Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hellboy

The success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) opened the door for a new wave a comic book adaptations. In the past, studios have played it safe and only green-lighted adaptations of mainstream comic books with large followings. However, this changed with adaptations of independent fare like Ghost World (2000), American Splendor (2003), and with Hellboy (2004). Based on Mike Mignola’s comic book of the same name, the title has a dedicated cult following at best so it was a pleasant surprise to see a major studio take a big budget gamble with it.

October 1944. The Nazis have begun mixing science with black magic in a desperate attempt to regain the advantage in World War II. The seemingly invincible Russian, Rasputin (Karel Roden) has teamed up with the Germans and plans to open a portal to another dimension and bring about an apocalypse. However, American troops arrive and disrupt the procedure just in time. In the process, something comes through: a red-skinned demon baby that the soldiers adopt and call Hellboy.

With the World War II prologue, director Guillermo del Toro does two important things: he vividly introduces this colorful world and the characters that inhabit it by creating just the right moody atmosphere and with detailed production design and excellent special effects. Secondly, Del Toro establishes the film’s mythology and what exactly is at stake through a clever mix of science fiction and the supernatural. He does this via an exciting action sequence as a young Dr. Broom and U.S. soldiers confront Rasputin and the Nazis.

Present day. Rasputin has been resurrected and continues his plans to summon destructive supernatural forces that will result in the end of the world. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has matured (sort of) and now works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) in New Jersey — under the guise of a waste management company (just like Tony Soprano). Along with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones with an uncredited David Hyde Pierce doing the voice), an amphibious humanoid (“the fish guy” as a guard puts it), firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and the token “normal guy,” John Myers (Rupert Evans), Hellboy tracks down Rasputin and tries to prevent him from fulfilling his nefarious goals.

Del Toro, a die-hard comic book fan and self-described film geek, shoots the action sequences much like he did in Blade II (2002), with crazy camera angles and fantastically choreographed fights. Case in point, Hellboy’s extended tussle with Sammael (Brian Steele). It’s like Del Toro took panels right out Mignola’s comic book and made them move but with the same kind of explosive energy that made Jack Kirby’s art so exciting. Del Toro also has incredible production design at his disposal to create a fully realized world rich in detail and drenched in atmosphere. He is heavily influenced by Italian horror films and not only references Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) but also the saturated primary color scheme of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) to name just a couple of examples. This is a great looking film, from the warm colors and ornate architecture of the library where Abe Sapien resides, to the darker, colder colors of Rasputin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Del Toro was shooting Mimic (1997) and discovered the Hellboy comic book but never thought that it could be made in Hollywood and if it did they would ruin it. He heard that it was going to be adapted into a film at Universal Pictures and started writing a screenplay in 1997. He met Mike Mignola when they worked together on Blade II which they used as their “rehearsal” for Hellboy. They found out that they read the same comic books and pulp and classic gothic horror novels. With Hellboy, Del Toro wanted to make a self-contained film, “almost a fairy tale, a fable.” His original pitch to executives at Sony-based Revolution Studios was that both The Mask (1994) and Men in Black (1997) were comic books that they were not familiar with and yet went on to become extremely successful films. He told them that the same thing could happen with Hellboy. In April 2002, Del Toro’s film was given the green-light at a budget of $60 million.

Del Toro first saw Ron Perlman in Quest for Fire (1982) and then The Name of the Rose (1986) and was very impressed with his acting, so much so that he ended up casting the actor in his first film Cronos (1994). Del Toro initially wanted him to play Hellboy but Vin Diesel was a rising star at the time and so the director approached him instead for the role. However, with the move from Universal to Revolution, Diesel dropped out of the picture and Perlman was in. Early on, if the actor didn’t work out, Del Toro thought about making Hellboy a mixture of puppet and computer graphics. He talked to James Cameron who warned him that if he went that route he would lose the love story. Del Toro wisely decided to stick with Perlman.

Perlman is perfectly cast as the cigar smoking, two-fisted action hero who eats Baby Ruth candy bars and loves cats. He does a great job of capturing Hellboy’s sarcastic, wise-cracking nature. Perlman gets to utter cool one-liners and looks fantastic in his make-up (thanks to legendary makeup artist Rick Baker). Often, what makes it to the film rarely resembles what was drawn in the comic book. Not the case here — Perlman IS Hellboy. With this role, he firmly established himself as one of the cult film icons of the new millennium (much like Bruce Campbell was in the 1990’s). Perlman has got the drop-dead cool action hero shtick down cold. With his hulking, imposing physique, he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger with brains and irony.

Del Toro cast Selma Blair because he always saw a “haunting quality in her eyes and in her look. Sort of a doomed, gothic beauty in her.” He was a fan of The Larry Sanders Show and felt the Jeffrey Tambor had that “smarmy, wannabe bureaucratic presence” that was ideal for Tom Manning. He cast Tambor against type and wanted him to be an “absolute asshole in the beginning, and play it straight.” Del Toro and Mignola created the character of Myers to guide audiences into Hellboy’s world. The director interviewed a lot of young Hollywood actors but many of them were “just too cute and too Calvin Klein beautiful to put in the movie.” He liked Rupert Evans because he had “such an open face, and he had a real innocence about him.” Del Toro saw John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and felt that the actor had “that little air of tragedy about him” that suited Professor Bruttenholm.

