Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared over at Edward Copeland's blog, Edward Copeland on Film. You can also access my article on the original film, here.

It has been over 20 years since Wall Street (1987) was released in theaters and, at the time, it was blamed for cashing in on the stock market crash that wiped out more than a few people’s fortunes. The financial landscape has changed radically since then and so, in many ways, has Oliver Stone’s career. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on an unbelievable roll, cranking out controversial, headline-grabbing films like Platoon (1986), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). And then he made Nixon (1995), arguably his most ambitious and complex (both stylistically and content-wise) film to date – critics were divided and audiences failed to show up.


Stone continued to plug along gamely but after his long-time director of photography Robert Richardson left after the neo-noir oddity U-Turn (1997), the director lost his most important creative collaborator. Any Given Sunday (1999) was an energetic if not flawed expose of professional American football and well, let’s just say that the 2000s have not been kind to him (see Alexander, World Trade Center and W.). With the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), there’s a glimmer of hope that this new project might be a return to form for the auteur. He’s never done a sequel before but with how radically the financial world has changed since 9/11 it is an intriguing prospect to see what a character like Gordon Gekko would be doing now. With recent scandals like Enron and Dow Jones meltdown in 2008, a Wall Street sequel is very timely.

It’s 2001 and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has been released from prison. There’s no one to pick him up and instead he’s handed a check for $1,800 and a train ticket. Seven years later, he’s peddling a book, Is Greed Good? and trying to get back into the game. Meanwhile, Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a young and ambitious proprietary trader working Keller Zabel. This whiz kid is trying to develop an alternative energy project. Stone immerses us in the trading floor and boy, does it look different than it did back in 1987. The technology, obviously, is vastly different but the frenetic energy is still the same. Jake is living with and engaged to a beautiful young woman named Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who is an Internet journalist working for a liberal-minded website. Oh yeah, her estranged father just happens to be Gekko, much to her chagrin.

When Jake’s investment firm’s stock takes a major hit, his distraught and disillusioned mentor Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) is pushed out of the company by ruthless hedge fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Devastated and humiliated, Zabel takes his own life. Jake goes to see Gekko speak and is impressed by what the man has to say. Maybe he’s found a new mentor. Afterwards, Jake meets Gekko and tells him about his plans to marry Winnie. They strike a deal: Jake will help Gekko reconcile with his daughter and in return Gekko will help Jake exact some payback on James, the man who sent Zabel over the edge.

With Gekko’s help, Jake does some digging and spreads a few rumors that cause Churchill Schwartz, the company that James works for, to take a notable hit. Impressed by what he did, James hires Jake because after all, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Jake naturally accepts as it brings him in close proximity to James so that he can ultimately bring him down. And like that, it’s on with Jake and James going after each other with Gekko as the wild card, begging the question, what is his stake in all this?

Shia LaBeouf, an actor known for mindless blockbusters (Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls) and generic thrillers (Disturbia and Eagle Eye), finally shows some actual acting chops in his first legitimate dramatic role that has him up against heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin and Frank Langella – guys that can really act. Being in their company forces LaBeouf to raise his game and he holds his own. This time around, it is LaBeouf who is the idealistic young man swimming with the sharks and in danger of being seduced by lots of money.

It is great to see Michael Douglas back in his most famous role and he slips back into it effortlessly. Gekko is as cagey as ever and like Jake we’re never quite sure what his true intentions are but one thing’s for sure, he’s not to be underestimated. And Douglas does a nice job hinting at the dangerous Gekko that lurks under his smiling façade. Gekko appears to want to make amends with his daughter but as we well know from the first film, he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and with all the cunning of an exceptional card player.

Josh Brolin plays a smug, cigar-smoking shark with no heart. He’s a grinning, deliciously evil bad guy. Carey Mulligan doesn’t have much to do but does a fine job with what she has to work with, especially a scene where Winnie and Gekko finally have it out over how his dirty financial dealings destroyed their family. One of the weak spots of the original Wall Street was Bud Fox’s relationship with his love interest, a vapid interior designer, and Stone tries not to make the same mistake with this film by casting a stronger actress with Mulligan and by placing a bigger emphasis on the relationship between Jake and Winnie. However, the film stalls when the focus shifts to them when we really should be tracking Jake plotting revenge on James.

The screenplay throws all kinds of financial jargon at the audience but it is all really window-dressing because all that matters is what it all means and Stone makes sure that we understand the bottom line. The dialogue still has some of the crackle and pop of the original film, especially in a good scene where Gekko and James spar verbally. If there is one glaring flaw in this film it is the overuse of David Byrne songs to the point of distraction. Each cue puts too fine a point on the scene with lyrics that spell out exactly what we are watching. Not to mention the songs are milquetoast drivel robbing the film of its fast-moving momentum at times. Also, the warm, cuddly vibe of the epilogue that plays over the closing credits has got to go. It shows Gekko in a way that just seems out of character and feels like Stone hedged his bets to give the audience a more palatable ending.

Stone does a good job of keeping things visually interesting but the cinematography lacks the energy and that special something that Robert Richardson brought to the first film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is easily the best film Stone’s done since Any Given Sunday. Of course, that’s not saying much but at least it feels like the kind of film Stone used to make back in his prime. There is a confidence that comes with being back on familiar turf that Stone displays with this film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is just the kind of film that he needs to reinvigorate his career and remind us why we regarded his films so highly in the first place.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

DVD of the Week: The Thin Red Line: Criterion Collection

After Terrence Malick made Days of Heaven in the late 1970s, he didn’t make another film for two decades. Because he shunned the press like the cinematic equivalent of Thomas Pynchon, speculation was rampant as to the reasons why. It was rumored that the ordeal of making Days and its subsequent commercial failure soured him on filmmaking but as it turned out he was working on various screenplays over the years. And then, in 1998, he resurfaced with an adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel The Thin Red Line about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal. The end result was an unconventional epic that eschewed traditional storytelling for a philosophical meditation on war, nature and death. It also featured a star-studded cast with most of the marquee names (John Travolta and George Clooney) relegated to cameos while relative unknowns (Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin) were given significant screen time. Not surprisingly, critics gave it rave reviews while mainstream audiences were put off by its artsy approach, preferring instead Steven Spielberg’s much more visceral and convention WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan (1998). The folks at the Criterion Collection have rewarded fans of Malick’s film by giving it the deluxe treatment.

The first shot of the film is of a crocodile sinking rather ominously into the water, followed by a stunning shot of sunlight streaming through the leaves of a tree as a voiceover narration says, “what’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” These ruminations about the nature of war and the environment play over a montage of absolutely beautiful scenery and we meet Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) living among the natives in an Eden-esque paradise but this is soon shattered when he spots a Navy patrol boat nearby. The AWOL soldier is brought back and made a stretcher bearer in C Company by First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) who sees the war in a very different way than Witt. He is more of a realist to Witt’s philosopher. They’re all shipped off to Guadalcanal where they’re ordered to invade and take the island from the Japanese forces because of its strategic importance.

Malick spends the rest of the film dwelling on the aspirations and fears of a handful of soldiers. There’s Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a career officer desperate to take the island so that he can be promoted to general. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) is dealing with the news that his wife is leaving him and tries to find a reason to still care about this war. However, it is the relationship between Witt and Welsh that lies at the heart of The Thin Red Line as their two opposing ideologies clash – Welsh is the jaded cynic and Witt the idealistic dreamer. The scenes they share are some of the strongest in the film. That being said, the combat scenes are well-choreographed kinetic set pieces where men are arbitrarily killed. We see the fear and confusion on their faces and how some of them mask it with bravado or grim determination. These sequences are noisy and jarring and contrast nicely with the calmer, more contemplative moments.

