Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jack's Back

By 1988, James Spader was probably tired of playing countless Preppie douchebags and Yuppie slimeballs in films like Pretty in Pink (1986), Baby Boom (1987), and Less Than Zero (1987). If you needed someone to play a materialistic scumbag with no morals, Spader was your man. Before sex, lies, and videotape (1989) changed his career forever, he did a little seen thriller called Jack’s Back (1988), about a series of Jack the Ripper copycat murders. The film was quite a departure for Spader who ended up playing identical twins – a young, altruistic doctor and his ne’er-do-well sibling. The film also marked the auspicious directorial debut of one Rowdy Herrington, the “auteur” behind such meat and potato action films as Road House (1989) and Striking Distance (1993). Sadly, Jack’s Back was barely released and hardly reviewed, languishing in obscurity (it is currently unavailable on DVD in North America), which is too bad because it is an oddly affecting thriller with quite a decent performance by Spader who seems to be relishing the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a Polo shirt.

The police are baffled by a series of murders each committed 100 years to the day from the original Jack the Ripper killings. They have one more night and one last killing but have no leads or suspects. John Wesford (James Spader) is a young Los Angeles doctor who is active in the community, much to the chagrin of the head doctor (Rod Loomis) at the free clinic he works at. He’s a good physician and seems genuinely concerned about the people he treats and Spader does a nice job conveying his character’s caring beside manner even if the film lays his crusading doc status on a little thick.

However, Jack’s Back succeeds in doing what few if any of Spader’s film had done before – allow us to sympathize with his character. Director Herrington helps out by successfully establishing the clinic where John works at and the people he works with so that we become invested in their lives, like the playful flirting between John and fellow doctor Christine Moscari (Cynthia Gibb). That is why it comes as such a shock when he is murdered 25 minutes into the film by someone who appears to be the Jack the Ripper copycat murderer.

Within moments of his brother dying, Richard Wesford (Spader again) awakes from a nightmare where he saw John murdered. He goes to the police but they are understandably skeptical (one of the detectives is memorably played by the always watchable Chris Mulkey). John’s death looks like a suicide and he’s a medical student so all the evidence points to him. As a result, they think that they’ve found their murderer. Rick knows otherwise and proceeds to prove it with the help of Chris.

Herrington establishes the differences between the twins visually by what they wear – John wears a white sports jacket and pastel colors while Rick wears a black leather jacket and blue jeans (because, you know, he’s a rebel). Spader does all the heavy lifting by creating different behavior for each sibling. John is kind and caring while Rick is a brooding loner. Spader has a tougher job portraying John because he has very little time to introduce him and get us to empathize with him. With Rick, he ups the brooding intensity which makes it a little harder to like him but Spader’s unique charisma helps considerably and over the course of the rest of the film the actor gradually peels back Rick’s tough exterior.

Cynthia Gibb conveys an adorable Nancy Drew vibe with Chris. I always liked the cute girl-next-door thing she had going on in the 1980s and how she appeared in films as diverse as the Rob Lowe hockey drama Youngblood (1986) and Oliver Stone’s hard-hitting political thriller Salvador (1986). She isn’t the strongest actress in the world, which may explain why she never made more of an impact in Hollywood, but she has an engaging personality and nice chemistry with Spader. There are even hints of a sexual tension thing going on between their characters that lurks under the surface and never feels forced.

Herrington keeps things moving while still taking the time to let us get to know Spader’s characters, even giving time for Rick to reflect over how the death of John affects him. This is something that is missing from his subsequent thrillers. Maybe he figured that was why Jack’s Back failed commercially and moved on to no-nonsense action films like Road House and thrillers like Striking Distance, which are competent guilty pleasures but feature pretty conventional protagonists that are no where near as compelling as what Spader does in Jack’s Back. Herrington knows his way around the conventions of the thriller genre, and is able to build suspense at the right moment and where to punctuate the film with an action sequence, even if the climax seems to borrow heavily from the one in Manhunter (1986).

Jack’s Back was shot in September 1987 on a budget of $1.5 million. Cinema Group, a small film company that changed its name to Pallisades Entertainment, financed the film. They pre-sold the rights via cable and home video sales in lieu of proper promotion and a wide theatrical release. What reviews Jack’s Back did get were mixed. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Herrington’s work: “He has taken the trouble to make three-dimensional characters, and paused here and there to provide scenes that make the characters seem real and complicated, instead of just pawns in a movie formula.” However, The New York Times’ Caryn James felt that the film was “so dull it leaves you plenty of time to marvel at how a plot can be this rickety, how a production can look this shabby, and how the first-time writer and director Rowdy Herrington could borrow a story with so relentless a grip on our imaginations and in no time at all declaw it.”

Herrington does a decent job at keeping us guessing as to the killer’s identity. Is it the hulking intern (Rex Ryon) who works at the free clinic? Is it the oddly detached police psychiatrist (nicely played by Robert Picardo)? Or, is it Rick, a man with a checkered past and medical training? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out but the film is still an enjoyable ride – the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page-turner you read on the way into work on a given day and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DVD of the Week: Broadcast News: Criterion Collection

After the success of the Academy Award-winning Terms of Endearment (1983), James L. Brooks spent a few years to research and write what could possibly be his most personal film to date: Broadcast News (1987). Drawing from his years in television, including a stint with CBS News, he took a spot-on look at the ethics of journalism and filtered it through a love triangle between people who work at a network affiliate T.V. station. In short, Brooks’ film is the Bull Durham (1988) of journalism films – smart, funny, insightful and even poignant in the way it looks at the people who deliver us the news on our T.V. screens every night. In some ways, Broadcast News anticipated the dumbing down of televised news so that nowadays there is a whole generation of people who prefer The Daily Show satirizing today’s top stories over watching the real thing on the major networks or CNN.

Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is a slightly dimwitted hunk that aspires to be a hard-hitting investigative journalist but is clearly suited to be a news anchorman. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a super-smart news reporter that lacks on-screen charisma – basically the polar opposite of Tom. The object of their affection is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), an intelligent control freak and T.V. news producer. She finds herself attracted to Aaron, her intellectual equal, but drawn also to Tom’s hunky good looks. At some point, she must make up her mind and decide who is worth loving and who isn’t right for her.

Broadcast News is a film of its time, capturing the state of flux that network news was in. Early on, Brooks lays out his views of what’s happening to T.V. news at a conference Jane is speaking at. While she warns of their profession being in danger, people talk amongst themselves or get up and leave forcing her to skip over topics, like trends involving magazine shows and news as profit. Her biggest reaction comes from showing a clip of an elaborate display of dominoes that all the networks showed in favor of an important government policy change. This scene warns of a future that has now happened, making Brooks’ film quite prescient.

As is customary with Brooks’ films, there are some spot-on observations about relationships, like when Aaron says to Jane at one point, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?” It’s funny because it’s true. In addition to witty dialogue, Broadcast News also has its moments of hilarious physical comedy, like the classic scene where Joan Cusack races through the newsroom to get a taped news story to the control room seconds before it is supposed to air. There are little moments, like, en route, where she accidently bangs into a water fountain that makes this sequence so funny to watch.

In a wonderful bit of then casting against type, William Hurt plays a good-looking blank slate of a person. Tom means well and really tries to understand the things Jane and Aaron say but he just doesn’t get it and is unable to articulate himself properly. Hurt could have easily played his character’s shallowness for laughs but there is an earnestness there that is endearing but this disappears as he becomes more savvy in his profession.

Fresh from her hilarious turn in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), Holly Hunter is ideally cast as the chatty Jane, a person who says exactly what she means even if it hurts someone else’s feelings. Yet, Hunter also shows Jane’s vulnerable side – her awkwardness when it comes to personal relationships. Albert Brooks nails the smug, smartass qualities that Aaron possesses and how it masks his insecurities when it comes to his romantic feelings for Jane. He clearly loves her but can’t find a way to get past that “best friend” stage of their relationship.