Hellboy received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and praised Ron Perlman’s performance as “an actor who is not just playing a superhero, but enjoying it; although he no doubt had to endure hours in makeup every day, he chomps his cigar, twitches his tail and battles his demons with something approaching glee. You can see an actor in the process of making an impossible character really work.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Del Toro, the former art-house creep-meister turned megaplex fantasist, knows just how long to hold a shot of blood oozing through an ornate stone maze or ghouls flying through a ghostly museum so that we feel as if the sets and effects are serving the story rather than the other way around.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “What distinguishes Hellboy from the pack and gives it squirmy, ferocious life is the environment that Mr. del Toro creates on screen. The movie is lubricated with a fluid, slimy menace, and the director's love of rotted, desiccated flesh and exposed, traumatized organs adds an engrossing grossness. But a contrasting vulnerability has also been slipped in, a critical addition.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote, “A nonstop Ragnarok of teenage crushes and constant squidicide, Hellboy ends on a note of pure romantic ecstasy. One would have to be further removed from adolescence than me to be unmoved by the spectacle of two love-starved paranormals consumed in the blue flambé of their Baked Alaska kiss.”

In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “There's no shortage of slick special effects and rampaging monsters here. Yet what catches the eye and captures the imagination is the lovingly hand-crafted feel of the design, the sensuous swirls etched into Hellboy's torso, the dusty clutter of the professor's office, the queasy algae-green of a locked hospital cell.” Sight and Sound magazine’s Kim Newman wrote, “It may offer a big battle too many, but Hellboy succeeds because it brings the visuals from the page to life with a beating red heart.” One of the rare dissenting opinions came from USA Today’s Claudia Puig who wrote, “Hellboy's special effects don't offer much of anything new, its far-fetched plot leaves a bit to be desired, and there is plenty that flat-out doesn't make sense. Those unfamiliar with the comic book may leave the theater bedeviled and scratching their heads.”

Hellboy is one of those rare comic book movies with depth. It takes time to develop its characters and the relationships between them. There is the touching father-son relationship between Hellboy and Bruttenholm and the romantic love triangle between Hellboy, Myers and Liz. While the film has the requisite slam-bang action sequences, it is not dominated by them. The film is not driven by them but rather by the characters and the story. And this is because Del Toro has strong source material to draw from: Mignola’s comic book, in particular “Seed of Destruction,” which chronicles Hellboy’s origins. Both Del Toro and Mignola’s works are steeped in the gothic and horror genres, in particular the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. The author’s influence is all over this movie as Hellboy trades blows with Cthulhu-inspired creatures that would make ol’ Lovecraft proud. While Del Toro’s film didn’t exactly rack up the kind box office numbers the studio was hoping for, it did prove to be quite popular on home video and eventually spawn an even better sequel in 2008.

 







Tuesday, April 26, 2011

DVD of the Week: Blow Out: Criterion Collection

Time has been kind to Brian De Palma and his films. When he rose to prominence and made some of his most memorable films in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the director was criticized for making schlocky horror films (The Fury) and, most damning of all, accused of being a Hitchcock wannabe (Dressed to Kill). Blow Out (1981) was no different as his detractors regarded it as a rip-off of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), which had already been Americanized, to a certain degree, by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) to great acclaim. Blow Out also came out at the tail-end of the paranoid conspiracy thriller subgenre that flourished in the ‘70s thanks to the Watergate scandal with the likes of The Parallax View (1974) and aforementioned Coppola film.

De Palma was seen as crashing the party late and continuing his infatuation with Hitchcock. Ardent De Palma supporter Pauline Kael gave Blow Out a glowing review and proclaimed it as his best film yet. Time has been kind to the film and it is now widely regarded as one of his very best, counting Quentin Tarantino among its most passionate admirers. The Criterion Collection has given the film their deluxe treatment by producing an impressive new transfer and several fascinating extras that will be pure catnip to De Palma’s fans.

In a sly reference to some of the horror films he made in the past, De Palma starts Blow Out with a film within a film – a low budget slasher film with the requisite T&A and blood that also utilizes an impressive Steadicam technique that cheekily thumbs it nose at John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a smart sound-effects technician wasting his talents on schlock like Co-Ed Frenzy. The film’s director is unimpressed with the stock library sounds being used and tells Jack to go out and create some better ones.

Later that night, Jack is out recording sounds and witnesses what appears to be a car accident. A tire blow out causes the car to crash into a nearby creek. Jack leaps into action and is able to rescue a woman from the submerged vehicle. Her companion is not so lucky. It turns out that he’s Governor George McRyan, a Presidential hopeful and she is Sally (Nancy Allen), a prostitute seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time. After Jack finds out that it was McRyan who died, he goes over the sounds he recorded that night and realizes that the governor didn’t die by accident – someone shot out the tire of his car and caused it to crash. With Sally’s help, Jack uncovers a conspiracy to kill McRyan. The only problem is that the same person that killed him also wants to cover their tracks and this involves eliminating loose ends like Sally. Enter Burke (John Lithgow), a sociopathic assassin who goes after her.

