alliance X-Wing fighters launch an attack on the Death Star. Not only do the Rebels have to worry about the Imperial TIE Fighters, but also the battle station’s laser cannons. Also adding urgency to the assault is the ever-looming threat of the Death Star on the verge of eradicating the Rebel base located on the moon of Yavin. Luke finally gets to show off his piloting skills while many of his comrades are blown up. It doesn’t hurt that he’s aided by Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice and the Force. The use of models in this sequence gives it a more tangible quality, a realness that is missing from most CGI-heavy science fiction films nowadays. This sequence gets even more exciting when Luke and the surviving Rebel X-Wings descend into the trenches of the Death Star to bomb its weak spot. Lucas is able to convey a real sense of speed and urgency that is thrilling, especially when the Millennium Falcon comes from out of nowhere to give Luke the opportunity to destroy the Death Star.

Some feel that Star Wars looks dated and I would agree but for me that is a large part of its appeal, sideburns and all. Watching it instantly takes me back to when I first saw it and the rush of excitement and wonder that I felt as it unspooled before my eyes. It is one of those pivotal moviegoing experiences that I have never forgotten. While I think that The Empire Strikes Back is the better film in terms of story, pacing, characterization, action, etc., Star Wars is the film I enjoy watching the most for all of the reasons stated above. I think that a review in the now-defunct Sci-Universe magazine sums it up best: “even today, would-be sci-fi franchise-builders haven’t learned the lessons about what made Star Wars a cinematic landmark; compelling, but flawed, characters and attention to the smallest pieces of minutiae.”

Feel free to share your memories and thoughts about Star Wars.


Friday, May 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Stagecoach: Criterion Collection

If there is one director that helped define the classic western more than any other, it would be John Ford. With Stagecoach (1939), he took B-film material and elevated it to A-list status. In doing so, Ford established a benchmark that other films of the genre would be measured against for years to come. However, at the time, he was trying to get his film made, he had a spotty commercial track record and couldn’t convince studio boss David O. Selznick to bankroll his adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg.” So, Ford bought the story with his own money and brought the project to Walter Wanger at United Artists. Stagecoach would also mark the beginning of an important relationship between Ford and actor John Wayne. The filmmaker had used the actor before as an extra but with this film Wayne would make the transition from B-movie obscurity to iconic leading man status.

We meet a group of passengers making a dangerous journey to Lordsburg on a stagecoach. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a beautiful prostitute escaping the conservative elements of the town. Peacock (Meek) is a mild-mannered liquor distributor which instantly endears him to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the town drunk. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is pregnant and looking for a fresh start. Hatfield (John Carradine) is a slick, shifty-looking gambler. Driving the stagecoach is Buck (Andy Devine), the comic relief complete with a voice that cracks, and Curley (George Bancroft), the lawman who rides shotgun. Along for the ride is Gatewood, the unscrupulous banker, and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an outlaw who has escaped jail in order to find the men responsible for the death of his father and brother. At the beginning of the trip they are warned of the increasing threat of Apaches and, at one point, even vote on whether to press on or turn around once they lose their U.S. Calvary support.

Ford does a nice job introducing all of the characters while Dudley Nichols’ screenplay, coupled with the talented cast, does just enough to flesh out the characters beyond their stereotypes. Shot in Monument Valley, Ford uses the vastness of this foreboding terrain to really open things up and provide the genre with one of its most iconic settings. However, the Apache are presented as a one-dimensional threat, fulfilling the genre convention as the anonymous enemy. One of the film’s highlights is the Apache raid on the stagecoach as our heroes fight for their lives and features an impressive stunt involving a man being dragged underneath the stagecoach that would be recreated in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) albeit with a truck. Stagecoach is one of the finest examples of the classic western as it presents all of the tried and true conventions of the genre and gives them a mythological status.

Special Features:

This special edition is jam-packed with goodies for fans of the film and of the western genre, starting off with an audio commentary on the first disc by film historian and western scholar Jim Kitses. He challenges the conventional view that Stagecoach lacks the depth and command of craft of Ford’s later films. Kitses does a fantastic job of explaining how Ford’s camerawork and the use of invisible editing set up differences in class and established genre conventions. When not offering expert analysis, he provides biographical information on various cast members in this eloquent and informative track.

Also included on this disc is a trailer.