The Thin Red Line is filled with all kinds of breathtaking imagery that stays with you long after it ends, like a line of soldiers that walk through tall grass and casually pass by a short, old aboriginal man who doesn’t even acknowledge their presence as if he’s out for an afternoon stroll. There’s the numerous shots of the lush rainforest and the animals that inhabit it as if Malick seems to be saying war means nothing to them or to nature – they will be here long after we’re gone. Another sublime moment occurs when C Company is climbing a grassy hill and the light changes before our eyes and the sun goes in behind a cloud and out again.

The film is anchored by strong performances from the likes of Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas with others like Woody Harrelson and John Cusack in minor but notable roles, and then there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bit parts by then up-and-comers like Adrien Brody, Nick Stahl and Thomas Jane. One gets the feeling that they are all in the service of one man’s vision and that would be Malick.

He immerses us in this world so that at times it seems like we are right there with these soldiers and at other times he pulls back and reflects on the nature of war and its effect on man and the environment. The Thin Red Line is one of the most beautifully shot, poetic war films ever made. It wrestles with some pretty weighty themes and is unafraid to take the time and ponder them. Malick assumes that his audience is intelligent and not just interested in the visceral kicks of soldiers shooting each other and getting blown up. He is aiming for something more profound and using James Jones’ book as a jumping off point. Whether Malick is successful or not is up to the viewer to decide but it is readily apparent that he has created something special with this film.

Special Features:

The Thin Red Line was previously released twice by 20th Century Fox in fairly bare bones versions that included several of the Melanesian songs featured in the film and an impressive DTS soundtrack. The Criterion Collection has worked with Malick to give his film a very impressive facelift both visually and aurally while also including an impressive collection of supplemental material.

The first disc features an audio commentary with long-time Malick collaborator, production designer Jack Fisk, producer Grant Hill and cinematographer John Toll. They talk about how the opening scenes with the natives were shot very documentary-like with a small crew at the end of principal photography. They also point out the various locations they shot in and how it affected them and the film. Hill touches upon the casting process and how they got some of the marquee names to appear in the film. Naturally, they talk about working with Malick but not as much as I’d like. With these crew members, this is a more technically-oriented track short on anecdotal material.

Also included is the theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with a more than 30-minute featurette that showcases cast members Kirk Acevedo, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn talking about how they were cast and their experiences making the film. They all give fascinating impressions of what Malick is like and what it was like to work with him. The actors did a lot of research and preparation, living and training like soldiers and, as a result, they really bonded with one another. Penn describes how a typical day of shooting might involve Malick shooting a scene with dialogue for a half day and then spending the second doing it again but without any dialogue. This is fantastic extra loaded with tons of anecdotes.

Dianne Crittenden is interviewed about the casting process and she explains what Malick was looking for in the actors that ultimately appeared in the film. We see audition footage of actors that were cast (Nick Stahl’s is quite impressive) and, more interestingly, glimpses of the ones who didn’t – Josh Hartnett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Crispin Glover. Malick wanted actors that did not look contemporary and Crittenden saw people from theatrical acting groups all over the United States.

The film’s three editors, Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber are interviewed. Weber says that his favorite part of the film is a section that Jones worked on because it was so representative of Malick and his worldview. Klein says that Malick wasn’t too crazy about directing the battle sequences and just wanted to work with the actors. Weber and Jones talk about the initial five hour cut of the film and how they cut it down and how it changed with the addition of music and narration.

There is an interview with the film’s composer Hans Zimmer. He talks about meeting Malick and how they simply hung out together for a year before filming started. They never talked about the script but instead had more philosophical discussions. The director encouraged Zimmer to experiment and compose music that enhanced John Toll’s cinematography.

For fans of the film that know about all the footage that was shot and the actors that were cut completely out of the film, the addition of outtakes is particularly exciting. Included are eight scenes that run a total of 13 minutes. It’s nice to see more footage of actors like John C. Reilly and Adrien Brody who were marginalized in the final cut. Reilly gets to go off on a rant in a scene with Jim Caviezel. Brody, who just looks scared throughout the film, actually gets to speak here. Best of all, we see footage of Mickey Rourke, an actor cut out of the final version, in a stirring scene as a sniper who shares a scene with Caviezel.

Also included is an interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones. She talks about the novel and her father’s intentions in writing it. Most interestingly, Jones talks about her father’s upbringing and his experiences in World War II and how it fostered his anti-war sentiments as well as informing the novel.

There are five vintage theatrical newsreels that reported the status of the Pacific conflict in Guadalcanal to those at home. These are fascinating examples of war-time propaganda and feature valuable historical footage.

Finally, there are samples of Melanesian chants and music recorded for the film that play over behind-the-scenes stills.


Here is a link to a review of the Blu-ray edition complete with screengrabs.
 


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hackers

The first few times I watched Hackers (1995) I hated it. I found its depiction of computer hacking laughably unrealistic. Its characters were shallow and the dialogue cheesy beyond belief. Basically, I found the film to be an affront to everything I knew and loved about the Cyberpunk genre. Call it Cheeserpunk. That being said, it’s amazing what more than ten years and repeated viewings on cable television will do to wear down your resolve. That, and my good friend Rob’s relentless championing of the film ever since I can remember. Yes, I stopped hating and learned to love this scrappy little piece of entertainment and to embrace all of its flaws as virtues. Obviously, we’re not talking Shakespeare here but it’s not exactly Leonard Part 6 (1987) either. Hackers really should be judged on its own terms and it’s interesting how the passage of time can get you to look at something in a completely different way. So let’s go back to the mid-1990s shall we? When Jolt Cola was the preferred beverage of the hacker elite. Before the advent of high-speed Internet and when cyberspace seemed so much smaller than it does now. Hackers certainly didn’t set the world on fire but it didn’t crash and burn either and was actually fairly well-received by film critics. Most significantly, it featured rather prominently a young actress who would go on to bigger and better things: Angelina Jolie. She created quite an impression with those sexy, bee-stung lips and don’t-fuck-with-me attitude of someone just starting out and with something to prove.


When he was 11-years-old, Dade Murphy a.k.a. Zero Cool, crashed 1,507 computer systems in one day. He was busted and forbidden to go near a computer or use a touch-tone telephone until he turned 18. Seven years later, Dade (Jonny Lee Miller) and his mother (Alberta Watson) move to New York City where he spends his spare time doing harmless hacks, like breaking into a small, local television station and replacing a talk show featuring a Rush Limbaugh wannabe with a vintage episode of The Outer Limits. That is, until he runs into another hacker by the name of Acid Burn who bounces him out of the system in a colorful cheesy sequence that mixes an early form of Instant Messaging with clips from vintage films in an attempt to depict their battle in a visually interesting way because, let’s face it, there is nothing sexy about watching two people type away on their computers.

Dade shows up to his first day at high school and is immediately smitten with a beautiful girl named Kate Libby a.k.a. Acid Burn (Angelina Jolie) who proceeds to pull a prank that leaves him stranded on the roof with several other gullible new students. Of course, this establishes an antagonistic love-hate relationship between the two like some kind of unholy union between Howard Hawks and Steve Jobs. While hacking into the school computer system (to infiltrate Kate’s English class no less), Dade catches the attention of the Phantom Phreak a.k.a. Ramon Sanchez (Renoly Santiago) who invites him to an arcade that he and his fellow hackers frequent. It’s there that he meets Cereal Killer a.k.a. Emmanuel Goldstein (Matthew Lillard), Joey Pardella (Jesse Bradford), a hyperactive doofus always trying to impress his friends by trying to pull righteous hacks, and, a little later on, Lord Nikon a.k.a. Paul Cook (Laurence Mason), a hacker with a photographic memory. He also crosses paths yet again with Kate and proceeds to beat her high score on a video game that nobody has ever bested her at. Afterwards, Phreak informs Dade, “Congratulations. You just made an enemy for life.” The arcade is a dream hangout for teens with T.V.s everywhere, kids rollerblading all over the place, lots of video games, and loud dance music – what more could you want at that age?