So many of De Palma’s films feature obsessive protagonists – think of Craig Wasson’s B-actor in Body Double (1984) obsessed with the murder he witnessed, or lawman Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1987), determined to bring Al Capone to justice. Blow Out’s Jack gets so caught up in McRyan’s murder that he assembles his own Zapruder film by syncing his audio with stills taken by a low-rent photographer (played with sleazy charm by Dennis Franz). This film is a potent reminder of just how great an actor John Travolta used to be. With Saturday Night Fever (1978), Urban Cowboy (1980), and Blow Out, he had a fantastic run of playing fascinating, fully-developed yet flawed characters. And then something happened – maybe it was the debacle that was Staying Alive (1983) – and he started playing it safe, appearing in trivial commercial fare. He’s so good in Blow Out as an expert sound-man with a troubled past. De Palma’s screenplay does an excellent job of providing the motivation for Jack’s actions and Travolta’s natural charisma gets us to care about what happens to him.

De Palma pulls out all of his stylistic tricks (Steadicam shots, split screens, deep focus photography) to craft one hell of an engrossing thriller. This includes an exciting car chase through the busy downtown streets of Philadelphia during a Liberty Day celebration. He grew up in the city and utilizes key locations for maximum effect so that it is almost a character unto itself. Blow Out really is one of the best examples of De Palma’s genre sensibilities merging with his artistic aspirations. The end result is one of his signature films.

Special Features:

Fans of this film can finally get rid of the bare bones edition that was released years ago. In addition to the extras on the DVD, the accompanying booklet features Pauline Kael’s original review and a reproduction of the magazine in the film that published the photographs of McRyan’s car crash among several other goodies.

“Noah Baumbach Interviews Brian De Palma” features the New York filmmaker talking to De Palma for almost an hour. He talks about the genesis of Blow Out. He also touches upon using the Steadicam for the first time, the film’s score, various key scenes, and recounts some fantastic filming anecdotes in this excellent conversation between two filmmakers.

“Nancy Allen Interview” features the veteran actress talking about meeting Travolta for the first time on Carrie (1976) and her impressions of him. She recalls her initial reaction to the script for Blow Out and how she approached her character. Interestingly, Allen wasn’t going to do the film but Travolta wanted her to do it.

“Garrett Brown Interview” features the inventor of the Steadicam system recalling how he shot the cheesy horror film at the beginning of Blow Out. He also talks about and demonstrates how one works. Brown comes across as an engaging and candid guy.

“Louis Goldman Photographs” is a collection of stills taken on the set and for publicity purposes.

In a real treat for De Palma fans, his 1967 experimental film Murder a la Mod is included in its entirety. Like Blow Out, the film is a thriller that takes place in the filmmaking world. It is interesting to see the director’s emerging style still in its infancy and how the film is very much of its time.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

 


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Super Troopers

Super Troopers (2001) is, by far, the funniest comedy about a ragtag group of police officers since Police Academy (1984). Of course, that’s not saying much as its only competition is, well, Police Academy 2-7. Super Troopers is the brainchild of Broken Lizard, an American comedy troupe made up of five friends who went to the same New York university together. In the mid-1990’s they made a series of short films for Comedy Central before shooting their first feature film Puddle Cruiser in 1995. They have made four films since then with Super Troopers being their best and funniest effort to date. When the film had its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it reportedly inspired rowdy screenings that convinced Fox Searchlight Pictures to give it a theatrical release in 2002. It was a moderate commercial success but didn’t really garner a dedicated cult following until it was released on DVD and given regular rotation on Comedy Central.


Super Troopers follows the zany hi-jinks of five Vermont State Troopers as they try desperately to save their station from being shutdown while also butting heads with the local police. Sound familiar? While the plot is nothing original, it is done in the fine tradition of slobs vs. snob comedies like Animal House (1978) and Stripes (1981). I would even go so far as to say that Super Troopers is one of the funniest comedies released in the last 10 years, along with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). So, what makes Super Troopers so damn funny? Let me count the ways in the same fashion as Sean Gill's hilarious tribute to Bloodsport over at his blog.

1. .38 Special: Broken Lizard actually got this hard rockin’ band from the 1970’s to do the film’s score (along with The Unband) and they kick things off in style with a badass song, which, in turn, gives the film some badass street cred. No classy Elmer Bernstein-esque soundtrack for this film. In addition to those rockers, the soundtrack is populated with songs by the likes of Nashville Pussy and Southern Culture on the Skids.

2. Drug humor: In the first three minutes of Super Troopers, a hapless college kid (Geoffrey Arend) ingests a bag of weed and a baggie of magic mushrooms before the state police can pull and bust him and his two stoner friends.
"Call Guinness!"

3. “Littering and…”: In what is one of the film’s funniest scenes, Lieutenant Arcot "Thorny" Ramathorn (Jay Chandrasekhar) and Trooper Robert "Rabbit" Roto (Erik Stolhanske) question three stoners they pulled over for “speeding” and proceed to fuck with their minds by asking them several questions, get back into their car, and leave, only to return and ask them the exact same questions! Not only does it unnerve the hapless college kids but it really freaks out the guy who ate all those drugs. In a nice touch, Thorny uses his flashlight during questioning even though it appears to be in the middle of the day!

