Friday, June 29, 2012

Almost Famous

Anybody that bought Zeppelin I knows that the standout song is “Dazed and Confused,” and that’s great. It’s a masterpiece albeit a little too stifled because it is the studio version. If Almost Famous (2000) is the studio version than “The Bootleg Cut” is the live version of “Dazed and Confused” found on The Song Remains the Same in all of its epic grandeur, taking an already great song and making it live and breathe. Likewise, “The Bootleg Cut” of Almost Famous takes Cameron Crowe’s tribute to classic rock of the 1970s and improves on it by adding over 35 minutes of footage, which allows the world he created and the colorful characters that inhabit it to also live and breathe.

Almost Famous was clearly a labor of love for the filmmaker and his most personal effort to date. It is a fictionalized account of Crowe’s start as a rock music journalist at the age of 15 writing from Creem magazine and then a year later joining the staff of Rolling Stone where he would go on to interview the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and many others. Unfortunately, his very personal journey failed to connect with a mainstream audience and despite being lavished with critical praise and awards (including an Oscar for screenwriting), the film flopped at the box office but has gone on to develop a cult following. However, one wonders if Crowe never fully recovered from its commercial failure. Perhaps he ran out of things to say, making two films adapted from pre-existing works (Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo) and an original film, Elizabethtown (2005) that tanked both with critics and audiences. Regardless, Almost Famous will no doubt be regarded as his magnum opus and rightly so.

“We’re like nobody else I know,” says Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) early on in the film. She’s the exasperated sister of William Miller (Michael Angarano) and has directed this comment towards their mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), a very smart teacher who raises her children in a very unorthodox fashion, like celebrating Christmas in summer because it’s gotten too commercial. Yet, for someone so intelligent, she is completely clueless about popular culture, specifically rock music, banning Simon and Garfunkel because they look stoned on the cover of their Bookends album. When she turns 18, Anita leaves home but gives her younger brother a treasure trove of classic rock ‘n’ roll albums – Zeppelin II, The Who’s Tommy, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the Rolling Stone’s Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and so on, which he uses to educate himself, developing a deep love of music, both listening to it and writing about it.

By the time William (Patrick Fugit) turns 15, it’s 1973 and he experiences a life-changing event. He meets his idol Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the legendary rock journalist at a radio station where he calls Jim Morrison “a drunken buffoon,” and praises the Guess Who for having the courage to be drunken buffoons. Philip Seymour Hoffman kills it as Lester, creating one of the most memorable character introductions in recent memory. We meet the infamous writer trashing the sacred cows of rock before getting the bemused disc jockey to play Iggy Pop and the Stooges while he jumps around like a maniac to the Detroit madman’s blistering rendition of “Search and Destroy.” William and Lester hit it off with the latter recognizing a younger, less jaded version of himself in the former. He also recognizes the same passion for music that he sees in the young teen and tells him, “Music, you know, true music – not just rock n roll – it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast of scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain.” He tries to warn William away from rock journalism by claiming that “The war is over. They won. 99% of what passes for rock ‘n’ roll these days, silence is more compelling.” Ah, how prophetic words these are as they could easily be speaking about the current state of rock music. The best part of this scene is when Lester talks about the love of writing, of staying up all night, “just writin’ and writin’. I mean, like 25 pages, a dribble, y’know, about the Faces or Coltrane. Y’know, just to fuckin’ write.” That bit gets me every time and inspires me whenever I get depressed about my own writing and to keep at it.

So, Lester assigns William to write a 1,000 word concert review of Black Sabbath but once at the venue, the inexperienced writer is unable to get access backstage. Rather fortuitously he meets a group of self-proclaimed band-aids, a strain or rock groupie, led by the charismatic Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) who unsuccessfully tries to get him into the venue. It isn’t until he meets the opening band Stillwater, impressing them with his succinct insights into their music, that he is able to gain access. Little does William know that Penny and Stillwater will change his life. The latter takes him on tour with them across America, while the former shows him the ropes along the way. William’s writing gets noticed by Rolling Stone magazine and they assign him to do a cover story on Stillwater. The more William’s horizons are broadened by the tour the more questions he has, not just for the band but about life and he only finds the answers through experience. By the end of the film you feel as if you’ve really gone on a journey with these characters. By the end of it we have gained some insight into them through their various misadventures.

Almost Famous is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the talented cast, which consists mostly of young, untested talent (Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel) and up-and-coming character actors (Jason Lee and Billy Crudup). In a perfect world, this film would have shot them all through the stratosphere. Most of them went on to future success (Crudup, Deschanel, Lee) and some squandered the buzz acquired from it (Hudson). Speaking of which, Almost Famous marked a breakout performance by Kate Hudson who brings a refreshing vitality and charisma to every scene as the veteran groupie Penny Lane. At first, she is a rather enigmatic figure, refusing to tell William her real name, but over the course of the film she gives him insight into the sometimes sad and lonely girl lurking under her bubbly façade. Hudson captures the layers of Penny with her eyes, specifically the sadness in them during a few moments. This happens in an incredibly touching scene when she finds out that the love her life sold her out for a case of beer. We see all kinds of emotions play out on her face as she tries to maintain a brave front but we catch a glimpse of the hurt and then it’s gone. Penny Lane was a star-making role and unfortunately the actress failed to capitalize on it with the exception of supporting roles in a Merchant/Ivory film (Le Divorce) and a Robert Altman film (Dr. T and the Women), and instead appeared in a string of forgettable romantic comedies.

Patrick Fugit, a young unknown actor, was cast as Crowe’s cinematic alter ego and has to anchor the film, acting as our window to this exotic world from another time. It helps that his coming of age as an actor parallels his character’s coming of age. Fugit does an excellent job of conveying William’s idealistic naïveté, his secret crush on Penny and his desire to become a successful rock journalist. William represents the hardcore music fan living the dream: hanging out with the bands he writes about and enjoys listening to. Philip Seymour Hoffman nails the jaded cynicism that made Lester Bangs such a polarizing figure in rock journalism. When William meets him, the veteran writer informs the kid that he’s arrived just in time for the death rattle of rock. Hoffman has little screen-time but he knows how to make the most of it by playing a larger than life figure. You can see why William admired Lester – he’s brash, funny and opinionated. And yet, Crowe also shows the more thoughtful, supportive side of Lester when he gives William much-needed advice and guidance when he’s at a low point, telling him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.” Billy Crudup is memorable as Russell Hammond, the cocky guitarist who feels that he’s already gone past his bandmates in terms of skill and ability. Against his better judgment he befriends William while repeatedly putting off his request for an interview. One gets the feeling that he doesn’t really care about William, or anyone else for that matter as he just uses people but by the end of the film there is a sense that he realizes and comes to terms with the damage he’s done to others. He finally grants William an interview, which begins with the young man asking him, “So Russell... what do you love about music?” to which the musician replies with a smile, “To begin with, everything.”