Of all Brooks’ films, Broadcast News is the most successful at merging his T.V. sitcom sensibilities with his cinematic aspirations. His film is not only chock full of truisms about network news but is also an incredibly entertaining and witty romantic comedy that is unafraid to sprinkle moments of compelling drama throughout. Brooks not only manages to say something about the relationships between men and women but also how it intertwines with their work in a way that escapist far from the 1980s, like Baby Boom (1987) and Working Girl (1988), didn’t quite zero in on as well. As Carrie Rickey’s liner notes for the DVD observe, Broadcast News is Brooks’ “keenest study to date of human relations, and his most fully realized film.”

Special Features:

The first disc includes an audio commentary with writer-director-producer James L. Brooks and editor Richard Marks. Rather appropriately, Brooks starts off with talking about the genesis of the film and how the success of Terms of Endearment affected it. He points out the bits in the film that came from his extensive research and touches upon the casting of the lead roles – for example, Holly Hunter was a last minute addition. Brooks is refreshingly candid and tells all kinds of fascinating filming anecdotes.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with a 36-minute documentary entitled, James L. Brooks – A Singular Voice, with past collaborators singing his praises. It starts off with his trailblazing work in T.V. with 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons and how he helped change the medium. It also examines his transition into film and the success of Terms and how it led to Broadcast News.

There is an alternate ending and 19 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Brooks. The ending is quite visceral and emotionally raw but is fascinating alternative to what is in the final film. For the deleted footage, Brooks talks about why it was cut and puts it into context. Interestingly, an entire subplot involving Tom and his news source was cut out.

Also included is an interview with Susan Zirinsky, a veteran CBS News producer, one of the models for Jane in the film, and an advisor and associate producer. She talks about meeting Brooks for the first time as well as telling amusing and engaging anecdotes that really shed light on how truthful the film is about journalism. This is a fantastic extra and one of the highlights of this edition.

There is a promotional featurette done at the time of the film’s release that, at times, plays like an extended trailer only with perceptive interview soundbites from Brooks and the cast. Still, it is interesting to watch. Even better is additional interviews and on-set footage not included in the featurette that runs an impressive 18 minutes. It provides quite a bit of insight into Brooks’ intentions and how the film got made.


Friday, January 21, 2011

To Live and Die in L.A.

By 1985, William Friedkin had effectively burned all of his bridges in Hollywood with a succession of underperformers that included Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and Deal of the Century (1983). With nothing left to lose, he returned back to the kind of film that made his reputation: a gritty, police procedural like The French Connection (1974). He made To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), the west coast answer to The French Connection, a slick, stylish nihilistic thriller that immersed itself in the world of counterfeiting. Made at the same time as Miami Vice was becoming a cultural phenomenon on television, Friedkin’s film is the best Michael Mann film not made by Mann. Like his films, To Live and Die in L.A. is obsessed with the lives and careers of elite cops and criminals. It takes a fascinating look at the minutia of how the cops go about catching crooks and how the crooks ply their trade with both sides employing ruthless methods.

Audiences in 1985 weren’t ready for Friedkin’s world of unsympathetic protagonists and even nastier antagonists. When it was released in theaters, the film failed to connect with a mainstream audience that was repulsed by its amoral, unlikable characters and downbeat, nihilistic ending. What did people expect from the same man who brought them the equally uncompromising The French Connection? Despite equally uncompromising films like King of New York (1990) and television shows like The Shield, To Live and Die in L.A. is still something of a freakish anomaly, one that its director has yet to equal.

Right from the get-go and in very Mann-like fashion, Friedkin introduces the film’s protagonist and antagonist at work. Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent that, along with his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), stops a terrorist from blowing up the President of the United States. Chance is the proverbial thrill-seeking cowboy, an adrenaline junky that gets his kicks in his spare time base-jumping off bridges. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a master counterfeiter, the Da Vinci of funny money and we see him go through the various steps of how he plies his trade in an engrossing montage. And when he’s not doing that, Masters creates abstract paintings and then burns them up afterwards.

Initially, the film hits you up with some of the oldest clichés in the book: the loose cannon cop and his older partner only days away from retirement (he even says at one point, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”). You think, oh man, this is going to be one of those films but then after Chance’s partner is killed by Masters, he’s assigned a new partner by the name of John Vukovich (John Pankow). Right from the start Chance lays down the ground rules: “I’m gonna bag Masters and I don’t give a shit how I’m going to do it.” All bets are off and Friedkin never looks back as he proceeds to turn all of the genre conventions on their head or present them in such a dynamic and exciting way that you don’t mind.

In some respects, To Live and Die in L.A. is the photo negative of The French Connection. While the latter is set during the cold wintery months in New York City, the former takes place in the sun-burnt streets of Los Angeles. With each film, Friedkin expertly captures the unique geography of both cities. Where New York is all vertical buildings and has a closed-in feel, L.A. is all open spaces and horizontal landscapes. He wastes no time immersing us in the sights and sounds of the cities with an uber montage of locales, accompanied by the very Hollywood New Wave sounds of Wang Chung. It’s like Friedkin made a list of every establishing shot used in L.A. films and then proceeded to avoid repeating them at all costs while still presenting an effective view of the city so that you feel it.

Like with The French Connection, Friedkin punctuates To Live and Die in L.A. with the occasional chase sequence but unlike a lot of action films they are integral to and drive the plot forward. For example, early on Chance chases one of Masters’ flunkies (a wonderfully slimy John Turturro) through a busy airport and this provides our heroes with their first lead on the counterfeiter’s operation. I was struck by this sequence and another foot chase (featuring Gary Cole, briefly) at how in these scenes the actors are really hoofin’ it. There’s none of this Hollywood bullshit where you see actors half-heartedly running. William Petersen is flat out running his ass off in these scenes, which is not just impressive to see but adds to the film’s authenticity.

Not content with having created one of the best car chase sequences ever committed to film, in The French Connection, Friedkin orchestrates To Live and Die in L.A.’s show-stopping chase sequence where Chance and Vukovich are pursued by a slew of gunmen in cars. It starts off dangerous and exciting and quickly shifts gears into a hellish, white-knuckled intense ride that truly has to be seen to be believed. Friedkin actually manages to top what he did in The French Connection by upping the scale (i.e. the number of cars, duration, etc.). The thing you notice right away is that no music plays over this sequence, just the sound of the engines of the cars and the protagonists freaking out. If you haven’t thought that Chance is certifiably batshit crazy by now then this scene will do it. Friedkin inserts reaction shots of a determined-looking Chance and a sweaty Vukovich on the verge of losing his mind – it is these shots that help make this sequence so tense and exciting because we can clearly see how what is happening is affecting these guys. Even though it defies any kind of rational logic, it is still one hell of an action set piece with the cars as characters, chewing up the scenery.

Done early in his career (he had a cameo in Mann’s Thief previously), William Petersen is not afraid to play an unlikable character. When we first meet Chance he’s a semi-respectable risk-taker but as the film progresses it becomes readily apparent that he doesn’t care about anyone and anything else except nailing Masters and avenging the death of his partner. He has a female informant (Darlanne Fluegel) that gives him tips and has sex with on a semi-regular basis. Her only value to him is for information and sex. He has outright contempt for authority and treats his partner like crap. Petersen fully commits to the character and brings an intensity that would also be evident in his next film, Manhunter (1986). In some respects, Chance is actually worse than Masters. At least, he has his own code that he adheres to, while Chance will do anything no matter how illegal to achieve his goal. There is a kamikaze-like air to Chance, like he has some kind of suicidal death wish. He pushes himself and those around him to the limit. Even though his personal life is staring him in his face it’s still irrelevant. He wants to exist on a different plane of existence than everyone else. His personal life is just a distraction to him.

