Friday, May 25, 2012

The Stranger

The Stranger (1946) is generally regarded by Orson Welles aficionados as a standard thriller done for money, and to prove to studio executives that he could work within the system (it had been four years since his last directorial effort). He even said as much in interviews, and criticized the studio for cutting approximately thirty minutes from the beginning of the film that he wrote himself. Admittedly, it is not in the same league as, say, Touch of Evil (1958), but the film does have its merits. The Stranger is a tightly plotted and well acted thriller that bears his unique stamp, in spite of it being a director-for-hire project.

An investigator named Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) releases Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) — a convicted Nazi war criminal — from prison, hoping that he will lead him to an even bigger fugitive, the notorious Franz Kindler (Orson Welles). Sure enough, Meinike finds Kindler posing as Charles Rankin, a history teacher in the idyllic small town of Harper, Connecticut. There is a certain delicious irony that a notorious Nazi war criminal is not only teaching world history to America’s privileged elite, but that he is also marrying the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court judge (Philip Merivale). The film plays out as an entertaining cat and mouse game with Wilson applying pressure on Kindler to reveal his true identity.

Many Welles supporters complain that The Stranger lacks the overt stylistic flourishes of his more celebrated efforts, such as The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Othello (1952). While it is true that his trademark style is more restrained in The Stranger, it is still recognizable as a Welles film. For example, the opening sequence — where Meinike is released from prison — features the use of German Expressionistic lighting (in particular, the use of silhouettes) that Welles used so effectively in Citizen Kane (1941). These first six minutes, with its political intrigue and foreign setting feels like an entirely different film from the rest of what follows. The shadowy noir world of this opener acts in sharp contrast to the bright, postcard-perfect setting of Harper where Kindler has taken refuge. These two worlds are bridged by Wilson’s dogged pursuit of Meinike.

After he and Wilson arrive in Connecticut, Welles uses a swooping high angle establishing shot to give a God’s eye view that anticipates a similar shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil (both films were shot by Russell Metty). Welles also utilizes low angle shots (used so effectively in Kane) in a school gymnasium when Meinike gets the upper hand on Wilson. It is during this scene that Welles inserts an amusing visual gag. After Wilson is knocked unconscious with some gym apparatus, Meinike walks past a sign that reads, “Anyone using apparatus in this room does so at their own risk.” Ah, if only Wilson had seen this earlier!

Welles’ love of long takes is also evident in The Stranger during a brilliantly staged four-minute scene between Meinike and Kindler in the woods. It’s a dialogue-heavy scene that also features sounds of a paper chase occurring off in the background. This leads into one of the best sequences of the film, in which Kindler frantically covers up a dead body in the woods, while several of his students are participating in a paper chase nearby. The use of dramatic music and Welles’ panicked, paranoid facial expressions create palpable tension in this scene as the teacher is almost caught by his pupils. The fact that Welles pulled off this cheekily audacious sequence proves that he wasn’t content to merely sleepwalk his way through filming but instill some of his personal style when he could.

Welles is not only able to wring tension out of action sequences but also through dialogue-driven scenes as well. At one point during the film, Wilson and Kindler meet face to face over a family dinner. Kindler delivers a chilling monologue that starts off cordially and then, as he lets the façade slip ever so slightly, he expounds on Germany and the Nazi philosophy. He claims that the Germans are not waiting for another Messiah a la Jesus but rather another Hitler. It is a powerful speech delivered with zeal by Welles (who relished playing villains) that anticipates his famous monologue in The Third Man (1949). The looks that Welles and Robinson exchange during this scene make it clear that the two men have no illusions about who they really are — but proper dinner decorum keeps them in check during the meal. It is what is not being said that is just as telling as what is being said.

Story-wise, The Stranger lacks originality. It is essentially a reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with Uncle Charlie being substituted by Franz Kindler. Both films are set in postcard perfect small-town America, feature the villain launching into a psychotic monologue while sitting at a family dinner table, and climax with a dramatic scene atop a bell tower. Edward G. Robinson also seems to be channeling his cranky investigator from Double Indemnity (1944) and in doing so instills a methodical intelligence in his stereotypical character. He also has a nice scene with Billy House who plays Potter the local drugstore clerk. The two men play a game of checkers with Potter inquiring about Wilson’s business in town while the investigator poses as an antiques dealer. During the course of their game, Wilson attempts to get some information out of the clerk about Meinike only to then lose the game much to his chagrin. Robinson’s frustrated expression at being bested by a country bumpkin is priceless.

