Friday, August 31, 2012

Night of the Comet

Released in 1984, Thom Eberhardt’s film Night of the Comet took advantage of the valley girl phenomenon that tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in the early 1980s by making the two protagonists of his horror/science fiction hybrid materialistic mallrats. The film was part of a mini-trend during the decade that fused the teen film with science fiction as evident with the likes of My Science Project (1985) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Night of the Comet was a smart, funny and even, at times, scary ride that proved to be a modest box office hit. It has since gone on to develop a small but loyal cult following, anchored by the performances of the film’s two lead actresses, Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who play the aforementioned valley girls.

The Earth passes through the tail of a rogue comet, one that may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs millions of years ago. Most people see this event as worthy of celebration and large crowds congregate all over the world to celebrate this rare event. We meet Regina “Reggie” Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart), a movie theater usher more interested in getting the high score on the Tempest video game than doing her job (“They throw things at me…”). She’s particularly irked that someone with the initials “DMK” got sixth place on a high score list that is otherwise dominated by her.

Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) is stuck at home dealing with her step-mother’s comet party. “Mom” (Sharon Farrell) is a real nasty piece of work, cheating on Sam’s dad and punching the young girl in the face after the teen slaps her during a heated argument. The next day, an eerie red haze blankets the sky and the city of Los Angeles is mysteriously devoid of life with only articles of discarded clothing sprinkled with little piles of red dust remaining.

Reggie wakes up in the projection booth having spent the night with Larry the projectionist (Michael Bowen). However, he’s quickly dispatched by a zombie when trying to leave the theater. She discovers the undead guy after getting locked out and narrowly escapes on a nearby motorcycle. This sequence is notable for demonstrating early on that Reggie is capable of taking care of herself as she fends off the zombie. She’s no damsel in distress and Catherine Mary Stewart doesn’t portray her as a bubble-headed teen either, but rather a resourceful young woman.

Reggie’s journey through the city is a slightly unsettling one as she drives by abandoned cars and clothes strewn all over the place with the red hazy sky omnipresent in every shot. Eberhardt inserts several eerily beautiful establishing shots of the deserted city bathed in a reddish hue. It’s disconcerting to see a bustling metropolis like L.A. so devoid of life. It’s as if someone dropped a reel of The Quiet Earth (1985) in the middle of Valley Girl (1983).

She returns home to find Sam who had spent the night hiding out in the backyard shed and is oblivious to what’s happened. They check out a local radio station that is still operating and meet Hector Gomez (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who survived a zombie attack. Our heroes eventually cross paths with members of a top secret government research facility located under the ground out in the desert. One of them (Mary Woronov) believes that they should stay isolated while another (Geoffrey Lewis) believes they should actively locate survivors.

Reggie gets instant cool points for not only being a skilled video game addict but also well-versed Superman lore as evident in the scene when Larry gets a reference wrong and she’s quick to correct him. This makes her a bonafide geek goddess to be worshipped. Reggie may have a tough exterior but Catherine Mary Stewart isn’t afraid to show her character’s vulnerable side in moments like the one where Reggie asks Hector not to go to San Diego but stay with her and Sam.

As the film progresses, Reggie and Sam are developed past their initial valley girl stereotypes. The two actresses have good chemistry together and are believable as sisters in the way they interact with each other, getting on the other’s nerves but always there for each other. They have a nice scene together where the siblings talk about Reggie’s romantic interest in Hector and Sam talks about a boy at school that she liked. It dawns on her that he and all her friends are probably dead. Sensing how upset her sister is, Reggie takes her mind off it with a spontaneous shopping spree delightfully scored to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper that echoes a similar scene in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) – materialistic joy after the end of the world.

Reggie and Sam are army brats, which is a nice way of explaining their fighting skills and familiarity with firearms, something that proves very helpful later on in a pretty tense action sequence that sees them attacked by a group of New Wave looters (including Repo Man’s Dick Rude and Platoon’s Chris Pedersen) in a department store. It’s a fun sequence that shows the deadlier side of consumerism as the ex-stock boys-turned-looters are miffed that Reggie and Sam are shoplifting, while their leader speaks in television slogan clich├ęs.

Robert Beltran is quite good as Stewart’s potential love interest. However, Hector’s character disappears midway through the film only to show up in the final reel just in time for the exciting climax, which feels a tad contrived. It’s nice to see Beltran reunited with his Eating Raoul (1982) co-star Mary Woronov. They continue their fantastic on-screen chemistry in a memorable scene together. Geoffrey Lewis brings his trademark gravitas to a supporting role as a scientist with his heart in the right place but this soon changes when his character undergoes a frightening transformation.

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt had grown up watching late 1950s and early 1960s science fiction and horror films, fascinated by the good as well as the bad ones. In particular, he was intrigued by “the empty-city movies where everybody in the city has just disappeared. As a kid I was fascinated by that notion that everybody in the world can be gone and you’re left there in the shell of the city.” He went on to write and direct documentaries for public television and “After School” specials. It was on one of the latter that he got the idea for Night of the Comet. While on the set of one of these specials, Eberhardt had a conversation with two teenage-girl actresses about the end of the world and they described to him how they envisioned it. This gave him the idea to make an end of the world film from the perspective of teenagers. “If you buy into that, then the film makes sense in a screwy sort of way,” he remarked in an interview

He wrote the screenplay for Night of the Comet at the same time as Sole Survivor, but the latter became his feature film debut in 1983 when he couldn’t get anyone interested in the former. The Comet script was an unconventional hybrid of several genres and interested parties either wanted to make a straight-out horror film or a comedy without any of the scary stuff. He finally sold it to Atlantic Releasing Corporation and they assigned producers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane, who had success previously with Valley Girl (1983), to the project.

