Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Busting

The 1970s were a great decade for gritty buddy cop movies with the likes of The French Connection (1971) and Hickey & Boggs (1972). 1974 was a particularly good year with The Super Cops (1974), Freebie and the Bean (1974) and the largely forgotten Busting (1974), which presented the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles through the eyes of two vice cops and blended comedy with dynamic action sequences.


In the film’s opening sequence, Michael Keneely (Elliott Gould) and Patrick Farrel (Robert Blake) bust a high-end hooker named Jackie Faraday. Keneely is the smirking smartass while Farrel is the tough guy. These guys are a tad unorthodox as evident by the way a routine undercover assignment in a gay bar erupts into chaos when one guy (Antonio Fargas) gets too fresh with Keneely. The Faraday bust seems like a pretty open and shut case until their boss tells them that she got released thanks to a phone call from someone with juice.

Something about the hooker case doesn’t sit well with Keneely and when he checks out Faraday’s client book after it’s been entered into evidence he notices it’s missing all the pages with her clients. Naturally, the case is dismissed for lack of evidence and the two vice cops know something is rotten. They decide to pursue it further by digging deeper despite the opposition that mounts, including smug local crime boss Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield).

Elliott Gould and Robert Blake make an intriguing team with their contrasting acting styles. During the ‘70s, Gould epitomized disheveled cool and continues that look with the bushy mustache, unkempt hair and rumpled attire that he sported in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). He adopts a laidback attitude and is always ready with a joke. Much like his take on Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Gould’s cop treats everything as a joke on the surface but underneath he cares about doing his job, especially when it comes to the corruption he and Farrel uncover. In contrast, Blake, with his tight t-shirts and muscular build, is all intensity and no bullshit attitude. They play well off each other and adopt a shorthand that makes them believable as long-time partners. They have a nice scene together in an empty bathroom where their characters reassess what they’re doing and if they should continue to pursue a case where the odds are clearly stacked against them.

Journeyman cinematographer/director Peter Hyams has had a checkered career with the unnecessary sequel 2010 (1984) and generic thrillers like The Presidio (1988) littering his filmography but Busting may be his best film and oddly influential. When it came to crank out cop shows on television, producer Aaron Spelling used Hyams’ film as a template, even lifting several sequences out of Busting and using them in Starsky and Hutch. Hell, Hutch even wears the same kind of varsity jacket that Gould’s character sports in the film. Hyams, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly did his homework as the film has a scuzzy authenticity that is almost tangible. Apparently, he did a lot of research, interviewing hookers, pimps and cops in order to make sure he got everything right.

Hyams does an excellent job juggling the shifting tones throughout, bouncing back and forth between comedy and drama. He adopts long takes during the action sequences that are very effective and come across as refreshing in this day and age where action films are so heavily edited. For example, there is a sequence early on where Keneely and Farrel chase three crooks through an apartment building, on the street and engage in a tense gun battle in a crowded farmer’s market that is comprised of a series of uninterrupted long takes. Unlike William Friedkin’s edgy hand-held camerawork in The French Connection, Hyams employs smooth, gliding tracking shots and yet still manages to convey an urgency and excitement during the action sequences. Hyams is one of those Hollywood filmmakers able to adapt to prevailing trends. With Busting, he made a gritty ‘70s buddy cop film and then more than 10 years later made the kind of buddy cop film that was popular in the 1980s with Running Scared (1986).

Special Features:

Theatrical trailer.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Year of Living Dangerously

Based on Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same name, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) was among a small group of films that came out in the early 1980’s depicting the struggles of Western journalists to document the plight of Third World nations – Under Fire (1983) in Nicaragua; The Killing Fields (1984) was set in Cambodia; and a few years later Salvador (1986) came out with an unflinching portrayal of the volatile conditions in El Salvador. The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia during the attempted coup of President Sukarno by the 30 September Movement Communist party in 1965 and follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta covering the increasing unrest.


The film’s title is a quote that refers to a famous Italian phrase used by Sukarno – vivere pericolosamente, meaning “living dangerously.” He borrowed the line for the title of his Indonesian Independence Day speech of 1964. Sukarno was a hero for leading his country’s independence from the Netherlands. He became the first President of Indonesia and during his reign he gave each year a name. In his 1964 speech he named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously,” as if anticipating the increasing friction between two radical political forces: the Communists and the Muslims, both of whom were trying to overthrow his government. Sukarno also planned to cut his country’s ties with the West.

We meet Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) as he arrives in Jakarta on his first foreign correspondent assignment to find that his predecessor has already left without briefing him. He leaves the airport and we are immediately assaulted with the sights and sounds of the chaotic city – streets congested with cars, people and livestock – but he quickly moves through it to an air-conditioned hotel where all the western journalists hang out. It is there that he meets Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a freelance photographer that did a lot of work for Guy’s predecessor. He takes Guy on a guided tour of the slums of Jakarta to show him how most of the country lives and to gain his confidence. Billy also does this so that Guy doesn’t see the country like other journalists, namely Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy), a correspondent for the Washington Post.

The next day, Guy tries to get an interview with Sukarno and is easily rebuffed by the President’s staff. Later on, Billy proposes a deal: he’ll use his personal contacts to get Guy an interview with the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party if he can be his exclusive photographer. Guy’s interview with the Communist Party leader earns grudging respect from his fellow journalists and an initial flush of jealousy from Curtis who had been trying to get the same interview for months. The Post journalist doesn’t like the Indonesian people. They are there just for his amusement. Jakarta is just another assignment for him and Michael Murphy is not afraid to play up the unlikable aspects (of which there are many) of Curtis.

Director Peter Weir is careful to make the distinction between Guy and Curtis (and the other seasoned journalists) and how the former looks at the way the latter delights in the humiliation of the locals with disgust. Guy is young enough not be jaded like Curtis and Billy recognizes this, which is why he latches onto Guy. Billy believes that he can influence Guy to write articles that tell the real story of the Indonesian people and perhaps make a difference. For example, there’s an intensely visceral scene where Billy and Guy cover a protest outside the American embassy by the Communist Party. What starts off as a peaceful march quickly turns ugly as the protestors throw rocks with Billy and Guy stuck in the middle of the angry mob. Once their car gets surrounded, you really start to fear for their lives as the danger they’re in is palpable. Weir does a good job conveying their peril by showing the chaotic masses swirling around their car.

Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), the assistant to the British military attaché, and who plans to leave for London in three weeks. Her introduction provides occasional moments of levity, like when she, Billy and Guy attend a house party and everyone dances to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” We see the initial attraction between Jill and Guy emerges through the looks they occasionally give each other. The next day, she drops by his office looking for Billy and he offers to drive her to the photographer’s place and wait for him. Jill is very much Guy’s intellectual equal, good-naturedly criticizing one of his articles as being too melodramatic. She ends up accompanying him on an assignment and at one point they end up getting caught in the rain. He charms her with his willingness to look silly and make her laugh. They share a brief, meaningful look that shows how their attraction towards one another is growing. There is a loose, improvisational feel to this scene as it really seems like the actors are in the moment, which only enhances the chemistry between their characters.