After Orson Welles’ deal with RKO fell through, he took the first offer to direct a film, which was The Stranger. He took the gig to prove to Hollywood that he could make a commercial picture on time and on budget. The screenplay was written by Anthony Veiller with uncredited contributions by filmmaker John Huston and Welles himself. His major contribution to the film was an elaborate chase between Wilson and Meinike as he tried to locate Kindler in Argentina complete with a “whole series of very wild, dreamlike events,” according to the director. Producer Sam Spiegel ordered the film’s editor to cut this sequence, which amounted to almost thirty minutes of footage because he felt that it did not advance the story.

Welles completed The Stranger under budget and on time. It was released in May of 1946 and performed quite well at the box office, earning an Academy Award nomination for, ironically, Best Original Story. More importantly, it proved to Hollywood that Welles was a bankable director, and paved the way for his next film, The Lady from Shanghai. Even though Welles disowned The Stranger, it still contains enough of his personal touches and pre-occupations to elevate it above the generic thriller, to a film that belongs alongside his other artistic successes.


NOTE: A slightly shorter version of this article first appeared on the Senses of Cinema website.


SOURCES

Bogdanovich, Peter. This Is Orson Welles. Da Capo Press. 1998.

McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles. Da Capo Press. 1996.


Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Southern Methodist University Press. 1989.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up

Imagine the scene. A packed, pulsating crowd waits with arms raised in the air in anticipation. On a darkened stage an immense screen dominates the background projecting sampled footage from old news reels. A chain-link fence separates the stage from the audience or vice versa, while burning fires on either side provide the only light source. Two men begin drumming. One drummer is wearing a black and white striped shirt and sports wild blond hair that reflects his drumming style. In contrast, the other is dressed in a fashionable white dress shirt with a black tie and is neatly groomed. They start with simple drum rolls to warm up before launching into a steady, tribal beat. The crowd goes crazy as the rest of the band appears, led by a man in a beaten-up black leather jacket offset by a white cowboy hat and sunglasses. William Rieflin, the well-dressed drummer clicks his drumsticks together and the band explodes into "Breathe," as a blinding white light engulfs the stage and its occupants: welcome to the apocalypse. Or, as one of the band members aptly described it, “It’s not a band-It’s Rollerball.”


"I'd rather get somebody's attention by slapping him in the face than shaking his hand. It scares some people off, but those people aren't ready to hear our music anyway." These words were spoken by Al Jourgensen in 1989 and were an accurate reflection of the approach of his band, Ministry, towards its audience at the time. He started the band in the early 1980s as basically a Depeche Mode clone complete with soft vocal styling and a cheesy, fake British accent that sent him catapulting up the dance charts. After being burnt out by the music industry and meeting up with Paul Barker in 1985, Jourgensen decided to do a complete 180 degree turn and produce hard, loud, "ugly" anti-dance music. He changed his vocals to a primal, distorted growl and changed his image to that of a tough, tattoo covered, scuzzy biker, which is basically a reaction to the sellout years.

Ministry’s visceral music is a rude wake-up call to the listener in an attempt to draw attention to a society in decline. Some people may say that their musical approach, an intricate mixture of samples and industrial music, and especially in their rather colorful live shows, is innovative or even postmodern in some way. By this I mean that Ministry’s songs are a collage of various fragments that include sampled dialogue from films and distorted vocals that are accompanied by a punishing soundtrack which is in turn given an ironic spin by using these various components to comment on the negative aspects of society. However, Ministry is innovative only in the sense that their shows reflect contemporary society – one that is on the verge of collapse, “a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button,” to quote William Gibson’s Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Their live shows, in particular the 1990 The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste tour, illustrate in a rather dramatic fashion how industrialization and urbanization divide the classes. Their performances also show how escaping social control, through manipulated chaos results in a sense of freedom.

