Friday, September 30, 2011

A Scanner Darkly

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.” – Bob Arctor


Over the years, many films have been made based on the science fiction novels by Philip K. Dick – some good (Blade Runner and Minority Report), but mostly bad (Paycheck and Next). However, they all share a common trait: they only remotely resemble their source material. David Cronenberg recounted a story about how he began adapting the short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” for a Hollywood studio and when he handed in his screenplay, an executive complained that it was too faithful to the source material. They wanted something like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cronenberg wasn’t interested in doing that and left the project, which became Total Recall (1990). This explains why none of Dick’s material has been accurately translated into film until A Scanner Darkly (2006).

It was adapted by filmmaker Richard Linklater, not the first person you’d think of when it comes to science fiction but he had two things going for him: he was a fan of the book and he was willing to make it independently, keeping the budget low enough that he could have creative control over the material. He was also able to assemble a very impressive cast that consisted of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder. However, his choice to utilize rotoscoping animation (where animators basically draw over live action footage) was not embraced by everyone and ended up causing Linklater all kinds of headaches in post-production. That being said, the style of animation he employed was well suited for the film’s various drug hallucinations and in realizing the scramble suit technology.

Dick’s semi-autobiographical book was first published in 1977. It was a fictionalized account of his experiences with the 1970’s drug culture. Between 1970 and 1972, after his fourth wife had left him, he had a rotating group of predominantly teenage drug users living semi-communally at his home in Marin County. At this time, he had stopped writing completely and became hooked on amphetamines. A turning point in Dick’s life came in early ‘72 when he delivered a speech at a Vancouver science fiction convention entitled, “The Android and the Human.” The speech was the genesis of recurring themes and motifs that would appear in A Scanner Darkly. Around this time, his home was allegedly broken into and his papers were stolen, which fueled the paranoid vibe prevalent in the novel.

The book is about a man named Bob Arctor, who lives in a house with several other drug addicts. He is also Agent Fred, an undercover police officer assigned to spy on Arctor’s house. He protects his true identity from his fellow junkies and from the police as well – a requirement of narcotic agents is that they remain anonymous to avoid corruption. While under the guise of a drug user, Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, a strong psychoactive drug that originates from a blue flowering plant. He is also romantically involved with Donna, a drug dealer whom he plans to expose as a high-level dealer of Substance D. Arctor’s chronic use of the drug results in the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently and the book depicts his gradual disconnect from reality. Is it real or is it Substance D?

The film is set seven years in the future in Anaheim, California where 20% of the population is considered addicts. When we first meet Arctor/Fred (Keanu Reeves) he’s already struggling with his addiction to Substance D. He is addressing a local chapter of law enforcement officers and speaking about the dangers of and the war on D. Partway through his prepared speech, he veers off script and the tone of his talk shifts to a melancholic, defeated vibe, which ends things on an awkward note. He is also wearing what is called a scramble suit, which allows him to avoid being discovered by the latest voice and facial detection technology by constantly changing his appearance so that he looks like a “constantly shifting vague blur.” The film’s rotoscoping animation is perfect for realizing the suit’s technology as we see Arctor’s image constantly changing in dazzling kaleidoscope fashion.

After shedding the scramble suit, Arctor adopts his Fred persona and contacts Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), his drug connection and girlfriend, to score some narcotics. We soon meet his friends and fellow drug users: James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a motor-mouthed conspiracy theorist; Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), a twitchy paranoid-type who has clearly done too much Substance D; and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), an aggressive junkie. Arctor hopes to get close enough to Donna and discover her supplier. Can I just say what a delight it is to see the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder bounce off each other in the same scene? For example, one day Barris comes home with an 18-speed bicycle for only $50 and Luckman points out that it is in fact an 8-speed bike, which sends Barris into a tizzy as he tries to figure out what happened to the “missing” gears. It’s an amusing scene as Ryder plays straight man to the excitable Harrelson and the indignant Downey. The comic timing of the latter two actors is excellent.

Downey’s Barris, with his endless supply of elaborate conspiracy theories and paranoid ramblings about “covert terrorist drug” organizations, evokes some of the more eccentric character in Linklater’s Slacker (1991) and he would not look out of place in that film. Only Downey could impart the large chunks of dialogue Barris spouts so fast and intelligibly while also making it entertaining. It’s how he emphasizes certain words or drags one out for effect that is so fun to watch. In certain scenes Linklater wisely winds Downey up and lets him cut loose. This is particular evident in the banter between Barris and Luckman, which provides A Scanner Darkly with much-needed moments of levity so that we are not overwhelmed by the bleak lives of these characters.

Against such colorful actors like Downey and Harrelson, Reeves wisely acts low-key, only taking center stage in the scenes with minor supporting characters where Arctor is the focus. Reeves’ increasing dazed and confused expressions convey the effects Substance D is having on him. Arctor is losing his grip on reality, which is exacerbated by having to juggle two different identities. As he says at one point, “Now, in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things and surprising things, sometimes wondrous things spill out at me constantly and I can count on nothing.” Reeves has always been an easy target, his acting criticized or rejected outright but I always felt that his strength was reacting off of other actors. At times, he is the perfect blank slate for others to imprint on and this is why he is perfect for this film. His character is supposed to be observing drug users and reporting back to his superiors with his findings.

No longer the A-list darling she was in the 1990’s, Winona Ryder has wisely appeared in a number of independent films that she feels passionately about. She fits in seamlessly with this eclectic cast as the rather enigmatic Donna. She has good chemistry with Reeves while also conveying a vulnerability as Donna’s true nature is revealed towards the end of the film. As Ryder has gotten older and more experienced as an actress, her performances have improved. She seems more comfortable in her own skin. The easy-going nature of Linklater’s style of filmmaking clearly rubbed off on her as she delivers a loose performance devoid of most of her usual acting affectations.

At a certain point in the film, Arctor thinks to himself, “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.” These thoughts are conveyed via voiceover narration and echo his fear of losing identity. He is experiencing a split personality and is told that the two hemispheres of his brain are competing against one another largely due to the effects of Substance D. The theme of examining and trying to recover one’s own identity is a prevalent theme in Philip K. Dick’s fiction and this is no more apparent than in A Scanner Darkly. The horrific part of the story is that Arctor loses a sense of who he is. Drugs have destroyed his life and those around him. In a nice touch, Linklater includes an abridged version of the afterword of Dick’s novel where he lists those nearest and dearest to him who died or were permanently damaged through drug use. It ends things on a sobering yet poignant note as Linklater drives the point home on just how personal the book was to Dick. His novel and the film show the dehumanizing and punishing effects of drugs. As he puts it, “This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.”