Weir never lets the love story overshadow the political one as Guy finds out from Jill that the Communists are planning to overthrow Sukarno’s government and he tries to figure out how they’re going to get weapons into the country. She told him in confidence and he plans to use it in his article, which, of course, puts a strain on their relationship. Even though I know how the film ends, every time I watch it I still get caught up in the tension of Guy’s race to escape the country as it descends into chaos. Weir ratchets up the pressure so that it is almost tangible and you really fear for Guy’s life.

The carved images that appear over the film’s opening credits depict mythical Indonesian figures: Prince Arjuna, the hero who is “fickle and selfish”; the “noble and proud, yet headstrong” Princess Srikandi; and Semar, the dwarf who serves the prince. These figures nicely foreshadow the film’s three main characters: Guy is the fickle and selfish hero, Jill is the noble yet headstrong princess and Billy is the dwarf that serves the prince.

Made early on in his career, Mel Gibson is well-cast as Guy Hamilton, a young journalist on his first big assignment. The actor manages to portray someone who is smart but inexperienced – a basically decent guy that makes mistakes but tries to do the right thing. Over the course of the film we watch as Guy learns on the job and also falls in love with someone probably for the first time. Gibson wisely doesn’t play his character as a wide-eyed innocent – just someone who hasn’t seen much of the world. He isn’t afraid to play a flawed character and still find admirable qualities within him – perhaps even a hint of redemption.

Sigourney Weaver probably wouldn’t be your first choice to play a British woman but she quickly makes you forget that and focus on her behavior and how she carries herself. Weaver is one of those rare actresses that can convey intelligence while being an undeniable beauty. Jill knows that what she’s doing probably won’t last but is compelled by her emotions to get involved with Guy anyway. Weaver is also able to effortlessly convey a complex range of emotions simply through facial expressions, like when Jill wanders through a marketplace in the rain and it looks like she’s contemplating her relationship with Guy and we see how it impacts her, motivating what she does in the next scene. Jill has a complicated relationship with Guy that is brought together by political conflict and is also threatened by it.

The chemistry between Gibson and Weaver is incredible as they do a fantastic job of depicting a brief, yet intense love affair amidst a volatile situation. Weir develops Jill and Guy’s relationship gradually and realistically. They don’t automatically fall in love but get to know each other by hanging out. It’s a classic scenario of a doomed relationship that can’t last but they go for it anyway because the attraction between them is undeniable. You feel the want and desire between them in the way they look at each other and through their body language. The country’s volatility can create a kind of vulnerability between two people and this is the case with Jill and Guy. They are brought together by the volatility of the situation. The two of them know that they have very little time to be together but can’t deny their intense attraction to each other.

Linda Hunt is simply astonishing as Billy Kwan, the savvy photographer who cares deeply for his fellow countrymen. He believes in helping whomever he can, even if it is a toy for a sick child or a bit of money for someone who is starving. Through his voiceover narration, we find out that he is quite a good writer, documenting the plight of his people as well as Guy’s story. Hunt disappears completely into the role. She plays Billy as a tragic figure, a romantic who wears his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps he cares too much, or, rather not enough people around him care as passionately about making a difference as he does. The scene where Billy loses it after being betrayed by Guy is powerful and painful as we sense all the hurt and frustration bubbling up to the surface as the photographer commits a final, desperate act. Your heart really goes out to Billy and Hunt is so good at conveying her character’s last attempt to make a difference.

A friend of director Peter Weir’s recommended he read Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously but its political content held no interest form him and he delayed reading it for months. Weir finally did read it and was so taken with what Koch had written that he immediately bought the film rights. Weir was particularly impressed with the character of Billy Kwan and felt that he was the heart of the novel, “the figure around whom the novel is constructed.” The director was already intrigued by Indonesia as his favorite vacation spot was Bali: “I had in my mind all the smells and sounds of an Indonesian street or market, the mysteries there had always appealed to me.”

Weir co-wrote the screenplay with Koch and David Williamson, an acclaimed Australian playwright who had worked with the director previously on Gallipoli (1981). While working on it, Weir began to appreciate the story’s politics for the first time: “I began to see how the political atmosphere is acting upon the characters, and how the larger politics and the politics of the personal are inextricably locked together.” He was also careful to achieve a balance and it took many drafts to achieve it. Weir admitted to having a “bumpy” relationship with Koch because he told the author he was going to “attempt to make this into a good film. He took that for doubt or uncertainty on my part, whereas it was really just being honest.”

The Year of Living Dangerously was in development when Weir got the offer to make Gallipoli and so the project was put aside while he did that one. While making Gallipoli with Mel Gibson, Weir knew that he wanted to cast him in his next film. After they made a deal for The Year of Living Dangerously, Mad Max (1979) came out and Gibson became an international movie star. After casting Sigourney Weaver, it took months for Weir to find someone to play the pivotal role of Billy Kwan.

Three weeks before principal photography was to begin, he had still not found the right actor. He was shown a photograph of Linda Hunt and was struck by her face which he thought looked like an “elf or a goblin.” Weir agreed to meet her and after doing a screen test of her in Eurasian makeup and men’s clothes, he decided to cast her in the role: “My feeling was that it was worth the gamble.” She was “scared to death” at the notion of playing a man but found herself drawn to the character and his relationship to the people of Indonesia and “to his passion about injustice.” Her initial worry was that she could not do it and no one would believe it. Hunt even admitted that during filming she was terrified 95% of the time. To transform herself into the role, her tropical shirts were padded slightly across the shoulders to give her a wider back and she always had something in the breast pocket.

Gibson and Weaver had very different working methods but they didn’t break the ice until the rain scene in the car. For the sequence, they were drenched by fire hoses with the car portion shot in Sydney on a very cold night. Gibson said about his romantic scenes with Weaver, “That kind of thing is always a touchy area with actors, I would think. Or maybe it’s just me. But I think we managed to get a few sparks going.” Weir was more worried about these scenes then the violent crowd scenes that employed thousands of extras. Gibson remembered, “We unloaded truckloads of rocks and things and told those young blokes, ‘Hurl these rocks through the windows. We’ll be down here with the cameras.’ You could yell, ‘Cut! Cut!’ but it didn’t stop the fight.”

Due to the controversial politics of the film, Weir did not consider filming in Indonesia and instead picked the Philippines. However, the production ran into trouble there. Four weeks into a scheduled six weeks of filming in the spring of 1982, the cast and crew began receiving written and telephoned death threats from Muslim extremists that feared the film would be anti-Muslim. Airing on the side of caution, the production left the country and finished filming in Sydney, Australia. At the time, Gibson downplayed these threats: "It wasn't really that bad. We got a lot of death threats to be sure, but I just assumed that when there are so many, it must mean nothing is really going to happen. I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?"

