Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Relic

The late-great Stan Winston was responsible for some of the most memorable monsters in modern cinema: the endoskeleton robotic killing machine in The Terminator (1984), the ferocious Queen Alien in Aliens (1986), the alien that hunts Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (1987), and, of course, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993). I don’t know where the Kothoga from The Relic (1997) fits in the pantheon of Winston’s creatures but it is one of my favorites of his creations. Based on the best-selling horror novel of the same name by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Relic was a modest hit at the box office and predictably received mixed reviews by critics but remains one of my favorite creature features. Peter Hyams’ film has no other ambitions other than to tell an entertaining, things-go-bump-in-the-night story and does so in refreshingly no-nonsense fashion.


A ship arriving from Brazil is stopped by the Coast Guard in Lake Michigan and they find out that everybody on board has been killed. This doesn’t sit too well with Chicago police detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) who has been put in charge of the investigation. Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago, evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) is trying desperately to get a grant so that she and her team can continue their work. However, a co-worker (Chi Moui Lo) is doing his best to steal her grant away to fund his own work. They both get a chance to impress a crowd of the city’s wealthiest patrons at the gala premiere of a new exhibit. As luck would have it, D’Agosta will also be attending as he investigates a gruesome murder that occurred at the museum the night before. Could it be an ancient creature known as the Kothoga which, legend has it, is the offspring of South America’s answer to Satan? It seems that it was in one of the crates on the ship from Brazil and has now decided to snack on some bluebloods during the gala. It’s up to D’Agosta and Green to stop this creature.

Tom Sizemore brings a solid, matter-of-fact vibe to his character that feels like he carried it over from his role in Heat (1995). D’Agosta isn’t some wisecracking cop trying to make the moves on Penelope Ann Miller’s cute biologist. He’s interested only in solving the murder. However, he does have one distinctive trait: he’s superstitious. Sizemore manages to insert it here and there throughout the film without belaboring it to the point of being painfully obvious. I like that he gives D’Agosta a genuinely inquisitive nature. He’s not some burn out or a stereotypical loose cannon but a guy good at his job. He’s also savvy enough to realize that the murder at the museum hasn’t been done by your garden variety psycho and doesn’t let anybody, not some jerk rent-a-cop or even the condescending mayor of the city, distract him from his investigation.

Sizemore enjoyed a good run in the 1990s, appearing in films like Natural Born Killers (1994), Heat, and Saving Private Ryan (1998) before a myriad of personal problems burned a lot of bridges in Hollywood and relegated him to direct-to-video hell. He’s quite good in The Relic, his first leading man role and the cheap shots by critics back in the day that blasted him as resembling an overweight George Clooney were unfair. Sizemore certainly has the presence and the intensity to be a credible leading man and his blunt cop anticipates a similar one he played in the short-lived television show, Robbery Homicide Division. He was attracted to The Relic because he finally got to play the male lead in a film: “I had the responsibility of pushing the narrative forward.”

Penelope Ann Miller is just fine as the plucky heroine and thanks to action producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens) Margo Green is smart and proactive. She’s no damsel in distress and is actually quite resourceful, which is a refreshing change in a film like this one. It is nice to see characters using their intelligence in a horror film. For example, at one point D’Agosta takes Green to her lab so that she can figure out what the creature is and how to stop it. He opens up a little bit and tells her why he’s so superstitious. It’s a brief scene but it gives us some good insight into these characters. In the ‘90s, Miller made a significant push to be regarded as an A-list leading actress in high profile studio films like Awakenings (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), The Shadow (1994), and The Relic, but none of them set the world on fire in terms of box office and she never became much of a critic’s darling either. I always found her kind of annoying and often miscast (see Carlito’s Way) with the notable exception of The Freshman (1990) in which she was perfect as Marlon Brando’s spoiled daughter. Before The Relic, Miller had not done a horror film but was drawn to director Peter Hyams’ desire to have a strong and smart female lead.

Hyams does a decent job establishing The Relic’s premise and introducing the characters, all the while building towards the climax: gala night at the museum with the creature on the rampage. He cuts between the guests trying to escape the museum while D’Agosta and Green attempt to stop the monster. Journeyman director Hyams epitomizes meat and potatoes filmmaking with his straightforward camerawork devoid of any distinctive style. Guillermo Del Toro he is not but that’s okay. Hyams keeps things moving along while plugging in the requisite jolts at certain moments throughout the film. Once the power goes out in the museum, he uses the darkness to tease us with glimpses of the creature until the full reveal during the final showdown. If I had one complaint it is that he relies too much on the dark and sometimes it is hard to tell what is happening.

Also of note is the solid supporting cast including Linda Hunt as the pragmatic director of the museum and James Whitmore as Green’s kindly old colleague and mentor. Genre veteran Clayton Rohner (G vs E) has a nice role as the junior detective working with D’Agosta. He’s put in charge of taking the mayor and a few others to safety. It’s not a flashy role but he does the best with what he’s given.

The original novel was written by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, an ex-journalist and former public relations director for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Because their book portrayed the museum’s administration in an unflattering light, they turned down the film’s producers’ request to film there. Paramount Pictures, the studio backing the production, even approached the museum and offered them a seven figure amount to film there but ultimately the administration was worried that a monster movie would scare kids away from the museum. So, the filmmakers were faced with a problem as only museums in Chicago and Washington, D.C. resembled the one in New York. Fortunately, the Field Museum in Chicago loved the film’s premise and allowed the production to shoot there. In addition to shooting on location in Chicago, a set was built in Los Angeles of a tunnel flooded with water for a sequence later on in the film. Sizemore and many of the cast spent most of the shoot either damp, cold or soaking wet. He caught the flu twice and the production shut down briefly when Hyams became too sick to work.