It has been said that the devil is in the details and that’s what Crowe captures so well in Almost Famous, like the excitement one feels just before a concert starts, when the lights go out and the crowd roars in anticipation – it’s a goosebump-inducing moment that is authentically recreated in the film. There’s also the faithful recreation of chaotic life on the tour bus with people reading, sleeping and noodling away on their musical instrument to kill time. Best of all, there’s the authenticity of the band playing live – the chemistry between its members when they’re firing on all cylinders. All of the actors learned how to play their respective instruments and it shows. Even though Jason Lee lip-synchs the voice sounds like it could be him singing. With films that involve bands you can usually tell that they’re not playing and the lip-synching is off but this is not the case with Almost Famous. Stillwater looks, sounds and feels like a band from that era and this is due in large part to the behind-the-scenes talent responsible for it, namely Nancy Wilson of Heart and Peter Frampton, both of whom recorded and toured during this time period and drew upon their considerable experience and skills to create songs (along with Crowe) that could have easily come from the ‘70s. The band dynamic is beautifully realized in simple things like how a screw-up on a band t-shirt dredges up all kinds of old grievances between lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). The singer feels threatened by his guitarist’s mystique. We see the band begin to split apart the more famous they get as they fight to keep it real while becoming successful. Crowe and co. nail it because he’s lived it countless times and it’s burned in his brain, it’s part of his DNA.

And then there are the pre-existing songs from the era that Crowe included that also brilliantly evoke the time period and capture the emotion of a specific scene, like “That’s the Way” off of Zeppelin III that plays over the scene on the tour bus during a beautiful sunset. The most famous musical moment is, of course, the scene on the bus when after a big fight between Jeff and Russell an uncomfortable silence hangs over everyone until “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John comes on. Eventually everyone is singing along and all the disagreements are put aside in favor of the music. This scene shows how the power of the right song at the right moment can transcend almost anything and bring people together. It is one of those rare, magical moments captured on film that perfectly marries music with the visuals.

Crowe has described Almost Famous as “agonizingly true.” He grew up in San Diego and was introduced to rock music by his rebellious older sister. He skipped three grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15. He became a rock journalist by sending writing samples to Lester Bangs at Creem magazine. This led to a job at Rolling Stone. William’s experiences with Stillwater are a pastiche of experiences Crowe had with real bands, like pursuing the lead singer and guitarist for a cover story (Led Zeppelin), hanging out with a dysfunctional band (the Allman Brothers), and taking a turbulent plane ride with another band (Lynyrd Skynyrd). In addition, Stillwater claiming they were misquoted and then sabotaging William’s article really happened to Crowe when he did a cover story on Neil Young and like in the film the musician changed his mind at the last minute and allowed it to be published. The real Penny Lane came from Portland, Oregon and moved to Los Angeles to be with the keyboard player for Steppenwolf. She developed a love for musicians and their scene. When she moved back to Portland, she hung out with bands that rolled into town adopting a vintage 1940s wardrobe and led a gang of groupies known as “the Flying Garter Girls.” Crowe met her 1973 and they became friends. He ended up showing her the film in order to assure the woman that he wasn’t going to sensationalize her life: “a lot of those girls really did believe in the music and she was one of them.”

One could say that Crowe had been preparing for this film for much of his life. He actually started writing the screenplay in the late 1980s and continued to work on it between other projects, biding his time until he had enough clout to get it bankrolled. He got that opportunity thanks to the massive commercial success of Jerry Maguire (1996) and cut a deal with DreamWorks. When it came to casting, Canadian actress Sarah Polley was originally set to play Penny Lane with Kate Hudson taking on the role of Anita, William’s older sister, but as Crowe and the actress worked on the part he realized that she wasn’t right for the role as he envisioned it. Polley dropped out during pre-production and Hudson begged Crowe to replace her. Interestingly, Crowe almost cast Natalie Portman as Penny but felt it would have made it “a totally different movie – one where Penny Lane was a child, and her innocence was so important to all of them that they all protected her,” but with Hudson, “you believe she had a past.”

Other casting choices included a desire to cast Meryl Streep as Elaine, William’s mother but she turned Crowe down and he almost went with Rita Wilson but opted for Frances McDormand instead. The filmmaker told his real mother not to approach the actress during the production but she defied her son. McDormand remembers, “She said, ‘I find the character to be written a little shrill and I hope that you don’t intend to play it that way.’ And I said right back that I’m an actor, so it’s not going to be me or you, it’s going to be [the character].” Likewise, Brad Pitt was originally cast as Russell Hammond but he dropped out shortly before filming began and Crowe went with Billy Crudup in his place. Crowe said, “His role was the most underwritten part in the movie, and Brad had taken a flier on other scripts that weren’t fully on the page and he couldn’t bring himself to do it again.” To prepare for the pivotal role of Lester Bands, Philip Seymour Hoffman listened to audio tapes of interviews with the rock journalist.

A lot of time and money was spent on getting the period details right, from dressing all the extras in the concert scenes in vintage clothing from thrift shops and warehouses all over the country to minutia like period cigarette packs, gum packs and ashtrays full of cigarette butts in the background of scenes. The inventor of the original pull tab beer can was tracked down and hired to make dozens of cases for the film. Crowe went to even greater lengths for authenticity. The production spent $100,000 on getting a 727 plane bearing the original Eastern logo with a decent-sized airline terminal set for the scene where Penny leaves for Morocco.

When it came to the music for Stillwater, Crowe and his wife Nancy Wilson decided that they would feel like a blend of Bad Company with a little Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Allman Brothers mixed in for good measure. Once Crowe and Wilson wrote the songs they had to find a singer that could do “a certain rock accent in 1972 that no longer exists … a certain bluesy way of singing.” They found L.A.-based musician and producer Marti Frederiksen who co-wrote songs with Aerosmith, Def Leppard and Sheryl Crow. During pre-production, Wilson teamed up with another ‘70s rock mainstay Peter Frampton to teach the actors how to be rock stars, like not wearing the guitar too high and to have a “slouchy, sloppy body language.” Crowe also had the actors study live concert footage of bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin.