The Year of Living Dangerously received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and called it, “a wonderfully complex film about personalities more than events, and we really share the feeling of living in that place, at that time.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Linda Hunt’s performance: “Not exactly dominating these performances, but providing the film with its dramatic center, is Miss Hunt's haunted Billy Kwan, who keeps detailed files on everyone he loves, weeps at the purity of the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa and, when the chips are down, is capable of the film's single grand gesture.” However, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “It's unlikely that anyone who sees The Year of Living Dangerously will ever forget Hunt's performance or Weir's orchestration of a foreboding atmosphere. Still, there's no particular reason why these marvelous aspects couldn't be coordinated with the story in an organic way, so that Billy's character, the characters of the lovers and the ominous intimations all paid off in coherent dramatic terms.” Newsweek found the film to be “an annoying failure because it fritters away so many rich opportunities.”

Along with The Road Warrior (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously helped launch Gibson’s international career and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. It also showed that he had some serious dramatic acting chops and wasn’t just some hunky pretty boy. Weaver’s career also got a big boost and it was the beginning of a great run during the ‘80s that saw her move effortlessly from comedies like Ghostbusters (1984) to dramatic fare like Gorillas in the Mist (1988). The Year of Living Dangerously also helped launch Weir’s career and like Gibson he soon started making films in Hollywood but managed to make them on his own terms with thought-provoking efforts like The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Fearless (1993).

At one point in The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy says, “What then must we do?” This is also the question that the film asks not only of its protagonist but also of its audience. Don’t waste the rest of your life asking this question – do something. It’s all fine and good to become interested in important causes but will you step up and take an active role in something you believe in? Weir avoids delivering a preachy, statement-driven film by expertly balancing a love story with political unrest in a foreign land and how they become intertwined. He makes the politics personal by showing how they impact the characters. It all comes back to Billy’s rather poignant question – “What then must we do?”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Georgia

After a string of solid supporting roles in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Hitcher (1986) during the 1980’s, Jennifer Jason Leigh had paid her dues and began to take on more substantial roles in the 1990’s starting with an impressive one-two punch of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues in 1990. From there, she never looked back, tackling roles in mainstream Hollywood fare like Backdraft (1991) and Single White Female (1992), and more challenging material in independent films like Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Georgia (1995). The latter was a very personal, passion project for the actress whose mother, Barbara Turner, produced the film and wrote the screenplay, and was directed by Ulu Grosbard, a friend of hers. Georgia depicts the tempestuous relationship between two sisters, both of whom are singers with Leigh playing the younger, less talented one, and Mare Winningham playing the older, more successful one. The film is rich with characterization as it explores the complex relationship between two siblings.


From when they were little girls, Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Georgia Flood (Mare Winningham) loved to perform in front of people. Now grown-up, their paths have taken very different directions. When she’s not cleaning rooms at a motel, Sadie scrapes by with the occasional gig as a backup singer, leading a nomadic existence with a string of failed relationships. In contrast, Georgia is a very successful country-folk singer with tons of adoring fans, a loving family and a comfortable life. After getting fired from her latest gig, Sadie travels to Seattle to see her sister and live with her for a bit while she tries to sort out her life, which is going nowhere.

Leigh delivers a truly fearless performance as she actually sings in the film, unafraid to play someone who makes up what she lacks for in talent with passion. For example, she sings a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” in a raspy whisper that is mesmerizing to watch and then sings backup for a band (that features X’s John Doe no less!) terribly, screeching her way through a song. It really takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like Leigh does, not just in the music scenes but also off-stage in the way she relates (or doesn’t) to those around her. As always, the actress fully inhabits the role and it starts with her look, adopting raccoon-eye makeup and a perpetually disheveled appearance that represents her messy life.

Sadie is obviously the black sheep of her family with her self-destructive tendencies that Leigh doesn’t overplay – it is there in every scene in the way Sadie carries herself, like how she tries to keep it together while performing a cover of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” after taking too much NyQuil. As the song goes on she slowly backs away from the microphone and slouches up against a wall with a look that says so much, almost like she can’t believe what’s happening, like she’s watching it all unfold from outside of her body. Leigh’s gutsy performance culminates in an intense performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” that seems to go on forever (in a good way) as we see Sadie at her most vulnerable. This sequence encapsulates her character perfectly – all ambition and passion with no talent. She tries so hard that your heart really goes out to her despite being a painfully awful singer. It is this scene that really divided critics and fans of Leigh but I’ve always found it powerful and real with a rawness that is rare. This sequence also says a lot about the relationship between Sadie and Georgia as the former threatens to come apart at the seams on stage while the latter helps her out by providing supporting backing vocals towards the end of the epic rendition of the song.

Winningham is excellent in the title role. I’ve never been a huge fan of her work outside of Miracle Mile (1988) but I really enjoyed what she does in Georgia, playing the supportive older sister. She has a tough job of playing the less flashier role but it is still an important one because she has to provide the ying to Leigh’s yang. For most of the film she maintains an impenetrable air of control but occasionally she vents her frustrations about Sadie to her husband Jake (Ted Levine) and Sadie’s husband, Axel (Max Perlich). I like the relationship between Jake and Georgia. In a few scenes that they have together they suggest two people that have been married for years and know each other very well because they’ve been through so much together and now have settled into a familiar rhythm that Sadie threatens to disrupt.

The first time we see Leigh and Winningham together, they are instantly believable as sisters by the first look that they give each other. It’s one that suggests years of emotional baggage between them. As soon as they start talking, their distinctive personalities emerge with Sadie being a non-stop talking hot mess and Georgia as the reserved one who is nice enough but looks at her sister disapprovingly. Sadie is one of those people who wears her heart on her sleeve and says how she feels when she feels it while Georgia is always in control of her emotions and her life, never letting people in too far. As the film progresses, we get more insight into the complex relationship between the two sisters, like how the younger sibling constantly lives in the shadow of the other.

Leigh and Winningham capitalize on their years of actual friendship to play believable sisters. Georgia loves Sadie but can’t stand her chaotic, spontaneous way of life because it goes against everything she believes in. Over the course of the film, the tension between them simmers until the inevitable boiling over moment thanks to years of conflict and baggage that comes out due to Sadie finally pushing Georgia’s buttons so much that her controlled façade finally cracks.

Underrated character actor Ted Levine is excellent as Georgia’s laidback husband Jake. He has a wonderful scene with Leigh early on where Jake tells Sadie why he no longer tours with Georgia after years of being regarded as nothing more than one of the road crew and how he and his wife had a series of meaningless affairs only to finally emerge in a more stable place. During the ‘90s, he played a variety of roles, from a creepy serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1990) to a cop in Heat (1995), but with Georgia he gets to play a normal, decent guy.