Hyams reviewed makeup artist Stan Winston’s early drawings of the Kothoga and his only suggestion was to make the monster more hideous looking. The director suggested certain invertebrates for inspiration and Winston came up with an arachnoid outline for the creature’s face. He and his team made three creatures with two people moving the heads and people on the side working the electronics to move the arms, claws, mouth, and so on. In the scenes where the creature is running or jumping, a computer-generated version was used.

Film critics of the day gave The Relic negative to mixed reviews. In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “the DNA speculation that supposedly fuels the plot feels right out of Beavis and Butt-head.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and wrote, “If you can stagger around the plot holes (how'd a Brazilian cargo ship with a dead crew get to Lake Michigan?), the last 30 minutes are pure, dumb monster-movie fun.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Geoff Pevere wrote, “The movie is a shameless cut-and-paste of a half-century of bogeyman-movie clichés.” USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “amid caviar-quality Oscar contenders, it’s a palate cleanser – if you have a taste for explicit decapitations and loopy macabre humor.” However, Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “All of this is actually a lot of fun, if you like special effects and gore. To see this movie in the same week as the hapless and witless Turbulence is to understand how craft and professionalism can let us identify with one thriller heroine and laugh at another.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Yes, we've seen it all before. But The Relic proves that the hoariest clichés, when stirred together with enough money, shaken vigorously and artfully lighted, can still make the adrenaline surge.”

Ultimately, The Relic is barely a notch above the cheesy creature feature films that popular the SyFy Channel but so what? The dialogue at times is kinda clunky and most of the characters never go beyond their stereotypes but that’s what you get when you have four screenwriters credited with writing the damn thing. That being said, the film is relatively devoid of narrative fat, which I like, Stan Winston’s monster looks pretty cool, there’s decapitations a-go-go for the gorehounds, Sizemore plays a gruff, superstitious cop, and Miller’s pretty scientist gets to kick ass. The Relic is a well-oiled thrill machine that delivers on its promise of providing a rollercoaster ride. What more do you want from this kind of film?

 




Friday, August 20, 2010

Reality Bites


The early to mid-1990s was a period of time when popular culture was dominated by Generation X, from films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) to Douglas Copeland’s book, Generation X to the massive popularity of Seattle music spearheaded by Nirvana. During this decade three films were made that provided a fascinating spectrum of how this generation was depicted. On one end, there was Linklater’s low-budget independent film. On the opposite end there was the glossy, studio picture Reality Bites (1993). Somewhere in between was Singles (1992) which shared the big studio backing of Reality Bites but with the authenticity of Slacker.

I can remember when I first saw Reality Bites, I hated it. I had recently seen and was blown away by Slacker which felt so authentic. In comparison, Reality Bites tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of Friends. Slacker presented everyday settings with realistic, albeit eccentric people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Now that some time has passed and the whole Gen-X thing has died down, I see Reality Bites in a different light now. When I think of the film, I think of the videos for “Stay” by Lisa Loeb and “Spin the Bottle” by Juliana Hatfield – the two big singles to come off the soundtrack album. Back in the day, it seemed like those two songs were everywhere. The film is still lightweight material but it has a more nostalgic vibe now as a dated piece of mainstream ‘90s culture. It’s a pretty decent snapshot of that time and reminds me a lot of what I liked about the decade.

Reality Bites also features one of my favorite performances of Winona Ryder’s entire career. She had just come off making several period piece films and was clearly looking to do something contemporary, something that spoke to her generation. She used her star power to pluck an unknown screenwriter out of obscurity and, with the help of Ethan Hawke, got the film made where it would normally have languished in development hell for years. However, Reality Bites was seen as and marketed as a Gen-X film and its supposed target audience wasn’t interested in seeing their lives and interests writ large in a mainstream commercial film. It underperformed at the box office but has since gone on to develop a sizable following. I don’t want to say cult following because it isn’t that kind of film but it does have its fans.

Reality Bites is about four college graduates dealing with life after school as they try to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) works as store manager at a local Gap. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is trying to figure out a way to tell his conservative mother that he’s gay. Troy (Ethan Hawke) is a struggling musician. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) aspires to be a filmmaker and chronicles the ups and downs of her three friends for a documentary about her generation.

Lelaina, like her friends, is a child of divorce and her parents (Swoosie Kurtz and Joe Don Baker) want her to get a regular 9-to-5 job so that she can become a productive member of society. To pay the bills, she works as an assistant/gofer for a morning television talk show called Good Morning Grant! where she caters to the whims of its obnoxious host (played with two-faced gusto by John Mahoney). She’s roommates with Vickie and their friendship is summed up rather nicely in a scene where we see them singing along to Squeeze’s “Tempted” in Lelaina’s car. Who hasn’t done that with their friend(s) at some point in their lives? I don’t mean necessarily to that song but to music in general.

One day she literally runs into Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), an executive at MTV wannabe, In Your Face TV, when they get into a minor car accident. She finds herself attracted to his inability to articulate a sentence much less a thought and he’s drawn to her nervous, awkward energy. It’s baffling what they see in each other but they’re both young and attractive and start dating. However, when Troy is fired from his day job, Vickie invites him to stay at their place (“Welcome to the maxi-pad.”) until he can find work, much to Lelaina’s chagrin (“That’s the American Dream of the ‘90s. That could take years!”). Me think she doth protest too much (“He will turn this place into a den of slack!”). See, Lelaina has a thing for Troy and he for her but they’re too busy getting on each other’s nerves in a meet-cute kinda way to do anything about it.