Richard Linklater began thinking about adapting A Scanner Darkly while talking to producer Tommy Pallotta before they made Waking Life (2001) together. Initially, he had toyed with adapting another Dick novel, Ubik, but stopped early on because of a rights issue and he “couldn’t quite crack it.” He moved onto Scanner Darkly soon after because he loved the book more and felt he could make a film out of it. According to Linklater, the challenge in adapting Dick’s novel was capturing “the humor and exuberance of the book but not let go of the sad and tragic.” He was not interested in turning the novel into a big budget action thriller as had been done in the past with some of Dick’s other works because he felt that Scanner Darkly was “about these guys and what they’re all doing in their alternate world and what’s going through their minds is really what keeps the story moving.” He related to the dysfunctional makeshift family of characters that was similar to his twenties spent in Austin. He wanted to animate the film much as he did with Waking Life because he felt that there was very little animation targeted for adults.

Linklater wrote the screenplay for A Scanner Darkly after Waking Life came out. After completing School of Rock (2003), he told Pallotta he wanted to make Scanner Darkly. It was important to Linklater that Dick’s estate approved of his film. Pallotta wrote a personal appeal to Russ Galen, the Dick estate’s literary agent who in turn shared it with the late author’s two daughters, Laura Leslie and Isa Hackett. However, they weren’t too keen on “a cartoon version” of their father’s novel. After the high profile adaptations of Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003), they had taken a more proactive role in evaluating every film proposal, including unusual projects like Linklater’s. Pallotta told them that Linklater’s take would be a faithful adaptation of their father’s novel. They read the screenplay and liked it. They then met with him to discuss their respective visions of Scanner Darkly. Laura and Isa felt that the novel was one of their father’s most personal stories and liked that Linklater wasn’t going to treat the drug addiction/abuse aspects lightly. It was important to the filmmaker that he keep the budget under $10 million – that way he would have more creative control, remain faithful to the book and also make it as an animated film.

For the dual roles of Bob Arctor/Fred, Linklater thought of Keanu Reeves but figured that the actor would be burnt out from science fiction after making The Matrix trilogy. Robert Downey Jr. was attracted to the project when he heard that Reeves was going to star and Linklater to direct. He thought that the script was the strangest one he had ever read. Linklater wrote the role of Charles Freck with Rory Cochrane in mind. The actor was interested but didn’t want to recreate his Dazed and Confused (1993) role. Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder both agreed to do the film based on the script. Although, for the actress, she had a personal connection to the material – her godfather, counterculture guru Timothy Leary, had been friends with Dick, as was her father. Her and Reeves felt so passionately about the project that they agreed to work for the Screen Actors Guild scale rate plus any backend profits.

Linklater assembled the cast for two weeks of rehearsals in Austin, Texas before principal photography began in order to fine tune the script and get input from the actors. The shooting script became a fusion of Linklater’s take on the material, the novel and the actors’ input. Principal photography began on May 17, 2004 on a budget of $6.7 million and lasted six weeks. To prepare for their roles, Cochrane came up with his character five minutes before he got on the elevator to work while Downey memorized his dialogue by writing it all out in run-on sentences, then converting them to acronyms. Meanwhile, Reeves relied on the novel, marking down each scene to its corresponding page.

Finding Arctor’s house for the film proved to be a challenge with the filmmakers looking at 60 houses before they found the right one, located in southeast Austin. The previous tenants had left a month prior to filming and left the place in such a state that production designer Bruce Curtis had to make improvements so that it looked like Arctor’s run-down home. Linklater actually shot a lot of exteriors in Anaheim, California (where the story is set) and then composited them into the Austin footage during post-production. Dick’s daughters visited the set during filming and spoke with the principal cast and crew members. They made Laura and Isa feel like they were a part of the production. Since everything would be animated over later, makeup, lighting and visible equipment like boom microphones were less of a concern. However, cinematographer Shane Kelly carefully composed shots and used a color palette with the animators in mind. Sometimes they would show up to the set and tell Kelly what they needed.

After principal photography was finished, A Scanner Darkly was transferred to Quicktime for a 15-month animation process known as interpolated rotoscoping. It allowed the animators to paint over the live-action footage so that they didn’t have to hand-draw each line in every frame. The computer connected fluid lines and brush strokes across a wide range of frames. The technique differed from Waking Life in that the “one scene could be wildly different than the one that followed but on this film, we were always thinking in terms of a graphic novel that would have a similar design throughout,” said Linklater in an interview. It took up to 500 hours to animate one minute of film with 30 people working full-time every day.

To say that it was a trying process for Linklater is an understatement: “I know how to make a movie, but I don’t really know how to handle the animation.” The filmmakers used the same animation software that was utilized on Waking Life, created by MIT graduate Bob Sabiston. He updated it for A Scanner Darkly. Most of the animators were hired locally with only a few of the 30 people having moviemaking experience. Six weeks into the process and only a few animated sequences were completed while Linklater was off filming Bad News Bears (2005). Sabiston had divided the animators into five teams and split the work amongst them.

However, there was poor communication between the teams and the uniform animation style that Linklater wanted was not being implemented. After almost two months, some animators were still learning the software and he became frustrated with the lack of progress. In late November 2004, the head of Warner Independent Pictures Mark Gill asked for a status report. It was not good. There were no finished sequences as the entire film was being animated at once as opposed to from beginning to end. Under pressure, some animators worked 18-hour days for two weeks to produce a trailer and this seemed to appease Gill and Linklater.

Sabiston and his team were falling behind schedule and reportedly asked for more time, money and staff. This created tension and one Friday in February 2005, while Sabiston and his four-person core team were strategizing at a local café, Pallotta changed the locks and seized their workstations, replacing him with two local artists, Jason Archer and Paul Beck. The studio increased the film’s budget to $8.7 million and gave Linklater six more months to finish. Pallotta took charge of the animation process and instituted a more traditional Disney-esque production ethic: creating a style manual, having strict deadlines and breaking the film up into even smaller segments. The animation process lasted 15 months. On the post-production problems, Linklater said, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there … changes took place during the early stages of us really getting going on this that had everything to do with management and not art. It was a budgetary concern, essentially.” I think it’s safe to say that after everything he went through on Scanner Darkly we aren’t going to see Linklater make another animated film any time soon.