4. Fake speeder: The questioning of the three stoners is interrupted by a long-haired speeder who, as it turns out, is actually a state trooper himself.
"Ha-hah!"
After downing four shots of alcohol he “commandeers” the cop car and fools/scares the college boys into believing he shot the cops and is going to take them south of the border. What a great way to start a film.
"You boys like Mexico?!"

5. Gratuitous maple syrup chugging: When they’re not harassing dopey college kids, these state troopers like to sit back and relax by seeing who can chug an entire bottle of maple syrup faster. If this sequence doesn’t put you off the stuff then nothing will. Apparently, the key to success is to open your throat, relax the jaw and possess powerful lips. “Don’t forget to cup the balls,” as Trooper MacIntyre "Mac" Womack (Steve Lemme) wisely notes.

6. Mac: Played to smartass perfection by Steve Lemme, Mac is easily the funniest guy of the group. He’s a notorious practical joker and good in a fight as evident in the way he mocks one of the dumb local cops and then hits him not once but twice with empty syrup bottles. It also helps that next to Nelson of The Simpsons, he has one of the all-time great mocking laughs.

7. State cops vs. local cops: Early on, Super Troopers sets up an antagonistic relationship between the rival law enforcement groups. The state troopers are in danger of losing their jobs if they don’t dramatically up their arrest quotas while the local cops do their best to undermine them by stealing their busts. Will our goofy gang of screw-ups prevail? The head of the local police is played by none other than Daniel von Bargen, known for playing all kinds of authority figures and heavies in film and television (including a creepy role in Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions). He does his best John Vernon in Super Troopers and I almost expected him to put our heroes on double secret probation.

8. Brian Cox eats soap: Yes, Hannibal Lector himself plays Captain John O'Hagan, the commanding officer of the state troopers. He has the enviable task of keeping his goofball charges in line even if it means taking a big bite out of a bar of soap. Now, that’s what I call commitment.

Yum!
 9. Cat game: Another way these guys mess with motorists they pull over is to see how many times one of them can insert the word “meow” into a conversation. The current record is six but Mac thinks that Trooper Jeff Foster (Paul Soter) can do 10. The poor motorist is played by none other than comedian Jim Gaffigan and it is funny to see him trying not to laugh when Foster keeps saying meow but finally he can’t hold it in any longer and the trooper chastises him: “Do I look like a cat to you, boy? Am I jumping around all nimbly-bimbly from tree to tree?” I always wonder how many cat games has this scene inspired?
"Alright meow."

10. Farva: Trooper Rodney "Rod" Farva (Kevin Heffernan) is the group’s blowhard, full of clueless bluster. He is an overweight cop hopelessly incompetent and constantly the butt of everyone’s jokes. He’s currently suspended and relegated to the role of radio dispatcher.
We eventually realize why Farva was suspended later on when he finally gets to go out on patrol only to get into a fight with a burger jockey (Charlie Finn) at a local fast food joint over the trooper’s request for a “liter of cola.” One has to admire Heffernan’s commitment to the role as he is not only handcuffed to a toilet at one point, but also hosed down while naked in another scene, and later on pukes for real. Now, that’s Method acting for ya.
Is it Saturday night already?

11. Practical jokes: Ah, the ol’ shaving cream in the locker gag. That one never gets old.

12. A boy named Arlo: In a nice touch, Thorny and his hippie girlfriend named their son Arlo in a sly reference to Arlo Guthrie of Alice’s Restaurant fame.

13. Cute female cop: Officer Ursula Hanson (Marisa Coughlan) is a local cop and the only woman who works for them, apparently, and Foster develops a crush on her. Marisa Coughlan has a cute, girl-next-door thing going on but she is hardly just a pretty face. Ursula is more than capable of taking care of herself and is more competent than all of the state troopers put together. Coughlan and Paul Soter have good chemistry together and their characters’ romantic subplot is one of the sweet surprises of Super Troopers.

14. Kinky Germans: Thorny and Rabbit pull over a randy German couple who are into all sorts of kinky stuff when they’re not pretending Vermont highways are the Autobahn and listening to generic techno music. They pop up later in the film hooking up with Thorny and his girlfriend, demanding a “mustache ride” from the trooper. Yikes!

15. The great cola debate: Another memorable bit is when Farva and Thorny go to a burger joint for some food. Right off, the burger jockey behind the register jokes around with the perpetually clueless Farva (“Don’t spit in that cop’s burger.”). The final straw comes when Farva asks for a liter of cola and the burger jockey has no idea what he’s saying. Farva clarifies: “Liter is French for give me some fucking cola before I break both fuckin’ lips!” Eventually, the burger guy sends Farva over the edge and pretty soon he’s leaping over the counter and tackling the guy. Cue gratuitous Farva shower scene.

16. Lynda Carter as the Governor: Forget Schwarzenegger; let Wonder Woman take a go as governor. Basically a cameo, Carter lends her considerable charisma to the film and shows just how well she’s aged. I wonder if the Broken Lizard boys grew up watching her in the ‘70s? Like any politician, all she’s concerned about is looking good to the voters.

