Friday, April 27, 2012

Larva

The SyFy Channel original movies that air on Saturday nights are the drive-in B-movies for the New Millennium, proudly flying the exploitation freak flag with a steady diet of the kind of pseudo-solemn disaster movies that were all the rage in the 1990s, cheesy fantasy films and over-the-top monster movies. These often cheese-tastic fare are populated by unknown up-and-comers, actors that once had their time in the spotlight either on television, film or popular music but are now just trying to keep working, and genre character actors. The result is colorful assortment of movies like Never Cry Werewolf (2008), Malibu Shark Attack (2009), and Dinocroc vs. Supergator (2010). Admittedly, most SyFy Channel movies are forgettable exercises in cheap special effects, laughably bad dialogue and wooden performances (that is kinda their charm) but every so often the channel cranks out one that is better than you would normally expect. Larva (2005) is one of those movies – a fun romp that Vulcan mind melds David Cronenberg-esque body horror with The Blob-style creature feature.


The film’s rather dark yet playful sense of humor is apparent right from the start as two kids’ late night bull-tipping session in an attempt to impress a couple of girls leads to the first accidental discovery of a species of fluke-like parasites. Dr. Eli Rudkus (Vincent Ventresca) is the new veterinarian in the small town of Host, having replaced the old one who mysteriously retired. His first house call is to the farm of Jacob Young (William Forsythe) who has a sick cow and casually meets Eli at the front door with a loaded shotgun. He soon gets Jacob’s grudging respect after witnessing how the doctor deals with his sick animal. According to the rancher, his cattle eat feed supplied for free by Tender Meats and in turn they supply the corporation with meat from their farms.

While studying the parasites, Eli discovers that they absorb blood which causes them to grow in size and transform into lethal bat-like creatures. He attends a Tender Meats fundraiser hosted by the glad-handing president Fletcher Odermatt (David Selby) whose new feed and the meat it produces may not exactly be legal. He’s also not too thrilled to meet Eli without having been told about his arrival beforehand. Eli also meets Tender Meats beautiful, no-nonsense corporate lawyer Hayley Anderson (Rachel Hunter) whom he takes an instant shine to but she remains aloof.

After efficiently introducing all the major characters, the film picks up narrative steam when one of the townsfolk is attacked by the aggressive parasites causing him a heart attack. The understandably concerned Eli investigates further and wouldn’t you know it, there’s something wrong with the feed supplied by Tender Meats. This puts him in direct conflict with Fletcher who tries to discredit the young vet at a town hall meeting. Once Eli and Jacob team up to kill a parasite let loose in the local hospital, Larva becomes an exciting buddy action movie of sorts as the latter supplies the firepower while the former supplies the brainpower. It is a lot of fun to watch these guys bounce off each other with Eli as the reluctant action hero and Jacob as the dry-witted tough guy. The hospital cat and mouse chase is nicely staged with plenty of suspense (thanks to moody cinematography), action and the requisite jolts as Eli and Jacob search the bowels of the building for the parasite, discovering a trail of bodies in its wake.

In keeping with SyFy Channel movie tradition, Larva is populated by lesser known T.V. actors (Ventresca), B-movie character actors (Forsythe and Selby) and an ex-supermodel turned actress (Hunter) who all acquit themselves quite well considering the pulpy subject matter. In particular, Vincent Ventresca and William Forsythe play well off each other with the former as a mild-mannered doctor who springs into action once the nasty parasite threat becomes prominent and the latter with his gravelly voice, badass attitude and a secret stash of weapons that would make Charlton Heston proud. Forsythe plays a gruff yet sympathetic farmer and it is great to see the underrated actor, known for playing heavies, in a rare heroic role yet still giving it his trademark grizzled spin. Ventresca, known mostly for playing Fun Bobby on the Friends sitcom and starring in the short-lived The Invisible Man series, is good as the honest vet who that decides to blow the whistle on Tender Meats once he realizes what’s going on. The journeyman actor comes across as instantly sympathetic and it’s hard not to root for his character.

The great David Selby (Dark Shadows) sinks his teeth into a juicy villain role as the venal Fletcher. He even gets a funny dinner scene where he utters weird monster sounds to amuse his son in a moment that feels like it was an improvised bit. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story but Selby is able to humanize Fletcher a little bit. His character mostly cares about the almighty buck and his comeuppance is quite satisfying. Rachel Hunter is just fine in an under-written role as a hot shot lawyer that eventually teams up with Eli and Jacob. Hayley isn’t some cliché damsel in distress but gets to mix it up with the boys and even kick a little ass.