After making The Last Starfighter (1984), Catherine Mary Stewart acquired a reputation for being something of a bankable actress and auditioned for Night of the Comet. While filming Fast Times and Ridgemont High (1982), Kelli Maroney auditioned for Comet. She later learned that A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp was a contender for the role of Samantha but the producers felt that she didn’t look good with an Uzi! Despite auditioning separately, Stewart and Maroney found that they had great chemistry together and hung out on and off the set.

Night of the Comet was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles for approximately $700,000. As a result, the production worked on a tight schedule of six weeks with four nights spent in an actual department store in the Sherman Oaks Galleria for the exciting gunfight between Reggie and Sam and the New Wave ex-stock boys. For the look of the film, in particular, the deserted city streets, Eberhardt and his director of photography Arthur Albert drew inspiration from the 1954 B-sci-fi film Target Earth. To get that look on a small budget, they shot the city from unusual angles and early Christmas morning. The film’s producers did not like Eberhardt’s working methods. They wanted him to make a serious horror film while he was more interested in a tongue-in-cheek tone. To appease them, Eberhardt shot two different versions of every scene – a serious take and a more humorous one. According to the director, the producers had a replacement lined up if the production company fired him: “Luckily, nobody had any money for reshoots, so they were stuck with what I gave them.”

Night of the Comet received positive reviews from both genre-friendly magazines and the few mainstream critics who saw it. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt it was “a good-natured, end-of- the-world B-movie,” by a “film maker whose sense of humor augments rather than upstages the mechanics of the melodrama.” Cinefantastique magazine’s David J. Hogan felt that “Comet’s greatest virtue, inarguably, is its treatment of Samantha and Regina. The girls are human, which means they are not merely amusing and pretty, but resourceful, occasionally petty, and capable of growth.” Yet-to-be legendary writer Neil Gaiman called it, “one of the most amusing, witty, imaginative, and thought-provoking films I’ve seen that was made with no budget and is also cheap exploitation.” Finally, the New Music Express’ Alex Pollak wrote, “maybe this movie is lightweight, but it’s still quite good.”

Night of the Comet’s legacy lives on as references to it can be found in films like 28 Days Later (2002), Planet Terror (2007) and the popular television show Lost. The film continues to enjoy a decent cult following with its stars Stewart and Maroney regulars on the convention circuit. It has become a memorable snapshot of the times in which it was made, playfully capitalizing on the hype that surrounded Halley’s Comet in 1984 and into 1985 as people anticipated the phenomenon of it being visible only every 75-76 years. In addition to being heavily steeped in the sci-fi genre, Night of the Comet trades pretty heavily in horror genre conventions, like Sam’s freaky nightmares where she’s attacked by undead motorcycle cops. The film also has something on its mind as its characters sift through the remnants of a consumer culture after the world ends. Like Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), Night of the Comet has a healthy mistrust of the government and scientists as the research group have less than noble goals and are far more dangerous than the random zombies our heroes encounter. Reggie and Sam don’t have any kind of political agenda or master plan, they just want to survive and there is something refreshing about that. Eberthardt crafted a clever horror/science fiction hybrid that deserves a place among other offbeat fare like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) that flew in the face of the conservative conventionality that dominated much of American cinema in the ‘80s.

  NOTE: The production information in this article was sourced from THE definitive Night of the Comet website, located here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

With The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) came a satisfying conclusion to the popular spy franchise as its protagonist finally came to terms with who he was and how he came to be a government-trained assassin. Never one to let a lucrative franchise die, Universal Pictures soon started to develop yet another installment. However, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass – Ultimatum’s star and director respectively – felt that there was no more story to tell and bowed out, leaving the studio with quite a dilemma. So, they went back to the architect of the series, screenwriter Tony Gilroy. He had written the first draft for Ultimatum before two other writers were hired while he tried his hand at directing. He had made waves in the press about not being particularly thrilled with the direction the third film had taken and so I’m sure he saw The Bourne Legacy (2012) as a chance to make this franchise his own and no doubt itching to bounce back after the lackluster box office of his last film Duplicity (2009).

The problem Gilroy faced was getting people interested in a film no longer starring the series’ beloved lead actor. However, he wisely cast a completely different actor with Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) who, thankfully, doesn’t play a rehash of Jason Bourne. Gilroy also wisely acknowledges what came before by having the ending of Ultimatum overlap with Legacy. In doing so, this new installment isn’t a remake but rather a reboot/sequel hybrid that exists in the same world created in the first three films.

After Jason Bourne exposed the United States government’s top secret operations, Blackbriar and Treadstone, the CIA bigwigs enlist retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to cover their tracks. This involves eliminating all operatives in other clandestine undertakings, chief among them Operation Outcome. It is one of the Department of Defense’s black ops programs that provides agents with green pills that enhance their physical skills and blue pills that enhance their mental capabilities. One by one, these agents are killed except for Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who’s been on a training exercise in the remote wilderness of Alaska.

The CIA also tries to kill the scientists that researched the pills by brainwashing one of them (Zeljko Ivanek) to shoot his co-workers, save Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who narrowly survives. This is a chilling scene as Gilroy ratchets up the tension with the killer coldly gunning scientists down like some kind of mild-mannered (yet frighteningly lethal) Manchurian Candidate. Naturally, Byer and his crew create a cover story for the media of just another crazed rampage by a lone gunman. As it turns out, Marta originally administered Aaron’s meds and so he seeks her out to get more pills and get some answers, while Byer tries to kill them. Once they are on the run, Gilroy cranks up the paranoia factor as simple tasks like boarding a plane are a nerve-wracking experience as any fellow passenger could be an incognito government operative sent to kill them.