Lelaina’s first date with Michael has to be one of the most inarticulate ones ever put on film as they stammer their way through dinner. They each come up with some real gems to woo each other, like he tells her about how Frampton Comes Alive! changed his life while she explains why the Big Gulp is the most profound invention in her lifetime (?!). Maybe these two are really made for each other. As superficial as Lelaina comes across a lot of the time, Winona Ryder, with her adorable presence, keeps me interested and engaged. Away from Michael’s I.Q.-sucking black hole presence, Lelaina seems smarter.

When he’s not spending time pretending he can’t stand Lelaina, Troy writes awful, subpar Beck lyrics and quotes from Cool Hand Luke (1967). While he waits for her to realize that he loves her, he has sex with a succession of not-too bright groupies (one of them is a blink and you’ll miss her, Renee Zwelleger). Vickie also has a revolving door of sexual partners – so much so, that she gets an AIDS test and anxiously awaits the results – her character’s big dilemma that is resolved fairly quickly and a little too neatly.

Ben Stiller, in what was not only his first major acting gig but also his directorial debut, does a good job of portraying a guy who means well but is so clueless when it comes to things that really matter. He isn’t afraid to come off as an idiot while also hinting that underneath it all Michael does appear to have the best intentions, he just goes about articulating them in all the wrong ways. Troy, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and channels his jealously in vindictive ways, like when he pretends to tell Lelaina that he loves her. The hurt that registers on her face, especially in her eyes says it all, reminding one of how good a silent actress Ryder could have been if she had acted in another bygone era.

Ryder shows a capacity for comedy in a montage where Lelaina applies for a series of film and T.V.-related jobs featuring brief but amusing cameos by Andy Dick, Keith David, Anne Meara, and David Spade. Watching Ryder try to define irony under pressure always gives me a chuckle as does her interaction with Spade’s condescending burger jockey (“Ms. Pierce, there’s a reason I’ve been here six months.”). She was one of my earliest cinematic crushes and I know I shouldn’t like this film but dammit, she’s in vintage adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode – smart and gorgeous with a vulnerable quality that I find irresistible. Sorry Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and you other Pixie Dream Girls, Ryder is the original – accept no substitutes!

Coming from the world of stand-up comedy, Janeane Garofalo gets some of the film’s funniest lines (“I think I was conceived on an acid trip.”) and delivers them effortlessly like she was born to play Vickie. She also interacts well with Ryder and an even more interesting film would’ve been one where Vickie’s friendship with Lelaina was the focus. Obviously, others thought she had something special and for a brief while, Garofalo flirted with a mainstream film career with The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) and The MatchMaker (1997). Out of the four friends the one that suffers most in terms of screen time is Sammy. It often feels like his storyline was reduced so that more time could be devoted to the Michael-Lelaina-Troy love triangle. It’s a shame because Steve Zahn is such a gifted comedic actor with excellent timing and he’s given little to do in Reality Bites.

If I sound a little too harsh on Reality Bites, I don’t mean to be. The film does nail what it’s like to sit around with your friends, get high and comment ironically on old 1970s sitcoms. There is a fun bit where our four friends go out to get junk food and dance spontaneously to “My Sharona” by the Knack. It’s nice to see the normally reserved Ryder cut loose and act goofy. The film’s best scenes are the ones where all four friends are interacting with each other, bantering back and forth in a way that feels authentic and has a relaxed air that only comes from people who have known each other for some time.

In 1991, the producer of The Big Chill (1983), Michael Shamberg wanted to make a like-minded film for people in their twenties. He read Helen Childress’ Blue Bayou, a writing sample from the 23-year-old University of Southern California film school graduate. He liked it and wanted her sample to be the basis for his project. She met with him and told him about her life and friends and their struggle to find work during the recession that had hit the United States at the time. She had used her friends, their personalities and some of their experiences as the basis for her script. Shamberg, along with co-producer Stacy Sher, saw the pilot for The Ben Stiller Show and approached him to direct not act. At the time, Sher and Childress were developing the screenplay and had Lelaina and Troy figured out but couldn’t quite come up a credible character to complete the love triangle.

In February 1992, Shamberg sent Ben Stiller a copy of Childress’ script while he was editing the pilot for a show on Fox. He soon signed on to direct and worked with Childress for nine to ten months, developing her script. He suggested that he could play the third person in the love triangle. Over time, the Michael Grates character changed from a 35-year-old advertising man attempting to market Japanese candy bars in America to a twentysomething executive at a music video T.V. station. Childress and Stiller also changed the structure of the film, with the focus changing to the relationship between Lelaina and Troy while the stories about Vickie and Sammy, which were originally more fleshed out, were scaled back.

Childress and Stiller had a script that could be filmed by December 1992 and began shopping it around to various Hollywood studios all of whom turned it down because it tried to capture the Generation X market much like Singles had attempted to and failed. They finally got TriStar interested and began developing it there. The studio soon put it in turnaround. Childress, Sher and Stiller managed to convince the Film Commission of Texas to fund a location scouting trip to Houston despite no studio backing, no budget and no cast. As they arrived in the city, they got a call and learned that Winona Ryder had read Childress’ script. She wanted to do it and Universal Pictures agreed to finance the film. Coincidentally, Childress had Ryder in mind when she wrote the character of Lelaina.