Disc two starts off with “Bucking Broadway,” a 54-minute silent film from 1917 that stars John Ford favourite Harry Carey as a cowboy whose true love is taken away by a big city type. It features many of the themes and conventions that Ford would explore again and again in later films.

There is a 1968 interview with Ford by British journalist and television presenter Philip Jenkinson. Running over an hour, the filmmaker talks about his childhood, how he got his start as a director, working with John Wayne, and, of course, Stagecoach. Ford comes across as a no-nonsense man and plain-spoken, refusing to romanticize his past despite the interviewer’s best attempts.

Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich offers his thoughts on Stagecoach and praises the strong script and solid ensemble cast. He analyzes Wayne’s performance and how he reacts to the things that happen around him. Bogdanovich also offers his impressions of Ford and Wayne, having met both of them.

“Dreaming of Jeanie” is a video essay that examines Ford’s visual style in Stagecoach. It analyzes several of the film’s themes through clips and illustrates how Ford used camera movement, framing and background details to show the traits of the various characters.

“John Ford Home Movies” is an interview with the director’s grandson and biographer Dan Ford. He talks about his grandfather’s home movies that show the man at his most relaxed, complete with clips from the actual films. We see the likes of John Wayne and Henry Fonda lounging around with Ford on his boat.
“True West” is an unexpected treat featuring author Buzz Bissinger talking about the 1920s trading post operator Harry Goulding and his role in telling filmmakers like Ford about Monument Valley. The land belonged to the Navajos but he staked out a claim thanks to his friendship with them. Bissinger talks about how Goulding met Ford and persuaded him to make Stagecoach in Monument Valley.

Another outstanding extra is a featurette about legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt who performed many of the amazing stunts in the film. He went on to become an important figure in the stuntman industry. Fellow industry legend Vic Armstrong offers his thoughts and impressions of the man and talks about just how groundbreaking Canutt was back in the day.

Finally, there is “Screen Director’s Playhouse,” a radio adaptation of Stagecoach that aired on January 9, 1949 and starred John Wayne and Claire Trevor, reprising their film roles.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta 1928-2010

One of THE best illustrators ever died recently and the tributes are pouring in. The best of the bunch (so far) comes from the Los Angeles Times and features the likes of John Milius, Guillermo del Toro and Neal Adams paying their respects along with some great samples of Frazetta's artwork.

Also see:

The New York Times

The Beat

The Unofficial Fantasy Art Gallery (loads of great stuff, here!)

More from the L.A. Times

And here's his iconic artwork for the Mad Max poster. Awesome!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Little Big Man

Many film critics consider the last "golden age" of American cinema to be the 1970's. They cite a steady decline in the quality of studio films during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the emergence of the American independent film scene as the most important indicators of this deterioration. And to a certain degree this may be true. The '70s saw a wonderful trend of studios taking chances on risky films that often featured controversial subject matter or a departure from standard Hollywood stereotypes (i.e. opting for a downbeat ending as opposed to a happy one). A great example of a film from this decade that embodies a willingness to push the envelope of convention is Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), an endlessly fascinating and entertaining film that contrasts the harshness and violent nature of the frontier where a man defines himself through violence, by inserting a protagonist who instead defines himself through predominantly non-violent actions. Herein lies the brilliance of Little Big Man, a film that takes an existing genre like the western and consistently subverts our expectations at every turn.
           
The film begins with an intriguing opening: it is present time and a snobby scholarly type is trying to interview a very elderly man (Dustin Hoffman) who claims to be the only white man to have survived the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. The film then proceeds to recount Jack Crabb's colorful past in a series of flashbacks. Right from the first one we are acutely aware that this is not going to be the usual western. Penn's camera does a slow pan over a beautiful, scenic grassy field. This idyllic scene is quickly shattered as the camera continues its pan and we are struck by a rather primitive, horrific sight: a dead man spread eagle, covered in blood. This is soon followed by more bodies and burnt out carriages, the remains of a settler encampment massacred by Native American Indians. This rather unromantic portrayal of the Old West is only the beginning of a scathingly critical look at the conventions and the mythology of the western.
           