The always watchable Max Perlich turns up as a nice guy named Axel who loves Sadie unconditionally despite her lack of reciprocation because she uses people, whether it is for food or a place to stay or for a gig. He is kind and understanding, judging by the amount of patience he displays for her various antics but even he has his limits as she eventually finds out. Leigh had previous worked with Perlich on Rush (1991) and she was obviously impressed with his work on that film when it came time to cast the role of Axel in Georgia. Look close and you’ll also see John C. Reilly in a small role as John Doe’s drummer who appears to be constantly stoned. He has a nice scene with Leigh where his character laments being fired from the band and talks about his life as a junkie whose time is running out.

Jennifer Jason Leigh had always wanted to make a film about sisters and also play a failed singer because she knew that she couldn’t sing. She came up with the idea that the older sibling would be the better singer and that her longtime friend and fellow actress Mare Winningham would play that role. She had always wanted to work with her mother, celebrated screenwriter Barbara Turner, but never had the opportunity. While making Rush, Leigh called her up with “this very vague notion of an idea,” with the hope she would like it enough to write a screenplay for it, and she did, working on it over seven months in 1991.

From the start, Leigh wanted the film set in Seattle and even went there to talk with several local musicians. To prepare for the role, she watched music documentaries about troubled artists like jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and singer Janis Joplin. She believed in the project so much that she became a producer and helped raise money to get it made. It was Turner who originally conceived of recording all the music in the film live and approached Robert Altman to direct because he always filmed live music in his films. He wanted to make the film but couldn’t find the time in his own busy schedule to fit it in. Turner met filmmaker Ulu Grosbard at a dinner party and told him about the project. She sent him the script, he read it and was really taken with how well-written it was. He agreed to direct. Through Joel Coen (while working with him and his brother Ethan on The Hudsucker Proxy), Leigh met producer Ben Barenholtz who loved the script for Georgia and agreed to help find financing. He shopped it around at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and French production company Ciby 2000 offered him the best deal: total financing and creative control.

However, a year passed before Ciby gave the greenlight and Grosbard began to question recording the music live because every music supervisor he spoke with told him not to do it as it lacked control. With the help of Altman and fellow director Alan Rudolph, Turner convinced Grosbard to film live music and stick with the unhappy ending. He felt that to do otherwise would have been false: “Studios try to do films like this, and paste on a happy ending, and the film fails anyway, and they blame it on being an ‘art’ film.” Ciby also had to be convinced about the casting of Winningham because they were unfamiliar with her work but hearing a tape of her songs sealed the deal. When she was first offered the role in 1992, she turned it down despite how good it was because there was “something weird about playing a famous singer when I was just trying to start my singing career.” However, six months later, the record label that released her debut album, folded and she changed her mind and decided to do Georgia.

Georgia was shot over 45 days on a budget of just over $7 million. Leigh was so focused and committed to playing a drug-addicted singer that she didn’t even notice she had lost a considerable amount of weight (going from 105 lbs to 89 lbs) until filming had ended. She recalled, “I was emaciated and felt horrible, horrible, horrible. This character living inside me was like a virus, and like a virus it takes two or three weeks to dissipate before you come back to yourself.”

Georgia received positive notices from critics with Leigh not surprisingly getting the lion’s share of the praise. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and felt that it was just “not a simply plotted movie about descent and recovery, but a complex, deeply knowledgeable story about how alcoholism and mental illness really are family diseases.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “With an exploratory style in the spirit of John Cassavetes, Georgia turns Sadie inside out without giving a neatly dramatic structure to her story. The result is a film as maddening and unpredictable as the character herself, held together by a fierce, risk-taking performance and flashes of overwhelming honesty. Sadie would be unbearable if she didn't feel so real.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Ken Tucker wrote, “Different in its rhythms from every other movie out there right now, Georgia puts you through the wringer, but you come out feeling exhilarated.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “If there is one quality that defines Georgia, it's how nonjudgmental it finally is. With Leigh's exceptional performance to build on, Sadie is a person we come to care for despite herself. She is not a bad soul, just an impossible one who lacks so much as a clue about being an adult. And the film allows us to both despair for her as Georgia does and admire her for, in Jake's words, being ‘original and brave and without malice.’” Finally, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “As Leigh hurtles through the sky, it's good to have Winningham on screen as a sane point of reference. Leigh's best scenes are with Winningham, whose Georgia keeps Sadie in check – and whose emotional clarity keeps Leigh from getting sloppy.”

The backdrop to Georgia is its depiction of two sides of the music business with Georgia representing the glossy, successful aspect with large venues and adoring fans, while Sadie represents the harsh reality for most – playing bars and almost empty bowling alleys, trying to hustle gigs where she can. Georgia is a real actor’s showcase with most of the cast getting at least one scene where their character is front and center. While this film belongs to Leigh, she is a gracious performer, allowing others to take center stage while she supports them. Sadie is just one of those people that eventually rubs everyone the wrong way whether it be her sister, her manager or her husband. She is one of the many damaged characters Leigh has excelled at playing over the years and perhaps the most fascinating. She runs the emotional spectrum in a performance that is among her very best. By the end of the film you really feel like you’ve gone on a journey with Sadie and seen her through ups and downs, including how her relationship with Georgia has evolved over time. Reminiscent of Bob Rafelson’s films from the 1970’s, Georgia ends without anything resolved between the sisters. They agree to live their own lives on their own terms – they wouldn’t have it any other way. The film ends very much as it began with each sister living their own very different life, leaving us to wonder what might happen to Sadie as she continues to pursue her dreams.


SOURCES

Block, Alex Ben. “Leigh Isn’t for Producer Career; Georgia Star Says Acting Always Comes First.” Hollywood Reporter. May 23, 1995.

Burns, Christopher. “Jennifer Jason Leigh Self-Destructs in Sibling Rivalry Georgia.” Associated Press. May 19,1995.

Dean, Sherrie. “Georgia Tells Story of Sisters – Successful, Less So.” CNN. June 8, 1995.

Fleming, Michael. “Fearless Leigh.” Movieline. April 1, 1999.

Griffin, John. “A Tale of Two Jennifers.” Montreal Gazette. August 31, 1995.

Karger, Dave. “Finding Her Voice.” Entertainment Weekly. December 8, 1995.

Koehler, Robert. “One Sings, The Other Doesn’t.” Variety. July 25, 1995.


Roach, Vicky. “Leigh’s Soulful Melody.” Daily Telegraph. November 7, 1995.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Zone Troopers

As the commercial and critical failure of Cowboys & Aliens (2010) demonstrated, it is difficult to successfully blend two disparate genres. You need to have just the right mix – something that the mega-budget studio film didn’t get right. Maybe they should have watched Zone Troopers (1985), a film that got it right and with a lot less money. God bless, B-movie mogul Charles Band for taking a chance on this oddball cinematic mash-up.