Larva is a not-too thinly-veiled commentary on corporate greed at the expense of domestic farmers. In order to compete with foreign exports and eke out a living they get into bed with greedy corporations like Tender Meats. Their tinkering with genetically altered meat ends up biting them in their corporate asses as the dangerous parasites begin decimating the small town, refusing to discriminate as women and children are readily dispatched. Basically, Larva is a wish fulfillment revenge tale as the arrogant corporation gets its well-deserved karmic payback. For a low-budget horror movie it has pretty decent production values, solid direction by Tim Cox, and an enticing premise that is well-executed by a cast refusing to simply phone it in as is sometimes the case with these films. When you’re dealing with a movie like this one, it is important that your lead actors have good chemistry. It is a bit of a gamble casting two very different actors together and then team them up with an ex-supermodel but the filmmakers pull it off by creating an engaging horror movie that hits all the usual narrative beats but does so in entertaining fashion. It may be familiar ground well-traveled but so long as it is done well, who cares? Larva is a dark comedy but one that never winks knowingly at the audience, instead opting to play it straight and deliver the epitome of a guilty pleasure.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Parallax View

The 1970s was an era where disco tortured our eardrums and nihilistic cinema ruled an American landscape riddled with a deep distrust of the government brought about by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X, which were still fresh in people’s minds. When The Parallax View was released in 1974, America had just come out of a long and costly war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal would soon leave the Richard Nixon presidency in tatters. It would be the second film in an unofficial trilogy of paranoid thrillers made by director Alan J. Pakula that included Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976). With these films he was commenting on the times in which he lived – dark and rife with fear and loathing. And Pakula wasn’t alone. The ‘70s was an era that featured some of the best political thrillers ever made with the likes of The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Winter Kills (1979). Arguably, The Parallax View is best of the bunch as it incorporated affectations of a surrealistic style with archetypal thriller conventions to produce a film where nothing is what it seems and good doesn’t always triumph over evil.


Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce) is an ambitious independent politician rumored to be seeking the Presidential nomination in the coming year. It is July 4 and he’s doing a meet and greet at the Space Needle in Seattle when he’s shot and killed by two assassins dressed as waiters. One of them is killed trying to escape while the other (Bill McKinney) sneaks off in the ensuing chaos and confusion. After months of investigation, an unidentified government committee releases a report that states Carroll was killed by a lone assassin with no evidence of a conspiracy. At the time, this must have reminded people of the findings by the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be the only gunman acting alone.

Three years later, we meet muckraking journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) as he disrupts a police bust in order to get the inside scoop on a story he’s been working on for weeks. His editor, Bill Rentels (Hume Cronyn), refuses to publish the article because, as he tells Joe, “We’re in the business of reporting the news not creating it.” Out of their discussion we learn that Joe had a drinking problem and it got him fired from his job at the newspaper. He appears to have gotten it under control and has since been rehired. Joe lives in a motel where he meets Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a television reporter that witnessed Carroll being assassinated. She claims that someone is trying to kill her.

Lee and Joe had been romantically involved in the past and have a long history as evident by the way they interact with one another. Initially, he doesn’t believe her despite claims that six people who witnessed the Carroll killing have since died. Lee seems genuinely upset but Joe remains unconvinced. That is, until Pakula cuts to the next scene and we see her dead body in a hospital, bathed in a sickly blue-green light. A doctor informs Joe that she died from a possible alcohol and drug overdose. However, to someone like him, it is too much of a coincidence and so the newspaperman does some digging, starting with Carroll’s former aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels) who Lee believed was living in the small town of Salmontail, the kind of place where a city slicker like Joe sticks out like a sore thumb with its honky tonks populated by cowboys and running afoul of a belligerent local deputy and the sheriff (Kelly Thorsden) who tries to kill him. Joe survives and uncovers a conspiracy that involves the Parallax Corporation, an enigmatic organization that recruits political assassins.

Throughout the film, Pakula obscures what we are seeing as he plays with the notion that things aren’t always what they seem. Early on, Lee is doing a story on Senator Carroll and a parade goes on in the foreground. When the senator is killed it occurs in the background behind a pane of glass. In another example, Joe observes a police bust behind patio doors. Later in the film, Joe is visited by a representative from the Parallax Corporation and during the scene Pakula frames the shot so that the man is obscuring our view of Joe. By doing this visually, Pakula forces us to question what we see much like Joe is forced to as he digs deeper into the Carroll assassination.

Warren Beatty had just come off a three-year break from acting when he appeared in The Parallax View. He had been working on George McGovern’s campaign for President. The actor is excellent as investigative journalist Joe Frady, a man who gets in way over his head with a story that has far sinister implications then he initially suspected. The actor plays a flawed character but one that we empathize with once people he knows start dying off while others are trying to kill him. Beatty conveys a shrewd intelligence that is quite believable. At first, Joe comes across as an arrogant journalist but as he gets involved in the Carroll assassination and the conspiracy that surrounds it, he becomes much more responsible because he realizes how much is at stake – not just his life but that of others.

He’s helped immeasurably by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Giler’s tightly-constructed screenplay, which presents a complex conspiracy that is never difficult to understand but rather becomes more fascinating and involving as Joe uncovers layers upon layers over the course of the film. Some of the best moments are the brief insights we get into the Parallax Corporation and how they select certain people to become assassins. Ironically, the script was never completed before filming and was largely a rushed patch job by Pakula and Beatty!