Jack Crabb and his sister Caroline are the only survivors of this skirmish and are soon found by a Cheyenne Indian who takes the two back to his people. After Jack's sister escapes, he is soon adopted by the Cheyenne who don't turn out to be brutal savages but actually quite the opposite. They are a thoughtful, noble people that are finding their way of life being rapidly wiped out by the white man. In an interesting turn, the Cheyenne refer to themselves as "human beings" and their humanity becomes readily apparent in their quick acceptance of Jack and the willingness to teach him their ways and customs. Ironically, they don't view white men as "human beings" and this becomes evident in the white man’s harsh treatment of not only Native American Indians but themselves as well.
The film follows Jack through the various stages of his life where he not only learns valuable lessons about life and the world but also meets an intriguing assortment of characters that appear and reappear at crucial moments in his life. The first three phases of Jack's life reveal the tried and true stereotypes inherent in the western. These archetypes are parodied in order to expose how hollow and outdated they are.

Jack's first phase, a religious one, sees him under the dubious tutelage of Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), a God-loving woman who, as it turns out, is into more "sinful" pursuits than her virginal attire would suggest. This revelation exposes Jack to the double standards and hypocrisy of religion – that many people rarely practice what they preach as Mrs. Pendrake so adequately demonstrates. This rather amusing episode also marks the final eradication of naiveté that might have existed in Jack.
           
From there, he hooks up with Allardyce T. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), a sleazy salesman who "tended to lose parts of himself" in retribution for his shady dealings. A left hand here, a left ear there ... more parts gradually disappear as the years pass, transforming Merriweather into a ridiculous figure who still tries to con anyone who will listen. This is Jack's con man phase as Merriweather shows him that the world has no moral order. Merriweather embodies the dark side of the capitalist dream at its most garish and lays it all out for Jack when he tells him, "Those stars twinkle in a void dear boy and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them all in vain ... The two-legged creature will believe anything. And the more preposterous the better." Merriweather preys on people and they in turn prey on him – hence his rapidly diminishing body parts.
           
Jack's next period in life sees him reuniting with his sister who rescues him from a lynch mob and ends up teaching him how to be an ace shot with a gun. So, he decides to become a professional gunslinger, complete with an all black outfit and spurs. But he ends up being a hilarious parody of a killer with his often clumsy gestures and the general way in which he carries himself. Jack is all talk and no action. He even ends up meeting the legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) who points out, "you don't have the look of murder in your eye." As if to prove his point, Wild Bill coolly guns down a man who tries to kill him. Jack realizes that Wild Bill is a real killer, while he is merely a poseur. It is a rather ironic moment as we realize that Jack has become an expert in quick draw and shooting with a gun, and yet he is unable to kill people with it.
           
Little Big Man was a film that had been a long time in the making. MGM originally wanted to make it as a multi-million dollar epic based on Thomas Berger's best-selling novel. The deal fell through and a smaller studio, Cinema Center Films, agreed to finance the film in June of 1969. Jack Richardson had originally started writing the screenplay for MGM and was subsequently replaced by Calder Willingham who took over and produced a wonderfully rich script that covered an important period of American history and one man's interaction with many of the pivotal figures of this time.
The film was budgeted at $5 million dollars with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role and Arthur Penn directing. Penn's involvement also led to the film's break with convention. He was in large part responsible for ushering in an era of ultra-violent and blood-soaked action films with his stylish feature, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which divided critics and audiences alike but is still regarded as a landmark film for the way in which it took an existing legend and reworked it for modern sensibility. This is exactly what he did with Little Big Man. As Penn commented in an interview, one of the aims of his film "was to say, 'Wait a minute, folks, the American Indian has been portrayed in movies in the most unpleasant way possible' – I mean, pure, naked racism – 'so let's examine how we have told our own history, such as Custer's last stand.' I mean, you go out there to this day and they feed you a lot of bullshit about the great, brave Custer, but the books don't bear that out at all. He was a pompous, self-aggrandizing man." To this end, Penn's film goes a long way to imparting a real sense of humanity to the Indians while showing the white man's greed and pomposity as embodied by the vain General Custer (Richard Mulligan). The film also includes numerous scenes of Indian villages being systematically wiped out by the United States army. No one is spared in these genocidal acts: not women, not children. These scenes and the fact that the film was made during the height of the Vietnam War give the material additional meaning. Little Big Man may not only be commenting on the brutal treatment of Native Americans but also the involvement in other cultures throughout the world. One could argue that Penn's film is not only a critique of past American history but also of contemporary events as well.