Often this sense of freedom is expressed in disorderly, excessive behavior via the body in an exaggerated form: moshing and stage diving at concerts, for example. This conduct is a response to the repressive nature of everyday life. As writer John Fiske observes, “anything out of control is always a potential threat, and always calls up moral, legal, and aesthetic powers to discipline it.” Chaos terrifies the “forces of order,” Fiske argues, because it shows how “fragile social control” can be. The threat to order posed by their reputation for creating chaos is evident in the consistent problems Ministry and its crew faced at every show during their 1990 tour. An unidentified crew member commented in an interview, “I hope the fans appreciated the shows, because in most cities it was a miracle that we played every show and that all the band members made it on stage. If we weren’t having trouble with the police, trouble came from promoters or security guards.” This comes with the territory for bands like Ministry who have notorious reputations and as a result are always under the thumb of repressive legislation. So-called “vulgar” leisure pursuits have always been controlled in some fashion, whether it be through ticket prices, bouncers, or the size of the venue itself. In the past these controlled events appeared in the form of cockfights, bull-baiting, and carnivalesque festivals – today one of the most popular forms is that of live concerts. These events were usually viewed by the elite as loathsome affairs for the masses, yet the middle and upper classes had their own “vulgar” pursuits like fox hunts and shooting fowl that were merely given a civilized facade to disguise their true, ugly nature.

Soon pubs and music halls became an outlet for the masses, only to be criticized by authorities who saw them as “sites of drunkenness, prostitution, and rowdiness,” according to Fiske. The middle class viewed such popular pleasures as “immoral” and “disorderly.” Things really haven’t changed since then. Pubs and music halls are still inhabited by people who drink, do drugs, and revel in rowdy excesses like rock ‘n’ roll music. No one represents these extreme traits more than Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, a man who was not adverse to heavy drinking or a variety of narcotic substances, and led a musical group dedicated to loud, abrasive industrial music. His exploits have become the stuff of rock legend and infamy. Jourgensen is the perfect spokesmen for the apocalyptic message his band delivers for he has lived and experienced it first-hand. Jourgensen and his band are acutely aware of the importance that the pleasures and excesses of the body are and the threat they pose to the social order. When heightened appetites such as drunkenness or violence in the service of anarchy and freedom are performed, people are exceeding the norm and therefore considered by authority to be a threat. Ministry celebrates the notions of rebellion, anarchy, and excess as a way of smashing the norms and conventions of society As a result, they acquire a radical or subversive potential that they embrace in their live shows.

Ministry released a video, or as Jourgensen cheekily called it, “an officially sanctioned bootleg,” of their live show from the 1990 tour entitled In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up. Shot over two nights in Chicago, the video features a powerhouse lineup of musicians – a who’s who of alternative rock luminaries including ex-Killing Joke member Martin Atkins, Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre and ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biarfa. The concert clearly demonstrated Ministry’s rebellious, often extremist approach. The video also revealed how the band’s live show is one of the best contemporary examples of the term, “carnivalesque” – a world without social hierarchy. With the absence of bouncers at their shows, Ministry breaks down the social barriers normally in place between the performer on stage and the audience. In addition, the presence of a fence separating the band on stage from the audience was Jourgensen’s playful jab at what he saw as rock concert posturing: “Everyone wants to protect their precious little stage so the club doesn’t get sued, but forget that. We love aggression. It’s our little party, ripping apart the notion of idolatry and icons. ‘Here we are, the monkeys in the cage, don’t feed the animals!’ We were taking the piss out of the whole rock star dogma.”

This domain is what M. Bakhtin sees as a “second world and a second life outside officialdom.” Ministry’s concerts, with their blend of tribal atmosphere and contemporary aesthetics, go to great lengths to create a second environment in order “to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted.” Their songs cut through the clichés and strike right at the heart of the problems of contemporary society as the opening song, “Breathe” so effectively illustrates. The song, with its images of city life driving one to insanity, is an explosive comment on pollution – both of the chemical kind, and the social pollution of conformity, the 9 to 5 work ethic of urban existence. Add to this, a crazed collage of images ranging from tall buildings to thick, black smoke billowing out of factories to shots of overcrowded streets and it all amounts to a sensory overload – a postmodern blitzkrieg. The video intersperses these images with the chaos that is occurring during the concert. Spectators leap on stage and into each other before diving back into a throbbing, swirling crowd of sweaty kids all packed together like sardines with various legs, feet, and fists sticking out indiscriminately. It is this anarchistic scene that one critic described so well when he commented that, “Ministry offer[s] us the next best thing, viscera through voyeurism.” It is a titillating sense of imminent death and destruction without the actual danger that one experiences during their shows.