Aaron Cross is a much chattier character than the taciturn Bourne and, unlike him, Aaron knows exactly who he is. Once a good soldier, he now questions what he’s doing and why he needs to be dependent on these pills. This latter dilemma manifests itself more and more as the film goes on with Aaron conveying, at times, the desperation of a junkie looking for his next fix. With The Bourne Legacy, Renner completes a trifecta of high-profile action films that include Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) and The Avengers (2012). The supporting roles he had in those two films were just warm-ups for Legacy where he finally gets to headline his own big, Hollywood blockbuster and pulls it off.

Rachel Weisz’s Marta is not the damsel in distress she initially appears to be as the scientist quickly acclimates to her predicament – being on the run with Aaron – and even helps him take out the occasional bad guy. Not surprisingly, Aaron and Marta’s relationship is initially an abrasive one as he demands more pills and answers from her, but she soon realizes that without his help she will most certainly wind up dead before the day is out. It is an uneasy alliance that you would expect from two people thrown together in a desperate situation but over the course of the film they learn to trust each other. Weisz plays a convincing scientist, adept at spouting the technical jargon that comes with the role, but she also has some touching scenes with Renner as his character becomes as dependent on her as she is on him. The Bourne Legacy is a nice change of pace for the actress who hasn’t been in an action-oriented franchise since The Mummy films.

Interestingly, the idea of drug-induced government operatives eerily echoes, albeit on a much larger scale, a storyline in the fourth season of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy falls in love with a college student by the name of Riley who is actually a pharmaceutically-enhanced government agent, and much like in the Bourne films, this top secret operation is eventually exposed and then covered up by the government. Once Riley realizes the true nature of the operation, he goes rogue and even begins to feel the detrimental effects of the drugs he was on – his pain receptors shut down and he must seek treatment. Sound familiar? Now, genetically enhanced government operatives are nothing new. Comic book superhero Captain America is also enhanced through genetic engineering but the similarities between The Bourne Legacy and this storyline from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are quite striking.

For those not crazy about Paul Greengrass’ frenetic, often disorienting hand-held camera action sequences in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum, will be happy to know that Legacy is, by and large, devoid of them. Gilroy shows a good sense of geography and skill at choreography during these scenes, in particular, a dynamic and tense battle in Marta’s home between her and Aaron and a team of assassins sent to kill them. With this sequence – and others – Gilroy creates a real sense of danger and scary intensity as one feels that Aaron and Marta’s lives are really at risk.

The Bourne Legacy could be seen as an opportunistic cashgrab by a studio afraid to let a lucrative franchise lie dormant but I don’t think Tony Gilroy sees it this way. In addition to delivering a rousing spy thriller, he raises some interesting questions about the culpability of pharmaceutical companies that research and create performance enhancing drugs and this is touched on in an early conversation between Aaron and Marta where he chastises her for claiming ignorance over the true purpose of the drugs she helped create, pointing out that they control him. Gilroy’s skill at writing smart dialogue comes into play during this scene and throughout the entire film as he creates an intelligent and exciting thriller that opens up the world he first helped create in The Bourne Identity (2002). That being said, he doesn’t deviate from the template established in the first film as our heroes are tracked with state-of-the-art surveillance technology by government officials barking orders in a control room all the while the protagonists traverse the globe looking for answers and evading the bad guys. While, Legacy is not as good as the first three films – Matt Damon was just too good at eliciting our sympathies and, at the time, those films were a fresh alternative to the Bond franchise – it is very well done and a promising start for a new series of films with a new protagonist to root for.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Escape from L.A.

After making several career-defining classics in the 1980s, film director John Carpenter struggled to find his footing in the 1990s with the only memorable film being the sorely underrated In the Mouth of Madness (1995). The rest of his output from this decade ranges from fascinatingly flawed (Vampires) to downright mediocre (Village of the Damned). Somewhere in-between is Escape from L.A. (1996), the long-gestating sequel to Carpenter’s dystopian futuristic masterpiece Escape from New York (1981). It also marked the director’s return to a major studio after making the instantly forgettable Chevy Chase vanity project Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992). Carpenter was coaxed back into the fold by his good friend Kurt Russell, who had always fondly regarded Escape’s protagonist Snake Plissken. The final result was a decidedly schizophrenic affair, an uneven hybrid of remake/sequel that failed to please fans of the original and mystified the uninitiated. One can see what Carpenter and co. were trying to do – satirize not just Los Angeles culture but also big budget blockbuster action films. Sadly, they weren’t very successful on either front, but the film does have its merits.

In 2000, a massive earthquake ravages the west coast causing the San Fernando Valley to flood, turning L.A. into an island. Crime has gotten so bad that, like New York City before it, L.A. has become a prison surrounded by a containment wall with the United States Army encamped around the island. Thirteen years later, notorious outlaw Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been captured yet again and is set to be “deported” to L.A. Like in Escape from New York, he is given another deal – go into the city and find Utopia (A.J. Langer), the President of the U.S.’ daughter who has become a brainwashed revolutionary of the oppressed courtesy of Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), leader of the biggest baddest gang in the city. More importantly, he convinced her to steal the President’s remote control to the “Sword of Damocles,” a collection of satellites that when activated can destroy electronics worldwide. Snake is enlisted to find the remote and bring it back before Jones can use it to trigger an allied invasion of third world nations from Central and South America. Oh yeah, and kill Utopia as well. Of course, there’s a catch. He has less than ten hours to live before a deadly virus causes his central nervous system to shut down. So, Snake goes in via a one-man submarine and crosses paths with all sorts of wild, eccentric denizens of L.A.