Fresh from his bad guy role in Streets of Fire (1984), Willem Dafoe plays a different kind of sociopath in To Live and Die in L.A. Masters shows little to no emotion and Dafoe gives him a whiff of pretension, like he knowingly thinks of himself as some kind of artist but really he’s a sadistic crook who’s all about making money both real and fake. Dafoe brings the right amount of cold detachment to his character. Masters is an efficient criminal who perfectly internalizes his emotions making him incredibly hard to read — ideal for his chosen profession. The irony is that he is ultimately consumed by obsessions – literally and figuratively.

Director William Friedkin was given former Secret Service agent and author Gerald Petievich’s novel, To Live and Die in L.A., in manuscript form. While reading it, the filmmaker found himself drawn to the fact that “Petievich created these characters with feet of clay, and he’s one of them.” Once Friedkin struck a deal for the film rights to the book, Petievich was investigated by his direct rival for an impending office promotion and felt that there was, “a lot of resentment against me for making the movie,” and “some animosity against me in the Secret Service” by the agent in the Los Angeles field office who suddenly resigned a few weeks after initiating the investigation.

The screenplay took the basic plot, characters and much of the dialogue from Petievich’s novel but Friedkin added the opening terrorist sequence, the car chase and clearer and earlier focus on the cat and mouse game between Chance and Masters. Petievich says that Friedkin wrote a number of scenes but when there was a new scene or a story that needed to be changed he wrote it. The director admits that the writer created the characters and the situations and that he used a lot of the book’s dialogue but that he wrote the script and not Petievich.

SLM Productions, a tribunal of financiers, worked with Friedkin on a ten-picture, $100 million deal with 20th Century Fox, but when the studio was purchased by Rupert Murdoch one of the financiers pulled the deal and took it to MGM. After all the dust settled, Friedkin was given an $8 million budget to work with and this forced him to realize that To Live and Die in L.A. would have no movie stars in it. William Petersen was acting in Canada when he was asked to fly to New York City and meet with Friedkin. Half a page into his reading, the director told him he had the job. Petersen called fellow Chicago actor John Pankow and told him about the film. He brought Pankow to Friedkin’s apartment the next day and recommended him for the role of Vukovich.

For the money-making sequences, Friedkin consulted actual counterfeiters who had done time in prison with the film’s “consultant” actually doing the shots that did not show actor Willem Dafoe on camera even though he admitted to learning how to actually print money in preparation for his role. In fact, the son of one of the crew members tried to use some of the prop money to buy candy at a local store and was busted. Friedkin screened a workprint of To Live and Die in L.A. for three FBI agents from Washington, D.C. and they interviewed 12-15 crew members. The director even offered to show the film to the Secretary of the Treasury and take out anything that was a danger to national security. That was the last the production heard from the government.

As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin shot everything on location and worked very fast, often using the first take so as to give a sense of immediacy. He was not crazy about letting his actors rehearse and instead created situations where the actors thought they were rehearsing but actually the cameras were rolling. He allowed Petersen and actress Darlanne Fleugel devise their own blocking and then told cinematographer Robby Muller, “Just shoot them. Try and keep them in the frame. If they’re not in the frame, they’re not in the movie. That’s their problem.” An example of this is the scene where Chance visits Ruthie at the bar where she works. As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin wasn’t afraid to take chances during filming. For example, the scene where Chance runs along the top of the dividers between the airport terminal’s moving sidewalks was done without the airport police’s permission. This was mainly for the actor’s safety as the airport’s insurance would not have covered him had he been hurt. Petersen told Friedkin that they should do the stunt anyway and so the director staged it as a rehearsal but had the cameras rolling. Not surprisingly, this angered airport officials and got the production in hot water.

The film’s exciting wrong-way freeway chase had its genesis on February 25, 1963 when Friedkin was driving home from a wedding in Chicago. He fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and woke up in the wrong lane with oncoming traffic heading straight at him. He swerved back to his side of the road and for the next 20 years wondered how he was going to use it in a film. At the time of filming it, Friedkin was working with a stripped down crew and he told stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker that if they couldn’t top the car chase in The French Connection then he wouldn’t use it. Interestingly, Petersen did a lot of his own driving, which would explain Pankow’s stressed out reactions, which were genuine. The chase took 22 days to shoot including three weekends where sections of the Long Beach Freeway were closed for four hours at a time to allow the crew to stage the chaotic chase.

In regards to the film’s infamous ending, as early as the day he cast Petersen, Friedkin thought about killing off Chance towards the end of the film, but according to editor Bud Smith, Vukovich was supposed to be the one who got killed. Friedkin approached Smith and told him about his ending. The executives at SLM Productions were divided with half wanting Chance to die and the other for him to live. To pacify them, Friedkin and second unit cinematographer Robert Yeoman shot an alternate ending with Petersen and Pankow. The director previewed it and then cut it out of the film.

After recording their first album, Wang Chung felt pressured to write commercial music. They asked their manager to look for soundtrack work and he came back with an offer from Friedkin. After he heard and enjoyed “Wait” off their 1984 album Points on the Curve, Friedkin wanted to have Wang Chung score To Live and Die in L.A. In particular, it was “the element of drama and tension” that he wanted in his film, according to the band’s lead singer Jack Hues. The band didn’t want to record a conventional soundtrack and Friedkin was willing to give them that creative freedom. He asked them to write and record 90 minutes of orchestral music despite not having seen any footage. They wrote the music and spent two weeks recording it. The band created a large instrumental piece called, “City of Angels,” and other cues grew out of it. They also wrote separate songs, like “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming” after most of the instrumental work was complete. After seeing a rough cut of the film with their music integrated, the band realized that a title song was missing and wrote “To Live and Die in L.A.

Not surprisingly, To Live and Die in L.A. received mixed to negative reviews. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Today, in the dazzling, superficial style that Mr. Friedkin has so thoroughly mastered, it's the car chases and shootouts and eye-catching settings that are truly the heart of the matter.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, "To Live and Die in L.A. will live briefly and die quickly in L.A., where God hath no wrath like a studio executive with bad grosses. Then again, perhaps it's unfair to hold this overheated and recklessly violent movie to the high standard established by Starsky and Hutch.” Time magazine didn’t like its “brutal, bloated car-chase sequence pilfered from Friedkin's nifty The French Connection", and called it "a fetid movie hybrid: Miami Vile.”

However, Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, "[T]he movie is also first-rate. The direction is the key. Friedkin has made some good movies ... and some bad ones. This is his comeback, showing the depth and skill of the early pictures.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Shot with gritty flamboyance by Robby Muller, cast with a fine eye for fresh, tough-guy faces, To Live and Die in L.A. may be fake savage, but it's fun.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Pity poor Los Angeles: first the San Andreas fault and now this. The thing about it is, To Live and Die in L.A., for all its amorality and downright immorality, is a cracker-jack thriller, tense and exciting and unpredictable, and more grimy fun than any moralist will want it to be.”

After a lull in his filmmaking career, Friedkin came back with a vengeance with To Live and Die in L.A. He created an intense, harder-edged and visceral crime thriller that is of its time and out of time. The style and music are pure 1980s but the nihilism is reminiscent of the 1970s. Sure, the screenplay is riddled with clichés — the loose cannon agent and the partner who is killed only days before he retires — but Friedkin makes it all seem fresh and exciting because he believes in the material completely and goes for it all the way down the line. To Live and Die in L.A. was William Friedkin’s last great film. He has shown the occasional glimmer of brilliance (most notably with The Hunted) but has failed to deliver anything on the level of his 1985 film. However, his influence can be felt in films, like Narc (2003), which present a gritty world filled with morally questionable characters.