17. Split-screen montage: You don’t see many of these outside of a Brian De Palma film or an episode of 24, but in a comedy?! Bonus points for originality. We see several storylines at once but the one that lingers is Farva projectile vomiting into a toilet while Southern Culture on the Skids blasts over the soundtrack. Nice.

18. The three stoners revisited: In a nice way to wrap things up and bring everything full circle, the troopers bust the three college kids from the beginning of the film – this time at a house part and while undercover. After messing with them (and us as we assume they are no longer cops), the stoners are busted and the end credits shows all the hi-jinks they get up to with our heroes.

Ever since Super Troopers came out, fans of this funny film have been clamoring for a sequel. Originally, the Broken Lizard boys were thinking of doing a prequel set in the ‘70s which sounds pretty awesome but have since settled on a sequel that is apparently in the works with financing in place. One can only hope that we are subjected to more hilarious misadventures from these wacky Vermont State Troopers in the near future.




Tuesday, April 19, 2011

DVD of the Week: The Way Back

Has it really been seven years since Peter Weir released a film? For fans of his work, the arrival of a new film has been long overdue and eager anticipated. Sadly, the kinds of films he makes are no longer what Hollywood is interesting in backing and so he’s had to look elsewhere for financing – hence the time between projects. He returns with The Way Back (2010), a fictionalized depiction of seven prisoners that escaped from a horrible Siberian Gulag camp during World War II. The group made an incredible 4,500-mile treacherous journey across some of most extreme terrain imaginable. Weir’s film received generally positive reviews but wasn’t given enough distribution or coverage to garner any of the big awards but will hopefully find new life on home video.


In the camp, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) befriends Khabarov (Mark Strong) and they bond over the trumped up charges that sent them to the Gulag. The prison conditions are truly awful and Weir shows what these men do at night to help pass the time and keep their sanity. It is no wonder that Janusz yearns to escape. He and Khabarov plot a way to get out and survive. To aid in their ambitious endeavor, Janusz enlists the help of a brave American named Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Farrell), a notorious Russian criminal as well as four other men.

Early on, one of the Gulag prison guards tells his charges, “Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.” Weir’s camera pans over the harsh, snowy wilderness that is Siberia. The message is clear. Even if you escape from the camp, the foreboding environment will surely kill you. Moreso than any other film of his, Weir emphasizes the effect of the environment on the characters, from the bitterly cold blizzards to the dirty, claustrophobic hell of the mines, to the vast, sun-baked desert. The seven men endure all kinds of hardships – the weather, wild animals and starvation and dehydration. However, the alternative – certain death in the Gulag – is a worse option.

There is a humanistic streak that runs through much of Weir’s films and The Way Back is no exception. Janusz is the heart and soul of the group, looking out for everyone and leading them through the wilderness. These men are dependent on each other to survive and Weir shows how they relate to one another under such extreme conditions. They are pushed to the very limits of human endurance and this is depicted in unflinching detail by Weir. Despite being very different people, they exhibit compassion towards one another that is inspiring but not in a cheesy way thanks to Weir’s understated direction.

The Way Back is another strong effort from the Australian filmmaker with solid performances from a uniformly excellent cast that includes well-known veteran actors like Ed Harris and Colin Farrell and relative unknowns like Dragos Bucur and Alexandru Potocean. They breathe vivid life into these fascinating characters. This film is a potent reminder of how poorer cinema has been in Weir’s absence. It is refreshing to see a film about something, populated with compelling characters instead of relying on clichéd dialogue and an overabundance of CGI. The Way Back is about compassion and humanity – things that we are in short supply of – and how it helped these men on this incredible journey.

Special Features:

“The Journey of the Journey” is a 30-minute making of featurette. Weir and the cast talk about what drew them to the project – the lack of knowledge about the Russian gulags because it was not as well documented as the Nazi concentration camps. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage as key crew members talk about their contributions to The Way Back.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.




Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Passion of Darkly Noon

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) is a strange film. One that features Brendan Fraser covered in red paint and barbed wire, Viggo Mortensen as a mute carpenter, and the unforgettable image of a large silver boot floating down a river. It is quite unlike any other film and is the brainchild of Philip Ridley, a British performance artist, filmmaker, novelist, painter, and playwright whose three feature films to date deal with the loss of innocence. Best described as a dark, fantasy tale, Darkly Noon was only his second feature film but it is a masterful one. Sadly, few people got to see the film; it was barely reviewed, and quietly disappeared to home video where it remains to be rediscovered.


Our story begins with a disheveled young man (Brendan Fraser) in a suit staggering through a forest. Exhausted, he finally collapses on a dirt road where he’s almost run over by another young man (Loren Dean) driving a pickup truck. He takes him in and drives to a nearby house. The driver’s name is Jude and we are soon introduced to one of the house’s occupants. Callie (Ashley Judd) is a beautiful young woman who appears walking out of the forest. Ridley stages this scene during a sunny day so that the tall grass is a vibrant green, which is in sharp contrast to Callie’s blue jeans and snow white t-shirt. She takes in the young man who stays conscious long enough to look into her eyes and grab her hand.