Originally, A Scanner Darkly was supposed to be released in September 2005. However, due to the lengthy post-production delays, a test screening was scheduled for December and that went reasonably well with a temporary soundtrack that was entirely comprised of Radiohead songs. A revised release date was set for March 31, 2006, but Gill felt that there wasn’t enough time to mount a proper promotional campaign and the date was pushed back to July 7th, putting it up against Pixar’s Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

A Scanner Darkly received mixed to positive reviews. In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “In the final analysis, A Scanner Darkly provides a stylish peek at the future, which will probably be even more discouraging than the present—or have you stopped looking at the news too? Mr. Linklater emerges once again as the Austin auteur par excellence, even if A Scanner Darkly is set in a ratty precinct of Orange County.” Empire magazine’s Kim Newman gave the film four out of five stars and praised Linklater’s take on the material: “For a start, he is the first director since Ridley Scott to take one of Dick’s major novels as a source; moreover, he might well be the first director ever to feel Dick is worth a faithful adaptation rather than the source for a handful of cool ideas that could be stripped while the rest of the matter got thrown away.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson concurred: “He infuses Scanner with the goofy spirit that enlivened his early films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused. His comic scenes are funny on the surface, certainly, but they're symptomatic of a civilization that's disintegrating.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “What's extraordinary about Linklater's animation, computer-rotoscoped in the fashion of his 2001 Waking Life, is just how tangible the Dickian labyrinth becomes.”

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wasn’t totally sold on Linklater’s decision to utilize rotoscoping animation: “Rotoscoping makes certain sense for a film about cognitive dissonance and alternative realities, though both the vocal and gestural performances by Mr. Reeves, Mr. Harrelson and, in particular, the wonderful Mr. Downey make me wish that we were watching them in live action.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In A Scanner Darkly, we're watching other people freak out, but the film is maddening to sit through because their freak-outs never become ours.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “The movie itself is often startling and engrossing, but the question of what the heck is going on, and why, is never entirely absent from your mind.”

The rotoscope animation adds to the druggy atmosphere of A Scanner Darkly and is particularly effective during the moments when the characters have drug-induced hallucinations. The animation isn’t photo-realistic by any means but rather more impressionistic in nature, creating the notion that none of what we are seeing may be real, that it may exist only in Arctor’s fevered, drug-addled imagination. However, the style of animation limited the film’s mainstream appeal – that, and the stigma of animation being for kids only made it one of the more expensive cult films in recent memory. Linklater’s refusal to water down the material and make it more palatable for a mainstream audience also accounts for its marginalized status while also making it one of the most faithful and best Philip K. Dick adaptations ever put on film.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Cop

During the 1980’s, actor James Woods had a fantastic run of diverse, low-budget genre films that included Salvador (1986), Best Seller (1987), True Believer (1989), and Cop (1988), perhaps the most under-appreciated one of them all. It is a fast and loose adaptation of James Ellroy’s crime novel Blood on the Moon and features Woods playing another abrasive, unlikable character but it is the actor’s riveting performance that keeps us invested in the film. Unfortunately, not many people thought so as they were probably put off by the film’s rather negative view of women. Cop was given a limited release and what critics saw it were not impressed. Yet, it is Woods’ uncompromising performance, matched by writer/director James B. Harris’ willingness to fully immerse us in a homicide detective’s grim world that makes this a compelling film.


We meet Lloyd Hopkins (James Woods) in his element – going through several open cases with a clueless underling. In a matter of minutes he has told his subordinate what to do on each of them before answering a call about a homicide. He’s the first to arrive on the scene and Harris sets quite a tense mood as we don’t know what Hopkins is going to find. We dread that it’s going to be something gruesome and the film doesn’t disappoint: a woman has been brutally murdered. We see Hopkins methodically look around for clues and Woods shows how quickly this case has gotten a hold on his character. The actor also shows Hopkins thinking about what he’s seen and how he’s already contemplating his next move.

Harris juxtaposes this grim scene with a lighter moment as Hopkins returns home to say goodnight to his wise-beyond-her-years eight-year-old little girl (she can instantly tell he’s had a bad day). Quite surprisingly, he doesn’t sugarcoat things, telling the child (Vicki Wauchope) that the world is a “shit storm” and that she has to “develop claws to fight it.” She begs him to tell her a bedtime story and he gleefully tells her about a series of drug robberies he helped bust like he was telling her a child’s fairy tale. At one point she even says, “Tell me how you got the scumbag, daddy.” It’s a hilariously darkly comic scene that is sweet and disturbing simultaneously. When Hopkins’ wife (Jan McGill) chastises him for corrupting their child, he goes on an impressive rant about how he’s preparing her for the harsh, cruel world full of disappointment and where “innocence kills” as he puts it so succinctly. She replies with what most of us are probably thinking, “Lloyd, I think you’re a very sick man.” Hopkins is obviously a cop that takes his work home with him and one has to kind of admire his decision not to sugarcoat things for his daughter but on the other hand maybe he could’ve waited a couple of years.

After his wife goes off in disgust, Hopkins gets a call about a robbery suspect. He enlists the help of his old partner Dutch (Charles Durning) and is absolutely giddy at the prospect of busting a crook rather than stay home. He’s one of those guys obsessed with his work. However, ethics aren’t high on the man’s list of virtues as he’s not above having sex with women he meets on cases he’s investigating. Everything, including his family, who leaves him, takes a backseat to catching a serial killer. The film shows Hopkins doing the legwork required – tracking down leads, questioning known associates, analyzing evidence, going through unsolved cases, and so on. He finally gets a break, finding a poem sent to the murder victim from the killer that implies he’s killed before. However, Hopkins’ boss (Raymond J. Barry) isn’t convinced about his serial killer theory and rightly so as all the detective has is a gut feeling and a pretty wild but convincing theory but he’s going to need some hard evidence. Hopkins’ research leads him to the owner (Lesley Ann Warren) of a feminist bookstore. She seems standoffish at first but once the detective works his charms he’s taking her to a party at Dutch’s house, which is full of cops. She ends becoming an integral component in the case and to uncovering the identity of the killer.