Somewhere in Italy circa 1944, a squad of American soldiers is waiting for other squads to show when they’re ambushed by Nazi soldiers. Despite being outnumbered, Sergeant Stone (Tim Thomerson) and his men manage to kill them all leaving only the no-nonsense Stone, eager beaver Joey Verona (Timothy Van Patten), the burly Mittens (Art La Fleur), and war correspondent Charlie Dolan (Biff Manard). They escape into the woods behind enemy lines only to find out that both their radio and compass don’t work. While out hunting for food, Dolan and Mittens stumble across a Nazi camp. Stone and Verona go looking for them and discover a crashed alien spacecraft. From this point on, Zone Troopers is an engaging mash-up of war movie and science fiction tale.

The casting of genre veterans Tim Thomerson (Trancers) and Art La Fleur (Air America) is spot on as they both look like they literally stepped out of a vintage World War II film. Thomerson, in particular, is excellent as the two-fisted sergeant with a reputation for being unkillable. The way he acts and carries himself would’ve made ideal casting for an adaptation of Nick Fury and the Howling Commandoes back in the 1980’s when this film was made. It’s great to see character actor La Fleur get a meaty role playing the amusing nicknamed Mittens and it’s a shame that they didn’t get to reprise their roles in a sequel.

The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo does a good job of replicating the classic World War II movie, right down to the authentic-sounding period dialogue while seamlessly mixing in elements of the 1950’s space alien film. It makes sense that they would go on to adapt The Rocketeer, Dave Stevens’ comic book homage to 1930’s serial adventures, into a film.

The opening gun battle sets the right tone of a vintage World War II B-movie by way of Sam Fuller complete with pulpy period dialogue and a gruff squad leader that almost makes one forget about the cheap production values that, rather than detract from the enjoyment of the film, give it plenty of scrappy charm. As the film progresses, the production values improve in spots, like when Stone and Verona search inside the giant spacecraft.

For a low-budget B-movie, Zone Troopers is refreshingly ambitious with its intentions to blend science fiction with the war movie. What makes it work so well is that the filmmakers are obviously taking it seriously as opposed to poking fun at both genres. They make sure that the actors play it straight as well. That’s not to say the film isn’t without its humorous moments but they are used sparingly. Zone Troopers is an entertaining film that celebrates its pulpy roots.

Special Features:

Theatrical trailer.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

"It's true that the emperor doesn't have any clothes, but the emperor doesn't like to be told it, and the emperor's lapdogs like The New York Times are not going to enjoy the experience if you do." – Noam Chomsky

With the media frenzy that surrounded Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 911 (2004), it is interesting to observe how the controversy that swirled around it (Disney backed it financially but wouldn’t distribute it) had been documented in the press. It made a film like Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) all the more relevant more than ten years after its release. Noam Chomsky is a soft-spoken professor at MIT who has become quite a vocal political activist and critic of the American media. He believes that ordinary people can comprehend and act on the issues he raises, but this is not always an easy task because of the thick web of deceit and doublespeak that the government creates to blind us from "elementary truths" that are right in front of us.

However, he believes people are indoctrinated to be apathetic so that they don't want to make the effort that is needed to see what is really going on. And the media doesn't help either. In fact, one might say that they promote this sense of apathy by showing redundant, repetitive sitcoms and reality shows that turn us into mindless couch potatoes. Now, you might be thinking, this sounds like a lot of conspiracy theory garbage, but Chomsky does not look, act or speak like some crazed conspiracy nut. He is an intelligent man who talks to a BBC reporter the same way he would talk to an ordinary person. Chomsky is a clear and concise speaker who backs up everything he says with an ample supply of facts and unfaltering logic. He is a man dedicated to uncovering the deception and atrocities that are committed by governments all over the world and teaching others how to become aware of and act on these acts.

With funding from the National Film Board of Canada, filmmakers Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar followed Chomsky around the globe for five years. The result was a two hour and forty-five minute documentary that explored Chomsky's view of the media and his relationship with it. The film acts as a sort of "stepping stone" to Chomsky's books, which are filled with pretty heavy concepts and a lot of information to absorb. The film doesn't water down his ideas, but rather represents them on a visual level so that they are a bit easier to grasp.

The film wisely begins with Chomsky’s origins so that we can get a handle on who he is and where he came from. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1928, his parents taught Hebrew and as a result Chomsky became fascinated with literature, reading voraciously at an early age (often borrowing 12 books out of the library at once). He grew up during the Depression and was surrounded by a frightening amount of anti-Semitism, which were probably the roots to him championing the cause of the underdog. Growing up, Chomsky would take the train to New York City and hang out at anarchist bookstores on Fourth Avenue, which exposed him to working class ideals and culture. He learned all about politics and how to organize and fight back against oppressive institutions, which he would employ later in life.

Chomsky started as a linguist with the publishing of Syntactic Structures in 1957, which offered a radical new way of looking at grammar. He began to look at language and behaviorism. The established belief at the time was based on the writings of B.F. Skinner who stated in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that "the control of population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies." Skinner suggested a control of speech, creating strict rules for us to follow to make the world a safer place. These rules are really restrictions to ensure that people say what is politically correct so as to ensure advancement. Anyone who deviates or questions the party line is punished.

Chomsky disagreed with Skinner's theory, effectively saying that we are not living in a democracy where the power is exercised by a population free of hierarchy or ordered classes, but actually living in a "regime of dictatorship," as Michel Foucault says. The most powerful class uses violence and coercion to control the masses. Chomsky criticizes these powerful institutions for the abuses they perpetrate on weaker nations and exposes the subtle and not so subtle ways that they go about performing these actions. It is important that we understand, as he puts it, the "nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our society," and combat it. The United States in particular, is guilty of all of these abuses, and we are guilty for sitting by and letting it happen.

Once Chomsky realized that the government and media were working hand in hand to support this system of behaviorism, he decided to take an active role. His first major action as a dissident was participating in a weekend anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon on October 19-21, 1967. He was arrested and ended up sharing a cell with Norman Mailer. From that point on Chomsky has never looked back, releasing countless books criticizing the U.S. government, its foreign policy, and how periodicals like The New York Times push these covert actions under the carpet and out of sight from the public.

Chomsky has always remained a sort of character on the fringes, never getting any real media exposure. He has never enjoyed the limelight, emphasizing his ideas more than himself. To this end, he avoids becoming a role-model for other people, instead stressing that you can change your own life. Chomsky rarely does T.V. because it is a medium that does not conform with his way of speaking. He will make a radical statement and then have less than two minutes to support it. Chomsky just does not fit into the two commercial time slot of Nightline. However, on those rare occasions where he does get his time to speak, like on Bill Moyer's show, A World of Ideas, he garners a huge response. Chomsky's appearance generated over 1,000 letters and more requests for transcripts than any other show in the series.

