Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DVD of the Week: Drive Angry

Continuing his string of paycheck movies, Drive Angry (2011) is actually closer to the gonzo Nicolas Cage of old than the diluted actor we’ve come to expect in films like Next (2007) and Knowing (2009). With Drive Angry, he’s made a full-on, balls-out cult film that flopped spectacularly at the box office and was trashed by the critics. It has all the necessary ingredients of cult status: loads of ultra violence, nudity, lots of cussing, and all kinds of character actors chewing up the scenery. The film is the brainchild of Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer, the former a B-horror director responsible for efforts like Dracula III: Legacy (2005) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009). While the latter film was an unnecessary remake of the 1980’s Canadian slasher film of the same name, it did hint at the garish excesses Lussier was capable of and has finally delivered with Drive Angry.


The film begins with John Milton (Nicolas Cage) literally escaping from hell in a badass muscle car. He is trying to avenge his daughter’s murder and rescue her kidnapped baby from Jonah King (Billy Burke), the sadistic leader of a satanic cult. In the first five minutes, Milton totals a pick-up truck with three flunkies in a way that is so gloriously and stylishly over-the-top that it would make Robert Rodriguez green with envy. While his film, Machete (2010), paid homage to exploitation films, Drive Angry is one, only with A-list talent. Milton crosses paths with Piper (Amber Heard), a tough ex-waitress who has recently broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend (Todd Farmer in a cameo). Hot on their trail is a man known only as the Accountant (William Fichtner), a dapper minion from Hell come to bring Milton back.

Inspired by another cartoonish action film, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), Drive Angry also features a gun battle while the protagonist is having sex only captured in slow motion and cheekily scored to “You Want the Candy” by the Raveonettes. While excessively violent and gory, the action sequences are all so overtly stylish that they can’t be taken too seriously. This film is akin to a blood-drenched, R-rated cartoon. The violence isn’t cruel and mean-spirited like in a torture porn horror film, but rather gleefully petulant like the guys who orchestrated all of this mayhem grew up reading Fangoria in the ‘80s.

Surrounded by all of this garish style and crazed violence, Nicolas Cage wisely underplays his role, going for the calm, collected man of action. He’s matched up perfectly with the always watchable William Fichtner who seems to be channeling Christopher Walken with his wonderfully eccentric performance. He looks to be having an absolute blast with this role and steals every scene he’s in with his unfailingly polite yet very lethal character. Billy Burke is suitably sinister as a religious fanatic and the beautiful Amber Heard holds her own as a two-fisted, curse-like-a-sailor sidekick to Cage’s undead avenger. David Morse even shows up using his considerable skill as an actor to make a chunk of exposition dialogue palatable.

Drive Angry has everything you could want from a trashy action film: cool muscle cars, over-the-top shoot-outs, larger than life baddies, and a cool good guy with a mission. All of this is handled ably by Lussier in what is easily his most accomplished film to date. He gleefully sticks a middle finger in the face of political correctness with a film that is more entertaining than it had any right to be. Cage needs to do more films like this and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), which harken back to the eccentric characters he played early on in his career.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by director Patrick Lussier and co-screenwriter Todd Farmer. Lussier jokingly refers to Drive Angry as his “subtle, gentle road movie,” and battles through a bad case of laryngitis, which makes it difficult, at times, to understand what he’s trying to say. But he soldiers on with Farmer as they talk about how the film was made. The two men tell all kinds of filming anecdotes as they talk us through filming. Lussier points out that Clint Eastwood’s protagonist in High Plains Drifter (1973) was the model for Cage’s character. They give shout-outs to various crew members’ contributions on this solid track.

“How To: Drive Angry” is one of the better promotional featurettes. Amazingly, the studio gave the filmmakers the creative freedom to do a hard R-rated supernatural action film. They talk about shooting in 3D as opposed to converting it in post-production. The filmmakers also talk about working with a modest budget and solving certain problems creatively as opposed to throwing a lot of money at it a la Michael Bay. It’s nice to see that many of the stunts in the film were done practically.

“Milton’s Mayhem” is an amusing extra that compiles all of Milton’s action sequences and attributes a point system to every punch and gunshot like something out of a video game.

Finally, there are two deleted scenes with optional commentary by Lussier and Farmer. We see a little more with Piper and her boyfriend and another scene with the Accountant that were both rightly cut.





Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Indian Runner

“My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
I'm a sergeant out of Perrineville, barracks number 8
I always done an honest job, as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain't no good”
- “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen

The Indian Runner marked Sean Penn’s directorial debut in 1991 and was based on the Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman” from his 1982 album Nebraska. Like the song, the film is a character study that focuses on the turbulent relationship between two brothers – one a police officer, the other a troubled Vietnam War veteran. Penn proceeds to take Springsteen’s song and flesh it out to create an engrossing film that evokes some of the best American films from the 1970’s. It also gave substantial roles to then up-and-coming character actors David Morse and Viggo Mortensen while also giving juicy supporting parts to veterans like Charles Bronson and Dennis Hopper. While The Indian Runner was a critical darling, playing the film festival circuit, it failed to catch on with a mainstream audience due to its dark subject matter.

The film begins with a car chase through snow-swept countryside and the first thing that one notices is the shots of the desolate farmland – a close-up of barbed wire, a No Hunting sign written on a spare tire – that Penn inserts throughout the chase. With this sequence he not only establishes Joe Roberts (David Morse), a highway patrolman and one of the main characters, but the setting – America’s heartland. Joe’s estranged brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen) is due to return from Vietnam in a week but he arrives unexpectedly early in the middle of the night. Joe is determined to put Frank on the straight and narrow path and repair their fractured relationship. At first, things go smoothly as Frank attempts to emulate his brother by getting involved with a woman (Patricia Arquette) who ends up pregnant with his child but he can’t change who he is and Joe is forced to choose between his duty as a cop and his love for Frank.