Woods brings his trademark intensity to the role. Hopkins is someone who only cares about what people can do for him. He uses both men and women – the former to help him and the latter for sex. For example, he uses Dutch to grease the political wheels with his clout and doesn’t give him anything back in return except for trouble from their boss. Hopkins is estranged from his wife and it becomes readily apparent that all he has is his work and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. For example, he hardly reacts to his family leaving him and quickly dives back into the case he’s investigating. Ever the fearless actor, Woods doesn’t shy away from Hopkins’ unsavory aspects but really tries to show us what motivates this guy. He’s just as obsessed with women as the serial killer only he wants to protect them whereas the killer wants to destroy them. It is this aspect that is perhaps the most troubling thing about Cop – its negative portrayal of women. For example, it takes Lesley Ann Warren’s strong feminist character and by the end reduces her to a teary victim. Women like his wife are merely obstacles that get in Hopkins’ way or there to be used, which, in some respects, makes him no better than the killer.

Not surprisingly, Cop received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “They might think this is simply a violent, sick, contrived exploitation picture, and that would certainly be an accurate description of its surfaces. But Woods operates in this movie almost as if he were writing his own footnotes. He uses his personality, his voice and his quirky sense of humor to undermine the material and comment on it, until Cop becomes an essay on this whole genre of movie.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised James Wood’s performance: “Far and away the best thing about it is Mr. Woods, who served as co-producer and demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes great movie detectives great. Even in less-than-sparkling surroundings, he can talk tough with the best of them.” The London Times’ David Robinson wrote, “The script is taut and sharp and the casting exemplary.”

Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “But Cop's worst malefaction is a ‘feminist’ character played by Lesley Ann Warren. Poor Warren, a stylish, witty actress, can do nothing at all with what just be the most embarrassingly inane female character in recent screen history.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen wrote, “Speaking of cheap tricks, what about that serial killer stuff? Well, stalled in second gear, the plot gets pushed forward by a helpful gang of wild coincidences. And when even that fails, it simply lumbers on in logic-defying lurches.”

One has to admire Harris and Woods for refusing to water down Hopkins one iota. He’s a prickly, confident amoral cop who is also smart and driven. Harris got his start producing films for a young Stanley Kubrick and applies the no-nonsense approach of those early films to Cop. His meat and potatoes style of direction works well with this stripped-down police procedural and this includes the equally direct (and generic) title of the film. What could have been a standard thriller is transformed into a study about obsession, both the killer and the cop pursuing him. Harris’ screenplay really captures how one imagines cops talk and act around each other in a way that feels authentic. Cop delves into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles with unflinching honesty – think of this as the west coast answer to Sidney Lumet’s New York City police procedurals. Harris and Woods have created an engrossing thriller about twisted obsession and its destructive effects. What could have been a typical loose cannon cop character is transformed into something else by Woods who is not afraid to go to dark places and make no excuses for a flawed character that takes the Dirty Harry archetype to extremes. Cop is a grimy B-movie that is refreshingly free of compromise, right down to a memorable punchline ending during the climactic showdown between Hopkins and the killer that helps elevate it from most generic thrillers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Hickey & Boggs

It has been well-documented how the 1970’s were a golden age for American cinema with many risky and unusual films being made and released through a Hollywood studio system in disarray after the surprise breakthrough success of Easy Rider (1969). One of the lesser-known gems from this era is the gritty detective film Hickey & Boggs (1972). Directed by actor Robert Culp, it is notable for reuniting him with comedian Bill Cosby, both of whom enjoyed considerable success on the popular 1960’s television series I Spy. People expecting the same kind of fun, exciting vibe from that show to be carried over to this film would be very disappointed as Culp served up a dark, violent tale of two down on their luck private investigators who get in way over their heads.


Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Robert Culp) are two downtrodden private investigators coasting through life until they are hired to find a missing woman. Hickey’s first lead ends with a dead body, killed by the woman who is also linked to an armed robbery, which is of interest to local mobster Mr. Brill (Robert Mandan) and his right-hand man Ballard (Michael Moriarty). As the film progresses, we learn more about the missing woman and her motivation, which propels the narrative and also adds a tragic dimension to the story. Hickey and Boggs start off not caring about anything but as their case progresses it becomes personal and they have something to fight for even if it is only revenge, which can only end in a bloody confrontation.

Walter Hill’s stripped-down screenplay gives us brief glimpses into Hickey and Boggs’ private lives. Hickey is estranged from his wife and kid while Boggs is an alcoholic who enjoys the company of prostitutes. Hill has always adhered to the less is more school of thought and Culp seems to understand this, complimenting the lean script with no-nonsense direction. Culp employs Hill’s trademark economy of style so well that Hickey & Boggs could be Hill’s long lost film. Yet, Culp still employs nice, little touches, like how Boggs always puts a paper bag that reads, “Out of Order” over every parking meter he leaves their car in front of.

For people that only know Bill Cosby as his cute and cuddly curmudgeonly dad in the 1980’s sitcom The Cosby Show, they will be in for quite a surprise with his turn in Hickey & Boggs as an all-business detective. He is especially effective in the last third of the film when his character takes a decidedly darker turn for the worse. Robert Culp is his ideal foil. Obviously, they had cultivated excellent chemistry with I Spy and this continues with Hickey & Boggs. They epitomize the world-weary private investigator but with a cynical ‘70s spin. These guys aren’t particularly noble – they have a job to get done and that’s it.

One of the hallmarks of a lot of crime films done in the ‘70s is the casting of actors that actually look and act like tough guys. Just think of the criminals that populate The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) or The Outfit (1973). Hickey & Boggs is no different with the trio of thugs that repeatedly cross paths with our two protagonists. They really look like guys that could mess you up without a moment’s hesitation. They exude natural menace, which enhances all of the scenes they’re in. Look close and you’ll spot character actors Vincent Gardenia, Michael Moriarty and a young, very geeky looking James Woods in key roles.

Hickey & Boggs is one of the more underrated detective films of the ‘70s but it deserves to be mentioned among the best of that era along with the likes of The Long Goodbye (1973) and Night Moves (1975). Much like those films, it takes the private investigator archetype and tears it down in a way that reflects how jaded and cynical people had become during that decade. For some time the film was hard to obtain on home video and then eventually surfaced on DVD with a horrible transfer. In recent years, a beautiful copy has shown up on MGM’s HD Channel and has now finally been released via their MOD DVD program with the same exquisite transfer. Do yourself a favor and check out this under-appreciated gem of a film.