The centerpiece of the concert is the song “So What,” an impressive 11+ minute denunciation of the apathy that so many young people feel towards the world. The song is a series of calm interludes of listlessness complimented by samples of movie dialogue that is underlined by a catchy bass riff. Mixed into this writhing compost heap of music are moments of absolute fury as thrashy guitars and frenzied drumming come crashing in like a colossal wall of sound. “So What” raises this constant battle between composed indifference and intense anger to an epic level. In keeping with their “viscera through voyeurism” tone, the song, like many of their others, is a protest against the “perceived threats” of white middle class suburbia who are not on the front lines of the problems expressed by the band, but are taken there by the songs. By identifying the problem of indifference in a song, and showing how destructive this trait is, Ministry tried to combat against it with their rather bombastic musical approach that often compensated for the weakness in their lyrics. “So What” shows the extremes that people are driven to because of the alienation they feel on a daily basis. When the song’s narrator says, “Now I know what is right / I’ll kill them all if I like / I’m a time bomb inside / No one listens to reason / It’s too late and I’m ready to fight!” it is an example of how people snap and lash out violently. They often feel that they have no choice, that no one will listen to them and that violence is the only way to prove one’s existence. “So What” captures this frightening mindset perfectly. The aggressive parts of the song can be interpreted as the band’s anger and resentment towards apathy (as represented by the calm interludes) and its attempt to destroy it through noise and chaos. Ultimately, the chants of “So What,” repeated with the religious intensity of a demented mantra, can be interpreted two ways: Ministry may be saying so what I’m bored or so what are you going to do about it? Both meanings rather effectively comment on the power of apathy and the battle against it.

One of the most important aspects of the carnivalesque that Ministry incorporated into In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up was the presentation of a world abiding by certain rules that give it a pattern, but soon “inverts those rules and builds a world upside down,” Fiske observed. This is more apparent in the song, “Burning Inside,” which is perhaps the most striking example of the carnivalesque’s influence on the band’s show. The stage is lit by bins of fire with ominous floodlights providing additional illumination; a man whose head is covered by a hood spins helplessly on a wheel while a muscular man on stage breathes fire into the crowd. It is this song that harkens back to a garish, nightmarish atmosphere where all the excesses of the body are taken to the limit and the line between sanity and madness blurs. Jourgensen, shown singing and playing the guitar at a rather odd angle, lit by a strobe light, presides at the vortex of this furor like some demonic Faustian creation.

The concert concludes with an encore featuring “The Land of Rape and Honey,” Ministry’s satiric attack on the current state of the United States by suggesting that it is gradually slipping towards the same direction as Germany was under Nazi influence. The screen on stage shows old footage of Nazi occupied Germany where citizens are kicked out of their homes only to be herded by soldiers like cattle. These images seem to indicate that we are being metaphorically herded by our own governments but in a more subtle fashion. However, the intent is similar between the two regimes: they both stifle individuality and any expression that does not conform to the status quo. Jourgensen appears wearing army pants, his leather jacket, and a Nazi helmet that has been defaced with a large skull painted on the front and flames on the sides – a parodic blend of a demented Hell’s Angel biker and a Nazi soldier. Former Dead Kennedys lead singer, Jello Biafra crouches near Jourgensen with no shirt on as he alternates between sucking his thumb and giving a mocking Nazi salute. Biafra wears a stunned expression on his face as if he has been turned into an unthinking zombie, merely going through the motions. The whole song takes on a mocking tone, complete with precision military drumming and the pseudo-army garb that the performers wear, but there is no mistaking the satiric intent of the band as Jello marches in feigned military fashion back and forth waving the American flag while Jourgensen hops around like a monkey, only to retrieve a bottle of alcohol. The song makes it clear that the United States has become so fascistic that they can no longer tell the difference anymore as Jourgensen sings, “Which country is the very best?” At this point he shrugs his shoulders and continues the song. It is this use of rather shocking imagery and statements that makes one think of the Surrealists or poets like Irving Layton who use rather disturbing imagery to jolt the audience to a realization. Ministry clearly exceeds the norms with this performance and as a result attain a rather subversive tone that is cemented by the song’s conclusion: Jourgensen pouring lighter fluid on the American flag and burning it. This action is an excellent example of the level of excess that Ministry achieves in order shock its audience.