With a budget of $60 million, Almost Famous was expected to do as well as Crowe’s past box office successes but it struggled to break even, baffling and disappointing the filmmaker and DreamWorks. Hollywood insiders criticized the film’s large budget, lack of marquee name movie stars and an R rating, which limited its audience. The studio felt that it was simply “the right movie at the wrong time” and this resulted in poor attendance. Another DreamWorks executive felt that Almost Famous was hard to describe in 30 seconds and that made it difficult to market.

Almost Famous received mostly positive praise from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and found it “funny and touching in so many different ways.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The movie's real pleasures are to be found not in its story but in its profusion of funny, offbeat scenes. It's the kind of picture that invites you to go back and savor your favorite moments like choice album cuts.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss praised Patrick Fugit’s performance: “The movie's real pleasures are to be found not in its story but in its profusion of funny, offbeat scenes. It's the kind of picture that invites you to go back and savor your favorite moments like choice album cuts.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “the performances by Crudup, Hudson, Lee, McDormand, Hoffman, and newcomer Fugit have a beautiful, unforced naturalism, and the movie is laced with memorable moments.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan praised Kate Hudson’s performance for being “so delicate, authentic and accomplished that this is probably the last film for which anyone will feel the impulse to identify her as Goldie Hawn's daughter.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Crowe triumphs not by copping an attitude about the industry of cool but by capturing the ravishing thrill of losing your cherry to rock & roll. Almost Famous is a winner because Crowe dares to wear his heart on his sleeve.”

In her review for the L.A. Weekly, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Like much great art, Almost Famous is about the search for some glimmer of authentic meaning. Everyone searches differently. Lester Bangs took a swan dive into the gutter and died at the age of 33. Cameron Crowe wrote for slick magazines and studios. He kept living, no doubt very comfortably, but as it so happens, he never did stop listening to Bangs‘ voice, which is why, on his fourth try as a director, he’s gotten it right.” However, The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris was a rare gate-crasher to the party. He felt that, “For whatever reason, too much of the dark side has been left out. Mr. Crowe was not obliged to revisit Altamont, but there was something faux in the depravity of the young extras Mr. Crowe and his associates have recruited to provide atmosphere. They reminded me too much of the kids in the audience, who were too young to remember the 60′s and 70′s but are persuaded by Mr. Crowe that they ‘get’ the period just the same.” Likewise, the Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “There's a scene in which Stillwater and friends, riding in a tour bus, suddenly sing along to Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer,' which is playing over the radio. This is meant to be a scene of unabashed innocence, as everyone forgets their petty differences and simply enjoys the sensation of being a sing-along fan. But it's very hard to see these long-haired kids as products of the 1970s instead of dressed up actors from the Seattle-Starbucks era.”

Almost Famous is a film for music fans made by one and this is evident in the loving attention paid to every frame as seen through the filter of nostalgia. Or, as Crowe said in an interview, “a movie that was a tribute to the way that music makes you feel, if you can get the movie to make you feel like a song you just sort of discovered that you want to hear life eight times in a row.” A truly great film magically transports one into its cinematic world and in the case of Almost Famous it transports one back to the time period it depicts, achieving this through authentic period details like costumes, production design and music. Almost Famous is as much of a love letter to the joy of listening to and experiencing music as it is to writing about it. A good writer wears their heart on their sleeve and one can feel the passion for their subject in every sentence and this is evident in Crowe’s rock journalism and his best films. His film believes in the power of music to change how we feel about things and people and its importance in the fabric of our lives. It has the ability to move us, to make us laugh and cry – the entire emotional spectrum. You have to give Crowe credit for putting it all out there and creating a deeply personal film.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Simple Men

"When you're approached by a studio, they say 'We want you to make your own films' – and then they describe how the project will get financed. These are well-intentioned people; they're not stupid. But the amount of money they want to get, and the way they want to get it, prohibits me from making my kind of film. That's why most big movies today are so homogeneous."– Hal Hartley


It is this sentiment, coming from independent filmmaker Hal Hartley, which may explain the decidedly un-Hollywood kind of films that make up his eclectic body of work. He emerged on the scene in the late 1980s with films that explored the banality of suburban life mixed with the bizarre, often with hilariously ironic results. The stories and their settings that he explored were realistic enough (i.e. the boy-meets-girl tale of The Unbelievable Truth) but they were then contrasted by stylized dialogue delivered in a deadpan style reminiscent of the great stone-face Buster Keaton. His characters often talk in philosophical terms but in very mundane situations that challenge the audience. The way the dialogue is delivered by his actors appears to be awkward but this is done to illustrate the irony of the context that is spoken in.

This is evident in Simple Men (1992), which marked Hartley’s most expensive feature at that time with a meager (by Hollywood standards) $2 million budget. The film concerns two brothers on a quest to find their eccentric father and saw the filmmaker exploring the theme of desire: surviving it, suppressing it, and understanding it. As one character remarks, “there’s only trouble and desire, but the funny thing is, when you desire something you immediately get into trouble. And when you get into trouble, you don’t desire anything at all.” This is just a small sample of the weighty philosophical musings contained in this film as the characters discuss the primary themes of life: trust, truth, love, guilt, and human existence in general but never in a dry, boring way – always with an amusingly quirky spin but with poignant resonance. It’s a tricky balancing act that Hartley gets just right with Simple Men.

Bill McCabe (Robert John Burke) is a professional thief betrayed by his girlfriend (and partner-in-crime) for the other guy in their crew in what has to be one of the most laid-back break-ups among criminals put on film in recent memory. Hartley said of this sequence, “Yeah, well anyone can film a stick-up. I just wondered what happened afterwards, if the guy obviously had no intention of ever shooting anyone.” Bill is bitter and upset but he doesn’t do anything about it. Meanwhile, his younger, more contemplative brother Dennis (Bill Sage) is trying to track down their father (John MacKay), the legendary Dodgers shortstop who allegedly threw a bomb in the front door of the Pentagon 23 years ago killing seven people. As a result, he became a fugitive and was finally caught by the authorities after suffering a stroke.

Dennis finds Bill and when they go to visit their dad in the hospital a nurse tells them that he’s escaped. Their mother gives them a phone number but it’s disconnected. The area code is Long Island and so they go there looking for clues as to his whereabouts. Along the way, Bill gets involved with Kate (Karen Sillas), the beautiful owner of a diner, and cross paths with the mysterious Elina (Elina Lowensohn) who may know where their father is hiding out.