 
For other excellent takes on this film, check out Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur, also Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer, and Obscure One-Sheet.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Contagion

For over two decades, director Steven Soderbergh has gone back and forth from independent to studio films with personal, experimental efforts like Schizopolis (1996) and big budget crowd pleasers like Erin Brockovich (2000). He’s fashioned himself something of a journeyman director trying his hand at a variety of genres over the years, from period history (King of the Hill) to the heist film (Ocean’s Eleven) to the war movie (Che), adopting a distinctive style for each one. With Contagion (2011), he can now add the disaster movie to the list. This film deals specifically with the deadly virus subgenre as he tracks an infectious disease that affects the entire world with alarming speed. Would Soderbergh go the high road with thought-provoking science fiction a la The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), or would he go the low-budget horror B-movie route like The Crazies (1973) and Warning Sign (1985)? Whereas most of these films rely on horror and science fiction tropes, Soderbergh eschews them for a much more realistic take, albeit with a sly wink to the master of disaster films, Irwin Allen by populating Contagion with a star-studded cast of A-listers (many of whom have either won or been nominated for Academy Awards) only to kill some of them off. However, this is where the similarities begin and end as Soderbergh applies the Traffic (2000) aesthetic, juggling multiple characters and storylines to show how technology not only helps identify the threat quickly but also helps it spread rapidly thanks to globalization and disinformation.


The film starts off on Day 2 of the outbreak with infected people in England, Japan and Hong Kong where we meet Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a business trip. She comes home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and family in Minneapolis suffering from what seems like flu-like symptoms. She assumes that it is nothing more than jetlag but within a day she and her son are dead. The doctors can’t tell Mitch why they died and he’s left to take care of his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) on his own. The World Health Organization in Geneva begins to identify all the cities where victims of the MEV-1 virus are appearing and are trying in vain to contain it. They send Dr. Lenora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Hong Kong in an attempt to track down the origins of the virus. Meanwhile, muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) posts a clip of a man collapsing on a train in Japan and tries to peddle it to a newspaper in San Francisco but they aren’t interested. However, he soon assembles an impressive global readership that hangs on his every opinion and conspiracy theory, which not only spreads disinformation but also draws the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is leading an investigation into the outbreak in the United States and enlists the help of Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) who travels to Minneapolis and investigates Beth Emhoff’s death. Their goal is to try and control the spread of the virus.

Soderbergh shows how the CDC interact with local and national governing bodies to identify and deal with the virus while also taking us inside their laboratories where Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) is working hard to find a vaccine. Soon, Homeland Security steps in and their representative (Bryan Cranston) meets with Cheever to raise concerns that the virus could be weaponized and used by terrorists to attack the United States. However, it soon becomes apparent that the problem is much more serious, affecting a large portion of the world. Soderbergh inserts all kinds of shots of people’s hands interacting with objects and other people. Every time someone coughs you wonder is this person sick and are they spreading the virus to others?

The always-reliable Matt Damon is Contagion’s emotional core, playing the character we get to know the best and therefore care about what happens to the most. He is heartbreaking early on as Mitch watches both his wife and son die and then finds out that his spouse was also cheating on him. He then has to pull it together and take care of his daughter. Damon is given moments to show how the strain of this all is taking its toll on Mitch and the actor really grounds the film in something tangible for the audience to hold onto. Think of him as the equivalent to Benicio del Toro’s soulful border cop in Traffic. Damon is so good as the relatable everyman trying to deal with things as best he can. Without him, Contagion would come across as a little too cold and clinical.

With the help of Cliff Martinez’s brooding, atmospheric electronic score, Soderbergh gradually cranks up the dread as the virus spreads and the situation gets increasingly worse as order breaks down – bureaucratically and then everything else follows in a domino effect with looting and rioting as people think about protecting themselves. Soon, we are hit with sobering apocalyptic imagery that starts off with deserted city streets filled with garbage and abandoned cars to government officials filling mass graves with scores of dead bodies.

Soderbergh is clearly drawing a parallel between the virus and technology, both of which spread great distances and in very little time thanks to cell phones and the Internet. He explores the notion of community breaking down with people becoming isolated, even more so thanks to technology. The film matches this speed by maintaining a brisk pace but does allow for the occasional moment where key characters reflect on what’s happening and how it affects not only them but their loved ones, co-workers, and so on. It is these moments where Scott Z. Burns’ smart, ambitious screenplay shines, allowing archetypes, like Laurence Fishburne’s no-nonsense executive, to show their human frailties.

Burns has clearly done his homework as he presents a scarily plausible viral outbreak based on the rare Nipah virus, which spread from pigs to farmers in Malaysia in the late 1990’s. Contagion is eerily relevant as it evokes real-life outbreaks like SARS, avian flu and the H1N1 swine flu, several of which are mentioned in the film. The script also shows the reaction to an outbreak on a personal level with Mitch and his daughter while also showing its global impact when the fear of transmitting the virus takes hold. This is important because the film throws around a lot of technical jargon and dispenses a lot of facts but Soderbergh has wisely enlisted an all-star cast to make it more palatable. Contagion is not the horror film Soderbergh has suggested it might be, nor is it Hollywood fluff like Outbreak (1995), but rather a slick, sophisticated disaster movie that should provide the director with his first substantial commercial hit in years.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Rebel Without a Cause

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Nicholas Ray Blogathon run by Tony Dayoub over at Cinema Viewfinder.

"What can you do when you have to be a man?"
- Jim Stark

When Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause was first released in 1955, critics read the film as a statement on how the confused, misunderstood youth of the day viewed society. The film was labeled a juvenile delinquent picture with its star, James Dean, becoming a spokesman for disaffected youth everywhere. Rebel Without a Cause can also be read on a more oblique level. The film presents a classic Oedipal narrative in the form of Jim Stark's dysfunctional family where the mother (Ann Doran) is seen as overpowering presence who dominates all the males, in particular the father (Jim Backus). Jim (James Dean) throughout the film searches for an ideal father figure to look to for guidance, to show him what it takes to "be a man" and to understand what constitutes an ideal man.


Early on in the film Ray shows how Jim's family life operates. Pulled in for public drunkenness, he confronts his parents who arrive to bail him out. Jim's mother and grandmother (Virginia Brissac) dominate the conversation with the former questioning everything the father says. Jim is clearly agitated by this "zoo," as he later tells Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), the tolerant police officer, but is unable to do anything because of his father's weak will. Once alone with the Ray, Jim reveals that his family avoids any problems, moving when Jim gets into trouble. As Jim remarks, "they think they can protect me by moving around." Ray gets Jim to open up and admit that his parents are the real source of the problem when he says, "She eats him alive and he takes it." Jim sees his father as a weak man who cannot stand up for himself. As Jim sees it, if his father would only stand up to his mother, "and knock mom cold," and be a man, then he would feel more confident about his family and himself.