As you would expect from an actor turned director, The Indian Runner is an excellent showcase for the actors. Penn gets solid performances out of every one with David Morse and Viggo Mortensen delivering career defining performances. Mortensen is something of a minor revelation here as he effortlessly disappears into the troubled Frank and one can see a simmering rage behind his eyes. He is the unpredictable bad boy who, if he hadn’t gone to Vietnam, probably would’ve gone to prison (which is what happens when he gets back). This is in sharp contrast to Morse’s Joe, an upstanding officer of the law who took on the profession after his farm went out of business. He’s now married and has a kid – all the hallmarks of a “good man” as his mother (Sandy Dennis) puts it, which is the polar opposite of Frank who is “a very restless boy” as his father (Charles Bronson) puts it. Morse and Mortensen are the kind of actors that would have thrived in the ‘70s and one could easily see them in films like Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Scarecrow (1973). Penn’s film is obviously attempting to evoke films from that era, like The Deer Hunter (1978), which weren’t afraid to present flawed characters and stories that were driven by them with attention to their behavior. It makes sense, then, that Penn dedicates his film to the memory of Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes – two maverick filmmakers who helped define the kind of challenging films Penn admires and emulates from that decade. Yet, he isn’t merely evoking that era of filmmaking to be hip. He incorporates it into his film and makes it his own.

Morse has the tougher job of playing the responsible brother, which tends to be the less showy role in films like this but the actor brings a quiet dignity to the part. Joe is a decent man who loves his family but feels guilt about his inability to reform his brother. Morse has an easygoing charm, which he infuses in Joe who in turn uses it to disarm tension in certain scenes. The actor does get his moments, like when he surveys the bloody mess of a crime scene where the victim has committed suicide. Morse doesn’t say anything as his eyes do all the talking as he stares at his fingers covered in the victim’s blood. Morse conveys his feelings through his kind, expressive eyes while Mortensen internalizes everything behind his cold and distant ones.

It has been said by film critics like Roger Ebert that Frank and Joe reflect the duality that exists in Sean Penn. There is the respectable, socially-conscious family man that was married with kids, and the rebellious hellraiser that punches out paparazzi. Mortensen even adopts a drawl coupled with a sly grin as he smokes a cigarette in several scenes that, at times, evokes Penn. This may explain why Frank and Joe seem so authentic as Penn knows these people so well. It also helps that his casting is spot on. He rescued Charles Bronson from generic thriller hell and cast him in this film. It is great to see the veteran actor in a substantial role as he brings an impressive complexity to a bitter father figure proud of one son and disappointed in another. In his small amount of screen-time he manages to convey the conflicting qualities that both his sons possess.

When Sean Penn first heard Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman” in 1982 it gave “flashes of pictures” in his head and began applying characters and a story to these images. He was inspired to write a screenplay in a month while filming We’re No Angels (1989). He had actually been writing scripts since 1980 and knew exactly what he wanted the film to look like but didn’t know if he could get the financing or the rights to the song. The first title Penn came up with for his script was A Slow Coming Dark, then Greetings from the Wasteland, and finally The Indian Runner. This last one came from a book about Native American Indian running, which he had read.

He called Springsteen and got his blessing. He then approached producer Don Phillips (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) with several of his scripts, one of them being The Indian Runner. That was the one Phillips picked. Penn told him that it had been written by a prison inmate named J. Claude McBee and did this because he wanted an honest opinion, not one based on pre-conceived ideas people had about him. Penn wanted the script to speak for itself. Phillips gave the script to two producers who liked it but felt that the ending wasn’t commercial enough to get the film funded. Penn shelved his project until Phillips’ friend and fellow producer Thom Mount had set up a deal with Japanese funding to bankroll a slate of films. Mount was a fan of Penn’s work and agreed to back his film.

Early on, Penn thought of playing Frank himself and discussed the project with his We’re No Angels co-star Robert De Niro. One day, Penn had a television on with the sound off and saw Viggo Mortensen in Fresh Horses (1988). He only had a cameo but Penn was struck by how closely he resembled the image of Frank he had in his mind while writing the script. He was also struck by Mortensen’s “angularity, a severity to his handsomeness that I perceived as being like Frank.” Penn and Phillips flew to Tucson, Arizona to meet Mortensen on the set of Young Guns II (1990) and he agreed to do the film.

For the role of Joe, Penn wanted David Morse who he had seen in a film called Inside Moves (1980). He was impressed by the actor’s “kind of soulful dignity.” The two men met and Penn decided to cast him. However, Phillips didn’t want to cast Morse because he couldn’t see the actor and Mortensen as brothers. Penn paid for a screen test for Morse and wrote a scene specifically for the actor to perform that was not in the film. Morse nailed it and Phillips was convinced.

For the role of Frank and Joe’s father, Penn had originally cast Gene Hackman and then Jon Voight was considered. Penn finally cast Charles Bronson based on what he knew about the difficult times in the actor’s private life, chief among them standing by his wife Jill Ireland’s battle with cancer. Penn wanted Sandy Dennis to play the mother but he learned that she was dying of cancer. He flew to New York City and met with her. She agreed to do the film.

Based on his admiration of ‘70s cinema, Penn sought out crew members that had worked during that era. He hired Hal Ashby’s long-time production designer Michael Haller and Anthony Richmond as his director of photography. The latter had worked on several key Nicholas Roeg films during ‘70s and that was the look Penn wanted to capture with his own film.

During rehearsals, Penn encouraged Morse, Mortensen and cast members Valeria Golina and Patricia Arquette to spend as much together as possible. This involved hanging out on location in Omaha. For the final confrontation between Frank and Joe in a bar, Penn had Morse and Mortensen rehearse for two weeks. The bar set was built in a gymnasium which allowed the two actors to shoot baskets when they needed to blow off steam. Morse felt that Mortensen was holding back during rehearsals. When it came to filming the scene, Penn recalled stimulating Mortensen’s temper by getting “a little bit personal. But I think he was professionally responsive. He knew where to go for what I was looking for.”