For more on this film, check out John Kenneth Muir's awesome take on the film and Jeremy Richey's tribute to it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DVD of the Week: Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss: Criterion Collection

Samuel Fuller was one of the quintessential genre directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s as he brought his trademark two-fisted gusto to genres like the film noir (Pickup on South Street), the war film (The Steel Helmet), and the western (Forty Guns). In the early 1960s, he managed to independently finance two pulp masterpieces, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). On the surface, they are unabashed genre films but lurking underneath Fuller injected powerful commentaries on then-contemporary social issues. In the case of Shock Corridor, he used the premise of a reporter going undercover as a patient in a mental hospital to investigate a murder to comment on the issue of racism in America.

Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is a reporter for the Daily Globe newspaper and who dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize by committing himself to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder. His girlfriend stripper Cathy (Constance Towers) is worried that being surrounded by all kinds of crazy people will have a bad effect on him. As she tells him at one point, she’s “fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.” Cathy is the voice of reason to Johnny’s cocky hubris, telling him, “Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize.” But of course, he doesn’t listen and is confident that he can pull this off while also getting his fame and fortune.

Once inside, Johnny meets a colorful collection of patients, like the man who thinks he’s an Italian opera singer, a man proud of being impotent, another one who believes he’s a general in the American Civil War, and, most intriguingly, an African-American who believes he’s a racist white man. Naturally, prolonged exposure to all of this madness begins to put the zap on Johnny as he gradually loses touch with reality. Fuller, the master of heightened melodrama, cranks it up another notch with this film as evident in the scenes where Cathy tries to get Johnny out of the hospital after six weeks, or when he finally snaps his cap, culminating in a show-stopping sequence that only Fuller could get away with.

At times, Shock Corridor resembles a horror film, like when Johnny wanders into a room full of female patients that swarm and attack him while he screams in terror. Fuller’s film is a fascinating look at what Barton Fink (1991) called, “the life of the mind,” and the thin line between sanity and madness.

As Robert Polito wisely observes in the DVD liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of The Naked Kiss (1964), Samuel Fuller’s film fuses the melodrama of Douglas Sirk with the pulpy prose of Russ Meyer. The result is what Polito calls a “noirish fairy tale” as a former prostitute relocates to suburbia in an attempt to reinvent herself. However, all kinds of dirty secrets lurk underneath the town’s all-American surface.

The film opens in typical Fuller fashion as Kelly (Towers) beats her drunken pimp with her purse. The director cuts back and forth from both combatants’ point-of-view and then comes the punchline: the pimp reaches out and grabs Kelly’s hair and it’s a wig (?!) revealing her bald head! Welcome to The Naked Kiss. She beats him into submission only so she can take the money he owes her. If this ballsy prologue doesn’t grab you then nothing will.

Two years later, Kelly relocates to Grantville, a nice-enough looking town where local police detective Griff (Anthony Eisley) runs a punk out of town but at least has the decency to give the guy a couple of bucks before sending him packing on a bus. Kelly has reinvented herself as a saleslady for Angel Foam champagne, a beverage that “goes down like liquid gold and it comes up like slow dynamite.”

She and Griff meet at the bus terminal and hit it off immediately. After a one-night stand, he sends her packing – he has no illusions about who she is – but Kelly ignores him and goes to stay at a boarding house in town. She reinvents herself yet again by getting a job as a nurse’s aide in the children’s ward at the local hospital, much to Griff’s chagrin. Kelly soon finds her new way of life threatened by a terrible secret harbored by one of the townsfolk.

In Shock Corridor (1963), Constance Towers had a supporting role but with The Naked Kiss, Fuller cast her as the lead and she’s fantastic as a woman with a checkered past trying to start over. She demonstrates quite a good range as an actress, from the tough dame in the prologue, to the empathetic caregiver working with children at the hospital. Towers gets you to sympathize with Kelly and care about what happens to her. With The Naked Kiss, Fuller shows a slightly softer side but his film is still populated by tough-talking characters. It’s a pulp B-movie with a heart and anchored by a rock solid performance by Towers.

Special Features:

Included on the Shock Corridor DVD is the excellent documentary, The Typewriter, the Rife and the Movie Camera, about the life and career of Fuller with the likes of Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese talking about the man’s influence on them and others. Fuller is as gleefully hard-boiled as his films as he discusses his philosophy about life and cinema, which, not surprisingly, are the same.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She talks about how she met Fuller, her impressions of him and what it was like working on his films, most notably, Shock Corridor.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.

On The Naked Kiss DVD, there is an interview with Samuel Fuller from the French television program Cinema Cinemas in 1987. He looks over old photographs of himself and recounts colorful anecdotes about his life and working on various films.

The South Bank Show: Sam Fuller” is a 30-minute interview from a British talk show from 1983. He is interviewed in his home in a room jam-packed with books and screenplays, many of which were never filmed.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She recounts her parents’ reaction to playing a prostitute in The Naked Kiss. She also talks about the film’s dynamic opening and how it was achieved. This is an excellent interview and she is an engaging subject.

Also included is an interview with Fuller for Cineastes de Notre Temps, a French T.V. show in 1967. There is some fantastic vintage footage of the man talking about his life and films.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Rocketeer

With the massive commercial success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), other Hollywood studios scrambled to find their own comic book franchise in the hopes of replicating the boffo box office of the Caped Crusader. With the notable exception of Dick Tracy (1990), most of these films failed to appeal to a mainstream audience. These included pulp serial heroes The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996), and the independent comic book The Rocketeer. Originally created by the late Dave Stevens, it paid homage to the classic pulp serials of the 1930s. For some reason, Disney decided that it would be their tent-pole summer blockbuster for 1991, cast two unproven leads – Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly – and hired Steven Spielberg protégé, Joe Johnston to direct. Despite promoting the hell out of it and spending a ton of money on merchandising, The Rocketeer (1991) underperformed at the box office.

It’s a shame because out of the lot of retro comic book films done in the 1990s, The Rocketeer was the best one and the most faithful to its source material. While both The Shadow and The Phantom looked great, they were flawed either in casting or with their screenplays while Dick Tracy was top-heavy with villains and director (and star) Warren Beatty’s ego, but The Rocketeer had the advantage of its creator actually being involved in bringing his vision to the big screen. The end result was a fun, engaging B-movie straight out Classic Hollywood Cinema albeit with A-list production values. The film has quietly cultivated a cult following and deserves to be rediscovered.

Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is a young, hotshot pilot who races planes for a living with the help of his trusted mechanic and good friend Peevy (Alan Arkin). One day, while out testing his new plane, Cliff stumbles across an experimental jetpack stolen from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Soon, he finds himself mixed up with the FBI, who want to recover it, and unscrupulous gangsters who stole it in the first place. Also thrown into the mix is Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), an Errol Flynn-type matinee idol who wants the jetpack for his own nefarious agenda. Cliff’s beautiful girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) is an aspiring actress who catches Sinclair’s eye which further complicates Cliff’s life. With Peevy’s help, Cliff figures out how to use the jetpack and fashions himself an alter ego by the name of the Rocketeer.

Billy Campbell does a fine job as the scrappy Cliff Secord. He certainly looks the part and has great chemistry with co-star Jennifer Connelly (they fell in love while making the film). Connelly plays Jenny as the gorgeous girl-next-door and looks like she stepped out of a 1930s film. Jenny loves Cliff but dreams of being a movie star, not hanging around the airfield. Connelly, with her curvy figure, shows off her outfits well and does the best with what is ostensibly a damsel in distress role.

Timothy Dalton has a lot of fun playing the dashing cad as evident in the scene where he “accidentally” wounds a fellow actor during filming for stealing a scene form him. Sinclair is a vain movie star with big plans and there’s a glimmer in Dalton’s eye as he relishes playing the dastardly baddie. Alan Arkin is also good in the role of Peevy – part absent-minded professor-type and part father figure to Cliff.