“Does God play jokes?” – Jude
“All the time.” – Callie

Among the man’s possessions, Callie finds a copy of The Bible with the words, “Darkly Noon,” written in it. This turns out to be the young man’s name, which he says was chosen randomly from the book by his parents. It comes from 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” and explores the subject of love. We find out that he comes from a very conservative religious cult that are devout followers of The Bible. Darkly fled from a Waco-style attack that killed his parents. Brendan Fraser recounts the story in timid, hushed tones, stuttering nervously while sounds of the carnage play in his head. This is a quietly powerful scene that the actor delivers with convincing intensity.

Callie lives with her boyfriend Clay (Viggo Mortensen), a mute carpenter who builds coffins for the local undertaker and is prone to taking long, spontaneous walks, “in the dark,” to think and sort out his problems. As the hot summer days run into each other, Darkly fixates on Callie, his savior. Coming from a repressive religious upbringing, she is an oddity to him: free spirited, speaks her mind and is often clad in small, summer dresses or tight blue jeans that cause him to have what he perceives as impure thoughts (c’mon! this is Ashley Judd after all). When Clay returns on the fifth day, Darkly feels threatened and jealous, as he and Callie are no longer by themselves. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic and a conflict is inevitable.

By the time Darkly spots a large silver boot floating down a river, you know things are only going to get stranger as we perceive the world through this troubled young man’s warped perspective. Things get even weirder when Grace Zabriskie shows up as Roxy, a crazy woman who lives in a trailer out in the forest. She befriends Darkly and tells him about a monster that lives in the forest and eats young men. She also tells him that Callie is a witch that stole her husband. This feeds into his skewed worldview, sending him over the edge. Ridley employs quick jump cuts to convey Darkly’s increasingly fractured mind and the explosive climax recalls Apocalypse Now (1979) channeled through the sensibilities of Lars Von Trier.

Ridley has a real knack for making the settings in this film come to life and become almost like another character. There is a scene where Callie takes Darkly to a cave in the heart of the forest and it is filled with an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites. It is an absolutely stunning location that eventually becomes Darkly’s lair. Another excellent example is a scene in which Jude says of Callie, “She’s like a forest – wild sort of beauty,” and Ridley pans over an incredible shot of an expansive forest that seems to go on forever as we see Darkly and Jude dwarfed by the environment. Ridley’s attention to the environment and its affect on the characters reminds me of the way Peter Weir conveys the same relationship in his films, specifically Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which shows the duality of the environment – at once beautiful and ominous, much like what Ridley is doing in Darkly Noon. The forest represents the entire world for these characters. It is initially a haven for them but eventually is transformed into a hell on earth.

Interestingly, the passage in The Bible that proceeds the one in which Darkly is named after, reads, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This could easily describe Darkly’s arc over the course of the film. When we meet him he resembles an innocent child but once that innocence is destroyed he becomes a man. Ridley’s previous film, The Reflecting Skin (1990), ended with the protagonist running away from his dying family, stumbling through a field until he falls, Intriguingly, Darkly Noon begins with its protagonist running away from his dying family, stumbling through a forest. It’s as if the protagonist from The Reflecting Skin grew up to become the one in Darkly Noon.

Known mostly for goofy comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Dudley Do-Right (1999), every so often Fraser tries something different, like Gods and Monsters (1998) or The Quiet American (2002) or The Passion of Darkly Noon. They demonstrate his range and ability to do good work while the mainstream crap he does to pay the bills. Normally playing gregarious goofballs, he delivers a fascinatingly internalized performance for most of the film as a very shy, repressed individual. Fraser even adopts a slight stutter and his often-blank expressions and intense stares hint an inner turmoil that gradually boils to the surface as the film progresses. The actor explores depths with Darkly Noon that he had never done before or since for that matter. Think of this film as his Taxi Driver (1976) and Darkly is his Travis Bickle, a deeply disturbed loner obsessed with a woman he can never have. Darkly’s descent into madness is impressive to watch and Fraser’s slow burn on the way to get there is mesmerizing.

Darkly Noon is a potent reminder of the kind of adventurous roles Ashley Judd took on early in her career with films like Ruby in Paradise (1992) and Smoke (1995). She had only been acting for four years prior to this film with very few substantial credits to her name. She conveys a relaxed confidence with Callie, a woman who is comfortable in her own skin and this intimidates Darkly who is not used to this kind of image of femininity. Clay is mute which forces Viggo Mortensen to communicate through body language, perfect for such a physically expressive actor as evident in the action/adventures he’s done, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Hidalgo (2004). Through hand gestures and facial expressions, the actor delivers a fascinating performance. Aside from Grace Zabriskie, Mortensen was the most experienced actor in the cast and had already done excellent work in films like The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Ridley’s first feature film, The Reflecting Skin.