The Indian Runner was shot entirely on location in Nebraska in 50 days on a budget of $9 million. It had its world premiere at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. The film received generally positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It's impressive, how thoughtfully Penn handles this material. The good brother isn't a straight arrow, and the bad brother isn't romanticized as a rebel without a cause, and there are no easy solutions or neat little happy endings for this story. It's as intractable as life itself.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Mortensen as “a magnetic actor capable of both scary outbursts and eerie, reptilian calm.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “The film is mesmerizing in part because the drama between the two brothers is predictable; it is thoughtful and funny because it seldom goes out of its way to be either, and it emerges as one of the best movies yet made about the sixties because it is not actually about the sixties – it's about people in the sixties.”

In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen said of Penn’s direction, “You can sense that he's grappling with his own demons in this anguished story of a collision between brutishness and responsibility. Whatever its flaws, this one comes from the gut.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “And though the movie is sometimes too mannered (during one unaccountable stretch, Penn suddenly turns into Diane Arbus and peppers the screen with small-town grotesques), it has an accomplished rhythmic flow, a sense of people's destinies unfolding step by step.” However, USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “To pump up the entertainment level, Penn tosses in a few freaks: a bearded lady, a demonic bartender (the aptly cast Dennis Hopper), a cross-eyed town crazy. But the sideshow can't leaven the unrelentingly heavy mood.”

In many of his roles, Penn often wrestles with notions of masculinity – what makes a man? You see it in films like At Close Range (1986), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Mystic River (2003). He continues this examination with The Indian Runner about two very different men – one who can express his emotions and one who cannot. Or, rather, when he does it comes out in rage and violence. How does someone like that exist in normal society? Frank is a free spirit that refuses to be tied down by the conventions of a normal family life and a 9 to 5 job. Joe knows this but thinks he can change his brother and is forced to realize that no one can domesticate him. The only solution is to allow Frank to be free to live his own life. Frank puts it this way, “There’s only two kinds of men in this hell: that’s heroes and outlaws. Which one are you?” Penn ends his film on an enigmatic note – one in which I think the end of Springsteen’s song addresses:

“Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin', nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family, he just ain't no good”

One of the tantalizing questions The Indian Runner poses is, did being in the Vietnam War screw up Frank even more or was he already like that to begin with? Joe refers to his brother being a troublemaker in his youth. Where did he go wrong? Was he always that way? The film never answers these questions definitively but it is interesting to speculate every time I watch it. The only problem I have with this film is that Penn tends to lay the Indian runner analogy on a little too thick, especially in the scene where Frank and Joe chase each other through a cornfield late at night, but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic directorial debut. While I enjoyed his subsequent efforts, The Crossing Guard (1995) and especially The Pledge (2001), I still regard The Indian Runner as his best film behind the camera. So many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs are mini-movies that tell a compelling story that it’s amazing no one has turned one into a film before. He is a master at depicting the struggles of the blue collar American in his songs; Penn gets that and successfully translated it into a film.


SOURCES

Carr, Jay. “Sean Penn Happier Behind Camera.” Boston Globe. December 26, 1991.

Dunphy, Catherine. “Penn Tired of Talking about Bad Boy Days.” Toronto Star. September 10, 1991.

Frankel, Martha. “After Writing & Directing The Indian Runner, Sean Penn Swears He’ll Never Act Again. Interview. September 1991.

Gristwood, Sarah. “Running Against Form.” The Guardian. November 28, 1991.

“How Sean Penn Found New Direction in Directing.” Philadelphia Inquirer. June 1992.

Kelly, Richard T. Sean Penn: His Life and Times. Faber & Faber. 2004.

Scott, Jay. “The Recasting of Sean Penn.” Globe and Mail. September 13, 1991.


Weber, Bruce. “Sean Penn, Human Tempest, Settles into the Auteur’s Life. The New York Times. September 15, 1991.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Flatliners

Flatliners (1990) may be best remembered as a film that featured a cast of young actors either on the cusp of being bonafide movie stars (William Baldwin) or who were already there (Julia Roberts). Featuring the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon, you’d be hard pressed to assemble this cast now but back then the film’s director Joel Schumacher had the Midas touch, making his name with the Brat Pack dramedy St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) and the popcorn thrill ride cum horror film The Lost Boys (1987). Flatliners was an attempt at more serious, weightier fare albeit filtered through his commercial sensibilities. It features a top notch premise: five medical students attempt to cheat death by killing themselves for several minutes so as to uncover any evidence of an afterlife. However, once they’re revived what they experienced while dead comes back to literally haunt them.


Flatliners came out at a time when Hollywood was fascinated with death and the afterlife as similarly-themed films Ghost (1990) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990) all came out in the same year. Flatliners resides somewhere in the middle as it shares some of the romantic aspirations and notions of forgiveness with Ghost while also including some of the otherworldly thriller aspects of Jacob’s Ladder. Art directed within an inch of its life by Schumacher, Flatliners was a commercial success (with that cast how could it not?) and received mostly positive notices. It has by and large disappeared from the public consciousness only to pop up occasionally on television. I’ve always been fascinated by its overtly stylish look and its thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Actually, all of the main characters typify the materialistic “me generation” that came of age in the 1980’s. I also admire Peter Filardi’s awkward attempts to tackle substantial issues, like life after death, bullying, and infidelity, in his screenplay even if he isn’t always successful or we’re distracted by Jan de Bont’s atmospheric cinematography.