Hartley populates Simple Men with troubled people, like Ned Rifle (Jeffrey Howard) who can’t get his motorcycle to work (“There’s nothing like a machine to make a man feel insignificant.”) or Bill who suffers from a broken heart. There’s Kate, whose ex-husband was in jail but is due back any day now, and Martin (Martin Donovan), a bitter fisherman who has a thing for Kate but she won’t give him the time of day. Hartley proceeds to bounce these oddballs off each other in absurd set pieces, like one that starts off with Bill and Ned engaging in snappy banter and ends with a nun and a police officer fighting on the street while Ned dazedly repeats, “There’s nothing but trouble and desire,” which could easily be the subtitle of this film.

Robert John Burke and Bill Sage do a good job of playing slightly estranged brothers whose friction comes from their broken home thanks to their fugitive father. It is Hartley regular Martin Donovan that comes off the best because he knows exactly how to deliver the filmmaker’s stylized dialogue, playing an angry man due to unrequited love. He had previously been in Trust (1990) and Surviving Desire (1991) and was, in some respects, Hartley’s cinematic alter ego, but in Simple Men he plays a very different character than in those previous efforts and it demonstrates his impressive range as an actor. Yet for all of the deadpan acting, the end of the film, when Bill and Dennis finally come to terms with their estranged father, is surprisingly moving, as is the relationship that develops between Bill and Kate. This is due in large part to the palpable chemistry between Burke and Karen Sillas. Initially, Bill remains cool and aloof towards Kate but soon finds himself irresistibly drawn to her earthy charisma. The looks they exchange throughout the film convey their growing attraction towards each other.

Hartley adopts a simple style consisting mostly of static shots and long takes befitting of a dialogue-driven film such as this one. I’m sure this was done more out of budgetary limitations and lack of experience than an aesthetic choice but it is not distracting because the characters are so interesting and their dialogue is so well-written. The film’s show-stopping sequence comes when several of the characters break into an impromptu dance routine scored to “Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth. It comes out of left field and is completely at odds with the rest of the film and yet strangely works because of that reason. It’s the moment where the film temporarily breaks free of its rigid aesthetic and has a little fun. Hartley had tried a musical sequence previously for a short film he made for PBS but the one in Simple Men is more ambitious because it is being inserted into a feature-length film. It worked and is probably the one scene that most people remember from the film.

Hartley wrote the screenplay for Simple Men shortly after he left college and before he made Trust. The $2 million dollar budget was the biggest one he had worked with up to that point – a considerable leap from the $70,000 budget of his feature-length debut The Unbelievable Truth (1989). It successfully screened at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival but I think it’s fair to say that Simple Men was not well-received among mainstream critics. Roger Ebert led the charge, giving the film two out of four stars and felt that, “The problem with postmodern movies like Simple Men is that they seem to consider us fools for watching them and, on the basis of the evidence on the screen, it's hard to disagree.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The people in Simple Men are functions of a long shaggy-dog story, composed of purposely flat dialogue that, from time to time, leads to a purposely flat punch line.” USA Today also gave the film two out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Writer-director Hal Hartley may be the most self-consciously monotonic U.S. filmmaker since the late Jack Webb, his verbal rhythms as numbingly droll as Webb's were numbingly staccato.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Simple Men has plenty of plot, but no design. There's a forced serendipity to the tale, amplified by the zombielike performances of the actors.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a B- and Lawrence O’Toole wrote, “But self-consciousness is the style of Simple Men, and soon the unwavering tone of playful existentialism wears very thin. For all his talent, Hartley talks a better movie than he makes, proving once again that the gift of gab is no guarantee of a good film experience.” In one of the rare positive notices, the Globe and Mail’s Christopher Harris wrote, “Like Hartley's other films, Simple Men is an engaging, amusing and faintly baffling tale. Hartley is a master of indirect storytelling, of revealing things on the edges more than at the centre.”

At times, the dialogue in Simple Men veers dangerously close to film school posturing but what saves it from being nothing more than pretentious twaddle is the way the actors deliver it – often as natural as possible or in an ironic way that is funny, like the burnt out existential local cop, or the gas station attendant who plays guitar and is learning French to, y’know, impress girls. If his characters often speak in aphorisms it is because Hartley wants them to “say what they mean. Exactly what they mean, which rarely happens in life.” Simple Men is a quintessential Hartley film and one that is arguably the best example of his particular aesthetic and worldview more than any other film. It may also be his most accessible populated by several actors who have gone on to distinguished careers, most notably Martin Donovan (The Opposite of Sex) and Robert John Burke (Rescue Me). Hartley continues to make films, adopting digital camera technology in 1999, and hasn’t looked back since. He remains fiercely independent, refusing to sell out in Hollywood in favor of making his own, deeply personal films.


Also, check out Sean Gill's excellent take over at his blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blu-Ray of the Week: Harold and Maude: Criterion Collection

When Harold and Maude was released in 1971 it was not a hit. It came between the end of the 1960s and the dawning of the 1970s, marking a transition between these two decades with Harold representing the cynicism of the latter decade and Maude representing the love is everywhere idealism of the former. The film was despised by critics and largely ignored by mainstream movie-going audiences, offended by its sweet romance between a young man in his early twenties and an 80-year-old woman. However, the people who did react positively to its hopeful message really loved it and the film developed a cult following over the years. It was director Hal Ashby’s second film and built on the promise he showed with his debut The Landlord (1970). Bolstered by Colin Higgins’ brilliantly written screenplay and Cat Stevens’ insanely catchy songs, Harold and Maude is a classic romantic comedy.


Harold (Bud Cort) is a deeply unhappy young man whose rich mother (Vivian Pickles) repeatedly tries to set him up with prospective women. In retaliation, he repeatedly fakes his own death in one darkly absurd set piece after another. So, she takes him to see a psychiatrist, a priest and an Army officer all in the hopes that they will give Harold a sense of purpose and/or direction in life. It’s interesting to note that each one of these authority figures is presented either as pompous or crazy.

In his spare time, Harold likes to attend funerals and at one of them he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) who also frequents these ceremonies. When they first meet she offers him some candy, asks him if he sings and dances, and then drives off with a priest’s car. The next time they meet she almost drives off with his car – a hearse no less – and they get to talking. She lives in the moment always eager to experience new things much to his bemusement. They become friends and she gradually pulls him out of his shell with her irrepressible charm. As their relationship develops, they fall in love in one of the most unlikely romances.