As one critic wisely observed during a Ministry concert, “Al Jourgensen knows we’re all image junkies, because addiction means never having your fill.” Listening to Ministry or seeing one of their live shows is like sitting too close to the television with volume turned way up – it is often an overload of the senses and that, I think is the point they are trying to make. Ministry delight in taking the rather garish and often warped notion of American culture and distorting it to even more absurd levels as a kind of wake-up call to the apathetic masses. The band’s approach and attitude is summed up best by poet, Irving Layton in his poem, “Whom I Write For.”

For I do not write to improve your soul;
    or to make you feel better, or more humane;
Nor do I write to give you new emotions;
   Or to make you proud to be able to experience them
or to recognize them in others.
   I leave that to the fraternity of lying poets
- no prophets, but toadies and trained seals!

This quote from Layton’s poem could very well be Ministry’s manifesto. The band’s music does not seek to coddle or embrace its audience but rather shock them into a kind of awareness of the problems that plague contemporary society. The band’s music, at its best, does just this, but Ministry treads the line, often risking the chance of being consumed by the madness that they try to parody. In a weird and wonderful way, Ministry was the perfect protest band for the 1990s as they took their audience close to the abyss, to the heart of darkness, and gave them just a glimpse of the madness within. “Viscera through voyeurism” indeed.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Haywire

“I need to break down my process and start over again if I’m going to come back. Because I’m not gonna come back unless I’ve figured out a new way to do this, by my definition. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen or not.” – Steven Soderbergh.


I have this theory that the grueling process of making the unconventional epic biopic Che (2008), coupled with its subsequent commercial failure, broke director Steven Soderbergh’s creative spirit. It didn’t help when was fired from Moneyball (2011) over creative differences. By his own admission, Soderbergh’s interest in making “serious” films had been replaced by a desire to make “fun” ones that included the satirical docudrama The Informant! (2009), the disaster movie Contagion (2011) and the action film Haywire (2012). Built around MMA star Gina Carano, it came out of Soderbergh’s desire to make a 1960s style spy thriller (originally the now-abandoned The Man from U.N.C.L.E. film) but mutated into a photo negative of a typical James Bond film in the sense that Haywire surrounds a ruthless female protagonist with attractive men trying to kill her. While critics generally gave it the thumbs up, audiences were not interested in Soderbergh’s genre experiment and the film disappeared quickly from theaters. Has he lost the plot or were audiences simply tired of seeing ass-kicking female action stars after Salt (2010), Hanna (2011) and Columbiana (2011)?

The first thing one notices in Haywire are how the action sequences differ from most other action films. In the prologue, top-secret operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is confronted by another, her ex-partner Aaron (Channing Tatum) in an upper New York state diner. It quickly erupts into a brutal fight. Instead of the usual Hollywood sound effects and frenetic editing, Soderbergh utilizes actual sounds of flesh hitting flesh in relatively long takes at a distance so that you can see exactly what is happening and where with none of the trendy, disorienting hand-held camerawork and editing that is the norm. He also refuses to accompany this fight with any kind of musical score that would manipulate one’s emotions, which makes the sickening sounds of breaking bone and grunts of exertion and pain all the more jarring.

Mallory is a private contractor hired by the United States government to do dirty jobs for them via her handler and firm director Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that she and Aaron were hired to do a job in Barcelona (scored to a snazzy retro Lalo Schifrin-esque score by David Holmes) and soon afterwards she left the company. But of course it is never that easy and Kenneth ropes her into another assignment, this time in Dublin, Ireland. She’s part of a power couple along with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a freelance operative that Kenneth is trying to woo over to the company. However, Paul tries to kill Mallory (in a brutally efficient fight sequence) and she finds herself on the run.

Some criticism was leveled at the casting of non-actor Gina Carano and her inability to emote or her flat line readings. While she certainly isn’t going to win any acting awards for her work in Haywire, she isn’t any worse than “master thespians” like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal back when they first started out, and they were wildly successful. So, why not Carano? Is it because she’s a woman? Female action stars have historically had a tough time acquiring any kind of mainstream success. Just ask Geena Davis. With the one-two punch of Cutthroat Island (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), she effectively destroyed her A-list status. Angelina Jolie is a notable exception and easily the most successful female action star in the world with megahits like the Tomb Raider films, Wanted (2008) and Salt. Carano may not have the acting chops of fellow female actions stars Jolie and Kate Beckinsale but unlike their impossibly thin physiques, she’s built like a believable woman of action with her finely toned body. She has the imposing physical presence that Jolie and Beckinsale lack but without losing her feminity.