Schumacher sets the right tone visually as he introduces the film’s central protagonist, Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), clad in the ‘80s uniform of sunglasses, trenchcoat and black shirt and pants because, y’know, he’s a got a dark side. The camera zooms in on Nelson who says to no one in particular, “Today is a good day to die.” While all of this is happening, the soundtrack blasts an ominous beat straight out of a John Carpenter film only to inject a pretentious choir vocalizing over top. Fortunately, we’re spared any more of this sonic claptrap as Schumacher slam edits us right in the middle of an emergency room as David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) frantically tries to save a poor woman in bad shape. She’s wheeled into a room so painfully stark white that it resembles the strange bedroom at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Labraccio is a brilliant but impulsive medical student who goes ahead and saves the patient’s life anyway when the doctor doesn’t show up fast enough. He is the brilliant yet angry rebel. He’s such a non-conformist that when Nelson goes looking for him he finds the guy rappelling out his dorm window and down the side of the building because, y’know, he doesn’t have time for the stairs.

Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts) is the smart med student who keeps her colleagues at a distance. She’s fascinated with life after death because her father committed suicide. Rachel does rounds in a ward with a few elderly patients whom she dotes on, hoping to get some insight into what it’s like to be so close to death. The romance between Labraccio and Rachel feels tacked on. In one scene, they’re good friends and in another they’re sleeping in bed together. It feels like a scene was edited out somewhere in post-production that showed them getting together. Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) is the ladies man with a thing for videotaping his many conquests in-between classes with his fellow med students. Joe’s past is the weakest of the bunch because of its abrupt conclusion. He only seems remorseful because he got caught.

Nelson is a master manipulator who knows exactly what to say to the four other med students so that they will help kill himself all in the name of fame and fortune – oh, and science, of course (that’s merely a side effect). We are introduced to Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt) repeatedly reciting his future job title as he is already self-mythologizing himself. The film quickly and efficiently establishes the main characters and everyone but poor Steckle gets a backstory that provides motivation for why they are willing to kill themselves for a glimpse of the afterlife. I guess, since he’s the only one who doesn’t die and is then resuscitated, he gets marginalized, which is too bad because Oliver Platt is such an intriguing actor to watch and he’s basically reduced to the role of whiney complainer with the occasional comic relief. He is the handwringing Mother Hen with a sarcastic sense of humor, like when he calls Nelson on his ulterior motives for what he’s doing: “This isn’t for mankind, this is for Nelson. Why do I suddenly see you on 60 Minutes sandwiched in-between Andy Rooney and a Subaru commercial?”

Kiefer Sutherland is a little too good at playing a Preppie prick (also see Bright Lights, Big City) as Nelson is an egomaniac looking to make a name for himself. He has never been afraid to play unlikable characters (see Stand by Me or Mirrors) and despite his karmic comeuppance, there is no real indication that Nelson will change all that much despite gaining closure on his past. There is a delicious irony that we get to see a little kid kick the crap out of him – something I’m sure we won’t see on his career reel if the American Film Institute ever decides to celebrate his filmography. One can see what might have drawn Sutherland to this role as he gets to literally shed his pretty boy image by becoming increasingly battered and scarred over the course of the film. Kevin Bacon is good as the skeptic who goes under in order to put his atheism to the test. He plays the voice of reason. Blessed with his family’s good look, William Baldwin is well-cast as the narcissistic pretty boy. The success of this film led to him headlining Ron Howard’s ode to firefighters, Backdraft (1991) and Sliver (1993), an erotic thriller with Sharon Stone. Julia Roberts makes for a credible caregiver but I don’t quite buy her as a brilliant med student.

Flatliners features one ridiculously over-art directed set after another. For example, the room where our med student protagonists practice on cadavers resembles the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not a med school, but it does look fantastic and creates a semi-solemn mood with its impressive-looking Gothic architecture. Check out Nelson’s “apartment” with its high ceilings, ornate paneling and stunning window frames that look like it came out of an Architectural Digest magazine photoshoot. How does a med student afford a place like that? Of course, he could be a trust fund baby born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In case we didn’t get the whole life and death thing that the main characters wrestle with through the entire film, Schumacher makes sure we do by repeatedly lingering on statues of angels and an engraving of a man in a tug of war with Death while that damn choir sings on the soundtrack again! Hell, we even get a shot of Nelson standing right next to a statute with angel wings. Ok, Schumacher, we get it! The night scenes feature slick city streets and smoke billowing in the background for no apparent reason but it does look cool.

The film’s concept of the afterlife consists of the sins of our past – with Nelson it is accidentally killing a young boy when he was a child; Labraccio verbally abused a little girl when he was in grade school; for Rachel it was witnessing her father committing suicide; and for Joe it is all of his sexual conquests coming back to haunt him. Flatliners equates going to the afterlife with an adrenaline rush – the ultimate extreme sport. The flatline/afterlife sequences are obviously the highlight of the film and are beautifully shot by then-cinematographer, later film director, Jan de Bont who expertly utilizes the widescreen frame. He helps give the streets of Chicago a nightmarish look right out of Dante’s Inferno with alleyway fires and then switches to a cool blue look when Nelson goes through a maze of underground passages in the city subway system.

Labraccio’s afterlife sequence looks frightening enough as it takes place on an atmospherically-lit subway but becomes unintentionally funny when he is trash-talked by a little black girl. It’s supposed to be scary but illicits belly laughs as opposed to chills. Much more successful is Rachel’s nightmarish visions of her father’s suicide. She interrupts him in a bathroom saturated with hellish red light as he shoots himself up with heroin. Roberts’ reaction to this primal scene is pretty bad as her attempt at emoting fails. The most extravagant afterlife sequences are reserved for Nelson, of course, because he is the central protagonist. His childhood nemesis is much more intimidating because of his vengeful demeanor.