Harold and Maude is anchored by the undeniable chemistry between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. They play a most unusual couple and yet it works because of how well they play off each other. Cort does an excellent job of conveying Harold’s gradual transition from a depressed introvert to a romantic, done mostly through his big, expressive eyes. He captures Harold’s initial awkwardness around the impulsive Maude, a free spirit full of life and a flower child trapped inside the body of an 80-year-old woman. Harold feels trapped by life thanks to his mother’s frequent attempts to set him up on dates with women, none of whom he’s remotely interested in. Gordon is simply delightful as the fun-loving Maude and yet her performance isn’t a one-note caricature but full of nuances, even hinting at an introspective side. It is hard not to fall in love with Maude much like Harold does because she is just so fun and full of a joy of life.

Harold and Maude is a folk film of sorts, a gentle love story about two lonely people at odds with the rest of the world. It is a sincerely earnest film that wears its heart on its sleeve. It could have so easily come across as silly but the film embodies the ideals of Maude as a brave, free-spirited story full of hope. Its love story shows that superficial details don’t matter so long as you love and care about one another – ultimately, that’s all that matters. Maude teaches Harold that when life knocks you down you have to pick yourself back up. Harold and Maude is a brave film in many respects. First and foremost, it is about a love affair between an early twentysomething and an 80-year-old woman. Its earnest idealism flew in the face of the prevailing cynicism brought on by incidents like the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert and the assassinations of hopeful political figures like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, which ended the ‘60s on a dark note.

Harold and Maude survived its initial disastrous reception to become a beloved cult film with notable admirers like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson whose respective films, Rushmore (1998) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) are very much in the spirit of Ashby’s film. Harold and Maude was part of a great run of films for the director in the ‘70s that included the likes of The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). Unfortunately, he fell on hard times both professionally and personally in the 1980s but he left behind an impressive cinematic legacy by any standard.

Special Features:

You can finally get rid of the bare bone Paramount DVD as the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray features an excellent transfer that preserves the grain of the film stock while also delivering a pristine print, which is particularly evident in the dimly-lit scenes. Cat Stevens’ songs sound particular good on the sound side of things.

There is an audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and one of the film’s producers Charles B. Mulvehill. Dawson takes us through the genesis of the project, including Colin Higgins’ screenplay and Ashby going from his first film to Harold and Maude. Mulvehill recalls all kinds of filming anecdotes including casting and its disastrous reception. Dawson analyzes the film’s themes in depth with some excellent insights on this very informative track.

Disappointingly, the film’s trailer is not included despite being referenced in detail on the commentary as containing deleted footage.

There are audio excerpts from AFI seminars with Ashby and Higgins in ’72 and ’79 respectively. Ashby talks about how he got his start as an editor. Naturally, he talks about how he got the job to direct Harold and Maude while also discussing the challenge of casting the role of Harold. Higgins talks about the genesis of the script and the inspiration for Maude. Both are very engaging and informative.

Finally, there is an interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens. He talks about how he got interested in making music as a way to express himself. Of course, he talks about how he got involved with Harold and Maude. Ashby was a big fan and used some of Stevens’ songs during filming. The director even invited the musician to the set to see how he wanted to use his music.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prometheus


Early on his career Ridley Scott proclaimed, “The time is ripe for a John Ford of science fiction films to emerge. And I’m determined to be that director.” And he was well on his way with the one-two punch of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – cinematic game changers that presented incredibly detailed future worlds. And then he attempted to adapt Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune but the project slipped through his fingers. As if that wasn’t enough, his big budget fantasy film Legend (1985) was a box office flop and received a critical mauling. Understandably frustrated, Scott turned his back on the science fiction and fantasy genres and spent the next few decades tackling a host of other ones, from the cop thriller (Black Rain) to the historical epic (Gladiator) to the war movie (Black Hawk Down) to varying degrees of success. However, fans of his early work had always held out hope that he would return to the genres that established him a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

Not only does Prometheus (2012) mark Scott’s triumphant return to science fiction but it also sees him revisiting a franchise he helped start – Alien. Touted as a prequel of sorts, the veteran filmmaker has been rather coy in admitting this new film’s link to the original, stating that it contains “strands of Alien’s DNA.” However, the impetus to make this film came from Scott’s curiosity as to the origins of the extraterrestrial being, nicknamed the “space jockey” by fans, that piloted the derelict spaceship discovered by the crew of the original film and which contained the series’ alien antagonists. Prometheus has come along at a good time to breath new life into the Alien franchise, which had hit an all-time low with Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). While the film was financially successful many felt it was creatively bankrupt and there was a desire to return the franchise to its roots and who better to do that than the director of the first one?

It is 2089 and in Scotland, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) uncovers ancient hieroglyphs that are actually a star map, which may provide the location to an alien home world whose residents may have visited Earth several thousands of years ago. She believes that these aliens will have the key to the origins of humanity. Four years later and Shaw heads up an expedition into outer space with a crew of 17 including an android named David (Michael Fassbender) and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an executive from Weyland Corporation, the company that funded the mission.

Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), her lover and fellow archaeologist, believe that the planet their spacecraft, the Prometheus, arrives at, deep in space, may have inhabitants that created humanity. Vickers is not too crazy about Shaw’s mission, a pet passion project of her father’s, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and quickly exerts control, which sets up an intriguing antagonistic relationship between the idealistic scientist Shaw and the hard-nosed pragmatist Vickers.

Shaw and an away team make landfall and investigate a massive structure, one of several, in a canyon, which reinforces Ridley Scott’s mastery of establishing a specific mood and atmosphere through incredibly detailed set design and gorgeous cinematography. This results in evocative settings like the pristine sterility of the sleek futuristic Prometheus ship to the dark, dank cavernous interior of the alien structure, which takes what we glimpsed briefly in Alien and elevates it to another level. As with all of his films, the production design is of the highest quality and rich in detail, creating a fully realized and believable world. He also knows how to create a mood of foreboding mystery as our protagonists explore the alien landscape and we wait for something bad that we know is going to happen to these unfortunate people.

As with previous films in the Alien franchise, the Weyland Company doesn’t care about the crew, aside from David, just on how they can make money off whatever Shaw and co. discover. Not surprisingly, David, much like Ash in Alien, has its own agenda and is not entirely trustworthy. If you’ve seen any of the Alien films then you pretty much know how things are going to go down – the humans mess around with something they don’t understand and run afoul of a xenomorph that is hostile.