Ray constantly stresses the powerful presence of the mother figure throughout this scene by not only showing an actual conversation between all the family members, where she clearly dominates, but even when Jim is removed from them. He spies at them through a peephole in the Fremick's office and sees that his mother is still hounding his father. No matter how hard he tries, Jim cannot escape his mixed up family life. Ray shows that the police officer can still be strong, but also gentle and kind to the young man by having the lawman change his attitude partway through their conversation. The cop seems strict and uncaring at first, but after Jim cools off he is understanding and helpful. Fremick is presented as a stronger, more attractive male role model for Jim to follow than his own father who cowers under the glare of his wife. This scene also verifies Jim's lack of a strong male role model. His father is clearly not Jim's idea of an ideal man and he says as much when he tells Fremick, "I never want to be like him." Jim must somehow fill this void and resolve his situation at home.

Ray presents several tests of masculinity in Rebel Without a Cause that Jim must solve and lead to a solution to his lack of a male role model. One such test is the "chickie run" that Jim has against Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen). The "chickie run" is clearly a test of honor, a test of manhood that Jim must face, and he looks to his father for help when he asks, "What can you do when you have to be a man?" This line seems almost comical as his father is shown wearing an apron over his suit and carrying a tray of food to his sick wife. Jim's father hardly fits the ideal image of a "man" in his ridiculous state. To further complicate matters, the father cannot answer Jim's question. Instead, he merely babbles on about nothing and Jim flees the house in frustration to face his test without any guidance from anyone. He must rely on his own instincts because his father cannot even give him advice. The apron gives Jim's father a more feminized appearance that confuses Jim even more. Jim must become his own man as he has no one else to show him how.

After the disastrous "chickie run," Jim returns home and tells his parents what happened. Tired and confused, Jim wants desperately to engage his dozing father in a conversation, but is interrupted by his mother. Ray depicts the confusion of Jim's character in this scene by showing the mother's entrance from Jim's point of view. Jim sees his mother coming down the stairs, upside down, the camera moving in counter-clockwise fashion until righted with a 180 degree pan. The mother is clearly intruding on the talk between Jim and his father. Jim becomes trapped by his parents during the course of this "three-way verbal brawl." Once again, the mother eclipses the conversation, blaming Jim for all the moving around they have done. Ray emphasizes the mother's dominate position by placing her on the staircase looking down at Jim and her husband. A low angle shot is also used so that she towers over the two men even more, making them look impotent and insignificant. Jim looks to his father for guidance, to stand up for him, but he is too weak in the face of such overwhelming superiority. Jim explodes in Oedipal rage and begins strangling and in effect, "killing" his own father. His mother intervenes and Jim blindly runs out into the night.

Another test of masculinity that Jim faces in the film is his relationship with Plato (Sal Mineo). From the start of the film it is clear that Plato also lacks a strong father figure. In fact, Plato lacks both a father and a mother with only an African American housekeeper (Marietta Canty) to help him grow up. Throughout the film Plato gazes longingly at Jim with almost homoerotic intensity. Plato's gaze symbolizes his desire for a idealized father figure that first manifests itself in the form of a picture of Alan Ladd in his locker, and which later is transferred to Jim. This transfer takes place at the "chickie run" when Plato talks to Judy (Natalie Wood) about Jim. Plato begins talking about Jim as if he were already his father when he tells Judy that "maybe next Sunday he'll take me fishing." Plato sees Jim as a father he never had and wishes he had, and he says as much to Jim after the "chickie run." Jim rejects this classification and leaves Plato to go back to his empty home. Jim cannot be a surrogate father to Plato when he does not even know how to be a man himself. Ironically, Plato does not see Fremick at the beginning of the film like Judy and Jim, which may account for his death at the end of the film. Plato was not shown the kindness and understanding that Judy and Jim where and this results in his own destruction.

Perhaps the most telling point in the film is when Jim, Judy, and Plato take refuge in an old, abandoned mansion. Ray takes this opportunity to comment on the whole notion of family and an ideal man. Upon arriving at the mansion, the three teenagers take a mock tour of the site with Jim and Judy posing as newlyweds and Plato acting as a tour guide. Everyone hams up their respective roles, presenting a mock parody of the family as they act out their idea of their parents' attitudes towards them. Jim and Judy become Plato's family as in reality he has no family save a housekeeper. When Judy does ask about Plato's family, in particular his father, he replies, "He was a hero in the China Sea." Jim realizes that Plato is lying, that this is only an idealized image of a father he wishes he had. Later, when Jim and Judy are alone, she reveals that Plato was talking about him in the same way, that he wishes Jim was his father. This statement reinforces the belief that Plato views Jim and Judy, particularly Jim, as parental figures, the only people he can look to for direction in his life. Judy also tells Jim her idea of the perfect man as someone who "can be gentle and sweet," but also strong. She could easily be describing Jim who has both a strong, masculine side as shown in the knife fight and the "chickie run," and a gentle, sweet side when he is with her or Plato. Judy could also be describing Fremick, the police officer who is also seen at the beginning of the film to be strong and masculine in dealing with both Judy and Jim while also being understanding and sympathetic to their plights.

At the end of the film Judy and Jim survive, but Plato is gunned down by the police. Jim and Judy's situations are salvageable because they belong to families, as dysfunctional as they may seem, they are complete families with the possibility of resolution. Plato has no family and no way out of his problems and therefore cannot exist in the same world. In consoling Jim, his father says, "you did everything a man could." It is the first time that Jim's father has supported his son and mentioned being a "man." The father not only supports him verbally, but physically as he comforts the sad youth, lifting him to his feet. To reinforce this support he reassures his son, "you can depend on me, trust me ... Stand up and I'll try and stand with you." It is the first step for both of them. They must learn and become men together.