Then-unknown Boston screenwriter Peter Filardi got the idea for Flatliners in 1988 based on two sources of inspiration. A close friend of his had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia after an operation and had a near-death experience. Filardi was shaken up by what had happened and it “shook up my imagination too.” He realized that death hadn’t really been explored for his twentysomething generation and thought, “What is more intriguing than death itself?” He wrote the script during the Irangate scandal and the United States elections with words like “accountability” being used a lot. From this, he conceived of a group of “young, ‘90s kids who would learn a lesson,” from experimenting with death. He researched medical technology and CPR techniques. Filardi wrote the first draft in two months but wasn’t sure if it was ready to be read. He continued to work on it while writing screenplays for television.

Meanwhile, his former agent Ben Conway shopped the Flatliners script around Hollywood in January 1989 where it quickly became a hot commodity with a six-figure bidding war breaking out among several major producers. In one week, five bids were received with producer Scott Rudin, who had a production deal with Columbia Pictures, coming out on top. However, he reportedly violated protocol by bidding against another producer on the lot – Michael Douglas and his production company Stonebridge Entertainment. Then studio president Dawn Steel stepped in and gave the project to Douglas while Rudin left Columbia for Paramount Studios. Douglas sent the script to director Joel Schumacher during the summer of ’89. The director was in pre-production on his passion project, an adaptation of the Phantom of the Opera, but found himself drawn to the themes of atonement and forgiveness in Filardi’s script.

Schumacher was hired to direct and worked with Filardi to fine-tune the script, including changing the setting. The screenwriter had originally set it in his hometown of Boston but the director changed it to Chicago because he preferred the locations. Filardi also originally envisioned a more realistic approach but Schumacher went for a more Gothic look. Before the start of principal photography, Filardi asked Schumacher about this and the director told him, “I want the film to look as daring as the characters are daring.” To his credit, the director had the screenwriter on set every day doing rewrites when necessary and listening to actors’ suggestions, sometimes incorporating them into the dialogue. To prepare for the film, Schumacher read books on near-death experiences and listened to tapes of people relating their experiences. The cast did some medical research and acquired video tapes of medical procedures. There was also a doctor and a nurse on standby when the actors were on set dealing with needles and CPR equipment.

Flatliners enjoyed most positive reviews among mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “There were some hazards in this project – with the wrong note, they easily could look silly – and yet they take their chances and pull it off. Flatliners is an original, intelligent thriller, well-directed by Joel Schumacher. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “But when taken on its own stylish terms, Flatliners is greatly entertaining. Viewers are likely to go along with this film instantly or else ridicule it to death. Its atmospheric approach doesn't admit much middle ground. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Flatliners is a heart-stopping, breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie that takes off where Dracula and Dante left off and CPR began.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “The cast is similarly exemplary, a quintet of outstanding equals, and for all the deadliness of its conservative conclusion, Peter Filardi’s script, his first to be produced, is alive with smart med school talk.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Director Joel Schumacher taps his strengths: the ensemble work of St. Elmo’s Fire combined with the neo-gothic scares of The Lost Boys.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Julia Roberts' fans will be disappointed to see that her follow-up to Pretty Woman (this one was made before anyone knew she was a star) is such a dud, and that she has a relatively minor role in it. The part doesn't give her much of a chance — but then she doesn't do much with it except to stand around and look beautiful and concerned.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington felt that the cast was trapped “in this great cavernous museum of a movie, with a dry little pea of an idea rattling down echoing hallways. It almost seems a cheat that the filmmakers don't show any inkling that emptiness and flashy camp may tinge their ‘philosophy.’”

It may seem like I’m criticizing Flatliners for its unrealistic stylistic flourishes but they are an important reason why I continue to be fascinated with this film after all these years. It is such a product of its times and has a fantastic premise as well. It’s hard to sympathize with most of these characters because they are self-absorbed in nature and so it is up to the actors and their natural charisma to get us to care about what happens to them, hence the casting of people like Bacon, Roberts and Sutherland who were all popular movie stars at the time. Roberts and Sutherland in particular were front and center on the pop culture radar having recently become romantically involved during filming. Ultimately, Flatliners is about sins that must be absolved and perceived guilt that must be eliminated. Both of which stem from their respective childhoods. Once they confront the sources of these issues and apologize or get closure only then are they able to be redeemed.

 
For further reading, check out Erich Kuersten's awesome review over at his blog, Acidemic. His article is actually what inspired me to write my own.


SOURCES

Emerson, Jim. “To Sutherland Work is More Than a Job.” Orange County Register. August 7, 1990.

Fox, David J. “Flatliners Rookie Writer Hits It Big.” Los Angeles Times. August 7, 1990.

Stanley, John. “Flatliners New Writer is Dead-On.” San Francisco Chronicle. August 5, 1990.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “At the Movies: Life and Death.” The New York Times. August 10, 1990.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Domino

Tony Scott has had a wildly uneven yet fascinating career that has seen him dabble in art house horror (The Hunger), jingoistic propaganda (Top Gun), and the buddy action film (The Last Boy Scout). He has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, Ridley, who makes epic, prestige films with A-list movie stars. Tony, on the other hand, has a more B-movie sensibility but is able to realize his films with large budgets and marquee names like Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, and Denzel Washington. The studios like him because of the talent he attracts and his films consistently make money. In the 2000’s, he reinvented the look of his films with Man on Fire (2004) in an attempt to stay relevant with younger audiences with limited attention spans and raised on music videos, but risked alienating fans of his past films. The result was an intensely fractured editing style that propelled action thrillers like Domino (2005) and Déjà Vu (2006). It got to the point where this hyperactive editing began to distract from the narratives of his films. However, with Domino this approach oddly enough works because the film’s style attempts to approximate its protagonist’s stream of consciousness. After all, she narrates her own story and so most of the film is told from her point-of-view.