The seemingly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender is a real standout in Prometheus as the logic-based android with a hidden agenda. The actor is quite believable as an artificial person complete with slightly stiff expressions and gestures that look real enough and yet only have the illusion of humanity. It is a tightly controlled performance complete with precise speech patterns that is fascinating to watch. Noomi Rapace is excellent as the inquisitive scientist whose ambition proves to be her undoing. Over the course of the film she conveys a wide range of emotions as her character is put through the wringer and this is evident in a scene where Shaw is forced to deal with an alien that has invaded her body. It’s an intensely harrowing sequence that comes the closest to recapturing its famous equivalent in Alien. Shaw struggles with notions of faith versus science and is the heart and soul of the film.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Charlize Theron plays an icy corporate executive at odds with Rapace’s Shaw and yet she is given a scene or two to show, perhaps not a softer side, but that there is more to her than being strictly a business type. With the exception of the always excellent Idris Elba, the rest of the cast is just fine but largely unremarkable but only because they play disposable characters. Like any skilled character actor, Elba makes the most of his limited screen-time, playing the grizzled captain of the ship.

While an easy target for helping engineer the prolonged tease that was the popular television show Lost, screenwriter Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott should be commended for creating and then getting a major Hollywood studio to release a serious-minded science fiction film during the summer blockbuster season – a time when multiplexes are populated by dumb action films loaded up with car chases and loud explosions or mindless comedies rife with dick and fart jokes. Prometheus wrestles with weighty themes and the big picture (i.e. who created us and why are we here?) while fulfilling one of the oldest tropes of the genre by presenting a story that acts as a warning – don’t meddle with things you don’t understand.

Whether the filmmakers were successful or not in conveying these important themes in a thoughtful and engaging way is certainly open to debate but at least they tried. The film’s third act is certainly problematic as it basically loses its mind and devolves into a pretty conventional action film with a weak climactic battle. This is too bad because the first two-third of Prometheus is so strong and thought provoking. A well-intentioned film loaded with ambition like this one should be championed despite its flaws (weak characterization, plot holes, etc.). The end result is easily the best Alien film in the franchise since James Cameron took over the reigns with Aliens (1986).


Check out The Film Connoisseur's fantastic take on this film and also the Sci-Fanatic's in-depth post, comparing it to Alien.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Power

The rise of media consultants in the 1970s and 1980s changed the way political campaigns were run and how politicians were sold to the public. Make no mistake; this is an expensive practice with costs to run a successful campaign increasing every year. It is the job of the media consultant to create the most attractive image of their client to present to potential voters while creating a negative image of their opponent. This is nothing new, but back in 1986 when Sidney Lumet directed Power from a screenplay by David Himmelstein, the notion of a media consultant wielding influence was a novel concept. So novel that the film received mixed reviews by critics and was virtually ignored by audiences (it failed to recoup its modest $16 million budget). With hindsight one can see that the film was ahead of its time with a slick, charismatic protagonist that anticipated real-life counterparts like James Carville. Power asks some fascinating questions about the nature of power and influence and its effects. It also remains one of Lumet’s sorely under-appreciated films.


The consultant’s job is to create a positive image of the client and this is evident in the film’s opening scene where a South American political leader is making a speech to hundreds of people in a crowded town square. A bomb goes off and the man springs into action, rushing to the aid of a woman injured in the blast. He cradles her head in his arms, making him look like an instant hero until we see a camera crew documenting the entire event. Successful media consultant Pete St. John (Richard Gere) coaches the leader once he hustles him into a waiting van, telling him to wear his now bloody shirt for the rest of the campaign. Pete proceeds to tell the man what to say, how to act, and so on. We’re left wondering if the whole thing was staged or did he brilliantly capitalize on the moment?

Pete arrives back at his offices in the United States and they are a sleek, sterile chrome and metal affair with artificial lighting everywhere. He’s briefed on his upcoming meetings by Sydney Betterman (Kate Capshaw), his assistant and lover. We see Pete at work, juggling several clients at once. In New Mexico, he tries to coax a good performance out of a man by the name of Wallace Furman (Fritz Weaver) who’s running for governor. The clearly nervous man comes across as weak and hesitant on camera and so Pete gives him a brutally honest pep talk, laying it all out: “No offense but right now you look too soft to change a tire much less a state.” He tells Furman, “You’ve got align the perception with the reality.” Pete then proceeds to tell the man to go on a diet, start working out, change how he dresses, and get a tan.

This shocks the wealthy businessman who complains that Pete seems to be running his entire life, to which the consultant replies, “That means framing the overall strategy as well as deciding all the specifics.” And this includes the look of the campaign, what the bumper stickers will be, creating advertisements for print, radio and television, and analyzing polling numbers. Furman weakly counters that he wants to address some of his long-term plans, which Pete interrupts and tells him, “They’re not important. My job is to get you in. Once you’re there you do whatever your conscience tells you.” Richard Gere delivers this last line with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as this scene tells us everything we need to know about his character. Pete exudes the charisma and confidence of a man at the top of his profession and Gere nails it with a polished delivery that is one part used car salesman and one part gregarious con man.

Meanwhile, an unidentified Middle Eastern businessman is impressed with Pete’s work with the South American politician and how it undid a lot of work that his boss spent significant money on. He asks Arnold Billing (Denzel Washington), a rival public relations expert, to hire Pete for a job. He wants him to manage the campaign of a rich but little-known Ohio businessman Jerome Cade (J.T. Walsh) so that he’ll win a Senate seat. However, it is a spot that has been vacated by Pete’s friend Sam Hastings (E.G. Marshall) due to an unidentified illness so there is a possible conflict on interest. However, we’re never sure why Pete is so close to Hastings and why his decision to drop out affects him so much. Was he Pete’s mentor? Are they related? Pete seems to respect Hastings integrity but this seems rather odd for a man who is loyal only to money. We learn that Hastings may not be ill at all so why is he dropping out all of the sudden? It seems like Billing might have had something to do with it. He’s a young, up and comer who clearly has set his sights on taking down Pete.

And why not? Pete is one of those guys that travels in his own private jet. He wears expensive suits, has sex with his attractive assistant and has a roster of only the wealthiest clients. He’s arrogant and confident but Hastings is his lone weak spot, which Billing seeks to exploit. Pete also crosses paths with his boozy ex-mentor Wilfred Buckley (Gene Hackman) who has a memorable scene embarrassing himself with a drunken tirade on an airport runway. Yet he still shows glimmers of brilliance in a nice scene where he tells a grassroots underdog candidate (Matt Salinger) what he needs to do to make a difference.