The Parallax View features some incredible cinematography by Gordon Willis who expertly uses the widescreen format, like in a scene where Joe searches the sheriff of Salmontail’s house and one of his deputies enters. On the left side we see Joe snooping around in one room and the deputy enter the house on the right side. The tension in this scene is accentuated by the fact that we can see both men in the same frame while only one of them is unaware of the other who is trying to escape undetected. This is also captured in one, uninterrupted take! It is also worth noting that Pakula refreshingly relies on very little music and instead uses ambient sounds in this scene and it only puts us more on edge because we don’t have a musical cue to tell us how to feel.

Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Papillion) adapted Loren Singer’s 1970 novel The Parallax View into a screenplay and gave it to executive producer Gabriel Katzka. He in turn gave the script to Warren Beatty and Alan J. Pakula, who liked its “bold sketches and almost expressionist quality.” The director was drawn to the project because he felt that America had “become a world in which heroes didn’t necessarily win … We live in a Kafka-like world where you never find the evil. It permeates the society.” He was also drawn to the film because it afforded him the opportunity to make an action film (a genre he had yet to tackle) while also incorporating elements of surrealism into the film’s style. He wanted to contrast this with realistic performances from his actors.

At some point, David Giler (Alien) was hired to work on the script but he was unable to finish the job because of a Screenwriters Guild strike. Pakula wanted to delay filming until the script was completed but Beatty’s salary was guaranteed regardless of whether the film was made or not and he was set to make Shampoo (1975) next. Feeling the pressure, Paramount Studios insisted Pakula begin principal photography in order to capitalize on the actor’s window of availability. He only had a few scripted sequences and was forced to work with Beatty on scenes in the morning and then use them during the afternoon’s filming.

This resulted in several departures from Semple’s original script. At Beatty’s request, Joe’s profession was changed from a police officer to a newspaper reporter. Originally, the Carroll assassination was not shown and instead it referenced the JFK killing but Pakula did not want to mix reality with the fiction of the film he was making. The role of Lee Carter was originally written as a tough, older woman but Pakula was impressed with the young Paula Prentiss’ vulnerability and cast her in the part.

The film’s centerpiece is a famous sequence in which Joe infiltrates the Parallax Corporation as a potential recruit and is subjected to an audio/visual slide show reminiscent of the one in A Clockwork Orange (1971) – albeit with very different intentions – in that the images start off pleasant enough, categorized in groupings entitled, FATHER, MOTHER, COUNTRY and ME, but get gradually more disturbing and provocative. In the original script, it was just a simple test and Pakula even shot a sequence where Joe was interviewed by a Parallax employee but the director wasn’t happy with the result. The actual five-minute montage was assembled in post-production over four months. Pakula asked his assistant to collect photographs for him that would provoke all kinds of emotional responses and once he had a decent collection the director spent a long time trying all kinds of sequences of images.

Pakula had previous worked with Gordon Willis on Klute and wanted to take his dark, shadowy cinematography even further in order to evoke the felling that “the unknown is indeed threatening, that there is something out there that you can’t see that could destroy you.” One gets this feeling in a scene where Joe encounters one of the Parallax representatives at his apartment and, at times, we only see the protagonist in silhouette. Pakula and Willis also decided to play with scale, showing Joe being dwarfed by his environment, like the scene where he narrowly escapes being drowned by a dam flooding or the climax in the convention center. This is done to symbolize just how much the film’s protagonist is at the mercy of his surroundings, which along with its inhabitants are out to destroy him at every turn.

The Parallax View received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It tries to entertain instead of staying behind to argue. And the ending has an inexorable logic to it.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie, which was directed by Alan J. Pakula, never rewards the attention we give it with anything more substantial than a few minor shocks.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, "We would probably be better off rethinking—or better yet, not thinking about—the whole dismal business, if only to put an end to ugly and dramatically unsatisfying products like The Parallax View.” Even though the film divided critics at the time, it only took two years before it began to enjoy reappraisal, starting with Film Comment’s Richard T. Jameson who felt it was Pakula’s “most adventurous [film] in its exploration of the medium itself as an event.” Now, it has become regarded as an established classic with Entertainment Weekly calling it “a mother of a thriller. There are some kick-ass suspense set pieces, including one with a bomb on a plane that would make Hitchcock plotz.”

The Parallax View was not a commercial success. At the time, Beatty was busy making Shampoo and unable to promote the film. Paramount Studio head Bob Evans was more interested in promoting the film he had produced, Chinatown (1974), then Pakula’s. In retrospect, a film that featured such a nihilistic ending wasn’t going to appeal to a mainstream audience and so it really isn’t surprising that it failed to connect with audiences.