Film director John Ford famously said, "When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend." This certainly applies to Scott’s biopic about the life of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and supermodel Paulene Stone. Her father died when she was four-years-old and was unable to fill the void by his passing. By her teens, she had been kicked out of four elite boarding schools. At 20, she moved to Los Angeles and lived with her mother in the Hollywood Hills. She went into rehab for a drug addiction that started in her teens. Soon after, she reinvented herself and tried her hand at being a ranch hand in San Diego and a volunteer firefighter. From there, she ran a London dance club and even gave up a promising career as a model to become a bounty hunter, partnering with Ed Martinez. She helped him capture 50 fugitives and, in the process, also renewed her drug habit.

You couldn’t have created a better story and Scott and screenwriter Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) run with it, assembling a balls-out attack on the notion of celebrity that is part satire and part action film. Think of it as Scott’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Like Oliver Stone’s film, Scott throws all kinds of disparate elements into a stylish blender and what comes out is an intriguing mess of a film. Domino was blasted by critics and flopped at the box office but one has to admire the casting radically against type of Keira Knightley as Domino. She delivers one of the strongest performances of her career and is supported by Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez, a veteran actor and up-and-coming one. In turn, they are surrounded by an eclectic cast to say the least – Lucy Liu, Tom Waits, and Christopher Walken, along with Beverly Hills 90210 alumni Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green playing themselves (sort of).

The film begins with Domino (Keira Knightley) in police custody and being questioned by a criminal psychologist (Lucy Liu in an annoying cameo) and then proceeds to tell her story, about how she gave up her pampered, Beverly Hills 90210 life for that of an ass-kicking bounty hunter, through a series of flashbacks. Her father died when Domino was very young and she vowed to never let anyone get close to her again. She dabbled in modeling as Britain’s answer to Gia Carangi before her mother moved to L.A. and tried to mould her into a Beverly Hills socialite a la Paris Hilton, but Domino rebelled. These early scenes do a good job of selling Keira Knightley’s badass credentials and show how Domino got into bounty hunting. She went to a seminar and met Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two miscreants who take off with the participants’ money. Impressed by her chutzpah, Ed agrees to take her on and show her the ropes despite Choco’s reservations. Knightley, Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez play well off each other as she acts as the petulant younger sister to their older brothers – Ramirez, the macho man of few words and Rourke, the grizzled veteran with a swagger in his step.

Domino has a wicked sense of humor and this apparent in a scene that gleefully satirizes daytime talks shows by having Mo’Nique’s DMV worker go on Jerry Springer with her system of identifying mixed races entitled, the Mixed Race Categorical Flow Chart. For example, she identifies herself as Blactino (black and Latino) and then labels an audience member Chinegro (Chinese and black). This scene takes the circus-like atmosphere of Springer’s show and cranks it up another notch so that it rivals the sitcom parody in Natural Born Killers for zeroing in on one of the most ridiculous aspects of popular culture. And speaking of sending up pop culture, you have to give Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green credit for being willing to laugh at themselves in this film as they play exaggerated versions of their public personas. Scott puts their “characters” through the wringer as he pokes fun at spoiled, washed-up T.V. stars. Scott felt that the film’s story was made up of two halves: Domino’s life up to and including her decision to become a bounty hunter and her stint on a reality T.V. show. He wanted to have comedic elements in the film and the second half with Ziering and Green gave him plenty of opportunities.

All of the people around Domino want something – a book deal, money, T.V. ratings, or to boost their Hollywood reputation – but she’s not interested in any of that. The film suggests that becoming a bounty hunter was a way of rejecting her family’s privileged lifestyle. She wanted to throw that all away and do something that involved honest, hard work but even that gets corrupted when she, Ed and Choco inadvertently get roped into going after four thieves who may or may not have robbed an armored truck containing money belonging Drake Bishop (Dabney Coleman), the billionaire owner of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and who has links to mafia boss Anthony Cigliutti (Stanley Kamel). In a nice nod to the bank robbers masquerading as ex-Presidents of the United States in Point Break (1991), the armored truck robbers disguise themselves as several of the First Ladies. Eventually, our anti-heroes find themselves in a Mexican standoff reminiscent of the ones in past Scott films, True Romance (1993) and Enemy of the State (1998).

If Domino is the cinematic equivalent of an acid trip then the desert sequence is its peak. After inadvertently drinking Mescaline-dosed coffee, Domino and her crew (including her driver) crash their RV in the desert. Bruised and bloodied, Domino, Ed and Choco crawl out of the wreckage zonked out of their minds and are soon visited by none other than Tom Waits as the strains of his song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” plays on the film’s soundtrack. He calls Domino an “angel of fire” and tells her that she and her companions must sacrifice their lives so that a young child may live. Waits’ character is clearly intended to be a holy man of some sort, a shaman putting the protagonists on a righteous path and proceeds to literally drive them to their destiny. Scott saw Waits’ character as a kind of Greek chorus that apparently has some kind of psychic connection with Domino and left it ambiguous if he was real or a figment of her imagination.

Knightley’s Domino is a fascinating package: a tough, gun-toting bounty hunter who also uses her stunning looks to get what she wants, like giving a gangbanger a lap dance to get the location of a guy she’s after. While that scene shows off her body, Scott turns it around in the next one, showing Domino watching Choco strip down to his underwear in a laundromat. He lingers just as long on Ramirez’s fine, chiseled physique so there’s eye candy for everyone. Knightley’s performance in Domino almost makes you forget how she was wasted in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The actress’ natural beauty and British heritage make her an excellent, if not unconventional, choice to play a model turned bounty hunter. The big question was if should could convey the toughness required for the role and not look ridiculous holding a gun. Thanks to Scott’s stylized camerawork, Knightley certainly looks the part and her performance does the rest. This film, along with her role in The Jacket (2005), are among her strongest performances to date. Both are vastly underappreciated and amply demonstrate that she’s more than a pretty face – she as some actual acting chops if given the chance to use them.