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky reveals that all major decisions over what happens in our society are controlled by a heavily concentrated network of corporations, conglomerates and investment firms. This network also has considerable influence over positions in the government. Just looking at the big Savings and Loans scandals that plagued the U.S. years ago reveals this link. Corporations also own the media and therefore decide what we watch and hear for the most part. They control the resources and as a result show only what is in their best interests. This is achieved by propaganda or the "manufacturing of consent," a term borrowed from political philosopher and journalist, Walter Lippmann. Manufacturing consent is a technique of control over the masses — in other words, propaganda or the creation of necessary illusions to marginalize the general public or reduce them to apathy in some form. The news media participates in this manufacture of consent by simplifying, selecting, and dramatizing events. Propaganda affects not only the masses, but is targeted at what Chomsky calls the "political class," approximately 20% of the population who are educated and articulated decision makers. These are teachers, managers and so forth — people who vote and whose consent is crucial. The rest of the population follow orders, are apathetic, and rarely vote, therefore paying for their inactions by living in impoverished conditions.

The national media for example, The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, or CBS set the general framework for local media to adapt to. The national media ignore and place emphasis on certain issues, in effect shaping history. Another great trick of the trade is rhetoric. Everyone knows about the military doublespeak used in the Persian Gulf War, but the government used it long before then. During the 1980 and 1984 elections, the Reagan administration blasted the Democrats as the "party of special interests," which was negative because special interests were considered a bad quality. However, upon closer scrutiny, they listed special interests as: women, poor people, workers, young people, old people, and ethnic minorities — everybody, but corporations because they belonged to the national interest, and everyone is in favor of that. So, people voted for a person who was against the population and who supported corporations.

Perhaps the most effective part of Manufacturing Consent is a case study of how selective the U.S. media is of what they report. They usually support the party line, rarely criticizing their actions. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the most startling case of selective reporting by the U.S. media is the simultaneous genocides in Cambodia and East Timor between 1975 and 1978. In Cambodia during these years, the Communist backed Khmer Rouge wiped out thousands upon thousands of people, which received tons of press coverage because it was backed by our official enemy. What the press barely covered was the period before that (1973-1975) when U.S. backed forces were wiping out the people of Cambodia. That period was described by the U.S. press as a tranquil, peaceful time. While the Communist backed genocide was occurring in Cambodia, a genocide on a comparable level was taking place in East Timor, a little country north of Australia between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was hardly covered at all in the U.S. press because it was backed by the U.S. government. They provided 90% of the arms to the Indonesian forces and Ford and Kissinger were even near the area prior to the invasion, but conveniently delayed the attack so that their hasty departure would not look suspicious. By February of 1976, approximately 60,000 people were killed in East Timor. When 1978 rolled around, the killings were approaching real genocidal levels with around 200,000 people dead.

Coverage in The New York Times had a definite bias. Between 1975-79 the Times spent only 70 column inches on East Timor, while 1,175 column inches was dedicated to Cambodia. These stats are just of index listings and don't even cover the length of the actual stories which would probably show an even more dramatic gap. The Times made the excuse that they couldn't possibly cover every story with the same detail and depth, but this act was on such a devastating level that it should not have been ignored. And it wasn't ignored in the international press. Australian media in particular, deserves a large part of the credit for keeping the story alive. At least six Australian journalists lost their lives covering the story that the U.S. media tried to bury.

Manufacturing Consent goes on to not only identify this problem of manufacturing of consent, but how to fight back. Wintonick and Achbar take a look at various forms of alternative media, from the successful independent publishers, South End Press to Alternative Radio that is dedicated to reporting events that the U.S. media conveniently ignores and giving people like Noam Chomsky more exposure. The film has certainly exposed Chomsky's ideas to a wider audience creating a sort of cult following in Canada and in Europe where he is more popular than in his native United States.

The film doesn't talk down to the viewer and brilliantly conveys Chomsky's ideas on a visual level utilizing all forms of media. The directors also dedicate time to show some of Chomsky's detractors like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Tom Wolfe who come across like pretentious bullies while Chomsky appears calm and rational in response to their vicious, snide attacks. They are ironic scenes that add more credibility to Chomsky's views.

Manufacturing Consent received positive reviews from critics at the time. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Whether or not you agree with Mr. Chomsky's conclusions, his reading of the American scene is persuasive: that the government is most responsive to the wishes expressed by the minority of citizens who vote, which is also one of the principal points made by John Kenneth Galbraith in his recent book The Culture of Contentment.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “With regard to this journey, Manufacturing Consent makes an excellent starting point. With it, Achbar and Wintonick have made a significant and timely contribution to the debate. Even if their arguments are not wholly persuasive, their movie is well-supported, confidently reasoned, imaginatively presented and, without a doubt, seductive." The Chicago Sun-Times gave the documentary three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Ultimately, we shouldn't judge a film like this on whether we agree with its positions, but on how well it presents them. On those terms, Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant success. It casts a haunting, post-1984 glow with its use of video imagery – Chomsky's talking head is seen, among other places, atop Times Square and on a giant amalgamation of screens. At the same time, it plugs into a deep, humanist belief in the people's ability to change things.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle wrote, “The documentary is a good movie in different ways. For one thing, it's an admirable piece of film making that provides satisfying visual contexts for what is essentially three hours worth of ideas. Though the film begins to strain in the last 20 to 30 minutes, Manufacturing Consent is often fascinating and never boring.”

When asked about the documentary, Chomsky’s biggest gripe about it was that he felt it portrayed him as a leader of a movement for people to join: “I don't think the medium can make people understand that if they film me giving a talk somewhere, that's because somebody else organized the talk, and the real work is being done by the people who organized the talk, and then followed it up and are out there working in their communities. If they can bring in some speaker to help get people together, terrific, but that person is in no sense ‘the leader.’ That somehow doesn't get across in a movie – what gets across is, ‘How can I join your movement?’ And then I've got to write a letter which is a big speech about this. So I am ambivalent about it.”

Manufacturing Consent is a fascinating look Chomsky and his ideas that are guaranteed to provoke discussion. It also makes one want to check out some of his work and sparks a desire to wake up and realize what is going on in our society. The film is a real eye-opener to the behind the scenes mechanics of our government and the media and how little we realize what they are really up to. The film does not dip into tabloid or conspiracy depths, but presents a logical and intelligent analysis with a good sense of humor that is often missing from such material. Chomsky is a man who sincerely believes that we can identify and react to the problems in our government and media, but realizes that it cannot be done by just one man, it will take a massive grass-roots organization. First, people must be educated and this is hard because it is so easy to do nothing. Realizing that there is a problem is the first step, correcting it is the next.

 
This documentary is available to download at the Internet Archives.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Blu-Ray of the Week: Annie Hall / Manhattan

Prior to Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen was known as a comic, cutting his teeth in stand-up comedy and paying his dues as a comedy writer. When he started making films, his early efforts were flat-out comedies and farces like Bananas (1971). It wasn’t until Annie Hall that he demonstrated a capacity for something deeper and poignant while still being very funny. Based loosely on his relationship with Diane Keaton, the film features Allen’s protagonist reflecting on a past relationship that he still hasn’t gotten over. With this film, he took the romantic comedy to another level by breaking down the fourth wall and even mixing in animation to create a film so influential that for years after (and still today) other films of its kind would be judged by its high standards.


Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is a successful comedian that gets involved with an unsuccessful actress Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). He’s a raging neurotic and she’s incredibly insecure and together they make a great couple because they are willing to put up with each other’s many idiosyncrasies – he obsesses about death and she says inappropriate things. Over the course of the film, we see them fall in love and then break up when she moves to Los Angeles, wooed there by a record producer (Paul Simon) who is attracted to her. Throughout it all, New York City serves as the backdrop to their romantic escapades.

Unlike most romantic comedies, Annie Hall draws attention to itself as a film with Allen addressing the camera or stopping a scene to make a point, like when he and Annie are waiting in line for a film and he complains about some pretentious boob pontificating endlessly nearby. Allen then produces famous academic Marshall McLuhan to refute the man’s incorrect theorizing. Allen also employs split screens and subtitles for ironic effect as well as appearing in flashbacks to comment on his past self. What also sets Annie Hall apart from Allen’s earlier work is his decision to hire legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis to shoot his film. Willis gives it a definite cinematic look occasionally incorporating hand-held camera to create a more intimate feel.

None of these clever techniques would mean anything if Annie Hall wasn’t anchored by the strong performances by Allen and Keaton and the undeniable chemistry they have. Already a seasoned pro, he spouts funny one-liners with excellent comic timing and Keaton matches him beat for beat as his ideal foil. They also both have the chops to handle the semi-serious stuff like when Alvy and Annie’s relationship sours. Of course, they have fantastic material to work with thanks to the well-written screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman, which is so much more than a collection of one-liners. It also features all kinds of wonderful observations about love and relationships, like how Alvy is unable to enjoy life and Annie calls him on it, which forces him to examine his own life. Alvy realizes that he still loves Annie and regrets breaking up with her.

Annie Hall was a big breakthrough for Allen, winning four Academy Awards and influencing countless romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally… (1989) to Singles (1992) to High Fidelity (2000). Arguably, only Allen has been able to top Annie Hall when, two years later, he released Manhattan (1979), which managed to be an even greater artistic achievement.

After the phenomenal success of Annie Hall, Allen confounded the expectations of his critics and fans with Interiors (1978), which saw him doing his best Ingmar Bergman impression. It was his first dramatic film and while critical reaction was mostly positive, it hardly set the box office on fire. With Manhattan, Allen returned to familiar material – the witty romantic comedy – with what many consider his masterpiece but a film that he famously felt was so bad that he offered to make another one for the studio for free if they agreed to not release it. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to him and the end result is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to New York City every committed to film while also taking an entertaining and insightful look at the love lives of a handful of its inhabitants.

Allen establishes his ambitious intentions right from the start with a grandiose montage of the city scored to George Gershwin and photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis. This is the Big Apple as seen through Allen’s eyes as he presents rarefied social strata of well-educated, neurotic people entangled in messy relationships with each other. Still stinging from a bitter divorce, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is now dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl (“I’m dating a girl who does homework.”). His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with a journalist named Mary (Diane Keaton).

Isaac and Yale’s lives are a mess with the former writing for a television show he loathes and the latter trying to finish a book and start up a magazine. The last thing they need is to complicate their romantic lives. Isaac realizes that Tracy is too young for him (“You should think of me as a detour on the highway of life.”) and gets involved with Mary after Yale introduces them. At first, Isaac and Mary can’t stand each other, arguing over an art exhibit and several artists she feels overrated but he thinks are great, however, he likes her unflinching honesty and she’s attracted to his sense of humor.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton continue their undeniable on-screen chemistry playing so well off each other. She is allowed to tone down the more exaggerated comedic gestures she used in Annie Hall to create a more nuanced character in Manhattan. Mary is torn between her love for Yale, even though she knows it’s wrong and her attraction to Isaac. Allen is more than a neurotic joke machine as Isaac wrestles with his own moral dilemmas – his love for Tracy, even though he knows she’s too young for him, and his attraction to Mary who is much more compatible.

While Manhattan features an abundance of Allen’s funny one-liners, the screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman tempers it somewhat with the characters’ messy personal lives, like the resentment Isaac feels towards his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) for leaving him for another woman, or Yale cheating on his perfectly lovely wife (Anne Byrne) with Mary. Allen expertly shifts gears from comedy to drama from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene.

Allen takes us through a guided tour through the city with key scenes taking place at famous establishments, like Elaine’s and the Russian tearoom, or tourist spots like the Hayden Planetarium, in such a way that New York becomes a character unto itself. It also doesn’t hurt that Willis’ gorgeously textured black and white cinematography makes everything look so good. Sadly, several of the places the characters frequent no longer exist making Manhattan a historical document of sorts. Allen’s film is arguably the best representation of his worldview: highly educated people with very little common sense when it comes to their personal lives, making bad decisions even when they realize it. But like the rest of us, they keep on trying, hoping that the next relationship is the one.

Special Features:

I think it’s safe to say that both Annie Hall and Manhattan have never looked and sounded better, showing off Gordon Willis’ incredible cinematography with excellent-looking transfers. It’s time to throw away your DVDs and upgrade to these Blu Ray versions.

Sadly, in keeping with other Allen home video releases there are no extra features save for theatrical trailers for each film.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Titan A.E.

Anticipation was high for Titan A.E. on the eve of its release in June 2000. Scripted by Ben Edlund, Joss Whedon (the creative braintrust that would go on to make the Firefly television show) and John August, and directed by maverick former Disney animator Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH) and Gary Goldman (An American Tail), it was a space opera in the tradition of the Star Wars films. Titan A.E. ambitiously combined hand-drawn animation with computer-generated imagery and was touted as the first major motion picture to be projected digitally. Unfortunately, the film was badly marketed with the general public unsure if it was intended for children or for an older science fiction audience. It didn’t help that at the time Bluth stated in an HBO First Look special that his film wasn’t a cutesy kiddie musical but rather a non-stop action film. Titan A.E. received mixed critical reviews and flopped badly at the box office, resulting in the closing Fox Animation Studios. It was also the last feature film Bluth and Goldman would helm. It’s a shame really, as the film features gorgeously rendered animation, engaging characters and an engrossing story.


It is 3028 and humanity is working on the Titan project, a groundbreaking experiment that promises to unlock our full potential. However, an energy-based alien race known as the Drej feel threatened by this project and proceed to destroy Earth in order to stop it. Professor Sam Tucker (Ron Perlman) is an important scientist with the project and as the aliens attack, he puts his five-year-old son Cale on a spacecraft that barely manages to escape. Unfortunately, Sam isn’t so lucky. It’s a pretty ballsy move to begin the film with the destruction of the Earth and the death of the protagonist’s father. It sends a strong message that this isn’t going to be some wishy-washy children’s animated film. It’s a spectacular sequence that basically says all bets are off in this film. Titan A.E. flashes forward 15 years later and Cale (Matt Damon) has grown up and is working as a mechanic on a salvage station in outer space. He’s bit of a reckless screw-up lacking direction in his life.