Carano does just fine in Haywire, exuding a certain amount of warmth in scenes that warrant it and adopting a determined no-nonsense attitude when called for. Naturally, she’s at her best during the numerous action sequences when she’s bashing heads or leaping from rooftop to rooftop and let’s face it, that’s why we’re watching her in this film. It is pretty obvious why Soderbergh cast her – she’s gorgeous, has a real screen presence and is tough as nails. There’s something quite impressive about the fact that she does all of her own stunts, including the extremely physical fight scenes. I like that her character isn’t some superhuman killing machine. Opponents get the drop on Mallory and she makes mistakes that get her injured. As a result, she is more relatable.

Soderbergh wisely surrounds Carano with an impressive cast of veteran actors that include Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as well as up and comers like Michael Fassbender. Their presence elevates what could have easily been a direct-to-video time waster into something a little classier. This is also achieved through Soderbergh’s top-notch direction and super slick camerawork. He’s in fine form with a fast and loose style befitting a stylish spy thriller. He also adopts the same kind of hazy filters he utilized in The Informant! and a variety of them so that each location stands out, much like he did in Traffic (2000).

Haywire saw Soderbergh reunited with screenwriter Lem Dobbs who has worked previously with the director on Kafka (1991) and more infamously on The Limey (1999) (his dissatisfaction over the final product is well documented) and their latest collaboration is a solid genre workout. His screenplay is lean and trimmed of any unnecessary narrative fat. He doesn’t give Carano huge chunks of dialogue, which is wise considering her lack of acting experience. Instead, he leaves that up to the rest of the experienced cast who do all of the heavy lifting in terms of exposition dialogue. Interestingly, Haywire features a father-daughter relationship and a climactic confrontation on an oceanfront beach much like The Limey.

One night, Steven Soderbergh caught a MMA fight on television that involved one of its most well-known female fighters, Gina Carano. He had been thinking about making a ‘60s spy movie but it wasn’t going anywhere. Her fight and subsequent interview afterwards, which impressed him by how charming and sincere she came across, inspired him to build an action film around a woman. In June 2009, Soderbergh was fired from the production of Moneyball due to “creative differences.” Suddenly free to do another film, he tracked Carano down at a time when she had just lost a fight. “It seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.” Their first meeting consisted of a four-hour lunch in which they talked about her family and upbringing. He wanted to get a sense of who she was and if could he work with her. In addition, he explained how he liked to work and what would be involved. Soderbergh also needed her permission to pitch the premise to a studio, which was her starring in an action film surrounded by A-list actors.

Soderbergh approached two studios, both were interested, and he went with Relativity because they felt that Carano had a big enough of a following that a film could work. The director wasn’t worried about her lack of acting ability: “I just thought if we can get her relaxed and she can stay herself, then we’ll be okay.” He approached Lem Dobbs with the basic idea for the film – a female version of The Limey – and he agreed to write the script. The first draft was written in five weeks. For research, Soderbergh studied films by directors he felt were good at staging action sequences, including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John McTiernan, and David Fincher.

While making the film, Soderbergh told the stunt coordinators that he didn’t want to have any large explosions and nobody flying around on wires. It had to be “something a human can do,” he said in an interview. To this end, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor did all their own fight scenes, rehearsing extensively with Carano. Soderbergh decided not to put any music over the fight scenes because he felt it would “take away from the realism. It would take you out of it.” The hotel room fight was inspired by a brutal brawl in a hotel room in Darker than Amber (1970) starring Rod Taylor that Dobbs had recommended Soderbergh watch. Haywire’s hotel room fight sequence took two days to film with Carano and Fassbender actually hitting each other – he threw her into a T.V. at one point and she smashed a vase over his head.

For the film’s score, Soderbergh talked to frequent collaborator David Holmes about the soundtrack work of Lalo Schifrin and, in particular, the jazz horn sound he used on Bullitt (1968). According to Soderbergh, the scored needed to “sound more like the character than the genre.” He wanted it to reflect what she felt rather than what the film felt like generally. Holmes’ groovy soundtrack is somewhat reminiscent of the work he did on the Ocean’s films, which had a definite funky retro vibe.