While The Parallax View was not a commercial hit one can see its influence in later films like The Star Chamber (1983), Arlington Road (1999), quoted to comic effect in Zoolander (2001), and, more recently, The International (2009) – all of which owe a debt to Pakula’s film. The notion of a shadowy corporation employing assassins to alter domestic and foreign policy was ahead of its time and seems prescient with scandals like Iran-Contra that came to light years after the film’s release. And yet, the events in it never seem unbelievable thanks to Pakula’s grounded direction and the well-written script. In keeping with the pessimism prevalent in a lot ‘70s American cinema, The Parallax View ends on a downbeat note as the conspiracy is not exposed and the system triumphs over the individual. The film’s ending reflected the prevailing mood in the United States at the time as many people felt betrayed by the government – that our best and brightest leaders were being killed for trying to change things. The film ends much as how it began with the same anonymous government committee stating that another political assassination was the result of a lone killer, the only difference being that we now know the truth because we’ve witnessed all the events leading up to it. It leaves one slightly depressed but also oddly empowered with knowledge.

 
NOTE: Most of the production information in this article comes from Jared Brown's excellent book, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Repo Man

Repo Man (1984) was part of a fascinating trend during the 1980s of foreign filmmakers seeing America through the eyes of an outsider and making films that identified with marginalized figures hanging out on the fringes of society. Some of these directors included German director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), Czech Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way), the Franco-Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Barfly), and Liverpool, England-born Alex Cox. Teaming up with legendary Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, Cox offered a fresh perspective on Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis that has been the setting for countless films and television shows, by picking locations that hadn’t been seen all that often – “dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown” with all sorts of abandoning buildings and vacant lots, as the Los Angeles Times observed, naming the film one of the best set in the city in the last 25 years.


Repo Man came out at the height of the Reagan era and was notable for how it proved to be a sharp contrast to the prevailing trend of rampant commercialism with its generic branding of food and drinks and a protagonist that openly rejected material items and a traditional job in search of something else. The film follows the misadventures of a white suburban punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who we meet stacking cans of food in a supermarket while co-worker Kevin (Zander Schloss, who’s look and demeanor anticipated Napoleon Dynamite by two decades) sings the jingle for 7-UP to pass the time. For Otto this is the last straw and he quits his job after being confronted by his boss for not properly spacing the cans. He’d much rather party with his punk rock buddies until he catches his best friend Duke (Dick Rude) having sex with a girl he was just about to get with himself before going to get her a beer. Not only rejecting his crappy job but also his punk rock friends, Otto ends up wandering the streets aimlessly until he meets Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran repossessor of cars, and who unwittingly gets the young man to help repossess his first car.

It’s Otto’s first introduction into a subculture he never thought about before and once he realizes what Bud is, rejects his offer to be a repo man. Otto soon finds out how true the old adage is that you can’t go home again when his perpetually stoned ex-hippie parents have given all of his European trip money to buy a place on Reverend Larry's Chariot's of Fire Honor Role to send Bibles to El Salvador. Otto starts working for Bud who takes the young man under his wing and shows him the ropes, telling him how to dress and how things work. Most importantly he tells Otto the Repo Code. The young man takes to the job instantly, getting off on the excitement of not just dealing with angry car owners but also the run-ins with other highly competitive repo men like the Rodriguez brothers – Napoleon (Eddie Velez) and Lagarto (Del Zamora). In some respects, the repossessing racket infuses a lot of the punk rock attitude as Bud famously tells Otto, “An ordinary person spends their life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”

"Not many people got a code to live by anymore," says Bud to Otto early on in Repo Man. This film is all about personal codes and philosophies. It seems that everyone has their own take on life, from Bud's Repo Code ("I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.") to Lite (Sy Richardson), another repo man, who has his own code of conduct – he won’t ride with anybody unless they wear a seatbelt. However, Repo Man’s core belief, if you can call it that, comes from pseudo-guru/mechanic Miller's (Tracey Walter) Lattice of Coincidence philosophy. He views life as "a bunch of unconnected incidences," with a "lattice of coincidence that lays atop of everything." This is the structure that Cox imposes on Repo Man, creating several seemingly random events and characters that only occasionally interact with one another, but eventually all are linked together at the film's end.

Cox uses the initial scenes in the film as a springboard to introduce a variety of unusual characters and situations that contribute to the satirical commentary on everything from television evangelists to hippies to punk rock. Initially, he presents these situations as meaningless, random events: a Chevy Malibu driven by a lobotomized scientist with four dead aliens in the trunk that fry anyone who dares open it; three old friends from Otto’s punk days that rob various variety stores for kicks (“Let’s get sushi and not pay!”); a UFO cult dedicated to finding the dead aliens and exposing them to the world on Johnny Carson; and the FBI who is also in pursuit of the Chevy Malibu. Cox has all of these characters, and many more interact with one another throughout the film, keeping Otto and Bud as the focal point, illustrating that what seems like random, arbitrary events are really all connected. Lattice of coincidence indeed.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton are excellent as the student and teacher, playing well off each other with the former learning the ropes, and the latter doling out words of wisdom. Liberated from Brat Pack fare that he has been most closely identified with, Estevez is quite good as Otto, a directionless young man trying to find a purpose and thinks he’ll find it initially with the repo men but thanks to Miller discovers a higher purpose. Legendary character actor Stanton is in top form as veteran repo man Bud. His weather-beaten features and the laconic way he smokes a cigarette help convey Bud’s world-weariness. After seeing him in countless films as a supporting actor it’s great to see him in a substantial role. Repo Man only reinforced his considerable range as he plays a cranky guy who’s seen it all and has an opinion to go with it. This is in sharp contrast to his nearly mute and extremely vulnerable loner in Paris, Texas (1984).