The problem that faces fans of Escape from New York going into Escape from L.A. are the inevitable comparisons, and let’s face it, the sequel fails on all fronts. The biggest problem is that instead of creating a new adventure from scratch, Escape from L.A.’s plot is almost literally a beat-for-beat retread of the first film. And so anyone with any kind of knowledge of it finds themselves sizing up the two in their minds. The first thing is the casting. Stacy Keach, who plays the exact same kind of character that Lee Van Cleef did in the first film, pales in comparison, as does Cliff Robertson who plays the President this time around instead of Donald Pleasence, and while Steve Buscemi is a gifted comic actor, he’s no Ernest Borgnine, and simply can’t fill his shoes playing the same kind of comic relief character. Furthermore, the Duke of New York, played so vividly by Isaac Hayes, is replaced by Cuervo Jones, a Che Guevara wannabe complete with a pimped out ride much like the Duke. He is played rather blandly by George Corraface. I’m sure he is a fine actor but was simply miscast in this film. One never feels that Jones is a figure to be feared, like the Duke in Escape from New York was, and why legions of gang members would bother to follow him. One never feels like Jones is a match for Snake and this diminishes the threat that our hero faces.

To add insult to injury, the cool gladiatorial match that Snake fights in a boxing ring in the first film is replaced by a basketball challenge where he must score ten points with each basket to be done in ten seconds with no misses or he’s dead. While this does show off Russell’s incredible athletic prowess, it is a pretty lame challenge for Snake to do. The actor carries the film and makes it semi-watchable through sheer force of will. It looks like he’s having a blast putting on the eye patch again. Despite being surrounded by wildly uneven quality from scene to scene, Russell’s performance is constantly excellent as he continues to play Snake as a gravelly-voiced badass who still hates authority figures of all kinds, whether it is the President or two-bit revolutionary Cuervo Jones.

To be fair, it isn’t the actors’ fault but rather the unimaginative screenplay written by Carpenter, producer Debra Hill and Russell. Nick Castle, Carpenter’s old University of Southern California buddy, helped write Escape from New York and his dark sense of humor, which elevated it from being just a straight-ahead action film to something more, is sorely missed in the sequel. And so, we get things like the rehash of the recurring joke in Escape from New York where everyone who meets Snake claims that they thought he was dead, which then gets tweaked in Escape from L.A. to the lame gag of everyone he runs into saying that they thought he was taller.

The script does succeed in updating the social commentary from the first film to reflect the times in which the sequel was made. The President of the U.S. is an ultra-conservative who sees himself ruling a “Moral America” and to this end bans things like tobacco, alcoholic beverages, red meat, firearms, cursing, non-Christian religions and so on. At one point in the film, Snake meets a woman who was deported to L.A. because she was a practicing Muslim in South Dakota. Carpenter is clearly commenting on the politically correct climate that had descended on America at the time the film was made. However, moments like that eerily foreshadow the distrust people had of those of the Muslim faith after 9/11. There is also an interesting argument made that despite the incredibly dangerous atmosphere, L.A. is the last place in the U.S. where one is free to act and do whatever they want. The rest of the country is run by a President who rules with a politically correct iron fist. Carpenter seems to be saying that when looked at it in that way is it really such a bad place? Most of the satirical jabs at L.A. culture work, especially the casting of Bruce Campbell as the grotesque Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, aided by plastic surgery disaster nurses who clearly have had too many implants and facelifts. Played with gusto by Campbell, the Surgeon General and his crew are a spot-on parody of L.A.’s sick fascination with staying forever young.

Escape from L.A.’s production design is excellent as Carpenter presents a burnt out, earthquake-ravaged city. There are some impressive visuals, like the stunning shot of the L.A. Freeway transformed into a graveyard of trashed and abandoned vehicles. There are also some amusing bits, like a wounded Snake hanging ten with Peter Fonda’s far-out surfer in a sequence that is simultaneously cheesy and cool as it alternates between good and badly rendered CGI scored to some groovy retro surf music. The sheer ridiculousness of it all, coupled with Fonda’s Zen surfer, transforms the sequence from downright silly to campy fun. I also like that Carpenter emphasizes the western genre aspects with Snake as the lone gunslinger going into a dangerous town. This is evident in scenes like when he dispatches four hapless gunmen via “Bangkok rules” scored to Ennio Morricone-esque music in a nice little homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

Ever since making Escape from New York, Kurt Russell never forgot the character of Snake Plissken. In the ‘80s, John Carpenter and Russell talked about how fun it would be to revisit the character but they had no story ideas other than it would be set in Los Angeles. At one point a draft was written in 1986 by Coleman Luck but was quickly rejected. After the one-two punch of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and then the Northridge earthquake of 1994, Russell contacted Carpenter and told him that he wanted to do a sequel to Escape from New York. According to the director, Russell’s initial idea was that the city was “the most outrageous place to live and yet none of us can leave … why don’t we leave? What’s keeping us here? And, we both realized that we’re all in denial.” The two men felt that out of those sentiments was a story they could tell. Carpenter’s agent suggested that the director and Russell write the screenplay themselves and then shop it around Hollywood as a big-budget film. Carpenter reunited with the film’s producer Debra Hill and he wrote the first draft in September 1994 while making Village of the Damned (1995) with help from her over eight months. Russell came in and tweaked not just the dialogue but also the film’s ending.