Dade and Kate continue to flirt-er, prank each other but this is put on the backburner when Joey is busted by the Feds for hacking into and retrieving a highly sensitive garbage file from a supercomputer (known as a Gibson, an obvious nod Cyberpunk author William Gibson). It turns out that the garbage file is more valuable then he realizes as it contains vital information about a corporate hacker named The Plague a.k.a. Eugene Belford (Fisher Stevens) who works for mega-corporation Ellingson Mineral Company. Unbeknownst to its clueless executives, The Plague is actually ripping them off and covering his tracks by unleashing a computer virus that will cause one of their oil tankers to capsize and spill its contents into the ocean at a predetermined time. He is also in cahoots with Margo (Lorraine Bracco), a technically illiterate corporate executive who is getting cozy with him between the sheets.

When Joey and then Phreak are busted for possessing a copy of the garbage file, Dade, Kate, Cereal Killer, and Lord Nikon team up to clear their friends’ names and expose The Plague’s nefarious scheme. Naturally, he blames the virus on our hacker heroes and this brings in the Secret Service, led by Agent Gill (Wendell Pierce), a self-important jerk who thinks that he’s smarter than these kids. So, they decide to teach him a lesson in an amusing montage where Dade and Kate compete to see who can make Gill look more foolish and this involves listing his work phone in a kinky personal ad, canceling his credit card and, in a nice touch, declaring him deceased.

With those pouty, sexy lips, attractive figure (accentuated by a series of form-fitting outfits no less) and short, pixie haircut, Angelina Jolie resembles a rather gorgeous Romulan in this film. Even this early on in her career, she exuded a natural charisma, an impressive confidence and exotic looks that are fascinating to watch. Her character is probably the one that comes closest to the actual Cyberpunk genre with her futuristic club kid attire and punk rock attitude with just a hint of vulnerability. Already you can see the makings of a big-time movie star. For all of their cyber-sparring, Kate and Dade have a strong chemistry together as did Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller. They became an actual couple while making this film and it certainly translates on-screen as you can’t fake the kind of attraction they have towards each other. You can see it in the way they look at each other. Miller acquits himself just fine as a confident elite hacker. He wisely delivers an understated performance instead of trying to compete with the colorful supporting cast. His best scenes are, not surprisingly, with Jolie. He would be able to cut loose and steal scenes in his next film, the now iconic Trainspotting (1996), which really allowed him to show his acting chops in a way that Hackers never could.

Cereal Killer is one of the many spazzy characters that populate Matthew Lillard’s resume. Early on, his character infiltrates Dade and Kate’s Advanced English class just so he can participate in an exercise where students quote a passage from a significant author of the 20th century. While Dade quotes Allen Ginsberg (nice touch), Cereal, befitting his gonzo behavior, cites Ozzy Osbourne: “Of all the things I’ve lost I miss my mind the most.” Watching Jolie’s reaction to Lillard’s mock confusion at being called out for being in the wrong class is priceless and every time I see it I wonder if she’s breaking character and they decided to keep it in. Lillard would go to make a career out of playing motor-mouthed characters in films like Scream (1996) and SLC Punk (1998).

I have a feeling that recent Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens would probably like to forget this film but he certainly commits to the role, playing the cartoonish villain The Plague complete with cheesy dialogue and condescending attitude that just begs for him to be foiled by Dade and his buddies. Stevens looks like he’s having a lot of fun with the role and punctuates his scenes with little gestures or gives his dialogue a bit of a spin that lets you know he is fully aware of the kind of film this is and his role in it: the moustache-twirling bad guy. Most impressively, Stevens manages to spout such gems as, “God wouldn’t be up this late,” with a straight face. Now, that’s acting. Lorraine Bracco, a long way from the heights of GoodFellas (1990), has the thankless task of playing the techno-phobe foil to Stevens’ oily villain. She vamps along gamely but her considerable talents are pretty much wasted in this film.

It’s hard to believe that the same guy who directed Backbeat (1994), a gritty biopic about the early days of The Beatles before they made it big, also made Hackers. You couldn’t get more different in look or tone but, thematically, they are similar in the sense that they’re both about young people trying to express themselves and who live outside the mainstream. Director Iain Softley does everything he can to make Hackers look as visually dynamic as possible. The hacking/cyberspace sequences are certainly done in the spirit of films like Tron (1982) or television shows like Max Headroom with neon green text scrolling along tall columns and when a data file is discovered all kinds of multi-colored words come flying out at you. In other words, Softley eschews realism in favor of vibrant, colorful imagery in a playful way befitting the film’s young protagonists, like this would be the kind of film that they would watch over many cans of Jolt Cola. To this end, Softley also populates Hackers with all kinds of pulsating electronica, including the likes of Orbital, Prodigy, Massive Attack, and Underworld – a who’s who of the genre in the ‘90s. The musical highlight of Hackers for me is the use of the hypnotically groovy track, “Connected” by the Stereo MCs that plays during the party scene at Kate’s as Cereal and Dade work the room. It has an insanely catchy groove that instantly takes me back to that time quite unlike any other song in that genre.

Screenwriter Rafael Moreu had been interested in computer hacking since the early 1980s. After the crackdown in the United States during 1989-90, he decided to write a screenplay about this subculture. For research, Moreu went to a meeting organized by the New York-based hacker magazine 2600. There, he met Phiber Optik a.k.a. Mark Abene, a 22-year-old hacker who would go on to spend most of 1994 in prison on hacking charges. Moreu also hung out with other young hackers who were being hassled by the government and began to figure out how all this material would translate into a film. He remembered, “one guy was talking about how he’d done some really interesting stuff with a laptop and payphones and that cracked it for me, because it made it cinematic.”

One of the film’s producers Janet Graham realized that Moreu’s script was tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment: "We recognized that hacking has become a cultural phenomenon. Here are these very bright kids, who are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and from every strata. They are neither nerds nor terrorists, but they have become proficient in something with ramifications most of us have only begun to comprehend.” Director Softley was also drawn to the cultural significance of hackers: "It wasn't as much the computers as the idea that here was a phenomenon that today's generation has latched onto in the way that their predecessors latched onto rock 'n' roll. I think their agenda is simply to have fun, to do what they want to do and not allow anybody to tell them what not to do."

Softley and casting director Dianne Crittenden saw over 1,000 actors from England and the United States and, as a result, landed then-newcomers Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie. To prepare for the film, the cast spent three weeks learning how to type, rollerblade and getting to know each other. This clearly paid off as they interact with each other in the film much like actual friends would as evident in the scene in the arcade or when they go to Kate’s party. In addition, the cast also read a lot about computers and met with actual hackers while actor Jonny Lee Miller even attended a convention.

The arcade in the film where the protagonists hang out came out of research that the filmmakers did. Their aim was to make it part nightclub, part clubhouse – a place where hackers came to share information, scope out the latest gear and challenge each other on cutting edge video games. The arcade was built from scratch in an abandoned indoor swimming pool on the edges of London. The video game that Dade and Kate play was called WipeOut and was created by Sony Playstation.

Amazingly, director Iain Softley did not use any computer graphics for the cyberspace sequences. He wanted to go for “more conventional methods of motion control, animation, models, and rotoscoping to create a real, three-dimensional world, because… computer graphics alone can sometimes lend a more flat, sterile image.” According to Miller, Softley wanted “to go for a cyberimagery that speaks for the late twentieth century, where it is reflected in fashion, in music, in everything. The thriller bit is really a peg to hang it all on.”