The previous three films Ryder had made were period pieces and she needed a break. She wanted to do “something about people my age and in my generation growing up in today’s society.” She read Childress’ script while making The House of Spirits (1993) and it made her laugh: “It was very familiar to me – the way they talk, the attitude they have towards each other, the places they go. These were things I could relate to.” It was exactly the change of pace she wanted. At the time, Ethan Hawke’s career was in a rut after the buzz from Dead Poets Society (1989) had subsided. Up to that point, he had been known mostly for playing clean-cut characters and so the role of Troy would be something of a departure for him. Ryder was a fan of Hawke’s work and stipulated in her contract that he would co-star opposite her.

Stiller met Steve Zahn through Hawke as they were doing a play together at the time and was impressed by how funny he was. Zahn borrowed some money from his agent and went to Los Angeles to test for the film. He responded strongly to portraying a gay character coming out of the closet. Janeane Garofalo knew Stiller through their work together on his show and the producers felt that her style of comedy was perfect for the role of Vickie. According Garofalo, it came down to her, Parker Posey, Anne Heche and Gwyneth Paltrow. The studio loved and wanted Paltrow but Ryder liked Garofalo and had developed an instant connection with her.

The film received largely positive reviews among mainstream critics. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, "Like the generation it presents so appealingly, it doesn't see any point in getting all bent out of shape and overambitious. But it knows how to hang out and have a great time." The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, "By aiming specifically – and accurately – at characters in their twenties, debuting screenwriter Helen Childress and first-time director Stiller achieve something even greater: they encapsulate an era." Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "The movie bobs along on this stream of funny offhandedness, never losing its balance. If it's 10 o'clock, and you want to know where your supposedly grownup children are, this is a good place to look for them.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman praised Ryder’s performance: “And Ryder, good as she was in The Age of Innocence, gives her first true star performance here. Beneath her crisp, postfeminist manner, Lelaina is bristling with confusion, and Ryder lets you read every crosscurrent of temptation and anxiety, the way her tentative search for love slowly grows into a restless hunger.” However, Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “What strange force locks filmmakers into clichés and conventions? What unwritten law prevented the makers of Reality Bites from observing that their heroine can't shoot video worth a damn, that their hero is a jerk, and that their villain is the most interesting person in the movie?”

Reality Bites grossed $18.3 million in six weeks. It underperformed at the box office because its target audience wasn’t interested in seeing their lives portrayed in a film by movie stars and stayed away as they did with other Gen-X films like With Honors (1994) and Threesome (1994). Universal’s vice president of marketing Bruce Feldman said at the time, “People liked the picture, but only a few went to see it.”

Ultimately, Reality Bites plays it too safe and veers dangerously close to being a feature-length sitcom by wrapping things up too conveniently. The characters often come across as superficial which tends to undercut the sincerity of the film’s message. Singles and the hilarious short-lived MTV sitcom, Austin Stories, were much more successful in documenting the trials and tribulations of Gen-X. And yet I’m oddly fascinated with Reality Bites, mostly because of Garofalo and Ryder. They play characters that deserve to be in a better film. I always thought that at the end of the film Lelaina should’ve dumped both guys and stayed single. I mean, look at her options: Michael is a clueless T.V. executive that listens to generic gangsta rap and Troy is a pretentious wannabe musician that screws around with her emotions. Hell, she should’ve hooked up with Vickie who is funny in wonderfully sarcastic way and digs ‘70s popular culture in a sincerely ironic way. Despite all of its flaws, I still enjoy watching Reality Bites when I just want to turn off my brain and let a film wash over me – junk food for the mind. Films like that have their place, too.

 


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Coming Soon: John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven!

In celebration of John Carpenter's latest film in 9 years, The Ward which makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I am planning a week-long celebration of the man's body of work from Sunday, October 3 to Saturday, October 9, 2010 here at Radiator Heaven.

Since his directorial debut in 1974 with Dark Star, Carpenter has made classic genre films in the Howard Hawks tradition, from the police station under siege in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to a mining colony under attack from vicious aliens in Ghosts of Mars (2001). He made bonafide classics in the genres of horror and science fiction, from the legendary slasher film, Halloween (1978) to the action-packed dystopian futureworld of Escape From New York (1981).

I would love contributions from anybody who is interested and this can be in the form of articles, overviews, essays, a collection of images or whatever else you would like to do so long as it pertains to any of Carpenter's films and that goes for ones he just wrote or produced. If you're interested, leave a comment below with links to contributions on your blog. If you have already written about Carpenter in the past, by all means send me those links as well. The more the merrier!

You can also show your support for this blogathon on your own blog with one of these handy dandy banners below. Please spread the word!












Thursday, August 12, 2010

Midnight Run

One of the most popular trends in the 1980s cinema was the buddy-action film. The best ones to come out of this period were 48 HRS. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Midnight Run (1988), which spawned numerous imitators and sequels. Along with Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run is arguably the genre's last gasp before slipping into formulaic predictability and self-parody (see Rush Hour, Blue Streak, et al). What makes Midnight Run so good, even after all these years, is the unbeatable combination of an excellent cast, a witty script and solid direction.


Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter hired by his bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find and transport to Los Angeles, one Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) — a.k.a. “The Duke,” an accountant who stole $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). What is initially a simple "midnight run" from New York City to Los Angeles, turns into the road trip from hell as Walsh and Mardukas are pursued across the country via plane, train, and automobile by dim-witted gangsters, frustrated FBI agents led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).