Haywire received mostly positive reviews from critics. For example, Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “A film like Haywire has no lasting significance, but it's a pleasure to see an A-list director taking the care to make a first-rate genre thriller.” USA Today also gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig felt that, “Carano's charisma, physicality and daring keep the adrenaline high and the clashes captivating.” The Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey wrote, “The deficits are somewhat offset by the filmmaker's sheer technical wizardry. Even Soderbergh's worst work (and Haywire isn't that) cleans up nicely with such serious attention paid to lighting, framing, casting, costumes, colors, sets; and, per usual, with the director handling the cinematography too.” The Washington Post gave the film three out of four stars and Ann Hornaday wrote, “One of the reasons Haywire is such a pleasure to watch is that its director, Steven Soderbergh, doesn't overplay the film's hear-me-roar subversions. Temperamentally, he's an understater, and he approaches his first foray into pure action with the same evenhanded cool he lends to every genre he has ever tackled.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Haywire is zippy and visually sophisticated, with tonal palettes color-coded (as in Traffic) to help make sense of time and place. But it zips to nowhere, fun only for those who agree to enjoy watching a woman inflict pain like a man, for the dumb pleasure of watching her fight.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott said of Carano: “Once the talking stops and the action begins, her professionalism is very much in evidence and exciting to watch. And yet, somehow, it cannot quite relieve the tedium of a movie that is too cool even to pretend that there is anything worth fighting about.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Carano is her own best stuntwoman, but in the dialogue scenes she’s all kick and no charisma. The MMA battler lacks the conviction she so forcefully displayed in the ring. She is not Haywire‘s heroine but its hostage.

I’m not sure if audiences were expecting Soderbergh to redefine the action film but he’s clearly filtering it through his aesthetic, which is to make it as realistic as possible while still plugging in tried and true genre conventions (fight scenes, chase sequence, shoot-outs, etc.). He may be tired of the filmmaking process (he’s threatened to retire in 2013) but Haywire does not appear to be the product of someone burnt out from the biz. There is an almost playful quality to how he approaches the material as he takes an equally game Carano along for the ride. While the film isn’t groundbreaking in any way this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching a well-made action film. It may not be saying anything profound but so what? It does exactly what it sets out to do: deliver an entertaining and engaging thrill-ride.


SOURCES

Kenigsberg, Ben. “Steven Soderbergh on Haywire.” Time Out Chicago. January 18, 2012.

Osenlund, R. Kurt. “Interview: Steven Soderbergh.” Slant. January 18, 2012

Smith, Nigel M. “Steven Soderbergh on Haywire, Magic Mike and Why He’s Given Up On Serious Movies.” IndieWire. January 16, 2012


Tobias, Scott. “Steven Soderbergh.” A.V. Club. January 18, 2012

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012) is the culmination of an ambitious project that was carefully planned over several years and spans several films utilizing characters, both major and minor, from each. While the notion of a shared universe with characters from one franchise appearing in another is a relatively novel idea in film, it is nothing new in comic books where costumed superheroes cross-pollinate all the time and even contribute to a larger story (see Secret Wars II). With Iron Man (2008), Marvel Comics decided to do in film what they’ve been doing in comic books for decades. Its commercial success paved the way for subsequent adaptations of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011), each one featuring a scene that hinted at something bigger and it has finally arrived with The Avengers, which features heroes from all of these films banding together to form a super team of sorts.

The challenge that Marvel faced was to find a director that could successfully bring all of these wildly different heroes together and also handle the movie stars playing them. Up to that point, Marvel had employed journeymen studio directors like Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 & 2), Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) and Joe Johnston (Captain America). But with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor, it was the first time the company had hired someone with auteurist sensibilities since Ang Lee and his fascinatingly flawed yet ultimately ill fated take on the Hulk in 2003. And so the hiring of Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers surprised some. With only one feature film on his resume – the cult film darling Serenity (2005), and known mostly for his television work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and sci-fi western Firefly, there was some question if he could handle a $200+ million blockbluster populated with movie stars.