For such an easy target for critics, Hackers actually garnered a decent amount of positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is smart and entertaining, then, as long as you don't take the computer stuff very seriously. I didn't. I took it approximately as seriously as the archeology in Indiana Jones.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack wrote, "Want a believable plot or acting? Forget it. But if you just want knockout images, unabashed eye candy and a riveting look at a complex world that seems both real and fake at the same time, Hackers is one of the most intriguing movies of the year.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “despite her sullen posturing, which is all this role requires, Ms. Jolie has the sweetly cherubic looks of her father, Jon Voight.” USA Today gave Hackers three out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, "When a movie's premise repels all rational analysis, speed is the make-or-break component. To its credit, Hackers recalls the pumped-up energy of Pump Up the Volume, as well as its casting prowess.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Goddard wrote, "Hackers joy-rides down the same back streets Marlon Brando did in The Wild One, or Bruce Springsteen does in Born to Run. It gives all the classic kicks of the classic B-flicks, with more action than brains, cool hair and hot clothes, and all the latest tech revved to the max.”

However, the Los Angeles Times’ David Kronke obviously didn’t click with the film’s youthful exuberance when he wrote, "All this is courtesy of the short-circuited imagination of Rafael Moreu, making his feature screenwriting debut, and director Iain Softley, who hopes that if he piles on the attitude and stylized visuals, no one will notice just how empty and uninvolving the story really is. All the sound and fury in the world can't disguise the fact that yowling music, typing montages and computer animation do not a gripping finale make.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "As its stars, Miller and Jolie seem just as one-dimensional—except that, in their case, the effect is intentional.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “What's most grating about Hackers, however, is the way the movie buys in to the computer-kid-as-elite-rebel mystique currently being peddled by magazines like Wired.”

When it was released the film’s screenwriter saw it as more than just about computer hacking but something much larger: “In fact, to call hackers a counterculture makes it sound like they’re a transitory thing. I think they’re the next step in evolution.” Yeah, riiiight. Half-jokingly, he saw Hackers as a film about relationships, a “cyberpunk romantic comedy.” (?!) Oddly enough, Moreu only went on to only pen one other screenplay that was made into a film, a lackluster sequel to Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) no less which pretty much sunk his career and he hasn’t been heard from since.

So, what do we learn about hacking from this film? Not much, aside from don’t do a hack from your personal computer on a target located across state lines because you’ll get busted by the Feds. Also, the most commonly used passwords apparently are: love, secret and sex with special mention going to god because system operators have huge male egos. And, finally, hacking is more than just a crime, it’s a survival trait. In some respects, Hackers is the ‘90s answer to Tron as both films feature a brilliant underground hacker infiltrating a large corporate mainframe in order to expose wrong-doings and clear his name. After all, information just wants to be free, right? Their target demographic may be different but their goal is the same: to make an entertaining popcorn movie. When you get down to it, Hackers is silly fun with nothing more on its mind then to have a good time and what’s wrong with that?

Here is a fantastic review of the film over at Cashiers du Cinemart.
 






Thursday, September 16, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Magnolia

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared over at Jeremy Richey's blog Moon in the Gutter as part of the excellent Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon that is running all this week. So far there have been nothing short of top notch submissions. I urge you to check out and support all of the hard work Jeremy has been putting into this loving tribute to PTA.

Along with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson started making films during an exciting time for American independent cinema. The 1990s saw an explosion of talented filmmakers produce some of the most fascinating work to come along in some time. Some of the diverse talent included the Coen brothers, Allison Anders, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and Gus Van Sant to name but only a few. Among the best and the brightest from this decade would have to be Anderson and Tarantino, two filmmakers steeped in encyclopedic film knowledge and with all kinds of talent to burn. They both started off with lean, character-driven crimes film – Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Anderson with Hard Eight (1996). Then, they capitalized on the notoriety of those films to each make one that was a rollercoaster ride with tons of flashy camerawork brimming with the confidence of the brash, young Turks that they were. The result? Tarantino made Pulp Fiction (1994) and Anderson made Boogie Nights (1997). Both films were massive hits, wowing critics and audiences alike. So, were Jackie Brown (1997) and Magnolia (1999) signs of maturity from Tarantino and Anderson? Both films divided critics and underperformed at the box office but, for me, they remain their most personal and intimate examinations of the relationships between people.

Partway through Magnolia, former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) tells a patron (Henry Gibson) in a bar, “I’ve got so much to give, but I just don’t know where to put it. I have trouble knowing where to put things…” These lines sum up Anderson’s ambitious epic perfectly for it is a film filled with the most extreme examples of love and pain in its rawest forms. Like Donnie, the film wears its heart on its sleeve in what I feel is the filmmaker’s most personal film to date. However, at times, Anderson has trouble knowing where to put things and the film threatens to collapse under its own ambitions – juggling multigenerational storylines, a musical number and a freak occurrence right out of the Bible. What holds the film together is its big heart as represented in part by Aimee Mann’s songs that are used throughout, most notably at one of the film’s show-stopping scenes. In some respects, Magnolia is an epic love letter to the films of Robert Altman (in particular, Nashville and Short Cuts) that explores the interconnected lives of several diverse and fascinating characters in the San Fernando Valley.

Even the film’s prologue is ambitious and epic in scope as it tells of three incidents of chance and coincidence from the past as narrated by none other than David Mamet regular Ricky Jay. However, as the prologue winds down, the narrator makes this telling comment about the last incident: “This is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things’ … This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” Many have wondered what exactly this amusing and amazing prologue has to do with the rest of the film. I think that those last few lines of voiceover narration are the key, as if to say, what you are about to see is not a matter of chance and that no matter how fantastical things get they’ve happened before.

We are introduced to a fascinating collection of characters. There’s Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a slick infomercial salesman pushing a how-to guide on having sex with women called, Seduce and Destroy. His estranged father is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), an old man dying of cancer and who is being taken care of by Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a kind and caring male nurse, while his beautiful wife Linda (Julianne Moore) deals with the pharmacy to get more medicine for her husband. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the veteran host of a long-running children’s game show called What Do Kids Know? He cheats regularly on his wife and is also dying of cancer. His estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a cocaine addict who picks up men and has sex with them. She does this to numb the pain she feels as a result of her father neglecting her for years. So much damage has been done that she won’t even talk to him when he tells her he’s dying.

Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a police officer and a nice guy looking for that special someone. He’s a decent man that loves his job and feels like he can make a difference. Donnie Smith is a washed-up former quiz show whiz kid that is now a failed electronic salesman recently fired from his job before he goes to have braces that he does not need, put on his teeth. Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is a very smart boy that appears on What Do Kids Know? but he’s very unhappy as he’s being forced to do so by his overbearing father (Michael Bowen) who’s only interested in advancing his own acting career at the expense of his son. Stanley is under all sorts of pressure by his father to be a winner and this clearly has taken its toll on the poor little guy – he’s a nervous wreck and obviously headed for a meltdown.

There are all kinds of fascinating references to the Bible contained within Magnolia. From little things, like Donnie muttering something about the “sins of the father” while throwing up in the bathroom of a bar, to Stanley who appears visually like an angel after he attacks Jimmy Gator on the set of their game show. There is a shot where he is framed in a way that looks like he has wings because there is a large medical logo behind him (also a reference to Earl, the dying patriarch?). Could this boy be an angel that makes the rain of frogs happen? When he breaks into the library, he pours over books on the genealogy of angels, meteorology and a few others. Was he using the book on angels to find his power that allowed him to invoke the plague? Most significantly, the film is littered with references to the numbers “8” and “2.” Look closely during the game show scene and someone can be seen holding up a sign that reads, “Exodus 8:2” which refers to a line in the Bible that talks about a plague of frogs. This is only one of many references, some obvious, some subtle that littered throughout the film like Easter eggs.