Carpenter, Hill and Russell shopped the script around Hollywood and sold it to Paramount Pictures in May 1995 thanks to then-head of the studio Sherry Lansing who was a big fan of Escape from New York and had actively pursued them for the script. It also didn’t hurt that Russell had just headlined surprise box office hit Stargate in 1995 making him a bankable international movie star. Their draft came in at a hefty 146 pages. Over time, both the length of the script and the proposed size of the budget were reduced. After the problems he had with 20th Century Fox over how they handled the distribution and promotion of Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Carpenter was understandably reluctant to work with another one but he was given more control over the final product with Escape from L.A. The only mandate they gave Carpenter and his collaborators was that most of the potential mainstream audience hadn’t seen the first film, “they didn’t know who Snake is,” Carpenter said in an interview, “so you’ve got to tell them who he is, what your world set-up is … but those who’ve seen the original can smile and say ‘Oh I see it. This is very familiar territory.’ They’re in on the joke.”

Just before principal photography began, Carpenter was worried that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the world he had helped create in Escape from New York but once it began he settled into a familiar groove. Escape from L.A. was shot mostly at night over 70 days during a very cold time in and around a lot of “desolate areas” in the city because the streets looked too nice. Carpenter remembers that it was “the coldest that I’ve been since filming The Thing … Night after night of it just wears you down.” Towards the end of principal photography, Russell had to divide his time between filming and promoting another one of his films, Executive Decision (1996). It was a punishing schedule as the actor did almost all of his own stunts while suffering from the flu.

Escape from L.A. received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Escape From L.A. has fun with the whole concept of pictures like itself. It goes deliberately and cheerfully over the top, anchored by Russell's monosyllabic performance, which makes Clint Eastwood sound like Gabby Hayes.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack called it, “Dark, percussive and perversely fun.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Compared to Escape From New York, the weapons are bigger and the violence is more extensive, although it’s toned down by today’s excessive standards. There are also greater special effects this time … But Escape From L.A. is more enjoyable in a playful way.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Carpenter never was the filmmaker his cult claimed him to be, but in Escape From L.A., he at least has the instinct to keep his hero moving, like some leather-biker Candide.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden felt that the film was “much too giddy to make sense as a politically astute pop fable. As amusing as some of its notions may be, none are developed into sustained running jokes.”

I can remember being very disappointed with Escape from L.A. when I first saw it because it didn’t live up to the standards of Escape from New York. Seeing it again years later, I can’t completely hate it because one feels that Carpenter’s heart is in the right place. It’s just that he went about this sequel all-wrong. The remake/sequel approach rarely works (with notable exceptions being Evil Dead II and Desperado) and Carpenter tried to split the difference and ended up pleasing no one. The CGI is uneven at best, the bad guy is ineffectual and Snake is trivialized. We don’t want to see him throwing basketballs around and surfing – we want to see him be a badass. And yet, Carpenter wanted it both ways by having moments were Snake comes across as his old self, especially with the ending, while also having more playful moments. This is the film’s biggest problem: tonally it is all over the place. Is it a satire? Is it a serious sci-fi film with a message? The film doesn't know what it wants to be. It tries to be everything at once and feels scattered as a result. The biggest sin of all is wasting such a fantastic cast of cult/character actors. If I seem rather harsh on Escape from L.A. it’s only because the film had a lot to live up to. I do enjoy it and the film certainly isn’t the worst thing that Carpenter ever made but it is big letdown in comparison to Escape from New York. I can appreciate the notion that Escape from L.A. is a satirical commentary on the vanity and self-obsessed nature of L.A. in the mid-‘90s. This explains the excessiveness and often-ridiculous tone compared to the much darker, grimmer one of the original. I also feel that Carpenter was making fun of how bloated and over-the-top big budget action films had become. The best thing about Escape from L.A. is its message – the notion of beginning again, throwing everything out and starting over, echoing the ending of Escape from New York but going one step further as Snake returns the world to the brink. Welcome to the human race indeed.

NOTE: This post was partly inspired by Mr. Peel's take on the film over at his blog Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur as well as The Film Connoisseur's excellent review over at his blog.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Slap Shot

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appears over at the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of their Comedy Countdown. Below is a slightly expanded version.

So how did the 1970s – a decade known for its nihilistic cinema – give birth to some of the best sports comedies in history? With ease, irreverence, and cynicism. In the big four—baseball (The Bad News Bears), football (Semi-Tough), and basketball (Fast Break) and hockey—arguably the best was Slap Shot (1977), a foul-mouthed rowdy take on a minor league hockey team about to fold. Directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), it starred Paul Newman as the veteran player-coach of a team that desperately tries to keep afloat with hilarious results. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd based much of the screenplay on her brother’s experiences playing minor league hockey. This lent a great deal of authenticity to the hockey-player hijinks on and off the ice. The film received mixed reviews when it was initially released but has gone on to become a much-beloved cult film and is considered by both GQ and Sports Illustrated to be one of the best sports films ever made.

Right from the start, the film sets a satirical tone with an amusing television interview as the Charlestown Chief’s goalkeeper (Yvon Barrette) explains in his thick French-Canadian accent the fundamentals of several key penalties in hockey and what happens to a player when they commit one of them: “You do that you go to the box. Two minutes by yourself. You feel shame and then you get free.” This scene gives us an audacious little taste of what’s to come.

The Chiefs are a bad team having a worse season. Attendance is poor and those who do show up are either wives and girlfriends or fans that openly mock the players. To make matters worse, the local mill is on the verge of closing down and team owner Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) plans to fold the team after the current season ends. Salvation comes in the form of the Hanson brothers who show up with knuckles full of tin foil and suitcases filled with toys. They are dumb goons that player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) benches immediately in disgust (“They’re retards!” he complains to McGrath). With nothing to lose, he decides to stick it to his so-called boss and goes to the press (a local reporter played by none other than M. Emmet Walsh) and “spills the beans” a.k.a. feeds him lies about how the team is going to be sold and move to Florida.