What critics did review The Passion of Darkly Noon were unimpressed with it. In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy felt that Ridley, “puts a good cast to work on a tale scarcely worth telling … Not likely to gain critical support, this looks like a forlorn commercial entry in most markets.” The Independent’s Adam Mars-Jones wrote, “The film stands or falls by the resonance of its images, not by the repeated profundities of the dialogue.” In his review for The Times, Geoff Brown wrote, “At best Ridley achieves a fable’s cryptic simplicity … At worst, all we see is intellectual vacuity and a self-conscious striving for effect.” The Observer’s Tom Lubbock felt that the film was “indeed poetical, imagistic, visionary, surreal, symbolic, and more. But to get the best from Darkly Noon, the title is one of the several things about it that are best ignored.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D-“ rating and criticized its “bombastic dialogue, bad acting, tawdry prurience and inane plot developments.” The one lone positive reaction came from Fangoria, which praised Fraser’s performance: “This is unlike anything else Fraser has done, surrounded by more acclaimed actors, he nonetheless dominates the screen.”

The Passion of Darkly Noon is a fascinating parable about the extremes of religious devotion – how it corrupts and warps, often with tragic results. Ridley’s film warns of the dangers of ignorance and fanaticism. He has crafted a very unusual horror film that stays with you long after it ends. It is very stylized in nature, from the way it looks to how the characters speak and what they say – hence the dark, fairy tale vibe. This actually works in Darkly Noon’s favor and is also part of its appeal – if you’re willing to take the leap of faith that it requires.

NOTE: The Passion of Darkly Noon is available streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sidney Lumet (1924 - 2011)





“While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”

Legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet has passed away. The man's cinematic legacy speaks for itself with classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, and so many others. My favorite films of his were the ones he dealt with police and political corruption in New York City - Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan. No doubt the tributes will come pouring in over the next few days. Here are a few:

The New York Times
Los Angeles Times
The Guardian
Time
DGA Quarterly
Salon
Movieline
indieWIRE
Rolling Stone
Entertainment Weekly

I also took a look at two of his films - the underrated Q & A and Running on Empty.


My Top 5 Favorite Lumet films:

Network
















Running on Empty
















Q&A


















Dog Day Afternoon















The Offence

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hollywoodland

On June 16, 1959, actor George Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide with the official police report stating that he had been depressed over his failed career. Reeves’ claim to fame had been portraying Superman on television during the 1950’s. It was a very popular show but by the time he turned 40, the actor wanted to move on with his career. However, he could not shake his association with the iconic role. His mother Helen Bessolo refused to believe her son took his own life and hired private investigator Jerry Geisler. Both died before they could prove anything.

Over the years, more and more people refused to believe that Reeves would commit suicide. Forensic evidence surfaced that cast doubts on the official cause of death. Was he killed by his fiancée Lenore Lemmon, or was he murdered by order of Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix who allegedly had Mob connections? Reeves had an affair with Toni but spurned her for another woman. Or, did Eddie find out and have Reeves killed?

Hollywoodland (2006) dramatizes Reeves’ suspicious death and documents the events leading up to it. The film is structured as a detective story with a private detective investigating Reeves’ death. The film was seen as a comeback of sorts for Ben Affleck who hadn’t acted for two years after the critical and commercial flops of Gigli (2006) and Jersey Girl (2006). After headlining several high profile studio films, he had wisely laid-low and took a supporting role in this film. Affleck portrayed Reeves to critical acclaim and hasn’t looked back since.

Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a low-rent Jack Gittes-type private investigator that specializes in cases of infidelity. His “office” is a fleabag motel as all of his money goes to an ex-wife (Molly Parker) and young son (Zach Mills). He used to be a police detective and his ex-partner turns him onto the Reeves (Ben Affleck) case. Perhaps influenced by his son’s upset reaction over the death of his T.V. idol, Simo decides to talk to Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith) who believes that her son did not commit suicide. He investigates further, interviewing people that knew him and this triggers a series of flashbacks to the events leading up to Reeves’ death.

The flashbacks give us more insight into Reeves. For example, while trying to be seen at a swanky Hollywood hangout, he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a beautiful woman married to a very powerful man, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Initially unaware that she’s married and to whom, Reeves has an affair with Toni – partly because he’s attracted to her and partly because he thinks she can help his career. Toni becomes his sugar mama, buying him a nice house in the suburbs for him and their trysts.

The scenes between Ben Affleck and Diane Lane are quite good. They have decent chemistry and do a good job of conveying what their characters got out of the relationship. Affleck is excellent in this meaty supporting role. The rise and fall of Reeves must’ve spoke volumes to the actor who had also experienced both. Affleck knew what it felt like to be on the top of the world one moment and then considered a joke after a couple of high profile flops. Anyone who is a student of Hollywood lore knows that it has a long history of tragic deaths. What makes Reeves’ story so interesting is that he played such a wholesome, upstanding character with Superman but had an unhappy personal life. Affleck fleshes out Reeves and digs deep, providing a nicely layered portrayal of the man. Reeves just wanted to be regarded as a serious actor but did such a good job playing Superman that he couldn’t disassociate himself from the role.

Adrien Brody delivers a decent enough performance but his invented character feels like just that and seems out of sorts with all the actual historical figures he interacts with and investigates. Simo’s backstory and motivation is just not as compelling as say Jack Gittes in Chinatown (1974), a film whose legacy casts a long shadow over Hollywoodland. Brody is supposed to be a jaded investigator who thinks he’s seen it all but the actor comes off as a little too aloof. As a result, his character feels like a tacked on afterthought.