Little Big Man received generally favorable reviews from critics back in the day. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “Most movie Indians have had to express themselves with an "um" at the end of every other word: ‘Swap-um wampum plenty soon,’ etc. The Indians in Little Big Man have dialogue reflecting the idiomatic richness of Indian tongues; when Old Lodge Skins simply refers to Cheyennes as ‘the Human Beings,’ the phrase is literal and meaningful and we don't laugh.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “All of these things are true, and yet Little Big Man—both in spite of and because of these failings—is an important movie by one of our most interesting directors.” Finally, Time magazine wrote, “it also accomplishes that rarest achievement, the breathing of life into an ossified art form. The '70s has its first great epic. Blood brother to the 1903 one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery, Little Big Man is the new western to begin all westerns.”
           
Little Big Man is a film that could only be made in the '70s. No major studio nowadays would be willing to back such a critical film without a big name star to attract a mass audience. At best, the film would probably have to be done on a low budget with independent backing and a cast of unknowns. One only has to look at a "revisionist Western" like Dances With Wolves (1990) to see how radical a film like Little Big Man still is. Kevin Costner's film has the same goals and intentions as Penn's film, however, where Dances With Wolves was satisfied to water down its message into a palatable, politically correct pill for all to swallow, Little Big Man refuses to compromise or sentimentalize its message or its subject. Penn's film avoids the trap of reducing Native American Indians to quaint stereotypes or romanticizing its story and its surroundings. It is this unyielding attitude that makes Little Big Man a daring, original film whose power and impact has yet to be dated by time.






Thursday, May 6, 2010

DVD of the Week: Crazy Heart

In 2010, Jeff Bridges finally received an Academy Award for acting after several previous nominations over the years and a long, illustrious career chock full of diverse roles in films as varied as the murder mystery Cutter’s Way (1981), big-budget science fiction with Tron (1982), playing a gifted musician alongside his real-life brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), a cult film stoner comedy with The Big Lebowski (1998), and even playing the President of the United States in The Contender (2000). Bridges’ best films are character-driven ones where he is allowed to fully immerse himself in a role. Crazy Heart (2009) is that kind of a film. Made independently for little money, it almost did not come out in time for end of the year awards consideration but once word got around of Bridges’ gritty, heartfelt performance, the accolades (and awards) came flooding in and deservedly so for the veteran actor.


Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a burnt-out country and western musician who travels endless stretches of highway all over the United States just so he can play a bowling alley in some dead-end part of a town in New Mexico. In between gigs, he lives his life in a bottle of alcohol, the only thing that seems to keep him going and what is also destroying his world-weary body. It’s safe to say that Blake has definitely seen better days.


While doing a gig in Santa Fe, he agrees to be interviewed by Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the niece of a local musician he’s playing with and a writer for a small newspaper. There’s something about her that catches his eye and makes her stand out from the countless women he’s had flings with – maybe it’s her knack for initially resisting his sweaty, boozy charms. They begin a relationship and he starts to think about finding a way out of the self-destructive grind that is his life.


Jeff Bridges does a fantastic job transforming himself into the grizzled, bloated mess that is Blake. He’s one of those rare actors not afraid to look awful if the role calls for it. You can see the toll that Blake’s hard-drinking, hard-living life has taken on him etched all over Bridges’ face. The actor brings his customary authenticity to the role, including singing and playing Blake’s music.


He’s ably supported by the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal as the woman in his life who decides to take a chance on him even though she knows what a trainwreck he is, Robert Duvall as an old friend of Blake’s who helps him get sober, and an uncredited Colin Farrell as his more successful protégé and who tries to help out his old mentor. They are all very good in this film, especially Farrell who also did his own singing and playing.


With Crazy Heart, writer/director Scott Cooper juxtaposes old school country with the slick sound of new country as represented by Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has gone on to sell out arenas while Blake is still playing two-bit dives. The kind of music Blake plays is no longer popular anymore even though in a perfect world it should be. Ultimately, the film adheres to the tried and true conventions of the redemption story as we wonder if Blake has what it takes to clean himself up and get his life in order. What elevates Cooper’s film from others of its kind is the excellent performances of the entire cast led by Bridges’ fearless turn as a self-destructive man.


Special Features:


There are six deleted scenes clocking in at a total of ten minutes. We see more of Blake on the road performing live, which is a nice addition if only to see Bridges’ musical chops on display. We also see a bit more of Tommy living the good life on tour. Naturally, there is more footage of Blake and Jean’s relationship.


Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.