There are so many themes that Anderson explores in Magnolia, chief among them the sins perpetuated by the father on his child. Frank T.J. Mackey confronts his father who is dying from cancer on his deathbed. It is an absolutely gut-wrenching, emotionally exhausting scene as the brash young man, in the prime of his life, is confronting his father who is at the end of his – in fact, he’s barely there at all – a ghost. Frank represents the second generation dealing with the sins of their father and how, in his case, he is ill-equipped to deal with it because he was never given the tools he needed as a child. This is arguably the greatest sin perpetuated by Earl because it was his responsibility and obligation to give his son the proper tools for life. As a result, Frank had to be the father that Earl never was and take care of his dying mother. Once she died, Frank was alone in the world and forced to grow up way too soon. No wonder he turned out the way he did. Frank aggressively preys on women because his lack of a mother figure growing up. She could have taught him to respect women. When faced with a strong woman – a television interviewer – that digs into his past, a chink in his armor appears exposing his insecurities and paving the way for a long overdue confrontation with his father. This is also echoed with Donnie whose parents exploited him on a game show when he was child and never loved him or taught him how to deal with life and so he grew up a confused man full of love but unable to know what to do with it.

Donnie is the older version of Stanley whose overbearing father forces him to do the game show, What Do Kids Know? Donnie is what Stanley will become unless he changes the way things are. If you think about it, the game show itself is a rather neat metaphor for one of the central themes of the film: children vs. adults. Even the title of the show has a rather cynical vibe to it, like something only an adult would say. Not to mention the show itself is life in a nutshell as it’s all about winning and losing. This is certainly how Jimmy Gator sees things, like when he tells a woman backstage, “I’m fucked. I’ve lost.” Of course, a game show host would see life as a game and in terms of winning and losing. In his eyes he’s clearly lost, not just because he’s dying of cancer but because he failed with his daughter as well. Thanks to his lack of love and guidance, Claudia turned out to be a drug addict unable to love someone else because she doesn’t know how.

The stumbling block between the adults and children in Magnolia is miscommunication. The adults either don’t listen to or understand children. For example, a little boy named Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson) raps a song that identifies the killer in a case Jim is investigating but he doesn’t make the effort to pay attention to what the boy is saying. In Claudia’s case, years of being an awful father cause her to push him away at a crucial moment in his life when he is facing his own mortality. In another example, the game show people and fellow contestants don’t listen to Stanley when he tells them he has to go to the bathroom and this results in an embarrassing moment for him and for the show. All of these examples make me think of another key line from Magnolia as Jimmy says at one point, “the book says we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.” I always interpreted that line to mean that if we don’t learn from our past mistakes then we are condemned to repeat them. And you can see the younger generation – Claudia, Frank and Stanley – trying to break the repetitious cycle and not make these same mistakes.

Anderson's film takes the best elements from his previous work – the emotional core of Hard Eight and the ambitious scope of Boogie Nights with an amazing ensemble cast that features regulars like John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Philip Baker Hall (all of whom portray completely different characters than they had done in previous Anderson films) and new additions like Jason Robards and Tom Cruise. Cruise, in particular, is nothing short of a revelation. He plays the ultimate misogynistic pig bastard. Think of a more outgoing version of Jason Patric's character from Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and you get an idea of the intensity and sheer ferocity of Cruise's motivational speaker/sexual predator character. He drops the superstar shtick and becomes Frank, complete with frat boy swagger and blowhard bravado as he spews out memorable gems like, “Respect the cock and tame the cunt!” to his receptive audience of men like some kind of profane Tony Robbins motivational speaker. He even nails the faux concern his character shows an audience member who recounts a story about a woman that rejected him. His dog and pony show is full of bluster as it parodies some of his gung ho protagonists from films like Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990).

Julianne Moore starts off playing a shrill, bitchy trophy wife but it quickly becomes evident that her character is coming apart at the seams as she realizes that the man she loves is rapidly dying before her eyes. There’s a scene early on where her attorney levels with her about Earl’s condition and as he’s telling her, Anderson keeps the camera on Moore so that we see the emotions play over her face: fear, disbelief and so on. Over the course of the film, she does an incredible job of convincing us that Linda really does love her husband and will do anything to help him. Jason Robards delivers an absolutely heart-wrenching performance as a dying man full of regrets and tired of living with so much pain. He does such a good job of conveying someone in incredible agony that it is hard to watch some of his scenes.

And finally, John C. Reilly plays a bumbling yet well-meaning police officer. In a film that features a lot abrasive characters, Jim provides the film’s warm, emotional center. Watch the way he deals with an irate black woman whose apartment he is investigating. Despite her belligerent attitude, he is patient and courteous. The same goes for the first time he meets Claudia, investigating a noise complaint as she has her stereo up way too high, which incidentally, so is she – coked to the gills. Their burgeoning relationship is the heart and soul of Magnolia and you find yourself rooting for these two people to find each other in this turbulent world. Melora Walters is also fantastic as she conveys an incredible vulnerability of a person deeply wounded emotionally. Claudia tries to desensitize herself with drugs and meaningless affairs and it is Jim who finally reaches her and he shows her that there are decent people in this world. The final image of Magnolia, a reaction shot of Claudia, is perhaps the single most amazing and heartfelt image in any Anderson film.

It is no secret that Anderson loves working with and writing for actors. Each and every character as their own unique arc so that by the end of the film they all have undergone a dramatic change, some pivotal moment or decision that has changed their lives forever. And that is truly something when you realize how many characters and subplots he is juggling in Magnolia. It really is a marvel of editing and Anderson establishes a fascinating tempo of montages with quickly edited shots of the various storylines followed by a series of scene with long takes and then follows them with quick edits and so on. He claimed that Magnolia was structured somewhat like “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles: “It kind of builds up, note by note, then drops or recedes, then builds again.”

After making Boogie Nights, Anderson had wanted to make a film that was “intimate and small-scale,” something that could be made very quickly in 30 days. During the long editing period of that film, he started getting ideas for Magnolia and started writing down material. He started with lists of actors and music. At the time, he was listening to Aimee Mann’s music and ended up using her two solo albums as a basis and inspiration for Magnolia. Certain lines of dialogue in the film came directly from her songs, like, “now that you’ve met me, would you object if you never saw me again?” which came from “Deathly.” (it also inspired the character of Claudia.) In addition, at the climax of the film, all the characters sing along to Mann’s “Wise Up.” Anderson came up with lists of images, words and ideas that “start resolving themselves into sequences and shots and dialogue.” The first image he had for the film was the smiling face of actress Melora Walters. Another early image that came to Anderson was that of Philip Baker Hall as her father and envisioning him walking up the steps to her apartment where they had an intense confrontation. As he started writing the screenplay, it “kept blossoming” and Anderson realized that there were so many actors he wanted to write for. Then, he decided to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t necessarily get the epic treatment.” He wanted to make “the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie.” Anderson ended up writing a 200-page script.

Before he became a filmmaker, one of the jobs Anderson had was working as an assistant for a T.V. game show, Quiz Kid Challenge, an experience he incorporated into Magnolia. He actually had the title of the film in his head before he wrote the script. He also did research on the magnolia tree and discovered a concept that eating the tree’s bark helped cure cancer. The rain of frogs was inspired by the works of Charles Fort and Anderson was unaware that it was also a reference in the Bible when he first wrote it into his script. He claimed that at the time he came across the notion of a rain of frogs, he was “going through a weird, personal time,” and started to understand “why people turn to religion in times of trouble, and maybe my form of finding religion was reading about rains of frogs and realizing that makes sense to me somehow.”