On the surface, Rebel Without a Cause can be read as juvenile delinquent film, but underneath this facade, its director, Nicholas Ray, has made a film about the nuclear family in the 1950’s. Ray presents a family that is not the ideal image as shown in a sitcom like Leave to Beaver, but one that is matriarchal in structure. Jim Stark is a confused youth who looks to his parents, in particular his father, for help, but instead finds more confusion and questions. By film's end, Jim has had to deal with his problems on his own, until they get too big for him to handle alone. Now, he has help in the form of both Judy who loves him and his father who is willing to stand by him no matter what happens. They are now Jim's support group who will teach him how to be a "man," Judy developing the kind, gentle side, while the father developing his strong, masculine side. Plato dies because he has no such support group. He is the "other," neither masculine nor feminine, with no real family, just an artificial one in the form of Jim and Judy. Plato does not conform to the notions of what an ideal man should be and therefore dies as a result. The ideal man in Rebel Without a Cause is presented in the form of Ray Fremick, who is seen as a strong, masculine figure, while being sympathetic and understanding as well. By the resolution of the film, Jim Stark is well on his way to possessing these attributes with the help of Judy and his father.

 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

It is extremely difficult to recreate the screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Just ask George Lucas (Radioland Murders) and the Coen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy), both of whom paid tribute to that era and were met with critical and commercial disdain. Contemporary mainstream audiences are no longer interested in comedies that blend farcical situations with fast-paced, often witty repartee. To paraphrase filmmaker Kevin Smith (whose dialogue often emulates that of screwball comedies), the masses are interested in dick and fart jokes, which explains the popularity of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and his contemporaries. There are very few examples of successful attempts to recreate the screwball comedy of the ‘30s and ‘40s and you’d be hard-pressed to find any that were commercial hits (notable exceptions being Victor/Victoria and Mel Brooks’ remake of To Be or Not To Be).


Perhaps one of the best examples in recent memory is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008), an adaptation of the 1938 novel of the same name by Winifred Watson. The film is a charming romantic comedy but at its heart lies the friendship between two women: a flighty American singer/actress and her English social secretary. Much of the film’s humor is derived from the culture clash between them and the romantic entanglements that the latter attempts to extricate the former from. Despite the presence of popular actress Amy Adams and Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, Miss Pettigrew received generally favorable reviews but failed to connect with mainstream movie-going audiences, performing poorly at the box office. However, this does not reflect the quality of the film only how out of step it is with contemporary attitudes and trends.

Known as “the governess of last resort,” Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is dismissed from her latest job and sent out into the cold, foreboding London streets where she wanders for hours trying to figure out what to do next. These early scenes demonstrate Frances McDormand’s lack of vanity as Pettigrew looks frumpy and disheveled as her character is dressed in drab earth tones while she sports unkempt frizzy hair. While trying unsuccessfully to get another job, Pettigrew overhears about an aspiring American actress in need of a social secretary. Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is, to put it mildly, a handful. Juggling three different lovers and enjoying being young and rich (perhaps a little too much) in London on the eve of World War II, her life is a chaotic mess.

Their first meeting is a whirlwind sequence as Pettigrew attempts to rouse Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), a.k.a. lover #1, from Delysia’s bed before Nick (Mark Strong), a.k.a. lover #2, shows up. This scene establishes the film’s witty banter as Pettigrew tells Delysia about her encounter with Phil: “I fear that I have outraged his sense of propriety,” to which the clueless young woman replies, “Oh no, Phil doesn’t have one of those.” This sequence also demonstrates the excellent comic timing of Adams and McDormand as their characters race around making the apartment look presentable while also getting rid of Phil all before Nick arrives. The two actresses play well of each other with the free-spirited Delysia in sharp contrast to the prim and proper Pettigrew.

The first thing Delysia does is take her to a lingerie fashion show where Pettigrew becomes enamored with lingerie designer Joe Blomfield (Ciaran Hinds) who is involved in a tempestuous relationship with salon owner Edythe Dubarry (Shirley Henderson). The gradually emerging romance between Joe and Pettigrew is the film’s most charming subplot and by the film’s end we want to see further adventures of these two characters. Edythe and Delysia team up to give Pettigrew a complete makeover so that she no longer looks like a dowdy bag lady.

Eventually we meet Michael Pardue (Lee Pace), a poor pianist and lover #3. He and Delysia are also in a cabaret act together but he has grown tired of competing with Phil and Nick for her affections and plans to set sail to New York City on the Queen Mary in the morning with or without her. Delysia must look into her heart and decide which man she wants to be with: Phil, the son of a powerful theater producer, Nick, a mean-spirited nightclub owner, or Michael.

At the time of its release, Amy Adams was criticized for playing yet another energetic, dimwitted character but in this case it is an unfair assessment. While Delysia is no rocket scientist, she isn’t really that dumb, just indecisive and Adams does a nice job of conveying her character’s bundle of conflicted emotions. The young actress is her usual charming, irrepressible self and it’s hard not to root for her. Adams gives us glimpses of Delysia without the energetic façade to reveal a young woman afraid of being who she really is to those that mean the most to her.

Frances McDormand has the more difficult role because it is less showy and so she has to work harder to stand out from the more flamboyant Adams. The veteran actress brings a quiet dignity to Pettigrew as well as worldly experience, which McDormand suggests during the brief, calm interludes when her character imparts some words of wisdom to Delysia. As she briefly demonstrated in Raising Arizona (1987), McDormand has wonderful comedic chops, which she conveys with amusing facial expressions when reacting to something outrageous Adams has said or done.

Mark Strong has the thankless task of playing yet another bad guy. He does it so well, which is why he keeps getting cast in these roles. He serves his purpose as an impediment to Delysia’s happiness. To his credit, Strong refuses to resort to a cartoonish caricature and gives Nick a kind of reptilian charm that is fun to watch. Lee Pace has the dashing romantic leading man shtick down cold but he’s no doorstop and doesn’t make things easy for Delysia. Michael’s ultimatum forces her to make a decision about the men in her life. The obvious chemistry between them makes you root for these two crazy characters to wind up together. It’s also great to see underrated character Ciaran Hinds playing Pettigrew’s suave, potential love interest. Like McDormand, he underplays his role and the scenes he has with her are some of the strongest in the film. They provide a respite from the madcap antics as they play two people bound by societal rules and are yearning to break free of them.

Miss Pettigrew features several lovely moments that resonate, like when Michael and Delysia perform “If I Didn’t Care” (which was an international hit for The Ink Spots at the time) together and the story stops for a moment as we are treated to a shared moment between two characters who convey their love for each other through song. There are some moving reaction shots of the principal characters reflecting on the lyrics that are being sung and how the tune reminds them of their feelings for a special someone. They feel it and so do we.