While this film may be a comedy, Brest lets us know right from the get-go that it’s going to have a slightly unpredictable edge to it as Walsh is almost killed by a deadbeat he’s supposed to bring in. If that wasn’t bad enough, his guy is almost snatched away from him by Dorfler. I like that Brest takes the time to show Walsh doing his job and that he’s good at it. The bounty hunter is able to track down and find Mardukas where the Feds and the Mob were unable.

Brest wastes no time introducing the film’s various antagonists starting with Mosely who approaches Walsh on the street. The bounty hunter quickly finds himself surrounded by four FBI agents. Walsh knows what they want and gives them nothing but smartass replies to their questions. Yaphet Kotto doesn’t play Mosely as an inept bumbler but instead brings an impressive intensity to the role that makes his character something of an intimidating figure which, of course, makes his kind of incompetent lackeys that much funnier the more frustrated he gets when they are repeatedly unable to catch Walsh and Markdukas. For example, there’s the withering glare Mosely gives one of his flunkies when he states the painfully obvious – that Walsh has his identification.

Midnight Run adheres to the basic formula of the buddy-action film with two diametrically opposed characters teaming up to fight the bad guys. Inevitably, humorous situations arise from constant bickering while the duo shoots, punches, and fights their way out of action-packed set pieces. Ultimately, what makes Midnight Run work so well is how it messes around with the formula. Instead of having one funny guy and one straight man, you have two straight men with De Niro and Grodin. And yet it works, due in large part to the skill of the two leads who complement each other perfectly — De Niro plays Walsh as a gruff, foul-mouthed guy constantly annoyed by Grodin's clean-cut accountant, armed with a seemingly endless supply of personal questions to ask his traveling companion. Their scenes together seem very spontaneous and real as they annoy the hell out of each other.

Fresh from his scene-stealing appearance in The Untouchables (1987), Robert De Niro was eager to try something different. He wanted to do a comedy and to this end, pursued the lead role in Penny Marshall's film, Big (1988). Marshall was interested but the studio was not and thankfully the role went to Tom Hanks. Martin Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop, had found another script by George Gallo in the same vein — one that blended elements of comedy and action. He sent it to De Niro and was very up front with the actor: Midnight Run was a commercial film, not an in-depth character study. Regardless, De Niro researched his role by working with real-life bounty hunters and police officers.

Paramount was originally interested in backing Midnight Run but they wanted a big name star opposite De Niro in order to improve the film's chances at the box office. Their production executives suggested that the Mardukas character be changed to a woman and wanted Cher for the role in the hopes that she would provide some "sexual overtones." Brest wisely rejected the idea and so Paramount suggested teaming De Niro up with Robin Williams. Williams was a big star in his own right and eager to get the role. He even offered to do an audition for Brest — a rarity for the comedian whose name alone could green light projects. However, Brest was impressed by Charles Grodin's audition with De Niro. The director felt that there was a real chemistry between the two actors. As a result, Paramount backed out and the studio’s president Ned Tanen claimed that the budget became too high and decided that “it wasn’t worth it.” Universal Pictures became interested in the project. It is to Brest's credit that he supported Grodin down the line and refused to change his decision despite studio pressure.

Brest brought Grodin aboard with the understanding that the actor would have the opportunity to improvise. Grodin was very much open to De Niro's improvisational technique. He remembered that De Niro "was all about 'work,' plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen." Some of their best scenes feel like the screenplay was just thrown out and that they simply riffed off one another. For example, the night boxcar scene where Walsh and Mardukas bond, after illegally stowing away on a train, was improvised entirely.

Much of Midnight Run’s humor comes from these moments as they constantly antagonize each other. This relationship is believable because the film takes the time to develop it with many scenes where the two men just talk, and this allows us to get to know them. Most buddy films spend only the bare minimum amount of time on character development and instead cram as many action set pieces and explosions in as possible. As a result, we do not become attached to the characters. Midnight Run does not fall into this trap.

For all of its commercial elements, George Gallo's script has very strong, three-dimensional characters that transcend their stereotypes. It was the script that first drew Grodin to the project. He said in an interview that "the script had dimension beyond what I'm used to seeing. The dimension of character. It looked like a good action-adventure genre picture with strong character evolution." De Niro, being the consummate actor that he is, still manages to inject little touches and details, like a habit of constantly checking his faulty watch, or the nice bit of comedy when he checks out Mosely’s identification that he pickpocketed during their first meeting. De Niro walks away from the camera only to quickly turn around and flash the stolen ID in an amusing parody of an FBI agent. It is these little bits of business that provide insights into his character. Brest commented in an interview that, "sometimes I'd let the camera run after finishing a scene to see if he did any bits, and invariably he did."

From the two leads to the rest of the supporting cast, each character is given a moment or two to say or do something that makes them distinctive and funny. For example, there is John Ashton as Dorfler, a rival bounty hunter who falls for the same stupid trick every time. Dorfler is not just some generic bounty hunter. Ashton transforms him into a self-absorbed idiot who is completely oblivious to the big picture. Even though Dorfler is always on the receiving end of many jokes, he gets his chances to prevail. However, you know that, ultimately, he is destined to fail. Dorfler has a distinctive personality instead of being merely a cardboard cutout.