The supporting cast is also excellent. Sy Richardson is one of the stand-out repo men, playing a cool guy with a badass attitude and a habit of self-mythologizing – he’s the John Shaft of the repossessing set. In one of the film’s reoccurring gags, he introduces Otto to a book that changed his life – a thinly-veiled jab at Dianetics entitled, Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind by X. Rum-Bubba. Tracey Walter as space case Miller is also superb. In most films, Walter has been relegated to nothing roles, but here Cox gives him room to do his thing and he uses the time wisely presenting Miller as maybe the most intelligent guy in the film, or the most insane as he expounds his strange theories ("The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.") to anyone who will listen. He’s given an opportunity to deliver a fascinatingly wonky monologue about how UFOs are really time machines that comes across as a pisstake on New Age hokum but is ultimately embraced by Otto and proven true at the end of the film. According to Walter, this now famous speech was not in the script. Cox wrote it with no intention of using it but the actor told him, “Alex, you can’t be serious about not using that!”

Repo Man is chock full of hilarious bits pitch black humor, like when a highway patrolman asks a government agent what happened to his comrade who was vaporized in the film’s opening minutes to which she deadpans, “It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.” There are also all kinds recurring and throwaway gags, like the car with the dead aliens passing by the government truck pursuing it but the FBI agents fail to notice because they have engine trouble. Bud and Otto repeatedly and narrowly miss meeting the latter’s punk pals who have become inept criminals. There ‘s also punk rock band the Circle Jerks who make an appearance in the film as a cheesy lounge band (“I can’t believe I used to like these guys,” Otto says with disdain). One also has to pay attention to background dialogue to get a few funny gems, like the scene where Otto enters a hospital and over the intercom Dr. Benway is being paged for surgery. Benway was one of the main characters in William S. Burroughs’ surreal novel, Naked Lunch.

From the get-go, Cox also establishes a refreshingly uncompromising, bare bones approach and tone to the whole film that, unlike other supposedly anti-establishment films (Heathers and Pump Up The Volume), never lets up. This tone is established with a great punk rock soundtrack with the likes of Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks contributing songs and almost documentary-like photography from Robby Muller. Best of all, Cox isn't afraid to cast a critical eye on anyone, even poking fun at the film's own punk aesthetic in a scene where Otto's friend, Duke dies from a gunshot wound and leaves this touching soliloquy, "I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. And yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am." It's the old juvenile delinquent/punk cop out which Cox exposes so well as Otto replies, "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk, just like me." Repo Man is unforgivingly anti-materialistic, anti-commercialism, anti-consumerism, and anti-establishment – a welcome relief from the cultural wasteland that was the mid-1980s.

After graduating from the UCLA film studies department, Alex Cox met British film director Adrian Lyne who, at the time, had only directed Foxes (1980). He told Cox that his next film was going to be about the impending threat of nuclear war. Cox scouted locations in Seattle and Vancouver for Lyne while also writing a screenplay entitled, The Happy Hour. Lyne never made the film and Cox subsequently ran into two friends from UCLA – Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They had formed a production company and each had made a film and were now making commercials and public service announcements.

Cox suggested that they produce feature films and that he should direct one of them. Wacks and McCarthy agreed and told him to write a script. So, he wrote The Hot Club, which he described as “a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve gas thieves set in the early years of the 21st century.” It was budgeted but ultimately deemed too expensive and so Cox went off and wrote Repo Man based on his experiences living in L.A., working as a car repossessor and inspired by punk rock music and underground comic books that came out of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. To entice potential investors, Cox drew four pages of a comic book based on his script with the notion of expanding it into an entire comic book but found it to be too much work and abandoned the idea.

Michael Nesmith, one of The Monkees and now a movie producer, read the script/comic book pages, liked it and showed it to then-head of Universal Studios Bob Rehme. Amazingly, he green-lighted Repo Man, offering Cox a $1.5 million budget on the condition that the film be delivered on time and resemble the original script. Repo Man was shot on location in L.A. over six weeks from late July to August 1983. The crew were asked to work for free for the final three days when the production went over budget and over schedule. For the most part the production was able to fly under the radar as the studio was focusing most of its attention on the big budget production of Streets of Fire (1984). Unfortunately, just as principal photography was being completed, Rehme was fired and the new studio head proceeded to marginalize anything his predecessor had been attached to, including Repo Man and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983).

Repo Man had its world premiere at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival. When the film made its North American debut, it only played major cities. In frustration, Cox and his producers took out an ad in Variety reprinting the good review they gave it as “a challenge” to Universal to give their film a proper theatrical release. Fortunately, an executive at the studio by the name of Kelly Neal championed Repo Man, prolonging its theatrical life somewhat. The film’s soundtrack, composed almost entirely of West Coast punk rock bands, became quite popular with fans of the music and through word of mouth Cox’s film began to develop a cult following.