One of the film’s pleasant surprises is the elegant direction of Bharat Nalluri, a British television director by trade who unfortunately has The Crow: Salvation (2000) on his resume. Fortunately, his work on Miss Pettigrew makes one quickly forget that he was ever a part of that debacle as he gives this film a classy, retro touch. He also brings a refreshing economy of style, wisely letting the actors’ performances and the well-written screenplay to do all the heavy lifting. He’s also smart enough to wrap it all up in an attractive package thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Nick Gottschalk’s art direction. The attention to period detail is fantastic, from the cars, clothes and architecture that immerse us completely in ‘30s era London. One only has to look at Delysia’s stunningly decorated apartment, or Nick’s Art Deco style nightclub, to see the great lengths the filmmakers went to get the period details just right.

Published in 1938, Winifred Watson wrote Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and several other books about women transforming their lives while also addressing class differences and extramarital sex. Her novels were popular and well-received by critics but during WWII she phased out her writing career because of a commitment to her husband and newborn son. Hollywood soon came calling and Universal Studios optioned the rights to Miss Pettigrew with plans to adapt it into a musical with popular movie star Billie Burke as Miss Pettigrew. However, the war prompted Universal to focus on serious films instead.

Miss Pettigrew was rediscovered and reprinted in 2000 to critical acclaim. Producer Stephen Garrett read the book and found it to be “extraordinarily uplifting, completely captivating, and life-affirming.” He optioned the film rights and was introduced to fellow producer Nellie Bellflower. He had her read the book, which she enjoyed so much that she agreed to team-up with Garrett to bring the novel to the big screen. In fact, it was Bellflower who first thought of Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew. She gave the book to the actress’ managers. They all loved it and McDormand wanted to play the title role even without a director attached or a screenplay written.

Screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) read the book and fell in love with Delysia and Pettigrew. The book reminded him of “classic movies from that era, those wonderful romantic comedies where you feel for the characters but there’s also an energetic pace and a lightness of spirit.” Bellflower was able to get Focus Features to finance the film and also brought Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) on board as a second screenwriter. After directing the miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006), Nalluri wanted to do something more life-affirming. He had worked with Garrett on it and also the popular British caper television show Hustle. However, the producers didn’t really see Nalluri as a right fit for Miss Pettigrew but after meeting with him, they were impressed with his knowledge of the time period the film was set in. The story originally took place in 1938 and Nalluri suggested changing it to the day that World War II broke out. “That became our magical day, which was great in terms of drama and theatricality and an over-the-top quality.”

McDormand was so determined to play Pettigrew that she stuck with the project through years of development. The producers saw many young actresses for the role of Delysia and found the right person with Amy Adams, impressed with her work in Junebug (2005) and Enchanted (2007). She really responded to Delysia and also jumped at the chance to work with McDormand, someone she greatly admired. The two actresses got on famously right from the first script reading and, according to Nalluri, “it set the whole tone of the film – and the style we shot it in.”

Nalluri maintained a relaxed atmosphere on the set as well as a collaborative feel so that everyone felt they were working on something special. He prepared thoroughly for every day of shooting so he would be able to work with the actors more closely. He shot the film over seven weeks, recreating 1939 London on location and at the legendary Ealing Studios with the considerable help of cinematographer John de Borman (The Full Monty) and production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement). For inspiration, they looked at several photographers, like Yevonde Cumbers, a famous London shutterbug known for a stylized kind of full-color graphics. De Borman decided to eschew the traditional period look for a lot of color and not overlight scenes or soften the lenses in order to achieve the fairy tale look they wanted. Delysia’s apartment was built at Ealing Studios in the style of period decorators Dorothy Draper and William Haines. For location shooting in London, the filmmakers sought out places that could be affordably transformed back to the ‘30s, like South London’s Rivoli Ballroom, which was made to resemble an authentic speakeasy, or, like the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel, a location that looked like it did back then.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day received general favorable reviews from critics. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Without Ms. Adams’s presence, who knows what Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day might have been. As it stands, the movie, directed by Bharat Nalluri from a screenplay by David Magee and Simon Beaufoy, is an example of how a little nothing of a story can be inflated into a little something of a movie with perfect casting, dexterous tonal manipulation and an astute eye and ear for detail.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote, “But the film's flaws are nothing compared with the pleasures it offers, chiefly in its unapologetic pursuit of old-fashioned sweetness and romance.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris had problems with Amy Adams’ performance but enjoyed what Frances McDormand and Ciaran Hinds brought to the table: “Making an audience almost laugh when it wants to cry requires a delicate acting skill possessed by very few performers. Indeed, the fragile subtlety of the pas de deux of Ms. McDormand and Mr. Hinds is alone worth the price of admission.” The Los Angeles Times’ Carina Chocano wrote, “Adams is amazingly adept at playing smart playing dumb – there's more to her flaky actress than meets the eye. Opposites yet kindred spirits, Adams and McDormand make a great pair as a couple of women living by their wits during a particularly hysterical moment in history.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Wisely cast, this handsome production is a delightful farcical fairy tale, bolstered by moments of depth and emotion.” In her review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein wrote, “Director Bharat Nalluri gives Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day the patina of a film actually made in the 1930s, when audiences couldn't get enough of the lifestyles of the rich. The movie has a lightness and smoothness to it – like one of Delysia's satin gowns.”

However, in her review for the Village Voice, Ella Taylor wrote, “What passes for plot is cocktail parties in floor-length Deco gowns, interrupted by the occasional German bomb and the obligatory shopping excursion in which Miss P. gets her extreme makeover and gently instructs her confused young boss in basic self-respect.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, in contrast, thinks secrets are quite naughty, in a nursery way. But they're also kind of cute, in a British tweedle-dee-dee way.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris wrote, “It's a polished-looking movie, but all that pizzazz is put to monotonously shallow ends. It would take a star of steroidal proportions to jazz this movie up. If dour Miss Pettigrew does indeed live for a day, good for her. That's 24 hours longer than this movie seems to.”

It is refreshing to see a film with a friendship between two women at its heart. Delysia doesn’t treat Pettigrew as a servant to be ordered around but more like a partner in crime or, in many respects, an equal. Miss Pettigrew could have so easily been a poor attempt to resurrect the period screwball comedy and come across as the cinematic equivalent of a wax museum: a superficial facsimile of the real thing. However, it is the winning, heartfelt performances of Adams and McDormand, along with the friendship between their characters that transcends the film from being merely a homage to classic Hollywood cinema. It reminds us of what made the best films from that era so good and that it is possible to recapture that magic.