The Rocketeer features a solid supporting cast with the likes of Ed Lauter playing a no-nonsense FBI agent, Terry O’Quinn as the brilliant Howard Hughes, Jon Polito as the money-grubbing airfield owner, and Paul Sorvino as a blustery gangster begrudgingly in league with Sinclair. His casting is a nice nod to the patriarchal mobster he played in GoodFellas (1990) only a lot less menacing (this is Disney after all). The always entertaining O’Quinn is particularly fun to watch as a dashing Hughes that could have easily stepped out of Francis Ford Coppola’s love letter to American ingenuity, Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).

The attention to period detail, in particular the vintage planes, is one The Rocketeer’s strengths. The film gets it right with the clothes that people wear and how they speak so that you feel transported back to this era in a way that The Phantom and The Shadow were unable to do. The recreation of old school opulence is fantastic as evident in the South Seas nightclub sequence where Sinclair works his charms on Jenny. Even Joe Johnston’s direction feels like a throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking as he gives the flying sequences the proper visual flair that they deserve. He wisely keeps things simple, never trying to get too fancy or show-offy as he takes a page out of his mentor, Steven Spielberg’s book. There’s never any confusion as to what is happening or where everyone is – something that seems to be missing from a lot of action films thanks to the popularity of the Bourne films. Johnston is an interesting journeyman director who’s best work is old school action/adventure films, like Hidalgo (2004), or slice-of-life Americana, like October Sky (1999), which is why he was the wrong choice to helm the ill-fated reboot of The Wolfman (2010) and the right director for the upcoming Captain America film.

Filmmaker Steve Miner (Friday the 13th, Parts II and III) was the first person to option the film rights to Dave Stevens’ independent comic book The Rocketeer but he ended up straying too far from the original concept and his version died an early death. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo (Trancers and Zone Troopers) were given the option in 1985. Stevens liked them because “their ideas for The Rocketeer were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930’s with all the right dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my characters contemporarily, but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs.” Their subsequent screenplay kept the comic book’s basic plot intact but fleshed it out to include the Hollywood setting and the climactic battle against a Nazi zeppelin. They also tweaked Cliff’s girlfriend to avoid comparisons (and legal hassles) to Bettie Page (Stevens’ original inspiration), changing her from a nude pin-up model to a Hollywood extra while also changing her name from Betty to Jenny.

Bilson and DeMeo submitted their seven-page outline to Disney in 1986. They studio put the script through an endless series of revisions and, at one point, frustrated by the seemingly endless process, the two screenwriters talked to Stevens about doing The Rocketeer as a smaller film shot in black and white. The involvement of Disney put the project on a much bigger level as the writers remembered, “you can imagine the commitment Disney was making to develop a series of movies around a character. They even called it their Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With Stevens’ input, Bilson and DeMeo developed their script with director William Dear (Harry and the Hendersons) who changed the zeppelin at the film’s climax to a submarine. Over five years, the mercurial studio fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo said, “Disney felt that they needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out, and we were always brought back on.”

They found this way of working very frustrating as the studio would like “excised dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years ago were put back in. what was the point?” Disney’s biggest problem with the script was all of the period slang peppered throughout. Executives were worried that audiences wouldn’t understand what the characters were saying. One of their more significant revisions over this time period was to make Cliff and Jenny’s “attraction more believable … how do we bring Jenny into the story and revolve it around her, and not just create someone who’s kidnapped and has to be saved?” DeMeo said. In 1990, their third major rewrite finally got the greenlight from Disney. However, when the studio acquired the rights to the Dick Tracy film from Universal Studios, DeMeo was worried that executives would dump The Rocketeer in favor of the much more high-profile project. However, when Dick Tracy failed to perform as well at the box office as Disney had hoped, DeMeo’s fears subsided.

All kinds of actors were considered for the role of Cliff Secord, including Bill Paxton, who almost got it, and Vincent D’Onofrio, who was offered the role but turned it down. Finally, Billy Campbell was cast as Cliff. Prior to this film, his biggest role to date was regular on the Michael Mann-produced television show, Crime Story. For the role of Jenny, Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane, and Elizabeth McGovern were all considered but lost out to Jennifer Connelly, fresh from making the comedy, Career Opportunities (1991). Dave Stevens wanted Lloyd Bridges to play Peevy but he turned the film down and Alan Arkin was cast instead. The Neville Sinclair role was offered to Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance before Timothy Dalton accepted the role.

Campbell wasn’t familiar with Stevens’ comic book when he got the part but quickly read it and books on aviation while also listening to period music. The actor also had a fear of flying but overcame it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator Craig Hosking. To ensure Campbell’s safety, he was doubled for almost all of the Rocketeer’s flying sequences. Hosking said, “What makes The Rocketeer so unique was having several one-of-a-kind planes that hadn’t flown in years,” and this included a 1916 standard bi-wing, round-nosed, small-winged Gee Bee plane.

The numerous delays forced William Dear to leave the production and director Joe Johnston signed on to direct. He was a fan of the comic book and when he inquired about its film rights was told that Disney already had it in development. He approached the studio and was quickly hired to take over when Dear departed. Johnston said, “One of the great appeals of Stevens’ work was his attention to detail, which really placed the reader in the period. I’ve tried to do the same thing cinematically.” Pre-production on the film started in early 1990 with producer Larry Franco in charge of securing locations for the film. He found an abandoned World War II landing strip in Santa Maria, which the filmmakers used to build the mythical Chaplin Air Field. The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi zeppelin was filmed near the Magic Mountain amusement park in Indian Dunes. The film was shot over 96 days and ended up going over schedule due to weather and mechanical problems.

The Rocketeer received mixed to positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The virtues of the movie are in its wide-eyed credulity, its sense of wonder.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers enjoyed Timothy Dalton’s performance: “An elegant if stiff James Bond, Dalton finally loosens up onscreen and steals every scene he's in. He's a swashbuckling Dr. Strangelove.” Leonard Maltin concurred and found that the film, “captures the look of the '30s, as well as the gee-whiz innocence of Saturday matinée serials, but it's talky and takes too much time to get where it's going. Dalton has fun as a villain patterned after Errol Flynn.”

However, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Cliff's good deeds never have any particular stature, even though they supposedly involve earthshaking world affairs. Within the film itself, the polarities of good and evil are too indistinct to matter. Any hint of real risk or sacrifice comes from the other, better films that are invoked.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Partly by design, partly by accident, The Rocketeer seems better suited to an audience of kiddies than adults. It stays on its feet and doesn't ask too much of us, and that may be enticement enough for younger folks. It's a humble little item, actually, easily digested and easily forgotten.”

Like The Right Stuff (1983) before it, The Rocketeer is a love letter to the wonders of aviation and the brave souls that risked their lives pushing the envelope. In a nice touch, Cliff even chews Beeman’s gum, the same kind that Chuck Yeager uses in The Right Stuff. The comic book is masterfully translated to the big screen, right down to recreating the iconic Bull Dog Diner. The filmmakers also got all the details of Cliff and his alter ego right, including the casting of Billy Campbell. The same goes for Jenny, although, because Disney backed the film, they downplayed the blatant homage her character was to famous pin-up model Bettie Page. With Dave Stevens untimely passing in 2008, watching this film is now a bittersweet experience but there is some comfort in that at least he got to see his prized creation brought vividly to life even if failed to catch on with the mainstream movie-going public. The Rocketeer is flat-out wholesome fun with nothing more on its mind than to tell an entertaining story and take us on an exciting adventure.

Also, check Mr. Peel's take on the film at his blog.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Mosquito Coast

The Mosquito Coast (1986) is one of Harrison Ford’s most fascinating performances and it came at a time when he was able to use his box office clout from the lucrative Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises to push through the Hollywood system more challenging films. And this certainly applies to this film which focuses on a brilliant inventor who decides that western society has become too corrupt and materialistic and moves his family to the jungles of Central America where he attempts to manipulate a small village into his idea of a civilized society. Not exactly the most accessible project but Ford and director Peter Weir, hot off their successful collaboration on Witness (1985), teamed up again on The Mosquito Coast, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux.