J.T. Walsh is at his reptilian best as an ambitious wannabe politician with money to burn and ruthless ambition to spare. He seems like an ideal client for Pete – he’s filthy rich – however something doesn’t feel right. Billing works for him but in some kind of vague capacity. Cade appears to be simpatico with Hastings’ policies except for one: his pet project, which was solar energy. Is that the real reason the senator suddenly vacated his seat? When Pete attempts to dig deeper into Cade’s past, Billing comes after him, setting up an intriguing game of cat and mouse. Denzel Washington is impressive in an early role as an icy, amoral media consultant. With limited screen-time, he creates an imposing figure because Billing is such an enigma with a secret agenda. In some scenes, Washington sports a dead-eye look that is quite unnerving and in others he is all smiles but it isn’t meant to be reassuring, just creepy.

Power is a little long and a subplot involving Pete’s ex-wife (Julie Christie) feels like unnecessary padding and could have easily been removed. The film also skirts the edges of cutesy idealism, especially when a character at the film’s climax delivers an inspirational speech a la Network (1976), but fortunately Lumet pulls back to show that the political landscape hasn’t changed all that much.

In the 1980s, Gere was an A-list sex symbol thanks to An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) but he parlayed that clout to tackle a diverse roster of roles in films like American Gigolo (1980), Breathless (1983) and, of course, Power, which may be the best of the bunch. He plays a slick media spin-doctor that begins to grow a conscience and how one ruthless competitor starts to chip away at his confidence. Gere is able to get under Pete’s skin, past the surface details to reveal someone that questions what he’s doing. Over the course of the film Pete finds that he no longer delights in crushing his opponents. If anything, he experiences a crisis in confidence and Gere is quite excellent at conveying this dilemma. The actor is also good at turning his trademark boyish charm on and off while conveying just what a master manipulator Pete is. Yet, it is his relationship with Hastings that humanizes the character. Interestingly, Gere was not Lumet’s first choice to play Pete St. John. In fact, he had been unimpressed with the actor’s performances at the time. However, the two men met and talked over two days. Lumet said, “He was so intelligent, with such a strong sense of self, and he showed such a real desire to act again—to get back to real acting.”

They say knowledge is power and that is certainly true when it comes politics. Insider knowledge and the ability to get it and then use it is everything. That is what makes Pete so successful. However, when someone else can get it faster and use it just as ruthlessly then this creates a conflict. Power takes a fascinating look at media manipulation, like how a goofed take for a political ad can be tweaked in editing to actually make the subject look good. It’s all about perception and in that sense it is a lot like filmmaking. The film is more than just being about politics. Lumet also gradually incorporates elements of a thriller as Pete’s dealings with Billing and Cade begin to affect his personal and professional life.

Power originated from newspaper reporter David Himmelstein. He had previously worked as a speechwriter for former Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. He got the idea while attending Harvard as a Neiman Fellow. During election night in 1982, he saw a continuous loop of T.V. spots from candidates across the United States that a fellow student had assembled. Himmelstein found it fascinating because it made him realize that “the candidates were all basically interchangeable.” Furthermore, he realized that “the guys who had put together the spots were at least as significant, if not more significant, in the process.”

As early as 1984, Himmelstein began dabbling in screenwriting and when one of his scripts won a prize, he was noticed by Hollywood. His second script, entitled Power, was picked by Lumet as his next directing project but only after it underwent five rewrites. The veteran filmmaker was drawn to the project because he saw it as a commentary on “the mechanization of our lives, the loss of contact,” and how it was about our “terminally compromised political process.” He felt that “a candidate doesn’t talk to us anymore. They talk to us through someone else. These people are not corrupt. It’s much more frightening than that because we are not talking about evil people, we are talking about a system that is slowly evolving.”

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out four and wrote, “But the movie itself seems to sense that it's going nowhere. The climax is a pointless, frustrating montage of images. It's a good montage, but it belongs somewhere in the middle of the movie; it states the problem, but not the solution or even the lack of a solution.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, Power is a well-meaning, witless, insufferably smug movie that – if it does anything at all, and I'm not sure it does – anesthetizes legitimate outrage at some of the things going on in our society.” The Toronto Star’s Ron Base wrote, “When everyone is in place, and such matters as conflict and plot begin to emerge, the movie groans into the sort of tiresome, preachy dialectic that Lumet is always being accused of making. This time his accusers are right.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “What's genuinely odd about Power is how stale it gets whenever it tries to get at an emotion – everything human is alien to it. The movie only works when it's immersed in the very world it professes to despise.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson criticized Himmelstein’s script: “In writing his didactic melodrama of manipulation and image-making on a global scale, Himmelstein apparently felt his news—that today's political candidates are created not only equal but interchangeable—could stand on its own, without the need to beguile us with characterization or suspense.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott criticized the casting of Richard Gere: “Casting Gere as a callow but clever media consultant was a stroke of inspiration, but when Gere is required to find integrity and sincerity, the performance falls apart – integrity and sincerity from Richard Gere are like sweetness and light from Joan Collins.” The rare positive notice came from the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, who gave it three out of four stars, and wrote, “Holding everything together is that the film accurately fixes on our collective guilt about the superficial basis upon which most of us vote. There’s also Richard Gere’s taut portrayal of Pete St. John, a slick imagemaker who shapes his clients into just so much silly political putty … Gere is at his best in this sort of oily role.”

Looked at now, Power was incredibly prescient. At the time, the public knew little about political and media consultants but thanks to the highly acclaimed documentary The War Room (1993) and popular satirical comedy Wag the Dog (1997), people have a better idea of what these people do. In fact, the two successful media consultants that helped get Bill Clinton elected as president, as documented in The War Room, went on to become media darlings in their own right, appearing in T.V. and films. This kind of consultation has become a staple of political campaigning and is big business. With the right kind of spin and a media savvy candidate, the sky’s the limit. Lumet’s film shows the darker side, like how campaigning is all about image and very little about substance. Elections have been reduced to popularity contests. Complicated issues have been reduced to simplistic soundbites. In Power, politics are a dirty business (with an emphasis on business) and it shows in captivating detail just how dirty by taking us behind the scenes to show us the inner workings and the image creators. Lumet’s film is ripe for re-discovering as much of what it examines has not dated at all, making it more relevant than ever before.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Transformers: The Movie

Before Michael Bay decided to piss all over our nostalgic memories of The Transformers cartoon with his live-action monstrosities, there was a feature-length animated film that for all of its clunky animation and cheesy, dated soundtrack is better than the entirety of Bay’s trilogy. For those of us who grew up watching The Transformers cartoon every day after school in the early 1980s, the movie came as quite a shock. Most of us, at that early, impressionable age, were unprepared for the much darker tone and the increased level of violence, including some of the show’s most popular and beloved characters getting quickly killed off in the first few opening scenes. The Transformers: The Movie (1986) was a commercial and critical failure but went on to develop a strong cult following among fans.