During one of his lunch breaks, Cale is saved from being beaten up by two aliens by a fellow human named Korso (Bill Pullman), who offers him a chance to join a very dangerous mission. Korso worked with Cale’s father on the Titan project and wants to find the spacecraft in order to unlock its secrets. The Drej arrive and Cale and Korso narrowly escape in an exciting action sequence that ends with them being shot into outer space. Cale joins Korso and his crew – his pilot Akima (Drew Barrymore), the alien first mate Preed (Nathan Lane), the gruff weapons expert Stith (Janeane Garofalo), and Gune (John Leguizamo), the ship’s eccentric scientist. There are brief lulls between exciting action sequences as the Drej relentlessly pursue our heroes.

The first Star Wars film is an obvious influence on Titan A.E. with Cale as the young, brash Luke Skywalker-esque pilot, Korso as the sarcastic Han Solo-type rogue, and Akima, a tough, Princess Leia-esque heroine with Stith as the Chewbacca surrogate. In some respects, Titan A.E. also feels like a warm-up for Firefly as writers Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund were beginning to work out the archetypes of the crew of the Serenity with the motley crew in this film. Korso anticipates Jayne, Akima contains elements of Kaylee, and Cale exhibits a few characteristics of Malcolm Reynolds. Not to mention, the enigmatic and ruthless Drej predict the equally mysterious and vicious Reavers in Firefly.

The voice casting is excellent with Matt Damon’s youthful sounding voice perfect for the energetic Cale, Bill Pullman’s weathered voice is ideally suited for the grizzled, veteran warrior Korso, and Drew Barrymore’s expressive voice helps bring the feisty Akima to life. The mix of hand-drawn animation and CGI is impressively rendered as they combine to create some eye-popping visuals, helping realize the film’s epic scope. It is fluid and rich in detail – there is so much to look at in each and every frame. Titan A.E. features a galaxy populated with exotic planets, like Sesharrim with its brown hydrogen trees and red sky where our heroes encounter a bat-like race known as Gaoul. This is contrasted with the cool, metallic blue of the Drej homeworld that resembles a funky hybrid of the computer world from Tron (1982) and the Borg mothership from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Producer David Kirschner first brought what would become known as Titan A.E. to 20th Century Fox as a live-action film, “a sort of Treasure Island in outer space.” It was in development for more than five years and originally known as Planet Ice. It was initially conceived as a live-action feature but Fox decided it would be more interesting and less expensive to produce as an animated film. Known for creating successful animated films like An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth and Gary Goldman saw this project as quite a departure in terms of look, subject matter and target audience. Once they came on board in 1998, it was re-titled Titan A.E.

At the time, Fox was determined to compete with Disney in the feature animation field by spending millions of dollars on groundbreaking CGI technology and told Bluth and Goldman to make a film that featured innovative visuals and effects. The first thing the two men did was redesign the entire film. According to Goldman, the film was originally going to be 40% CG but ended up closer to 90%. He wanted to get a 3-D look while still maintaining a cartoon feel. He and Bluth were aware that their target audience – adolescent boys – were generally not into animated films and decided to adopt a darker, moodier color palette.

In another effort to appeal to teenage boys, the studio enlisted Grammy award winning producer/songwriter Glen Ballard who populated the soundtrack with contemporary bands like Lit, Jamiroquai and Luscious Jackson to complement composer Graeme Revell’s electronic music score. The $55 million film was a risky venture for the animation department of Fox whose fate rested on its success or failure. However, a year before the film was finished, Fox laid off 300 out of 380 of its animation staff members leaving very few people to make the film. An early test screening in Orange County went well with several teenagers comparing Titan A.E. favorably with Star Wars. However, Bill Mechanic, head of Fox, left the studio and Fox Feature Animation was shut down. Bluth and Goldman left and Titan A.E. died a quick death at the box office.

Titan A.E. was the first Hollywood film to be digitally transmitted across the United States over the Internet and then digitally projected into cinemas. The film was pummeled by critics that, with a few exceptions, slammed it as being a Star Wars rip-off. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “Titan A.E. tries to pack so much into 90 minutes that the characters don't have enough screen time to engage our emotions. Cale and Akima in particular have all the depth of television spinoffs of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. This is not to say that Titan A.E. isn't entertaining in its breezy, mild-mannered way, only that its mythology and characters barely resonate.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, “Think of it as Noah's Ark, with a few plot changes inspired by the Space Invaders video game.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The traditional cartoon elements of Titan A.E., both the story and visuals, are unutterably bland. Cale has been conceived as the sort of blond Matt Damon action figure you'd expect to get with a Happy Meal.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “This story's relatively lofty ideas about saving the human race, and its endless twists and turns, are going to soar over the heads of many young audiences—and probably bore them, too. The scenario and special effects are too lackluster for slightly older, sensation-hungry kids, presumably the target audience. And the humor is far too lame for the parents in the audience. Which makes Titan a must-see for . . . almost no one.” USA Today gave the film two and a half out of four stars and Mike Clark called it, “visually impressive but woefully dumbed-down.”

However, Roger Ebert gave the film three and half out of four stars and wrote, “One test for any movie is when you forget it's a movie and simply surf along on the narrative. That can happen as easily with animation as live action, and it happens here. The movie works as adventure, as the Star Wars pictures do.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Titan A.E.'s rudimentary narration does work up a certain amount of propulsion. But it's not the story that's the story here, it's the film's bravura visual look.”

Titan A.E. is about the survival of the human race and what it means to be human with Cale learning to appreciate his heritage. Along the way he grows and falls in love. The film is also a rousing action/adventure tale with a vivid color scheme, larger than life characters that must face a seemingly undefeatable foe. Admittedly, Titan A.E. isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of originality but it also isn’t trying to, instead delivering an entertaining ride on that level it certainly succeeds.


SOURCES

Dawson, Angela. “Fox Hoping for Titanic Results from Titan A.E.BPI Entertainment News Wire. June 7, 2000.

Lauria, Larry. “A Chat with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.” Animation World Magazine. June 2000.

Lauria, Larry. “A Conversation with the New Don Bluth.” Animation World Magazine. September 2000.

Lyman, Rick. “Beaming Soon to a Theater Near You.” Toronto Star. June 6, 2000.

Portman, Jamie. “The Star Wars of Animation.” Ottawa Citizen. June 9, 2000.

Sheehan, Henry. “Titan Creators Seek New Frontiers.” Orange County Register. June 18, 2000.


Stack, Peter. “Sci-Fi Adventure Titan A.E. Breaks New Ground.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 4, 2000.