Joe Pantoliano is so good as the increasingly exasperated bail bondsman. His opening exchange with De Niro early on in the film is so well played. In a matter of moments De Niro and Pantoliano suggest a long history between their two characters in the way they act towards each other. Eddie is a consummate bullshit artist but Walsh sees right through that. I like the nice little detail that Brest throws into this scene where Eddie pays Walsh by taking out a wad of cash stashed in his pink and white socks. It’s details like this that say so much about a character. Eddie cares only about money and his reputation. These characters could have been presented as clichéd stereotypes but Brest wisely casts veteran character actors like Ashton and Pantoliano in these roles.

Many of the supporting characters appear constantly throughout the film in a series of recurring gags, like Mosely running into people who’ve encountered Walsh posing as him, or Mardukas’ never-ending questions about Walsh’s personal life (“Why were you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?”), or Dorfler getting fooled by the same trick time and time again. Then there’s Joey (Robert Miranda) and Tony (Richard Foronjy), two dumb Vegas wiseguys that work for Serrano. Tony’s the slightly smarter one but not by much. The give and take between these two minor characters is really funny and the script gives them a moment of actual competency which makes them more than just one-dimensional thugs. It helps that the two actors playing them do such a good job bringing these characters to life.

Much like Yaphet Kotto does with Agent Mosely, Dennis Farina plays his character as if he were in a drama and not a comedy. Unlike his goofier mobsters in Get Shorty (1995) and Snatch (2000), the actor transforms Jimmy Serrano into an imposing figure best illustrated in the scene where he confronts Mardukas and tells him that he’s going to die. For a brief moment, Midnight Run stops being a comedy and there’s a real sense of danger thanks to Farina’s chilling presence in this scene. He’s also quite funny in the scenes where he threatens his underlings with all sorts over-the-top violent acts if they don’t do his bidding.

Midnight Run received mixed reviews from critics of the day. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "What Midnight Run does with these two characters is astonishing, because it's accomplished within the structure of a comic thriller ... It's rare for a thriller to end with a scene of genuinely moving intimacy, but this one does, and it earns it." In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott praised the performances: "De Niro has the time of his acting life lightening up and sending up all those raging bulls that won him all those Oscars ... Charles Grodin, master of the double-take and maestro of the slow burn, the best light character comic since Jack Benny stopped playing himself." However, The New York Time’s Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. De Niro and Mr. Grodin are lunatic delights, which is somewhat more than can be said for the movie, whose mechanics keep getting in the way of the performances.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized director Martin Brest for, "carrying the dead weight of George Gallo's script, Brest isn't up to the strenuous task of transforming his uninspired genre material in something deeper, and so the attempts to mix pathos with comedy strike us merely as wild and disorienting vacillations in tone.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "The outline of George Gallo's script – odd-couple antagonists become buddies under perilous circumstances – was stale five years ago, and the outcome offers no surprises. Too bad: a lot of good work has been wasted on an unworthy cause.”

Nowadays, it’s hard to remember when De Niro doing a comedy was something of an anomaly. Sure, he had done The King of Comedy (1983) but by and large he was known at the time as a dramatic actor. So, teaming him up with veteran comedic actor Charles Grodin in an action comedy must’ve seemed like a risky prospect to the studio. But this would be tempered with director Brest behind the camera. This was years before Gigli (2003) when he was still enjoying the good will from the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. If anybody could make De Niro funny while still retaining his trademark intensity, it was Brest.

Now, there is a whole generation of filmgoers that only knows De Niro from comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and Analyze That (2002). Charles Grodin has, for the most part, shunned the limelight. He had a short-lived talk show and appears occasionally on The Tonight Show but has, unfortunately, not done anything on par with his work in Midnight Run. In fact, he hasn’t acted since 1994 and said in a recent interview that he has quit acting altogether. By the late 1980s, early 1990s, the buddy-action film had become a tired and hackneyed cliche. Screenwriter Shane Black offered a brief breath of fresh air with Lethal Weapon (1989) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) but generic time-wasters, like De Niro’s own Showtime (2002), Serving Sara (2002), which blatantly rips off Midnight Run, or the more recent The Bounty Hunter (2010), are still cranked out with predictable regularity by the studios. Back in 1988, Brest delivered the goods in a big way, serving up an R-rated film that mixed exciting car chases and shoot-outs with hilarious recurring gags and assortment of colorful characters.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam once remarked in an interview that "when times are bad, I can't believe you can live without fantasy or imagination." This statement seems particularly valid in contemporary society when you realize all of the horrible things that are occurring. One only has to look in the newspapers or watch the news on television to see how rapidly society seems to be collapsing. Gilliam's statement becomes all the more true when you look at the success of a film like Forrest Gump (1994), which is beloved by many who see it as a hopeful reminder of better times. The problem with that film is that it is too literal in its fantastic elements, leaving little to the imagination. This is the strength of Gilliam's films – from his work with Monty Python to his own films – which transport the viewer to another world altogether. But this does not mean his films leave behind all traces of reality, but rather, like any good fairy tale, they play with and manipulate reality. To this end, watching a film like Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) is akin to reading one of those great fairy tales from your childhood. His film is the cinematic equivalent of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its ability to tell a good story, present colorful and unusual characters, and take us to places we can only dream about. And like these books, the film is set on an epic scale, spanning all realms, from the legendary city of Constantinople, to the Moon, to the insides of a giant sea monster.