It is 20 years into the future (making it, at the time, 2005!) and the war between the Autobots (a race of good transformable robots) and the Decepticons (their evil counterparts) continues to rage. The Decepticons have taken control of the transformers’ home world of Cybertron. The Autobots are planning to retake the planet but need to get more energy from Earth in order to do so. Unfortunately, the Decepticons learn of these plans and their leader Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker) intercepts the ship headed for Earth with the intention of launching a sneak attack on the Autobot’s base. Unbeknownst to the Autobots and the Decepticons, a planet-sized transformer named Unicron (Orson Welles) is devouring entire planets to feed its insatiable desire for energy. Only the Matrix of Leadership, housed in Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, can stop him.

The dark tone of the movie is set right from the prologue, which features Unicron mercilessly destroying an entire planet of transformers. No one is spared. We even see one escape pod almost make it before getting sucked into Unicron’s massive, gaping maw. For kids used to the relatively tame television series this sequence came as quite a surprise. This was nothing compared to what came next as soon afterwards the Decepticons ambush a ship carrying several Autobots that are quickly and casually killed off! It was one thing to see anonymous characters with nothing invested in them be destroyed but it was something else entirely to see characters we had grown to like on the series dispatched so suddenly and coldly. These deaths do raise the stakes considerably as if the filmmakers were making a statement that all bets are off with this film – any character, no matter how beloved, is fair game.

Clearly the powers that be (i.e. the toy company) meant to clear the decks for a new generation a.k.a. a new line of toys for kids to buy but I think they underestimated just how profound an effect all these deaths would have on their audience. This culminated with the death of Optimus Prime – the most popular transformer. Not since Darth Vader cut down Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977) had the death of a heroic character been so traumatic for its fanbase. At least Prime got to go out in style with an epic one-on-one slugfest with his nemesis Megatron. For kids at the time, it was an emotional moment because we cared about Prime. His death scene, in particular, had gravitas and meant something to the fans of the show. This is something that the Bay movies never were able to replicate with their multi-million dollar budgets.

Another memorable aspect of the movie is the scope and scale. Where the T.V. show’s action was largely confined to Earth, the movie opens things up by introducing other worlds and races (even if they are all transformers). And so we are presented with the Planet of Junk, one of the more fascinating additions to The Transformers universe. It is inhabited by the Junkions and their leader Wreck-Gar who speaks in T.V. clichés mainly derived from advertisements. In an inspired bit of casting, he is voiced by Monty Python alumni Eric Idle. Their world is a metallic compost heap masquerading as a planet and rather fittingly their theme song is performed by none other than Weird Al Yankovic. This race of robots provides a much-needed moment of levity in what up to that point had been a very dark film.

The battles are also bigger and more intense as Unicron transforms into an enormous robot that attacks Cybertron but this almost pales in comparison to the intensity of the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron that left many fans shocked by its outcome. No one was prepared for what went down and the film never quite recovers from this moment. Speaking of gravitas, who better to play a transformer the size of a planet than Orson Welles, the brilliant filmmaker who made Citizen Kane (1941)? His digitally augmented voice has the dramatic weight befitting the scale and power of Unicron. The filmmakers needed a formidable actor to play a formidable character and they found their ideal candidate in Welles. This gig would be his last and he died five days after completing his work from a heart attack.

One of the things that dates The Transformers film the most is its soundtrack of awesomely bad generic 1980s hair metal, complete with the show’s cool theme song redone by Lion. Most memorably is Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” which went on to be hilariously immortalized in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). The one song that acts as a crazy counterpoint to this bloated arena rock is Weird Al Yankovic’s theme for the Junkions, “Dare to Be Stupid.” His goofy, non-sensical lyrics (anticipating Beck by a few years and actually goofing on Devo) are perfect for this absurdist, almost Dada-esque race of transformers.

After the first two seasons of the television show, toy company Hasbro wanted to eliminate many of the characters and introduce a new line. Season three would feature several new characters and the feature film would make that transition. Toy lines are discontinued for new ones and so the dilemma facing the screenwriters of the movie was how to make this transition seamlessly. According to story consultant Flint Dille, “So, we had this one scene where the Autobots basically had to run through a gauntlet of Decepticons. Which basically wiped out the entire ’84 product line in one massive charge of the light brigade. So whoever wasn’t discontinued, stumbled to the end.” The scene didn’t quite play out that way but over the first third of the film, several of seasons one and two characters were killed off. Not surprisingly, it was Hasbro that dictated the story of the film, “using characters that could best be merchandised for the movie. Only with that consideration could I have the freedom to change the storyline,” said director Nelson Shin in an interview.

Not surprisingly, The Transformers: The Movie was savaged by critics at the time. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Unlike most movie stars, though, the Transformers have offscreen lives and personalities that their fans will carry with them to the theater. Children have an advantage here, for they can project their playtime scenarios on the old friends and heroes in action on the screen, while parents may just wonder what the fuss is about.” The Globe and Mail’s Salem Alaton wrote, “There is so much action in the animated feature, The Transformers: The Movie, that you can't wait to get back into one of those Chrysler products whose vocabulary is limited to ‘A door is ajar,’ and ‘Thank you.’” The Los Angeles Times’ Charles Solomon wrote, “Not even the best actor can create a character out of nothing. Not one of the robots has a reason for doing what he does. The Transformers are good because they're good, and the Decepticons are bad because they're bad.”

The Transformers: The Movie’s pacing is fast and furious with never a dull moment – perfect for kids with short attention spans and actually works in its favor as any narrative fat is trimmed, packing a lot of action into its running time (again something the live-action films failed to realize with their bloated lengths). While I don’t know if the movie exactly lives up to its poster’s tag line, “Beyond good. Beyond evil. Beyond your wildest imagination.” It was a pretty mind-blowing experience for this impressionable youth back in the day. So, I come at this movie now with nostalgic baggage in tow, unable to really look at it objectively. I can only imagine what kids of today think of it now. Sadly, they probably don’t even know/care of its existence having been bombarded by the Michael Bay movies, which is too bad because they lack the imagination, the ambition (which are largely earthbound while the animated film takes place mostly in outer space) and the substance that makes The Transformers: The Movie by far superior. Plus, I’d take the likes of Stan Bush and Lion over the bland nu metal stylings of Linkin Park any day.


Also check out Roderick Heath's wonderful take over at his This Island Rod blog.