Reggie also decides to start playing dirty out on the ice (to win games, of course). Telling one rival team’s goaltender that his wife is a lesbian (“A lesbian!”) sends the guy into a blind rage. He discovers that the crowd loves watching violent hockey…and to this end he lets the Hanson brothers play. They are the answer to all his prayers as they viciously body-check opposing players, trip their goalkeeper and even do the same to the referee when he’s not looking. You name the infraction and they do it and in style. As a result of their dynamic style, the Hansons become folk heroes to Chief fans (and to this day are loved on fan pages far and wide). It’s not hard to get caught up in their goonish behavior, especially if you can remember the aggressive style of NHL teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, known as the Broadstreet Bullies in the ‘70s and beyond.

In addition to the main dilemma, the film also follows the rocky relationships of Reggie and his estranged wife Francine (Jennifer Warren) as he tries to rekindle the romance between them, and the team’s top scorer Ned Braden’s (Michael Ontkean) lackluster marriage to his bored wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse). One gets the feeling that these relationships are doomed to fail because the men are still boys, trying to grow up. Hill presents a few nice scenes where the wives and girlfriend commiserate over their hockey-playing significant others, lamenting over their lot in life in a particularly poignant scene scored to “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” by Elton John. It is this element that almost balances out and even comments on the goonish behavior depicted in the hockey sequences.

Paul Newman does a wonderful job conveying his character’s world-weariness. For Reggie, the Chiefs folding is the end of the line. He’s too old to be traded to another team and if he does continue in hockey, it will be as a coach. He’s burnt out – physically and mentally. And yet there is still a spark of the wily con man as he concocts a story to make the team more valuable – and more inspired. Special mention should go to Reggie’s god-awful fashion sense, which hilariously dates the film as he sports all varieties of hideous polyester: bellbottom pants, a garish collection of shirts with patterns on them that are beyond tacky, and a fur and leather jacket that makes Newman look like a pimp. Slap Shot also contains an impressive amount of cursing, a lot of it coming out of Newman’s mouth, which came as quite a shock to his fans at the time (as he was not known to be a potty mouth), but the homophobic and sexist language reflected how minor league hockey players really spoke.

Michael Ontkean (Twin Peaks) is believably convincing as the smartest player on the team – and the only one who objects to the Chiefs’ new style of violent play, even when Reggie threatens to bench him. As Ned tells Reggie at one point, “I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna goon it up for ya.” He recognizes that his teammates are playing for the wrong reasons and they’re turning the game into a joke. Initially, we’re not quite sure what motivates Ned. He looks like he’s just passing time but until what? He’s a college graduate and easily the most self-aware of anybody on a team content to take life one game at a time. Ontkean is able to convey the sense that Ned wishes he could be more like his teammates (he participates in their after-hours poker games) but he’s too smart and wants something more.

In a nice touch, Maxine Nightingale’s disco hit single, “Right Back Where We Started From” is the recurring theme music of sorts for the Chiefs. It is ubiquitous early on, playing over shots of the team bus heading to their next game and even in the background. To go with this memorable music are some truly beautiful shots courtesy of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Husbands), like the one of Reggie being dropped off at his house at dawn. In the background we can see the mill churning out smoke – it is at once beautiful and depressing. We know that in a matter of days it will shut down and many people will be out of work…but the light of day turns a poignant gun-metal blue.

During the first hockey game, director George Roy Hill places the camera on the ice with the players so that we are in the action, immersing us in the game. The camera gets right in there on the action so that you feel every hit and dodge the punches thrown in every fight. You can also see the actors doing most of their own skating, shooting, and body-checking along with actual players that were cast in the film.

Nancy Dowd’s script is full of wonderful little touches that provide insight into the minutia of the game, which lends to its authenticity. For example, we see how the Hanson brothers tape foil to their knuckles before every game in case they get into a fight. Another memorable bit is the fight that breaks out between the Chiefs and a rival team—during warm-ups, so there are no officials to break it up! Hill then cuts to the National Anthem being played and the Hansons all bloodied, listening intently while the referee watches them suspiciously, even going so far as to warn one of them to which he responds with the now oft-quoted line, “I'm listening to the fucking song!”

One thing that makes Slap Shot stand out in its genre is the strength of the scenes that take place between the hockey sequences. This isn’t just footage of the guys bonding and pulling wacky antics—it’s also the relationship between Reggie, Ned and Lily. She hates being stuck in a one-horse town and feels that Ned is wasting his time playing hockey…while Reggie finds himself attracted to her and can’t understand why his teammate treats her so poorly. Lindsay Crouse brings a smart grittiness to her character. Lily is Ned’s intellectual equal but is constantly infuriated with him for the way he treats her (he shows his St. Bernard more affection). So why does she put up with it? Why doesn’t she just dump him and take off? I suppose she still loves him…but the friction of their relationship is hastily glossed over during the film’s feel-good finale.

Dowd’s screenplay is an affectionate satire of hockey but can also be read as a fascinating treatise on gender politics. In the film, the women are portrayed as consistently smarter and more mature. Reggie’s estranged wife always looks elegant and comes across as intelligent, having already planned out a future for herself away from the dying town. In a surprising twist, the team’s secret owner turns out to be a woman who has the power to sell or save the team. Meanwhile, the men are presented as silly stereotypes: the crude horndog, the pretty boy interested only in cute groupies, and the Hanson brothers who play with race cars in their spare time and mindlessly do whatever their coach tells them. Out of the men, only Ned—an intriguing, enigmatic character—hints at a more progressive view of the opposite sex. He not only refuses to play like a thug but in the final game openly mocks what his team has become with a show-stopping form of protest that is easily one of the film’s highlights, as he demonstrates just how absurd the game of hockey has become.