Our story begins in the 18th Century, during The Age of Reason where a small, beleaguered town, ruled by an evil, bureaucratic Governor (Jonathan Pryce), is under constant attack from an equally cruel Sultan and his large army of Turks. Caught in the middle is an inept theatrical company trying in vain to entertain the battle-weary soldiers and shell-shocked villagers of the town with the fantastic tales of Baron Munchausen. During a performance, an old soldier appears, claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen and aims to not only set the record straight about his outrageous exploits, but save the town from the Turks. This sets in motion an epic adventure which has the Baron (John Neville) traveling the world and beyond for his former comrades, an eccentric group that includes Berthold (Eric Idle), a man who can run so fast that he must attach a ball and chain to both legs, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), a sharpshooter capable of hitting "a bullseye half way around the world," Albrecht (Winston Dennis), the strongest man in the world, and Gustavus (Jack Purvis), a small man who not only has unearthly hearing abilities, but can "blow over a whole forest with just one breath." However, the Baron faces many obstacles from the outset of his adventure. He is old and feeble with the specter of death literally and figuratively pursuing him in all sorts of guises, but most notably as a horrific, winged, skeletal demon. Only his love of adventure and the help of his youthful companion, a little girl named Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), keeps Death at bay and his quest on track.

The idea for Baron Munchausen had been running around inside Gilliam's head for some time. He had always liked the 1962 Czechoslovakian film version and the various stories about the famed teller of tall tales. But it wasn't until he had finished his previous film, Brazil (1984), did Baron Munchausen become a viable project. Gilliam had fought Universal studio to release his version of Brazil and not the one they wanted – a more upbeat "Hollywood" ending. Gilliam, exhausted and jaded, was anxious to put that horrible experience behind him. And so, he and producer Arnon Milchan approached 20th Century Fox, pitched the idea for the film, and got the go-ahead from the studio. But then disaster struck. After Brazil, Gilliam and Milchan parted company and Fox lost interest in the project because the people who had made the deal were no longer there. However, Gilliam had going on at that moment and continued to work on Baron Munchausen. The source of this momentum stemmed from Gilliam's desire to finish what he saw as his "fantasist" trilogy: Time Bandits (1981) featured a young boy as-fantast, while Brazil presented an adult as fantast theme, and Baron Munchausen would complete the series with an old man as fantast.

Gilliam finally acquired financial support from Columbia Pictures and began writing the script for the film with his good friend and screenwriter, Charles McKeown (they had worked to get together previous on Brazil). They used the book, Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia as their starting point. Written by Rudolph Erich Raspe and published in 1785, it was based on the inflated exploits of a real German cavalry officer. Gilliam found that the book was merely a series of tales with no narrative connection and so he and McKeown created a story about a town under siege with a group of actors trapped in it, trying to perform The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only to have the real Baron showing up. There had already been two dozen screen versions of the Baron's endeavors in Europe alone. In addition George Melies had done a silent short, and two films, a German one filmed in 1948 and the aforementioned Czech feature in 1962, were in circulation when Gilliam decided to create his own take on the man. In writing the script, he and McKeown would talk about the scenes in detail and then McKeown would go off and write. Then, they would meet again and talk about what he wrote and the process would repeat itself.

These were the least of his problems. Gilliam had difficulty casting someone in the title role, but one person's name kept popping up – John Neville. At the time, Neville, a veteran British stage actor whose heyday was during the 1960s but had faded from the limelight over the years. He had become the director of the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival doing 15 productions a season with no time for films. Gilliam approached Neville’s agent and was turned down. Luckily for Gilliam, a makeup lady working on the film knew Neville’s daughter personally, called him up, and arranged a meeting. It turned out that the veteran stage actor was a big Monty Python fan and he agreed to do the film.

Unfortunately, Gilliam's headaches did not end there. The studio forced him to begin production before he was ready and as the filming progressed, the usual budget problems began to rear their ugly heads. Principal photography began on September 14, 1987 at Rome’s legendary Cinecitta Studios (where Fellini had shot his films). After seven weeks of filming, the production was shut down for two weeks with rumors that Gilliam would be replaced by Richard Fleischer or Gary Nelson (The Black Hole). The studio threatened to replace Gilliam if he didn't get back on track. He had to convince the film’s completion bond insurer, Film Finances that he was in control of the project’s increasing budget. This forced Gilliam to cut out portions of the script but he could not decide what to keep and what to remove. Two days before the deadline, Film Finances threatened to sue Gilliam for fraud and this upset McKeown so much that he and the director went through the script in less than an hour and came up with revisions that appeased the financiers. Ironically, despite all of the script revisions they made, and the presence of Film Finances, the budget increased, the filming didn’t move any faster, and the sets weren’t built any quicker. According to Thomas Schuhly, one of the film’s many producers, there was no danger that Gilliam would have been fired: “You must accept the rules of the game, and that’s to make money, not to lose it. We had a better chance of making money with Terry than anyone else.”

Gilliam wanted to make the film in Rome because it gave him the opportunity to work with legendary Fellini collaborators, production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno. However, working in Italy presented its own unique set of problems. "This film was terrifying difficult, even before those other pressures from the studio began. The fact that the film was falling apart at the seams was bad enough – the organization was terrible,” Gilliam said. In retrospect, he regretted filming there because they were ill-equipped to do special effects films and his crew were speaking four different languages: English, Italian, German and Spanish. This resulted in miscommunication among crew members. Gilliam said, “The moment you say something it’s instantly mistranslated.” Gilliam became bogged down by the slow pace of Italian filmmaking and their unusual working methods. Gilliam and Ferretti redesigned the film several times with certain locations in mind only to find out after several weeks that no one sought permission to use them. They had to start all over again.