Anderson cast several of his regular actors against type in this film. The character of Jim Kurring originated in the summer of 1998 when John C. Reilly grew a moustache for fun. He started putting together a not very smart cop character. He and Anderson made a few parodies of the Cops reality T.V. show with the director chasing the actor around the streets with a video camera. Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was even in one of these bits. Some of Jim’s dialogue also came from these sessions. Anderson had wanted to make Reilly a romantic lead because it was something different and a role he had never done before. The actor even told Anderson at one point that he was tired of being “always cast as these heavies or these semi-retarded child men. Can’t you give me something I can relate to, like falling in love with a girl?”

For Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson wanted him to play a “really simple, uncomplicated, caring character.” The actor said of his character, “this guy really takes pride in the fact that every day he’s dealing with life and death circumstances.” For Julianne Moore, he wanted her to play a crazed character on several pharmaceuticals. The actress said of her character: “Linda doesn’t know who she is or what she’s feeling and can only try to explain it in the most vulgar terms possible.” For William H. Macy, Anderson felt that the actor was scared of big, emotional roles and wrote for him, “a big, tearful, emotional part.” Philip Baker Hall based Jimmy Gator on real-life T.V. personalities like Bob Barker, Alistair Beck and Arthur Godfrey.

Tom Cruise was a fan of Boogie Nights and contacted Anderson while working on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He met the actor on the set of that film and Cruise told Anderson to keep him in mind for his next film. After he finished writing the script, the filmmaker sent the actor a copy. The next day, Cruise called him, they met, but he was nervous about the role; however, he ultimately agreed to do the film. The character of Frank T.J. Mackey was based in part on a recording that a friend gave to Anderson in 1997. His friend was teaching an audio-recording engineering class and recorded two of his students talking in a recording studio. They were “talking all this trash” about women and quoting a man named Ross Jeffries who was teaching a new version of the Eric Weber course, “How to Pick Up Women,” but with hypnotism and subliminal language techniques. Anderson researched Jeffries and his led to four or five other men like him. He also transcribed the tape and did a reading with John C. Reilly and Chris Penn, incorporating this into Frank and the sex seminar. Anderson felt that Cruise was drawn to Frank because he had just finished making Eyes Wide Shut where he played a deeply repressed character. Magnolia allowed him to cut loose and play someone “outlandish and bigger-than-life.”

Anderson had met Aimee Man in 1996 when he asked her husband, Michael Penn, to write music for Boogie Nights. She had songs on soundtracks before but never “utilized in such an integral way.” Anderson heard some demo tracks from a new record that she was working on while writing his script. She gave Anderson rough mixes of a few songs and found that they both wrote about the same kinds of characters. She ended up writing “Save Me” and “You Do” specifically for Magnolia.

After the critical and commercial success of Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema told Anderson that he could do whatever he wanted for his next film and he realized that, “I was in a position I will never ever be in again.” He convinced New Line Cinema to give him final cut on Magnolia. Head of production Michael De Luca made the deal and granted him final cut without hearing an idea for the film. However, when it came time to market his film they had bitter arguments. Anderson felt that the studio didn’t do a decent enough job on Boogie Nights and did not like their poster or trailer for Magnolia. So, he designed his own and cut together a trailer himself. Even though he got his way in the end, Anderson realized that he had to “learn to fight without being a jerk. I was a bit of baby. At the first moment of conflict, I behaved in a slightly adolescent knee-jerk way. I just screamed.” In addition, he also wrote the liner notes for the soundtrack album and pushed to avoid hyping Cruise’s presence in the film in favor of the ensemble cast.

Not surprisingly, Magnolia had its share of supporters and detractors among film critics. USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "the most imperfect of the year's best movies.” Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Magnolia is the kind of film I instinctively respond to. Leave logic at the door. Do not expect subdued taste and restraint, but instead a kind of operatic ecstasy.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating, and Lisa Schwarzbaum praised Cruise's performance: "It's with Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a slick televangelist of penis power, that the filmmaker scores his biggest success, as the actor exorcises the uptight fastidiousness of Eyes Wide Shut ... Like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, this cautiously packaged movie star is liberated by risky business.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan also praised Cruise: "Mackey gives Cruise the chance to cut loose by doing amusing riffs on his charismatic superstar image. It's great fun, expertly written and performed, and all the more enjoyable because the self-parody element is unexpected.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “In the case of Magnolia, I think Mr. Anderson has taken us to the water's edge without plunging in. I admire his ambition and his very eloquent camera movements, but if I may garble something Lenin once said one last time, 'You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs'.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “But when that group sing-along arrives, Magnolia begins to self-destruct spectacularly. It's astonishing to see a film begin this brilliantly only to torpedo itself in its final hour," but went on to say that the film "was saved from its worst, most reductive ideas by the intimacy of the performances and the deeply felt distress signals given off by the cast.” The Observer’s Philip French wrote, "But is the joyless universe he (Anderson) presents any more convincing than the Pollyanna optimism of traditional sitcoms? These lives are somehow too stunted and pathetic to achieve the level of tragedy.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “The result is a hard-striving, convoluted movie, which never quite becomes the smoothly reciprocating engine Anderson (who did Boogie Nights) would like it to be.”

Magnolia is a polarizing film because so much information, so many characters and so many storylines are thrown at the viewer that it is bound to alienate some. Also, the intensity level of this film is so high for so much of the running time that it tends to leave one exhausted. It’s not a film that requires you to be passive. It engages you and challenges you and for that reason I feel that it is an important film. By its conclusion, every character’s life has changed in a very dramatic way and the whole film builds towards this life-changing event with their emotional states heightening as they head towards a complete transformation. This is reached during the climax with the rain of frogs. We come back to Macy’s line, “I’ve got so much love, but I just don’t know where to put it,” which, if you think about it, ties the film together. Magnolia is grandiose, overblown and too ambitious for its own good but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is quite brilliant, actually, because it refuses to play things safe as it examines the dysfunctional relationships between children and their parents in an unflinchingly honest way.

The Culture Snob has a fascinating essay analyzing this film in detail. Here is an incredible in-depth profile of PTA over at Esquire.











Friday, September 10, 2010

Machete

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on Edward Copeland's snazzy blog, Edward Copeland on Film. He and a very impressive collection of writers post daily ruminations on film, T.V. and loads of other cool stuff.

When he made his half of the Grindhouse double bill (2007), Robert Rodriguez also put together a trailer for a film he would like to see. And so, Machete (2010) was born – a Mexploitation action film about an ex-federale who is set-up, double-crossed and left for dead. However, the origins for this project go back even further to 1995 when Rodriguez made Desperado, the second film in his Mariachi trilogy. It would be the first time (but certainly not the last) he worked with veteran character actor and professional badass Danny Trejo. He’s someone you’ve probably not heard of but have definitely seen. If you need a tough-looking tattooed henchman, he’s your man. While working on Desperado, Rodriguez envisioned Trejo starring in a series of action films as Machete but at that time the director did not have the clout to get someone to bankroll a Latino action film that didn’t feature someone with movie star looks like Antonio Banderas.


Rodriguez never forgot about his pet project and over the years cast Trejo in several of his films. Even though the Grindhouse films were a commercial failure, audiences loved the faux trailer for Machete. Rodriguez managed to convince a Hollywood studio to finance it with a modest budget and used his connections to assemble an impressive cast that included the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, and “introducing” Don Johnson. However, what worked as a movie trailer be too much of a good thing as a feature film?