Diane Lane doesn’t have a lot of screen time but she makes the most of it. Toni is a powerful woman who gets what she wants and Lane plays her as a charming individual so long as Reeves makes her happy. It’s when he no longer does this that her true nature reveals itself. Watching the actress in this film makes me wonder how she would have done in L.A. Confidential (1997) if she had been cast in Kim Basinger’s role. In some respects, Toni is not a typical femme fatale and Lane does her best to flesh out her character and shed some light on her motivations.

Producer Glenn Williamson, at the time head of production at USA Films, bought Paul Bernbaum’s screenplay, Truth, Justice and the American Way in 2001. Williamson was drawn to the way the script “guides the audience toward a conclusion, but there is no definitive answer.” The project moved to Miramax Films for a short time with filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) attached to direct. At one point, they screen-tested Kyle MacLachlan to play George Reeves. Williamson wanted the film to have a more mainstream appeal – something that the directors, known for their dark, atmospheric films, weren’t interested in and so they decided part ways.

The project moved to Focus Features where veteran T.V. director Allen Coulter signed on. When his agent gave him Bernbaum’s script he wanted to do it after reading the first five pages. The director was drawn to the “great Hollywood noir milieu” and the complexity of Reeves’ life. He heard that Ben Affleck was interested in the role and ended up casting him as Reeves. To resemble the actor, Affleck put on upwards of 28 lbs., changed the shape of his nose with a prosthetic, altered his hairline, and changed the color of his eyes. If that wasn’t enough, during filming, he listened to several clips of Reeves’ voice between takes and also watched every episode of the Superman T.V. show.

Hollywoodland shot for six weeks in Toronto and two in Los Angeles. At some point, Warner Brothers, which produced the Superman films, applied legal pressure to have the name changed from Truth, Justice and the American Way to the current title because they wanted to disassociate themselves from the sordid details of Reeves’ demise with their vested interest in rebooting the Superman franchise.

Hollywoodland received mixed to negative reviews as most praised Affleck’s performance but had problems with the way the script juggled the two storylines. In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Hollywoodland gets a few laughs from the show’s cheesy Ed Wood–like production effects, but the dignity and sobriety that Mr. Affleck projects as Reeves keeps the sheer ridiculousness of his limited career options from ever becoming too campy.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis also praised Affleck’s performance: “Later, as defeat takes its grinding toll, Mr. Affleck lets weariness creep into his face, pulling his features down until it becomes difficult smile.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “There's something simultaneously heartfelt, wised-up, playful, and fierce about the way the onetime Daredevil acknowledges that he knows that we know that he knows that we're bound to read something of the actor's own skids with fame in his expiatory portrayal of a star who couldn't quite steer his own image.”

However, New York magazine’s David Edelstein wrote, “the back-and-forth cutting between past and present would be clunky even if it weren’t so arbitrary, and it doesn’t help that Adrien Brody—as the film’s ­other protagonist, a burnt-out gumshoe—is more actorish than the supposed actor.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and Claudia Puig wrote, “But then the narrative bogs down with a misbegotten subplot about Simo's personal life … Director Allen Coulter … missteps with this secondary story line. He flounders in his attempts to find parallels between Simo's life and Reeves' iconic place in Hollywood at that time.” In his review for the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter wrote, “For some reason, the director and the writer (Paul Bernbaum) have chosen an exceedingly awkward path into the material. They break the narrative into two strands, and play them off each other in cheap and easy ways for insubstantial effect.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “For despite its virtues, Hollywoodland never fully succeeds due to the unfortunate air of artificiality that hangs over it. Caught in a netherworld between re-creation and reality, it only sporadically feels like it is actually happening.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Coulter contrived a neat behavioral trick by inducing his star to play a comparably big-jawed bad actor. Surrounded as he is by canny professionals … it's an unexpectedly touching performance. In fact, Hollywoodland turns turgid whenever it switches to the gritty Louis Simo story.”

The attention to period detail is very good, from the vintage cars to the Coke bottle Simo drinks from in a scene. The filmmakers effortlessly transport us back to that time. Allen Coulter’s direction is solid but does little to differentiate it from other films of the genre. L.A. Confidential this is not. Maybe it’s just as well as the story is engrossing enough and Affleck’s performance keeps our interest. Ultimately, Hollywoodland lies somewhere between the ambitious but flawed Mulholland Falls (1996) and the masterful L.A Confidential. What it does do is paint a compelling and sympathetic portrait of George Reeves. His career serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers of being closely identified with an iconic film role and how it can affect the rest of your career. Some people embrace it while others spend the rest of their lives trying to get away from it.


SOURCES

Goodridge, Mike. “Ben’s Back in Business.” The Evening Standard. August 17, 2006.

Hansen, Liane. “Director Coulter Discusses Hollywoodland.” National Public Radio. September 3, 2006.

Portman, Jamie. “How Fame was Stolen from the Man of Steel.” Ottawa Citizen. September 7, 2006.

Stuever, Hank. “Truth, Justice and the HBO Way.” Washington Post. September 3, 2006.

Tapley, Kristopher. “The (Tinsel) Town That Ate Superman.” The New York Times. August 20, 2006.


Thomas, Bob. “Suicide or Murder?” Associated Press. September 5, 2006.