Slap Shot follows the sports movie template of a team of misfit players, loveable losers that when faced with a dilemma that threatens their very livelihood, gets their act together, and try to turn things around. The film’s knack for showing the inner workings of a sports team in an accurate and heartfelt way anticipated future sports movies like Bull Durham (1988), which does for baseball what Slap Shot did for hockey. And much like Ron Shelton’s film, Slap Shot comments on the inherent silliness of grown men acting as boys while also commenting on the absurdity of the level of violence in the sport. As the season goes on and the Chiefs start winning, the games get more and more violent – on both sides of the blue line. This spills over to the fans as they not only fight in the stands but outside the rink before the game has even started!

Slap Shot’s origins came from an unlikely place. Los Angeles-based writer Nancy Dowd received a late night phone call from her brother in 1974. At the time, he was playing for the Johnstown Jets of the now-defunct North American Hockey League. He was drunk and told her that the team was folding. She asked him who owned the team and when he admitted not knowing she went back east and wrote Slap Shot after spending part of the 1974-75 season with the Jets. She actually spent a month traveling with the team and at other times had her brother set up a tape recorder in the locker room and on the bus in order to capture how these guys talked and interacted with each other.

Many of the hockey antics depicted in Slap Shot are based on actual events. For example, the pre-game bench-clearing brawl happened in the mid-‘70s in a playoff game between the Jets and the Buffalo Norsemen. Another scene has one of the Hanson brothers get hit in the face with a set of keys and he and his siblings go into the stands to find the person who did it. In a game against the Mohawk Valley Comets, Jets player Jeff Carlson took a cup of ice to the face and he went into the stands with his brothers Steve and Jack. Jeff and Steve went on to play two of the three Hanson brothers in the film with Dave Hanson (who also played for the Jets) playing the third sibling.

Director George Roy Hill, who had worked with Paul Newman previously on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), gave the actor the script on a Wednesday. Newman called him back on Friday and told the director, “It’s foul, but it’s got it. Let’s do it.” He had skated frequently during his childhood and kept up with it occasionally over the years but still spent seven weeks training. He found that shooting the hockey scenes to be fun but grueling work: “This has been the toughest physical film I’ve ever done. And believe me, I’ve done some rough ones.” Several young, up and coming actors tried out for the Ned Braden role, including Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss, but none of them could skate well enough. Strauss even broke his leg trying to learn. Michael Ontkean, who was a former hockey player at the University of New Hampshire, got the part.

Not surprisingly, Slap Shot divided critics when it first came out. Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll found it to be “tough, smart, cynical and sentimental.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold called it “a joyride conducted by drivers who betray an undercurrent of hostility toward their passengers.” Furthermore, he felt that “The profanity expresses more that documentary fidelity to the vocabulary of jocks. It's an aggressive outlet for the filmmakers, too. Once you hop on, it's advisable to concentrate on the gratuitously funny aspects of the ride and to avoid taking the hostility personally.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby found that the film had “a kind of vitality to it that overwhelms most of the questions relating to consistency of character and point of view.” He added, “Much in the manner of Network, you know that it's an original and that it's alive, whether you like it or not.” Pauline Kael felt that Newman delivered “the performance of his life.” Oddly enough, Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford criticized the screenplay: “The dialogue by Nancy Dowd is as puerile as it is unnecessarily vulgar. Apparently Nancy Dowd believes that male camaraderie can be instantly created with a whole lot of garbage mouth.”

Like many sports comedies made in the ‘70s, Slap Shot ends with Reggie and his team winning yet also losing. They win the league (albeit on a technicality) but the team is no more, leaving many of its players with uncertain futures. Think of Rocky (1976) where Rocky Balboa lost to the champ but went the distance; or The Bad News Bears (1976) failing to win the championship but demonstrating grit and determination. This non-traditional view of what it means to “win” was the hallmark of many sports movies from this decade and reflected a prevailing mood of the era. It wasn’t until Star Wars (1977) that people got tired of this view and wanted more escapist, idealistic fare and this became reflected in sports movies in the 1980s with efforts like Hoosiers (1986) or Major League (1989) where the protagonists win and there is no question that things end on a high note. That being said, Slap Shot still casts a long shadow with any new hockey film inevitably being compared to it, from films that only reference it, like Happy Gilmore (1996), to outright homages like the recent Goon (2011), or the instantly forgettable Slap Shot sequels (two so far). None of them come close to the bawdy fun or the authenticity and fire of Hill’s film, an insanely quotable classic that appeals both to the hardcore hockey fan and to fan.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Warning Sign

With the rise of nuclear power in the 1970s fear of its misuse became something of a mini-fascination in Hollywood with films like The China Syndrome (1979) and Silkwood (1983) that dealt with the misuse and subsequent cover-up of this energy source. These were serious-minded message films. Riding on their coattails was Warning Sign (1985), which dealt with a virus outbreak, the cinematic sibling of the nuclear power disaster film sub-genre, with notable efforts like The Andromeda Strain (1971) and The Crazies (1973). These films were more grounded in the science fiction and horror genres but the message was still the same – we will pay dearly for messing with things we don’t fully understand, resulting in our destruction despite even the best intentions. Director Hal Barwood’s film falls somewhere in-between, with pretentions towards the hard SF of the former and yet delivering the visceral thrills of the latter albeit with a solid cast of notable character actors like Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields), Kathleen Quinlan (Twilight Zone: The Movie), and Yaphet Kotto (Alien).