The prologue sets up everything we need to know about Machete (Danny Trejo) – he’s a badass Mexican federale set-up by his corrupt superior and left for dead by local druglord Torrez (Steven Seagal). It also sets just the right tone as we see Machete hacking and slashing his way through a house of bad guys with bloody abandon. Meanwhile, in the United States, a corrupt, ultra-conservative Texan senator named John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), campaigns on a platform of preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border. He even employs a border vigilante group, led by the brutal Von Jackson (Don Johnson), to enforce his policies.

Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) is an upstanding Immigrations enforcement officer investigating the problem through legal channels and ends up crossing paths with Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a no-nonsense taco stand operator who moonlights as a revolutionary operating an underground railroad of sorts for her Mexican brothers and sisters. Machete, now a day laborer (or, at least that’s his cover), is hired by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), a local businessman, to kill the Senator for $150,000. Machete is set up, shot and forced to go into hiding. With the help of Rivera and Luz, he plots revenge on the men that betrayed him.

It’s awesome to see Danny Trejo finally get to carry a film for once and play a character that doesn’t get killed off. He brings his customary intensity as the strong, silent man of action and in many respects the film is Rodriguez’s present to the actor as he has him take down tons of bad guys, look cool doing it, and hook up with many of the film’s lovely ladies, including Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan! Robert De Niro is a lot of fun to watch playing a John McCain meets George W. Bush-esque xenophobic politician. It’s also great to see Steven Seagal as a powerful criminal and Machete’s arch-nemesis, not to mention appearing in a mainstream film that didn’t go straight-to-home video.

Michelle Rodriguez adds another tough chick role to her resume as she portrays the female Mexican equivalent of Che Guevara but with a dash of Snake Plissken from Escape from New York (1981). Another fun bit of casting is Lindsay Lohan playing the messed up celebutante child of Booth. She and Rodriguez have some fun riffing on her public persona and kudos to the director for not bowing to peer and public pressure about her party girl reputation and showing that regardless, she still has the acting chops. Rodriguez regulars Tom Savini and Cheech Marin show up in memorable bit parts as a deadly assassin and Machete’s ex-federale now-priest brother.

It’s no secret that Rodriguez is a filmmaker that wears his influences on his sleeve. For examples, Desperado was a homage to the Hong Kong action films of John Woo and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Planet Terror (2007) evoked the films of John Carpenter and George Romero. Growing up in the 1980s, Machete is Rodriguez’s love letter to the films produced by Cannon Films during that decade. They were responsible for cranking out an endless stream of generic action films starring the likes of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff. In these films, the action stars were often a one-man army capable of wiping out the fighting force of a small country seemingly single-handedly. The same goes for Machete who is an unstoppable killing machine bent on revenge.

Machete is full of outrageous, over-the-top violence and inventively staged action sequences, like one scene where Machete bungee-jumps from one floor of a hospital to another with the aid of an evil henchman’s large intestine. In this respect, the film has the same gonzo, go-for-broke action that Rodriguez orchestrated in the underrated Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). Living up to his namesake, Machete finds all sorts of ways to kill the bad guys with a vast assortment of sharp weapons. Machete is a lot of fun and never outstays its welcome as Rodriguez knows how to keep things moving so that things never get boring.

Machete not only features all kinds of wild action sequences but also has something on its mind, commenting on the rampant immigration problems that continue to plague the states along the United States/Mexico border. Along the way, Rodriguez plays up and makes fun of Latino stereotypes (they are all day laborers and love tricked out cars) only to twist them into a rallying cry, a call for revolution that takes full bloom by the film’s exciting conclusion in a way that has to be seen to be believed. Best of all, Rodriguez has created yet another awesome Latino action hero. Forget Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), Machete is the real deal and a no-holds-barred love letter to ‘80s action films. As great as it was to see many of the beloved action stars from the ‘80s and 1990s, I felt that Stallone’s film never went far enough. Rodriguez’s film doesn’t have that problem as it gleefully goes all the way with its cartoonish violence. Let’s hope that he and Trejo get the chance to do more Machete films but the next one should be direct-to-video if they really want to get in the spirit of the kinds of film they are championing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

David Cronenberg Blogathon: Naked Lunch

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared over at Tony Dayoub's blog Cinematic Viewfinder as part of his fantastic David Cronenberg Blogathon. If you haven't already, I highly recommend you check out all the wonderful submissions and links that he's posted.

Widely regarded as unfilmable because it defied normal narrative logic and for containing some of the most perverse, often disturbing passages of sex and violence ever committed to the page, William S. Burroughs' seminal novel Naked Lunch was the ideal project for filmmaker David Cronenberg. In many respects, the themes and subject matter the book explores parallel many of the preoccupations of his films: the merging of flesh with machines, human transformation, and secret societies. One only has to look at an early film like Videodrome (1983) to see Burroughs’ influence — the mix of pulpy exploitation with high concept ideas. The characters in Cronenberg’s films, like the characters in Burroughs’ fiction, are morally ambiguous. It is not as easy to identify with them as it is with characters in more mainstream entertainment.

As Cronenberg was the first to admit, a conventional adaptation of Naked Lunch is impossible as it would be banned in every country. So, he wisely merged key elements from the book along with bits and pieces from the author’s early novels, chief among them Junky and Exterminator!, with aspects of Burroughs’ life, tempered with black humor as we are taken to surreal places. The end result is a fascinating collaboration between two like-minded artists and a film that is ultimately about the writing process as it defines the film’s protagonists much as it did Burroughs – writing acts as a catharsis, a way of dealing with guilt.

Ornette Coleman’s freaky, free-form jazz complements Howard Shore’s ominous score to create a film noir vibe right from the start which is in keeping in tone with Burroughs’ early work that often parodied badly written pulp crime novels. When he’s not spraying for bugs at people’s homes to pay the bills, Bill Lee (Peter Weller) hangs out with his friends, and fellow writers, Martin (Michael Zelniker) and Hank (Nicholas Campbell) who are introduced arguing about the writing process. Hank (a thinly-veiled riff on Jack Kerouac) argues that to rewrite is to betray ones own thoughts as it disrupts the flow of words while Martin (a stand-in for Allen Ginsberg) counters by saying that one should rewrite so that they consider everything from every possible angle in order to produce the best work possible. Hank sees this as censorship and a betrayal of one’s own best, honest and most primitive thoughts. When asked for his opinion, Bill simply replies, “exterminate all rational thought.”

Bill is in danger of losing his job because he keeps running out of bug powder. It seems that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is shooting it up. When he confronts her about it, she deadpans, “It’s a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.” Pretty soon she’s doing so much of it that all she has to do is breathe on a cockroach and it dies. Bill soon starts shooting up bug powder too and begins to imagine giant talking insects that tell him he’s actually a secret agent. He’s instructed to kill his wife who happens to be a rival agent for Interzone Incorporated, a shadowy organization. The boundaries between what are real and what are Bill’s elaborate hallucinations become blurred, leading him into the mysterious realm of Interzone where everyday objects, like his typewriter, transform into mechanized insects that talk to him. The line between what he is writing and what he is living becomes blurred beyond recognition, much like Max and his relationship to television in Videodrome.

In real life, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in 1951 while they were living in Mexico City and it was this tragic incident that motivated him to become a writer as a way of dealing with the guilt over what he had done. He said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” Cronenberg understands what a pivotal part this played in Burroughs’ life and incorporates it into his film. In a nice touch, there is a scene where Bill goes to a pawnshop and trades in the gun he shot Joan with for a typewriter. It’s a symbolic transition from one phase of his life to another.

Bill uses drugs to escape the horror of what he has done and his mind creates an elaborate alternate reality known as Interzone where he is a secret agent that writes reports (a.k.a. his book) about his “mission” on a creepy bug/typewriter hybrid that gets aroused by his forceful typing. He travels through a shadowy world where he is reunited with Joan, this time around a femme fatale type, Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands), a suave businessman that sexually preys on young men, and the notorious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who initially seems to want to help Bill but turns out to be the powerful puppetmaster of Interzone.