The film is about a man obsessed with imposing his will on others to the degree that he exhibits self-destructive tendencies. What better person to realize this than Paul Schrader who was brought on to write the screenplay. He knows a thing or two about these types of protagonists as evident with Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), both of which he wrote. The Mosquito Coast also allowed Weir to continue his fascination with strangers in a strange land, which he had explored previously in The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) and Witness. So, the trifecta of Ford, Schrader and Weir was an inspired one but the end result was too extreme for mainstream audiences and the film was a box office flop and received mixed reviews.

The film is narrated by Charlie Fox (River Phoenix) and done after the events depicted in the film. He is a young, teenage boy who clearly idolized his father: “I grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.” Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is a brash and brilliant inventor. Right from the first shot, he expresses his disappointment with what America has become as he tells Charlie, “Look around you. How did America get this way? … This place is a toilet.” Weir cuts to a shot of Allie and his son driving down a street dominated by fast food restaurants, their large signs almost completely obscuring several trees and a grassy hill as the visuals only serve to prove Allie’s point and will be eerily relevant towards the end of the film.

Allie continues his rant as if he were channeling Travis Bickle’s disgust for society from Taxi Driver: “The whole damn country is turning into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers, criminal millionaires and moral snakes.” Amazingly, these words come out of a film released during the height of the supposedly “Greed is good,” Ronald Reagan-era 1980s in America when the country’s economy was booming. However, these sentiments also apply to our current situation with the war in Iraq, the Enron scandal, 9/11, and the collapse of the global economy. Allie is disgusted by what America has become and is “sick of dealing with people who want things I’ve already rejected.” Ford delivers this angry monologue with just the right amount of self-righteous indignation.

The first inkling we get that Allie is losing touch with reality is the cooling system he was supposed to make for a nearby farmer. Not only is he late with the device but it isn’t what the man wanted. Ford is brilliant here as he shows how Allie takes a rejection and deflects it, and ignores his mistake as a shortcoming of the farmer. This incident only confirms his beliefs. The farmer’s parting shot is probably the best observation about Allie: “A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” After observing some poor migrant workers, Allie begins to think about how valuable ice and his cooling system would be in the jungle where it is always oppressively hot. He laments that these workers left the jungle to work basically as slaves for the farmer and muses about how much courage it would take to leave civilization and go live in the jungle.

So, Allie uproots his family – wife (Helen Mirren), two sons and two daughters – and heads for the jungles of Belize. En route, he and his family cross paths with the Reverend Gurney Spellgood (Andre Gregory) and his family. Spellgood is a man who will play a prominent role in their lives. Allie has little time for Spellgood and religion, referring to The Bible as “God’s owner’s handbook.” He is even able to quote Scripture back to Spellgood. Like Allie, Spellgood is zealous in his beliefs, they just happen to be based in religion and not science.

As soon Allie and his family arrive, Weir immerses us in this strange new world with an audio-visual assault on our senses with local music and the hustle and bustle of the port city. Allie buys a small town and the next day, he and his family take a boat there. Weir shows a long shot of their journey along a curvy river that goes deep into the jungle and one can’t help but think of Willard’s river journey in Apocalypse Now (1979) only Allie is Colonel Kurtz ready to go native and impose his will on the locals. The river journey features some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Weir’s regular cinematographer John Seale. The vibrant greens of the lush jungle jump out at you and are in sharp contrast to the brown dirt that populates the jungle floor. As he did with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir has a real knack for immersing us in the film’s setting, so much so that it almost becomes like another character. The Mosquito Coast is no different as we see how harsh the environment is, from the intense sun to the monsoon-like rain. This inhospitality is juxtaposed with the beauty of the trees and the serene river that winds through the jungle.

Allie puts his family and the natives to work, clearing the land and gathering up resources so that they can build his utopia. At times, he seems to do through sheer force of will. Everything seems to be going smoothly until Spellgood shows up and tries to win back the hearts and minds of the townsfolk only to have Allie spurn him yet again, much to the pastor’s chagrin. The confrontation is only a prelude to future conflict between these two headstrong men.

This is one of Harrison Ford’s best performances as he shows us the method to Allie’s madness. He is a charismatic despot of sorts. In a way, many of his diatribes about the wasteful nature of America are right on point. It’s his solution to its ills that don’t always make sense. Ford is fully committed to the role without a shred of vanity. He’s not afraid to play an unlikable character and approaches Allie Fox as someone who thinks that they aren’t crazy even though it is pretty obvious that he has a very skewed perspective on things. Ford nails the zeal of Allie’s beliefs but is still able to make him somewhat relatable thanks to his natural charisma. It’s a role that calls for the kind of physicality that Ford excels at as we see Allie building the town up with his own hands. He is so good at the physical aspects of acting – hence all the action roles he’s played in his career – and Allie is no different. More importantly, Ford shows how Allie’s megalomaniacal tendencies gradually consume him. It is small things, at first, like the way he belittles one of his sons for complaining about roughing it in the jungle.

Weir does a good job ratcheting up the tension during a sequence where three armed mercenaries arrive and Allie has to come up with a way to get them to leave. It is where Allie’s madness actually works to his advantage but at a horrible price, as he is willing to destroy everything he worked so hard to build up in order to get rid of them. Eventually, Allie’s epic vision becomes incredibly myopic as he alienates his own family. The actors that play the family members are all excellent, from Helen Mirren as the nurturing mother, to River Phoenix as the loyal son. Initially, they all believe in what their father is doing unconditionally but over time they gradually come to question his methods. They are decent people pushed to their breaking point by Allie.

Producer Jerome Hellman read Paul Theroux’s novel in1982 and bought the film rights with his own money shortly after it was published. He felt that a great film was possible if the right people were involved but also had his reservations and admitted that he “didn’t fully appreciate how out of the ordinary the Establishment would consider this.” He soon hired screenwriter Paul Schrader to adapt the book and a first draft was developed in 1983. That same year, Hellman approached Peter Weir to direct based on films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year of Living Dangerously. Hellman said, “the thematic harmony between Peter’s previous work and The Mosquito Coast was striking, but I was also impressed with the humanism in his work.”

After reading the first draft of the script, Weir met with Hellman and Schrader in Sydney, Australia where they spent a week discussing every aspect of it. Once he felt that it could be made into a film, Weir agreed to direct. Hellman then brought him to the United States and showed him the book’s New England locations. The producer also arranged a meeting between Weir and Theroux but the director was apprehensive because he had a bad experience with a novelist on one of his earlier films. Fortunately, the two men got along and Theroux encouraged Weir to make the film his own. Hellman and Weir then spent two years trying to get a studio interested in making The Mosquito Coast but with little success. Hellman remembered that they were turned down all over Hollywood, “most places three or four times.”

In early 1984, they realized that due to the seasonal demands of the plot, they would have to delay principal photography for another year. However, Weir was chomping at the bit to direct a film and he received an offer to direct Witness. During the making of that film, he developed a close working relationship with its star, Harrison Ford. During this time, Jack Nicholson became interested in taking on the role of Allie Fox but when the deal fell through, Hellman and Weir agreed that Ford would be perfect to play the character. Ford was drawn to the role because it was so different from anything he had done before: “I was aware that there was opportunity here for more complicated characterization and because the character is so verbal and effusive, it goes against the kind of characters for which I’m best known.” Ford also wanted “the edgy feeling of the book still to be preserved. We didn’t want to abandon the balls of it because it’s not necessary for him [Allie] to be entirely likable as long as the audience can understand what he’s about.”