Repo Man received positive reviews from mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “What's best about Repo Man is its sly sense of humor. There are a lot of running gags in the movie, and the best of them involves generic food labels, of all things.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Repo Man frequently seems to be as zonked as Mr. Stanton's cocaine-sniffing Bud. It's not a big- budget, Ghostbusters of a movie, but it's very entertaining, and though it's rude in an R-rated way, it has the good taste never to promise more than it can deliver.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott called it, “a non-stop, shoestring trip with more adventures and a helluva lot more smarts than you'll find in most American movies. The ride in Repo Man may be bumpy and there may be a few wrong turns and a few false starts, but the scenery is always, well, scenic and, despite their nihilism, the travelling companions are enlivening and weirdly affirmative.” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael wrote, “The movie gives you the feeling that you’ve gone past alienation into the land of detachment … A movie like this, with nothing positive in it, can make you feel good.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Cox gives the denizens of Edge City wacky ways of expressing themselves whether they're principals, passers-by or disembodied voices.” Most memorably, notable author Harlan Ellison reviewed the film and wrote, “Unless you are one of those dismal unfortunates who thinks Jerry Lewis is funny, you are guaranteed a filmic experience that can only be compared, in terms of a good time, with watching Richard Nixon sweat on television.”

Repo Man is a clever social satire that attacks consumer culture on a small scale. Many of the characters have brand names like Miller, Bud, and Lite, while all the products in the film are labeled "Beer" and "Food." Cox twists the whole idea of consumerism on its ear, commenting on how we have all become commodities of one form or another to be bought and sold. On one level, the film is a bizarre comedy with memorable dialogue (hence its cult film status) and a killer soundtrack (the title song performed by Iggy Pop no less), but look a little harder and you will find much more going on under the surface. Many obscure films are often labeled a "cult film," but this one deserves the label with its eclectic cast, a take-no-prisoners attitude towards social commentary and an unconventional plot structure.

 
NOTE: The bulk of the production info was taken from Alex Cox's official site and from the liner notes of the special edition DVD tin by Anchor Bay.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

15 of the Apocalypse

This week I will be participating in a monster blog collaboration over at the awesome Film Connoisseur blog. Along with him and The Sci-Fi Fanatic, we will be taking a look at 5 of our favorite post-apocalyptic films. The Film Connoisseur has already been posting some excellent picks, including a rare postive review of The Postman. Our collective picks will go online Friday so be sure to check it out and let us know what you think!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Gingerbread Man


One of the marks of a true auteur is someone that can take a director-for-hire job and make it their own. They are able to take a project that originated from a major studio and infuse it with their own personal style. Sometimes this works (The Untouchables) and sometimes it doesn’t (The Cotton Club). The 1990s was the decade of John Grisham film adaptations. He was a criminal lawyer that began writing very popular crime fiction several of which were made into successful films by esteemed filmmakers like Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Alan J. Pakula (The Pelican Brief) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker). These directors were very prominent during the 1970s and began to fall out of favor with the studios during the 1980s. They took these paycheck gigs as a way to stay relevant in mainstream popular culture while also hoping to parlay their potential success into financing more personal projects.

Along came Robert Altman towards the end of the ‘90s who decided to try his hand with The Gingerbread Man (1998), based on an original story that Grisham himself adapted into a screenplay. Never one to follow a script too closely, Altman heavily reworked it and created his own unique spin on the material. When an audience test screening went badly, the studio went in and re-edited the film against Altman’s wishes and their version tested even worse. They finally agreed to release his version and promptly buried it thus ensuring that it would not do well at the box office. While certainly not Altman’s finest work, it is a curious cinematic oddity full of fascinating quirks that help it stand apart from other Grisham cinematic adaptations.

Right from the opening credits, Altman establishes a rather unsettling tone that puts one immediately on edge as they play over incredibly ominous music with the camera flying over harsh, foreboding-looking landscapes. Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is a successful defense attorney from Savannah, Georgia who has just won a high profile case that also made the local police look quite bad. Early on, Altman playfully suggests how he feels about slick lawyers like Rick when the man’s young daughter asks him if he’s a snake oil salesman because she saw someone on television call him that.

We get the first full-on Altman technique at a surprise party held at the firm Rick works for and we see him in schmooze mode as he mingles with various party guests, including his dutiful assistant Lois Harlan (Daryl Hannah) and witness a snarky conversation with his alcoholic ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) as they trade not so veiled insults at one another. In this scene, Altman favors his trademark long shots and overlapping dialogue in crowd scenes so that the main characters mingle with others and we are allowed to take in the entire scene and focus on whomever we want. As the party ends, Rick playfully flirts with Lois while one of the catering staff lingers in the background of several shots.

As Rick leaves for home, he notices her (Embeth Davidtz) chasing after someone stealing her car. It’s a dark and stormy night with Hurricane Geraldo threatening and so Rick volunteers to drive her home. They get there and find her car in the driveway and the front door open. Altman uses the shadowy home at night to maximum effect as we wonder if an intruder is lurking somewhere within the dimly lit place. Rick and Mallory end up having a one-night stand. Even though he initially doesn’t know her name, Rick becomes interested in a problem she’s having with her estranged father Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a certified whacko who is apparently the leader of a group of old homeless men that fancy themselves part of some quasi-religious cult. Rick uses his influence to get Dixon committed but he soon escapes and the lawyer finds himself a target along with his ex-wife and their two children.