Thankfully, Cronenberg retains Burroughs’ dry, sardonic sense of humor as well as touching upon his self-loathing about being homosexual. He’s aided in these endeavors by Peter Weller’s excellent performance as Burroughs surrogate Bill Lee. No stranger to fantastical genre films (see RoboCop and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai), the actor nails Burroughs’ unique cadence – the lazy drawl and the dry wit. Hearing him recite several amusing stories right out of Naked Lunch, coupled with his tall, gaunt appearance, only reinforces how well cast he was in this role. Weller also does a good job conveying the lonely desperation of a strung-out junkie and the almost zombie-like state he achieves when zonked out of his head on junk. Along with her role in Barton Fink (1991), Judy Davis plays the doomed muse of a writer consumed by his obsessions. As Joan Lee, Davis is quite good as an almost vampiric drug addict complete with sallow complexion and haunted look. As Joan Frost, Bill’s Interzone version of his wife, she’s healthier and more confident but the end result is still the same.

In 1984, producer Jeremy Thomas met David Cronenberg at the Toronto Film Festival where he had bought the rights to Stephen Frears’ film The Hit (1984). Thomas had heard that Cronenberg wanted to do a film adaptation of Naked Lunch and he wanted to produce it. This wasn’t the first time someone expressed an interest in turning the book into a film. In 1971, long-time friend of William S. Burroughs and painter and writer, Brion Gysin wrote a screenplay. Antony Balch was going to direct and Mick Jagger was going to star in it but the project never got past the planning stages. Burroughs said of this version that the script was “long burlesque and includes a series of music-hall comedy songs.” In 1972, television producer Chuck Barris, of all people, gave it a go with writer Terry Southern as the proposed screenwriter but it too went nowhere (the mind boggles at what those two would’ve come up with!). In 1979, Frank Zappa approached Burroughs with the notion of doing Naked Lunch as an off-Broadway musical but again this never materialized.

After Cronenberg and Thomas met, the producer optioned Burroughs’ novel. That same year, Cronenberg met the legendary author at his 70th birthday party at the Limelight Night Club in New York City. He had seen and admired several of Cronenberg’s films and also had an affinity for many of the themes they explored. Burroughs said, “when I heard that David was interested in doing the film I thought … he’s the one that can do it if anyone can.” The next year, Cronenberg, Burroughs and Thomas traveled to Tangier, the city where the book was written, in order to retrace its creation.

Cronenberg and Thomas began the process of adapting the book into a film in 1985. Not surprisingly, they had a difficult time getting financing for the film because of the book’s notorious reputation of being unfilmable. Cronenberg said, “a literal translation just wouldn’t work. It would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world.” During the five years of the film’s development, Cronenberg kept in contact with Burroughs and explained that the film would be about the act of writing Naked Lunch. He finished the first draft of the script in 1989 while on location in England, acting in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990).

He gave the book’s fragmented collection of set pieces a more traditional narrative structure. While the Mugwump creatures are a Burroughs invention from the book, the insect typewriters were created by Cronenberg to bring to “the screen things that can’t be shown in a mainstream movie.” In addition to drawing from Naked Lunch, he also incorporated elements from other books by Burroughs, like Exterminator!, Queer and Letters to Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs read the script around the Christmas of 1989. He called Cronenberg and told him how much he liked it. The filmmaker finished the script in June 1990 and then scouted locations in Tangier with Thomas, production designer Carol Spier and director of photography Peter Suschitzky.

While working on the script, Cronenberg received a letter from actor Peter Weller. He had heard about the project while making RoboCop 2 (1990). Weller was a big fan of both Burroughs’ books and Cronenberg’s films. In his letter, he inquired about any involvement with the project. The two men met in New York City nine months later and the actor landed the lead role. To prepare for the film, Weller met Burroughs several times in the fall of 1990. When Judy Davis read the script she was so horrified by it that she threw it against the wall. She ended up reading it eight times and talked to Cronenberg on the phone before she agreed to do the film. She said, “I felt there was something I could learn as an actress through doing it, through facing my fears.” She did not read the novel but did read a lot about expatriate American writers and perfected an American accent.

One week before principal photography was to begin, the Persian Gulf War started and the three-week shoot in Tangier was canceled. Cronenberg rewrote the script over the weekend and decided to shoot the film entirely in Toronto over three months in 1991. According to the director, the film became “more internalized and hallucinatory, so that one understands by the end of the film that Lee never really leaves New York City.”

For the film’s special effects, Cronenberg reunited with Chris Walas and his company, responsible for the gruesome effects on the remake of The Fly (1986). Cronenberg met with Walas nine months before principal photography to discuss his ideas for the film. Three months later, Walas and his team submitted their designs to the director. When Peter Suschitzky first read the script, he felt that it should have an expressionistic look reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) but Cronenberg wanted his film to look normal because the “craziness is interior.” To reflect the film’s dark subject matter, Suschitzky suffused the film with shadows and gave it a “sense of romanticism … a slight sickness that you find in late Romanticism in German literature and art between 1900 and 1930.”

Before the film came out, Cronenberg was misquoted in The Advocate as saying that Burroughs was not a homosexual and the magazine told its readers not to expect much from the film. The director tried unsuccessfully to contact the article’s author. Naked Lunch received predictably mixed reviews from critics. Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Obviously this is not everybody's cup of weird tea: you must have a taste for the esthetics of disgust. For those up to the dare, it's one clammily compelling movie.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman praised Peter Weller’s performance: “Peter Weller, the poker-faced star of Robocop, greets all of the hallucinogenic weirdness with a doleful, matter-of-fact deadpan that grows more likable as the movie goes on. The actor's steely robostare has never been more compelling. By the end, he has turned Burroughs' stone-cold protagonist — a man with no feelings — into a mordantly touching hero.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Cronenberg has done a remarkable thing. He hasn't just created a mainstream Burroughs on something approximating Burroughs's terms, he's made a portrait of an American writer.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “David Cronenberg’s highly transgressive and subjective film adaptation of Naked Lunch ... may well be the most troubling and ravishing head movie since Eraserhead. It is also fundamentally a film about writing — even the film about writing.”

However, Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "While I admired it in an abstract way, I felt repelled by the material on a visceral level. There is so much dryness, death and despair here, in a life spinning itself out with no joy". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “for the most part this is a coolly riveting film and even a darkly entertaining one, at least for audiences with steel nerves, a predisposition toward Mr. Burroughs and a willingness to meet Mr. Cronenberg halfway", but she did praise Peter Weller's performance: "The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss called the film, “tame compared with its source.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe criticized what he felt to be a “lack of conviction.”

Burroughs saw the film and liked it, saying, “of course, it’s a Cronenberg film. I think he’s done a great job. Nothing at all what I would’ve done, but that’s as it should be.”

Ultimately, Naked Lunch is a hallucinatory nightmare with no escape for its protagonist. Try as he might, Bill cannot escape what he did to his wife as much as he can escape who he is – a junkie and a homosexual. There is some sense that by the film’s conclusion he has come to terms with what he’s done and who he is. Everything else – Interzone, etc. – is just window-dressing or, rather, Bill trying to work things out. Writing provides a way for him to come to terms with the guilt he feels. Think of it as writing as a form of catharsis and finishing Naked Lunch offered some kind of closure on a painful part of his life. Cronenberg’s film, along with Barton Fink, are two of the most fascinating films about writers and writing as they explore what motivates one to write. In those two cases it comes out of a great pain and an inner turmoil that, at least in Burroughs’ case, leads to some kind of redemption.