After Witness was released and became a big hit (garnering several Academy Award nominations), almost every studio wanted to make The Mosquito Coast but Hellman, burnt out from shopping the film around and getting repeatedly rejected, wanted to find independent financing. He met with producer Saul Zaentz to ask for advice and to read the script. He did and was so taken with it that he offered to have his company finance, present and supervise the distribution of the film.

Seeing as how most of the film is set in the jungle, it was crucial that Hellman and Weir find the right location. They considered Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, and Hawaii before picking Belize, which had everything they needed: mountains, ocean, jungle and rivers – all within an hour radius of Belize City. It was also an English language country whose political situation was stable. While filming in the jungle, the cast and crew endured cuts and bruises, mosquito bites and heavy sunburn with large snakes common on the set. Ford found the shoot long and humid. It was more exhausting for him mentally than physically because of “the complexity of the role and the endless process of sorting out and reappraising where we were at.”

Weir drew inspiration for the visual look of The Mosquito Coast from a bulletin board he had on location that was adorned with postcards, pages from magazines, a pressed flower, a match box, and so on. “It’s a question of texture, a kind of mosaic of inspirations,” he said. Weir felt that it was important to shoot the construction of the town Allie owns to be filmed in continuity and so three versions of it were created. Each was a little more advanced than the one before. As the crew moved from one set to another, the construction crew would do additional work on the previous set. This allowed Weir to film in days what would’ve taken many months to do.

Not surprisingly, The Mosquito Coast did not fare well with critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “Allie Fox's madness is more of a drone, an unending complaint against the way things are. It is painful to watch him not because he is mad, but because he is boring – one of those nuts who will talk all night long without even checking to see if you're listening.” However, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley enjoyed Ford’s performance: “Sooner or later a man of invention will pollute paradise, a grand contradiction that gives Mosquito its bite and Ford inspiration for his most complex portrayal to date. As a persona of epic polarities, he animates this muddled, metaphysical journey into the jungle.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “In spite of its authentic scenery (it was filmed in Belize), this Mosquito Coast is utterly flat. Even its exotic melodrama fails to excite the imagination. The problem is not in the performances but in the way they have been presented, most of the time in a cool, dispassionate, third-person narrative style, stripped of Charlie's troubled thoughts and feelings that give the book its emotional force.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson criticized Weir’s approach to the material in her review: “He's orchestrated The Mosquito Coast's action to match Fox's progressive mental state, from rage to explosion to squalls and finally to hurricane velocity; however, the film leaves us not with an apotheosis, but exhaustion.” To his credit, Harrison Ford has no regrets about making the film: “I adored that movie. If people didn’t want to see me be mean to kids, I understand that. But I was thrilled to have made that movie.”

In some respects, one could see The Mosquito Coast as a commentary on the extreme nature of the cult of personality as both Allie and Spellgood are prime examples of someone who believes that their vision of society is the right one. At first, Allie’s vision is quite seductive and seems to work but as time goes on and outside forces threaten it, the cracks begin to show. Weir takes an unflinching look at the extremes of science and religion and this apparently turned off audiences and critics alike. It is time for this film to be rediscovered and recognized as one of his more thought-provoking efforts made within the system by a movie star with enough clout to make it happen.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Favorite Posts/Blogs from 2010

As I did around this time last year, I wanted to give back to the blogosphere and post some links to articles from 2010 that really inspired me, made me think, sometimes made laugh and just plain entertained the hell out of me. More importantly, these various writings and the authors that spawned them taught me that I have a lot to learn about writing and about conveying my thoughts in a coherent and entertaining fashion as all of these posts did so well. This is by no means a comprehensive list and it was a real challenge picking only one example from each of these blogs as there is so much quality on each and every one. Also, my profuse apologies to anyone I might have omitted. And by all means, check these blogs out and support their creative endeavors. I have a choice quote from said post along with a link to it. Enjoy!

"Conan is made after all by John Milius that combat history nut friend of Coppola and Paul Schrader. Dino De Laurentis was able to give it a huge budget, and it's all up there on the screen, a huge budgeted spectacle of the old order, with thousands of extras and vast sets, elaborate city and outpost scenes, full loads of horses, including most impressively a huge temple exterior on a hilltop and a vast interior mountain cave that looks like something out of an early Argento..."
- "Great Films of the 80s: CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)" - Acidemic

"Soderbergh seems after a little less conversation and instead juxtaposes moving images, moving adroitly through a man’s memory to examine all these subjects and more. Employing footage of a 27-year-old Stamp from the film Poor Cow (1967) for flashbacks was an inspired choice, while the low key piano score by Cliff Martinez haunts the action beautifully."
- "Alain Renais Makes Get Carter" - This Distracted Globe

"Even conceding all that - and conceding that Beatty's ideas as a director frequently outstrip his ability to use the camera - Dick Tracy is still one of my favorite early-'90s tentpoles. It is so deliberately, carefully shallow, so conceptually audacious; and yes, so unearthly beautiful in every last frame."
- "Blockbuster History: Comic Strip Movies" - Antagony & Ecstasy

"The film is not cinema; it is a pop corn movie and in between the tired jokes about climbing five flights of stairs to reach the apartment there remains a bit of charm to the movie. The two leads win you over."
- "Barefoot in the Park" - Twenty Four Frames

"This is the height of feminist horror but it also speaks to the innate power and subversive bravery of the horror genre itself. In my opinion, Helen speaks for every horror fan, every true artist and every minority poised to shove back when she utters this next line to her happy to paint the whole world pink, bourgeois husband…"
- "Candyman: The Last Temptation of Helen Lyle" - Kindertrauma

"Sometimes an actor has to go through an entire career before someone finds them a role that's made just for them. In 1997, Forster got that role and even though it wasn't written for him (Elmore Leonard created the character in the original novel upon which it's based, Rum Punch) it seemed written for him and Tarantino may have had him in mind when adapting the screenplay (although I have no proof of that). Seeing Forster play Max Cherry is more like seeing a 56 year old bail bondsman named Max Cherry who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Forster, if that makes any sense. Forster is Cherry, Cherry is Forster."
- "The Wanderers: Robert Forster" - Cinema Styles

"Creepshow has a vibe to it that never fails to pull me in. The movie is so amiable and so imbued with a good time spirit that it overrides any serious critical thoughts. With its replication of a comic book's visuals, it's the most meticulously designed film of Romero's career and it's sadly the last time he was able to have that killer combo of money and artistic freedom. Everything since then for him has been a little compromised in one respect or the other so that makes Creepshow really something to appreciate."
- "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared" - Dinner With Max Jenke

"The Rapture is a remarkable film that avoids the mundane, the extraneous. It’s not important how Randy and Sharon decide to keep seeing each other after their initial hook-up. Randy’s conversion isn’t important either. This isn’t a story about a couple or even a corrupt world. It is a story about faith—why people seek it, how they find it, and how they lose it."
- "TOERFIC: The Rapture" - Ferdy on Films

"Perfect has a terrible reputation but it's actually kind of interesting in a time capsule way even though, no, it's not particularly good. It's angsty take on journalistic ethics is fairly typical of movies but it's an eye opener to watch this and remember that working out regularly was once looked down on as a fad and there's also the constant and now shocking reminder that magazine articles use to have major cultural impact."
- "25th Anniversary: Jamie Lee Curtis is Perfect" - The Film Experience

"Although “Is Your Love Strong Enough” didn’t save LEGEND and only made it to number 22 on English charts, I’m a sucker for Bryan Ferry’s ultra-smooth and sincere voice. That this song has its roots in their masterpiece, “Avalon,” makes it even more appealing. And then there’s lovely Mia Sara running among fairies, devils and unicorns…"
- "Friday Song: Bryan Ferry" - Technicolor Dreams