Christopher Walken plays Mark Weiss, an energetic public relations man with an “attention span of a ferret on crystal meth,” as one character puts it, and is played with the actor’s customary gusto. It’s great to see Walken taking a break from forgettable fare that has plagued his career for years and appearing in a high profile film such as this one. His glad-handing vulture evokes Robert Downey Jr.’s vain tabloid journalist in Natural Born Killers and is nearly as entertaining. Like Mickey Rourke, Walken has done a lot of bad fllms in recent memory but his performance in Domino is one of the best he’s done in the last ten years.

The slapdash, fast and loose style of Scott’s actually works in Domino – the director messes around with the speed of the film, the color intensity and amps up the music during montage sequences in order to draw our attention to them because he is imparting crucial information. He tarts up the color of the film to garish levels that include sun-baked yellows, Palmolive liquid green and midnight blues. In doing so, Scott calls attention to the artificiality of his film. There is very little resemblance of reality in Domino and instead it resembles a fevered dream that resides in Domino’s head. Domino is densely edited with layers of images that hit us at an accelerated rate. Along with Natural Born Killers, Domino must hold the record for most insert shots in a film. In NBK, Mickey and Mallory Knox became anti-folk heroes as does Domino, Ed and Choco to the sleaze addicts in the world who watch reality shows just like the people who idolize serial killers in Oliver Stone’s film. Furthermore, there is a scene in Domino where her goldfish dies and like Mickey killing the Native American Indian, this is a pivotal turning point when things begin to go south for her.

Director Tony Scott first heard of Domino Harvey in the mid-1990’s when his business manager sent him an article about her. What really got Scott’s attention was her being actor Laurence Harvey’s daughter and that she came from a very privileged life only to turn her back on it. He immediately contacted Domino and invited her to his office. A week later, they were in discussions to make her story into a film. From the get-go, he was not interested in making a standard biopic about her life. Over the years, Scott befriended Domino and she became a surrogate daughter to him. He tried to warn her to be careful but she told him that she loved the adrenaline rush that came with the job. He also met her bounty hunting team and witnessed their dynamic together. Scott began taping interviews with her and they provided the basis of a screenplay. In 1995, she sold her life story to him for $260,000.

Scott had several screenwriters (including, reportedly, Roger Avary) attempt to adapt her life into a film but found that they were all much too straightforward for his liking. Scott saw Donnie Darko (2001), written and directed by Richard Kelly, and then read his script for Southland Tales (2007) and was taken with his “unusual and very imaginative approach in terms of his comedic elements and his darker, almost sci-fi side,” while also creating characters that were “real, breathing people.” Kelly came up with the genesis for his fictionalized take on Domino’s life while sitting at a Santa Monica Department of Motor Vehicles trying to correct an error with his driver’s license. He saw the place as a source of vast information and decided to use it as the center of each story within the film. Much like he did with Southland Tales, Kelly crafted a complex narrative that interweaved several stories with flashbacks and flashforwards. Scott described it as “a huge jigsaw puzzle. The audience has to pay attention in order to stay with all the beats of the story.”

Kelly envisioned the telling of Domino’s story as if it was a fevered dream, “a fabrication or as a satire, kind of,” and to tell it in the style of Rashomon (1950). When he interviewed the real Domino for two hours, she told him about going to summer school at Beverly Hills High and from that he wrote in the Beverly Hills 90210 aspects. He had grown up with the show and felt that “it was a lightning rod for the way teenagers were supposed to behave in the After School Special meets Rodeo Drive soap opera quality of that show.” To that end, two of its cast members – Green and Ziering came on board playing fictionalized versions of themselves.

When Scott was ready to make the film, he contacted long-time friend and producer Samuel Hadida. They had worked together previously on True Romance with Samuel’s brother Victor, but it was not a commercial hit. This did not deter the Hadida brothers from taking a gamble on Scott’s new unconventional project. They gave the director the creative freedom to make the film the way he wanted. In 2002, Samuel met Kelly while the filmmaker was distributing Donnie Darko and he told the producer that he was writing the script for Domino. A few years later, Scott contacted Hadida and told him that he was trying to get the film made and had a small window of opportunity because actress Keira Knightley was only available from October to December.

The next day, Scott sent Hadida the script and a video of several clips from past films, commercials and television shows to give an idea of the look and tone he envisioned for Domino. He also sent a copy of Man on Fire and the next day Hadida agreed to finance the new film. The producer liked Kelly’s script with its dark humor and that “it was emotional and took you for a ride, but the character was still believable and three-dimensional.” The Hadidas sent the script to New Line Cinema, a company with a reputation for making challenging films, and they were interested in working with Scott and Knightley, the latter who was coming off the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), which is where Scott first noticed her. He cast the then-20-year-old Knightley based on instinct. He felt that transforming the actress into Domino would be like the real Domino transforming herself into a bounty hunter.

In April 2004, she met Scott in Los Angeles and told him how much she loved the script with its “mad story. It’s got action, sexuality, violence, bad language … but it’s very funny.” She was excited at the chance “to do something a little crazy that I hadn’t done before.” The actress wasn’t interested in doing an imitation of Domino and Kelly’s highly fictionalized take helped in her approach to the role. Knightley actually met the real Domino a couple of times while filming Pride & Prejudice (2005). Knightley didn’t have enough prep time to study her and so Scott told the actress to make up her own character. So, Knightley based her performance on her best friend and taped interviews of the real Domino. During the last two weeks of filming Pride & Prejudice, Knightley was getting calls from Scott about costumes and other things to do with Domino and remembered, “I couldn’t get my head into it at all,” and this upset the actress because she never had this problem before. She decided to cut off most of her hair and physically rid herself of the previous film role.