As with all of Altman’s films, The Gingerbread Man is an embarrassment of acting riches and it’s great to see him giving 1980s mainstay actors like Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah and Tom Berenger meaty roles in the film. At the time, they had fallen out of favor and were no longer getting substantial roles in high profile Hollywood films. Altman knew that these actors were hungry for roles like this and they clearly rose to the occasion, relishing working with someone of Altman’s pedigree. For example, Downey plays a slightly sleazy private investigator by the name of Clyde Pell that Rick retains. His first appearance on-screen is a memorable one as he shamelessly hits on not one but two secretaries and finds the time to do little bits of business that tell us all we need to know about his character in a few seconds before he goes in to meet with Rick. Downey is the kind of actor that absolutely thrived on Altman’s improvisational style of filmmaking. As always, he is infinitely watchable in the little ways he reacts to something that is said, like how he nods off during one of Rick’s court appearances, or how he interacts with others.

Kenneth Branagh is quite good as a vain, over-confident lawyer who gets in way over his head. Rick is riddled with flaws and Altman delights in making him an imperfect protagonist. Thankfully, the actor is more than up for the challenge as he does a fine job of showing how Rick’s obsession with Mallory’s plight comes at the expense of his personal and professional life. One gets the impression that Rick’s life was a bit of mess before all of this happened. To his credit, Branagh also affects a credible southern accent and manages to avoid exaggerating it to cartoonish proportions, as is sometimes the temptation for actors to do.

Initially, Mallory is an unlikely femme fatale. She appears to be a typical damsel in distress but Embeth Davidtz’s performance suggests a hint of Dixon’s madness residing behind her character’s eyes. We’re not sure of her real intentions, as she remains something of an elusive figure early on. Why is Rick risking so much for someone he knows so little about? There’s something about Mallory that doesn’t ring true and we pick up on it fairly early but Rick’s raging ego blinds him from this until he’s in way over his head with his professional reputation on the line.

Altman dutifully works his way through the mechanics of the plot but one gets the feeling that he really could care less about them, judging by the way he allows obvious jumps in logic and gaping plot holes go by. It is the moments between characters, their behavior and mannerisms that he’s more interested in. For example, there is the perfunctory court room scene that is the staple of all Grisham adaptations and Altman zips through it but not without giving Robert Duvall the opportunity to show how crazy his character is and by injecting some humor with several of Dixon’s minions causing a ruckus at one point only to be ejected. Altman is less interested in making a typical Grisham thriller than subverting its conventions by infusing elements of film noir and even the horror genre, like in a scene where Dixon’s gang make their way through a cemetery at night during a thunderstorm to spring their leader from a sanitarium that is rather creepy when juxtaposed with a particularly upsetting nightmare that Mallory is experiencing at the same time. Altman sees Dixon as some kind of elemental force of nature as evident in the way he films his escape during this scene.

The veteran filmmaker manages to make the moments where Rick’s life is in danger seem less like the generic conventions they are and more like moments of genuine dread by infusing them with believable behavior (except for one moment where he busts his kids out of school and pops a staff member) and not what a character in a film would do. I also like how Altman ratchets up the tension in Rick’s life at the same time as Hurricane Geraldo intensifies itself. He does this by increasing the frequency of long shots as Rick frantically tries to keep his kids safe unaware that he is being followed by someone in a car from afar.

Like Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Altman’s The Gingerbread Man features a mystery at the heart of its story set in Savannah, Georgia but they couldn’t be further apart in their depictions of the town. In Eastwood’s film, it is portrayed as a pretty, tight-knit community populated by lovable eccentrics with all kinds of gorgeous shots of its landmarks that make you wonder if it was partially funded by their tourist commission. Altman’s film, on the other hand, as shot by Chinese cinematographer Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine), Savannah is presented as a dark, foreboding place besieged by a nasty hurricane and populated by belligerent cops, scary homeless folks and others that are hell-bent on making Rick’s life difficult. This is the dark underbelly of Eastwood’s picture postcard depiction.

John Grisham had written the screenplay for The Gingerbread Man early on in his career and it had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. The general consensus was that it needed work. Polygram Films had acquired the screenplay and had attracted actor Kenneth Branagh to the project with a lot of money. He liked the Grisham story but had reservations about the character of Rick Magruder whom he felt was a stereotypical hero. He agreed to do the film for but only on the condition that someone like Robert Altman direct. As luck would have it, he wanted to work with the actor. The director had never read a Grisham novel before but saw potential in the story. He liked the structure but his condition for taking on this project came from a desire to change as much of the traditional thriller elements as possible and stay out of the courtroom if he could. He also wanted to make Rick, “a highly successful man with no real sense of morality.” Altman called Branagh and told him, “I would love to do this with you if we can fool the audience by not making you the hero, by making you flawed. If you go through that and not play Harrison Ford, I think we can do something very interesting.” According to the actor, it was Altman’s idea to set the film in Savannah during a hurricane.