Whedon got his start as a screenwriter and honed his chops over the years on T.V. sitcoms and as a prolific and often uncredited script doctor (Speed, Twister, etc.), but more importantly were his hardcore comic book fan credentials, having actually written a brief run for The X-Men, so he knew how they worked in terms of dialogue, plotting and depicting visual action – perhaps the most important criteria for The Avengers gig. It was a calculated risk that appears to have paid off as the film is racking in impressive box office results and receiving strong critical response.

The Tesseract, a powerful energy source that was featured prominently in both Thor and Captain America, has activated itself and appears to be trying to open a portal to outer space. Sure enough, exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives with the intention of using it to take control of Earth and enslave its inhabitants. To this end, he brainwashes brilliant physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (a top secret government organization) operative Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to help him do his bidding. This doesn’t sit too well with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and he decides to enlist Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop Loki.

This includes Russian super spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) who quickly finishes her “interrogation” of Russian gangsters to approach Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a philanthropic scientist now staying “off the grid” by working in the slums of India and trying hard not to unleash his Hulk persona, a being with superhuman strength that is off the charts. Captain America (Chris Evans) has been thawed out since being trapped in ice at the end of World War II and is still trying to sort things out with Fury’s help.  S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), interrupting his work on a clean energy source. Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Loki’s adoptive brother, is the wild card, arriving out of no where to intervene when Iron Man and Captain America attempt to capture him resulting in an impressive skirmish. This all builds up to a spectacular climactic battle between Loki and an alien army that comes swarming out of the portal created by the Tesseract and the Avengers.

With the unfortunate exception of Jeremy Renner, the entire cast gets a chance to flex their acting chops the best they can between massive action set pieces. Mark Ruffalo, the third person to play Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, really nails the human side of his character, playing him as slightly twitchy and paranoid drifter. He appears confident (because, hey, he can turn into the Hulk) yet distracted – a jumble of emotions. This is easily the best representation of the Hulk on film, both visually in terms of CGI and also how he’s portrayed – as a rampaging monster – the Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gets the lion’s share of the funny quips – he was born to spout Whedon’s witty dialogue. It is a nice return to form after the cluttered rush job that was Iron Man 2 (2010). Based on Whedon’s perchance for having prominent strong-willed female characters in his projects, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow gets a beefed up role and proves to be an integral part of the team. Not only does she show off a considerable physical prowess but she also holds her own against the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth carry on with their characters from their respective films without missing a beat, each adding their own unique flavor to the team. In particular, Evans does a good job when Captain America steps up and takes tactical control during the war in New York while Hemsworth has some nice moments with Tom Hiddleston as warring brothers who just happen to be gods.

The Avengers is chock full of eye candy for comic book fans, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to actually seeing superheroes fight each other – something, oddly enough, you don’t see in most films but that happens all the time in the comics. It is pretty cool to see the likes of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America duke it out while engaging in playful superhero banter. Unlike the other Marvel films starting with and including Iron Man, Whedon creates a real sense of danger for our heroes. There’s a feeling that they might fail and this tension is thrilling because it is so rare in these kinds of films, except maybe The Dark Knight (2008). It also raises the stakes when Whedon’s film needs it because there is a real sense that the Avengers are fighting for something tangible. He gives them something personal to fight for than just the usual let’s save the world goal. This culminates in the climactic battle in New York City between Loki and his alien army and the Avengers in one thrilling sequence after another, each filled with large-scale slugfests. The choreography during this massive battle is top notch. There is never any confusion as to what is happening and where, which is quite refreshing. The end result is pure, unfiltered comic book geek nirvana.

The Avengers falls rather nicely within Whedon’s wheelhouse as it is all about a group of misfits that band together to save the world from a great evil, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and so on. It doesn’t get any more disparate than a Norse god, a billionaire playboy, a World War II super soldier, a brilliant scientist, and two spies. Like much of the aforementioned work, the heroes in The Avengers bicker and fight amongst themselves but when the need to step up for the greater good arises, they put their differences aside and make a stand together. Loki continues in the tradition of eloquent Whedon villains who are incredibly confident because, well, in his case he wields great power and knows it. However, Loki isn’t just out to rule the world. For him, there is a personal component – he seeks vengeance for the slights he feels were incurred in Thor. This film is a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season and is a potent reminder of what a filmmaker who knows how comic book works can do if given the chance. The result is a smart, witty film that is a throwback to entertaining, crowd-pleasing comic book adaptations like Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).