"The Talented Mr. Ripley is a film that is rich with motif and metaphor. Mirrors are constantly in play here as Tom is always looking at new version of himself, like a snake shedding its skin. The motif of jazz is important, too, not just in the sense that it gives us insight into the evolution of Dickie (and acts as Tom's "in" with Dickie...the catalyst for the events that follow them running into each other), but it also acts as a brilliant metaphor for Tom. Tom is often put in compromising situations where the truth almost always seems ready to break through his icy exterior, but like a great jazz musician he improvs and scats his way out of bad situations."
- "Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #1 --- The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella)" - Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

"Taken in toto, the 1983 movie is an epic, heroic poem concerning a can-do nation in its prime, and the heroes that it produced during an all-out "space race" with the Soviet Union.  But it's also a movie about the things that man can accomplish when he is at his best."
- "Cult Movie Review: The Right Stuff" - John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV

"Still, nothing packs a wallop like this actioner. Robert Aldrich's films historically celebrated a defiant individualism and had a decidedly anti-establishment bent to them. Obviously, this film was no exception. Even amongst the humor and action of the piece, there is an intense disdain of authority at its core and in its telling of the behind the lines, pre D-Day raid."
- "Friday Forgotten Film: The Dirty Dozen" - Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer

"The dragon here is not interested in doing what's right. It does not interact with humans except to roast and/or eat them. It is not interested in conversation. It is a monster, a beast, a malevolent force of nature so powerful that even to attempt to face it is a fool's errand, a death wish it is more than happy to grant. And that's why Matthew Robbins' 1981 fantasy epic is still, for my money, the greatest dragon movie ever made."
- "Dragonslayer (1981): or, Feel the Burn" - Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies

"Harrison Ford doesn't get to do evil very often, and apparently he loves it. After convulsing about like he's trying to kick heroin, Harrison sits up and delivers this utterly macabre smile which curdled the blood and tingled the spines of millions upon millions of easily frightened youngsters."
- "Film Review: INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984, Steven Spielberg)" - Junta Juleil's Culture Shock

"For all of its charms, and there are many of them, The Pick-Up Artist is a film marred by a real struggle between an artist with an extremely personal vision and men only interested in the money, and that conflict really damages what should have been a really masterful film."
- "Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?" - Moon In The Gutter

"OUT OF SIGHT is like a groove thing, moving nice and easy through its darkly funny world of crime, featuring well-drawn characters and vivid location work that lets us practically smell each location we’re in. Working off a very sharp script by Scott Frank (pretty faithful to Leonard), Soderbergh directs his film with the utmost confidence, bringing a genuine feeling of looseness to things and it really does come across that the director wants to take this opportunity to relax a little, maybe just make a fun Hollywood popcorn movie with enjoyable characters that still very much contains his particular filmic personality."
- "Something That Happens" - Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur

"Watership Down remains a personal favorite, alongside Director Isao Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies [1988] ten years later, and is one of the most powerful animated films I've ever seen. It's certainly capable of melting away the stoniest of hearts. Sure, advancements in computer animation have taken the impurities right out of cel animation, but these imperfect, warm swathes of color and picturesque landscape renderings will captivate your eyes in a way missing from today's flawless, computer rendered perfection. Today, 2D animation presentations have become just as faultless. Watership Down, armed with its beautiful rabbit drawings, is a moving picture of immense power in story and image."
- "Watership Down" - Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic

"By showing us what's about to be discussed Mann lets us mull over these images in the few seconds, processing it viscerally and emotionally without the hampering effect of words telling us how to interpret what we've seen. While it obviously bears ties to the original TV show and its digital camerawork recalls Collateral, perhaps the best base of comparison in Mann's prior corpus is The Last of the Mohicans: it too works best when nothing was being said at all, and it uses deceptively flat characters and dialogue to evoke atmosphere."
- "Miami Vice" - Not Just Movies

"Still, even if The Company isn't prime Altman, it's a well-made and frequently moving film in which the abstract emotional catharsis of the dance is placed at the center of the film, rather than all the backstage romances and troubles, which seem incidental in comparison. It's a film that takes joy in movement, both in the rehearsals, where a movement's development is traced and coached along, and in the polished shows themselves."
- "The Company" - Only the Cinema

"Immediately, just beyond Ry Cooder's fantastic score, Streets of Fire (1984) shows its creative conception, especially with its editing and set design: this rock n' roll fable is set in a time that is a mix of 1950s Americana, Art Deco archeitecture, sentimental innocence and emotion and 1980s coolness, hair and fashion, and glitz."
- "Walter Hill's Streets of Fire (1984)" - Quiet Cool

"The film’s entire 2 hour 37 minute run functions like the five minutes I described: it is a mixture of visual rape and avant garde genius. And it also was the end of an era for director Oliver Stone who is also on the fence between odd, crackpot and twisted, way too intelligent artist. Any Given Sunday represents the last film in his ‘Quaalude Quadrilogy’, as I dub it, which started with the kinetic psycho-satire that is Natural Born Killers, continued with the historically strange Nixon, and the diabolically evil U-Turn."
- "Movie Review: Any Given Sunday" - Secure Immaturity

"Judge’s portrait of office life may be painted in broad strokes on a small canvas, but it’s nevertheless wincingly accurate. From Milton’s interminable whining (his complaints invariably meaningless) to the caffeine-addled temp who responds to anything less than full-on perky enthusiasm with a cry of "Someone’s got a case of the Mondays"; from the oleaginous Lumbergh (every inch the company man, but whose job requires that never actually does anything) to the Bobs trying to present an affable front when everyone knows they’re hatchet men; from the boxy little cubicles to the wasteful circulation of pointless memos, Office Space nails the bland, bureaucratically-blinkered aesthetic of the contemporary workplace."
- "Work Sucks: Office Space" - The Agitation of the Mind

"Indeed, Field of Dreams partly utilizes the 60s in order to "get over them" - to transcend the trappings of a generational zeitgeist and facilitate a rapprochement with a plainer, yet more deeply rooted national spirit. But as this very desire is part of a post-60s culture, the film remains shadowed by the era. Just as the Mann character is a father figure who bridges the worlds of mentorship and rebellion, so the film's generational conflict never escapes its historical context (Ray declares that his falling-out with his father occurred after reading Mann's iconic novel The Boat Rocker). Ray's relationship to his dad is obviously the linchpin of the movie, and while this particular generational conflict stretches from Oedipus to Freud, it is given a 60s spin with both personal and collective connotations."
- "Boomer Baseball: Field of Dreams & the American 60s" - The Dancing Image

"There are a couple of problems with this movie for me. First, the story is a disaster. It’s so silly, so simplistic that it would insult the intelligence of a monkey. We don’t even get to know who Red Sonja is before she goes galloping on to her adventure. Her origin story is told in a fast forward sequence that seems to have been compiled of a bunch of discarded or deleted scenes that they didn’t have time to include in the film. So what we end up seeing is a quickie version of Sonja’s origin story."
- "Red Sonja (1985)" - The Film Connoisseur

"And with Day of the Dead, he really drives the hopelessness home. This is a far more depressing film than the sometimes tongue-in-cheek Dawn of the Dead. There is very little, if any, black humor here. Humanity has royally screwed itself, and Romero seems to be mourning the end of the race (a far cry from his more cynical opinion of 20 years later, when he seems to make the case that the zombies deserve the Earth more than we do)."
- "Retro Review: Day of the Dead (1985)" - The Vault of Horror

"Speed serves as the apex of a certain kind of pre CGI blockbuster filmmaking. There’s a purity to Speed that you have to admire it’s a two hour movie that probably has ten minutes in it not devoted to vehicles going fast, shit blowing up, and actors trading pithy bon mots. It’s the Darwinian end result of the action eighties. A movie that has (de)evolved into nothing but a goods delivery mechanism."
- "Speed" - Things That Don't Suck