Scott had known Mickey Rourke socially for years and felt that the actor shared a similar personality with the real Ed: “Mickey is the right age, he’s grown up on motorcycles and in a boxing ring.” Without hesitation, Rourke agreed to do the film. For the actor, the script didn’t come to life until he started working on it with Scott, Knightley and Ramirez. During principal photography, Rourke constantly refined his character and wanted to know more details of Ed’s backstory. In 2004, Edgar Ramirez introduced a screening of his film, Punto Y Raya (2004) to the Hollywood Foreign Press in L.A. Casting director Denise Chamian was there and suggested that Scott and Hadida meet with the actor. After doing so and conducting a screen test, the director cast him as Choco, the hot-blooded Latino bounty hunter.

For the bounty hunter details, Scott hired Zeke Unger, a 20-year bounty hunting veteran as the film’s technical adviser. He was involved during principal photography but also offered his expertise to Kelly and the three lead actors, putting them through a brief training program. Knightley had only come from her last film, Pride & Prejudice, four days before and started a two-day boot camp with Ramirez while also studying Kelly’s script, breaking it down and annotating the entire thing. Unger and his crew taught the actors about bail bonds, laws, self-defense, basic handling of firearms, marksmanship, and so on.

Filming began on October 4, 2004 in and around the L.A. area. In early December, the production moved to Las Vegas for a final total of 62 days. The pace was fast, mirroring that of the film itself, and, of course, to accommodate Knightley’s small window of availability. For the look of Domino, Scott wanted a color palette that was “all over the place,” including some shots in black and white. He wanted a “gritty, heightened reality” via brighter colors, darker blacks and whiter whites. The color palette often varied depending on the emotion of the individual scene. Scott utilized both 35mm and HD video cameras in the style of what he had done on Man on Fire. Scott also relied on multiple sources of inspiration, including magazines, newspapers, books, and magazines – building a reference library for his crew to draw from. He used frenetic camera movement and different film stocks to mirror what he described as the “21st century mindset” of the script, according to the film’s cinematographer Dan Mindel. To achieve the kinetic feel Scott wanted, Mindel employed hand crank cameras to shoot multiple exposures, which gave a distinctive look that came from varying exposures due to the inaccuracy of the camera speed. Many scenes utilized four to six cameras at a time in order to cut down on the number of takes the actors would have to do and to avoid having to go back for more coverage or inserts.

While Scott’s film was being made, the real Domino faced federal drug trafficking charges and a possible ten-year prison term. She was convinced that she had been set up. She told her former bounty hunting partner Ed Martinez that she wanted to make a documentary about her life in response to the highly fictionalized Scott film. She had been on the film set often, appearing briefly on-screen at the end, and even acted as a technical consultant. It was widely reported in the British press that according to an anonymous friend and her mother she was not pleased with how she was portrayed as purely heterosexual when she wasn’t and the liberties Kelly’s script took with her life. However, friends and family claim that she was happy with it. Domino died of a drug overdose on June 27, 2005. According to Scott, Domino never got to see the finished film but did see parts of it and loved what she saw.

Domino was very nearly universally despised by critics. In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday felt that the film was “occasionally funny and visually arresting, amount to absolutely nothing.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “You can't accuse this film of bogging down in cheap psychology, yet you come out dissatisfied and without a clue about what made this person tick.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Is a movie that works as hard to be badass as Domino does a contradiction in terms? As a packaged sensory onslaught of girl-gunslinger nihilism, Scott's film would seem to have everything, yet taken simply as entertainment, it is dreadful: less cool than ice-cold, its violence too dissociated to inspire a decadent tremor of excitement.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Of course, if you care about things like logic and coherence, you probably shouldn't be watching Domino in the first place. Its director, the flamboyant Tony Scott, says, ‘This movie is about heightened reality,’ which means it's a chance for him to blow things up, employ a lot of stunt people and fool around with a variety of film stocks and processing techniques.”

Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who gave it a favorable review with a three star rating: “Did I admire Domino? In a sneaky way, yes. It's fractured and maddening, but it's alive. It begins with the materials of a perfectly conventional thriller. It heeds Godard's rule that ‘all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.’” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis also gave the film a positive review: “What makes Domino the ultimate Tony Scott movie - or as a friend put it, ‘It's all the Tony Scott you could possibly want in a Tony Scott movie!’ - is its uncharacteristically sharp screenplay. Mr. Scott has worked with talented writers before, but this is the first time he has shot a film written by a screenwriter who both cops to the great enjoyment that can be had from the modern action movie - perhaps best illustrated here by the sight of Ms. Knightley unloading two machine guns at once - and blows the action-movie tropes to smithereens.”

Ultimately, it’s not important how much of Domino is true and how much of it isn’t. That’s really not the point that Scott is trying to make. This film may be his most personal one yet because of his close friendship with its subject. Coming from that perspective, he wasn’t interested in showing the more sordid side of her life – namely the raging drug habit, the going in and out of rehab, and so on – but rather he wanted this film to pay tribute to his friend by emphasizing the attributes he admired in her. One has to marvel at the chutzpah and clout Scott used to take a big chunk of someone else’s money and make a heartfelt tribute that was hated by most film critics and also bombed at the box office. Now that the dust has settled and some time has passed, Domino really needs to be re-evaluated and rediscovered for the wildly entertaining and oddly moving film that it is.


SOURCES

Domino Production Notes. 2005.

Edemariam, Aida. “She Loved Bringing in Sleazebags.” The Guardian. June 20, 2005.

“Interview: Keira Knightley & Tony Scott.” IGN. October 12, 2005.

Lee, Chris. “The Fall of a Thrill Hunter.” The Times. July 22, 2005.

Murray, Rebecca. “Richard Kelly Discusses Domino, Working with Tony Scott & Southland Tales.” About.com. August 20, 2005.