Due to delays and studio demands, the King of the Moon character was recast with Robin Williams replacing Sean Connery. The budget constraints forced Gilliam and McKeown to reduce the Moon sequence from a world of 2,000 people with detachable heads to only two people. When this happened, Connery lost interest and left the project. Eric Idle was good friends with Williams, who just happened to be in Rome at the time promoting Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Gilliam had actually offered him the role of Vulcan but he wasn’t available until they had to recast the King of the Moon and he agreed to help out. The role of Vulcan had originally been written for Bob Hoskins but he was busy making Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Gilliam cast Oliver Reed instead.

Talk about being born under a bad sign. For months, the production trained horses for Baron Munchausen and then, just before going to Spain to film, there was an outbreak of horse fever and they could not bring them. In addition, the two dogs playing the Baron’s pooch came down with a liver complaint at the same time. A few days later, then Columbia studio head David Puttnam was fired. By the time the production got to Spain, the costumes hadn’t arrived because there wasn’t enough room on the plane to take them! Somehow Gilliam prevailed and finished the film with the help of good friends like Eric Idle providing support and a sense of humor. Gilliam remembered, "At one point, we were out in Spain, and things were at their very, very worst. I was ready to quit. I knew there was no way we would get through the film. Eric really came in there, saying, 'You've got to, if for no other reason, you must make this film to spite John Cleese!' That got me going!"

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was generally well-received by mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The special effects are astonishing, but so is the humor with which they are employed … These adventures, and others, are told with a cheerfulness and a light touch that never betray the time and money it took to create them.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “With their remarkable contributions, Baron Munchausen is full of moments that dazzle, just for the fun of seeing the impossible come to life on the screen.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “A few episodes test the viewer's patience, and there is considerably more wit in the film's sumptuous design than in its dialogue. But anyone with an educated eye and a child's love of hyperbole can take delight in Gilliam's images and incidents.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Thanks to such contradictions, the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame … A fantasy in which literally anything can happen at any moment runs the serious risk of flying apart without a center; and there is hardly a moment in this movie’s 126 minutes when Gilliam isn’t taking that risk — both eyes open and full speed ahead.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe felt that Gilliam had “created another brilliantly inventive epic of fantasy and satire.”

With a budget estimated to be in the $40-45 million range (which sounds pretty small now but back then that was a big deal), Baron Munchausen harkens back to Gilliam's love of old epic "special effects movies" like The Sea Hawk (1940) and Thief of Baghdad (1940), which the filmmaker enjoyed as a child. As a result, Baron Munchausen is a stunning visual masterpiece on a grand scale that depicts all sorts of flights of fancy: characters ride cannonballs through the air, get swallowed whole by monstrous whales, and fly to the moon in a hot air balloon. Everything is set on an absurd mythical level that at times becomes wonderfully surreal. This is particularly evident in a remarkable sequence where the Baron and Sally travel to the moon. At first, it seems that the Baron's ship is adrift along a calm stretch of the ocean, but this gradually changes to the surface of the moon, a barren landscape where the constellations come alive, becoming what they are. One of the joys of Baron Munchausen is that every scene is filled with this kind of atmospheric, incredible attention to detail that sets it apart from any other feature you're likely to see.

As in all of Gilliam's films the large ensemble cast fills out their respective roles admirably. John Neville brings all of his knowledge and years of experience as an actor to the role of the Baron and makes what could have been a wacky caricature, a flesh and blood character. He has to perform the daunting task of portraying the Baron in three different stages of his life: young, middle-aged, and as an old man. Sarah Polley is the perfect foil for Neville's Baron. When he becomes tired and fed up with the quest to save the town from the Turks, she is there to inject some youth and vitality into the struggle, renewing everyone's energy without smugly mugging to the camera as so many child stars are seem prone to do nowadays. The rest of the supporting cast is also superb with Eric Idle and Uma Thurman (as Venus the Goddess of Love) creating memorable scenes with their characters. To top it all off there is even an uncredited cameo by a delightfully unhinged Robin Williams as the King of the Moon who bounces from lunacy to lucidity with the frequency of a schizophrenic on speed and who is also not averse to lobbing giant asparagus spears at our heroes. He would subsequently star in Gilliam's next effort, The Fisher King and expand on the trilogy with a fourth option: crazed man as fantast.

If there is a central theme to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it is the notion that fantasy and fun complement science and reason. When the Baron first appears, he is an old man that feels pushed to the margins of a world he can no longer relate to. "The world is evidently tired of me," he says, "because it's all logic and reason now. Science. Progress. Laws of Hydraulics. Laws of Social Dynamics. Laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged Cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me." The film not only becomes a battle against the Sultan and his army, but against the stifling sterility of science and reason as represented by the corrupt Governor of the town (an wonderfully campy performance by Jonathan Pryce, who goes all out with his role) who sees a world "fit for science and reason," and not for the "folly of fantasists who do not live in the real world." And yet, Gilliam's film shows that you cannot have one without the other. As he once said in an interview, "Fantasy and reality, or truth and reality – whatever form it takes – that which the world perceives as truth, and that which really is truth. I like the idea that a good lie is probably better than what appears to be the truth – and maybe even more truthful!" Baron Munchausen constantly plays with these notions of fantasy and reality, constantly manipulating them throughout the film to keep us guessing. Eventually, it no longer matters as both blend together to form a new reality where one is not sacrificed for the other, but rather both co-exist peacefully.