While promoting Kansas City (1996) in Europe, the director met a writer by the name of Clive Hayes and hired him to rewrite the script (under the pen name of his brother Al). In preparation for the role, he hired a dialect coach to help him develop a believable southern accent indicative of the Savannah region and not a “generalized Southern ‘Hee-Haw’ redneck.” For the Southern Gothic kind of vibe he wanted, Altman thought of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and sought out cinematographer Gu Changwei because he greatly admired his work on Farewell My Concubine (1993).

It was smooth sailing until post-production when Polygram showed the film without all of the effects and musical score completed to three different test audiences in West Hollywood – none of which were ready for Altman’s atypical thriller. The studio claimed that his film “lacked tension and suffered from an inappropriate music score,” while Altman claimed that they wanted a shorter running time. Not surprisingly, it received a middling reaction. Not happy with this, they had Altman make a few minor tweaks and had another test screening with the same indifferent reaction. The studio proceeded to take the film away from the director and had another editor re-cut it, removing ten minutes of footage. Understandably upset, Altman was in the process of having his name removed from the film when the studio cut was screened for another test audience that liked it even less. After all the dust had settled, Polygram let Altman finish the film his way and released it.

The Gingerbread Man enjoyed mostly positive notices from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The Altman touches are more in dialogue and personal style than in construction. He gives the actors freedom to move around in their roles. Instead of the tunnel vision of most Grisham movies, in which every line of dialogue relentlessly hammers down the next plot development, The Gingerbread Man has space for quirky behavior, kidding around and murky atmosphere.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The Gingerbread Man, which is carried most effectively by Mr. Branagh's performance, is also given an unusual look by Gu Changwei's camera work. This cinematographer, whose credits include Farewell, My Concubine, turns the film strange, insinuating and occasionally stark, which eloquently reflects Mr. Altman's offbeat approach to the story.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “What it's selling most of all is its director's assurance at manipulation of narrative film conventions. So powerful are these and so confident is he that he beguiles you into leaning back and letting him work.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “If it weren't for Altman's touches, The Gingerbread Man would be a mediocre thriller. Even with them, it can't be more than a top-notch genre film, but top-notch is top-notch.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman felt it was “tricky and satisfying entertainment.”
 
However, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman felt the film was “a stormy farrago of uneven ensemble acting, overlapping dialogue, and nervous camera maneuvers. Whatsits whiz through the foreground, scenes are shot through a foggy windshield. Narrative suspense is less important than character.” USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and called it a “big yawn, a neo-noir thriller that unwinds with off-kilter promise but eventually crumbles into conventional bits.” After all was said and done, Altman’s battle with the studio took its toll on him and he got sick shortly afterwards and was hospitalized. He also became depressed but his loyal inner circle rallied to his aid and got him interested in Cookie’s Fortune (1999), which helped revitalize love of filmmaking.

Years later, Altman was still bitter about the experience: "Well, it's criminal, their treatment of that film. There was a vindictive order from the guy who was running (Polygram Films), he was so pissed off with me, he literally told them, 'I want that movie killed.' We're talking to lawyers, but it's almost impossible to win a lawsuit. You can't prove what a film could have done. They were just pissed off because it didn't test the way they wanted it to with the teenagers, y'know, in those malls." According to Altman, Polygram tried to bury the film via lack of advertising and a limited theatrical release because “they were embarrassed by all the stories going around about how they had to give it back to me.”

Sandwiched between more personal projects, The Gingerbread Man has become something of a forgotten film in Altman’s sizable body of work, which is a shame because there is a lot to admire. The film is worth a look if only to see how a distinctive filmmaker applies his fast and loose approach to the Grisham formula. The result is a film too idiosyncratic for mainstream audiences and too conventional for the director’s core fanbase. It’s too bad, really, because there is a lot to enjoy and one gets the impression that Altman takes perverse pleasure in systematically dismantling a successful lawyer’s life all for a woman he barely knows. In turn, we get perverse pleasure in seeing the veteran director deconstruct the Grisham formula to produce a flawed but fascinating film.



SOURCES

Amsden, Cynthia. “Altman Tests the Mainstream.” The Globe & Mail. January 30, 1998.

Chollet, Laurence. “Forget the Author – This is an Auteur.” The Record. January 22, 1998.

Clarke, Roger. “A Right Dust-Up in Tinseltown.” Financial Times. August 1, 1998.

Grove, Martin. “Altman’s Gingerbread House is Finally in Order.” The Hollywood Reporter. January 21, 1998.

Kissel, Howard. “Branagh’s Trial Run at a Grisham Film.” New York Daily News. January 21, 1998.

Portman, Jamie. “Working with Altman Sweet Treat for Branagh.” Calgary Herald. April 9, 1998.

Thompson, David. Altman on Altman. Faber & Faber. 2006.


Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. Knopf. 2009.