When a scientist (G.W. Bailey) accidentally steps on a beaker of highly dangerous chemicals unknowingly dropped by another (Richard Dysart), in a sequence that strains credibility, an alarm goes off forcing the plant’s head of security Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan) to lock the place down. Just another day at BioTek Agronomics, a research center for agricultural innovations but is actually a secret laboratory that makes bioweapons for the United States government. Sound familiar? It should. The first few minutes of this film were ripped off pretty heavily by Resident Evil (2002).

Frustrated friends and loved ones gather outside the plant trying to find out what happened, including Sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston), Joanie’s husband. Pretty soon the government arrives to assess the situation led by a Major Connolly (Yaphet Kotto) of the U.S. Accident Containment team. Something doesn’t seem quite right what with Connolly and his men arriving so quickly and Cal figures out the experimental yeast cover story is a bunch of hokum. So, he tracks down ex-BioTek employee Dr. Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn) who tells him about the company’s true nature.

Once BioTek is locked down, Barwood (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins) does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension as Cal figures out what’s really going on. The director also doesn’t waste much time introducing the threat, setting things in motion pretty much right from the get-go and then letting it all play out, first as a procedural and then, as the situation in the lab worsens, a horror film with a government away team encountering people driven into murderous rages by the viral outbreak.

The always watchable Jeffrey DeMunn (The Blob) is excellent as the jaded ex-employee who begrudgingly helps Cal. Along with the local lawman, he acts as a voice of reason and the only hope the former has of being reunited with his wife Joanie. He also gets to deliver a lot of expositional dialogue, filling us and Cal in on how the virus works. DeMunn is such good actor that he can make this dialogue so interesting that we want to know more. A pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston is also believably convincing as the concerned husband who will do anything to get his wife out of the contaminated facility despite his near-paralyzing fear of germs (a tacked on bit of business that is never really developed). The actor brings his customary gravitas to the role, which helps cut down the cringe-inducing bits of dialogue, like at one point saying he feels like Dirty Harry. Fortunately, he and DeMunn do the best they can and play well off each other, Waterston the stand-up lawman and DeMunn the burnout scientist. They make an even better team after breaking into the facility, looking for Quinlan’s beleaguered security chief.

Kathleen Quinlan gives a solid performance as the resourceful security chief faced with the frightening realization that she is trapped in a sealed off facility with co-workers driven crazy by chemicals. She is smart, following protocol to lock things down, and then tough as she bravely navigates the various dangers brought on by the outbreak. She and Waterston have nice chemistry together, even when they are reduced to talking to each other via walkie talkies. They make for believable couple that you want to see reunited. It is also interesting to see these two actors cast against type in action-oriented roles.

Hal Barwood got his start as a screenwriter, often working with Matthew Robbins on films like Corvette Summer (1978) and Dragonslayer (1981), but he always wanted to direct: “In writing, you’re always watching directors ruin your stuff … There’s a tendency to want to get your hands on the controls and do it yourself.” After his screenplay for MacArthur (1977) was butchered (according to Barwood), he and Robbins decided to write and direct their own material. The inspiration for Warning Sign came from history. While researching genetic engineering, they discovered the Borna virus, which occurred in Germany during World War I. It was very rare and only affected horses and other animals, driving them crazy until attacked each other. The other historical factoid they came across was the 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Philadelphia. Robbins found the notion of a “new and hitherto unknown disease infecting people,” fascinating.

He and Robbins did a fair amount of research on viral outbreaks and uncovered little-known germ warfare experiments conducted by the United States in the 1950s, including an incident where the government dispersed a disease by plane off the coast of San Francisco. Interestingly, Barwood didn’t draw upon other viral outbreak films like The Andromeda Strain (1971) for inspiration but rather Night of the Living Dead (1968) because it had the “sensibility of horror happening in the midst of everyday events.” For some time, he planned on Warning Sign to be his directorial debut, done quickly and on a modest $7 million budget originally from the Ladd Company in early 1982 but at some point moving the project to 20th Century Fox. To help temper his inexperience as a director, Barwood cast actors who were skilled and experienced enough that he wouldn’t have to worry about getting good performances out of them.

Warning Sign received mostly mixed to negative reviews from critics. In his review for The New York Times, Jon Pareles wrote, “Warning Sign is unlikely to start a national debate on biological warfare; it does, however, while away the minutes kinetically.” The Globe and Mail’s Salem Alaton said of Barwood’s approach: “He's got a didactic melodrama full of hackneyed messages when he could have made a lively comedy called Night of the Living Post-Graduates.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas praised the performances of DeMunn, Quinlan and Waterston but felt that “for all its energy and considerable technical finesse, it's never fully engaging either.”

Barwood does a nice job of creating a real sense of dread and danger as he utilizes tried and true horror conventions, like fear of the unknown to great effect. He also adopts a siege mentality a la George Romero, making Warning Sign a kind of retroactive prequel to The Crazies as one imagines BioTek being the company that creates the bioweapon unleashed on the unsuspecting townsfolk in Romero’s film. It’s just a shame that time and time again Barwood’s film is let down by its pedestrian script. It is also kind of alarming just how much Resident Evil cribs from Warning Sign only with a bigger budget and an emphasis on action and spectacle. Because Barwood’s film isn’t that well known, disappearing soon after it was released, the connections between the two films are rarely made. For all of its clunky dialogue, Warning Sign is still enjoyable thanks to the performances of DeMunn, Quinlan and Waterston who manage to rise above the material.


Lowry, Brian. “On the set of Warning Sign.” Starlog. September 1985. Pg. 64-66.

Lowry, Brian. “Hal Barwood: The Shock of Directing.” Starlog. December 1985.